A Democratic legal fight against restrictive voting laws enacted in recent years by Republican-controlled state governments is being largely paid for by a single liberal benefactor: billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Soros, the Hungarian-born investor whose first major involvement in American politics was a voter-mobilization drive in the 2004 presidential race, has yet to commit the many millions of dollars that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s allies hope he and other like-minded billionaires will pour into the super PAC directly aiding her campaign.
But it turns out that Soros has agreed to put as much as $5 million into the litigation effort, which Democrats hope will erode restrictions on voter access they say could otherwise prove decisive in a close election.
The lawsuits – which are being led by a lawyer whose clients include Clinton’s campaign – are attacking a variety of measures, including voter-identification requirements that Democrats consider onerous, time restrictions imposed on early voting that they say could make it difficult to cast ballots the weekend before Election Day, and rules that could nullify ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
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The lawyer, Marc Elias, who specializes in voter-protection issues, was in contact with Soros in January 2014 when Elias was exploring a series of federal lawsuits before that year’s midterm elections and in advance of the 2016 campaign, according to Soros’ political adviser, Michael Vachon. (Elias declined to comment Friday about the funding of the lawsuits.)
The goal is to try to influence voting rules in states where Republican governors and Republican-led legislatures have enacted election laws since 2010, and to be ready to intervene if additional measures are passed over the next 17 months.
Soros described himself as proud to be part of the legal battles. “We hope to see these unfair laws, which often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our society, repealed,” he said.
Two suits that Soros is supporting were filed in Ohio and in Wisconsin last month. He is also helping to pay for a case that Elias and several other groups filed last year in North Carolina.
Democrats say the new laws disproportionately affect the poor, minorities and young people.
Republicans have argued that the new laws are much-needed protection against election fraud, and they dismiss the litigation – which could soon expand to cases in Georgia, Nevada and Virginia, Democrats say – as little more than a gambit to energize minority voters in support of Democratic candidates.
Vachon said Elias first approached him early last year about supporting a voting rights lawsuit in North Carolina, where student identification cards are not considered acceptable forms of photo ID. The restrictions in North Carolina ended a program in which teenagers filled out a form and were then registered automatically to vote on their 18th birthday. Joining with the NAACP, the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union, Elias argued that the law was onerous for younger voters in violation of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21.
The North Carolina case is pending.
But Elias and Vachon have discussed filing other suits in some of the 21 states that have added voting restrictions since the 2010 Republican electoral wave, if those states seek to tighten voting access any further.
“I expect there will be more,” Vachon said.