Big Philanthropy Advances as a Big Player in the Private Funding of Public Elections
Echoing the private financing of public elections that critics saw as heavily favoring Democrats in 2020, some of America’s richest foundations are pouring money into a similar effort again, in the face of more organized conservative resistance.
A nonprofit group called the Audacious Project, whose supporters include the Gates and MacArthur foundations and the Bridgespan Group, a consultant whose clients include Planned Parenthood, has committed $80 million to a progressive organization, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, to provide grant funding to run local elections.
As part of its review process, the CTCL is sending operatives to local elections offices, examining practices and equipment, and acquiring the sorts of data coveted by political campaigns. Despite public claims of transparency, the center has refused to provide basic information about its operations.
The CTCL became a focus of controversy in 2020 when it helped direct hundreds of millions of dollars donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan to help run elections during the pandemic, which prompted ad hoc changes to rules minimizing in-person voting. Many objected to that as unlawful. While the outside assistance was touted as nonpartisan, post-election analysis found that the so-called “Zuckerbucks” or “Zuck Bucks” were distributed on a partisan basis that favored Democrats.
In response to concerns about the private money, 24 states and 12 counties have prohibited elections offices from accepting it. Democratic governors in three of the states selected to be part of the CTCL’s initial membership group – Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan – overrode legislation banning private funding of elections, stoking more concern that the grants are a ruse for partisan infiltration of elections offices.
The CTCL in April created a consortium called the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, whose six partner groups include the CTCL, and are intertwined to specialize in different aspects of elections. For an annual fee, the consortium offers assistance to elections offices, providing online tutorials, consulting, and other services on an as-needed basis. A basic alliance membership costs a municipality $1,600 a year; a premium membership runs $4,800 annually.
Both subscriptions offer consulting, coaching, and conferencing, and belonging obligates the member to “make non-monetary (but highly significant) contributions to the broader activities of the Alliance.”
These include attending events put on by the CTCL-created alliance and the sharing of materials. Virtual conferences began in January, one described as a “debrief” of elections officials from the 2022 election designed to “inform preparation” for the 2024 elections.
In May, the CTCL reached out to elections officials, inviting them to apply to join the alliance, which would bring together “election officials, designers, technologists, and other experts to help local election departments improve operations.” It received inquiries from over 90 jurisdictions in 31 states.
The approved applicants were visited by CTCL representatives, a contingent that included Jennifer Morrell and Noah Praetz, leaders of The Elections Group, which works on election issues alongside progressive stalwarts such as Protect Democracy and the Brennan Center for Justice.
Ultimately, 10 elections offices, including several in swing states, were selected after on-site visits by the CTCL. Of the elections offices selected by the center, voters in six of them supported Joe Biden for president in 2020.
Officials in one of the chosen towns, Greenwich, Conn. – a former GOP stronghold that has become a Democratic enclave –– had concerns about working with the CTCL. When residents heard that its elections office was tapped to receive $500,000 in grant money from the CTCL, a member of the town’s legislative council sent an email to the center seeking more information, including audits of the group’s books, a copy of the group’s annual report, and its conflict-of-interest policy.
The CTCL declined to provide the documents, insisting that its audited financials and conflict policies “are not publicly filed documents,” Sophie Lehman, the group’s associate director, said in an email – even though the CTCL on its 2021 tax return claims financial statements and its conflict of interest policy are “available to the public on request.”
The refusal by Lehman, who also didn’t respond to a request for the materials from RealClearInvestigations, prompted some residents to unsuccessfully rally against accepting the money, which was approved in a town meeting this month with a 104-101 vote.
“I would be against the money even if it were the Koch brothers giving it,” said Michael Spilo, a Republican member of the town’s council who voted against taking the grant, referring to the billionaire brothers long associated with support for libertarian and conservative causes. “I don’t think private money should be involved at all. It seems like a really bad idea.”
But that failed resistance has shed light on the CTCL’s practices. Emails obtained by RCI through an open records request show that before its September visit, the CTCL emailed the town’s voting registrars asking them to prepare certain materials.
“We are collecting data on your operations, setup, and equipment to help Alliance partners better understand who you are and how you operate,” the email read.
Greenwich registrar Fred DeCaro sent an email to an assistant asking her to prepare materials for the CTCL team to review, including sample ballots, maps of polling places, voting books, trouble reports from poll moderators, and electronic poll books.
While some of the material involved is in the public record, “I would be a little worried about turning over poll books and voting software to anybody that wasn’t actually hired by an elections office,” said Doug Lewis, former executive director of the Elections Center (not The Elections Group), also known as the National Association of Election Officials. “Even if this all starts with the right intentions, there’s too much opportunity for manipulation.”
The approach of the CTCL-created alliance has raised other concerns from recipients.
“By participating in this program and becoming a member of Alliance, we have to pay money to continue to be part of it,” said Tim Tsujii, director of elections at the Forsyth County, N.C., Board of Elections. “We will pay an annual membership fee to be accredited by this alliance. There is all this talk about the money going to elections offices and the counties, but what about the money going from the counties to the alliance?”
Tsujii, a member of the CTCL advisory board, supports the alliance, but says his jurisdiction will not take any money from it, since it has enough financial resources to run effective elections. The office also didn’t take any money in 2020, Tsujii noted.
He joined the alliance to share approaches and practices to conducting elections, rather than seeking a grant, and “we were upfront about not getting any grant money.”
In a Dec. 1 contract obtained by RCI, Kane County, Ill., received $2 million in grants – $650,000 in December 2022 and $1.35 million in December 2023 – and promised to spend the money on personnel, technology, and voting locations; but it is also allowed to use it for sub-grants to local political subdivisions or local governments. The contract is the same as the one used to give grants in 2020.
Another alliance member, Republican-tilting Brunswick County, N.C., signed on to be part of the alliance but will not take any grant money. But as part of its alliance membership, Elections Director Sara LeVere said in an email, she is attending an in-person convening of members, the first of which is scheduled to be in Chicago this week.
“I plan to ask for reimbursement from the Alliance for travel costs (flight, hotel, etc.),” LeVere said, adding, “I currently do not have plans to take in any direct funding that would not be offsetting an expense we have for participation.”
Collegial connections to other offices and the sharing of ideas appeals to Ottawa County, Michigan, County Clerk Justin Roebuck. But the money is not for him.
“In 2020, after the money was released, and because of FOIA, and because the election community is a small world, I saw that some communities got significantly more money than others,” Roebuck, a Republican who has held office since 2014, told RCI. After the election, he questioned the CTCL, asking what the criteria for the funding was.
“The answer they gave is that it was population- and resource-driven,” Roebuck said. “Then we asked for the stats they were using. And there was no clear answer provided to us.”
Roebuck said Ottawa County was offered grant money this time around – he didn’t give the amount – but said he will refuse it. Like the people in Greenwich, Roebuck is concerned about the lack of transparency on the part of the CTCL.
“I believe the intentions of the alliance are sound, though, and remain excited about an effort to partner with non-profits that can offer services,” he said.
CTCL co-founder Tiana Epps-Johnson did not respond to an email and text message requesting an interview for this story.
Last year, Epps-Johnson told the website Afrotech.com that her push to privately fund elections works because “we know there are election departments in all types of communities that don’t have the basic technology they need to keep the process secure. … Our work at the center is focused on how we can make sure no matter what community you live in, your government is ready to provide access to democracy in a way that truly works for every voter.”
Much of the work done with CTCL grant money in 2020, though, focused on rallying voters to cast ballots, designing absentee ballots, and allowing elections offices to work directly with progressive activist groups in several states. Emails show that CTCL relied on progressive consultants in advising elections administrators in Wisconsin, including the Brennan Center.
Some municipalities used the money to produce videos and ads to drive voters to cast mail-in ballots, while others used the cash to pay attorneys to vet public information requests.
For voters to have faith that the grants are being awarded with nonpartisan intentions, “the process for awarding the money should be more transparent,” said Hayden Ludwig, a researcher at the conservative Capital Research Center, which has been critical of the CTCL’s funding of elections offices.
The grant-making, political foes contend, is a politically biased process that favors Democrats. If this new alliance and the CTCL were interested in helping elections offices, Ludwig said, “they would be advocating through democratic channels to expand budgets, going into state legislatures to support infrastructure. But they don’t and they have millions of dollars at their disposal.”
This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.