Huge Tech Group Spurs Questions With $2M Election Grant to California County

Sophie Lehman departed her job as Contra Costa County’s supervisor of elections operations final June. A number of months later, Lehman was the purpose of contact for what finally can be a $2 million election grant for the California county going into the 2024 election cycle. 

Right this moment, Lehman is affiliate director of the Heart for Tech and Civic Life, which turned well-known in 2020 for doling out $350 million in election administration grants funded by Fb founder Mark Zuckerberg and his spouse. 

The nonprofit Heart for Tech and Civic Life went on to determine the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which features a associate group funded final April by liberal donor Arabella Advisors. 

Zuckerberg now not is funding election administration via donations, after nearly half the states enacted bans or restrictions on such non-public cash and members of Congress launched laws to limit non-public cash from paying for election administration. 

Staffers in Contra Costa County’s election workplace have been enthusiastic about being within the Alliance for Election Excellence. However that they had some trepidation in regards to the language of the contract, as proven by about 100 pages of communications with, or about, the Heart for Tech and Civic Life obtained by The Each day Sign.

Lehman, the previous Contra Costa election administrator, additionally was the purpose of contact for greater than a dozen different jurisdictions chosen to be helped with grants by the Alliance for Election Excellence, in line with emails obtained in The Each day Sign’s requests for public data in jurisdictions that belong to the alliance.

Nothing appears to recommend that Contra Costa County was handled otherwise from different jurisdictions within the election alliance’s aggressive course of. The county in California’s San Francisco Bay space, with a inhabitants of over 1 million, truly bought much less cash or a comparable quantity to run elections than did different jurisdictions accepted by the alliance. 

“Sophie left Contra Costa County in June,” Tommy Gong, the county’s deputy clerk-recorder, advised The Each day Sign in a cellphone interview late Monday. “We submitted our utility [for an election administration grant] in April, earlier than she left. There was no indication that she was going to work for the CTCL [Center for Tech and Civic Life]. We didn’t have details about the choice course of.”

Whitney Might, CTCL co-founder and director of presidency companies, previewed a go to by the Heart for Tech and Civic Life to Contra Costa County as a Heart for Election Excellence in an Aug. 11 e mail to officers there. 

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“Sophie Lehman, previously with Contra Costa County elections and now an affiliate director with CTCL, will probably be taking part within the web site go to,” Might wrote. “Sophie is managing the CTCL relationships with all Facilities, and transferring ahead, you’ll be able to consider Sophie as your CTCL level individual.”

Lehman labored for the county elections workplace for 5 years. 

The Each day Sign sought remark from each Lehman and the Heart for Tech and Civic Life’s press workplace for this report. Neither responded. 

‘Charitable and Academic’

In mid-December, Contra Costa County officers grew cautious about working with the Heart for Tech and Civic Life due to wording within the contract connected to the $2 million election administration grant. 

“CTCL has determined to make this grant to help actions which might be in line with these charitable and academic functions,” the contract says in a single part.

Deborah R. Cooper, then Contra Costa’s clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, requested the county’s authorized division in regards to the language. 

“Nonetheless, we can not conform to the extra change that they’ve proposed,” Cooper wrote in a Dec. 13 e mail to the county’s authorized group. “Particularly, they’d like to alter the needs part to learn ‘CTCL has determined to make this grant to help actions which might be in line with these charitable and academic functions.’”

Cooper’s message continues: “The phrases ‘charitable objective’  and ‘instructional objective’ have a particular that means underneath the tax code which might be particular to nonprofit organizations and, thus, would possibly limit the county’s inner use of the monies.”

The priority in regards to the phrases “schooling” and “charitable” emerged as a result of some political organizations use the phrases voter schooling when advocating sure candidates or points. Different nonprofit organizations that generally have interaction in public affairs points are outlined underneath the tax code as charitable organizations

Gong advised The Each day Sign that the contract’s language initially “raised purple flags” that Contra Costa  officers ought to make sure that the county wasn’t working with a nonprofit that might be engaged in voter schooling or outreach in favor of a particular candidate or poll initiative. 

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After a overview and negotiations in regards to the language, officers have been happy that’s not the case, the election administrator stated. 

“The membership and grant funds stipulate a dedication to nonpartisanship, that CTCL won’t ever try to affect the result of any election,” Gong stated in a follow-up e mail to The Each day Sign. 

Gong referred to contract language specifying that grant funds won’t be used “to aim to affect the result of any particular public election, or to take part in, or intervene in (together with the publishing or distributing of statements) any political marketing campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public workplace.” 

He added: “If there may be in any approach some inkling [of] partisanship or affect on this method when taking part in this system, we are going to instantly overview our membership and contemplate terminating it.”

‘Ugly Stepsister’

In October, the Election Infrastructure Initiative—arrange by CTCL founder Tina Epps-Johnson—issued a report titled “Administering the 2022 Midterm Elections: Chronicling the Election Wants of Native Election Officers.” 

Stuart Baum, CTCL’s advocacy affiliate, despatched the report back to Gong and different Contra Costa officers in an Oct. 18 e mail.

The report features a remark, attributed to “an area election official from California,” that claims: “Elections are all the time the ugly stepsister that the county solely reluctantly funds. We’re by no means excessive on the precedence listing.” 

In an Oct. 21 reply, Gong jokingly wrote: “Nice that you just began with my quote as being the ugly stepsister of the county. Thank god It’s [sic] nameless!”

Gong, beforehand clerk-recorder for San Luis Obispo County’s election workplace, advised The Each day Sign that he first heard the “ugly stepsister” phrase 20 years in the past in reference to election budgets.

Gong stated he understands the issues about non-public cash funding elections that led 24 states to enact bans on the follow. However, he stated, the core drawback is how well-resourced elections workplaces are.

“I perceive that perspective,” Gong stated in a cellphone interview. “However the total query is: Are elections being funded correctly? If election workplaces had what they wanted to do their job correctly, this wouldn’t be a difficulty.”

“Over the past 20 years, with HAVA [the Help America Vote Act of 2002] there are increasingly more necessities of election workplaces,” he stated. “With finances cuts, this generally is a pickle. So from the angle of election officers, [the question] is tips on how to get the job finished.”

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‘Pivot’ on Paying

Lehman, the previous Contra Costa County election official, despatched a Nov. 22 e mail to the county’s present election officers, expressing “congratulations” earlier than informing them of a “pivot.” The pivot meant the county must pay. 

“Along with celebrating your work, compliance with federal, state, and native legal guidelines is a prime precedence for the Alliance,” Lehman wrote, referring to the Alliance for Election Excellence. “Which means we’ve been assembly with Alliance companions and our professional authorized group to design a membership construction so jurisdictions from throughout the nation can take part in this system.”

“To be clear,” she added within the e mail, “it is a pivot from our authentic imaginative and prescient that might have provided Alliance programming totally free, and it displays our dedication to integrity and compliance.”

Her e mail goes on to notice: “The settlement will even describe scholarship choices obtainable to jurisdictions on a purely voluntary foundation the place such help is in line with relevant regulation.”

Contra Costa County opted for premium membership within the Alliance for Election Excellence, which price $4,800 a 12 months, and opted to simply accept a scholarship to pay for it, Gong stated. 

“We opted to reap the benefits of the scholarship for our taxpayers,” Gong stated. 

The election alliance’s scholarships are transformed into “credit” that member election workplaces might use to purchase companies from CTCL and different alliance companions, in line with a January report from the Trustworthy Elections Mission and the John Locke Basis. 

“In consequence, [election] workplaces obtain entry to funds they’ll spend completely on companies offered by left-wing corporations and nonprofits, fully exterior regular public funding channels,” that report says. “Based mostly on documentation obtained via the general public data course of, these companies vary from ‘authorized’ and ‘political’ consulting to public relations and steerage on recruitment and coaching.”

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