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The Republican Party and its allies have relied on voter suppression tactics for decades, but this year they are pulling out all the stops.
"I don't want everybody to vote," right-wing leader Paul Weyrich infamously said back in 1980. "Elections are not won by a majority of people...As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
During a March appearance on Fox & Friends, President Donald Trump echoed that view while blasting congressional Democrats' proposals to make voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic.
"The things they had in there were crazy," Trump exclaimed. "They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."
As the nation inches closer to the November elections, one thing is certain: Billionaire-funded, right-wing advocacy groups, working alongside the Trump campaign, the national Republican Party, and state parties around the nation, are determined to undermine Americans' right to vote—the very practice that makes a democracy a democracy—from every possible angle to retain their political power.
Some of the tactics have stunned political observers and raised fears about the future of American democracy. After months of baseless attacks on voting by mail, Trump succeeded in getting Louis DeJoy, one of his wealthy megadonors, installed as head of the Postal Service, where he promptly enacted a number of measures that brought mail delivery to a crawl.
And Trump admitted on August 13 that he held up congressional negotiations over coronavirus relief to block increased funding for the Postal Service in order to prevent widespread mail-in voting.
"They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," Trump said. "If they don't get [the funding], that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it."
After enormous outcry from Democratic politicians, advocacy organizations, and the general public—and after mail sorting facilities were strewn with dead animals and rotting food—DeJoy claimed to pause these measures, but significant damage has already been done.
Public confidence in voting by mail has been seriously undermined, and DeJoy said he will not order hundreds of mail sorting machines back online, even as his controversial changes have dramatically slowed down mail in an election season that will see an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus. And he is stonewalling congressional Democrats' requests for documents in the days since his House hearing.
Meanwhile, the GOP and outside groups are aggressively pursuing a wide range of other strategies to make it harder for people to vote in November.
Undermining Mail-in Voting
In addition to DeJoy's seemingly intentional sabotage of the USPS, right-wing groups have put vote-by-mail at risk by fabricating voter fraud stories in an attempt to discourage the practice and undermine public confidence in election results.
The GOP and its outside allies have a major incentive to do this: According to a recent Emerson poll, 67 percent of those who plan to vote by mail are Biden supporters, as compared to just 28 percent of Trump fans. Voters who plan to vote in-person on Election Day break for Trump 57 percent to 37 percent.
In the general election so far, Democrats have a "massive" lead in mail-in ballot applications in key battleground states.
The GOP effort to associate mail-in voting with widespread fraud is fundamentally dishonest. Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, told CMD,
Voter fraud is exceedingly rare. It is exceedingly rare also in mail-voting systems. The five states that do their elections predominantly or almost exclusively by mail have had no major voter fraud scandals in the many years that they've been conducting elections in that way. This is once again an effort to gin up the myth of voter fraud to justify either restrictions on elections or how voters can cast their ballots to scare voters off from using an absolutely valid method of casting and returning their ballots.
That is precisely what GOP-aligned groups are doing.
The Honest Elections Project (HEP), a group tied to former Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo and led by former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Snead, has also attacked mail-in voting this year, spending $250,000 on ads and calling the practice "brazen attempt to manipulate the election system for partisan advantage."
HEP is a legal alias of the 85 Fund, which was formerly named the Judicial Education Project and is almost entirely funded by a dark-money pass-through fund, DonorsTrust, which GOP megadonors such as Charles Koch and the DeVos family use to make nonprofit contributions. Other major donors to the Judicial Education Project since 2014 include Vanguard Charitable, a donor-advised fund sponsor ($215,000), and the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation ($125,000), the charity of Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, the biggest donor family to GOP outside election spending groups from 2019 through June 2020.
While at Heritage, Snead developed the think tank's "Election Fraud Database," which the Brennan Center for Justice says "grossly exaggerated" the existence of voter fraud.
In August, HEP and a polling firm formerly run by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway held a webinar on voter fraud that was facilitated by an official from the State Policy Network, a web of right-wing, free-market "think tanks" that influences state legislation. Snead and "the polling company" CEO Brent Loyd presented a poll on vote-by-mail messaging, sharing with the viewers that while partisan messaging around the issue isn't very effective, playing up fears of fraud is.
HEP participated in another webinar in May from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a right-wing think tank that's part of the State Policy Network, in which guests, including Snead, cast mail-in voting as ripe for fraud.
Citing Democrats' efforts to encourage safe voting during a massive pandemic, Snead claimed, without irony, "The purpose behind I think all of this, whether it's through legislation or litigation, is to manipulate the election process to structurally advantage one side at the expense of the other."
TPPF launched its "Election Integrity Project" in March along with a short video alleging that ballot harvesting leads to vote tampering.
The group hosted an anti-mail-in-ballots webinar on Sep. 10, featuring Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who filed a lawsuit to stop Harris County—which includes Houston and is by far the biggest county in the state—from mailing ballot applications to all registered voters. Paxton made wild claims, without evidence, including that some people want mail-in voting in order to change the election results, and that U.S. Postal Service workers might commit election fraud because their union endorsed Trump's opponent, Joe Biden. Paxton even claimed that people commit voter fraud as part of an unspecified "quid-pro-quo" scheme.
The TPPF moderator, for his part, suggested that young people are fraudulently claiming they're disabled in order to receive mail-in ballots, and that counting votes after Election Day will lead to "manufacturing" of votes.
The biggest known recent funder of TPPF is, by far, the Charles Koch Foundation, which donated $3.4 million from 2014 to 2018. Other large donors since 2014 include the Deason Foundation, the family charity of Texas GOP megadonors Doug and Darwin Deason ($1.7 million), DonorsTrust ($1.4 million), the Bradley Foundation ($400,000), the Adolph Coors Foundation ($250,000), and the Ed Uihlein Foundation ($200,000). Mainstream donor-advised fund sponsors have also given big, with Fidelity Charitable ($772,000), Schwab Charitable ($379,000), and Vanguard Charitable ($221,000) contributing large amounts since 2014.
Conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation also puts out a regular stream of misleading voter fraud allegations. Hans von Spakovsky, the manager of the foundation's Election Law Reform Initiative and one of the country's most influential advocates of voter suppression, has recently argued that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud. Trump and Spakovsky, who has been pushing "the voter-fraud myth" for many years, fixate on one example of alleged fraud in a Paterson, NJ race as evidence that the entire vote-by-mail method is untenable. The reality is that five states conduct their elections entirely by mail, and "there is not any evidence of routine or even statistically significant fraud" in these states, according to The Washington Post.
Spakovsky was a member of Trump's "election integrity" commission, which Trump created in an attempt to find evidence that millions of people voted illegally for his 2016 opponent. Trump dissolved in 2018 after it found no evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 elections.
The Heritage Foundation has long been funded by a collection of reliable right-wing foundations. Since 2014, the Pittsburgh-based Sarah Scaife Foundation has donated over $5.3 million. Other top funders of the Heritage Foundation include the donor-advised fund sponsor Schwab Charitable ($3.3 million), the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation ($2.2 million), the Mercer Family Foundation ($1.5 million), the Searle Freedom Trust ($900,000), and the Charles Koch Foundation ($817,000). Additional foundations linked to GOP megadonors, such as the Wisconsin-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation ($752,000) and the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation ($370,000), have also given large sums since 2014.
Also involved in the vote-by-mail misinformation campaign is the innocuously named Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), a voter suppression organization led by J. Christian Adams, a member of Trump's failed election integrity commission, and directed by voter suppression attack dogs Mitchell and von Spakovksy. Adams, testified before the House Judiciary Committee on June 2-3, during which he lambasted vote-by-mail. Trump recently tweeted out a video of Adams' appearance on Fox Business, during which he fearmongered about inflated mail-ballot fraud.
In July, conserative group the Election Integrity Project California, which is part of the Election Integrity Alliance, wrote a letter to the president, demanding an "immediate summit" with Trump to relate "vital information" about the alleged dangers of vote-by-mail.
Voter suppression group True the Vote is part of the mail-in ballot fearmongering campaign as well. In a May episode of the organization's podcast, True the Vote President Catherine Engelbrecht enlisted the two Republican members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to argue against mail-in voting. One of the commissioners, Cathy McCormick, was a member of Trump's failed election integrity commission.
As a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, top vote suppressor Cleta Mitchell has legally represented True the Vote. She successfully requested a donation to the group in 2013 from the Bradley Foundation, according to documents obtained by CMD. Mitchell is currently secretary of the Bradley Foundation's Board of Directors.
A recent CMD review of True the Vote's funding found that the largest known donors are the Bradley Foundation and its sister charity, the Bradley Impact Fund, which combined to give $367,000 to the group from 2014 to 2018.
Some elected officials are helping create the narrative that mail-in voting leads to fraud. On Sep. 8, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that 1,000 Georgians voted twice in the state's June 9 primary. But elections expert and University of Florida professor Michael MacDonald tweeted, "It is abundantly clear from even a cursory analysis of the primary data posted by the Georgia Secretary of State's office that it is riddled with errors. Many counties didn't enter late rejected ballots, voters recorded as casting an accepted mail ballot with no vote history, etc."
Just a few days earlier, Trump told North Carolinians to vote twice, once by mail and once in-person, which is a felony.
A new ProPublica investigation found that Raffensperger and other Republican state elections officials took part in secret conference calls with Spakovsky. Raffensperger attended one in April, coordinated by the Heritage Foundation, and he'd met with Spakovsky in-person in 2019. It's unclear what the participants discussed, but one invitation said the "goal" of the call was to "gather the chief state election officials together to strategize on advancing their shared goal of ensuring the integrity of the elections they administer in their home states."
In its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court removed a key provision from the Voting Rights Act that subjected areas with a history of racial discrimination to federal preclearance before enacting voting law changes. After the verdict, states including Texas and Georgia began purging voters from their rolls at much higher rates than before. A 2018 Brennan Center report found that states' purges are riddled with errors, and from 2013 to 2018, four states conducted illegal purges, while four more implemented unlawful purge rules.
In 2017, Georgia's secretary of state, Brian Kemp, purged hundreds of thousands of voters, at least 107,000 of whom lost their rights because they hadn't voted in previous elections, a policy that disproportionately affects people more likely to vote for Democrats. The following year, Kemp, who oversaw that state's elections, won the governor's race by about 55,000 votes, a race that his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, never conceded.
The state continued to remove voters at a swift pace. A new report commissioned by the ACLU of Georgia found that the state wrongfully purged nearly 200,000 voters from its rolls in 2019, an error rate of 63 percent.
A planned voter purge of 235,000 voters in Ohio in 2019 would have wrongfully removed at least 40,000 eligible voters if citizen activists hadn't stepped in to conduct a huge investigation, which was only possible because Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose gave the League of Women Voters of Ohio a list of the names in advance.
Similar purges have occurred in many states in recent years, and this year, in Wisconsin, a potential purge has hung in the balance. The state's elections commission had planned to give voters until 2021 to confirm their addresses and registration status before being removed from the rolls, but the Bradley Foundation and Charles Koch-backed Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) sued the commission to force an immediate purge of 232,000 voters. The purge would disproportionately affect people who tend to be liberal; voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods or areas with large student populations were at the highest risk of being disenfranchised. The right-wing WILL wanted this purge of liberal voters to occur before the 2020 presidential election in a swing state that Trump won by just 22,000 votes in 2016.
A judge blocked the fast-tracked purge in February, and the state Supreme Court will hear the case on Sept. 29. Since the state notified the 232,000 flagged voters, some have confirmed their information, but as of May, 129,000 Wisconsinites were set to be purged.
The Bradley Foundation is by far the biggest known donor to WILL, having given nearly $6 million to the group since 2011. Other top contributors include the foundation of the Waltons, who own Walmart ($1.5 million since 2014), the Kern Family Foundation ($1.5 million since 2012), and DonorsTrust ($343,000 since 2014). Individual conservative donor Dianne Hendricks, a former Bradley Foundation board member and the largest individual WILL donor, gave WILL $75,000 in 2014, a fraction of the more than $800,000 she has donated since 1991, according to CMD's research.
In a pressure campaign, the Honest Elections Project is targeting election officials in three key swing states: Colorado, Florida, and North Carolina. The group is using misleading data to accuse jurisdictions of having bloated voter rolls and threatening legal action," according to The Guardian and the Center for Responsive Politics.
PILF has engaged in politically motivated scrutiny of voter rolls for years and continued to do so during this election in swing states such as Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina.
"PILF uses an unreliable and inaccurate assessment of voter registration rates" to make false claims about the numbers of registered voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In 2017, PILF, along with other right-wing operations including True the Vote, sent threatening letters to 250 election officials to compel the officials to remove voters from the rolls, threatening litigation.
Also that year, PILF listed on its website names of alleged undocumented immigrants who had voted, resulting in a legal settlement with three plaintiffs who were U.S. citizens, represented by progressive groups, in 2019. The lawsuit accused PILF of defamation and voter intimidation. PILF removed the names, and Adams apologized.
A lawyer for the League of Women Voters who has opposed PILF in legal matters, told Reuters that the group has a pattern of "targeting minority communities, especially Black and brown ones, if it turns out they could influence an election."
Trump appointed PILF's Adams, who has claimed there is an "alien invasion" at the voting booth, to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Aug. 6.
The Bradley foundations, again, lead PILF's known donor list. Together, the Bradley Foundation and the Bradley Impact Fund have combined to donate over $1.4 million to PILF since 2014. Also since then, DonorsTrust ($651,000), the Sarah Scaife Foundation ($600,000), Wall Street executive, the John William Pope Foundation ($350,000), and GOP megadonor Paul Singer ($250,000), have given to PILF. Art Pope, chairman of the Pope Foundation, is also chairman of the Bradley Foundation board and a close ally of Charles Koch, having co-founded Koch's main political advocacy organization, Americans for Prosperity.
Two more conservative groups, Judicial Watch and Election Integrity Project California, are jointly pressuring officials to purge their voter rolls. In April, Judicial Watch filed lawsuits in the swing states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania to urge purges. In 2017, the two groups began working together in California, an effort that could result in Los Angeles Country removing 1.5 million voters from its rolls.
Since 2014, Judicial Watch has received $1.4 million from the foundation of Home Depot co-founder and GOP megadonor Bernie Marcus, as well as nearly $1.3 million from the Sarah Scaife Foundation. Donor-advised fund sponsors Fidelity Charitable ($1.3 million), Schwab Charitable ($846,000), and Vanguard Charitable ($247,000) gave large sums. DonorsTrust has added $91,000 since 2014.
In June, NBC News reported that the Republican Party was seeking to recruit 50,000 volunteers to act as "poll watchers" in the 2020 general elections. Voting rights advocates warn that this effort by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign could target and intimidate voters of color, who tend to vote for Democrats. The alleged reason for the poll watcher recruitment is widespread voter fraud, something that researchers and even Trump's own commission could not prove exists.
The GOP has a history of using poll watchers to intimidate likely Democratic voters. In 1981, the Democratic Party sued the GOP for allegedly sending armed, off-duty police officers to patrol the polls in minority neighborhoods, resulting in a consent decree requiring Republicans to get judicial approval before coordinating poll watching. The decree expired in 2017, and a judge resisted renewing it the following year.
In some states, including the swing state of Michigan, these volunteers can challenge a voter's eligibility. In Michigan, if a poll watcher has "good reason" to believe a voter is ineligible, the voter must leave the line, answer questions about their citizenship, age, residency, and date of voter registration, take an oath attesting that their answers are true, and vote using a special ballot.
As the GOP organizes its largest poll watching operation in decades, allied outside groups are doing the same.
True the Vote was accused of using poll watchers to intimidate minority voters in 2010. This year, the group is at it again. True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht even floated the idea of using veterans, even retired Navy Seals, to police the polls at a meeting of the right-wing Council for National Policy in February. She recently told Reuters that her group hopes to sign up 10,000 poll watchers for the general election and is especially focused on recruiting ex-law enforcement and veterans.
True the Vote offers free poll watcher training on its website. "This course is led by Alan Vera, head of Republican Party Ballot Security in Harris County, Texas, however be assured this is nonpartisan training," the site dubiously claims.
PILF intervened in a North Carolina case this year in defense of the state's poll observer law, representing the Voter Integrity Project-N.C., a "founding member" of the Election Integrity Alliance. According to the president of the Asheville, NC League of Women Voters in 2014, the Voter Integrity project "targets minority and Democratic-leaning districts, leading to voter disenfranchisement and voter intimidation," and has worked to remove homeless people from the rolls.
Voter Integrity Project-N.C.'s founder, Jay DeLancy, originally founded a North Carolina branch of True the Vote, but the latter group severed ties with DeLancy over his anti-immigrant views. Two think tanks funded by Art Pope, a co-founder of Koch's Americans for Prosperity and part of the Koch political donor network, have praised and shared the Voter Integrity Project's work. Pope is on the Bradley Foundation board along with Mitchell.
As GOP-led state legislatures advocated numerous bills to restrict access to voting this year, the Republican National Committee (RNC) launched a $20 million legal initiative called "Protect the Vote," claiming to fight Democrats' "assault on the integrity of our elections," which, allegedly, will "eliminate nearly every safeguard in our elections."
What the program is actually doing is trying to hinder Americans' opportunities to vote in every way possible. The RNC was involved in 41 lawsuits in 19 states as of late August, according to Chair Ronna McDaniel.
"We have seen across the country efforts [by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign] to challenge new legislation or new executive actions that actually make it easier to access ballot applications or the ballots themselves," said the Brennan Center's Sweren-Becker.
The Trump campaign and the RNC are suing states that have enacted measures to encourage voting by mail. In August, they filed lawsuits in New Jersey and Nevada after the states' governors announced that all registered voters would receive mail-in ballots. In May, the RNC and the California GOP sued Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsome over the state's plans to send ballots to all active registered voters.
In addition to trying to block voters from easily accessing the ballot, Trump and the RNC want to hinder their ability to deliver the ballot back to elections boards. They sued the Secretary of State of Pennsylvania in hopes of preventing the use of mail-ballot drop boxes, "which are widely used and have been a secure method of returning ballots in many states for many years," according to Sweren-Becker. In Arizona, Trump and the RNC sued to block a lawsuit from six Navajo plaintiffs who say that the state's requirements that elections boards must receive all ballots by 7pm on Election Day, as opposed to a postmark deadline that day, will disenfranchise Native Americans.
Most recently, the Trump campaign, the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, and the Montana GOP sued Montana after Gov. Steve Bullock and the Secretary of State gave counties the option of holding all-mail elections. Incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines faces a tough challenge from Bullock in November. A legal complaint from the plaintiffs calls the mail-in policy a "brazen power grab," despite that Montana has held its elections mostly by mail for years.
"In the primary, even *state Republicans* supported mailing every voter a ballot, & even many GOP counties have opted to do so for November," Daily Kos's Stephen Wolf pointed out in a tweet.
Local Republican parties are also waging lawsuits to restrict residents' voting rights.
Republicans in Harris County, Texas sued the county clerk over a plan to send ballot applications, which voters need to send to the county in order to receive actual ballots, to its registered voters, who total over two million. On Sep. 2, the state Supreme Court temporarily halted the ballot plan. Attorney General Paxton launched his own challenge to the plan as well.
While it fights ballot applications in Harris County, the state GOP is sending ballot applications and pro-Trump literature to potential Republican voters.
Overturning the Will of the People
In at least one state, Republican politicians have overturned the will of their state's voters to expand the electorate, with potentially major implications for the presidential election.
In 2019, two-thirds of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment granting ex-felons the right to vote. These felons, many of whom are people of color, were more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, and the GOP-controlled state legislature passed a law, supported by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, requiring ex-felons to pay all outstanding fines and legal fees before being allowed to participate in our democracy.
HEP filed an amicus brief in support of the law, while opponents say it amounts to a poll tax on ex-felons. Lawyers argued the case before the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in August, and on Sep. 11, the court upheld the GOP-backed law, meaning hundreds of thousands of ex-felons will not be able to vote in November. Of the 10 judges on the court who heard the case, five are Trump appointees. These five joined Chief Justice William Pryor, Jr., a George W. Bush appointee, in the majority decision.
According to Slate justice reporter Mark Joseph Stern, "Judge Bill Pryor's decision upholding Florida's poll tax on ex-felons is one of the most dishonest, misleading, and despicable voting rights opinions I have ever read. It is shockingly bad—an affront of the very notion that Americans have a right to vote."
A Growing Voter Suppression Network
The conservative voter suppression network is large but contains many overlapping operatives and initiatives. One initiative that ties many of these actors together is PILF's national task force on "election integrity," a virtual who's who of voter suppression, which published "Standards for Voting by Mail" in June. Members include:
- J. Christian Adams, president and general counsel, PILF
- Robert Alt, president and CEO, The Buckeye Institute
- Ken Blackwell, senior fellow, Family Research Council
- Francisco R. Canseco, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Election Integrity Project
- Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives, Texas Public Policy Foundation
- John Eastman, director of the Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence
- Pete Hutchinson, president, Landmark Legal Foundation
- Cleta Mitchell, chairman, PILF; secretary, Bradley Foundation
- David Norcross, general counsel, RNC
- Linda Paine, president, Election Integrity Project California
- Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Heritage Foundation's Election Law Reform Initiative
- Rep. Shawnna Bolick, Republican Arizona legislator and spouse of Clint Bolick, an Arizona Supreme Court Justice and former president of litigation for the Goldwater Institute
Two members of the PILF task for are also leading a secret working group of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that is focused on redistricting and election law. ALEC, a pay-to-play network of corporate lobbyists and state lawmakers who write model legislation together, created the group in 2019.
Mitchell, Arizona state Rep. Bolick, and ALEC Action president Michael Bowman chair the working group. ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson invited ten state legislators to join the group in an email obtained by Documented.
CMD identified over $77 million that prominent right-wing funders and donor-advised funds have pumped into groups with voter suppression operations since 2014. The largest funders are listed below.
David Armiak contributed research to this report.