Outside Funding Must Be Managed Carefully To Avoid Breach Of Trust

State Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich


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When it comes to the $500,000 “no strings attached” grant for our local election office from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), and our joining its U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting voted to split the baby.  Greenwich will accept the money, but we will not join the Alliance.   

The RTM’s vote is a compromise that still risks trust in our local elections as we must all now consider what kind of influence CTCL’s half-a-million dollars can bring to bear however innocuous and even though we are not officially in the Alliance.

We must also consider what are the longer-term impacts of the fact that our already-well-funded-by-taxpayer-dollars elections office is now open to accepting large sums of private money from public policy charities funded by tech billionaires.  This outside money must be managed carefully to avoid any breach of public trust.

CTCL, for those readers who have not been following the debate about accepting funds from that organization, was founded in 2012 by three former members of the New Organizing Institute, a major training center for left-of-center digital activists, described by a Washington Post reporter as “the Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for digital wizardry.” 

The activities of this Chicago-based public policy charity, which initially focused on elections with an annual budget of approximately one million dollars a year, got turbo-boosted when Mark Zuckerberg and his wife gave it four hundred million dollars in 2020 to help elections offices across the country during COVID.  Donations to such 501c3 charities are tax deductible under the Internal Revenue Service code.

Hence, the moniker “zuckerbucks” was born to describe this unprecedented amount of private money that went to election activities that had hitherto been a government function paid for exclusively by the tax dollars of residents.

Twenty-four states and twelve counties in other states have since passed laws to restrict private third-party funding of elections administration.  More such laws are expected to pass this year.

In response, CTCL pivoted and launched a new project, the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, with $80 million from the Audacious Project, founded in 2018 to consider “all issue areas” whose funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Of the ten centers for “election excellence” that the CTCL announced in November 2022 – Contra Costa County, CA, Shasta County, CA, Greenwich, CT, Kane County, IL, Macoupin County, IL, Ottawa County, MI, Clark County, NV, Brunswick County, NC, Forsyth County, NC, and Madison County, WI — Greenwich is now the fourth to take a step back. 

Election officials in Brunswick County and Forsyth County, North Carolina took the opposite approach to Greenwich’s, declining to accept the grant money offered to them by CTCL — $1.5 million for Brunswick and $2 million for Forsyth — but agreeing to join the Alliance. 

The county clerk in Ottawa County, Michigan, walked away from CTCL completely, declining both the grant money of $1.5 million and membership into the Alliance, and stating in a press release that: “Public trust is fundamental to everything we do, not only in elections but in all aspects of our office.  We cannot risk jeopardizing that trust by accepting a partnership, however well-intentioned, that is based primarily on grant dollars from private individuals who may or may not have political or economic interest in the outcome of elections.”

It is not known how CTCL will respond to Greenwich’s unique proposition of voting to accept the large sum of money but not join the Alliance. 

The following resolution to accept the grant passed in the RTM on January 17, 2023, by a close vote with 104 voting yes, 101 no, and 5 abstaining: “Resolved, that the Town of Greenwich is authorized to accept a grant in the amount of $500,000.00 from the Center for Tech and Civic Life…It is further resolved that the First Selectman is authorized to execute the attached grant agreement.”

The following resolution to become a member of the Alliance failed on March 13, 2023, by an even closer vote with 101 voting yes, 101 no, and 4 abstaining: “Resolve, that the Town of  Greenwich is authorized to accept a grant in the amount of $9,600.00 from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to pay for the office of the Registrar of Voters to join as a member of the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence…It is further resolved that the First Selectman is authorized to execute the attached U.S. Alliance for Excellence Membership Agreement, as amended.”  The tied vote in the RTM means the resolution failed. 

As evidenced by these votes, reasonable minds disagreed on both resolutions, and RTM members were indeed divided. 

For FY23, our registrar’s budget is currently set at $523,930 which amounts to about $11.57 per voter, compared to the Town of Fairfield, which has similar diversity and population size, at about $6.88 per voter.

Greenwich elections do not have a funding issue as our registrars regularly return money to our town coffers.  In FY21, our registrars were budgeted $511,099, but in actuality spent $488,930, returning $22,169 to the town.  In FY20, they were budgeted $538,072, spent $444,386, and returned $93,686.  In FY19, they were budgeted $470,397, spent $441,966, and returned $28,431.

According to the grant agreement, the $500,000 from CTCL “shall not reduce the budget of the Town of Greenwich Registrars of Voters…”

To complicate matters further, recently the RTM adopted a new digital voting platform that proved controversial as a few RTM members filed affidavits with the Town Clerk after the January meeting that their votes were not logged at all or properly by the new system.  An attempt in March to rescind the January vote on the CTCL grant on the grounds that some RTM members were disenfranchised by the new electronic voting system failed. 

“As First Selectman, I was satisfied with the outcome of both votes as they were and still are,” said Fred Camillo. “There were also questions about joining the Alliance and there are enough guard rails on the $500,000, thanks to an amendment that the RTM made in January that calls for both BET and RTM oversight.” 

In Hartford, the Connecticut General Assembly is right now considering a bill similar to those passed in 24 other states restricting private funding of elections offices, SB379, An Act Prohibiting the Use of Private Funds by the State and Municipalities for Election Administration Purposes. 

SB379 is a good bill that needs the public’s support.  One RTM member drove up to Hartford to testify in person for its public hearing. While unlikely to pass in a Democrat-controlled legislature, it is still important for citizens to express their support because passing good bills is a multi-year effort.  

Please write to ryan.fazio@cga.ct.gov, Rachel.khanna@cga.ct.gov, hector.arzeno@cga.ct.gov, and steve.meskers@cga.ct.gov to share your thoughts and concerns.