Who Is ALEC and Why Is It So Powerful?

From voter-ID bills to immigration law, this little-known organization steers American politics.

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Charles and David Koch (Courtesy of the Libertarian)

In the fall of 1980, at a religious-right gathering in Dallas, conservative activist Paul Weyrich griped about fellow Christians who held the notion that all U.S. citizens should vote. "I don't want everybody to vote," he said plainly. "Elections are not won by a majority of people; they never have been, from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." 

Thirty-one years later, one of the organizations founded by Weyrich -- the American Legislative Exchange Council -- may be on track to achieving just that.

Founded in 1973 and known as ALEC, the Washington, D.C.-based group describes itself as "the nation's largest, nonpartisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators." ALEC connects conservative state legislators, who pay a nominal fee of $50 for two years of membership, with corporations that pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to join the organization.

Corporate members of ALEC draft model legislation for lawmakers to pull from, introduce and pass into law across the country at the state level. The 300 corporate members include ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, AT&T, Corrections Corporation of America and Koch Industries, run by billionaire oil tycoons David and Charles Koch, major funders of the Tea Party movement.

"In short, ALEC is ghostwriting the law for state legislators across the country on behalf of its corporate clients," Ray De Lorenzi, communications director for the American Association for Justice, an organization of legal professionals, told The Root. "On the surface, their membership comprises thousands of state legislators from around the country, but in reality ALEC is not serving the state legislators. It's serving corporate contributors who are giving thousands, if not millions, of dollars to gain access to these legislators and distribute legislation they've crafted that will push their corporate interests."

With more than 2,000 legislative members representing all 50 states, ALEC has a vast influence over American politics. The organization boasts that each year, close to 1,000 bills based on its corporate-crafted model legislation are introduced into statehouses across the country. Of these, an average of 20 percent are enacted into law. A major item on ALEC's 2011 agenda? Voter-ID laws.

Introduced in 34 states this year and passed in eight so far, these measures require voters to produce specific government-issued identification before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens currently lack such ID, and the numbers skew higher for African-American (25 percent), Latino (15 percent) and young voters (17 percent), all of whom are more likely to cast ballots for Democratic candidates.

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With this new voting obstacle in place -- and not always solved by a simple trip to the DMV -- ALEC's conservative and corporate backers may have laid the groundwork for the late founder Weyrich's goal of shrinking the electorate.

How ALEC Works