ALEC Scraps Gun-Law, Voter-ID Task Force

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M.P. King / Wisconsin State Journal / AP

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker attends a signing ceremony for a voter-ID bill in Madison on May 25, 2011

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington nonprofit that brings together conservative lawmakers and corporate representatives to craft state-level legislation, announced on Tuesday it is disbanding its Public Safety and Elections Task Force, a policy group that drafted model bills for voter-ID requirements and “stand your ground” gun laws, among other things. The move came less than two weeks after a series of high-profile corporations had cut ties with the group, spurred in part by the campaigns of liberal advocacy groups that oppose ID mandates and a low bar for invoking self-defense in shooting incidents.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for ALEC characterized the decision as a back-to-basics refocusing on economic issues. “While we recognize there are other critical, noneconomic issues that are vitally important to millions of Americans, we believe we must concentrate on initiatives that spur competitiveness and innovation and put more Americans back to work,” Kaitlyn Buss said.

These noneconomic issues were what created the widening rift between ALEC and some of its corporate members, whose dues provide 98% of ALEC’s budget. While conservative and corporate priorities often mesh on taxes and regulation, the proliferation of bills enacting immigration crackdowns, expanded self-defense rights and voter-ID requirements brought unwanted heat to brand-conscious, public-facing companies like Coca-Cola and Kraft. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, whose killer may invoke “stand your ground” in his defense, further raised the temperature. By publicly announcing the end of the task force targeting these issues and restating its commitment to an economic mission, ALEC appeared to be trying to soothe bristling business interests.

But the news elides a critical fact: the voter-ID battle in state legislatures is mostly over. The spread of this type of law began in 2003, when legislation was enacted in five states. By the beginning of 2009, it had slowed to a trickle. That’s when ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force first began drafting model voter-ID bills that legislators could apply in other states. That year, Utah passed a voter-ID bill; the next year, Idaho and Oklahoma did too. In 2011, the year after historic Republican gains in state houses across the country, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Wisconsin all enacted similar legislation, while Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas tightened existing ID standards and governors in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina vetoed strict new measures. Pennsylvania’s governor signed a voter-ID bill into law this March.

Thirty-two states have now enacted voter-ID laws; those that haven’t are either liberal enclaves in the West or Northeast, had a Democratic governor veto a version of the bill or already have legislation pending. The remaining fights either lie in overriding vetoes or legal efforts against court injunctions. As a resource providing lawmakers with new legislation, ALEC doesn’t have much left to do on the issue. “Stand your ground” hasn’t achieved quite the same level of saturation, but it too is widespread: 24 states have adopted similar legislation since Florida enacted its 2005 law, which became the basis for a model bill.

As for its newfound economic focus, ALEC isn’t singing a new song. “Our mission is to promote [free market] principles and policies that are based on them,” Buss, who didn’t immediately return a request for further comment, told TIME for an earlier story. “We don’t do very much with these controversial issues.”

UPDATE: Liberal groups and civil rights organizations say ALEC’s decision won’t dissuade them from efforts to persuade corporations to reconsider membership.

Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson:

“ALEC’s latest statement is nothing more than a p.r. stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda, which has done serious damage to our communities. To simply say they are stopping noneconomic work does not provide justice to the millions of Americans whose lives are impacted by these dangerous and discriminatory laws, courtesy of ALEC and its corporate backers.”

NAACP’s Ben Jealous:

“ALEC came to this decision after enough of their corporate sponsors, many of whom have been strong advocates of civil rights and public safety in the past, were made aware of their antidemocratic activities and dropped their support. The NAACP has been working with many of these courageous companies, and we will continue to monitor ALEC and make sure this move is more than just window dressing.”