Red Flags Rise over UW-Madison Get-Out-the-Vote Initiative with ‘Zuckerbucks’ Feel

The BadgersVote initiative “strives to provide University of Wisconsin–Madison students with everything they need to know in order to participate in their elections,” according to organizers. But is the campus-wide “public service” campaign really just a Democratic Party Get-Out-the-Vote effort underwritten by a taxpayer-funded university, a nonprofit research center, and liberal activist groups?

For some, the university-nonprofit partnership feels a lot like the Zuckerbucks scandal of 2020 in which the left-leaning Center for Tech and Civic Life handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in so-called “Safe Elections” grants, the brunt of that money to Democrat-heavy cities in presidential battleground states. In Wisconsin, the lion’s share of the grants, funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, went to the state’s largest cities, all Democratic Party strongholds. Turning out traditionally liberal voters was a big piece of the liberal activists’ privately funded efforts.

Turnout is Everything

BadgersVote organizers certainly like to take credit for helping turnout students — a traditional Democratic Party voting bloc — to the polls last November.

“We’ve been saying it all over the place that ‘their vote matters,’” Shelby Fosco, described as a five-year veteran of BadgersVote, told the Daily Cardinal student newspaper. “Your vote really does matter. This election season [was] a great example of that.”

Dane County recorded a whopping 80.4 percent turnout in November’s midterm election in which Gov. Tony Evers won a second term in large part due to the Democratic Party strongholds of Dane County and the county and state capital, Madison. Some 302,000 of Dane County’s 376,000 eligible voters reportedly cast ballots in the election, according to the Dane County Clerk’s office.

The Daily Cardinal reported “student turnout was especially strong,” with one student-heavy Madison ward reporting nearly 50 percent more votes cast than registered voters on Nov. 1. “That means approximately five students registered to vote on Election Day for every 10 students who were previously registered.”

BadgersVote definitely got the word out to UW-Madison students. UW-Madison’s voter engagement coalition spent long hours leading up to Election Day “educating students on Wisconsin’s election process,” The Daily Cardinal reported.

“Coalition members hosted multiple informational events to teach students what was on their ballot, what counts as ‘proof of residence’ and how to obtain a valid voter ID,” according to the student newspaper.

UW-Madison issued over 7,000 student voter ID cards between Sept. 1 and Election Day, over half of which were printed on Election Day, BadgersVote reported. That’s a lot of potential young liberal voters turning out in a deep purple political state.

BadgersVote was just as active, if not more so, in the heated 2020 presidential election in which Democrat Joe Biden claimed victory over incumbent Republican President Donald Trump by less than 21,000 votes. As the BadgersVote Facebook page notes, student turnout was 72.8 percent of eligible students in 2020, up 7.4 percent in 2016.

“UW–Madison’s rate was higher than the 66 percent voting rate of all colleges and universities measured in the report from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, creators of the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, or NSLVE,” the post boasted.

There’s no rest for the weary. The student voter education campaign is in high gear pushing the importance of voting in the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court elections — the primary later this month, and the general election in April. The Supreme Court contest is a nationally watched race, deciding whether liberals or conservatives control Wisconsin’s high court (and state policy).

“Are you prepared for the #springprimary #election? One of the major races this month will be for the open Wisconsin Supreme Court Seat. Check out this voter guide to get a feel for who’s going to be on the ballot,” BadgersVote’s Facebook site urges.

‘Truly nonpartisan’

The Democratic Party learned from Trump’s surprising victory in 2016, that every vote counts. They saw the college student vote critical to their hopes of defeating their Public Enemy No. 1 in 2020.

But Barry Burden, UW-Madison Political Science professor and faculty co-chair of BadgersVote, says the coalition is a “truly nonpartisan effort” aimed at education and engagement of students. BadgersVote is made up of faculty, staff and students who work together to support student voting, Burden says.

“As evidence of its nonpartisan nature, both College Democrats and College Republicans are both invited to be part of our efforts,” Burden wrote in an email to The Wisconsin Daily Star.

The professor asserts that when he co-chaired the coalition in 2018, BadgersVote had more “consistent and enthusiastic involvement from college Republicans” than student Democrats.

“We encourage students to participate regardless of their views. For example, we have promoted primary elections when the only seriously competitive races were on the Republican side of the ballot,” Burden said.

Perhaps, but a recently published University of Wisconsin System survey on students’ thoughts about free speech confirmed what has long been believed: the vast majority of system students identify as liberals and/or Democrats. At the system’s flagship university in Madison, Democrat students in the survey outnumbered Republicans 49 percent to 13 percent.

Leftist Friends

The BadgersVote Facebook page if filled with get-out-the-vote promotions — and swag.

“Election Day is tomorrow. Be sure to check out the #BadgersVote letters at the bottom of Bascom Hill and tag us with a selfie or group,” a post before November’s election urged. Another pitched student voter registration with a free bagel brunch. Students could even sign up to become a “PAID election official.”

“There will be free swag and opportunities to hear from student leaders and community members about opportunities for student involvement in the upcoming election. All are welcome!” one post declared.

The Facebook page also is filled with cross-promotional posts for a litany of liberal causes.

As Burden notes, BadgerVotes is a partnership. And the coalition is affiliated with ome of the more left-of-center organizations out there.

Assisting groups include the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a left-of-center nonprofit that advocates for student voting through lawsuits, supporting legislation, and on-campus get-out-the-vote campaigns, according to InfluenceWatch.

“In April 2022, a state bill supported by AGF, Common Cause, GenVote, New York Public Interest Research Group, Citizens Union, and Bard College was signed by New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) requiring polling sites on or near college campuses with at least 300 registered student voters,” InfluenceWatch reports.

Another partner is the League of Women Voters. While recognized officially as nonpartisan under IRS rules, the League has been widely criticized for pushing left-leaning policies.

“The League’s current platform supports tax-and-spend policies, government-run healthcare, a wide range of increased welfare handouts, a ban on certain low-priced handguns, and support for international organizations including the International Criminal Court to which even the liberal Obama administration did not cede U.S. sovereignty,” InfluenceWatch notes.

BadgersVote also was led for several years by faculty chair Kathy Cramer. The liberal UW-Madison political science professor wrote the anti-Gov. Scott Walker screed, “The Politics of Resentment,” which attempted to explain how the former Republican governor “not only survived a bitterly contested recall that bought thousands of protesters to Capitol Square” but was subsequently re-elected.

“How is it that the very people who stand to benefit from strong government services not only vote against the candidates who support those services but are vehemently against the very idea of big government?” Cramer muses in a book that shakes the shoulders of rural Wisconsin for its resentment of the “liberal elite.”

Who’s Buying?

So who is paying for the BadgersVote initiative now a decade in the making? Burden didn’t have dollar figures, but he said formal funding for BadgersVote is “relatively light and informal.”

“Most of our work is the result of volunteer activity by students, faculty, and staff that has no documented cost,” Burden said. Just why these costs are not documented, the professor didn’t say.

He said he voluntarily serves as the faculty co-chair in addition to his regular teaching, research and service responsibilities. Staff at University Communications assist by “including occasional information about voting in their regular messages to students. They also maintain the web site.”

More so, BadgersVote relies on the Morgridge Center for Public Service, a university-based nonprofit that “connects” UW-Madison students, staff and faculty to “local and global communities to build partnerships and solve critical issues through service learning. The Center was founded in 1996 with funding from UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge. John served as chairman of tech giant Cisco Systems, Tashia was a special education teacher. The Morgridges have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to programs around the state, much of it to their alma mater.

BadgerVotes relies on the Morgridge Center as its base of operations.

“The Morgridge Center offices are useful spaces for meetings and for storing supplies such as flyers or other materials used in BadgersVote events,” Burden said. “Some MCFPS staff member time is also devoted to supporting BadgersVote directly. Having a base of operations is helpful as a source of continuity given the turnover in the student body and other volunteers.”

Burden asserts the “limited funds” devoted to BadgersVote come in large part from the university.

“In short, although I am not heavily involved in the administrative details of BadgersVote, I would describe the funding as modest, disparate, and changeable from one election cycle to the next,” Burden said.

For the current fiscal year, the Morgridge Center for Public Service has spent a total of $9,397 on programming, marketing, promotional items, and intern salaries that supported voter engagement and civic learning initiatives, many generated by members of the BadgersVote coalition, University of Wisconsin-Madison spokesman John Lucas tells The Wisconsin Daily Star. 

He said funding comes from the Morgridge Center’s endowment and from a $4,000 grant from the Andrew Goodman Foundation.

“In addition to the funds above, there has also been a small amount of in-kind funding provided from the university to cover the cost of stickers, bookmarks and small printing projects. I do not have an exact dollar figure for these expenditures,” Lucas said.

Some of the student interns and volunteers receive “small stipends” from affiliated groups, such as the League of Women Voters and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Burden said.

Bigger Initiatives

Burden noted that BadgersVote previously received funding through the Big Ten Voting Challenge, money provided by the University of Michigan. The Challenge is a competition among the 14 universities in the conference to determine “Greatest Overall Turnout” and “Greatest Increase in Voting Rates.”

In 2020, the turnout rate of eligible students conference-wide was approximately 72 percent, an improvement of nearly 14 percentage points from 2016, according to the University of Michigan. The effort turned out 90,000-plus more Big 10 student voters in 2020 than there were in 2016.

Another get-out-the-vote effort in Democrat voter strongholds. These initiatives were whole-heartedly endorsed by former UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who had previously spent several years in the Obama administration’s Commerce Department.

Dark Money from Non-Profits’

Why are taxpayer-funded universities in the get-out-the-vote game to begin with, critics ask.

“Again, and again, and now again, non-profits are writing off their get-out-the vote efforts, this time using the UW System. Exceptional voter turnout in Madison is driven by dark money from non-profits, and it will continue because it guarantees democratic wins,” said state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls).

Brandtjen led the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections’ investigations into election integrity complaints surrounding the 2020 election. The committee uncovered troubling details on the liberal activists involved in the Zuckerbucks scandal, including the city of Green Bay’s use of a long-time Democratic Party operative, who was effectively embedded in the city’s election office in the months leading up to the presidential election.

Amid increasing heat from liberals and a mainstream media that saw a threat to democracy behind every election integrity question, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) booted Brandtjen off of the committee chair seat. She was also kicked out of the Assembly Republican caucus.

Brandtjen has been critical of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s handling of election integrity issues.

“Republicans. like Gordy the Groundhog, will see the shadow of non-profit funding elections, and wait six weeks after the election to do nothing,” the lawmaker chided “Of course Republicans want people to vote, but GOTV is to be done by the candidates, which is reported. Using nonprofits to GOTV allows democratic donors a write off.”

Left Turns

Tom Hefty, the former health insurance executive who helped lead the creation of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s major public health fund, questions why nonprofits like Morgridge have gotten into the get-out-the-vote business.

“The Purpose of Morgridge was research and business partnerships,” said Hefty, former chairman and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin. “There’s nothing in the documentation that talks about the intent of political activity.”

The UW health foundation Hefty helped launch nearly 20 years ago has in many ways been transformed from a nonprofit devoted to making “Wisconsin a healthier state for all” into a funder of myriad left-wing causes. Known as the Wisconsin Partnership Program, the fund was created with hundreds of millions of dollars as part of the conversion of Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin from a private to a publicly traded corporation. The mission from the beginning was to advance health research and traditional public health outcomes — childhood immunization campaigns, lowering infant mortality rates, taking on the opioid addiction epidemic.

The Partnership in recent years has funded left-wing health equity initiatives, social justice campaigns and housing and gardening projects. In one grant, the partnership gave $50,000 to fund “School District Implementation of Gender-Inclusive Policies to Improve Outcomes for Transgender Youth” in Madison, according to a report by the MacIver Institute.

Hefty said the liberal tilt wouldn’t be as much of a concern if Wisconsin were a national leader in key public health categories. The Badger State’s rankings have fallen precipitously over the past decade. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found Wisconsin is one of of three states experiencing the largest declines in childhood immunizations — Mississippi and Georgia are the other two.

“Most people in health care do not consider those states as peers with Wisconsin, yet that is the public record on traditional health outcomes,” Hefty said.

In 2018, the Partnership gave a $1 million grant to the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee and its academic partners, including a professor in the UW School of Social Work, for their project, “Creating Conditions to Improve Housing for Wisconsin Families.”

Mike Bare, the group’s research and program coordinator, was a vocal critic of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s policies and an even bigger supporter of Obamacare. Bare has an “extensive grassroots politics and government service background, having worked and consulted for political campaigns at every level of government,” according to the Public Policy Institute’s website. He was a longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in the Democrat’s Washington, D.C. office, and served as Feingold’s research director for his 2010 campaign.

In November, Bare, a member of the far left Dane County Board of Supervisors, was elected to the Legislature, representing the 80th Assembly District.

While the university-tied foundations have time for left-wing causes and politics, Hefty said they have long failed to file the required public reports detailing their activities.

“My biggest concern about this effort (BadgersVote), like the spending of the Blue Cross Blue Shield endowment money, is the lack of transparency on the spending of activity,” Hefty said.

The same transparency questions have dogged the elections offices that took in millions of dollars in private grant money to administer elections in 2020. Brandtjen’s committee and special counsel Michael Gableman were stonewalled in their records requests on Zuckerberg funding and other election integrity questions.

Lucas, the university spokesman, said UW “has not received election engagement funding from Mark Zuckerberg or related foundations.” He added  BadgersVote and similar initiatives are non-partisan and align within ” UW-Madison’s educational mission.”

Burden, the faculty representative for BadgersVote, believes concerns about the nonprofit election administration grants are different from anything related to the student voter initiative.

“For one, the amounts of funding are not in the same league. In addition, BadgersVote is not in the business of administering elections as clerks are charged with doing,” the professor said.

UW-Madison has not received election engagement funding from Mark Zuckerberg or related foundations.

But the impacts of the UW campus get-out-the-vote campaigns over the last few election cycles are hard to dismiss: More college student voter engagement has meant critical votes for Democrat candidates.

The question is, according to critics, should taxpayer-funded universities be engaged in such “non-partisan” activities?

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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Mark Zuckerberg” by Mark Zuckerberg. 



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