Wisconsin Spotlight: Conditional election grants


What: Wisconsin’s five largest cities signed contracts with the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a left-leaning organization that doled out millions of dollars in “safe election” grants.  Wisconsin Spotlight has obtained the agreement Green Bay signed.

So What: The contracts include multiple requirements the cities must follow, and clawback provisions if they don’t. The conditions, election law experts claim, violate the constitution because they led to outside groups taking over the election responsibilities of city clerks. One state senator called the arrangements a quid pro quo.

But the hefty grants, funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, were very enticing. Green Bay ultimately received $1.6 million from CTCL — nearly five times the $330,000 the city budgeted for elections in 2020, according to the combined grant application from the five cities. Kenosha’s CTCL grant was $862,779 — four times the city’s $205,690 election budget.

What’s Next? The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections holds an informational hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m., in 417 North (GAR Hall) of the State Capitol. Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe is expected to testify. The committee also will look further into Green Bay’s handling of the November election.

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — The “free” election assistance grant money dumped on Wisconsin’s largest cities wasn’t so free.

The windfall — significantly increasing the cities’ elections budgets — came with strings attached. Documents, including a contract obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight, show the left-leaning Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) wanted a lot in return for its generosity. Or, better said, they wanted a return on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s investment.

Grant winners 

In July, Tiana Epps‐Johnson, founder and executive of the Chicago-based CTCL, reached out to Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich’s office to “accomplish a few things.”

“I am pleased to inform you that the Center for Tech and Civic Life (“CTCL”) has decided to award a grant to support the work of the City of Green Bay,” an email to Green Bay city officials states. The city would receive nearly $1.1 million for “planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration in the City of Green Bay in accordance with the Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan 2020,” according to the CTCL contract. Said Safe Voting Plan was the creation of what became known as the “Wisconsin 5” — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — which collectively applied for a combined $6.3 million-plus in CTCL grant funding.

Green Bay would ultimately receive a total of $1.6 million from CTCL — five times the $330,000 the city originally had budgeted for administering its August primary and November elections.

As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported, Green Bay, and it appears the other “Wisconsin 5” cities, were required to work with CTCL “partners” on election security, safety and get-out-the-vote efforts. Democratic operative Michael Spitzer-Rubentstein was one such partner, intricately involved in helping Green Bay run its election. Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin State Lead for the National Vote at Home Institute, in many ways became the de facto city elections chief.

Spitzer-Rubenstein appears to be one of the more troubling strings attached, but Green Bay city officials seemed more than glad to sign on the dotted line with the promise of a hefty grant. Emails show they were able to fill needs that went beyond election security, like two trucks at a cost of nearly $100,000, that officials said would be used by the city’s Department of Public Works after the November election.

With conditions

CTCL’s contract that the Green Bay Common Council approved warns that the grant was to be used “only for” safe and secure election administration, “and for no other purposes.”

Under the agreement, Green Bay had to produce a report documenting how it used the outside funding over the course of the grant period, which ran between Jun 15 and Dec. 31.

The Zuckerberg money came with clawback provisions, too.

“CTCL may discontinue, modify, withhold part of, or ask for the return of all or part of the grant funds if it determines, in its sole judgment, that (a) any of the above conditions have not been met or (b) it must do so to comply with applicable laws or regulations,” the contract states.

That’s a problem, according to Erick Kaardal, an appellate law attorney. In fact, all of the strings in the contract present a big problem: They violate the constitution.

“The city clerk has charge and supervision of the election. Once the city council appoints the clerk they’re supposed to leave the clerk alone and let her do her job,” said Kaardal, who represents the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, which has challenged the constitutionality of election procedures in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin following November’s election.

Signing contracts that place conditions on cities, that ultimately place conditions on local elections officials, usurps a clerks’ duty and responsibility to operate fair and transparent elections, Kaardal said.

State Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) said he was concerned early on about the intervention of “shadowy third party groups” in Wisconsin’s elections.

“They basically required election administration changes in exchange for grant dollars, which is quid pro quo,” Jacque said.

Budget relief 

But the liberal mayors of Wisconsin’s five largest cities saw dollar signs — “free” money. The grant money certainly was enticing for cash-strapped cities. CTCL was well aware of the need.

The five cities “spent all or most” of their election budgets for 2020 on the “extraordinary circumstances” last spring, the mayors wrote in their collective grant application, the “Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan,” submitted to CTCL on June 15.

CTCL would fill up those empty budgets. It gave Kenosha $862,779 — four times the city’s $205,690 election budget, according to a grant document. Racine received $942,000, more than double its election budget for 2020. Milwaukee’s taxpayer-funded election budget approached $3 million; the state’s largest city got a $2.15 million CTCL grant. And Madison received $1.27 million from the Zuckerberg-funded group to bolster its $2 million-plus elections budget.

The five mayors said they were seeking Zuckerberg’s money to “safely administer elections .. identify best practices … innovate to efficiently and effectively educate our residents about how to exercise their right to vote … be intentional and strategic in reaching our historically disenfranchised residents and communities … and, above all, ensure the right to vote in our dense and diverse communities.”

CTCL was sold. The cities got millions of dollars. They got new election equipment, “communications plans,” trucks.

They also got Spitzer-Rubenstein helping to “cure” or fill in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes. They got a long-time Democratic operative who literally was given the keys to Green Bay’s election and, new emails show, was heavily involved in Milwaukee’s election. They got liberal election groups infiltrating their elections.

They got lots of money, and a lot of conditions.

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