Michigan county spurns $1.5M in private election funding amid growing 'Zuckerbucks' backlash

"I firmly believe that funding for election administration must come from federal, state and local governments," said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck.

Published: January 31, 2023 8:33pm

Updated: January 31, 2023 11:07pm

A clerk in Ottawa County, Mich., has declined a $1.5 million election grant from a nonprofit linked to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, citing qualms about accepting private funds for public election administration, as a growing number of states and localities across the nation are moving to refuse, restrict or ban so-called "Zuckerbucks."

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck announced Tuesday that he was removing the elections division of his office from consideration for funding by the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, after reporting in November that the county was a finalist in the network's "Centers for Election Excellence" program.

When Roebuck learned that his office was to receive a $1.5 million election grant from the alliance, he declined it and withdrew from the program.

"The U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is a nonpartisan national collaboration of election officials and non-profit organizations, formed to 'bring together election officials, designers, technologists, and other experts to envision, support, and celebrate excellence in U.S. election administration,'" according to a press release from the county clerk's office.

"While I value the overall stated goals of the Alliance, I firmly believe that funding for election administration must come from federal, state and local governments," Roebuck said in a statement. "Election administration is critical government infrastructure and when private individuals seek to fund election operations, it casts a shadow over public trust in the process, particularly when the resources can be tied to individuals or groups who may have also contributed to political parties or candidates."

The U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is a project of the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which poured nearly $350 million into local elections offices managing the 2020 election, with most of the funds donated to the nonprofit by Zuckerberg. CTCL has previously said that the alliance will provide $80 million over five years "to envision, support, and celebrate excellence in U.S. election administration."

Roebuck explained that his office hadn't requested the $1.5 million grant from the alliance, noting that he would be more comfortable receiving funds if there was a need.

"Some of the stuff we were talking about was really exciting, and I applaud them for doing it," Roebuck told The Holland Sentinel. "But $1.5 million just seemed excessive. We didn't ask for that. Honestly, we were very surprised, and we want people in it for the right reasons."

The Ottawa County clerk tweeted on Tuesday: "We need resources in election administration — and we need those resources to come from the governments where the services are being given.

"We need our citizens to know that elections are being managed by trained professionals, under bi-partisan observation, and not under any outside influence from individuals or private groups. This is how trust is earned and kept."

CTCL has claimed its 2020 election grants — colloquially known as "Zuckerbucks" — were allocated without partisan preference to make voting safer amid the pandemic. A House Republican investigation found, however, that less than 1% of the funds were spent on personal protective equipment. Most of the funds were focused on get-out-the-vote efforts and registrations.

While CTCL claims that more grants were awarded to counties won by former President Donald Trump than President Joe Biden, the nonprofit gave larger grants and more money per capita to Democratic counties than to Republican ones. Trump won more than five times as many counties as Biden in 2020.

In North Carolina, election officials in Brunswick and Forsyth counties have said they won't take money from the Alliance for Election Excellence. However, unlike Ottawa County, Brunswick and Forsyth are keeping their membership with the alliance.

Twenty-four states have either restricted or banned the use of private money to fund elections, while 12 counties besides Ottawa have also restricted or banned the funds, according to the Capital Research Center.

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