Suit seeks Hillsborough election records on 2020 voter education spending

A nearly $3 million grant was financed by a donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. [ Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office ]
Published June 22, 2022|Updated June 23, 2022

TAMPA — A Lakeland attorney wants to know if Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer used a nearly $3 million grant to run a partisan get-out-the-vote campaign leading up to the November 2020 election.

In a May 25 lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, Hardam Hitarth Tripathi of Lakeland is seeking public records from Latimer and consultant Vistra Communications of Lutz documenting how the grant was used.

Vistra devised and implemented a wide-ranging voter education campaign on Latimer’s behalf in fall 2020 that included advertisements on television, radio, billboards, ride-share vehicles, gas pumps, movie screens, airport displays, print news publications and social media.

The suit said Tripathi hadn’t received documents requested from Vistra, a government vendor that must comply with Florida’s public records laws.

The suit alleges that records obtained so far from Latimer’s office by Tripathi “provides a basis for believing that the campaign was in fact a partisan get-out-the-vote campaign, and that the supervisor of elections attempted to obscure this fact.”

The target audience included Black and Hispanic people and first-time voters. Those groups, as indicated by the supervisor’s own data, “are disproportionately registered as Democrats in Hillsborough County,” the suit stated.

Latimer is a Democrat. Tripathi is a former Tampa resident, according to public records, and he is involved with the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said his lawyer, Jeffrey Childers of Gainesville.

“That baseless attack on my integrity is something I will not let stand,” Latimer responded in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “As supervisor of elections, I do want to get out the vote, and there is nothing partisan about it.

“I want every eligible resident to be registered, and every registered voter to vote. Voter education goes hand in hand with increasing turnout, because voters who don’t know how, where or when they can vote may miss out on the opportunity,” he said.

Brian A. Butler, president and CEO of Vistra, indicated the company had complied with the law.

“We believe we have provided all required documentation related to this highly successful campaign to the Supervisor of Elections Office,” Butler said in an email.

Related: That demand for a recount of Hillsborough's 2020 elections? Never mind

The grant came from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life after it announced a $250 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The Center for Tech and Civic Life is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that distributed the Zuckerberg donation to local jurisdictions “to help ensure they have the staffing, training and equipment necessary so that (in November 2020) every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and their vote counts,” the agency said in September 2020.

Latimer’s office received more than $2.9 million, most of which went to finance the voter education campaign.

Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson was the only other grant recipient in the Tampa Bay region. Her office received a little over $107,000. The largest grant in Florida, nearly $6.2 million, went to Palm Beach County. Combined, 11 election supervisors in Florida received nearly $16 million, according to tax documents for the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

Childers stopped short of saying the education campaign swayed the election results.

“There’s no way to tell unless the supervisor is transparent about how the money was used,” said Childers. “My client or anyone else has to wonder whether it was used to sway the election.”

More than 717,000 people voted in Hillsborough County in the November 2020 election, a turnout of 76.77%. Democrat Joe Biden received 52.7% of the vote in the presidential election compared to 45.85% for President Donald Trump.

Four years earlier, 608,263 people voted in the November election, a turnout of 71.57%. Democrat Hilary Rodham Clinton received 51.52% of the vote compared to Trump’s 44.65%.

The suit acknowledges wrongdoing may not have occurred.

“When a full review of Vistra’s documents is complete, it may be clear that the entire process was carefully managed, ethical, and conflict free. That is just as much the point of Sunshine (laws) — to allow citizens to confirm they were served well by their public officials as much as poorly,” the suit stated.