Michael Wines for the NYT:
As Republican candidates and their supporters increasingly focus on specious claims of rampant voter fraud, a federal trial starting in Georgia on Thursday will examine whether a key campaign to unmask illegal voters in 2020 actually aimed to intimidate legal ones.
The outcome could have implications for conservative election integrity organizations that are widely expected to ramp up antifraud efforts during next year’s general election. The trial also could clarify the reach of an important section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the historic civil-rights law that the Supreme Court has steadily pared back over the last decade.
That question is serious enough that the Department of Justice has filed a brief in the case and will defend the government’s view of the act’s scope at the trial.
The campaign, mounted in December 2020 by a right-wing group called True the Vote, filed challenges with local election officials to the eligibility of some 250,000 registered Georgia voters. The group also offered bounties from a $1 million reward fund for evidence of “election malfeasance” and sought to recruit citizen monitors to patrol polls and ballot drop-off locations.
The lawsuit, filed by the liberal political action committee Fair Fight Inc., alleges that finding fraud was a secondary concern. The actual purpose, the group argues, was to dissuade Democratic voters from turning out in tight runoffs that month for Georgia’s two seats in the U.S. Senate.
That would violate a clause of the Voting Rights Act that broadly prohibits any “attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.”
Lawyers for True the Vote argue that the group’s efforts have nothing to do with intimidation and are an essential form of constitutionally protected free speech….
The intimidation clause of the Voting Rights Act has been invoked before to punish both large-scale challenges to voters’ eligibility and the dispatch of monitors to watch polling places for “suspicious” activity. The national Republican Party was barred from participating in so-called ballot security efforts from 1982 to 2018 because of its involvement in both.
The Georgia lawsuit presents a less clear-cut picture than those instances, said Justin Levitt, an election law scholar at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“It’s not in the center of the strike zone, but it’s not a wild pitch, either,” he said. “The context in this is everything.”…