Two NC counties participating in Zuckerberg-linked elections program

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Facebook and Twitter's actions around the closely contested election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in Washington. (Hannah McKay/Pool via AP)

RALEIGH — The Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has announced it will be sending $80 million to state boards of election over the next five years.

CTCL will be feeding the grants through the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence (USAEE), which is supported by the Audacious Project, a program housed under TED Conferences that describes itself as a “collaborative funding initiative catalyzing social impact on a grand scale.”

USAEE has already chosen 10 county and municipal election offices as the first group to receive grants which will have almost no restrictions on what the money can be spent on.

The first counties selected for the 2023 inaugural group include Contra Costa County, CA; Shasta County, CA; Greenwich, CT; Kane County, IL; Macoupin County, IL; Ottawa County, MI; and Clark County, NV.

Also on the list are North Carolina’s Brunswick and Forsyth Counties.

The grants won’t be directed to the over 20 states that have enacted legislation to ban private or outside money for elections. USAEE grants will head to states where Democratic governors have vetoed such measures including Michigan and Wisconsin. That also means grants will be heading to North Carolina since Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed such a bill in December 2021.

In his veto message of Senate Bill 725, Cooper said money from outside entities was “needed for necessities” like masks, single-use pens and “other protective equipment” during 2020. He also accused the legislature of not properly funding elections board so outside grants would not be needed.

According to the Associated Press, the amount of the USAEE grants will “vary based on the size of each jurisdiction, from $50,000 for those with fewer than 5,000 registered voters to $3 million for those with more than 1 million voters.”

CTLC showered an estimated $419 million in grants on election boards across the country during the 2020 presidential campaign.  The funds were dispersed to around 2,500 counties in 49 states during 2020, including North Carolina.

Thirty-five North Carolina counties received a combined total of $5.395 million from CTCL. The N.C. State Board of Elections and Wake County received a million each and Durham received over $1.46 million.

Additionally, certain boards of election in North Carolina received outside money from the Schwarzenegger Institute. The former California governor’s organization dropped almost $190,000 into 10 counties prior to the November 2020 election.

CTCL’s Executive Director Tiana Epps-Johnson said the first offices will receive grants over a two-year period leading up to the 2024 presidential election, according to the Associated Press.

Brunswick’s Election Director Sara LaVere told North State Journal in an email that she had applied to the program “because working together with other election administrators has always resulted in ideas for improvement.”

She also said having “access to other jurisdictions across the country, and election experts from various fields, is another chance for me to learn more about election administration.”

In 2020, Brunswick County received $67,291 from CTCL.

LaVere provided North State Journal with the county’s application and a member agreement.

The member agreement included statements that USAEE would be nonpartisan, never touch live ballots, give legal advice, or “require you to implement specific advice or recommendations.”

The member agreement also included basic membership perks such as “coaching and consulting from specific Alliance partners,” training, templates and other resources.

There are also membership dues consisting of a Basic Membership at $1,600 a year and a Premium Membership costing $4,800 a year. The member agreement also offers scholarships to applicants to offset the first year’s membership dues.

When asked if she knew what amount Brunswick might receive from USAEE, LeVere said she didn’t yet know.

“No, I do not know what funds might be made available specifically to Brunswick County,” LaVere wrote in an email response to North State Journal. “I know when we discussed participation during my initial interview, they told me that I could opt out of receiving any funds if I chose to.  I believe funds would be available to pay for travel to meetings, to visit other centers, etc.”

Forsyth County Elections Director Tim Tsujii also supplied North State Journal with its application.

“This is a professional development opportunity purely as an educational component, no different than what professional associations offer or other government-type agency certification programs,” Tsujii told North State Journal about USAEE’s program.

Tsujii is a current member of CTCL’s advisory committee and was involved with the group’s Elections Toolkit project providing online resources to election officials.

When asked if USAEE had mentioned or offered grant money similar to that doled out in 2020, Tsujii said Forsyth would not be taking any.

“Even when we first applied, and when we interviewed and then even upon our acceptance as a finalist, we made it clear that we had no desire or interest in receiving grant funds,” Tsujii said.

Forsyth was not one of the North Carolina counties that received CTCL money, also called “Zuck Bucks” during the 2020 election cycle.

Tsujii also said it was his understanding that some of the other counties that are participating “are receiving direct grant funds” but that he didn’t have knowledge of other counties’ involvement.

About A.P. Dillon 834 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_