A series of communication records obtained by The Federalist reveal how high-ranking DeKalb County officials worked behind the scenes to skirt Georgia law by accepting grant money from a coalition of left-wing nonprofits designed to influence election operations in a manner election integrity advocates say benefit Democrats.
In February, DeKalb County — one of Georgia’s most populous localities and a Democrat stronghold — announced it had been selected to join the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence and that the county’s commissioners had accepted a $2 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). Launched last year, the Alliance is an $80 million venture by left-wing nonprofits to “systematically influence every aspect of election administration” and advance Democrat-backed voting policies in local election offices, according to the Honest Elections Project.
While Georgia Republicans passed a law in March 2021 banning the private funding of local election offices, DeKalb officials used a loophole in the statute to justify accepting the grant from the Alliance. Instead of having their election office accept the funds, DeKalb officials had the county’s finance department apply for the grant. As Democrat and DeKalb Board of Registration and Elections Chair Dele Lowman Smith admitted, this was done “since election offices are not allowed to receive grants directly.”
Obtained via an open records request, the emails reviewed by The Federalist show DeKalb officials attempting to acquire private funds from the Alliance nearly a year before the county revealed its membership with the coalition to the public. According to the records, DeKalb’s deputy finance director Preston Stephens received an email on April 12, 2022, from CTCL announcing the launch of the Alliance. Stephens ultimately received an application to join the coalition nearly a month later on May 4.
The initial communications between DeKalb County and CTCL indicate that Stephens served as a primary contact for the nonprofit, with emails dating back several years. Ahead of the Jan. 5, 2021, Georgia Senate runoff election, for example, Stephens submitted a “funding request” to CTCL on Dec. 24, 2020, for “‘On‐the‐Ground Tech Support’ to be utilized by [the DeKalb County] Voter Registration & Elections” board. Stephens would continue to receive newsletter emails from CTCL well into September and October 2021 — several months after Georgia passed its ban on private election funding.
During the 2020 election, groups like CTCL received hundreds of millions of dollars from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. These “Zuckbucks” were poured into local election offices in battleground states around the country to change how elections were administered, such as by expanding unsupervised election protocols like mail-in voting and the use of ballot drop boxes. To make matters worse, the grants were heavily skewed towards Democrat-majority counties, essentially making it a massive, privately-funded Democrat get-out-the-vote operation.
According to the Capital Research Center, Georgia received $45 million from CTCL, with more than 94 percent ($42.4 million) of such funds going towards the 17 counties won by Joe Biden. DeKalb County received the second largest grant per capita, beaten only by nearby Clayton County.
Ahead of the 2024 elections, the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence — of which CTCL is a key partner — is attempting to replicate a similar strategy to that of 2020. In a recent report, the Honest Elections Project and the John Locke Foundation revealed how the Alliance seeks to provide election offices “scholarships” to cover membership costs, which can then be “converted into ‘credits’ that member offices can use to buy services from CTCL and other Alliance partners.”
DeKalb Coordination with CTCL
After Stephens received the Alliance application on May 4, 2022, DeKalb County Chief Operating Officer Zachary Williams sent an email to CTCL later that same morning wanting to “discuss any plans” the nonprofit “may have on offering Grants for the upcoming elections.” CTCL responded that afternoon, connecting Williams with the group’s director of government services, Whitney May, who appears to have spoken with Williams on the morning of May 6, 2022.
In an email sent to Williams later that same morning, May provided a link to the Alliance’s website, while noting how “[e]very election department in the country is invited to apply to be a Center for Election Excellence.” Stephens submitted DeKalb’s application to become an Alliance member to CTCL less than a week later on May 12.
Throughout June 2022, Stephens sent multiple emails to May inquiring about the status of DeKalb’s Alliance application. In her response, May informed Stephens it was still under review. Correspondence between DeKalb officials and CTCL continued into July 2022, when May sent a Zoom meeting scheduled for July 20 to Stephens, Williams, Lowman Smith, and Keisha Smith, the executive director of DeKalb’s elections board. Emails indicate that at least Williams and Lowman Smith attempted to join the call.
Later that same day, Stephens sent May a PowerPoint presentation developed by Keisha Smith, which “provides additional programmatic data, metrics, and comparative data of the DeKalb County Voter Registration & Elections Office.” Included in the presentation is a slide detailing the impacts of Georgia’s private funding ban on election practices such as absentee voting and voter ID.
Over the next several months, discussions between DeKalb officials and CTCL primarily centered on the legality of the county’s potential Alliance membership. On Sept. 1, 2022, May notified Stephens and Keisha Smith that CTCL was working with its legal team to “ensure … compliance with Georgia state law.” After the 2022 midterms, Alliance representative Sophie Lehman followed up on Nov. 22, informing Stephens and Keisha Smith that CTCL was “meeting with Alliance partners and [its] expert legal team to design a membership structure so jurisdictions from across the country can participate in the program.”
“To be clear, this is a pivot from our original vision that would have offered Alliance programming for free,” Lehman wrote.
Honest Elections Project Executive Director Jason Snead previously told The Federalist that CTCL shifted its “original model to a fee-based membership model” as a way of skirting existing “Zuckbucks” bans.
“For jurisdictions that are permitted to receive grants, those fees are effectively waived. But jurisdictions that cannot receive private grants can still buy their way in for a relatively small sum, allowing the Alliance to spread its influence even in states where lawmakers have tried to prevent it,” Snead said.
DeKalb County Joins the Alliance
On Dec. 13, 2022, Lehman informed Stephens, Williams, and Keisha Smith that DeKalb County had been designated as “a finalist in the inaugural cohort of Centers for Election Excellence” and provided a list of “next steps” for the county to take to become an Alliance member.
According to the Alliance membership agreement, counties are given the option of joining the coalition as a basic or premium member, costing $1,600 or $4,800 a year, respectively. Under a basic membership agreement, participating counties are offered access to “a selection of off-the-shelf, publicly-accessible election administration resources, document templates, and training materials,” and “center-specific coaching and consulting from select Alliance partners, in the form of a $800 credit towards the fair market value of Alliance partners’ hourly consulting services,” among other services.
Premium members are offered similar services, but are granted $3,040 in credit and “additional multi-center group coaching and consulting sessions hosted by select Alliance partners on an hourly basis.”
While Lowman Smith and Keisha Smith initially appeared to express concern about the “new direction” of the Alliance, Stephens notified Lehman on Jan. 3 that DeKalb County would be subscribing as a premium member. The following day, Lehman sent Stephens the county’s Alliance grant agreement, which would provide DeKalb $2 million in funding from CTCL over the course of 2023. In her correspondence, Lehman noted how the grant agreement is separate from the membership agreement and that DeKalb’s “eligibility to receive a grant isn’t contingent on [its] Alliance membership, and vice versa.”
Stephens did not respond to The Federalist’s request for comment on whether DeKalb County used taxpayer money to pay the Alliance membership fee.
Several high-ranking DeKalb officials — none of whom included county election officials — signed both agreements on Jan. 24. The county’s Alliance membership and the $2 million CTCL grant would be announced more than a week later following Keisha Smith’s collaboration with CTCL on a press release regarding the matter. As The Federalist previously reported, the county’s Alliance grant application appears to have been kept hidden from DeKalb’s Republican elections board members.
An email chain from Jan. 31 also indicates that Keisha Smith, Lowman Smith, and Julietta Henry, the deputy director of DeKalb’s elections board, attended “The DeBrief,” a three-day “inaugural” event for the Alliance designed “for election officials and election experts to come together to distill key lessons learned from the 2022 election cycle and to plan for the years ahead.” The event was held in Chicago from Feb. 2-4.
Keisha Smith did not respond to The Federalist’s request for comment on whether DeKalb County used taxpayer money to pay for expenses related to her, Lowman Smith, and Henry’s February trip to Chicago.
Where Things Stand Today
After DeKalb County announced its Alliance membership and $2 million CTCL grant earlier this year, Georgia Republicans introduced legislation (SB 222) designed to tighten the language in the state’s “Zuckbucks” ban to prevent counties from accepting or utilizing private money for the purposes of conducting elections. Passed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate last week, the bill now awaits a signature from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
“It is evident from these documents that senior DeKalb County executives and election office leadership conspired with CTCL to violate Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021 (SB202),” Marci McCarthy, chair of the DeKalb County GOP, told The Federalist. “While wishing to remain anonymous in their grant application and over a period of 18 months, high ranking DeKalb County officials shared proprietary election office information to include budgets and elections office operations.”
Georgia’s state election board has since launched an investigation into DeKalb County’s Alliance membership and acceptance of CTCL grant money.