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State Senate bill aimed at halting grants to local elections officials part of national GOP effort

Minnesota’s top election official, Secretary of State Steve Simon, called the bill “part of a broader campaign of disinformation to corrode confidence in the election system.” 

An election judge wearing personal protective equipment at the early voting center off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis in 2020.
An election judge wearing personal protective equipment at the early voting center off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis in 2020.
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan

A sparsely attended Minnesota Senate hearing last week featured allegations about election irregularities that have gotten more attention in other states — charges that Minnesota’s top election official called “a paranoid fantasy.”

During the hearing, Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said that a national nonprofit that’s received funding from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan — the Center for Tech and Civic Life — used grants distributed to local election offices to influence the outcome of the 2020 vote. 

In some cases, Koran said, local elections were turned over to the non-government entities. “It’s shocking that so many cities allowed this undue influence in their election process to try to affect the outcome,” Koran told the Senate State Government and Elections Committee. “It’s shocking that a county would willingly give up that type of control to an outside entity.”

A bill Koran has sponsored, Senate File 3333, would prevent local elections offices from accepting any money from non-government entities. Koran offered no evidence that the grants awarded to 28 Minnesota counties and cities by the Center for Tech and Civic Life went for anything other than the organizations’ stated goals, which include helping to ensure local election officials “have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary so this November every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted.”

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More than $350 million was granted by CTCL across 49 states; every local elections department that requested money received money, the organization said. 

“Over half of all grants nationwide went to election departments that serve fewer than 25,000 registered voters,” wrote the organization’s executive director Tiana Epps-Johnson. “We hope that as elected officials consider the issue of philanthropic funding, they solve the real long-standing problem, which is making sure that election departments have consistent, long-term public funding so they are able to deliver a professional, inclusive, secure voting process for all of their voters.”

State Sen. Mark Koran
State Sen. Mark Koran
In Minnesota, the money was spent on increased staffing, warehouse space, printing and mailing caused by the increased use of mail ballots during the pandemic elections. It also paid for personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, extra pens and plexiglass screens at polls. Smaller amounts were spent on get-out-the-vote efforts: $50,000 of the $2.3 million Minneapolis got went to its get out the vote efforts, for example.

The Koran bill is unlikely to get through the DFL-controlled House or be signed by DFL Gov. Tim Walz. Yet Secretary of State Steve Simon said even holding a hearing on the bill that airs allegations that go un-rebutted is damaging. “There was zero undue influence. There was zero relinquishing of control. Zero,” Simon said Friday. “Anyone who talked to someone who administered an election would know that.”

He termed the idea that either occurred “a paranoid fantasy.”

“It is part of a broader campaign of disinformation to corrode confidence in the election system,” Simon said. “I see that as related to the big cloud of disinformation out there. This part of that whole narrative out there.” 

The suggestion that this was meant to help Democratic jurisdictions is not borne out by the distribution of grants, he said. “Red, blue, purple or polka-dot, it doesn’t matter. Every single jurisdiction without exception that raised their hand got money.”

In response to a question from DFL Sen. Jim Carlson of Eagan, Koran said he wasn’t sure how a town in his district, Center City, spent the $5,000 it received. But he said money to smaller towns and counties doesn’t change the fact that most was spent in large cities and counties in “key targeted states in the 2020 election cycle.”

Some Democrats also have questioned whether nonprofits should be funding basic elections costs, but their response has been to call for increased funding from Congress and legislatures rather than bans on outside money. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers last year vetoed a bill similar to what Koran has proposed, and Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and North Carolina also vetoed similar bills passed by their legislatures. Fourteen states have passed bills similar to the Koran bill, and there is a bill in Congress to do the same nationally

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Before the 2020 election, there were attempts by conservative legal organizations to block receipts of the funds, including in Minnesota. They were unsuccessful. The Center for Tech and Civic Life, as well as Zuckerberg, Chan, Dominion Election Systems and elected officials from four states, were named in suits filed after the election to reverse results in key states. Those too were unsuccessful, and one suit in Colorado resulted in court-ordered financial sanctions against the attorneys who filed it. 

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer
Last week, both Koran and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, pointed to Wisconsin, where attempts to overturn the 2020 results continue. A retired state supreme court judge initially hired by the Republican Speaker of the House to investigate the 2020 election last week called for the election to be overturned and referred to the five counties with the largest grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life as “the Zuckerberg Five.”

“The CTCL agreement facially violates the election bribery prohibition of (state law) because the participating cities and public officials received private money to facilitate in-person or absentee voting within such a city,” stated the report

Because much of the money was spent in large jurisdictions with larger Democratic bases, increasing turnout helped Democratic candidates. But after a presentation of the allegations last week, the GOP majority leader of the Wisconsin Assembly said there would be no action taken. “We are going to continue to look through the windshield instead of the rearview mirror and focus on the future,” Rep. Jim Steineke told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  “I think the Legislature is largely united on this issue.”

Even as it was criticizing the grants, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board ​stated “it’s hard to untangle partisan bias from urban bias. Big cities have big-city voting problems, and maybe they were more likely to ask CTCL for help.”  

What the money went for in Minnesota

Prior to the 2020 election and in the middle of the first COVID-19 surge, Secretary of State Steve Simon struck a deal with DFL and GOP lawmakers on a bill to run elections that year. The new law would encourage mail-in voting, with a goal of increasing use of such ballots from around 30 percent to 60 percent in order to easy health concerns raised by voters gathering closely in polls.

The bill also released $17 million in federal funds sent to help run elections. Some of that money could be used for the types of sanitation and distancing that Center for Tech and Civic Life grants funded as well. The same deal saw DFLers back off from a desire to have an all-mail elections, and Republicans ended attempts to link the federal funds to other issues, such as voter ID and provisional ballots. 

While Democrats in Congress wanted $2 billion for pandemic election costs, though only $400 million was eventually appropriated. Several of the early elections that spring were marred by long lines and crowded polls, The grants came in response to both a lack of money and fear of polling place problems.

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Simon said the federal money was helpful for local elections offices but that it wasn’t sufficient. He said it was the dawn of COVID-19, before vaccines and with much less known about how the virus spread than there is now.

Based on the CTCL’s federal tax filing, Minneapolis received nearly $2.3 million, while other grants went to Ramsey County ($2.75 million); Hennepin County ($1 million); Dakota County ($613,000); and Olmsted County ($344,000). 

But money was requested and granted to many smaller cities and counties, too, including $5,000 each to Albertville, Center City, Becker, Chaska, Hugo, Sartell, St. Joseph, St. Michael and Victoria. Additional grants went to counties such as Brown ($9,795), Nobles ($11,660), Rice ($33,362) and Houston ($5,880).

Casey Carl, the city clerk of Minneapolis, said he applied for a grant because he knew running an election during the pandemic would add costs he hadn’t anticipated. He said the money was spent on mailings, postage, printing, extra staff to process a record number of mail ballots, extra space to process.

“We bought more people, more postage, pallets of ballots from day one,” Carl said. 

The Center approached the city and asked if it would benefit from more money “and we said, ‘yeah’ so we wouldn’t have to go back to the taxpayers if you’re going to give us a grant for stuff that we need.”

MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee
Casey Carl, the city clerk of Minneapolis, said he applied for a grant because he knew running an election during the pandemic would add costs he hadn’t anticipated.
“It was maximizing all of our opportunities to make sure we were safely conducting the election in a presidential year, in the middle of COVID, with the highest turnout we’ve had in a generation or more,” he said. 

Minneapolis also added dropboxes that were staffed with two elections judges.

Joyce Jacobs, the auditor-treasurer of Nobles County, in southwest Minnesota, said she applied for a grant after hearing about it from a representative of a company that makes election equipment. She used it to purchase a folder-inserter machine. 

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“Nobles County had a number of townships that had moved to mail balloting prior to COVID – mostly due to the difficulty in finding election judges,” Jacobs wrote. “When COVID hit, that became even more of an issue since many of our election judges were in the age range that put them at high risk.

Joyce Jacobs
Joyce Jacobs
“The amount of time we spend in ballot preparation for Absentee Ballots has also increased greatly, so having this machine to assist in ballot preparation will be a huge time saver for us in future elections – which will result in less staff hours – which will result in cost savings for our tax payers,” Jacobs said. 

Max Hailperin, a retired computer science professor who has been involved in election policy, tweeted during the hearing on the Koran bill what he termed an effort to debunk false or misleading statements. Hailperin said about $1.3 million of Minneapolis money went for mail-in ballot staffing and the rental of extra space at the convention center. The total for voter outreach, $50,000, amounted to 18 cents per voter.

“There’s nothing at all shocking about more money having been spent in large cities than in small. What would they have done with all of those pallets of ballots in Center City, MN, population 672?” he tweeted.

No one showed up to testify pro or con on the bill last week, but Kiffmeyer said she would hold the bill in committee and look for another hearing for those wishing to testify.