MADISON — Defenders of the millions of dollars in “safe election” grants handed out to Wisconsin’s largest cities say scores of other local governments collected checks from the left-leaning Center for Tech and Civic Life, too.
True. But the “Wisconsin 5” — as Democratic strongholds Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine, have been described — appear to have received significantly and disproportionately larger grants than other communities.
22 Times More
Chicago-based CTCL used $350 million in donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife to fund grants to help cities deliver a “safe, inclusive, and secure voting process in 2020 elections.”
The city of Waukesha, with a population of 72,000 people, eventually received a CTCL grant for $42,000, according to elections officials. Racine, slightly larger, got a grant for $9420,000 more — $900,000 more than Waukesha. It was part of $6.9 million in total CTCL grant funding to the five largest cities.
Green Bay, a city of about 104,000 residents, was awarded nearly $1.1 million in the first wave of grants in July. It received another half million dollars in September. The combined $1.6 million in CTCL grants amounted for more than four times Green Bay’s 2020 elections budget.
Why was Waukesha initially left out of the private big money sweepstakes? Why did Racine receive 22 times the amount of grant funding Waukesha did?
Was it because Waukesha is a Republican stronghold in Wisconsin’s conservative WOW Counties? Is it because far left Racine Mayor Cory Mason was integrally involved in writing the proposal that landed his city and the four others the generous election administration assistance?
As a Wisconsin Spotlight investigation uncovered, CTCL required the Wisconsin 5 cities to sign contracts that included funding clawback provisions if they failed to meet CTCL’s demands. Local elections officials had to work with the center’s partner organizations, like the National Vote at Home Institute. Emails show that longtime Democratic operative Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin lead for the institute, was intricately involved in the administration of Green Bay’s and Milwaukee’s elections.
Not big enough
At last week’s Assembly Campaign and Elections Committee hearing, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe was asked why she hadn’t reached out to Waukesha after she was alerted to the many services of Spitzer-Rubenstein.
As emails show, Wolfe quickly responded to Milwaukee elections chief Claire Woodall-Vogg’s communication singing Spitzer-Rubenstein’s praises. Wolfe wanted to know if she could forward Woodall-Vogg’s email to other “large to medium-large jurisdictions.” She subsequently sent the email on to four of the Wisconsin 5 cities.
Why not Waukesha? Waukesha is not as big as Green Bay, the administrator said.
Waukesha County Clerk Meg Wartman noted the disparity in funding between Waukesha and the “Wisconsin 5.”
“Waukesha is almost the same size as Racine, but the city of Racine received ($900,000) more and Waukesha had more registered voters,” Wartman said. “It seems a little selective in how things were doled out.”
Wartman said CTCL didn’t reach out to her office about the grant funding, and neither did the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
‘Pale in comparison’
CTCL says it received grant applications from more than 2,500 local election jurisdictions across the country “to help ensure they have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary so this November every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted.”
The group awarded 217 grants in Wisconsin, according to its website. But CTCL doesn’t include the award amounts in its documents. Those totals will be made public when CTCL files its IRS-required 990 form. That will be a while.
Awards in Wisconsin ranged from less than $5,000 to $2.1 million in Milwaukee, according to the limited public information available.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty is in the process of collecting the information from the local governments that received CTCL funding.
“While it has been pointed out that municipalities around the state received these grants, the amounts to other areas pale in comparison to the amounts received by these cities,” said Will Flanders, Research Director for the Milwaukee-based law firm.
To date, WILL has received records from approximately 150 communities, of which 128 are for $5,000 or less, Flanders said.
“While some locations like Marathon County received grants that equate to about $73 per 1,000 residents, others like Green Bay received grants that equate to more than $10,000 per 1,000 residents,” said Flanders, who is expected to testify today at a committee hearing on election reform legislation on private funding in Wisconsin’s elections.
The city of Brookfield, Wisconsin’s 16th largest city, with a population of 40,000 people, eventually received a CTCL grant of $14,000 — after the group faced criticism for only focusing on the largest municipalities.
Brookfield City Clerk Kelly Michaels told Wisconsin Spotlight she 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 group asking why it wasn’t providing funding to smaller communities. Not long after, CTCL broadened its grants process.
“The grant process itself is a mystery, and I’m using the term ‘grant’ extremely loosely,” said state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), chairwoman of the Assembly Campaign and Elections Committee charged with investigating November’s election.