Judicial Watch’s Dangerous Influence: Behind Their Assault on Voting Rights and Election Integrity

Tom Fitton is standing in front of a podium with one hand up at the center of the graphic. Behind him is a collage of images including a finger pointing to a Colorado driver's license, a Freedom of Information Act request, and photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Larry Klayman, Donald Trump and a voting machine.

Back in December, during the penultimate Republican presidential debate, moderator Megyn Kelly took a breather from posing questions to the four GOP candidates and passed the baton over to a guest. 

The broadcast then cut to a video feed of Tom Fitton — the head of the right-wing legal group Judicial Watch — superimposed in front of a panoramic backdrop of the U.S. Capitol dome, who asked a pointed question to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “Many Republicans are concerned about the legitimacy of elections,” he said. “A federal judge just ruled that Pennsylvania must count undated, mail-in ballots. And unlike Alabama, many states still don’t require any identification to vote. What should states do now to increase election integrity and voter confidence for the 2024 election?”

The moment was significant for several reasons: Not only did it flirt with right-wing conspiracy theories about mail-in and noncitizen voting, but the question was delivered by a controversial figure who, for decades, has operated on the fringes of the Republican Party. But since former President Donald Trump’s takeover of the modern GOP, outside personalities like Fitton have become mainstream — and with that comes the mainstreaming of their dangerous conspiracy theories and ideas, particularly as they relate to voting and elections. 

Fitton leads Judicial Watch, a self-described “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, which promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.” What that translates to in practice is, essentially, a right-wing legal group that’s constantly filing all manner of litigation against the government — Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, challenges to immigration policy, attempts to thwart environmental actions and any other issue that riles up Republicans. “Judicial Watch’s strategy is simple: Carpet-bomb the federal courts with Freedom of Information Act lawsuits,” the New York Times wrote of the organization in a 2016 profile. 

Since the Trump era, however, Fitton and his organization have amplified their efforts on attacking voting rights, filing a myriad of lawsuits across the country in an attempt to purge voter rolls and roil the elections process in a handful of battleground states. Though Judicial Watch’s litigation efforts to restrict the right to vote has had little meaningful success in recent years, the group is nonetheless continuing their efforts this election season, with at least four active election-related lawsuits — and one that was recently settled

Coupled with Fitton’s elevated profile as one of Trump’s most trusted informal legal advisers, and the group’s far-reaching media ecosystem of disseminating dis- and misinformation, voting rights advocates worry about Judicial Watch’s dangerous influence this election season. 

In 2020, for example, Judicial Watch sued to purge thousands of voters from the rolls of three Pennsylvania counties. Eventually the two pro-voting groups that intervened in the lawsuit — the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Common Cause Pennsylvania — settled the lawsuit with Judicial Watch, protecting the thousands of legal voters whose registration was threatened. 

But the experience was exactly the kind of frivolous lawsuit that concerns Philip Hensley-Robin, the executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Common Cause. “When you have these kinds of allegations and attempts to compel counties to actually purge their voter rolls it contributes to this larger false narrative about our elections,” he told Democracy Docket in an interview. “It sows doubt and some sort of implication that there are people who are inactive on the voter rolls, that must mean something is wrong, when that’s just part of an old process.”

A Maelstrom of Misinformation

During Trump’s presidency, Tom Fitton grew close with the former president — and became a source for much of the election misinformation he parrotted on both the 2016 and 2020 campaign trails. 

In the weeks after the 2016 election, Trump repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that potentially millions of people in California voted illegally. That claim came from Judicial Watch. Though there was no evidence of illegal votes cast in the Golden State, Judicial Watch doubled down and, in August of 2017, sent a letter to then Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) falsely alleging that at least 11 California counties had more registered voters than there were eligible voters. In response, Padilla dismissed Judicial Watch’s accusations as “bad math and dubious methodology” but warned that their allegations are “clearly part of a concerted effort, a continued attack on voting rights and setting the stage for the Trump administration to roll back voting rights,” according to the Los Angeles Times. During the 2018 midterms, Judicial Watch and Fitton once again broadcast misinformation about mass voter fraud — claiming without any evidence that nearly a million people in Pennsylvania and Texas voted illegally. Trump reposted some of Fitton and Judicial Watch’s false claims about mass voter fraud on Twitter, the Washington Post reported


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According to a recent study from the Journal of Qualitative Description, Fitton was one of the largest spreaders of election misinformation on social media in 2020. And it’s not hard to see how. In 2020, at the height of election season, the Washington Post exposed that Fitton was one of several attendees of a series of closed-door meetings of the secretive conservative umbrella network the Council for National Policy. During the meeting, he claimed, without evidence, that Democrats were secretly planning to delay the election tally until Jan. 21, 2021 in order to allow former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) to become acting president. At the same meeting, he called on his fellow Republicans to devise ways to prevent mail-in ballots from being sent to voters.

The next year, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2021, Fitton was a featured speaker and, according to The Guardian, once again made false claims about the 2020 election. “On election day, President Trump had the votes to win the presidency,” he told attendees during his speech. “These vote totals were changed because of unprecedented and extraordinary counting after election day. Judicial Watch has long warned of the chaos and increased risk of fraud from recklessly mailing one hundred million ballots and ballot applications.”

Keeping Up With the Clintons

Judicial Watch was founded in 1994 by Larry Klayman, a notorious right-wing lawyer labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-government extremist and a “pathologically litigious attorney and professional gadfly.” According to the Miami Herald, Klayman named the organization Judicial Watch “from a belief that the courts needed a watchdog and that the judiciary could be used as a watchdog over the rest of government through litigation.”

And litigation was the name of the game for Judicial Watch under Klayman’s tenure: the group’s meteoric rise came from the dozens of lawsuits it filed against the Clinton administration — so much so that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once famously alluded to the organization as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to tank her husband’s presidency. Judicial Watch’s efforts to terrorize the Clintons through litigation continued well after Klayman departed the organization in 2003 for an unsuccessful U.S. Senate run

When Fitton took over Judicial Watch after Klayman’s exit, he continued the group’s practice of harassing the Clintons through a barrage of lawsuits. “People always used to say to me, ‘What are you going to do when the Clintons leave?’” Fitton told the New York Times in 2016. “Well, the Clintons never really left.”

Judicial Watch’s dozens of lawsuits against the Clintons never really amounted to anything more than a minor media blip, but the efforts eventually paid off in the lead up to the 2016 election. In early 2016, the group sued over a FOIA request for emails from Clinton during her time as Secretary of State. The lawsuit led to the FBI’s investigation of Clinton using a private email server, which Judicial Watch and Trump latched on to fuel some of the most vicious political attacks against her during the 2016 election. 

An Attack on Voter Rolls

Judicial Watch is currently involved in at least four active voting rights lawsuits. Three of those lawsuits — challenges to voter roll maintenance in California and Illinois, and a challenge to Illinois’ mail-in ballot deadline — the group is the plaintiff, suing to disrupt the elections process at a crucial time. Though the group is known for filing all manners of lawsuits — according to its 2022 tax filings, the group spent nearly $5 million on litigation alone — suing to purge voters from state rolls across the country, stop mail-in ballots and restrict who has the right to vote has been one of their primary efforts in recent years.

Fitton and his team at Judicial Watch have repeatedly claimed that their litigation efforts over the past several years have resulted in the removal of more than four million ineligible voters across the country — in states like California, Colorado, Kentucky, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A good number of the lawsuits that Judicial Watch filed in these states were dismissed after reaching a settlement or consent judgment — like in California, Colorado, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. But Judicial Watch nonetheless touted them as victories and used them to spread false information about “dirty voting rolls,” as it did in Kentucky in 2019. As a result, former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) had to put out a press release warning voters of the “false information being circulated by Judicial Watch” about the state’s voter rolls. “Judicial Watch is pushing false information seeking to mislead and undermine our elections,” Grimes said in a statement at the time. “At worst they are actively working to keep people from voting.”

It’s the same playbook that Hensley-Robin, Common Cause PA’s executive director, experienced back in 2020 when his organization moved to intervene in a Judicial Watch lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s voter rolls. “Judicial Watch, this out of state group, decided to come into Pennsylvania with this lawsuit alleging that Pennsylvania counties were not complying with the obligations under the National Voter Registration Act and making all sorts of totally unfounded allegations,” he said. The lawsuit accused five counties — Luzerne, Cumberland, Washington, Indiana and Carbon Counties — of having too many registered voters on its registration rolls and not following maintenance procedures to remove ineligible voters. Eventually, the state and county defendants agreed to a settlement with Judicial Watch to dismiss the lawsuit. 

“The settlement agreement just basically came down to say that the counties are doing their ordinary list maintenance work and they’re doing it properly,” Hensley-Robin recalled. “And we’ll agree to publish information about our latest procedures that we’re already publishing anyway. So it was kind of a nothing burger.”

Nevertheless, Judicial Watch touted the settlement as some kind of major victory. “Pennsylvania’s election rolls are cleaner – and will remain cleaner – thanks to Judicial Watch,” Fitton said in a statement after the settlement.

“The reality is that this kind of narrative pushed by Judicial Watch is both disingenuous and dangerous. “When folks move, sometimes they’ll still show on the voter lists, and then we have procedures which remove them in a timely fashion,” Hensley-Robin explained. “And that’s what’s really concerning when these groups [like Judicial Watch] come in and try to pick our friends and family off the roll, and try to spread lies about the election.”The reality is that this kind of narrative pushed by Judicial Watch is both disingenuous and dangerous. “When folks move, sometimes they’ll still show on the voter lists, and then we have procedures which remove them in a timely fashion,” Hensley-Robin explained. “And that’s what’s really concerning when these groups [like Judicial Watch] come in and try to pick our friends and family off the roll, and try to spread lies about the election.”