Professor Lessig’s Electoral College Litigation

September 19, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

It happens often that calamitous election outcomes are attributed to democratic dysfunction, and reform proposals follow from there. Those Republicans who are not deeply cynical about voter ID--and there are a fair number of those--sincerely and mistakenly believe that they lose elections because of illegal voting. Years ago, they convinced themselves that structural bias would keep Democrats in power in the Congress until the nation adopted mandatory term limits. Democrats in 1971 famously believed Richard Nixon reinvented himself politically through dark manipulations of television advertising, and to weaken his reelection prospects, their ranks in the Congress enacted a short-lived law that limited candidate media expenditures.

Of course, not all reform proposals born of frustration are misconceived or doomed to fail. But there are risks, some of which are apparent in a new reform initiative from Professor Lawrence Lessig’s: litigation to establish that states may not allocate Electoral Votes on a winner-take-all basis (WTA). His argument is not entirely about a change in the rules to achieve preferred outcomes or prevent bad ones. He does contend that, by driving active campaigning to a handful of states, WTA limits meaningful participation in the election to a handful of states whose voters see the most paid advertising and enjoy--if that is right word--the most visits from candidates and their surrogates.

Professor Lessig’s next argument, however, is more political. He sees WTA as putting more power in the hands of older white voters in industrial heartland states. It is fairly clear, then, that this proposed litigation is a response to the election of 2016, grounded in the belief that a change in the allocation would work a shift in the balance of national political power. And we have seen a reaction like this before. In 2012, the Democratic nominee won Pennsylvania, and those who were bitter about WTA were Republicans state legislators who threatened to shift a Congressional-district based allocation. Indeed the same move among Republicans is now underway in the State of Virginia and Minnesota.

So this is one risk: guessing wrong, as the Republicans did in 2012. Had they succeeded then, the congressional district-based allocation of electoral votes would have benefited Hillary Clinton in 2016. Politics is not static, and the judgment about the political effects of specific allocations is hazardous.

Another risk is misreading, or reading narrowly, the requirements of democratic participation in the concrete setting of the politics of the era.

The Pence-Kobach Commission just conducted its first public hearing, and its leadership may have hoped to use the occasion to recover a degree of credibility or measure of respectability for its operations. If that was the plan, it did not work out well. The Vice Chair Kobach started the day in retreat from claims, published the Friday before, about illegal voting in the last New Hampshire Senate election. This is the latest example of his utter disregard of the facts and appetite for sweeping, false claims that have been enough to disqualify him as a serious participant in the national discussion of voting rights.It certainly makes a mockery of his leadership of a presidential Commission supposedly conducting an impartial inquiry into the risks of illegal voting.

Then the Campaign Legal Center released an informative email that it obtained by FOIA request to the Department of Justice for materials relating allegations of voting fraud in the 2016 election. An employee of the Heritage Foundation, whose identity was redacted, complained to DOJ about the inclusion in the Commission of any Democrats or “mainstream” Republicans. The author protested that Democrats would only obstruct a productive inquiry, and that “mainstream” Republicans and “academics” would be useless. The author admonishes the Administration to think twice about its embrace of bipartisanship and to consult with the Heritage experts who know something.

The email was sent in February of this year. In June, President Trump appointed one of these Heritage experts, Hans Von Spakovsky, to the Commission. It turns out that Von Spakovsky also wrote the email, a fact now confirmed by Heritage but originally denied by Von Spakovsky in response to an inquiry from ProPublica.

So the Administration chose to appoint to the Commission an individual who strongly objected to a bipartisan inquiry but also to a formal role for social scientists trained in data collection and dispassionate analysis. The story should not end there.

This is a piece I posted yesterday on Just Security on the campaign finance law issues raised by the facts emerging about the Trump campaign-Russia contacts. It responds in particular to the constitutional and related concerns that some commentators have expressed about an ostensibly expansive application of the law in these circumstances. ----

If the Trump campaign solicited support from Russians in the race against Hillary Clinton, did it, or any of its staff, have the mental state required for prosecution under federal criminal law? The discussion so far has largely centered on Donald Trump Jr.’s actions in scheduling the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, and for a number of commentators, the issue seems to be his own personal liability. Professor Andy Grewal has made the point that the bar for establishing criminal intent is high. He is not alone in this judgment. Professor Saikrishna Prakash agrees.

It is without doubt correct that people should not go to jail for breaking a law unless the rule they violate is clear and they had the requisite intent to violate it. This is, of course, especially imperative when they are engaged in core First Amendment-protected activities like participating in a political campaign.

In the case of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, however, this argument can be--and has been-- both overstated and misdirected. Now that Jared Kushner has provided his account of the meeting, there is additional material useful in analyzing the campaign’s culpability.

Moreover, in sorting out these issues, it is essential to keep in mind what conduct the campaign finance law does, or does not reach. Commentators like Professor Prakash and Eugene Volokh fear that even if the Trump campaign, its candidate and it senior staff sought and received Russian Government help, an overly expansive construction of the campaign finance laws to reach this conduct could present major constitutional risks. For example, journalists might be liable for seeking or accepting from foreign nationals information intended to damage a political candidacy. These concerns are also off the mark, because the there is nothing exceptional or overbroad in a reading of the law that covers the Trump campaign conduct.

A reader has asked whether I am abandoning this site for others in writing about the campaign finance issues in the Russia-Trump campaign matter. Not so. But I did agree to write on this subject for Just Security, and I have touched on other related issues for Lawfare

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Here are the various Just Security postings grouped together. (One earlier posting relates to another subject altogether, but all the recent ones address the Trump campaign-Russia issues.)

Also, there are always interesting questions to be asked about the ethics of political speech and action, not just the governing law. I wrote for Lawfare yesterday on President Trump’s defense of the June 6 meeting at Trump Tower. He takes it to be nothing more than politics-as-usual. I question that.

In 2016, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson found that state election officials were suspicious of federal offers of assistance in defending their voting systems from cyber attack. He tried to persuade them to accept DHS designation of those systems as “critical infrastructure,” which would have given states access on a priority basis to a range of protections. The response he received ranged from “neutral to negative.” DHS concluded that, in the middle of an election, it was best not to have a protracted, politicized fight over this step. It focused on providing assistance where it could, and a large number of jurisdictions requested help. In January 2017, even with officials remaining skeptical about the designation, Secretary Johnson proceeded to issue it.

According to Johnson, and as further reflected in reporting by The Washington Post, election officials resisting this engagement with the federal government viewed it as a threat to” states rights.” At least one, Brian Kemp of Georgia, suspected that the Administration might be using the claimed Russian interference as a ploy to advance the political prospects of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Kemp and others were not convinced that the Obama Administration had properly fixed blame on the Russians. Congressional Republican leadership stayed close to their state allies on these points, also stressing the rights of states and declining to embrace the finding of Russian intrusions.

This is a revealing part of the 2016 story: government at war with itself, in the grip of partisanship, when under cyber attack from a foreign government. The attack was directed at the electoral process, and yet it was still not enough to produce a unified, fully coordinated federal and state response. For all the progress in bipartisan election administrative reform in recent years--and there has been a fair measure of it--Johnson’s account exposes key, and altogether familiar, structural obstacles.