In spearheading far-right efforts to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is increasingly counting on an unexpected ally: a campaign finance reform group founded during the Occupy Wall Street protests more than a decade ago.
ALEC, a pay-to-play operation in which state legislators and corporate lobbyists meet behind closed doors to advance a right-wing agenda, has long advocated for an Article V constitutional convention in order to win a balanced budget amendment and radically curtail federal powers.
Given ALEC’s blunt efforts to restrict voting rights, quash organized labor, gut environmental regulations, and promote the Big Lie of 2020 election fraud, association with the organization is considered politically radioactive for liberal Democrats, let alone those further to the Left.
“We want an army to fight for an amendment to declare corporations are not people.”
Yet one progressive organization seems to have missed the memo.
Wolf-PAC, a group focused on overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door to unlimited corporate spending on elections, has been pressing for a constitutional convention since its founding in 2011. And although the group’s sole goal is curtailing corporate political spending, in recent years it has joined ALEC’s Article V gatherings, collaborated with ALEC allies on delegate selection issues, and testified alongside right-wing groups seeking a constitutional convention at state legislative hearings.
“We want an army to fight for an amendment to declare corporations are not people,” founder Cenk Uygur announced in establishing Wolf-PAC during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests at New York’s Zuccotti Park.
Instead, Wolf-PAC has chosen to team up with the nation’s biggest corporate lobby group to pursue its goal—and is helping to advance ALEC’s right-wing plans for revising the Constitution in the process.
The Road to a Convention is Paved with Fuzzy Math
Despite their disparate goals, ALEC and Wolf-PAC are pursuing the same agenda, attempting to get 34 states to submit convention resolutions in order to trigger an Article V constitutional convention.
Although all 27 constitutional amendments passed since the document was first ratified in 1788 have been initiated by Congress, Article V of the Constitution lays out an alternate procedure for proposing amendments: convening a constitutional convention, which requires two-thirds of state legislatures (currently 34) to pass convention resolutions. Both methods, whether initiated by Congress or through the states, require amendments to be ratified by three-fourths of the states before becoming part of the Constitution.
The push to get 34 states to request a constitutional convention has been slow going for Wolf-PAC. Only California, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont have passed its resolutions so far, and the group hasn’t scored any new victories since 2016. Two of those states have since walked back their Wolf-PAC resolutions—New Jersey in December 2021 and Illinois in April 2022—when their legislatures voted to rescind all past state calls for a constitutional convention (a setback Wolf-PAC only partially acknowledges on its progress map).
Conservative proponents of a convention have proposed increasingly more eccentric accounting methods to accelerate states’ calls for a convention.
It’s not just Wolf-PAC that has faced defeat on this front. David Super, a Georgetown legal scholar who closely follows the issue, points out that “the momentum is in the other direction: Over the past few years, five [additional] states (Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, and New Mexico) have rescinded Article V applications submitted decades earlier.”
In response, conservative proponents of a convention have proposed increasingly more eccentric accounting methods to accelerate states’ calls for a convention.
In the summer of 2020, constitutional convention advocates led by anti-labor firebrand and former Republican governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker and conservative activist David Biddulph, co-founder of ALEC’s Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, embraced a new legal strategy aimed at forcing a convention by counting a half dozen historic “plenary” (or generic) convention resolutions in order to reach the 34 states needed.
Critics such as the progressive group Common Cause refer to this as the “fuzzy math theory,” pointing out that this accounting method incorporates arcane resolutions that have remained on the books even though the issues in question have become moot—such as New York State’s call from 1789 that sought a convention in order to draft a Bill of Rights.
Despite Wolf-PAC denying that it favors aggregating convention calls in this way, right-wing groups are happily lining up its proposed campaign finance reform resolutions alongside ones proposed by the right-wing group Convention of States Action (COSA), founded by Tea Party organizer Mark Meckler.
Path to Reform, an ALEC-affiliated coalition that organizes pro-convention gatherings called Academy of States, specifically counts Wolf-PAC’s three remaining convention resolutions in a handful of scenarios that they say could help them reach the 34-state threshold. At an Academy presentation last July, Path to Reform’s Director of Education Vickie Deppe argued that Wolf-PAC’s three convention resolutions can be counted with 19 COSA resolutions because they all address issues of money in politics.
“The Convention of States Project application includes fiscal controls and placing limits on the federal government,” Deppe said in a related video called Fact Check: Article V Convention in less than 24 months? “These are concepts that could certainly be brought to bear on the problem of money in politics.” By adding together Wolf-PAC and COSA applications, along with a handful of generic resolutions, Deppe claims that Wolf-PAC already has convention calls from 30 states.
This unusual partnership between Wolf-PAC and right-wing groups has only strengthened since December 2021, when the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) first revealed that the group was participating in one of ALEC’s Academy sessions.
At the July 2022 session— known as Academy 3.0 and held in Denver—Wolf-PAC’s National Counsel Samuel Fieldman presented on possible procedures for convention delegate selection, an issue ALEC is also trying to address through state legislation.
“Feedback on the presentations was overwhelmingly positive,” according to a recap email from Path to Reform and the State Legislators Article V Caucus, “thanks to the efforts [of] Sam Fieldman of Wolf-PAC,” among others.
In addition to attending the ALEC-sponsored Academies, Wolf-PAC members have been teaming up with a former COSA staffer to push convention legislation in various states.
In his presentation, Fieldman cited ALEC’s 2011 Article V Handbook by Rob Natelson—a conservative constitutional theorist whose work underpins the fuzzy-math theory of convention applications—though later in the session he noted that he doesn’t agree with everything Natelson argues.
Wolf-PAC’s inclusion in the Academy of States infuriated the far-right leaders of COSA, as CMD has previously reported. Meckler, who believes Citizens United was “one of the greatest free-speech decisions in American history,” considers collaborating with Wolf-PAC to be “extraordinarily dangerous” and refused to engage in a previous Academy presentation due to their presence along with other “leftists.”
Yet distinctions between the groups are becoming increasingly muddled. In addition to attending the ALEC-sponsored Academies, Wolf-PAC members have been teaming up with a former COSA staffer to push convention legislation in various states.
In New Hampshire, former Wolf-PAC volunteer-turned-state Representative Jodi Newell (D-4) has introduced a procedural bill (HB 392) specifying that, should a constitutional convention ever be called, delegates would be elected by popular vote, not appointed by the state legislature. Both Fieldman from Wolf-PAC and Ken Quinn, a former regional director for the Convention of States effort and current regional director of U.S. Term Limits, testified in favor of the bill.
And although Wolf-PAC testified as neutral in a New Hampshire hearing on COSA’s convention application, the testimony had the effect of normalizing the work and claims of Michael Farris, one of the original founders of the Convention of States Project and former president of Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian hate group.
Wolf-PAC built upon Farris’s testimony, which proffered the “theoretical tools” that would limit a convention, by offering the “practical tools” that would work hand-in-hand with them.
U.S. Term Limits (USTL), which advocates for term limits at all levels of government, was founded by Eric O’Keefe, a right-wing operative with deep ties to the Koch political network who also co-founded Citizens for Self Governance (CSG), the parent group of COSA, where he sits on the board.
Wolf-PAC currently has applications for a constitutional convention pending in three states: Oregon (HJM 1), Washington (SJM 8002), and Maine (SJR 705). Only the Maine resolution—a joint product of Wolf-PAC and USTL that advocates for amendments addressing congressional term limits as well as political spending—specifies that the application “may not be aggregated with any other applications on any other subject.” The wording of the Oregon resolution indicates that the application only “intends” to be aggregated with those on a similar subject.
Legal experts note that there is nothing in the Constitution that limits the scope of a constitutional convention once called. They warn that a runaway convention could generate major changes to the balance of power between states and the federal government, and may end up undermining many rights and protections currently afforded under federal law. Scores of progressive and good-government organizations, including CMD, have joined together to oppose an Article V convention on those grounds.
After ALEC and its allies spent more than a decade arguing that fears of a runaway convention are baseless, it adopted a model No Runaway Article V Conventions Act in December 2021 to try to quell those fears. Wolf-PAC’s Fieldman teamed up with ALEC’s Biddulph at the Academy 2.0 that month to present on the bill, which would limit the types of amendments delegates could introduce at a convention to those that were included in its initial application.
Either way, any constitutional convention under the rules envisioned by ALEC and COSA would make it virtually impossible for Wolf-PAC’s anti-Citizens United amendment to succeed.
“We have the opportunity as a result of that to have a supermajority, even though…we may not even be in an absolute majority when it comes to the people who agree with us.”
Most of the constitutional convention measures passed in recent years specify that each state would give legislative leaders the power to handpick its delegates and would get one vote, regardless of size, according to CMD’s research report titled Convention of State Politicians. Under those rules, Republicans would have “control over a nearly three-fifths supermajority of state delegations, enabling red states representing only a third of the U.S. population to determine what amendments get sent out to the states for ratification,” the report found.
Audio obtained by CMD confirms that this is the Right’s strategy. At an ALEC event, former Pennsylvania senator and current COS Senior Advisor Rick Santorum stated that, “We have the opportunity as a result of that to have a supermajority, even though…we may not even be in an absolute majority when it comes to the people who agree with us.”
“I think we are on the cusp of a supermajority moment,” Meckler added. To emphasize that progressives will have no say at a contemporary constitutional convention, Meckler pointed out that Tories had no role in the crafting of the Constitution and that Confederates had no choice in the adoption of post-Civil War amendments.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Wolf-PAC’s collaboration with ALEC helps right-wing dark money groups move closer to that objective. According to internal ALEC documents obtained by CMD, the organization is pushing for a constitutional convention as soon as summer 2024.