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State Attorney General Jeff Landry, speaks as he and other local, state, and medical officials hold a press conference to announce the first two confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Lafayette Parish Wednesday, March 18 at city hall in Lafayette.

A judge has sided against Attorney General Jeff Landry in his lawsuit seeking to block millions of dollars in free grants to local election officials, which were offered up by a nonprofit backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with the stated goal of helping local leaders run elections in a pandemic.

Judge Lewis Pitman, of the 16th Judicial District in St. Martin Parish, ruled against Landry in the lawsuit last week. Landry said in an interview he would appeal the ruling.

Mark Zuckerberg-funded free election grants draw ire of Jeff Landry, who files suit

Landry spokesman Cory Dennis added 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, regardless of the appeal. 

Local election officials across the state last month applied for the grant money, offered by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, after Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin told the clerks and registrars about the opportunity. Zuckerberg had funded the grants with a $300 million donation to the nonprofit, and followed it up with another $100 million earlier this month after receiving a “far greater response” than anticipated, Zuckerberg said on Facebook.

In Louisiana, the clerks of court and registrars of voters had applied for around $7.8 million, which the local officials said they would use to help pay for additional costs brought on by the pandemic. That includes equipment, personal protective gear and wages for election workers staffing early voting sites for longer hours.

But Landry pushed back against the idea, warning the officials the grants were illegal. He backed House Bill 51, by state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, that the Legislature passed on a largely party-line vote to declare such grants illegal. And he filed the lawsuit asking a judge to declare the grants illegal.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday he vetoed the Miguez measure. 

The local officials have since backed off the grant money and won’t be tapping into the funds before the Nov. 3 election. Early voting is already underway.

Louisiana election precautions will remain in place despite appeal from Kyle Ardoin, Jeff Landry

The lawsuit argued that private money going to public entities to run 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 the case. 

“The judge said we had no cause of action,” Landry said. “I just think he was a little confused. These issues can sometimes become complicated. I think he misapplied the procedure.”

Sam Winston, an attorney for Cole, said "the Attorney General wants to make this a partisan issue but the law is clear on this. And the judge, after carefully reviewing everything from both sides, agreed that the law rightfully allows these donations."

Attorneys for Cole said in a response to Landry’s suit that the attorney general aimed merely to maintain uncertainty about the money long enough to “run out the clock,” and that the effort was keeping officials from tapping into much-needed funds. They argued the Louisiana Constitution allows private donations to local governments, and that Landry’s support for Miguez’s bill served as evidence the practice was not illegal to begin with.

“At bottom, the Petition rests on little more than unfounded statements suggesting that the non-profit corporations are somehow attempting to taint the election process, amounting to nothing more than a scare tactic aimed at preventing local election officials from gaining additional funding to assist with the workload, increased voter turnout, and added burdens posed by COVID-19 during the upcoming November 3, 2020 election,” attorneys for Cole wrote.

In a statement, the Center for Tech and Civic Life said, “another day, another judge rejecting baseless litigation that would make it harder for all voters to participate in the election and remain safe and healthy. The group called such lawsuits “frivolous.”

The controversy made Louisiana one of many states where Republican officials went to court over the Zuckerberg funding, seeking to stop it from flowing to election officials. Ardoin, who like Landry is a Republican, later changed his tune and said he agreed with the attorney general such funding shouldn’t be allowed.

As of early October, the Center for Tech and Civic Life said it has received more than 2,100 applications from officials in most U.S. states.

In the meantime, Ardoin pushed a bill through the Legislature in 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 it to the governor's desk, where he vetoed it Monday afternoon. 

Miguez said because of the "expedited nature of the veto," the governor "does not share the Legislature's passion for protecting our election system from outside influence. It is disappointing the governor chose to stand with his political allies instead of the citizens of Louisiana." 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com