Until recently, William Louis-Dreyfus was just another retired multimillionaire, giving his art collection away to charity and watching his actress daughter Julia on TV. He followed politics, but not to the point of actually doing much about it.
"I've never gotten involved in that way," the 80-year-old businessman told HuffPost on Wednesday from his home in New York's Westchester County.
But when Louis-Dreyfus learned that some Americans were trying to block others Americans from voting, he got seriously riled up.
"If something impedes the right of the people to vote, I can't think of anything more lethal to happen to our basic principles," he said. "It's a damn outrage, and I don't understand why everyone -- Republican and Democrat alike -- are not shocked to their shoe tops."
So when New York Times readers opened the front section of the newspaper Tuesday, they found a full-page ad in which Louis-Dreyfus announced his $1 million donation to fight voter suppression, explained why, and challenged his fellow wealthy Americans to do likewise.
It was headlined, "A Call to Arms to the Wealthy to Protect the Right to Vote."
The ad ran amid growing national awareness of the Republican voter suppression campaign and its possible effects on the November election. On the same day, a Pennsylvania judge temporarily blocked a strict voter identification law that opponents worried would have disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters -- many of them minorities -- and might even have swung a swing state.
Over the last decade and especially since President Barack Obama's election in 2008, many Republican lawmakers have focused on making it harder to vote. The GOP takeover of several state houses in 2010 was followed by 19 new laws requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls, rolling back early voting, and impeding the registration of new voters. Similarly, Republicans have pushed to purge voter rolls and are preparing to send pollwatchers to certain precincts.
While the GOP insists its goal is to deter voter fraud, there is no evidence that voter fraud is a significant problem in the U.S. Selective disenfranchisement, by contrast, is a historic problem. Democrats are concerned that the GOP's efforts will have the practical effect of blocking or dissuading people of limited means, minorities, students and the elderly from voting, thereby reducing the number of Democratic votes.
Louis-Dreyfus stepped down five years ago from running the global commodities giant that bears his last name. Not a major political contributor by mogul standards, he has primarily supported Democrats, though not exclusively. He insisted that, contrary to a 6-year-old Forbes ranking, he is not a billionaire.
And he entirely dismisses the voter fraud argument. "I'm not only not convinced," he said, "it seems to me that the other side is making that argument because it can't really say the truth."
His galvanizing political moment came, he said, when he considered the possibility that voter suppression "might result in Romney's being elected in circumstances that were in effect fraudulent. And it occurred to me that was as serious a result for our country as any I could think of."
As long as nobody's voting rights are violated, "whoever gets elected is fine with me," he said.
On the other hand: "If people get elected by other means, then we might as well have the government carry guns against us. If you think about it, it's very, very upsetting. It scares me to death."
The New York Times ad ended with a call for donations to nonpartisan voter protection organizations, and included the contact information for one of them, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Several hundred people contacted the Brennan Center after the ad ran, Louis-Dreyfus said, including one person who contributed $10,000.
So far, no other tycoons have signed up, but he isn't disappointed, he said. He just hopes he's sparked some discussion -- and some outrage. "If one doesn't get excited about this, what's it going to take to get one excited?" he asked. "What's surprising about this is that there isn't more awareness and more outrage."
He doesn't understand that, he said. "I think we are a little bit complacent in this country with regard to our system," he said. "And the press, if you don't mind my saying, doesn't do a splendid job in underlining the real facts."
The part of the Times ad that seemed to resonate most with HuffPost commenters on Tuesday was Louis-Dreyfus' acknowledgement that "[w]e who have the blessing of our millions" have a particular stake in preserving democracy.
One commenter wrote: "At least some of the 1% have honor and worry about true American values. There is hope for us yet."
Louis-Dreyfus has a lot to say on the subject of wealth. "If you are rich in this country, it is a consequence of a number of things -- surely your talent and your hard work, but it's also a consequence of the political society we live in," he said.
"It's always been so that with money comes power, and there's probably very little we can do about it. But if on top of that particular fact we organize to interfere with the right of the people to vote, it must mean the wealthy don't feel they have enough power."
On a personal level, Louis-Dreyfus is working to end the cycle of poverty by donating works from his private art collection to the Harlem's Children Zone, educator and activist Geoffrey Canada's project aimed at helping poor children get a good education.
But fighting voter suppression required a more public act.
His daughter -- who famously played Elaine in "Seinfeld," and now the "Veep" on HBO -- helped edit the Times ad, he said.
She also issued her own statement after the ad ran, saying: "One of the proudest aspects of this nation's history has been the expansion of the franchise -- once just the province of white, landed men, it now belongs to all adults. Those who seek to take the vote away from American citizens stand against history. I'm proud instead to stand with my father."
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