California Secretary of State Alex Padillo awarded $35 million to a DC-based consulting firm in August for the purpose of assisting the state’s counties prepare for the upcoming November elections.
Republicans in both the California legislator and the U.S. House of Representatives have raised concerns about the legality of the contract.
The $35 million was awarded to SKDKnickerbocker, a political consulting firm that has deep ties to the Democrat party. Their managing director, Anita Dunn, was named senior advisor to the Biden presidential campaign earlier this year, and formerly served under President Obama as the White House communications director.
The firm’s site openly boasts that they are “proud to be a part of Team Biden.”
GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House announced that the Committee on Oversight and Reform would be overseeing the contract, stating that the contract would “undoubtedly provide a partisan firm the opportunity to use taxpayer money to influence the federal election.”
Under the contract, SKDK has been tasked with “Vote Safe California”, an initiative announced by the Secretary of State’s office in late July “to educate the public on the safety, security, and ease of voting in the November General Election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
According to the Secretary of State’s chief communications director Paula Valle, the contract has been delayed and has not yet undergone any formal review or approval process. The Department of Finance, which is responsible for approving the contract, has confirmed that it has not received the contract nor “authorized a transfer of funds under this provision.”
Nevertheless, the SKDK has gone forward with airing ads over TV, radio, and internet. The ads assure voters that mail-in voting is “simple, safe” and “secure.”
California GOP lawmakers, led by Senator Shannon Grove, sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom this week, urging him to cancel the $35 million contract. Republicans argue that the award compromises voter integrity, and that the taxpayer money should have gone to each county directly rather than through a partisan, third-party source.
“Imagine the outrage that would be expressed if the shoe were on the other foot and a Republican (Secretary of State) entered into a similar contract with a firm with close ties to President Trump,” said Grove. “It certainly wouldn’t take long for such a contract to be canceled and investigated.”
In an email Republican leaders sent to Republican county supervisors last week, they encouraged county officials to be diligent in ensuring they get the funds owed them. “These General Funds are due to the county,” the email read. “You know your citizens better than anyone and should control your voter outreach.”
“If you did want Secretary of State Alex Padilla to assist you with these activities,” the email continued, “you certainly would not expect him to hire a partisan Democratic firm supporting one Presidential candidate over another. Just imagine the uproar if this firm were in support of Donald Trump.”
Officials from the Secretary of State’s office have defended the contract as “non-partisan”, and have argued that it was “essential” that the monies be sent to a firm like SKDK instead of supplied to the counties directly:
“Entering into the contract on behalf of all 58 counties was essential to maximize statewide reach and consistent messaging across all media markets for all Californians. We have contacted counties who expressed an inability to administer funds directly, lacking resources and expertise to coordinate outreach and education funds.”
Republican leaders hold, however, that they “have yet to find a single county that asked the Secretary of State to do this work on their behalf.”
Governor Gavin Newsom has only said that he doesn’t have the full details to make a comment on the situation.
California will be sending mail-in ballots to its 21 million voters ahead of November’s election.