Astonishing. Remarkable. Sinister. Those words come up again and again in reference to the wave of voter identification laws that has swept through more than 30 Republican-dominated state legislatures in recent years. These bills sound innocuous enough. For instance, when a voter shows up to the polls on Election Day, he or she must present valid photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
The goal, proponents say, is to combat in-person voter fraud—claiming to be someone you’re not and entering a vote in their name. But study after study, including an exhaustive investigation by the Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has found almost no evidence that in-person voter fraud occurs. Culling through 5,000 documents over 10 weeks, a News21 study found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000.
“We’ve heard it time and time again; it really is a solution in search of a problem,” said Stephen Spaulding, Washington D.C.-based staff counsel for the nonprofit citizen’s lobby group Common Cause.
Here’s the astonishing, remarkable and sinister part. Requiring state or federally issued ID at the polls has been repeatedly shown by independent analyses to impose a disproportionate burden on very specific demographics: the poor, the elderly, students and people of color.
“This threatens everyone’s right to a free and fair election,” said Spaulding.
And while it may seem obvious that certain political factions stand to gain by disenfranchising these demographic groups, the reality is even more frightening. The backing from these bills does, indeed, usually come from conservative lawmakers, but look deeper and it’s clear there’s something else behind them—a corporation-funded group called the American Legislative Exchange Council.
At first blush, this connection will no doubt read like the stuff of conspiracy theories. But, in this case, the evidence is clear. Voter ID laws are the product of corporate interests, as demonstrated through internal ALEC documents and a host of investigations that show restrictive voter laws are threatening the very essence of what it means to be a citizen of the United States.
Barred at the ballot box
If there’s anyone who is a symbol of what’s wrong with photo ID laws, it’s Viviette Applewhite.
At 93-years-old, Applewhite is an African-American Pennsylvanian who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and has cast her ballot in almost every election since the 1960s.
Her purse was stolen years ago, and with it her Social Security card. What’s more, since she was adopted as a child, the name on her birth certificate differed from that used on other official documents. Her adoption itself lacked any kind of record.
Under Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, which was passed in March 2012 and has since become a legal lighting rod in the battle over voting rights, Applewhite was barred from participating at the polls.
Her case, and the case of others similarly affected by the law, was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the D.C.-based law firm Arnold & Porter.
These groups filed a lawsuit, which alleged the state’s voter ID law violated Pennsylvania’s constitution by denying citizens the right to vote. They requested a preliminary injunction to prevent the law from going into effect, but that injunction was originally denied. The appeal process eventually led to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which told the lower courts to reconsider.
On Oct. 2, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Judge Robert Simpson granted the preliminary injunction, allowing people like Applewhite to vote in the 2012 election without photo ID. But barring further litigation, Pennsylvania voters will be required to present photo ID in future elections.
Applewhite was eventually able to receive an ID using her 20-year-old Medicare card, proof of address and a state document affirming her name and Social Security number. But according to media reports, the process also required her to take two buses to the licensing office.
That’s a lot of hassle to exercise a right Applewhite has enjoyed for 60 years. For many like her, obtaining a photo ID is not as easy as it sounds. Read our sidebar to learn more about these numbers.
Bottom line, about 11 percent of the U.S. population does not have ID. Many don't have the documents to prove they should receive an ID while others, prevented by financial barriers, struggle to obtain these documents and IDs.
“These ID laws, and this notion that they don’t impose a cost on citizens is farcical,” said Spaulding, with Common Cause. “We know that in some states it costs money to get documents and get an ID. There are a number of voters who are in a catch-22. They’re 90-years-old, they were born at home with a midwife and they don’t have a birth certificate. There’s the expense of getting those documents, there’s the expense—especially in rural areas—of making the trip to get the ID. This notion that these IDs are ‘free’ does not pass the smell test.”
But it’s on that notion that voter ID laws have been ruled constitutional.
Indiana’s restrictive voter ID law, which is seen as the test case for similar laws nationwide, was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 2005 because it was not found to be burdensome to voters.
“Clearly that’s not the case,” Spaulding said.
It doesn’t take much analysis to figure out who is affected by ID requirements: seniors, students, people of color and low-wage earners. And it doesn’t take much to see who would most benefit from a whiter, more middle age, affluent electorate.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the legislators carrying these bills are not Democrats,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy.
This newest push to limit the franchise traces its roots to the early 1990s and a conservative backlash to the National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter,” said Graves.
This law made it easier for voters to register. African-Americans, particularly, registered in high numbers, Graves said, prompting a backlash among conservative states.
“In response to that law, Southern states started proposing changes to the laws to make it harder to register,” said Graves. “Those bills went nowhere; they were perceived as racist … and sort of languished for a number of years.”
Then came the election of President George W. Bush, “and the right wing started pushing this theme of voter fraud,” Graves said.
Graves, whose organization has studied the history of current voter ID laws extensively, said there was a directive at the U.S. Attorneys office to find justification for voter ID laws through ferreting out voter fraud.
“U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn’t do enough to assert…voter fraud,” Graves said.
Though only Indiana and Georgia enacted ID measures during the Bush administration, Graves said, “these things were bubbling.”
When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, it was in large part due to huge voter turnout in cities and among students and African-Americans. Republicans, having lost the White House, also found their party losing ground in state legislatures.
According to data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 180 restrictive voter laws have been introduced in 41 states since 2011. These laws include photo ID requirements, proof of citizenship requirements, as well as bills that would limit voter registration and reduce early voting periods, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center available on their website.
Efforts in dozens of states were successful, but lawsuits have prevented some new laws from taking effect. To see how these efforts are playing out, see our infographic.
“It’s remarkable,” said Jennie Bowser, Denver-based senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I’ve tracked election legislation since late 2000 and everything that happened in Florida, and I’ve never seen so many states take up a single issue in the absence of a federal mandate.”
Graves, with Center for Media and Democracy, does trace the push to a national mandate of sorts, though, just not from the federal government.
“Suddenly the Indiana law was dusted off the shelf and put out there as a national model that every state should be pushing,” she said, “and ALEC is behind it.”
The Bill Mill
ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council, and according to some, it is a shadow lawmaking body that draws its strength from an ocean of corporate money. If the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United can be said to have opened the flood gates to corporate cash in American politics, then ALEC is trying to turn on the flood.
“ALEC isn’t simply a think tank or a gathering of lawmakers, it is a corporate-funded operation that pushes a corporate message and a conservative message,” said Graves.
In July 2011 her organization released 800 internal ALEC documents on the website, AlecExposed.org. These documents show ALEC’s cloaked hand in crafting “model legislation” meant for introduction in statehouses around the country.
“At its core it is a way to take some of these ideas that a think tank might fancy and operationalize them,” Graves said. “And I use ‘operationalize’ very purposefully.”
A call to ALEC’s media relations representative for this story was not returned.
On its website, the organization states that its mission is to be a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”
Registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, ALEC boasts around 2,000 member legislators. The vast majority of these legislators are Republicans who pay a nominal fee for membership. But the organization serves upwards of 300 corporate and other private-sector members who pony up between $7,000 and $25,000 for the privilege of getting together with sympathetic lawmakers at lavish retreats.
Broken up into task forces focused on various aspects of public policy—from education to law enforcement and the environment—ALEC members, both from the public and private sectors, get together and write model bills which are then voted on and, if ratified, carried home by ALEC legislators for introduction in their respective states.
The Strategy Has Been Successful
ALEC cites on its website that each year about 1,000 pieces of ALEC-written or ALEC-inspired model legislation ends up being introduced in the states, with an average 20 percent becoming law.
Despite this, and even though the organization has been active for nearly 40 years—it was established in 1973 by arch conservative Paul Weyrich, who also started the Heritage Foundation—ALEC has remained largely under the radar.
Nonetheless, its impact on policy in the states reads like a greatest hits compilation of the most controversial bills in recent history. Among them are changes to U.S. gun laws like the Florida “stand your ground” legislation made infamous by the Trayvon Martin shooting, which was crafted with help from the National Rifle Association, a prominent ALEC member; state-based effort at overturning or circumventing the Affordable Care Act; measures limiting teacher union powers and handing portions of student instruction over to for-profit education companies; and Arizona’s hotly contested immigration law, SB1070. Each were ALEC-approved “model” bills.
According to figures from ALEC’s own IRS filings from 2007-2009, the organization raked in more than $21.6 million from corporations. Members of ALEC include companies such as Exxon Mobil, Altria, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, foundations like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and nonprofits including the NRA, Goldwater Institute and Family Research Council. In all, private-sector contributions account for nearly 98 percent of ALEC’s funding, while the dues paid by member lawmakers, pegged at about $50 per person, came to just more than $250,000, or about 1 percent of its haul during the same time period.
As for why big business would support restrictive voter laws, all signs point to an effort to get pro-business Republicans into office.
“The core interest in the suppression that’s going on is partisan, it’s not racial,” said Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a frequent speaker and writer on voting rights issues. “If African-Americans voted predominately Republican, or 50/50 Republican, I don’t think their neighborhoods would be targeted for suppressive efforts. I think that it’s a community that now votes 95 percent Democrat, and if you want to knock out Democrat interests that’s a good place to start.”
With increasing media scrutiny and public outrage, ALEC’s operations—and specifically its voter ID push—may well hurt both its bottom line and the bottom lines of its corporate members.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida earlier this year, nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change leveled criticism directly at ALEC for crafting the “stand your ground” law, and called on its members to urge corporations to drop their support for ALEC. To date, 41 corporate ALEC members have stopped funding the group, including big names like Walmart, Coca Cola, Kraft, Amazon, Johnson & Johnson and General Motors.
Following exposes by CMD, Common Cause, The Nation magazine and others highlighting ALEC’s involvement with voter ID laws, the organization shut down its voting and elections task force, “and I don’t think that happened by accident,” said Spaulding, of Common Cause. “That happened after a sustained spotlight was put on them.”
Losing corporate members and disbanding task forces is one thing, but ALEC may have an even bigger problem on its hands.
Common Cause in April filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS alleging that ALEC’s lobbying activities make it ineligible for 501(c)(3) status.
Based on 4,000 pages of internal ALEC documents—some obtained through public records requests and others from inside sources—Common Cause maintains that, “the evidence shows ALEC has an agenda, that they track where their model bills are introduced, that they send out ‘issue alerts,’ which include updates that go to state legislators where ALEC bills or ALEC-related bills are being introduced, sometimes targeting committees or task force members and including talking points, press releases,” said Nick Surgey, Madison, Wis.-based general counsel for Common Cause.
“It’s remarkable. Essentially ALEC says that they do not lobby. They are a 501(c)(3), which means that they’re a charity, and as a charity they’re able to do some lobbying, but it’s limited and you have to disclose it,” Surgey said. “We have 990s going back many years for ALEC and consistently they tell the IRS that nothing they do is lobbying. They put a zero or they don’t check the box that says, ‘Do you do any lobbying, yes or no?’ … They’re clearly trying to influence legislation.”
If the IRS agrees, and ALEC is found to be in breach of the rules, the organization would have to reincorporate as a 501(c)(4) and fully report its activities as lobbying.
“It’s also about making sure that these really important, fundamental debates happen in the open,” Surgey said. “We got into looking at ALEC out of a concern that corporations have too powerful a role in our political system; they have a disproportionate power in the legislatures for a variety of reasons, and ALEC really seems to be the epitome of that.”
For the groups and people spearheading the efforts to legally stop restrictive voter laws, it’s about even more: the right to vote.
“The essence of a democracy, and the essence of a representative democracy in the United States, is that we elect people to represent people,” said Graves. “The question is whether our representatives are going to represent us, or if they’re going to represent the interests of global corporations.”
As many as 11 percent of adult U.S. citizens do not have any form of government-issued photo ID. That's more than 21 million people.
A full 25 percent of eligible black voters do not have photo ID. That’s more than 5.5 million African-American adults.
At least 15 percent of voting-age Americans in the low-income bracket
lack valid ID.
As many as 7 percent of voting-age citizens don’t have ready access to documents proving they are U.S. citizens, making the process of getting valid ID very complicated. That’s more than 13 million adults.