Originally called the ActRight Legal Foundation, the Public Interest Legal Foundation is a right-wing group that aims to purge voter rolls by suing states and local governments, often based on false, miscalculated, or inaccurate claims of voter and election fraud. Claims of systematic voter fraud have been called “a myth” by legal experts. According to the fact-checking website Snopes, PILF uses “a few tried-and-true tropes that get significant viral play on social media” to stoke fear of voter fraud.
A 2012 Roll Call article described PILF leaders J. Christian Adams, Cleta Mitchell, and Hans von Spakovsky as a “voter fraud brain trust” who “[stoke] fears of election fraud” to pass laws that legal experts argue “disproportionately disenfranchise minority, elderly and student voters.” The three reportedly met when von Spakovsky and Adams were working on election issues in George W. Bush’s Justice Department.
PILF remains at the forefront of efforts to disenfranchise vulnerable voters. Since the Capitol Riot, the organization has promoted unfounded evidence that the 2020 election was stolen, led efforts to roll back voting rights, and trained a legion of activists to harass local election officials and disrupt elections. PILF has also supported sweeping election laws that disenfranchise voters in key swing states such as Florida and Georgia–the latter of which was called “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections” by the New York Times.
PILF and its leaders were substantially involved in efforts to disrupt the 2020 election:
Christian Adams has served as President of PILF since 2015. Adams is a member of the Federalist Society and was appointed by Trump to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he will serve until 2025. The Commission studies instances of alleged discrimination, including those involving voting rights.
Adams has a long history of making inflammatory comments about the prevalence of widespread voter fraud, which has been classified as a “myth” by the nonpartisan Brennan Center For Justice. Adams has:
Adams served as general counsel for the South Carolina secretary of state from 1993 to 1997. In 2001, Adams filed an ethics complaint against Hugh Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s brother, for alleged Florida Bar violations while Rodham represented felons seeking pardons.
In 2005, Adams was appointed to the Voting Section of the U.S. Justice Department. Adams’ hiring was a part of an effort, later found to be illegal, to pack the Justice Department’s Voting Section with conservative lawyers who would overrule career and staff deemed too liberal. The individual who hired Adams to the Justice Department said he planned to “gerrymander all of those crazy libs right out of the section” and replace them with “right-thinking Americans.” Shortly after his appointment to the Justice Department, Adams successfully litigated the first Voting Rights Act case in defense of a white minority – an attempt to twist the Voting Rights Act against its original intent with ‘reverse-racism’ ideology. Adam’s appointment to the Justice Department alongside other right-wing lawyers came after the department saw a backlash from career staffers to using the Voting Rights Act for such ends. The New York Times characterized the case as part of a long-time conservative effort “of ideologues and partisan operatives who, from the moment the Voting Rights Act became law, methodically set out to undercut or dismantle its most important requirements.”
In 2010, Adams publicly claimed that Obama administration officials dismissed a voter intimidation case from the 2008 election filed against a radical Black Panther group for political reasons. The case was a major story in conservative media, and a Newsweek op-ed claimed the story was “an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration.”
In 2010 Adams stepped down over his handling of the case, claiming its dismissal was due to anti-white discrimination and accused Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez of lying under oath. Adams subsequently published a book about the incident titled Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department.
An internal review of the case after the fact found the dismissal was “based on a good-faith assessment of the law and facts of the case” and not “partisan politics.” The report came after Adams had testified before a U.S Commission on Civil Rights packed with right-wing Bush nominees that publicly supported his claims. Adams currently serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
In 2012 Adams, working with anti-voting rights groups Judicial Watch and True the Vote, sued the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, claiming there were more registered voters than adult residents in some counties. The case forced Ohio to settle and establish a new process for purging voters from their rolls. A Reuters analysis in 2016 found that, in the state’s three largest counties, voters were struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning areas at roughly twice the rate as in Republican ones – in part because Republicans tend to vote more frequently. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the purging process.
In 2013, Adams filed his first lawsuit calling for aggressive purges of voter rolls alongside the American Civil Rights Union. The ACRU was founded as a counter to the ACLU to “protect the civil rights of all Americans – rights that continue to be undermined by the left-wing and anti-family agenda of organizations like the ACLU.” Adams and the ACRU filed at least nine suits targeting voter rolls at the county level, many of which were settled by consent decrees in which election officials agreed to purges.
In the leadup to the 2016 election, Adams helped represent the Tea Party-affiliated Virginia Voters Alliance as they sued the officials in the traditionally Democratic stronghold of Alexandria, Virginia in an attempt to force a voter roll purge.
In 2017, Adams touted a report by PILF that claimed there was widespread voting by noncitizens in Virginia, describing it as an “alien invasion.” PILF even published sensitive personal information, including the full social security numbers of individuals they accused of fraudulently voting. Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School and writer for the nonpartisan Brennan Center For Justice analyzed the report and concluded that it seemed “specifically designed […] to get inaccurate information.”
The report was found to rest on false accusations and led to a federal lawsuit against PILF, which the organization was forced to settle. As part of the settlement, PILF was forced to apologize to four citizens it falsely accused of breaking election laws.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, his administration announced it would form a Presidential Advisory Commission On Election Integrity to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election. The announcement followed unfounded claims by Trump that three to five million fraudulent votes were cast in the election – comparable to the margin by which he lost the popular vote. Adams was announced as a member of Trump’s commission, along with voter fraud conspiracist Kris Kobach and fellow PILF official Hans von Spakovsky.
The commission faced bipartisan backlash from state election officials as the commission asked for comprehensive voter roll information–including social security numbers. The commission ultimately found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Hans von Spakovsky joined PILF in 2014, two years after its founding. Von Spakovksy is one of the most prominent voices pushing voter fraud conspiracy theories and promoting laws that would limit access to voting. ProPublica called von Spakovsky “a leading purveyor of discredited voting fraud claims.” According to the University of California at Irvine law professor Richard L. Hasen, von Spakovsky’s claim that fraud by the Democratic Party is “common” helped make the theory “part of the Republican orthodoxy.”
Von Spakovsky is an outspoken supporter of strict voter ID measures, which disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. Late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis said von Spakovsky was “the moving force behind photo I.D.s […] over the years he’s been hellbent to make it more difficult—always, always—for people to vote.” As of 2022, 35 states have implemented voter ID laws. Von Spakovsky also promotes purging voters after failing to “vote at least once in a presidential cycle.”
In addition to his election work, von Spakovsky denies the scientific consensus on climate change and made demonstrably false claims to support anti-immigrant policies. He also supported the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban.
Von Spakovsky often relies on misleading, unfounded, and false claims to back up his assertions about widespread voter fraud:
In 1997, von Spavoksy began to agitate against The National Voter Registration Act, which allowed voters to register to vote via mail or when they received a driver’s license. He advocated for strict voter ID measures, which have been shown to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.
While he was pushing back against the NVRA, von Spakovsky was a local election official in Atlanta, whose Black population was growing at the time. By the late 1990s, von Spakovsky was the Republican Party chairman in Fulton County, Georgia and had a rising national profile.
In the 1990s, von Spakovsky was a board member of the Voting Integrity Project. While VIP was formally nonpartisan it “tended to investigate Democrats,” according to the New York Times. One of VIP’s first high-profile cases came in Louisiana in 1996, when it released a report claiming a Democrat’s victory in a high-profile senate race was the product of a complex fraud scheme. A Senate investigation revealed that the losing Republican candidate had, in fact, coached the witnesses and concluded there was no widespread voter fraud.
At The Voting Integrity Project, von Spakovsky pushed for aggressive voter roll purges of felons. This led to a “notorious” voter roll purge that mistakenly disenfranchised many Florida voters, most of whom were Democrats, prior to the 2000 election. One analysis found that 90% of the voters flagged by the flawed process voted for Al Gore and were disproportionately black. At least 1,100 voters were turned away from the polls in Florida in 2000 due to the program – with some estimating that the actual total was much higher.
Von Spakovsky was also involved with the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” a cadre of conservative lawyers, many of whom belonged to the Federalist Society, who shut down the Florida recount in the 2000 election using intimidation tactics. Their efforts inspired protests that eventually turned violent, and this combination of the legal efforts and protests effectively handed the election to George W. Bush. Some commentators have characterized the “Brook Brothers Riot” as a precursor to the onslaught of 2020 election challenges.
After his role in the “Brook Brothers Riot,” the George W. Bush administration hired von Spakovsky to the Justice Department’s voting division. At the Justice Department, von Spakovsky played a key role in crafting the Help America Vote Act, which increased criminal penalties for voter fraud violations and would require voters who registered via mail to show proof of identity at their polling site.
Von Spakovsky was “widely viewed as a key player in two disputed Justice Department decisions to overrule career staff in voting rights cases.” In 2003, von Spakovsky approved a controversial congressional redistricting plan in Texas that ignored the state’s new Census count. The redistricting plan came shortly after Republicans had won both legislative houses in the state, and career staff worried the plan would hurt minority voters. According to Politico Magazine, “the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that one of the new districts diluted Latino voting power, and those lines were redrawn.”
In 2005, von Spakovsky was one of three Justice Department officials who overruled career staffers to approve a stringent Georgia voter ID law that would disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters. The decision was met with controversy and seen as a politicization of the Justice Department, with von Spakovsky’s previous voter ID activism receiving scorn. A federal judge later overturned portions of the law, comparing it to a “Jim Crow-era poll tax.” However, the core voter ID portion of the law was upheld by the 11th Circuit in 2009. Shortly after his temporary appointment, it was revealed that the previous year he wrote a law review article under a pseudonym endorsing strict voter ID measures that were comparable to the Georgia voter ID law he helped approve. The article was written before the state submitted its law to the Justice Department for review and undermined the Justice Department’s claim von Spakovsky’s decision on the law was not related to his previous activism.
When the Voting Rights Act was up for reauthorization in 2006, von Spakovsky argued in the Justice Department that “the evidence very clearly showed it was no longer needed.”
In 2006, von Spakovsky was temporarily appointed to the Federal Election Commission to avoid a contentious senate confirmation process. Former DOJ officials wrote a letter opposing his formal confirmation, saying von Spakovsky “was the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights.” Von Spakovsky’s official nomination to the FEC was blocked by Democrats until he officially withdrew from contention in 2008.
After his nomination at the FEC was blocked, von Spakovsky joined the Heritage Foundation as a senior legal fellow. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, von Spakovsky worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council to produce model voter ID bills designed to restrict voting access. ALEC is a corporate “bill mill” comprised of state legislators and corporate stakeholders that draft and disseminate right-wing model legislation. ALEC’s various types of model legislation have been introduced in every state in the country, and nearly a quarter of the country’s state legislators are members of the council. As of 2022, 35 states have implemented voter ID laws.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, his administration announced it would form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election. The announcement followed unfounded claims by Trump that three to five million fraudulent votes were cast in the election – comparable to the margin by which he lost the popular vote. Von Spakovsky was announced as a member of Trump’s commission, along with voter fraud conspiracist Kris Kobach and fellow PILF official and George W. Bush Justice Department alum J. Christian Adams. Von Spakovksy celebrated the commission even as experts remained skeptical.
The commission faced bipartisan backlash from state election officials as the commission asked for comprehensive voter rolls information–including social security numbers. The commission ultimately found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Von Spakovsky held a series of private, closed-door meetings with state-level Republican lawmakers and officials concerning election administration in the run-up to the 2020 election. The meetings came as then-President Trump was raising unfounded concerns of voter fraud in the upcoming election. Von Spakovksy’s meetings centered on concerns over the expansion of mail-in voting and “ways to message these concerns to your constituents.”
Months before the election, a civil rights group led by Black union leaders called on the Ohio Secretary of State to increase the number of absentee ballot dropboxes to ensure a safe election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office quickly wrote to von Spakovsky and organized off-the-record strategy sessions. With von Spakovsky’s guidance, Ohio placed strict limits on dropboxes ahead of the 2020 election. Evidence at the time suggested Democrats were more likely than Republicans to vote absentee.
Following the 2020 election, von Spakovksy co-authored a book titled “Our Broken Elections: How the Left Changed the Way You Vote,” which promoted his long-time conspiracies of voter fraud and systematic election fraud.
Von Spakovsky claimed that Mark Zuckerberg improperly influenced the 2020 election by supplying private funding for the expansion of safe voting measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Von Spakovsky characterized Zuckerberg’s election security grants as a “carefully orchestrated attempt to convert official government election offices into get-out-the-vote operations for one political party and to insert political operatives into election offices in order to influence and manipulate the outcome of the election.” NPR claimed that Zuckerberg’s private grants to support election systems “saved the 2020 election.” In 2022, the FEC rejected complaints about Zuckerberg’s spending in a unanimous, bipartisan vote. There has since been a GOP effort to ban private supplemental funding for election systems.
After repeated attempts to dispute the 2020 election results failed, right-wing forces pushed increasingly restrictive voter suppression efforts. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, in 2021 “at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting.” Von Spakovksy’s employer’s sister group, Heritage Action For America, bragged to its donors about how it helped to write Georgia’s restrictive voter suppression law after Democrats won multiple key elections in 2020. The New York Times called the law “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections.” Von Spakovsky has dismissed such concerns as “much ado about nothing.”
Cleta Mitchell has been with PILF since its inception. Mitchell is a long-time activist who has played a key role in right-wing circles for decades. She is known for her legal activism around election laws and her belief in rampant voter fraud, a claim which has been called “a myth” by legal experts. Her former colleagues characterized her as the “fringe of the fringe” and someone who told “clients what they wanted to hear, regardless of the law or reality.” She was a key Trump advisor during his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and currently serves on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. She is also a member of the Federalist Society.
Mitchell played a major role in driving American conservative politics into increasingly far-right and conspiratorial territory, particularly regarding election security and systematic voter fraud:
Beginning her career as a Democratic member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in the 1970s and 1980s, Mitchell has been a part of mainstream Republican politics for some time, previously working as counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. She also served as the president of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Mitchell changed her affiliation to Independent following an unsuccessful campaign for Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma in 1986. She again changed her affiliation to Republican in the early 1990s after an FBI investigation against her husband resulted in numerous felony convictions against him sentenced him to five years probation and forced him to pay $3 million in restitution. The investigation convinced Mitchell that “overreaching government regulation is one of the great scandals of our times” and played a role in her becoming an anti-government, populist activist.
Mitchell served as the co-counsel to the NRA when the organization and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) mounted a legal challenge against the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002. Watchdog OpenSecrets said the act was meant to “prohibit soft money contributions to national political parties, and limited campaign financing to hard money. Soft money is unlimited funding collected by political parties intended for party strengthening, while hard money is donations directly made to a candidate’s campaign.” Much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was struck down by the Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010.
Mitchell was a key player in the rise of the Tea Party movement in the early 2010s, which political analysts have characterized as a backlash to the election of Barack Obama. The Wall Street Journal said she was the “attack attorney of choice for tea-party stars, including Sharron Angle in Nevada; Christine O’Donnell in Delaware; Joe Miller in Alaska; Sen. Jim DeMint in South Carolina; Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania; Marco Rubio in Florida; and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire.” Mitchell has also represented highly visible Republicans such as Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK).
Mitchell weaponized campaign finance complaints to accuse Democrats of illegal campaign tactics and voter fraud. She also used her legal playbook to pressure third-party candidates out of races key to GOP ambitions. Conservative commentator George Will described her as “[arguably] the most important Washington conservative not in public office” during this time.
Mitchell has a longstanding history of anti-LGBTQ activism:
In 2010, Mitchell claimed that then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was providing “clearly illegal” food to voters in order to steal his re-election that he couldn’t win “outright.” Reid won his re-election by more than 40,000 votes.
Mitchell served as the counsel of True The Vote, an organization focused on “election integrity” that has promoted conspiracy theories about election fraud, and helped secure its nonprofit tax-exempt status. In support of their tax-exempt application, Mitchell claimed that “fraudulent voting occurs in the United States,” but only cited a 2010 case that involved a small rural school district in which the judge ruled there was “no intent to cast a false or fraudulent ballot.”
Mitchell represented Steve Bannon’s nonprofit, Citizens of the American Republic, as it faced allegations it defrauded investors. It was reported that federal prosecutors wanted to seize assets from CAR, an organization that sought to promote “economic nationalism” and solicited funding to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall that never materialized. Bannon would be charged with fraud in the border wall scheme and indicted in 2022.
In 2018 The Washington Post reported that Scott Pruitt, then-head of the EPA, “had a top aide help contact Republican donors who might offer his wife a job,” who ended up being an independent contractor with Judicial Crisis Network, the right-wing group run by judicial activist Leonard Leo. A JCN spokesperson said, “the position came about after the group received her résumé from Leonard Leo.” Pruitt and Leo are “longtime close friends.” In response to the allegations, Mitchell set up Pruitt’s legal defense fund and solicited donations from a conservative billionaire. Mitchell also wrote an impassioned op-ed defending Pruitt, calling the scandal the result of a “vicious Left.”
When then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) was indicted for campaign finance violations, Mitchell repeatedly defended him. Mitchell claimed DeLay was targeted because he was “effective” and the indictment was “politically motivated.” DeLay was forced to resign over the indictment and five years later was convicted of money laundering.
In 2018, Mitchell’s name was included on a list of people Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee wanted to interview for their role in potential Russian interference in the 2016 election. At the time, the FBI was investigating whether some of the $30 million the NRA spent to elect Trump was funded by the Russians, as foreign support of American political candidates is illegal. Mitchell, who had served as both counsel and a board member at the NRA, called the allegations a “complete fabrication.” Mitchell also attacked the FBI, publicly asking why they were not investigating Hillary Clinton instead of Trump.
In 2019, a Senate report revealed that top NRA officials were aware that Russians were using their ties with the organization to influence the election.
Mitchell signed a letter in April 2020 asking the Justice Department to overturn COVID-19 safety restrictions on religious institutions.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell attended a White House party celebrating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court without a mask. The incident became a superspreader event. Shortly thereafter, despite being photographed close to multiple people who had tested positive for the virus, Mitchell attended an event at FreedomWorks. FreedomWorks helped organize anti-lockdown protests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-lockdown protests globally have been linked to disinformation by major outlets such as the BBC and by academics. Some anti-lockdown protests in America in 2020 also turned violent.
In a leaked speech given at the secretive Council For National Policy in 2019, Mitchell “warned that Democrats were successfully registering what she sarcastically referred to as ‘the disenfranchised.” She continued, ‘they know that if they target certain communities and they can get them registered and get them to the polls, then those groups […] will vote ninety percent, ninety-five percent for Democrats.”
Mitchell mobilized to help Republican operatives and conservative activists adopt radical strategies to overturn a potential loss for Trump in 2020. She convened a working group hosted by powerful corporate “bill mill” American Legislative Exchange Council that worked to develop legal groundwork that would allow state legislators to utilize the Electoral College to overturn the results of the popular vote in their state over fraud concerns. Notably, ALEC has received support from the Bradley Foundation, where Mitchell serves on the board.
Arizona state representative Shawana Bolick was closely involved in Mitchell’s working group and has since claimed she would not have certified Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. After the election, Bolick introduced legislation allowing the Arizona legislature to overturn the popular vote in its state, “a radical reading of Article II of the Constitution” according to The New Yorker. This legal interpretation is similar to the memo PILF leader John Eastman presented to Trump in a last-ditch attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Constitutional legal scholars such as Laurence Tribe, Neil Buchanan, and Michael Dorf have said such interpretations “would make a mockery of American democracy” and are “laughably stupid.”
In another speech at the Council For National Policy months prior to the 2020 election, the leader of ALEC said that the group was working closely with Mitchell and fellow PILF leader Hans von Spakovksy to preemptively explore means to challenge the validity of the election should Trump lose.
In August 2020, Trump appeared with Mitchell in the Oval Office and called her a “great attorney.” Mitchell reportedly had met with Trump’s lawyers in 2019, assuming the 2020 election would result in legal challenges, but nothing came of the meeting. In the summer of 2020, however, Mitchell received a blessing from Trump’s legal team to build up a legal framework to lead potential challenges to the election.
Mitchell said she was motivated by the Democrats’ “very well-planned-out assault” on the election to mount challenges. The “assault” Mitchell was referring to was the expansion of COVID-19 safe voting options, which studies found significantly increased voter turnout in a bipartisan manner that did not favor Democrats or Republicans.
Mitchell was directed by Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, to go to work in Georgia the day after the election. On November 7th, the day most national news outlets called the race for Joe Biden, Mitchell claimed she had substantial proof of illegal ballots filed by dead people that swayed the election. By December, her team filed a legal challenge. Meadows’ PAC paid Mitchell’s law firm in December 2020.
Claims of dead voters were promoted by Trump and his allies even as most of those claims were quickly debunked. As time has passed, the claims have been thoroughly disproven, but continue to be touted in far-right circles.
Michell was also a participant in the infamous phone call Trump made to fellow Republican and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “find” just enough votes to ensure Trump won the state and threatening potential criminal consequences if Raffensperger didn’t comply. The Washington Post characterized the call as “an extraordinary one-hour phone call Saturday that legal scholars described as a flagrant abuse of power and a potential criminal act.” After news of the call became public the law firm where Mitchell had been a partner for years, Foley & Lardner, distanced itself from her. Mitchell later resigned but claimed it had nothing to do with her role in the phone call.
The call was part of a larger campaign to influence Georgia to flip its election results to deliver Trump the 2020 election. Mitchell continues to defend the Georgia campaign, claiming that she doesn’t “think we can say with certainty who won.” Georgia has conducted three independent counts, including a recount by hand, all proving Joe Biden won the state.
Mitchell brought fellow PILF leader John Eastman into the fold of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Eastman provided dubious legal theories to Pence and Trump, including presenting a six-point plan to keep Trump in office just prior to the events of January 6th. Eastman then spoke at the rally that preceded the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021.
Long after the dust settled on the election, Mitchell continued to pressure Georgia to find evidence of the widespread election fraud she alleges occurred in 2020, fueling conspiracy theories about the election. As The New Yorker notes, Mitchell and her allies “keep demanding that election officials prove a negative—that corruption didn’t happen—their requests to keep interrogating the results can be repeated almost indefinitely.” She has since been subpoenaed by the House Committee investigating January 6th for her role in the insurrection.
As of 2021, Mitchell represented right-wing cable news outlet Newsmax as a client. The organization is currently facing multi-billion dollar lawsuits for spreading conspiracies that defamed voting machine companies.
Since Trump left office, Mitchell has advised conservative leaders on how to craft policy to restrict voting access and to oppose efforts to expand it. She also believes that Trump’s disproven allegations of voter fraud were never properly addressed by the courts. In 2021, Mitchell was put in charge of a $10 million dollar FreedomWorks initiative to push for voting restrictions and train conservatives for local elections.
Mitchell also set up an escrow account to fund the Maricopa County, Arizona audit of the 2020 election. The election audit, administered at the behest of the state’s conservative state legislature, was financed by right-wing conspiratorial groups with connections to QAnon. The audit itself was conducted by the firm Cyber Ninjas, which had “no election or auditing experience” and was “led by a conspiracy theorist who believes the election was rigged.” Cyber Ninja’s audit ultimately found no evidence of mass fraud.
Mitchell also assumed a role as a senior legal fellow at the Conservative Partnership Institute, where she coordinates right-wing efforts to undermine elections under the guise of ‘election integrity.’ Mark Meadows is also a senior leader at CPI.
CPI has moved to host “election integrity” summits in key swing states such as Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan, which purportedly focused on promoting election integrity. At these summits, CPI screened a documentary that alleged Mark Zuckerberg “manipulated” the 2020 election, and held panels promoting false claims of fraud and conspiracies about mail-in and absentee voting.
At CPI summits, Mitchell aggressively trains right-wing activists, conspiracy theorists, and 2020 election deniers to “stake out election offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work.” She also trains her followers to determine if local election officials are “friend or foe” of their movement. Her trainings are supported by a coalition called the Election Integrity Network, which includes mainstream conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Republican National Committee.
As a successful case study of her efforts, Mitchell points to her followers’ role in Virginia’s 2021 elections. There, her trained volunteers filed lawsuits and complaints, harassed local election offices, and ultimately publicized false allegations of voter fraud in the traditionally Democratic Fairfax County. On election day, “Republican poll watchers in 13 polling places were observed being disruptive, hovering too closely or taking photographs, according to reports that elections workers filed to the county.”
Mitchell’s efforts run parallel to the “precinct strategy” promoted by former Trump advisor and previous legal client of Mitchell’s Steve Bannon. The precinct strategy encourages activists at the grassroots level to assume positions of power in local election systems. Mitchell appeared on Bannon’s podcast in 2022 and told him that “2020 — never again, that’s our goal.”
John Eastman has been with PILF since its inception. Eastman is a notable Federalist Society member and serves as chair of the organization’s Federalism & Separation of Powers Practice Group. Eastman also serves as a senior fellow and board member at the Claremont Institute. Eastman also played a key role in the legal attempts to overturn the 2020 election, reportedly at the behest of Cleta Mitchell.
Ken Blackwell has long been active in Republican politics. Blackwell served as the “mayor of Cincinnati, Treasurer and Secretary of State for Ohio, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.” He also served as a delegate to the White House Summit on Retirement Savings, co-chair of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, and was congressionally appointed to the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior fellow at the recognized anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council. He was formerly a board member at the NRA and the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.
Blackwell was involved in various high-profile controversies as the Secretary of State for Ohio–including multiple involving the 2004 presidential election.
Blackwell handled domestic policy issues as a member of Donald Trump’s 2016 transition team. Like fellow PILF leaders J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky, Blackwell was a member of Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission On Election Integrity, which sought to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election. The commission was created following unfounded claims by Trump that three to five million fraudulent votes were cast in the election–comparable to the margin by which he lost the popular vote. The commission faced bipartisan backlash from state election officials as the commission asked for comprehensive voter rolls information–including social security numbers. The commission ultimately found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
David Norcross is a longtime Republican operative, currently serving on both the Republican National Committee’s Executive Committee and its Standing Committee on Rules. He is also a member of the Federalist Society and the Republican National Lawyers Association. According to his official PILF bio, Norcross “formerly served as general counsel and member of the board of the International Republican Institute, general counsel to the Republican National Committee, and general counsel to the Center for Democracy.”
Norcross has long been active in New Jersey Republican politics, running for U.S. Senate and serving as the chair of the New Jersey Republican Party and as the New Jersey chair of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. He was also appointed to New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission upon its creation in the 1970s.
Norcross played a key role in organizing the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City and drew scrutiny for lobbying the Bush administration on behalf of clients such as Raytheon while simultaneously organizing the convention.
Brian S. Brown is the co-founder of PILF (formerly known as ActRight Legal Foundation at the time of its founding) and served as its first chair. He was last listed as a member of PILF’s board of directors in 2018.
The ActRight Legal Foundation grew out of ActRight, a right-wing fundraising operation founded by Brown. ActRight was “integrally tied” to the anti-LGBTQ group National Organization For Marriage, of which Brown was also a co-founder. Brown has maintained leadership roles at NOM through the present. ActRight Legal Foundation sued the IRS on behalf of NOM while the IRS faced allegations for targeting right-wing organizations in the early 2010s.
NOM’s primary mission was opposing same-sex marriage but also opposing gender-affirming bathrooms and gay adoption. PILF treasurer and close Leonard Leo-ally Neil Corkery also served as an executive officer at NOM. Brown is also the president of the recognized anti-LGBTQ hate group, the World Congress of Families.
Neil Corkery is the former Treasurer for PILF, serving from 2014 to 2020. Neil and his wife, Ann Corkery, are influential right-wing operatives closely involved in right-wing judicial activist Leonard Leo’s network of nonprofits seeking to advance right-wing religious agendas. Salon reported that the Corkerys have used the network they built alongside Leonard Leo “to prop up conservative judicial nominees.”
Neil Corkery is pervasive in the sphere of organizations connected to Leonard Leo, serving in various capacities, often the keeper of the books or treasurer, over the years for the 85 Fund, Wellspring Committee, Judicial Crisis Network, Marble Freedom Trust, America Engaged, Rule of Law Trust, Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, and Liberty Central among others.
According to Reuters, PILF helps lead “a larger movement in the Republican Party that has seen states pass restrictions on voting, including strict voter identification laws passed by nine states since 2005. They have sought purges of voter rolls that could disproportionately affect minority voters, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party.” PILF uses “a few tried-and-true tropes that get significant viral play on social media” to stoke fear of voter fraud and, by extension, support their charge to purge voter rolls, according to fact-checking website Snopes. PILF’s key claims are often exaggerated or inaccurate, and the group has faced legal repercussions.
One of PILF’s first clients, while still operating under the name ActRight Legal Foundation, was the Minnesota Majority group, which came under fire for producing a racist ad that advocated passing a strict voter ID law. The group was forced to edit the ad after public outcry.
In 2017 PILF released a report that claimed there was widespread voting by noncitizens in Virginia, describing it as an “alien invasion.” PILF even published sensitive personal information, including full social security numbers, of individuals they accused of fraudulently voting. Experts claimed the release of sensitive personal data was tantamount to “insidious modern-day intimidation.” Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School and writer for the nonpartisan Brennan Center For Justice analyzed the report and concluded that it seemed “specifically designed […] to get inaccurate information.” Fact-checking website Snopes said that the key narrative of PILF’s report “required actively ignoring explicit rebukes of its methodology.” The report was found to rest on false accusations, having accused numerous legal voters of being undocumented immigrants. Ultimately this resulted in a federal lawsuit against PILF, which the organization was forced to settle. As part of the settlement, PILF was forced to apologize to four citizens it falsely accused of breaking election laws. However, the report was still highlighted across right-wing media as proof of an existential threat to election security.
In April 2020, PILF released a report claiming that an expansion of mail-in voting would be a “catastrophe” for the election system. A ProPublica analysis showed that PILF doubled a key statistic to support its central claim. PILF was forced to correct the figure. This report was released as PILF leader Hans von Spakovsky was holding a series of private, closed-door meetings with Republican state elected officials concerning election administration in the run-up to the 2020 election. These meetings centered on concerns over the expansion of mail-in voting and “ways to message these concerns to your constituents.”
In 2021, PILF president J. Christian Adams claimed that 15 million ballots were “uncounted” in the 2020 election, citing a recent PILF report. PILF’s misleading claim rested on U.S. Election Assistance Commission data that shows that 15 million ballots mailed to voters were never returned. As analysis from the Washington Post notes: “a less conspiratorial reason for those ballots never being counted, and it’s that they were simply never filled out and returned […] The whole thing is a case study in how to mislead with legitimate and technically accurate data.” Nevertheless, PILF’s report was cited in Trump’s fundraising emails as speculation swirled around a possible 2024 presidential run.
In 2017, PILF sent letters to nearly 250 different counties claiming that their voter rolls were corrupted. Fact-checking website Politifact investigated the claim as it pertained to Bryan Country, Georgia and found PILF’s allegation false. PolitiFact said PILF’s methodology assumes “a worst-case approach [by election officials] that does not account for the reality of voter roll maintenance in Georgia. Based on all the data, there’s no evidence that the Bryan County rolls are corrupted.”
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, PILF sued officials in Detroit, Allegheny County, Palm Beach County, and Harris County, major Democratic strongholds in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas, respectively, in an attempt to force the officials to purge their voter rolls. The group dropped their lawsuit in Detroit in mid-2020, and in Palm Beach the group’s suit was dismissed after it was revealed that PILF incorrectly accused living, active voters of being dead. However, in Allegheny County, PILF successfully forced election officials to remove 42,000 voters from their rolls.
Since the 2020 election, PILF has sued the New Jersey Secretary of State, the Colorado Secretary of State, and the Michigan Secretary of State – all Democrats – in efforts to release voter data or purge voter rolls. In New Jersey’s denial to PILF, the Secretary of State’s office said they could not release the requested data because “if disclosed, [the] information would create a grave risk to the integrity of New Jersey’s election system.”
PILF supported a Florida law that required felons to pay a series of fines to regain their voting rights that were passed by the state’s Republican lawmakers following a referendum that restored voting rights to most felons who had served their sentence. Prior to the referendum, black voters were five times more likely than white voters to lose their voting rights due to felonies, and Democrats were three times more likely than Republicans. The referendum would have re-enfranchised as many as 1.4 million voters ahead of the 2020 election.
The Republican law requiring financial restitution was thus compared to Jim Crow-era poll taxes. In some counties, felons would have to collectively pay hundreds of millions before they would all see their voting rights restored. According to the Tampa Bay Times, this was further complicated because “often, the courts don’t even know what fines are owed,” making it difficult for felons to make payments. Despite legal challenges, the law was ultimately upheld and disqualified 800,000 potential voters. Numerous individuals have been convicted of voter fraud after being led to believe their voting rights had been restored under the law.
PILF attempted to defend a sweeping 2021 election law passed by Georgia’s Republican legislature after Democrats won multiple key elections in 2020. The New York Times called the law “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections.” The law limited absentee ballot drop boxes, imposed increased oversight of county election boards, restricted provisional ballots, and made it illegal to offer food or water to voters in line. The law would also decrease the timeline for runoff elections, after Democrats won key runoffs, and limit the authority of the Secretary of State, who rebuffed efforts by Trump and PILF chair Cleta Mitchell to overturn the popular vote in his state in 2020.
According to Sourcewatch, PILF has been funded by a who’s who of right-wing megadonor groups including Leonard Leo’s 85 Fund, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The Sarah Scaife Foundation, and “dark-money ATM of the right” DonorsTrust.
Here is a list of notable donations to PILF in 2020:
|Sarah Scaife Foundation||$300,000|
|Bradley Impact Fund||$51,300|
Perhaps the most important funder of PILF is the Bradley Foundation, where PILF chair Cleta Mitchell serves as a board member. The Bradley Foundation’s affiliated group, Bradley Impact Fund, highlighted their support of PILF. The following are donations made by the Bradley Foundation since Mitchell joined the board in 2012:
|Bradley Impact Fund||2019||$285,000|
|Bradley Impact Fund||2013||$250,000 (To ActRight Legal Foundation)|
|Bradley Impact Fund||2014||$224,727 (To ActRight Legal Foundation)|
|Bradley Foundation||2014||$200,000 (To ActRight Legal Foundation)|
|Bradley Foundation||2013||$175,000 (To ActRight Legal Foundation)|
|Bradley Impact Fund||2018||$65,553|
|Bradley Impact Fund||2020||$51,300|
While still operating under the name ActRight Legal Foundation, PILF distributed notable funding to anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ groups from 2012-2014.
Susan B. Anthony List is one of the most influential anti-abortion groups in America. SBA List was founded in the early 1990s (a decade that saw a dramatic spike in anti-abortion violence) in explicit backlash to the success of pro-abortion candidates supported by EMILY’s List. From 1996 to 2009, SBA List outspent leading pro-abortion rights groups in nearly every election cycle. The group was a key ally to Donald Trump’s campaigns and administration.
The Telegraph called SBA List an “increasingly influential and hardline campaign group” that aimed to make abortion a central political issue. The group opposes many forms of birth control and supports “requiring women who need an abortion to get an unnecessary, invasive transvaginal ultrasound,” which aims to dissuade women from seeking abortions.
The National Organization for Marriage was founded by PILF co-founder Brian S. Brown. The group’s primary mission was opposing same-sex marriage but it also opposed gender-affirming bathrooms and gay adoption. PILF treasurer and close Leonard Leo ally Neil Corkery also served as an executive officer at the organization.
ActRight, which PILF grew out of, was “integrally tied” to the National Organization For Marriage, of which Brown was also a co-founder. Brown has maintained leadership roles at NOM through the present. ActRight Legal Foundation sued the IRS on behalf of NOM while the IRS faced allegations for targeting right-wing organizations in the early 2010s.
|National Organization for Marriage||2014||$27,128 (noncash assistance)|
|National Organization for Marriage||2013||$37,575 (noncash assistance)|
|National Organization for Marriage Education Fund||2013||$5,169 (noncash assistance)|
Cleta Mitchell, J. Christian Adams, and Hans von Spakovsky have worked with and within the organization True The Vote. Based in Texas, True The Vote is dedicated to “comprehensive election code reform,” including requiring photo ID to vote, prohibiting same-day voter registration, allowing recording devices inside polling precincts, and designating English as the “official language of Texas and the only language used on ballots.” The group is also known for training right-wing election monitors, similar to Cleta Mitchell’s work since the 2020 election. Many of the group’s tactics have resulted in charges of voter intimidation and voter suppression, and their claims of alleged voter fraud have been refuted on numerous occasions.
PILF chair Cleta Mitchell is a member of the Council for National Policy, an influential and highly secretive networking group for major conservative donors and activists, right-wing religious extremists, and Republican lawmakers. CNP was a key incubator for Mitchell’s plan to convince state legislators to overturn the popular vote in the 2020 election and for Mitchell and PILF leader Hans von Spakovsky to plan for legal challenges to the 2020 election.
In 2004, the New York Times called the CNP a “little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” The group holds private meetings three times a year. Right-wing activist Leonard Leo also serves on the board of governors for CNP.
CNP’s membership lists have included leaders of right-wing groups including ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and Alliance Defending Freedom. Former Vice President Mike Pence was listed as a member on a January 2022 roster along with DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund president Lawrence Bader and Judicial Crisis Network president Carrie Severino. According to Documented, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has spoken at CNP events, and his wife Ginni Thomas is a board member of CNP’s 501(c)(4) arm and a frequent speaker. Mitchell has allegedly worked closely with Ginni Thomas in organizing efforts via CNP.
The Southern Poverty Law Center described the CNP as “a body that mixes large numbers of ostensibly mainstream conservatives with far-right and extremist ideologues, mostly from the far fringes of the religious right.” Many current and former members of the CNP have ties to SPLC-designated hate groups, particularly anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim groups. According to journalist and author Anne Nelson, the CNP was “instrumental in convincing Trump to institute his infamous Muslim travel ban” and “has been active at the state level helping to promote voter suppression measures.”
The CNP almost exclusively works in closed meetings, and more recently has used the Conservative Partnership Institute “as a public face for CNP tactics developed behind closed doors.” The CNP acts as an incubator for right-wing advocacy groups and held “election integrity” summits in Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan, which screened a documentary by the Capital Research Center about how Mark Zuckerberg “manipulated” the 2020 election, and held panels promoting false claims of fraud and conspiracies about mail-in and absentee voting.
FreedomWorks is commonly used to refer to multiple groups spawned from an operation founded by Charles and David Koch in the mid-2000s. The FreedomWorks brand is strongly associated with the Tea Party movement. In 2010, The New York Times said FreedomWorks “has done more than any other organization to build the Tea Party movement.” After Trump left office, FreedomWorks launched a $10 million dollar initiative led by PILF chair Cleta Mitchell to investigate allegations of widespread voter fraud, which has been called dubious by legal experts. The initiative has funded the push for voting restrictions as well as training sessions for right-wingers interested in disrupting local elections.
Reporters at outlets such as the Wall Street Journal found evidence that FreedomWorks and its donors engineered insincere campaigns where powerful political players funded efforts designed to resemble grassroots political movements. FreedomWorks was an early adopter of harnessing social and digital media to create the impression of widespread sentiment, which begets legitimate sentiment via perceived popularity. To do so, they created websites, digital campaigns, and front groups purporting to have the support of millions of people. These tactics led to massive protests that fundamentally transformed America’s political landscape and undermined the Obama administration.
FreedomWorks, while propping up the purportedly populist Tea Party Movement, was propped up by corporate funding. The group received money from:
While identifying itself as a free market, libertarian advocacy network, FreedomWorks held off on criticizing Donald Trump’s trade policies in an effort to align itself with the administration, according to the Washington Post. FreedomWorks also:
Cleta Mitchell is a board member at the conservative megafund Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. According to Sourcewatch, The Bradley Foundation and its associated Bradley Impact Fund have given PILF over $3 million since 2013. It has also given large sums to voter suppression groups tied to PILF leaders, including Mitchell, Hans von Spakovksy, and J. Christian Adams.
Under Mitchell, The Bradley Foundation has normalized attacks on and challenges to election laws that would benefit their preferred candidates, “a tactic once relegated to the far right.” The New Yorker estimated that since 2012 the Bradley Foundation has spent roughly $18 million to push for voter suppression and spread conspiracies and disinformation that have undermined public confidence in election security. Much of this has been done under the leadership of Cleta Mitchell, who joined the organization in 2012.
The foundation was set up by Harry Bradley, who made a fortune pioneering electric motor technology. Harry was a founding member of the far-right conspiracist group, the John Birch Society, which influenced his political and philanthropic endeavors. After Harry died in 1965, the profits from the sale of the Bradley Company were largely directed to the Foundation, turning it from a relatively small nonprofit into a major funding source for conservative issues and projects. While there are no longer any members of the Bradley family directly involved with the Foundation and Impact fund, it has been run by individuals with ties to the conservative movement since the 1980s.
Since its inception, the Bradley Foundation has given away more than $1 billion, much of it to conservative causes related to civil rights, voting rights, welfare, education, climate change, and labor, among other issue areas. In addition to its anti-voting rights work, The Bradley Foundation has:
Founded in 2017, The Conservative Partnership Institute is a nonprofit organization established by former Senator Jim DeMint to “fortify the presence of conservatives in Washington.” PILF chair Cleta Mitchell is the Senior Legal Fellow at CPI – an organization known as a “central hub” of pro-Trump forces on the right. It has also faced criticism for potentially violating its 501(c)3 tax status by engaging too closely in pro-Trump electoral politics.
Prior to founding CPI, DeMint was a figurehead in the Tea Party movement and was known for “being a right-wing bomb thrower willing to upset his party’s leadership by supporting conservative primary challengers to mainstream Republicans.” Later, in 2013, DeMint was appointed as the president of the Heritage Foundation, one of the leading think tanks in the conservative movement. However, in May 2017, DeMint was ousted from the Heritage Foundation in part for pushing the organization outside the bounds of its image as an intellectual mainstay for the conservative movement. Less than three months after being pushed out of Heritage, DeMint founded CPI. CPI was reportedly created to incubate and support conservative leaders and staffers.
In late January 2021, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows joined CPI. At the time that Meadows was courting a position at the Institute, he was also advising Trump on how to handle his second impeachment over his role in fomenting the riot at the Capitol. In a public statement, CPI claimed that Meadows would help the organization “operate behind the scenes to help create more members like Jim Jordan, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley,” who all voted to overturn the 2020 election results on January 6, 2021.
After the Justice Department recommended charging Meadows for refusing to cooperate with investigations surrounding the insurrection, and shortly before Congress launched its investigation into January 6th, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave $1 million to CPI. Congress’s investigation later revealed Meadows as the “chief enabler to a president who was desperate to hold on to power” and claimed he was “at the center” of the events of January 6th. Despite the swirling investigations around him, Meadows continued to promote conspiracies about the 2020 election at CPI. Weeks after Trump’s donation, CPI hosted a summit in Mar-a-Lago to discuss their shortcomings in the 2020 election and how to build a large network of pro-Trump organizations to cement his power on the right.
In 2022, the Conservative Partnership Institute held summits focused on enacting voter suppression policy in Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan. At these summits, the Institute screened a documentary by the Capital Research Center about how Mark Zuckerberg “manipulated” the 2020 election, and held panels promoting conspiracies about mail-in and absentee voting. They have also featured keynote speeches from leaders like Mark Meadows, such as “What Happened in 2020 and What We Must Do to Protect Future Elections in Arizona.” Cleta Mitchell also uses these summits to train right-wing activists to act as election monitors. Volunteers trained by Mitchell have reportedly harassed and undermined local election boards while they search for and promote tenuous evidence of systematic voter fraud.
According to IRS forms 990, the Conservative Partnership Institute shares an address with American Accountability Foundation, which has focused on opposing Biden nominees since its formation.
Cleta Mitchell is the chair of the American Conservative Union, America’s oldest ‘grassroots’ conservative lobbying group and “leading conservative group.” It was founded in part by the 20th-century conservative leader and segregationist William F. Buckley. The group has released an annual scorecard ranking every member of Congress’ voting records based on conservative principles since 1971. They expanded the scorecard to include all state lawmakers in 2015. The American Conservative Union Foundation is the group’s affiliated 501(c)(3) created to educate the public about right-wing policies and ideology. The group also has an affiliated super PAC.
The group is best known for hosting CPAC, an annual conference that has become perhaps the biggest weekend of the year for the far-right. Its longtime former chairman, David Keene, was responsible for turning CPAC into the annual event it is before he departed to work for the NRA. CPAC has provided a platform for nearly every important political figure in the conservative movement since the 1980s and has since become a key gathering place for the MAGA movement.
The group’s current president, Matt Schlapp, used to run the Koch brothers’ Washington lobbying operations and is closely connected to Trump. His wife, Mercedes, was Trump’s director of strategic communications and worked on his 2020 campaign. Schlapp has been an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and was a vocal promoter of the Big Lie about the 2020 election.