Zuckerberg pours $250 million into group funding voting drives in Wisconsin Democratic strongholds

Group will fund "local election jurisdictions across the country."

Published: September 3, 2020 12:43pm

Updated: September 5, 2020 11:28am

Facebook's billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have gifted a quarter of a billion dollars to an election activist group pushing major government voting initiatives in several Democratic strongholds in the battleground state of Wisconsin. 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group which styles itself as "a team of civic technologists, trainers, researchers, election administration and data experts working to foster a more informed and engaged democracy, and helping to modernize U.S. elections," announced on Tuesday that it had received $250 million from Zuckerberg and Chan.

The organization plans to "regrant [the money] to local election jurisdictions across the country to help ensure that they have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary so that this November every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted."

Notably, the CTCL has already poured a significant sum of money into a voting initiative in five Wisconsin cities. The organization announced in early July that it had partnered with the cities to implement the Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan, a "vision for a safe, inclusive, and secure voting process in 2020 elections" proposed by the mayors of those cities.

The mayors of Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine requested and received a collective $6.3 million from the organization in order to facilitate their respective election machines. A plurality of those funds — about 40% — went to support both vote-by-mail and early voting efforts. Around a million dollars went to "voter outreach and education efforts." 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life last month also distributed a $10 million grant to the city of Philadelphia for a similar initiative. The city in its grant request pledged to spend over half of those funds on "mail-in and absentee and processing equipment," along with roughly a quarter of the grant on "satellite election offices for in-person mail-in voting." 

Organization appears to target Democratic strongholds

The Center's major outreach efforts this election year appear as of this week to target predominantly Democratic strongholds. The five Wisconsin cities and Philadelphia all have extensive histories of voting for Democrats; five of the six municipalities voted in favor of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, with only Kenosha going for Trump, by a razor-thin margin. 

The CTCL did not respond to queries on Thursday asking if they've launched initiatives in other cities. Just the News also asked if the group had had any input or oversight into the development of the Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan. 

The organization last month did announce a "COVID-19 Response Rural Grant Program," one that will seek to implement "safe voting options in jurisdictions of all sizes across the country." The group said it will prioritize "jurisdictions that are required to provide language assistance under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and have a higher percentage of historically disenfranchised residents," as well as "jurisdictions in states that have recently changed absentee voting laws or rules in response to COVID-19."

As of Thursday, the CTCL had not yet announced any specific jurisdictions that would be funded under that program.

Phill Kline, the director of the Amistad Project at the conservative Thomas More Society law firm in Chicago, said his organization, working alongside the grassroots conservative group GotFreedom, "anticipates filing our first suit on these issues next week in Wisconsin." 

Kline said the arrangement of a private nonprofit group influencing election policy appears unseemly and possibly illegal. 

"It's the legislature, under the Constitution, that determines the time, place and manner of an election," Kline told Just the News on Thursday. "It's not bad that Mr. Zuckerberg wants to increase voter turnout. That's fine. He can spend it independently of government." 

But election funds "should be appropriated by the state legislature and spent consistent with state laws," he continued, "as the Constitution specifically delegates the task of determining the time, place and manner of elections to the state legislatures."

"If Mr. Zuckerberg wants that money spent appropriately, he can just give it to the state," Kline added.

Though the Center for Tech and Civic Life styles itself as nonpartisan, the conservative watchdog group InfluenceWatch identifies it as a "center-left election reform advocacy group." 

Two of its executives — Whitney May and Donny Bridges — both used to work at the progressive New Organizing Institute in Washington, D.C. Its founder, Tiana Epps-Johnson, meanwhile, was the election administration director for that group. 

The group has also in the past partnered with Rock the Vote, a progressive grassroots organization, as well as the liberal group Women Donors Network.

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