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Conservative Corporate Advocacy Group ALEC Behind Voter Disenfranchisement Efforts

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization linked to corporate and right-wing donors, including the billionaire Koch brothers, has drafted and distributed model legislation, obtained by Campus Progress, that appears to be the inspiration for bills proposed by state legislators this year and promoted by Tea Party activists, bills that would limit access of young people to vote.

Student Voting Laws By State

Click here to view a large version of the image to the right.

ALEC describes itself as a “nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.”

In Wisconsin, where public attention now is focused on Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) efforts to undermine the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining, there is another piece of proposed legislation that could have a substantial negative impact on the state’s young and minority voters. Conservative representatives in the state have proposed a law, backed by Walker, that would ban students from using in-state university- or college-issued IDs for proof-of-residency when voting. If this legislation became law, it would become one of the strictest voter registration laws in the country and would provide significant logistical and financial barriers for a variety of groups, including student and minority voters.**

Meanwhile, as Campus Progress reported last month, in New Hampshire, state House Speaker William O’Brien (R- Hillsborough 4) says that proposed election legislation will “tighten up the definition of a New Hampshire resident.” O’Brien claims that college towns experience hundreds of same-day voter registrations and that those are the ballots of people who “are kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.”

Unfortunately, the examples in Wisconsin and New Hampshire are not isolated incidents. They are part of a disturbing trend of states with new conservative majorities that are attempting to pass laws that would disenfranchise student and minority voters. Some of the legislation is strikingly similar to model legislation drafted by ALEC [PDF].

Rather than seeking to persuade young voters on the issues, these conservatives are aiming to restrict access to voting through draconian measures. Their efforts are raising the ire of College Democrats and College Republicans alike. The president of the College Republicans at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Richard Sunderland, tells Campus Progress that the GOP should focus on bringing “younger students into the fold as Republicans, as opposed to this, which seems like more of an attack.”

Sunderland adds that while he is a Republican, “The way I see the lines here, is we are students and first and foremost. As students, this is attacking our right to vote.”

According to research by the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) and Campus Progress, in the past six years, seven states have enacted laws that disenfranchise students or make it more difficult for them to vote. This year, 18 additional states are considering similar laws, while other states are proposing voter ID laws that would depress turnout among other groups of voters—particularly those who traditionally lean left.

These requirements run the gamut from requiring in-state driver’s licenses, to banning school IDs, to prohibiting first-time voters—essentially every college-aged voter—from voting by absentee ballot. All together, these barriers create new logistical and financial barriers for many people attempting to vote.

How the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) spurred restrictive voter ID laws

Many of the state proposals appear to stem from model legislation known as the Voter ID Act (also known as Photo ID) that was developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

In a 2009 public report [PDF], ALEC described Voter ID legislation as “proactive” and offered up examples of states successfully passing the legislation as providing “a helpful guide” for other states to follow.

Deemed the “political player you’ve never heard of” by Fortune magazine earlier this year, ALEC was launched in 1973 by Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and is funded by conservative organizations including the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation. ALEC’s “Private Enterprise Board,” includes representatives from companies including Peabody Energy, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart, as well as Koch Industries.

ALEC charges corporations a fee and gives them access to members of state legislatures. Under ALEC’s auspices, legislators, corporate representatives, and ALEC officials work together to draft model legislation, generally on business-related issues. As ALEC spokesperson Michael Bowman told NPR, this system is especially effective because “you have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters.”

Tea Party organizations, like the Wisconsin Patriot Coalition, also look to ALEC for guidance. The group lists the Voter ID Act in its legislative agenda [PDF] and directly links back to ALEC as its source.

Charles Monaco, the press and new media specialist at the Progressive States Network, a state-based organization that has been tracking this issue, says, “ALEC is involved with a vast network of well-funded right wing organizations working to spread voter ID laws in the state legislatures. It is clear what their purpose is with these laws—to reduce progressive turnout and tilt the playing field towards their preferred candidates in elections.”

Some of the ties between these networks are easily identifiable: Courtney O’Brien, the staff member at ALEC responsible for the group’s elections task force, previously worked at the Charles G. Koch Foundation.

ALEC’s efforts seem to be working. Out of the eight states that have legislators currently listed as members of the ALEC Public Safety and Elections task force, five are either considering or already have laws that were graded harmful to student voting. New Hampshire and Wisconsin, the two states currently considering the most extreme version of the law, both have ALEC members represented on the committees. And in Wisconsin, that member is Rep. Scott Suder (R-District 69), the state’s Majority Leader, who ushered the legislation through the Wisconsin State Assembly. That legislation includes provisions similar to the ALEC model legislation, which Campus Progress obtained from a source outside of ALEC. This copy shows that the model law was approved by the ALEC board of directors on Aug. 27, 2009.

(ALEC refused to distribute the model legislation to Campus Progress.ALEC spokesperson Raegan Weber* emailed, “Model legislation is a privilege of membership and therefore we don’t provide this publicly” — a somewhat unusual practice by a non-profit public policy group organized under the Internal Revenue Service code as a 501(c)(3) charitable or educational group; most such organizations make public most fruits of their labors, rather than concealing it from people who aren’t members.)

ALEC spokesperson Weber stated that the group is “neutral” as to whether student IDs should count as an acceptable form of ID. However, the ALEC model legislation obtained by Campus Progress shows that it would indeed prohibit student IDs. Additionally, of the four states cited as positive examples for Voter ID by ALEC in June 2009, three would not consider student IDs an acceptable proof of residency. One of those four states is Indiana, and One Wisconsin Now, a progressive Wisconsin political organization, noted that, “The bill’s authors, Republican Rep. Jeff Stone and Sen. Joe Leibham, have modeled their bill after Indiana’s Voter ID law.”

Where is the alleged voter fraud?

While the legislation promoted by ALEC and its allies is supposedly aimed at reducing voter fraud, there is little evidence that it would actually achieve that goal. In Wisconsin, for example, investigations by the attorney general, a Republican, found that in 2008, out of the three million votes, only 20 of them were fraudulent. And it’s not clear the proposed law could have prevented those 20 fraudulent votes.

“There is no evidence of widespread or systemic voter fraud occurring in the U.S. in recent history,” says Robert Brandon, president of FELN. “These photo ID bills really are a solution in search of a problem. I don’t understand why state legislatures would seek to spend millions of dollars implementing laws to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. With most states facing such high budget deficits, this just seems irresponsible.”

ALEC has helped its members skirt these truths by pointing out that the lack of problem isn’t necessarily a deterrent. In the case of Indiana’s successful passage of Voter ID, ALEC writes there “was no requirement that Indiana show prior evidence of impersonation fraud in Indiana to justify a voter ID law.”

Voter disenfranchisement: a deliberate attempt to shape 2012 elections

The real effect of these Voter ID laws is to deter and prevent entire categories of potential voters from casting ballots—students and other young people, and minority voters. It’s unclear how disenfranchising any voter relates directly to ALEC’s stated principles of “limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.” Efforts by corporate, conservative, and Tea Party interests to enact laws that would disenfranchise progressive-leaning constituencies—without evidence that vote fraud is a widespread issue—can only be viewed as a cynical, hardball tactic.

The bills attack the right to vote, a right at the heart of democracy. Legislative efforts to stop young people and other minorities from voting are gaining ground across the country—and such efforts could dramatically alter the landscape of the 2012 elections.

[Editor’s note: This article is part of Campus Progress‘ ongoing investigation into attacks on young people’s access to voting. You can read the previous article on New Hampshire’s proposed legislation here. Campus Progress plans to publish a full report on these issues soon.]

*This piece originally referred to Raegan Weber as ALEC’s “spokesman,” but Weber is a woman. We regret the error.

**This paragraph originally noted that the legislation would eliminate same-day registration. While Rep. Kleefisch has indicated his intention to propose such legislation, he has not yet introduced his legislation. The paragraph has been changed to reflect the current state of Wisconsin legislation.

Tobin is the deputy director for Campus Progress.

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