In 2021, Republican affiliated groups and individuals filed seven voting and election lawsuits. Within the first eight months of 2022, similar groups had already filed 41 lawsuits, a number that would swell even higher by the end of the year.
Behind this surge in voting and election lawsuits you find elected officials, fringe candidates and more established and well-funded Republican organizations. From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Winooski, Vermont, from a state trial court to the U.S. Supreme Court, there is another constant: a right-wing legal group looking to tighten voting rules.
This group, Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections (RITE), was co-founded in July 2022 by Karl Rove, a high ranking member of former President George W. Bush’s administration. Its top leadership includes the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) chief counsel, a member of the RNC’s Election Integrity Committee and former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr.
While focusing on technical elements of election policies, RITE consistently argues against voters and voting access under the guise of “integrity” and “security.”
In three key states — Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — RITE targets the intricacies of mail-in voting.
Since the increased use of mail-in voting in 2020, the Republican Party took a sharp turn against the popular, long standing policy. RITE’s lawsuits in this area show the ways that technical decisions around counting mail-in ballots can have a strong impact on voters.
Recently, RITE submitted amicus briefs — “friend of the court” briefs from individuals or organizations that are not parties in the case but have an interest in the outcome — in two parallel cases challenging how Pennsylvania counties count mail-in ballots.
The lawsuits, brought by Democratic and civil rights groups, challenge a policy that prevents election officials from counting undated and wrongly dated mail-in ballots. These ballots are from eligible voters and returned before the ballot receipt deadline but either have an incorrect or missing date on the outer return envelope.
The Pennsylvania NAACP and others argued that these ballots should be counted, and not doing so violates a civil rights statute. In contrast, RITE argued against counting these ballots. In an amicus brief, RITE also suggested that only the U.S. Department of Justice could bring a lawsuit under the civil rights law, emblematic of a growing call on the right to limit the private right of action in voting lawsuits.
After separate litigation before the 2022 midterm elections, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court deadlocked over the legal issues at hand and instructed counties to not count undated or wrongly dated mail-in ballots. This led to the disqualification of over 16,000 mail-in ballots during the midterm elections, the majority of which were from Democrats.
RITE also took credit for a short-lived legal attempt ahead of the 2022 midterms to limit the opportunity for Pennsylvania voters to fix mistakes on their ballots. The lawsuit challenged the authority of county boards of elections to implement mail-in ballot cure procedures, a process by which a voter may be notified of a technical mistake with their mail-in ballot and an opportunity to fix it. A trial court rejected the Republican lawsuit and permitted curing in the 2022 midterms.
Not only does RITE want to discount certain ballots for mistakes that are irrelevant to a voter’s eligibility, but the right-wing legal group also wants to prevent voters from being able to fix these mistakes in the first place.
In another state with close statewide elections, RITE similarly took on the minutiae of election administration. In July 2022, just a couple months before Election Day, RITE supported plaintiffs to prevent Wisconsin election officials from filling in any missing information (such as an incomplete address) on mail-in ballot witness certificates, instead rejecting the mail-in ballot.
Even closer to the election, in September 2022, RITE backed a lawsuit to stop Wisconsin voters from having the opportunity to “spoil” their absentee ballot and request a new ballot or opt to vote in person instead. Spoiling is a process to destroy and disqualify a ballot from being counted if it is marked incorrectly.
Most recently, RITE brought a lawsuit in Arizona arguing that Arizona’s current signature matching procedures for mail-in ballots violates state law. Litigation remains ongoing.
In less than a year, RITE has managed to back a wide range of anti-voting legal efforts.
- Defending Ohio’s omnibus voter suppression law, enacted in January 2023. The law requires a photo ID to vote while eliminating a long list of previously accepted IDs, shortens the time period to cure ballots, restricts the use of drop boxes to one per county and more.
- Challenging a local law in the city of Winooski, Vermont that permits noncitizen residents to vote in municipal elections or referendums involving the city’s school board and education budget.
- Disqualifying an Arizona ballot initiative that would give voters the option to safeguard mail-in voting, expand early voting, improve voter registration, protect voting access for Indigenous voters and voters with disabilities and more.
RITE submitted “friend of the court” briefs in a host of high profile voting cases.
“[T]he amicus brief is now a powerful lobbying tool for interest groups,” concluded U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a 2021 law review article. In addition to exploring the potential ramifications of a case, “friend of the court” amicus briefs signal where influential groups and party interests lie.
The Republican officials behind RITE — a group that purports to reject the belief of a stolen 2020 election that has gripped other factions of the party — have chosen to submit amicus briefs in support of the most egregious of election laws and a fringe legal theory before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In spring 2021, Florida enacted a major election law that restricted the voting process at nearly every step: voter registration, mail-in voting and in-person voting. RITE submitted an amicus brief before the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals to defend three specific provisions of the law that were previously struck down for intentionally discriminating against Black voters.
“The district court invalidated three commonsense and constitutional provisions of SB 90,” RITE’s brief reads. Among those “commonsense and constitutional provisions” is the law’s ban on providing food and water to voters waiting in lines at polling locations, known as a line-warming ban. RITE also wanted to reinstate restrictions on drop boxes and a requirement that third-party voter registration organizations issue a warning to voters before assisting them, in what the district court deemed unconstitutional “compelled speech” under the First Amendment.
On the other side of the country, RITE took sides with three Montana election laws: The laws eliminated Election Day voter registration, narrowed eligible voter IDs — particularly limiting the use of student IDs — and banned certain types of community ballot collection, a tool that is particularly important for Montana’s Native American population.
A state trial court had struck down the three laws for burdening the right to vote, but RITE’s amicus brief argued that the trial court erred in its legal analysis. The group wrote that the Montana Supreme Court “should reject the trial court’s extreme theory that every voting regulation demands strict scrutiny,” the highest level of judicial review.
RITE’s most peculiar amicus brief was filed in Arizona. In advance of the 2022 midterms, reports of voter intimidation started to emerge in the Grand Canyon State. In the first reported incident, a voter was followed as they attempted to drop off their mail-in ballot at a drop box. Other reports showed vigilantes staking out drop boxes, filming voters and photographing license plates. Two armed individuals were spotted at a drop box in Mesa, Arizona.
The groups behind these voter fraud vigilantes were sued for voter intimidation and a judge compelled them to stop. In an amicus brief, RITE presented an odd pontification rather than taking a side: The brief noted that voter intimidation is wrong, but then blames the “situation” on “Arizona’s failure to adequately secure ballot dropbox locations and instill confidence in the integrity of Arizona’s mail-in voting process.” The brief went on to lecture on the importance of stopping voter fraud, which is engendered, in RITE’s view, by mail-in voting.
“Unlike the allegations in this case, intimidation by vote traffickers takes place out of sight, and often goes undetected. It is every bit as toxic to our democracy, however,” RITE wrote in a press release about the brief, leaning into harmful conspiracies about how some people may legally return mail-in ballots on behalf of others.
Finally, RITE gave its two cents in a high-profile election case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Moore v. Harper. The case emerged from North Carolina redistricting where the state Republican legislators involved in the lawsuit are advancing a radical legal hypothesis about elections, known as the independent state legislature (ISL) theory.
RITE’s amicus brief supported the ISL theory, arguing that the U.S. Constitution’s Election Clause gives state legislatures unfettered authority over federal election laws, including drawing congressional maps, without accountability to state courts or state constitutions.
No matter what city or state, in federal or state court, RITE routinely falls on the side of making it more difficult for voters to cast a counted ballot. Though there’s “integrity” and “trust” in its name, those words conceal its true intentions.