July 01, 2014

ALEC Exposed

by Rebekah Wilce, Lisa Graves

Not all Americans have heard of “ALEC,” the American Legislative Exchange Council, but every American is living under some of the “model” laws secretly pre-voted on by corporate lobbyists voting as equals with state legislators behind closed doors through this powerful special interest group. ALEC has undermined Americans’ civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights in numerous ways.

As many marked the passing of Nelson Mandela and recalled the hard-fought victory over the cruelty of apartheid, few knew ALEC was instrumental in thwarting divestment during the Reagan administration. Financially backed by corporate investors in South Africa, like Exxon and Dow, ALEC peddled disreputable claims to state and federal leaders, such as that “black South Africans oppose disinvestment,” and distributed photos of its leaders with Gatsha Buthelezi, whose Inkatha party aided the white regime and deployed death squads. Fast-forward to 2013: ALEC was silent on Mandela’s passing and its own role in prolonging apartheid.

Today, ALEC is most widely known for proliferating the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law initially cited to prevent the arrest of George Zimmerman for killing teenager Trayvon Martin. Before 2012, ALEC bragged that it got that bill introduced in states across the country. Few knew that this Florida law was unanimously ratified as a national ALEC model in a secret vote by corporate lobbyists and legislators at a meeting co-chaired by Walmart, the largest retailer of ammunition in the world. Walmart dumped ALEC in 2012 after the Zimmerman case went national. Since 2012, more than 90 private sector members have left ALEC amid controversy over its activities.

Such laws make it easier to get away with killing someone: Jury instructions stress the defendant’s right to “stand his ground” but not the shooting victim’s. Its immunity provisions could compel the victim’s family to pay the killer’s lost wages and fees. ALEC has since stopped promoting this bill, but it has done nothing to get such laws repealed.

That’s not all. Three-strikes laws, mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing, and more jail for shoplifting were pushed by ALEC. Its zeal to privatize prisons has fundamentally altered our criminal justice system, making it very profitable to arrest and lock up more Americans and immigrants and do so for longer. It should be no surprise that the Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group bankrolled ALEC for years.

Now ALEC claims it wants to alleviate state budgets burdened by too many prisoners by joining up with the American Civil Liberties Union to get prisoners released but without ALEC taking any real responsibility for fueling this crisis. The private bail bonds industry and electronic monitoring companies have funded ALEC, too, raising the question: Which ALEC funders will profit from increasing the number of people on supervised release?

Bills that make it harder for Americans to vote through voter ID restrictions were also spawned by ALEC, after it made that measure a priority following Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008 with high turnout among college students and the elderly and in cities with significant populations of African Americans. Some courts have found that ALEC-inspired voter restrictions have a disproportionate impact on these constituencies—an estimated 11 percent of whom do not have the IDs required—and that the rationale that such restrictions are needed to prevent voter fraud is statistically baseless. That “model” bill was voted on by corporate lobbyists and legislators at an ALEC task force co-chaired by the National Rifle Association, without the press or public present. ALEC has tried to distance itself from that bill but it has done nothing to unto the damage. After the last mid-term elections, ALEC even arranged for its state legislators to get special advice on redistricting from the Republican National Committee’s former counsel, hardly a non-partisan approach to elections and the idea of one person/one vote.

ALEC has also backed numerous bills limiting the civil right to a trial by jury in cases where a corporation’s products or practices have injured Americans. ALEC even has a bill that would bar suit if your parent, child, or spouse were killed by a Federal Drug Administration-approved drug, unless there was proof of fraud.

ALEC is on the wrong side of history, and a growing number of Americans are deeply concerned about how this charity—which claims it does zero lobbying, despite ample evidence to the contrary—undermined their rights, with so little public scrutiny until the Center for Media and Democracy launched ALEC Exposed.

Rebekah Wilce is a reporter and researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy/Progress Inc. whose writing has been published in The Progressive, ACRES U.S.A., Grist, Earth Island Journal, and more.

Lisa Graves is president of The Progressive Inc., publisher of The Progressive magazine, PRWatch.org, ALECexposed.org, KockExposed.org, and Progressive.org. She previously served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice and in other posts.