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"The core interest in the suppression that's going on is partisan, it's not racial," explained Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a frequent speaker and writer on voting rights issues. "If African-Americans voted predominately Republican, or 50/50 Republican, I don't think their neighborhoods would be targeted for suppressive efforts. I think that it's a community that now votes 95 percent Democrat, and if you want to knock out Democrat interests, that's a good place to start."
Most important, though, is that suppressing voting rights doesn't hurt the bottom line. "You can be a customer who votes or a customer who doesn't vote," Keyssar said. "It doesn't cost them [corporate interests] anything."
Proponents of voter ID laws say the goal is to combat in-person voter fraud — claiming to be someone you're not and entering a vote in their name. But study after study, including an exhaustive investigation by the News21 project, has found almost no evidence that in-person voter fraud occurs. Combing through 5,000 documents, the News21 project found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000: about 1 case for every 15 million eligible voters.
What's more, requiring state or federally issued ID at the polls has been repeatedly shown by independent analyses to impose a disproportionate burden on very specific demographics: the poor, the elderly, students, and people of color.
"We've heard it time and time again; it really is a solution in search of a problem," said Stephen Spaulding, Washington DC-based staff counsel for the nonprofit good-government group Common Cause. "We do have election administration problems in the country — with machines breaking down, assuring that votes are counted accurately — and we need to focus our attention there," he said. "This threatens everyone's right to a free and fair election."
According to figures from the Brennan Center, as many as 11 percent of adult US 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 US Census figures, more than 5.5 million African-American adults lack photo ID — a full 25 percent of eligible black voters. Meanwhile, US 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, adding that that means at least 15 percent of voting-age Americans in the low-income bracket lack valid ID.
On top of that, the Brennan Center found in its survey that as many as 7 percent of voting-age citizens (more than 13 million adults) don't have ready access to documents proving that they're citizens, making the process of getting valid ID all the more complicated. "These ID laws, and this notion that they don't impose a cost on citizens is farcical," said Spaulding of Common Cause. "We know that in some states it costs money to get documents and get an ID. There are a number of voters who are in a catch-22; they're 90 years old, they were born at home with a midwife, and they don't have a birth certificate. There's the expense of getting those documents, there's the expense — especially in rural areas — of making the trip to get the ID. This notion that these IDs are 'free' does not pass the smell test."
But it's on that notion that voter ID laws have been ruled constitutional. In fact, Indiana's strict 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.
With increasing media scrutiny and public outrage, ALEC's operations — and specifically its voter ID push — may well hurt both its bottom line and the bottom lines of its corporate members. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida earlier this year, nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change leveled criticism directly at ALEC for crafting the "stand your ground" law, and 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 Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, Kraft, Amazon, Johnson & Johnson, and General Motors.
Following reports by the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, The Nation magazine, and others highlighting ALEC's involvement with voter ID laws, the organization shut down its voting and elections task force, "and I don't think that happened by accident," said Spaulding of Common Cause. "That happened after a sustained spotlight was put on them."
Losing corporate members and disbanding task forces is one thing, but ALEC may have an even bigger problem on its hands. In April, Common Cause filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS alleging that ALEC's lobbying activities make it ineligible for 501 (c)(3) status. Based on 4,000 pages of internal ALEC documents — some obtained through public records requests and others from inside sources — Common Cause maintains that "the evidence shows ALEC has an agenda, that they track where their model bills are introduced, that they send out 'issue alerts,' which include updates that go to state legislators where ALEC bills or ALEC-related bills are being introduced, sometimes targeting committees or task force members and including talking points, press releases," said Nick Surgey, Madison, Wisconsin-based general counsel for Common Cause.
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