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La. Attorney General Jeff Landry, center, introduces Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, left, and Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain during a Republican rally Monday, October 7, 2019, at the Cajundome Convention Center in Lafayette, La.

Local elections officials across Louisiana in recent weeks perked up at an opportunity Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was funding through a nonprofit organization: Free money to run elections in a pandemic.

But after Attorney General Jeff Landry caught wind of the endeavor, the Republican official put his foot down, warning registrars of voters, clerks of court and other officials not to pursue the money.

Now all of the local officials have backed off and are no longer pursuing the funding. Landry is filing suit, asking a court to declare the arrangement illegal and warning of the “corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.”

The nonprofit handing out the money across the U.S., the Center for Tech and Civic Life, said 26 election officials across the state applied for grants, with a total potential amount of about $7.8 million. Now, all those applications have been withdrawn by the officials after Landry’s intervention.

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Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state’s chief elections official, urged locals to apply for the grants after discovering the opportunity. Ardoin said in a statement he “encouraged all clerks to apply for that grant money” to ensure all parishes had the same opportunity.

Now Ardoin, also a Republican, has sided with Landry and is backing legislation by state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, to outlaw 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 dustup makes Louisiana one of several states – many of them hotly-contested swing states in the presidential election – where a partisan debate has exploded over whether it is appropriate for private money to help fund elections. And it comes as the state prepares to hold a major election in a pandemic, when voters are casting mail-in ballots at unheard-of rates and local election officials are facing challenges paying for precautionary measures.

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The House and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday fiercely debated the bill by Miguez, which Landry's office said would clarify that the private contributions for elections are not legal. 

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

"If the Koch brothers were doing the program would you be bringing this legislation?" Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, asked Miguez. "We're costing our state money." 

Miguez, Landry's office and Ardoin's office argued there was no guarantee that each parish would be offered the same amount of funding, even though they all were given the opportunity to apply. Proponents 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 | The Times-Picayune they have additional costs because of the pandemic and could use additional money paying for them. Those include equipment, personal protective gear and wages for election workers, which will be staffing early voting sites for longer hours as part of a court-mandated pandemic plan for the November and December elections.

“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 … we have to work many extra hours beyond normal hours to keep pace.”

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

“I was going to use it for the Nov. 3 election for early voting commissioners,” Milburn said. “Because we’re going to be busy.”

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But Wilson and Milburn, and several other registrars of voters, said they decided to leave it alone after Landry’s office advised against it. A top Landry staffer, Jeffrey Wale, sent an email telling election officials accepting the funds “could be problematic and contrary to state law.”

“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. 

“The mail-in ballots sounds great, but the cost is over a dollar per unit. Where is the money coming from?” East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn said, noting that last week 23,000 requests have come in to Baton Rouge – more than three times the number of previous requests. The funding is supposed to come from the Secretary of State’s appropriations and wasn't commenting on the grants.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, another nonprofit that was helping coordinate the funds, were also hoping to deliver funds to hurricane-ravaged Calcasieu Parish to help its elections.

Debbie Hudnall, the executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, said many parishes, especially in the hurricane-battered southwest part of the state, were struggling to find precincts and pay for other precautions. 

"No clerk would have wanted to accept any grant if they thought strings were attached that would not allow them to protect the integrity of our elections," she said. 

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But Landry contends those contributions are illegal and that elections should be funded by the government and administered by "even-handed" government actors.

His office warned in the lawsuit that 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. Millard Mule, a spokesman for Landry, said the attorney general supports Miguez’s bill as a way to remove “misconceived ambiguity” about the law.

“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 the suit.

The suit is not the first time Landry has found himself on the opposite side of Facebook's Zuckerberg and other big tech firms. The attorney general has repeatedly crusaded against Google, Facebook and Twitter for what he sees as an anti-conservative bias and anti-competitive practices. He thrust Louisiana into an antitrust probe against Google, joining an effort of attorneys general across the country.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $300 million to election efforts, including $250 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, or CTCL, for the grant program.

CTCL had received more than 1,100 applications as of late September. All election departments that are verified as legitimate are eligible, CTCL says. The minimum grant amount is $5,000. The size of the localities that have applied for the grants range from fewer than 5,000 registered voters to more than 250,000, with the largest category being 5,001-25,000, the organization says.

The number of absentee ballots being requested in 2020 suggests voters will mail-in their ballots, or fill them out and drop them off, at historic rates. Even though Republicans blocked a full-throated expansion of mail-in ballots, and Edwards refused to sign their plan for virtually no expansion of the practice, a court ruled that several categories of voters must have access if they’re affected by COVID-19.

It’s likely the vast majority of those voting by mail will do so under existing rules, however, especially the rule allowing those 65 and older to vote by mail in any election. In 2016, the last presidential election, 82,570 requested absentee ballots and 62,283 were returned, according to Ardoin’s office.

As of this week – nearly a month before the election – 195,931 absentee ballots have already been requested and 35,974 have already been returned.

Wilson, in New Orleans, said in the typical election she gets around 4,000 absentee ballot requests. So far, she has already passed 18,000 and is still getting requests for mail ballots. She’s encouraging people to drop their ballots off in person at registrar of voters office or, starting Oct. 28, at three curbside drop-off locations near city hall and one in Algiers.

She said while she could use more funding, she has also gotten support from Ardoin’s office in paying for supplies and other needs.

Steve Raborn, the registrar of voters in East Baton Rouge, similarly said the last presidential election saw about 7,000 mail-in ballots. His office has already sent out 21,000 absentee ballots for this election, and is working to determine whether it will establish curbside drop-off locations.

While the court mandates for the Nov. 3 election require a longer early voting period, Raborn said the failure of Ardoin, the Legislature and Edwards to pass an election plan means the additional money to pay for that wasn’t included.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com