Conservative group boasts of secret role in voting laws

Politics

FILE – In this Dec. 11, 2020 file photo, a sign in an Atlanta neighborhood urges people to vote early in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races. The leader of a national conservative group is taking credit for secretly helping to write laws tightening voting rules in several Republican-controlled states and says the group has secretly guided legislation in Arizona, Georgia and Iowa. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)

The head of a national conservative group told supporters it secretly helped draft legislation in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country as part of a coordinated network of organizations pushing to tighten voting laws across the country.

Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, made the claim during a recent meeting with supporters in Arizona. A recording of the event was released by the liberal investigative website Documented, which made a copy available for The Associated Press to review. Heritage Action confirmed its authenticity.

“In some cases, we actually draft them for them,” Anderson said of legislation written for state lawmakers. “Or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation, so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.”

Anderson’s comments shed additional light on precisely how well-funded national organizations have seized on false claims about the 2020 election to try to tighten state voting laws. While it is known that Heritage Action and several other groups are working with state lawmakers on legislation, it is rare to hear a leader detail how a group masks involvement to give the bills the appearance of broad political support.

Anderson gave the example of Georgia, where she said an activist affiliated with Heritage had given a letter outlining the group’s recommendations to key legislators. The activist first had the proposal signed by thousands of other activists. Other states where she said the group helped write bills included Iowa and Texas — though in Iowa, the authors of the voting legislation said they never spoke with Heritage.

In a statement Friday, Anderson said: “Heritage Action is proud of our work to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. That work begins at the state level through our grassroots and continues in state legislatures throughout the country.”

Heritage Action is one of several Republican-affiliated groups that jumped into elections issues for the first time after former President Donald Trump’s false claims about election fraud led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The lies also have fanned deep suspicions about the integrity of the country’s voting systems among GOP activists and donors — Anderson noted Heritage activists cited it as a top issue in a survey — and led to new laws in Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and other states.

Democrats have argued that the laws make it harder for people to vote, and disproportionally affect Black, Latino, young and other Democratic-leaning voters. Republicans argue the tougher rules will guard against fraud and are needed to restore trust in the election system. On Friday, the liberal group End Citizens United released a report that tallied up more than $42 million that conservative groups have pledged to spend on election laws, including Heritage’s $24 million budget.

Heritage and other conservative groups contend they are only trying to counter what they see as an array of well-funded liberal groups that work to loosen voting rules.

Heritage Action announced its effort in March, saying it would push legislation in eight battleground states based on model principles formulated by its parent organization, the conservative Heritage Foundation. Hans von Spakovsky, the foundation’s top voting expert and a former member of Trump’s 2017 election fraud commission, appeared at the event with Anderson and boasted of regularly talking with Republican secretaries of state. Anderson added that Heritage Action had just had a “huge” call with secretaries of state, who often serve as a state’s chief elections official.

Anderson also said the group runs a Tuesday call to “give marching orders” to other conservative organizations that have just launched voting pushes, including the anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List and the small government group FreedomWorks.

Anderson took credit for an Arizona law that bans donations to election offices from outside groups. The law was meant to fight back against $300 million in donationsfrom Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year. She also claimed credit for a controversial provision in Iowathat moves voters to inactive status after missing a single election.

“Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson said. “We helped draft the bills. … Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘it can’t be that easy.’”

Iowa Republicans who worked on the voting legislation have said they had no contact with Heritage. In March, Republican state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann told The Associated Press that he had not talked to Heritage or any other outside group. On Friday, he reiterated that denial.

“Heritage is telling a bold-faced lie,” Kaufmann said. Asked if claiming credit for the bills was a fundraising technique, Kaufmann replied: “That’s exactly what it is.”

State Sen. Roby Smith, who co-wrote the legislation with Kaufmann, also denied working with Heritage. “A number of the policy provisions in SF 413 were also in previous pieces of legislation long before the Heritage Foundation even knew to take credit for some thing they did not do,” Smith said in a statement.

Mike Marshall, the regulator who oversees lobbyists’ interactions with the Iowa executive branch, said Friday he has requested that Anderson provide any contacts that she or other Heritage Action representatives made in Iowa. Marshall said he had also asked the office of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to search its records for any such interactions.

Heritage is not a registered lobbyist in Iowa and did not publicly register a position on the election bill when it was released in February.

At the event, Anderson said there was another task besides simply passing new laws. Many Republicans fear that their voters lost trust in the system due to Trump’s allegations and then in Georgia didn’t cast ballots during two January Senate run-offs, which Democrats won. Heritage wants to make sure conservative voters hear that voting rules are being tightened to prevent fraud.

“It’s our job to tell them that was done, with the hope that it will restore voter confidence and let people return to the polls in 2022,” Anderson said.

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Riccardi reported from Denver and Izaguirre from Lindenhurst, New York. Michael Biesecker in Washington and Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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