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Did Private Election Administration Funding Advantage Democrats in 2020?

Apoorva Lal and Daniel M Thompson

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Abstract: Private donors contributed more than $350 million to local election officials to support the administration of the 2020 election. Supporters argue these grants were neutral and necessary to maintain normal election operations during the pandemic, while critics worry these grants mostly went to Democratic strongholds and tilted election outcomes. These concerns have led twenty-four states to restrict private election grants. How much did these grants shape the 2020 presidential election? To answer this question, we collect administrative data on private election administration grants and election outcomes. We then use new advances in synthetic control methods to compare presidential election results and turnout in counties that received grants to counties with identical average presidential election results and turnout before 2020. While counties that favor Democrats were much more likely to apply for a grant, we find that the grants did not have a noticeable effect on the presidential election. Our estimates of the average effect of receiving a grant on Democratic vote share range from 0.02 percentage points to 0.36 percentage points. Our estimates of the average effect of receiving a grant on turnout range from -0.03 percentage points to 0.13 percentage points. Across specifications, our 95% confidence intervals typically include negative effects, and our confidence intervals from all specifications fail to include effects on Democratic vote share larger than 0.58 percentage points and effects on turnout larger than 0.40 percentage points. We characterize the magnitude of our effects by asking how large they are compared to the margin by which Biden won the 2020 election. In simple bench-marking exercises, we find that the effects of the grants were likely too small to have changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Date: 2023-10
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Handle: RePEc:arx:papers:2310.05275