ELECTION 2020

Judge hears arguments over private grants for Scott, Black Hawk county elections

A voter deposits his advance ballot in a dropbox Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Mission, Kan. The Iowa Voter Alliance is sui
A voter deposits his advance ballot in a dropbox Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Mission, Kan. The Iowa Voter Alliance is suing both Scott and Black Hawk counties after their auditors accepted grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit seeking to modernize U.S. elections. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A federal judge on Tuesday heard arguments on a motion seeking to block private grant funding received by Scott and Black Hawk county election officials to help with conducting an election during a pandemic.

The Iowa Voter Alliance is suing both Scott and Black Hawk counties after their auditors accepted grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit seeking to modernize U.S. elections.

The money was given to counties to help offset the costs of running elections during a global pandemic, with Scott County receiving $286,870. Black Hawk County received $267,500, according to court documents.

The Iowa Voter Alliance argues the grants create an impermissible public-private partnership with Iowa’s urban counties designed to help progressive candidates.

Iowa Voter Alliance attorney Erick Kaardal argued private funding of public elections is impermissible under federal statute, and that federal election law preempts counties from accepting private funding for federal elections, which Kaardal argued should be “exclusively publicly funded.”

“For counties to accept private money, it would need to be authorized by the Constitution and federal statutes, and here neither is the case,” Kaardal told U.S. District Court Chief Judge Leonard Strand. “The top argument is this is a core government responsibility … so it needs to be exclusively publicly funded … like the military, like the judiciary.”

In seeking a temporary restraining order, Kaardal argued his clients’ — the Iowa Voter Alliance and plaintiffs Michael Angelos, of Davenport, Diane Holst, of Eldridge, and Black Hawk County voter Todd Obadal — would be disenfranchised by election officials’ illegal conduct accepting the private money.

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He pointed to the 2018 election fraud scandal in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District U.S. House race, which led to election results being invalidated and a special do-over election. As a result, North Carolina voters were disenfranchised by not having a representative seated in Congress, Kaardal said.

“We’ve never seen this amount of money being spent by two donors and a single nonprofit on federal elections,” Kaardal said. “Even if the court disagrees on the merits … we need to know whether it’s legal or not.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $350 million to CTCL to funnel to local election officials across the country struggling to meet the exceptional costs of holding an election amid a pandemic.

The Iowa Voter Alliance and plaintiffs note Iowa received about $10 million in additional funds allocated in 2019 through the Help America Vote Act and 2020 CARES Act dollars to be distributed to cities and counties to conduct elections this year.

“CTCL money is unnecessary,” Kaardal argued.

Katie Graham, a Des Moines attorney representing Black Hawk County, contends “there’s nothing illegal or improper” about the counties accepting private grant funding, and that federal election law anticipates that funding can be supplied by other sources.

“We’ve already incurred a lot of expenses related to COVID-19,” Graham said of Black Hawk County. “And even accepting additional CARES Act funding, the county would have to go into the general reserve fund. ... At the end of the day, the county did the responsible thing not going to the general reserves and putting taxpayers at a deficit.”

The complaint also alleges CTCL primarily provides grant funds supporting election activities in counties where, at least in recent years, voters have tended to vote “progressive” or for Democratic candidates, and that “plaintiffs’ favored candidates” will be disadvantaged in the imminent election.

Graham and Assistant Scott County Attorney Robert Cusak, however, note there is no record of partisan targeting through CTCL’s grant funding.

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A total of 64 Iowa counties, “many of them red,” have been awarded election grants by CTCL, Graham said. Yet, only Black Hawk and Scott counties, traditionally strongly Democratic, are targeted in the suit.

Kaardal said the suit was brought against those counties because that is where Iowa Voter Alliance had residency to bring the litigation. And should the temporary restraining order be granted, Kaardal said he would “proceed to file against other counties as soon as I could.”

CTCL’s website says grant dollars are to be used for expenses such as recruiting and hiring poll workers, “utilizing hazard pay where required”; increased site cleaning and sanitization costs; procuring personal protective equipment and personal disinfectant; supporting and expanding drive-thru and in-person early voting sites; and educating voters on safe voting policies and procedures.

“There is no harm here being alleged as to how this is impacting progressive voters differently,” Graham said. “It’s helping everyone vote safely.”

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz has said she intends to use the money to pay for $15-an-hour hazard pay for about 375 poll workers and deep cleanings of polling locations.

Additionally, in a sworn affidavit filed with the court, Moritz pledged that “none of the CTCL grant money has been or will be spent to engineer a certain election result or for a partisan purpose.”

“Rather, the CTCL grant money is being used county-wide to protect the right to vote and accommodate the safety of voters during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moritz stated in the affidavit.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in Wisconsin, Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Georgia and South Carolina, key battleground states in the 2020 presidential election with tight, hotly contested U.S. Senate and House races.

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Federal judges in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have rejected similar attempts by a conservative group to block grant funding awarded to communities in those states, Graham said.

Judge Strand said he will take the arguments under advisement and expects to issue a ruling within the next day or two.

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