BRUNSWICK COUNTY — One thought was prevalent among community members speaking at the Brunswick County Board of Elections Tuesday: The board, including Director Sara LaVere, is doing a superior job.
So what is behind the calls for the office to cut ties from an election modernization group and reject private money?
For many people — and two board of elections’ members — it’s what could happen. Even just the perception of something that looks like election influence at the Brunswick elections office would be problematic.
“This contract ought to be nullified in order to eliminate the appearance of fraudulent practices and restore the confidence in our election process,” resident Mel Foles said during the meeting.
Last month, county commissioners passed a resolution strongly suggesting Brunswick County’s BOE oppose private money in elections. It also requested the board terminate its membership in the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which the office officially joined in January.
At the Tuesday meeting, the board of elections voted to reject that request. The board voted along party lines, with the three Democrats — chair Boyd Williamson, Paula Clarity and Edward Lewis — making up the majority.
The board then took a subsequent vote, also passing 3-2, committing to remain a member of the alliance for the duration of its agreement, ending January 2024.
The U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which funnels election process improvement resources and networking opportunities to local election offices across the nation, is nonpartisan. Yet, Brunswick commissioners, all Republican, claimed the group’s indirect ties to Mark Zuckerberg and other liberal tech billionaires compromised the office’s reputation and opened the election process up to liberal influence.
The commissioners’ resolution was sent to the board of elections, which met the day after the resolution was passed on March 20. Though Republican board member Randy Pelton suggested the board comply with the commissioners’ request, the ultimate decision was to table the discussion. Pelton’s stance hadn’t changed, however, by Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think what we have is that Republicans are very concerned about outside influence and Democrats either aren’t concerned or hope that the Republicans are correct,” Pelton said. “I think if we do not eliminate this agreement, we’re going to continue to have concerns in Brunswick County about our election and our credibility.”
The U.S. Alliance for Excellence is an $80-million, five-year program launched in 2022 by a Chicago-based nonprofit, The Center for Tech and Civic Life, made up of data technologists, researchers and election administrators.
Despite many claims to the contrary, the alliance is funded through The Audacious Project, a TED initiative — not the CTCL. However, the CTCL is a partner of the alliance.
It is the connection to the CTCL that draws the ire of those against the election office’s alliance membership.
CTCL is a center-left election reform advocacy group formed in 2012. The group offers courses to election offices across the country on topics like building an election website, poll worker best practices and cybersecurity, while also offering tech resources and tools.
“Participation in the organization allows the county to share best practices with other jurisdictions nationwide and potentially learn new processes related to election integrity, efficiency and potential threats — this is critically important,” resident Gary Laski said at the meeting. “Constant improvement is always necessary… The county is growing rapidly. Technology is changing and election integrity and competence and the process has got to be maintained.”
CTCL’s — and subsequently the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence’s — promotion of more accessible mail-in voting, targeting hard-to-reach voters, and ballot drop-off education have been labeled liberal-leaning tactics.
CTCL is also funded by many left-of-center groups, such as the Skoll Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Democracy Fund.
However, the most controversial part of the CTCL was its acceptance of $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan in the months leading up to the 2020 election.
The center then distributed those funds to thousands of county and city elections officials across the U.S. in the form of grants. The money was intended for the hiring of more staff, more mail-in ballot processors, and other measures needed to fill in the gaps between county funding due to the unforeseen challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Brunswick County elections office accepted a $67,000 grant. LaVere said the funds were used to hire temporary employees to facilitate absentee ballots, which increased exponentially in 2020.
“It was insane,” LaVere told Port City Daily last month. “And so we had to bring in more people than we initially budgeted for to help us with processing those requests and getting the ballots out.
After the grant dissemination, which the Zuckerbergs stated were one-time payments, several Republican-controlled legislatures banned private donations to election boards in response. Eleven states passed a ban in 2021; a similar bill in North Carolina was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper. That initiative has been revived this legislative session by Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover).
Many conservatives, including the author of the commissioners’ resolution Frank Williams, tout the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is funded by the Zuckerbergs — that claim is false. The Zuckerbergs have no direct involvement with the alliance.
Although the alliance is officially nonpartisan, its members and partners are connected to left-of-center groups by funding and advising.
The Audacious Project — the alliance’s sponsor — is supported by the Bridgespan Group and Science Philanthropy Alliance. The latter is a project of the left-of-center New Venture Fund, which the conservative nonprofit Capital Research Center has labeled a multi-billion-dollar “dark money” network run by consulting firm Arabella Advisors.
“I also understand that there’s a funding component to membership in the alliance and this is a primary concern,” resident Laski said. “This isn’t unreasonable, especially if the funding comes with partisan strings. Concerns over undue influence, should that ever occur, can be identified and prevented through proper oversight, which is already in place.”
For those Brunswick County residents speaking against the membership, the alliance’s entanglements with liberal thinkers is enough of a justification to sever ties with the organization.
Several mentioned lawsuits and investigations into CTCL in other states, which mostly center around the Zuckerberg grants — again, not part of the alliance’s activities.
The right-of-center watchdog group Center for Renewing America filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in September alleging CTCL had violated rules prohibiting nonprofits from interfering in elections, arguing the Zuckerberg grants fell outside of the charitable activity designation. Other investigations have occurred in Louisiana, Wisconsin and Georgia.
According to the Associated Press, much of the CTCL grants election offices in urban areas that have traditionally supported Democrats; however, the CTCL stated it gave funding to every office — nearly 2,500 — that requested it.
Of the alliance’s selected jurisdictions for its slice of the $80 million pie, five lean Republican, a minority. The office selections include Contra Costa and Shasta counties in California; Greenwich, Connecticut; Kane and Macoupin counties in Illinois; Ottawa County, Michigan; Clark County, Nevada; Brunswick and Forsyth counties in North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin.
According to the alliance’s membership agreement, it states it will never “touch live ballots or ballot tabulating equipment, give legal advice, or require you to implement specific advice or recommendations.”
So far, the Brunswick County elections office has only received one financial contribution from the U.S. Alliance of Election Excellence — a $2,000 reimbursement for LaVere’s travel expenses to a conference. This is separate from the grant it received from the CTCL.
As LaVere told Port City Daily and reiterated at the Tuesday meeting, her interest in joining the alliance was never about receiving grants, which begin at $50,000; it was about networking with other elections offices across the nation to collaborate on best practices.
In fact, election offices have to pay the alliance to be a member. The Brunswick County elections office has a premium membership, which costs $4,800 a year. However, the alliance covered the officer’s membership fee through its scholarship program.
The membership includes:
- Access to a curated selection of publicly-accessible administration resources, document templates and training materials
- Almost $4,000 in credits to be used toward center-specific coaching and consulting from the alliance’s partners, including the Institute for Design at Stanford and The Center for Secure and Modern Elections, among others
- Additional multi-center group coaching sessions
- Invitations to live and recorded trainings
In return, the office is expected to exchange information with the alliance to develop “values and standards for election excellence.” The office agrees to do this by:
- Attending and participating in alliance events to develop the standards, as well as measurements, tools, trainings and materials to help election offices achieve the standards
- Provide written and verbal feedback on material related to the standards
- Share local best practices as well as nonconfidential forms, documents, or templates to be used as models
- Share non-sensitive, nonconfidential technical data and usage statistics
- Offer support to alliance partners and other centers
“Underneath Sara[’s signature] is the assistant Brunswick County attorney, so it’s not like this came out of nowhere,” board member Clarity said during the meeting. The county knew about this and [Bryan Batton] approved of it, so the reasons are unbeknownst to me why this all of a sudden became an issue.”
She went on to urge those concerned about election integrity to follow in her footsteps.
“Volunteer, become a poll worker, go to your party, they have watchdogs,” Clarity said. “I mean, that’s how I became where I’m sitting right now.”
LaVere said she has used resources from the alliance Center for Tech and Civic Life and the alliance’s other partners, including templates for a pocket voter guide, social media posts and columns. She has also attended training and symposiums with the Democracy Fund and the CTCL.
Many of the speakers against the membership said they trusted the board and LaVere’s leadership — including Brunswick County Republican Party chair Bill Moore. Most did not believe she would take action that favored one party over the other, yet still speakers said they did not trust the alliance. One resident quoted talking points from another election group.
“Jason Snead, executive director of Honest Elections Project, said this is an attempt to burrow into the very core of election offices and influence the way they think and operate at a very granular level,” Tom Russell said. “Brunswick participation in these nonprofits is extremely troubling.”
Snead also submitted a written comment to the board of elections, imploring members to weigh any potential benefits with the loss of public trust.
According to NPR, HEP registered business alias for The 85 Fund. The tax-exempt organization has “millions of dollars in donations and spending that are hard to trace, and ties to Leonard Leo — the Federalist Society’s co-chairman and former executive vice president who helped build the Supreme Court’s majority of conservative justices.”
HEP also labels itself nonpartisan, though it advocates for more restrictive voting practices, such as stricter requirements for mail-in voting and extending voting privileges to incarcerated voters and door-to-door ballot collection.
Speakers defending Brunswick BOE’s U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence membership called the attempts to terminate it a regurgitation of national news talking points.
“I hope we can avoid our county election staff being politicized,” resident Ray Gilbert said in the meeting. “Managed because of a hasty, baseless partisan conspiracy theories advanced by the county commission … You’re either the backbone of democracy or you can be the doorway to anarchy … if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
While some speakers pointed out eight men were indicted in 2022 for voter fraud in Brunswick County — which was discovered through the election office’s routine screening process — pro-membership representatives said the naysayers were largely hyper-fixating on a non-issue. Some went so far as to say they were buying into a conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen, a claim that has been investigated and found to be untrue by President Donald Trump-nominated U.S. Attorney General William Barr, several Trump-appointed judges and an exhaustive fact check by the Associated Press.
According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the 2020 presidential election was the most secure in American history.
“The only reason we’re here today is because Trump lost, but just because you’ve lost, that doesn’t mean you need to tear down the whole system,” resident Stirling Anderson said. “You don’t cry and whine and try to tear down the United States of America because you lost in an election.”
Other pro-membership speakers claimed LaVere was utilizing opportunities not covered by the county commissioners, who provide funding to the elections office.
“Private funding would not be necessary if the Republican-run General Assembly and the county commission provided adequate funding to the board of elections,” resident Christine Garrity said.
LaVere clarified the commissioners provided enough funding to pay for running an election, but there is not much “above and beyond” that.
Board of elections chair Wiliamson asked LaVere how much money county staff requested she cut from this year’s budget.
“The administration sent my budget request back and asked me to remove $350,000 from it,” LaVere said. “[I removed] some items I was going to purchase this year, I removed the participation in the national certification, and the rest I took out of 10 part-time employees.”
After the vote on Tuesday, the Brunswick County Democratic Party issued a statement on the board of elections’ decision, harking back to the many comments in support of the board’s current leadership.
“We expect all those seated on this board, regardless of political affiliation, to present the facts vs. political tropes, to dispel false perceptions, and to support Director LaVere and her staff,” party chair Shelley Allen said in a press release. “The BOE staff would not participate in the Alliance if it threatened election integrity. They have an unimpeachable track record, and shame on those who would question their integrity.”
As one speaker put it at the meeting: Only time will tell how the relationship with the alliance pans out.
“Seems some folks have been up here talking about what a great deal the alliance is,” resident Clayton Williams said. “As I understand it, it only came into being a year ago this month. “The real effect can only be measured as we go into the future.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated LaVere removed 10 part-time employee payment from this year’s budget. The correct statement was she removed temp and part-time payments. PCD regrets the error.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org