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Conservative lawyers sue to halt Zuckerberg-funded election grants to cities

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) — With lawsuits in eight swing states and more on the way, a small conservative legal advocacy group has launched a David-versus-Goliath legal battle against the election-year activities of a non-profit group that is funded -- to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars -- by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

Waging the uphill legal campaign is a group called the Amistad Project, named after an incident in the 1830s when slaves revolted aboard the ship that had carried them from Sierra Leone to Cuba, captained the vessel to New York, then won their freedom from the U.S. Supreme Court. The project is in turn an initiative of the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based organization known chiefly for its legal interventions on behalf of pro-life activists and causes.

Working through carefully selected plaintiffs represented pro bono by Amistad, the group has sued Democratic officials in heavily blue cities and counties who administer federal and state elections. The lawsuits charge that these officials, and the locales they oversee, have illegally accepted tens of millions in direct grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), another non-profit -- established in 2012 and also headquartered in Chicago -- to which Zuckerberg and Chan gifted $250 million this summer, with the stated aim of helping the jurisdictions maximize voter turnout amid the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amistad's complaints run along two lines. First, the group claims that under the Help America Vote Act, a federal law enacted in the wake of Bush v. Gore, local governments are prohibited from accepting private federal election grants without securing the approval of their respective state legislatures.

Second, the plaintiffs backed by Amistad -- including groups with names like the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, and, in Michigan, the Election Integrity Fund -- claim that CTCL, a non-profit barred from conducting partisan activity, is selectively doling out its multimillion-dollar grants to heavily Democratic election machines.

Amistad's court filings allege that within a month of Zuckerberg and Chan announcing their $250 million gift to CTCL, a group founded and led by former Obama appointees and Democratic election officials, the group awarded nearly $26 million in grants to a dozen cities and counties in three battleground states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- where roughly 76 percent of the two-and-a-half million ballots cast in 2016 went to Hillary Clinton.

"So this is a government-targeted effort to turn out a demographic for voting, and that is the opposite side of the same coin as voter suppression," said Phill Kline, a former attorney general for the state of Kansas who is now director of the Amistad Project. "This creates a disparate impact, in other words, a lack of equal protection under the law."

For context, Kline said, there would be "a national outcry, and understandably so," if a conservative entity such as the National Rifle Association had funneled $250 million directly to city and state officials tasked with the management of elections in the twelve most populous jurisdictions where polling indicates support for Second Amendment rights.

"Government must be objective in the management of elections," Kline said, "and should not play favorites."

CTCL did not respond to repeated requests for comment. However, Tammy Patrick, a CTCL board member -- formerly an Obama-appointed commissioner on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, and a Democratic elections official in Arizona -- has previously been quoted as saying that the cities and counties that received CTCL grants were chosen based on need, not the demographics of party affiliation.

"Those are locations that in this global pandemic are seeing some of the largest shifts in the way in which they are conducting their elections," Patrick told, a liberal news outlet. "And they were struggling the most in the primaries."

Kline, of the Amistad Project, acknowledged that waging litigation in multiple jurisdictions against the city attorneys and state attorneys general who are the defendants in the battleground lawsuits is a "daunting" enterprise. Those entities possess greater budgets and larger legal staffs with which to contest the Amiostad suits, as well as another factor on their side: time.

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The courts cannot move as fast as CTCL in awarding the grant funds: $10 million to relevant authorities in Philadelphia, for example, along with more than $3 million to the Detroit area, another $3 million to Minneapolis, according to court filings.

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