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WI judge: Madison's acceptance of private election funding legal

Michael Henderson - stock.adobe.

A Dane County judge has ruled the city of Madison did not violate election laws when it accepted a nearly $1.3 million election administration grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life in 2020.

The suit was brought by a coalition of Madison residents who argued the city ran afoul of election rules when it accepted the money. In December the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission upheld the grants' legality.

Stephen Ehlke, Dane County circuit judge, affirmed the decision Wednesday.

"The bottom line is that the Commission correctly concluded that there was not probable cause to believe any Wisconsin law had been violated," Ehlke stated.

Leaders in Madison argued the funding was necessary to safely operate the state's election during the pandemic. Among other things, the money went toward voter education and outreach, hiring more poll workers and purchasing ballot drop boxes; another controversial issue currently before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life distributed more than $10 million worth of grants to nearly 200 communities across Wisconsin in 2020. The lion's share of money, nearly 90%, went to the state's five largest cities, which also happen to be its most liberal, but Ehlke noted any community was able to apply for the grants.

"These funds were awarded throughout the country in red, blue and purple regions without regard to the voting tendencies of a particular jurisdiction," Ehlke stressed.

The four other Wisconsin cities receiving large grants are also facing suits filed by the same attorney, Erick Kaardal, a lawyer with the conservative Thomas Moore Society. A bill to bar future such grants passed through the Republican-held Legislature, but was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers earlier this year.

Jonah Chester is Wisconsin Public Radio's 2022-2023 Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow embedded in the Wisconsin Watch newsroom. He most recently worked at Public News Service, a national radio news service, where he covered Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. He previously produced the 6 O'Clock News at WORT 89.9 FM in Madison, where he won numerous awards from the Milwaukee Press Club and Wisconsin Broadcasters Association for his reporting on issues in Dane County and south-central Wisconsin.
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