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Candidates for Idaho secretary of state at odds over grant funding in 2020 election

The rotunda at the Idaho Capitol on January 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The rotunda at the Idaho Capitol on January 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Secretary of state candidate Mary Souza continues to allege election grants were improper

As the primary election for statewide candidates approaches in May, one Republican legislator who is running for Idaho secretary of state has made allegations that Facebook tried to influence Idaho elections a centerpiece of her campaign. But county clerks across the state want to make it clear that was not what happened in the 2020 election.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, introduced a bill in the 2021 session of the Idaho Legislaturebarring counties from accepting money from private entities for election administration purposes after learning a nonprofit organization called The Center for Tech and Civic Life granted more than $750,000 to 20 of 44 counties across Idaho in 2020. The bill was the first of its kind in the country, Souza said, and it included a caveat allowing clerks’ offices to accept donations or gifts less than $100 in value, such as food and small items.

“Running the election system is a government responsibility and should be controlled by the government and not vulnerable to outside influences,” Souza told the Idaho Capital Sun. “We all want to know our vote counts; it doesn’t matter what your politics are.”

While presenting her bill on the Senate floor last March, Souza said nothing in her review of the grant funding indicated the funds were used for anything but election administration.

“No county in Idaho that we reviewed did anything other than proper elections processing with that money,” Souza said in March 2021. “However, the question is the next time. What would be the demands, and what kind of influence does this open us up to?”

Souza told the Sun her concerns would be the same if the money had come from a conservative-leaning group.

Although the bill passed overwhelmingly and the practice is now illegal, Souza has continued to allege Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, her opponent in the secretary of state race, was part of a scheme to influence Idaho elections with the grant dollars.

“The biggest frustration is that all of the money was used for very legitimate things,” McGrane said. “We worked very hard to pull off a very challenging election, and I think we did it well, and it’s unfortunate to have others try and imply otherwise.”

Souza posted to Facebook on Jan. 16 about the “Zuck Bucks” and has spent $1,400 on Facebook ads in recent months on the same subject, according to the Facebook Ad Library.

According to Idaho Secretary of State campaign finance reports, Edward Humphreys, a candidate for Idaho governor, spent more than $16,000 on Facebook ads in 2021, while McGrane has spent $60 so far. Ammon Bundy, another candidate for Idaho governor, spent nearly $3,600 on Facebook ads in 2021.

The accusation of improper influence in the 2020 race is directed at McGrane, but it bothers county clerks in other parts of the state as well, including Nez Perce County Clerk Patty Weeks.

“We were having the granddaddy-of-them-all presidential election, and elections are just really expensive, and since it’s a federal election, what funds it is basically property tax dollars,” Weeks said. “And with COVID, everything was just more expensive. … If I felt there were strings attached, we wouldn’t have accepted that money.”

Pandemic strained all financial resources, Ada County clerk says

The word “unprecedented” has been used many times in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the conditions surrounding the 2020 presidential election certainly fit that description. Counties were faced with the prospect of trying to administer an election during a global health crisis, before vaccines were available, which meant sending and processing hundreds or thousands more absentee ballots than normal and making efforts to keep in-person polling places safe to visit and staff. Poll workers tend to be people who are older, and the coronavirus has a disproportionate negative effect on people ages 65 and older.

Federal and statewide elections in Idaho are fully funded by property taxes in each respective county, while local elections are funded by the Idaho Secretary of State — a fact McGrane says feels backwards. But as a result, he said clerks are sensitive to how much taxpayer money is spent administering an election.

In September 2020, McGrane said he was alerted to an opportunity to apply for election administration grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization in Chicago. The organization, which was funded in part by Facebook founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, said it distributed $350 million in election administration grants in 2020 nationwide.

Nearly 2,500 grants were distributed across 49 states, with a minimum grant of $5,000 for small population areas. The largest grant was $19 million given to New York City,according to the organization. Idaho received $757,917 in total.

Ada County had already used money from the federal stimulus bill to purchase additional equipment, but McGrane knew more would be necessary.

“We really (needed) the financial support, because we were just burning through cash, but we wanted to know if there were strings attached,” McGrane said.

Ada County legal counsel reviewed the grant application and said it was one of the simplest grants they had ever seen, McGrane said, and his office made the decision to apply. The application included explicit statements that the funding could be used for legitimate election purposes, not for candidates or ballot issues.

The Idaho Association of Counties sent information about the grants to the rest of the state’s county clerks, and 19 other county clerks decided to apply. Each county’s board of commissioners also had to approve the decision as well.

Ada County has most registered voters, received the most grant money

Kristina Glascock, Twin Falls County clerk, said she didn’t know of any ties to Facebook when her county learned about the grants, and none of it had any influence on election outcomes. The counties were required to report to the organization how the funds were spent but received no direction on how to spend it. Twin Falls County received $43,832 that was used for ballot printers, absentee ballot supplies, a camera system, staffing and training and personal protective equipment.

“It was kind of a gut punch when you start hearing, ‘Oh, the counties took Facebook money,’” Glascock said. “To me, we didn’t take Facebook money. To me, we applied for a grant. And our county, at least in Twin, we operate on millions of dollars of grant funding to survive. It was just another tool to survive, to get us through the additional expenses.”

Ada County received the largest dollar amount of nearly $490,000, which McGrane said was spent on temporary staffing, ballot printing equipment, polling place rental and cleaning expenses, personal protective equipment and the addition of a polling location specifically for voters who tested positive for COVID.

In the application, Ada County estimated about $215,000 would be needed, and the grant came back more than double that estimate. Souza said that was a red flag, but McGrane said he attributed it to the fact that the organization had a lot of money to dole out.

“When we initially received it, we weren’t sure if we would (use it all), but the costs of the election just continued to go up and up,” McGrane said.

Ada County also has the largest number of registered voters in the state at more than 309,000, according to the clerk’s office. Of the 20 counties that received grants, the county with the second highest number of registered voters was Bonneville, with a little over 65,000. Bonneville County received $50,288 in grant funding that was used for additional staff training on election software and new election equipment.

McGrane said without the grant funds, polling locations likely would have had to be cut, as they were in Canyon County, where officials did not apply for a grant. Instead of 55 polling locations,Canyon had 21 on Election Day.

Without grant funds, county clerk says reserves would have been drained

Bonneville County Clerk Penny Manning said without the grant, her county likely would have tapped into reserve funds.

“In our case, we’re saving reserves up to take care of roads and bridges, and we’ve had to buy some new buildings because of growth of the county,” Manning said. “So ultimately, it comes back to the taxpayer.”

McGrane said the entire problem could have been avoided if the Idaho Legislature had provided additional funding for the 2020 election, including funding for cameras that were required to livestream the counting of absentee ballots if they were opened prior to Election Day. That requirement was included in anamendment to a bill passed during a special session of the Idaho Legislature in August 2020.

During debate on the Idaho Senate floor of Souza’s bill prohibiting the acceptance of out-of-state money, Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said he would vote against the legislation because it was going too far.

“There is nothing to suggest that we had anything in Idaho but a completely free and fair election, even with the receipt of this money,” Burgoyne said.

He said he would support provisions around supervision and reporting of outside funding, but officials needed those options unless the Legislature was prepared to step up and make sure every county is fully and properly funded to administer elections.

Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said during debate on the bill that he thought election officials did a wonderful job in the 2020 election, but he supported the change in law.

“I haven’t heard of any significant difficulties or fraudulent activity … and I commend our election officials for that,” Winder said. “But I don’t think we need this nose in the tent from the camel, because we don’t know what the next camel’s gonna look like.”

Coeur d’Alene senator plans to bring other election-related bills forward this session

Souza was also shocked that the Idaho Secretary of State’s office had no knowledge of the grant program until she collected the information and brought it to them.

Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said it is true that the office did not know about the grants, but that doesn’t mean there was any secrecy behind it. None of the funding for election administration at the county level comes from the secretary of state’s office.

“There was no reason why we should’ve been (notified), because there were no restrictions or legislation or otherwise that would require it,” Houck said. “The myopic statement that we did not know they received the money is 100% accurate.”

McGrane said county clerks do have a standard practice of reporting to the Secretary of State how much the election cost the county to administer, but that usually happens a couple months after Election Day.

Souza told the Capital Sun the dollars also made a difference in turnout, particularly in swing races counties and swing states in a way that tipped the election to Democrats in some races.

That didn’t hold true in Ada County, where a surge in Republican turnout led to the election of Rod Beck and Ryan Davidson as Ada County commissioners over two Democrats, one of whom was an incumbent.

“And honestly I don’t think the money had anything to do with that,” McGrane said. “And in Idaho and Ada County, when we have higher turnout, Republicans tend to prevail.”

Souza said she is working on more election-related bills for the 2022 legislative session, including the possibility of one that would prohibit the Idaho Secretary of State office from accepting private money as well.

“I just think that leadership and communication are critical as we try to shore up the security of our election system, and that’s why I’m running for secretary of state,” Souza said.

Houck told the Sun he has not heard of legislation that would prohibit his office from taking private money, but he is aware of draft legislation that would expressly allow the Secretary of State’s office to accept private money that could then be distributed to counties, creating a central point of credibility and awareness.

“Using this situation, the Center for Tech and Civic Life would’ve taken that opportunity to us and all applications would’ve come through us,” Houck said. “So it’s another way to handle it that leans more toward transparency and less toward restriction.”

Manning said Idaho elections are already conducted with integrity and are thorough and accurate. The results that are released on Election Day are always unofficial because election workers go through poll books a second time and make sure the numbers add up correctly.

“We continue to go through and make sure that everything is correct before we do anything official,” Manning said. “We may not be perfect, but we’re pretty dang close.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.