After more than three decades, Republicans are free of a federal court consent decree that sharply limited the Republican National Committee's ability to engage to challenge voters' qualifications and target the kind of fraud President Donald Trump has alleged affected the 2016 presidential race.
Newark-based U.S. District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez ruled in an order released Tuesday that the longstanding decree ended on December 1 and will not be extended.
The agreement, which dates to 1982, arose from a Democratic National Committee lawsuit charging the RNC with seeking to discourage African Americans from voting through targeted mailings warning about penalties for violating election laws and by posting armed, off-duty law enforcement officers at the polls in minority neighborhoods.
In order to extend the decree, the DNC needed to show that the RNC violated the terms of pact. Democrats pointed to a series of incidents during the 2016 election where they alleged people who claimed or appeared to be working for the RNC were engaged in pollwatching. And a POLITICO article from November describing RNC spokesman Sean Spicer's election day activities led to the judge ordering him to submit to a deposition.
However, Vazquez said in his ruling that despite the various claims, the Democrats had not shown any violation "by a preponderance of the evidence."
The RNC's communication director praised the ruling.
"We are gratified that the judge recognized our full compliance with the consent decree and rejected the DNC’s baseless claims," said RNC communications director Ryan Mahoney.
"Today’s ruling will allow the RNC to work more closely with state parties and campaigns to do what we do best, ensure that more people vote through our unmatched field program.”
While the end of the decree means the RNC is now free to step up its efforts on voter fraud and to take a role in coordinating election-day poll monitoring, it is unclear whether the national party will resume such work, which has been left to individual campaigns and state parties in recent years.
Some GOP leaders have urged the national party to continue to avoid those activities to avoid alienating minority voters who often view those efforts as discriminatory.
However, during the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly expressed concern about voter fraud, sometimes referring to "certain areas" where he alleged that kind of election-related misconduct is rampant.
Spokespeople for the DNC and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While the decree technically permitted the RNC to engage in some election-day activities at the polls and to seek advance permission for so-called "ballot security" work, the national party and its attorneys went to considerable lengths in recent years to urge its officials and staff to steer clear of such activity, in part to avoid triggering allegations that could lead the consent decree to be extended.
One of the allegations that led to the decree involved use of a practice called voter "caging"—using returned mail to seek to have voters removed from the rolls.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will take up a case about a similar practice in Ohio, examining the legality of a procedure that state uses to cancel the registration of voters who haven't voted in two federal elections and don't respond to a mailed notice from election authorities. The Obama administration argued that Ohio's approach violated federal law, but the Trump administration reversed course and is backing the Buckeye State's effort to slim its voter rolls.