It’s bad enough when a trio of voter suppression groups led by charlatans gets together at an annual secret conference that is sponsored, in part, by a group created by the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo to talk about all the ways they might make it harder for people to register or vote in future elections. But it is much worse when the participants in that secret conference also include secretaries of state and other top election officials from 13 Republican-led states, plus Don Palmer, a member of the United States Election Assistance Commission, plus counsels to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the House Administration Committee’s Republican staff, and a sitting Texas state senator. The entire conference—whose existence was revealed in a blockbuster report by the Guardian and Documented last week—shows that there is a thriving network of interlocking organizations working with elected and election officials to use unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud to try to mess with fair elections for partisan advantage.
It is understandable if this particular report flew below the radar for you. We are all living in Steve Bannon’s Trumpian dreamworld in which “flooding the zone with shit” has become a remarkably successful political tactic. From the past week’s stories of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failing to report lavish free vacations, including a $500,000 jaunt on a private plane, to a bonkers anti-abortion ruling from a Texas judge that bans an abortion drug and lays the groundwork for recognizing a fetus as a human being entitled to full constitutional protection, to the expulsion of two Black state legislators from the Tennessee Legislature because they had the temerity to protest gun violence fueled by a Supreme Court stuck in the 1790s to—yes—more mass shootings, it is too easy to be distracted. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are people meeting, behind closed doors, to plot out new paths to voter suppression, with direct implications for the type of democracy that we may have in the United States in 2024 and beyond.
In some ways, this everything-everywhere-all-at-once vibe is simply, well, everywhere : Dark money donors capture the courts and the levers of government to make actual vote tallies irrelevant to who holds power. This story didn’t start in Tennessee or the Amarillo district court. For nearly two decades, we have been chronicling the actions of members of the Fraudulent Fraud Squad who have been active in perpetuating claims of voter fraud to make it harder for people to vote. Members include people like Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation and J. Christian Adams of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), who have long lied or exaggerated claims of pervasive election fraud to support their efforts to crack down on normal voting.
These hucksters have been at this for a long time. Von Spakovsky, for instance, served with Adams and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on former President Donald Trump’s aborted Voter Fraud Commission. Documents from that commission later revealed a purposeful effort to generate enough smoke around nonexistent election shenanigans to cajole Congress into allowing states to require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote. In other words, the commission was an elaborate search for a solution to a problem that never existed, but it made a play that has since been repeated elsewhere. Kobach tried to enforce just such a law in Kansas before a court found it illegal; it had already stopped about 30,000 people from successfully registering to vote at that point. But despite losing in courts, facing sanctions, and having their blue-ribbon commission debunked and disbanded, these zombies searching for a reason to make voting harder never fail to reemerge whenever there is someone someplace seeking to toss an election result for partisan gain. Arizona, of course, is trying to put in place the same discredited system of “show us your papers” voter registration that the courts roundly rejected in Kansas.
All of this voter suppression requires an infrastructure. To help support it, Heritage and PILF have teamed up with Leonard Leo’s Orwellian-named “Honest Elections Project” (HEP), headed by Jason Snead, to run a new conference for election officials and the representatives of Republican lawmakers. Leo, lest we forget, has been in charge of reshaping the federal courts, selecting Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, and figuring out how best to spend gobs of billionaire-donated money to reshape culture and democracy. The chillingly dishonest HEP not only supports these efforts to make voting harder but also the “independent state legislature theory,” which suggests that state legislatures should be able to pass whatever laws they like for running federal elections, unconstrained by state constitutions protecting the right to vote and state supreme courts that enforce the right. They even filed a brief to the Supreme Court favoring it.
What’s clear from the new reporting, and what may have flown somewhat under the radar last week, is that this is no longer just a lobbying effort shored up with big, often untraceable money, coming from players outside the system. What’s no longer hidden is the involvement of lawmakers and their staffs, who say the quiet parts out loud. Their enthusiastic participation in these efforts shows that these groups are not offering false and exaggerated claims of voter fraud merely to raise funds or even to delegitimize Democratic electoral victories by convincing the Republican base that when Democrats win elections, it is inevitably by fraud. Instead, the conference is powerful evidence of coordination between the decades-old voter fraud–industrial complex and state and government officials who actually have the power to make rules over how elections are run. To put it in the simplest terms, the election suppression noises are truly coming from inside the house.
Participants at the conference no doubt learned the lesson we all gleaned from the aftermath of the 2020 election: No matter how much proof investigators, courts, and journalists amass to show that voter fraud is rare and almost never swings American elections, significant portions of the Republican base will always believe the false claims. Indeed, the more evidence they hear that there is no such thing as large-scale Election Day vote fraud, the more it leads them to distrust the investigators, courts, and journalists who attempt to debunk them. Those false claims then serve as the predicate to pass yet more laws intended to make it ever harder to vote for some voters who are seen as likely to vote for Democrats—including poor voters, minority voters, and students. Never mind that sometimes these laws deter Republican voters and could actually cost Republicans elections. The important thing is to puff up the lie in order to justify draconian state legislative responses. And the participation of state entities that once took pride in serving as nonpartisan officials who sought only to administer elections fairly and efficiently prove that it is becoming vanishingly rare for election officials in the Republican Party to distance themselves from whatever formulation of the Big Lie best serves them, whether they personally believe it or not.
Finally, the very existence of this conference also highlights the coming together of the fringe elements of the Republican party with its allegedly saner mainstream. As the Guardian noted, on PILF’s board sits attorney Cleta Mitchell, who was deeply involved in Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse the results of the 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere, based upon ridiculous and unproven claims of voter fraud. Sober election officials should be running away from organizations in which Mitchell and her ilk are involved. The choice to embrace them, and in so doing to help rehabilitate them, is to invite repeat performances of Jan. 6, 2021, in the future.
When the fringe gets to meet with top election and elected officials and their representatives, these ideas enter the Republican mainstream. They also lay the groundwork for future unwarranted voting crackdowns. One can speculate whether serious state actors are unaware that they are playing with fire by asking “hard questions” about how to deal with the nonexistent problem of massive voter fraud. But convenings such as this one suggest that they are willing and even eager to use whatever means are at their disposal to both foment national mistrust in future election contests and also to weaponize that mistrust into partisan election-suppression efforts to come.