‘Zuckerbucks’-Type Offer of Funding for Election Office Divides One of the Richest Towns in America

Quite a donnybrook erupts after tony Greenwich, Connecticut, gets an offer it is trying to decide whether to refuse.

Max Becherer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, file
The February 13 vote at Bucks County could prove decisive in the lead-up to the presidential election. Max Becherer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, file

The dust hasn’t completely settled on the 2020 “Zuckerbucks” controversy. That involved a group called the Center for Tech and Civic Life. It distributed more than $340 million of Mark Zuckerberg’s money to local election offices around the country. 

The majority of the funds went to Democratic districts. With 2024 around the corner, a CTCL program called the Alliance for Election Excellence is accused of using similar tactics to insinuate itself into local registrars’ offices, under a new name.

This past December, the registrar’s office in the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, was notified that it would receive an AEE grant totaling $500,000 over a two-year period. The office is led by Fred DeCaro, a Republican, and Mary Hegarty, a Democrat.

Their office operates on a budget of roughly $500,000 a year. So the 50 percent annual increase seemed like a welcome gift. Not everyone in Greenwich saw this grant as a gift, however. CTCL’s activities favoring Joseph Biden in the 2020 election cycle were well reported. 

Additionally, AEE is funded by the Audacious Project. That is supported by some of the most recognizable names in Democratic donor circles. There was a partisan affiliation to this group, many Greenwich citizens argued, that could not be ignored.

Interested parties in the town quickly became divided over the question of whether to accept AEE money. AEE calls itself a “nonpartisan collaborative that is bringing together election officials, designers, technologists, and other experts to help local election departments improve operations, develop a set of shared standards and values, and obtain access to best-in-class resources to run successful elections.”

Mr. DeCaro and Ms. Hegarty say they are satisfied that their interactions with AEE staff to date align with this description. They also assure the citizens of Greenwich that the grant affords the AEE access to no non-public information nor to data they deem “sensitive, or otherwise proprietary.”

The unusual circumstances of the AEE grantmaking process, though, further fed into suspicions about its intentions and fueled the controversy. The Greenwich Registrar’s office reports that no grant proposal outlining its specific needs totaling $500,000 was submitted to the AEE prior to the announcement of the grant.

The question then became why AEE would offer a large grant to a wealthy town like Greenwich, with neither any basis for evaluating what the town’s needs were nor any evidence that the community had election funding needs at all.

The AEE website claims that it is distributing $80 million over two years to election offices because, “there are thousands of local election departments across the country that are responsible for administering elections, and when they don’t have the resources and support they need, voters and our democracy pay the price.” 

The town of Greenwich, however, has no recorded history of widespread voter dissatisfaction with election services and no significant requests for non-personnel budget increases to address deficiencies in operations.

An outside observer might guess that Greenwich already had the resources and support it needed and that its voters and its democracy were not, to quote AEE’s website, “paying the price.” Greenwich seems to be doing just fine.

What some in Greenwich see as the AEE’s philanthropic generosity, others are viewing as an irresistible enticement to form local relationships that could later be used for partisan advantage. Both the CTCL and AEE were contacted for comment but neither responded to several email and phone inquiries.

This isn’t to say that the Registrar’s office can’t make good use of the money. Mr. DeCaro explains, on the registrar’s website, that should the grant money be approved, he would use it for specific purposes such as compliance with the federal disabilities act, climate control, storage equipment, and new tablets, among other wish list items.

No one is arguing against such upgrades, just the wisdom of allowing an outside group with AEE’s history to pay for them. The Greenwich Representative Town Meeting board voted by a slim margin to accept the grant in January, but under conditions some have challenged.

A new electronic voting system was used during the meeting, which, local papers are reporting, members of the town board say may have skewed the results. A new vote is being held this Monday.

A Republican first selectman, Fred Camillo, declined to sign off on the grant until after Monday’s meeting, pending the outcome of the vote. Some have suggested that the AEE’s offer should be turned down to preserve town unity as well as the public’s trust in the election process.

Whether AEE has partisan goals may never be agreed upon by Greenwich residents. The optics of accepting unusually administered grants, funded by private sources via a public charity to local election offices, are challenging for those arguing there is nothing to worry about.

Additionally, there is the concern that setting this precedent may invite a partisan funding race, by Democrats and Republicans alike, to assert local influence. When asked if this was a concern, Mr. DeCaro declined to comment.

The New York Sun

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