October 31, 2012

Sneak Attack

How Big Business Wants to Shrink the Electorate

Astonishing. Remarkable. Sinister. Those are words that come up again and again when confronting the wave of voter identification laws that has swept through more than 30 Republican-dominated state legislatures, including Georgia's, in recent years. The measures sound innocuous enough: When a voter shows up to the polls on Election Day, he or she must present a 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, the News21 project found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000: about one case for every 15 million eligible voters.

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. In Georgia, only 91 percent of black youth have a photo ID, according to a University of Chicago study that estimates 26,000 to 73,000 Georgia voters will be disenfranchised as a result of the voter ID law.

“We’ve heard it time and time again; it really is a solution in search of a problem,” says Stephen Spaulding, Washington D.C.-based staff counsel for the nonprofit citizen’s lobby group Common Cause. “This threatens everyone’s right to a free and fair election.”

Barred at the Ballot Box

If there’s anyone approximating a symbol of what’s wrong with what are referred to as “restrictive” or “strict” 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. 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, passed in March 2012, Applewhite could not obtain the required identification to participate at the polls. Her case, and the case of others similarly affected by the law, was taken up by civil rights groups like the ACLU. On Oct. 2, Judge Robert Simpson granted the preliminary injunction, allowing people like Applewhite to vote in the 2012 election without photo ID.

Barring any further litigation, Pennsylvania voters will be required to present photo ID in future elections. Strict voter ID laws could effectively disenfranchise millions of voters if adopted nationwide. As many as 11 percent of adult U.S. citizens do not have any form of government-issued photo identification, accounting for more than 21 million people, according to figures from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

“These ID laws, and this notion that they don’t impose a cost on citizens is farcical,” Spaulding says. “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 says.

Georgia Democrats lost in state court when they challenged Georgia's 2005 voter ID law, but the Pennsylvania ruling and others have emboldened them to try again in federal court. They have six or seven potential plaintiffs, including people who are in their 80s, don't drive and would have to pay for a copy of their birth certificates to get a photo ID, which amounts to a poll tax, state party chairman Mike Berlon says. One man's records were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. "After the election, we'll sit down and decide who has the most compelling story and where to bring the case," Berlon says.

Sneak Attack

It doesn’t take much analysis to figure out the upshot of proliferating voter ID requirements: fewer seniors, students, people of color and low-wage earners at the polls. 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,” says Lisa Graves, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy.

This newest push to limit the franchise traces its roots to the 1990s and the enactment of the National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter,” under President Bill Clinton. The measure did exactly what its name implies: made it easier for voters to register. African-Americans, particularly, registered in high numbers, Graves says, prompting backlash among conservative states.

“In response to that law, Southern states started proposing changes to the laws to make it harder to register. Those bills went nowhere; they were perceived as racist… and sort of languished for a number of years,” she says.

Then came the election of President George W. Bush, “and the right wing started pushing this theme of voter fraud,” Graves says. “U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn’t do enough to assert non-existent voter fraud.”

Despite pressure from the new Bush administration, strict voter ID laws remained few and far between, with only Indiana and Georgia enacting restrictive ID measures in 2008. But, Graves says, “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 Project21, 62 voter ID bills have been introduced in 37 state legislatures since 2009, with the bulk of the measures introduced or adopted in 2011 and 2012. According to the Brennan Center and Project21, a handful of states have active, strict photo ID laws for voters and more than a dozen others are pending—either hung up in court, awaiting preclearance from the Department of Justice or too recently enacted to be in effect.

“It’s remarkable,” says Jennie Bowser, 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, meanwhile, fingers the culprit. “Suddenly, the Indiana law was dusted off the shelf and put out there as a national model that every state should be pushing,” she says, “and ALEC is behind it.”

The Bill Mill

ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council, and according to critics, it is nothing less than 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,” says Graves, who published 800 internal documents on the website proving ALEC’s cloaked hand in crafting “model legislation” meant for introduction in statehouses around the country.

A call to ALEC’s media relations representative for this story went unanswered, but the organization’s ideological bent is clear enough online: a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”

Registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501c3 nonprofit, ALEC boasts around 2,000 member legislators—the vast majority being Republicans—who pay a nominal fee for membership, and 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 brags on its website that each year about 1,000 pieces of ALEC-written or ALEC-inspired model legislation ends up getting 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. They include the Florida “stand your ground” legislation made infamous by the Trayvon Martin shooting, state-based efforts at overturning or circumventing the Affordable Care Act, and recent measures limiting teacher union powers and handing portions of student instruction over to for-profit education companies. Even Arizona’s hotly-contested immigration law—SB1070—started life as an ALEC-approved “model” bill.

“There’s a whole set of bills that are advancing that corporate agenda to privatize prisons, privatize education, and by privatize I mean profitize,” Graves says.

Profit over Democracy

ALEC raked in more than $21.6 million from corporations (with members including Exxon Mobil, Altria, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer), foundations like none other than the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and nonprofits including the NRA, Goldwater Institute and Family Research Council, according to its IRS filings. In all, private-sector contributions account for nearly 98 percent of ALEC’s funding.

In exchange for these hefty, though tax deductible, donations, ALEC’s private sector members get to ensure that individual pieces of ALEC legislation, by and large, serve a narrow band of very specific corporate interests: education measures benefit for-profit education firms and harm unions; health care measures benefit insurance companies and drug manufacturers; tort reforms benefit corporations in general by limiting their liability to consumers.

More “insidious,” as Graves puts it, is ALEC’s drive against voting rights. “It’s deeply cynical and quite sinister—an outlandish effort by ALEC and others to make it harder for Americans to vote,” she says. “It’s possible that these measures remove maybe 1 percent from the pool of votes that would be part of the election. You still have an election, but you’ve shaved off this percentage; you have the appearance that you have an election.”

Analysis by Project21 found that more than half of the 62 strict ID bills introduced in legislatures since 2009 were based on (or copied from) ALEC’s sample voter ID bill, which was ratified by the group’s membership that same year.

These measures serve no particular business master; rather, they strike at the final weapon the public possesses to stem the tide of corporate-crafted legislation: access to the ballot box.

“The essence of a democracy, and the essence of a representative democracy in the United States, is that we elect people to represent people,” Graves says. “The question is whether our representatives are going to represent us, or if they’re going to represent the interests of global corporations and, in some cases with ALEC, foreign corporations.”

As for why big business would support limiting the franchise, the equation breaks down pretty simply: corporations want to bring down barriers to doing business, and Republicans are more than happy to oblige. If Republicans don’t win elections, then corporations don’t see those barriers lifted. The solution: eliminate the competition. If voting rights get in the way, well, like the notorious mob accountant Otto Berman once said, “it’s nothing personal, just business.”

“The core interest in the suppression that’s going on is partisan, it’s not racial,” says Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “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.”

In April, Common Cause filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS alleging that ALEC’s lobbying activities make it ineligible for 501c3 nonprofit status. “It’s also about making sure that these really important, fundamental debates happen in the open,” says Nick Surgey, general counsel for Common Cause. “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.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Boise Weekly in Idaho. Flagpole City Editor Blake Aued contributed reporting.