Republicans promise court fights over 2024 election rules

When Donald Trump installed a new chairman of the Republican Party this month, he explained privately and publicly what he wanted from the GOP: a bigger focus on election-related lawsuits, a more aggressive operation to monitor voting and a vow to make “election integrity” the party’s No. 1 priority.

The party is now striking a more aggressive tone as it recruits poll observers to keep an eye on in-person voting and boasts of positioning thousands of lawyers to challenge ballots and bring lawsuits. The strategy — an outgrowth of the one it used both before the 2020 election and after, when Trump sought to overturn the result — is meant to please Trump, electrify the base and persuade judges to tighten voting rules.

“It’s an extremely high priority for the president,” said the new Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Whatley, referring to Trump.

But the reality of what Republicans can achieve may not match Trump’s desires. Democrats have raised huge sums to fight Republican efforts, even as the GOP remains cash-strapped.

And the legal terrain is more settled now than it was four years ago, when courts had to weigh in on how to conduct voting during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. That leaves fewer opportunities to change the rules through the courts.

“Courts are a lot less tolerant of bringing cases now that could have been brought before,” said Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor who previously advised the Biden White House on voting rights. “A raft of new litigation over the summer is going to run into an awful lot of: ‘The things you’re protesting aren’t new. Where were you a couple of years ago?’”

Legal fights over voting rules took off after the Supreme Court narrowly decided the 2000 presidential election and have escalated since. In 2020, election officials across the country changed deadlines and expanded mail voting in response to the pandemic, leading to fast-moving litigation and rulings close to Election Day. Another wave of suits came when Trump and his allies fruitlessly challenged his loss, with at least 86 judges, including both Democratic and Republican appointees, turning down attempts to challenge or overturn the vote.

This year could be just as intense. Trump continues to baselessly maintain that the 2020 election was rigged and has repeatedly complained about “election interference” in 2024 as he faces a slew of criminal and civil cases.

Both parties are actively raising money to fund election-related litigation. Between January 2021 and June 2023, the parties and related entities raised three times as much for election litigation as they had for the equivalent period in the last election cycle, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.

But Democrats have raised more for litigation than Republicans — $96 million compared with $81 million as of June 2023, records show. Much of that litigation money has been spent. Overall, the DNC had $26.5 million on hand as of the end of February, more than twice as much as the $11.3 million the RNC had.

The Republicans are already moving on some cases. Last week, after the party’s new leadership took over, the RNC filed a lawsuit over Michigan’s voter rolls, alleging that the state has failed to keep voter registrations up to date.

But the case was assigned to a judge who had thrown out a similar complaint three weeks ago, ruling the state was following federal law.

Days later, Republicans filed a similar lawsuit in Nevada, and the RNC and affiliated groups are involved in dozens of other cases. More lawsuits are on the way, said Whatley, who was selected for his new role by Trump and will work with an RNC leadership team that includes Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, top Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita and former One America News correspondent Christina Bobb.

The campaign and legal messaging for Republicans is delicate. Trump has long contended, without evidence, that early-voting methods are a source of fraud that allows Democrats to rig elections. Whatley, like his predecessor Ronna McDaniel, is encouraging Republicans to vote by mail or vote early in person, even as the RNC and its allies try to persuade judges to throw out more mail ballots in battleground states.

“I think it’s just one very blatant piece of evidence of how they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Abha Khanna, a partner with the Elias Law Group, a Democratic firm that has frequently gone up against Republicans in court.

She described the Republican strategy this time as a variation of the one the GOP used in 2020. Trump and his supporters sought to reverse the results last time, but now they are trying to get rid of the voters before they cast the ballots,” Khanna said.

Whatley said the RNC’s legal efforts are both about filing lawsuits before the election and having an apparatus to challenge results if needed. He said the party will have “thousands” of lawyers in place for after the election.

“We want to be in the room when votes are being cast and counted,” Whatley said.

The RNC launched its litigation and poll-watching initiative in 2021 with much fanfare, marking the expiration of a decades-old court order that restricted the committee from directly operating at polling locations. For the midterm elections, the party dispatched officials to battleground states to coordinate with local groups and recruit poll workers and poll watchers who were supposed to help document irregularities and report them to lawyers standing by to mount legal challenges.

Privately, Republican officials have described the main purpose of the recruitment efforts as bolstering Trump supporters’ confidence in the election process to persuade them to vote. But as the 2022 midterm results fell short of the “red wave” many Republicans were expecting, some RNC members questioned what the party had to show for the initiative.

Whatley said the RNC’s litigation focuses on four main categories — mail voting, voter rolls, noncitizen voting and voter ID. Before he was named RNC chairman, Whatley served as general counsel for the RNC and chairman of the Republican Party of North Carolina, where he said he assigned 500 attorneys to watch the vote in 2020.

“It’s a model that we’re going to put in place nationally,” Whatley said.

Whatley briefed Trump and his team on his efforts in North Carolina before he became RNC chairman. Trump later praised how the election was run in North Carolina to advisers, according to a person who heard his comments.

“The American people deserve a free and fair election process and the Republican Party, under Chairman Whatley’s leadership, will fight to ensure that happens in 2024,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement.

McDaniel, Whatley’s predecessor, had acknowledged Biden won while also playing up doubts about the fairness of the 2020 election. Trump griped that she did not do enough to change the results, people familiar with their relationship said, or to block laws from being changed in 2020, one factor in her departure this year.

Some top officials at the RNC fear that the committee will become the scapegoat should Trump lose again. The RNC set up its poll watching and election litigation unit in 2021 partially to assuage Trump and partially to respond to a flood of complaints from grass-roots supporters.

Whatley is bringing on board attorneys who have differing views of 2020. Charlie Spies, who has denied claims that voting machines flipped votes from Trump to Biden in 2020, will serve as the RNC’s chief counsel. Bobb, who has promoted false claims about the 2020 election, will be the RNC’s senior counsel for election integrity. Spies did not respond to a request for comment and Bobb said she could not speak publicly until she moves into her post next week.

Bobb worked in front of the camera and behind the scenes to undermine Biden’s win in 2020. In Arizona, she helped Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani arrange a meeting that aired false assertions of mass election fraud and later promoted a review of 1.1 million ballots in the state’s most populous county that election experts widely discredited as unreliable.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election attorney who represented George W. Bush’s campaign during Florida’s 2000 recount, described Spies as seasoned and reasonable and Bobb as an “unguided missile.”

Ginsberg said the election lawsuits that Republicans and Democrats are filing often are aimed less at winning in court and more at boosting fundraising and getting their supporters to the polls. As a result, the public has less faith in elections, he said.

“If more evidence-free lawsuits are filed based only on the belief that the other side is rigging the election, it will be increasingly difficult for whoever wins to actually govern,” Ginsberg said.

Some of the lawsuits from both sides may affect only a small number of ballots, if that, but could nonetheless be meaningful in states decided by narrow margins.

In Pennsylvania, judges are weighing whether election officials must count absentee ballots that are improperly dated. In Wisconsin, they are considering absentee voting policies and the legality of ballot drop boxes.

In Arizona, the RNC is suing to invalidate the state’s highly technical, 200-plus-page manual that spells out the rules for running elections. The lawsuit says the public should have been given more time to weigh in on it and alleges it conflicts with state law because it allows out-of-precinct voting, among other reasons.

One of the most closely watched cases is in deep-red Mississippi. There, the RNC is seeking to toss a state law that allows mail ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day and received up to five days later. The RNC argues all ballots must be received by Election Day and could use the lawsuit as a test case to try to knock down similar laws in other states.

With its lawsuit in Michigan, the RNC is claiming the state is not doing enough to maintain its voter rolls and must quickly remove the names of the deceased and ineligible voters. The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge Jane M. Beckering, who this month threw out a similar lawsuit, noting that “Michigan is consistently among the most active states in cancelling the registrations of deceased individuals.”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said the RNC’s lawsuit is a reminder of the relentless attacks on the 2020 results in Michigan and other swing states. She said those who brought it were engaged in “a strategy of trying to sow seeds of doubt in our elections to potentially overturn them in the future.”

“It’s 2020 redux,” she said. “It certainly feels like here we go again.”

Clara Ence Morse contributed to this report.

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