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Photo: USA Today Network

‘Alarm bells’ beyond Green Bay

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A former Democratic operative at the center of Green Bay’s election scandal offered his election “help” to a suburban Milwaukee city, according to new emails obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight.

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin State lead for the National Vote at Home Institute sent an email to Brookfield City Clerk Kelly Michaels on Sept. 21 with the subject line, “Can we help Brookfield?” Apparently Spitzer-Rubenstein wasn’t busy enough “helping” the city of Green Bay and Milwaukee with election administration services legal experts say he had no business performing.

Brookfield City Hall The activist wrote that he had seen an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about how long it would take Brookfield elections officials to count absentee ballots.

“Can I offer the assistance of the National Vote at Home Institute to assist,” Spitzer-Rubenstein solicited.

He went on to tell Michaels that his group provides “free technical assistance” to cities and counties with absentee ballot operational planning as well as communications support for city clerks offices.

Spitzer-Rubenstein said his group has “funding available” to support the city clerk’s efforts.

Indeed they did.

The National Vote at Home Institute, is one of several private, left-leaning groups, funded largely by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Spitzer-Rubenstein, with an impressive political resume working for Democratic politicians and campaigns, had significant influence over the administration of the presidential election in Green Bay and, it appears, in Milwaukee.

The Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from Zuckerberg and his wife, money they pumped out in big grants to to cities in the name of “secure elections.”

CTCL handed out $6.3 million in grants to Wisconsin’s five largest and most left-leaning cities  — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. The money was ostensibly to be used to “protect American elections” and to “bolster democracy during the pandemic.”

But emails, contracts and other documents show the left-leaning group was intricately and, elections experts say, illegally involved in Green Bay’s and Milwaukee’s elections operations. Spitzer-Rubenstein played the part of the point man.

He bragged to Michaels about his involvement.

“Currently, we’re working with Milwaukee, Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, and Wauwatosa on planning poll worker needs and responsibilities, identifying and resolving potential bottlenecks, communications, and other issues,” he wrote.

He wanted just a few minutes of the Brookfield clerk’s time. He was “eager to explore” how the Vote at Home Institute could support Michaels’ work in Brookfield.

Michaels wasn’t interested in the group’s “assistance” then, and she wasn’t interested the other three times Spitzer-Rubenstein reached out with offers.

“My answer was that I didn’t need their help. I’m a 30-year veteran of elections,” the city clerk said, adding that “alarm bells went off in my head” in talking with the election activist.

Spitzer-Rubenstein asked Michaels if she knew of any other clerks that needed help.

‘Behavioral science insights’ 

Spitzer-Rubenstein first made contact with the clerk in an August 21 email. 

“You may have heard from Hillary Hall, our Senior Advisor for State and Local Election Officials but I wanted to personally reach out to you about how we can help Brookfield in this election,” Spitzer-Rubenstein wrote. He asked for 30 minutes of Michaels’ time.

He really wanted to talk about his group’s Communications Tookkit, a “groundbreaking resource” that uses “behavioral science insights from our partners at ideas42 to help you connect with communities and get voters the information they need about voting in November.”

If you’re scoring along at home, ideas42 is yet another left-leaning group that partners with “foundations, non-profits, government agencies, and socially-minded companies … using behavioral science to improve tens of millions of lives around the world.” One of its advisory board members is Michael Barr, nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress (which has “strong ties to the Democratic Party). Barr was a member of the Biden-Harris transition team. It was a natural fit. He also served as assistant secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury during the Obama Administration, and was a special advisor to President Bill Clinton.

Spitzer-Rubenstein, like other election activists in the Zuckerberg-funded network, sympathized with the difficulties facing clerks offices.

“We know it’s tough for cash-strapped election offices to build out a comprehensive communications plan, design compelling visuals and develop messaging documents. That’s why our toolkit does all of that for you!” he wrote.

The toolkit, the activist wrote, includes a templated communications plan for election offices that’s “cohesive, strategic, and customizable.” And it comes with “inviting visuals in a variety of sizes,” good for social media, print ads, fliers posters “or whatever is needed!”

“I know you already had to deal with poll worker shortages and delayed ballots in the primaries. Now, you’re probably preparing for a massive increase in mail-in absentee ballots. The National Vote at Home Institute has your back. The Communications Toolkit is just one of the many resources we can offer you,” Spitzer-Rubenstein wrote.

He sent a follow-up email on Sept. 8, inviting Michaels to attend a demo of the “operations tools” for elections officials. Spitzer-Rubenstein said it would be a great introduction on estimating election inspector needs, polling place wait times, and more.

And then he offered cash.

“In addition, if you discover that you need additional resources, we have funding available, both from ourselves, and the Center for Tech and Civic Life (thanks to Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg). We can also connect you to partners like Power the Polls if you need to recruit poll workers or facilities,” the activist wrote.

No strings attached?

It all sounds very helpful. But, as emails show in Green Bay, Spitzer-Rubenstein and others, with the approval of Mayor Eric Genrich’s office, took over many facets of the city’s election administration. Spitzer-Rubenstein offered to correct or “cure” absentee ballots, a service that would seem to defy the concept of fair and transparent elections.

He also was given access to the boxes of absentee ballots transported to Green Bay’s Central Count location.

While the Center for Tech and Civic Life eventually issued grants to smaller communities, it didn’t do so until it got pressure from conservative groups saying its grants process may be breaking the law.

Michaels said she had applied for one of the grants previously but didn’t hear anything back. Then an official with the Republican Party made calls to the Zuckerberg-funded groups asking why it wasn’t providing funding to small communities, why the money was only going to Wisconsin’s largest Democratic strongholds. Not long after, CTCL broadened its grants process.

Michaels said she tried again. Brookfield promptly received $14,000. The city used the funding for a surveillance camera at Brookfield’s absentee ballot dropbox. It was free money for sure, but a pittance of the $2.15 million that neighbor Milwaukee received.

At least it came with no strings attached.

“We wouldn’t have taken it with strings,” the clerk said.

She said she could understand why the mayor of Green Bay was so enthusiastic about pursuing the $1.6 million in CTCL funding it received. She also said she could see where the money and its conditions would influence the city to lean more heavily on the third-party elections “experts” and push the city’s clerk aside. Especially a clerk who raised concerns and spoke out against the meddling from Spitzer-Rubenstein and other city officials. That’s what happened in Green Bay, and Clerk Kris Teske eventually quit.

Michaels said Green Bay’s election scandal raises red flags about big money third-party groups involved in elections.

“The fact that this is going on, our legislators need to pursue whatever they can do to not allow that to happen again,” the clerk said.

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