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As states across the country were banning private funding of election administration in response to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spending about $400 million on the process in 2020, Montana election officials expressed urgent opposition in email exchanges to the same thing happening in their state.
In March 2021, an email from an official with the Montana Association of Counties informed county election clerks the bill to ban what are sometimes called “Zuckbucks” is “dead and indefinitely postponed.” In emails, one county official responded “Woot! Woot!” One wrote, “You’re all amazing.” Another wrote, “That is so awesome.”
The responses demonstrate local election officials are “addicted” to private money from potentially politicized actors, according to a recent report from the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a watchdog group that analyzed emails obtained in a public records request.
While Zuckerberg announced he has backed away from future election administration funding after 21 states passed bans on such funding, another email shows donor interest in influencing how elections are run hasn’t waned.
On March 17, 2021, Kristi Smith, voting rights coordinator for Montana Voices, emailed Shantil Siaperas, communications director with Montana Association of Counties to say: “There’s a funder who has been watching” the legislation before it was defeated. She added that “The funder is assessing the potential scope of their investment, and I’d love to be able to make a recommendation to them if there is interest.”
The Center for Tech and Civic Life, the left-leaning group that got $350 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation for election administration grants in 2020, gave $1.7 million to 21 Montana counties.
Conservatives widely criticized the grants for being distributed to mostly Democrat regions and with strings attached. Montana wasn’t a battleground state in the 2020 presidential race. It was, however, the site of a contested Senate race between Republican Sen. Steve Daines and challenger, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
“This shows they have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all, so they are drilling deep into enemy territory with all that cash,” J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, told Fox News Digital. “They have devised a perfectly legal scheme and will amplify their influence over elections through leftwing philanthropy and influence peddling with local election officials.”
The report titled “Final Frontier: After Our Elections are Bought, They Will Never be the Same Again,” argues that Montana, a Republican-leaning state, is demonstrative of a larger national problem.
“Direct leftwing funding of election administration is the last aspect to exert control over the election process. Purchasing the process, not the short-term electoral outcome, is the real play,” the report says. “It does not matter if Mark Zuckerberg is balking at putting up more money to fund elections, others are coming to take his place in states with no legal safeguards. The race is on, and local officials are already addicted to the easy money – whether they need it or not.”
The legislation to ban private funds was a “reactionary response to a hypothetical threat” because state laws already prohibit money in the public treasury — which a grant would be upon acceptance–from being used to advance a political candidate or committee, said Siaperas of the Montana Association of Counties.
“Election administrators were in opposition to SB 335 because passage of such a bill would ban future private grant dollars, which has the potential to negatively impact county operations, and there are already safeguards in current Montana law that made the legislation unnecessary,” Siaperas told Fox News Digital.
She added, “Montana elections have been and will continue to be administered in a professional and transparent manner, and the decision to apply for and utilize grant funding to support local elections should be left to local officials.”
The Center for Tech and Civic Life did not immediately respond to inquiries for this story.
Even without the Zuckerberg funding, the center continues to hold clout, the legal foundation report says, as the organization has launched the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence to promote certain election methods at the local level.
“In fact, the CTCL is expanding. They are launching a new venture called the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which promises an $80 million grant for local election officials to tap for aid,” the legal foundation says. “This represents only a shallow representation of the parallel ecosystem of left-leaning nonprofits standing ready to financially support and augment government administration of elections.”
The legal foundation’s report shows emails from the fall of 2020 touting the ease of applying for grants. A Toole County election official emailed others in a chat to say, “Easiest grant application ever.” A Madison County official wrote, “Easiest $5,000 I ever asked for.” The CTCL minimum was $5,000. A Ravalli County official wrote, “I just submitted, and you do not have to have a plan.”
The legal foundation report says, “The chatter did not center on how these monies were lifesaver to perform core election administration duties. They were generally treated as windfalls at the time.”
Email exchanges among county officials expressed opposition to the proposal to ban private money would mean an expense for taxpayers.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life, however, required election departments agree grant money “will not supplant previously appropriated funds.”
The report dismissed as spin the plea for fiscal responsibility.
“Remember, these are counties sometimes operating with $250,000 to $750,000 annual budgets for election operations and they only learned about what they thought were $5,000 one month before the big day, according to the initial email chatter,” the report says.