If you pull back the curtain during a Pennsylvania Democrat’s run for political office, you won’t see the Wizard of Oz, but you may find Adam Bonin. After a stint as an attorney with Cozen O’Connor, Bonin launched his own law office dedicated to helping candidates and others navigate the complex world of political law.
He’s helped an Iraq War veteran get elected to Congress, guided a slew of candidates through tough election cycles and even witnessed political races get decided by, of all things, drawing lots. In an exclusive interview, City & State talks with Bonin about his work in political law, the prospects of election litigation in 2022 and what voters should know about the day-to-day duties of a political lawyer.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
What does your work as a political attorney entail and what types of issues do you deal with on a regular basis?
Most of what I do is stuff that the public never sees and that never makes the papers. Most of what I do is client counseling. I represent candidates, party entities, other groups that are involved in the electoral process, sometimes in the lobbying and governance process. My job is to give them advice to make sure they understand the rules of the road and to avoid unnecessary risk and to avoid trouble. A lot of my job is about keeping my name out of the paper, keeping my client’s name out of the paper, insofar as the only thing that we want people talking about is what the candidates want to be talking about. It means making sure that everyone knows what it takes to get the right number of signatures to get on the ballot, making sure that their advertisements and mailers abide by all the laws that exist – things like that. It’s only really been in the past three years that there has been such a public-facing, litigation-oriented component to this.
We saw a flurry of lawsuits in 2020 from former President Trump’s campaign. We also saw some this cycle surrounding David McCormick and Dr. Mehmet Oz in terms of lawsuits related to ballot counting. Are these suits becoming more common or are they just receiving more attention?
I think it’s important to distinguish between two sets of stuff. With McCormick and Oz, an election that looks that close after Election Day would have received attention at any point. This is not the first statewide race within the mandatory recount zone we’ve had. It was unusual insofar as the McCormick campaign ended up taking a view in litigation, which was absolutely justified by the state of the law, but which went counter to a lot of the Trumpy mistrust of mail-in ballots. But these are the sorts of things which always get litigated in recounts in terms of on the margins, which categories of ballots need to be included within the final count. Whenever you’re down, you want to expand that pool as much as possible, and when you’re up, you want the thing to stop as soon as possible.
When you look at the Trump campaign’s use of lawsuits, is that different?
Oh, absolutely. Because it went to fundamental questions as to the integrity of the election – both those raised by Trump and those inspired by him. That is new – to call into question a constitutional, normal way of voting as part of this very partisan attack on ways that Democrats prefer to vote.
When you look at the use of lawsuits in the electoral process, do you foresee candidates – particularly statewide – using them to challenge election results in the future?
It’s something that we absolutely have to be wary of. First of all, it is likely that even if Josh Shapiro wins Pennsylvania by 10-plus, 15-plus points, that on election night, for the same reasons as it did in 2020, it may not look that way, depending on the number of uncounted, uncanvassed mail-in ballots that remain. So, I think we have reason to worry, especially given everything that (Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug) Mastriano has been saying, that no matter how clear the results ultimately are, that he’s still going to challenge them.
We can see it all over the place. We can see this in smaller local races, which is why I have to say it’s admirable that when you look at Sen. Pat Browne in his (GOP) primary, where he lost by what … 19 votes? He didn’t litigate it. He didn’t question the integrity of the election. They counted all the votes – they didn’t go his way, and the great and normal thing about most elections … it’s not just that the winner wins and gets to step in, it’s that the loser exits the stage and doesn’t throw up roadblocks.
Digging into your career a bit, do you have a favorite case during your time in this space?
I’ve had two candidates who were running for local office: Jimmy DiPlacido and Denise Brooks. Jimmy was running for a township commissioner slot in Abington. Denise was running for school board in Council Rock. They were both down by two votes based on the election night counts and through litigation, and just through careful review of every single ballot, both races were ultimately declared to be ties. Both went to a drawing of lots and my candidates won each of them.
Sounds like something out of a sitcom.
There may be video of both lot draws still online. I know there’s at least a good article about Jimmy’s. They literally took the numbers one to 30, they put them on equally sized slips of paper. We looked at them to confirm there are no folds and no bends, et cetera, and they put them inside a coffee can above someone’s head so that no one can see them. Both the candidates reached in and drew numbers and the high number won.
Is there anything that you want voters to understand about the process that they might not be aware of?
What makes this practice very different is that, especially in the candidates’ race, there’s someone watching everything that you (do) and your client does – there’s someone on the other side who’s trying to beat them. Or – if they screw something up – to expose it and use it in some way. And we’re trying to do the same to our opponents. Ultimately, all of this is for the voters to decide, and my job is to help my clients get in the best position possible to influence that.
NEXT STORY: This week’s biggest Winners & Losers