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Philanthropies Asked To Help Fund Election Equipment Purchases

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So running an election during a pandemic is a whole lot more expensive than it is during normal times. Six months ago, Congress gave states $400 million to help out with these costs, but by some estimates, states need as much as $4 billion, especially at a time when budgets are declining. That money never came. Now some private philanthropies, including one linked to Facebook, are filling the gap. Here's Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: That's a DS850 ballot counting machine that election workers use at central count in Milwaukee.

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG: They work just like other machines at the polling place, but they are about 15 times faster.

SILVER: Claire Woodall-Vogg is the city's top election official. With a record number of mail-in ballots expected in November, she says Milwaukee needed to lease a few more of these tabulators to count the votes quickly. The city has asked the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life for hundreds of thousands of dollars to get more counting machines. It's already received a $2 million grant for other needs, like paying poll workers and setting up 24-hour drop boxes where people can return mail-in ballots.

WOODALL-VOGG: It's really like we're operating two different elections. We're operating our by-mail election, and then we're operating our normal in-person voting operations, which - no matter the turnout - take just as many resources. And during a pandemic, they actually take more resources.

SILVER: The Center for Tech and Civic Life has already given out more than $6 million of grants in Wisconsin thanks to a $250 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden says there's kind of a funny irony about it.

BARRY BURDEN: The harm that Facebook has done in spreading misinformation or confusion or discord around elections has produced some profit that's now being used to help support the infrastructure of running a successful election this fall.

SILVER: The funding arrives when state and local budgets are under strain due to the pandemic, says Jay Heck of Common Cause Wisconsin.

JAY HECK: And I think the purpose is to try to get as many people to vote as safely as possible. So we're all for it.

SILVER: The Center for Tech and Civic Life emphasizes that it's nonpartisan and is not trying to affect the outcome of the election. It's not attaching any strings to the money, but some conservatives are concerned. Debbie Morin is an election observer from a suburb of Milwaukee. She says the grants favor cities, which lean Democratic.

DEBBIE MORIN: They have additional money, outside money, that gives them a lot more ways to do the processing of the ballots, to get the word out, you know? And that's not a bad thing, but you're doing it in one - it's not equal. It's not across the board.

SILVER: The Center for Tech and Civic Life has made grants available to rural areas, but another concern Morin and some conservatives raise is whether the group is truly nonpartisan. Several conservative groups have filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the swing states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania from taking the money. In an ideal world, the government would fully fund elections, says Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at UW Madison.

BURDEN: These are really essential activities of government, but elections have traditionally been underfunded and just not supported at the levels that are really needed or recommended by experts.

SILVER: But, he says, in absence of more government help, these grants are a much-needed temporary lifeline for many election officials.

For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEGENDARY SKIES' "WORDS ECHOING FROM TEACHERS PAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.