MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A nonprofit group that became a point of controversy for distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in election grants during the 2020 presidential campaign is releasing a fresh round of money to local election offices, including in states where Republican lawmakers tried to ban the practice.
The Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life has released only general details about how much money each office will receive or what it will fund.
It has said 10 county and municipal election offices will be part of the first group to receive grant money under the center’s U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which has $80 million to hand out over the next five years, with few restrictions.
Conservatives took aim at the center during the last presidential race after it gave local election offices around the country more than $350 million, almost all of it donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Opponents termed the grants “Zuckerbucks” and claimed they were an attempt by the billionaire to tip the vote in favor of Democrats, although there was no evidence to support that.
Much of the earlier money went to election offices in urban areas that have traditionally supported Democrats, but the center pointed out that it gave funding to every office that requested it – nearly 2,500 in all. The center previously said the current round of grant funding will not include money from Zuckerberg.
The center did not initially disclose the amounts each jurisdiction would be eligible to receive, but it posted a range of figures two weeks after the initial announcement in response to questions from The Associated Press.
Grant amounts will vary based on the size of each jurisdiction, from $50,000 for those with fewer than 5,000 registered voters to $3 million for those with more than 1 million voters. The first offices will receive grants over a two-year period leading up to the 2024 presidential election, said Tiana Epps-Johnson, the center’s executive director.
The money comes with almost no restrictions on how it can be spent. Election officials said they hope to use the grants for everything from improving websites to recruiting poll workers and building larger, more secure office spaces.
The center’s hesitancy to disclose details about its renewed efforts has drawn criticism from the same conservative groups that opposed its work in 2020.
“It seems like this entire process will occur behind the scenes with no guardrails or transparency, furthering the concerns of voters over undue influence on the conduct of elections,” said Hayden Dublois, a researcher at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.
The center’s grants will not fund offices in any of the more than 20 states where Republicans enacted laws since 2020 that ban private funding for elections, but it will go to offices in some states where Democratic governors vetoed bans passed by Republican-controlled legislatures. That includes Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Dublois said he was skeptical of the list of jurisdictions the center chose to support. The center declined to provide specific details about how it selected members of the alliance.
“It seems most of the targets for the alliance are geared towards blue states, with some Democratic strongholds in swing states included, as well,” he said, voicing concerns that increased funding could boost Democratic turnout.
Five of the selected jurisdictions lean Republican, but they make up only a fraction of the total population in the more Democratic jurisdictions.
The initial election offices selected are: Contra Costa and Shasta counties in California; Greenwich, Connecticut; Kane and Macoupin counties in Illinois; Ottawa County, Michigan; Clark County, Nevada; Brunswick and Forsyth counties in North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin, a perennial political battleground where former President Donald Trump has sought to decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election, Republican lawmakers tried to work around Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ veto power this spring by proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would ban private funding for elections. The proposal passed the Legislature but would need a second consecutive approval in 2023 before it could be put to a statewide vote.
Madison Deputy Clerk Jim Verbick said he saw joining the alliance as a way to stay current on how other election officials are operating. He said his office will consider accepting grants and wasn’t worried about the city’s involvement drawing backlash.
“ The issue has gone to the courts, and the courts have repeatedly said there was nothing wrong with the grants,” he said.
Top Wisconsin Republicans said they believe the program has partisan aims.
“This is just liberals telling other liberals they are doing a good job,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the state’s top Republican. “Cities like Madison and Milwaukee continue to try to find ways to only engage with and turn out certain voters.”
The center and participating election officials have stressed that the alliance’s work is nonpartisan, but the lack of publicly available details about how they selected the offices and how the money will be used has fed conservatives’ concerns.
“Our citizens should have peace of mind that the outcomes of elections are not affected by the flow of private money into election administration,” said Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August, Vos’ second in command who sponsored the proposed amendment to ban election grants.
In Michigan, more than 460 election offices accepted grants from the center in 2020. The state now has constitutional protections for private grants thanks to a voting-related ballot initiative voters passed in November.
Opponents such as Jamie Roe of Secure MI Vote criticize what they see as special interest groups trying to influence elections. The group pushed unsuccessfully for private funding to be outlawed.
“The elected officials and the clerks in Michigan need to know that they’re going to be held accountable,” Roe said. “They should be very careful about what sort of agreements they enter into with special interests.”
Two recipients stand out: deeply Republican Shasta County in the rural, far northern part of California and Democratic-leaning Clark County in Nevada. Both have been on the front lines of election conspiracies.
Clark County, home to nearly three-quarters of registered voters in the presidential battleground state, has been the target of false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged to favor Democrats. County spokesperson Dan Kulin said the county’s handling of mail ballots likely contributed to its selection. It’s the only jurisdiction in the alliance with enough registered voters to be eligible for up to $3 million in grants.
Several Republican groups in the state did not respond to phone calls and emails.
Shasta County has been roiled by far-right politics since the 2020 presidential election. Election workers have been followed while delivering ballots and monitored by trail cameras outside their office, The Los Angeles Times reported. County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen said she has feared for the safety of her staff. The Shasta County elections office received $95,000 from the center in 2020 and now is eligible for $1.5 million.
“The doubts about election administration that have been sown on social media particularly have been troubling and difficult to quash,” Darling Allen told the AP.
She said she hopes to present the county’s participation in the alliance early next year to the board of supervisors, where far-right candidates secured four of the five seats in November’s election.
One of the newly elected supervisors, Kevin Crye, said he had concerns about “who and how our electoral process can possibly be manipulated,” but declined to elaborate.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.