“Uneasy” Sanders County Election Officials Refused Zuckerberg Funds, Missoula County Stonewalling
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We reported last week that 30 of 56 Montana counties, including Missoula County, were granted funds from the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech & Civic Life. Grant funds were offered for “elections-related” expenses during the 2020 General Election including for expanding mail-in ballot access, increasing ballot drop-boxes, purchasing election software and machines, and voter outreach. Missoula County was granted $312,818 from the $350 million fund after approval from the Board of County Commissioners. The Foundation for Government Accountability, a government watchdog group, found that Zuckerberg’s fund distribution was heavily weighted toward increasing turnout in blue counties versus red counties.
After the story broke, Sanders County Election Administrator Nichol Scribner reached out to us to let us know that even though Sanders County was included in the CTCL Grants Award spreadsheet as being a grant recipient, election officials did not complete the disbursement forms to receive the funds citing terms of the grant that made Sanders County “uneasy.”
When we asked Scribner why Sanders County did not complete the disbursement forms to receive CTCL funds, she referenced an email CTCL sent to confirm grant reward status on October 7th, 2020. The line in the email that gave election officials in Sanders County pause read, “The application asked how you intend to spend the money, but it’s completely okay if your plans change! CTCL’s job is to get funding into your hands, then get out of your way.“
That didn’t sit right with Sanders County election officials. “We have never applied for any grant that allowed us to change our intent to spend without an amendment or something in writing. Usually, grant funds are very specific on what that money could be spent on. Them telling us we could change our plans made us uneasy,” Scribner said.
Sanders County election officials were also concerned about CTCL requirements that shared county payment information with two third-parties including the accounting firm Marcum LLP and Bill.com. “This also brought up questions for us because of the partnership with a 3rd party accounting firm and then the Bill.com. We do not like to give out our bank information unless the grantor has been fully vetted and deemed a trustworthy source. This was not the case and we began to feel uneasy with accepting any funding from this source,” Scribner told us.
We sent a public records request to Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman for a copy of the grant application and the CTCL agreement with the county, but Seaman indicated that the application was completed online and that only CTCL could provide access to the application. Sanders County election officials were immediately forthright with their CTCL application and the agreement. Seaman did provide a ledger of expenditures related to CTCL grant funds. We sent a public records request for several line items and will report back if and when we hear from Missoula County Elections officials.
We have also heard reported that Flathead County went so far as to withdraw their application from CTCL consideration. We have an email out to Flathead County Elections Administrator Debbie Pierson to learn more.
Brad Tschida (HD 97), who was also involved with a review of Missoula County ballot signature envelopes that saw major discrepancies, sent a letter out to Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen last week asking for details regarding expenditures and agreements the Zuckerberg-funded group had with the 30 counties in Montana. Tschida said that if he were running the Secretary of State’s office, he would have immediately directed every staff member to call applicable county elections administrators to get details of how much money was granted and how the funds were spent. We will update readers when the Secretary of State responds.
Update June 17, 2020, 11am: From Flathead County Elections Administrator Debbie Pierson, “Flathead County did not receive funding from CTCL. We initially expressed interest, however did not advance to award. We chose, instead, to utilize federal CARES Act funding. This support was specific to supplies/equipment necessary to adhere to COVID-19 protocols. No foundation or private dollars of any kind were used to support the election process in Flathead County.”