A growing number of conservative Republican state legislators worked fervently during the last two years to enact laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Lawmakers proposed 62 photo-ID bills in 37 states in the 2011 and 2012 sessions, with multiple bills introduced in some states. Ten states have passed strict photo-ID laws since 2008, though several face legal challenges.
A News21 analysis found that more than half of the 62 bills were sponsored by members or conference attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based, tax-exempt organization.
Pennsylvania’s law, which is counted among that group, was sponsored by Republican State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, an ALEC member. The law has been challenged in court and a decision is expected this week. Signed into law on March 14, the law requires an acceptable photo ID.
Metcalfe, from Butler County, said he had been a member of ALEC for more than a decade and had found it helpful for public and private sectors to share public-policy ideas.
He said that his interest in voter ID had always been “outside of ALEC” and that his bill was modeled after an Indiana law but with some tweaks based on testimony at hearings and input from Pennsylvania residents.
“We knew the Indiana law was upheld by the Supreme Court,” he said. “I’m not sure how much ALEC influenced Indiana law.”
ALEC has nearly 2,000 state legislator members who pay $100 in dues every two years. Most of ALEC’s money comes from nonprofits and corporations — from AT&T to Bank of America, from Chevron to eBay — that pay thousands in dues each year.
ALEC’s staff declined to discuss with News21 the group’s role in advocating for voter-ID bills.
“I very rarely see a single issue taken up by as many states in such a short period of time as with voter ID,” said Jennie Bowser, senior election-policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group that tracks state laws. “It’s been a pretty remarkable spread.”
A strict photo-ID law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, requires voters to show photo ID or cast a provisional ballot, which is not counted unless the voter returns with an ID to the elections office within a few days. Less-strict laws allow voters without ID to sign an affidavit or have a poll worker vouch for their identity — no provisional ballot necessary.
Pennsylvania’s law requires voters to show an acceptable photo ID or cast a provisional ballot and return with the ID within six days. It was passed by a GOP-controlled legislature and signed by a GOP governor.
The flurry of bills introduced the last two years followed the 2010 midterm election, when Republicans took control of state legislatures in Alabama, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
The same shift occurred in the 2004 election in Indiana and Georgia before those states became the first to pass strict voter-ID laws.
In Pennsylvania, the photo-ID bill became law four months ago after the GOP took over the House and the governor’s office in the 2010 election.
Metcalfe has long backed voter-ID legislation. A decade ago, he sponsored the bill that became law that requires first-time voters to show ID.
ALEC members drafted a voter-ID bill in 2009, a year when the 501(c) tax-exempt organization had $5.3 million in undisclosed corporate and nonprofit contributions, according to IRS documents.
The group’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force at the 2009 Atlanta meeting approved the “Voter ID Act,” a photo-ID bill modeled on Indiana and Georgia laws.
Arkansas State Rep. Dan Greenberg, Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, and Indiana State Rep. Bill Ruppel (three Republicans now out of office) led drafting and discussion of the Voter ID Act.
Critics of photo voter-ID laws contend that ALEC pushed for photo-ID laws because poor Americans without ID are likely to vote against conservative interests — a contention that authors of the voter-ID bills deny.
“By no means do I want to disenfranchise anyone,” said Colorado Republican State Rep. Libby Szabo, whose ID bills have failed the last two years in the state’s Democratic Senate.
Szabo, an ALEC member, said she did not know ALEC had a model photo-ID bill prior to submitting her legislation.
Paul Weyrich, a political activist and cofounder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, helped start ALEC in 1973.
As ALEC grew, it began drafting and disseminating “model bills” that advocated free-market economic ideas, such as eliminating capital-gains taxes and weakening labor and consumer laws. Its website states: “Each year, close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC Model Legislation, are introduced in the states. Of these, an average of 20 percent become law.”
In December 2011, ColorOfChange.org, a civil-rights advocacy group founded after Hurricane Katrina, began asking corporations to stop funding ALEC because of the group’s role in pushing photo-ID bills.
The seeds of a more serious challenge to ALEC’s funding were planted seven years ago. Florida Republican State Rep. Dennis Baxley, who in 2011 would sponsor the state’s controversial early voting and registration changes, sponsored a “stand your ground” law in 2005 that gave “immunity from criminal prosecution or civil action for using deadly force,” according to the bill’s summary.
In March, ColorOfChange.org began asking ALEC corporate funders why they gave money to a group that supported “stand your ground” and voter-ID laws, two controversial noneconomic issues.
More than 25 corporations, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Wal-Mart, and Amazon, have said they would stop funding ALEC.
“It is vitally important to protect the integrity of our voting system in the United States and such protection must come from the state level,” a July 2009 ALEC newsletter said. “That is why ALEC members are actively working on these issues.
Andy Jones, a former intern, and Jonathan Moody, still an ALEC staff member, wrote that article. Jones declined comment, and Moody did not respond to an interview request.
It is difficult to find exact matches between ALEC’s Voter ID Act and strict photo-ID bills that appeared nationwide in the last two years. Much of the minutiae of the bills’ language differs, which Greenberg said is the objective.
“That’s the way ALEC works. We don’t give people an ironclad law to propose,” he said.
And because Greenberg’s bill was modeled on the Indiana and Georgia laws, many legislators interviewed for this story said their proposals were also based on those laws, not ALEC’s model bill.
Still, the Center for Media and Democracy’s Brendan Fischer said his group sees “pretty strong evidence” of the influence of the Voter ID Act: “We identified numerous instances where legislation introduced in state legislatures contained ‘ALEC DNA’ — meaning the state legislation and the ALEC models shared similar or identical language or provisions.”
State bill sponsors, including Republican State Rep. Cathrynn Brown of New Mexico, said their motivation did not come from ALEC, but from reports about the now-defunct voter-registration group the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
“We had groups like them going around doing registrations and discarding the ones they didn’t like,” Brown said.
ACORN, which endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008, became the target of allegations that videos of its employees showed them encouraging criminal behavior.
ACORN folded in 2010 after Congress and donors pulled its funding.
Former ACORN director Bertha Lewis, who runs a civil-rights group, said she is still defiant toward ACORN’s critics.
“I only regret that we weren’t as prepared, that we were naive when the critics started spreading lies.” she said.
After ALEC’s 2009 Voter ID Act, ACORN’s 2010 collapse, and the 2010 midterm elections, 62 voter ID bills were introduced in state legislatures.
This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
For the complete Voting Rights in America project, visit http://votingrights.news21.com.
Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.