Freed by Court Ruling, Republicans Step Up Effort to Patrol Voting

(NYT) - Officials seek to recruit 50,000 poll watchers and spend millions to fight voter fraud. Democrats say the real goal is to stop them from voting.

Freed by Court Ruling, Republicans Step Up Effort to Patrol Voting

WASHINGTON — Six months before a presidential election in which turnout could matter more than persuasion, the Republican Party, the Trump campaign and conservative activists are mounting an aggressive national effort to shape who gets to vote in November — and whose ballots are counted.

Its premise is that a Republican victory in November is imperiled by widespread voter fraud, a baseless charge embraced by President Trump, but repeatedly debunked by research. Democrats and voting rights advocates say the driving factor is politics, not fraud — especially since Mr. Trump’s narrow win in 2016 underscored the potentially crucial value of depressing turnout by Democrats, particularly minorities.   
The Republican program, which has gained steam in recent weeks, envisions recruiting up to 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious. That is part of a $20 million plan that also allots millions to challenge lawsuits by Democrats and voting-rights advocates seeking to loosen state restrictions on balloting. The party and its allies also intend to use advertising, the internet and President Trump’s command of the airwaves to cast Democrats as agents of election theft.

The efforts are bolstered by a 2018 federal court ruling that for the first time in nearly four decades allows the national Republican Party to mount campaigns against purported voter fraud without court approval. The court ban on Republican Party voter-fraud operations was imposed in 1982, and then modified in 1986 and again in 1990, each time after courts found instances of Republicans intimidating or working to exclude minority voters in the name of preventing fraud. The party was found to have violated it yet again in 2004.

The 2018 ruling merely “allows the R.N.C. to play by the same rules as Democrats,” a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Mandi Merritt, said in a statement.

“Now the R.N.C. 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,” the statement said.

But the program escalates a Republican focus on limiting who can vote that became a juggernaut after the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act in 2013. But beyond that, it also reflects an enduring  tension in American life in which the voting rights of  minorities — whether granted in 1870 by the 15th Amendment or nearly a century later by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — seldom seem free from challenge.

Besides the national party and Mr. Trump’s campaign strategists, conservative advocacy groups are joining lawsuits, recruiting poll monitors and mounting media campaigns of their own. Leading them is a new and well-funded organization, the Honest Elections Project, formed by Leonard Leo, a prolific fund-raiser, advocate of a conservative judiciary and confidant of President Trump.

Republicans will have an Election Day operations program “that probably no other presidential campaign has had before,” Josh Helton, a Republican consultant, said at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in March. “It’s going to be all hands on deck.”

In battleground states, that extends even to comparatively quiet places like Fond du Lac County, an eastern Wisconsin outpost of about 100,000 people and 1,200 farms midway between Green Bay and Milwaukee.

“I think the big push is going to be for poll observers” in November’s general election, the Republican Party county chairman, Rohn Bishop, said this month. “No harm in making sure.” Indeed, he said that training sessions for election monitors were already in the works.

Democrats who have been tracking the effort say the goal is not to limit fraud, but to make the supposed threat of election theft the tentpole of a coordinated campaign by Republicans and their allies to limit the number of Democratic ballots counted in November.

“This is a burn-it-down strategy, a strategy to win at all costs,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the senior adviser at Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia. “They see this as central to victory.”

Fair Fight claims that the groups’ combined spending on lawsuits, election monitoring and spreading allegations of cheating will far exceed the $20 million announced to date. That message, blasted out, in particular by Mr. Trump, has stirred concerns that the Republican fraud drumbeat could lay the groundwork for Mr. Trump and his supporters to reject the election results should he lose.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the stakes further, leading Democrats and voting rights advocates to call for expanded voting by mail and Mr. Trump and some Republicans to claim with little evidence that it would invite fraud.

Some skeptics say the voting wars are partly political Kabuki, acted out to rally supporters in both parties and raise funds for advocacy groups. But in a presidential election where social distancing has muffled campaigning and few voters remain on the fence, turnout has taken on outsized importance. And neither side disputes that November’s vote, as in 2016, could turn on a relative handful of ballots in key states.