Yelp: Why Joining ALEC Matters

The most memorable moment I have in my political life, by far, is leaving the Maine House in tears, stunned that the majority party had repealed four decades of Election Day registration -- all so they could win elections. It was the moment when I truly questioned whether our democracy would survive, or whether people were even listening.

We had been blindsided by the sudden and unexpected onslaught of anti-voter rhetoric. Op-eds and FAQ sheets circulated faster than we could imagine. Those of us fighting the bill in the Legislature were outmaneuvered even when we exposed the hypocrisy and even lies that were being put before us. For every legislative aid in Maine, there are about ten to twelve lawmakers -- so how was such a coordinated push even possible? We couldn't catch up, let alone respond.

Thankfully, the people were listening. In fact, it was the people of Maine who restored my faith in our future. One by one, they picked up petitions and in under a month had collected enough signatures to put the question to the ballot. On Election Day, 60 percent of Mainers resoundingly voted to protect the voting rights for themselves, their neighbors and even students.

But where did this even come from? This was four decades of sacred ground, upended overnight with a well-coordinated legislative and public relations offensive.

The source, it turns out, was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). While our registration laws were under attack in Maine, a chorus of cries began to erupt from across the country as newly red states pushed restrictive voter ID bills effectively disenfranchising voters. At one point, the Brennan Center estimated 5 million people would be left behind under the new laws. It was only when Ari Berman outlined what was happening in his Rolling Stone article, "The GOP War on Voting," did the tide finally begin to change -- and the truth finally get told.

We now know, of course, that it's not just voter rights that ALEC had set its sights on. They were pushing the castle doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws; rollbacks to environmental protections; opposition to women's rights; anti-worker legislation and the list goes on. They worked with the GOP to effectively gut Maine's model public campaign financing laws -- enacted by the people through referendum -- that open doors for good people to run for office, devoid of the potential for quid-pro-quo donations. Citizens are again picking up pens to put Clean Elections back on the ballot and to restore it.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, people and companies began piecing together the connection between castle doctrines and voter suppression -- and the blatant racial bias inherent in both. Under unprecedented pressure from the public, companies began canceling their ALEC memberships. ALEC, itself, even dismembered its notorious task force that tied public safety with voter laws, formerly chaired by the NRA. (Yes, the NRA actually chaired the committee that approved the vigilante and voter registration model bills.)

Flash forward a bit, and it turns out tech companies such as Yelp are now partnering with ALEC. Let's set aside the intelligence of climbing on board the Titanic after even the rats have left, and analyze their rationale for a moment.

Yelp, a highly popular online consumer review company, has stated that its support is related specifically to so-called SLAPP legislation which uses lawsuits to effectively undermine free speech. If consumers write negative reviews about a company and then are "slapped" with a frivolous lawsuit, they might become less inclined to write said reviews. In legal terms, this is known as "chilling speech." On the point of protecting Free Speech in this one legal area, Yelp and ALEC agree. Working with the other side is just part of politics, right?

While this generally is true, the problem in this case is that it ignores all the other rights that are being stripped from people because of this organization. It ignores the fact that a young kid was gunned down because he was armed with a hoodie, some skittles and an iced tea. It ignores their work to gut Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) at the heart of America's transition to a Clean Energy Economy.

On a simply pragmatic note, it ignores the fact that countless other companies -- who had previously aligned with ALEC to work on their own "very specific" issue areas -- canceled their memberships as soon as they realized the host of other laws with which their name was now being associated. For a company like Yelp who has built its brand entirely on the consumer reviews of other brands, this concept should be rather self-evident.

It was pretty self-evident to Yelp's members who, in just one day, posted more than 2,500 reviews (nearly all negative) about ALEC and Yelp's new relationship -- on the company's own web platform. Further, @Yelp was peppered all day with outraged tweets from across the country.

If Yelp -- and other tech companies -- are serious about protecting First Amendment rights then I'm all in and will commit to working with them to do just that. However, there are better, more ethical means to accomplish this goal than joining an organization who helped lay a foundation for the "he was armed with Skittles" defense.

The reviews are in; it's time for Yelp to end its relationship with ALEC.

Correction: This blog has been updated from its original version to remove the reference to an NPR article regarding a connection between the Corrections Corporation of America and ALEC.