Big Tech Group Spurs Questions With $2M Election Grant to California County
Sophie Lehman departed her job as Contra Costa County’s manager of elections operations last June. Several months later, Lehman was the point of contact for what eventually would be a $2 million election grant for the California county going into the 2024 election cycle.
Today, Lehman is associate director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which became well known in 2020 for doling out $350 million in election administration grants funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.
The nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life went on to establish the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which includes a partner organization funded last April by liberal donor Arabella Advisors.
Zuckerberg no longer is funding election administration through donations, after almost half the states enacted bans or restrictions on such private money and members of Congress introduced legislation to restrict private money from paying for election administration.
Staffers in Contra Costa County’s election office were excited about being in the Alliance for Election Excellence. But they had some trepidation about the language of the contract, as shown by about 100 pages of communications with, or about, the Center for Tech and Civic Life obtained by The Daily Signal.
Lehman, the former Contra Costa election administrator, also was the point of contact for more than a dozen other jurisdictions chosen to be helped with grants by the Alliance for Election Excellence, according to emails obtained in The Daily Signal’s requests for public records in jurisdictions that belong to the alliance.
Nothing seems to suggest that Contra Costa County was treated differently from other jurisdictions in the election alliance’s competitive process. The county in California’s San Francisco Bay area, with a population of over 1 million, actually got less money or a comparable amount to run elections than did other jurisdictions accepted by the alliance.
“Sophie left Contra Costa County in June,” Tommy Gong, the county’s deputy clerk-recorder, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview late Monday. “We submitted our application [for an election administration grant] in April, before 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 information about the selection process.”
Whitney May, CTCL co-founder and director of government services, previewed a visit by the Center for Tech and Civic Life to Contra Costa County as a Center for Election Excellence in an Aug. 11 email to officials there.
“Sophie Lehman, formerly with Contra Costa County elections and now an associate director with CTCL, will be participating in the site visit,” May wrote. “Sophie is managing the CTCL relationships with all Centers, and moving forward, you can think of Sophie as your CTCL point person.”
Lehman worked for the county elections office for five years.
The Daily Signal sought comment from both Lehman and the Center for Tech and Civic Life’s press office for this report. Neither responded.
‘Charitable and Educational’
In mid-December, Contra Costa County officials grew cautious about working with the Center for Tech and Civic Life because of wording in the contract attached to the $2 million election administration grant.
“CTCL has decided to make this grant to support activities that are consistent with these charitable and educational purposes,” the contract says in one section.
Deborah R. Cooper, then Contra Costa’s clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, asked the county’s legal department about the language.
“However, we cannot agree to the additional change that they have proposed,” Cooper wrote in a Dec. 13 email to the county’s legal team. “Specifically, they’d like to change the purposes section to read ‘CTCL has decided to make this grant to support activities that are consistent with these charitable and educational purposes.’”
Cooper’s message continues: “The terms ‘charitable purpose’ and ‘educational purpose’ have a specific meaning under the tax code that are specific to nonprofit organizations and, thus, might restrict the county’s internal use of the monies.”
The concern about the words “education” and “charitable” emerged because some political organizations use the terms voter education when advocating certain candidates or issues. Other nonprofit organizations that sometimes engage in public affairs issues are defined under the tax code as charitable organizations
Gong told The Daily Signal that the contract’s language initially “raised red flags” that Contra Costa officials should ensure that the county wasn’t working with a nonprofit that would be engaged in voter education or outreach in favor of a specific candidate or ballot initiative.
After a review and negotiations about the language, officials were satisfied that’s not the case, the election administrator said.
“The membership and grant funds stipulate a commitment to nonpartisanship, that CTCL will never attempt to influence the outcome of any election,” Gong said in a follow-up email to The Daily Signal.
Gong referred to contract language specifying that grant funds will not be used “to attempt to influence the outcome of any specific public election, or to participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
He added: “If there is in any way some inkling [of] partisanship or influence in this manner when participating in the program, we will immediately review our membership and consider terminating it.”
In October, the Election Infrastructure Initiative—set up by CTCL founder Tina Epps-Johnson—issued a report titled “Administering the 2022 Midterm Elections: Chronicling the Election Needs of Local Election Officials.”
Stuart Baum, CTCL’s advocacy associate, sent the report to Gong and other Contra Costa officials in an Oct. 18 email.
The report includes a comment, attributed to “a local election official from California,” that says: “Elections are always the ugly stepsister that the county only reluctantly funds. We’re never high on the priority list.”
In an Oct. 21 reply, Gong jokingly wrote: “Great that you started with my quote as being the ugly stepsister of the county. Thank god It’s [sic] anonymous!”
Gong, previously clerk-recorder for San Luis Obispo County’s election office, told The Daily Signal that he first heard the “ugly stepsister” phrase 20 years ago in reference to election budgets.
Gong said he understands the concerns about private money funding elections that led 24 states to enact bans on the practice. But, he said, the core problem is how well-resourced elections offices are.
“I understand that perspective,” Gong said in a phone interview. “But the overall question is: Are elections being funded properly? If election offices had what they needed to do their job properly, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
“Over the last 20 years, with HAVA [the Help America Vote Act of 2002] there are more and more requirements of election offices,” he said. “With budget cuts, this can be a pickle. So from the perspective of election officials, [the question] is how to get the job done.”
‘Pivot’ on Paying
Lehman, the former Contra Costa County election official, sent a Nov. 22 email to the county’s current election officials, expressing “congratulations” before informing them of a “pivot.” The pivot meant the county would have to pay.
“In addition to celebrating your work, compliance with federal, state, and local laws is a top priority for the Alliance,” Lehman wrote, referring to the Alliance for Election Excellence. “This means that we’ve been meeting with Alliance partners and our expert legal team to design a membership structure so jurisdictions from across the country can participate in the program.”
“To be clear,” she added in the email, “this is a pivot from our original vision that would have offered Alliance programming for free, and it reflects our commitment to integrity and compliance.”
Her email goes on to note: “The agreement will also describe scholarship options available to jurisdictions on a purely voluntary basis where such support is consistent with applicable law.”
Contra Costa County opted for premium membership in the Alliance for Election Excellence, which cost $4,800 a year, and opted to accept a scholarship to pay for it, Gong said.
“We opted to take advantage of the scholarship for our taxpayers,” Gong said.
The election alliance’s scholarships are converted into “credits” that member election offices may use to buy services from CTCL and other alliance partners, according to a January report from the Honest Elections Project and the John Locke Foundation.
“As a result, [election] offices receive access to funds they can spend exclusively on services provided by left-wing companies and nonprofits, entirely outside normal public funding channels,” that report says. “Based on documentation obtained through the public records process, these services range from ‘legal’ and ‘political’ consulting to public relations and guidance on recruitment and training.”
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