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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.