St. Louis County Council members will not vote until next week on whether to accept a $2 million grant to ensure local election officials have enough staffing, training and equipment to administer the November 3 election.
The grant, funded by Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), is one of several awarded to election boards in the area and throughout Missouri to help with extra costs the COVID-19 pandemic has created for the election. The CTCL received a $250 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, which is being re-granted to local election authorities throughout the country.
Democratic Director of Elections Eric Fey said the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners applied for the grant in early September in a bipartisan effort with Republican Director of Elections Rick Stream.
“The main things we plan to use it for is the additional overtime costs, the additional cost of temporary employees we have hired and to give some additional hazard pay to the poll workers,” Fey said. “We also have had some pretty significant increases in our mailing costs because of the increase in mail ballots because this election was budgeted for back in 2019 prior to COVID … and we have some relatively large costs that we did not budget for this year.”
Fey said if the county exceeds the election budget, the board would ask the council to approve a supplemental appropriation. So he argues this $2,048,474 grant will help them avoid going to taxpayers for more money to run the election.
However, Republican council members and Democratic Councilwoman Rita Heard Days blocked a procedural vote to expedite the bill’s passage at last week’s council meeting. Many residents have expressed concerns in public comments about accepting the grant money due to perceived left-leaning views of the CTCL.
“I don’t see any evidence of that,” Fey said. “We've dealt with CTCL a number of times in the past in St. Louis County, a lot of Missouri counties have, and the information and services that they have provided to us and other Missouri counties seemed to be pretty nonpartisan.”
He noted the CTCL typically helps with the nuts and bolts of assisting an election administrator — setting up election websites, social media accounts and other similar services.
Numerous public comments at the October 6 St. Louis County Council meeting alleged the CTCL is a left-wing organization that harvests ballots and blamed St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page for trying to rig the election in his favor.
Seventy-seven public comments came in Tuesday during a special meeting on the election board budget and CTCL grant, with almost all comments urging the county to reject the grant, with many citing concerns about ballot harvesting.
Both Fey and Stream said using this grant could not result in ballot harvesting and that the only strings attached to the grant money is it must be used for election expenses in this year. Stream also emphasized in Tuesday’s special meeting that the process has been a completely bipartisan effort.
On the CTCL’s website, several organizations are listed as contributing funders including Google, Facebook, Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.
“I unequivocally support this [grant],” Chairwoman Lisa Clancy said. “St. Louis County, like every jurisdiction in this year’s election, has additional needs because of the challenges of the pandemic, and this is an opportunity to get some resources that we don’t have budgeted to help us implement a smooth election. And to make sure we are doing everything that we can so that our St. Louis County voters can vote without any issues.”
The CTCL’s website states it harnesses “the promise of technology to modernize the American voting experience” in an effort to develop such goals as high-performing election offices, increased public confidence and trust, and better-informed voters.
The City of St. Louis has accepted a $1 million grant and the Missouri Secretary of State Office – run by Republican John “Jay” Ashcroft – received $1.4 million from the organization.
“We should do everything possible to ensure elections are safe during a pandemic, protecting poll workers and voters,” Page said in a statement. “Other Missouri counties have accepted this grant, and we should too.”
Councilwoman Rita Heard Days emphasized in the special meeting Tuesday that there were Republican counties in Missouri who have accepted CTCL grants.
“To have this in a Democratic-Republican aura, I think is very misleading to a lot of people,” she said. “This money is going to come from somewhere because we are going to have to pay these people in order to work [at the polls]. We have confusion out there about who has to notarize their ballots and who doesn’t. And so, there is some educational component that is going to be need for this as well.”
Even so, this grant come at a time when several local governments are facing lawsuits after CTCL distributed grants to 385 election departments across Michigan and $6.3 million in grant money to five Wisconsin cities.
During the special meeting Tuesday, Councilman Tim Fitch asked Fey and Stream if the county in the past had accepted grants or other money from private entities. They said they could not remember a time when there was even an opportunity to do so.
“I don’t see conspiracies here — I don’t see it as a Republican or Democrat issue,” Fitch said during the meeting. “My only issue is private money coming in to fund our elections.”
Fey says that while they may not need to go to the council for an additional $2 million if they don’t accept the grant, there is potential the St. Louis County Election Board will need to ask for more money, possibly about a half-million dollars. He also noted the grant would allow the county to recoup election costs from as far back as June 2020, meaning money would essentially be returned to the county’s general revenue.
In response to the public comment concerns about the grant money having an influence on the election, Councilman Ernie Trakas asked Stream and Fey if there was a deadline to accept the grant and if they could accept the money after the election and pay expenses after they’ve been incurred.
Fey said they would like to have the money as soon as possible to pay for the expenses and if they don’t get the money, they will have to ask the taxpayers to supply the funds.
“In order to incur some of these expenses, like extra employees and so forth, we’re just essentially having to do budget amendments to move money from other places in our budget,” Fey said. “And then, once, hopefully the grant is approved, we would then reimburse those things. So, at some point, probably before the election, we will kind of run out of money to move. So, we may come to a point where there are some expenses we can’t undertake because of that.”
Trakas emphasized the point that there is nothing legally preventing the board to accept the grant money, arguing it would ameliorate concerns about CTCL influence on the county’s election. Fey responded that logistically he did not view waiting to accept the money as a possibility.
Fey also noted he did not feel like the concerns about partisan influence and ballot harvesting presented by public commenters were reasonable.
In an email to council members earlier this month, Fey wrote that Clancy indicated a willingness to suspend the rules and expedite the legislation process of accepting the grant if the council is unanimously in favor of doing so. The council did not unanimously agree to that last week or this week.
On Tuesday, Councilwomen Clancy, Days, Rochelle Walton Gray and Kelli Dunaway voted to finalize the bill to authorize Page to accept the grant. Fitch and Trakas voted no. Councilman Mark Harder was absent.
The bill will be up for final passage at next week’s St. Louis County council meeting.