(Harmeet K. Dhillon) – Like a homeowner who sees evidence of termites on the windowsill, the RNC has finally woken up to the election integrity crisis, years after Democrats systematically began hollowing out safeguards ensuring that our elections be limited to legal voters only.
Too many of our states have introduced rules seemingly designed to invite fraud, while Democrat lawyers convinced courts to eliminate sound laws in the name of far-fetched civil rights claims, often with little, if any, meaningful resistance from Republican interests. Every Republican voter knows it.
Yet the Democrats’ denials, amplified by their allies in the media, mean that far too few Americans understand the depth of the problem or the danger that it poses to voter confidence in our elections — and ultimately to the nation itself.
A Look At The Past
Ever since I joined the RNC in 2016, after many years serving as an election lawyer laboring in isolation, I’ve been ringing the alarm: the RNC should be leading the fight to restore election integrity nationwide.
It has the access to resources, the platform, and the vision – at least in theory – to issue-spot, prioritize, and lead nationally. By all reasonable expectations, the RNC should have been training and placing the right people on the ground, filing the right lawsuits in court, aggressively opposing Democrat lawsuits, and messaging clearly about the problem to alert the entire American public to lead the way to legislative change.
A 1982 consent decree sidelined the party from conducting so-called “election day operations,” – a fact often used by party insiders as an excuse, to this day, for complete legal inaction on just about every front. But starting in 2018, when the consent decree expired, the party could have done much more to oppose legal challenges to sound voting laws, to model best practices in election integrity, and to support state efforts to upgrade safeguards for fair and accessible elections.
Why didn’t we? Too many cautious insiders were afraid of being called names if they insisted on voter ID, on strict adherence to rules, on purging outdated voter rolls of ineligible voters.
I’m a veteran of the internal battles to motivate the party to take the issue seriously. In 2019, after a disastrous midterm election, my complaints were answered with a reward familiar to squeaky wheels in bureaucracies everywhere: I was appointed to chair an ad hoc committee on election integrity.
For a year, our committee earnestly studied everything from bloated voter rolls (in blue and red counties alike), to overseas voters, to the hazards of same-day registration and ballot harvesting. We prepared a detailed action plan … which gathered dust throughout 2020 as COVID was used to shred our voting laws on a wholesale basis nationwide, even as the party sat inert, doing little to fight back.
At times, the party claimed it was the Trump campaign’s problem to do the legal heavy lifting in 2020 – but how can an ephemeral campaign, focused on winning a single, presidential election, address long-seated, structural problems in voting nationally, or the storm of changes wrought by COVID? It couldn’t — and it didn’t.
The Status Quo
Leading up to the 2020 election, the important work of election integrity challenges fell – either neglected or unaddressed by the RNC or campaigns, while the Democrats aggressively pressed their cause. This neglect and inaction was a failure with ominous consequences.
The 2020 election descended into a tsunami of COVID-changed rules, papered-over windows blocking legal observers from watching the ballot-counting, pseudo “nonprofits” funded by Mark Zuckerberg selectively juicing ballot-chasing and Democrat turnout in swing states, and entire jurisdictions that simply ignored time-honored voting safeguards ranging from signature-matching to ensuring that state-specific absentee ballot legal requirements were satisfied.
When the wave receded, the party raised money on the promise of challenging the irregularities.
Meanwhile, many election law amateurs rushed into the vacuum created by the party’s inaction to protect our election laws, lobbing half-baked and belated election challenges – some so ill-considered and futile that they damaged election integrity.
To this day, some members of the RNC and state parties continue to struggle with the aftermath of the election chaos of 2020 – January 6 committee legal bills, ongoing investigations, decreased voter confidence, divisive grass-roots debates over machines, ballot handling, and more.
On the watershed day of January 8, 2021, Ronna McDaniel was elected at an RNC meeting to a third term as RNC chairman. At the time, she promised it would be her final term.
Recent years have been a mixed bag for the cause of election integrity. Only a fraction of funds the RNC raised in the name of election integrity issues in 2020 went to that cause; most of it was diverted to fund other initiatives or projects.
Republican communications — other than fundraising solicitations — were almost nonexistent. Democrats, led by election lawyer Marc Elias, consumed most of the oxygen on this issue. Their gross distortions of venerable civil rights principles to make it easier for Leftists to win elections motivated their own base and likely attracted some low-information swing voters.
During McDaniel’s last RNC term, the party improved its commitment to election integrity litigation. It isn’t exactly the torrent of effort portrayed by the incumbent, but our election litigation output went from negligible to palpable.
We intervened in a portion of the lawsuits filed by the Left, both for the RNC and on behalf of state Republican parties. We filed amicus briefs in litigation initiated by others. What we did not do is initiate much of our own litigation, put the Left on its heels, or leave any lasting marks on our opponents.
We showed up, which is a good start, but decades of inactivity have left us with a wide gulf to overcome, and a generation of lawyers to find, fund, train, and sustain, even as we must strategize how we go from playing catch-up to winning this battle.
For decades, even as Democrats greased the election machinery with the efforts of highly paid corporate fat cat litigators-turned-progressive-legal-gladiators, Republicans have relied on volunteer election lawyers acting as a ragtag army of free, seasonal law militia.
These dutiful attorneys abandoned their workspaces or home offices for a few days, taking their laptops into the field, scrambled to figure out where they might be needed, sourced court forms from buddies, and hoped hotel printers would work. Would parties or campaigns even pay expenses?
Often, not. This shambolic seasonal spectacle is no way to run a winning political party’s election integrity operation, and under my leadership, it will be a quaint, nostalgic memory of our hackneyed past.
As we focus on the future, this is my vision for an RNC that leads and wins on election integrity. Whether we perform these functions in the party or as the conductors of an orchestra of allied interests, the needs are the same.
At a high level, we need to get both spending and communications right. That’s a skill I’ve mastered as a litigator. I’ve helped many of my clients leverage relatively small budgets to raise the profile of their free speech, freedom of religion, and election contest issues.
When it comes to elections, Americans need to know that there’s a problem — and that we Republicans are the solution.
Too many Republicans view the RNC itself as the problem! Integrity in fundraising and consistency in budgeting and spending on this important prerogative is required to build up voter and donor trust that we are well-equipped to lead on this issue.
As I analyze the RNC’s recent efforts, I am reminded of the motto of my childhood state, North Carolina – “esse quam videri” – to be, rather than to seem. We had this backward at the RNC in recent years. Our election integrity initiatives merely tried to look and sound good.
Rather than focusing on nuts-and-bolts solutions that might actually work – but which take years of commitment, funding, effort, and attention, we formed committees, issued reports, and filed briefs, sometimes lawsuits. We achieved small victories in states like Arizona and Nevada — precisely the states in which the midterm elections remained problematic. We saw action – without lasting change.
Anyone who has started and grown an institution knows that there are no shortcuts or substitutes for leadership, vision, discipline, and execution.
Commitment comes first, together with the vision of what we can achieve with the necessary resources. Next comes the effort to raise the resources even as we refine the vision and identify the personnel needed to develop the infrastructure and implement the plan.
As a 30-year litigation veteran and a 35-year political activist, I have the tools needed to develop coherent litigation strategies and metrics to determine which lawyers are best at getting the right things done. I’ve had to master those skills in private practice.
I can do the same to set the RNC’s election effort on the right path and into the hands of skilled legal strategists to refine our strategies, innovate, and implement a winning vision for leveling the playing field and winning back voter confidence.
In the recent past, organizations such as the Republican National Lawyers Association (which I currently chair) and other allies aided the RNC to make headway in identifying and training lawyers and training/placing poll watchers.
Many of these were barred from access in key battleground states in 2020. Without enough litigators to back up the observers, complaints were impotent and futile. Under my leadership, we’ll focus more on placing Republican poll workers wherever possible.
Unlike poll watchers, poll workers have decision-making authority, mandatory access, and influence on the process. We’ll make sure that our people have the power to ensure that lawful procedures are followed — not merely to report on problems after they arise and often too late to do anything about it.
The difference between volunteer poll watchers and government-employed poll workers is key to understanding why Republicans keep losing: Once a vote has been counted or a result reported, it’s painfully difficult, if not impossible, to get it reversed. If we want to start winning, we’ll have to prevent problems before they happen rather than trying to correct them after they become official.
Democrats don’t struggle with the vision, funding, or commitment to remake the election system in their chosen image – well in advance of the elections they want to win. Republicans in recent years have struggled to even identify election mechanics problems in time to address them, much less win.
Yet another fail in our recent past has been passing up opportunities to gather data and influence voters on the key issue of election integrity.
Republican committees around the country provide scripts to pre-election volunteers who knock on doors to talk to their neighbors. The purpose of these scripts is to motivate people to vote for the GOP who might be sitting on the fence — either between candidates or whether to vote.
Yet under the current RNC leadership, Republican scripts never even raised the issue of election integrity — even as concerns about our elections cost us two Georgia Senate races in 2021 and arguably depressed Republican turnout in 2022.
Under my leadership, the RNC will lead on ensuring that we use all opportunities to influence voters and gather data on election integrity issues.
Each recent year has seen more and more changes to our traditional election “day” voting model. Election “day” is now days, weeks, and even two months in some states, but the RNC didn’t adapt to develop decent training manuals for volunteers or workers.
Instead, training was left to junior state directors — some of whom lacked the necessary training and experience themselves and were thrown into the deep to sink or swim, with the expected casualties.
Some states begged for assistance on the specific issue of election integrity. RNC members wandered the halls of our occasional RNC meetings seeking help from other lawyer members on these issues. Under current leadership, little aid was provided to most states, beyond pointing members at other organizations.
There is literally no point to all the fundraising and spending the RNC does if it isn’t accompanied by guidance and leadership on ensuring that elections are run effectively and successfully.
The RNC spent over $100 million on ‘contact list’ acquisitions in the last six years — lining the pockets of a handful of political consultants — yet only a small fraction of this amount resulted in winning at the ballot box through safe, secure, and accurate elections.
Election operations were a seasonal, vestigial effort grafted onto a political department itself staffed largely with less-experienced political operatives in the 2022 election cycle. And most of these operatives — even the handful of experienced ones – were laid off after election day, frittering whatever knowledge we had gained in this emerging field, knowledge we cannot afford to lose.
Election Operations are a critical function in their own right, not an appendage to the political or legal departments, and deserve commensurate organization, importance, and resources.
Under my leadership, the RNC will create, fund, and staff a new, director-level Election Operations Department, funded in part by trimming waste within the RNC and through donations from investors committed to seeing the party thrive at meeting the challenge of adapting to the new voting environment.
Our 1990s ways no longer cut it. Nor can we treat election operations as seasonal work. This is a vital and necessary function, and unless we invest in it year-round at least as much as we spend renting mailing lists from political consultants, we cannot expect to retain and expand a talent pool committed to helping Republicans across America get elections right.
When Democrats are voting for a month and Republicans for a day, we’ve lost before we even get warmed up.
Until election month gets tightened up to a short period of early voting, we must compete and outperform Democrats in early voting, including competing for independent voters before the opposition gets to them.
With a relatively small investment in the relevant states, we can initiate and track Republican vote-by-mail applications, outgoing ballots, and returns. We can train volunteers in ballot harvesting to do it transparently and ethically wherever it’s legal. In California, we’ve gathered mail ballots in gun stores and churches – why not innovate wherever Republicans congregate?
We can: standardize our training of poll workers, poll watchers, and volunteers; emphasize recruiting of workers over watchers; customize training to specific state law needs; and build an effective communications strategy in conjunction with a refreshed, energized communications department that makes use of modern tools such as social media influencers, to communicate winning election operations and turnout messages.
On my watch, the RNC will recognize that election integrity is an ongoing, year-round effort vital to our success — not an optional consideration that arises late in each election cycle to be staffed by low-paid, itinerant election hands with no investment in the outcome or the next season.
Our election integrity efforts will be real, not just for the sake of appearances.
I want all American elections to be free and fair. Once we level the playing field, our superior candidates, policies, messages, and vision, combined with funding and discipline, will provide the best possible ground for great candidates and campaigns to get elected and help guide our great nation back onto the right path.
Harmeet K. Dhillon is the Republian National Committeewoman for California and a candidate for RNC chairman at the January 27, 2023 election. This column was originally published by the Daily Wire on January 19 2023.