Inside the New Election Legal Industrial Complex
But it was too early to declare total victory. “It’s going to be a long few days,” he warns his team. “Try to get yourself as rested as you can.” And indeed, the mood here is fretful. Antsy associates mill about dressed in a variety of business-casual attire, from jean jackets to running shoes to dress socks emblazoned with a portrait of John F. Kennedy, steeling themselves for a sudden onslaught of lawsuits challenging election procedures and results. Some duck into their offices while others congregate around tables near the office’s kitchen, having lunch. “This is the calm before the storm,” one of the attorneys at a table of seven says.
And then… silence. There was, largely, no storm of irregularities to sweep up the vestiges of American democracy. Most of the 112 million Americans who turn out would vote without a hitch. Election deniers would either concede or remain quiet. County boards would certify their results. Some junior staff at ELG would even head home early.
The only place where this boring choreography essential to democracy wouldn’t happen? Arizona.
In Maricopa County, the state’s largest county, the Republican National Committee and the campaigns of Lake and senatorial hopeful Blake Masters bring a last-minute lawsuit to keep polls open until 10 p.m. because of issues with the printing and tabulation of votes. They charge that “at least 36 percent of all voting centers across Maricopa County have been afflicted with pervasive and systemic malfunctions of ballot tabulation devices and printers, which has burdened voters with excessive delays and long lines.” (Maricopa officials informed the public earlier that day that they could drop their ballots into secure drop boxes at every location.) Even though the lawsuit was initially brought against the officials, ELG and local attorneys intervene in the case on behalf of Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, arguing that the polls shouldn’t be kept open. In the end, ruling from the bench — with five minutes before the close of polls — Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ryan finds there wasn’t “any evidence that there was a voter who was precluded the right to vote.”
Then, after Election Day, things quickly heat up for the firm with a flurry of legal action — at least 67 active lawsuits by early December. And many of their clients, who include crucial Dem protagonists like Warnock, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and Sen.-elect John Fetterman, want lawyers at the ready in the event judges announce they would hear their cases within a matter of hours. This cycle, ELG deployed 59 lawyers and support staff — almost half the firm — to California, Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
As the fights over granular election procedures become more and more protracted, there is a growing concern among several voting rights lawyers and academics I spoke to that the work that civil rights organizations have undertaken over the last century will be swept under the rug. They argue the duty of election lawyers like Elias is to advance the interests of the candidates he represents, whereas voting rights lawyers focus on the broader non-partisan goal of defending voters of color.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a longtime voting rights lawyer, says that often means being willing to sue Democrats who introduce hurdles to the ballot, too, as she did against Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2020. “You don’t just wake up and become a voting rights lawyer,” Ifill says in a phone interview. “There’s a very particular way of doing that work, and it is deep in community. … Importantly, we jealously protect the Civil Rights statutes, for which our clients marched and bled and died.”
But, she notes, the Republican Party and journalists are also to blame for papering over discriminatory laws with the veil of partisanship.