GREENWICH – Why did the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life award one of the richest towns in America $500,000 to help pay for elections? And is there anything wrong with a town or government accepting such private money?
It’s been a hot debate in town since November, when Greenwich was included among a list of 10 recipients of the grant.
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According to Tiana Epps-Johnson, the executive director of CTCL, the money can only be used for “the nonpartisan public purpose of planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration infrastructure over a two-year period.”
And at a Feb. 27 forum with CTCL, Fred DeCaro, the local Republican registrar of voters, sought to tamp down local opposition, which for the most part is from members of his own party.
DeCaro described a recent conference hosted by the nonprofit as a run-of-the-mill discussion of best practices rather than anything partisan or somehow sinister. The $500,000 grant, he said, would help support the town’s push for minimal budget increases and flat non-personnel expenses.
When CT Examiner asked the organization why the town was chosen, and how many other towns applied or were eligible, rather than offering any explanation, the organization directed us to a FAQ without any answers.
In an emailed statement, Epps-Johnson simply described the grant recipients as a “diverse group of rural suburban and urban communities.”
Not surprisingly, given that the organization is affiliated with TED and reportedly received a $250 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2020 to distribute for local elections, some are assuming the worst.
Republican RTM member Ed Lopez and Republican Town Committee member Susan Schieffelin held a community forum on March 2, where the speakers questioned CTCL motives and answered questions from local residents about the grant.
In a call with CT Examiner, Lopez said that the appearance of impropriety alone was a community concern, and that he was opposed to accepting funds for election purposes from any private organization, no matter their affiliation.
“There is a liberal-conservative divide on the issue, and I think that those that are okay with where the funds are coming from might not be okay if they came from other sources,” Lopez said.
The forum featured Jason Snead, a senior policy analyst at the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, and executive director of the nonprofit Honest Elections Project.
In a call with CT Examiner, Snead called Zuckerberg’s donation in 2020 “an eyebrow raising moment for us. No one had ever really done this before, let alone at this scale.”
Snead said his staff has been requesting information from election offices accepted into the grant program in an effort to understand any strings placed on the money.
According to Snead, many of the recipients did not know they’d be receiving a grant, which was given to towns after being invited and accepted to join the nonprofit’s U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence.
“In Greenwich and in other places, the election officials really didn’t seem to know what it was that they were joining, which was interesting,” Snead said. “And that’s not entirely their fault.”
Snead said he opposed any private donations to elections, and said those who approved the CTCL monies would be “raising hell” if conservative organizations were to offer Greenwich election officials a grant.
But in an email to CT Examiner, newly-elected State Rep. Rachel Khanna, a Democrat, said the grant funding would help implement a push for early and no-excuse absentee voting.
“I am a member of the Government Administration & Elections Committee and last week we held a hearing on implementing early voting and potentially making no-excuse absentee voting part of the state constitution,” Khanna said. “With the expansion of early voting it’s imperative that our registrars have the resources they need to make this huge change go smoothly.”
Khanna, a former Greenwich RTM member, also said she was troubled by RTM members questioning the legitimacy of the Jan. 17 vote to accept the grant.
“This call to undo a vote sets a precedent for RTM members who are unhappy with a legitimate vote’s outcome to call the vote into question,” Khanna said. “This hampers the important work of the body and that ultimately could be detrimental to our community.”
In a close vote on Jan. 17, the RTM voted 104 to 101, with 5 abstaining to accept the money. But some members later alleged that their votes were not counted and asked for a revote.
RTM Moderator Alexis Vouglaris said no matter the outcome, a motion to rescind would have historical significance given that it had only happened twice before in 1934 and in 1941.
The motion was denied 118 to 98 with 4 abstaining.
RTM members then debated an additional grant from CTCL – $9,600 to finance Greenwich’s membership in the alliance for two years, which, according to the membership agreement between the alliance and town, included training materials and credits for coaching and consulting services for registrars.
At the Monday meeting, DeCaro explained that the registrars have joined other professional communities and paid dues. He said the $9,600 from CTCL would allow the registrars to participate in alliance meetings and receive assistance on projects like improving signage at polling places and creatings flyers for election events and at no cost to the town.
“All of these items are our initiatives,” DeCaro said. “They are nonpartisan, and they are locally controlled.”
RTM Member Lucia Jansen spoke in opposition to accepting private funds for elections, arguing that the town could afford the $9,600 in membership fees.
“Greenwich has a sterling reputation in running our elections with efficiency and high customer service,” Jansen said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
A motion to accept $9,600 from CTCL failed with 101 in favor, 101 opposed and 4 abstaining.