Advocates Alarmed By Powerful Conservative Group's Attention To Voting

Facing pressure, the American Legislative Exchange Council disbanded a task force focused on elections in 2012. Now it seems to be taking a renewed interest.

Two sessions at a summit this week for one of the country’s most powerful conservative groups will focus on voting, something civil rights groups and voting advocates are alarmed by and say could signal the group’s renewed interest in restrictive voting policies.

The focus on voting from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is significant because the group disbanded its Public Safety and Elections Task Force in 2012 following significant pressure from civil rights groups. Beginning in 2009, the task force helped draft model legislation for states to impose voter ID requirements that critics say makes it more difficult for people to vote.

ALEC is an association of about 2,000 state lawmakers with close ties to big business and conservative groups. ALEC produces model legislation on conservative issues that lawmakers can then introduce in their respective statehouses. Among the model measures ALEC backed is the controversial “stand your ground law” and legislation that limit the ability of localities to raise the minimum wage.

An ALEC spokeswoman said in 2012 the organization was ending the task force to focus more on economic issues. But at a policy summit this week, the group will hold two panels focused on voting issues, setting off alarm bells among activists.

“After a lot of controversy over voter ID, ALEC disbanded its task force that dealt with democracy issues and purported to be out of the business of mucking around with voting laws,” said Arn Pearson, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, a group that closely follows ALEC. “This is the first time we’re seeing them come back in on it.”

One of the panels will be a “voter integrity workshop,” in which election experts will “discuss important voting 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.” The panel will also discuss “policy concerns” regarding automatic voter registration, a reform with bipartisan support advocates believe can add millions of Americans to the voting rolls.

A different panel will focus on redistricting as states gear up for the next round of redrawing electoral maps in 2021. The workshop will focus on “significant legal changes from the past decade; a rundown of ongoing litigation, ballot measures, and legislation; what apportionment might look like after the 2020 census and what challenges that will present.” The workshop will also look at what “groups are doing to address the multi-front campaign to shift the redistricting landscape – and find new “rights” in the Constitution.” The workshop will be led by a group called Fair Lines America, a group Pearson said he had never heard of and doesn’t appear to have an online presence.

The panel comes as the Supreme Court is considering a case out of Wisconsin that could, for the first time, set a standard for when gerrymandering can go too far to benefit one political party.

Jay Riestenberg, who closely follows ALEC for Common Cause, a public interest watchdog, said only a few states had adopted voter ID measures before ALEC took an interest in the issue in 2009. When it got out of the business of dealing with voter laws in 2012, he said, they only did so after successfully spreading voter ID laws to dozens of states. Thirty-four states have measures requiring voters to show some kind of identification at the polls.

Bill Meierling, an ALEC spokesman, said the group “does not work on or maintain policy election issues.”

“Workshops are part of the ALEC meeting and can cover a range of issues that may or may not be related to ALEC policy/work,” he said in an email.

Pearson said he was skeptical the panel’s were purely informational.

“ALEC is a pay-to-play outfit. Member organizations pay to sponsor events and workshops. Typically if something is showing up on the agenda it’s because somebody wants to push it,” he said.

“ALEC has been a very anti-democratic organization since its founding. It brings corporate lobbyists and state legislators behind closed doors to trade these so-called model bills,” Riestenberg said. “They’re kind of opposed to the very idea of representative democracy, and so when they have panels about voting and what they call voter fraud or voter integrity, it kind of raises red flags given their history on the issue and their kind of anti-democratic structure.”

Riestenberg said he was surprised ALEC did not post the names of speakers on the panel, something he said it had done in years past. ALEC officials did not respond to a question about who would be speaking on the panels.

The panels also have increased significance amid President Donald Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud and a commission he created in May to investigate it. Led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), members of the panel have favored voter ID, proof of citizenship laws and forcing states to more aggressively purge their voter rolls.

J. Christian Adams, a member of the Trump voter fraud probe, said in a statement he would be participating in the ALEC panel about election integrity. Adams has sued jurisdictions to try and force them to more aggressively purge their voting rolls and has said the Department of Justice is not doing enough to make sure states are maintaining accurate rolls.

Critics say the commission is an effort to weaken confidence in the U.S. election system and to lay the groundwork for more restrictive voting policies. Several studies and investigations have found voter fraud is not a widespread issue.

“There was evidence that ALEC was behind the spate of strict voter ID laws that started to be enacted throughout the country and have been found to have a voter suppressive impact,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the voting rights project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups suing Trump’s voter fraud commission. “Given the present environment with the Pence/Kobach commission moving toward voter purges, we do fear that this could begin another era of suppressive voter laws.”

Trump’s commission has temporarily paused as it faces multiple lawsuits. Riestenberg said ALEC could be working to continue the commission’s work.

“I kind of expected this to be the next wave. The Pence/Kobach commission is caught up in lawsuits. They’re trying to figure out what’s their next move. I think ALEC and other state level advocacy groups on the conservative side are their venue to actually push their agenda since they can’t do it through the commission.”

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