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Call them the voter fraud brain trust. A cadre of influential Washington, D.C., election lawyers has mobilized a sophisticated anti-fraud campaign built around lawsuits, white papers, Congressional testimony, speeches and even best-selling books.
Less well-known than Indiana election lawyer James Bopp Jr., who's made a national name for himself challenging the political money laws, conservative veterans of voting wars such as Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams nonetheless play a role similar to Bopp's in their behind-the-scenes fight to protect ballot integrity.
Both former Justice Department officials, von Spakovsky and Adams have worked alongside such anti-fraud activists as Thomas Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, and Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the tea party group True the Vote.
They've quietly stoked fears of election fraud among bloggers and grass-roots activists and buttressed a national ballot integrity movement built around pushing new state voter ID laws, cleaning up the voter rolls and mobilizing hundreds of volunteer poll watchers to bird-dog voters on Election Day.
Other leaders in the Beltway anti-fraud brigade include GOP election lawyer Cleta Mitchell, president of the Republican National Lawyers Association, and Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund, who helped launch the anti-fraud movement with his 2004 book "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy."
Also active is the nonprofit American Civil Rights Union, which bills itself as a conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union and runs a "Protect Your Vote" website that warns, "Vote Fraud Steals Your Most Precious Civil Right."
"This is a new area for conservatives to understand and figure out," Judicial Watch's Fitton said. His group has mounted what he calls "the first lawsuits of their kind" to force election officials in Florida, Indiana and Ohio to strip ineligible voters from the rolls. Fitton said his group promotes compliance with Section 8 of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires election officials to "make a reasonable effort" to remove ineligible voters from the rolls.
Voting rights activists have cast the anti-fraud movement as a politically motivated voter suppression effort funded by the billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch. The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council dismantled its Public Safety and Elections Task Force after accusations that ALEC had written model voter ID legislation adopted in several states.
"They have substantial experience in high-level conservative politics and the Justice Department, and they have been able to provide a sheen of credibility to the groups that are working with them," said Stephen Spaulding, staff counsel at Common Cause and co-author of a recent report with the public policy group Demos dubbed "Bullies at the Ballot Box: Protecting the Freedom to Vote Against Wrongful Challenges and Intimidation."
Common Cause and such voter protection groups as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law argue that scant evidence exists of in-person voter fraud. They've also gone to court to fight a wave of new state laws that require photo IDs at the polls, curb voter registration and roll back early voting, as well as voter roll "purges" - all steps that they argue will disproportionately disenfranchise minority, elderly and student voters.
The voter ID fight has dragged in the Justice Department, which has intervened to block new ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. The issue is expected to land before the Supreme Court.
Von Spakovsky, for one, counters that warnings of voter disenfranchisement are not substantiated. A former Federal Election Commissioner and now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, von Spakovsky wrote an analysis this year noting that turnout in Georgia did not decline after its enactment of a voter ID law but actually increased.
The polarized debate "is sometimes frustrating," said von Spakovsky, who recently published a book with Fund titled "Who's Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk." "But I feel like people who are in favor of election integrity are winning. Because in all the litigation that's been filed over the last 10 years, the people challenging these laws have almost uniformly lost."
Adams, who worked with von Spakovsky at the Justice Department, is on the vanguard of that litigation as principal of the Election Law Center, a conservative law firm focused on voter fraud. Adams has been involved in more than three dozen voting-related lawsuits all over the country, he said, including in Ohio, Florida, Guam and Texas. He pointed to his role helping ensure that a Minnesota voter ID proposal will be considered as a ballot initiative this fall.
"You've heard all these people say it's legislators who tend to pass voter ID," Adams said. "We're going to find out in November whether an entire state wants it. So I'm particularly happy to have helped get that on the ballot in November."
Von Spakovsky and Adams served at the Justice Department at a time when the Brennan Center lawyers, among others, accused the agency of using politically motivated prosecutions to suppress the vote. Conservatives counter that the agency has politicized election issues by turning a blind eye to abuses. Adams wrote a best-selling book after leaving the agency titled "Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department."
About the only thing both sides agree on is that their opponents have the facts wrong. Whichever side public opinion and the courts land on, the cottage industry of anti-fraud law, not unlike the voter protection movement, can only grow.
"These are beginning lawsuits for us. We're in it for the long haul," Fitton said.