There would appear to be no shortage of issues competing for Mark Zuckerberg’s attention. Security breaches. Russian disinformation campaigns. Politicians’ demands for more regulation.
But the 34-year-old Facebook founder and CEO is also interested in a more local version of politics: He and wife Priscilla Chan have ponied up $1 million through their philanthropic Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative to support a statewide ballot measure that would soften penalties for drug possession. The constitutional amendment would also put savings from prison budgets into treatment for drug users.
The measure wouldn’t affect Zuckerberg’s palace in Palo Alto, California, his 700-acre estate on the Hawaiian island of Kauai or another home he owns in San Francisco’s hip Dolores Heights. This effort, dubbed Issue 1, is on the ballot in Ohio.
Ana Zamora, criminal justice manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said the charity is “pleased to support Ohioans in directing taxpayer dollars to rehabilitation, drug treatment, and education programs that are proven to improve public safety.”
Not all Ohioans are happy about the California billionaires’ involvement. Louis Tobin, the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, opposes the measure, arguing that fewer people will enter treatment without the threat of jail time.
“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,” Tobin said. “We’re going to have to live with the unintended consequences of this.”
Zuckerberg’s investment in a ballot measure a long way from home is hardly unique. Liberal billionaire George Soros has given $5 million for issues on the ballot this fall around the country. California environmentalist Tom Steyer has spent $10 million.
All told, this trio and 22 other American billionaires have invested more than $70.7 million for initiative campaigns this year in 19 states where they do not reside.
Meanwhile, as little as $7.2 million has gone from their wallets and those of other billionaires to campaigns in their home states, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state records.
In total, the $78 million tally from all 34 billionaires — local givers and out-of-state donors alike — may be pocket change to them, but it is more than 10 percent of the $648 million disclosed so far this year for statewide ballot measure campaigns, as tracked by the nonpartisan political encyclopedia Ballotpedia. And the total is likely an undercount of billionaires’ influence on this year’s ballot measures. It doesn't include gifts from billionaire-led corporations, nor from nonprofits where the billionaires are among a multitude of backers, nor from nonprofits whose donors’ identities are unknown.
As with Tobin and the prosecutors association in Ohio, the handouts from the wealthy to campaigns across state lines rankle some local opponents, even though no one questions their legality. Just who should decide issues in their states, they ask — the people who live there or some rich folks from out-of-state?