Brian Cahn / Zuma Wire

Who’s funding voter suppression?

Web of conservative funding groups lines up behind key voting rights Supreme Court case

This is part three of a three-part series explaining why conservatives are pushing more restrictive voting laws and how such efforts disenfranchise minority voters. Part one looks at the myth of rampant in-person voting fraud. Part two looks at the partisan strategy of voter suppression.

In June the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether states will be forced to redraw their electoral maps on the basis of only eligible voters rather than total population, as has been the standard for more than 50 years. A win for the plaintiffs in the case, Evenwel v. Abbott, would result in a dramatic shift in electoral power, upending the notion of one person, one vote. Densely populated urban areas with large numbers of children, immigrants and the formerly incarcerated would lose representation, and rural areas, which have smaller populations but much greater percentages of voting-age eligible residents, stand to see their electoral power increase.

Supporters of Evenwel typically frame the case as one of philosophical fairness, aiming to ensure that one resident’s vote carries the same weight as another’s. “When you look at the court’s cases in explaining the genesis and purpose of the one person, one vote doctrine, it was always about equalizing vote weight,” said attorney Andrew Grossman who wrote an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. “This case is a request for very modest relief,” he said, adding that should the plaintiffs win, “You wouldn’t see immediate disruption in the way things currently operate.”

The highly partisan support that’s made this case possible, however, indicates who would benefit from a ruling for the plaintiffs. “When you look at this from a political perspective … what it would do is cut out the Latino population” said Kathay Feng, the executive director of the nonprofit California Common Cause, who cites the high percentage of underage and noncitizens among this demographic. “And to the extent that a significant proportion of Latinos register and vote as Democrats you’re hobbling the ability to draw districts that vote Democratic. You’re redistributing those people to more Republican districts.”

An examination of funding sources tied to the Evenwel case reveals a web of influential Republican-allied organizations with long-standing support for restrictive voting laws and suppression tactics aimed at discouraging turnout among populations that vote for Democratic candidates. Proponents of these laws argue they are necessary to combat what they say is potentially widespread voter fraud — but only 28 people were convicted of in-person voter fraud from 2000 to 2012.

The driving force behind the Evenwel case is Ed Blum, whose Project on Fair Representation is adept at matching plaintiffs with lawyers in cases designed to end up in the Supreme Court. Another case that Blum has shepherded, which argues against affirmative action admissions policies (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin), was also heard by the Supreme Court this term.

Blum’s one-man operation covers the Evenwel plaintiff’s legal fees. Blum in turn is funded solely through Donors Trust, a Virginia-based 501(c)(3) organization that contributed just over $1 million to Blum’s organization in 2013 through an intermediary nonprofit Project Liberty, according to tax filings. Founded in 1999 as an ideology-centric middleman, Donors Trust funnels money from wealthy donors exclusively to causes that further “the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility and free enterprise.” Donors Trust’s 501(c)(3) status means that like other “dark money” organizations, wealthy individuals can make tax-deductible contributions to groups like Blum’s with complete anonymity. By its count, Donors Trust has given more than $740 million of donors’ money to liberty-minded nonprofits. Blum declined to comment and referred questions on the case to Grossman.

ProPublica, most recent tax filings

Among the groups that we do know is contributing to Donors Trust is the Wisconsin-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a powerful player in both state and national conservative politics with more than $903 million in assets, according to 2013 tax filings. The Bradley Foundation is no stranger to issues of voter suppression. In 2010 the organization funded a controversial campaign in which billboards declaring “Voter fraud is a felony!” went up in largely African-American Milwaukee neighborhoods weeks ahead of the November election, a move critics say was intended to suppress turnout in those communities.

In 2013 the Bradley Foundation made a $50,000 grant to True the Vote, a Houston-based anti-voter fraud group founded by Catherine Engelbrecht, that has garnered national attention for training and sending white election observers into predominantly African-American and Latino polling places looking for evidence of voter fraud, creating what voting rights advocates have denounced as an intimidating environment. Another Engelbrecht-founded group, the King Street Patriots, has been accused of providing illegal contributions to Texas Republican party organizations, in a case that has been appealed to the Texas State Supreme Court.

The Bradley Foundation’s outgoing president, Michael Grebe, has been a key ally and confidant of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, most recently serving as the campaign committee chairman for Walker’s failed presidential bid. “From the day I became active in politics,” Walker told a closed-door meeting of conservatives, according to The Washington Times, “I have sought the counsel and advice of the man I consider my political and philosophical mentor, Mike Grebe.” As governor, Walker has enabled more restrictive voting laws. In addition to requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot this November, Walker has reduced the number of early voting days and has eliminated voting on Sunday, typically a day of high turnout among African-American churchgoing voters.

Another source of Donors Trust funding is the Knowledge and Progress Fund, a dark money nonprofit controlled in part by billionaire conservative Charles Koch. The fund was created to pass contributions exclusively to Donors Trust, to the tune of $7.7 million since 2010, according to tax records.

From 2010 to 2012, Donors Trust contributed $8.2 million to Americans for Prosperity, one of several organizations in Charles Koch and David Koch’s network of conservative political advocacy groups. The organization has been accused by critics of repeatedly participating in voter suppression schemes. In the weeks ahead of the 2014 election Americans for Prosperity sent out voter registration mailings to North Carolina residents with incorrect registration deadlines and return addresses. Earlier that year, the Koch-funded group sent out mailings to eligible West Virginia voters with warnings that they may not be able to vote in the upcoming primary unless they updated their voter registration. In 2011, Americans for Prosperity mailed absentee ballot applications to Wisconsin voters registered as Democrats with instructions to return them two days after the actual deadline. In each case Americans for Prosperity said the errors were due to clerical mistakes and outdated mailing lists.

Both Donors Trust and the Koch brothers provide financial support to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential conservative group comprised of representatives from major U.S. corporations and overwhelmingly Republican lawmakers. The group is best known for producing legislation-ready bills, written by lawmakers and corporate representatives working side by side, that its members can introduce in their state legislatures with little or no modification.

In the name of combating voter fraud, ALEC drafted and began promoting voter ID legislation to Republican-controlled state legislatures in 2009. The model bill required citizens to present a valid photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Three years later 62 voter ID bills had been proposed in state legislatures across the country, half of which were “sponsored by members or conference attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council,” according to an analysis by the journalism project News21.

Critics of these laws argue that in-person voter impersonation (the only type of fraud a photo ID prevents) is exceedingly rare. The real purpose of these laws, they say, is to suppress voter participation by disproportionately burdening the groups of voters — African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities — least likely to vote for a Republican candidate.

Many see the Evenwel bid for redistricting as simply another attempt to achieve this goal. “A victory for the plaintiffs can undo a lot of the hard-fought political gains by racial minorities especially in urban areas,” said Sean Young an attorney with the ACLU, which has filed an amicus brief for the defendants. “It can result in backsliding to an era in which minority political power is diluted. That’s not something we should be welcoming.”

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