Just when it seemed that the democratic process had reached its apotheosis with the election of America’s first black president, a political earthquake occurred in 2010 that threatened all that had been accomplished since 1965. Two years after Obama’s election, the midterm elections saw a conservative backlash that swept Republicans back into office in droves. As the media focused on the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and increases in the Senate, more important developments were occurring closer to home. Republicans now controlled both legislative bodies in 26 states, and 23 won the trifecta, controlling the governorships as well as both statehouses. What happened next was so swift that it caught most observers off guard — and began surreptitiously to reverse the last half-century of voting rights reforms.
All across the country following the 2010 midterms, Republican legislatures passed and governors enacted a series of laws designed to make voting more difficult for Obama’s constituency — minorities, especially the growing Hispanic community; the poor; students; and the elderly or handicapped. These included the creation of voter photo-ID laws, measures affecting registration and early voting, and, in Iowa and Florida, laws to prevent ex-felons from exercising their franchise. (Florida’s governor, in secret, reversed the policies of his Republican predecessors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, policies that would have permitted one hundred thousand former felons, predominantly black and Hispanic, to vote in 2012.) Democrats were stunned. “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens in voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today,” said President Bill Clinton in July 2011. Once again, the voting rights of American minorities were in peril.
The newly elected Republican officials were able to act so quickly because they had the help of an ultraconservative organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Its founder was the late Paul Weyrich, a legendary conservative writer and proselytizer who founded both ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank dedicated to limited government, an economy free of federal regulations and the sanctity of traditional marriage. Backed by conservative corporations such as Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, AT&T, Exxon Mobil and Walmart, among many others, and funded by right-wing billionaires Richard Mellon Scaife, the Coors family and David and Charles Koch, ALEC provided services for like-minded legislators and lobbyists. ALEC wrote bills and created the campaigns to pass them. Its spokesmen boasted that “each year, more than 1,000 bills based on its models are introduced in state legislatures, and that approximately 17 percent of those bills become law.”
High on ALEC’s agenda were voter identification laws, which it hoped would have the effect of undercutting Obama’s support base so that conservative politicians who supported ALEC’s goals could be elected. Speaking to a convention of evangelicals in 1980, Paul Weyrich said, “Many of our Christians … want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Weyrich believed that America was suffering from what he called “a plague of unlawful voting” that the new laws would combat.
But according to the best analyses, there was almost no evidence of illegal voting. Wisconsin’s attorney general, a Republican, examined the 2008 election returns and discovered that out of 3 million votes cast, just 20 were found to be illegal. A wider study conducted by the Bush Justice Department had found similar results for the period 2002 to 2007. More than 300 million people had voted, and only 86 were found guilty of voter fraud, and most of them were simply mistaken about their eligibility.