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Beer and wine wholesalers behind legislators pushing controversial voter ID laws

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Some of America's best known brands are dropping their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council at least partly in response to controversy over the group's backing of voter ID laws. Coca-Cola quit on April 4 and Pepsi, Kraft Foods, Intuit, McDonalds and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation followed them out after a coalition of left-wing groups launched pressure campaigns. Nine states have passed strict voter ID requirements just since 2011, which opponents say could result in millions being unable to cast ballots in November.

But there's been little attention paid to one major ALEC-affiliated sector behind several state legislators pushing these measures: the beer and wine industry. 

Major players in beer and wine sit on an ALEC task force that crafted and approved voter ID model legislation in 2009. The industry's major trade associations -- the National Beer Wholesalers Association and Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America -- are among them. Since 2007, the wholesalers have also pumped substantial cash into the campaigns of several ALEC politicians who have been authors or primary sponsors of voter ID bills in their states.

Founded in 1973, ALEC, a coalition of corporate America and almost exclusively Republican state lawmakers, had operated quietly and, by most accounts, effectively in pushing conservative, business-friendly laws including Arizona's immigration law and the flurry of controversial "Stand Your Ground" laws that have been in the headlines since the February 26 shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

ALEC has a vast legislative agenda covering state budgets, education, health care, corrections, energy and environment, guided by free-enterprise and limited-government principles. It draws funding from hundreds of corporate members including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Pfizer, UPS, AT&T, and Walmart. Corporate membership costs between $7,000 and $25,000, according to the ALEC website. Two thousand state legislators pay $50 a year to be members.

ALEC has been the subject of increasing media attention since last summer, when hundreds of leaked documents shed unprecedented light on ALEC's reach into state legislatures. The organization did not respond to calls for comment.

The course of voter ID

ALEC didn't kick off the voter ID movement; a 2005 Indiana law co-authored by Republican Sen. Brandt Hershman, an ALEC member who has received nominal contributions from the state wine wholesalers association, seems to have started the trend. In early 2009, though, ALEC formed a committee within its Public Safety and Elections Task Force to focus on election fraud.

Sean Parnell, the former president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative think tank, said legislators from a dozen states brought voter ID to ALEC in the spring of 2009, but he declined to identify them.

By summer 2009, the full Public Safety and Elections Task Force, including the beer and wine wholesalers, formally approved the voter ID model law before it filtered into dozens of legislatures nationwide -- according to internal ALEC documents published by the Wisconsin-based investigative nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy.

The model legislation requires voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls, or else sign an affidavit and cast a provisional ballot. Provisional voters must make a separate trip to provide county election officials with proof of identity by the Monday following an election if they want to ensure their vote is counted. By that time, critics say, most elections have been decided.

Since 2009, 12 states have passed voter ID laws with strict requirements for government-isued identification. Nine of those states have signed such laws just since 2011, and Virginia seems poised to become the tenth.

Conservative legislators tout the laws' ability to stop voter fraud. ALEC argues that such fraud could be a serious problem, pointing to the nation's messy voter registration rolls. The assertion is bolstered by a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, which says 1.8 million deceased Americans are still listed as voters and that 2.75 million people are registered to vote in more than one state.

But the laws have drawn rebuke from the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights advocates, who say the requirements will disproportionately restrict access to the ballot for people of color, students, homeless and the elderly -- groups that they say are less likely to possess government-issued identification.

A 2006 survey conducted for the Brennan Center for Democracy found that 25 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Latinos do not possess state-issued photo IDs. Voter ID laws, together with restrictions on voter registration and early voting, the Brennan Center says, could affect 5 million Americans in 2012. Since December, the Justice Department has rejected voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, subject to review by the courts. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, changes to electoral laws in states with a history of voter discrimination must get federal approval.

The Justice Department said that, whether or not the new voter ID requirements in both those states had a "discriminatory purpose," they would have "a discriminatory effect" on people of color.

Political players

The National Beer Wholesalers and Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America are not strangers to power politics. The beer wholesalers are a trade association representing thousands of companies who deliver beer from breweries to bars. In twenty years, the association has played a substantial role in campaign finance, ranking 25th on a list of federal campaign cash "heavy hitters" compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The wholesalers' state-based affiliates have used their political leverage in efforts to contain beer and liquor taxes and fight large retailers like Costco Wholesale Corporation, which are competing for a share of the large distribution market.

So why would these industry players back a politically charged issue like voter ID? Formally, they don't.

"The National Beer Wholesalers Association has no position on this issue," said spokeswoman Kathleen Joyce, in an e-mail. The wine wholesalers had a similar response. "The task force's sponsorship of voter ID laws and any other election activities is a mere coincidence, and we have never been involved in those areas," said Jerry Brown, a spokesman for wine wholesalers.

Both organizations say their groups have been members of ALEC's Public Safety and Elections task force to foster efforts aimed at preventing underage drinking. The task force has endorsed three pieces of legislation since 2006 seeking heightened penalties for those selling alcohol to underage consumers.

Not everyone is convinced. Among the skeptics is Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "If you see this happening in several states, that's some indication that there's a strategy there, especially if they're giving money to ALEC members," said Bender. Neither the beer or wine wholesalers would say how they voted when the ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force approved the model voter ID law.

Indeed, cash from the beer and wine wholesalers shows up repeatedly backing state legislators who are behind the voter ID measures. Since 2011, five ALEC-member legislators in Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Kansas and South Carolina were primary sponsors of voter ID bills and relied in part on the flow of beer and wine money for their campaigns. In Wisconsin, 28 of the 48 legislators who introduced voter ID in 2011 are ALEC members, including one who was on the elections task force and received support from the beer industry.

The amounts of cash are modest in comparison to the millions already being spent on the presidential campaign, but are significant in the context of state legislative races, for which candidates usually raise less than $100,000.

Parade of states

In South Carolina, the Justice Department struck down a law sponsored by Rep. James Harrison, a member of the ALEC Public Safety and Elections task force and a recipient of at least $4,000 from beer and wine wholesaler associations since 2007. Harrison was also one of 13 sponsors of a successful 2007 bill that set up education programs for underage consumers of alcohol.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry decried the Justice Department's decision to block a voter ID law introduced by ALEC member and Republican Sen. Troy Fraser. ProPublica identified more than $160,000 donated to Fraser between 2007 and 2010 by ALEC member corporations including Time Warner, AT&T, Bank of America. In addition, since 2007 the state-based beer wholesaler association has given Fraser $14,000 in campaign cash.

Fraser had no comment on his role in the law and support from the wholesaler.

In the Texas House, the story was similar. Four of the five representatives who were primary sponsors of a companion to Fraser's Senate bill are ALEC members who received a total of $13,000 in beer industry support since 2007. Two of them -- Reps. Aaron Pena and Larry W. Taylor -- sat on the ALEC task force that approved voter ID model legislation. Pena received more than $3,800 and Taylor $2,500 from the beer wholesalers.

Pena says he doesn't remember when ALEC approved the law, and denied the think tank's role in shaping the Texas voter requirements. "None of my knowledge of this law comes from ALEC," he said. "There is no connection." Rep. Taylor did not return calls.

In Tennessee, longtime Sen. Bill Ketron sponsored a successful voter ID bill in 2011. Since 2007, he has drawn at least $35,000 in donations from ALEC members that approved the model voter ID bill, including $4,000 from the state wine wholesalers' association.

According to Ketron spokeswoman Darlene Schlicher, the senator introduced voter ID following a high-profile voter fraud case involving a Democratic state legislator. Sen. Ophelia Ford narrowly won a 2005 special election to fill a seat left open by her brother. When her opponent challenged the result, an investigation found ballots had been cast by nonresidents, felons, and in the names of deceased voters. The state Senate voided the election in 2006.

Any connections between the voter ID laws and the beer and wine industry, says Schlicher, are "right out of left field." Ketron was also one of six sponsors of 2009 legislation heightening penalties for underage drinking.

ALEC member Rep. Lance Kinzer sponsored voter ID in Kansas and has received nominal contributions from the wine wholesalers association. Wisconsin's embattled law passed with heavy sponsorship from ALEC members in 2011, including that of Rep. Dan Knodl, who has received $1,500 since 2007 from the beer wholesalers association.  

Wisconsin has some of the most restrictive ID requirements in the nation, disallowing student IDs and veteran IDs, says Wisconsin ACLU spokeswoman Stacey Harbaugh, whose organization is one of several groups suing to overturn the law. A state judge struck down the strict voter ID requirements in March.

Even though Wisconsin would provide free IDs to those with improper state-issued ID, residents have to show their birth certificate to obtain one, and obtaining a birth certificiate can itself cost time and money.  "The free IDs aren't really free," says Harbaugh.

Virginia Republican Sen. Stephen Martin, ALEC's state chairman, introduced voter ID legislation this year. Martin received at least $45,000 from ALEC private sector members from 2006 through 2009, and more than $5,300 from the state's beer and wine wholesaler associations between 2006 and 2011. Martin did not return calls for comment.

One of three co-sponsors of the Martin bill was ALEC member Frank Ruff. His $40,000 in campaign contributions from ALEC corporations since 2006 included more than $3,000 from beer and wine wholesalers. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling broke the party-line tie in the Virginia Senate, sending the bill to Gov. Bob McDonnell's desk. On April 10, McDonnell sent it back, calling on legislators to expand the acceptable forms of identification.

Shifting sands

Links to ALEC are becoming a potential liability for corporations, due to a pressure campaign by Color of Change. The progressive online advocacy organization devoted to strengthening the political voice of people of color says voter ID laws constitute a "modern-day poll tax" aimed at voters from minority groups.

"The hurdles involved in getting proper ID for many people can be expensive," said Color of Change's Executive Director Rashad Robinson in an interview.

Coca-Cola dropped its membership five hours after Robinson's group launched its pressure campaign against the company.

Groups affiliated with ALEC's voter ID measure, including the beer and wine wholesaler associations, should be aware that they are going to be featured targets, said Robinson.

ALEC Executive Director Ron Scheberle released a statement April 11 responding to the "intimidation campaign" against the group. "We are not and will not be defined by ideological special interests," he said, "who would like to eliminate discourse that leads to economic vitality, jobs and fiscal stability for the states."

Color of Change is aiming its latest effort at ALEC members Johnson & Johnson, State Farm and AT&T, which sponsored last year's ALEC conference to the tune of $50,000. Other progressive groups are targeting pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

Robinson claims ALEC has long provided corporations a behind-the-scenes vehicle for their legislative agendas.

"When corporations are giving money to a group like ALEC, they shouldn't get a free pass on ALEC's policies," said Robinson.

Continue this story and read more investigations at iWatch News

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