How Stephen Miller Is Using America First Legal To Assail Voting Rights

A photo of Stephen Miller centered in front of a red backdrop with squares featuring images of America First Legal logo, Maricopa County logo, and various snippets of court documents.

When Stephen Miller, a notorious top advisor to former President Donald Trump, launched America First Legal (AFL) in April of 2021, he didn’t mince words about the nascent organization’s mission. 

“For too long, conservative and traditionalist Americans have been outflanked, outspent, out-organized, and outmaneuvered by radical progressive legal organizations,” Miller wrote in a statement announcing the group’s launch. “Those looking to hold the new administration in Washington to account finally have their answer. Our self-imposed policy of legal disarmament is now over.”

In the last three years, Miller and AFL have made good on their promise to wage a legal war against all things progressive: the group has filed dozens of legal actions against “woke corporations,” civil rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights and just about any other cause championed by the left. These include a myriad of lawsuits against some of the world’s biggest corporations — like their lawsuit against Nike that alleges the company discriminates against white males, or their Mattel lawsuit that accuses the massive toy company of “promoting a radical LGBT+ agenda” — whose success rate is hard to measure. As the New York Times put it in a recent profile of the group, “assessing its success rate is more complicated, partly because many of the group’s cases are still pending, while the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] does not publicize which complaints it investigates.”

But suing corporations, colleges and other organizations over “woke” policies is just part and parcel of AFL’s large-scale, well-funded legal operation. Apart from the buzzy lawsuits inspired by the latest right-wing bogeymen, Miller and his legal team have launched an all-out assault against President Joe Biden, suing the administration over its border and immigration policies, economic initiatives and Second Amendment restrictions

More recently, and more concerning, AFL has quietly set their sights on challenging election and voting policies in Arizona and Pennsylvania — two key states whose election results could flip the overall presidential election one way or another. In Pennsylvania, the group filed lawsuits in 2022 challenging the use of dropboxes in Chester and Lehigh Counties. Though both lawsuits were eventually dismissed, they’re prime examples of AFL’s attempts to find opportunities to legally disrupt the elections process.

In Arizona, however, AFL is currently engaged in a legal pursuit challenging the election administration procedures in three key Arizona counties — Coconino, Maricopa and Yavapai. The lawsuit alleges that election officials in all three counties are violating numerous state laws and regulations concerning signature verification, voter registration cancellation and drop boxes, among other alleged election administration infringements. 

The lawsuit caught the attention of two pro-voting groups — the Arizona Alliance of Retired Americans (AARA) and Voto Latino — who filed a motion to intervene and have the lawsuit dismissed. They’re serious allegations that, should their lawsuit succeed, could potentially disenfranchise two-thirds of Arizona voters, the groups warned.

The Right-Wing Answer to the ACLU

Adorned on the homepage of America First Legal’s website is a stern photo of Miller, Trump’s former advisor who allegedly has white nationalist ties and is said to be the mastermind behind some of the former president’s harshest immigration policies. Next to the photo is a quote from Miller, describing AFL as the “long-awaited answer to the ACLU” and promises “relentless litigation and oversight [to] America First, Last, and Always.”

For such lofty ambitions, AFL stacked its leadership with a rogue’s gallery of former Trump officials and prominent conservative figures when it launched in 2021, according to its founding year tax filing. In addition to Miller, there’s Gene Hamilton, a Department of Justice counselor during the Trump administration, former Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, former Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI) CEO and President Ed Corrigan and CPI Chief Operating Officer Wesley Denton. 

And then there’s former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who’s been indicted in both Arizona and Georgia for his role in Trump’s plot to overturn the 2020 election. Both Denton and Meadows were no longer listed as key employees in AFL’s 2022 tax filing, though the organization added venture capitalist and failed Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters as a director, who is listed as working for one hour a week with no compensation. 

With such a deep roster of noted former Trump officials and well-connected right-wing figures, AFL has devoted its resources to delivering on its promise to be the right-wing answer to the ACLU. That includes its myriad lawsuits challenging the “woke” policies of corporations like Disney, Amazon, Meta and Target. But its main focus has been Biden, and the group has proved to be a thorn in the administration’s side, with a few key court wins that reversed a few important Biden policies. 

The most notable lawsuit is one that AFL filed in 2021 against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over a debt relief program for minority farmers. A part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 earmarked $4 billion in debt forgiveness for Black and Indigenous farmers, along with $1 billion set aside for training and technical assistance to Black and other farmers of color. But AFL sued the USDA over the policy, alleging that the policy discriminates against farmers by race. The lawsuit eventually led to an injunction that blocked eligible farmers from receiving debt relief payments.

Elsewhere, AFL has succeeded in suing to halt some Covid-19 relief funds specifically for women, veteran and minority business owners, as well as disbanding a Department of Education council created to facilitate the relationship between schools and parents.

To fund such a widespread legal effort isn’t cheap. In 2021, its first year of existence, AFL pulled in a little over $6 million in revenue, according to its tax filing for that year. That number ballooned to more than $44 million in 2022. Because AFL is registered as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization, it does not have to disclose its donors but, as Mother Jones reported, a majority of the group’s revenue that year — $27 million — came from a single donor: The Bradley Impact Fund, a major right-wing donor group that, over the years, has given more than a billion dollars to help fund conservative political efforts.

Setting Sights on Arizona 

Of the hundreds of lawsuits and legal actions AFL filed in its three years of existence, it’s only been involved in four election-related lawsuits — the two drop box challenges in Pennsylvania, the Arizona lawsuit, and a denied petition in a lawsuit to ensure Pennsylvania’s new congressional districts were in place for the 2022 midterm elections. Which makes its current lawsuit in Arizona all the more interesting — and concerning

In early February, AFL filed a curious lawsuit in Maricopa County on behalf of the civic action nonprofit organization Strong Communities of Arizona, Inc. The lawsuit challenged the county’s election administration procedures, alleging that election officials violated a number of state election laws and regulations.

Weeks after filing the lawsuit, AFL voluntarily dismissed it and filed an almost identical one, though broadening the scope to include Coconino and Yavapai Counties. Like the previous lawsuit, the new one alleged that election officials in all three counties violated state laws and regulations in their election administration procedures. The new lawsuit was filed in the more conservative Yavapai County instead of Maricopa County, a tactic known as “forum shopping” to increase the chances of a more favorable ruling.

According to AFL’s lawsuit, 55% of Arizona voters “believe it is likely that problems with the 2022 election in Maricopa County affected the outcome,” and that the 2022 election “was marred by ‘widespread failures’ and ‘technical problems’ that led to ‘the anger and frustration of voters who were subjected to inconvenience and confusion at voter centers’” in all three counties. The lawsuit then goes on to describe a litany of alleged  election violations made by election officials in the three counties related to chain of custody procedures, ballot reconciliation, signature verification, ballot curing, voter registration cancellations and drop boxes. 

The lawsuit also alleges that Maricopa County allowed voters to cast ballots in 2022 at illegal voting centers situated across Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which put white and Native American voters at a disadvantage. Finally, the lawsuit claims officials in Coconino and Yavapai Counties “expressly stated they do not intend to follow the letter of the law in the administration of the 2024 election. The Coconino and Yavapai Defendants unlawfully maintain unstaffed drop boxes. They do not follow proper curing procedures. They have been unlawfully canceling voter registration of qualified Coconino and Yavapai County electors. And their signature verification procedures are unlawful. Such brazen violations of Arizona’s law undermine public confidence in the administration of elections.”

They’re big claims, but so far AFL has been somewhat unsuccessful in their attempt to have them heard in a more sympathetic court. On May 1, the Maricopa County defendants asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to let the lawsuit play out in their jurisdiction, rather than in Yavapai County. The appeals court granted the request, essentially thwarting AFL’s attempt to forum shop. But AFL appealed that decision to the Arizona Supreme Court, in hopes they’ll agree to let the lawsuit continue in Yavapai County. 

So why all the effort just to get this lawsuit heard by a judge in the more conservative district? Because, should AFL succeed, it could have vast implications in the election come November. In their motion to intervene in AFL’s lawsuit, the pro-voting groups AARA and Voto Latino wrote that AFL’s claims are “wholly without merit” and “hinge on the groundless suggestion that Arizona county election officials are systematically violating state law, and they assume, based on nothing more than pure conjecture, that these invented problems will persist in the 2024 elections.” 

It sets a dangerous precedent, the groups argue, and most concerningly, should AFL’s lawsuit prove successful, “many of Arizona’s most fundamental election procedures will be declared unlawful, enjoined, and significantly changed.”