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.
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
ALEC has had remarkable success executing its agenda state by state. Other laws that it has influenced include tort reform in Mississippi that limits the rights of patients injured by medical negligence to hold medical providers accountable, Arizona's "Show us your papers" immigration law and Wisconsin's move to strip public workers of collective-bargaining rights. These laws passed as other Republican-controlled states, not by coincidence, took up nearly identical legislation. Despite ALEC's influence, however, it remains a largely unknown organization.
"That is by design," Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online activist organization ColorOfChange.org, told The Root. He contends that everything from ALEC's dull-sounding name to its lack of a prominent spokesperson is intended to keep the organization under the radar. "It's one of those nameless, faceless organizations that works on political issues. They don't send out a charismatic leader to conduct talking-head duty on the networks. They do their work behind the scenes and leverage elected officials who want to be front and center and who want to take credit for their work."
ALEC's policymaking process involves three legislative meetings each year, geared around the organization's nine task forces, which focus on issues from education to health policy to telecommunications. ALEC offers "scholarships" to defray the cost for legislators attending the conferences, where representatives from private industries and state legislators sit down together to discuss and approve model bills. The model legislation is voted on by the legislators, with corporate donors retaining veto power over the language, and then taken back to the legislators' home states for consideration in assemblies.
"The real problem is that there's no transparency around who is drafting what," said De Lorenzi. "These state legislators are introducing bills, and they're of course not revealing that it was sponsored by ExxonMobil, Wall Street or a drug company. It looks like the legislator has come up with their own idea, when in fact the same bill has been introduced in dozens of states, all sponsored by that same corporation."
Despite its process of handing ready-made bills to legislators, ALEC insists that it is not a lobbying organization. Requests for comment on this story were not returned by ALEC officials, but in a rare interview with NPR in 2010, senior policy director Michael Bowman explained that the core of what ALEC does is provide an educational service. "We're not advocating any position," Bowman said. "We don't tell members to take these bills. We don't ask them to vote for the bills. We just expose best practices. And so all we're really doing is developing policies that are in model-bill form."
Voter-ID Laws: Not a Coincidence
Details of those model bills have usually been available only to ALEC members, but this summer a whistleblower from inside the organization provided copies to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit investigative-reporting organization. CMD obtained language for more than 800 model bills approved by corporations through ALEC meetings and made them available at the website ALEC Exposed. Among the bills is the "Voter ID Act," which has been adopted around the nation.
"America saw record turnout in 2008, particularly from black youth, in a number of states — like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Ohio — that shifted the election. These voter-ID laws are about partisan gain for ALEC," said Robinson. "They understand that if poor people and black people and Latinos get an opportunity to participate in this democracy, then [ALEC has] less opportunity to push things like three-strikes-you're-out laws, or the prison industrial complex or tax breaks for corporations — things that ALEC really cares about."
States legislators who have passed voter-ID laws, mirroring ALEC's model bill demanding strict forms of government-issued photo ID in order to vote, insist that the laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. They also contend that getting an ID is simple.
In Wisconsin, however, Gov. Scott Walker followed up the signing of the state's voter-ID law with plans to shut down 10 DMV offices in Democratic districts. A Tri-State Defender reporter who went through the process of getting a driver's license in Tennessee was greeted with a four-hour wait, two of them outside in the scorching sun, just to reach a DMV clerk, and found that the longest wait times were in urban areas that are home to most of the state's communities of color. In many states, getting a government-issued ID requires citizens to present an original, stamped birth certificate or a passport — or purchase the documents if they don't have them.
Obstacles aside, the laws have been advanced despite the near absence of voter fraud. "In-person voter fraud is not a problem," Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington legislative office, told The Root. Despite the hype around the issue, even a five-year probe by President George W. Bush's Justice Department failed to prosecute a single case. "The proponents of this law have never been able to demonstrate that people are coming in and saying that they're someone else," said Murphy.
Instead of defending voter-ID laws, Murphy said, Americans ought to raise questions about the origins of those laws. "The right to vote is one of the most widely constitutionally protected rights that we have as citizens; it's addressed by several constitutional amendments," she said. "We should see these for the barriers that they are."
Shedding New Light
To push back against voter-ID laws, ColorOfChange.org recently mounted a campaign around ALEC — although the activist organization is not targeting the association directly. "ALEC is a vehicle that's working to advance their view of the world, which is a view that we strongly disagree with — but it's a view that they have a right to push," said Robinson. "Our campaign is not a campaign against ALEC. It's against corporations who fund ALEC in the dark and come for black people's money in the light."
This year ColorOfChange.org has corresponded with a number of ALEC's name-brand corporate members, sending letters educating them on the voter-ID law that they're financially supporting. If the brands don't withdraw their support during 2012, ColorOfChange.org plans to widely expose their association with ALEC.
"When we start exposing corporations, they won't be able to say that this was a rogue senior executive giving money to ALEC and that it doesn't represent their values," said Robinson. "They won't be able to say that they didn't really know what ALEC was doing."
Yet in terms of advancing legislation, Murphy argues that progressive activists could take a page from the ALEC handbook. "I think there are components of ALEC that are worth replicating from a different ideological standpoint," said Murphy, adding that the organization has a First Amendment right to promote proposals that it wants enacted. "There's nothing illegal about pushing out model legislation, and ALEC has done it very effectively and been very well-funded. But progressive forces need to have a counteroffensive."
Murphy laments that Democrats and progressives didn't take notice of ALEC sooner, to raise more awareness of its enormous influence in state-by-state lawmaking. De Lorenzi, however, is heartened by the increasing attention given to the organization. "The more light that's shed on ALEC," he said, "hopefully the more it will lead people to ask questions of their state legislators about where certain legislation comes from and who will benefit from it."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.