Constitutional amendment plays on fears of foreign corruption in Louisiana elections

Proposal would bypass Gov. Edwards’ veto pen

By: - May 18, 2023 3:37 pm
East Baton Rouge Parish Voters stand in line at

Voters in Baker, La., wait in line to cast ballots on the last day of Louisiana’s early voting period Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. (Photo credit: WES MULLER/LOUISIANA ILLUMINATOR)

The Louisiana House approved a bill Wednesday that stems from conspiracy theories accusing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of trying to influence local election officials. Gov. John Bel Edwards has vetoed similar bills in the past, but this year’s proposal will bypass his desk and go straight to voters with ballot language that plays on fears of foreign corruption. 

House Bill 311, sponsored by Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, cleared the House floor in a 70-33 vote without debate or discussion. Two Democrats — Reps. Robby Carter of Amite and Mack Cormier of Belle Chasse — joined Republicans in voting for the measure. 

The bill is a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the use of private donations to conduct elections, though the ballot language frames it as a way to stop foreign countries from corrupting parish election officials.  

The issue began in 2020 when the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), in response to the coronavirus pandemic, offered grants to local jurisdictions across the country to help pay for tents, signs and other items used for elections. 

The nonprofit received $350 million in donations from Zuckerberg and other large sums from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Knight Foundation and Google, among other American companies and organizations. 

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin was willing to accept the financial assistance and initially urged local registrars and court clerks to apply for the grants. They did, and CTCL was poised to give more than $1.1 million to parishes across the state as it did with local governments in 49 states.

However, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has accused Facebook and Google of having left-leaning agendas, picked up on a national narrative from conservative corners that claimed the grants were corrupting local election officials or being used to help jurisdictions that tend to vote Democratic. At the same time, Republican lawmakers were pressuring Ardoin to resist including emergency accommodations in the state election plan that would increase voter turnout during the pandemic.

At a House committee meeting in October 2020, the president of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association testified that Landry threatened local election officials that they would be violating the law if they accepted the money. Democrats said Landry’s interference was part of a conservative agenda to reduce voter turnout, though the attorney general’s office denied the charges. 

CTCL awarded approximately $217 million to the District of Columbia and 24 states that Joe Biden eventually won in the 2020 presidential election, while about $114 million was awarded to 23 states that Donald Trump won, according to analysis cited by Ballotpedia.

However, more money went to Republican trifecta states, those in which Republicans controlled the legislature and the governorship. There were 19 states with Republican trifectas ahead of the 2020 election that received CTCL grants totaling roughly $144 million, while 14 states with Democratic trifectas received $96 million, according to the same analysis. 

Although Landry told local election officials it would be illegal for them to accept the grants, his assertion was on shaky legal ground. His office soon appeared before the legislature in support of Miguez’s 2021 bill that tried to make the grants illegal. 

Miguez has introduced similar bills in the past, but Edwards has been quick to use his veto power, writing that the legislation is an “unnecessary political ploy.” 

This year, however, Miguez has introduced the measure as a constitutional amendment and only needs the backing of Republican supermajorities in each legislative chamber. 

After passing the legislature, the proposal would then go directly to the voters with newly crafted language different from what appeared in previous bills. 

In previous years, the legislation used more straightforward terms in that it would have prohibited grants “from individuals or profit or nonprofit corporations.” The new language that would appear on this fall’s election ballot will ask voters if they support prohibiting the use of funds “from a foreign government or a nongovernmental source to conduct elections.”

House Bill 311 will next head to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee for consideration.


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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.