Jurisprudence

The Anti-KKK Law That Could Bring Down a Notorious Voter-Suppression Group

A voter asks an election worker a question as she votes at Samuels Community Center in the presidential election November 8, 2016 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
A voter asks an election worker a question as she votes at Samuels Community Center in the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States Constitution was amended to guarantee civil rights to black Americans. The Constitution’s fresh commitment to equality looked great on paper, but it was promptly stymied by white supremacists who terrorized freed slaves in an effort to strip them of their newfound liberties—chief among them, the right to vote. Congress, frustrated by the violent suppression of blacks’ access to the ballot, finally passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871. Among other things, the law allowed individuals to sue in federal court when others conspired to deprive them of their constitutional rights.

On Thursday, four Virginia voters filed a lawsuit against J. Christian Adams, who recently served on Donald Trump’s disbanded voter-fraud commission. The voters argued that Adams and his law firm, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, or PILF, conspired to intimidate them out of voting or registering to vote. They’re suing Adams for violating Virginia defamation law and the Voting Rights Act—as well as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which, sadly, remains quite relevant as it approaches its sesquicentennial. The plaintiffs have a strong case. And if they succeed in court, they may be able to put one of America’s most shameless voter-suppression enthusiasts out of business forever.

Adams joined the Department of Justice in 2005 as the agency attempted to uncover voter fraud in an effort to justify voter ID laws. That crusade failed, and Adams quit in 2010 to protest the DOJ’s decision to narrow the scope of its prosecution against the New Black Panther Party. (An internal review found that certain charges were dropped “based on a good-faith assessment of the law and facts of the case.”) Since then, he has appeared frequently on conservative media to allege that noncitizen voting is rampant in the U.S. In addition to his stint on the voter-fraud commission, Adams routinely sues (or threatens to sue) election officials for allegedly failing to purge a sufficient number of voters from the rolls. In March, a federal judge dismissed Adams’ claims against Broward County, Florida, essentially accusing him of misleading the court.

Adams and his firm have also produced a number of dubious reports alleging that noncitizens have registered to vote en masse in multiple states. In 2016, PILF published “Alien Invasion in Virginia.” The report declared that 1,046 noncitizens had “registered to vote illegally” in the state, a felony. It then listed the names, home addresses, and phone numbers of many such voters.

Virginia election officials reached out to PILF to inform it that its methodology was badly flawed and its findings incorrect. But instead of backing down, PILF published “Alien Invasion II,” which named hundreds of residents of Prince William County and accused them of being noncitizens who had committed felony voter fraud. This time, PILF listed the names, addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers of many “suspected aliens.” It then vigorously promoted its report in the media and urged the Justice Department to prosecute the voters it had identified.

One problem: PILF was wrong. Many of the Virginians it accused of felony voter fraud and asked the DOJ to prosecute were real voters—but they aren’t aliens; they are U.S. citizens. That includes Jeanne Rosen, Abby Jo Gearhart, Eliud Bonilla, and Luciana Freeman, four plaintiffs in the suit against Adams and PILF brought by Protect Democracy and Southern Coalition for Social Justice. (The League of United Latin American Citizens is also a plaintiff.) As the lawsuit explains, PILF “unequivocally accuses” these four voters “of having committed a felony under federal and state law by improperly registering to vote.” Moreover, “the clear implication of the report” is that the voters “are also guilty of a second felony by actually voting.

“In making such false accusations,” the complaint alleges, PILF and Adams “have acted to intimidate or threaten Plaintiffs for registering to vote and voting” and “deter them from voting” in the future.

This injury isn’t hypothetical. All four plaintiffs attest that they feel embarrassed and endangered by PILF’s spurious reports. Bonilla considered running for public office but now “fears and expects” that this public accusation of fraud “will subject him to ‘birther’ conspiracies like the ones that plagued President Barack Obama.” Freeman “fears that her current or future employer could take adverse action against her because she has been falsely accused of a crime.” Rosen and Gearhart fear that their ability to cast a ballot will be challenged at the polls in the future. Each plaintiff is worried about their physical safety, given that their phone numbers and home addresses are published in a report that unambiguously labels them criminals.

It might seem anachronistic to apply the Ku Klux Klan Act to this thoroughly modern form of voter intimidation. But the law’s plain text indicates its broad reach: Any “two or more persons” who “conspire … to prevent” any citizen from voting by “force, intimidation, or threat” are liable. The Supreme Court has imposed another requirement on equal protection suits under the law—that these actions be motivated by “discriminatory animus” toward some particular group. But that would be an easy threshold to clear here: Both “Alien Invasions” are full of nativist rhetoric disparaging immigrants and seem designed to raise suspicion about Latino voter fraud. PILF’s work exhibits clear animus toward immigrants as well as the American Latino community as a whole. (The plaintiffs take the position that because the alleged conspiracy hinders voting rights specifically, they need not even prove animus under Supreme Court precedent.)

For good measure, the plaintiffs also sued under the Voting Rights Act, which similarly bars individuals from attempting to intimidate “any person for voting or attempting to vote,” with no animus requirement. And they sued Adams and PILF for defamation, arguing that they “recklessly and maliciously failed to exercise due care and diligence” before publishing “defamatory statements” that impugned their reputations.

There is a good chance that this case will go to trial—which means that Adams will have to defend the methodology of his reports in a court of law. When fellow voter-fraud czar Kris Kobach attempted to do exactly that last month, he failed miserably, exposing the fraudulence of his own claims and data. It would be salutary for American democracy to force Adams into the same spotlight to reveal the nonsense that undergirds his life’s work. But it’s equally important that these four plaintiffs have the opportunity to face their accuser in court and hold him accountable for his own malicious lies.