Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife, recently donated $300 million to help protect American elections from foul play. The donation made headlines because it is one of the largest single gifts ever given by the couple and is explicitly meant to safeguard democracy during a pandemic that is threating people’s right to vote.
However, the donation also received criticism because of the role that Facebook has played in issues related to elections in the past. The money was specifically sent to two civic organizations that will direct the funding to state and local election officials as they prepare for an Election Day that will be unlike any that came before.
Because of coronavirus, a number of states have made radical changes to voting policies on short notice to ensure the safety of citizens. A majority of Americans have already indicated that they plan to vote by mail or vote early in the upcoming election. However, there is concern that some people may not understand how to adapt to the new environment, which could leave some people feeling disenfranchised.
The donation from Zuckerberg and Chan is largely meant to ensure that everyone has a safe way to vote and understands how to keep themselves healthy while exercising their democratic right. States have had very little time to adapt to this changing landscape that may be even more different come November, which requires a lot of contingency planning.
A Closer Look at the Money Donated by Zuckerberg and Chan
The vast majority of the gift is earmarked for the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is a nonprofit that has received support from several prominent tech philanthropists. The organization will regrant this money to local organizations that recruit poll workers and ensure that all these individuals have proper personal protective equipment to wear on election day. In addition, the money will be used to set up drive-through voting in some places, which is a way of minimizing contact while making it possible to vote in a more traditional manner.
The rest of the money will go to the Center for Election Innovation & Research, which distributes money to the Secretaries of State across the country. The money will be used in a similar way by these state officials.
Notably, the money does not come from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is the joint philanthropy established by the couple. Instead, the money is a personal donation directly from the pair’s private money. In a statement, Zuckerberg said he admired how hard election officials are working to ensure that everyone can vote and that every vote gets counted. He and his wife made the donation to ensure that state and local governments have all the resources they need to achieve their goals.
While the donation was well-intentioned, the money caused an immediate backlash, perhaps because of recent debate about the benefit of billionaire philanthropy as a means of enacting social change. Much of the frustration focuses on the fact that Zuckerberg’s company was implicated in many of the problems with the 2016 election, from tolerating hate speech to allowing the dissemination of misinformation, not to mention the question of Russian operative tampering.
Differing Responses to the Democracy-Promoting Gift
This criticism itself is revealing. Not long ago, such a donation from Zuckerberg and Chan would have been celebrated. For example, when Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark schools, people cheered even though the donation made little tangible difference in student education. Even the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was a cause for celebration back in 2015.
However, times have changed. Zuckerberg himself has been heavily criticized by progressives and billionaire gifts in general are coming under greater scrutiny. To many individuals on the left, billionaires are the people who created current systems of injustice and perpetuate them with their extreme wealth. Some critics, for example, have pointed out how small of a fraction of a percent of Zuckerberg’s fortune was dedicated to this cause.
For its part, Facebook has been actively working to combat the criticism it received during the 2016 election. The social network has pointed to several steps it has taken to act more responsibly in this election. For example, the company pledged to register 4 million voters prior to the election and promote information that will help people navigate the new voting landscape, such as connecting them to resources on voting by mail.
Also, it is worth pointing out that the recipients of the gift have been overjoyed. The secretaries of state from both Ohio and Michigan spoke to how far the money would go in helping the public vote in the coming election.
Realistically, both sides are right. The money will certainly help create a more equitable environment for the coming election, but Zuckerberg could certainly be doing more to correct past wrongs. At the same time, should billionaires have the power to enact change they deem necessary just because they have money?