Conservative groups are writing GOP voter suppression bills — and spending millions to pass them

Right-wing groups like Heritage and ALEC are crafting model legislation as GOP pushes over 250 restrictions

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 27, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins at the opening of the council's 2018 Value Voters Summit in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins at the opening of the council's 2018 Value Voters Summit in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republican state lawmakers who have rolled out more than 250 bills to restrict ballot access in more than 40 states, largely in response to President Donald Trump's false claims about election fraud, are receiving financial backing from an unusual coalition of Christian and "small government" groups.

The Family Research Council, the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project — all faith-based nonprofits — are spending millions to boost a Republican-led effort to restrict voting in dozens of states after the party lost the White House and the Senate amid record turnout and mail-in voting. Meanwhile, libertarian-leaning groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action — the political arm of the Heritage Foundation — and Tea Party Patriots are also planning an eight-figure investment to back the effort, which has already seen 253 restrictive bills introduced in 43 states, according to a Brennan Center for Justice analysis. Heritage Action also plans to team with allies like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to craft model legislation for state lawmakers to adopt.

"The bills being introduced are similar, and with good reason," said Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, a civil rights attorney who has worked on voting rights cases across the country. "The RNC and national Republican groups have drafted 'best practices' for voter suppression that state legislatures can use."

Trump stoked unfounded fears about mail-in voting, without any evidence, for months before the election as he floundered in the polls. He continued to claim that the election was somehow rigged or stolen after his loss but failed to provide any evidence, losing every legal battle in the process. Trump's claims raised tens of millions from his supporters, though he spent just a small fraction of that on actual legal costs while dropping far more on fundraising ads and pocketing the rest for his super PAC. Now his conservative allies are targeting donors who bought into his false election claims, justifying their push by citing voter concerns about "election integrity."

Frank Cannon, senior strategist for the Susan B. Anthony List and American Principles Project, told The New York Times that conservative activists quickly realized that the only way they could keep donations rolling in is by making the effort to restrict voting access the "center of gravity in the party."

Terry Schilling, who heads the American Principles Project, admitted that he doesn't buy into some of the nonsensical conspiracy theories pushed by Trump and his allies, but said the issue was the biggest priority for the group's donor base.

"I'm not someone who thinks that China hacked the voting machines," he told the Times, seemingly referring to a baseless conspiracy theory pushed by former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, whose attorneys have said in recent court filings that "no reasonable person" could accept her claims as fact. But Schilling added, "If you're a conservative organization and you have small-dollar donors, you're hearing this from everywhere: 'Well, what's the point in voting?'"

The two groups, which spent more than $20 million on the election last year, have set a $5 million fundraising goal for their "election transparency" campaign and hired former Trump Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli to lead the effort.

But Democratic groups say Republicans are using lies about the election to advance laws that disproportionately impact voters of color.

"Conservative groups and many Republican state legislators are engaged in a nationwide effort to make it harder for people to vote, particularly people of color, low-income individuals, seniors and students," Ben Berwick, counsel at the nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy, said in a statement to Salon. "The idea that this effort is about 'election integrity' or 'voter concerns' is a smokescreen — there is cross-partisan expert agreement that the 2020 election was among the most secure and successful in modern American history."

The Family Research Council, which spent years advising Trump on anti-LGBTQ issues and "religious freedom," has also joined the push to restrict ballot access.

"We've got 106 election-related bills that are in 28 states right now," FRC president Tony Perkins said at a recent "Pray Vote Stand Townhall" alongside Michael Farris, the president of the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, according to the Times. "So here's the good news: There is action taking place to go back and correct what was uncovered in this last election."

Of course, dozens of election challenges failed to "uncover" any evidence of widespread fraud at all, as did multiple Republican-led audits and recounts of close vote counts in states like Arizona and Georgia — where even law enforcement investigated allegations of fraud and found no evidence. Former Attorney General Bill Barr likewise acknowledged that there was no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the election result and the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency concluded the election was the "most secure in American history."

"Any doubts about that fact stem from Republican lawmakers spreading conspiracy theories about it for political gain," said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, in a statement to Salon. "Nothing Republicans are proposing would do anything to make our elections any safer or more secure. How would shortening in-person voting hours make elections more secure? How would limiting in-person early voting make our elections safer? It wouldn't, and Republicans know that. Their proposals are simply setting up unnecessary barriers to voting to target communities of color. If Republicans are concerned with integrity, they should stop lying."

Perkins made clear at the town hall that his real interest was in making sure Democrats do not win elections, noting that his home state of Louisiana has consistently voted for Republicans after the state legislature created stricter voting laws after Democrats won a Senate seat in 1996.

"When you have free, fair elections, you're going to have outcomes that are positive," he said, according to the Associated Press.

"It's a deeply undemocratic attempt to game the system to gain an unfair advantage," Berwick told Salon. "To make matters worse, it is premised on a lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Some voters bought that lie, and now these Republican legislators claim that they need to make it harder to vote in order to restore voter confidence in the democratic process, when they helped to undermine that confidence in the first place."

FreedomWorks, which gained prominence by organizing Tea Party protests in 2009 and 2010 with financial backing from the vast Koch donor network, is also launching a big-money effort to back the restrictions after allying itself with Trump. The group has launched a $10 million effort to back voting restrictions led by Cleta Mitchell, a prominent conservative lawyer who assisted Trump's election challenge before she was forced to resign from her law firm after participating in Trump's now-notorious phone call urging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" enough votes to overturn his loss.

The Koch network and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, which splintered from FreedomWorks, is notably not involved in the effort. Billionaire Charles Koch said after the election that he regretted not being more forceful in pushing back against Trump, and Americans for Prosperity said it would "weigh heavy" the actions of Republican lawmakers who pushed lies about the election and objected to the electoral vote count after the deadly Capitol riot.

But other Koch-backed groups, like ALEC, remain heavily involved in the restriction push. The group, best known for crafting model conservative legislation that is distributed to lawmakers around the country, recently hosted a call with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and many state lawmakers to organize opposition to H.R. 1, a sweeping Democratic bill that would expand voting rights, according to the AP.

ALEC did not respond to questions from Salon about whether it was involved in crafting any of the proposed restrictions. An internal document obtained by The New York Times shows that Heritage Action plans to work with groups like ALEC to "produce model legislation for state legislatures to adopt." The Times found that at least 23 of 68 bills introduced in Georgia to restrict voting had language strikingly similar to that of a Heritage Action letter distributed to state legislators in January. The group has also claimed credit for a new Arizona law signed into law last week that requires the secretary of state to compare death records to voter registrations.

Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, told the AP that "it kind of feels like an all-hands-on-deck moment for the conservative movement" because "voter distrust is at an all-time high." Heritage Action plans to spend $24 million to support Republican efforts in Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin, most recently dropping $700,000 on an ad campaign to support Republican bills in Georgia that have been slammed by Democrats and voting rights activists as "Jim Crow in a suit and tie." Heritage Action officials told CNN they also have about 20,000 activists on the ground backing the Georgia bills, which include measures restricting ballot drop boxes, requiring voter ID for mail-in ballots, and making it a crime to give water to voters waiting in long lines.

Another Trump-allied group that vowed to spend "whatever it takes" to combat the expansion of mail voting is the Honest Elections Project, formed by longtime Federalist Society leader and informal Trump adviser Leonard Leo last year to combat the expansion of mail voting amid the pandemic. The group has already dropped $250,000 on a cable news ad campaign aimed at fighting the "brazen attempt to manipulate the election system for partisan advantage." The group rolled out a laundry list of proposed voting restrictions to limit mail voting earlier this month. Jason Snead, the group's executive director, insisted to NBC News that "there are a lot more opportunities for malfeasance" with mail-in voting even though studies have found that mail ballot fraud is nearly nonexistent and Snead admitted to the AP that the group's own investigation found "no evidence of widespread fraud."

Despite a lack of evidence that the massive 2020 increase in mail-in voting resulted in any widespread fraud, many of the proposed restrictions are expected to pass.

"Republicans control the statehouses and the governorship in 23 states, including Georgia, Arizona and Iowa. If these states want to pass legislation to restrict voting access, and have internal support in their party, they can," Jessica Huseman, editorial director of the nonpartisan news outlet VoteBeat, said in a statement. "The ID bills that would require additional forms of ID for mailed ballots are most likely to pass — ID bills generally have strong popular support. The bills that would eliminate or dramatically roll back automatic voter registration or any form of mailed ballots are likely non-starters, largely because Republicans were often the source of these bills. Ultimately, many of these states will restrict voting — the states' Republican lawmakers feel it is politically untenable for them not to."

Marc Elias, a top Democratic lawyer, vowed to challenge many of the restrictions in court but acknowledged in an interview with Salon last month that "eventually enough of these will stick that it will really, really change the nature of participatory democracy in our country."

Democrats responded to the unprecedented restriction push by ratcheting up the urgency to pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and H.R. 1, a sweeping election reform bill that includes automatic voter registration, a ban on improper voter purges and partisan gerrymandering, restoration of voting rights for people with prior convictions and a universal right to vote by mail, among other measures.

Though the bill is massive and may pose problems with implementation, Republicans have falsely stoked fears about its provisions.

Cruz falsely told Republican state lawmakers on the ALEC call that the bill would expand voting rights to "illegal aliens," according to the AP. It does not.

"H.R. 1's only objective is to ensure that Democrats can never again lose another election, that they will win and maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and of the state legislatures for the next century," he claimed on the call.

Ben Ginsberg, one of the most prominent Republican election lawyers in the country who rejected the GOP's "multimillion-dollar effort to disenfranchise voters," argued that Cruz's complaint was a more apt description of his own party's priorities.

"Look at what it really means," he told The New York Times. "A party that's increasingly old and white whose base is a diminishing share of the population is conjuring up charges of fraud to erect barriers to voting for people it fears won't support its candidates."

Republicans backing the restrictions have increasingly said the quiet part aloud.

Michael Carvin, an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, argued in a Supreme Court case earlier this month that the party is targeting certain voting changes to avoid being at a "competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats."

Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh told CNN earlier this month that he advanced bills restricting ballot access because "everybody shouldn't be voting."

"There's a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans," Kavanagh said. "Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they're willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don't mind putting security measures in that won't let everybody vote. … Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well."

Republican statements about gaining a partisan advantage and using the issue to raise money undermine their claims that this new wave of restrictions are in response to voter concerns about "election integrity." But even that argument ignores the concerns of the much larger majority of voters who are not part of the GOP base, civil rights groups say.

"These efforts seek only to put up barriers to silence our voices, based on who we are, where we live or how we vote," Hannah Fried, the national director of All Voting is Local, a civil rights campaign targeting voter restrictions, said in a statement to Salon, noting that 65 million voters cast their ballots by mail in the last election. "This is not what voters want, or what voters deserve. Most of us simply want everyone to have the freedom to vote — where we all can have a say in and trust the integrity of our elections. The majority of Americans support efforts to give voters more options for voting safely — not less."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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