Organization Trends

Wisconsin, Drop Boxes, and the Taint of “Zuck Bucks”


Time has only revealed more evidence of serious irregularities in the 2020 election. Millions of Americans are asking important questions about the trustworthiness of our elections—and the corrupting influence of professional partisans in them, starting with Wisconsin.

The Badger State was the first to be targeted by COVID-19 “relief grants” from the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), a sleepy Chicago nonprofit raised to national infamy after Mark Zuckerberg pumped roughly $350 million into the group a few months prior to the 2020 election. Donald Trump won this battleground in 2016 by just over 27,000 votes—a stunning defeat for Hillary Clinton that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign had to reverse to win the presidency in 2020. Biden ultimately took the state by less than 21,000 votes.

In hindsight, the goal of CTCL’s “Zuck bucks” appears simple: use private funds to boost Democratic turnout in vote-rich cities like Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine (collectively known as “the five cities”). Wisconsin was a test case for the rest of the country. If Zuck bucks worked there, they could similarly increase Democratic turnout in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, or any other battleground state essential to a Biden victory.

Here’s a rough timeline of how it worked.

June 2020: The Safe Voting Plan

On June 15, 2020, the five cities submitted a joint proposal—the Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan—to CTCL asking for extra funds to “facilitate voter participation” amid the coronavirus outbreak. By then, Democratic-run elections offices had altered the state’s elections rules to massively expand absentee ballots and mail-in ballot deadlines for Wisconsin’s April 2020 primary election. (Notably, Center for American Progress and others quickly used that primary as a justification for adopting all-mail elections and dumping voter ID laws nationwide for the November 2020 election.)

The Safe Voting Plan made no bones about its goal to “be intentional and strategic in reaching our historically disenfranchised residents and communities,” code for likely Democratic voters (per the Southern Poverty Law Center, FairVote, Brennan Center, and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law).

The plan proposed using $216,500 to purchase drop boxes to collect absentee ballots in each of the five cities. (The cost per drop box ranged from under $1,000 to $3,800, depending on the size.) The exact number of drop boxes deployed is unclear, but the proposal noted:

  • Milwaukee: 13
  • Madison: 12
  • Green Bay: 12 (approximate)
  • Kenosha: 4
  • Racine: 3

To do that, the five cities needed cash to fill “budget constraints”—$6,324,527 to be exact. Ultimately, CTCL doled out $8,488,873 to the five cities, roughly 84 percent of all the “relief grants” the group paid out to Wisconsin elections offices statewide.

A Mysterious Middleman

But there’s a problem. This proposal took serious coordination among five separate elections offices across Wisconsin. Who initiated this scheme? And who knew to ask CTCL for millions of dollars? At that time CTCL was practically unheard of.

An archived copy of CTCL’s website from June 20, 2020, shows no reference to its COVID-19 “relief grants” campaign. Up to that point the group had offered only online training courses for election officials. But by July 8, CTCL’s website boasted that it’d “partner[ed] with 5 Wisconsin cities to implement [the] Safe Voting Plan.”

Someone had to know that CTCL (2019 revenues of just $3.4 million) had $6 million to spare.

One possible candidate is David Becker. Becker is a lawyer and lobbyist specializing in elections. While working at the U.S. Department of Justice in the early 2000s, he earned a reputation as a “hard-core leftist” who “couldn’t stand conservatives,” according to a former colleague.

In 2005, Becker was hired to do elections lobbying for the left-wing agitation group People for the American Way, which supports the Left’s usual raft of election “reforms,” including the Democrats’ For the People Act (H.R. 1).

From 2008 to 2012, Becker headed election initiatives for Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States, where he ran a project on implementing new voter registration “reforms” and dismissed the possibility of voter fraud arising from mass registration drives. Under Becker, Pew spawned the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a problematic voter information database organization whose funding appears to have originated with George Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society in 2011. Becker spent the next couple of years urging state legislatures to join ERIC before leaving Pew (although he remains a non-voting member of ERIC’s board).

Becker now heads the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR), which is closely linked with CTCL. Like CTCL, CEIR received nearly $70 million from Zuckerberg in 2020 for “urgent voter education assistance” (mail-in ballots, early voting, and government-run registration drives).

We’ve traced CEIR cash in Maryland’s state-run get-out-the-vote drive among voters in ultra-blue Baltimore and the counties ringing Washington, DC. We also know that CEIR donated $13.3 million in Zuck bucks to Pennsylvania’s Elections Department ahead of the 2020 election, funds largely used to promote mail-in ballots via expensive TV ad buys.

Becker’s a partisan operative. He represented CEIR in October 2021 testimony before Congress, in which he dismissed election integrity concerns as “a scam to keep them [Republican voters] angry, divided, and donating,” which benefits Russia, China, and other hostile governments trying “to delegitimize democracy.”

Few others were so well positioned in June 2020 between CTCL and the five cities. But he’s just one possible candidate.

What we know is that the person(s) involved in organizing and pitching Zuck bucks would need to be connected with potential left-wing donors and political groups, sufficiently knowledgeable about election law to ensure no one would go to prison over the scheme, and presentable to elections officials (i.e., not obviously partisan). Not many individuals qualify for that role.

July 2020: Zuck Bucks 1.0

CTCL announced its partnership with Wisconsin’s five cities on July 7, 2020. The totals were:

  • Milwaukee: $2,154,500
  • Madison: $1,271,788
  • Green Bay: $1,093,400
  • Kenosha: $862,779
  • Racine: $942,100

Over $1.8 million was spent on extra poll workers. Another $1 million funded “voter education and outreach efforts” to contact new and existing voters. But the biggest chunk of money, $2,572,839 according to CTCL’s announcement, went to “support early in-person voting and vote by mail”:

Expand the number of in-person Early Voting sites (including Curbside Voting). Provide assistance to help voters comply with absentee ballot requests and certification requirements.  Utilize secure drop-boxes to facilitate return of absentee ballots.  Deploy additional staff and/or technology improvements to expedite and improve accuracy of absentee ballot processing [emphasis added].

Critically, these were the first CTCL grants issued anywhere in the country. Recall that Zuckerberg’s $350 million donation to CTCL wasn’t announced until September 1, which means we don’t know who paid for this first batch of grants. Zuckerberg is the most obvious candidate, but some reports claim he was not involved at this stage.

Another, perhaps more likely source, is the New Venture Fund, which passed nearly $25 million to CTCL sometime in 2020 from an unknown donor, possibly Zuckerberg. New Venture Fund is part of a $1.7 billion “dark money” nonprofit network run by the DC consultancy Arabella Advisors, and passing grants along from anonymous “progressive” donors is the group’s bread and butter.

A confidential donors memo reveals that New Venture Fund was also raising funds sometime prior to November via a secretive front group: Trusted Elections Fund, which would fight Republican “disputes regarding election results” and “post-Election Day violence.” New Venture Fund also runs the Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME), a CTCL ally which reportedly helped introduce Zuck bucks to an unknown number of states in exchange for knowledge of government election operations and procedures.

(Both CTCL and CSME are currently under investigation by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry for injecting private money into the state in the 2020 election.)

August 2020: Wisconsin Elections Commission Gives Guidance on Drop Boxes

The Wisconsin Elections Commission is a six-member board responsible for assisting the state’s local county election officials. On August 19, 2020, the Elections Commission issued guidance for adopting ballot drop boxes, noting that one was needed “for every 15,000–20,000 registered voters.”

This may not sound important, but it green-lit drop boxes—mail-in ballot collection bins—across the state, a decision the state supreme court ruled unconstitutional in July 2022.

September–October 2020: Zuck Bucks 2.0

The nation became aware of Zuck bucks on September 1, when Zuckerberg announced an initial donation of $250 million to CTCL and $50 million to CEIR. He later dumped another $100 million into the project in mid-October, bringing the total to $400 million.

We later learned that the funds were channeled through Zuckerberg’s account at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, one of the largest pass-through funders to groups on the Left. Interestingly, the exact figures listed in Community Foundation’s IRS disclosure were $328 million to CTCL for “community development” and $69.5 million to CEIR for “civi[c] participation”—its second and third largest grants that year, respectively. (That’s on top of the $25 million grant from the New Venture Fund.)

July 2022: Drop Boxes Ruled Unconstitutional

Drop boxes were essential for gathering the unprecedented ocean of mail-in ballots generated in the 2020 election. They were also illegal, according to a July 2022 ruling by the Wisconsin state supreme court, which found that the Wisconsin Elections Commission had offered inappropriate guidance on drop boxes in August 2020. Unsurprisingly, Democrats accused the court of disenfranchising “young people and people of color.”

Drop boxes won’t be used in future elections in the Badger State. But the damage they caused in 2020 cannot be mended.

Shining a Light on Zuck Bucks

With the benefit of CTCL’s IRS disclosures in November 2021, we were able to map all its grants to Wisconsin. As noted, the vast majority of Zuck bucks went to the five cities (and the grants were larger that the cities initially requested). Of course, one would expect to see larger grants going to more populous cities. But analysis of their per capita distribution reveals a partisan pattern:

Jurisdiction Winner CTCL Grant Per Capita
Racine Biden $21.83
Green Bay Biden $11.60
Kenosha Biden $8.63
Milwaukee Biden $5.91
Madison Biden $4.71
Janesville Biden $2.79
Cottage Grove Biden $1.37
Wausau Biden $1.25
Rice Lake Trump $1.11
West Allis Biden $1.03
Statewide Biden Biden average: $3.75      Trump average: $0.55

 

Across all CTCL-funded jurisdictions, Biden received roughly 609,000 votes. Trump received 287,000 votes. That’s a huge difference, considering that Biden’s margin of victory in Wisconsin was just 0.7 percent or 20,682 votes.

Yet Biden’s margin of victory in CTCL-funded cities was 36 percentage points: 68 percent for Biden versus 32 percent for Trump.

CTCL has said repeatedly that there was nothing partisan about how it distributed its grants because they funded any county or city that asked for them. But that claim ignores facts on the ground.

We know that CTCL had full control over how much each applicant received. And if CTCL was trying to boost Biden turnout, it seems clear that it would’ve targeted its grants in precisely the places that it did.

Those skeptical of CTCL’s alleged nonpartisanship need consider only the damage done by a CTCL ally: the National Vote at Home Institute, a top vote-by-mail advocate that sent a partisan operative, Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, to effectively take over the election in Green Bay. The city clerk later reported that Spitzer-Rubenstein’s team tried to “cure” ballots “like they did in Milwaukee,” and possessed four of the five keys to the mail-in ballot storeroom.

Under Vote at Home’s agent, she told reporters, the election in Green Bay “went rogue.”

The Future of Zuck Bucks?

No one expects Zuckerberg or CTCL to admit partisanship. CTCL’s decision not to funnel Zuck bucks in the 2022 election is the closest to an admission that privatizing elections isn’t defensible that we’re likely to get.

But the fight to save America’s elections is far from over.

CTCL’s Alliance for Election Excellence is an $80 million campaign to federalize elections and make vote by mail a permanent feature of U.S. elections from now ’til Doomsday, paid for by some of the Left’s top billionaires. In December 2022, the alliance announced that it was providing grants to 10 so-called centers of election excellence—a near-repeat of Zuck bucks—and plans to give out the remaining tens of millions of dollars over the next five years.

We’ve seen their vision for America. Will Americans stand for it?

Hayden Ludwig

Hayden Ludwig is a Senior Investigative Researcher at Capital Research Center. He is also a columnist at the Washington Free Beacon and writes regularly for the American Conservative. Ludwig is…
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