Companies giving at least $2 million to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation -- nearly half of its reported 2010 donations -- also backed an organization championing voter identification laws that caucus members say “suppress” minorities’ right to vote.
The group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, lists 22 corporate and trade association members on its private enterprise board. Thirteen of those firms also contributed to the black caucus foundation in 2010, according to Internal Revenue Service records and the latest available data on the websites of both organizations.
The dual support puts companies, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., AT&T Inc. and Johnson & Johnson, in the position of financing both sides in a political dispute over state laws that the U.S. Justice Department said in some cases are biased against minority voters.
“Corporations should be conscious of how their advocacy money is being spent by organizations that they contribute to,” said U.S. Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and a member of the black caucus. “This is a wakeup call for corporate interests to be more responsible for how they spend their money.”
A spokeswoman for the black caucus foundation, Traci Hughes, didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
ALEC Drops Voter-ID
Following the withdrawal of support from such companies as Kraft Foods Inc. and Pepsico Inc., ALEC announced April 17 that it would disband its task force that drafted the voter-ID measures and focus exclusively on economic issues. ALEC also will remove the draft of the voter-ID legislation and other non-economic measures from its online library of sample bills, which state lawmakers use to craft proposals, said Kaitlyn Buss, a spokeswoman.
Corporations have been under pressure to drop their financial support of ALEC after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The shooter, George Zimmerman, claimed self-defense under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows individuals to use deadly force if they feel threatened. Similar laws have been enacted in other states with ALEC’s support. The task force that drafted the self-defense legislation also wrote the voter-ID bill.
Voter-ID Issue Spreads
“Voter-ID bills have been kicking around for years,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wisconsin-based group that drew attention to the ALEC model bills. “A member of ALEC dusted off one of those bills and brought it to ALEC as a priority. Republicans took over states. Suddenly those bills were flying through statehouses.”
Eight states enacted voter-ID laws since the 2010 elections, in which Republicans made significant gains in state legislatures. The U.S. Justice Department blocked legislation in South Carolina and Texas under the Voting Rights Act, saying the measures unfairly burdened minority voters. A state judge stopped enforcement of similar legislation in Wisconsin.
Republican backers of the measures say they are needed to prevent voter fraud.
“You can’t check into a hotel, you can’t cash a check, you can’t live in this country without ID,” said Eddie Mahe, a Republican consultant and supporter of such legislation. “If you need an ID to cash a check, which is less important than casting a vote, I submit you should be able to provide ID. If people didn’t have in mind preserving the opportunity to cheat, they wouldn’t be fighting it.”
Opponents of the measures point to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School that found such fraud occurred 0.00004 percent of the time in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election.
They also argue such laws disenfranchise minorities and the poor, constituencies that are more likely to support Democrats. For instance, the Brennan Center said 25 percent of voting-age blacks, 16 percent of voting-age Hispanics and 15 percent of voting-age Americans in households earning less than $35,000 lack the sort of approved IDs required by the laws.
“You start to paint a picture of people of color, poor people, being cut out and not allowed to get their votes counted,” said Larry Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program.
Black Caucus Condemnation
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, a Democratic U.S. House representative, and 42 other members of the caucus introduced a resolution in February that “condemns the passage of legislation that would unduly burden an American citizen’s ability to vote.” The lawmakers likened such measures to “Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests that disenfranchised thousands of African-Americans.”
Cleaver said he intends to raise with caucus members the issue of corporate supporters that also give money to ALEC.
“If we became involved, it would be because we want to make sure the companies realize that here is an entity that seems to be trying to suppress votes,” Cleaver said. “The companies may not have known all of the things ALEC was involved in.”
Kraft, which contributed at least $50,000 to the foundation, is the only black caucus supporter and ALEC corporate board member to leave the council so far.
The Northfield, Illinois-based company said in a statement that it decided not to renew its ALEC membership “for a number of reasons, including limited resources.” Kraft said that its involvement in ALEC “has been strictly limited to discussions about economic growth and development, transportation and tax policy.”
Two other companies that have left ALEC, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and Purchase, New York-based Pepsico, are also financial supporters of the black caucus foundation. Coca-Cola gave at least $250,000 and Pepsico donated at least $100,000.
Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart and Bloomington, Illinois-based State Farm Insurance Co. each gave at least $450,000 to the caucus foundation while serving on the ALEC board. Neither company responded to several requests for comment.
“It’s interesting the way corporations try to play both sides,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, a black civil rights organization based in New York. “Their sponsorship of the Congressional Black Caucus is much more public than their sponsorship of ALEC, which works behind the scenes.”
ColorofChange is part of a coalition of advocacy groups, including Common Cause and People for the American Way, urging companies to drop their ALEC membership because of its support of voter-ID laws.
Among their targets: Johnson & Johnson, which gave at least $250,000 to the black caucus foundation.
A Johnson & Johnson spokesman, Bill Price, said the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company works with many organizations on issues of concern. “We may not align with or support every public position each of these broad-based groups takes,” he said.
Another member of ALEC’s private enterprise board, Dallas-based AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, gave at least $100,000 to the caucus foundation. Michael Balmoris, a spokesman, didn’t return telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Other ALEC board members include Exxon Mobil Corp., based in Irving, Texas, which gave at least $250,000 to the caucus foundation; and Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc., which donated at least $50,000. Both companies declined to comment on supporting both the black caucus foundation and ALEC.
Commenting on corporations that give to political groups, Representative William Lacy Clay Jr., a Missouri Democrat and a member of the black caucus, said “from a public policy standpoint, they need to reassess how they want to be known.”