With millions of people out of work and struggling to keep up with their bills because of the coronavirus shutdown, the federal government has passed new tax breaks for the rich and created trillions for bailing out large corporations. The 2020 election could give voters a chance to remove the politicians who enacted these policies, but if the Trump administration and Republican Party get their way, many voters will be forced to put their health at risk by voting in-person in November, almost certainly before a vaccine or a reliable treatment for the coronavirus is available.
For the past several months, national Republican have been at war in the courts over state policies—advanced mainly by Democrats, but also by Republicans in some states—designed to make it easier for people to safely vote. In more than a dozen states, including battlegrounds like Wisconsin and Michigan, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has initiated or joined lawsuits to block states from expanding vote-by-mail systems or to oppose Democratic lawsuits in states that have resisted putting universal vote-by-mail systems in place. The lawsuits are financed by a $20 million litigation budget that the Republicans have amassed for fighting Democrats on voting issues.
Trump and Republicans have repeatedly said that mail ballots are more susceptible to electoral fraud, though nonpartisan groups like Brennan Center for Justice say there is “no evidence” that voting by mail results in significant levels of fraud. Trump has said that he believes high levels of voting hurts Republicans.
“My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” Trump told Politico in June. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think—I think it puts the election at risk.”
In Pennsylvania, a key swing state, the RNC has sued to stop state officials from making remote drop boxes available for voters to submit their ballots and from counting ballots that are mailed without being sealed in internal secrecy envelopes. In Iowa, another swing state, the RNC joined a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Democratic groups that seeks to overturn a law barring election officials from using voter rolls to look up information missing on mailed ballots. In California, the RNC filed a lawsuit in partnership with other Republican groups to prevent state election officials from following an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom to mail absentee ballots to all voters, but recently conceded after the legislature passed a legislative version of the order.
Sludge is reader-supported and ad-free. If you appreciate our independent journalism, Become a member today. 🙏
In a tweet on Thursday, now pinned to his profile, Trump said, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” adding, “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Election experts like Rick Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, interpret Trump’s tweet as encouraging the continued slowdown of the U.S. Postal Service and withholding of needed funding from state boards of election to prepare vote-by-mail systems.
Trump recently selected former RNC convention finance chair Louis DeJoy to the position of postmaster general. Besides helping to raise money for the RNC, DeJoy has donated $114,500 to the RNC legal fund.
The RNC legal proceedings account has raised more than $23 million so far in the 2019-20 election cycle, including transfers from a Trump joint fundraising committee and large donations from more than two dozen billionaires, according to Sludge’s review of Federal Election Commission records.
While a Biden administration is unlikely to substantially roll back upwards wealth redistribution, the billionaires backing the lawsuits would almost certainly fare better under another four years of Trump. Biden, for example, has said he would try to end Trump’s signature 2017 tax law, which has disproportionately benefited the wealthy. According to research from University of California, Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, Trump’s tax bill reduced tax rates for the country’s 400 richest households below the level that any other income group pays.
Below is a table of the billionaires, per Forbes latest list, who have donated to the RNC legal proceedings account so far this election cycle, including donations from spouses of billionaires. The donations listed below comprise about 15% of the total amount that the RNC legal proceedings account has received from individuals this cycle.
At least 17 of the 24 billionaire donors to the RNC legal fund are among the top 400 wealthiest American households as ranked by Forbes magazine, including the following: Kelcy Warren, CEO of natural gas and propane pipeline giant Energy Transfer Partners, net worth $4.3 billion; Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of The Blackstone Group private equity firm, net worth $17.7 billion; and Charles Schwab, net worth $7.7 billion. Two more top donor families, those of Fertitta brothers Lorenzo and Frank III, fall just outside the top 400 richest Americans, with net worth around $1.6 billion apiece.
Follow The Money
Sign up to get our next investigations over email:
Dark Money Assistance
Also siding with the RNC on the lawsuits is a network of conservative “dark money” nonprofits tied through personnel and funding to groups that have worked to build support for the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees and to elect conservative judges to state supreme courts.
One such group that recently emerged, the Honest Elections Project, is a rebrand of the shadowy Judicial Education Project, according to OpenSecrets and The Guardian. The Judicial Education Project is established as a charity, allowing it to keep the sources of its millions of dollars in annual revenue hidden. In addition to its election lawsuit work as the Honest Elections Project, it makes grants to conservative groups including SpeechNow, which helped establish the legal basis for super PACs through a 2010 case against the FEC. The Honest Elections Project also funds Private Citizen, a First Amendment legal expense fund, and the George Mason University Foundation, a law school that established conservative ideological law centers and hired multiple Federalist Society-linked academics after receiving millions in donations from the Charles Koch Foundation.
The Honest Elections Project, which shares a law firm with the RNC, Viriginia-based Consovoy McCarthy PPLC, has filed multiple briefs in states and federal courts defending states against lawsuits from Democrat-aligned groups that seek to expand mail voting or ease requirements on ballot signatures. It also worked to force states to clean up voter registration rolls, a process that critics have labeled “purging.” The group recently spent $250,000 to run ads on cable news channels claiming that Democrats have sought to expand mail voting for partisan advantage and advocating for limited or no changes to voting laws to accommodate voters during the pandemic.
According to OpenSecrets and The Guardian, Judicial Education Project (the Honest Elections Project’s alias) has been funded almost entirely by DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund sponsor that specializes in helping conservative donors anonymously fund “sensitive or controversial issues” while also securing special tax advantages. DonorsTrust has been a major funder of groups in the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the State Policy Network, and in 2018 it provided 99% of Judicial Education Project’s funding.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Louis DeJoy donated $122,500 to the RNC legal proceedings account. The correct total of his donations to the account is $114,500.
Read more from Sludge:
Do you value our independent journalism?
Every day, the reporters at Sludge are relentlessly following the money to reveal the hidden networks and conflicts of interest that drive political corruption. We are 100% ad-free and reader supported, so we’re counting on our readers to help us continue calling out powerful politicians and lobbyists. If you appreciate the work we do, please consider becoming a member for $5 a month to support our investigative journalism. We can’t do this work without your support.