The Problem: During the 2020 presidential election a private group awarded grants to some municipalities in Wisconsin for the administration of the election, supposedly to offset the difficulty of administering an election during a pandemic. The City of Green Bay, for example, was given two separate grants totaling over $1 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a private group that used over $300 million in donations from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife to fund the grants. The City of Green Bay used the funds not only to administer the election but also to contract with a private entity for “voter outreach” efforts for the election.
The CTCL handed out grants across the country for the 2020 presidential election, raising questions from even members of the media about the advisability of private groups funding election administration. As the Associated Press pointed out in June of 2020, “The direct infusion of millions of dollars marks a new level in private funding for a core public responsibility. The cash comes with a new set of questions about donor transparency, motivations, and the influence of groups and figures that are not democratically accountable.”
CTCL gave a total of $10 million to Wisconsin cities for the 2020 presidential election, the vast majority of which went to Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. The distribution of more than 86% of The CTCL grants to Democratic strongholds in Wisconsin caused widespread concern about the purpose of the grants. A statistical analysis done by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty in 2021 found that those municipalities and cities that received the CTCL grants did indeed see a statistically significant increase in voter turnout for the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election.
The Solution: Private grants to public entities have been around for a while but the private funding of the administration of an election to the level seen in 2020 is new territory that needs to be addressed legislatively. In 2021, Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature, led by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-20) and Rep. Adam Neylon (R-98), passed a bill that generally bans the use of private resources by counties and municipalities for election administration. The bill also limits the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) from using private grants unless the money is distributed across all municipalities on a per capita basis and the Joint Committee on Finance approves. In addition, the bill prohibits counties and municipalities from entering into contracts with private entities that require the county or municipality to cede any of its election administration powers or duties for election administration to that contracting entity. Employees of a committee, a political organization or issue advocacy group are also prohibited from being appointed as election officials, addressing an issue that came up in Green Bay during the administration of the presidential election. Governor Evers vetoed the bill in its entirety. The matter is ripe to be taken up again when a Republican governor takes office.