‘Zuckerbucks’ bill heard in House committee; concerns from Native community continue

By: - March 21, 2023 5:40 pm

Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, speaking before the House State Administration Committee on Tuesday March 21, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, said it was never her intention to affect agreements between tribes and counties in a bill that would prohibit private funds from being used to conduct elections in the state.

Senate Bill 117 was amended to make sure tribes would be able to donate space or their own funds for the purposes of an election. But opponents said the bill still needs work.

In a House State Administration hearing on the bill Tuesday, Patrick Yawakie, speaking on behalf of the Blackfeet Tribe, said the tribe would like to see an amendment added that would ensure the bill would not interfere with aspects of operating a satellite ballot office, including providing donated labor, internet services, cybersecurity and other in-kind donations.

Vance said she would consider it an “unfriendly” amendment, saying it was too specific and that she had not seen the amendment prior to the hearing.

“I believe that I’ve done some pretty good due diligence here in trying to work with the parties,” she said.

The bill passed third reading in the Senate on a 34-14 vote.

“Zuckerbucks” is a phrase that stems from election skeptic circles surrounding a $350 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg to the nonprofit Center for Technology and Civic Life during the 2020 election. The skeptics believe the money influenced the outcome of the election.

In her closing, Vance mentioned a report titled “Zuckerbucks in Montana” from a group called the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which is known for suing government entities to purge voter rolls.

Proponents of the bill said they were concerned that the grant money in Montana was spent on “get out the vote” campaigns, which they said should be left to parties and candidates.

Regina Plettenberg with the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders said given the pandemic in 2020, the system changed, and she, as Clerk and Recorder in Ravalli County, had to let the public know about those changes.

“We were trying to get word out to our voters … to let them know ballots were going to be mailed to them, when they had to get them back, if there were drop sites available, where they were, when they were available,” she said.

She said the funds gave her the ability to do that voter outreach.

The Secretary of State’s Office was among the proponents of the bill. Elections Director Dana Corson said allowing private funds to be used was a “perceived loophole” in the system. Corson said that using Help American Vote Act (HAVA) funds, alongside Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money, were options for localities.

Plettenberg said the grants from CTCL had broader goals for how the money should be spent and didn’t require matching funds, as federal HAVA funds do. She said most counties spent the money on advertising, toward which HAVA funds can’t be used.

Keegan Medrano with the ACLU of Montana, who spoke in opposition to the bill, said the organization believes elections should be publicly funded.

“We believe that it’s ridiculous that we do need private funding for our elections,” Medrano said. “We have issues with this bill, not because of what it’s striving to do, but because of the realities and the implications that we think that this would have on the ground.”

Medrano said the narratives and rhetoric surrounding this bill impacts election administration.

“We’re already seeing that manifest itself in Cascade County right now,” Medrano said, referencing the current uncertainty around upcoming local elections.

In the hearing Tuesday, the bill received seven proponents and three opponents. The committee didn’t immediately take action on the bill.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.