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Committee takes up Zuckerbucks election reform bill

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A Senate committee took up election reform bills at a hearing Thursday, one aimed at keeping third-party groups from dumping money on elections in targeted areas.

The Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics also heard from Milwaukee Election Commission chief Claire Woodall-Vogg, who sounded defensive in explaining her dealings with left-leaning election groups.

Senate Bill 207 would require private funds like the millions of dollars in grants handed out by the Center for Tech and Civic Life first go to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. They would then be evenly distributed to local election offices statewide on a per capita basis.

“This bill is about fairness,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), co-author of the legislation. Stroebel, a member of the committee, asserts there were “significant strings attached” to CTCL’s generous grants, that the money wasn’t an “altruistic blank check donation.”

CTCL, which received $350 million in contributions from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, distributed more than $8 million in election “safety and security” grants last year to Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. The cities also happen to be Democratic strongholds.

The “Wisconsin 5,” as the cities were known, had to sign contracts that required them to do what CTCL wanted or they could lose the funding. Emails show Green Bay and Milwaukee worked with a CTCL partner group, the National Vote at Home Institute.  Longtime Democratic operative Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, who served as Wisconsin lead for the institute, was integrally involved in preparing for and administering November’s election in Green Bay and Milwaukee.

The city of Milwaukee opposes the bill. Woodall-Vogg said she doesn’t know how Wisconsin’s largest city would have gotten along without the generosity of CTCL. She also told committee members that Milwaukee received more money than previously reported — a total of $3.4 million from the Zuckerberg-funded group. The funding more than doubled Milwaukee’s election budget for 2020. Is it any wonder Woodall-Vogg breathlessly defended her friends at CTCL and its “partner” organizations.

She downplayed the idea that there were “strings attached” to the grant funding, despite the contract’s clawback provisions. She said the funding covered important “technical assistance,” promotional materials, and COVID protection equipment. It also afforded hazard pay for poll workers who Woodall-Vogg demanded deserved a “liveable wage.”

“It goes without saying 2020 was an unprecedented year for elections,” Woodall-Vogg told the Committee. “Now is not the time to reduce appropriations,” she added. Now is the time to “find creative non-partisan funding sources which will alleviate the burden on taxpayers.”

But proponents of the bill worry CTCL used such unprecedented times to game the election system. They certainly left the perception of a conflict, Stroebel said, and that’s enough to warrant reform.

Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), chairwoman of the committee, put the question to Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson, who also opposed the bill. She noted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s meddling in the April 2020 election and emails showing Green Bay’s mayor doing the same in the months leading up to the November election.

“Can you imagine if the county executive told you how to do your job and what you can and cannot do?” the senator said. “It all doesn’t look good, and if it doesn’t look good it calls into question election integrity.”

Some citizens testified the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Ardis Cerny, a long-time Wisconsin election watcher, said legislators can write all the laws they want. It won’t matter.

“Until you reform the Wisconsin Elections Commission, mainly the leadership and the staff, your efforts will be for naught,” Cerny said. She noted WEC administrator’s promotion of the Zuckerberg-funded groups and the many laws the commission has interpreted or “manipulated” to its ideological preferences.

The committee also took up Senate Bill 208, which would require the Elections Commission to post online its meeting minutes within 24 hours of a meeting. Sponsors say the commission waits until its following meeting to publish the previous meeting’s minutes. That keeps the public in the dark about critical election law rulings the commission makes.

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), argued there’s no need to rush on the meeting minutes. The committee member said the public can file an open records request if they want the information.

“To think you have to go to an open records request to ensure transparency in government is a place I don’t want to go to,” Stroebel said.

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