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The Dark Money Operation Seeking to Reshape American Democracy

Matt Bernardini reports on how right-wing groups are attempting to use January 6 conspiracy theories to change the ways Americans vote

The US Capitol on 17 January 2021. Photo: USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA

The Dark Money Operation Seeking to Reshape American Democracy

Matt Bernardini reports on how right-wing groups are attempting to use January 6 conspiracy theories to change the ways Americans vote

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As Congress and the US Department of Justice continue to investigate the January 6 attacks on the Capitol, a network of organisations funded in part through dark money have pressed ahead with changing the electoral process under the guise of protecting future elections from alleged voter fraud.

Bankrolled by a large group of traditional conservative donors and staffed with lawyers who were involved in attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 Presidential Election, these organisations have filed lawsuits in multiple states seeking to obtain voter registration data and change the process for casting a ballot. 

One of the most active organisations is the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), which markets itself as a “public interest law firm dedicated to election integrity”. PILF has lodged dozens of suits in various states since 2021, seeking information on voter roll maintenance, duplicate voter registrations and deceased voters. 

The organisation’s board of directors notably includes John Eastman and Cleta Mitchell, who were instrumental in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Eastman infamously argued in a set of memos that Vice President Mike Pence had the ability to overturn Joe Biden’s victory by rejecting certified electors in seven states. Mitchell testified to the January 6 committee that she was the one who asked Eastman to prepare legal memos.

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Despite the involvement of Eastman and Mitchell in the attempt to overthrow the election, Lauren Bowman, director of media affairs at PILF, defended their work. 

“Eastman and Mitchell have done good work on voting integrity in the past,” Bowman said. She refused to comment on their activities after the election. 

While PILF claims that its work helps to make elections more trustworthy, many of its concerns have been questioned or disproven. In 2020, Reveal obtained a list created by PILF that claimed 100 votes had been cast by dead people in Palm Beach County, Florida. The publication found no evidence of this. 

“They make some sweeping statements that can be problematic,” Sophia Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Voting Rights Project, said. “Often times they are using sloppy or imprecise data or outdated methodology.”

In 2020, PILF raked in $3.8 million in revenue – more than double what the group received in 2019, according to IRS filings. That year, PILF received $300,000 from the right-wing Bradley Foundation and $400,000 from the 85 Fund, which is connected to infamous conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. 


Anonymous Influence

However, PILF is far from the only dark money group fighting for more voting restrictions. The Honest Elections Project, formed in February 2020, has filed more than a dozen briefs supporting challenges to state voting laws since January 2021. 

In 2020, the 85 Fund received $170,000 from Donors Trust, which was earmarked for the Honest Elections Project. Donors Trust is an organisation that enables rich activists to support conservative causes anonymously. MotherJones has called Donors Trust “the dark money ATM of the conservative movement”.

One group, the Amistad Project, still hasn’t given up the fight over the 2020 election. The organisation’s website boasts that it has the “only ongoing litigation against the left’s shadow government”. It also has a video posted that it claims shows ballot harvesting in Pennsylvania. 

In January, The New York Times reported that a lawyer for the Amistad Project tried to deliver a slate of fake electors to the Michigan legislature but was turned away by the police.

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The Amistad Project is part of the Thomas More Society, which is a conservative law firm based in Chicago. The firm has defended anti-abortion activists in the past and received $1 million from Donors Trust in 2020 for general operations, according to IRS filings. 

In a further sign that challenges to the electoral process will continue, a group called the Election Integrity Network is holding meetings in various swing states and distributing materials about “left-wing infiltrators” and “monitoring the United States Postal Service”. It is part of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), which was founded in 2017 and shares several connections with Donald Trump.

Cleta Mitchell is a senior legal fellow at CPI and also runs a blog on the Election Integrity Network website. In January 2021, Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows joined CPI with the goal of countering Joe Biden’s judicial nominees. CPI also received $1 million from the Save America PAC in July 2021 – a political fund created in November of 2020 to raise money to challenge the results of the presidential election. 

Byline Times approached the Honest Elections Project, the Amistad Project and the Election Integrity Network but did not receive a response from them. 

While ACLU’s Sophia Lakin notes that these groups have been engaged in these practices for a while, this coordinated pattern of funding suggests that the 2024 election cycle will see many of the same challenges to the voting process and perhaps even the election outcome itself. 

“I think as a principle what they are doing is at odds with election integrity,” she added.


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