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Judge refuses to stop Richland, Charleston election officials from accepting nonprofit aid

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Long lines snake through the covered area outside of the North Charleston Coliseum as they participate in absentee voting on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — A federal judge on Monday rejected a bid to stop election officials in Richland and Charleston counties from accepting assistance from a private nonprofit linked to the tech industry.

In rejecting the injunction request, Judge Richard Gergel said it was unlikely that the three plaintiffs and a group called South Carolina Voter's Alliance would win their case. Federal judges only should interfere in voting operations close to an election under the most pressing circumstances, and this case does not qualify, he wrote.

The case involves money offered to election officials around the country by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple has pledged $400 million to help local officials meet the technical challenges of holding elections during a pandemic.

The lawsuit filed Thursday asked federal courts to block acceptance of the money by Richland and Charleston counties, two areas that are expected to cast big majorities for Democrats in the election. According to the lawsuit, the two counties have accepted $1.4 million from the organization. 

The counties could be vital in hard-fought races for the U.S. Senate between Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, and in the 1st Congressional District between GOP state Rep. Nancy Mace and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the first Democrat to hold the Lowcountry seat in a generation. 

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs argue that the use of private funds gets around the state mandate to oversee elections.

The nonprofit said it extends its offer to all jurisdictions in a nonpartisan manner. The center said it had requests for aid from 43 different election officials in South Carolina, including from Greenville and Berkeley counties, which are seen as Republican bastions. 

"We look forward to continuing this critical grant program in these unprecedented times so that voters can participate in this election and remain safe and healthy," the center said in a statement on the South Carolina ruling. 

Similar requests to block the money with injunctions have been rejected in other states including Iowa and Texas.

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