A top official within the Michigan Republican Party confirmed to The Michigan Star that the House Oversight Committee chaired by State Rep. Steven Johnson (R-72) is on the verge of holding a hearing on the role of a Detroit-based nonprofit in the 2020 election.
The Star broke the story on August 5 of how the Michigan Center for Election Law and Administration (MCELA) received a $12 million grant to support its purported purpose of “nonpartisan voter education” and then turned all but a sliver of the money over to two Democratic political consulting firms for a get-out-the-vote campaign.
Up until 2020, the “nonpartisan” nonprofit was led by Jocelyn Benson, the highly partisan Democratic secretary of state of Michigan. It is unclear exactly when Benson left that position, but it was not until September 2020 that her name no longer appears as an officer of the committee in the annual report. Coincidentally, that is the same month when the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR), a nonprofit funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, gave the $12 million grant to MCELA for the putative purpose of helping Michigan voters figure out how to navigate the supposed complexities of mail-in ballots.
During the 2020 election, Zuckerberg and Chan donated $350 million to the Center for Technology and Civic Life and an additional $69 million to the CEIR.
Since The Star’s story about MCELA’s Zuckerberg funding appeared on August 5, there has been no official response from state legislators but they have apparently been busy behind the scenes and could schedule a hearing as soon as late September or early October.
“Rep. Steve Johnson is aware of the story and is waiting to schedule a hearing when the Legislature is in session later this month,” said Paul Cordes, the Michigan GOP chief of staff. Cordes referred The Star to State Rep. Johnson for additional details, but Johnson, who is the chair of the Michigan House Oversight Committee, did not respond before this story was published.
In addition, State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-38) who chairs the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee, may have his own questions about the MCELA funding. In his controversial June 23 report dismissing most claims of election fraud in the 2020 election, there was one glaring gap. In the section dedicated to an investigation of “3rd Party/Private Funds Used for Public Election Activities and Equipment,” there was no report. Instead, the following sentence appeared:
“A summary of the work and findings on this issue is not finalized at this time and may be amended to this report at a later date.”
That amendment has not appeared yet, and according to a Senate staffer the oversight committee has not met on this issue since its June 23 report was issued. The staffer suggested that a new hearing might be held on private funding of election activities, including MCELA’s use of the Zuckerberg grants to hire two Democrat firms.
MCELA was formed in 2008, under the original name of The Richard Austin Center for Election Law and Administration, by Benson, who was elected Michigan secretary of state in 2018. In 2009, Benson removed herself as MCELA’s registered agent, possibly because she was running for secretary of state that year, but then resumed her role later after losing that election.
MCELA does not appear to be a “nonpartisan” organization. Benson, who has run as a Democratic candidate at least since 2010, was president of the nonprofit from 2011 through at least February of 2020 when the group’s secretary filed an annual report certifying that there had been no changes since the previous report in 2019 that listed Benson in the executive role. For some reason, Benson did not remove herself from the board when she ran for secretary of state in 2018, as she had done eight years previously.
Benson has been the Democratic secretary of state since January 2019, at which time she was still on the board of MCELA. Her assistant secretary of state, Heaster Wheeler, also served as a director of the MCELA from sometime in 2018 until at least February 28, 2020.
It wasn’t until the 2020 annual report for MCELA was filed with the state of Michigan in September 2020 that it became clear Benson and Wheeler were no longer on the board. That same month, September 2020, the Zuckerberg-funded CEIR announced it was giving the state of Michigan $12 million, part of its nationwide “Voter Education Grant Program to support states’ efforts to provide nonpartisan, accurate, and official voting information to the public.”
According to charitynavigator.org, MCELA reported it spent its $12 million grant on its mission to “support for the nonpartisan administration of elections through the production of research and resources geared toward enhancing the balanced implementation of election law and administration and to strengthen our democratic institutions and encourage citizens to be active in civic life through nonpartisan voter education efforts.”
The question of whether MCELA is indeed nonpartisan, and whether the money sent to Democratic political consultants was used for “nonpartisan voter education efforts” can only be answered by legislative inquiry, probably under subpoena.
The current board president of MCELA, Jen McKernan, did not respond to an inquiry from The Star for information on how the Zuckerberg money was spent. Neither did Waterfront Strategies nor Alper Strategies. They are not accountable to the public, perhaps explaining why the $12 million grant went to the nonprofit instead of the secretary of state’s office, which would have had to be transparent in its accounting.
If Michigan legislators do hold hearings on how third-party funding was used to influence public elections, then MCELA’s board members, both past and present, would likely be on the list of witnesses. So too would the owners or directors of Waterfront Strategies and Alper Strategies.
Here is a list of questions that Michigan legislators could ask witnesses who appear at any future hearings on third-party funding:
1) When did Benson step down as president of MCELA in 2020. Did she participate in the decision to apply for the $12 million grant from Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation?
2) The entire board was changed at the end of 2020. What prompted that wholesale shift? Did it have anything to do with the $12 million grant being awarded to MCELA?
3) Whose idea was it for MCELA to apply for the $12 million grant from Zuckerberg’s CEIR? In other states, the Zuckerberg money went directly to the offices of the secretaries of state, where transparency laws would ensure that the public could see all of the expenditures. Was there any accountability to the public provided to ensure that the money was spent in a nonpartisan manner as required by law?
4) Who recruited current president McKernan to take over as president? When?
5) Who recruited Ned Staebler to participate on the board of MCELA? Staebler is the individual who intimidated two Wayne County Board of Canvassers by saying they would be known as racists if they questioned the validity of the Wayne County election results.
6) Did the MCELA board ever have any discussion about the appropriateness of Benson and Wheeler participating on the board while they held elected office overseeing elections?
7) The MCELA lists its purpose as “nonpartisan voter education.” Was there ever any board discussion about the appropriateness of spending $12 million with Waterfront Strategies and Alper Strategies, two firms with extensive partisan ties to the Democratic Party?
8) What exactly did Waterfront and Alper do for the money? Can you provide a breakdown of how the money was spent by the two firms?
9) Where did Waterfront and Alper get the voter lists they used to contact people through email and text messages to encourage voting. Were these lists supplied by the secretary of state’s office? Were any lists used that had a partisan affiliation?
10) Will Waterfront and Alper provide those voter lists, and provide details of the breakdown between Republicans and Democrats on those lists, as well as records of how many Democrats versus Republicans were actually contacted via email and text messages to encourage voting?
11) McKernan said in an interview with Michigan public radio reporter Tracy Samilton that voters “who are being deluged” with text messages reminding them to vote could “get rid of them by simply voting.” Were these nuisance messages sent to all registered voters who had not yet voted, or could they be targeted to certain voter blocs who might be more likely to vote for one party over another?
12) Are board minutes and treasurer reports for MCELA available for 2020 and 2021? Please supply them to the committee in order to establish a timeline of when the committee positions rolled over to the new board and to establish any discussion regarding the Zuckerberg grant money, whether before the application or after.
13) Did the board have oversight of the campaigns run by Waterfront Strategies and Alper Strategies, or was the money just passed through to the political consultants without oversight?