Last week, we received a phone call at home from a number identified as “Washington, DC.” Our country calling! Of course we picked up. And, ooh boy, was it a doozy.
A voice asked our party affiliation, then asked Question #1: Do we support live-streamed vote-counting (i.e. having a web-cam going at polling sites)? Would we support live-streamed vote-counting if we knew it would deter “election fraudsters?” If “all parties” were granted equal viewing access? If the media had access? If anyone could watch on the Internet?
Question #2: Would we support requiring proof of identity with mail-in ballots? Would we support this ID requirement if we knew it would help protect the votes of minorities? If we knew it would deter “election fraudsters?” (Those again!) If the state provided ID free of charge? If we knew it would “restore faith in the voting system?”
The caller being a robot, we couldn’t ask whether “all parties” would include the “10K Election Integrity Brigade” of (white) poll-watchers the GOP is trying to mobilize, or whether “election fraudsters” would include the former president. Nor could we cite supplemental data (e.g. in many states, the offices that can provide free ID are not convenient to the neighborhoods most in need), or utter mild, fact-based interjections (“but I do trust the voting system, now that courts have dismissed 60+ Trump lawsuits alleging voter fraud”).
It Did Get Me Wondering…
Who was funding this survey? And why did these questions sound so familiar? Ah, that’s right: because similar measures are cropping up across the country. Just two days ago, Texas tried to pass SB7, which would ban drive-through and 24-hour voting; tighten voter-ID requirements; limit the types of buildings that can be used for polling places; afford poll-watchers more leeway; and, yes, make it easier to overturn election results. (According to The New York Times, the bill was hashed out behind closed doors, and sent to the GOP-dominated legislature for a straight up-and-down, no-amendments-possible vote. After fighting it to the last minute, Democrat legislators walked out of the session at close to midnight, depriving the Chamber of the necessary quorum for passing the bill. Governor Greg Abbott has vowed to call a special session to revisit the legislation.)
In Georgia and Florida, new voting laws impose additional ID requirements on anyone requesting or casting an absentee ballot. Arizona and Michigan have introduced similar legislation. Arizona’s GOP state senators are so concerned about election fraud, they’ve hired a team of self-styled “Cyber Ninjas,” who are busy scouring Maricopa County’s 2020 presidential ballots for “Asian bamboo fibers” as we speak. Only the best people. Not coincidentally, Sister District has worked, and continues to work, in all five of these states.
This Is Just The Beginning.
In the first three months of 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, state legislators in 47 states introduced 361 voting bills with “restrictive provisions.” Collectively, these bills would make voter registration harder; limit or eliminate mail ballot drop boxes; expand voter purging; close or consolidate polling places; restrict early voting; empower self-identified “poll watchers” (aka enable state-sponsored violence); penalize state election officials; restrict the availability and hours of ballot drop-boxes; and criminalize good Samaritans who give food or water to people waiting in line to vote (thank you, Georgia). Needless to say, the voters by far most affected would be people of color, as well as students, the elderly, the disabled, and, in the case of urban areas specifically targeted for ballot-box removal, minority, immigrant, and/or Democratic voters.
Well, at least this hatchet-job on democracy is out in the open. Despite pious prattle about “election integrity,” the GOP in reality is no longer bothering to make any pretensive commitment to things like “democracy” or “one person, one vote.” State-sponsored disenfranchisement of non-white-male voters is the logical end for a party whose platform, such as it is — a decades-long grab bag of punitive and regressive policies — is so unpopular with voters, it can’t win at the ballot box, but instead must rely on gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain sway. This is the Hail Mary legislation of a party that is rotting from the inside out.
And yet, a tide of legislative bilge is seeping into almost every statehouse in the country. Why? For one, states are, and always have been, copycats. Lawmakers take note of legislation in other states, for better (gay marriage, clean energy) and for worse (voter suppression, abortion restrictions), then float similar legislation in their own chambers. And there are other players working behind the scenes to facilitate the process, shadowy groups with deep pockets whispering their agendas into lawmakers’ ears. The fact that my phone rang here in Massachusetts suggests that one of these Svengalis is testing the (blue) waters, trying to gauge non-red-state voter support for these kinds of anti-democratic initiatives.
We’ll never know for sure who sponsored our survey… but I have a guess. Because when right-wing, cookie-cutter legislation starts sprouting up like kudzu in statehouses across the country, often word-for-word, it’s usually the work of one group: the American Legislative Exchange Council, aka ALEC.
ALEC: Don’t Let The Friendly Acronym Fool You.
ALEC has been around since 1973, but managed to fly under the radar until 2011, when the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) got hold of documentation detailing its lobbying efforts for “Stand Your Ground” laws and, yes, voter ID measures. ALEC bills itself as “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism,” which is… not entirely accurate. Non-partisan? Of the 2,000 state legislators who pay $50 annually to become an ALEC member, the vast majority are Republicans. Of the 104 legislators in ALEC leadership positions, only one is a Democrat.
The description also fails to mention ALEC’s main constituent: the 300+ for-profit corporations, trade groups, law and lobbying firms, think tanks, and governmental groups that pay thousands of dollars annually to buy a seat at the ALEC table and rub shoulders with legislators. If they really want to advance their agenda, companies will spend thousands of dollars more to exercise “a VOICE and a VOTE,” per ALEC, and co-chair with a legislator one of ALEC’s nine Task Forces: Civil Justice; Commerce, Insurance & Economic Development; Communications & Technology; Criminal Justice Reform; Education & Workforce Development; Energy, Environment & Agriculture; Federalism & International Relations; Health & Human Services; and Tax & Fiscal Policy, which just about covers every aspect of our lives.
The Push to “Keep Nine”
At every level, ALEC’s “Private Sector” (corporate) and “Public Sector” (political) members work together to craft “model bills,” with the goal of disseminating these to statehouses far and wide. Legislators simply need to fill in the blanks, trot the bill back home, and introduce it in their own statehouses, with no mention of their corporate co-writers. Easy-peasy! For an example of ALEC’s one-right-wing-size-fits-all process, behold this 2020 model bill urging states to push for a constitutional amendment that would cap the Supreme Court at nine justices (having supported confirmation of the “tremendously qualified” Amy Coney Barrett, ALEC has an incentive):
BE it resolved by the [INSERT LEGISLATIVE CHAMBER] of the State (or Commonwealth) of [INSERT STATE or COMMONWEALTH]:
Section 1. That the Congress of the United States is directed to propose to the states the following amendment to the United States Constitution:
“The Supreme Court of the United States shall be composed of nine Justices.”
Section 2. That certified copies of this resolution be sent to the presiding officers of the Congress of the United States, to the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives, to the presiding officer of each chamber of each state legislature in the United States, and to the members of the Congress of the United States from [INSERT STATE/COMMONWEALTH].
Sure enough, on January 20, 2021, Inauguration Day, the Republican-trifecta state of Iowa adopted a “Keep Nine” resolution. Seventeen other states have since followed suit.
A savvy, well-funded ALEC corporation can inject its agenda deep into state legislation for years on end. An NRA representative, for example, served as Co-Chairman of ALEC’s Public Safety & Elections (formerly Criminal Justice & Homeland Security) Task Force from 2008–2011, and on its predecessor Crime Committees for many years. (The PS&E Task Force, which crafted the aforementioned “Stand Your Ground” legislation and voter ID restrictions, disbanded in 2012, and was replaced by the Orwellian-sounding “Justice Performance Project.”)
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, which deserves a gold medal for its investigative work, ALEC’s 2021 Private Enterprise Advisory Council members include the American Bail Coalition, K12 Inc. (a public, for-profit online education company), Altria, and Koch Companies Public Sector LLP (Koch Industries is a longtime ALEC governing board member).
ALEC alumni include former Governors Nikki Haley and Rick Perry; Representatives Marsha Blackburn and Jim Jordan; and Senators Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and, sigh, Joe Manchin. Despite the fact that more than 98% of ALEC’s revenues flow in from corporate sources, ALEC maintains a 501(c)(3) non-profit status as an “educational” organization. (Like the NRA! No, really.)
In addition to thwarting any Democratic efforts to redress the Merrick Garland/ Brett Kavanaugh/ Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court travesties, ALEC has many goals for 2021, including limiting governors’ emergency powers, pandemic be damned; “reaffirming the necessity of the Electoral College;” maintaining “equity and fairness” in taxation (“The tax system should not be used to punish success or ‘soak the rich’”); and encouraging businesses to hire independent contractors (no benefits!).
Most worrisome, ALEC seems fully on board with the GOP’s voter-suppression efforts. According to CMD investigative crackerjacks Don Wiener and Alex Kotch, ALEC created a “secret working group” in 2019 to address redistricting, ballot measures, and election law. The group remains unmentioned on ALEC’s website, but it turns out state legislators with verifiable ALEC ties have introduced voter-suppression bills in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Judging by my phone survey, bringing the fight to Massachusetts may yet be in the works.
Will the “For the People Act” save us? Currently making its way through Congress as SR1/HR1, the Act would expressly expand voting rights. Unsurprisingly, ALEC “urge[s] all Congressional Representatives and Senators to oppose it.” So far, six states have introduced non-binding resolutions opposing the Act and urging Congress to reject it.
State legislators are returning from their expenses-paid, ALEC-sponsored jaunts and using the democratic legislative process to push anti-democratic legislation. These non-patriots do not belong in our statehouses. Vote the bums out in November 2022, and let’s get legislators into office who actually believe in democracy, and who will enact laws to protect the principle of one person, one vote.
In the meantime, if we’ve learned anything from the redoubtable Stacey Abrams, it’s the power of local grassroots organizations on the ground that are building community and mobilizing voters year-round, day in and day out. Through Sister District Action Network’s State Bridges Program, SDP MA-RI is supporting New Virginia Majority and New Georgia Project Action Fund, two grassroots powerhouses working to strengthen the vote in these critical state.
Done? Thank you!
Now, click here to see SDP’s complete schedule of State Bridges events (descriptions of groups are below).
Finally… answer your phone. Pressing “1 for no” may be a small way to make your voice heard, but it’s a start.
– Juliet Eastland
SISTER DISTRICT SUPPORTS…
Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA): Engages in voter registration and education, and builds power with Arizona’s working families to advance social, racial, and economic justice for all.
Florida Rising: created by a merger of New Florida Majority and Organize Florida, two of the state’s longest standing grassroots organizations; organizes multi-racial movements to win elections and change laws.
New Georgia Project Action Fund (NGPAF): increases civic participation of underrepresented and underserved communities by mobilizing voters of color, young voters, and first-time voters, and building grassroots political power in support of progressive candidates.
North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Education Fund: an organization of Black trade unionists and community activists fighting for racial equality and economic justice for all Americans, and fostering self-improvement, self-empowerment, and self-sufficiency.
Texas Organizing Project (TOP): helps lead direct-action organizing, grassroots lobbying, and electoral organizing in Dallas (population 2.6 million), Harris (4.7 million), and Bexar (2 million) Counties.
Remember October 2020, when TX Governor Abbot tried to mandate just one absentee-ballot drop-off box per county?
New Virginia Majority: has knocked on 1 million + doors, with the goal of transforming Virginia through large-scale civic engagement, advocacy, and community organizing.
Citizen Action of Wisconsin: dedicated to economic, racial, and environmental justice; bridges the urban/rural/suburban state divide via multiracial organizing.