Elections 2020JudicialLocal NewsFederal Lawsuit Filed Over Zuckerberg Grants for Texas Elections

A federal lawsuit seeks to block more than $25 million in private grants targeting elections in heavily Democrat counties in Texas. Plaintiffs say the grants create an illegal public-private partnership and promote progressive candidates.
October 9, 2020
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A group of voters have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block unregulated private grants awarded to elections administrations in several Texas counties.

The target of the lawsuit and petition for injunction is the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), a non-profit organization based in Chicago and heavily funded by Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan with the purpose of helping local officials to provide “safe” elections under COVID-19 conditions.

Dallas and Harris counties have accepted grants of $15.1 million and $9.6 million respectively from CTCL, although some elected officials have expressed concern over the grants, with Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch (R) calling the grant a “thinly veiled” get-out-the-vote effort for Democrats. 

Both Hays and Hopkins counties have also received grants of $298,000 and $19,952, bringing the total injected into Texas elections to more than $25 million.

Filed by the Texas Voters Alliance, Warren Johnson, Alan Vera, Russell Hayter, and Donnie Wisenbaker in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas, the suit asserts that the grants violate federal election law which places “states” not local governments in charge of federal elections.

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Since the counties accepting the grants are not “states,” plaintiffs argue these local governments have exceeded their legal authority in forming what is essentially a public-private partnership with CTCL for federal election administration. They note that the Help America Vote Act funds allocated in 2019 along with CARES Act monies have provided more than $800 million in additional funds distributed to cities and counties conducting elections this year, and that local officials are bound by federal election law. 

The suit also notes that CTCL has targeted counties and cities with progressive voter patterns and alleges the grants are designed to help progressive candidates win.

Although CTCL claims to be non-partisan, founder Tiana Epps-Johnson is the former elections administrator for the New Organizing Institute (NOI), a non-profit that developed digital strategy for progressive campaigns. The lawsuit takes note of CTCL’s connections to NOI and other progressive groups, such as the Skoll Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

The filing provides details from the CTCL grant application listing activities to be funded, including the expansion of drive-thru voting, the publication of voter education materials prior to the election, and additional staff and technology to provide mail ballot processing. The application also states that recipient counties must provide written reports detailing the election administration’s operations and expenditures.

Lawsuits seeking to block CTCL and other private grants have been filed in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by the Thomas More Society along with election integrity watchdog group True the Vote.

Although not a party to the lawsuit, True the Vote founder and president Catherine Engelbrecht expressed support for the legal action.

“Elections offices shouldn’t be allowed to take private money to fund elections operations. In this case, the money is clearly coming from and going to support progressive interests. True the Vote supports the effort to prevent the privatization of the election process,” Englelbrecht told The Texan

In Louisiana last week, Attorney General Jeff Landry requested a permanent injunction against the grants calling them “a corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.” Landry specifically noted that the grants required local government officials to agree to terms, conditions, and limitations dictated by CTCL. Election officials in 26 jurisdictions in the state subsequently withdrew applications for the CTCL funds.

In addition to CTCL, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has also provided a $250,000 private grant to elections officials in Cameron County, Texas.

Schwarzenegger has been providing grants to areas formerly covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including Cameron. The county is reliably Democrat and chose Hillary Clinton by 65 percent in 2016. Due to historically low voter turnout, Democrats and the Biden-Harris campaign have targeted Cameron and other border counties in the hopes that increased participation will tip the state in Biden’s favor.

One notable member of the CTCL Advisory Committee is controversial Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole. Commissioner Koch called on her to resign after 44 thumb drives amounting to more than 9,000 votes were lost on election night during the 2020 primaries. Pippins-Poole announced earlier this year that she would resign on November 30, after the general election.

The Texas Voters Alliance says their objective is to ensure “public confidence in the integrity of Texas’ elections, in election results and election systems, processes, procedures, and enforcement, and that public officials act in accordance with the law in exercising their obligations to the people of the State of Texas.”

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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.