Person

Tiana Epps-Johnson

Organization:

Center for Tech and Civic Life

Tiana Epps-Johnson is the founder and executive director of Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), an electoral advocacy organization which received $250 million from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in 2020. [1]

Epps-Johnson was one of eight high-level staff members who led a walkout at the New Organizing Institute (NOI), a Democratic campaign training organization, in 2015. Soon after, Epps-Johnson turned her focus to CTCL, a group she founded in 2012 fellow NOI employees Whitney May and Donny Bridges, and NOI joined RePower, a left-wing activist training organization. [2]

Epps-Johnson was also part of the inaugural class of fellows at former President Barack Obama’s Obama Foundation.

Education

Tiana Epps-Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Stanford University. She then earned a master’s degree in politics and communications from the London School of Economics. [3]

Epps-Johnson wrote her dissertation on the portrayal of African Americans in advertisements concerning California’s Proposition 8, a referendum to ban state recognition of same-sex marriages. She argued that advertisements tended to portray African Americans as homophobic and that race was not a meaningful factor in predicting voting trends on marriage issues, despite 70% of California African Americans had voted in favor of Proposition 8. [4]

Career

In 2006, while studying at Stanford University, Tiana Epps-Johnson interned at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on the organization’s voting rights project. [5]

In 2008, after graduating from Stanford and before starting at the London School of Economics, Tiana Epps-Johnson worked for the University of California, San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control and Research. [6]

In 2010, Epps-Johnson began working for the New Organizing Institute, a now-defunct left-progressive group which trained digital organizers and campaigners for the Democratic Party and left-of-center political causes. Epps-Johnson started as a deputy data manager of the organization’s Voting Information Project. She was then promoted to manage the project and eventually became NOI’s election administration director. [7]

In February 2015, eight senior staff members, including Epps-Johnson, quit NOI at once. In the immediate aftermath, numerous low-level staff members also either immediately resigned or were laid off. The walk-out was promoted by ongoing complaints against executive director Ethan Roeder, a former top-level campaign manager for President Obama whose alleged mismanagement of New Organizing Institute had brought the organization close to bankruptcy. The leaders of the revolt delivered an ultimatum to board chair Judith Freeman demanding that the board fire Roeder, a request which the board refused. [8] Eight months later, the remnants of NOI were absorbed into RePower, a radical left-wing political training group. [9]

Shortly after she left NOI, Epps-Johnson focused her attention on the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a group she had founded in 2012 with her NOI co-workers Whitney May and Donny Bridges. Epps-Johnson took on the role of executive director and is also a board member at CTCL. [10] CTCL is a left-leaning election advocacy group. It is best known for receiving a $250 million donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, in the months leading up to the 2020 election. CTCL then distributed the funds to local election jurisdictions to ensure the security and safety of voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. [11]

In 2015, while running CTCL, Epps-Johnson became a technology and democracy fellow at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. In 2018, Epps-Johnson was named one of the inaugural Obama Fellows at the Obama Foundation, through which she received funding for her work with CTCL[12]

In November 2018, Epps-Johnson gave a TED Talk on updating American voting systems. As of June 2021, the online video of the talk has over 1.5 million views. [13]

Epps-Johnson currently sits on the boards of City Bureau, a Chicago-based community organizing group, and the Center for Civic Design, a left-of-center election watchdog group. [14]

Pleasant Prairie Election Complaint

In 2020, Jay Stone, a resident of Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin who is registered as an Independent, filed a complaint against the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The complaint claimed that funds were being disproportionately sent to election officials in Democratic-leaning districts. Stone later amended the complaint to include grants given by the CTCL, which heavily targeted major cities that voted in favor of Democratic candidates. Stone noted that CTCL is an officially non-partisan group, but he identified Tiana Epps-Johnson and other executives as having ties to the Democratic Party, including her fellowship with the Obama Foundation and former employment at the New Organizing Institute. [15]

Stone’s complaint listed that Epps-Johnson “is an out-and-out Democrat” who “would be entitled to her opinions if she had not tried to influence the election.” Stone claimed that Epps-Johnson, through CTCL grants given to majority Democratic jurisdictions, was “influencing the election in arguably the three most crucial battleground states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.” [16]

Unlawful Private Funding of Elections Lawsuit

Under Epps-Johnson’s leadership, CTCL was sued by Louisiana Attorney General on the grounds that the organization’s activities during the 2020 election allegedly violated state laws.

On October 2, 2021, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry sued the New Venture Fund (the parent organization of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, or CSME), CTCL, and the consulting firm Full Circle Strategies (which represented both organizations locally) “to prevent the injection of unregulated private money into the Louisiana election system and to protect the integrity of elections in the State by ensuring against the corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.” According to the lawsuit, “private contributions to local election officials are unlawful and contrary to the methods for election funding established by law in the State of Louisiana”; the Attorney General sought to have CTCL’s funding declared illegal and be permanently enjoined. [17]

The lawsuit alleged that CTCL and New Venture Fund (under the name “Center for Secure and Modern Elections”) had unlawfully “targeted 13 parishes” for elections grants, some of which exceeded $500,000, requiring local registrar’s offices to provide “detailed information about [their] operations, conduct, and expenses” in turn. These transactions were allegedly facilitated by Dawn Maisel Cole, the principal for Full Circle Strategies, who “directly solicited registrars and clerks of court to accept contributions from CTCL and New Venture for the operation of their respective offices.” Besides breaking state law, the Attorney General’s office argued that private funding of elections is barred by the Louisiana state legislature and U.S. Congress for “obvious” reasons: [18]

  1. The influence that would inevitably accompany private financial contributions to local elections officials;
  2. Outside donations to local election officials sow distrust in the administration of the election system;
  3. Private contributions would inevitably spawn competition for party and corporate control over local election funding and would lead to bidding for election favor by party and private interests;
  4. Private contributors are likely to be political parties or large corporations that have partisan and/or economic objectives to foster with their contributions to election officials;
  5. Private interests, as in this instance, fund particular parishes and particular aspects of the election that they believe advance their election goals and objectives;
  6. Should registrars and clerks become reliant upon private funding of their governmental activities, they may well be compelled to respond to the objectives of those providing the funding in order to ensure that the funding continues;
  7. Such private funding, washed through non-profit organizations, invites the potential for contributions from foreign governments to the Louisiana system and its election officials;
  8. Private contributions open the door to election suits and contests based upon perceived or actual influence on the part of local election officials in the conduct of an election.

Attorneys for defendants CTCL, New Venture Fund, and Dawn Maisel Cole argued that they were allowed to provide grants to parishes because no law expressly prohibited private funding for elections: [19]

Under Louisiana law, registrar of voters and clerks of courts are ‘political subdivisions’ that are allowed to accept private donations for public purposes unless there is restriction provided by law that prohibits them from doing so.

A state judge ruled against the state on October 26, 2020, on the grounds that “there is no prohibition for the granting of private funds to registrars of voters and clerks of court to assist in the election process.” [20] Consequently, he ruled that the Attorney General’s office had “no cause of action” for the lawsuit and it was dismissed with prejudice. [21]

A judge on Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal later reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision dismissing Attorney General Jeff Landry’s lawsuit against CTCL and New Venture Fund in April 2022. [22]

The appellate court found that CTCL and New Venture Fund “targeted 13 parishes” with offers for COVID-19 “relief grants” “through a lobbyist by the name of Dawn Maisel Cole, owner and operator of Full Circle Strategies, LLC, as their Louisiana representative and agent to target registrars of voters, clerks of court and local election officials.” Cole allegedly “directly solicited registrars and clerks of court to accept contributions from CTCL and New Venture Fund.” According to the court, CTCL and New Venture Fund demanded parishes supply them with the following information: [23]

  • Number of active registered voters in the election office jurisdiction as of September 1, 2020
  • Number of full-time staff (or equivalent) on the election team as of September 1, 2020
  • Election office 2020 budget as of September 1, 2020
  • Election office W-9
  • Local government body who needs to approve the grant funding (if any)
  • What government official or government agency the grant agreement should be addressed to.

The court concluded that, “the State . . . has stated a cause of action to protect an interest of the state by preventing the funding of elections with private money,” and reversed and remanded the earlier decision. The court added: “Whether the defendants here may be well-intentioned, private money in any amount, but particularly the amount of money offered by the defendants to select clerks and/or registrars, has an inherently insidious and corrupting effect.” [24]

After the appeals court reinstated the Attorney General’s lawsuit, CTCL, New Venture Fund, and Full Circle Strategies again sought a dismissal of the case, requesting that the state Supreme Court review the appeals court decision. On June 28, 2022, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Attorney General in a 4-3 decision, allowing the lawsuit to proceed. Speaking about the decision, Erick Kaaral, special counsel of the right-of-center Thomas More Society which has advocated extensively against CTCL funding and “zuckbucks” said, “I’m optimistic that Louisiana courts will find that the CTCL intervention is not legally authorized,” and that “… Our election system was ambushed by billionaires, and they’ve had a huge influence.” [25]

References

  1. Allen, Mike. “Scoop: Zuckerberg, Chan invest $300 million in election infrastructure.” Axios. September 1, 2020. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.axios.com/mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-election-security-a4950a93-2efd-42a6-9d7a-5fcc763f9214.html. ^
  2. “New Organizing Institute.” Influence Watch. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/new-organizing-institute/. ^
  3. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  4. Epps-Johnson, Tiana. “Fleeting Racialization?: Media Representation of African Americans During the California Proposition 8 Campaign.” London School of Economics. 2011. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/assets/documents/research/msc-dissertations/2010/Johnson-1.pdf. ^
  5. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  6. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  7. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  8. McMorris-Santoro, Evan. “Liberal Organizing Group Implodes in One Tumultuous Afternoon.” BuzzFeed News. February 10, 2015. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/evanmcsan/new-organizing-institute-implodes. ^
  9. “New Organizing Institute.” Influence Watch. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/new-organizing-institute/. ^
  10. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  11. Allen, Mike. “Scoop: Zuckerberg, Chan invest $300 million in election infrastructure.” Axios. September 1, 2020. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.axios.com/mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-election-security-a4950a93-2efd-42a6-9d7a-5fcc763f9214.html. ^
  12. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  13. “What’s needed to bring the US voting system into the 21st century.” TED. November 2018. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.ted.com/talks/tiana_epps_johnson_what_s_needed_to_bring_the_us_voting_system_into_the_21st_century#t-307254. ^
  14. “Tiana Epps-Johnson.” LinkedIn. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/tianaej/. ^
  15. Truttschel, Dan. “Pleasant Prairie resident files election complaint.” Kenosha News. September 10, 2020. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.kenoshanews.com/news/local/pleasant-prairie-resident-files-election-complaint/article_011039c1-c40f-5065-bbfd-9d3301b03c6b.html. ^
  16. Truttschel, Dan. “Pleasant Prairie resident files election complaint.” Kenosha News. September 10, 2020. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.kenoshanews.com/news/local/pleasant-prairie-resident-files-election-complaint/article_011039c1-c40f-5065-bbfd-9d3301b03c6b.html. ^
  17. State of Louisiana v. Center for Technology and Civic Life, New Venture Fund, et al. Filed October 2, 2020. Accessed May 12, 2021. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2020.10.02-AG-Petition.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2021/05/Louisiana-v-CTCL-New-Venture-Fund.-10.02.2020.pdf ^
  18. State of Louisiana v. Center for Technology and Civic Life, New Venture Fund, et al. Filed October 2, 2020. Accessed May 12, 2021. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2020.10.02-AG-Petition.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2021/05/Louisiana-v-CTCL-New-Venture-Fund.-10.02.2020.pdf ^
  19. State of Louisiana v. Center for Tech and Civic Life, Et Al. State of Louisiana, Court of Appeal, Third Circuit. Accessed April 5, 2022. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/21-0670opi.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2022/04/louisiana-lawsuit-reversal-ctcl-and-new-venture-fund-2022.pdf

    See PDF p. 9 ^

  20. State of Louisiana v. Center for Tech and Civic Life, Et Al. State of Louisiana, Court of Appeal, Third Circuit. Accessed April 5, 2022. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/21-0670opi.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2022/04/louisiana-lawsuit-reversal-ctcl-and-new-venture-fund-2022.pdf

    See PDF p. 10 ^

  21. Sam Karlin. “Judge rules against Jeff Landry in suit against Zuckerberg-backed nonprofit over free election money.” The Baton Rouge Advocate. Oct. 26, 2020. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/politics/elections/article_52b60760-17a9-11eb-9999-ef2b2c1bffcb.html ^
  22. State of Louisiana v. Center for Tech and Civic Life, Et Al. State of Louisiana, Court of Appeal, Third Circuit. Accessed April 5, 2022. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/21-0670opi.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2022/04/louisiana-lawsuit-reversal-ctcl-and-new-venture-fund-2022.pdf ^
  23. State of Louisiana v. Center for Tech and Civic Life, Et Al. State of Louisiana, Court of Appeal, Third Circuit. Accessed April 5, 2022. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/21-0670opi.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2022/04/louisiana-lawsuit-reversal-ctcl-and-new-venture-fund-2022.pdf

    See PDF pp. 5-6 ^

  24. State of Louisiana v. Center for Tech and Civic Life, Et Al. State of Louisiana, Court of Appeal, Third Circuit. Accessed April 5, 2022. Original URL: https://lailluminator.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/21-0670opi.pdf. Archived URL: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2022/04/louisiana-lawsuit-reversal-ctcl-and-new-venture-fund-2022.pdf See PDF p. 8, 24 ^
  25. Carroll, Michael. “Louisiana Lawsuit Challenging Zuckerberg-Funded Group’s Election Donations Gets Green Light.” Louisiana Record, July 15, 2022. https://louisianarecord.com/stories/628727629-louisiana-lawsuit-challenging-zuckerberg-funded-group-s-election-donations-gets-green-light. ^
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