A new round of private grants to local election offices not only should be investigated but be grounds for legislation, congressional Republicans say.
A total of 24 states banned or restricted taking private money to pay for election operations after the controversy erupted over some $400 million in election grants from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife in 2020.
The new round of non-Zuckerberg election grants, however, were to cities and counties in states that didn’t enact such a ban.
The biggest recipient of Zuckerberg grants in 2020 was the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which leads the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence along with several other organizations–including those sponsored by Arabella Advisors, a dark money group that sets up liberal nonprofits.
Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., co-chairman of the House Election Integrity Caucus, was a lead sponsor of a 2021 bill titled the End Zuckerbucks Act to amend the Internal Revenue Code to prohibit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from directly funding official administration of elections. The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it died.
Tenney linked the continuation of private funding of local election offices with President Joe Biden’s executive order in March 2021 to push federal agencies to promote voter registration and turnout in partnership with private entities.
“This is a concern and it is part of the executive order that allowed some of this to go forward on the so-called Zuckerbucks. The Center for Tech and Civic Life has come back,” Tenney told The Daily Signal during a press conference Thursday. “The Biden administration has actually given power to federal agencies beyond departments of election boards in states to actually engage in vote harvesting and voter registration.”
The Biden administration hasn’t released specifics on what private entities federal agencies are working with on voter turnout, ignoring requests from members of Congress, media outlets, and watchdog groups.
A federal court in Florida held a hearing Thursday in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based watchdog group, regarding how the Justice Department is complying with Biden’s get-out-the-vote executive order.
Tenney said the House Election Integrity Cacucus, which now has more than 60 members, likely will expand.
“More intervention from private entities like the Center for Tech and Civic Life is not going to be good for maintaining election integrity,” Tenney said. “We are going to continue to go forward with the Election Integrity Caucus that I founded with my colleague Mike Garcia from California. We’ve got a number of new members who are interested in joining and always would love to have a Democrat join us, because we think this is an issue that should be bipartisan.”
Congress should investigate the use of private money to run elections, said Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest GOP caucus in the House. Hern said the subject is likely something the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., could probe.
“These are the very kind of things that are really interesting,” Hern told The Daily Signal in an interview. “Whether the grant program is something—whether it’s internal or external—[has] come with a lot of controversy because there really is no legislative oversight.”
“I think this is one of the things we are going to look at from the accountability at OGR [the Oversight and Government Reform Committee] from Congressman Comer, as he’s looking at a lot of these issues out there. We have election integrity issues,” Hern said. “We can’t have this start again, particularly with what we learned about the money put in by Zuckerberg. It caused a lot of consternation after the fact about private money engaged in the election process.”
Other Hosue Republicans, including Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who was among the original co-sponsors with Tenney of the End Zuckerbucks Act, also backed reintroducing that legislation.
Stewart Whitson, legal director for the Foundation for Government Accountability, said his organization identified the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence as “Zuckerbucks 2.0.”
Although Zuckerberg stopped funding the Center for Tech and Civic Life, other private interests now are doing so.
“When they announced this, it looked like they were trying to continue the same scheme in an effort to work around the states that banned Zuckerbucks. They failed,” Whitson told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “We pointed out that even this new scheme would be illegal under state laws.”
Two big questions that congressional investigators should consider are whether it’s appropriate for private institutions to exert influence over how election officials run their system, Hayden Ludwig, senior investigative researcher with the Capital Research Center, a Washington-based investigative think tank, told The Daily Signal.
“After nearly half the states either restricted or banned Zuckerbucks after the CTCL’s last scandal, this is just a repeat of the same scheme,” Hayden Ludwig told The Daily Signal.
“The problem is that this is almost identical to what we saw in the 2020 election when private, tax-exempt nonprofits, taking money from partisan donors, were redirecting the money to public agencies to influence their budgets and internal policies,” Ludwig said.
Last month, Ludwig flagged two organizations in the alliance that are part of the New Venture Fund, a nonprofit funded by the liberal Arabella Advisors.
An announcement from the city of Madison, Wisconsin, which got a $1.5 million alliance election grant, lists both the Center for Secure and Modern Elections and the Institute for Responsive Government as partners in the Alliance for Election Administration. Both organizations are under the umbrella of the New Venture Fund.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life, which fields media inquiries for the Alliance for Election Excellence, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this report from The Daily Signal.
The Alliance for Election Excellence is a five-year, $80 million project. Its largest funder is The Audacious Project, which is financed largely by those connected with the Big Tech sector, including Microsoft and Amazon. Inside Philanthropy described The Audacious Project as “a tech-heavy group of funders that lean liberal in their grantmaking.”
The Alliance for Election Excellence selected 10 jurisdictions to be part of its program for election-related grants and training. Some are in battleground states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, and Nevada, but others are in solidly blue states, including two counties in California, two counties in Illinois, and one city (Greenwich) in Connecticut.
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