U.S. Democrats stockpile lawyers, money to fight Republican voting laws

WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Democrats are gearing up to spend record sums on lawyers, advertising and other protect-the-vote efforts before the 2022 midterm elections, hoping to stave off Republican efforts they believe will choke off access to the ballot box.

Worried that a spate of more restrictive voting laws adopted by Republican-controlled states will keep Democrats from registering their votes, donors big and small are filling their party's coffers.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) took in $157 million last year, the most for a year without a presidential election, and added $10 million more in January. More than half of Democrats' national funding is coming from people donating less than $200, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks political spending.

The party and allies have been setting aside a larger share of cash to fight fires in the relatively few competitive local jurisdictions where small changes can mean the difference between Republican and Democratic victories.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), charged with holding the party's House of Representatives majority during the Nov. 8 election, will commit at least $10 million to voting rights litigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

That eight-figure budget, which has not previously been reported and is expected to at least match the DCCC's record spending in 2020, comes on top of a $30 million commitment by the DNC for voter-registration and litigation efforts as well as $10 million from the Senate campaign. A person familiar with the operation said Democrats expect the largest spending in history on such efforts.

The party-wide effort, still in its early stages, includes both litigation to challenge laws like voter roll purges coupled with targeted outreach on digital platforms to register new voters and counter misinformation about voting as well as an effort to elect Democrats to often-overlooked election administration positions like secretaries of state.

"This is an all-hands-on-deck effort to ensure that every ballot is counted," said Representative Nikema Williams, a Democrat from Georgia spearheading the DCCC effort, adding that the investments were necessary to counter a "decades-long crusade" by Republicans to "suppress the vote."

That official effort is being paired by additional spending from outside political groups, such as Priorities USA and American Bridge 21st Century, that were traditionally focused on political ad spending. American Bridge this month committed at least $10 million to efforts including recruiting Democrats to run for office as elected voting officials and fighting attempts to overturn future elections.

"Democrats have a pretty expansive voter-protection operation," said Amir Badat, voting special counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a nonpartisan group that also engages in significant voting rights litigation.

Still, Badat said he expects new challenges this year.

He is concerned efforts by vigilantes who threatened voters and election officials in 2020 will expand, especially given new laws making it easier for poll watchers to observe voters. He sees the midterms as a dry run for the next presidential election.

"A lot of the things that happen in 2022 are going to be an experiment for what can be done in 2024, mostly from the point of what suppressive tactics can work," he said.


Democratic efforts are also being countered by an equally energized and well-funded Republican effort.

A person familiar with the Republican National Committee's spending said the party would budget "millions more" on voting issues and that ensuring that "the 2022 and 2024 elections proceed in a free, fair, and transparent fashion is one of our top priorities." The party is hiring lawyers in 17 target states and is already engaged in over 30 related lawsuits, the person said.

So far, before the campaign season even kicks off, Democrats and Republicans are running about neck-and-neck in legal and related spending at $52 million apiece ahead of the election for control of Congress, according to OpenSecrets.

Democrats and Republicans each spent about $120 million on legal fees during the 2020 showdown between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump, the data showed.

In Texas, for instance, home to the opening House party primary contests on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers instituted more stringent identification requirements for people who vote by mail.

Local election officials in Texas' largest counties say early evidence shows that a significant share of mailed-in ballots arriving for the election don't meet new requirements for reasons as simple as the voter used an ID card different from the one they provided when they registered.

After the last election, Trump allies blitzed courts with lawsuits challenging the legitimacy of the election.

But the Republican effort to challenge the election was telegraphed early by Trump and failed in courts. Democrats also succeeded in convincing courts to expand options like vote-by-mail during the pandemic. A record 155 million people voted in the 2020 election won by Biden.

Republicans have fought back to tighten access to the polls. And conservative courts have since dealt some setbacks to efforts to expand access.

Lawyers are expecting to be busier than ever. Last year, mega-lawyer Marc Elias, who works for the Democrats, split with Perkins Coie LLP to found his own 65-counselor firm in Washington focused on the litigation effort.

The party expects a spate of issues like the Texas restrictions, which it hopes can be corrected with aggressive legal action and quick-footed organizing.

Legislators in 27 states are considering over 250 bills with restrictive voting provisions, as of January, compared to 75 bills a year ago, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, an advocacy group.

Civil rights activists argue the measures have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities, who vote in larger measure for Democrats.

"It's going to be an uphill battle," said Aneesa McMillan, deputy executive director of Priorities USA, which budgeted at least $20 million for its voting rights efforts. "It's a coordinated attack on marginalized communities."

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons and Andrea Ricci

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