Earlier this week, One Wisconsin Now revealed an alleged voter suppression plot designed to disenfranchise minorities, students, and others in heavily-Democratic areas of the state. At the center of this apparent “voter caging” operation that we reported on yesterday is the Wisconsin chapter of Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. While the allegations of potentially illegal conduct leveled against Americans for Prosperity, the Wisconsin Republican Party, and other tea party groups are extremely serious, a ThinkProgress investigation reveals an even larger and more insidious effort by Koch-backed groups to tamper with the democratic process.
While a federal crime, the most essential voting issues, from registration and eligibility to specific early and Election Day voting procedures, are largely governed by state law. Even before becoming involved in the apparent plot to suppress the vote in Wisconsin, a web of Koch-backed groups played a key role earlier this year in defeating a proposed Wisconsin law that included numerous voter protection measures—including significant penalties for efforts to unlawfully challenge and intimidate voters. In fact, those at the center of the alleged voter suppression plot were caught on tape in June admitting that they could only proceed with their so-called “Election Observer Program” because they had successfully blocked the Voter Protection Act from passing earlier in the spring:
“And since the voter law did not get passed this year that could hit you with $100,000 and three years for unsuccessfully challenging a voter, we can still do this,” said Tim Dake, a prominent tea party member with the Wisconsin GrandSons for Liberty, the group that provided cover for Americans for Prosperity and the Wisconsin GOP by agreeing to be the public face for the campaign.
“Hallelujah,” shouted an unidentified meeting attendee in response.
“Yes, everybody gets to take credit for that,” replied Dake, before decrying early voting and detailing purported instances of voted fraud committed by individuals with Vietnamese surnames.
Tellingly, the Voter Protection Act provision that Dake references only criminalizes acts that “make use of or threaten to make use of force, violence, restraint, or any tactic of coercion or intimidation in order to induce or compel any person to vote or refrain from voting or to refrain from registering to vote at an election.” It also put in place less severe penalties for attempting to prevent someone from registering or voting “based upon fraudulent, deceptive, or spurious grounds or information.” If the goal of their “Election Observer Program” was simply to weed out ineligible voters and notify the proper authorities of any issues—rather than the deliberate use of intimidation and other tactics to suppress votes—it’s unclear why Dake and his compatriots would have been concerned about this provision or considered it an impediment to their plans.
Whether they were concerned about the bill’s voter protection provisions, numerous other provisions designed to make it easier to register to vote and to vote early or absentee, or the provision that implemented a federal law that makes it easier for military voters—including troops serving overseas—to cast ballots, right-wing activists derided it as the “Voter Fraud Protection Act,” an ACORN-Style Election Fraud Act,” and the “election deform bill.”
Regardless of the exact source of their concerns, a network of Koch-backed groups swooped in earlier this year and succeeded in killing the bill. Here’s a look at the key Koch-backed players that pushed for the defeat of the Voter Protection Act:
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Wisconsin (aka Fight Back Wisconsin):
The debate over the Voter Protection Act was reaching its height around Tax Day and it appears that defeating the bill was a major focus of an April 15 rally in Madison that was organized by Americans for Prosperity. Americans for Prosperity bused in attendees from at least 14 locations in Wisconsin. News accounts and photographs from the rally indicate that “voter fraud” was among the topics of concern to attendees. Finally, an April 26th Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin newsletter from state director Mark Block, who was previously fined $15,000 and banned from Wisconsin politics for three years for violating campaign rules, thanks recipients for making a “huge” difference and claims the Madison event was the largest Tax Day rally in the nation. Block added: “[y]our phone calls, emails, and letters were instrumental in the state legislature adjourning without passage of…the voter registration bill that would have helped people commit voter fraud.”
In addition, the AFP-sponsored Wisconsin Defending the Dream summit held this past March included a panel discussion featuring members of the “We’re Watching Committee,” a group focused on “voter fraud” that has been promoted by AFP Wisconsin and is referenced in the audio recordings surrounding the alleged plot. One of the members of We’re Watching is also a local Republican Party official in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
The MacIver Institute is a think thank that bills itself as “the free market voice for Wisconsin.” On April 9, its website, referring to the Voter Protection Act, warned that “a massive push to facilitate voter fraud” was underway and called on the public to “act soon.” It followed up with another warning on April 13 about the “vote fraud bill on fast track.” After the Voter Protection Act died, an “Open Letter to Wisconsin Tea Partiers” posted on its website thanked them for their hard work in defeating the “Alinsky brigade” and its efforts to pass clean energy and “election deform” legislation. And in a May 10 post entitled “Tea Party Impact Ongoing,” a checklist of Wisconsin Tea Party accomplishments included “Stop Vote Fraud legislation.”
The MacIver Institute has numerous ties to the ‘Kochtopus.’ Mark Block, the AFP Wisconsin state director and a key figure in the alleged voter suppression plot, sits on MacIver’s board of directors. MacIver and AFP Wisconsin also share two other board members, David Fettig and Fred Luber. MacIver also works closely with AFP Wisconsin as part of the Wisconsin Prosperity Network, along with another group with ties to Koch funding, American Majority. The think tank also participates in the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies’ Koch Summer Fellows Program and is a member of the Koch-funded State Policy Network.
Tea Party Groups:
While the role of various Koch-funded entities in establishing the tea party movement writ large is beyond dispute, several of the groups involved in the alleged voter suppression plot are linked directly to Koch-funded groups. While it’s unclear exactly how many local Wisconsin tea party groups are involved in the so-called “Election Observer Program,” emails, audio recordings, and other documents point to at least three: the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, the Eau Claire Tea Party, and the Racine Tea Party. All three are affiliated with the national Tea Party Patriots, which is linked to Koch-funded FreedomWorks. The Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty and the Eau Claire Tea Party are also listed as AFP Wisconsin coalition members.
To recap, it appears that a network of Koch-backed groups killed a proposed Wisconsin law to protect voters, which then cleared the way for an overlapping set of Koch-backed groups to move with an alleged voter suppression plan. What’s more, Koch-funded AFP is currently attempting to further influence the outcome of the election by airing millions of dollars in attack ads targeting Democratic U.S. House and Senate members in Wisconsin and other states.
If the vast network of Koch-backed groups nationwide is nearly as active as those in Wisconsin appear to be, it appears that the ‘Kochtopus’ may be an even greater threat to the integrity of our democratic process than previously imagined.