A federal judge late Tuesday denied a request by a national conservative group seeking to block private grant funding received by Scott and Black Hawk county election officials to help with conducting an election during a pandemic.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Leonard T. Strand denied the motion following a court hearing Tuesday morning on a lawsuit filed by the Iowa Voter Alliance against 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 receiving $267,500, according to court documents.
The Iowa Voter Alliance argued the grants created 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 was impermissible under federal statute and that federal election law preempted 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 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.
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.
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 notes Iowa received about $10 million in additional funds allocated in 2019 though 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," Kardaal argued.
Strand, however, in his ruling found that the Iowa Voter Alliance failed to meet its burden and that the group could not show how the grants harmed anyone. And in contrast, stopping the counties from using the grants would hinder their ability to meet their election needs and harm their residents in exercising their right to vote, Strand wrote.
Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz, in a press release issued late Tuesday night, said the funds would help pay for extra sanitation measures at polling places, expanded hours of early voting, extra wages for poll workers and other various costs not originally in the county’s election budget.
"Some of these costs would have been borne by the taxpayers,” Moritz said. "Some of these measures would not occur without the grant. I’m just glad we can go ahead with our plans and conduct as safe an election as we can given the growing number of COVID-19 numbers in our county."
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 countywide to protect the right to vote and accommodate the safety of voters during the COVID-19 pandemic," Moritz stated in the affidavit.
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, noted Tuesday there is no record of partisan targeting through CTCL's grant funding.
A total of 64 Iowa counties, many of them Republican leaning, have been awarded election grants by CTCL, Graham said. Yet, only Black Hawk and Scott counties, 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."
Strand, though, wrote that denying the use of the funds by only two out of 64 counties would put the residents of Scott and Blackhawk Counties at a disadvantage from the other counties receiving funds.
Kaardal is an attorney for the Amistad Project of the Thomas More Society, a conservative group that is representing plaintiffs in lawsuits seeking to block municipalities in several states from using the grants.
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.
Federal judges in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have rejected similar attempts by the conservative group to block grant funding awarded to communities in those states.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report
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