Lawmakers Eye Private Money in Milwaukee Elections

Two dozen states banned the use of private money to finance election operations in response to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pouring part of his $400 million fortune into the 2020 election process. 

Wisconsin wasn’t one of them. 

An initiative to increase voter turnout, Milwaukee Votes 2022, involves private partners, including a Democrat aligned political communications company called GPS Impact.

A spokesman for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson told The Daily Signal that GPS Impact is “one of several” partners in the initiative, which Johnson announcedThis week at a conference. 

However, Wisconsin state legislators are still asking more questions. 

“This is Zuckerbucks 2.0,” said state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, a Republican who chairs the Wisconsin State Assembly’s Campaigns and Elections Committee.

Both the Assembly of Representatives and the State Senate are controlled by Republicans seeking documentsShowing communications between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and GPS Impact

No lawmaker is alleging that Zuckerberg is funding Milwaukee’s get-out-the-vote program. Rather, “Zuckerbucks” or “Zuck Bucks” have become nicknames for private money that pays for local or state election operations. 

A Wisconsin State Assembly appointed a special counsel issued a reportIt was discovered that some jurisdictions receiving Zuckerberg dollars may have engaged in an illegal get-out the vote operation and violated other state laws. 

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat vetoed a measure banning private dollars and private actors infiltrating the Badger State’s election administration offices. 

Wisconsin’s presidential election results in 2020 were close. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by around 20,000 votes. Biden won 79% of the vote at Milwaukee. 

Various nonprofit groups in 2020 orchestrated a “well-oiled machine of knowing what ballots are outstanding, who voted, who hasn’t voted” that allowed them “to do a real-time system of turning out the vote,” Brandtjen told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. 

“When we heard that they were using this group, this GPS Impact, if you look at the website it clearly is not nonpartisan,” the Republican lawmaker said. “They work for Democrats and progressives to win in states, including Wisconsin. That’s a complete set of red flags.”

She also stated that it was wrong for cities to work to turn out voters. 

“Municipalities are not supposed to be in the business of getting out the vote,” Brandtjen said. “Certainly, say [that]Today is the day for voting. Let’s make it public. But to know which people have voted and not voted, that’s not the job of municipalities. That’s the job of political parties.” 

GPS Impact’s Twitter account includes tweetsIt boasts about the Democrat politicians it works with at the state and federal levels, and boasts of recent work in defeating a pro-life Amendment to the Kansas Constitution. 

GPS Impact should not to be confused with Fusion GPS, a Washington-based opposition research organization that was involved in the false Trump Russia allegations. GPS Impact did not respond via email and phone to The Daily Signal regarding this report. 

Milwaukee Votes 2022 initiative began in May. But on Monday, the city’s mayor announced bigger plans for the program. 

“We’re doing more, and I’m going to be embracing outreach and engagement through what we’re calling ‘Milwaukee Votes 2022,’” Johnson, a Democrat, saidDuring the press conference. “As part of that, you will soon see a new website widget on many website pages.”

Robin Vos, Assembly Speaker, stated that the planned activity could be illegal. joint statementWith other Republican leaders. 

And these Republicans aren’t standing for it. Their statement is:

We demand that the city of Milwaukee stop assisting a liberal, privately funded group in their efforts only to engage with and turn out some voters. The city of Milwaukee’s promotion and coordination of potentially illegal activities under the guise of canvassing is why Wisconsin voters have lost confidence in our elections. It is wrong for any municipality support a get out-the-vote campaign.

Jeff Fleming, the mayor’s spokesman, said in an email Wednesday  to The Daily Signal that the city of Milwaukee neither receives nor provides money to support the Milwaukee Votes 2022 initiative.

“All the work is nonpartisan; none of the efforts support individual candidates or causes,” Fleming said. “The mayor wants all eligible Milwaukee residents to cast ballots in upcoming elections. He supports democracy and wants Milwaukeeans’ voices to be heard. The city works with any nonpartisan effort that encourages eligible voters to cast ballots.”

Fleming said he didn’t have specifics about the cost of the initiative or the funding sources, but elaborated that partners other than GPS Impact are involved. He said that plans were in place since May. 

“I do not have information about individuals, corporations, or foundations that are funding nonpartisan voter outreach,” Johnson’s spokesman said. “On May 24th, the mayor first announced this partnership—and that event was supported by the two largest business associations in the region, the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. Also at the event were a representative of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a group called ‘Souls to the Polls,’ and the League of Women Voters.”

Johnson stated to reporters that the effort will include going door to door. 

“Milwaukee Votes 2022 will also have door-to-door canvassers that will be underway, funded by the private sector,” Johnson said. “Dozens of canvassers will be face to face with eligible voters, encouraging them to exercise their right to vote for the November election. I’m not asking anybody to cast their ballots for one party or another or one candidate or another.”

When asked about it by The Daily Signal, Fleming said: “I am not familiar with the specifics of the work of the door-to-door outreach, other than they are not paid by the city.”

Brandtjen stated that a city-sponsored effort to go door-to-door to get the vote is still troubling. 

“There is no oversight of the going door-to-door that we know of,” the Republican state lawmaker said. “Can you imagine someone shows up from the city at your door to ask you if you’ve voted yet, or says, ‘I know you haven’t voted’? That could be perceived as massive intimidation.” 

Dan O’Donnell, a conservative talk radio host in Milwaukee, says that the city referred his questionsA GPS Impact staffer. He contacted the staffer and she said she was an informal adviser to the get out-the-vote initiative. 

“This doesn’t pass the smell test at all,” O’Donnell said in a phone interview with The Daily Signal. 

“It’s private money going into election operations in a city. I would classify this as extremely similar to Zuckerbucks,” the talk show host added. “The city working with a Democratic firm on a get-out-the-vote effort is pretty obviously a Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. The city shouldn’t be doing this.”

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