From a continuing series of articles, Who Can Vote?, a News21 investigation of voting rights in America. Read the previous article, Disabled and elderly voters face a new Voter ID hurdle at the polls.
By Ethan Magoc
Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.
A growing number of conservative Republican state legislators worked fervently during the past two years to enact laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Lawmakers proposed 62 photo ID bills in 37 states in the 2011 and 2012 sessions, with multiple bills introduced in some states. Ten states have passed strict photo ID laws since 2008, though several may not be in effect in November because of legal challenges.
A News21 analysis found that more than half of the 62 bills were sponsored by members or conference attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington, D.C., tax-exempt organization.
ALEC has nearly 2,000 state legislator members who pay $100 in dues every two years. Most of ALEC’s money comes from nonprofits and corporations — from AT&T to Bank of America to Chevron to eBay — which pay thousands of dollars in dues each year.
“I very rarely see a single issue taken up by as many states in such a short period of time as with voter ID,” said Jennie Bowser, senior election policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that compiles information about state laws. “It’s been a pretty remarkable spread.”
A strict photo ID law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, requires voters to show photo ID or cast a provisional ballot, which is not counted unless the voter returns with an ID to the elections office within a few days. Less-strict laws allow voters without ID to sign an affidavit or have a poll worker vouch for their identity — no provisional ballot necessary.
The flurry of bills introduced the last two years followed the 2010 midterm election when Republicans took control of state legislatures in Alabama, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The same shift occurred in the 2004 election in Indiana and Georgia before those states became the first to pass strict voter ID laws.
Who can vote? A national News21 investigation of voting rights in America.
ALEC members drafted a voter ID bill in 2009, a year when the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization had $5.3 million in undisclosed corporate and nonprofit contributions, according to Internal Revenue Service documents.
At ALEC’s annual conferences, legislators, nonprofits and corporations work together without direct public input to develop bills that promote smaller government.
The group’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force at the 2009 Atlanta meeting approved the “Voter ID Act,” a photo ID bill modeled on Indiana and Georgia laws.
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The task force convened in committees at the downtown Hyatt Regency Atlanta that July. Arkansas state Rep. Dan Greenberg, Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce and Indiana state Rep. Bill Ruppel (three Republicans now out of office) led drafting and discussion of the Voter ID Act.
Critics of photo voter ID laws, such as the Advancement Project, a Washington D.C., civil rights group, say voters without a driver’s license or the means (a birth certificate or Social Security card) to obtain free ID cards at a state motor vehicles office could be disenfranchised.
They claim that ALEC pushed for photo ID laws because poor Americans without ID are likely to vote against conservative interests – a claim that authors of the Voter ID bills deny.
“By no means do I want to disenfranchise anyone,” said Colorado Republican state Rep. Libby Szabo whose ID bills have failed the last two years in the state’s Democratic senate.
“I can’t speak for each individual person,” Szabo said, “but it seems to me in today’s mobile society people have been able to manage transportation options for other necessary services.”
Szabo, an ALEC member, said she did not know ALEC had a model photo ID bill prior to submitting her legislation.
The late Paul Weyrich, a political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, helped start ALEC in 1973. For many years, it steadily increased in state-level legislative members, developed annual conferences and had a relatively low national profile.
As ALEC grew, it began drafting and disseminating “model bills” that advocated free market economic ideas, such as eliminating capital gains taxes and weakening labor and consumer laws. Its website states, “Each year, close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC Model Legislation, are introduced in the states. Of these, an average of 20 percent become law.”
This statement was difficult to substantiate until 2011 because ALEC’s model bills and membership lists were secret. After Ohio community organizer Aliyah Rahman helped start a spring 2011 protest against ALEC in Cincinnati, someone offered her 800 ALEC documents.
Rahman, who said she never learned the leaker’s identity, turned the documents over to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Wisconsin investigative reporting group focused on “exposing corporate spin and government propaganda,” according to its website. The group launched a website called ALEC Exposed in July 2011.
While that site drew attention to ALEC, activist and media scrutiny exploded because of the council’s support for model bills unrelated to economic issues.
In December 2011, ColorOfChange.org, a civil rights advocacy group founded after Hurricane Katrina, began asking corporations to stop funding ALEC because of the group’s role in pushing photo ID bills.
The seeds of a more serious challenge to ALEC’s funding were planted seven years ago. Florida Republican Rep. Dennis Baxley, who in 2011 would sponsor the state’s controversial early voting and registration changes, sponsored a “stand your ground” law in 2005 that gave “immunity from criminal prosecution or civil action for using deadly force,” according to the bill’s summary.
It later became a National Rifle Association-supported ALEC model bill, and 24 other states now have similar laws, according to ProPublica.
The February 2012 killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., brought unprecedented attention to the law. Police did not arrest his shooter, George Zimmerman, for nearly two months. That sparked national protests and led to the dismissal of the city’s police chief. Zimmerman eventually was charged with second-degree murder in April and is free on $1 million bond.
In March, ColorOfChange.org began asking ALEC corporate funders why they gave money to a group that supported “stand your ground” and voter ID laws, two controversial non-economic issues.
More than 25 corporations, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Amazon, have announced they would stop funding ALEC.
“In a lot of cases, companies didn’t know the full range of what they were funding" through ALEC, said Gabriel Rey-Goodlatte, ColorOfChange.org’s director of strategy. “With voter ID, it’s possible some companies believe it’s in their business interest to tilt the political playing field in one direction, but that would be a very cynical business strategy.
“It’s one that only works if it’s done in the darkness,” he said.
Both the Center for Media and Democracy and the open government advocacy group, Common Cause, have published internal ALEC documents, including model bills, membership lists and correspondence with elected officials.
Common Cause is challenging ALEC’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit, claiming it lobbies legislators — specifically through “issue alerts.” Common Cause claims these emails from ALEC headquarters to state legislators “constitute direct evidence of ALEC’s lobbying because they are communications that are clearly targeted to influence legislation and disclose ALEC’s view on the legislation.”
Marcus Owens, a retired director of the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, represents a progressive church group in Ohio called Clergy Voices Oppose Illegal Church Entanglement, or Clergy VOICE. In June, Owens sent a 30-page letter to the IRS alleging that ALEC has engaged in lobbying and violated federal tax law.
But Baxley called it “a healthy thing for legislators to come together and have dialogue about bills.” He said that ALEC’s operations are similar to, though more conservative than, the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “If they share ideas, I don’t start yelling conspiracy. It’s very inappropriate,” Baxley said.
Meagan Dorsch, public affairs director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, disputed Baxley’s characterization. “I’m not sure why we’re being compared — probably because we’re two of the larger legislative organizations,” Dorsch said. “The only people who vote on our policies are legislators. No corporate members are involved.”
Common Cause staff counsel Nick Surgey said the documents his group sent to the IRS provide “a snapshot of what ALEC’s been doing” from 2010 to 2012, but the group has not come across any ALEC issue alerts related to the Voter ID Act.
ALEC, whose staff declined to discuss the group’s role in advocating for voter ID bills throughout a seven-month News21 investigation, will not disclose which corporations voted for the model voter ID bill nor whether issue alerts were sent to states considering such legislation.
“It is vitally important to protect the integrity of our voting system in the United States and such protection must come from the state level,” a July 2009 ALEC newsletter said. “That is why ALEC members are actively working on these issues.
“Election reform is both critical and complex, with multiple possible solutions for different states. Therefore, ALEC is uniquely positioned to raise awareness and provide effective solutions to ensure a legal, fair and open election system,” the newsletter continued.
Andy Jones (a former intern) and Jonathan Moody (still an ALEC staff member) wrote that article. Jones declined to comment and Moody did not respond to an interview request.
Sean Parnell worked with state legislators Greenberg, Pearce and Ruppel when they drafted the ALEC model voter ID bill (Pearce did not respond to multiple interview requests). Parnell was then the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, an Alexandria, Va., organization that opposes campaign contribution limits.
“A number of organizations — on all sides — are a little too paranoid about talking,” said Parnell, who now runs a consulting firm, Impact Policy Management. “But you have to understand, as private entities, they have every right to say, ‘You know what? This is not something for public consumption.’”
“But I can tell you, ALEC private-sector members really didn’t care one way or the other when we discussed voter ID,” he said.
Ruppel said about 50 legislators and private-sector members voted on the bill, with a wide majority voting yes. “The private sector was a little quiet on it, but they were the ones who said people need IDs for everything these days. It’s common sense.”
News21 attempted to contact each of the 115 ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force members listed on a 2010 document that Common Cause published. The majority did not return phone calls. Former Michigan state Rep. Kim Meltzer, one of 108 Republicans on the task force, said she didn’t know voter ID was an ALEC initiative.
Georgia legislator Edward Lindsey said ALEC gradually developed “mission creep” and strayed from its economic-centered purpose. ALEC, facing intense media attention and corporate dropouts, disbanded the Public Safety and Elections Task Force in April.
“That should help them focus on core economic policies instead of on the machinations of democracy,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a group that opposes strict photo ID laws.
Legislator interest in voter ID
It is difficult to find exact matches between ALEC’s Voter ID Act and strict photo ID bills that appeared nationwide in the past two years. Much of the minutiae of the bills’ language differs, which Greenberg said is the objective.
“That’s the way ALEC works. We don’t give people an ironclad law to propose,” he said.
And because Greenberg’s bill was modeled on the Indiana and Georgia laws, many legislators interviewed for this story said their proposals were also based on those laws, not ALEC’s model bill.
Still, the Center for Media and Democracy’s Brendan Fischer said his group sees “pretty strong evidence” of the influence of the Voter ID Act: “We identified numerous instances where legislation introduced in state legislatures contained ‘ALEC DNA’ — meaning the state legislation and the ALEC models shared similar or identical language or provisions.”
State bill sponsors, including Republican state Rep. Cathrynn Brown of New Mexico, said their motivation did not come from ALEC, but from reports about the now-defunct liberal voter registration group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
“We had groups like them going around doing registrations and discarding the ones they didn’t like,” Brown said.
ACORN, which endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008, became the target of conservative activist James O’Keefe’s deceptively edited videos that purported to show employees encouraging criminal behavior.
ACORN folded in 2010 after Congress and private donors pulled its funding. New Hampshire state Rep. Jordan Ulery blamed the group for increasing partisan fighting about election fraud.
A News21 survey of the states found that there had been only about 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud in the U.S. in the past decade.
“Are both parties guilty of games? Sadly, yes,” said Ulery, a former member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force. Ulery, a Republican, supported his state’s voter ID bills, which have twice been vetoed by New Hampshire's Democratic governor.
“But only one political party in this past decade has actually been widely associated with an entity that was actively engaged in registration scams, trucking of voters and avoiding with the greatest possible energy vote-security measures,” Ulery said about Democrats.
Former ACORN director Bertha Lewis now runs a civil rights group in New York City called the Black Institute. She is still defiant toward ACORN’s critics.
“Our quality-control program was so good, and we were so strict, we would fire people on the spot,” said Lewis, who estimated that ACORN registered more than a million voters in 2007 and 2008 before Obama’s election. “I only regret that we weren’t as prepared, that we were naive when the critics started spreading lies.”
After ALEC’s 2009 Voter ID Act, ACORN’s 2010 collapse, and the 2010 midterm elections, 62 voter ID bills were introduced in state legislatures.
Legislators who would discuss how they wrote their bills all said they did not use ALEC’s Voter ID Act.
“I have a long history with this,” said state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, Minnesota’s former secretary of state and a Republican who wrote Minnesota’s voter ID bill. “For people who say this is just ALEC’s bill is demeaning to me as a woman and a legislator — suggesting that we couldn’t write our own bill for Minnesota.”
Greenberg isn’t surprised lawmakers have dissociated themselves from the ALEC model, given the recent backlash.
“Some of that is legislative vanity that is not confined to the realm of ALEC,” and Greenberg says he “can’t imagine claiming that I don’t copy good ideas when I see them, but I think for some legislators, this would be a scary admission.”
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