GOP Election Commissioners Vote Against Spending Extra $750,000 on Voter-Education Ads

Spindell Knudson



By Jonathon Sadowski

October 20, 2020

Commissioner says he “would rather send [federal money] back to the Federal Treasury” than run a social media ad campaign running up to the election.

Republicans Dean Knudson and Robert Spindell, members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, on Tuesday deflated a plan that would have used the commission’s remaining $750,000 in federal coronavirus relief funding on online voter-education advertising leading up to the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Instead, the money will now be used for a reimbursement program that will allow Wisconsin’s 72 counties to receive up to $10,000 each after Election Day to help cover any unbudgeted costs associated with the election. The program—expected to create significant post-election work for Elections Commission staff—replaces a plan that would have generated as many as 46.5 million impressions mostly on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, until Election Day.

The advertisements would have informed voters about what safety precautions are being taken at polls for Election Day during the pandemic, how the state ensures election integrity and security, and how voters can make sure their absentee ballots are returned in time and counted.

Such a campaign—one that would encourage civic engagement and help quell concerns about mail-in voting—could have been reasonably assumed to be a positive form of public service, but Knudson and Spindell opposed it because the money would have gone to social media companies and news media.

“I’m really opposed to us sending taxpayer money to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat in the middle of this election where they’ve already shown that they are not neutral players,” Knudson said, echoing a frequently cited myth among conservatives that social media companies censor right-leaning opinions. It’s well-known that conservatives—not liberals—actually dominate engagement on Facebook.

Spindell said he would rather use the money to send checks to local clerks throughout Wisconsin. However, Elections Commissioner administrator Meagan Wolfe pushed back on that, pointing out that the money pot split amongst the state’s 1,850 municipalities would be under $400 each, a miniscule figure when factoring in the overall cost of running a presidential election. 

Further, Wolfe said, it would be virtually impossible for the commission to set up such a program on such short notice.

“We cannot in the next two weeks do that,” Wolfe said. “There’s no way we could run another grant program and ask applications in the next two weeks, for jurisdictions to apply and for us to cut checks.”

The federal CARES Act money can only be used to help with any unanticipated costs associated with a federal election in 2020. The presidential election is the final federal election of 2020, meaning sitting on the money would effectively forfeit it. 

Later in the meeting, Knudson suggested doing just that. The commission should simply not spend the money, he argued.

“I would rather send it back to the Federal Treasury than give it to [social media companies] at this point in time,” Knudson said.

“I don’t know how you do this right now,” he added. “I’m really deeply against it.”

Knudson and Spindell’s partisan rhetoric led Mark Thomsen, a Democratic commissioner, to table the ad campaign so the commission did not appear to be making a politically charged decision. But, Thomsen said, the commission should find another use for the cash.

“I oppose not spending the money,” Thomsen said. “I think that is just crazy, and it’s there and we should utilize it to enhance the security of this next election or to enhance the voting process.”

All six commissioners eventually settled upon the reimbursement program despite Wolfe’s clear aversion to something that will create more complicated administrative work after the election. The money left over after the $10,000 disbursements to counties will be used to cover administrative costs associated with the program. 




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