A guest post by Kenosha’s 8th District Alderman Dave Mau.
As the law currently stands, if Donald Trump chooses to not run for president in 2024, he can send millions of dollars to Kenosha’s politicians to influence our elections. Or another billionaire like Jeff Bezos. Partisan organizations such as the NRA or Center for Reproductive Rights could sign an agreement with Kenosha’s future mayor to help administer elections. These are just examples. Regardless if you like any of these examples, we know it’s not a good idea because it means Pandora’s box is open for the possibility of funding that we won’t like. Unfortunately, it already happened in 2020. That’s why I’m attempting to nip this problem in the bud before something worse happens.
In April and May of 2020, the Democratic mayors of the 5 largest Wisconsin cities met behind closed doors to discuss the upcoming presidential election. The mayors were Tom Barrett (D) of Milwaukee, Satya Rhodes-Conway (D) of Madison, Eric Genrich (D) of Green Bay, John Antaramian (D) of Kenosha, and Cory Mason (D) of Racine. They produced a joint contract with the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) for a grant of approximately $8.8 million to help fund the cities’ election administration. CTCL is funded by Facebook owner and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.
We all know there’s many questions surrounding the 2020 elections, regardless if you disagree on the conclusions. It’s indisputable that both political parties have had doubts about the propriety of elections. Democrats challenged the election results for every election they’ve lost since 2000, and continue to call Trump an “illegitimate” president. Republicans have done the same for Biden. A CNN poll in July showed that only 42% of Americans have any confidence that US elections reflect the will of the people, and just 16% are very confident. Public opinion on this topic is getting worse, and the dark money flowing in from a billionaire businessman sure didn’t help.
As a newly elected official, I’ve already seen many grant agreements come in front of Kenosha’s City Council. However, I was surprised to learn not a single council member I’ve spoken to remembers this grant agreement with CTCL. It seems I was the first to see it when I requested it through a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s not clear why this particular grant wasn’t brought before council, as other grants are. I am not insinuating that a law was broken, but this type of activity is contrary to rebuilding confidence in our institution of elections.
The City of Kenosha received $862,799 in addition to its existing election budget, which totals to approximately $21 per voter. Some small Wisconsin cities also received funds from CTCL, but the 5 large cities received 2 to 4 times more money per capita than smaller cities. So in 2020, money flowed into large urban cities, which historically favor Democratic voters. It stands to reason this behavior could be reciprocated in rural Republican areas in the future too. Nationwide, CTCL sent $144.2 million to swing states, and 90% of that money went to Democrat-leaning counties won by Joe Biden. We have no reason to doubt a reverse scenario could occur, inevitably affecting both political parties and continuing to sow distrust in elections.
The small towns used CTCL resources for voting equipment and COVID-related equipment. But on the other hand, the 5 large WI cities designated nearly one-half of the $8.8 million to Get-Out-The-Vote and “voter education”. Some cities used geofencing to target Democrat demographics. The grant agreement required being “intentional and strategic in reaching our historically disenfranchised residents and communities”. The promotion was to “encourage and increase absentee voting”, using social media, direct communication, postcards, radio and print ads targeted at “low income neighborhoods, on City buses, and at bus stations, and at libraries”. According to Pew data, the least financially secure Americans are more likely to back Democrats. We also know that absentee voting has become a very contentious partisan issue.
So it’s clear that these outreach efforts just happened to fall along the same party lines of the 5 mayors who privately convened. Fair elections cannot tolerate this type of influence on behalf of either political party.
In Kenosha specifically, tens of thousands of dollars were spent on “Billboards”, “Voter Outreach Signs”, “Voting Signage”, “Voter Ads”, “Bus Shelter Advertising”, “Ads for Early Voting”, “Envelopes/Absentee Ballots” and so on. But I think what Kenosha used the money on isn’t the important part. The more important thing to consider are the possibilities and what the law should allow in the future.
Many Wisconsin counties including Walworth, Washington, Lafayette, Ozaukee, Kewaunee, Kenosha, and Brown (Green Bay) already passed a resolution to prohibit private election funding, as have 22 States, with many more currently in proceedings. The Kenosha County Board of Supervisors passed this resolution on July 19 2022. (However, the County doesn’t have jurisdiction over the City’s elections.) In March of 2021, the Wisconsin Legislature also passed a law forbidding the acceptance of private money for elections. But Governor Tony Evers (D) vetoed it, leaving the City of Kenosha vulnerable to election manipulation by private money.
It’s obvious that billionaires may have ulterior motives when funneling money to government officials, who may or may not be aware of the motives. I believe it’s necessary to address the inadequacy of the current laws to prevent potential bad actors who seek to influence elections. To clarify, I am not suggesting to ban private individuals or companies from doing their own Get-Out-The-Vote efforts or donating to campaigns. What I hope to prohibit is the government itself from accepting the money. Our elections need to remain neutral.
For those of you who believe everything was fine with the money that came in for the 2020 election, I ask you this: Presumably, you like the politics of our current mayor and the decisions made here, but what would happen if our next mayor is someone you disagree with? You won’t want that new mayor to have this power.
My resolution to prohibit the City’s acceptance of money from non-governmental entities for elections will be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting this Monday, September 19th at 6pm. (Municipal Building, Room 204). It’s open to the public to comment. You can also email email@example.com to let the council know your feelings on this topic.