Grants Received by Local Election Officials
Senator Caryn Tyson requested this limited-scope audit, which was authorized by the Legislative Post Audit Committee at its February 24, 2021 meeting.
Objectives, Scope, & Methodology
Our audit objective was to answer the following question:
- What are the amounts received and obligations associated with the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) grants awarded to Kansas counties?
The scope of our work included reviewing a sample of grant agreements between counties and CTCL. We reviewed the grant reports filed with CTCL at the end of January 2021 by the 25 counties that were grant recipients. We did not fully audit the expenditures included in the CTCL reports but verified a small selection of reported expenditures. Finally, we interviewed several county election officials.
More specific details about the scope of our work and the methods we used are included throughout the report as appropriate.
Audit standards require us to report on our work on internal controls relevant to our audit objectives. Because this was a limited-scope audit, we did not test any internal controls.
We conducted this performance audit in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. Overall, we believe the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on those audit objectives.
25 counties received a total of $2.3 million in grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) that ranged from $5,000 to $856,000 with no obligations.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life is a non-profit organization that provides civic information for voters as well as tools for election officials.
- CTCL is a non-profit organization based in Chicago. It was started in 2012.
- Its work includes two primary objectives:
- Collecting and standardizing civic data sets so voters can be more engaged with their government. Examples of civic data sets include information about how to contact elected officials or information about what is on a ballot.
- Offering election officials training and tools to modernize and conduct elections. It offers online training and trainings at professional conferences for elected officials. Some of the free tools they offer include a calculator to decrease voting wait times and website templates.
- Organizations such as Google, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Facebook, the Center for Civic Design, the Knight Foundation, Rock the Vote, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund help fund CTCL.
In 2020, CTCL made election grants available to local election offices for the first time.
- From 2015 to 2019, CTCL did not distribute any grant money.
- In 2020, CTCL received a donation of $350 million from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Co-Founders of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The $350 million donation was redistributed by CTCL as election grants available to any election office.
- Funds were to be used to provide safe elections (including PPE and sanitizer), expand voter outreach, recruit and train poll workers, and to support early in-person voting or vote-by-mail options.
- CTCL reports that all legitimate grant applicants received at least $5,000 in grant funds. They provided nearly 2,500 election grants to election departments in 49 states.
25 Kansas counties applied for the grant and were awarded $2.3 million dollars in CTCL grants.
- Figure 1 shows the 25 counties throughout the state that received CTCL grants. Those grants ranged from $5,000 to $856,000.
- Applicants did not apply for a specific amount of funding. CTCL based the awards on a formula that considered voting age population and other demographic data from the jurisdiction.
- County clerks reported to their county commission if they accepted a grant and how they used it. Some county clerks received approval from their commission to accept the grant. The difference in approach is due to the varying expectations across counties.
As of January 31, 2021, counties reported using 92% of their grant money on items such as election equipment, staffing, and real estate expenses.
- Grant recipients could use the money to expand voter outreach, recruit and train poll workers, and support early in-person voting or vote-by-mail options.
- Grant recipients had to report their use of money to CTCL by Jan 31, 2021.
- The allowable expenditure categories and examples of how counties used their dollars are below:
|Expenditure Category||Example of County Expenditures|
|Ballot Drop Boxes||Drop boxes and systems to monitor drop boxes|
|Drive-through Voting||Parking lot alert system where COVID positive voters could signal their need for assistance|
|PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)||Face masks|
|Poll Workers||Hazard pay for those working the general election|
|Polling Place Rental and Cleaning||Disinfecting at polling locations|
|Temporary Staffing||Temporary office help|
|Real Estate Costs||Renting facilities with space for social distancing and flags at in-person voting locations|
|Mail/Absentee Equipment/Supplies||Voting machines for touchless voting, additional postage, and ballot signature scanning equipment for signature comparison|
|Election Equipment||Social distancing floor decals, a trailer to haul election equipment, and poll pads for voter check in|
|Voting Materials in Languages Other Than English||Signage and advertising in other languages|
|Non-partisan Voter Education||Television advertising to let voters know about their voting options|
|Other||Additional staff expenses, like overtime due to processing increased numbers of advance ballots|
- Figure 2 shows how counties spent their grant dollars on their January 31, 2021 expenditure report.
- As the figure shows, most award dollars were spent on election equipment, staffing, and real estate costs.
- CTCL allowed counties to request an extension if they had not used the full amount of their award by the end of 2020. Johnson County and Franklin County each requested a six-month extension ending on June 30, 2021. Franklin County officials told us they would be returning their unused grant amount. Johnson County reported having used most of the remaining grant amount on cage carts to securely transport supplies.
There were no obligations associated with the acceptance of the CTCL grant.
- These terms included general categories where money could be spent, that grant dollars could not replace what was previously budgeted, dates when money could be spent, and reporting guidelines.
- The grant agreements did not contain any obligations for counties to fulfill. There were no required matching funds and it did not need to be repaid like a loan.
- County clerks reported that they understood there to be no obligations or strings attached to the grant funding. Further, one clerk told us CTCL did not direct them how to use the funds nor did CTCL suggest vendors.
The grants were the subject of some political concerns.
- The grants were praised by some as providing additional funding for the unexpected challenges of running an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Others were concerned that the grants might allow for undue influence or the appearance of undue influence on elections by private donors.
- There was also concern that the grants could create inequities across jurisdictions of different political leanings.
Under a new state law, counties will not be able to accept these types of grants in the future.
- There were no state laws prohibiting county officials from accepting CTCL grants in 2020.
- As of July 1, 2021, accepting private grant money to facilitate or administer an election is prohibited.
- K.S.A. 25-2436 makes it a felony for election officials to accept or spend money, directly or indirectly, from any person.
We did not make any recommendations for this audit.
On July 15, 2021, we provided the draft audit report to the 25 counties included in this audit. Crawford County’s response is below. The other counties did not provide a formal response or corrections. Crawford County officials generally agreed with our findings and conclusions.
Crawford County Response
To Whom It May Concern,
I have read the draft of your report on Grants Received by Local Election Officials. It appeared that there was nothing discovered in your review of the grant documents or in your discussions with local election officials that would cause concern to the public or to the members of the legislature. Thank you for your work in reviewing this grant program through CTCL.
Most of the local election officials in Kansas are already familiar with the Center for Tech and Civic Life. They have presented information on several aspects of elections administration at our Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association conference and at a conference for Midwest Election Officials held in Kansas City a few years ago. They have some very useful tips on constructing ballots that are easier to understand and how to better engage the public to increase voter turnout.
It is apparent that some of our elected legislators do not feel that we can be trusted to enter into agreements with outside grant organizations that benefit our local voters without allowing those organizations to have some sort of undue influence on our election operation. These grants even spurred the legislature to pass a new law to make it illegal to accept these grants in the future. This is especially upsetting when you understand that these funds helped us to save taxpayer money and most of these funds ended up being spent in our local economy. It is even harder to understand this as the legislature continues to make it harder for local government to pay for the rising costs of the services our residents deserve and demand.
This distrust of local government officials has been very apparent over the past several years. I hope the legislature realizes soon that we can be trusted to act in the best interests of our citizens.
Donald P. Pyle Crawford County Clerk