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'Zuck Bucks 2.0': Report warns of dark money groups influencing local election offices

1/23/2023 Repost from The Washington Examiner

by Cami Mondeaux, Breaking News Reporter | January 19, 2023 12:00 PM

EXCLUSIVE — A report from the Honest Elections Project is warning of a new $80 million initiative designed to influence election administration in local election offices and push for “progressive” voting policies.

The report details efforts by the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence to target local officials by offering grants in exchange for in-kind contributions, such as internal information on how individual offices operate and carry out elections. By obtaining this information, the organization can push for an “improvement plan” that changes how election workers carry out their duties.

“The Alliance claims to be nonpartisan and intended only to ‘bring together’ elections officials ‘around a set of common values and standards,’” the report states, according to a copy obtained by the Washington Examiner. "However, documents revealed by the Honest Elections Project — and reviewed by the John Locke Foundation — show that the Alliance is actually designed to systematically influence every aspect of election administration in target offices and push progressive voting policies.”

The Alliance for Election Excellence describes itself as a nonpartisan group that collaborates with poll workers, designers, technologists, and other officials to streamline election administration in certain jurisdictions. In the group’s membership agreement, it pledges “total” commitment to nonpartisanship and to “never attempt to influence the outcome of any election. Period.”

The group is headed by the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, which came under fire during the 2020 election after distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to local election offices.

The center distributed more than $350 million to nearly 2,500 election departments during the 2020 election, with a majority of that sum being donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Much of that money went toward paying for new ballot tabulation machines, poll worker training, and other resources.

The “Zuckerbucks” prompted widespread scrutiny from GOP lawmakers, who claimed the funds were being used to benefit Democrats and ensure President Joe Biden’s victory. As a result, 24 Republican-led states banned the practice of allowing private donations to election offices. However, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed such a measure in 2021.

“What we're looking at pretty plainly is Zuck Bucks 2.0,” Jason Snead, executive director of Honest Elections Project, told the Washington Examiner. "It's an attempt to burrow into the very core of election offices and influence the way that they think and operate at a very granular level."

Shortly after the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence debuted in November, the group only selected offices located in states without private funding limits to join its first cohort, including Brunswick and Forsyth counties in North Carolina, according to Honest Elections Project’s report. At the same time, the group announced it would begin charging membership fees for additional offices that wanted to join.

As part of its rollout, the Alliance for Election Excellence responded to several of the concerns that arose in 2020 and pledged not to involve itself directly with election administration. Part of this commitment includes promises not to give legal advice, touch live ballot tabulation machines, or require groups to implement the Alliance for Election Excellence’s recommendations.

However, internal communications show that some of the resources made available to Alliance for Election Excellence members include “center-specific coaching and consulting from select Alliance partners” on legal and political issues, according to the membership agreement.

Additionally, the Alliance for Election Excellence offers “scholarships” that would cover membership costs, which are then converted into credits that can be used to obtain these counseling services, according to communications between the Alliance for Election Excellence and officials in Brunswick and Forsyth counties. This method of using credits can only be used to obtain services from the Center for Tech and Civic Life or other groups aligned with the center.

This has prompted concern among conservative groups as internal documents also show that several members are backed by liberal dark money groups, such as the Democracy Fund headed by eBay Chairman Pierre Omidyar and the New Venture Fund led by Arabella Advisors, according to the Honest Elections Project.

“As a result, offices receive access to funds they can spend exclusively on services provided by left-wing companies and nonprofits, entirely outside normal public funding channels” that makes it difficult for outside groups to know exactly what services are being offered, Honest Elections Project wrote in its report.

Once members are accepted, they are then required to work with the Alliance for Election Excellence to develop an “improvement plan” for their offices, which entails turning over internal information about how their workers function. From there, the Alliance for Election Excellence can begin to offer recommendations for how to streamline election administration.

“The Alliance is getting access to data, access to operations, and then they're using that to create ‘improvement plans’ that will reshape these offices in potentially fundamental ways,” Snead said. “And they’re burrowing into all of the nooks and crannies of election administration and offering them guidance, support, and so-called best practices, which, if you look again, at the background of these groups, is always going to skew to the Left."

Election offices are not required to implement Alliance for Election Excellence’s recommendations. However, many of the suggestions that are offered push “progressive” policies, such as federal election funding or mail-in ballots, prompting concern among some local election officials who received membership materials from the Alliance for Election Excellence.

In one instance, a Republican member of the local board of elections in Brunswick voiced concerns to Board Director Sara LaVere that the Center for Tech and Civic Life does not represent “what Brunswick is all about.”

“I ask you to be aware of what they bring to the table,” a Republican poll worker wrote in an email to LaVere and the Brunswick Republican Party on Nov. 30, 2022. “Changes they may recommend may not be in our best interests. The county system is transparent and appears to run fairly … I am very interested in our election processes. Please take a look at [the Center for Tech and Civic Life].”

That email exchange was the third concern the board of elections had received about the Alliance for Election Excellence, according to communications between the county GOP and LaVere.

However, LaVere defended the group in an email by using talking points given by it to rebut concerns and criticism. She then pointed to several materials templated by the Center for Tech and Civic Life that the county has already used in previous elections.

“Remember the pocket voter guide we introduced in the primary election? The template was created by the Center for Civic Design with assistance from the Center for Tech and Civic Life,” LaVere wrote in a response email. “The two election columns I published for this election? Those were written with assistance from the Elections Group. Most of my social media posts during the general election came from templates provided by the Elections Group.”

In response to its findings, the Honest Elections Project is now calling on local lawmakers to increase efforts nationwide to ban private election funding and to implement rigorous reporting requirements to ensure transparency.

“As the Alliance expands, we want to make sure that offices that are being lobbied to join understand what they're getting involved in,” Snead said. “We also want to make sure that the public understands because it is crucial that they be able to trust their election system. Election administration should be neutral, it should be nonpartisan, it should be totally transparent, and ultimately accountable to the public."

The Washington Examiner reached out to the Alliance for Election Excellence for comment but did not receive a response.


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