- The Washington Times
Thursday, October 29, 2020

Facebook magnate Mark Zuckerberg and his wife gave a nonprofit $400 million to pay election workers, train poll workers and rent polling locations for the Nov. 3 vote in various states.

The Zuckerbergs’ largesse is an unprecedented private expenditure on a process long held to be an exclusively public operation and has spurred at least nine lawsuits challenging the effort by the Center for Tech and Civil Life.

The donation to the center roughly equals what Congress appropriated to the states in this year’s CARES Act to pay for running elections in 2020 amid the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, critics charged.

“We’ve invited billionaires into the counting room and it will undermine the integrity of our elections. It’s unprecedented,” said Phill Kline, director of the Amistad Project, an initiative started by the conservative Thomas More Society to defend civil liberties.

“We are headed toward a situation in which Big Tech controls the flow of information and the election process. These are the first things any oligarchy wants to control when it takes power.”

The Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was established in 2015, received $300 million from Mr. Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, on Sept. 1 and then another $100 million on Oct. 13, according to the center’s press releases.

Among the group’s top directors are three people who were previously cyberspace operatives with the liberal grassroots group New Organizing Institute, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The center did not respond to questions from The Washington Times.

The Zuckerbergs’ second contribution came after nine court challenges in state and federal courts failed at the first level, though eight cases remain active on appeal. The center indicated some of the money will go to lawyers defending their operation.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, whose office filed a lawsuit initially rejected by a district court judge, said private money spent in any amount on elections is “inherently insidious.”

“Irrespective of whether the court rules in our favor or not, we believe it is still illegal and improper for state election officials to take money in the manner they are giving it out,” he said.

Mr. Landry has asked the district court to reconsider its ruling, and he plans to appeal if it is upheld.

He likened the project, which involves “money being sprinkled around the country in an inequitable manner,” to an “invisible hand” that could influence how ballots are collected and counted.

“And we’ve got enough money,” Mr. Landry said of Louisiana’s election apparatus. “If Zuckerberg wants to do this, he should give the money through proper channels so we don’t have corporate boardrooms and billionaires spending the money.”

It is not clear exactly how the money is being spent.

More than 2,100 local election jurisdictions applied for grants that can be used for drive-through voting, poll worker recruitment, hazard pay, training and polling place rental, among other items, according to the website.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life website also says it does not serve partisan interests and is not trying to influence the elections’ outcome.

Mr. Kline contends that is exactly the project’s goal.

One of the complaints says that the group distributed money primarily in grants to Democratic regions. Thus far, that argument has not held up in court and is based on what critics acknowledge is an incomplete picture of how much the group has spent and where it has done so.

A graphic at the group’s website, however, does show heavy grant-giving in traditionally blue areas. A red dot on a U.S. map is used to show each grant application the nonprofit received, and the dots virtually cover Michigan’s mitten and are thickly clustered along the Northeastern seaboard.

The center, which says it trains election workers and seeks to expand voter information, says on its website that more than 80 million voters in 2018 — more than two-thirds of the total ballots cast nationwide — were “served by election officials trained by CTCL.”

The Amistad Project said that through legal pleadings it uncovered correspondence between the group and Cory Mason, the Democratic mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, last April. In it, the the center offers Mr. Mason $100,000 of which $60,000 can be for Racine and the rest spent on getting heavily Democratic areas near Racine to file grant applications.

In Philadelphia, long a Democratic stronghold, money provided by the center is to be used to establish 800 polling places, an increase of 76% from the number of polling places the city had in the primaries, according to an August email sent to the center by Nick Custodio, a deputy commissioner in the Philadelphia election office.

“The number of total ballots cast is expected to be between 730,000 and 800,000,” Mr. Custodio writes in bold, figures that would mark between a 21% and 25% increase from the total number of Philadelphia voters in the 2012 and 2016 elections.

Philadelphia voters traditionally break about 70% to 30% in favor of Democratic candidates, and the city with its former polling places produced some 600,000 votes in the 2012 and 2016 elections. Mr. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes.

Mr. Landry said one way the grant money could be used would be to send out prepaid return ballots in heavily Democratic districts around New Orleans, “while some guy in a rural parish still has to buy his 50-cent stamp.”

The deadline for election officials to apply for a grant from the center has passed, according to the website.

“They’re betting the law won’t respond in time to stop this project,” Mr. Kline said. “And they’re probably right, but they know it’s wrong.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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