Republican Secretaries of State Flew to D.C. This Summer to Scheme With Voter Suppression Advocates
North Dakota and Tennessee Secretaries of State. Photo credit: David Aaron.
In late June 2021, sixteen Republican secretaries of state, the elected officials responsible for overseeing their state’s elections, flew to Washington, D.C. Despite the risks and inconvenience of traveling during the pandemic, they had important business to do. They were in town to huddle in private sessions with lobbyists and activists from some of the leading groups pushing this year’s giant wave of state voter suppression laws.
The officials were flown to the nation's capital by the corporate-backed Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), and put up at the 5-star luxury Conrad Hotel, just blocks from the White House. According to a review of IRS records, donors to RSLC this year have included:
- Reynolds American ($240k)
- Koch Industries ($200k)
- Marathon Oil Company ($200k)
- Charter Communications ($150k)
- Dominion Energy ($145k)
- General Motors ($125k)
- Facebook ($50k)
- Visa ($50k)
- Walmart ($50k)
- Google ($10k)
According to materials obtained by Documented, over the course of two days the secretaries of state were to be briefed on policy proposals, litigation strategy and messaging best practice. The agenda featured numerous sessions around so-called “election integrity” (the 2021 Republican codename for voter suppression), H.R. 1 (the For the People Act), and various aspects of our elections including the use of mail-in and absentee ballots, and the use of drop boxes.
RSLC and RSSC have been heavily involved in the push for more restrictive voting laws this year. In February 2021, RSLC formed an “election integrity commission” including both Republican secretaries of state and state legislators as members. The commission has published a “best practices” document that purports to instruct states on how to make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.” In reality, the document amounts to a roadmap for various voter suppression tactics including strict voter ID laws and purging of the voter rolls.
In July, state Democratic lawmakers from Texas fled the state to block Republicans from having the necessary quorum needed to pass new voter suppression legislation. In response, RSLC and the Associated Republicans of Texas launched a six-figure ad campaign attacking Democrats for the move. Prior to the ad campaign, RSLC paid for numerous ads on Facebook in June featuring U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn bashing H.R. 1 and calling for donors to “chip in now” to “save our elections.”
According to the June meeting materials obtained by Documented, the RSLC meeting kicked off with a Monday night welcome reception followed by a “VIP dinner” reserved for meeting sponsors, secretaries and their spouses at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.
The bulk of the agenda, which occurred on Tuesday June 29, consisted of briefings and policy working groups. The policy sessions, described as “Red-State Briefings,” were “offered to members and sponsors who contribute $5,000+ to the RSSC.”
Materials sent to the secretaries of state made clear that it was “mandatory” that they attend all the briefings. Essentially, if RSLC is flying you to D.C., putting you up in a 5-Star Hotel, and paying for all your meals, you MUST attend the briefings with the RSLC donors.
SPN think tank dominates meeting
One of the roundtables was a session called “Election Integrity with the Foundation for Government Accountability” (FGA). Foundation for Government Accountability staff also presented during a lunchtime session called “Messaging on Election Administration,” and again in other sessions called “The Impact of H.R. 1” and “Voting And Voter Identification Methods.” FGA is a RSLC donor through its 501(c)(4) arm FGA Action, which also goes by the name Opportunity Solutions Project. According to RSLC’s most recent report filed with the IRS, which covers contributions received in the first half of 2021, FGA Action contributed $42,500 to RSLC so far this year.
The Florida group is a member of the corporate-backed State Policy Network (SPN), a network of strikingly similar right-wing free market think tanks that are now operating in every state. SPN’s CEO Tracie Sharp revealingly described SPN as “the Ikea model” in a recording leaked to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2013.
According to materials reviewed by Documented, SPN lists “Election Integrity” - there’s that GOP codeword again - as being one of its top priorities for 2021. Many of its member groups have been active in promoting the Republican voter suppression agenda this year, but none more so than FGA. SPN was also named, along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), as a partner of Heritage Action in its 2021 election project, which has received significant press attention, according to an internal Heritage Action plan obtained by Documented and first shared by us with the New York Times.
Over the past decade FGA has become best known lobbying state legislatures for highly controversial “welfare to work” programs.
In 2021, as republicans in many states introduced voter suppression legislation, FGA worked to support and drive this effort. It has been as active as any group doing this work, although they have received scant media attention. According to records reviewed by Documented, FGA and its connected 501(c)(4) group Opportunity Solutions Project (OSP) have been pushing voter suppression legislation in Texas, Iowa, Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, Kansas, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Documented has been tracking this activity from FGA/OSP and other groups, which you can see here.
FGA and Opportunity Solutions Project did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The RSLC and the Heritage Foundation team up
Earlier this year, in partnership with Mother Jones, Documented published the recording of a Heritage Foundation/Heritage Action for America donor summit session about elections. At the event, Heritage staff boasted about their role coordinating state voter suppression measures in Republican-led state legislatures across the country. That story received the June 2021 Sidney reporting award from the Hillman Foundation.
On the same recording, Heritage Action Executive Director Jessica Anderson, and Heritage Foundation Fellow Hans von Spakovsky, spoke about how they have been secretly briefing Republican secretaries of state over recent years.
“Hans is briefing governors, secretaries of state, state attorney generals, state elected officials,” Anderson said. “Just what three weeks ago, we had a huge call with secretaries of state, right?”
“We’ve now for several years been having a private briefing of the best conservative secretaries of state in the country that has so annoyed the left that they have been doing everything they can to try to find out what happens at that meeting,” von Spakovsky replied.
“So far unsuccessfully. No leaks,” said Anderson.
Well, we found out about it this time. Prior to the June RSLC event, the Heritage Foundation held one of these private briefings for Republican secretaries of state, timed to coincide with the RSLC meeting. “Our goal is to gather the chief state election officials together to strategize on advancing their shared goal of ensuring the integrity of the elections they administer in their home states,” read the invitation, a copy of which was first published by the Center for Media and Democracy.
According to further event materials obtained by Documented, topics at these Heritage meetings include “redistricting, election security, and current election-related litigation and legislation.”
FGA funding from the Bradley Foundation
You may have seen the recent report by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer revealing the Bradley Foundation as one of the major financial backers of groups pushing voter suppression and disinformation.
“Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right,” Mayer writes.
“With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.” Jane Mayer, The New Yorker