Exposing ALEC: How Conservative-Backed State Laws Are All Connected

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A shadowy organization uses corporate contributions to sell prepackaged conservative bills -- such as Florida's Stand Your Ground statute -- to legislatures across the country. 

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Reuters

The recent blowing up of the Invisible Children viral video might have some of us thinking that Malcolm Gladwell was onto something with his biting critique of online politics, the so-called "slacktivism" debate. But the attention to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and, even more so, the connected debate over Stand Your Ground gun laws and the distancing of some of the country's biggest companies from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, shows how online organizing actually can work. And that, reasonably, seems to be causing palpitations in the hearts of everyone from Coca-Cola to the Koch brothers.

That's why even if, as Politico reports, the gun debate isn't happening in Washington, the N.R.A. shouldn't be unconcerned.

To itself, ALEC is an organization dedicated to the advancement of free market and limited government principles through a unique "public-private partnership" between state legislators and the corporate sector. To its critics, it's a shadowy back-room arrangement where corporations pay good money to get friendly legislators to introduce pre-packaged bills in state houses across the country. Started in the mid-1970s, ALEC's existence has been long known but its practices, largely, have not; the group hasn't been eager to tie its bills in Wisconsin to those in Ohio to those in North Carolina.

Nine months ago, though, a website called ALEC Exposed went live, showcasing more than 800 so-called model bills contributed by, the site's creators say, a still-anonymous whistleblower. Beyond the bills themselves, the group built out a wide-ranging, sometimes confusing wiki aimed at documenting which legislators take part in the group, which corporations support it, and where the bills go once they leave ALEC.

Lisa Graves is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the group that built ALEC Exposed. She's also a former Justice Department official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Said Graves on a call this week, "We built out the material using Google, the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, primary records that were previously on ALEC's website, old old Lexis news clips, and the tobacco library," as in the digital archive run by the University of California of San Francisco as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of the late '90s. "There was a lot of material out there that was just not widely known."

Having the bills all in one place painted a certain picture. "If it's voter ID, it's ALEC," observed Doug Clopp, deputy director of programs at Common Cause. "If it's anti-immigration bills written hand-in-glove with private prison corporations, it's ALEC. If it's working with the N.R.A. on 'Shoot to Kill' laws, it's ALEC. When you start peeling back state efforts to opt out of the regional greenhouse gas initiative, it's ALEC." Adopted first in the states, by the time these laws bubble up to the national level, they're the conventional wisdom on policy.

For years, political types had vague notions of the state-to-state connections, but it was difficult to see the whole picture. ALEC Exposed launched with a series of companion articles in The Nation, detailing not only the bills themselves but the involvement of the Koch brothers, early ALEC funders. Graves said she was eager to avoid the fate of past interest group reports that focused on ALEC then sat on shelves, unread. "I know the only way that we could possibly tell the story of this corporate bill mill across 50 states was to use, in essence, crowdsourcing that engaged other journalists, citizens, researchers, and writers."

One group that decided to jump into the mix was ColorofChange.org. Created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the organization is known for its mastery of online organizing. The ALEC Exposed research was eye-opening, said ColorofChange.org executive director Rashad Robinson. ColorofChange.org took particular offense at the spate of voter ID laws that had originated within ALEC. It focused its efforts at peeling off the corporations taking part in the group.

In early December, ColorofChange.org sent out an email to its membership list. "For years," it read, "the right wing has been trying to stop Black people, other people of color, young people, and the elderly from voting for partisan gain -- and now some of America's biggest companies are helping them do it." The missive introduced how ALEC works, detailing the spread of voter ID laws through dozens of states, including Rhode Island, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Texas. The lengthy email was footnoted, meant to be a teaching document.

ColorofChange.org came up with a strategy. It would start by meeting face-to-face with corporations to explain to them why their participation in ALEC was troublesome. Some companies made the case, said Robinson, that they were simply dedicated to making sure all viewpoints were represented in public debates. "There's no two sides to black people voting," Robinson said he and his organizers countered. But always present was the cudgel: the tremendous public attention that ColorofChange.org could bring to bear with a few clicks. The group claims a membership of some 900,000 people.

Robinson recalls one meeting with an executive from Kraft. "I told him there are a lot of ways we can elevate this issue," said Robinson, laughing. "Black people buy a lot of macaroni and cheese."

"As we got closer, we showed them the website that would go live if they didn't pull out. That helped them understand that we were escalating these conversations from, 'Let's have a conversation about ALEC because we think you should be making a different choice' to 'We're going to launch a public campaign if you don't make a different choice.'" Those not familiar with ColorofChange.org, sad Robinson, could Google the group and read all about its role in getting Glenn Beck off the air.

For months, things rolled along that way. Pepsi dropped out of ALEC. ColorofChange.org used that move to try to persuade Coca-Cola.

In January, the push against ALEC got a small bump when Republican Florida state legislator Rep. Rachel Burgin submitted a bill calling for the federal government to cut corporate tax rates. Burgin had forgotten to strip the ALEC boilerplate from its top. Whereas, it read, "it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council," so on and so forth. Burgin yanked the bill back a day later, but it was too late. Common Cause researcher Nick Surgey posted about it on the organization's blog. It got picked up in social media and joked about on cable news.

Then, on February 26th, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot.

As Matt Stempeck, a researcher at MIT's Center for Civic Media recently detailed, the work of getting attention for Martin's case has been multi-pronged. The Martin family attorney approached the task with savvy, bringing Al Sharpton down to Florida to talk about the lack of charges against Martin's shooter. Martin's parents became vocal advocates, pushing law enforcement to bring charges in the case. A petition also went up on Change.org, the social organizing platform. Started in 2007, Change.org has gone through many permutations, cycling through being a fundraising hub and editorial hub before landing on being a straightforward petition platform.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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