Democrats launch massive legal campaign on voting ahead of 2020

By Nolan D. McCaskill

As Democrats select their 2020 presidential nominee, a constellation of left-leaning groups is looking ahead, laying groundwork for huge voter turnout in November by filing an avalanche of voting-rights lawsuits against state laws they say suppress participation in elections.

The groups, including state and national party committees as well as outside nonprofits, are spending millions of dollars to fight voter-registration purges, ID requirements and rules regarding signature-matching and ballot order, and they are also hiring voter protection staffers and recruiting and training volunteers in key states.

Democratic donors are flooding the wide-reaching legal effort with millions of dollars not only to help defeat President Donald Trump in 2020 but to affect elections all the way down the ballot — from the Senate and the House to the governorships and state legislative races that will shape redistricting and the next 10 years of state political maps.

“The next decade is really on the line here,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “No matter who we nominate to be president, no matter who wins in the fall, if we don’t get redistricting right, that next president is gonna be hobbled by a gerrymandered House of Representatives and state legislatures around the country to try to block their agenda.”

Republicans capitalized at the state level in the last census-year election, a midterm election bookended by the election and reelection of Barack Obama. In interviews, Democrats cited Obama’s 2008 election as the impetus for a Republican push to enact new restrictions and regulations on voting — ones that often affect Democratic constituencies.

“From 1965 up until 2009, it became relatively easier to vote in the United States,” said Aneesa McMillan, Priorities USA’s strategic communications and voting rights director. “What you saw after the election of Barack Obama were these laws essentially targeting the folks who made up the Obama coalition.”

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said the GOP encourages all eligible voters to cast ballots — “we just do so in accordance with the law to protect the integrity of the process.”

“If it were up to Democrats, they would allow illegal immigrants and terrorists behind bars to vote,” said Steve Guest, an RNC spokesman.

A Brennan Center report on voting law changes in 2012 found that state governments across the country made it harder to register or vote in states that accounted for 171 electoral votes, particularly for “young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities.”

Trump narrowly beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 thanks to slim victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where he won 46 electoral votes by a margin of roughly 78,000 ballots across those three states.

“We can’t govern if we can’t win, and having free and fair access to the ballot box determines if we win or not,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, where Democratic groups recently successfully challenged a policy that required voter registration applicants to submit their full Social Security number.

In Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Democratic governors signed bipartisan bills last fall to make voting more accessible by, for example, expanding early voting. But in many battleground states, making voting more accessible is a partisan fight.

“Republicans are doing everything they can using gerrymandering, using voter suppression, voter ID laws, changing polling places, closing polling places, to try to block access to the ballot,” Rodenbush said.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are making a combined eight-figure investment on voting rights-focused legal challenges. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, meanwhile, is planning to spend $50 million to flip statehouses.

“If Democrats controlled state legislatures across the country, many of these voting-rights lawsuits wouldn’t be necessary because we’d be able to legislate the expansion of voting rights in states,” said Jessica Post, president of the DLCC. “We have a generational opportunity in front of us in 2020.”

The DSCC has focused its court challenges on tackling barriers to registration and voting, as well as ballot-order rules, in states with high-profile Senate races, including Arizona, Texas and Georgia. The DSCC and DCCC are involved in many of the same cases, which could benefit House and Senate incumbents and candidates.

While Priorities USA is active in Wisconsin and Arizona, the super PAC has zeroed in on Michigan, where voters approved a 2018 ballot initiative to expand voting rights. The group filed suit in federal court in Detroit to challenge a law that would make it a misdemeanor to organize vehicles to transport voters to their polling places unless the voters are “physically unable to walk.” The Democratic group is also challenging a provision that restricts organizers from helping voters submit absentee ballots, which many Republicans decry as “ballot harvesting.”

Last week, the ACLU argued a case regarding barriers to voting in Florida, where voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 to extend voting rights to more than a million people with felony convictions. The next year, the Republican governor and GOP legislators enacted a new law requiring citizens to pay court costs, fines and fees associated with their convictions before they could vote. The ACLU and its allied groups won a preliminary injunction against the new law in October, so those impacted will be able to vote in Florida’s primary in March.

“About 80 percent of people who have felony convictions in Florida still have some outstanding financial legal obligations,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “So the effect of that bill would be to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from being able to register and vote in the 2020 [general] election.”

Florida Democrats Andrew Gillum and former Sen. Bill Nelson narrowly lost their races for governor and Senate in 2018. Gillum founded a voter registration group after his loss.

In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams launched her Fair Fight group after her tight loss in another race for governor. It has pledged to spend $4 million on its Fair Fight 2020 initiative and is working with allies in 18 states, including Georgia, to fund voter protection staff earlier than Democrats have done in past elections.

“One really good voter protection director can build a solid relationship with a county election administrator in a major county in one of these states, and through that they can brainstorm through how do we make sure we don’t have long lines, should we open more early-vote locations,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action. “Early, thoughtful staff can make a huge difference.”

Democrats have expressed concern about what Republicans may do now that the Republican National Committee is no longer under a 30-year consent decree that had limited its ability to challenge voters’ qualifications and target alleged voter fraud.

Multiple Democrats pointed to leaked comments from a Trump campaign adviser who told Republicans that the GOP has “traditionally” suppressed votes. Justin Clark, a senior political adviser and senior counsel to Trump’s reelection campaign, told The Associated Press that “my point was that Republicans historically have been falsely accused of voter suppression and that it is time we stood up to defend our own voters.”

Guest, the RNC spokesman, said lifting the consent decree just allows Republicans “to play by the same rules as Democrats.”

“Now the RNC can work more closely with state parties and campaigns to do what we do best — ensure that more people vote through our unmatched field program,” he continued. “Any accusation that the RNC would try to intimidate voters is ludicrous.”

The Democratic National Committee said it has voter protection directors in 14 states and has launched a voter assistance hotline.

“Voter suppression can look very different,” said Reyna Walters-Morgan, the DNC’s voter protection and civic engagement director. “It might be from not having sufficient parking. It may be because there are not enough accessible entrances to a polling location. It may be that the poll workers are not trained properly.”

Several of the groups involved in litigation and voter access efforts across the country commended their allies’ role in this fight, arguing that the task is too great for any single group.

“This work is about preserving the cornerstone of our democracy,” Walters-Morgan said. “That being said, when people go out and vote, Democrats have tended to win. If that were not the case, I don’t think that we would see such vigilant efforts to suppress the right of so many different people to vote.”