OPINION: Religious and anti-abortion groups are trying to restrict voting rights ahead of the midterm elections
By Annika Brockschmidt Published 11-3-2022 by openDemocracy
Anyone who wants a future in today’s Republican Party must openly claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, or at least dance around the question of electoral fraud enough to appease their dear leader.
Meanwhile, a coalition of conservative dark money groups with strong ties to the religious Right have made it their mission to curb voting rights in potentially election-deciding swing states. They are using allegations of Democratic voter fraud and ‘election integrity’ as tactics to engage in voter suppression.
These interlinked networks have recognised voting rights as the key to securing their political and cultural goals, which are picked from the white Christian nationalist wishlist. These range from nationwide bans on abortion and gender-affirming care for trans kids and teenagers, to restricting contraception and preventing any kind of LGBTIQ+ acceptance in schools and universities.
Human rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have long sounded the alarm over this manoeuvring – but it is hard to hear over the noise from the right-wing media disinformation ecosystem.
The Republican Party long ago decided to double down on its largely unpopular positions, rather than moderating them as the American populace became more liberal. If a party can’t win majorities any more, but is not willing to give up power or adapt its policy positions, it will eventually step out of the bounds of democracy.
This, to an extent, is not new. Faced with demographic change and a liberalising society, the architects of the modern religious Right in the 1960s and ’70s knew they had to mobilise enough of their own base in strategically important places to use the advantages the US electoral system already bestowed upon them, as well as keeping opposition voter turnout low.
Back in 1980, religious conservative activist Paul Weyrich said the quiet part out loud to a gathering of evangelical leaders: “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Weyrich co-founded the influential and secretive Council for National Policy (CNP), the umbrella organisation that connects religious fundamentalists with right-wing donors and political figures – and is a key player in the current attempts at voter suppression in the US.
Susan B Anthony List and Heritage Action
Several groups connected to the US Christian Right have spearheaded Republican efforts to undermine trust in democratic elections and to lobby actively for legislative voter suppression. This involves groups traditionally against abortion rights, such as the Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America (formerly the Susan B Anthony List).
Anti-abortion groups have made voter suppression their rallying cry because between two-thirds and three-quarters of all US citizens support the right to abortion. Trust in the Supreme Court has plummeted since its June ruling overturned the abortion protections granted in the 1973 Roe v Wade decision.
This makes it hard for forced-birth activists to achieve their goal of electing a Republican legislature to enact unpopular abortion restrictions or outright bans – or at least ensure that those already in place are not overturned. The only way they can do so is by restricting access to the ballot box, aided by voter suppression and aggressive gerrymandering (modifying the boundaries of electoral districts for the benefit of a political party).
This is why Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) has teamed up with the American Principles Project to launch the Election Transparency Initiative – which rallies against legislation to make voting more accessible and is currently opposing the reform of the Electoral Count Act, which would secure some provisions to prevent the stealing of an election.
The ‘initiative’ is led by Ken Cuccinelli, the ex-attorney general of Virginia, who held key posts in the department of Homeland Security and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency during the Trump administration.
“[SBA’s] ability to win elections for pro-life candidates is predicated on a transparent, fair elections process,” claimed the organisation’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser.
One of the SBA’s main goals was to stop the H.R.1 Bill, known as the ‘For the People Act’, which expands voting rights, establishes stricter controls over money in politics and bans partisan gerrymandering. (According to the Election Transparency Initiative, the bill would “override state elections laws, allow fraud to be committed on a massive scale, and disenfranchise the millions of American voters who may have little confidence their voice and vote is heard fairly and equally”.)
“While we vigorously oppose efforts to federalise election laws through bills such as H.R.1, we must also rally activists in battleground states to ensure pro-abortion Democrats cannot make their control of government permanent,” Dannenfelser said in a statement on the SBA website.
She and her group have big plans: far from being content with the Supreme Court overruling Roe v Wade, SBA wants to restrict abortion “in every state and in every legislature, including the Congress”, she said.
Other groups tied to the religious Right want to restrict access to the ballot box through a variety of measures including limiting voter registration, restricting early and postal voting, imposing strict ID requirements, closing down ballot stations in certain areas, and making it illegal to provide food and water to people queuing to vote. Such measures especially target people of colour (who vote majority Democrat), and will impact Democratic voters more in general, who use postal votes more than Republicans do.
Heritage Action for America (the policy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, also co-founded by Paul Weyrich), has advised Republican lawmakers on legislation to restrict voter access.
Language in various voter-access bills introduced at state level, notably in Georgia, was similar to that used in Heritage Action documents, according to analysis by The New York Times. Heritage Action announced it would spend $24m to support voting restrictions in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin – all key battleground states.
In a leaked recording of a secret meeting with donors, Heritage Action director Jessica Anderson boasted of the group’s influence on state lawmakers: “In some cases, we actually draft [the bills] for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.”
The group has also worked with free-market, libertarian organisations, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network, to promote voting restrictions.
Council for National Policy and Cleta Mitchell
The links between the CNP and groups involved in voter suppression efforts are extensive. Tom Fitton, current chair of CNP’s executive committee, is president of long-standing conservative foundation Judicial Watch. CNP member Adam Brandon heads FreedomWorks, an associate member of the State Policy Network.
Judicial Watch has been spreading unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, supporting Trump allegations, and engaging in litigation to restrict voting rights. The State Policy Network teamed up with ALEC and Heritage to draft model legislation to impose stricter voting rules.
And then there’s Cleta Mitchell, also a CNP member – the attorney who took part in Trump’s infamous call to Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump pressured Raffensperger to “find” votes to make him win the state.
Mitchell leads FreedomWorks’ own ‘election integrity’ initiative as well as the very similar-sounding Election Integrity Network, a project of the Trump-allied Conservative Partnership Institute.
The intention is to train conservative activists and election deniers nationwide to work as poll watchers during elections. According to Politico, “the Republican National Committee has been relying on a stable of the party’s most prolific spreaders of false stolen-election theories to pilot a sweeping ‘election integrity’ operation to recruit and coach thousands of poll workers in eight battleground states.”
Mitchell is very open about her goals: “We’re going to be watching. We’re going to take back our elections,” she said in a radio interview in April, according to The New York Times.
Her announcement that she is assembling “an army of citizens” has led to fears of voter intimidation. These fears are not unfounded; recordings of secret meetings show how Mitchell and other members of the Election Integrity Network use these poll watchers to spread lies about voter fraud and to rile up their base.
Honest Elections Project
This landscape of right-wing groups with ties to the religious Right is deliberately confusing.
Take, for example, the Honest Elections Project, which seemed to appear on the national political stage out of nowhere in 2020, spreading claims of electoral fraud and advocating for what amounts to voter suppression. According to reporting by the Guardian and OpenSecrets, it’s actually a legal alias for the long-running Judicial Education Project, which has been financed mainly by DonorsTrust, a “dark money ATM” backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The Judicial Education Project rebranded as the 85 Fund in 2020, and then also adopted the Honest Elections Project alias. It has close links with Leonard Leo – also a member of the CNP – who has been integral to the conservative takeover of the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court. Under Leo’s reign, the anti-abortion Federalist Society managed to get three conservative justices on to the Supreme Court during Trump’s time in office.
Just like FreedomWorks, the Honest Elections Project has reportedly been funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a largely unknown charity that has poured millions into right-wing Christian networks.
ALEC, another right-wing operation, has obscured its voter suppression efforts by outsourcing them to the Honest Elections Project. ALEC head Lisa Nelson had previously claimed that the group itself does not draft model policy on voting bills – but she let it slip when talking to a CNP meeting in Florida: “We will be developing that at the Honest Elections Project [seminar], through them.”
If this right-wing movement of religious and political groups is to achieve its goals, restricting voting rights is essential. It decided long ago that in order to maintain power, it must enshrine minority rule – and democracy be damned.
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