Milwaukee takes more than $1 million in ‘Zuckerbucks’ ahead of vote to ban private election funding

The Milwaukee Election Commission and the Milwaukee Public Library received a $250,000 grant, while the commission received a separate $785,850 grant from the nonprofit Cities Forward for election administration.

Published: March 24, 2024 11:08pm

Milwaukee has accepted more than $1 million in "Zuckerbucks" — the injection of private money into public election administration — just weeks before Wisconsin residents will vote on whether to ban such funds. 

The city of Milwaukee, which previously accepted “Zuckerbucks” in 2020, has received a new form of the private funding over two separate grants just weeks prior to Wisconsin voters deciding whether to approve a state constitutional amendment banning “Zuckerbucks.” 

Last Tuesday, Milwaukee accepted a $786,850 grant for the 2024 election from Cities Forward, a nonprofit that started last May, according to an IRS document. 

The grant includes funding for two new Election Systems & Software ballot tabulators at $146,375 each, a $37,500 text messaging service that would allow the city to contact registered voters and correct misinformation, 50 ExpressVote machines at $211,250 for early voting and as an accessibility aid on Election Day, and $147,000 for 210 Android smartphones for voting site directors to send photos or videos of equipment issues and more easily ask for supplies, according to Urban Milwaukee

Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall told Urban Milwaukee earlier this month that the text messaging service is for the election commission “to make sure any information anyone in the city is having about voting is accurate and broken down in a way that anyone can understand,” and that well-intentioned groups can still provide guidance that is inaccurate or difficult to understand. 

Cities Forward also gave the Milwaukee Election Commission and the Milwaukee Public Library a $250,000 grant for 2024 for a “non-partisan public education campaign ... to increase civic connection among residents.” 

The campaign includes “Encourag[ing] ALL residents to register to vote, sign up to vote by mail, vote early, and update their state ID/driver's licenses by providing non-partisan, easy-to-understand resources.” 

The grant will fund a new website and street outreach for the campaign. 

“At the library, when people are registering for a new library card, they will also be asking ‘do you want us to help us register you to vote today?’” Woodall said regarding the campaign that the grant would fund. 

She also explained that the Milwaukee Health Department would implement a similar strategy at its clinics. This private funding of elections is similar to what the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) did in Wisconsin and other states in 2020. 

CTCL poured about $350 million into local elections offices managing the 2020 election, with most of the funds donated to the nonprofit by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The nonprofit has claimed its 2020 election grants — colloquially known as "Zuckerbucks" — were allocated, allegedly without partisan preference to make voting safer amid the pandemic.  

However, a House Republican investigation found 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. Controversy ensued in part due to the disproportionate private funding "Zuckerbucks" funneled to Democratic jurisdictions.

Opponents claim the imbalance helped sway the 2020 election in Biden's favor, and as a result, 27 states have either restricted or banned the use of private money to fund elections, while at least 12 counties have also restricted or banned the funds, according to the Capital Research Center

According to Cities Forward’s website, the nonprofit “is a nonpartisan effort focused on helping cities around the country make participation in the democratic process a priority.” 

Urban Milwaukee reported that Trevor Ostbye leads Cities Forward. However, Ostbye’s LinkedIn account says he was the non-profit’s executive director from December 2021 to December 2023. Before Cities Forward, Ostbye was at the Democracy Fund, a significant bankroller of left-wing groups and causes. 

The Milwaukee Election Commission and Cities Forward didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Cities Forward’s Sam Olier-Friedland told Urban Milwaukee in a statement, “Along with election departments across the country, Milwaukee is facing serious funding challenges, made worse by the legislature’s shameful inaction on a bill that would have made funding available to all election departments in Wisconsin, including $2.5 million for Milwaukee. Congress also rejected a bipartisan request of election officials and advocates, who sought $400 million in Help America Vote Act (HAVA) grants. Absent adequate state or federal funding for the administration state and federal elections, local governments across the country face election infrastructure shortfalls. 

“Cities Forward is pleased to support Milwaukee with funding for an urgent election infrastructure request to replace aging tabulators and ADA-compliant voting equipment, especially given that unlike most other states, Milwaukee is not allowed to pre-process ballots, which creates unusually acute operational challenges in needing to process thousands of ballots on election day,” he added.

While Milwaukee is accepting a new form of “Zuckerbucks,” Wisconsin voters have the ability to ban such funding in an upcoming election.

The Wisconsin state legislature passed bills in 2021 and 2022 that would have, respectively, regulated and banned the use of private money in election administration. However, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed both bills. 

In November, the Wisconsin state legislature passed a resolution to amend the state constitution to ban the private funding of election administration, which voters will decide whether to approve on April 2. 

Louisiana is the only other state to have banned “Zuckerbucks” via constitutional amendment. 

In 2020, Wisconsin’s five most populous cities received the majority of “Zuckerbucks” given to the state. According to Wisconsin state Rep. Tyler August (R), who said he authored the legislation for the constitutional amendment, “Out of the $10 million in Zuckerbucks that municipalities received, $8.5 million went to the 5 main Democratic cities of Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Green Bay.” 

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