WASHINGTON -- With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, one of the largest outside Democratic groups announced on Thursday a $30 million effort to register voters, push ballot measures that expand voter rights and fight Republican-backed laws in court that restrict ballot access.
"At every stage of the game, Republican and conservative state legislatures around the country, when they are given the opportunity, make it more difficult for people to vote," Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, told The Associated Press. "Essentially what you have are the descendants of Jim Crow who are trying to make it difficult for people to reach the ballot box."
Democrats have historically supported expanded voting rights, which helps turn out their base, while Republicans have enacted ballot restrictions, citing concern about widespread voter fraud without offering proof. But the new two-year effort, which will spend roughly triple what Priorities had devoted to a similar initiative during the last election cycle, comes as an increasingly diverse Democratic Party has upped the intensity of its focus on ballot access.
Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a recent bid to become the nation's first black female governor, delivered a rebuttal to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday that singled out Republican efforts to limit voter participation.
"Let's be clear: Voter suppression is real," she said.
The launch of Priorities' effort also coincides with debate in Congress over a sweeping reform of campaign finance and voting rights laws. The legislation, called H.R. 1, is widely supported by the new Democratic House majority but was criticized by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a "power grab" because it would make Election Day a holiday.
Much of the money Priorities plans to spend will be directed toward litigation, Cecil said. It's an area where they had considerable success in the run-up to last fall's midterms, blunting the impact of election laws in Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Florida and New Hampshire.
For example, a Missouri judge last year blocked portions of a law from taking effect that would have required voters to present a valid photo ID or sign a sworn statement and present some other form of identification to cast a regular ballot.
In Iowa, a Priorities lawsuit resulted in a court order that said the state cannot throw out an absentee ballot based on a judgment by local election officials that the voter's signature doesn't match one on file.
And in Indiana, the threat of legal action stymied local officials from acting on a Republican-approved state law reducing the number of polling locations during the 2018 election in one of the state's largest minority-population counties, the group said.
Now Priorities is turning its attention to Georgia and Texas, states that have both drawn recent scrutiny over claims of voter fraud.
In Abrams' home state of Georgia, she accused her rival in the governor's race, Brian Kemp, of using his last post as secretary of state to make it harder for people, particularly minorities and the poor, to cast ballots. Kemp, who won the race, denied any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the state's chief election official recently backpedaled after releasing an unverified report that questioned the citizenship of tens of thousands of registered voters.
"We will look at where is the biggest harm being done and where our work can have the most impact," Cecil said.