Carole Levine May 22, 2021
There was outrage when a leaked video of a meeting of Heritage Foundation donors showed Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, proudly stating that they were responsible for the new voter suppression laws in Georgia. Ms. Anderson bragged about legislation in other states saying, “In some cases, we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.” Does this mean that voter suppression is part of the right wing philosophy that the “mothership” of Heritage Action for America – The Heritage Foundation has at its core? And does this bragging to donors beget more funds for this kind of work, thus laying the groundwork for a future of even more state (and perhaps local) election laws that will find new ways to limit the votes of people of color, the elderly, the disabled, the young and women.
But the state of Iowa was not having any of this. Democrats in the Iowa state House of Representatives filed ethics complaints against Heritage Action and the Heritage Foundation for violating the state’s lobbying rules. Other investigations in the state are also underway. And investigators from a watchdog group apparently have video of Jessica Anderson bragging about her group’s work on crafting the law in Iowa that that cuts early voting, restricts mail ballot drop boxes, and takes away power from local election officials. “Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson told top Heritage Foundation donors in Tucson, Arizona, on April 22. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’”
All of this is in dispute in Iowa, where the Republicans claim that no one met with anyone from the Heritage Foundation and no advice, lobbying or otherwise on voting legislation was exchanged. No one from Heritage registered as a lobbyist as required by Iowa law although they claimed to have worked closely with the state legislature. “They definitely never had a single conversation with me,” said Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, one of the bill’s authors. “No emails. No text messages. No phone calls. No in-person meetings. No nothing. They wrote nothing to do with that bill. They had zero input.” Clearly, in Iowa, Heritage is getting little love and no traction.
But this is not exactly the case in a number of other states that have worked hard to suppress the vote since the large voter turnout of the 2020 election, and in Georgia since the Senatorial runoffs that followed in January 2021. In these states, the Republicans in power have tried to put some space between them and Heritage Action, there is a trail of connections. In Georgia, where Heritage Action claimed to have given them the model for their legislation, contributing “eight provisions” in the Georgia law, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said they did not write the bill. Heritage did, however, register four lobbyists to advocate for the bill, submitted testimony on it, and hosted two members of the legislature at its donor summit (one was the bill’s author in the House who thanked the organization for its help). Heritage Action also had registered lobbyists in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This was all part of its $24 million campaign to write, pass and defend restrictive voting bills.
As we ponder the work of organizations like Heritage Action (and the Heritage Foundation) in working hand in glove with state legislators to craft bills and develop model legislation that can be taken from one state capital to another, the question of just how common this is rears it head. And the answer is quite common. And it is done on both sides of the isle. Interest groups with a stake in the game will often come to the table with not only an “ask” for a change in a law or a policy, but with the actual model legislation so as to make it easy on the legislator and his/her staff. This is done at the local, state and federal level. Does it make one feel good about how our governments function? Well, perhaps that depends on which side of what law you are you are advocating for.
And writing model legislation is big business. Perhaps you have heard of ALEC. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded in 1970 and described on its website as America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. On its 2018 federal 990 form ALEC describes its mission as: a forum for stakeholders to exchange ideas and potential solutions. ALEC’s mission is to advance and promote the Jeffersonian principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. But just the year before, in 2017, its 990 read that its mission was to assist State Legislators, members of Congress and the general and business public by sharing research and educational information. One might wonder why this change in mission, or whether or not this really is a change. ALEC’s 2018 990 form also shows that it took in over $9 million in revenue and contributions. One would only assume that number has grown since then. What ALEC is well known for is working with state legislators (and others) in doing just what Heritage Action has bragged about doing on voter suppression, only ALEC has a much larger portfolio. Their work includes a list of 28 issues ranging from education and energy, to health, criminal justice, transportation, and workforce development. And if you need a model policy to use as a base for what your state is developing, ALEC is the place to go, as long as your politics align with right-wing federalism.
What was missing on the ALEC website was the link to voting suppression or some means of regulating voting to the advantage of the right. But perhaps, voting suppression is not something ALEC wanted to display openly on its website after backlash from corporate members in 2012 over its involvement in promoting voter ID and stand your ground laws. But ALEC, like Heritage Action is again deep in the muck of voter suppression. Writing this week for the Center for Media and Democracy, Alex Kotch exposes the ties between ALEC and its member state lawmakers and the churn of voter suppression laws that have come out after the 2020 election. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, at least 80 ALEC-tied lawmakers are co-sponsors of 21 bills in 9 states that expand the power of poll watchers and over 100 politicians with ALEC ties are leading suppression efforts in battleground states.
Much of this work is supposedly done in secret with “secret” groups that later get exposed. A group, created in 2019, had its core work described by ALEC CEO in Lisa Nelson in an email inviting select legislators to join this secret group. Nelson stated, “The issues we plan to cover include but are not limited to; election law and ballot integrity; campaign finance; electoral college; redistricting and citizen vote questions.” They were joined in this work by staff from Heritage and supported by many of the corporations who later signed on to letters denouncing voter suppression after the Georgia laws were passed. Many of these corporations claimed to no longer be members of ALEC.
If you recall the fervor of denial that Iowa’s voter suppression laws were not written by unregistered lobbyists from Heritage Action, you might now ponder whether or not they might have come from ALEC (as have other, non-election/voting-related legislation). There is logic in making that connection. As these powerful, well-financed, corporately-backed organizations, both the Heritage Foundation (and its child – Heritage Action) and ALEC, wield their influence on our elected officials, it would be wise to give some thought to just how much power and influence they hold. Who is in control when those we elect to office no longer need to think through what should go into a piece of legislation but can simply “fill in the blank” in a model that is designed to suppress the rights of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Women, the young, the disabled, and the elderly and to empower the wealthy and white supremacists. Are we conceding the work of legislating to these organizations and their funders? Perhaps we need to direct some of our outrage at these kinds of actions to support for the federal For the People Act of 2021 (H.R.1/S.1) and the Jon Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (H.R. 4/S.4). Both address different aspects of voting suppression and the eliminate the use of dark money that protects donors who contribute to these suppression efforts. Perhaps it is time for more of us to follow the advice of the late Congressman John Lewis and get into “good trouble” when it comes to state legislation.