FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—Documents reveal an organization backed by Obama White House alumni such as Valerie Jarrett and bankrolled by liberal dark money donors advocated using tax dollars to pay college students to get out the vote in the 2024 election, doing so before the Biden administration announced the same policy.

The Daily Signal obtained the documents through a public records request in which it sought documents from the Wisconsin Elections Commission related to President Joe Biden’s controversial executive order to promote voting. 

In January, an activist with ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a project of the liberal group Civic Nation, contacted officials with the state of Wisconsin and its capital city, Madison, about a need to allow money from the Federal Work-Study Program to pay for students to engage in election-related work. 

By late February, the U.S. Department of Education and Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the Biden administration was doing exactly that. 

A new Wall Street Journal poll of voters in battleground states found former President Donald Trump tied with Biden in a two-way race in Wisconsin, which Trump lost to Biden in 2020 by only about 20,000 votes of over 3.2 million cast.

In a Jan. 18 email, Ryan Drysdale, director of impact and state networks for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, sent an email to Bonnie Chang, voter outreach coordinator in the Madison city clerk’s office, about U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s plans to revise how taxpayer money may be used. 

“Lastly, as you may be aware, the secretary has been working on clarification about Federal Work-Study being eligible for supporting student workers with local election officials and feels confident another letter will come from the WH/Dept of Ed with guidelines,” Drysdale wrote to Chang, referring to the White House and the Department of Education. 

The Federal Work-Study Program, funded by the Department of Education, provides financial aid to eligible undergraduate and graduate students at colleges and universities.

The youth vote helped stop an anticipated “red wave” for Republican candidates in 2022. It once was perceived as a core Democrat constituency, which is one reason the Biden administration has tried repeatedly to “forgive” student loan debt.  

ALL IN asserted that the youth vote was the deciding factor in 2022 elections in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin. The initiative announced that 394 colleges and universities across 44 states and the District of Columbia were part of its first program recognizing “Most Engaged Campuses for College Student Voting.”

“I was invited to join a meeting with the secretary, the UW-Superior campus team and surrounding local election officials who are exploring both internship and FWS opportunities,” Drysdale wrote to Madison’s Chang, referring to Cardona, the University of Wisconsin in Superior, Wisconsin, and the Federal Work-Study Program. 

“There was a lot of excitement even without the FWS component,” he wrote. “They hope to use UWS [University of Wisconsin-Superior] as a case study for other [Wisconsin] institutions and local election officials to learn from. Happy to share more on a quick call if that would be helpful. There’s a big interest from partners and funders about FWS and these types of opportunities so we’ll be following these developments in WI.”

On Jan. 19, Chang forwarded Drysdale’s email about the Federal Work-Study Program, or FWS, to Madison City Attorney Michael Haas.

She noted that University of Wisconsin-Madison officials said that “it’s in the federal language that FWS students are not able to work at the polls on Election Day nor engage in GOTV/voter engagement spaces.”

GOTV is a reference to “get out the vote.”

That same day, Haas wrote to Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe. 

“If I understand correctly, there is a request to change the FWS rules regarding work as election inspectors but I don’t think that has happened yet,” Haas said of Federal Work-Study rules. “In any event, the secretary of state is trying to help make it happen.”

The Wisconsin Secretary of State’s Office didn’t reply to inquiries from The Daily Signal by publication time. 

The Daily Signal previously reported that Civic Nation’s board includes Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama; Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama; and Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the Obama White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

Funders of Civic Nation include left-leaning grantmakers such as the Democracy Fund, established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Environmental Defense Fund; and the Joyce Foundation, which included Barack Obama on its board before he became president. 

Besides ALL IN, other groups run by Civic Nation include United State of Women and When We All Vote

Amanda Hollowell, When We All Vote’s national organizing director, was among activists who met Feb. 27 at a White House event with the vice president to talk about turning out voters. 

“We have been doing work to promote voter participation for students.  And, for example, we have—under the Federal Work-Study Program—[we] now allow students to get paid, through federal work-study, to register people and to be nonpartisan poll workers,” Harris told the gathering at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. 

“As we know, this is important for a number of reasons,” she said. “One, to engage our young leaders in this process and activate them in terms of their ability to—to strengthen our communities. But also, this is the work that we need to do, knowing that so many poll workers have left this work for a variety of reasons that we will also discuss.”

The city of Madison played no role in pushing for a clarification of U.S. Education Department policy on allowing the program to pay students for election work, the city attorney told The Daily Signal. 

“City of Madison officials did not lobby the Biden administration to change FWS rules. We have not been involved in that issue except for receiving the email from Ryan Drysdale so I do not [know] details about the FWS regulations or how they changed as they do not affect the city’s operations,” Haas said. “The city of Madison hires a number of UW-Madison students as poll workers and pays them in the same way as other poll workers with city funds.”

The Daily Signal sought comment from ALL IN’s Drysdale and the press contact for Civic Nation. Neither responded. 

The Education Department referred The Daily Signal to a “Dear Colleague letter” to college administrators, dated Feb. 26, from Nasser H. Paydar, assistant secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education.

In part, the letter says: “The department is today clarifying that FWS funds may be used for employment by a federal, state, local, or tribal public agency for civic engagement work that is not associated with a particular interest or group.” 

The documents released to The Daily Signal by the Wisconsin Elections Commission also showed consultation between state officials and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency within the Commerce Department. 

NIST was putting together its strategic plan to comply with Biden’s executive order on getting out the vote, which it later made public.

The institute is one of at least four federal agencies to make such a strategic plan public. The Justice Department, however, has claimed presidential privilege to prevent public release of its own plan for complying with Biden’s order.