‘Zuckerberg Bucks’ fuel Michigan GOP push to ban private funds for elections
LANSING — As they scrambled to run safe elections in a pandemic, public officials in Michigan last year turned to private funds, securing millions of dollars to buy personal protective equipment and offer hazard pay to workers.
In Pontiac, $405,564 from the Center for Tech and Civic Life bought absentee ballot drop boxes with security cameras, postcards to remind voters how to fill out mail-in ballots, and it helped hire extra workers to process them.
The result was an “effective” experience for voters despite an unprecedented public health crisis, Clerk Garland Doyle told Bridge Michigan.
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“Without the grant, I would be facing a huge budget deficit,” Doyle told Bridge Michigan. “I knew I was going to have increased costs, and I felt that absentee voting would go up, but there was really no way I could predict the magnitude.”
Officials in 465 Michigan cities, townships and counties applied for and received “COVID-19 response” grants from CTCL, a Chicago-based nonprofit that distributed funds nationally after getting $400 million in contributions from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
While clerks celebrated the grants, they spurred debate over the ethics of private funding for public elections. The grants fueled conspiracy theories and lawsuits from supporters of former President Donald Trump, who alleged the “Zuckerberg Bucks” targeted Democratic cities to boost turnout.
And now, seven months after the election, Michigan Senate Republicans want to bar such grants in future elections, arguing there must be safeguards to ensure private groups do not attach conditions or direct funding in a way that could influence election outcomes.
“I'm very concerned about special interests, whether it's corporations or other special interests, going into certain communities and pouring in money to enhance that area that the other is not,” Senate Elections Chair Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, said last month in committee debate.
“I think we’re opening it up to not having elections that are done across-the-board fairly,” added Johnson, who served as Michigan’s secretary of state.
The proposal is part of a suite of 39 Republican bills they say are designed to enhance confidence in elections, but foes say would make it harder to vote. Among other proposals, lawmakers want to require IDs to vote, ban prepaid postage for absentee ballots and add more restrictions to ballot drop boxes.
A dangerous path?
Despite claims of Trump supporters, a Bridge Michigan review of CTCL data found the group sent funding to Democratic and Republican communities alike — because communities that didn’t receive grants simply didn’t apply.
The group said it didn’t reject a single application.
Detroit, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, got the biggest award by far: $3.5 million.
But hundreds of smaller municipalities got grants too, typically on a scale consistent with their size under a formula that included the number of registered voters.
Tiny Caldwell Township, an overwhelmingly Republican community in northern Michigan’s Missaukee County, has just 1,057 registered voters and got a $5,000 grant, about $5 per voter, just shy of the $7 per voter sent to Detroit.
“They didn’t say, ‘You can only buy this, this or that.’ They left it up to the individual township and what they felt was going to be necessary for them to run a better, safer election, ” said Caldwell Township Clerk Shelley Sloat, a Republican.
Sloat told Bridge the money allowed her to hire three extra election workers, purchase plexiglass barriers, sanitation supplies and extra voting booths for social distancing in Caldwell, which Trump carried with 82 percent of the vote.
“I guess I would have had a problem if they would have been more dictatorial about what you had to spend it on,” Sloat said of the nonprofit.
But she’d do it again, she said, because it “saved our township — and our taxpayers — $5,000 in taxpayer money.”
Outside groups have long provided private funding to prop up cash-strapped public institutions like schools and libraries, CTCL Executive Director Tiana Epps-Johnson said in a statement provided to Bridge Michigan.
“We hope that as states consider the issue of private funding, they solve the real long-standing problem, which is making sure that election departments are fully funded so they are able to deliver a professional, inclusive, secure voting process for all of their voters,” she said.
Budget documents show that Michigan state government spent about as much on election administration as it did four years prior, about $7.5 million.
Michigan also received about $11 million in extra funding through a federal stimulus law, which Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson used to mail postcards to voters who had not yet applied for an absentee ballot, provide matching funds for communities to purchase high-speed ballot tabulators and reimburse municipalities for other expenses, according to federal disclosures.
Clerks who applied for CTCL grants told Bridge they would not have needed private grants last year if they had received enough funding from the state Legislature to cover pandemic-related costs.
At least one — GOP Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, who secured a $30,000 grant for local election administration — said he has buyers’ remorse despite what he called a well-managed election.
“If I had it to do over again, I don't believe I would take the money, because I think we go down a really dangerous path having private organizations fund public elections,” Roebuck said.
“What would some of my Democratic colleagues say if the DeVos family decided to fund elections in Michigan? I think we have to ask that question. That being said, I believe the Legislature did not adequately fund our 2020 election.”
Clerks told Bridge the CTCL nonprofit didn’t play favorites, and awarded them the exact funding they requested and gave them broad latitude to spend it.
“They basically just expressed their interest in helping clerks administer the elections to the best of their ability, and to provide the funding that we would need during that difficult time,” said Macomb Township Clerk Kristi Pozzi, a Republican who told Bridge she got nearly $75,000 in grant funding from the group.
CTCL has disclosed a full list of local governments that received grants, but it has not been fully transparent: The group has not revealed specific amounts it awarded to each community.
CTCL did not provide additional data requested by Bridge, but it has promised additional disclosures in tax filings due next year.
Through interviews with local officials, public records, court documents and press releases, Bridge was able to confirm grant amounts for roughly 50 Michigan municipalities.
Of those, the largest awards went to bigger cities won by Democratic President Joe Biden: Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Muskegon, Ann Arbor, Pontiac, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
But hundreds of other communities received grants of at least $5,000, the minimum provided by the group, including many areas dominated by Trump.
In Missaukee County, which is the most reliably Republican county in the state, four townships applied for and received grants. In Osceola and Sanilac counties, each of which Trump won with 72 percent of the vote, 13 municipalities got funding. Among counties that applied for funding, Trump won 7 of 13.
Tiny Winterfield Township, a rural and conservative community in Clare County, was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the grant program on a per capita basis.
Its $5,000 grant equated to about $12 for each of the township’s 403 registered voters, topping the $8 sent to Pontiac for each of its 48,236 registered voters.
Winterfield, where 70 percent of voters backed Trump, used the money to buy two absentee ballot drop boxes with video surveillance systems, a new option voters seemed “to really appreciate,” GOP Clerk Bonnie Blackledge told Bridge.
“In a little community like ours, it was like Christmas time,” she said.
From Ada to Zeeland
In state and federal lawsuits filed last fall, conservative activists unsuccessfully sought to block the grants, alleging Benson, the Democratic Secretary of State, allowed “partisan operatives” to dole out money in liberal cities.
Attorney Thor Hearne, who would later represent Trump in a failed attempt to overturn the Michigan election, demanded clerks pay the money back.
In a recently dismissed suit, attorney Matthew DePerno falsely claimed CTCL “selectively pays money to only those Michigan election jurisdictions with a documented history of casting ballots for Democrat candidates.”
Such claims are “fabricated,” according to CTCL attorneys, who told the Michigan Supreme Court the nonprofit provided grants “on a non-discriminatory, nonpartisan basis to any bona fide local election office anywhere in the country that chose to apply.”
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney, a GOP nominee, dismissed a lawsuit over CTCL grants awarded last year to Lansing and Flint, ruling the case is moot because the "election is over." Courts cannot block future grants based on "speculation" that CTCL will offer them again, he said.
The Senate GOP legislation would prohibit state and local governments from accepting outside funding for any "election related activity” in 2022 or beyond.
The Senate Elections Committee has debated but not yet voted on the bill, which is supported by top Republicans on the panel.
“In the past, groups would certainly do voter registration drives and get-out-vote, but to actually spend money to help local clerks put on the election is new territory and a somewhat troubling issue for many of us,” said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.
Benson's office opposes the bill, which does not have any apparent benefit for election officials or voters, said legislative liaison Adam Reames.
The grants were "not targeted towards certain kinds of jurisdictions or jurisdictions that go one way or the other politically,” Reames told lawmakers in committee.
“They literally covered Ada to Zeeland in Michigan."
Editor's note: This story was updated at 2:16 p.m. June 7 to reflect the dismissal of lawsuits related to grants in Flint and Detroit.
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