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 in recent years. The measures sound innocuous enough: 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 that person's 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.
What's more, 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.
"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 citizens' lobby group Common Cause.
"We do have election administration problems in the country—with machines breaking down, assuring that votes are counted accurately—and we need to focus our attention there," he says. "This threatens everyone's right to a free and fair election."
Barred at the Box
A symbol of what's wrong with voter ID laws is 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 differs from that used on other official documents. Her adoption itself lacks 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 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 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. The lawsuit was granted a preliminary injunction, and as the case was being appealed in August, Applewhite received an ID using her 20-year-old Medicare card, proof of address and a state document affirming her name and Social Security number. (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, but she's not alone. According to best estimates, strict voter ID laws could effectively disenfranchise millions of voters if adopted nationwide.
According to figures from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 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. Among that group, 18 percent of citizens 65 years of age or older don't have a government-issued photo ID (more than 6 million seniors) and, based on 2000 U.S. Census figures, more than 5.5 million African-American adults lack photo ID—a full 25 percent of eligible black voters. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens, regardless of ethnicity, age or gender, who make less than $35,000 "are more than twice as likely to lack current government-issued photo identification as those earning more than $35,000 a year," the Brennan Center reported, adding that it means at least 15 percent of voting-age Americans in the low-income bracket lack valid ID.
On top of that, the Brennan Center found in its survey that as many as 7 percent of voting-age citizens (more than 13 million adults) don't have ready access to documents proving their citizenship, making the process of getting valid ID all the more complicated.
"These ID laws—and this notion that they don't impose a cost on citizens—are farcical," said Spaulding. "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 2008 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 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 which party 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.
According to Graves, whose organization has made voting rights a priority issue, 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 Act," 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. The Bush administration even tried to redirect the voting-rights section of the civil rights division to push this idea of voter fraud, she adds.
"U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn't do enough to assert nonexistent voter fraud," Graves says.
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 2005. 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 News21, 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 News21, 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 pre-clearance from the Department of Justice, or too recently enacted to be in effect.
"It's remarkable," says 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, 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 some, 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 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, whose Center for Media and Democracy in July 2011 made public 800 internal documents on its website ALECExposed.org, proving 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," she says. "And I use 'operationalize' very purposefully."
A call to ALEC's media relations representative for this story went unanswered, but the organization's ideological bent is clear. On its website, ALEC says it "works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America's state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public."
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 civil justice 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 a thousand 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 cofounded 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, from changes to U.S. gun laws like Florida's "stand your ground" legislation made infamous by the Trayvon Martin shooting, to state-based efforts at overturning or circumventing the Affordable Care Act, to recent measures limiting the powers of teachers' unions and handing portions of student instruction over to for-profit education companies. Even Arizona's hotly contested immigration law, SB 1070, 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," said Graves.
Profit Above All
According to figures from ALEC's own IRS filings from 2007 to 2009, made public by CMD, the organization raked in more than $21.6 million from corporations (with members including Exxon Mobil, Altria, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer); institutions like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation; and nonprofits including the NRA, the Goldwater Institute and the 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, came to just more than $250,000, or about 1 percent of its haul during the same time period.
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; healthcare measures benefit insurance companies and drug manufacturers; tort reforms benefit corporations in general by limiting their liability to consumers.
More "insidious," as Graves put 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. "At the end of the day, depending on which analysis you're looking at, 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."
If voting rights get in the way, well, as notorious mob accountant Otto Berman once said, "Nothing personal. It's just business."
"I think it is a little more class-oriented," says Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a frequent speaker and writer on voting-rights issues.
"The core interest in the suppression that's going on is partisan, it's not racial," he says. "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."