An American flag is displayed on a privacy voting booth at a polling location in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. (Photographer: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg )

Democrats’ Top Election Lawyer Has His Eyes on 2020

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It never looked great for Bill Nelson. The three-term Democratic senator from Florida and his lawyer, Marc Elias, waged a bitter post-election battle against the outgoing governor, Rick Scott. Despite two recounts and important courtroom victories for Nelson, Scott will join fellow Florida Republican Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate in January.

Nonetheless, Elias has reason to be pleased. The man labeled the Democrats’ “best Election stealing lawyer” in a tweet by President Trump suffered a rare loss, yet he may have boosted his party’s chances in Florida in 2020, when the perennial photo-finish battleground state could again determine the next president.

For 11 tense days, Elias pulled every possible legal lever to get absentee, mismarked, and irregular ballots counted. He got a federal appeals court, for example, to uphold a district court decision giving voters and canvassers nearly two weeks beyond the original Nov. 5 deadline to verify signatures on mail-in ballots, a precedent that may prove useful to Democratic candidates in future close fights. Elias called the decision “a victory for the people of Florida and for the Nelson campaign as we pursue our goal of making sure every legal ballot is counted.”

Democrats’ Top Election Lawyer Has His Eyes on 2020

Beyond Washington’s coterie of election-law and campaign-finance insiders, Elias’s name doesn’t mean much. But in this deeply divided era, he’s one of the forces determining the balance of power. He’s a player in the Russian collusion controversy, having hired the investigative firm Fusion GPS on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. And he went to bat for Facebook Inc. when it wanted its political advertisers to be exempt from a federal disclaimer rule. In 2009, Elias prevailed in a recount battle in Minnesota that gave Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority for a few months during President Barack Obama’s first term. Last year he won crucial redistricting battles in North Carolina and has challenged state voter ID laws.

Like Trump, Elias is a Twitter-savvy New York native. He chairs the political law group of Perkins Coie LLP, which for decades has served Democratic clients, including Obama’s presidential campaigns and the Democratic National Committee. Political committees have paid the firm $90 million since 2007, Federal Election Commission records show. Elias was also general counsel to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and in hiring Fusion GPS, set in motion the chain of events that led to the infamous dossier on Russian involvement in the Trump campaign, prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele.

Expanding the number of ballots considered valid is his calling card. Doing so tends to favor Democratic candidates, whose voters are less likely to be familiar with ballot instructions. Terry Campo, a Republican election lawyer and recount veteran, compares the Democrats’ emphasis to the old days of big-city machine politics, when ward leaders would pass out cash to boost turnout. “The early voting and the absentee voting has become the new ‘walking around money,’ ” he says.

Democrats praise Elias for his caution in helping them navigate the complexities of election law, where even what’s legal can appear unethical. Jake Perry, who first encountered the lawyer when he worked on a campaign for former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada that ended in a recount, relied on Elias for legal advice about raising money for other campaigns. “He doesn’t let you go up to the line,” he says. “He just makes sure you’re able to do your job and not get in trouble for doing it.”

In a stream of tweets posted two days before this year’s midterm elections, Elias described 13 close elections he’d been involved with since 1996, including Reid’s. Six resulted in recounts, and his clients won all of them. In two, candidates came from behind: Democrat Christine Gregoire, who beat Dino Rossi in the 2004 Washington governor’s race, and Al Franken, who upset the former U.S. senator from Minnesota, Norm Coleman, in 2008. It was the latter victory that briefly gave Democrats 60 votes in the Senate, which proved critical to passing some signature legislation of the Obama presidency, including the Affordable Care Act.

In his tweet about Elias, Trump claimed that he was sending “much better lawyers to expose the FRAUD!” that Elias was allegedly there to perpetrate. Campo was one of 40 GOP lawyers in Palm Beach County for Nelson’s and other recount battles. “We’ve got some pretty good people,” he says. “But Elias is probably better.” —With Terrence Dopp

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net, Jillian Goodman

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