Zuckerberg-funded election grants provoke Louisiana dispute

October 10, 2020 GMT
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Grants offered by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s nonprofit organization to run elections during the coronavirus pandemic have drawn the ire of Attorney General Jeff Landry and are prompting efforts to rewrite Louisiana law.

After Landry learned of the grant offer, the Republican official warned local election officials — registrars of voters, clerks of court and others — not to pursue the money. He’s working with state House GOP leader Blake Miguez to outlaw the ability for Louisiana officials to use such grants for elections. And Landry is asking a court to declare the arrangement illegal under current law.

The Advocate reports the nonprofit handing out the money across the nation, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, said 26 election officials across Louisiana applied for grants, with a total potential amount of about $7.8 million.

Now, all those applications have been withdrawn after Landry’s intervention.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state’s Republican chief elections official, urged locals to apply for the grants after discovering the opportunity. But he’s since sided with Landry and is backing Miguez’s bill to ban the practice.

“When we realized there were potential ethical issues with accepting the grant money, we consulted with the attorney general and subsequently advised clerks to reject any grant money awards,” Ardoin said.

The legislation awaits debate before the full House, after receiving support from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on a 7-5 vote. The committee hearing was contentious, likely a preview of a heated debate on the House floor.

Landry’s office said the legislation would clarify that private contributions for elections are not legal, while Democrats argued it would create new law.

The attorney general’s office said such a funding arrangement would bring influence over election officials, sow distrust in elections and create an environment where parties and corporations are battling for control over local election funding.

“Whether the defendants here may be well-intentioned, private money in any amount, but particularly the amount of money offered by the defendants to select clerks and/or registrars, has an inherently insidious and corrupting effect,” Landry’s office said in its lawsuit.

Several Democratic lawmakers argued the Republican officials are costing the state money, at a time when hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic have stretched local election officials thin.

“I just don’t understand how a narrowly tailored grant from a nonpartisan group is something bad. It just got politicized,” said House Democratic leader Sam Jenkins of Shreveport.

Landry has repeatedly clashed with Google, Facebook and Twitter over what he sees as an anti-conservative bias and anti-competitive practices.

Miguez, Landry’s office and Ardoin’s office said there was no guarantee that each parish would be offered the same amount of funding. Supporters of the program disputed that, saying parishes across the state were offered equal opportunity to tap into the money, regardless of the parish’s party lean or demographics.

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re right, left, conservative, liberal. I want to keep all those groups away from our local election system,” Miguez said.

Several registrars of voters told The Advocate they have additional costs for the Nov. 3 election because of the pandemic and could use additional money to pay for equipment, personal protective gear and wages for election workers who will be working longer hours.

“Registrars of voters offices across the state are really understaffed,” said Sandra Wilson, registrar of voters for Orleans Parish. “Especially in an election like this which is high volume.”

Cheryl Milburn, registrar of voters in St. Landry Parish, said she was going to use the funding to pay for early voting commissioners and equipment.

But Wilson and Milburn, and other registrars of voters, said they decided to leave it alone after Landry’s office advised against it.

“We could use some extra help, but I decided not to fool with it because we don’t want any discrepancy or any complication,” said Russell Rack, registrar of voters in St. John the Baptist Parish.