A judge has sided with Attorney General Jeff Landry in his lawsuit to block millions of dollars in free grants to local election officials, which were donated by a nonprofit backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with the stated aim of helping local leaders organize elections in a pandemic.
St. Martin Parish 16th Judicial District Judge Lewis Pitman ruled against Landry in the lawsuit last week. Landry said in an interview that he would appeal the decision.
Free campaign grants funded by Mark Zuckerberg anger Jeff Landry, who files a complaint
Landry’s spokesman, Cory Dennis, added that the attorney general expects there to be a hearing in the 16th Judicial District Court in the lawsuit against one of the plaintiffs, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, whatever the call.
Last month, local election officials across the state applied for the grant offered by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, after Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin informed clerks and clerks of the opportunity. Zuckerberg had funded the grants with a $300 million donation to the nonprofit, and followed it up with an additional $100 million earlier this month after receiving a “much larger response” than foreseen, Zuckerberg said on Facebook.
In Louisiana, court clerks and voter registrars had requested about $7.8 million, which local officials said they would use to help pay for additional costs brought on by the pandemic. This includes equipment, personal protective equipment and wages for election workers who man early voting sites for longer hours.
But Landry pushed back on the idea, warning officials that the grants were illegal. He supported House Bill 51, by State Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, that the Legislature passed a largely partisan vote to declare these subsidies illegal. And he filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the grants illegal.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday he had vetoed Miguez’s measure.
Local officials have since withdrawn the grant money and will not dip into the funds until after the Nov. 3 election. Early voting is already underway.
Election precautions in Louisiana will remain in place despite plea from Kyle Ardoin, Jeff Landry
The lawsuit argued that private money paid to public entities to organize elections would have a “corrosive influence”. The suit named as defendants the Center for Tech and Civic Life and Dawn Cole, a lobbyist who helped connect local officials to the grant money. Judge Pitman ruled against Landry from the bench last week in that case.
“The judge said we had no cause of action,” Landry said. “I just think he was a bit confused. These issues can sometimes get complicated. I think he misapplied the procedure.
Sam Winston, a lawyer for Cole, said “the attorney general wants to make it a partisan issue, but the law is clear on that. And the judge, after carefully considering everything from both sides, agreed that the law allows deservedly these gifts.”
Cole’s attorneys said in a response to Landry’s lawsuit that the attorney general was simply aiming to keep the money uncertain long enough to “run out of time,” and that this effort prevented officials from tapping into essential funds. They argued that the Louisiana Constitution allows private donations to local governments, and that Landry’s support for Miguez’s bill served as evidence that the practice was not illegal in the first place.
“At bottom, the petition rests on little more than unsubstantiated statements suggesting that the non-profit corporations are somehow attempting to taint the electoral process, which amounts to nothing more than a scare tactic aimed at preventing local election officials from getting additional funds to help with workload, increased voter turnout, and additional burdens posed by COVID-19 in the upcoming November 3, 2020 elections,” wrote Cole’s lawyers.
In a statement, the Center for Tech and Civic Life said, “Another day, another judge dismissed a baseless lawsuit that would make it harder for all voters to participate in elections and stay safe and healthy. The group called the lawsuits “frivolous.”
The controversy has made Louisiana one of several states where Republican officials have gone to court over Zuckerberg’s funding, seeking to prevent it from being passed on to election officials. Ardoin, who like Landry is a Republican, later changed his tune and said he agreed with the attorney general that such funding should not be allowed.
In early October, the Center for Tech and Civic Life said it had received more than 2,100 applications from officials in most US states.
Meanwhile, Ardoin pushed a bill through the Legislative Assembly during the special session that ended Friday to allow election workers to receive “hazard pay” during the pandemic. It is expected to send about $6.3 million to local election officials.
Lawmakers hotly debated Miguez’s bill to declare the grants illegal, but Republicans muscled him into the governor’s office, where he vetoed it Monday afternoon.
Miguez said that due to the “fast-track nature of the veto,” the governor “does not share the Legislature’s passion for protecting our electoral system from outside influences. It is disappointing that the governor has chosen to stick to the alongside his political allies instead of the citizens of Louisiana.”