Who is paying for Detroit’s revamped November election?

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Detroit election officials at an Oct. 29 news conference are confident about November and a multimillion grant helped fund a necessary overhaul. (BridgeDetroit photo by Ralph Jones)

Detroit election officials are touting major upgrades to the way it is managing the November election. And those changes were paid for by a nonprofit that is helping 2,500 U.S. municipalities administer its November elections.  

“We’re in a wonderful place when it comes to poll workers,” said Janice Winfrey, Detroit City Clerk during a news conference at the TCF Center on Thursday. The convention center is where 1,800 poll workers will help process and count an expected 165,000 absentee ballots. 

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Having enough poll workers is one of the many differences between the November election and the August primary. A shortage of workers in the summer was partly to blame for an error-filled count of absentee ballots, Winfrey said.

More than 7,000 poll workers have been trained for the Nov. 3 election. The poll workers have gotten significant raises and their training was revamped. Many will work with new laptops that replace paper records of voter information.

Also since August, two veteran Detroit election officials were hired by the city as consultants to oversee the processing and counting of the record number of absentee ballots.  In addition, Detroit opened 23 satellite voting offices and 39 ballot drop boxes on Oct. 5. Those satellite offices and drop boxes will be accepting ballots until Nov.  3. 

All of these changes have Detroit election officials confident it can run a smooth election and ultimately produce an accurate count. 

“Pretty much all” of those behind-the-scenes changes were funded by $7.2 million in grants from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, Winfrey said. The City Clerk’s budget for this fiscal year is $2.5 million; the Department of Elections is $10.5 million and does not include the grant. 

The state of Michigan also supplied some federal funding to help for personal protective equipment and other hygiene supplies at polling locations, said a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State. The state also contributed federal funds to help pay for the ballot drop boxes.

But it was the nonprofit’s $7.2 million that was the main source of funding for the upgrades for November, Winfrey said. “Those grants were key,” she said. 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life was founded in 2012 by three people, who all appear to be Millennial-aged, with backgrounds in government, progressive politics and data management. The nonprofit declined repeated requests for interviews. Instead, it sent a series of emails with no name other than press@techandciviclife.org to respond to questions. 

The group has A-list financial supporters. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gave $300 million to the group this year. Other funders include Google, the Knight Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. 

Beyond Detroit, the group has awarded grants to 385 election departments in Michigan, including East Lansing, Flint and Wayne County. It has provided grant money to 2,500 local municipalities in 38 states, according to the group’s website. 

The three grants from the nonprofit sailed through Detroit City Council, gaining approval with no discussion. The contracts were approved during the council’s late August recess. Contracts can be approved during council recess if those contracts have a time element that can not wait until the members return to session. When Council returned in September and had a chance to discuss, or, delay the contracts, no council member made any comments.

The group is filling a major financial gap of cash-strapped local governments, two political analysts said. “It is a symptom of the underfunding of infrastructure around elections,” said Ken Kollman, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. That lack of funding comes from both the federal government but also due to a divided Michigan Legislature who can’t find the common ground to pay for election administration. 

Philanthropic funding and other public-private partnerships are not uncommon when it comes to election administration, said Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 

“What is unusual is for there to be such a dramatic failure to fund a basic government function,’ like administering an election, Weiser said. Local municipalities like Detroit had to make huge changes such as dealing with the surge in absentee ballots but the U.S. Congress didn’t provide any additional funding, Weiser said.

Private funding has risks if the money doesn’t have strict oversight from state and local agencies, she said. “Here it is being used to fund the governments’ own operations that the government itself was setting through its own processes. It wasn’t used to try to bypass government policy,” Weiser said. 

Some conservatives are objecting. Michigan is one of four states where lawsuits have been filed in federal courts. The funding translates into using government employees to influence the outcome of the presidential election, the suits contend. 

In Louisiana, the state Attorney General, a Republican, filed a lawsuit against local municipalities who applied for grants from the nonprofit. Last week, a Louisiana state district judge dismissed the suit. 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life, in a statement, called the Michigan lawsuit “frivolous.” The group has awarded grants to municipalities that include Oakland, Macomb and Livingston counties. 

“As election officials work to serve voters in these final weeks of the 2020 election, their most valuable asset is time,” the nonprofit’s statement said.  “This frivolous litigation is wasting election officials’ time at the voter’s expense, while also peddling misinformation.”

Editor’s note: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of BridgeDetroit.

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