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An election worker opens envelopes containing vote-by-mail ballots for the August 4 Washington state primary in Renton, Washington on August 3, 2020. (Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

An election worker opens envelopes containing vote-by-mail ballots for the August 4 Washington state primary in Renton, Washington on August 3, 2020. (Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

After First Presidential Debate, Report Challenges Trump Attacks and Right-Wing 'Propaganda War' on Voting by Mail

"It's critically important that people understand the forces at work and also understand that this is not the year to skip voting," says the director of Right Wing Watch.

Jessica Corbett

Following the "hot mess" that was the first presidential debate on Tuesday night—which sparked a promise of reforms for future events and charges that Donald Trump is the "most dangerous" president in U.S. history—a new report took aim at the efforts of right-wing groups, along with Trump and the GOP, to suppress voting.

"Tens of millions of dollars are being spent, which makes the efforts this year the biggest coordinated effort to suppress votes that we have ever seen."
—Adele Stan, Right Wing Watch

Even before early in-person and mail-in voting started for the November general election, Trump—who is facing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden—generated alarm with repeated, baseless attacks on the security of voting by mail, a practice that's expected to be widely used nationwide this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new report by writer Bob Moser, entitled The Propaganda War Against Voting by Mail, was published Wednesday by Right Wing Watch, a project of the progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way (PFAW). Moser begins by recalling the politicized battle over in-person voting for Wisconsin's April primary. 

Wisconsin's right-wing state Supreme Court and Republican legislative leaders quashed last-minute efforts of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to address public health concerns related to in-person voting. The fiasco bolstered nationwide calls for Congress to allocate $4 billion to make safety adjustments for the November election.

As Moser details:

The threat of robust turnout figures posed by mail-in voting had fully stirred the right-wing propaganda machine by now—and it had given them a fresh new story to tell about what they claimed was the looming threat of mass left-wing "voter fraud." The same day Wisconsin's primary results were announced, an apparently new group called the Honest Elections Project aired an Orwellian TV and digital ad across the country—a six-figure buy—casting what happened in Wisconsin as Democrats' "brazen attempt to manipulate the election system for partisan advantage by exploiting the coronavirus pandemic." It was, the narrator intoned, a sign of election-rigging to come: "The facts about the Wisconsin election: Record absentee voting. Five times more than 2016. Democrats didn't think they could win so they tried lawsuits, changing the rules, even canceling the election. They create chaos. It's wrong."

The Honest Elections Project turned out to be a legal alias for the Judicial Education Project, a powerful dark-money PAC funded by the Donors Trust, a nonprofit donor-advised fund often referred to as the "dark money ATM" of the right, with such heavy-hitting benefactors as billionaire Charles Koch and the (Betsy) DeVos family. It was the brainchild of Leonard Leo, a Trump confidant who was instrumental in the choice and confirmations of the president's Supreme Court nominees, and it would soon begin filing lawsuits seeking to block the expansion of remote voting, and other pandemic-inspired election reforms—using the same lead attorney, longtime Washington litigator William Consovoy, as the Trump campaign.

At least three other lavishly funded far-right groups—Judicial Watch, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, and True the Vote—are also combining legal challenges with propaganda efforts designed to discredit, and disable, remote voting for November. The Republican National Committee issued a statement this spring promising to devote at least $20 million to such lawsuits as well. The messages they're all promoting are identical to Trump's rhetoric about the dangers of mail-in balloting and the Democrats' purportedly cynical promotion of it to allegedly rig the election. Their combined resources and firepower add up to the biggest coordinated effort to suppress votes in history. Until this year, battles over voting rules were mostly waged by Republican state lawmakers and right-wing legal firms not quite acceptable to the mainstream, cheered on by talk-radio shouters and extremist websites like The Gateway Pundit and Breitbart.

While state and local officials have worked in recent months to ease voting restrictions going into November because of the coronavirus crisis, Moser points out that "the crusade to suppress votes in the 2020 election began long before Covid-19 existed, and long before the pandemic led to a popular clamor for more voting by mail."

"Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Judicial Watch and PILF sent 248 letters to state and local election officials across the country, threatening lawsuits if they didn't undertake massive, aggressive 'purges' of their voter rolls," he notes. The "primary purpose" of the letters, he suggests, "was to stoke publicity about voter fraud."

According to Moser:

Most of this year's election lawsuits are related to Covid-19—or, more precisely, they target attempts by states and municipalities to make voting easier and safer during the pandemic. The number of these cases is staggering: More than 200 were still percolating through the courts in mid-August. Many have been brought by the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, Judicial Watch, PILF, and the Honest Elections Project, all of whom have the same agenda: Keep voting restrictions in place. Three more states have switched to all-mail elections this year: California, Nevada, and Vermont. When lawmakers in Nevada, where Trump lost by just 27,000 votes in 2016, approved all-mail voting in a special session on the first Sunday of August, Trump called it "an illegal late-night coup" on Twitter, with the promise, "See you in court!" Two days later, still fuming, he posted a tweet falsely stating that voting by mail would mean a "Rigged Election." It became the first tweet flagged by Twitter as untrue. The same day, the Republican National Committee, the Trump campaign, and Nevada Republican Party all filed suit against Nevada.

On Tuesday, while debating Biden, Trump stoked fears about "tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated" and urged his supporters "to go into the polls and watch very carefully." The president's comments—which contradict evidence about just how rare voter fraud actually is—alarmed election officials and voting rights experts.

"Everyday citizens can't just show up in the polling places unless they are there to vote. They can vote and they can leave, but they can't just be there to watch other peoples' votes," Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Election Reform Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, told The Hill Wednesday. "It is concerning that the president would reference that kind of activity, and it is illegal."

"Donald Trump is making totally false claims that voting by mail will lead to a fraudulent election, while at the same time his campaign is promoting it to his supporters—and he's voting by mail himself," PFAW president Ben Jealous said in a statement about Moser's new report.

"Voters this spring received robo-calls from the Trump campaign urging them to vote safely by mail," Jealous added. "Trump is trying to have it both ways, and he's willing to do or say anything if he thinks it will either win the election or cast doubt on the results if he doesn't."

Right Wing Watch director Adele Stan noted, "An entire right-wing industry has grown up around voter suppression, and the attacks on voting by mail are just part of it."

"Tens of millions of dollars are being spent, which makes the efforts this year the biggest coordinated effort to suppress votes that we have ever seen," said Stan. "It's critically important that people understand the forces at work and also understand that this is not the year to skip voting."

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