As voters go to polls, GOP lawyers prepare legal challenges
People wait in line for early voting Saturday afternoon in West Palm Beach, Fla. (The Palm Beach Post/ZUMApress.com)
With midterm races in many states coming down to the wire, David Norcross will likely do what a growing cadre of lawyers plans to do on election day: monitor voting trends and results on the ground and help campaigns prepare for the increasingly likely possibility of swift legal challenges.
[Law1] “I’m probably going to Pennsylvania on election day and night,” said Norcross, a member of the Republican National Committee’s executive committee who also serves as chair of the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA), an independent body of Republican lawyers. “My guess is it isn’t going to be close, but I’ve been wrong before. If I go it will be for the Republican Senatorial Committee and I’ll be focused on the possibility of voter fraud.”
Feverish preparation for the possibility of legal challenges on election day isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. “Really, it’s a function of the 2000 presidential campaign,” said Caleb Burns, who practices election law at Wiley Rein, LLP in Washington, D.C. “Bush v. Gore was a real eye opener, and now both sides have put resources and personnel into election day and the days that follow in a much more formalized way.”
But if both parties plan to have a team of lawyers on call, the Republican National Lawyers Association — which describes itself as “dedicated to educating lawyers on protecting each registered voter’s right to cast a ballot unencumbered by harassment or other obstruction, and preventing the influencing of election outcomes through unlawful activities” — has been taking things to the next level.
The group, which has tended to keep a low profile by supporting itself primarily off member dues since its establishment in 1985, received gifts totaling $200,000 from two wealthy GOP donors over the summer. This election cycle, it’s embarked on what its president, Charles Bell, Jr., has termed an “unprecedented” election education effort, hosting workshops for Republican lawyers in multiple swing states including Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida. The goal, according to Bell, was to “aid the recruitment of volunteer lawyers to assist the more than twenty governorships, ten U.S. Senate seats and seventy U.S. House seats that are up for grabs in November.”
The RNLA now boasts that it has trained over 1,000 lawyers in election law practices this year, but it has also come under fire for focusing predominantly on the issue of voter fraud. In recent weeks, it’s zeroed in on alleged voting irregularities in a number of swing states, issuing a steady stream of “Vote Fraud Alerts” and publicizing allegations in a coordinated effort which some voting rights groups have argued is actually undermining the first part of the group’s stated mission of protecting registered voters’ right to vote. The RNLA argues, however, that it’s merely trying to maintain the integrity of election laws. In either case, its complaints could likely become the basis for legal challenges in the aftermath of today’s contest.
“We train lawyers, make the trainings available to lawyers in every state,” said Norcross about the RNLA’s efforts. “[We provide] training on ballot integrity, recounts, the sort of things that come up on election day and evening and the next day so they know what to do, what the paperwork looks like, what the process looks like.”
Voting rights groups, on the other hand, depict the group’s training sessions (which count in many states for Continuing Legal Education credits for lawyers) as simply an extension of a broad right-wing effort to stir up fears over the idea of voter fraud for partisan advantage. They argue such efforts are designed to discourage voting and set the table for legal challenges in heavily Democratic districts and cities in states with close contests.
“Some of the old ACORN groups are back at it again,” Norcross recently told Newsmax TV. “It’s an epidemic. It’s laughable that the left calls voter fraud nonexistent. It’s very much existent.”
It’s broad allegations of voter fraud like these that are “going to have an impact on voters’ experience at the polls,” said Tova Wang, elections reform expert and Senior Democracy Fellow at Demos, a liberal public policy research and advocacy organization. “We’ve already seen a lot of incidents where allegations are getting tossed about and voter fraud is called an epidemic. Responding to that are groups, not necessarily affiliated with the GOP, that are running right over the line into activities that are certainly not helpful and possibly illegal.”
Such activities include Tea Party-organized poll-watching efforts in minority-heavy polling districts that have sometimes served to intimidate voters, critics charge. Harris County, Texas, for instance, became ground zero for recriminations over voter fraud and vote suppression after a local Tea Party group accused a voter registration organization in Houston of engaging in widespread voter fraud in late August and vowed to send 1,000 people to monitor the polls. Since then, the county has received 55 voter complaints, many alleging intimidation. In Minnesota, conservative groups are running ads and offering a $500 reward for turning in someone who is successfully prosecuted for voter fraud.
The RNLA’s efforts to talk up and root out voter fraud are closely aligned with a number of tight Senate races and pinpointed to cities and counties where Democrats typically enjoy strong majorities.
In Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Harry Reid is locked in a tight battle with Republican Sharron Angle, the RNLA has had a team on the ground for several weeks. In Illinois, the GOP Chairman Pat Brady confirmed that the party is working with the RNLA to train election-day volunteers as part of a “voter integrity” initiative in Chicago that has drawn criticism for targeting African-American neighborhoods. And in Pennsylvania, the group has been busy training lawyers and publicizing electoral irregularities that could give Republican candidates standing to sue.
“In Illinois they just flubbed their military ballot deadline and then, as far as I know, the election boards have still only added one day to the time in which the military has to get their ballots in,” said Norcross. “If there are military ballots uncounted, we’re likely to support a challenge.”
“In Bucks County, Pa.,” he added, “there’s a report of several hundred fraudulent absentee ballots issued in the name of people who say they did not apply for them.”
“Cities are notorious for voter fraud,” Norcross concluded. “There’s a big turnover in population. You’re able to use old addresses and the names of people who are either deceased or have moved to get ballots and either go to the polls or vote with them absentee.”
Norcross and the RNLA’s efforts have also been picked up and magnified by the RNC and National Republican Senatorial Committee, both of which have used them in fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“The fight could last beyond Nov. 2, and we have to be prepared,” the NRSC committee said in an appeal to supporters last week. “We saw it happen in 2008 in Minnesota, and we cannot let the Democrats try to steal any of these seats.”
The RNC, for its part, launched a new website called nomorefrankens.com, in which it alleged that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) only won his close 2008 election as a result of “additional ballots … which should have been disqualified as they appear to have been cast by convicted felons.” (Norcross has also attributed the GOP’s loss in that race to being “outmaneuvered” in the court battles and recounts that followed the election.)
RNC spokesman Doug Heye denied that the website implies the election was stolen. “There are a lot of people on both sides who would say that Franken won in the courthouse after the election and in the weeks and days after,” he said. “We want to have every resource on the ground so that we’ll be able to get people there quickly to ensure that we hit the ground running this time.”
But referencing foul play in the context of the Minnesota court case could be dangerous, said Wang. “Post-election litigation is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “There can be legitimate issues, but you don’t want people going into an election with the expectation that things are going to play out badly. You want people to know that the system works and it’s only the aberration where there’s some questions about the voting process.”
The RNLA’s insistence that voter fraud is widespread isn’t helping, said Wang. “They create an environment in which people don’t trust the system and we’re already in a time where there’s a real serious lack of trust in government and its institutions and this makes it a whole lot worse,” she added. “If people don’t have faith in the outcomes of elections, that’s really damaging.”
Norcross disagrees. “I think we can safely say that not every fraudulent registration gets voted, but I think the vast majority do,” he said. “It’s patently ridiculous not to have voter ID. I can’t check into a hotel without an ID. Why should I be able to vote without one?”