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"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 said.
Then came the election of President George W. Bush, "and the right wing started pushing this theme of voter fraud," Graves said. The Bush administration even tried to redirect the voting rights section of the civil rights division to push this idea of voter fraud, she added.
"U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn't do enough to assert nonexistent voter fraud," Graves said.
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 said, "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," said 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 said, "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 flood 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," said Graves, of the Center for Media and Democracy, which 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 said. "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 enough on its website: a "nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions."
Registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) 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 getting together with sympathetic lawmakers at lavish retreats.
Broken up into task forces focused on various aspects of public policy--from education to courts and the environment--ALEC members, both from the public and private sectors, get together and write model bills that 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 1,000 pieces of ALEC-written or ALEC-inspired model legislation end 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 started 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 the Florida "stand your ground" legislation made infamous by the Trayvon Martin shooting (a measure that was crafted with help from the National Rifle Association, a prominent ALEC member), to state-based efforts at overturning or circumventing the Affordable Care Act, to recent measures limiting teacher union powers and handing portions of student instruction over to for-profit education companies. Even Arizona's hotly contested immigration law, SB1070, 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 is the Name of the Game
According to figures from ALEC's own IRS filings from 2007-2009, made public by CMD, the organization raked in more than $21.6 million from corporations (with members including Exxon Mobil, Altria, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer), foundations like none other than the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and nonprofits including the NRA, Goldwater Institute and 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; health care 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 said. "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."