In the sphere of voting rights and elections, lawsuits often challenge state laws. But, smaller jurisdictions have their own sets of rules governing election administration and this year, we saw a number of lawsuits filed against counties or cities. Here’s a roundup of some of the big themes that emerged from county-level action across the country this election cycle.
Court orders ensured compliance when county officials went rogue.
In the first category of county-level lawsuits, the court system stepped in when local officials failed to comply with their statutory duties. In these instances, the counties at the center of these lawsuits are scattered seemingly randomly across the country, but largely rural and deeply Republican. Both residents and local officials in these counties are often embroiled in “Big Lie” misinformation, pushed to take such actions based on erroneous beliefs about voting machines.
Home to over 50,000 residents, Nye County, Nevada announced plans in early September to hand count the results of the 2022 midterm elections alongside conducting parallel electronic tabulation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada challenged the changes and the Nevada Supreme Court held that Nye County was prohibited from live streaming the hand counting process in which election results are read aloud prior to polls closing on Election Day. Nye County officials tried to work around this court order, prompting a second ACLU lawsuit and a letter from the Nevada secretary of state warning that the procedures “must cease immediately.” Nye County proceeded with some hand counting, but failed to finish by the deadline and went ahead and certified its results. It was a messy attempt that exemplified the pitfalls of hand counting ballots.
Similar legal back and forth took place in Cochise County, Arizona. When disallowed by a court from conducting a 100% hand count or a hand count of early ballots, the two Republican members of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors tried to conduct a hand count with a lower percentage of Election Day ballots instead. The supervisors filed in court to compel their elections director to execute their potentially illegal plan, rejecting the advice of their county attorney, and struggled over how to pay for mounting legal fees. A week after Election Day, it appeared that the unruly commissioners gave up on this effort.
A skirmish over the pre-processing of absentee ballots in Albany County, New York was closely averted after a lawsuit was filed by Democratic leaders against the Albany County Board of Elections and its Republican commissioner. The commissioner reportedly was not planning to process absentee ballots on Oct. 28, as required by state law. Just 24 hours after the lawsuit was filed, the Republican commissioner in Albany County agreed to process and count absentee ballots as required.
The three-member county commission in the rural, deep-red Otero County, New Mexico unanimously voted against certifying the results of the June primary election, citing unfounded claims about voting machines. Following a request from New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D), the New Mexico Supreme Court quickly ordered the commission to comply with its statutory duty; the commission ultimately voted 2-1 to certify the results, with Commissioner Couy Griffin remaining the lone dissenter. (Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump, has since been removed from office under the “insurrectionist” clause of the 14th Amendment for his involvement on Jan. 6, 2021.)
The actions of county commissioners in three Pennsylvania counties were more subtle than Otero County, but no less subversive. In Berks, Fayette and Lancaster counties, local officials certified incomplete primary results, purposefully excluding certain mail-in ballots. The state of Pennsylvania sued these counties (a fourth county, Butler County, also purposefully excluded the same type of ballots but was excluded from the lawsuit due to an administrative error). Following a court order — over three months after the May primary election — the obstinate counties certified complete results.
Given the handful of certification spats during the primary elections, it was expected that some counties would also flout state laws during the November midterm elections. There ended up only being two counties that did so: First, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, the five-person board of elections deadlocked over certification with two members in favor, two against and one abstaining. After a lawsuit was filed (but before any court order could be imposed), the previously abstaining member voted in favor of certification, so the results were certified by a 3-2 vote.
Hand counting troubles weren’t enough for the Cochise County Board of Supervisors. The board purposefully missed its legally mandated deadline to canvass county-level election results, making it the second county of the midterms to not certify. Following two lawsuits, including one filed by Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), a judge ordered the county to complete its non-discretionary, mandatory duty and the supervisors complied.
The Republican Party focused its efforts on the people who run our elections in a handful of large counties.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) led several of the lawsuits in the second category of county-level litigation. Often focusing on major metropolitan areas in swing states, the RNC, along with other Republican groups, were concerned over the partisan composition of poll workers or poll watchers as well as the rules governing their behavior.
Home to Las Vegas, Clark County is Nevada’s most populous county (by a lot). The RNC first filed a lawsuit against the county seeking the release of information about poll workers. The parties in the case entered an agreement: Clark County would provide a “roster” containing political party affiliation and job title/task assignment for all poll workers, but not names, to the RNC. In a related move, the RNC then tried to compel Clark County to add more Republican members to its “signature verification board.” A district court rejected this request, noting that this group of temporary employees were not really on any official board, and the Nevada Supreme Court also rejected the RNC’s request.
In another foray into the Democratic-leaning population center of a swing state, the RNC filed a challenge in Maricopa County, Arizona, which is home to Phoenix. The RNC asserted that Maricopa County officials had violated Arizona law by imposing strict regulations on election workers and making it harder for Republicans to participate in election administration. (The Maricopa County Elections Department is run by a Republican recorder and the county’s board of supervisors contains four Republicans and one Democrat.) The case is still open; no actions were taken before the midterm elections.
- The Republican Party of Virginia and a local Republican Party filed a lawsuit against Prince William County. The suit successfully compelled the northern Virginia county to appoint additional Republicans as chief or assistant chief election officers.
- In Flint, Michigan and Green Bay, Wisconsin — two cities, not counties — GOP lawsuits tried to alter the partisan composition of poll workers and the rules protecting against disruptive poll observers.
Conservative legal groups sponsored county-level lawsuits aiming to curtail mail-in voting and drop box use.
Republican lawmakers have turned on mail-in voting since its increased use in 2020. This year, prominent GOP legal groups focused on a selection of cities and counties to test out legal arguments trying to severely curtail drop box use or hinder the administration of mail-in ballots.
In Wisconsin’s five largest cities, the Thomas More Society — a far-right legal organization — filed five nearly identical lawsuits on the same day this past May, claiming that the use of “unmanned,” unmonitored drop boxes is not permitted under Wisconsin law. The lawsuits were ultimately dismissed after the Wisconsin Supreme Court banned drop boxes in a separate case.
America First Legal — a conservative group founded by Mark Meadows and Stephen Miller, high-level staffers in former President Donald Trump’s administration — sued Chester and Lehigh counties in Pennsylvania over their rules governing drop box use. Beyond the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, both Chester County and Lehigh County are fairly populous parts of the state, located just outside of Philadelphia and home to Allentown, respectively. The plaintiffs wanted the drop boxes physically monitored, thus severely restricting the purpose of the convenient method of voting. A judge denied the request in Lehigh County, officials in Chester County implemented new rules anyway and both lawsuits were ultimately dismissed.
- Just weeks prior to the November 2022 midterm elections, GOP candidate for Michigan secretary of state Kristina Karamo sued the city of Detroit, Michigan over its absentee ballot procedures. Among other outlandish requests, Karamo argued that absentee ballots should only be requested in person as opposed to online or by mail, a voter’s identity must be verified in person and absentee ballots should not be returned via mail or drop box. The day before Election Day, a judge denied the conspiratorial and far-reaching claims and dismissed the lawsuit.
- Four days before the election, a Republican candidate and two poll watchers argued that Delaware County, Pennsylvania could not certify its election results because of “gross irregularities in handling ballots.” A court repeatedly denied the plaintiffs’ requests, noting that they “failed to provide credible evidence to support” their claims.
- The Monroe County Republican Committee challenged the northeastern Pennsylvania county for allegedly violating state law by pre-canvassing mail-in and absentee ballots ahead of the state deadline. A court also denied this request, allowing Monroe County to continue pre-canvassing mail-in ballots.