‘Zuck Bucks 2.0’ Gears up for 2024
‘Zuck Bucks 2.0’ Gears up for 2024

By John Haughey

The same nonprofit that distributed nearly $420 million in privately funded pandemic and operations grants to election offices nationwide before the 2020 elections is orchestrating a refashioned program for the 2024 election cycle. 

The Chicago-based Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) said its U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence will funnel $80 million to local election offices in the form of two-year grants over the next five years as part of what it claims is a bipartisan effort “to create a network for the nation’s thousands of local election officials … to improve their technology and processes.”

In the wake of the 2020 elections, Republicans raised the alarm over revelations that CTCL had issued private money grants to nearly 2,500 county elections offices across 47 states and the District of Columbia for its Safe Elections Project, including $350 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Republicans maintain that CTCL aggressively recruited officials in counties and cities that are traditionally Democratic to participate in its programs, and funneled “Zuckerbucks,” or “Zuck Bucks,” disproportionately into Democratic-voting jurisdictions.

CTCL grants and other private contributions to election offices, masked as COVID-19 relief, were geared to “educating” elections offices about mail-in voting outreach and procedures, which drove the Democratic voter turnout that put President Joe Biden in the White House, conservatives claim.

Election integrity watchdogs, including Virginia-based Honest Elections Project (HEP), North Carolina’s John Locke Foundation, and Florida’s Foundation for Government Accountability, are again raising the alarm about CTCL—this time, a year before the election rather than months after—claiming its Alliance is a front for boosting Democratic turnout, especially in Democratic strongholds within swing states.

“No matter what it claims to be, the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is nothing more than a dark money-fueled scheme to push liberal voting policies and influence election administration in key states,” HEP Executive Director Jason Snead told The Epoch Times.

“The work of the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is ‘Zuck Bucks 2.0,’” John Locke Foundation Civitas Center for Public Integrity Director Dr. Andy Jackson said, claiming in a statement that the Alliance is a vehicle “for the private funding of elections by left-wing donors.”

Snead and Jackson collaborated in producing a Jan. 19 Zuck Bucks 2.0 report that claims CTCL’s Alliance “is focused on systematically reshaping election offices and pushing progressive voting policies,” adding, “How state and local governments respond will have ramifications for free and fair elections in 2024 and beyond.”

Over the past two years, 24 GOP-led state legislatures have adopted laws banning or restricting the use of private, third-party grants and other allegedly nonpartisan contributions to “assist” local officials in administering elections.

With 45 of the nation’s state legislatures now convened in 2023 sessions, proposals to ban private money in public elections administration have been filed in at least two states and may be filed in at least two more.

“The pace has slowed because most of the states where (a ban) is feasible, it’s already been done,” Snead said. “The key thing to keep in mind is the U.S. Alliance for Elections Integrity is similar to what happened in 2020, but now really is the new and improved version. It is designed to be more insidious and to exert more influence into how these offices function.”

CTCL: Centers for Election Excellence

CTCL, which did not return phone calls or respond to emailed requests from The Epoch Times, maintains the Alliance is “a nonpartisan effort that brings together election officials, designers, technologists, and other experts” to assist elections officials in administering elections and help all voters, regardless of party, cast ballots.

“Unfortunately, years of underinvestment means many local election departments often have limited capacity and training,” CTCL Executive Director Tiana Epps-Johnson said when she announced the creation of the Alliance at an April 2022 TED conference. The Alliance “is bringing together world-class partners so that local election officials no longer have to go it alone,” Epps-Johnson said.

The program will provide “customized resources, coaching, and implementation support,” the Alliance says on its website, explaining its offerings include grants, training, resources, and consulting services to establish “a set of common values and standards.” 

Alliance grants can only be spent on physical and technological components needed for an election office and for training “personnel with specialized training … whose absence could cause undesirable consequences or hamper the election security mission,” it states.

Recipient election offices, called “Centers for Election Excellence,” receive grants based on three criteria: “excitement and willingness” for participation; a commitment to improve practices and procedures; and a commitment to working with other members, sharing materials, and providing input.

Grant amounts vary based on population, from $50,000 for elections offices with fewer than 5,000 registered voters to $3 million for those with more than 1 million voters. 

In November, the Alliance announced its first wave of grants would go to 10 county and municipal election offices in seven states: Contra Costa and Shasta counties, California; Greenwich, Connecticut; Kane and Macoupin counties, Illinois; Ottawa County, Michigan; Clark County, Nevada; Brunswick and Forsyth counties, North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin.

On Alliance’s website, recipient elections officials say they will use the grants to improve websites, recruit poll workers, build more secure office spaces, and stay current on how other election officials are operating to ensure uniform “best practices.”

Critics: Centers for Elections Manipulation

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signs a bill into law banning outside spending on elections, in Pierre, S.D., on March 16, 2022. (Courtesy of the Office of the South Dakota Governor)

Snead noted CTCL is not seeking to establish its centers in the 24 states that have banned private money being used by elections offices in response to its alleged influence on the 2020 election.

“Indeed,” he said, “CTCL and its partners exclusively selected the first cohort of ‘Centers for Election Excellence’ from states without private funding limits.”

The center did, however, issue grants to elections offices in three of the six states where Democratic governors vetoed bills adopted by Republican lawmakers banning private contributions to elections officials—one each in Michigan and Wisconsin, and two in North Carolina.

North Carolina lawmakers in 2021 passed Senate Bill 725, which prohibits the State Board of Elections, county boards of elections, and county commissioners from accepting private funding for election expenses after offices across the state received $7.2 million in CTCL grants during the 2020 election cycle.

The bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in December 2021. In November 2022, Brunswick and Forsyth counties were named two of the Alliance’s “inaugural” Centers for Election Excellence.

In the HEP/John Locke Foundation report on the Alliance, public records requests uncovered documents and email exchanges between elections officials and constituents, including local GOP committees, that “show preexisting relationships between CTCL and officials” in Brunswick and Forsyth counties.

Forsyth County Elections Director Tim Tsuji serves on CTCL’s advisory committee, the report states, and documents that Brunswick County Elections Director Sara LaVere acknowledged extensive use of trainings, documents, and materials from CTCL and other Alliance members. 

She also revealed The Elections Group—part of the Alliance and CTCL’s 2020 Safe Elections Project—helped her write columns published in her own name before the election.

After the Brunswick County Republican Party received complaints about the local board of elections receiving CTCL money, “LaVere defended the group from criticism using talking points and hyperlinks provided by the Alliance specifically to rebut public criticism of the program,” the report states.

“LaVere’s emails reveal she was already making use of materials and resources from CTCL’s partners before being selected” in November, the report notes, adding the email chains “show the influence that CTCL and the Alliance are already having on local offices. 

“Who are the county election officials that they contacted? It’s very clear they have an eye on North Carolina,” Snead said. “Looking at their materials, it is very clear what is going on. They are very actively reshaping the way these officers function. [This is] really a foothold into other offices in North Carolina and other states. These North Carolina offices are poster children for all that can and will go wrong.”

“At a minimum, this kind of infiltration of election administration by private progressive organizations should be subject to stricter oversight by the North Carolina General Assembly,” Jackson said. “The General Assembly should also consider passing a ban on Zuck Bucks, perhaps as part of the 2023 budget.” 

“North Carolina is one of the states where a potential private funding ban could happen” although no such bill had been filed as of Jan. 26, Snead said. “They are only one seat short of a veto-proof majority.”

‘Scheme’ To Dodge Private Money Bans

CTCL did not organize an elections project for the 2020 midterms cycle and expressly points out that Zuckerberg is not currently a contributor to the Alliance. The $80 million in funding—for now—is nearly six times less than the $420 million 2020 project.

But, as the HEP/John Locke Foundation report spells out, more money could be committed and, as Jones states, “Some of the largest left-wing dark money groups, such as Arabella Advisors’ New Venture Fund and eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund, are behind ‘Zuck Bucks 2.0.’” 

Alliance partners and financial contributors “are led and staffed by people with deep ties to the Democratic Party and partisan progressive organizations,” the report states, calling the Alliance “merely a continuation of CTCL’s scheme to use private funding to impact election policy nationwide.”

The report notes that Arabella Advisors’ New Venture Fund, which garnered more than $1.5 billion in donations in 2021, runs the Institute for Responsive Government and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, lead proponents for automatic voter registration and voter “modernization” protocols. 

Epps-Johnson, the report states, is an Obama Foundation Fellow and alumna of the Democrat-affiliated New Organizing Institute, once dubbed the “Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for Digital Wizardry.” 

CTCL is also structuring its Alliance coalition differently than its 2020 Safe Elections Project with the absence of a pandemic and “Zuck Bucks.”

“They pivoted to a membership program,” Snead said. “That is the ticket to expanding in an insidious way to exert more influence in how the offices function.”

After the Alliance recruited its first 10 Centers for Election Excellence in November, it announced plans to begin charging membership fees to join. Basic memberships will be $1,600 a year and premium memberships $4,800 annually.

“It’s a minimal fee, $5,000 for premium. That’s something that most offices could afford,” Snead said.

But elections offices don’t necessarily need to purchase members. The Alliance will offer “scholarships” to cover membership costs, which are converted into “credits” that member offices can use to buy services from CTCL and other Alliance partners. 

Honest Elections Project Executive Director Jason Snead says Americans are surprised to learn that local elections offices accept private contributions although they shouldn’t be. Since when do people in government turn down more money?” (Courtesy Jason Snead)

“As a result, offices receive access to funds they can spend exclusively on services provided by left-wing companies and nonprofits, entirely outside normal public funding channels,” the report states.

“These fees are waived through ‘scholarships’ that give offices access to funding entirely outside normal, public channels. The offerings range from tech services to ‘coaching and even ‘political’ consulting,” Snead said. “The scheme is so comprehensive that it offers public-relations support to officials facing blowback for joining,” which LaVere already utilized when challenged about enrolling Brunswick County in the Alliance.

In exchange for grants, services, and scholarships, offices are expected to provide CTCL and its partners in-kind contributions “at taxpayer expense,” the report states. “Offices are expected to help the Alliance develop its programming and to turn over a vast array of information regarding their inner workings.”

In addition, the report says that “members are expected to work with the Alliance to develop and implement an ‘improvement plan’ that reshapes the way each office functions.”

Grants issued by CTCL “come with significant strings attached, despite claims of being bipartisan,” it concludes.

States that have banned private money in elections administration should review them to ensure they cover “the ‘scholarships’ and other schemes used by the Alliance, Snead advises.

The membership/scholarship scheme “gives them the opportunity to assess and influence operations even in states that have banned private money in their elections administration,” he said. “That is the clever thing. Even a state that has banned private money is not safe and shouldn’t be resting on its laurels.”

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