ALEC to voter suppression laws: We just can’t quit you

Is the secretive corporate lobby group that helped pass a wave of voter ID laws earlier in the decade getting back into the voter suppression game?

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) will host a panel Thursday on “Voting Integrity Policy,” part of a three-day policy conference in Nashville, Tenn., according to its website. The panel’s existence suggests ALEC may once again be engaging on the voting issue after stepping back from it amid controversy several years ago.

The panel’s participants haven’t been announced, and an ALEC spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for more information. But the brief description of the panel on ALEC’s site says it will discuss “policies and legislation in the states to improve the integrity of elections, the accuracy and security of state voter registration rolls, and new ways to verify the eligibility of voters.” It also will cover “policy concerns with automatic voter registration.”

Reading between the lines, that suggests the panel is intended to help build support for the kind of restrictive voting and registration policies that the White House’s controversial voting commission appears to be interested in: aggressive purging of state voter rolls, including using federal databases to identify ineligible voters; and laws requiring that people registering to vote show documentary proof of citizenship.

The panel also appears designed to hone criticisms of automatic voter registration, an increasingly popular reform that in Oregon, the first state to implement it stating last year, has dramatically expanded access to voting.

ALEC works by drafting cookie-cutter bills that conservative state legislators can introduce in as many states as possible. In 2009, its Public Safety and Elections Task Force adopted voter ID model legislation. Two years later, after Republicans had won control of a slew of state legislatures in the 2010 midterms, at least 33 states introduced voter ID legislation, with many bills resembling ALEC’s model. A key legislative champion of Wisconsin’s ID bill, perhaps the nation’s strictest, was ALEC’s Wisconsin chair.

But in 2012, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin focused public attention on ALEC’s role in pushing controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws that favor gun-owners. Many of these laws, too, were developed by ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force. Amid a pressure campaign by civil rights groups, several major corporations, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s dropped their affiliations with ALEC. Some suggested they were uncomfortable with ALEC’s work on non-economic issues like Stand Your Ground and voter ID. Soon afterwards, ALEC announced it was disbanding the Public Safety and Elections Task Force.

“We are refocusing our commitment to free-market, limited government and pro-growth principles, and have made changes internally to reflect this renewed focus,” ALEC’s then-chairman, Indiana state Rep. David Frizzell (pictured), a Republican, said in announcing the decision. “We are eliminating the ALEC Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with non-economic issues, and reinvesting these resources in the task forces that focus on the economy.”

Of course, the lines can be blurry. Some of ALEC’s economic campaigns since then — like those aimed at getting states to pre-empt local environmental and minimum wage laws and described in The Great Suppression — have also blatantly undermined democracy. But ALEC has largely stayed away from voting policy itself.

Now though, with a White House panel doing all it can to build momentum for a new round of restrictive state voting policies, ALEC may have decided that it just can’t stay on the sidelines any longer.

“With a model ‘voter ID’ bill, ALEC was key to the spread of voter suppression bills across the country,” said Mary Bottari, the deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which has tracked ALEC’s activities for years. “If ALEC is looking at ‘new ways to verify the eligibility of voters,’ be prepared to hear about vote role purging and other techniques to block the vote.”

Late Update: At the same conference this week, ALEC is planning a panel on redistricting.

Even Later Update: J. Christian Adams, a leading conservative on the White House voting commission, has said he’ll be appearing on the voting panel.

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