Republican Lawyers Group Calls Their Election Education Efforts ‘Unprecedented’

Many of this year’s anti-voter fraud efforts — which critics say can suppress minority turnout — come from disjointed, independent groups like Tea Party organizations and conservative websites.

But there’s one establishment organization that appears to be putting forth a major anti-voter fraud effort this year — the Republican National Lawyers Association. To be clear, there’s no evidence thus far that what is being said in RNLA training sessions is improper.

But RNLA leadership has clearly been involved in the exaggeration of the threat that voter fraud poses to the election process, raising fears over an issue that most voting rights experts say has been overblown. In 2002, for instance, the RNLA was running “ballot integrity programs in select locations around the country” in “targeted districts and areas where voter fraud is a concern or has historically been a problem,” according to their newsletter at the time (and quoted in a story in the Baltimore Sun). They had 1,500 members of their organization ready for cases of voter fraud, the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2002.

Fast forward to 2010, when “RNLA’s election education efforts this year have been unprecedented,” Charles Bell, Jr. wrote in a message to members of the organization, “These election education efforts aid the recruitment of volunteer lawyers to assist the more than twenty governorships, ten U.S. Senate seats and seventy U.S. House seats that are up for grabs in November.”That’s a bit different from what the executive director of the organization told TPMMuckraker when asked if his organization was involved in Illinois GOP Senate nominee Mark Kirk’s voter “integrity program,” which he said in a secretly recorded phone call focused on two predominately African-American neighborhoods of Chicago.

“Please note RNLA does not perform ANY operations,” Micheal Thielen, Executive Director of the RNLA, told TPMMuckraker in an e-mail. “We merely train lawyers on how to ensure elections are open, fair and honest.”

Formed in 1985, one of RNLA’s early meetings featured Attorney General Edwin Meese, according to a contemporaneous Associated Press report. The group has hosted speeches by then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

This year they hosted National Republican Congressional Committee General Counsel Jessica Furst, Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Ed Gillespie, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), Ambassador John Bolton, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), former Attorney General Ed Meese and RNC Chair Michael Steele.

RNLA president Charles H. Bell, Jr., is also the longtime general counsel for the California Republican Party. He was advisory council for the Economic Freedom Fund — a group funded by Swift Boat ad backer Bob Perry — that was one of the major conservative outside entities involved in running ads in the 2006 midterm elections. At the time Bell was identified as the RNLA’s vice president for the election education advisory council.

Cleta Mitchell, who mounted a campaign against ACORN, criticized the NRA for backing a Democratic campaign finance bill and has served as a lawyer for Tea Party candidates Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, serves as RNLA co-chair.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, the RNLA hosted a panel featuring Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund and so-called ACORN “whistleblower” Anita MonCrief, who ACORN said was fired for improper use of a credit card. After introducing MonCrief, Mitchell encouraged attendees to visit their local voter registration office, get a list of those conducting voter registration drives, and look up their names online to see if they are connected to ACORN, SEIU, or other organization. She also recommended they volunteer to be a poll watcher on Election Day.

James Bopp, a lawyer who worked on the Citizens United campaign finance case, is in charge of the RNLA’s election education as vice president and committee chair for election education, according to the RNLA website. Bopp told TPMMuckraker he couldn’t answer questions about the program on Monday morning.

Citizens United has also provided money for the RNLA, which unlike the RNC, is not subject to a consent decree which puts restrictions on so-called “ballot integrity” initiatives.