Don’t Take the Money

Madison is in line to get another grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. They should turn it down. They won’t, but here’s why they should.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life has been around since 2012, but it really stepped up its work in 2020 in response to challenges presented by the pandemic. That cycle the Center gave out $350 million to 2,500 elections departments in 47 states. Nobody who applied was turned down and, so, the grants went to red, blue and purple areas all across the country, though it is true that, overall, the result was that more resources wound up in deep blue districts. New York City got the largest grant.

The organization started out with the idea of helping elections officials use technology to improve access, security and efficiency around voting. But the grants really can be used for almost anything related to voting.

The CTCL is often identified with Mark and Chan Zuckerberg, and in fact the Zuckerberg’s gave almost all of the money for the 2020 cycle, but actually funding comes from many sources, mostly large foundations, but with a definite Silicon Valley flavor. In the new round of grants, just announced, the Zuckerberg’s aren’t involved.

The CTCL grants in 2020 were litigated to death and courts found nothing illegal about them. There were no credible claims that the money was used in any sort of improper or partisan way.

So, all-in-all, I think it’s pretty clear that CTCL is a well-meaning organization that has been run with transparency and has generally done some good work. So, why on earth do I think Madison should turn down its new grant?

Because look at it this way. What if, rather than Silicon Valley money, the organization was mostly funded through philanthropic organizations linked to fossil fuels? What if the money ended up going disproportionately to communities that had a lot more Republican votes? (Something that those brilliant Republicans have assured can’t happen now since a bunch of red states have banned acceptance of private funds to help run elections. In principle it might have been the right thing to do, but it’s also unilateral disarmament.)

If you had an organization doing exactly the same things with exactly the same mission and transparency, but the money came from oil companies and it went, not by design but just by the way things played out, to aid districts with more Republican than Democratic voters, how do you think liberals would react? I’m just going to make a wild guess here: negatively.

For all of the good intentions of CTCL it’s just a bad idea for private money to get tangled up in the administration of elections. If more resources are needed than local and state governments should provide public tax dollars for that purpose, but I’m not aware of anyone claiming that Madison or Dane County doesn’t adequately fund their clerks’ offices.

CTCL does a lot of good work, including data collection and trainings, beyond its local grant making. I think it’s a really fine organization, but the local grants have cast a cloud, unjustified by the facts and yet understandable, over elections. In this case, paranoia does in fact run deep, but it doesn’t run entirely without justification. The grants just aren’t worth it.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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