The Senate voted Tuesday along party lines to reject a bill that would have restricted the use of private donations to fund election administration in Maine.
LD 1869, introduced by Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook), would have required that municipalities submit a report to the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices within 30 days of “spending funds received from a private source in excess of $100 on the administration of an election.”
Such a report would need to include “the amount of the funds received by the municipality, the source of the funds and a detailed explanation of how the funds were spent.”
This requirement was set to take effect on January 1, 2024.
In Sen. Stewart’s testimony before the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs, he stated that the bill is “a response to past improprieties in Maine elections as well as to avoid future inequalities.”
Stewart argued that the bill would help to close “a loophole for billionaires to get around campaign finance laws.”
“I am concerned about an influx of money that seems to have impacted Maine elections in 2020. This money emanates largely from the principal owner of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, which is why we’ve termed this program Zuckerbucks,” he said.
According to Stewart, “Zuckerberg’s team looks at places where his preferred candidate(s) may be underperforming in voter turnout or absentee balloting and they provide additional resources to those cities and towns to promote get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.”
The supposedly “non-partisan” GOTV effort ends up boosting the preferred party while avoiding the kind of campaign finance disclosures that apply to other political spending.
Stewart argued in his testimony that the line between “campaign finance dollars” and the “system by which towns are to run their elections” ought to be kept crystal clear.
“In 2020 it was Mark Zuckerberg, but in 2024 it may just as well be the Koch brothers with a similar scheme,” Stewart said.
Patti Dubois of the Maine Town & City Clerks’ Association offered clarifying testimony neither for nor against the bill.
“In 2020, several Maine municipalities were awarded grant funds from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) to be used for any election-related purchases for items intended to facilitate administration of a large election during an unprecedented pandemic. The grant awards were at least $5,000 and over $336,000 for Maine’s largest city,” Dubois said.
She argued, however, that “the award of these funds in no way influenced election officials in the conduct of the fair administration of this election” and “to purport otherwise would be an attempt to discredit hardworking election officials across the state.”
Madeline Malisa, a visiting fellow at the Opportunity Solutions Project, offered testimony in support of the bill, offering more details on the situation that precipitated this legislation:
In 2020, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan sent $400 million to election offices across the country under the guise of alleviating the burden of COVID-19-related costs. These grants – known as Zuckerbucks – found their way into nearly every state, including Maine. Most Zuckerbucks were provided to the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a left-leaning non-profit run by a former Obama Foundation fellow. Despite being labeled as COVID-19 response grants, only a fraction of the money was used to buy PPE. The funds were used predominantly to get out the vote in select jurisdictions.
Malisa stated that CTCL awarded approximately $3.5 million in Maine, with $284,584 going to Portland, $272,104 to Bangor, and $200,000 to Lewiston, Auburn, and South Portland.
She also emphasized the bipartisan nature of restricting the use of private funds for election administration.
“Democratic Governor Tom Wolf signed Pennsylvania’s ban into law, the Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate passed their bill unanimously, and both chambers in South Carolina passed a ban with unanimous support,” she said.
Maine Secretary of State Shanna Bellows (D) testified in opposition to the bill, accusing it of “sowing disinformation about our elections here in Maine.”
Bellows argued that “the Elections Division has never accepted funding from private, partisan sources to conduct state and federal elections and will never do so.”
“Again, while the underlying intent of this bill may be benign the way elections are discussed is very important and any suggestion of fraud or malfeasance – where there is none – is incredibly dangerous,” Bellows said.
To date, 25 states have passed legislation explicitly banning or restricting the use of private donations to administer elections.