How To 'Weaponize' Misleading Narratives About Voting: Lessons from Trump-Linked PILF Playbook

Using internal emails, sworn testimony, and other documents, Snopes was able to break down exactly how the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) worked to "generate, create, organize and weaponize" misleading narratives.

Published Oct. 15, 2020

Updated Oct. 17, 2020
 (Snopes/Jordan Liles)
Image courtesy of Snopes/Jordan Liles

In the weeks after Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, his aides began searching for a narrative that could explain why he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Stephen Miller, a top aide now known as the driving force behind many of the Trump administration's most draconian immigration policies, emailed a former Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney named J. Christian Adams. According to an email discussed during testimony compelled in a 2018 defamation lawsuit, this email was terse — the subject line read "vote fraud" and asked only "can you send some info on noncitizen voting."

On Nov. 26, 2016, Adams responded to Miller by sending a report that his organization — the Public Interest Legal Foundation (or PILF) — had recently published, titled "Alien Invasion in Virginia." The report alleged — falsely, it would turn out — to have discovered "1046 aliens who registered to vote illegally." Evidently, this narrative worked for the Trump team. "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," Trump tweeted the next day. In a second tweet hours later, he highlighted Virginia, New Hampshire, and California as places with significant fraud

That Adams' work made it so rapidly to Trump's inner circle is emblematic of PILF's D.C. access. Adams, according to the same testimony, had "a long history working together" with former Trump 2016 campaign worker John Washburn. But as part of a June 2019 settlement in a defamation case brought by four U.S. citizens who PILF implied were foreigners, LULAC of Richmond V. PILF, PILF was required to insert a disclaimer on its “Alien Invasion” report stating that individuals whom they alleged to be felonious noncitizens "were in fact citizens and that these citizens did not commit felonies." (In their supporting documents, PILF had gone so far as to include unredacted documents containing these innocent individuals' home addresses.)

Now, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, Trump has a new narrative: Mail-in voting cannot be trusted. PILF remains deeply connected to Trump's inner circle and has been laser-focused on publishing items that support this narrative. In August, Trump appointed Adams to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and in September, ProPublica reported that a PILF board member was giving closed-door briefings on "election administration" exclusively to Republican election officials. Here, Snopes provides a candid history of the “Alien Invasion” debacle from conception to promotion by drawing on hundreds of discovery documents in the defamation case that PILF’s work spawned. The documents betray an organization as eager to discard evidence that does not fit its narrative as it is to accept —  without any attempt at confirmation — evidence that does.

What is PILF?

PILF, founded by Adams in 2012 as the "ActRight Legal Foundation," is a purportedly nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization providing, they told the IRS in 2018, "services and representation to states and election officials, non-profit organizations, and individuals, to assist them with the exercise of their civil and constitutional rights, with particular focus on voting rights." PILF, alongside groups like Judicial Watch, True the Vote, and The Honest Elections Project, belongs to a coterie of nonprofits frequently cited as influential and well-heeled conservative organizations involved in challenging the expansion of mail-in voting in the 2020 election. Each of these organizations is well-connected to the others from financial and personnel standpoints, and all are united by calls for stricter voter ID laws.

Many of these groups, or people associated with them, receive money from the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based charitable foundation that "grants between $35 and $45 million annually to hundreds of public charities" that "strengthen civil society and uphold our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Cleta Mitchell, one of the most well-connected conservative attorneys in U.S. politics, is the chairman of PILF's board of directors and also sits on the board of the Bradley Foundation. In 2019, Bradley gave PILF $340,000 for operations and Judicial Watch $50,000 for their "Election Integrity Project." The Bradley Foundation also gave $225,000 to the Heritage Foundation for its "Election Law Initiative and Legal Strategy Forums," which is managed by PILF board member Hans von Spakovsky.

In addition to financial connections, other links exist. The Honest Elections Project, according to The Guardian and OpenSecrets, is an alias for the Judicial Education Project, which itself is affiliated with the Judicial Crisis Network, an organization that spent $13 million to aid in Trump's Gorsuch and Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation battles. Neil Corkery has served as president of the Judicial Education Project and treasurer of the Judicial Crisis Network and is also the current treasurer of PILF. Logan Churchwell is PILF's communications and research director, but he used to be the communications director for True The Vote. A team of PILF lawyers represented True the Vote in a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service. Adams has served as an attorney for, or legally aided the efforts of, Judicial Watch in several voter integrity cases.

PILF also has notable connections to conservative media. Adams, according to his biography on PILF's website, is the legal editor for PJ Media. Churchwell, PILF's communications director, is a "founding editor" of Breitbart Texas. In 2017 deposition testimony taken as part of a case involving his former employer True The Vote, Churchwell described that role as "a former position" but "it means I have permission to publish there, communicating with the team whenever I want to see an issue reported correctly," he explained. "I just get some of the perks of being able to publish." His most recent Breitbart byline — co-authored with a PILF lawyer — is from March 2020. In the past year, PILF has been cited by Breitbart in at least 34 separate articles. Churchwell did not respond to our request for comment.

The PILF Playbook

From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, a large portion of PILF's legal work begins by threatening to sue various state and county election officials or boards for access to their voter rolls — official documents listing valid voter registrations in a jurisdiction. They are able to make these legal threats under a provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that requires administrators "make available for public inspection ... all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters." Next, PILF highlights problems — real or perceived — on the voter roll data.

These "findings" often fit into a few tried-and-true tropes that get significant viral play on social media. Even though PILF does not always explicitly claim it has discovered fraud in its news releases, PILF representatives or other media outlets often promote the reports as evidence of either voter fraud or the potential for voter fraud. Common tropes have included: "more people registered than alive," "dead people on the voter rolls," and "noncitizens on the voter rolls." Voter rolls, in effect, are massive spreadsheets that attempt to keep up with citizens in a jurisdiction who may move often or may not respond to election mailers. Cleaning up the rolls is not bad, but doing so with a haphazard process can lead to disenfranchisement of legal U.S. citizens, explained Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s civil rights division and a professor at Loyola Law School.

"There is nothing wrong with real meaningful investigation [of voter rolls] that is helpful," Levitt told us. Accurate rolls, he said, help election officials plan, help campaigns strategize, and prevent confusion at the polls. "There is," however, "something wrong when there is sporadic shoddy inflation of numbers for a press release that is not designed to be helpful," he argued.

For example, when PILF generates reports or news releases conforming to the "more registered voters than living adults" trope, that conclusion almost always stems from comparing voter roll data derived from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission with data from the U.S. Census Bureau. According to Levitt, "There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about such claims," including "the fact that the measures cover different time periods, involve comparisons of survey estimates to individual counts, and are often inflated by pending entries slated for impending deletion." In a phone interview, he told Snopes that "it's not a meaningful comparison at all."

With respect to the "dead people on voter rolls" trope, when PILF released a statement that it found, for example, "2,500 dead Americans aged 85 and older on the rolls" in Detroit, the link to voter fraud was entirely theoretical. Citing that particular PILF study, Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox argued that "when thousands of dead people are registered to vote and there are more people registered than are eligible to vote in the city of Detroit, either someone is trying to commit fraud or there is gross incompetence within the Detroit city clerk’s office."

But the claim of fraud here is speculative. Bridgett King, a professor at Auburn University who studies "political participation, voter disenfranchisement, and citizen perceptions of the electoral system," told Snopes in a phone interview that "the better question is how many people are actually going to use the fact" that there may be a deceased person on the voter roll to intentionally commit a felony in support of a democratic opponent. Despite representations to the contrary, PILF's data do not speak to that question.

Then-pundit (now White House Press Secretary) Kayleigh Mcenany attempted to connect dead people on the voter rolls to voter fraud by citing J. Christian Adams in October 2016.

As misleading as PILF's exploitation of the previous two tropes can be, the defamation lawsuit against PILF detailed in this story concerns its claim that "noncitizens'' regularly vote. In this case, PILF published two "Alien Invasion in Virginia'' reports — one in September 2016 and a "sequel" (“Alien Invasion II”) in May 2017. After PILF published the first volume in September 2016, Adams congratulated his team on getting the headline "1000 plus Illegal Voters in Virginia'' onto the news aggregator Drudge Report. The experience, he said, was a "Great lesson [in] how to generate, create, organize and weaponize narrative."

The defamation lawsuit PILF settled as a result of claims made in these two “Alien Invasion” reports, however, also provided the general public enormous visibility into the inner workings of PILF. Thanks to the internal emails, sworn testimony, and other documents, Snopes is able to break down exactly how PILF, at least in one of its more infamous episodes, "creates," "generates", "organizes," and "weaponizes" the narratives it seeks to promote.

Step One: ‘Generate’ Narrative

In the summer of 2016, according to sworn testimony, Adams was informed of the existence of voter-registration cancellation records in the state of Virginia related to noncitizen voting "that were available, if they were asked for," as he put it in a deposition.

As Adams explained, high-ranking election officials, including then-head of Virginia elections Don Palmer and a county registrar named Cameron Quinn, informed him of records known as "Cancellation - Declared Non-Citizen" reports. Adams argued that they were presented to him as people who had once been registered but who were later identified as noncitizens and removed from the voter rolls. In some cases, PILF alleged, these registered "noncitizens" actually cast votes.

PILF worked with local activist group Virginia Voter Alliance, and together they requested these cancellation records from several Virginia counties. These records, PILF maintained, would prove that the problem of noncitizen voting was much more significant than publicly acknowledged. Attorney Steven Albertson, who volunteered with PILF to recruit local activists to go to county registrar offices for the purpose of making document requests, pitched the project by arguing that, "If this produces even just a handful of high profile prosecutions … it will be a significant deterrent to non-citizens who have been able to pretend with impunity to be citizens."

This strategy and the media promotion that followed relied on the explicit and false assumption that all of the people included in these reports actually were noncitizens who had illegally registered to vote. In countless examples, that is how PILF described the data it collected: "We found 1046 aliens who registered to vote illegally," PILF's first “Alien Invasion” report read. The second report, as well, referred to the total number of people identified in these cancellation reports as "5,556 non-citizens." Both reports contained exhibits that listed the names, addresses, and other personal information of the people PILF so identified.

Levitt, the Loyola Law School professor, was shocked to find that PILF, in essence, publicly accused people of felonies while also publicly providing their addresses and other information. "I got very concerned when I saw the release of the personal information." Alleging federal felonies and publicly releasing the accused person's name, home address, and occasionally full social security numbers, he told us in an interview, "is nuts."

Levitt, who was not a party in the defamation suit brought against PILF, but who worked to find representation for some of those who were named, reached out to as many people identified in the PILF reports as possible. "I just asked, 'Hey, are you a citizen? Are you a non-citizen?'" Levitt told us. "I did not talk to everybody on the list because not everybody responded to me, but there were a sizable number of people who did respond and said, I'm a citizen and I'm pissed off."

The issue boils down to the specific ways in which people can find themselves on the "Cancelled - Declared Noncitizen" reports. Contrary to PILF's public statements, this list — produced with information provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) — makes no determination of citizenship. In Virginia, persons are given the opportunity to register to vote at the DMV, and on that registration form, applicants are required to check a box indicating whether they are a citizen of the United States or not. For a variety of non-nefarious reasons, people sometimes check the wrong box or forget to check either box.

The DMV forwards info from these applications to the Virginia Department of Elections. In cases where a person checked noncitizen or forgot to check any box, the Department of Elections is required to send a "Notice of Intent to Cancel" to that individual. The person then has the opportunity to affirm citizenship to the Department of Elections. Citizens have 14 days to complete this process, and if no response is forthcoming in that time, that person — regardless of actual citizenship —  is placed into the declared noncitizen cancellation list. It is not, as described by PILF in an “Alien Invasion II” news release, a list of people removed from voter rolls "for non-citizenship."

As problematic as it was to publish names of people incorrectly suspected to be noncitizens who had committed felonies, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit suggested something even worse had taken place. PILF, they alleged, was "aware that the lists on which they were relying were not intended to serve as authoritative lists of non-citizens." And further "that, in fact, [they] were repeatedly warned by the very registrars from whom they had sought these lists in their effort to compile their reports."

Step Two: ‘Create’ Narrative

The creation of PILF's “noncitizen voting” narrative required actively ignoring explicit rebukes of its methodology. These rebukes were made both before the September 2016 publication of the first “Alien Invasion” report and before the publication of the "sequel," “Alien Invasion II,” published in May 2017. Prior to the publication of the first report, for example, a county registrar whose data were included in the report informed PILF litigator Noel Johnson that "18 of the 35 individuals listed had re-registered," meaning they were, at the time of publication, legal registered voters. In a deposition, Johnson was asked if it was correct that prior to publication of that first report, "PILF was aware that 18 of these [35] individuals [reported in Alien Invasion 1] had reregistered."

"Right," answered Johnson.

Later, as PILF conducted record requests for "Alien Invasion II," the rebukes were more explicit. For example, prior to the publication of “Alien Invasion II,” a county election director told PILF in response to a request for records that the group’s earlier work "grossly misrepresented the facts." In providing the cancellation list to PILF, she cautioned that "this report is not all inclusive and there are false positives. ... In many instances, voters miss checking the tiny box indicating they are citizens. In this instance, we are required to deny their registration."

Getting bigger numbers appears to have taken precedence over accuracy. In the same email exchange between Adams and his staff celebrating the first report's placement on Drudge — which ran the headline "1000 plus Illegal Voters in Virginia” — Adams asked if Johnson remembered "our conversation on how important it was to cross the 1000 mark." In response to a question from a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Johnson answered he believed that Adams, at least in part, meant this to convey to him that "if you get to higher numbers you're more likely to get media attention." Johnson did not respond to our request for comment.

It wasn't only people outside of the project who raised concerns. In the period between "Alien Invasion I" and "Alien Invasion II," PILF staff and volunteers also acknowledged internally that their data might be falsely identifying actual citizens as "non-citizen voters"

For example, on Oct. 4, 2016, Steven Albertson, the lawyer recruiting local activists for PILF, was informed by one of the potential volunteers, Jordan Labiosa, that a former friend of his was on a cancellation list Albertson sent out. In response, Albertson asked, "Is it possible your friend is one of the accidentals (i.e., those who are citizens but who had trouble with the forms)?" He added that "It's looking like that's 10-15% of what we have," suggesting specific knowledge of false positives in the report. Albertson did not respond to our request for comment.

Adams himself, when apparently joking with Johnson about the fact that someone named George Washington Jr. was on the cancellation list, acknowledged that false positive reports could be used "against us." Several people involved with PILF also expressed concerns that the data they were in possession of was identifying legal U.S. voters, too.

Step Three: ‘Organize’ Narrative

Organizing the narrative, emails suggest, involved getting PILF staff, volunteers, and allies behind the specific and faulty interpretation of data they were pushing. For people who actually took a close look at the data, their acceptance of that premise was not always a given.

PILF volunteer Keith Damon, for example, was tasked with converting the statewide cancellation reports used in “Alien Invasion II” into database form. He did some quick research on some names on the list, providing two examples of potential citizens in an email to PILF staff. "I now wonder if this is really a list of actual non-citizens or rather a list of people who — via the DMV — apparently indicated that they are non-citizens regardless of their true status," he wrote to Adams and Virginia Voter Alliance President Reagan George. In response, George wrote back to Damon, claiming that, "There is no way for you and I, or for that matter, Christian to investigate all of these identified non-citizens," adding, "If you are uncomfortable working on this let me know." Damon and George did not respond to our requests for comment.

Adams further rationalized the use of the data even when people involved in his project had doubts about it by arguing that their work, even if flawed, would highlight a lack of proper maintenance on Virginia's rolls. "If the fact a registrant was a citizen, their own system reported otherwise and kicked them off the rolls," Adams wrote in response to the concerns raised by Damon. "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."

The final, and perhaps most telling, rationalization for potentially publishing the names and addresses of people they alleged were noncitizens was that, regardless of accuracy, the confusion or pushback on PILF’s work could potentially help PILF further its goal of pushing for election reforms. In response to the discussion of potential false positives in PILF’s datasets, Communications Director Churchwell argued in an email to Adams that the concerns raised by Damon and others "could be true," but that "we still have an opportunity to convert pushback into official confusion to justify our call for top-down overhaul."

"The fog of war favors the aggressor here," he added.

Step Four: ‘Weaponize’ Narrative

To weaponize its data, PILF pushed its findings to the media with a confidence it apparently lacked itself. In an email to staff while preparing a draft of “Alien Invasion I,” Adams wrote that "the noncitizen lists should be appendixes to the reports and presented as mere facts that these people registered according to public record, and that alien registration is a crime. We should NOT say things like 'these people are criminals' or anything approaching that as that could be libelous." Despite Adams’ voicing of this preference, the final report described the findings as "1046 aliens who registered to vote illegally." When Adams pitched his report to a booker for “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Fox Business Network, he stated, according to emails discussed during his deposition, that these 1,046 individuals had "been discovered as verified 100 percent aliens."

On Oct 3, 2016, Lou Dobbs opened a segment with Adams by telling viewers that "there is a shocking new report out now detailing how Virginia's election officials are enabling illegal registration and voting by foreign citizens." PILF and the Virginia Voters Alliance, he reported, had "documented 1,000 non-citizens who were allowed to vote based on official voting records." In the segment, Adams referred to the individuals identified in PILF's report as "aliens who got registered to vote'' and who had therefore committed felonies. "There should be no surprise that Democrats are registering illegal immigrants, registering foreign nationals to vote," Dobbs asserted without evidence, while also conflating legal and illegal immigration. "Of course not," Adams responded.

J. Christian Adams publicizing PILF's first “Alien Invasion” report on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Oct. 3, 2016.

Breitbart published an even more conspiratorial take on PILF’s findings on Oct. 3: "Illegal Foreign Voting in Virginia Covered Up by Soros-Backed Democratic Officials, Says Report." This article, like the Dobbs segment and others, also implied every name uncovered was a noncitizen, and that the people identified were felons. “When an alien registers to vote, it is a felony,” Adams told Breitbart. “When an alien votes, it is multiple felonies. ... We name the names of the registered voters removed from the rolls for citizenship problems. Will DOJ prosecute any of them?”

Fox News was the first stop for “Alien Invasion II.” In a promotion of that report for “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” PILF may have betrayed its willingness to use xenophobia as a hook to reach that audience. On May 26, 2017, Adams sent an early copy of PILF's second “Alien Invasion” report to Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, according to deposition testimony of PILF litigator Noel Johnson regarding an email chain he was a party to. After securing the primetime slot, Adams recruited PILF employees to go through their files to look for visuals that could be used in the segment.

"Pick ones with outlandish foreign names, particularly Middle Eastern if they exist," Adams told Johnson. "The more outlandish the handwriting the better. The more obviously foreign the better," he added, clarifying that "the degree of outlandishness in the name is just as important as whether they voted." Adams did not respond to our question regarding why he wanted Middle Eastern names.

"I assume I don't need to explain this in further detail," he wrote to Johnson.

On the May 30, 2017, Carlson segment (which did not use the visuals Adams sought), Adams asserted that the way these "aliens" got on the cancellation lists was that they lied on their initial voter-registration forms, but then, in a change of heart, told the truth while at the DMV and re-registered later on. Despite being told by several elections officials that many of the people on these lists got there as a result of failure to return a notice within 14 days of making a mistake while completing DMV paperwork, Adams did not mention this possibility.

"The assumption," Carlson declared in response and without evidence, "is that these people are voting Democrat by and large."

It bears repeating that the records PILF received determined neither citizenship nor party affiliation.

Present-Day PILF

PILF settled the defamation claims made as a result of the “Alien Invasion” series of reports. "Mr. Adams and his organization agreed to settle the case after it was revealed that they had received warnings from elections officials, and even from one of their own volunteers, that they were making false representations regarding the Virginia election records underlying their publications," the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, one of three groups that filed the suit on the citizens’ behalf, wrote in a July 17, 2019, news release.

As part of the settlement, according to Protect Democracy, Adams was required to provide written apologies to the plaintiffs "on behalf of himself and PILF." PILF was required to delete the exhibits that named alleged noncitizen voters, append a disclaimer to them acknowledging that "individuals in [the removed exhibits] were in fact citizens and that these citizens did not commit felonies," and agree to "robust redactions of personally identifying information" if they ever published anything in the state of Virginia again.

We asked Adams how the American public could trust PILF given its actions during the creation and promotion of the “Alien Invasion” series. His response echoed many of the same rationalizations PILF discussed internally: deflecting blame toward Virginia and characterizing PILF’s work as a success on the grounds that it highlighted general problems with voter-roll maintenance in Virginia.

"Regarding the case you mention," Adams wrote to Snopes in response, "I am pleased to say that case settled. There was no finding of any liability by the court and unfortunately Virginia election officials never apologized for knocking citizens off the rolls improperly or for publishing documents saying the plaintiffs were 'declared noncitizens,'" adding that "we sought to protect citizens from improper removal."

This is a far cry from how the “Alien Invasion” project was billed in the early days of 2016 and 2017. The goal then, according to volunteer Steven Alberston's pitch, was "to positively influence" prosecutors in various Virginia counties "to take action against documented cases of non-citizen voting." On PJ Media, Adams wrote an article promoting "Alien Invasion II" that ended with a call to action for "law enforcement personnel" to click a link to the report's exhibits. According to deposition testimony in which the document was discussed, Adams told PILF staff that he wanted to put his findings "in the hands of the DOJ lawyer who would prosecute these people," adding that this person, a DOJ attorney named Mark Lytle then working in the Eastern District of Virginia, "is a friend of mine."

Adams, in his response to our request for comment, told us that since the work with the “Alien Invasion” series, he and PILF "have relied on data-driven analysis of voter rolls, not merely on what government documents say about aliens. Our conclusions are reached using a methodology that relies on a range of robust data, not merely government reports." It is not entirely clear, however, that this is always necessarily the case.

In April 2020, for example, PILF published a news release that claimed in part that data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — a government agency —  showed that "more than one million ballots went to [the] wrong address in 2018." In this case, PILF defined a "missing ballot" as one that was sent to an address and returned as undeliverable, something election experts describe as a misleading way to refer to ballots from states that in some cases proactively sent out ballots to every voter on their rolls. No other non-government agency data were cited, and the statement was false, as ProPublica first reported.

"Taken at face value," ProPublica wrote in May 2020, "that would represent a 91% increase over the number of undeliverable mail ballots in 2016." The truth, as they pointed out, was that "the number of undeliverable mail ballots dropped slightly from 2016 to 2018." In reality, the number of "missing ballots" did not "nearly double" in 2018. It was actually PILF itself that had doubled the number (quite literally) in what it later characterized as an error. PILF deleted that portion of the news release and replaced it, but nevertheless, it didn't change PILF’s broader conclusions, Churchwell told ProPublica.

That these types of errors have not prevented PILF from continuing to generate viral stories on Breitbart, or their staff and allies from obtaining high-profile government jobs, is not necessarily a testament to the quality of PILF’s work. It is likely a testament to the power of a deep bench of political and media connections and of exaggerated or sensationalized talking points. A good case study follows the publication of “Alien Invasion I.” At the time, the report was disseminated amongst an elite group of GOP activists and lobbyists and reached all the way to the inbox of Virginia Thomas — the wife of current U. S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Describing the report as "superb," Virginia Thomas, a longtime political activist, forwarded a summary of its findings to representatives of myriad communications firms or media outlets, including CRC Communications — a favorite of some of the same conservative groups involved in funding PILF's efforts. "Could signs be made and placed at as many polling places in VA, listing the laws people may break if they do voter fraud???" she asked.

Adams, skeptical of Thomas' suggestion, responded that such an action would not be possible "without unleashing a leftist whirlwind" of claims about voter intimidation that "will JUICE leftwing turnout." This fear of left-wing voter turnout is, of course, in stark contrast to the response Adams gave The New York Times Magazine in an October 2020 investigation into how "false claims of voter fraud is being used to disenfranchise Americans." “This is all in earnest,” he said. “We’re not doing this because we’re trying to help somebody win an election."

Earnest or not, the organization has access to powerful people, and this access appears to be increasing as the U.S. approaches the 2020 presidential election. Following Adam's August 2020 appointment to the U.S. Commission on Human Rights, one of the first things that body did was shelve a report "analyzing threats to minority voting rights during the coronavirus pandemic."  The document reportedly included several recommendations nearly ready for publication.

People peripherally involved in the “Alien Invasion” saga have since gained Trump-appointed government positions as well. Two of the people Adams cited as alerting him to the existence of the DMV cancellation records used for the “Alien Invasion” reports — Cameron Quinn and Don Palmer — now hold Trump-appointed government positions. Quinn was appointed by Trump to be an "Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties" at the Department of Homeland Security, and Palmer is currently the commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, appointed by Trump in 2019.

Mark Lytle, the person at the DOJ that Adams sent both of PILF’s “Alien Invasion” reports to, has also taken on high-profile positions at the DOJ. In February 2019, Lytle was assigned by the DOJ to be associate counsel to Trump, and in October 2020, according to his LinkedIn profile, Lytle was appointed to a new role: associate deputy attorney general. The latter is a senior staff position that reports to the deputy attorney general, and only eight people (according to 2018 documentation) at the DOJ hold that title. The DOJ did not respond to our request for a confirmation of that appointment. We asked Lytle about the accuracy of Adams' testimony and if Lytle's new role included any work related to voter fraud or election-integrity issues, but he did not respond to our request for comment.

Like the information about PILF’s methods unearthed in the “Alien Invasion” debacle, the existence of these political, activist, and media connections is vitally important to note when assessing the information that originates from PILF. It is a lot easier for a group to be taken seriously in the face of repeated mistakes when it has allies across the government, unfettered access to conservative media outlets, funding from well-heeled conservative groups, and a presidential administration hungry for a narrative the organization happens to be providing.

The Fog of 2020

The president and his allies have indicated a willingness — even an intent — to challenge the validity of votes cast by mail. "Hopefully the Courts will stop this scam!" Trump tweeted in August 2020 about the prospect of widespread mail-in voting. "Some Trump allies say their best bet is to hope that the results look close on election night, before some of the mail-in ballots are counted, allowing Trump to declare victory and have the results thrown to the courts," the Associated Press reported on Oct. 12, 2020.

Claims of impropriety, fraud, and subterfuge leveled across both sides of the aisle will likely come in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the 2020 general election. If and when those claims originate from a group whose research and communications director considers "confusion" and "fog of war" acceptable outcomes of their "non-partisan" analysis, skepticism is more than warranted.


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Correction [15 October 2020]: A previous version of this article misstated the agency whose data formed the basis of a PILF press release about mail-in voting.

Correction [17 October 2020]: An earlier version of this article stated that J. Christian Adams was on the legal team representing True the Vote in a case against the Internal Revenue Service. While PILF lawyers represented True the Vote, Adams was not on that legal team.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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