ACLU moves from defense to offense, starting in Kris Kobach’s home state


Flush with cash and a newfound demand for activism, the American Civil Liberties Union next month will launch a new effort to expand voting rights in all 50 states that top officials hope will finally let liberals play offense on an issue that has long bedeviled them.

Rollout will start on Oct. 1 in Lawrence, Kansas — and that location is no accident. It’s the home state of Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and a prominent Republican advocate of restricting voter access. He is co-chair of President Donald Trump’s commission to investigate so-far unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

The ACLU campaign, called Let People Vote, will forgo a federal approach to expanding voting rights; indeed it ignores Congress altogether. Instead, it will pressure each state to adopt individually tailored plans, including proposals such as creating independent redistricting commissions and restoring voting access for convicted felons.

And in a change for the group, the campaign is also designed to attract widespread grassroots support from liberals angry about Trump, with top officials at the ACLU hopeful that the rank-and-file activism that has fueled a surge in fundraising can become a central component of their effort.

“We, as protectors of voting rights, we’ve been playing defense,” Faiz Shakir, ACLU’s national political director, told McClatchy. “And this is a moment to go on offense.”

In a statement Wednesday, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said "their campaign should be entitled “Let People Vote Without Showing Photo ID.”

“Kansans overwhelmingly approve of our election security measures,” Kobach said in the statement. “No matter how much money the ACLU spends, I will fight to ensure that Kansas elections are the safest in the country, with photo ID when voting and proof of citizenship when registering.”

The ACLU’s effort is part of an aggressive new approach from the longtime leading advocate for civil liberties, which is seeking to capitalize on a boom in membership and fundraising since Trump’s election. Liberal-oriented organizations and other Trump opponents, including the Democratic Party, have seen a surge of activism and money since the president’s inauguration, a wave of energy embodied by the million-person “Women’s March” held in January.

Since the election, the ACLU has quadrupled its membership from 400,000 to 1.6 million members, according to a spokesman. It’s also raised $83 million online since, compared to the $3 million and $5 million it collects normally. (A spokesman said it raised $32 million alone in the three days after Trump announced a ban from some Muslim-dominant countries).

The group has used that cash influx to bolster its litigation teams and state chapters, some of which had previously been unable to fill key positions. But an organization known traditionally for its presence in the courtroom has also invested heavily in grassroots advocacy, including hiring a national field director.

Shakir, a onetime aide to former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who began as political director in January, said many of the group’s members were demanding the organization do more to fight back against the president. The ACLU, he said, has responded with campaigns like this one.

“I’ve been hired to make the ACLU a politically powerful organization,” Shakir said. “And I’m going to try to deploy every asset we have to do it.”

The ACLU’s push includes a different campaign for every state. In Florida, for instance, the group is backing a constitutional amendment that would allow convicted felons to vote. In Ohio, it wants to help some of those people in jail register and vote.

Shakir said focusing on states instead of the federal government reflects reality that a Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to be receptive to many of the group’s arguments.

“The fights are local, so those are the battles we’re fighting,” he said.

Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May, after repeatedly saying — without evidence — that he believed three million to five million people might have illegally voted in the last election. (He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about three million votes.)

Liberals and Democrats worry that Republicans will use the commission to argue that voter access should be restricted, a step GOP officials say is necessary to prevent voter fraud. At the state level, Democrats for years have opposed Republican-led efforts to reduce voter access for years, fights they’ve often lost.

But Shakir says now is the time to flip the script.

“We’re trying to inspire the first nationwide grassroots voting-rights movement since passage of the Voting Rights Act,” Shakir said.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty