Appeals court reverses dismissal of Louisiana election grant lawsuit

Appeals panel: State officials can’t use donations to cover election expenses

By: - April 1, 2022 2:58 pm
Portable voting trailers in Terrebonne Parish

Early voting for the 2022 congressional midterm elections begins Tuesday in Louisiana and continues through Nov. 1. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

A Louisiana appeals court on Wednesday reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit that Attorney General Jeff Landry filed against a nonprofit organization that tried to help parish clerks and registrars pay for tents, signage, water and other basic supplies they needed for the 2020 presidential election. 

A three judge panel from Louisiana’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the St. Martin Parish 16th Judicial District Court’s ruling in the case Louisiana v. Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). The lower court, which dismissed Landry’s claim that state law prohibits parish registrars and clerks of court from accepting donations from private organizations to pay for election-related expenses, will have to rehear the case. 

Louisiana attorney general blocked millions in grant money awarded to parish clerks

The controversy stems from a nationwide election grant program started by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that raised millions from large corporations and charitable foundations in an effort to provide personal protective equipment and other supplies for local election workers across the nation who had to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan gave $250 million to the program, making the grant available to virtually every local government in the country.

When Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin learned about the program, he checked into it and held a conference call with all the parish clerks and voter registrars, in which he urged them all to apply for funds. When the attorney general got wind of this, he unleashed the power of his office, stopping the clerks from receiving the donations and filing suit against the nonprofit. Calcasieu Parish, which had been devastated by Hurricane Laura, was one of many parishes awarded more than a half-million dollars for its election expenses but was forced to turn it down.

Landry, who has long been at odds with Facebook for having what he perceives as a left-leaning agenda, has justified the lawsuit as a matter of “election integrity” to stop private donors from covering election-related supplies and expenses. The Secretary of State is responsible for the cost of elections that are solely gubernatorial or congressional, and the state shares the cost with local governments when an election includes a local candidate, according to state statute.  

“This is a major win, not only for Attorney General Jeff Landry’s Office, but also for election integrity,” Landry’s press secretary Cory Dennis said in an email.

A spokesperson for the Center for Tech and Civic Life did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

The appeals panel found that the lower court erred when it defined parish registrars of voters and clerks of court as parish officials with the constitutional authority of political subdivisions to “acquire property for any public purpose by purchase, donation, expropriation, exchange, or otherwise” as detailed in the Louisiana Constitution. 

Rather, the appeals panel stated, clerks of court and parish registrars are state officials who operate within a limited geographical jurisdiction. Thus, as state officials, they may not acquire property or funding in the same manner as would a local or parish government. 

The appeals court noted that seven similar federal lawsuits against CTCL filed in other states have all been dismissed, but the donations at issue in those cases “were offered to and accepted by the counties or cities holding the elections rather than by election officials such as registrars of voters and clerks of court.”

CTCL could not be immediately reached for comment.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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