In a dramatic escalation of a long legal battle between the national Democratic and Republican parties – and in what is arguably a fitting culmination to the year of Donald Trump – the Democratic National Committee is asking a federal court to hold the Republican National Committee in contempt of court for allegedly violating a decades-old consent decree limiting so-called “ballot security” activities at poll places.
The Democrats’ filing Wednesday, among other things, ask that the consent decree — which is set to expire Dec. 17 — be extended for another eight years. The DNC is also asking the court to block any coordination between Trump and the RNC as it relates to Election Day poll monitoring activities that many fear will amount to voter intimidation.
The legal move by the DNC comes in response to Donald Trump’s calls for vigilante “poll watchers” to come out in force nationwide on Election Day. The RNC had hoped to be freed from the consent decree as soon as next year, and Trump’s actions now threaten to hobble the GOP for nearly another decade, if Democrats have their way.
As Trump has amped up his rhetoric claiming a “rigged elections” and urged his supporters “go over and watch” voting sites in “certain areas, the RNC has tried desperately to distance itself from the campaign’s poll monitors efforts, given the consent decree. But Trump campaign hasn’t made that easy. Wednesday’s filing cites comments made by Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN), Trump’s running mate, at a town hall event and by Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, to the Washington Post suggesting collaboration with the RNC on anti-voter fraud activities.
(Conway later told the Washington Post she was mistaken and the RNC at the time also denied collaboration).
“Although certain RNC officials have attempted to distance themselves from some of the Trump campaign’s more recent statements, there is now ample evidence that Trump has enjoyed the direct and tacit support of the RNC in its ‘ballot security’ endeavors, including the RNC’s collaboration on efforts to prevent this supposed ‘rigging’ and ‘voter fraud,'” the DNC’s court filing said.
The filing also points to the activities of state party leaders who are also members of the RNC that appeared to be inspired by Trump’s comments. The Pennsylvania GOP — led by chair Robert Gleason, also an RNC member — recently sued to allow for poll watchers to monitor voting sites outside their own precinct, which is currently prohibited by state law. Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, an RNC member, said last week that the party’s attorneys were preparing “a massive statewide anti-voter fraud effort.”
The RNC consent decree does not technically apply to state parties, which are allowed to deploy poll watchers assuming they follow state law. Nevertheless, the national committee’s general counsel sent a letter to its members discouraging them from participating in such activities, even as state party or independent actors.
The consent decree originated from activities Republicans engaged in in the 1980s in New Jersey and elsewhere at ballot boxes that included, allegedly, deploying off-duty cops near polling places in minority communities and sending mailers to minority neighborhoods to create lists of voters to challenge at voting sites. Democrats sued over the activities, and the RNC ultimately agreed to a consent decree that severely limited what it could do at polling places in terms of election monitoring.
As part of litigation around the decree a few years ago, a judge modified it to allow it to expire on December 1, 2017, unless the the RNC was found in violation of it again, at which point it would face an eight-year extension.
As Ben Ginsberg, a GOP attorney whose worked for a number of party organizations, said on MSNBC last week, “They are eager to have it come off next year.”
The RNC did not respond to TPM’s initial request for comment.
Read the court filing below: