Something unprecedented happened in Michigan’s last election.
Local election clerks received millions in private funding to help pay for it.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, through their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative charitable foundation and by way of a Chicago-based nonprofit named the Center for Technology and Civic Life, contributed $400 million nationwide for election operations in 2020 with the stated goal of promoting safe and reliable voting.
The receipt of nonprofit grant money by local clerks to spend on elections is uncharted territory in Michigan.
“I think that’s why the courts are looking at this,” said Genesee County Clerk and Register of Deeds John J. Gleason, whose office didn’t apply for the grant he described as “mysterious,” “haphazard” and lacking oversight. “This could turn into (something) like the Asian carp.
“You let a few things slide and pretty soon, you’ve got a problem you can’t control.”
Exactly how much money came to Michigan is unclear, since the Center for Tech and Civic Life hasn’t released a full accounting of the grants provided to local Michigan governments and state-level officials don’t track or supervise the awards.
The private funding of local elections has given way to conspiracy theories and lawsuits, including a federal case still pending in Michigan and another in the state Court of Claims.
The lawsuits allege the private grants disproportionately benefitted high-population, left-leaning communities in violation of federal or state election law. Similar lawsuits have been dismissed in Michigan and other states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Legal attempts to block funding prior to the election failed across the board, but U.S. District Judge William C. Griesbach did acknowledge as he dismissed one lawsuit that “receipt of private funds for public elections may give an appearance of impropriety” and “may merit a legislative response.”
While many local and county clerks praised the grant money for helping them conduct safe, accurate and accessible elections during a pandemic with record levels of absentee voting, some question whether private funding of such a democratically sacred function taints the process.
It may be left to Michigan courts to decide.
MLive reached out to numerous state representatives and senators by phone and email to ask about whether private money in election operations is an issue being discussed in Lansing, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Republican Speaker of the House Rep. Jason Wentworth, Senate Elections Committee Chair and former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, all Senate Elections Committee members and the most recent House Elections and Ethics Committee chair.
In response to the contentious 2020 presidential election that sparked numerous fabricated or unproven allegations of voter fraud, legislators in several states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas, New Hampshire, Missouri, Mississippi and Georgia, are considering tighter election rules, many related to absentee ballot access.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is calling the election the most successful and secure in history and doubling down on her decision to issue absentee ballot applications to every registered voter each election cycle. She’d like that to become the norm.
What few election overseers are discussing is the millions of dollars in corporate-linked private money that helped facilitate the administration of elections nationwide.
Elections are regularly influenced by private capital via campaign fundraising or political action committees. It’s the general norm; but the injection of cash into the administration of local elections is entirely new and has received little scrutiny from state officials.
While the total amount of the private grants is unknown, it was significant. Based on information provided by clerks who confirmed grant amounts with MLive and figures verified in public records, Detroit received $3.5 million; Wayne County, 432,620; Pontiac $405,000; Flint, $475,625; Lansing, $488,000; Ann Arbor, $417,000; Muskegon, $435,000, and the list goes on.
The amount distributed among 19 municipalities where grant amounts were confirmed totaled $7.6 million.
Several clerks said they received so much money, they haven’t yet found ways to spend it all. Pontiac, for instance, received a grant that more than doubled its prior election budget. The city has $164,000 left over and is now requesting permission to use the funds for upcoming election costs this year, Interim Clerk Garland Doyle said.
Michigan received 474 Tech and Civic Life grants, far more than any other state in the nation, according to the recipient list on the nonprofit’s website. The state with the next highest number of awardees was Massachusetts with 266. Nearly 2,500 grants were issued nationwide, which means nearly 20% of all grants made their way to Michigan.
The awards ranged from a minimum of $5,000 to amounts frequently in the hundreds of thousands, and even millions for Detroit.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life didn’t respond to requests for a full list of Michigan award amounts.
“In most states, elections are run at the county level,” the Center for Tech and Civic Life press office told MLive in response to questions about why the proportion of grants to Michigan was so large. “States like Michigan, on the other hand, administer most election duties at the city and township levels, increasing the number of election jurisdictions.”
Michigan has more than 1,700 cities, townships and villages. The nonprofit decided to issue the grants directly to local election offices, rather than the agencies that oversee them, such as the Secretary of State’s (SOS) Office and Bureau of Elections in Michigan.
The money paid for apolitical needs: safety equipment, ballot drop boxes, surveillance cameras to watch drop boxes, high-speed absentee ballot tabulators, absentee ballot prepaid postage and mailing costs and voter outreach, but mostly for temporary staff, poll workers, recruiting, training and hazard pay, according to election clerks who spoke with MLive.
Among those who accepted grants and responded to questions, all but one clerk said they had no reservations about accepting the money, because of the stated intent, the deep need, the flexible guidelines and because they were encouraged to apply by the state Bureau of Elections.
“I just didn’t feel good about it,” said Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, who’s a Democrat and the only exception. “There was a lawsuit going on about it in Michigan and I knew there were lawsuits in other states. I thought, ‘Why would we dip our toe in that pool?’”
But Oakland County did dip its toe in, after all, with support from other local officials. Board of Commissioners Chair David Woodward oversaw the application for a grant on the day of the deadline, earning the county a $160,000 award. He said he didn’t want to leave any money on the table.
The grant applications contained few questions and allowed municipalities to spend the money as they wished on a wide variety of election-related needs.
Processing was quick and haggle free, clerks said. Nearly every clerk MLive spoke to said they received the entirety of the funds they requested. One exception occurred in Grand Traverse County, where Chief Deputy Clerk Samuel Gedman said his office requested $15,000 and only received $10,600.
Romulus Clerk Ellen Bragg, on the other hand, was surprised to see her grant was about $11,000 more than the $5,000 she requested.
The spending choices varied greatly.
Hamtramck bought sneeze guards for $1,298; Muskegon spent $20,000 on a trailer to deliver absentee ballots to neighborhoods and $50,000 on a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign; Pontiac spent $100,000 on hazard pay, poll workers and temporary staff for the office to extend its hours; Oakland County spent over $120,000 on a marketing campaign with mailers, digital billboards, online and radio spots focused on educating voters and recruiting poll workers; Flint spent $100,000 on a high-speed absentee ballot counting machine; and Lansing spent $53,000 on ballot dropboxes and surveillance cameras.
“I think in the theoretical sense, if you took money that had a lot of preconditions on spending, if you were told where to place drop boxes, to do certain things or mobilize certain people” it could be problematic, said Gedman.
“In this case, there was nothing like that. They’re a real civic-minded organization.”
The Facebook connection
Gleason, the Genesee County Clerk, has a different philosophy.
“A penny in politics is not nonpartisan,” he said. “There’s a cost. There’s a reason why governments run elections, and there’s a reason now why we have these insurgents on our hands.”
No matter how apolitical nonprofit donations seem, Gleason said there is always going to be a partisan observer who feels otherwise.
“That’s why you have those Republican operatives chasing Flint right now,” he said, referencing a federal lawsuit filed by a conservative-leaning group, the Election Integrity Fund, against Flint and Lansing, challenging the legality of their Tech and Civic Life grants.
“We have privatized our elections with big tech, and big tech turned out the vote in Democrat areas,” former Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline, a Republican who headed an investigation into the Tech and Civic Life election donations, said in December.
Kline, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, was one of the most vocal critics of the Tech and Civic Life grants. His investigation by an effort named the Amistad Project, commissioned by the conservative Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm, participated in numerous post-election lawsuits based on unfounded or since-disproven allegations of voter fraud.
Kline coined the word “Zucker-box,” a snide reference to ballot dropboxes that clerks across the state began purchasing in part with grant funds originating from Zuckerberg and Chan.
He argued there was an effort to make voting more accessible, but only in places where Democrats were plentiful.
The grants were distributed across the state, in both Republican and Democrat-leaning communities, but it’s impossible to perform a full analysis to determine the validity of Kline’s claim, since the Center for Tech and Civic Life is only releasing limited data.
“Your election office will be eligible to apply for a grant amount based on a formula that considers the citizen voting age, population and other demographic data of your jurisdiction,” the Center for Tech and Civic Life website said. The “formula” is not public knowledge.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life in August originally announced a plan to provide grants to rural communities, but expanded its reach to urban areas with an influx of funds from Zuckerberg and Chan.
Kline and other opponents are correct in their claims that a significant portion of grant spending went toward absentee ballot dropboxes, but it wasn’t the largest expenditure.
“We used a pretty big chunk (of the Tech and Civic Life grant) for ballot dropboxes, including having monitoring cameras installed at several locations,” Lansing Clerk Chris Swope said.
Lansing bought 12 dropboxes with private grant funds; Pontiac, 7; Ann Arbor, 5; Flint, 2; and Muskegon, 2.
In a list of 11 election costs communities told the Center for Tech and Civic Life they planned to spend the money on, dropboxes landed seventh. The largest expected expenditures were mailing costs, absentee ballot processing equipment and temporary workers.
As part of an unresolved, election-related lawsuit in Antrim County, Michigan Circuit Judge Kevin A. Elsenheimer recently ordered Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to turn over spending records related to her office’s purchase of dropboxes, as well as communications with Tech and Civic Life, Facebook and other tech giants, including Apple, Amazon, and Google. Whether there have been communications between the SOS and Facebook and other companies remains unclear.
Ryan Jarvi, a spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, said the records were being submitted, but “it is not the practice of the Attorney General’s Office to disclose discovery materials in pending litigation.”
MLive filed a Freedom of Information Act request for public records related to case.
“Mark Zuckerberg is providing nearly as much money to this year’s election administration as the federal government,” Kline said in October after his and other organizations began filing unsuccessful lawsuits to bar the grant money. “The American people have a right to know what has driven him to take this extraordinary action, and where all the money is going.”
While Zuckerberg hasn’t publicly disclosed a political affiliation and the Center for Tech and Civic Life identifies as nonpartisan, Kline’s Amistad Project has drawn its own conclusions.
“Though they profess to be nonpartisan in their management of Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Zuckerberg funds, Center for Tech and Civic Life’s three leaders – Tiana Epps-Johnson, Whitney May, and Donny Bridges – all worked for a stridently progressive organization, the New Organizing Institute, before joining Center for Tech and Civic Life,” read an Oct. 28 press release issued by the group.
Gleason said, true or not, such accusations are to be expected when private money is involved. He also referenced widespread perceptions that political bias led to Facebook and other social media platforms freezing former President Donald Trump’s accounts and blocking certain content deemed to be false or unsubstantiated.
“I’m a Democrat,” Gleason said. “And if (conservative media mogul Rupert) Murdoch tried to give that money out to counties, can you imagine the uproar?
“Can you imagine what Flint, Michigan would say if Murdoch — if the boys at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal wrote million-dollar checks to Kent County, Macomb County and said run elections?”
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