Crush of lawsuits over voting in multiple states creates a shadow war for the 2024 election

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FILE - A ballot is handed to a voter, far right, as early voting takes place at the Warren City Hall, Feb. 21, 2024, in Warren, Mich. The Republican National Committee has filed voting-related lawsuits in two dozen states targeting such things as voter rolls, mailed balloting and policies related to poll watchers. Democrats say its a strategy designed to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the vote this fall and potentially delay certification of the results. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

CHICAGO – As President Joe Biden and Donald Trump step up their campaigning in swing states, a quieter battle is taking place in the shadows of their White House rematch.

The Republican National Committee, newly reconstituted under Trump, has filed election-related lawsuits in nearly half the states. Recent lawsuits over voter roll maintenance in Michigan and Nevada are part of a larger strategy targeting various aspects of voting and election administration.

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It's not a new strategy. But with recent internal changes at the RNC and added pressure from the former president, the legal maneuvering is expected to play an increasingly significant role for the party as Election Day in November approaches. The lawsuits are useful for campaign messaging, fundraising and raising doubts about the validity of the election.

Danielle Alvarez, a senior adviser to the RNC and the Trump campaign, said the lawsuits were one of the organization's main priorities this year.

“This is something that’s very important to President Trump," she said. "He has said that this is something the RNC should do year-round.”

Democrats and legal experts are warning about how the lawsuits might overwhelm election officials and undermine voter confidence in the the results of the balloting.

The Democratic National Committee has a legal strategy of its own, building "a robust voter protection operation, investing tens of millions of dollars,” to counter the GOP’s efforts that seek to restrict access to the polls, spokesperson Alex Floyd said.

“The RNC is actively deploying an army of lawyers to make it harder for Americans’ ballots to be counted,” he said.

Election litigation soared after the 2020 election as Trump and his allies unsuccessfully challenged his loss to Biden in dozens of lawsuits.

Experts that year wondered whether the blitz of legal action was an aberration caused by false claims of a stolen election and changes to voting processes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Miriam Seifter, attorney with the State Democracy Research Initiative at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

They quickly realized that wasn’t the case as the 2022 midterms also generated a high number of election-related lawsuits. This year is projected to be similar, she said.

“Litigation seems to now be a fixture of each parties’ political and electoral strategies,” Seifter said.

Voter ID rules, mail ballots and voter roll maintenance are among the RNC's litigation targets. The latest is a lawsuit this month alleging that Michigan has failed to keep its voter rolls up to date.

Maintaining accurate voter rolls by updating voters’ status is routine for election officials, who watch for death notices, changes in motor vehicle records or election mail being repeatedly returned. Michigan also uses ERIC, an interstate data-sharing pact that helps states update voter lists but has been targeted by conspiracy theories.

Opponents of the lawsuit have said it relies on unsubstantiated, flawed data and runs the risk of purging legitimate voters.

“They’re claiming there’s a problem because one piece of data doesn’t match another piece of data,” said Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor. “But the pieces of data they’re trying to match don’t measure the same thing. It’s like saying, ‘I just looked at the clock and it’s different from the temperature on my thermometer.’”

This is not a new tactic, said Caren Short, director of legal and research for the League of Women Voters, which has filed to intervene in the Michigan lawsuit. She said most previous lawsuits have been from “more fringe groups” rather than directly from the RNC.

“Now seeing a prominent political party attempting to purge people from the rolls, it’s very concerning,” she said.

In the past four years, Michigan’s voter rolls have been targeted in three similar unsuccessful lawsuits. Just days after the Michigan lawsuit was filed, the RNC filed a similar one in Nevada.

A federal appeals court earlier sided with the RNC in a lawsuit in Pennsylvania questioning whether officials should count improperly dated absentee ballots. A Wisconsin lawsuit is targeting absentee voting procedures and ballot drop boxes. An RNC lawsuit in Arizona is aiming to invalidate or adjust the state’s 200-page elections manual while another in Mississippi seeks to prevent mail ballots from being counted if they are postmarked by Election Day but received days later.

Various other groups have filed similar litigation recently, including a lawsuit against the Maryland State Board of Elections claiming the state’s voting system is not in compliance with federal and state law.

Marly Hornik, CEO of United Sovereign Americans, one of the groups behind the Maryland lawsuit, said more lawsuits are intended in other states this year. On its website, United Sovereign Americans, which Hornik said formed last summer, announced plans to file lawsuits in 23 states.

The GOP and affiliated groups are involved in dozens of other cases with more on the way, RNC officials have said. In this election cycle, the RNC’s legal team has been involved in more than 80 lawsuits in 23 states, said Alvarez, the RNC spokesperson.

She said part of the reason for the flurry of lawsuits was the lifting of a federal consent decree in 2018 that had sharply limited the RNC's ability to challenge voter verification and other "ballot security."

During an interview this month with Fox News, the RNC chairman, Michael Whatley, emphasized the party’s plans to prioritize election-related litigation. He said the RNC is recruiting and training tens of thousands of poll observers and working with thousands of attorneys.

On Friday, the RNC announced plans to train poll watchers, poll workers and lawyers and send out more than 100,000 attorneys and volunteers to monitor vote-counting across battleground states in November.

Prioritizing election litigation also is reflected in recent changes within the RNC since Whatley and Lara Trump, the former president's daughter-in-law, took control and reshaped the organization with a renewed focus on “election integrity.” The RNC now has “election integrity directors” in 13 states.

Christina Bobb, who has promoted false claims of a stolen 2020 election and was part of a Trump-backed fake elector scheme, was tapped to lead the department.

“One of our biggest changes from last cycle to this cycle was making the election integrity department its own department with its own dedicated budget and focus," Alvarez said.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said most of the lawsuits are unlikely to win in court but "serve as a basis for fundraising and are trying to keep this issue front and center as a campaign issue.”

Democracy groups and legal experts said the lawsuits could pave the way for false narratives challenging the validity of the 2024 election while consuming time and staff at election offices across the country. Post-election lawsuits also could delay or obstruct certification of the results.

“I worry about these lawsuits that are not designed to clarify the rules but instead to lay the groundwork for false claims that an election their side lost was stolen or rigged,” said David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, which advises local election officials nationwide. “We saw this in 2020. We saw it in 2022. And we’re beginning to see the planting of seeds of doubt in the minds of the electorate again in 2024.”


Associated Press writer Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.


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