Lawmakers heard public support on Thursday for a ban on using private money to administer Texas elections—a practice that had an unprecedented influence on voting in 2020.

“This is a new phenomenon that I think should be very disturbing to anyone,” State Rep. Phil King (R–Weatherford) told the House Elections Committee at a public hearing on House Bill 2283, his bill to keep outside money from influencing how Texas elections are run.

King said elections should be administered with government funds that are transparently appropriated through a government process, with uniform rules and disclosures about how the money is spent.

But without rules on the books prohibiting the practice, third parties were able to inject unlimited amounts of cash into select local election offices in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, opening the door to outside influence and creating an unfair distribution of voting resources.

In 2020, county election administrators across Texas received at least $36 million in outside cash from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in the form of grants to “promote safe and reliable voting” during the Chinese coronavirus outbreak.

The Texas grants were part of $400 million Zuckerberg funneled to local election administrators across the country, primarily through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit run by Obama-era Democrat political operatives.

In Texas and elsewhere, the huge cash infusions boosted budgets of select election offices, skewing turnout and results in targeted areas—largely Democrat-controlled urban centers.

While grants financed by the social media mogul went to 115 of the state’s 254 counties, the bulk of Texas’ ZuckBucks went to election offices in Dallas and Harris, Democrat-dominated counties that account for almost a quarter of all registered voters in the state.

Dallas County received $15 million, the largest grant awarded and more than double the annual budget of the county’s elections department. Harris County received $9.6 million.

“Because states didn’t have the policies in this bill, one billionaire was able to play an outsize role in election administration in almost every single state,” said Alli Fick with Opportunity Solutions Project, testifying for HB 2283.

“These grants were touted as meeting the challenges presented by COVID-19, but much of it went to non-COVID items like social media advertising,” Fick said.

Harris County election officials used some of their ZuckBucks to set up “drive-thru” voting—something Texas law doesn’t allow for. Counties also used the extra cash to boost mail-ballot voting, a process more vulnerable to fraud and manipulation that Democrats want to make universal, and on general “voter outreach” messaging.

HB 2283 would prohibit county election administration offices from taking contributions from any private third party or spending money not appropriated by their local governing body.

King said a revised version of the bill (called a committee substitute) allows in-kind contributions of food and cash donations up to $1,000 if approved by the commissioners court.

“What we’re worried about is millions of dollars coming into Texas from outside sources,” King said.

“Everything in government should be very transparent,” he added. “This is not transparent.”

King said Denton County declined to accept the private money to avoid even the appearance of undue influence and because “elections must be fair and equal.”

Elections Director Keith Ingram testified the Texas secretary of state’s office also turned down ZuckBucks.

“We never for a moment considered taking one of those grants,” Ingram told the committee. “We didn’t want the appearance of impropriety.”

Robert Green with the Travis County Republican Party said King’s bill “deserves complete bipartisan support” because of the potential for manipulation and undue influence. Travis County’s Democrat elections administrator received $1.1 million in ZuckBucks.

Other Republicans who spoke at the hearing agreed with Green, while representatives of the Texas Democrat Party and Libertarian Party of Texas opposed the bill, saying election offices are underfunded and local officials can be trusted to spend outside cash without bias.

King said it doesn’t matter where the money comes from; using private cash to administer Texas elections bypasses transparency and accountability and opens the door to outside influence. “This is just bad for the election process.”

Several states have passed or are considering similar bans.

Prohibitions on private third-party funding of elections are also part of other election integrity bills working their way through the Texas Legislature, including Republican-priority omnibus Senate Bill 7.

King said he will amend HB 2283 to clarify state funds and federal grants are not precluded, then committee members will vote on whether to advance the bill during a future meeting.

Texans can contact their representatives and Elections Committee members to comment on the bill. Details about bills, along with resources to help citizens participate in the legislative process, are available at Texas Legislature Online.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.