early and often

Elon Musk Is Wrong. Encouraging Voting Isn’t Nefarious.

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As more and more rank-and-file Republicans buy into Donald Trump’s stolen 2020 election lies, the underlying arguments are growing even more sinister. Now MAGA forces have drifted from alleging that unqualified votes were counted to the more nefarious grievance that Democrats gained an unfair advantage by turning out entirely eligible voters. This week, Twitter CEO Elon Musk amplified this bogus concern, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump observed:

Out of the blue, Musk shared an article on Twitter from October 2021. Published at the right-wing blog Federalist, the article alleges that the 2020 election was “bought by Mark Zuckerberg.” Its argument distills simply: Zuckerberg donated to an organization that worked to increase turnout, and that turnout altered the election results.

“Interesting article,” Musk said of the 18-month-old piece. “Perhaps CommunityNotes” — Twitter’s crowdsourced notation system — “can add further context & corrections.”

This is a common way in which Musk elevates right-wing rhetoric. He’ll often engage with fringe voices by declaring their commentary to be “concerning” — suggesting it’s just something worth mulling over. Here, Musk is suggesting that this heavily adjudicated assertion somehow demands new attention.

Musk has floated this theory before; it appears he drew attention to it again this week to escalate his occasional feud with fellow tech billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. In subsequent tweets he called the Meta CEO “extremely partisan” and trashed WhatsApp over privacy concerns.

By bringing up “Zuckerbucks,” Musk was fanning an already-out-of-control fire. For some time, Trump-aligned figures have been fulminating about money contributed by the Meta CEO and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to two nonprofit organizations that made grants to state and local election offices struggling to do their jobs in 2020. Because these grants often went to the urban jurisdictions with the biggest pandemic issues, the poorest voters, and the lowest levels of turnout historically, Zuckerberg was accused of subsidizing disproportionate Democratic turnout and “skewing” the presidential election to Joe Biden.

The wild case against “Zuckerbucks” was considered and decisively rejected by Republicans and Democrats alike on the Federal Election Committee in 2022, as the Post reported at the time:

A unanimous bipartisan vote this summer by the Federal Election Commission has undercut fantastical claims about Mark Zuckerberg’s role in the 2020 election that have taken hold among GOP leaders, candidates and activists decrying “Zuckerbucks.” …

An analysis by the FEC found that the “nexus between the donations and any purpose to influence the 2020 election is speculative at best.” The grants, the regulator noted, “were widely awarded across jurisdictions.”

Michael Toner, a GOP election lawyer and former FEC commissioner who was retained by Zuckerberg and Chan to review how the resources were distributed, found that of the jurisdictions that received funding, more had historically favored Republicans than had favored Democrats, said Brian Baker, a spokesman for the couple.

The decision didn’t staunch the flood of legislation aimed at “Zuckerbucks,” which enabled Republican politicians to identify with grassroots suspicion of big tech while sharing a MAGA allegation that no one could completely confirm or rebut. As of January 2023, 24 states and 12 counties had taken legislative action to restrict or ban private donations to election offices. Now that Musk is joining the parade, efforts to make sure urban election offices remain underfunded will likely continue to grow.

As Bump points out in his take on Musk’s latest ploy, Republicans have long benefited from disproportionate turnout by their more settled and affluent voters, and are hardly entitled to complain that Democratic constituencies might begin to catch up (if indeed that were the intent and effect of “Zuckerbucks,” which the FEC denied):

[T]he system as currently constituted makes it harder for young and poor people to vote: they move more often (meaning having to update registration information) and work less regular hours. It’s much easier to vote all the time if you’re a retiree that’s lived in the same place for 40 years. Since younger and poorer Americans are more likely to be non-White and more likely to be Democrats, the advantages some voters enjoy in the current system skew older, Whiter and Republican. If it was as easy for non-White and younger voters to vote as it is for older, Whiter ones, that would be a leveling of the playing field, not a skewing of it.

But there’s an even more basic problem with the idea that improved turnout by young and minority voters is “unfair” to Republicans: For eligible citizens, voting should be considered a right to be encouraged whenever and however possible, not as simply an asset deployed by parties and candidates. Trump-inspired attacks on laws and policies that make it easier to vote — from expanded voting-by-mail and in-person early voting, to same-day voter registration, to third-party collection of sealed ballots, to adequately staffed election offices whose workers aren’t intimidated by right-wing vigilantes — are wrong as a matter of basic democratic principles. We hold elections not to give any political party an equal chance at victory, but to let citizens choose elected representatives as a matter of their sovereign right to self-government. The presumption that voting is good and you can’t get too much of it should override claims that the wrong people are voting too often.

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Elon Musk Is Wrong. Encouraging Voting Isn’t Nefarious.