The Voter Purge Crusade That Preceded Trump’s Sketchy Elections Commission

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Vice President Mike Pence, leader of President Trump’s shady “Elections Integrity” commission kicked off its first meeting last month with a promise that it would have “no preconceived notions or preordained results.”

But like many of its other members, commissioner J. Christian Adams has done little to hide what has been his end-game: bullying state and local election officials into aggressive voter registration purges that civil rights groups worry will end in eligible voters getting kicked off the rolls. Now he will be joining on the commission several other figures known for their efforts to make it harder — not easier – to vote in an endeavor that many in the voting rights community believe will be used to justify tougher voting laws, including measures that will prompt sloppy voter purges.

For more than half a decade, Adams has been on his own private sector crusade to pressure election officials to agree to voter purge protocols beyond what are required by law.

He, along with a constellation of other GOP lawyers affiliated with a handful of under-the-radar conservative legal groups, have sent a flurry of letters warning election officials that they’ll sue if they did not do more to trim down their registration lists. In a handful of places, they’ve followed through with lawsuits, but have achieved minimal success in getting judges to ordain their views on voter purges. The tide may be turning, however. A trial just finished in Broward County, Florida, in a case that voting rights advocates worry will boost conservatives’ abilities to pressure jurisdictions across the country to purge their rolls.

The case was brought by Adams’ legal advocacy group, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, on behalf of another conservative group, the American Civil Rights Union, that Adams is oft affiliated with. The final ruling in his case against Broward County’s Supervisor of Elections, Brenda Snipes, is expected in the months to come.

“The plaintiff’s goal is not to improve the voting rolls in Broward County,” said Kali Bracey, one of the attorneys fighting the lawsuit, according to a Sun Sentinel report of the trial. “Make no mistake, the plaintiff’s goal is to obtain an overly broad ruling to take across the country to scare counties into removing voters that should be on the rolls.”

Their tactics resembled what elections experts have cautioned they expect out of Trump’s election commission: vague, hyperbolic allegations; manipulation of data; and a mischaracterization of their final results.

Now a member of the Trump voter fraud commission — which, in its infancy has been met with intense scrutiny and blowback from state election officials — Adams is no stranger to the spotlight.

He was brought in to the Justice Department under the George W. Bush administration, when the department came under fire for politicized hiring practices. Adams quit his career DOJ role after the Obama administration took over out of frustration that, under the new leadership, the DOJ was backing down from its prosecution of the so-called “New Black Panthers” case that Adams had been pushing.

After stepping down, Adams became a darling of conservative media. For years he has pushed allegations that voter fraud was widespread; that under Obama the DOJ was home to “Lawlessness, Racialism and Terror” (to borrow from the title of his book); and that, among other things, Obama’s DOJ sought to disenfranchise the troops and even avoided the use of the word “picnic.”

His role in voter purge efforts, which date back as far back as 2010, have received less attention, until a Mother Jones report published just before he was named to Trump’s commission.

Adams is the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), founded in 2012. Another commissioner on Trump’s voter fraud panel, Hans von Spakovsky, is the group’s director, though he told TPM he had no direct role in litigation.

Adams and von Spakovsky (pictured above) recently authored a defensive Wall Street Journal op-ed claiming that criticism of their presence on the Trump commission is “a scare tactic, pure and simple.”

“They don’t even want anyone asking questions. Instead, they smear the commission and its members in an effort to denigrate our work,” the op-ed said.

Adams is also a contributor to the conservative fever swamp PJ Media, where he’s opined recently on the ” kooky leftist professor” who “harangued” white nationalist Richard Spencer at their gym as well as the gum-chewing habits of Obama-era DOJ lawyers Adams called “bigots toward the South.”

Partnering with other conservative groups — such as Judicial Watch, which has investigated liberal groups and Democratic figures stretching back to Clinton administration; and the American Civil Rights Union, which positions itself as the right’s answer to the American Civil Liberties Union — Adams and his cohorts have sent dozens of letters to local elections officials claiming their voter rolls are illegally inflated and demanding more information about their maintenance techniques.

At these various groups, Adams has worked with fellow Bush administration alums, Christopher Coates and Robert Popper, who served as his colleagues at the DOJ, according to the Mother Jones profile.

Their letters to local voting officials cite a provision of the National Voter Registration Act — which is known as the Motor Voter Law and streamlined the registration process — that requires elections officials to make a “reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.” This federal requirement is coupled with the series of guardrails the NVRA puts on removal efforts to protect eligible voters from being mistakenly removed from the rolls — guardrails, it is feared, Trump allies will seek to weaken under his administration.

“Nothing in the NVRA requires the states to engage in the mass purges demanded in these lawsuits,” said Sarah Brannon, an ACLU attorney who opposed PILF in lawsuits in her previous role at Project Vote.

The early lawsuits targeted small, resource-strapped jurisdictions near the Texas-Mexico border and in rural Mississippi, where officials didn’t have the will or the financing to fight the complaints. Some of the counties, in their legal settlements with the conservative groups, agreed to mostly what the conservative groups were seeking, while others hammered out agreements that were far more modest.

“They clearly are suing smaller jurisdictions as part of their strategy to take advantage of the fact that smaller jurisdictions have limited resources,” Brannon said. In their promotional materials and in back-and-forth to other jurisdictions, the groups then go on to “overstate what they’re getting ” in those settlements, Brannon said.

“Sending those notice letters even if you don’t sue, that is also a pressure technique,” Brannon said, because the threat of litigation alone may be enough to prompt officials to purge rolls in ways beyond what the NVRA requires.

The groups have stepped up their game, and more recently have targeted counties and states known to play crucial roles in elections. They also began attracting the attention of major voting rights groups like Demos and the League of Women Voters, which sought to intervene in the lawsuits and help the elections officials put up more of a fight.

“They claim they only want them to purge ineligible people, but we know from experience that aggressive purges, particularly those are compelled in litigation, are going to end up affecting people who are eligible,” said Demos senior counsel Stuart Naifeh, who has been involved in efforts to intervene in lawsuits brought by PILF.

Not much is known about the conservative groups’ funding, as PILF and ACRU are both 501(c)(3) organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors. Tax documents for ACRU show it raising more than $14 million between 2011-2015, $4.5 million coming in 2015 alone. Fundraising drives sent through its email listserv show ACRU warning that “George Soros and his extremist allies are prepared to launch an ace up their sleeve: Large-Scale Vote Fraud.” The group also raises money off their specific lawsuits, including the current case in “notorious” Broward County.

“Just the other day I spent hours being grilled by seven Soros-paid lawyers — all because the ACRU is trying to force one Florida county to clean up its voter rolls,” an April fundraising email from ACRU chairwoman Susan Carleson said. “Granted, it’s not just any Florida county. It’s Broward County — scene of the attempted theft of the 2000 presidential election and one of the most notorious vote fraud havens in the whole country.”

“The Broward County case is the first of its kind to reach trial and survived a motion for judgment as a matter of law,” Logan Churchwell, director of communications and research at the Public Interest Legal Foundation, said in a statement to TPM. “PILF’s body of work speaks for itself and we aren’t interested in post-game rematches in the parking lot.”

Adams and his crew have been accused of mischaracterizing their initial round of settlements to push officials in subsequent cases to be more aggressive in purging their voter rolls the more high-profile that followed.

A federal judge in a 2016 case the ACRU brought against Philadelphia — where the group was seeking to force elections officials to boot felons off their rolls, despite a Pennsylvania law allowing felons to vote again once they’re out of prison — scolded the lawyers for describing a previous consent decree in a way that is “simply not true,” though the judge stopped short of sanctioning the group.

The ACRU is appealing the Philadelphia lawsuit, having had it dismissed at the district court court level.

For the most part, at this stage of the game, ACRU’s and PILF’s success has been limited. A 2014 settlement that came out of a Judicial Watch lawsuit against Ohio resulted in a purge protocol that was knocked down by an appeals court, and is now up for review at the Supreme Court. A 2016 lawsuit Adams, representing a group called Virginia Voters Alliance, brought against Alexandria, Virginia, was dismissed after the judge called their complaint “extremely vague” and with “no specificity.”

Another lawsuit Adams worked on in Wake County, North Carolina, on behalf of a local group, resulted in a modest settlement that required the state election board to make available some data the plaintiffs were requesting.

“We considered the settlement agreement a victory,” Allison Riggs— a lawyer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which intervened in the Wake County case — told TPM, since it did not require them to change their registration maintenance protocols.

A PILF spokesman told Laura Ingraham’s news outlet Lifezette that Wake County had been required under the settlement to cross check their voter rolls with the post office’s change-of-address database, four times a year, instead of semi-annually. The settlement actually just requires the county to inquire with the state board, which handles that operation, to see if the cross check can happen quarterly instead of semi-annually.

“The agreement was that I was going to send a letter to see if, based on their request, instead of doing it in twice a year, they wanted to know if I could send a letter asking for four times a year, so that’s what I sent,” Gary Sims, the Wake County Board of Elections director, told TPM.

Once in the courtroom, the groups have faced skepticism about the data they use in bringing their cases and for the demands they make of officials.

“They didn’t have any factual information. And even the one bit of factual information they said they had — that our number of registered voters exceeded the number of voting age population — the numbers that I had didn’t support that,” said Anna Leider, the registrar in Alexandria whom PILF sued on behalf of the Virginia Voters Alliance.

“The whole premise of why he went after Alexandria was false.”

The complaints usually start with a formula showing more people being registered to vote in a jurisdiction than estimated citizen voting age population. Election officials have complained that the model Adams is using is misleading. It compares the voter roll numbers right after an election — when they’re at their peak, since there’s a 90-day freeze on purging ineligible voters before an election under the NVRA — to a set of data that is averaged over five years from the American Community Survey, which is a collection of data based on a sample size, rather than a comprehensive census.

A defense expert testified in the Broward case that the groups were using “two different databases designed for two different things.”

With their charge of bloated rolls, the groups then argue that inflated ratio is a sign election officials aren’t doing enough maintenance. They typically demand more data about who’s on the rolls and what the election officials are doing to confirm that they’re eligible, but the vagueness of their requests has frustrated election officials and judges alike.

“A plaintiff can’t just come in and say general allegations of, you have failed to do this, you have failed to do that,” U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said, according to a transcript from their Virginia litigation. “You have got to put some specific meat on the bones, and this complaint clearly does not have that.”

The judge in the Philadelphia case said ACRU’s arguments about what the NVRA requires there failed “to support this characterization of the statute with a single case citation.”

Though their work started long before President Trump’s surprise election, their stars have aligned as the Trump administration elevates figures known to be hostile to voting rights.

Vice President Mike Pence, left, accompanied by Vice-Char Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, right, speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Vice President Mike Pence, left, accompanied by Vice-Char Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, right, speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity , July 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Vice chairing the presidential election commission is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a vocal proponent of voter restrictions who, it is believed, is seeking to weaken the NVRA because it has stopped him from implementing a proof-of-citizenship voter registration requirement. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has also been hinting plans to crack down on states’ purging processes under claims they’re not doing enough in compliance with the “reasonable” effort provision of the NVRA.

Trump administration moves aside, the Broward County case represents a potential turning point for the ACRU and PILF in their purge efforts.

Unlike their other complaints, which have either been settled or thrown out at more preliminary steps, this lawsuit has made it to full trial, giving the groups the potential for a ruling in their favor instead of a just a watered-down settlement.

“If they win at the trial based on the kind of claims that they made and the kind of evidence they came up with, which was minimal, that will seriously increase the pressure on counties and they’ll probably not be willing to fight back,” Naifeh said.

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