Astonishing. Remarkable. Sinister. Those are words that come up again and again when confronting the wave of voter-identification laws that has swept through more than 30 Republican-dominated state Legislatures in recent years.
The measures sound innocuous enough: When a voter shows up to the polls on Election Day, he or she must present valid photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
The goal, proponents say, is to combat in-person voter fraud. But study after study, including an exhaustive investigation by the Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has found almost no evidence that in-person voter fraud occurs. Culling through 5,000 documents over 10 weeks, the News21 project found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000: about one case for every 15 million eligible voters.
"We've heard it time and time again: It really is a solution in search of a problem," said Stephen Spaulding, Washington D.C.-based staff counsel for the nonprofit citizens' lobby group Common Cause.
If there's anyone approximating a symbol of what's wrong with what are referred to as "restrictive" or "strict" photo ID laws, it's Viviette Applewhite. At 93 years old, Applewhite is an African-American Pennsylvanian who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and has cast her ballot in almost every election since the 1960s.
Her purse was stolen years ago, and with it, her Social Security card. Since she was adopted as a child, the name on her birth certificate differed from that used on other official documents. Her adoption itself lacked any kind of record.
Under Pennsylvania's voter ID law, which was passed in March 2012, Applewhite could not obtain the required identification to participate at the polls.
Her case, and the case of others similarly affected by the law, was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the D.C.-based law firm Arnold and Porter. The lawsuit, which alleged the state's voter ID law violated Pennsylvania's Constitution by denying citizens the right to vote, was denied a preliminary injunction and bounced on appeal from district court to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sent the challenge back to the lower court for reconsideration.
On Oct. 2, Judge Robert Simpson, a judge for the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, granted the preliminary injunction, allowing people like Applewhite to vote in the 2012 election without photo ID.
According to figures from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, as many as 11 percent of adult U.S. citizens do not have any form of government-issued photo identification, accounting for more than 21 million people. Among that group, 18 percent of citizens 65 years of age or older don't have government-issued photo ID (more than 6 million seniors), and, based on 2000 U.S. Census figures, more than 5.5 million African-American adults lack photo ID—a full 25 percent of eligible black voters. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens, regardless of ethnicity, age or gender, who make less than $35,000 "are more than twice as likely to lack current government-issued photo identification as those earning more than $35,000 a year," the Brennan Center reported.
Indiana's restrictive voter ID law, which is seen as the test case for similar laws nationwide, was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 2008 because it was not found to be burdensome to voters.
"Clearly that's not the case," Spaulding said.
It doesn't take much analysis to figure out the upshot of proliferating voter ID requirements: fewer seniors, students, people of color and low-wage earners at the polls.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that the legislators carrying these bills are not Democrats," said Lisa Graves, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy.
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.
"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."
ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council. 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 the privilege of getting together with sympathetic lawmakers at lavish retreats.
Even though the organization has been active for nearly 40 years, ALEC has remained largely under the radar. Nonetheless, its impact 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, to Arizona's hotly contested immigration law, SB1070.
According to figures from ALEC's own IRS filings from 2007 to 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.
Analysis by News21 found that more than half of the 62 strict ID bills introduced in legislatures since 2009 were based on (or copied from) ALEC's sample voter ID bill, which was ratified by the group's membership that same year.
However, increasing media scrutiny and public outrage, ALEC's operations—and specifically its voter ID push—may well hurt both its bottom line.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change called on its members to urge corporations to drop their support for ALEC. To date, 41 corporate ALEC members have stopped funding the group, including big names like Walmart, Coca Cola, Kraft, Amazon, Johnson and Johnson and General Motors.
Losing corporate members and disbanding task forces is one thing, but ALEC may have an even bigger problem on its hands. Common Cause in April filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS alleging that ALEC's lobbying activities make it ineligible for 501(c)3 status.