Organization Trends

Zuckerberg’s Election Meddling Could Be Emulated by Foreign Interests

Facebook might be a cesspool filled with lies, vitriol, and organized disinformation campaigns, but is it more frightening than a billionaire-funded political consultant with, quite literally, the keys to an election?


Mark Zuckerberg’s invention opened U.S. elections up to manipulation by foreign powers that everyone should be aware of.

No, not Facebook. His other invention. The private funding of public election offices.

When Zuckerberg contributed roughly $400 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life to privately finance public election offices, he was the first person ever to do so. It was a strategy simply unheard of before 2020. And this second invention of the billionaire, who became famous for his serious effect on tech, had a serious effect on elections.

But, while speaking out against Facebook and the damage it’s done to democracy earns a segment on 60 Minutes, speaking out about Zuckerberg and his “zuckbucks” might find one labeled a conspiracy theorist.

The idea that Zuckerberg impacted elections in partisan ways through Facebook is almost universally accepted, but strangely the idea he did the same through the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) is somehow too farfetched. The reality is that CTCL impacted the 2020 election in ways Facebook never could, and legislators should be just as anxious to address “zuckbucks” as they are Facebook.

For proof, look no further than Wisconsin, where, in true Facebook fashion, one of CTCL’s “grant advisers” leveraged the terms and conditions of Zuckerberg’s funding to access information they had no right to see.

Reports show that Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, CTCL’s Wisconsin “grant adviser” who once worked as a Democratic consultant in New York, became “de facto elections chief” for Wisconsin’s five largest cities despite holding no office.

Spitzer-Rubenstein re-wrote the rules for ballot curing in Milwaukee, requested to be allowed to personally cure ballots in Green Bay, helped election administrators decide how ballots would be transported, rented the room where ballots were to be stored in Green Bay, and as was given the keys to the hotel convention room where absentee ballots in Green Bay were stored “days in advance” of the election. In fact, Spitzer-Rubenstein was so intrusive and domineering that the Green Bay City Clerk resigned just before the election in disgust after her superiors ignored repeated email complaints questioning the legality and ethics of Spitzer-Rubenstein’s involvement.

Facebook might be a cesspool filled with lies, vitriol, and organized disinformation campaigns, but is it more frightening than a billionaire-funded political consultant with, quite literally, the keys to an election?

The details of how CTCL funds were used in Wisconsin are disturbing, but more disturbing is the fact that it was all legal. Most disturbing is that anybody else is now free to do the same. Anybody.

Oil tycoons, hedge fund managers, banking executives, literally anybody can fund 501(c)(3) nonprofits like the Center for Tech and Civic Life, and they can do it anonymously since 501(c)(3)’s are not legally required to disclose their donors. Worse yet, they wouldn’t even have to be a U.S. citizen because there are no rules against foreign donors either.

A Russian oil-oligarch looking to cripple his U.S. competitors could create a charitable front-group to disproportionately fund election offices of more environmentally conscious counties in hopes they would shut down drilling. A foreign dictator hoping to lift economic sanctions could use a nonprofit cultural center to pay for an election office’s voter outreach campaign but provide much more money to counties where a senator or presidential candidate sympathetic to their plight is winning.

This may sound like modern day McCarthyism, but there are numerous examples of foreign actors influencing U.S. elections in both 2016 and 2020.

Hansjörg Wyss, for example, is a little-known Swiss billionaire who illegally gave thousands to PACs (which non-citizens are not allowed to do) more than 30 times over several years before the FEC caught on. In 2021, the New York Times called Wyss an “influential force among Democrats,” despite the fact that he can’t contribute to candidates or political parties, because he uses his private foundation to funnel tens-of-millions of dollars into “nonpartisan” political advocacy groups each year, many of them 501(c)(3)’s just like CTCL.

Just this year, accusations surfaced that Wyss once again broke election law due to his involvement with the Arabella Advisors network, along with reports that he attempted to purchase numerous U.S. newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and the Daily News. Furthermore, leaked internal memos show that the Wyss Foundation developed a  $100 million “Democracy Strategy” that included funding get-out-the-vote drives and lobbying to change election laws, and shared it directly with John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, just before the 2016 election.

Wyss has no qualms about intervening in U.S. elections, and now that Zuckerberg has paved the way, Wyss might attempt to use his dark money network to follow suit. The same goes for the Russian government who famously tried to influence elections using targeted misinformation campaigns on Facebook in 2016, and the Iranian and Chinese governments who reportedly attempted to do the same in 2020.

It’s far from a conspiracy theory to say that “zuckbucks” gave Mark Zuckerberg a concerning level of influence over the 2020 election, and it’s just as reasonable to be worried that foreign interests will attempt to mimic Zuckerberg in the future. Luckily, dozens of states have put forward legislation to ban further private funding of election offices, but dozens more have yet to act. With 2022 fast approaching, time is running out for state legislatures to act, and if they don’t, our elections could be open to more interference and manipulation than ever before.

 

This article originally appeared in Legal Insurrection on November 21, 2021.

Parker Thayer

Parker Thayer is a research assistant at Capital Research Center. A native of Michigan, he recently graduated from Hillsdale College.
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