Election conspiracy theory at root of proposed constitutional amendment

Ballot language addresses unfounded fears of Mark Zuckerberg, foreign government influence on Louisiana voting

By: - June 8, 2023 4:57 pm
A man casts his vote behind the curtain at a New Orleans Garden District polling place

A man casts his vote behind the curtain at a New Orleans Garden District polling place on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

The Louisiana Legislature, with the help of House Democrats, approved a bill Thursday that gives steam to unsubstantiated election conspiracy theories accusing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of trying to influence local election officials during the 2020 presidential race. 

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, received final passage on the Senate floor in a 27-12 vote along party lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.  

A day before that, party lines were blurred in the House of Representatives, where 10 Democrats joined with Republicans on a vote to reconsider the bill, a step needed to take up proposals in the last 72 hours of the legislative session. 

On its face, the proposal 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. In actuality, it stems from the so-called “Zucker Bucks” saga in which Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and other conservatives blocked parish election officials from receiving grants to pay for tents, signs, COVID-19 masks and other items used in the 2020 elections.

Without those 10 Democrats, the bill would’ve only received 69 votes in favor of reconsideration — just short of the two-thirds threshold needed to send it to the Senate, though a few House Republicans were absent at the time who also could have pushed the proposal over the top.  

One of the Democrats who joined with Republicans, Rep. Ken Brass, D-Vacherie, declined to comment on the record when asked about his vote. 

Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, voted against reconsideration but said the House Democratic Caucus had no discussions or plans on how to handle the bill. However, she said taking a stand to block procedural votes during the last days of the session can prompt retaliation from a Republican majority who can easily block Democrat-backed bills.

The nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), in response to the coronavirus pandemic, received $350 million in donations from a Zuckerberg-backed organization and other large sums from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Knight Foundation, Google and other American companies and nonprofit groups to help local election officials all across the country. 

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 in 49 other states.

However, 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 intended to corrupt local election officials or help jurisdictions that tend to vote Democratic. 

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

At the same time, Republican lawmakers were pressuring Ardoin to resist including emergency accommodations in the state’s election plan that would increase voter turnout during the pandemic. Higher turnout generally favors Democratic candidates.

At a House committee meeting in October 2020, the president of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association testified that Landry told local election officials they would be violating the law if they accepted the money, though his office denied the allegation. 

The nonprofit 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 the GOP controlled both legislative chambers 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 a 2021 bill from Miguez that tried to make the grants illegal.

Miguez has introduced similar bills in the past, arguing that private money shouldn’t be used to pay for elections because it can lead to influence and corruption. Gov. Edwards has been quick to use his veto power, writing that the legislation is an “unnecessary political ploy.” 

This year, however, Miguez found a way around the governor. He introduced the measure as a constitutional amendment that only needed the backing of the Republican supermajorities in each legislative chamber. Having passed the legislature, the proposal will 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 a fall election ballot will ask voters if they support prohibiting the use of funds “from a foreign government or a nongovernmental source to conduct elections.” 

Louisiana voters will consider the new messaging when the proposal appears on the Oct. 14 election ballot.


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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.