This article is part of a Nation series exposing the American Legislative Exchange Council, in collaboration with the Center For Media and Democracy. John Nichols introduces the series.
In the heat of Wisconsin’s brutal battle over Governor Scott Walker’s assaults on unions, local democracy, public education and social services, one of his closest allies suddenly shifted direction. State Representative Robin Vos, Republican co-chair of the powerful Legislative Joint Finance Committee, determined that making it harder for college students, seniors and low-income citizens to vote was an immediate legislative priority, and pressed lawmakers to focus on enacting one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.
As ALEC’s chair for Wisconsin, Vos was doing what was expected of him. Enacting burdensome photo ID or proof of citizenship requirements has long been an ALEC priority. ALEC and its sponsors have an enduring mission to pass laws that would make it harder for millions of Americans to vote, impose barriers to direct democracy and let big money flow more freely into campaigns.
Republicans have argued for years that “voter fraud” (rather than unpopular policies) costs the party election victories. A key member of the Corporate Executive Committee for ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force is Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which began highlighting voter ID efforts in 2006, shortly after Karl Rove encouraged conservatives to take up voter fraud as an issue. Kansas Republican Kris Kobach, who along with ALEC itself helped draft Arizona’s anti-immigration law, has warned of “illegally registered aliens.” ALEC’s magazine, Inside ALEC, featured a cover story titled “Preventing Election Fraud” following Obama’s election. Shortly afterward, in the summer of 2009, the Public Safety and Elections Task Force adopted voter ID model legislation. And when midterm elections put Republicans in charge of both chambers of the legislature in twenty-six states (up from fifteen), GOP legislators began moving bills resembling ALEC’s model.
At least thirty-three states have introduced voter ID laws this year. In addition to Wisconsin, Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina and Tennessee have passed similar bills. Only a veto by Democratic Governor John Lynch prevented New Hampshire from enacting a law the Republican House speaker admitted was advanced to make it harder for “liberal” students to cast ballots, and that one state representative described as “directly attributable to ALEC.”
ALEC’s goal is to influence not just state politics but also the 2012 presidential race, to “give the electoral edge to their preferred candidates,” as Cristina Francisco McGuire of the Progressive States Network pointed out in March. “It’s no coincidence that they are waging the fiercest of these battles in states that are also the likeliest battleground states in 2012, where suppressing the youth vote could have a dramatic impact,” she wrote. The one class of voters that ALEC seeks to protect with resolutions and model legislation—overseas military voters—happens to be likely to vote Republican.