Here’s How A Billionaire Can Affect Your Local Election

Billioinaires have been giving money to ballot measures across the country for decades, a practice some view as inappropriate and that others fully support.

Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, appears with his wife -- Priscilla Chan.
Kimberly White / Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize

Billioinaires have been giving money to ballot measures across the country for decades, a practice some view as inappropriate and that others fully support.

It’s no secret that politicians — and others representing issues that impact the United States as a nation — often reach out to billionaires like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for funding. What is not as widely known is that people with that level of wealth often spend money on issues of a more local interest. In fact, Business Insider reports that it’s not at altogether uncommon for the extremely wealthy to make sizable donations to causes that they support — in a state other than their own. There are a plenitude of opinions on this completely legal practice, with some supporting it because it brings attention to issues that the general public may otherwise know nothing about, and others opposing what they see as interference by someone who has no vested interest in the cause for which they are providing substantial financial support.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is an example of one billionaire’s mechanism for supporting causes that they believe in across the nation. The organization’s website gives a platform for the initative to describe itself at length, excerpted as follows.

“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative… is a new kind of philanthropic organization that brings together world-class engineering, grant-making, impact investing, policy, and advocacy work. Our initial areas of focus include supporting science through basic biomedical research and education through personalized learning. We are also exploring other issues tied to the promotion of equal opportunity including access to affordable housing and criminal justice reform.”

One of the organization’s most recent donations was $1 million that went to support an amendment to Ohio’s constitution. Said amendment would soften penalties for drug possession and divert money socked away in prison budgets into drug treatment programs. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have homes in Hawaii and California — but not in Ohio — so the proposed amendment won’t appear on their personal ballots. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s website says that their support of the amendment is based on their belief that it will “put taxpayer dollars to better use by reducing reliance on prisons to address certain non-violent offenses, including drug use and possession.”

Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, is opposed to the ballot measure — known as Issue 1 — in part because of the large amounts of support that is coming from outside of Ohio.

“We think setting criminal justice policy by constitutional amendment is a terrible idea, and I think what makes it even worse is that it’s not being proposed by Ohioans. It’s being driven by money from out of state. We’re going to have to live with the unintended consequences of this.”

The Center for Public Integrity has reported that only six percent of funding for the Ohio ballot measure has come from people living in Ohio.

Mark Zuckerberg is just one of many billionaires influencing ballot measures across the United States. Billionaire George Soros is famous for his generous support of left-leaning causes. His reported donations for ballot measures this year amount to $5 million, just half of what billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has spent. These three men, combined, have spent nearly $71 million this year — on campaigns in 19 states in which they do not reside. This is compared to just $7.2 million spent this year by these — and other billionaires — on campaigns for ballot measures within their states of residence.

The combined $78 million accounts for over 10 percent of the $648 million in disclosed contributions so far this year, and doesn’t include money donated by corporations led by billionaires, non-profits funded by billionaires, and nonprofits with unidentified donors.

While some — like Louis Tobin — oppose the involvement from those outside of a state in state-specific issues, others argue that it’s not only perfectly legal, but that it also supports very democratic principles. University of Florida Professor Daniel Smith argues that, “In some ways it’s less corrupt than if they were making contributions to lawmakers or giving favors to lawmakers.” This concept that measures cannot be corrupted — but politicians can — is the reason that the Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that contributions to state measures cannot be limited.

Billionaire investment in ballot measures far from home is not a recent phenomena. Back in 1912, John D. Rockerfeller provided financial backing for a Colorado referendum that would get rid of an eight-hour cap on the number of hours that miners could work in a single day.