A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a conservative group’s request to block more than $6.3 million in private federal election grants designated for five Wisconsin cities, including Madison.
U.S. District Judge William Griesbach denied the request for a temporary restraining order filed last month by Wisconsin Voters Alliance and six of its members. The group claims the money constitutes bribery to boost voting in progressive communities and only states have discretion on implementing federal elections.
Griesbach wrote in his ruling that the plaintiffs failed to show a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of the case.
Madison City Attorney Michael Haas said the cities’ motion to dismiss the case is pending at this point, but the decision allows those communities to continue to use the much-needed funds — which were announced this summer by the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTLC) — to administer the presidential election.
“The bottom line is the cities can continue to use the funds,” Haas said. “We were always confident that federal and state laws permitted the cities’ use of the grant funds to assist with the election. The election budgets for a lot of cities have been depleted because of the pandemic.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement the ongoing pandemic has put “tremendous strain” on the city clerk’s office.
“We hope this decision signals that voters should not be discouraged by attempts to create confusion about the election,” Rhodes-Conway said. “The City of Madison has done — and will continue to do — everything possible to ensure that all voters have the ability to participate in this important election.”
Under the grant, Madison has been allocated $1.3 million, Milwaukee $2.2 million, Green Bay $1.1 million, Kenosha $863,000 and Racine $942,000. CTCL says the group seeks to modernize elections and make them more professional, inclusive and secure.
Some of CTCL’s major funders include Google, Facebook and the Knight Foundation. The nonprofit’s $250 million in grants was funded by Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
CTCL said in a statement Griesbach’s decision was “recognition that these lawsuits are frivolous, peddle misinformation, and waste election officials’ time at the voter’s expense.”
“As a nonpartisan organization backed by Democrats, Republicans, and nonpartisan officials, we look forward to continuing this critical grant program in these unprecedented times,” CTCL said.
The organization said more than 2,300 election departments across the country have requested and received grant funding.
The plaintiffs claimed the grants constitute an impermissible public-private partnership, as CTCL has liberal leanings and that cities chosen by the group to receive funding show “high rates of progressive voters.” The majority of voters in all five Wisconsin cities voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
However, Griesbach wrote that “it is important to note that Plaintiffs do not challenge any of the specific expenditures the defendant Cities have made in an effort to ensure safe and efficient elections can take place in the midst of the pandemic that has struck the nation over the last eight months.”
“In other words, Plaintiffs do not claim that the defendant Cities are using funds to encourage only votes in favor of one party,” Griesbach wrote. “It is the mere acceptance of funds from a private and, in their view, left-leaning organization that Plaintiffs contend is unlawful.”
The plaintiffs also claimed in the lawsuit that the National Voter Registration Act, dubbed the “Motor Voter Act,” pre-empts CTCL’s grants. The act, passed in 1993, requires states to allow individuals to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver’s license. However, Wisconsin is one of a handful of states exempt from the act.
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The plaintiffs claimed the grants constitute an impermissible public-private partnership, as CTCL has liberal leanings. The majority of voters in all five Wisconsin cities receiving grants voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
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