WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For months, President Donald Trump has tried to convince Americans that the Nov. 3 election will be “rigged,” claiming without evidence that mail voting will open the door to mass cheating.
“The greatest Election Fraud in our history is about to happen,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Aug. 23.
In making these claims, Trump has seized upon the idea that U.S. elections are vulnerable to rampant fraud. That once-fringe theory has become a staple of Republican politics, due largely to the efforts of a small network of lawyers who have promoted it for two decades, funded by right-wing foundations.
This year, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party have cited concerns about voter fraud in a nationwide legal battle with Democrats and voting-rights advocates over election procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. These lawyers have played an important role, arguing for restrictions on mail-in voting in the closely-watched states of Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.
Four nonprofits run by or linked to this network of lawyers – the Public Interest Legal Foundation, the American Constitutional Rights Union, Judicial Watch and True the Vote – have been involved in at least 61 lawsuits over election rules since 2012, according to a Reuters examination. More than half have been initiated since Trump took office in 2017, including 11 cases concerning absentee or mail-in voting.
These groups have helped lead a larger movement in the Republican Party that has seen states pass restrictions on voting, including strict voter identification laws passed by nine states since 2005. They have sought purges of voter rolls that could disproportionately affect minority voters, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party, according to voting-rights advocates and election officials who have opposed these efforts.
Reuters examined court records, tax filings and leaked documents from a conservative foundation to piece together for the first time how this tight network of lawyers became a force in American politics, working through nonprofit groups to secure funding from right-wing donors.
The network includes J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), an Indiana-based group dedicated to election integrity; Hans von Spakovsky, who runs the election integrity program at the conservative Heritage Foundation; Christopher Coates, a former Department of Justice lawyer who now works with legal advocacy group Judicial Watch; and Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican lawyer who chairs PILF.
Trump, saying he wanted an investigation into supposed voter fraud, appointed Adams and von Spakovsky to an election integrity commission in May 2017. It disbanded after less than a year without finding evidence of significant fraud. Adams told Reuters that was not the group’s mission.
Adams said his work does not target legitimate voters, but tries to reform poorly run election offices and identify people who shouldn’t be on the voting rolls. He said he and von Spakovsky have succeeded in “awakening Americans and the Republican party” to breakdowns of the election system.
“The GOP gets it now,” he wrote in an email to Reuters. “And that isn’t going to change even after Trump. Republicans are no longer wimps when it comes to fighting election fraud and vulnerabilities.”
Their opponents have intervened in courts to stop many of the efforts to have names struck from the voter rolls. Such purges, Democrats and voting-rights advocates say, have seen some otherwise eligible voters removed due to administrative errors or because they did not vote consistently. They say the lawyers raising the alarm over voter fraud have merely cited evidence of potential weak spots without providing proof of widespread cheating.
In June, Adams appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to argue against expanded mail balloting in the pandemic. He cited figures from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a bipartisan agency that offers guidance on elections, showing 28 million mail ballots were “unaccounted for” since 2012. Adams called it “28 million opportunities to cheat.”
“That implies the system is screwed up,” Adams wrote in an email to Reuters. “Why would that be controversial?”
Benjamin Hovland, a Democrat and EAC chairman, said Adams’ claim was “a pretty substantial mischaracterization” of the commission’s data. He said the 28 million figure includes the many ballots that voters receive in the mail but forget about, or simply choose not to return.
Critics see these efforts as a strategy by Republicans to cling to power at a time when their base of mostly white voters is declining as a percentage of the electorate in a diversifying America.
Lisa Graves, a former deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), said it’s no coincidence that toughened voting requirements and purges tend to fall heaviest on minorities and students, groups that are more itinerant, less likely to have official ID documents, and which tend to vote Democratic.
Republican claims of voter fraud are “not about facts,” said Graves, who now works with several progressive watchdog groups. “It’s about structural changes that make it harder for people to vote – people they don’t want to vote.”
Von Spakovsky told Reuters it was “false” and “defamatory” to claim the conservative lawyers’ work was motivated by a desire to make it harder for minorities to vote. “My only concern is the integrity of the process and protecting the rights of voters to a secure election,” he said in a written response to questions.
A THEORY GOES MAINSTREAM
With thousands of individual states and counties across the United States running a host of different elections, some voter fraud does occur.
At a local level, political actors have been accused of manipulating absentee ballots in favor of their candidates. In May, four people were arrested in Paterson, New Jersey, on ballot fraud charges in connection with a nonpartisan city election; Trump has pointed to the case as an example of the dangers of mail balloting. The case is still pending and the election is being rerun. In North Carolina, a Republican operative faces charges of ballot harvesting in a case that resulted in a 2018 congressional election being overturned.
(Read a Reuters explainer on voter fraud)
Von Spakovsky’s election integrity project at the Heritage Foundation found 1,296 “proven instances of voter fraud” in U.S. elections going back to 1982, out of billions of ballots cast during that period.
That figure may be misleading. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which often sides with progressives in legal fights, looked at the same data set in 2017 and found that, in many of those cases, the alleged wrongdoers never cast a ballot.
Von Spakovsky said the fraud he has found is just the tip of the iceberg, because “many prosecutors have no interest in investigating or prosecuting such cases.”
What is evident is that fear of voter fraud has gone mainstream. Reuters/Ipsos polling in July and August showed that more than half of registered voters believe that election fraud is a widespread problem, including seven out of ten Republicans. Likewise, just 26% of registered voters surveyed said they were “very confident” the results would be “accurate and legitimate.”
The partisan battles over fraud and voting rules, along with Trump’s refusal to say that he would accept November’s results, have also stoked fears of potential chaos and a contested election decided by the courts. The poll found just 10% of voters were “very confident” that the loser would concede gracefully.
Asked about Trump’s claims about voter fraud, his re-election campaign pointed to the Paterson case and to an estimated 500,000 absentee ballots that were rejected by election officials in this year’s primaries. Some of those were rejected because they weren’t returned on time, according to election records – in some cases after Republicans opposed extending the deadline amid a surge in ballot requests from voters leery of voting in person in a pandemic.
“President Trump and his campaign are fighting for a free, fair, transparent election in which every valid ballot counts once,” Trump’s deputy campaign manager Justin Clark said.
The push by Republican attorneys to find and prosecute voter fraud can be traced to a cliffhanger finish in the pivotal state of Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Weeks of recounts and court fights ensued before Democrat Al Gore finally conceded to Republican George W. Bush, who carried the state by just a few hundred votes out of nearly 6 million cast.
Von Spakovsky participated in the recounts, while Mitchell defended the Republican position in television appearances. Mitchell told Reuters that experience convinced her and other Republican lawyers of the need to focus more intently on election rules. She said they were determined to push back on what she called a “very well-planned-out assault” by Democrats and progressives to manipulate the system by attempting to change the rules on counting ballots after Election Day. Democrats said at the time they wanted to make sure all eligible voters had their ballots counted.
Mitchell, a former Oklahoma Democratic-legislator-turned-Republican and partner at the Washington law firm Foley & Lardner, has been at the forefront of a push for tighter voting controls ever since. She later served as president of a Republican lawyers’ group that, after 2000, shifted its focus to training attorneys in election law. She also represented Trump in an election law case during his exploratory run for president in 2011.
She told Reuters she met von Spakovsky in the mid-2000s while he was working in the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration. Von Spakovsky introduced her to Adams, then working in the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, which traditionally had focused on protecting Black voters in the South who had suffered historic discrimination.
Under Christopher Coates, then-head of the voting section, Adams became involved in high-profile cases that used the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 to combat so-called reverse discrimination.
In Mississippi, a state synonymous with Jim Crow-era suppression of Black voters, the DOJ in 2005 sued Ike Brown, an African American head of elections in a majority Black county, for allegedly discriminating against white voters through intimidation and wholesale rejection of their absentee ballots. Federal court decisions upheld the DOJ’s position. Brown insists he did nothing wrong.
The DOJ case “was all a scam,” Brown told Reuters in an interview. “We were able to get poor people to vote and they didn’t like it.”
Adams said the Mississippi case “amplified” his concerns about voting fraud. The county’s white voters, he said, “were people without power who had their votes stolen by a corrupt machine.”
Coates served as general counsel for the American Constitutional Rights Union (ACRU), a conservative legal group that worked closely with PILF, Adams’ legal foundation, on cases where they sought voter roll purges. This year he has filed election cases for Judicial Watch, another conservative group that works on voter fraud. Coates said he believes the Voting Rights Act “protects white people as well as racial minorities.”
FUNDED BY THE RIGHT
After leaving the Justice Department, von Spakovsky and Adams continued to hunt for voter fraud.
Their efforts got a boost in 2012, when Mitchell took a seat on the board of the Bradley Foundation, the legacy of Milwaukee brothers Harry and Lynde Bradley, who made their fortune in electronics manufacturing. With $850 million in assets, the little-known foundation has become one of America’s most influential donors promoting right-wing policies.
Mitchell soon began to steer more money to the network of conservative legal groups with an interest in election issues, according to leaked foundation documents posted online in 2016 by hackers.
Since 2012, Bradley has given more than $3.5 million to six entities linked to Adams, Mitchell, Coates and von Spakovsky, primarily for work on election integrity, the foundation’s tax records and grantmaking reports show. Those groups are the ACRU, the Heritage Foundation’s election integrity program, Judicial Watch, True the Vote, PILF and ActRight Legal Foundation – a nonprofit that later became PILF. It gave millions more to other groups that amplify claims of voter fraud alongside other work.
Bradley CEO Rick Graber, a former chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party and a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, told Reuters that stopping ballot chicanery is part of the Bradley Foundation’s mission to “protect the principles and institutions of American exceptionalism.”
Another source of funding for the cause is the conservative Sarah Scaife Foundation of Pittsburgh, which directed a total of nearly $1.8 million to PILF, the ACRU and Judicial Watch between 2015 and 2018, according to tax records and the organization’s website. The foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
Mitchell said she provided advice to the Bradley board but did not vote on grants to groups with which she had a connection. “We’re trying to defend the secret ballot and the right of every citizen to be able to vote without worrying that their voice will be diluted by illegal votes,” she said, adding that the conservative lawyers are up against much better funded progressive legal groups.
True the Vote, a Texas-based group that recruits and trains poll watchers, received about $466,000 from the Bradley Foundation between 2011 and 2016. Voters in states including Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin have said the presence of poll watchers trained by True the Vote felt like an effort at intimidation, according to news reports.
The group’s founder and president, Catherine Engelbrecht, said the organization’s volunteers aren’t there to intimidate anyone, only to make sure “standard operating procedures” are followed. She said True the Vote hopes to train at least 10,000 poll watchers for November’s election, and that it was trying specifically to recruit former military personnel and first responders.
“These are veterans who served our country and are now concerned voters. They’re not showing up in fatigues,” she told Reuters.
Former talk radio host Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin conservative who worked for a Bradley-funded think tank for a decade, used to warn his listeners about the dangers of voter fraud. He has since become an outspoken critic of the Republican Party under Trump’s leadership.
Sykes said he now believes that conservative claims of massive electoral cheating are false and “eroding basic democratic values.”
“In retrospect, there was never any widespread evidence that (voter fraud) was a problem,” Sykes said.
IN THE COURTS
With the help of the foundations’ money, the groups have sounded alarms about the dangers of voting fraud in media appearances and lawsuits.
In September 2016, PILF released a report warning of an “Alien Invasion in Virginia,” citing county records to claim that more than 1,000 non-citizens had been able to register and sometimes vote. It published hundreds of names and addresses, and in some cases, phone numbers.
The day before that year’s presidential election, Adams warned that voting by non-citizens was rampant. “Alien voting is critically important to Democrats to win this election,” he told Fox News, without presenting evidence. “They simply won’t prosecute voter fraud because it helps them win elections, period.”
But the Virginia records contained errors, and some of those listed in the PILF report and a 2017 sequel turned out to be citizens. Three filed suit, with the backing of the League of United Latin American Citizens and progressive legal groups, accusing PILF of defamation and a “modern form of voter intimidation.” PILF settled with the plaintiffs last year. It agreed to remove all the names from its website, and Adams apologized.
Adams said he merely relied on county election records. “Still waiting for the government who canceled their registration to apologize,” to those put on the list in error, he said.
More recently, in Detroit, a majority Black city and Democratic stronghold in the key battleground state of Michigan, PILF in December sued to force officials to purge voters based on its own analysis of the city’s rolls. Detroit pushed back, saying it was maintaining its rolls properly. PILF dropped its suit in June, saying the city had removed some of the erroneous names.
A similar suit in mostly Democratic Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, ended with the county agreeing in May to review PILF’s lists of possible ineligible voters and to change its rolls accordingly.
Celina Stewart, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer for the League of Women Voters, which opposed PILF in Detroit and elsewhere, said in an interview the conservative group’s litigation follows a pattern of “targeting minority communities, especially Black and brown ones, if it turns out they could influence an election.”
Adams told Reuters his group is looking out for all voters, regardless of race. He said no one had been able to find an example of a voter who was “improperly disenfranchised” by one of his lawsuits.
At least one lawsuit Adams was involved in, however, triggered a purge that disproportionately cut voters from the rolls in Democratic areas. In 2012 in Ohio, Judicial Watch and True the Vote, with Adams as one of the attorneys, sued the Secretary of State’s office, saying that, in some counties, registered voters outnumbered the total adult population.
The state settled the case by agreeing to a new purge process to remove inactive voters. A Reuters analysis in 2016 found that, in the state’s three largest counties, voters were struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning areas at roughly twice the rate as in Republican ones – in part because Republicans tend to vote more frequently. Officials insisted they were applying the rules fairly.
Voting-rights groups challenged the law, but it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. That decision has opened the door to similar purges by other states, voting-rights advocates say.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said it was reasonable to expect voters who have not cast ballots in several elections to re-confirm their registration to ensure that people who might have relocated are removed. “I don’t know what the objection is other than a dishonest effort to keep the rolls dirty so they (Democrats) are able to steal votes when necessary,” he said.
Trump has signaled clear support for the Republican election lawyers in recent weeks.
On Aug. 6, he appointed Adams to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan body that studies allegations of discrimination, including in voting rights. A week later, the president appeared with Mitchell at an Oval Office event introducing her as a “great attorney.”
(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson: Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.)