Image: National Conference of State Legislatures, "Prohibiting Private Funding of Elections"
For immediate release:
Feb. 7, 2021: County Commissioners in Ottawa County, Mich., turned down an unrequested private donation of $1.5 million on Jan. 31, 2023. The money, part of a self-described “grant” from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence had the look and feel of a partisan, influence operation. Although the funds were offered to assist the election process in the county, the out-of-state company claimed the monies were part of a larger effort to change the processes of the chain of custody of election day ballots across the United States.
In November, County Clerk Justin Roebuck announced Ottawa County as a finalist in the “Centers for Election Excellence,” an initiative of the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence (Alliance). But then the Alliance released grant information indicating its intent to award significant private grant dollars directly to participating election offices, and Clerk Roebuck walked back his statement.
“We didn't ask for that [money]. Honestly, we were very surprised,” Roebuck said.
“We congratulate Ottawa County for making the correct public policy decision,” said Erick Kaardal, Special Counsel to the Thomas More Society. “The public does not trust privately-financed election administration. The only correct public policy is government-funded, not billionaire-funded, elections.”
The Thomas More Society (TMS), a Chicago-based national public interest law firm, has pioneered the fight against local government contracts that are designed to create systemic bias in elections. TMS provides legal services to Pure Integrity Michigan Elections, a non-profit Michigan organization, and its allies.
“The Alliance claims to be nonpartisan and intended only to ‘bring together’ elections officials around a set of common values and standards,’” Jason Snead, Executive Director for Honest Elections, explained. Instead, documents “show that the Alliance is actually designed to systematically influence every aspect of election administration in target offices and push progressive voting policies.”
Critics warn that private funding to elections offices opens the door for bad actors to exert unfair influence over elections. “It puts out a welcome mat to corruption,” said Patrice Johnson, chair of PIME. “Third world countries are rife with private monies corrupting their elections. We don’t need that here.”
According to the Alliance website, it is part of the Audacious Project, an initiative to inspire and fund global change and influence policy.
Prior to the 2020 election, the Thomas More Society fought biased local government contracts with the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan. As a result, 24 states have banned private money in public administration, and Zuckerberg announced that CTCL would no longer offer the grants.
In its place, however, CTCL provided a five-year, $80 million dollar grant to the 2022-created U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence.
“Mark Zuckerberg and the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) influenced the 2020 election,” according to think tank Capital Research Center, through $325 million awarded to approximately 2,500 election administration offices in 47 states. Michigan received $16.8 million of the so-called “Zuckbucks.”
In 2021, the House and Senate of the Michigan legislature passed Senate Bill 303 on a bipartisan basis to ban private funding to election offices. However, Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) vetoed the bill. In November 2022, voters passed ballot proposal Proposition II. Prop II amended the state’s constitution to allow for private funding, subject to financial disclosure. But the constitutional amendment stipulates, “the county, city, or township shall retain discretion over whether to accept or use any such donations or contributions.”
“TMS provided an expert opinion to the Livingston County Board, which agreed to ban private money in election administration,” Kaardal said. On June 17, 2022, Livingston County, Mich., voted to ban “unregulated monies for funding elections.”
Other counties are considering similar bans.
Although the Alliance’s stated goals, according to its website, are to bring together election officials, designers, technologists and other experts to “envision, support and celebrate excellence in U.S. election administration,” the organization’s ultimate source of funding for its grants has come under fire among political groups.
According to Honest Elections:
Alliance members are also backed by a constellation of liberal dark money groups, including eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund and Arabella Advisors’ New Venture Fund, and are led and staffed by people with deep ties to the Democratic Party and partisan progressive organizations.
“Election administration is critical government infrastructure,” Ottawa Clerk Roebuck said, “and when private individuals seek to fund election operations, it casts a shadow over public trust in the process, particularly when the resources can be tied to individuals or groups who may have also contributed to political parties or candidates.”
Pure Integrity for Michigan Elections, a member of Michigan Fair Elections, started with a handful of concerned citizens in January 2021. Since then, the group has grown to supporters in 50 of Michigan’s 83 counties. PIME works to achieve maximum transparency, checks and balances, ethics, and integrity in election law. In pursuit of its mission to help to restore integrity to Michigan elections, PIME analyzes current bills and laws with an eye toward closing gaps and opportunities for abuse by those who would undermine honest and fair elections. PIME is a peaceful non-profit and nonpartisan political movement that welcomes all who support election integrity and the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to pureintegritymichiganelections.org and sign up for PIME’s free newsletter.
Contact: Alex Weddon, Communications Director
Website: Pure Integrity Michigan Elections https://www.pureintegritymichiganelections.org