What is behind the modern vote suppression movement?

ALEC ExposedIn 1973, in response to what they viewed as President Richard Nixon’s bias toward “big government,” conservative legislators, led by activist Paul M. Weyrich, formed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, http://www.alec.org) as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) think tank to promote business-friendly laws on a state level. ALEC would convene state legislators, advocacy groups and businesses to craft template “model legislation” to be used throughout the country.

ALEC has been described as described as “the collaboration between multinational corporations and conservative state legislators,” (Nichols, John. December 9, 2011. The Koch Brothers, ALEC and the Savage Assault on Democracy. The Nation. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2012.) It is primarily supported by donations from corporations, who, because of ALEC’s charity status, can claim these contributions as tax deductions.

Since its inception, ALEC has crafted and promoted a variety of legislation that ranges from harsh anti-immigration laws, efforts to privatize social security, Medicare, schools and prisons, caps to worker rights and pay, the throttling of broadband internet access, the promotion of “Stand Your Ground” gun laws and measures that reduce voter access to the polls.

The advocacy of these bills to states across the nation seems to fit the definition of lobbying, which would nullify ALEC’s tax-exempt status. Yet, although ALEC agrees that its activities do fit some states’ legal definition of lobbying, it insists that the organization itself does not engage in the practice.

Bob Edgar, president of the watchdog group Common Cause (http://www.commoncause.org), disagrees. “We know its mission is to bring together corporations and state legislators to draft profit-driven, anti-public-interest legislation, and then help those elected officials pass the bills in statehouses from coast to coast. If that’s not lobbying, what is?” (Mcintire, Mike. “Nonprofit acts as a stealth business lobbyist.” New York Times 22 Apr. 2012: A1(L).Retrieved Sept. 10, 2012.)

ALEC Exposed

Another consequence of ALEC’s non-profit status is that it does not have to reveal its donors nor its members. In 2011, Common Cause, citing the Freedom of Information Act, obtained records of state legislators who are members of ALEC. At the same time, over 800 pieces of ALEC’s “model legislation” were leaked. In addition to the drafts of laws, the documents revealed that ALEC pays the travel expenses of public officials to attend its “educational” conferences and provides free support materials to help get its bills passed. The Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine joined forces to distribute information about ALEC’s secretive activities on this wiki. Explore ALEC’s work to thwart voter rights on this page: http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/Democracy,_Voter_Rights,_and_Federal_Power.

Pressure from voter advocate groups caused ALEC to officially abandon its “task force” for voter restriction in April 2012. However, that cause was immediately taken up by another conservative think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research, which subsequently announced its “Voter Identification Task Force.” (http://www.nationalcenter.org/PR-VoterID_041812.html)

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. The 2010 election saw a wave of conservatives elected to Congress as well as to state offices. These new statesmen expressed the concern that “voter fraud” committed by illegal immigrants was skewing election results. Subsequently, 37 states introduced strict new laws demanding that voters prove their identity and/or citizenship before casting a ballot. These laws eerily mirrored the model put forth by ALEC in its leaked documents. Ten states enacted the laws, including Texas and South Carolina, two states that still fall under the purview of Section V of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Modern voting restriction techniques include requiring proof of citizenship at registration and identification cards at the point of voting, often very specific documents that can be difficult for some people to obtain. In addition, poll hours have been shortened in many areas, making it harder to cast a ballot in person. Because these techniques effectively disenfranchise out-of-state college students, the elderly and frail and minorities, the new voter ID laws have been compared to Jim Crow regulations.

Gabriel Sanchez, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, notes that obtaining an identification card becomes a barrier, a kind of “cost” of voting. “One consistent finding in political science literature is that whenever you increase the costs of voter participation, participation goes down, particularly among vulnerable segments of the population.”

He notes that the tangible benefits of voting are miniscule, particularly for those who feel marginalized in society. “Any time you tweak the costs for folks that aren’t mobilized to a great extent to begin with, you’re going to impact turnout.” (Katel, P. (2012, May 18). Voter rights. CQ Researcher, 22, 449-476. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/)

Supporters of voter ID laws say that their purpose is to preserve “integrity in voting,” that is, they wish to thwart voter fraud. Yet, in July of this year, when the state of Pennsylvania defended its new voter ID laws in to the federal Justice Department, it conceded that the state “will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere,” nor will it “offer argument or evidence that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of the Photo ID law.” In other words, there was no evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. (http://www.aclupa.org/downloads/ApplewhiteStipulation.pdf) Indeed, in June, Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the Pennsylvania state senate, crowed about the political nature of voter suppression in his state when he bragged, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the State of Pennsylvania: Done.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuOT1bRYdK8)

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