Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director in the Democracy Program for the Brennan Center for Justice, brought a message about the urgent need to protect voting rights to Congress last week, when he testified before the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
“Voters, who turned out in record numbers last fall, are facing a backlash wave of restrictive voting laws more significant than we have seen since before the Voting Rights Act was enacted. As of June 21, 17 states had enacted 28 laws restricting voting access. And this is just the latest wave in an almost decade-long trend of restrictive action,” said Morales-Doyle. “The reality is,” he wrote later that day, “state legislatures are not hacking but slicing away at voting rights from every angle. They shave away access to mail voting, they cut back on in-person voting, they trim voters from the rolls through faulty purges. While any one slice might appear minor, the end result is death by a thousand cuts.”
The Brennan Center reports that legislators across the country, almost all of them Republicans, have proposed almost 400 bills that threaten voting rights.
It’s clear that this isn’t happening by chance. Watchdog groups point to a well-organized and well-funded effort to make it harder for millions of Americans to cast their ballots. A recent letter, backed by more than 300 voting rights groups and their allies, asked corporations to stop funding the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. In particular, the letter referenced internal documents obtained by the watchdog group Documented, as well as studies by the Center for Media and Democracy, showing that ALEC and its members have been highly engaged with efforts to undermine voting rights and democracy.
“In an internal memo, Heritage Action, an advocacy group leading the effort to pass voting restrictions at the state level, recently wrote that ALEC would be a key policy and lobbying partner in their multi-year campaign to push anti-voter laws, many of which specifically target and limit voting access for people of color, young people, and the elderly,” noted the letter. “One report has identified more than 100 state legislators connected to ALEC that are lead sponsors or co-sponsors of bills that limit voting access in Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas in 2021 alone.”
While the letter raised an outcry about corporate funding of ALEC, that only scratched the surface. There’s a lot more to be learned about how the assault on voting rights has been organized, who is coordinating it, and who is paying for it. Heritage Action, for instance, is not required to reveal its donors. But the group, which identifies as “an independent partner organization affiliated with The Heritage Foundation,” has a history of being funded by billionaire conservatives such as Charles Koch and his late brother David.
The Kochs and their allies have a history of deep ties to ALEC, as well.
But it is not enough to identify the usual suspects. To get to the bottom of the story of this assault on voting rights, it’s necessary to dig deeper.
Enter Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the watchdog group that has a record of targeting “government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests and personal gain.”
“The public deserves to know whether special interests are influencing state legislators and what are the motivations behind bills that could disenfranchise already marginalized communities,” CREW announced Thursday. “That’s why we’re requesting records.”
Since the beginning of July, the group has filed multiple requests seeking public records from legislatures in Texas, Florida, and other states that have enacted voter suppression laws since the 2020 election. In these filings, “CREW has requested records from state legislatures that might show discriminatory motives by legislators, such as knowledge that the laws would adversely affect minority groups, any evidence backing up the legislators’ claims that the laws would prevent purported voter fraud or irregularities, and communications with right wing advocacy groups, like the Heritage Foundation and Susan B. Anthony List, which have pushed these bills.”
In the Texas filing, as an example, CREW asked for “all records reflecting any communications, meetings, phone calls, or conversations regarding SB 1111 (a sweeping voter suppression measure) or any predecessor version of that bill with representatives of any non-governmental or private organization.” It then listed a number of organizations it was specifically interested in, including Heritage Action for America, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Federalist Society.
Gathering this information is a vital part of the forensic inquiry into the drive to suppress the vote in the states. It makes it easier to name and shame the organizations, the corporations, and the billionaires who are behind what the signers of the letter to ALEC’s corporate funders identify as “this modern Jim Crow effort.”