Earlier this month, the international news outlet the Guardian published an exposé regarding a February conference for state election officials hosted by a trio of right-leaning organizations active in questioning the integrity of American elections. As it turns out, that reporting has several links to Montana.
According to documents obtained by the watchdog journalism project Documented and shared with the Guardian, the conference was held in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14-15 and co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation, the Honest Elections Project and the Public Interest Legal Foundation. A leaked agenda billed the event as the “secretaries of state conference” and included a series of panel discussions about election auditing, election reform and “election integrity updates from the states.”
Among the panel speakers listed on the agenda was Public Interest Legal Foundation Research Director Logan Churchwell, who Montana Free Press discovered last year was among the early seekers of public records related to Gallatin County’s use of grant funding during the 2020 election. The grants Churchwell focused on came from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which awarded money to hundreds of county election offices nationwide to help administer elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Election skeptics have since dubbed those grants “Zuckerbucks,” a reference to the bulk of CTCL’s efforts being funded by donations from Facebook (now Meta) founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Last week, the Montana Legislature responded to those concerns by passing Senate Bill 117, a proposal that bars state and local election officials from accepting or using private funds to conduct an election. Proponents of the bill as well as its sponsor, Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, made repeated references to “Zuckerbucks” in their arguments to lawmakers. SB 117 was approved along party lines in both chambers and is now on its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte.
A second document also cited by the Guardian ties directly to Montana’s head election official, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. The list of February conference attendees includes Jacobsen’s name along with two staff members from her office, chief deputy Angela Nunn and chief legal counsel Austin James. In all, the offices of 13 different secretaries of state nationwide were represented on the list, including those from Florida, Ohio and Indiana.
Jacobsen’s office declined to confirm or deny whether she, Nunn or James attended the Heritage Foundation event. In response to a request for confirmation, spokesperson Richie Melby wrote via email that Jacobsen attended a winter conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which took place in Washington, D.C., the same week as the Heritage Foundation conference. Melby said topics discussed at the NASS conference included cybersecurity, business services and election administration.
“As you can imagine, there were likely various invitations to events outside of the NASS Conference — dinners, tradeshows, Congressional gatherings, vendor events, etc. — that any state’s attendees may or may not have chosen to attend during their personal time,” Melby added.
Melby also wrote that Jacobsen’s office appreciates hearing about the experiences of other secretary of state offices “from all political spectrums” as it continues to “make Montana’s elections the most secure and accessible in the nation.”
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