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Republicans plan to spend at least $20 million to combat voting rights lawsuits in 2020

The GOP just upped its legal budget for the 2020 election to $20 million.

State of the Union
President Donald Trump greets Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the House Chamber before delivering his State of the Union address on February 5, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

The Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign have doubled their litigation budget to $20 million, Politico reported Thursday. RNC chief of staff Richard Walters told Politico that the GOP is prepared to sue Democrats “into oblivion” by spending “whatever is necessary” to prevail in legal fights against its rivals leading up to the November election.

As the Politico report made clear, Republicans expect to devote much of this legal war chest to litigation over whether Americans should be able to vote from home during a pandemic that could make it unsafe for them to cast in-person ballots at the polls this November. High-level Republicans have resisted efforts to expand voters’ ability to submit mail-in ballots, likely because higher voter turnout is widely believed to benefit Democrats.

Last month, the country got a preview of what these legal battles over voting rights during a pandemic could look like.

On April 7, Wisconsin held a primary election that included a hotly contested race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wisconsin was inundated with requests for absentee ballots, receiving approximately 1.2 million requests when it typically sees fewer than 250,000 in a spring election. That left election officials scrambling to send ballots to voters fast enough so they could submit them in time.

To help ensure that no voter would be disenfranchised because of a paperwork crisis sparked by an even greater public health crisis, a lower court judge ordered the state to accept any ballot it received before 4 pm on April 13. But the RNC disagreed with the order and successfully convinced the Supreme Court’s Republican majority to roll most of it back. Under the Court’s party-line decision in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee, any ballots not postmarked by April 7 were tossed out.

Because of the decision, it is likely that thousands of voters were disenfranchised. Meanwhile, dozens of people tested positive for coronavirus after casting in-person ballots in Wisconsin or working at the polls, though it should be noted that there is no way to know how many of them contracted the disease because they were forced to vote in person.

Despite those obstacles for voters — which the GOP fought all the way to the high court in order to preserve them — the liberal challenger for the state Supreme Court seat wound up defeating the conservative incumbent by a wide margin.

Wisconsin’s election laws are admittedly friendlier when it comes to absentee ballots compared with many other states. In Texas, for example, voters over the age of 65 may obtain an absentee ballot simply by asking for one, but younger voters may obtain a ballot only for a limited list of reasons — and it is far from clear that the coronavirus pandemic is a sufficient reason to vote absentee under Texas law.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, is fighting hard in court to prevent younger voters from qualifying for an absentee ballot. Historically, older voters are more likely to favor Republican candidates over Democrats. If Paxton succeeds in his efforts, millions of Texans could potentially be disenfranchised.

In other words, it’s likely that the question of whether millions of voters can cast a ballot this November will be decided by courts. And the Republican Party plans to spend lavishly to shape those decisions.

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