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Tech-backed group spread money around Wisconsin in 2020 election, but Democratic areas benefited most

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Young poll workers

Poll workers outside of Memorial Union on UW-Madison's campus help direct students to their polling place on Nov. 3, 2020. Madison was one of about 214 counties and municipalities that sought, and received, private grant money to help administer last year's elections. Most of the $1.27 million went to staffing and equipment, such as tents for socially distanced outdoor voting.

Wisconsin’s five largest cities received two to four times more money, per capita, than smaller cities, villages and towns last year from a Silicon Valley-backed nonprofit that state Republicans have accused of helping President Joe Biden get elected.

But the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life also spread money around the state regardless of what areas were likely to go for which presidential candidate, with communities in 39 of the state’s 72 counties receiving grants.

Marathon County, for example, went solidly for Trump in November but also had the most communities — 56 — receiving CTCL grants. Marinette, which had the second most, at 20, also went for Trump by 35 percentage points. Neither county, however, has anywhere near the number of voters as the cities of Madison or Milwaukee.

There was nothing illegal about the more than $10 million in grants CTCL distributed to about 214 municipalities to pay and train poll workers, as well as purchase new voting machines, ballot drop boxes, personal protective equipment and a range of other items to improve election administration and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, Republicans contend CTCL — backed by a tech industry whose employees have long favored Democrats — showered money on Wisconsin’s largest and most liberal areas in an effort to boost turnout for Biden in a battleground state Donald Trump barely won in 2016 and that Biden ended up winning by less than a percentage point last year.

CTCL says the grants were provided to every Wisconsin municipality that asked for them, and in the amounts they asked for. Across the country, it has provided some $350 million in grants on a nonpartisan basis to 2,500 election agencies in 49 states.

The Wisconsin State Journal contacted all 214 Wisconsin counties, cities, villages and towns listed by CTCL as having received the grants. Based on the 177 that responded:

  • The average, per-capita grant amount for the state’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — was $11.26.
  • Some of the highest amounts were in Racine and Green Bay at $21.83 and $15.14, respectively. In Madison, the amount received per capita was $4.71, while the amount Milwaukee took in worked out to $5.91 per person.
  • The tiny towns of Marshall (population 540), Mount Hope (282) and Harrison, in Marathon County (312), also collected some of the highest amounts on a per-capita basis, as $18.52, $17.73 and $16.03 respectively.
  • For all cities, the average grant was $2.33 a person, while for villages it was $5.01, and for towns it was $4.97. The statewide average among all 177 counties and municipalities was $4.21 per person.
  • The most common grant amount — received by 143 of the 177 entities that reported their grant amounts — was $5,000, and was typically given to the state’s smallest communities.

‘No partisan questions’

The CTCL grants have been a key component of Republicans’ unsupported claims about possible fraud or other irregularities in the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin that Biden won by 21,000 votes. Trump has continued to say the election was stolen from him, despite multiple courts and local and national elections officials finding otherwise, and has put pressure on state-level officials to ferret out alleged wrongdoing.

In Wisconsin, a recount of Dane and Milwaukee county results confirmed Biden’s win. Legislative Republicans have held hearings to tease out allegations of election improprieties. And the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau on Friday released an audit that did not identify any widespread fraud in the state but did make dozens of recommendations on how the state might improve election administration.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has also allocated at least $676,000 for a probe by former conservative state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gablemen, who has said he plans to look into the CTCL grants as well as advice the bipartisan state Elections Commission gave clerks in 2020.

Only four voters out of roughly 3 million who cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election have been charged with fraud.

Vos did not respond to requests for comment Friday. But an official with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which has also looked into the CTCL grants, said “private money distributed to strategically selected municipalities can, in effect, enlist local election administrators into get-out-the-vote operations that may serve to help one candidate over another.

“Our analysis showed this private funding of a public operation may have caused almost half the margin in the presidential race in Wisconsin,” research director Will Flanders said. “Without reform, this practice will certainly be adopted by actors across the political spectrum.”

CTCL said in an unsigned email that asserting its grants favored Democratic turnout is “not supported by the data and opponents are using misleading and incomplete information to paint a false picture” about the program.

“There were no partisan questions in the grant applications,” the group said, and “grant funding decisions were not made on a partisan basis, and as demonstrated by the jurisdictions across the political spectrum that received money, partisan considerations played no role in the availability or awarding of funding.”

The group noted that no jurisdictions in Ozaukee and Washington counties, located outside Milwaukee County and historically considered Republican strongholds, applied for the grant funding.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, sought to put Republican concerns about the CTCL grants in the context of the party’s broader efforts to keep investigations into the 2020 election alive.

“The guys are raising fake issue to justify bigger changes,” he said, in particular allowing state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters in federal elections.

He and Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, also contended that elections in more populous areas are, by their nature, more expensive and said comparing per-capita election spending in large cities with less-populated areas is not apples to apples.

“Not all municipal costs scale directly on a per-capita basis — like investments in multiple drop boxes and voting machines, which can require significant up-front costs that simply may not be required for smaller communities,” Spreitzer said.

Hintz said larger municipalities might need several polling places for the same number of people who, if they were in a rural area, might just require one at the town offices. Larger areas might have costs related to more early voting, he said, or having to rent space and provide security for counting large numbers of ballots.

Spreitzer said the “goal should be to get every town, village and city what they need.”

“If Republicans don’t want private grant funding for elections, the logical answer is to adequately fund our elections in the first place,” he said.

Gableman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Hand sanitizer, PPE

Four of the state’s five largest cities received additional money subsequent to CTCL’s initial grant awards in July 2020, when it said the five would get a total of $6.3 million to support early and absentee voting, recruit and train poll workers, provide personal protective equipment and other pandemic-mitigation supplies, and “expand voter education and outreach efforts.”

Milwaukee ultimately received a little over $3.4 million from the group, while Green Bay received a total of $1.63 million and Racine received $1.7 million from three separate grants. Kenosha got $869,544.58, or a few thousand more than it was originally given.

Madison’s only CTCL grant was the one it received in July 2020 for $1.27 million.

Grants provided to the state’s smaller communities were used for many of the same things they were used for in larger communities, although clerks generally did not report spending money on get-out-the-vote efforts, and in some cases voting equipment purchased last year was not in place for the November election. Several also reported purchasing voting machines that would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Waunakee Village Clerk Caitlin Stene said the city received $5,000, which was all spent on absentee voting supplies. Like most places, Waunakee saw absentee voting skyrocket during the pandemic, nearly doubling from almost 4,100 in 2016 to more than 7,500 last November.

Stene said she has not been contacted by Gableman’s investigation team but did receive an email from the Dane County clerk informing her to retain all election records in case they are requested.

Appleton City Clerk Kami Lynch said the city received a little over $18,000 in CTCL grants. Of that, $13,000 went toward two new tabulators, with remaining funds going to buy ballot drop boxes.

Lynch said CTCL provided some suggested uses for the money, but the decision how to spend it was ultimately up to municipalities.

“From my experience it was up to me as a clerk who administers elections, if I felt we needed money and where I wanted to use that,” she said. “It wasn’t suggested to use it in any particular way.”

In Cuba City, clerk-treasurer Jill Hill said the community received $5,000, which was spent on hand sanitizer, hazard pay for poll workers, additional absentee ballot mailing envelopes and a few voting booths.

Marinette City Clerk Lana Bero said the city received a little over $5,100 in CTCL grants, which was spent on personal protective equipment for poll workers and voters, poll worker pay and training expenses and absentee ballot supplies.

Like clerks across the state, Stene, of Waunakee, said her focus has shifted from the 2020 election to preparing for upcoming elections.

“For all of us clerks, once Election Day is over we’re wrapping it up and we’re on to the next,” she said. “So these constant questions about things we’ve done in the past can be a little frustrating.”

State Journal reporter Mitchell Schmidt and city editor Phil Brinkman contributed to this report.

Wisconsin Center for Tech and Civic Life grants

Wisconsin's five largest cities received the largest election administration grants from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life last year. But CTCL also spread the money around, with smaller communities in 39 of the state's 72 counties receiving grants, some at a comparable per-capita amount.

County/municipality Population Grant amount Amount per capita
Marathon County 138,013 $10,000 $0.07
Milwaukee County 939,489 $10,000 $0.01
Rock County 163,687 $61,450 $0.38
City of Abbotsford 2,275 $5,000 $2.20
City of Altoona 8,293 $5,000 $0.60
City of Amery 2,962 $5,000 $1.69
City of Antigo 8,100 $5,000 $0.62
City of Appleton 75,644 $18,330 $0.24
City of Barron 3,733 $5,000 $1.34
City of Beloit 36,657 $26,198 $0.71
City of Brodhead 3,274 $5,000 $1.53
City of Brookfield 41,464 $14,090 $0.34
City of Chetek 2,172 $5,000 $2.30
City of Chilton 4,080 $5,000 $1.23
City of Colby 1,952 $5,000 $2.56
City of Cuba City 2,138 $5,000 $2.34
City of Eau Claire 69,421 $71,000 $1.02
City of Edgerton 5,945 $5,500 $0.93
City of Fitchburg 29,609 $16,520 $0.56
City of Fond du Lac 44,678 $47,491 $1.06
City of Fort Atkinson 12,579 $6,223 $0.49
City of Green Bay 107,395 $1,625,600 $15.14
City of Hudson 14,755 $5,133 $0.35
City of Janesville 65,615 $183,292 $2.79
City of Kenosha 99,986 $869,545 $8.70
City of Kewaunee 2,837 $5,000 $1.76
City of Lake Mills 6,211 $5,000 $0.81
City of Lancaster 3,907 $5,000 $1.28
City of Madison 269,840 $1,271,788 $4.71
City of Marinette 11,119 $5,133 $0.46
City of Marshfield 18,929 $8,583 $0.45
City of Menasha 18,268 $7,890 $0.43
City of Milton 5,716 $5,000 $0.87
City of Milwaukee 577,222 $3,409,500 $5.91
City of Monona 8,624 $5,000 $0.58
City of Mosinee 4,452 $5,000 $1.12
City of Niagara 1,602 $5,000 $3.12
City of Omro 3,652 $5,000 $1.37
City of Peshtigo 3,420 $5,000 $1.46
City of Pittsville 813 $5,000 $6.15
City of Plymouth 8,932 $5,000 $0.56
City of Racine 77,816 $1,699,000 $21.83
City of Rice Lake 9,040 $10,000 $1.11
City of River Falls 16,182 $7,449 $0.46
City of Sun Prairie 35,967 $30,758 $0.86
City of Two Rivers 11,271 $5,391 $0.48
City of Wausau 39,994 $50,000 $1.25
City of Wautoma 2,209 $1,000 $0.45
City of West Allis 60,325 $62,068 $1.03
Village of Athens 1,059 $5,000 $4.72
Village of Biron 839 $5,000 $5.96
Village of Black Earth 1,493 $5,000 $3.35
Village of Cambridge 1,638 $5,000 $3.05
Village of Campbellsport 1,907 $5,000 $2.62
Village of Clinton 2,221 $5,000 $2.25
Village of Coleman 726 $5,000 $6.89
Village of Cottage Grove 7,303 $10,000 $1.37
Village of Crivitz 1,093 $5,000 $4.57
Village of Dickeyville 1,015 $5,000 $4.93
Village of Edgar 1,439 $5,000 $3.47
Village of Elkhart Lake 941 $3,000 $3.19
Village of Ettrick 525 $5,000 $9.52
Village of Footville 772 $5,000 $6.48
Village of Hammond 1,873 $5,000 $2.67
Village of Hatley 648 $5,000 $7.72
Village of Hazel Green 1,173 $5,000 $4.26
Village of Iron Ridge 904 $5,000 $5.53
Village of Kekoskee 896 $5,000 $5.58
Village of Kronenwetter 8,353 $5,000 $0.60
Village of Luck 1,093 $5,000 $4.57
Village of Marathon City 1,576 $5,000 $3.17
Village of McFarland 8,991 $5,000 $0.56
Village of Minong 548 $5,000 $9.12
Village of Montfort 705 $5,000 $7.09
Village of Oakfield 1,052 $5,000 $4.75
Village of Ontario 534 $5,000 $9.36
Village of Palmyra 1,719 $5,000 $2.91
Village of Pound 357 $5,000 $14.01
Village of Rothschild 5,576 $5,000 $0.90
Village of Solon Springs 656 $5,000 $7.62
Village of Spencer 1,818 $5,000 $2.75
Village of Stratford 1,581 $5,000 $3.16
Village of Superior 677 $5,000 $7.39
Village of Waldo 467 $5,000 $10.71
Village of Waunakee 14,879 $5,000 $0.34
Village of Wausaukee 596 $5,000 $8.39
Village of Weston 15,723 $6,819 $0.43
Village of Wilton 532 $5,000 $9.40
Town of Amberg 693 $5,000 $7.22
Town of Athelstane 554 $5,000 $9.03
Town of Beaver (Marinette) 1,153 $5,000 $4.34
Town of Beaver (Polk) 798 $5,000 $6.27
Town of Beecher 786 $5,000 $6.36
Town of Beetown 723 $5,000 $6.92
Town of Bennett 632 $5,000 $7.91
Town of Bergen 740 $5,000 $6.76
Town of Berlin 949 $5,000 $5.27
Town of Bern 614 $5,000 $8.14
Town of Bevent 1,049 $5,000 $4.77
Town of Brazeau 1,340 $5,000 $3.73
Town of Brothertown 1,328 $5,000 $3.77
Town of Brule 607 $5,000 $8.24
Town of Calumet 1,412 $5,000 $3.54
Town of Cassel 943 $5,000 $5.30
Town of Chilton 1,059 $5,000 $4.72
Town of Cleveland 1,486 $5,000 $3.36
Town of Clinton 870 $5,000 $5.75
Town of Dunbar 605 $5,000 $8.26
Town of Eagle 3,478 $5,000 $1.44
Town of Easton 1,148 $5,000 $4.36
Town of Eau Pleine 769 $5,000 $6.50
Town of Emmet 905 $5,000 $5.52
Town of Forest 333 $5,000 $15.02
Town of Frankfort 635 $5,000 $7.87
Town of Fulton 3,580 $5,000 $1.40
Town of Genesee 7,171 $5,000 $0.70
Town of Goodman 607 $5,000 $8.24
Town of Green Valley 515 $5,000 $9.71
Town of Greenbush 1,903 $5,000 $2.63
Town of Grover 1,731 $5,000 $2.89
Town of Halsey 634 $5,000 $7.89
Town of Hamburg 827 $5,000 $6.05
Town of Hamilton 2,428 $3,000 $1.24
Town of Harrison (Marathon) 312 $5,000 $16.03
Town of Hazel Green 1,084 $5,000 $4.61
Town of Hewitt 636 $5,000 $7.86
Town of Hortonia 1,052 $5,000 $4.75
Town of Hull 756 $5,000 $6.61
Town of Ixonia 5,120 $5,000 $0.98
Town of Johnson 873 $3,800 $4.35
Town of Knowlton 1,984 $5,000 $2.52
Town of La Prairie 784 $5,000 $6.38
Town of Lake 1,186 $5,000 $4.22
Town of Lawrence 6,306 $5,000 $0.79
Town of Liberty 543 $5,000 $9.21
Town of Lima 2,956 $5,000 $1.69
Town of Lisbon 10,477 $5,000 $0.48
Town of Marshall 540 $10,000 $18.52
Town of McMillan 2,074 $5,000 $2.41
Town of Medina 1,344 $5,000 $3.72
Town of Metomen 689 $5,000 $7.26
Town of Milton 3,100 $5,000 $1.61
Town of Morgan 985 $5,000 $5.08
Town of Morrison 1,689 $5,000 $2.96
Town of Mount Hope 282 $5,000 $17.73
Town of Mountain 832 $5,000 $6.01
Town of Oakland 3,231 $5,000 $1.55
Town of Onalaska 5,835 $5,000 $0.86
Town of Ottawa 3,646 $5,000 $1.37
Town of Palmyra 1,220 $5,000 $4.10
Town of Paris 655 $5,000 $7.63
Town of Pembine 877 $5,000 $5.70
Town of Perry 737 $5,000 $6.78
Town of Peshtigo 4,006 $5,000 $1.25
Town of Pittsfield 2,791 $5,000 $1.79
Town of Plover 683 $5,000 $7.32
Town of Plymouth 3,083 $5,000 $1.62
Town of Porterfield 1,888 $5,000 $2.65
Town of Pound 1,412 $5,000 $3.54
Town of Prairie Lake 1,648 $5,000 $3.03
Town of Rib Mountain 7,313 $5,000 $0.68
Town of Rice Lake 2,813 $5,000 $1.78
Town of Rietbrock 874 $5,000 $5.72
Town of Ringle 1,743 $5,000 $2.87
Town of Rush River 500 $5,000 $10.00
Town of Sheboygan Falls 1,824 $5,000 $2.74
Town of Springfield 2,929 $5,000 $1.71
Town of Stanfold 701 $5,000 $7.13
Town of Stettin 2,580 $5,000 $1.94
Town of Superior 2,264 $5,000 $2.21
Town of Texas 1,611 $5,000 $3.10
Town of Troy 5,518 $5,000 $0.91
Town of Turtle 2,393 $5,000 $2.09
Town of Wausau 2,161 $5,000 $2.31
Town of Weston 657 $5,000 $7.61
Town of Westport 4,191 $5,000 $1.19
Town of Wrightstown 2,578 $5,000 $1.94

"Our analysis showed this private funding of a public operation may have caused almost half the margin in the presidential race in Wisconsin."

Will Flanders, research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty

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