Exclusive: National Republicans behind military coalition fighting early voting in Ohio

Updated
Michael Morley
Michael Morley

Last month, a coalition of military groups intervened in a major voting-rights case in Ohio on the side of Republican officials—helping the GOP to make the false charge that the Obama campaign is working to suppress the military vote. The coalition has been described in media reports as above the partisan fray. But according to one key participant, it was organized by a Washington-based Republican lawyer and political operative who has helped launch several other efforts to intervene in voting cases in swing states across the country, always to the benefit of the GOP. And its main point of contact is a Washington lobbyist and former Republican Senate aide who runs a conservative advocacy group.

The involvement of national-level Republicans highlights how crucial the bid to reduce early voting in Ohio is to the party’s—and Mitt Romney’s—hopes this fall.

Earlier this summer, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee sued the state of Ohio over a Republican-backed law that ended early voting in the three days before Election Day for everyone except members of the military, making it harder for hundreds of thousands of Ohioans—disproportionately African-Americans, research suggests—to vote. Not long afterwards, a coalition of 15 military groups filed documents (pdf) asking to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of the defendant, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted. The military groups sought “to defend the fundamental constitutional right to vote of members of the U.S. Armed Forces,” according to their brief.

A judge ruled late last month in favor of the Obama campaign, ordering Husted to direct local election boards to prepare to allow early voting for everyone. Husted—joined by the coalition of military groups—is appealing the ruling.

The military coalition has largely escaped scrutiny, even though it appears to have been organized as part of a concerted effort to lend support to Republicans in voting cases—some, as in Ohio, involving efforts to restrict voting rights—in swing states across the country.

The coalition—made up of volunteer groups like the U.S. Army Association, the U.S. Navy Association, and the National Guard Association—was assembled by Michael Morley, a Republican lawyer and political operative, according to Bob Carey, who serves as a point of contact for the coalition. “Michael Morley approached these organizations and put it together himself,” Carey told Lean Forward.

Morley, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone and email and whose name does not appear on the coalition’s court filing, served in the Bush administration as a special assistant to the Army General Counsel. He’s also a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA)—a group of GOP election lawyers that has in the past worked to spread concern over voter fraud despite little evidence that such fraud exists— according to the RNLA’s website. And he appears to have carved out a niche this year launching legal efforts to intervene in voting disputes in swing states, on behalf of Republicans seeking to limit voting rights or otherwise advantage the party’s candidates. Among the recent initiatives he’s been involved in:

• In May, Morley filed a motion seeking to intervene in a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s controversial Republican-backed voter ID law. He was representing a group of voters who backed the law, saying they were seeking to protect their own votes from being diluted by fraudulent voting.

• In June, Morley filed a similar motion (pdf) on behalf of Wisconsin voters, opposing a lawsuit that challenged a voter ID law pushed by Gov. Scott Walker and state Republicans.

• Last month, Morley represented a group of Iowa voters seeking to knock Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson off the ballot in that state. Johnson, who ran in the Republican presidential primary, could draw crucial votes away from Mitt Romney this fall.

WATCH RACHEL MADDOW’S SEGMENT MONDAY NIGHT ON THE NATIONWIDE GOP WAR ON VOTING:

Carey, the coalition’s point of contact, is himself a well-connected Washington lobbyist and former aide to Republican senators Spencer Abraham and George Allen, who has served as director of a Defense Department program that helps military and overseas voters to cast ballots. In addition to his work at a lobbying firm founded by Abraham, Carey currently helps run the National Defense Committee, a conservative military advocacy group.

The involvement of the military coalition has lent crucial backing to the Republican charge that the Obama campaign’s lawsuit seeks to suppress the military vote, which tends to skew Republican. Pete Hegseth, a conservative activist and former Army captain who ran unsuccessfully this year for the Republican Senate nomination in Minnesota appeared last month on Fox News on behalf of the coalition to stoke concern over the Obama campaign’s lawsuit. “It’s so shamefully political, what they’re doing,” Hegseth said of the suit. Mitt Romney’s campaign accused Obama of seeking to “undermine” military voting rights, and Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel claimed the president was “trying to suppress the military vote.”

News reports and independent fact-checkers have been quick to label those charges false: The Democrats’ lawsuit asks that early voting hours be extended for everyone, leaving military voters unaffected. 

Morley isn’t the only Beltway Republican lawyer involved with the Ohio effort. As Rachel Maddow reported Monday, citing the liberal Ohio blog Plunderbund, Husted has been getting help from Washington-based William Consovoy, who also has been involved this year in legal bids to curtail voting rights in Florida and Alabama.

In Ohio, the military coalition’s brief—which appears to have been drawn up quickly; it misspells the name of Judge Peter Economus—argues that although Democrats weren’t asking for early voting days for service-members to be cut, their lawsuit nonetheless threatened military voting rights because it sought to have special consideration for the military declared unconstitutional, setting a precedent that could lead to such consideration being banned in the future.

“Although the relief Plaintiffs seek is an overall extension of Ohio’s early voting period, the means through which Plaintiffs are attempting to attain it—a ruling that it is arbitrary and unconstitutional to grant extra time for early voting solely to military voters and overseas citizens—is both legally inappropriate and squarely contrary to the legal interests and constitutional rights of Intervenors, their members, and the courageous men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces,” the coalition’s brief argued.

“The entirety of federal and Ohio law on military voting is based around differentiating military voters and giving them more time,” Carey told Lean Forward. 

And in his own interview with Lean Forward, Hegseth called “offensive” the lawsuit’s claim that giving the military special voting accommodations is arbitrary.

But by dismissing the Obama campaign’s lawsuit, an appeals court could nonetheless ensure that civilians are unable to vote in the three days before the election, throwing up a hurdle in front of hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters who have used those days in past years. And not all of the coalition’s members appear to be on board with that outcome.

“We have no problem at all if every citizen has full early voting rights,” John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association told Lean Forward. “We just want to make sure that members of the military have full rights to vote.”

Asked why his group was involved in an effort that could reduce early voting for millions, Goheen was philosophical.

“When these things start, you don’t know where they’re really headed,” he said. “Like any motion which a whole lot of organizations have signed on to, we don’t necessarily agree with every word choice.”

Ohio

Exclusive: National Republicans behind military coalition fighting early voting in Ohio

Updated