How a Right-Wing Legal Group Uses the Courts To Spread Election Disinformation

A blue ballot box with ballots stuffed in and overflowing from the top, against a red background. The words "ILLEGAL BALLOT FRAUD ALIEN MISSING CRIMINAL" are pasted over the ballot box.

On Nov. 3, 2021, a complaint filed against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) made some disturbing allegations: the Great Lake State was not conducting adequate maintenance of its voters and, as a result, tens of thousands of dead Michigan residents were still registered to vote. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), accused Michigan of violating the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by not updating its voter registration record to effectively remove dead voters. According to PILF’s analysis of the state’s voter rolls, 23,663 registered voters had been dead for five years or more, while 17,479 had been dead for at least 10 years and nearly 4,000 had been dead for at least 20 years. 

It was a shocking accusation — one that triggered months of investigation to figure out how this happened. There was only one problem: it wasn’t true. 

On March 1, 2024 a federal judge tossed out the lawsuit, writing that “[a]fter conducting more than nine months of discovery into the many facets of Michigan’s program for the removal of deceased registrants… the record demonstrates that deceased voters are removed from Michigan’s voter rolls on a regular and ongoing basis.” The order went on to applaud the merits of the state’s maintenance of its voter rolls, specifying how it canceled between 400,000 and 450,000 deceased voters between 2019 and March of 2023.

In a statement released after the judge’s order, Benson praised Michigan’s Bureau of Elections for its diligence in keeping the state’s voter registration records accurate. She also delivered a disturbing warning to voters. 

“This is 2024. Voters should expect more attempts to fool them about our elections to follow this failed effort,” Benson wrote. “And they should know we will continue to respond to those attacks with truth, facts, and data to give all citizens confidence that every valid vote, and only valid votes, will be counted in every election.”

Over the past few election cycles, there’s been a steady stream of right-wing groups launching a full-frontal legal assault on voting rights. But PILF is one of the most prolific — and nefarious. Since its founding in 2012, the conservative legal group has become synonymous with suing state and local governments to purge registered voters from their election rolls, barring noncitizens from voting and defending voter suppression laws. But the basis for its legal arguments — like in the Michigan lawsuit — typically pedal disinformation about mass election fraud. 

And while PILF’s grand claims of mass voter fraud get dismissed when no evidence turns up, the group succeeds in promoting disinformation in the courts and in the media, sowing doubt in the election process. That’s by design: behind PILF’s attack on voting rights is a well-funded conservative legal machine that gets most of its money from a network of right-wing dark money groups with a rich history of trying to suppress the right to vote.

PILF was founded in 2012 as the ActRight Legal Foundation — a nonprofit law firm with the stated mission to defend the “free exercise of religious belief, First Amendment rights of free speech and association, voting rights, property rights, and other constitutional rights of due process and equal protection,” according to its first tax filing. Since then, however, the group has narrowed its focus to primarily litigating against voting rights and promoting “election integrity,” according to its most recent tax filing

And PILF is able to fund such lawsuits through a myriad of right-wing dark money groups that annually contribute millions of dollars to the group. According to its nonprofit tax filings, over the years, PILF has received a bulk of its funding from right-wing groups like the Leonard Leo-tied 85 Fund, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and DonorsTrust, the Koch-brothers affiliated group that’s known as the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.”

The group’s leadership consists of a who’s who of right-wing figures and personalities known for peddling election conspiracy theories and disinformation. J. Christian Adams has served as PILF’s president since 2015 and is a close ally of former President Donald Trump, who appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, according to research compiled by Accountable.US. In 2016, Adams authored a conspiracy-riddled article claiming that the voting process is being “hacked by the left” and that, among other baseless claims, “tens of thousands of [noncitizens] are on American voter rolls, if not more” who are voting in elections. Adams is also a prominent 2020 election denier, who’s repeatedly made false claims about the presidential election. 

Serving alongside Adams at the top of PILF is attorney Cleta Mitchell, the organization’s chairwoman who played a prominent role in advising Trump in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Mitchell was part of the infamous phone call Trump made to Georgia Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger (R) in 2020 asking him to “find 11,780 votes” to help him win the election in Georgia. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol subpoenaed Mitchell for her role in instigating the insurrection. She eluded an indictment in the criminal prosecution against Trump and his campaign and legal team in Georgia for trying to steal the election, but remains one of the most vocal election deniers in the conservative movement.

Hans von Spakovsky, PILF’s director and board member since 2014, is also one of the most prominent right-wing voices in promoting election disinformation and pushing voter suppression measures. He’s promoted a number of 2020 election conspiracies, but notably he sat on the board of a “social welfare organization” that spread a QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theory alleging that Italian military satellites were used to steal the election for President Joe Biden. 

Finally there’s John Eastman, the disgraced former Trump lawyer who was recently recommended to be disbarred by a California judge for his role in plotting to overthrow the 2020 election. Eastman has been involved with PILF since it started, and is most recently listed as a director on its 2021 tax filings. Eastman’s disbarment recommendation stems from two memos he sent after the 2020 election that outlined a scenario in which Trump could stay in power. Eastman concocted a plan to have former Vice President Mike Pence throw out electoral votes for Biden in key states and instead find electors to cast them for Trump.

PILF’s assault on voting rights has taken many shapes over the years — from a false 2016 “report” that published the names of over a thousand Virginia voters the organization claimed to be voting illegally to its digital efforts to make election disinformation go viral. Since the 2020 election, PILF has mainly focused its resources on suing states around the country in an effort to purge voters from election rolls. 

According to Democracy Docket’s election litigation tracker, PILF is currently involved in six active cases that seek access to states’ voter registration records, or bar noncitizens from voting, which is already illegal in federal elections. A majority of these lawsuits — like in Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, New York, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. — PILF is the plaintiff, or its lawyers are representing the plaintiff. But the group also takes a smaller role in election litigation — like filing an amicus brief in support of two Kansas voter suppression laws facing a legal challenge by the League of Women Voters. And there’s at least eight recent closed cases that PILF has been involved in — as a plaintiff or in smaller roles like filing supporting briefs — according to our litigation tracker. 

Since there’s no national database of voter registration, it’s up to each state to independently keep accurate records and routine maintenance of its voter registration rolls — updating so as to remove voters who are deceased or no longer living in the state. The National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993, outlines the measures that states need to take in order to keep accurate voter registration records. 

In 2012, a bipartisan group of election officials in seven states created an information-sharing database in order to work together to ensure voter rolls were accurate nationwide. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), at the height of its popularity in 2022, had 32 states and the District of Columbia participating in the system and it was hailed as an accurate and effective system for maintaining states’ voter registration records by Republican and Democratic officials alike. But in late 2022, a conspiracy-laden article from a right-wing blog made numerous false claims about the accuracy of ERIC and it inspired a cascade of red states to withdraw from the database — a movement that democracy advocates and experts warn will make elections less secure.

In the wake of the recent mass exodus from ERIC by red states, prominent election deniers and conspiracy theorists sought to exploit the situation with their own, less-secure alternatives. One such person is Mitchell, PILF’s chairwoman, who has championed EagleAI, a new software that uses unreliable data from public sources — like newspaper obituary clippings — to build its own list of eligible voter records in various states, which experts have warned isn’t accurate and likely violates state and federal election laws.

It’s not surprising that Mitchell would champion a software like EagleAI, given her own efforts with PILF to gain access to, and purge, voter rolls in states across the country. Though PILF, Mitchell and her associates rose to prominence in the Republican Party by preaching election integrity, the irony is that their efforts in the courts pose a dangerous, existential threat to the election process. 

New Jersey’s chief elections officer made it clear what PILF’s impact would be after the right-wing organization sued the Garden State for access to its voter rolls. Secretary of State Tahesha Way (D) put it succinctly: “If disclosed, this information would create a grave risk to the integrity of New Jersey’s election system.”

This article was last updated on Friday, April 26 at 2:45 p.m. EDT to reflect that John Eastman was most recently listed as a director at PILF in its 2021 tax filings.