ALEC​'s Covert War on Democracy

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ALEC​'s Covert War on Democracy

Ahead of national convention in Denver, a look at destruction wrought by group that pairs right-wing lawmakers with corporate interests

Citizens protesting ALEC outside a meeting of the group in Oklahoma in 2013. ALEC will hold its 44th annual convention this year in Denver on July 19-21. (Image: Screenshot/ Moyers & Company/"United States of ALEC")

Describing an “illiberal” or “managed” democracy, political philosopher Sheldon Wolin and others draw a picture of a U.S. government acting as servant of dominant corporate money that subverts democracy, overwhelms representative government and sacrifices the common good, as the major political parties, too, are captive to corporate control. Excluded from ​exerting any influence are the people, where government takes legitimacy from “elections that they have learned to control,” and where highly concentrated media corporations determine what is “legitimate” news. Almost nonexistent voter fraud captures media’s attention, but not the huge disenfranchisement of voters prior to the 2016 elections.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, in thrall to large corporate interests, has set the stage for the systematic dismantling of democracy​,​ beginning with voter suppression laws. Since the Supreme Court effectively gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Shelby County vs. Holder) Jim Crow tactics have regained a hold. In 2016 Greg Palast cited at least “nine methods of attacking the right to vote of Black, Latino and Asian-American voters,” including “Caging, purging, blocking legitimate registrations, and wrongly shunting millions to ‘provisional’ ballots that will never be counted.”

Prior to 2016 elections,Operation Crosscheck voter lists compiled by Kansas Secretary of State and white supremacist Kris Kobach​ and​ reportedly distributed to 29 Republican state voting officials, led to the purge of over one million registered voters who had the same first and last names. Kobach now serves as vice chair of the so-called Trump “Voter Fraud Commission” ​that seeks lists of all voters from every state. It would be difficult to overstate the consequences of widespread voter disenfranchisement, which should not be normalized. “Elections have consequences,” assert political operatives. Conversely, “Illegitimate elections have illegitimate consequences.”

At the forefront of mobilization of anti-democratic activity for over four decades is the Koch-/corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), working below the radar, serving as a catalyst to bring together legislators and their corporate funders in common cause to write legislation in service of their corporate bottom lines. ​As always, their scheduled 44th Annual Meeting in Denver, July 19-21, will take place behind closed doors, open only to corporate members who contribute thousands of dollars and up, and legislative members who pay up to $100, often directly from their campaign coffers. ALEC presents itself as a “501(c)(3) educational organization that provides nonpartisan research, study and analysis”; their professed intent - to “develop research-based model policies focused on limited government, free markets and federalism.”

“Limited” government is an understatement - it is government truly limited to serving and serving up large financial gains to captains of industry who write policy and in turn grease the palms of their legislative servants who enact their policy for them.

Common Cause has challenged ALEC’s “tax-exempt nonprofit status” even as ALEC actively lobbies for profit-driven legislation to benefit corporate members.

ALEC Seeks to Crush Participatory Democracy by Supplanting Voter, Worker & Local Power


Century-long juridical activism by conservative courts have reversed the power equation between corporations and the people who created them, even as unlimited cash has come to dominate corrupted politics, exacerbated by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. Massive amounts of cash are directed to campaigns, initiatives and litigation, even as decades of policies have effectively transferred wealth upward.

All that is left for friends of oligarchs is to crush participatory democracy. A primary goal of ALEC and its local government subsidiary, the American City County Exchange (ACCE) has been to suppress voter participation by erecting barriers in the form of photo ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements. Such strategies are intended to disenfranchise m​any​ ​vulnerable voters - the young, the old and minorities.

State Preemption Laws

Achieving corporate goals begins with targeting local government regulations that might impede corporate profits. Ostensibly to promote limited government, ALEC and its allies seek to privatize-for-profit public services, transferring the Public Commons to corporations, thus boosting the corporate bottom line at the expense of the people. Prime targets of privatization include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public schools and state pensions.

Furthering the assaults on workers, ALEC-allied corporations seek to ban collective bargaining for public sector unions. Also crippling unions are so-called “paycheck protection” laws that prevent assessment of union dues for political purposes without annual reauthorization from each member. ALEC-promoted “right-to-work” campaigns undermine private sector unions. Still more worker assaults preempt minimum wage increases, and require a higher burden of proof in workers’ compensation cases, while removing no-fault provisions, effectively compelling a worker who loses a claim to pay the employer’s legal fees.

Preemption laws are part of a dual-track strategy used by corporations and politicians to block progressive policies at the local level. The second track occurs when industries and trade associations file a barrage of lawsuits against local governments ​as a warning to other localities against considering the same policies. Even as a state preemption bill was being advanced, six New Jersey trade associations rushed to court to challenge the passage of the November 2014 Earned Sick Days ballot measure. ALEC’s self-described ‘battleground over worker compensation’ triggered renewed legislation and litigation against “raise the wage” initiatives in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles in 2014.

Michigan’s Emergency Management Laws, advocated by ALEC members, permit privatization of elected public offices, allowing a governor-appointed Emergency Manager to replace locally elected officials in a municipality. An emergency manager is granted power to destroy collective bargaining, to lower wages for public workers, to break public employee contracts, and to sell off public assets to the private sector. In such a capacity, a Flint, Michigan Emergency Manager triggered one of the greatest toxic water emergencies in the U.S. by switching Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the contaminated Flint River “to save money.”

Because it is easier for industry to work their money and influence in 50 state legislatures than in thousands of municipalities, ALEC creates model state preemption laws to directly or retroactively block local laws and ordinances. Preemption laws strip the right of local governance surrounding every conceivable issue, including minimum wage, paid sick leave and benefits, pensions, rent control, community broadband, cyanide heap leach mining, high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), pesticide and GMO restrictions, plastic bag bans, gun safety laws, factory farming, or anything else industry desires to control.

The ultimate takedown of direct democracy has been the targeting of Citizen Ballot Initiatives, placing the process out of reach for all but the wealthy elite. In order to block proposals for worker protections or industry regulation, ALEC advocates making it harder to qualify referendum language, and requiring super-majorities to pass ballot issues. In 2016 the Colorado oil and gas industry pushed Initiative 71 to place the Citizen Ballot Initiative out of reach for all but wealthy interests, requiring supermajority passage, as well as a percent of voter signatures from each of 35 state senate districts to place a subject on the ballot.

More Model Laws Authored by ALEC with Corporate Funders

Private Prison Industrial Complex Writes Immigration Law

Model legislation written by ALEC with member Corrections Corporation of America, the largest U.S. private prison corporation, promoted in various states and enacted in Arizona, permits stopping anyone suspected of being undocumented, and imprisoning those not carrying proper paperwork.

ALEC & Utilities Promote Climate Change Denial & Suppression of Solar Energy

Actively promoting climate change denial, ALEC has drafted model legislation in Florida and other states to depress incentives for rooftop solar by ending net metering, while the state Public Service Commission, at the request of Florida’s Utility Companies, voted to end Florida’s solar rebate program, and granted permission to Power and Light to invest $191 million of customer money in fracking operations in Oklahoma.

Preemption of Local Gun Laws

Beginning in the 1990s ALEC worked with the gun industry to enact preemption of gun laws in almost every state. Additionally, “super-preemption” legislation pushed by the industry creates “private right of action” allowing individuals or groups the right to sue local governments or local officials if they believe they are enforcing local firearms laws.

Privatization of Public Education for Profit
Seeking to privatize public education for profit of private corporations, Charles and David Koch have created a six-figure Colorado campaign through their Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Libre Initiative (focused on Hispanic community outreach) to promote “school choice” and education savings accounts (ESAs), currently offered in 5 states. ESAs give tax dollars directly to parents for private education, etc., diverting money from public schools.

In Colorado: Legislative and Judicial Preemptions of Local Government

State Preemption of Community Broadband
Telecommunication companies, i.e., Qwest and Comcast, lobbied the 2005 state legislature to pass state​ ​ preemption of municipal broadband. The law provides for local Colorado community broadband pending success of a voter referendum, with restrictions applied.

State Preemption of Local Gun Laws
In 2003 an ALEC model state preemption of local gun safety laws (SB-03-25) was signed by Governor Bill Owens, rendering local gun ordinances unenforceable. Denver challenged the preemption law in court & got to keep bans on assault weapons and open firearms carry only after a tie vote when a Colorado Supreme Court justice recused herself.

AgGag Laws - Factory Farming
ALEC bill, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” seeks to criminalize as “terrorists” whistle blowers who reveal abusive/dangerous conditions at animal facilities. The Colorado Agricultural Protection Act of 1981 C.R.S. 35-3.5-102 voids any local ordinance “that makes operation of any agricultural operation a nuisance,” with few exceptions.

Minimum Wage Preemption
Colorado law SB99-014 passed in 1999 prohibits enactment of a minimum wage by any local governing body, initiative, referendum, or any other process.

Preemption of Bans on Mining with Acidic Chemicals, e.g., Cyanides
Acidic wastewater from cyanide heap leach gold mining at the Summitville Mine in the San Juan Mountains killed off 17 miles of the Alamosa River. Five counties that banned use of toxic chemicals/cyanide for mining, saw their bans overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2009 on the basis of state preemption of local law.

Preemption of Ban on Fracking
A Greeley ban on oil and gas extraction enacted as a local ordinance in 1985, both by ballot initiative in a home rule city, and by city council action, was overturned by two 1992 Colorado Supreme Court cases, Voss v. Lundvall Bros. Inc and Bowen/Edwards Assoc. Inc. v. Board of County Commissioners of La Plata County, holding that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Act (O&GCA) preempts any outright ban as well as any local regulation that creates an “operational conflict” with the O&GCA. Fracking bans and moratoriums in Longmont, Lafayette, Fort Collins and Broomfield have all been challenged in court by the Oil & Gas industry.

Preemption of Rent Control
A 1981 Colorado law prohibiting control of rents by counties and municipalities was enacted as a reaction to a Boulder citizen initiative to impose rent controls. A 2000 Colorado Supreme Court decision held that the state statute prohibiting local communities from enacting rent control preempted a local ordinance enacted by the City Council of the home rule city of Telluride that would have required a percentage of affordable housing in a new development.

Preemption of Plastic Bag Ban
A 1989 Colorado state law, HB 89-1300, prohibits a ban of the use or sale of plastic materials or products in Colorado. A bill to overturn that law in 2014 failed. To work around the prohibition of a ban on plastic bags and to reduce waste, a number of communities have imposed fees on plastic and paper bags.

See: List of ALEC Corporate Members
See: List of ALEC Colorado Legislative Members Interactive Map — (Is Your Legislator a Member of ALEC? ​Find out.)

Michele Swenson

A former nurse, Michele Swenson has researched and written about the history of women’s health care, as well as religious fundamentalist and gun-centered ideologies. Her book Democracy Under Assault: TheoPolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right is an in-depth examination of the fractured church-state divide, assaults on the independent judiciary, as well as resurgent 19th century science, socioeconomic Darwinism, corporatism, and Christian nativism. She is a member of the working committee of Health Care for All Colorado Foundation that created the proposal.

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