Kane County GOP sees $2M grant as Democratic election interference

Kane County Republicans fear money comes with Democratic strings

Kane County Republicans are rallying to block a $2 million grant they believe is a Trojan horse that will introduce Democratic influence into how local elections are run.

"The public must participate to stop this corruption," read a post by the Kane County GOP in several local Facebook groups that share conservative viewpoints. The posts encouraged local Republicans to pressure the Kane County Board to reject the grant, and they packed the room during a recent board meeting.

Michelle Brickert Bettag, a St. Charles resident, called the money a rebranding of "Zuckerbucks" and "dirty money" with hidden obligations.

"When in American history do we accept money from private funds to operate our elections?" she said. "This money could be deemed unconstitutional at some point."

The reference to Zuckerbucks is at the heart of why some local Republicans believe the $2 million grant comes with liberal strings.

The money comes from the U.S. Alliance of Election Excellence. It's a creation of the Chicago-based Center for Technology and Civic Life.

Tianna Epps Johnson and Whitney May are the co-founders of the center. Epps-Johnson is a former Obama Fellow. Epps-Johnson and May were at the New Organizing Institute, which trained Democratic Party operatives in digital campaign techniques, right before founding the Center for Technology and Civic Life.

The center founded the U.S. Alliance with an $80 million grant from the Audacious Project, an arm of TED (known for its TED Talks). That $80 million ultimately traces back to donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Skoll Foundation (Jeff Skoll was the first president of eBay), the Valhalla Foundation (co-created by Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit) and Virgin Unite (founded by Richard Branson).

Local Republicans see that money and pool of donors as akin to the more than $400 million Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated to local election offices around the country ahead of the 2020 elections. There are varying reports about how that money was used at local levels, but Zuckerberg has said the intent of the money was to fund COVID-19 safety precautions.

Following former President Donald Trump's failed reelection bid, some Republicans pointed to the Zuckerberg donations as influencing the outcome. As a result, several GOP-led states, like Florida, have banned such donations.

Defenders of such donations, including the Center for Technology and Civic Life, point to what they see as a reluctance by Republicans to fund the operation of elections at the local and federal levels as the reason outside donations are needed.

In Kane County, the clerk's office already used a $350,000 grant for assistance in the 2020 election. The money purchased a printer to print election ballots in-house and a scanner to input paper documents.

Deputy Clerk John Duggan told the Republican protesters at the meeting the funds were "used 100% for purposes of election integrity. If you want to keep ranting about corruption, tell me one dollar that was misspent."

Duggan also acknowledged the ultimate source of the grant money.

"The money came from a bunch of billionaires in Silicon Valley," Duggan said. "I'd rather we have it. The only other option (to help fund local elections) is we increase our tax levy. I'd rather have us minimize our tax levy."

Duggan said the $2 million grant likely would go toward the replacement of aging voting machines.

The clerk's office, which is run by Republican Jack Cunningham, applied for the money and says it is the recipient. But an opinion by the Kane County state's attorney's office points to wording in the grant notification that says Kane County is the grant recipient.

The only way the county board has a say over whether Cunningham, an independently elected official, can have the grant is if the county, not the clerk, is the grant recipient. County officials are now working on getting clarification from the Center for Technology and Civic Life about who controls the funds once (or if) they are awarded.

If the county board has the final say, there will be at least one vote against keeping the money.

David Young, who won his seat on the county board in November as an "America first conservative," said he sees a lot of red flags about the grant. He's concerned, for instance, that the center may push the clerk's office to purchase election equipment from specific vendors. And he believes the center isn't transparent enough about where all its funding comes from.

"When you look on their 990 form, there are zero contributions listed," Young said. "That is the definition of dark money. That's the main reason why people are here. They don't trust it."

The grant will be discussed again at the county board's public service committee meeting Thursday.

  The Kane County clerk's office - run by Republican Jack Cunningham - is poised to receive a $2 million grant from the U.S. Alliance of Election Excellence. But some local Republicans are calling on the Kane County Board to reject the grant. Rick West/, August 2020
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