Prominent voter fraud activist J. Christian Adams has agreed to apologize to a group of Virginia citizens whom his organization wrongfully identified as noncitizens, as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit accusing Adams of defamation and voter intimidation.
Adams leads a group called the Public Interest Legal Foundation and served on President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission. He helped produce two reports in 2016 and 2017 purporting to show thousands of cases of noncitizen voter registration in Virginia. Published with the Virginia Voters Alliance, the reports listed people who had been removed from the voter rolls for allegedly not being U.S. citizens, and published personal information like their home addresses and phone numbers. Four of the voters named in the report, who were in fact U.S. citizens, sued Adams and PILF for damages, accusing them of defamation and violating federal statutes that prohibit voter intimidation.
As part of the settlement reached this week, Adams will offer a written apology to the four Virginia voters, according to a statement from Protect Democracy, which helped represent them. Adams and his group also agreed to remove the personal information of the accused from the reports and add a statement to the front of them acknowledging that they falsely accused people of being noncitizens. Adams and his group agreed to redact personal information for any future reports they produce on noncitizen registration in Virginia.
“This case and its result should serve as a deterrent to anyone who might consider schemes to intimidate voters,” said Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who helped represent the plaintiffs. “We are watching, and we are fully prepared to use every available legal tool to hold parties accountable when they break the law.”
In a statement, PILF offered a “profound apology that it relied so heavily on the commonwealth election records,” and said “it seemed implausible that Virginia would be improperly removing American citizens from the voter rolls.”
Adams has led an aggressive effort to inspect voter rolls around the country in search of people who are not citizens. PILF noted in its release that it has published similar reports in New Jersey, Michigan and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
The significance of the case goes beyond an apology, Riggs told HuffPost. The lawyers brought their suit in part under the Ku Klux Klan Act and Section 11(b) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which prohibit voter intimidation. First passed in 1871, the Ku Klux Klan Act allows any citizen entitled to vote to sue for damages if two or more people try to block them from doing so “by force, intimidation, or threat.” Lawyers argued that by publishing the names and contact information of eligible voters and wrongfully accusing them of being noncitizens, PILF and VVA had engaged in a conspiracy to intimidate lawful voters out of casting their ballots.
Riggs said the case underscores how both measures can be used to fight modern attempts at voter intimidation. The statutes, Riggs said, have “real teeth and [need] to be employed elsewhere.”
“The idea of doxxing did not exist in the ’60s, the idea that you could be online bullied and threatened,” she said. “We think it’s quite appropriate for the law, especially when broadly written to protect voters against intimidation, that the law properly read isn’t limited to burning crosses in people’s yards. It was designed with Congress’ intent to protect voters and make sure that people did not feel intimidated when they went to vote.”
Riggs said she thought the statutes had been deployed to stop voter intimidation less frequently in the past because the Voting Rights Act prevented discriminatory voting practices from going into place before they were enacted. The Supreme Court struck down the provision of the law that did that in 2013, making these statutes more important now, she said.
Several studies and investigations have shown that voter fraud is rare. The inaccuracies in the PILF report underscore how administrative and clerical errors can be used to create an inflated impression of widespread noncitizen voting. In Texas, a federal judge recently blocked state officials from canceling the voter registration of noncitizens after they acknowledged there were errors in their methodology for identifying the potential illegal voters.
Adams and PILF were aware the people they identified in their report might be citizens, Protect Democracy said. The group included links to email messages, obtained in the lawsuit, showing that Adams and PILF ignored red flags that some of the voters they were identifying as noncitizens could in fact be citizens. Some of those warnings came from Virginia election officials.
In one 2017 email, Keith Damon, who was volunteering with PILF, warned that some of the people the group was investigating might actually be citizens. Adams replied that if the state had removed citizens from its voter rolls, it was even more important to draw attention to it.
“Nobody has better data than we do. if there are false positives, it’s state data and procedures that made them false positives. That alone makes it imperative to expose even the glitches,” he wrote. “But I’ll have that fight any day of the week when they are also registering people who marked ‘no’ on the citizen check box. That graphic is in the report.”
Even if officials had mistakenly removed citizens, that could benefit PILF, Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the group, wrote in another email.
“We still have the opportunity to convert pushback into official confusion to justify our call for top-down overhaul,” Churchwell wrote. “The fog of war favors the aggressor here.”
In an email to HuffPost, Adams said the accusation that his group knew the data they were working with contained citizens was a “smear.”
“Saying we had prior knowledge that the list of ‘declared noncitizens’ removed included citizens all along is a defamatory lie,” he wrote. PILF received emails from local election officials during their process, but Adams said those emails didn’t specifically address the state’s list of canceled voters.
Riggs disputed Adams’ characterization. She said PILF had been warned by election officials that the information it was gathering might be inaccurate, and that the group had voter registration forms from suspected noncitizens in which the people indicated they were indeed citizens. At the very least, lawyers wrote in a June filing, that should have prompted Adams to investigate further. Instead, Riggs said, Adams and PILF knowingly turned a blind eye to the possibility of inaccuracies in the list.
“They knew what was going on,” Riggs said. “We were going to win this case on their own words ― their internal email.”