By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Kenneth Brown says Wisconsin voters should expect fair and honest elections. Billionaire-funded, third-party groups involved in local elections administration turn that expectation on its head, he said.
Brown is one of five Racine residents filing a complaint Thursday alleging Mayor Cory Mason and City Clerk Tara Coolidge allowed left-leaning election activists to take over administration of Racine’s November election. The Wisconsin Elections Commission also is named as a defendant.
New documents obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight show the city of Racine sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for communication efforts targeting “voters with criminal records” and the purchase of a recreational vehicle to serve as a “mobile voting precinct,” among other questionable election initiatives.
Brown, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Racine County, is being represented by the The Amistad Project, a national voter integrity watchdog.
“Racine failed to comply with state laws, including obtaining from the (Wisconsin Elections Commission) a prior determination of the legality” of the conditions the third-party groups placed on the city in return for more than $940,000 in “safe, inclusive, and secure” voting grant funding, the complaint states.
In doing so, the city usurped the constitutional responsibilities of the local election official and the state elections regulator, the complaint states.
Wisconsin’s Legislature “never gave municipalities the authority to adopt or accept private corporate conditions affecting existing state election laws. The Commission, as the responsible entity in the administration of election laws, never opined on the legality of private corporate conditions affecting existing election laws.”
The complaint is similar to one filed earlier this month on behalf of five Green Bay residents alleging city officials allowed private activist groups to control significant aspects of the 2020 election, including ballot ‘curing’ and vote counting.”
Leading the ‘Wi-5’
The Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life handed out more than $8 million in “election safety and security” grants to Wisconsin’s five largest and most heavily Democratic cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. CTCL received $350 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife to “help” local elections offices administer “safe and secure elections.”
As a Wisconsin Spotlight investigation uncovered, CTCL required the “Wisconsin 5” cities to sign contracts that included funding clawback provisions if they failed to meet CTCL’s demands. Local elections officials had to work with the center’s partner organizations, like the National Vote at Home Institute. Emails show longtime Democratic operative Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin lead for the institute, was intricately involved in the administration of Green Bay’s and Milwaukee’s elections, even offering to “cure” or correct absentee ballots.
The complaint claims Racine is where the recruitment of the “Wisconsin 5” began. In late May, CTCL issued a $100,000 grant to the southeast Wisconsin city to “recruit other Wisconsin cities to join the ‘Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan.”
Mason, according to the complaint, spoke to his fellow liberal mayors in Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Kenosha about accepting CTCL’s grants — with the strings attached.
“CTCL authorized the City of Racine to distribute from the $100,000 grant, $10,000 to each of the four recruited cities (keeping $10,000 for itself), as an incentive for them to participate with Racine in the CTCL conditional grants,” the complaint states.
Whitney May, director of Government Services for CTCL, in August sent an email to the communities’ election officials declaring, “You are the famous WI-5 … excited to see November be an even bigger success for you and your teams.”
The grants, which included clawback provisions, required the cities to, among other things:
— Hire additional personnel for elections
— Increase existing salaries for staff
— Encourage and Increase Absentee Voting (by mail and early, in-person)
— Provide assistance to help voters comply with absentee ballot requests & certification requirements
The contracts, according to the complaint, also required the cities to employ ‘voter navigators’ to help voters ‘complete their ballots.’ The navigators would later be “trained and utilized as election inspectors. Grant-funded election workers would then “enter new voter registrations and assist with election certification tasks.” And the cities were instructed to use “paid social media” and “print and radio advertising” to direct voters “to request and complete absentee ballots.”
As the complaint notes, these are initiatives that cannot be done at the direction of the CTCL or other third-party groups, and many of these duties are not the domain of municipal clerks. “Promoting” and “encouraging higher percentages of our electors to vote absentee” violates Wisconsin election law, which states “the privilege of voting by absentee ballot must be carefully regulated to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse; to prevent overzealous solicitation of absent elector’s who may prefer not to participate in an election…” the complaint states.
‘Polling booth on wheels’
Documents show the city of Racine at one point sought $337,000 for the RV and a broad voter messaging plan. The city asked for:
— $80,000 “to design and implement a comprehensive voter outreach communications plan, including ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
— $5,000 to rent billboards in “key parts of the city to place messages in Spanish to reach Spanish-speaking voters.”
— $2,000 for targeted outreach “aimed at city residents with criminal records to encourage them to see if they are not eligible to vote.”
— $250,000 to purchase a mobile voting precinct (RV) “so the city can travel around the city to community centers and strategically chosen partner locations and enable people to vote in this accessible (ADA compliant) secure, and completely portable polling booth on wheels.” The pitch assured CTCL that the RV would be an “investment that the city will be able to use for years to come.”
The Racine City Council in August approved a contract with Burlington RV to purchase the recreational vehicle — aka “portable polling booth on wheels.” It also gave its blessing to a contract (for as much as $120,000) with Kane Communications to conduct outreach ahead of the November election, according to the Racine Journal Times.
‘Giant magnifying glass’
Ultimately, CTCL did distribute grants to smaller communities. But the funding paled in comparison to the money the five largest Wisconsin communities received. In Green Bay, for instance, the Zuckerberg-funded grants more than quadrupled the city’s election budget for all of 2020. The complainants assert this concentrated funding favored “urban demographic group(s) over other non-urban Wisconsin voters in federal elections, putting the integrity of the election process in jeopardy — and violating Complainants’ rights to lawful and equal elections.”
Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission last month told a legislative committee that it’s up to the cities to determine what grant funding it seeks — strings or no strings attached. The complaint challenges the administrator’s assertion.
Wolfe, emails show, passed along information about CTCL partner groups to elections officials in four Wisconsin cities. WEC has brought in outside counsel to review the complaint against Green Bay city officials.
Brown, one of the five Racine residents filing the complaint, said his intention is not to reverse the results of last November’s election, although he does believe election fraud was involved. He said he wants to put a “giant magnifying glass on” third-party influence on elections.
“Having elections be safe and fair and honest in Wisconsin and every single state in the country is in everyone’s best interest,” the Racine resident said. “WEC needs to step up and make sure the election laws are followed.”