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With less than six months before voting begins, the legal jousting over the rules for the 2024 election is already underway. And former President Donald Trump’s campaign is getting support from allies who have stayed mostly under the national radar: red-state attorneys general.

In court filings made in recent months, these chief state legal officers have advanced a string of arguments — some strikingly far-reaching — that appear designed to lay the groundwork for Republican legal victories in the event of a contested presidential vote, or to otherwise boost Trump and the GOP.

Often led by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a loose coalition of Republican-led states has submitted briefs urging judges to:

  • Throw out certain mail ballots,

  • Weaken long-standing protections against racial discrimination in voting,

  • Green-light gerrymandered district maps,

  • And empower partisan state legislatures, rather than courts, to set election rules.

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“These are all setting up an argument, potentially, to say that the 2024 election was flawed because of all these state practices that are questionable,” said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who has written in depth on the role of state AGs. “The AGs just have been critical in pushing these arguments.”

Marshall’s office did not respond to a request to comment for this story. But last month Marshall also led a coalition of red states in submitting an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to pause Trump’s election subversion trial tied to the events of Jan. 6, 2021 — a stance that aligned the group perfectly with the interests of the Trump campaign.

And in 2020, many of these same state AGs, including Marshall, sought to have the courts overturn Trump’s election loss.

An election decided in the courts?

The danger of outright election subversion this year appears to have receded somewhat, election law experts have said, thanks to important federal legislation and the results of the last midterms. But the chances that the election will be contested, and ultimately settled in the courts, remain very high.

In that scenario, advocates and experts say, these Republican AGs look well-placed to provide the kinds of conservative legal arguments that could prove pivotal, both by directly influencing court decisions and by infiltrating the broader public debate.

But many of these claims, democracy advocates warn — especially those that support new voting restrictions, reduce the power of minority voters, or undermine courts’ authority to set election rules — could threaten fair elections.

“A huge part of the overall anti-democracy movement is really based on continuing to find ways to use legal tactics as a jumping-off point to spread the election denier message,” said Lizzie Ulmer, senior vice president of strategy and communications for States United Democracy Center, a pro-democracy group.

“There are good and pro-democracy state AGs on both sides of the aisle. But the truth is there are AGs in office right now that have the potential to do real harm. And we’ve seen that in the past and we’re seeing it today.”

Growing politicization

The involvement of the Republican AGs in elections cases with national stakes marks the latest step in a decades-long trend toward AGs taking on more politicized roles.

In less polarized times, experts say, state AGs mostly presented as apolitical prosecutors, and frequently teamed up across party lines to tackle issues of public concern.

That began to shift in earnest during the George W. Bush administration, when Democratic AGs used a series of splashy lawsuits against Wall Street firms and corporate polluters, among others, to advance national policy and political goals — and to boost their own national profiles.

But in the Trump era, the shift has intensified. Several close observers said a key moment came in 2017, when Republicans sought to oust then-Virginia AG Mark Herring, a Democrat — ending a long-standing custom in which neither party spent money targeting incumbent AGs of the other party. Herring ultimately won re-election, but that cycle saw record campaign spending on AG races.

In Republican-led states, the politicization of AG offices reached its height around the 2020 election, centered around the Republican Attorneys General Association, an advocacy group for Republican AGs. In the leadup to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, the group’s fundraising arm, the Rule of Law Defense Fund, sent robocalls urging people to gather for a march to the U.S. Capitol to “stop the steal” and “protect the integrity of our elections.”

Marshall, the Alabama AG, served as chair of RLDF at the time, and has said he was unaware of the robocalls. He has declined to say whether RAGA or RLDF staff were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and his office has denied public records requests by the Alabama Political Reporter for his calendars covering the period.

Along with other Republican AGs, Marshall sought to cast doubt on the 2020 election results, telling Newsmax not long after the vote: “We obviously have concerns about some of the issues, specifically of irregularities and fraud in other places.”

On Dec. 10, 2020, Marshall and other Republican AGs joined Trump for a meeting at the White House. A day earlier, Marshall had announced that Alabama would join a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to overturn the results in Pennsylvania and three other states narrowly won by Joe Biden. Seventeen Republican-led states ultimately signed on to the Texas case.

Idaho AG disagreed

One state that didn’t join the suit was Idaho, whose AG at the time, Republican Lawrence Wasden, saw the Texas lawsuit as an improper attempt to use the AG’s office to make policy — and to interfere in other states’ business.

“The policy-making function under both the state and federal constitutions is clearly put in the hands of the legislative branch of government,” Wasden told States Newsroom. “The AG is an executive officer, and does not have those powers. That’s not how we should make public policy.”

After 20 years in office, Wasden lost his 2022 re-election bid in the Republican primary to former U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador — a defeat Wasden attributes to GOP voter anger at his decision not to join the Texas case. But he hasn’t wavered in his view that it was the right call.

“If Texas can control or influence the outcome of the election in Pennsylvania, then California can influence the election in Idaho,” Wasden said. “And that is not how federalism works.”

Labrador was elected attorney general later that year, and has signed Idaho on to several of the elections cases brought by Republican AGs.

As for Marshall, in 2021, he withdrew Alabama from the bipartisan National Association of Attorneys General, saying the group had “moved too far to the left.” The next year, Texas, Missouri, and Montana followed suit.

In 2022, Marshall declined to say, when asked under oath while testifying before Congress, that Biden was “duly elected,” answering only that “he is the president of this country.”

Months later, Marshall was elected chair of RAGA. Now, he’s leading the charge among Republican AGs on election cases with an eye on 2024.

Weakening voting protections

Marshall has battled on behalf of strict voting laws in his own state.

His office energetically, and successfully, fought off a 2020 court challenge to an Alabama law that bars people with past convictions from casting a ballot. In that year’s election, he also succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to block an effort to allow curbside voting, which voting advocates said could offer easier access for elderly and disabled voters .

But it’s Marshall’s work on behalf of Republicans looking to influence election rules far beyond the Yellowhammer State that could have an even greater impact.

In January, Marshall led a coalition of 17 red states that submitted an amicus brief supporting a bid by national Republicans to require Pennsylvania to reject mail ballots with incorrect or missing dates.

In Pennsylvania’s 2020 election, there were over 10,000 such ballots, and how the case is resolved could help determine the winner of this pivotal swing state, if the result is very close. Democrats have voted by mail at significantly higher rates than Republicans in recent elections.

But the impact could be broader still. A district court found last year that the missing or incorrect dates are irrelevant to establishing a vote’s legitimacy.

That means, the court ruled, that under the materiality provision of civil rights law — first included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then extended to cover non-federal elections in the Voting Rights Act the following year — a missing or incorrect date can’t be used as a reason to reject a vote.

In their brief, Alabama and the other states called the district court’s ruling “seriously misguided.”

They argued that the materiality provision should be read more narrowly, and doesn’t bar states from imposing reasonable ballot integrity measures. And, they claimed, the provision contains no “private right of action,” meaning it can be enforced only by the U.S. Justice Department, not by the civil rights groups involved in the Pennsylvania case.

By itself, making the materiality provision harder to use would likely have only a limited impact, since it hasn’t been among the tools most commonly used to protect voting rights, noted Cameron Kistler, counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan democracy advocacy group.

But, he said, it comes in the context of other ongoing conservative legal attacks on voting protections — including attempts to weaken the Voting Rights Act, and suggestions by the Supreme Court that it may lower the level of scrutiny it applies to voting laws that are accused of harming voters.

“The tools that you’d use to ensure free and fair elections are slowly being pulled away,” said Kistler. “When you take them all together, that’s when it starts to get really problematic.”

Voting Rights Act

As if to prove the point, a separate amicus brief submitted in December by Marshall’s office argued that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — the law’s most important plank, since the Supreme Court neutered Section 5 a decade ago — also contains no private right of action.

Marshall and his allies were urging a federal appeals court to reverse a ruling striking down Louisiana’s congressional map as a racial gerrymander under Section 2.

The notion that Section 2 contains no private right of action had until recently been seen by many advocates as outlandish. But a federal judge endorsed it in a separate 2022 case involving an Arkansas redistricting plan, brought by Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, who has signed his state on to several of Marshall’s amicus briefs. That decision was upheld on appeal in December.

The issue is likely to come before the Supreme Court. A ruling for Arkansas could dramatically limit the power of the VRA to stop racial discrimination in voting.

Separately, Marshall has sought to defend Alabama’s own redistricting plan. In arguing that the state should not have to draw a new map with an additional majority-Black district, his office adopted an interpretation of the VRA that, experts said, would have made it all but impossible to use for stopping racial gerrymanders.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a prominent election law scholar at Harvard Law School, has called Alabama’s approach to the question “directly contrary to 40 years of precedent.”

The claim was too extreme even for the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, which ultimately ordered Alabama to create a new map.

In response, Marshall signaled an agenda that went well beyond Alabama.

“There should be nothing more offensive to the people of our great state than to be sidelined in 2023 by a view of Alabama that is stuck in 1963,” he said in a statement. “This racial agenda is pressed by left-wing activists, not just in Alabama, but in any Republican state where it might advantage Democrats.”

And he compared the ruling, which aimed to empower Black voters, with Jim Crow.

“If this brazen and divisive commandeering is permitted without even a whisper of concern from other quarters, America’s congressional elections as we know them will never be the same,” Marshall continued. “We will be grouped together by race alone, with counties and cities split down the middle—the same way that we were so wrongfully segregated once before.”

Marshall also led a coalition of 18 GOP-led states that filed a 2021 amicus brief supporting Arizona’s defense of a law requiring voters who don’t sign their mail ballots to do so by 7 p.m. on election night.

The issue may seem minor, but Marshall’s brief invoked a far more fundamental question, arguing that state legislatures, not the courts, are in charge of setting election rules.

“The U.S. Constitution is unambiguous about the right of state legislatures to determine the manner of holding elections within their respective states,” wrote Marshall. “Accordingly, state legislatures, not federal courts, are vested with the legal authority to determine state election laws. Court attempts to micromanage election laws duly passed by state legislatures conflict with our constitutional structure and legal precedent.”

When North Carolina brought a version of this claim — known as the Independent State Legislature Theory — to the Supreme Court last year, experts warned that it could radically reshape election law, giving partisan state lawmakers almost unfettered power to make the rules. The Justices ultimately rejected the argument.

Why AGs enjoy influence

Advocates say it’s difficult to assess whether, and to what extent, courts are swayed by amicus briefs. But, they add, the role of state AGs as their state’s chief legal officer gives their claims an invaluable sheen of authority.

“State AGs are taken seriously because of the governmental role they play, in a way that parties, who do not have a governmental role, typically are not,” said Dax Goldstein, a senior counsel at States United Democracy Center. “So there’s a real difference between a sitting AG filing a brief and (Donald Trump lawyer) John Eastman filing a brief.”

In addition, since a 2007 Supreme Court ruling in a case where a group of states led by Massachusetts sued the George W. Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, states have enjoyed more power than individual plaintiffs to bring lawsuits on public policy issues.

“States have a greater ability to bring legal challenges than private citizens do,” said Kistler. “So when you have these super active state officials with a greater ability to bring cases than private parties and a judiciary that’s willing to entertain the cases, it makes a difference.”

Nolette, the Marquette political scientist, noted that if the AGs’ series of briefs in election cases appear coordinated, it’s no accident.

“There’s a lot of strategy that goes into planning these far-reaching arguments,” Nolette said, adding that AGs of both parties use their partisan organizations — the Republican Attorney Generals Association, and the Democratic Attorney Generals Association — to align their efforts and figure out the venues where they might have the most chance of success.

“It’s almost like buying a lottery ticket, trying to boost the chances of those arguments taking hold somewhere,” Nolette continued. “And once they get one district court judge to agree with it, then it moves them to a different state of respectability. It’s like, well, a federal judge has agreed with us, so this is a legitimate argument, even if it was considered totally out there in previous years.”

Ralph Chapoco contributed to this report.

The post To boost Trump, GOP attorneys general charge into battle over state election rules appeared first on Arizona Mirror.

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