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As Democrats And Republicans Spar Over Changing Voting Laws, Lawsuits Expected


Democrats and Republicans are battling over what voting rules are used in this year's elections. Democrats filed suit in Nevada last week to expand absentee voting for residents worried about going to the polls during a pandemic. It's part of a wave of litigation expected in the coming months that could shape November's turnout and possibly the very outcome. NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Democrats say they're trying to protect voter rights. Republicans say they're trying to protect the integrity of the voting process. But whether they'll admit it or not, both parties are also trying to influence voting rules in a way that helps their side, and they've launched major legal campaigns to do so.

MARC ELIAS: If the voters aren't being protected, it is the role of the courts to step in and protect voting rights.

FESSLER: Marc Elias is the lead attorney for the Democrats. He says the party opposes laws that restrict voters' ability to cast ballots, especially during the current health crisis.

ELIAS: And if states won't do the right things, if state officials won't do the right things, then I would expect that you'll see litigation.

FESSLER: He's already filed more than 20 lawsuits in 14 states, challenging existing voting rules, including restrictions on mail-in balloting, such as requiring witness signatures. Elias expects before the year is out that the number of lawsuits could double, with the focus on key battleground states such as Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Republicans are also ramping up their legal effort. The Republican National Committee and President Trump's reelection campaign announced in February that they plan to spend at least $10 million to defend the integrity of U.S. elections. RNC spokesman Mike Reed points out that that announcement came before the pandemic disrupted so many primaries.

MIKE REED: I think now we will probably spend more than that on these issues because, look. The Democrats are clearly trying to go into all these states and get the laws changed. And so we're going to have to defend those laws.

FESSLER: Republicans say Democrats want to remove safeguards put in place to protect against fraud, especially when it comes to mail-in voting. The GOP is dead set against Democratic demands that third parties be allowed to collect and turn in ballots for other voters. They also object to sending absentee ballots out to all voters, even those who don't request them. The RNC's Reed notes that many state voter rolls are filled with inaccuracies, and the ballots could get into the wrong hands.

REED: It's not about winning or losing. It's not about giving us an advantage or not. It's about protecting the integrity of the ballot.

FESSLER: Democrats scoff at that, noting that President Trump said last month that, quote, "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again" if he agreed to Democratic proposals to expand voting options. Democrats also note that contrary to Republican claims, there's little evidence of fraud. They say Republicans really want to suppress the Democratic vote.

JOSH DOUGLAS: I think everyone is seeing the courts as a key component of election campaign strategy.

FESSLER: Josh Douglas, an election law expert at the University of Kentucky, says it isn't clear that one party or the other is helped that much with changes in voting rules. But he says it could make the difference in a close election.

DOUGLAS: Of course, we can never know ahead of time when elections are going to be close. And so the parties fight these things tooth and nail about who can vote, about the process of voting because we've seen elections that have come down to only a handful of votes.

FESSLER: And with the stakes so high, it's worth taking the case to court.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.