The Janesville City Council on Monday accepted a $183,292 election grant from an organization that has caused a stir in other areas of the state.
The council voted unanimously to approve a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve U.S. elections and encourage an engaged democracy via technology, data and research, according to its website.
The organization does not publicly take partisan policy positions, but some conservative groups have claimed the Center for Tech and Civic Life leans progressive, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said he wanted to make sure the council was aware of challenges other cities have faced before accepting the grant money.
The organization has granted $6.3 million to five other Wisconsin cities—Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine.
Those cities were named in a federal lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, claiming the grants should be considered bribery to help increase voter turnout in Democratic-leaning communities, according to the Associated Press.
Wisconsin Voters Alliance, a conservative group, claims in the lawsuit the grants violate federal election law.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life said in a statement the grants are open to every local election department to ensure safe elections during the coronavirus pandemic.
A map on the organization’s website indicates it has received applications from communities across the country, including in red and blue states.
Money for the grants was provided by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, Godek said.
Godek said he was made aware of the grant program by County Clerk Lisa Tollefson. He applied on behalf of the city expecting to receive maybe $5,000 or so and was shocked to learn the city was awarded more than $138,000, he said.
Godek said it is possible the city could be named in a lawsuit if the Wisconsin Voters Alliance or any other group chooses to pursue similar legal action against Janesville.
If that were to happen, the city’s insurance company would not cover legal costs, leaving costs and potential damages to be paid by taxpayers.
Two complaints about the grants filed with the Wisconsin Elections Commission have been dismissed.
Grant money would be used to ensure a safe and efficient voting process for everyone, not just one party, Godek said.
The city already has exceeded budgeted costs for postage and envelopes for absentee ballots by more than $18,000, according to a city memo, and those costs continue to grow as the Nov. 3 election approaches.
Costs have accrued to provide personal protective equipment for poll workers, to purchase a new ballot box to accommodate absentee ballots and for labor to prepare ballots.
Grant money not used to pay for budget overages could be used to purchase a ballot folding machine, paperless poll book technology and tablets for polling places to use to register voters on Election Day, Godek said.
Those costs would total between $85,000 and $100,000 and would increase efficiency in the long-term, Godek said.
Council members agreed the city’s use of grant money would not have partisan lean.
Doug Marklein said he thinks it is “small” for someone or some group to challenge the use of resources to help communities pay for elections.
“I am un-intimidated by this threat (of a lawsuit),” Marklein said.