The Common Council met for over five hours last week, where they approved the demolition of St. John’s Church on East Washington, passed a change to zoning regulations along the city’s bus routes, and accepted a $1.5 million dollar grant to help run elections.
The grant, from the Chicago-based nonprofit the Center for Tech and Civic Life, will come in two batches, with half a million dollars coming before the February 21 primary election, and one million dollars coming next year. The money will be used to administer two elections in 2023, the spring primary and general elections, and four elections in 2024.
It’s not the first time Madison has received money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. During the peaks of the pandemic in 2020, Madison received $1.3 million dollars from the group to, in part, help purchase absentee ballot drop boxes for the 2020 presidential election. Back in October of 2020, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said that the money was needed to help the city run a safe and secure election.
“We got a 1.3 million dollar grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to assist us with putting on a healthy safe and secure election during the covid-19 pandemic. And that grant has gone to cover costs like the drop boxes, and the additional costs for printing and mailing absentee ballots.”
Last July, the State Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes cannot be used in elections, and now those dropboxes serve as public art pieces throughout Madison.
That election grant in 2020 caused a flurry of lawsuits, all of which have been thrown out, reports Wisconsin Public Radio.
But even without the expensive ballot boxes, running an election isn’t cheap. Jim Verbick, Deputy Clerk for the city of Madison, says that when local elections come around every two years, those elections cost more than a state or federal election. That’s because whoever is holding the election is responsible for the brunt of the cost.
“We budget for this year around $700,000 for just election official wages,” Verbick says. “Election supplies are about $130,000, (There is) hardware supplies, occasionally we order, say, new express vote machines, which I think we have about $12,000 for that, and then just supplies here and there.”
Verbick says that, although they haven’t determined exactly where the money from the grant goes, it will be used to pay poll workers, and to hire the appropriate number of staff to keep the spring election running as smoothly as possible.
Even with multiple court cases determining that Madison’s use of the money was fully legal, Republicans in the state Legislature are looking to change that with a constitutional amendment to ban the use of private grants or donations in administering elections.
Last year, both the state Senate and Assembly approved a constitutional amendment banning the use of private grants and donations for election administration for the first time. Now, in order for that amendment to go before voters in the April 4 general election, the Legislature has until tomorrow to approve it a second time.
Constitutional amendments need to be approved by two consecutive sessions of the state legislature, before being placed on the ballot. If the amendment is approved by voters, then the amendment becomes enshrined in the state constitution.
Notably, the Governor cannot intervene with his veto power in the constitutional amendment process. Meanwhile, GOP Legislators have twice attempted to simply pass a bill that bans private election grants, and both were vetoed by Governor Evers.
As of today, the amendment has not yet been introduced. But even if legislators don’t pass it in time for the April election, they still have until the end legislative session to get it on the ballot eventually.
If that constitutional amendment passes, city attorney Mike Haas says that, while it wouldn’t affect money used to administer elections before then, it would cause issues going forward.
“Now whether or not the city could continue to expend any funds that had already been applied for and accepted, I think that’s a question we would need to look more closely at,” Haas says. “There may be an issue with continuing to spend funds, but I think we also would need to wait to receive proper guidance either from the legislature or the Wisconsin Elections Commission to verify whether or not any funds that had been received and not been spent could be used for elections after a referendum like that passes.”
The amendment is one of several that could appear on the spring ballot. Another constitutional amendment, which would make it harder for individuals to get out of jail on bail, is headed before voters in the spring election this April. That amendment was approved by the state assembly last week.
Photo courtesy: WORT Flickr