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'The money needed to come from somewhere': How Madison spent its 'Zuckerbucks'

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MADISON (WKOW) — Nearly 20 months after the 2020 election, the debate over whether clerks in Wisconsin should be allowed to receive private money hovers over the 2022 campaign.

Republican lawmakers are seeking to change the state constitution to ban such grants in the future. The national and state parties advertise events showing a documentary on the use of 'Zuckerbucks' in 2020.

Of particular interest to conservatives is the $10 million Wisconsin received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which in 2020 was largely funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

More than 85% of the (CTCL) money went to the state's five biggest cities:

  • Milwaukee - $3.4 million
  • Racine - $1.69 million
  • Green Bay - $1.6 million
  • Madison - $1.27 million
  • Kenosha - $862,779

They argue that skewed distribution drove more turnout in places that traditionally vote for Democrats.

"I think the fact that, any time that you have private money put into select communities, it can change the outcome," Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) said.

Madison officials maintain they had to seek funds after Republicans forced clerks to stage the April 2020 spring election during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite protests from clerks statewide. Other states were postponing their elections that spring.

"Municipal clerks were really in a bind in 2020," City Attorney Michael Haas said. "And the City of Madison, for instance, had used its entire annual budget for elections by the time the April election was over with."

"And we still had August and November to conduct, and so, the money needed to come from somewhere; it wasn't coming from the state."

While many Republicans, to this day, insist the outside funding was improper it was found to be legal many times over, both by federal judges and, more recently, in Dane County where the conservative Thomas More Society challenged the legality of such grants.

The lead lawyer on that case, Erick Kaardal, is part of a firm that rented space in the Brookfield office leased by Michael Gableman, who is leading the Assembly GOP's review of the 2020 election.

Brandtjen, who chairs the Assembly's elections committee, maintained even if the grants are legal, they're still unfair because Wisconsin's five biggest cities do not account for 85 percent of the state's population and each of the cities tend to vote for Democrats, particularly Madison and Milwaukee.

"If you can increase the turnout in Democrat communities, that certainly gives you a percentage advantage," she said.

It's a message echoed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which found places that received CTCL funding were more likely to see an increase in turnout for Biden.

However, that correlation is not proof the grants drove turnout and WILL also issued a report finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Breaking down Madison's spending

Through an open records request, 27 News obtained a spreadsheet outlining each of Madison's expenditures using the CTCL funds, as well as a report the city sent the organization explaining its use of the grant money.

The lion's share of spending - more than $710,000 - went to items the city described as pandemic-related. That bucket of spending including poll worker recruitment and hazard pay.

The city spent another $122,000 on temporary staff to help stage elections and nearly $115,000 on polling place rental fees, which city officials said were greater than usual because some traditional polling places, like nursing homes, opted against hosting voters because of the pandemic.

Critics, though, have keyed in on the more than $93,000 Madison and other "Zuckerberg Five" cities spent on advertising how voters could cast absentee ballots.

Conservatives also raised concerns about the use of drop boxes and registration/drop-off events like Madison's Democracy in the Park.

Regarding the advertising, Brandtjen and other GOP critics honed in on Madison's development of ads that ran on a Spanish radio station and a video produced for Hmong voters.

"Now we have a process where we have Democrat communities reaching out and saying, and having the ability to advertise for certain groups," Brandtjen said. "For folks that are getting out of prison, for different ethnic groups, they're calling 'underserved communities.' Well, why not seniors?"

Haas said he found it "erroneous and a little bit objectionable" for conservatives to criticize efforts to reach non-English speaking voters. Haas suggested it was ignorant to assume all voters of a particular ethnic background would vote one way or another.

"I don't think there's anything wrong, at all, with the way that the city spent the funds in trying to reach voters where they are at and in all of the languages that we speak in this country," Haas said. "This is not an English-only country or municipality."

UW-Madison Constitutional Law Professor Howard Schweber said there's nothing illegal about targeting certain groups and letting them know how to vote. 

"The problem with the Republicans' position is they have to say it can be wrong to get legal voters to vote," Schweber said. "Look, if it could be shown, if there were evidence that the administrators in a municipality were deliberately trying to prevent Republican-leaning voters from voting, I would consider that a very serious issue."

Schweber said, ultimately, the fight over whether to allow private grants signals a much larger systemic issue: The U.S. should provide more money for election administration in the first place.

"[The debate] does point, however, to a much larger concern, which is unique among democratic nations," Schweber said. "We don't publicly fund our elections nearly to the extent that is necessary to run them."

Brandtjen said she would be open to having the state increase its funding for clerks.

"Absolutely, and we've had that conversation," Brandtjen said.

Her response prompted a follow-up question: would that funding go to all clerks, even those in the 'Zuckerberg Five' cities?

"Absolutely," Brandtjen responded. 

Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), who chairs the Senate's elections committee, declined to be interviewed for this story but said in the past she supported more state funding to run elections.

Haas said he agreed with the idea of giving more funding to city and county clerks, adding the 2020 situation was unique because of the pandemic-related costs.

"I think every clerk in Wisconsin hopes we're in a situation where they do not have to depend on outside funds to run elections," he said. "That's just not good public policy. This was a unique situation."

Haas previously served on the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and, before that, oversaw the Elections Division of WEC's predecessor, the Government Accountability Board, which Republicans dismantled in 2015 over its investigation into former Governor Scott Walker amid allegations of campaign finance violations.

Debate over grants not going away

Republicans, including Brandtjen, continue to raise questions about the influence of CTCL spending in 2020, even with the 2022 primary election a little more than a month away.

An 'Election Integrity Summit' scheduled for this weekend in Wauwatosa includes a screening of a conservative documentary claiming the CTCL grants were part of "a plot to defeat Donald Trump."

Brandtjen is listed as a featured speaker at the event, which also listed Gableman before his name was removed from the event page.

The event is organized by Cleta Mitchell, a former Trump lawyer who was on the phone when Trump pressured the Georgia secretary of state to "find" more votes for him in 2020.

Brandtjen bristled at the idea Mitchell's involvement was problematic given her proximity to Trump's effort to overturn the election and deny the will of voters in swing states like Wisconsin.

"I would find disagreement in the sense that I don't think these people are creating any sort of unrest," Brandtjen said. "They're asking good questions for an election that I still don't have answers for."

Capitol Bureau Chief