Elections 2020Local News$9.6 Million Zuckerberg Grant, Unvetted Vendors, and Blocked Poll Watchers Add to Harris County Election Controversy

In Texas’ largest county, a grant from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg injects an additional $9.6 million into an elections administration rife with controversy and legal challenges.
September 30, 2020
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In a 3-2 party-line vote Tuesday, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved the acceptance of a $9.6 million grant funded by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg through the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL).

The grant is part of a $300 million donation Chan and Zuckerberg announced earlier this month, and is advertised as helping local officials to provide “safe” elections under COVID-19 conditions. 

According to a CTCL press release, the grants are to support poll worker recruitment, hazard pay and training, drive-through voting, ballot and application processing equipment, personal protective equipment, and “nonpartisan voter education from cities and counties.”

Prior to the commissioners court vote, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) said he had not had time to review the proposal, and noted that the originally published agenda item requested approval for an application, but had been changed Monday to request approval of the grant itself.

“I don’t really know what all the strings attached are to this $9.6 million, don’t know what it is going to be exactly spent on,” said Cagle. “I have questions.”

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Grants already awarded through Zuckerberg’s organization in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are the subject of federal lawsuits filed by the Thomas More Society according to a New York Times report. Joined in the lawsuit by Texas-based election integrity watchdog organization True the Vote, the conservative group alleges that the grants violate federal election law in circumventing state approval, and favor Democrats running for office.

Republican Commissioners Steve Radack (R-Pct. 3) and Cagle voted against accepting the grant, with Cagle saying he wanted legal review from the county attorney first. 

In self-quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, Cagle was not available for further comment, but his communications director told The Texan that the commissioner voted against the grant because he had concerns about whether the funds would be used in a purely non-partisan manner.

Earlier this year, Harris County approved a request from interim Clerk Chris Hollins for an unprecedented $27 million for the 2020 elections.

Controversy also erupted during the zoom meeting over an emergency agenda request from the county attorney to approve contracts with 12 vendors and individuals hired by Hollins.

In answer to questions from Radack, county purchasing agent Dewight Dopslauf told commissioners that proper procurement procedures had not been followed and some of the vendors had already been performing election-related work under Hollins, despite not having been vetted or approved by the county. He also said he had not received scope documents detailing exact duties for several of the vendors in question.

Cagle noted that some of the contract awards were for $49,999.99, bringing them just under the $50,000 threshold that would have triggered a bid requirement.

Radack queried Hollins as to why he had not followed proper procedure in hiring the vendors, to which the clerk replied that he was new to the office and that he had asked his team as to what to do and had followed their instructions.

“We’re dealing with law here,” insisted Radack. “This is a very serious situation…this is illegal.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) said he did not recognize the names of many of the vendors, and while he wanted to make sure they were providing Spanish language materials, he motioned to have the contracts approved pending additional approval from both the county attorney and purchasing agent.

The commissioners court approved the contracts in another 3-2 party-line vote.

The vendors and individuals listed in the agenda item are Alex Moorer, CJH Consulting LLC, Darryl Blackburn, Davis Kaufman PLLC, Etched Communication LLC, Lauren Smith, Mallory Smith, Matthew Oloyede, Talent Activated LLC, Three6ixty Visual Inc., Twice Media Productions LLC, and Warner Seale Public Affairs Inc.

Harris County is fighting multiple lawsuits in both state and federal courts regarding elections issues, and the latest filing before the Supreme Court of Texas includes affidavits from investigators alleging an orchestrated mail-in-ballot fraud scheme involving Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and individuals working within the clerk’s office.

On Tuesday, poll watchers from the Harris County Republican Party were told by the county that they would not be permitted to observe the drop-off and intake of absentee and mail ballots. HCRP ballot security chairman Alan Vera appealed to the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections Keith Ingram, but Ingram was unable to intervene.

The conflict over which activities poll watchers may observe is expected to be added to one of several lawsuits filed by conservative activist Steven Hotze and other stakeholders. 

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.