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Assembly passes bill checking outside money in elections

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Looking to check the influence of “Zuckerbucks” on Wisconsin’s elections, the Assembly passed legislation Tuesday that requires election administration grants from third-party groups to be fairly distributed by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The bill, which passed along party lines, follows the release of emails that show the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) and its partner activists were intricately involved in the preparation and administration of November’s election in Wisconsin’s five largest and most heavily Democrat cities.

“We must ensure our elections are fair and free from outside influence,” Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee) the bill’s co-author, said. “What happened in Green Bay during the 2020 election is truly disturbing.”

Assembly Bill  173 doesn’t outright ban election administration donations from individuals and nongovernmental groups, but it does require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to distribute the funds to each Wisconsin municipality on a per capita basis. WEC would only be allowed to expend the money as approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

As a Wisconsin Spotlight investigation earlier this year uncovered, the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life handed out more than $8 million in “election safety and security” grants to Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. The brunt of that —  $6.3 million — was distributed as part of a controversial contract between the center and the cities. CTCL received more than $300 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, ostensibly to “help” local elections offices administer “safe and secure elections.”

The center required the “Wisconsin 5” cities to sign contracts that included funding clawback provisions if they failed to meet CTCL’s demands.

Assembly Democrats were offended by the implication that left-leaning groups, funded by the billionaire who has shut down conservative speech on his global social network, could have ulterior motives. State Rep. Sue Conley (D-Janesville), finds the legislation “offensive, politically motivated and absolutely unnecessary.” She said the bill is “in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Dems like Conley believe groups like the left-leaning National Vote at Home Institute and the Democrat partisan who led its Wisconsin efforts were simply trying to help local election officials in a difficult time. They note the Center for Tech and Civic Life issued more than 200 grants in Wisconsin, not just to Democratic strongholds. True, but as Wisconsin Spotlight has reported, the grants to other communities paled in comparison to the funding the “WI-5” cities got. In Green Bay’s case, CTCL money quadrupled the city’s election budget for 2020.

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) noted how furious Dems were by the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling over a decade ago.

“Anyone who hates Citizens United, their hair should be on fire over this issue,” he said. While Dems have long railed about “dark money” influencing elections, Sanfelippo pointed out that the millions of dollars in Zuckerbucks was used directly in the administration of elections, most heavily in Wisconsin and other presidential battleground states.

“His money went directly into the counting rooms of our elections,” the lawmaker said. “This is why we have half of the the people in Wisconsin not believing in the results of the election.”

The Assembly version is not as restrictive as the Senate reform bill, which passed last month. That measure prohibits state agencies or local government from receiving outside grant funding for election administration. It also bars local governments from transferring election administration to anyone who does not have the authority under state election law. Complaints filed against four of the five cities to date allege CTCL and its partners usurped the election administration authority of the local elections officials — in violation of state law and the U.S. Constitution.

Neylon said he’s confident the Assembly version ultimately will pass in the Senate.

“This is about fairness and transparency and outside groups shouldn’t get to provide funding only to areas that align with their politics. This bill levels the playing field so that all communities in Wisconsin get a per-capita share of donations,” Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said after the Assembly reform measure passed.

More election reform

The Assembly also passed a bill requiring the Elections Commission to publish copies of their meeting minutes online. WEC has often delayed posting its meeting minutes until after the following meeting.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed two election integrity bills Tuesday. A measure authored by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg), establishes minimum requirements for who is allowed to return a voter’s absentee ballot. Election activist groups wouldn’t make that list. Wisconsin is one of about 10 states that hasn’t set such requirements.

And SB 212, authored by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), specifies that voters, not municipal clerks, may “cure” or correct defects on their absentee ballot certificates. One of the more controversial issues following November’s tightly contested presidential election was the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s guidance allowing local elections officials to fix the ballot envelopes, an interpretation that appears to run contrary to state election law.

“We told our constituents that we would pass common-sense reforms that increase transparency, create consistency and establish standards of accountability for our elections. We continue to deliver on that promise,” Stroebel said.

The legislation looks to be dead on arrival at the desk of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has signaled his opposition to such voter integrity measures.

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