A Constellation of Anti-Voting Groups Threaten Democracy

Dark blue background with a constellation in the shape of an elephant's head with red dots

Republican leaders of the anti-voting movement recently held a “gourmet dinner” at an “undisclosed location” to discuss my voting rights litigation. The event was billed as the inaugural leadership dinner for a group called the Honest Elections Project. I was not invited to attend.

There is a constellation of well-funded, right-wing groups that use the legal and political system to make voting more difficult and free and fair elections less likely. They range from mere vote suppressors to full-on election deniers. Most oppose expanding voting rights and support strict voting laws. Many seek to gut the Voting Rights Act entirely; others want it interpreted so narrowly as to be ineffective. None of these organizations supported Congress’ efforts to enact new pro-voter legislation.

These right-wing groups work closely with the RNC and with state legislatures to advance anti-voting legislation.

The American Constitutional Rights Union, Foundation for Government Accountability, Judicial Watch, Lawyers Democracy Fund, Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) and Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections are just a few of the groups fighting against voting rights in court. America First Legal Foundation, Election Integrity Network, Heritage Foundation and True the Vote also support anti-democracy legal efforts. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council advances model anti-voting legislation for state legislatures.

We recently got a preview of how these groups will operationalize their legal efforts in court in the future. Earlier this year, a Florida federal judge struck down most of the state’s “Big Lie” voter suppression law. In doing so, the court found that Florida Republicans had intentionally discriminated against Black voters and had violated the constitutional rights of Floridians seeking to participate in the democratic process. On appeal, six national anti-voting groups filed separate “friend of the court” briefs opposing the lower court’s decision — in addition to the briefs by the state defendants and the Republican Party.

For many years, the Republican National Committee (RNC) was legally barred from participating in election monitoring or voter suppression efforts as a consequence of the GOP’s ugly history of targeting minority voters in the 1980s. When that bar was lifted in 2017, the RNC picked up where it had left off and ran so-called “election integrity” programs with state parties.

These anti-voting legal groups offer a path for Republicans to wield majority political power without majority support.

Now, in the post-Trump era, the RNC directly partners with voter suppression groups and efforts that two years ago would have been unthinkable. The party’s dismal court results following the 2020 election coupled with MAGA supporters’ distrust of the party establishment has left the GOP operating in the penumbra of the current stars of the election denier and voter suppression movement.

It’s not just what these groups do, but who runs them.

On PILF’s board of directors, for example, are Cleta Mitchell and John Eastman, both of whom served as lawyers for former President Donald Trump. Mitchell participated in the infamous telephone call during which Trump demanded that the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) find 11,000 votes and declare Trump the winner. Eastman, who has been in the news recently for having a search warrant executed against him, helped craft the January 2021 insurrection plan.

The Honest Elections Project — the host of the secret dinner — was formed in February 2020 and is connected to Federalist Society founder Leonard Leo.

The newest of these groups, Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections, was co-founded by former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr (R) and Karl Rove, who served as former senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush. Casino billionaire Steve Wynn provides the organization’s financial backing as its finance chair.

This group is notably more competent and well-resourced than the legal buffoonery who led Trump’s post-election antics. Though I am no fan of Barr, he is unlikely to hire lawyers who claim Hugo Chávez rigged elections from the grave or threaten to release the mythological Kraken. With Rove on its board as well, Barr is almost certainly not going to hold press conferences in a landscaping parking lot.

Notably, the infrastructure on the right is eclipsing the organizations on the left. 

Historically, most organizations and resources dedicated to protecting the right to vote were connected to the left. Today there are still many important civil rights and voting rights organizations that bring litigation to protect the right to vote. Their work is invaluable. But most of those groups have broader portfolios that extend beyond voting rights and have insufficient resources to meet their growing needs.

What is notable about the right wing’s approach is the scope and interconnected nature of their legal efforts to undermine voting rights and free and fair elections. Right-wing legal groups work in tandem with Republican legislatures dominated by election deniers. These organizations can help generate the most effective voter suppression policies that Republicans turn into laws. When those laws are challenged in court, the conservative legal groups then help defend them.

This brings me back to the “gourmet dinner” at an “undisclosed location” that I was not invited to attend. The right wing holds these events and funds these groups because they know that they cannot win fair elections. These anti-voting legal groups offer a path for Republicans to wield majority political power without majority support. They know that they lost in 2020. They are embarrassed that Trump was routed in post-election litigation. Some are upset that his coup failed on Jan. 6.

They set up new groups, hold secret dinners and create new voter suppression laws hoping that we will give up. I’m not sure what gave them that impression. After Trump was defeated in 2020, his team fought dozens of times in court — and lost. We didn’t give up then, and we certainly aren’t giving up now.