Private donors led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pumped more than $400 million into administering the 2020 presidential election, money that was often funneled by Democratic operatives into Democratic districts in what became essentially a get-out-the-vote effort for Joseph R. Biden.
The total amount of private donations for carrying out the 2020 election exceeded the federal government’s entire allocation for election spending that year.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission was responsible for administering the $400 million in “election security grants” that Congress approved in 2020 to help local officials administer the election during a pandemic.
The private funds were distributed on an unprecedented scale to voting districts across the country by nonprofit groups staffed by former Democratic operatives who sought the help of left-leaning government officials.
These groups funneled much of the money to cities and counties rich in Democratic voters for purposes that appear less centered on voter safety and more focused on increasing turnout among certain groups.
The federal government, outspent by private donors, has no control over the money or the ability to track how it is spent.
“We don’t really have a comment on the private funding that’s been out there because we have no say in it,” Thomas Hicks, chairman of the four-member Election Assistance Commission, told The Washington Times. “It’s put out there, and we don’t have any accountability for it. When we distribute money, there’s a report that comes back, and we report that back to Congress. So we know where every dollar is being spent. But we don’t have the authority or the ability to track that private funding.”
The scheme would have outraged Democrats if the political tables were turned.
“Imagine if a conservative billionaire known for funding right-leaning causes gave $400 million to a set of nonprofits founded by Republican Party operatives, and that money went more heavily to red counties than blue, in the last presidential election,” said Hayden Ludwig, a senior investigative researcher at the Capital Research Center, a conservative watchdog group examining private election funding in 2020.
The billionaire who pumped $400 million into the 2020 election was Mr. Zuckerberg, who gives frequently and generously to center-left causes. Additional funding sent to election offices, roughly $25 million, came from anonymous donors.
Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, cited “the unprecedented challenges of Covid 19” when they donated $328 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) and $69.5 million to the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR). Both are nonprofit organizations.
The couple said the donations would “provide local and state officials across the country with the resources, training and infrastructure necessary to ensure that every voter who intends to cast a ballot is able to, and ultimately preserve the integrity of our elections.”
Although the two nonprofits are officially nonpartisan, they are staffed with former Democratic operatives who have dedicated their careers to liberal causes, including getting Democratic voters to the polls.
The CTCL is led by three people who recently provided digital training to Democratic organizers and worked to recruit thousands of liberal candidates to run for local office through the now-defunct New Organizing Institute.
Tiana Epps-Johnson, a former Obama Foundation fellow, and Whitney May and Donny Bridges also founded the CTCL. They operated out of the same Chicago address as their former organization, the New Organizing Institute, which dissolved in 2015.
The center operated with a budget of about $3 million until it was suddenly infused with a staggering $350 million in the second half of 2020, most of it from Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan.
The CTCL was tasked with delivering the money via grants to election offices nationwide.
The second group funded by Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan, CEIR, is run by David Becker, a former Justice Department lawyer in the civil rights division who helped enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Becker previously worked on elections and voting issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a center-left philanthropy. He also led litigation efforts against Republican-led states over voter ID laws and redistricting for the liberal People for the American Way.
The CTCL partnered with the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, The Voter Project, the National Vote at Home Institute, The Elections Group and other left-leaning organizations to help distribute and administer the massive sum from the Zuckerbergs and other donors to key election offices.
The associated groups were staffed with liberal operatives who had worked to help elect Democratic candidates or pushed liberal causes such as automatic voter registration and mail-in voting. Analysts determined that such programs boosted Democratic votes in 2020.
These outside groups reached out to politically friendly government officials who played prominent roles in distributing the grants in Democratic-leaning districts. Critics said it became a massive and partisan get-out-the-vote effort for mail-in and absentee voting.
“They are Democratic Party operatives, even if they are not paid by the DNC,” said Bill Doyle, an economist and principal researcher at the Caesar Rodney Election Institute in Irving, Texas. “I don’t know how you can look at their resumes and conclude that these people are nonpartisan ‘techies’ or disinterested get-out-the-vote people. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
After months of backlash from Republican lawmakers, conservative groups and other critics of the private funding scheme, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan announced last week that they would no longer provide donations to fund election operations. Several states have moved to ban “Zuckbucks.”
Brian Baker, a spokesman for Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan, defended the donations. He pointed out that the money was distributed to 2,500 municipalities and anyone who sought a grant received one.
An analysis by conservative-leaning research groups found that Biden-heavy districts received far more money than municipalities favoring Donald Trump.
The Capital Research Center found that Georgia counties won by Mr. Trump averaged $1.41 per capita in private grant funding while counties won by Mr. Biden averaged $5.33 per capita — nearly four times as much.
Private funding in Pennsylvania provided $0.60 per person in Trump counties compared with $2.85 per person in Biden-won counties.
In Wisconsin, a swing state that helped tip the election to Mr. Biden, lawsuits and public records requests have yielded a trove of emails and other communications that show how extensively the CTCL and associated groups infiltrated local election offices.
Green Bay received an initial $1.09 million from the CTCL. Outside groups affiliated with the center embedded operatives in election offices and pushed to access voter information, absentee ballot design, placement of drop boxes, ballot “curing” and other election administration activities normally limited to city staff, according to a report produced by Wisconsin special counsel Michael Gableman at the behest of state Republican lawmakers.
The center used Vicky Selkowe, manager of strategic initiatives and community partnerships for the city of Racine, as a point person to invite four other major cities in Wisconsin — Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison and Kenosha — to apply for the Zuckerberg grants. The grants came with conditions mandating how the money would be spent.
Ms. Selkowe played an instrumental role in enlisting all five cities to accept massive and conditional grants from CTCL.
Her social media posts show a significant partisan interest in the election. She advocated publicly and passionately for the defeat of President Trump. She enthusiastically backed Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren before throwing her support behind the Biden-Harris ticket.
In February 2020, she tweeted, “Who would best be able to completely demolish Trump?”
She later tweeted, “My rage for all who voted for Trump is boundless.”
Ms. Selkowe regularly amended her Twitter posts with the hashtags #StopTrump, #JoeBidenForPresident, #VoteBlueToEndTheNightmare, #VoteBlue and #FliptheVote.
Ms. Seklowe coordinated the development of a “safe voting plan” for the five Wisconsin cities at the request of CTCL. It called for “conducting the necessary voter outreach and education to promote absentee voting and encourage higher percentages of our electors to vote absentee.”
Officials in the five cities committed to “be intentional and strategic in reaching our historically disenfranchised residents and communities, and above all, ensure the right to vote in our dense and diverse communities.”
The cities are the most populated areas of the state and solid blue voting districts where bolstering Democratic turnout would add thousands of votes to Mr. Biden’s tally in Wisconsin. Mr. Biden won the state by fewer than 12,000 votes.
Green Bay spent some of the grant money on “bilingual vote navigators,” who provided unprecedented, concierge-level service to help certain groups of voters “properly upload valid voter IDs, complete their ballots, comply with certification requirements, and offer witness signatures.” The same “vote navigators,” the plan stipulated, would then be trained and used as “election inspectors.”
The CTCL enlisted the help of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for implementing a vote-by-mail system, a long-held goal of the Democratic Party.
The organization identifies as nonpartisan but partners with left-leaning groups, including Common Cause and Democracy Fund.
Voting by mail has long been viewed as an advantage for Democrats, although some say the data is inconclusive.
Tom Bonier, an analyst with the Democratic market research firm TargetSmart in Washington, told The Guardian in December 2020 that the increase in mail-in ballots in the presidential election was “crucially and critically important to Biden’s win.” He concluded, “There’s absolutely no way we would have hit these record levels of voter turnout, nationally, without this massive adoption of mail voting.”
Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein helped facilitate those results as the “Wisconsin lead” for the National Vote at Home Institute.
He is a former Democratic strategist who worked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and went on to advise the campaigns of other Democrats, including Charles B. Rangel of New York.
As a grant adviser in Green Bay, Mr. Spitzer-Rubenstein embedded with government officials to administer CTCL’s $1.09 million grant to the city’s election office. His demands to city officials, including an attempt to help “cure” rejected ballots that were returned with missing information, led to a battle with Green Bay City Clerk Kris Teske.
Ms. Teske resigned in December 2020 after complaining that Mr. Spitzer-Rubenstein improperly infiltrated the election administration office.
“I am not comfortable having him in the office,” Ms. Teske wrote to a supervisor in August, court records show. “People are saying they are a partisan group, we don’t think it looks good.”
Mr. Spitzer-Rubenstein also sought to help the outside groups embed with election officials in Milwaukee, a heavily Democratic city that received a $2.15 million CTCL grant.
Mr. Spitzer-Rubenstein, according to emails, sought to obtain reams of data on Milwaukee’s absentee ballots, including ballot return data, the number of returned ballots per ward, the number of outstanding ballots per ward and the number of ballots “rejected/returned to be cured.”
Milwaukee officials rejected some of Mr. Spitzer-Rubenstein’s demands on the basis of database security issues.
The Elections Group, a for-profit organization, served as a “technical partner” for the CTCL in Wisconsin. It helped add satellite voting locations and drop boxes and helped train election officials in the five cities that received the most CTCL funding. The group listed left-leaning organizations as partners in an online posting but has since taken down the page.
The Biden-Harris campaign team cited The Elections Group as a key independent organization “providing critical assistance and advice to local officials confronting the difficulties of administering an election in a pandemic.”
Ryan Chew, the Wisconsin “state lead” for The Elections Group, sent an upbeat email to Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg on Nov. 4, a day after the election, as many cities and counties were still counting votes.
Milwaukee’s count concluded early on Nov. 4, and the heavily Democratic city delivered a landslide win for Mr. Biden.
Mr. Biden beat Mr. Trump by 194,661 votes to 48,414 votes. The city registered a nearly 79% turnout, more than 3% over 2016. Mr. Biden’s win exceeded Hillary Clinton’s 2016 victory in Milwaukee by 6,000 votes, a critical increase that helped bolster the state’s tally for Mr. Biden.
“Damn Claire, you have a flair for drama,” Mr. Chew wrote to Ms. Woodall-Vogg. “Delivering just the margin needed at 3 a.m. I bet you had those votes counted at midnight, and just wanted to keep the world waiting.”