The Smoothie King Center, the arena for the New Orleans Pelicans NBA franchise, was open for early voting before the Nov. 3 election. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)
Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a bill Monday that would have prohibited state and local election officials from receiving grants or donations from private or nonprofit organizations to help defray election-related expenses.
House Bill 20, sponsored by Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath), was Republican lawmakers’ second attempt in as many legislative sessions to prohibit local officials from receiving the kind of donations that nonprofits offered last year to pay for expenses such as polling signs, tents, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment for poll workers. The legislation passed both chambers on mostly party-line votes.
Edwards vetoed last year’s bill, which was written to apply only to elections conducted during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it “an unnecessary political ploy that only serves to threaten the safety of polling places during a pandemic and increase the costs to taxpayers to administer safe elections.” This year’s attempt was expanded to include all elections, and Edwards vetoed that bill as well.
HB 20 would prohibit election officials from accepting any grants or donations except donations of private property for use as polling places or donations of equipment for the restoration and maintenance of utilities to a precinct in the event of an outage.
In a veto letter signed Monday, Edwards writes that the legislation would prevent donations to local election officials no matter how good the intentions: “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.”
He also pointed out that lawmakers unanimously passed an appropriations bill, HB 695, allowing themselves to accept the same types of grants and donations HB 20 would outlaw for election officials.
“Thus, the Legislature is reserving for itself the ability to receive and expend grants and donations while attempting to outlaw the same for other public bodies,” the governor wrote. “The author made no effort to eliminate this provision from House Bill 695 nor to explain why the Legislature is somehow immune from the improper influence of grants and donations that he fears would end up corrupting local election officials.”
The issue began last year when the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, offered grants to jurisdictions around the country to help pay for election expenses. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $250 million. The CTCL also received funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Knight Foundation and Google, among other American companies and organizations.
Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin was willing to receive the financial assistance and initially urged local court clerks and voter registrars to apply for the grants. However, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has accused Facebook and Google of having left-leaning agendas, later told those local officials they’d be violating the law if they took the grants. Democrats, on the other hand, said Landry’s interference was part of a conservative agenda to reduce voter turnout.
Miguez then introduced legislation that sought to “clarify existing law” to ensure accepting donations would be illegal. At that time, he and officials from Landry’s office testified in committee that it was already illegal for any Louisiana election official to receive such grants, but they also argued that lawmakers needed to declare such help illegal.
Miguez said the spirit of his bill was to “preserve the integrity of elections” by prohibiting private money from tainting the voting process. Landry made similar statements when he filed a lawsuit against CTCL in an attempt to prohibit the program, alleging the organization targeted specific areas of the state into which to pump money for “an inherently insidious and corrupting effect.” A judge in the 16th Judicial District in St. Martin Parish ruled against the attorney general but not in enough time for the local election officials to reapply for help before November’s presidential election.
It’s unclear if Miguez will push for an override of Edwards’ veto before the session ends. He did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. The House voted 69-35 on the bill — one vote shy of the 70 needed for an override. The legislative session ends Thursday evening, though lawmakers can call themselves back into a “veto session” in Baton Rouge to attempt any overrides, but in the modern history of Louisiana, they never have.
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