Trump Election Attorney Targets College Students for 2024

Credit: Paul Chinn/via Getty Images
Published:May 11, 2023
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*Published with the generous permission of Amee Vanderpool. Read more of Amee's outstanding work at Shero.

By Amee Vanderpool

Cleta Mitchell, a key figure in Trump’s election-lie legal team, who participated in Trump’s 2021 call that demanded Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger "find" the votes necessary to declare Trump the winner in Georgia, is at it again. The rightwing election lawyer has been focusing all of her efforts on curtailing same-day voter registration, absentee voting, and on-campus voting for students.

Mitchell was caught on audio (see full video) at a swanky conservative retreat in April, discussing the need to restrict voting in the South, as she lamented that Stacey Abrams, a key Democratic figure for expanding voter turnout, “has been in North Carolina." In the recording, Mitchell discusses “statutory changes” that will be needed to prevent money from “flowing into” three Democratic-leaning counties in the state. 

The 50-slide presentation was labeled “A Level Playing Field for 2024,” and it set forth the basic conservative strategy for how Republicans can reduce voter access by targeting students and those who vote by mail — both groups which tend to skew Democratic.

Mitchell makes a point to target the Democratic "young people effort" to vote, and she emphasizes that polling places are too close to dormitories, which allows students to simply "roll out of bed, vote and go back to bed." Mitchell claims that the answer to strong turnout among students, which typically yields higher vote ratios for Democrats, is “election integrity task forces” to target these younger voters in an attempt to intimidate them and dissuade them from voting. 

During another portion of her presentation, Mitchell proclaims that the nation’s electoral systems must be saved “for any candidate other than a leftist to have a chance to win in 2024.” She goes on to add that “The Left has manipulated the electoral systems to favor one side…theirs,” and tells her audience that “our constitutional republic’s survival is at stake.”

In her speech, Mitchell says that there is continued reason for optimism because the Virginia Senate will flip to Republican control in 2023, and this will allow conservative lawmakers to eliminate early voting in the state. This strategy for Virginia is undoubtedly targeted against more Democratic-leaning voters in that state, which will be closely contested in 2024. “Forty-five days!” Mitchell decries, referring to Virginia’s early voting period. “Do you know how hard it is to have observers be able to watch for that long a period?”

Republican lawmakers have been working diligently to restrict student access to vote for the last several years by trying to enact new obstacles to voting by college students — but so far, the mission has not fared well. Republicans in Idaho used their majority power in March to ban student ID cards as a form of voter identification, but this has been one of the few successes for conservative strategists.

Attempts to limit out-of-state students from voting in their campus towns or to roll back preregistration for teenagers have failed so far in New Hampshire and Virginia. An attempt to further curtail student voting in Texas also remains uncertain as Republicans try to build upon legislation from 2019, which closed down early voting sites on many college campuses. Under a new Texas proposal, all college polling places would be eliminated, but the support for this measure is not as strong as the preceding restrictions. 

Mitchell, who has done legal work for Republican committees, members of Congress, and conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association, focused her presentation on college campuses in key swing states including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin. All of these states will have close vote tallies in 2024, and they all have large college campuses.

Mitchell has served for more than a year on a bipartisan advisory board for the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an organization that is meant to remain impartial. According to a report from watchdog group, American Oversight, Mitchell used her position at the federal level to advance her agenda on limiting mail-in voting, voter registration, and student voting. 

The American Oversight study, based on obtained emails from Mitchell from 2020- 2022, using the Freedom of Information Act, included suggestions by Mitchell for how to handle legal challenges to absentee voting rules. While serving on the EAC advisory board, the watchdog group in question was able to obtain emails that denoted Cleta Mitchell directly attacking a voting rights group, while she was serving on the EAC advisory board. 

Following the Trump call to Raffensperger, in 2021, Mitchell abruptly left her longtime law firm, Foley & Lardner, and soon joined the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI) as senior legal fellow. She currently leads the “Election Integrity Network” arm of this group as she continues to advocate for limiting voting rights for certain groups of people.
CPI has had an influx of funding since early 2021, when Trump’s former Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, joined the firm as a senior partner. The firm’s tax filings for 2021 showed grants and contributions of $45 million, which is up $7.1 million from the prior year. Meadows was held in Contempt of Congress in December of 2021 for defying a Congressional subpoena to testify about the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

While the Republican Party has not officially endorsed Cleta Mitchell’s proposition for curtailing voting rights among heavily Democratic voters, the challenges presented by her substantial resources and connections remain steadfast as we head into 2024. Her loyalty to Trump’s election lie is also well-proven — she is a member of the legal team who was subpoenaed in Fulton County, Georgia, in July of 2022, along with Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, for issues concerning criminal election interference. 

Despite the unwillingness of many mainstream conservatives to link themselves to Cleta Mitchell and her tactics, Danielle Lang, the lead voting rights litigator with the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, has best summarized the immediate threat posed by Mitchell and her financial backers. According to Lang, “The current wave of additional voter restrictions is about only one thing: punishing disfavored populations of voters [and] Mitchell’s comments behind closed doors give up the game.”