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September 1, 2014, 5:22 pm

Super PACS wield vast influence

Corporate money drives voter ID, gun right laws


For most of the Republican primary season, the grip of the super PAC has been well-documented.

There are those who feel they are wrecking balls operating outside the candidates’ direct control, fueled by massive influxes of cash from a handful of wealthy patrons. Super Pacs such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in particular, have come under fire.

In April, pressured by watchdog groups, civil rights organizations and a growing national movement for accountable lawmaking, ALEC announced that it was disbanding the task force that has been responsible for advancing controversial voter ID and “Stand Your Ground” laws that particularly hurt people of color and the elderly.

“To simply say they are stopping non-economic work does not provide justice to the millions of Americas whose lives are impacted by these dangerous and discriminatory laws courtesy of ALEC and its corporate backers” said Rashard Robinson, executive director of the advocacy group ColorOfChange. “It’s clear that major corporations were in bed with an institution that has worked against basic American values such as the right to vote. Now that these companies are aware of what they’ve supported, what will they do about it? If ALEC’s corporate supporters will not hold the institution accountable for the damage it has caused nationwide, then the ColorOfChanng community will hold them accountable.”

ALEC, the shadowy corporate-funded proponent of so-called “model legislation” for passage by pliant state legislatures, announced that it would disband its “Public Safety and Elections” task force.

The task force has been the prime vehicle for proposing and advancing what critics describe as voter-suppression and anti-democratic initiatives — not just restrictive Voter ID laws but also plans to limit the ability of citizens to petition for referendums and constitutional changes that favor workers and communities.

The task force has also been the source of so-called “Castle Doctrine” in Pennsylvania and “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, that limit the ability of police and prosecutors to pursue inquiries into shootings of unarmed individuals such as Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

ALEC’s dramatic turn of events, has significant implications for state-based struggles over voting rights an election, as well as criminal justice policy. But it does not mean that ALEC will stop promoting one-size-fits-all “model legislation” at the state level.

Many believe super PACs will evolve into full-blown shadow campaigns, a transition that is already under way, with the super PACs supporting Republican candidates beginning to take on voter persuasion operations — like sending direct mail and making phone calls — that have traditionally been reserved for a campaign operation or party committee.

The phenomenon won’t be isolated on the right. President Barack Obama recently embraced the outside groups that he had rejected, saying that he would not unilaterally disarm. The president has dispatched one of his most trusted aides to run Priorities USA, the White House’s super PAC of choice.

The rise of the super PAC parallels a subtle but concerted effort by conservative groups to suppress the vote, which is disguised as efforts to defeat exceedingly rare voter fraud.

A 2011 study by New York University’s Brennan Center found that 14 Republican-dominated states have approved new legislation requiring higher standards for voter identification. The center estimates that five million people could find it more difficult to vote this year. In some 30 cases, state lawmakers received model “voter fraud” legislation from ALEC.

ALEC has received funding from Koch Industries, which is run by the conservative siblings of the same name who have reportedly pledged $60 million to defeat President Obama this fall. Given donation restrictions to campaigns, much of that money would have to go to super PACs.

The primary focus on voter suppression has been the overt actions by Republicans, either with restrictive new laws or in interfering with voters during an election. But last month, the Brennan Center for Justice looks at another, just as insidious but less direct form of voter suppression: big money corrupting politics.

They had the independent Opinion Research Corporation conduct a national survey for them during the month, asking 1,015 adults questions about Super PACs.

  • 69% of respondents agreed that “new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.” Only 15% disagreed. Notably, 74% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats agreed with this statement.
  • 73% of respondents agreed that “there would be less corruption if there were limits on how much could be given to Super PACs.” Only 14% disagreed.  Here, 75% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats agreed.
  • Only about 1 in 5 Americans agree that average voters have the same access to candidates (and influence on candidates) as big donors to Super PACs.  Two-thirds of Americans disagree.
  • Half of respondents — and 85% of those expressing an opinion — agreed that spending in this election is more likely to lead to corruption than in previous elections. Only 9% of respondents thought that, compared to previous elections, it was less likely that the money spent by political groups in this election will lead to corruption.  Republicans (51%) and Democrats (54%) both agreed that spending in this election is more likely to lead to corruption.
  • More than two-thirds of all respondents (68%) — including 71% of Democrats and Republicans — agreed that a company that spent $100,000 to help elect a member of Congress could successfully pressure him or her to change a vote on proposed legislation.  Only one in five respondents disagreed.
  • More than three-quarters of all respondents — 77% — agreed that members of Congress are more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest.  Similar numbers of Republicans (81%) and Democrats (79%) agreed.  Only 10% disagreed.

While the cynicism disgust about big money in politics might be bipartisan, the effects of it on the voting populace don’t appear to be: 26 percent of respondents said they were less likely to vote this year because of corruption in politics. But it gets worse:

  • 34% of respondents with no more than a high school education, and 34% of those in households with an annual income less than $35,000, said they would be less likely to vote.
  • 29% of African Americans and 34% of Hispanics said they were less likely to vote because of Super PAC influence.
  • 41% of respondents – including  49% of those who have no more than a high school education and 48% of those with household incomes under $35,000 – believe  that their votes don’t matter very much because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influence.

“Dozens of corporations are investing millions of dollars a year to write business-friendly legislation that is being made into law in statehouses coast to coast, with no regard for the public interest,” said Bob Edgar of Common Cause. “This is proof positive of the depth and scope of the corporate reach into our democratic processes.”


Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at