Legislation to ban private funds to pay for election-related expenses was approved by the Louisiana House this week, despite repeated vetoes by Gov. John Bel Edwards of similar legislation in recent years.
The House voted 57-22 on Wednesday to approve House Bill 811, sponsored by Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, to prohibit use of private funds for election-related expenses, an issue that stems from hundreds of millions in private election funding spent on the 2020 election.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doled out about $400 million in grants through the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life during the 2020 election to fund a variety of work and equipment, including protective gear for poll workers, public education campaigns on new voting methods, voting equipment, drop boxes and additional manpower, among other expenses.
The money sparked backlash from Republicans who pointed out that most of the grants were targeted to Democrat-leaning districts, while Democrats generally defended the spending as essential to carry out the election amid added burdens tied to the pandemic.
In Louisiana, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin initially invited local election officials to apply for about $7.8 million in CTCL grants, but Attorney General Jeff Landry deemed the funding illegal and Ardoin reversed course. Landry filed a lawsuit in October 2020 citing the "corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials," but District Court Judge Lewis Pitman ruled state law does not prohibit the funding and dismissed the lawsuit.
A three-judge panel with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals eventually reversed the trial court decision, finding the lower court erred in considering registrars of voters and court clerks as "political subdivisions," when in reality they’re constitutional offices created by the state. As such, registrars and clerks are funded solely by the state, and cannot accept private donations in the same way as political subdivisions, the court found.
The appellate court found Landry "has stated a course of action to protect an interest of the state by preventing the funding of elections with private money" and remanded the case back to the trial court to consider.
Miguez said on Wednesday that HB 811 simply clarifies the law, and it has the support of both Landry and Ardoin.
The bill states: "No state or local official, including but not limited to a registrar of voters or a clerk of court, or agency responsible for conducting elections shall solicit, accept, use, or dispose of any donation in the form of money, grants, property, or personal services from individuals or profit or nonprofit corporations, for the purpose of paying costs related to conducting elections."
The legislature approved similar bills in the 2020 2nd Extraordinary Session and the 2021 Regular Session, and Edwards vetoed the legislation on both occasions.
Edwards rejected the bills because "this legislation would prevent all forms of donations, no matter how good the intentions, to local elections officials," he wrote in his veto message last year. "Thus, while in committee there was overheated rhetoric about the motivations of social media companies trying to influence elections, this bill would also likely prevent the local VFW from providing donuts for election workers on election day."
Edwards also pointed to other legislation unanimously approved by lawmakers that allows the Legislature to accept "any grants or donations or other forms of assistance."
"The Legislature is reserving for itself the ability to receive and spend grants and donations while attempting to outlaw the same for other public bodies," he wrote.
HB 811 now moves to the Senate, where it was referred to the Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs.