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Wisconsin voters approve changes based on false election claim

If you are presented with the word “Zuckerbucks,” the odds are extremely good that you will have one of two reactions.

The first is confusion. You will see the word and either have no idea what it refers to or, perhaps, remember that you have seen it floating around in the context of Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.

The second is anger. You are familiar with the term and its connotation within the right-wing conversation: that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg somehow bought Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. As is unfailingly the case with claims about the election hyped by Trump, this is not true — though this one is not true in a more complicated way than most, meaning that it thrived where others didn’t.

On Tuesday, that included voter approval of changes to how elections are run in Wisconsin — a shift that will make it harder for counties to use outside assistance to ensure their elections run smoothly.

The two proposed amendments to the state constitution, each approved by a majority of voters, block outside funding to support election administration and limit that administration to government officials. The news site Bolts explored the possible ramifications of the latter amendment: For example, would representatives of companies that sell voting equipment be barred from providing support to county officials? The former amendment, meanwhile, is even more specifically aimed at the “Zuckerbucks” hand-wringing.

So let’s explain what happened.

You will recall that the 2020 presidential election unfolded at a weird moment in history, with a global pandemic killing hundreds of Americans a day. Elections officials were scrambling to figure out how to safely conduct election operations and accommodate increases in requests for voting remotely.

An organization called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) offered grants to elections officials aimed at bolstering those efforts. In total, the organization gave out nearly $320 million across the United States, to “ensure election officials had the resources they needed to conduct safe, secure elections for their community,” as a CTCL report explained. Elections offices applied for grants and were awarded money by CTCL before the election.

Most of that money came as part of a donation Zuckerberg made to CTCL — hence “Zuckerbucks.” As Trump was scrambling for arguments aimed at undermining confidence in Biden’s victory, Zuckerberg’s involvement became useful. Here was a Big Tech CEO from liberal California donating money — often to big, liberal cities! — to get more people to vote. A conspiracy theory was born.

Wisconsin Republicans seized on the idea with enthusiasm. The Republican-led Assembly commissioned a report on the 2020 results that focused on “Zuckerbucks” (a term the report itself included) as a reason that Trump had lost the state. That report soon became an embarrassment for Republicans, with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) describing its author as “probably the single biggest embarrassment that I have ever had.”

Nevertheless, Republicans moved to lock down systems that they believed had allowed Democratic voters to cast ballots more easily, including funding like that offered by CTCL.

The rhetoric about the CTCL funding, though, is silly. It is understandable that more populous counties, with more voters, would have a greater need for resources in a presidential election. In Wisconsin, counties that didn’t receive any CTCL funding had an average population of about 40,000; those that received CTCL grants had average populations closer to 200,000. Independent research subsequently showed that the CTCL grants had no discernible effect on the results of the 2020 election.

In Wisconsin, counties that received at least some CTCL funding did swing more to the left relative to their 2016 presidential margins than did counties that didn’t receive any such funding. Looking at county densities, though, we see that this was hardly uniform. Thirteen counties that received CTCL funding (generally granted to municipalities in those counties) shifted to the left from the 2016 results, but six swung to the right. More counties that didn’t receive CTCL funding than did voted more heavily Democratic in 2020 than they had in 2016.

Milwaukee County, the state’s most populous and a recipient of CTCL grants, swung about three points to the left between 2016 and 2020. Nationally, large urban counties shifted slightly to the right. But in large suburban counties, the shift to the left was more pronounced nationally than in Wisconsin — and in Wisconsin, it was more pronounced in non-CTCL counties.

So did Milwaukee benefit from CTCL funding in a way that pushed it enough to the left to hand Biden a victory? There’s no evidence of it. If we compare Milwaukee’s results to those of other large urban counties nationally, we see that it’s right in line with what we would expect, given the density of its White population. That’s centrally why big cities moved right in 2020 relative to 2016, after all: a smaller Democratic margin among non-White voters.

There remains no evidence that the results of the 2020 election were tainted by fraud or illegal voting in any state, including Wisconsin. This is why Trump and his allies have been eager to elevate other purported malfeasance: Vague allegations about tech executives slinking around Midwestern states have a visceral appeal — and a useful vagueness about purported effects. Enough that it allowed Wisconsin Republicans to present voters in the state with a solution to the problem that the Republicans had invented.

It’s really important to underline one additional point here. Even if Zuckerberg had personally spent money in Milwaukee with the explicit intent to get more Democrats to vote … that’s just electoral politics. There’s no insinuation here that somehow those voters should not have been allowed to cast votes, just that their doing so was unfairly (to Republicans) enabled by outside actors. This isn’t an anti-fraud measure; it is, instead, an explicitly anti-Democratic-voter one.

Now added to the constitution during a primary election in which fewer voters participated.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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