BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Leadership in Brunswick County is calling into question the local board of elections’ participation in a private funding collaborative.
At the end of the Brunswick County commissioners meeting on Monday, commissioner Frank Williams introduced a resolution requesting the board of elections to remove itself as a member from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence. However, the ultimate decision can only be made by the Brunswick County board of elections members, who will take up the issue next month.
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The U.S. Alliance for Excellence is an $80-million, five-year program funded by The Audacious Project, a TED initiative. It launched in 2022 by a Chicago-based nonprofit of data technologists, researchers and election administrators to modernize U.S. elections called The Center for Tech and Civic Life.
The group funnels resources and networking opportunities to local election offices in an effort to improve election processes. It is the only private group accepted by the Brunswick County board of elections.
The resolution, passed unanimously by commissioners, also opposes the use of private money from “potentially partisan” sources in Brunswick County board of election funding.
“You don’t want anything to undermine the perceived integrity of your elections,” commissioner Williams told Port City Daily Thursday. “I think our board of elections does a great job, I think Sarah [LaVere] is a great director. I just don’t want that cloud hanging over them.”
The resolution states “controversy has arisen” over the board of elections’ membership in the alliance, which began officially in January.
The resolution falsely claims the Center for Tech and Civic Life is funded by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech billionaires. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated $350 million to CTCL, plus $50 million to the Center for Election Innovation and Research, to fund election infrastructure insufficiencies exacerbated or caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The funds covered voting equipment, personal protection equipment for poll workers and hiring additional poll staff.
Brunswick County was one of 2,500 local boards of election to receive a $67,000 grant. BOE Director Sara LaVere said the money was used to fund temporary employees to facilitate absentee ballots, which increased exponentially in 2020.
“It was insane,” LaVere said. “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.”
Zuckerberg’s grants, referred to as “Zuck bucks” by naysayers, were criticized by conservatives who claimed, without evidence, the money was an attempt to sway the election in President Joe Biden’s favor. Several Republican-controlled legislatures banned private donations to election boards in response. Eleven states passed a ban in 2021, when a similar bill was vetoed by the North Carolina General Assembly.
In April 2022, Zuckerberg confirmed that he would not dole out more money to the benefiting organizations, stating the grants were a one-time donation. CTCL announced its move to the current funding model through TED that same month.
The public’s perception of these events, despite CTCL’s label as nonpartisan, has WIlliams concerned for the integrity of Brunswick County elections.
“Perception is reality,” Williams said. “And I’ve been involved in politics for 35 years, and they’re a legion of groups that call themselves nonpartisan that aren’t on both sides of the aisle.”
Williams told Port City Daily, while he has received a few complaints from constituents about the alliance membership, he was alerted to potential problems by state leaders and election lawyers.
“I was in Raleigh touring a law firm where one of my former clients works and an attorney who works there, who’s an election law attorney, said, ‘Why are y’all involved with this Zuckerbucks thing?’” Williams said.
The elections office began working with CTCL in the last few months of 2022, attending virtual meetings and one in-person conference before making its membership official this year. The only funding received thus far is travel expense reimbursement for the trip — estimated at $2,000.
According to the alliance’s website, it provides local election offices with customized resources, coaching, and implementation support. It also offers a “support system” for administrative needs through other member offices across the country. Its partners include The Center for Civic Design, The Elections Group, and the Institute for Design at Stanford, among others.
It was the latter component that attracted LaVere to the program.
“Just the opportunity to network with other local election administrators, just to get to talk about the administrative ways that we do things,” LaVere said. “We don’t get much opportunity for that kind of interaction with people that do the job we do.”
Beyond networking, LaVere said she wasn’t sure what other offerings from the alliance her team will take advantage of in the future. She added Williams’ resolution is not the first time she’s heard criticism of the alliance — which the program outlines how it can help address on its website — but she’s letting officials sort it out.
“To be honest, I feel like some of the opinions about it have entered a political realm and, you know, I’m kind of taking a backseat,” LaVere said.
However, Williams stated his views extend to organizations of all beliefs.
“I wouldn’t want it to be NRA; I wouldn’t want it to be the Sierra Club,” he said. “I think that keeps the integrity of it — have the government managing the election funding.”
Brunswick County board of elections chair Boyd Williamson, a Democrat, said aside from rumblings about the alliance in the General Assembly, he didn’t think any potential problems were on the county’s radar. Still, he asked LaVere to put it on the board’s March 21 agenda the preceding Friday.
“Let’s just discuss — no action be taken — what was going on,” Williamson said. “On Saturday, I get an email from one of the board members saying this thing is blowing up. And then Monday I get a call from one of the county commissioners saying we’re going to bring a resolution to the board of commissioners to just disassociate Brunswick County from the alliance.”
The resolution states the commissioners have received multiple requests for them to force the board of elections to terminate its alliance membership; however, the board of elections, as an independent organization, is the sole authority over the membership.
“Let me just say that you’re talking about a board made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — they may have said, ‘Well, you know, let’s move with it, but let’s just move cautiously,’ but I don’t think this was on their radar,” Williamson said.
Both Williams and Williamson cited the General Assembly as the source of the commissioners’ resolution, which also explicitly supports the passage of Senate Bill 89. The legislation is a return of the vetoed bill from 2021 and bans private money used to conduct elections or hire temporary employees.
The bill, sponsored by New Hanover County’s Sen. Michael Lee, has been sitting in committee since Feb. 13.
Instead of partnering with the alliance, Williams advocates for alternatives to the alliance where membership fees and travel expenses can be worked into the board of elections’ budget. Williams offered up the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal government agency, as an example.
For Williamson, the board of elections’ membership with the alliance was never about receiving more money. The board of elections’ expenditures have reached a little over $1 million for the last several years. Williamson said the partnership was more aimed at streamlining elections processes and making them more understandable for voters.
“The county commissioners, they fully fund us,” Williamson said. “And most anything that we asked for, they fully fund us because they know they don’t want an election to fall apart.”
After tabling the resolution Tuesday, the board of elections will discuss it and the office’s membership in the alliance at its April 18 meeting.
“I will not let anything interfere or call into question the integrity or legality of the Brunswick County election process,” Williamson said. “If it means not being associated with any organization, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but I have to be convinced that that’s what the problem is.”
The board of elections may vote next month to remove itself from a collaboration network due to perceived political ties.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com
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