Organizations affiliated with law enforcement constitute the most significant lobbying force fueling the unprecedented number of anti-protest bills introduced by state lawmakers this year, according to an independent researcher.
In search of which companies were lobbying for the bills, researcher Connor Gibson watched hours of hearings and reviewed lobbying records from more than two dozen states. Yet Gibson identified hardly any companies. Instead, he found example after example of law enforcement officers, including representatives of police unions, showing up to advocate for legislation. “That is the only trend I could find,” he said, noting that police influence varied significantly from state to state and bill to bill.
Law enforcement organizations — mostly police unions — also collectively contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of state lawmakers who went on to sponsor dozens of anti-protest bills this year, data included in a separate, report by Greenpeace shows.
Gibson’s police lobbying analysis, which he completed for the Proteus Fund, and the Greenpeace report provide the most complete picture yet of the moneyed interests that have fueled the proliferation this year of anti-protest and voter suppression bills. State lawmakers introduced 361 voter suppression bills in all but three states as of late March, while more than 80 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 34 states.
The bills also bear the fingerprints of corporations, but understanding the corporate money requires examining campaign contributions. The Greenpeace report reveals that the same set of companies represent the biggest contributors to sponsors of both types of legislation. Two telecommunication giants, two tobacco corporations, and an insurance company are among the top 10 corporate contributors to sponsors of both voter suppression bills and anti-protest bills. They include AT&T Inc., Comcast, Philip Morris’s parent company Altria Group, Reynolds American Inc., and United Health Group.
“It was eye-opening to me as a consumer of AT&T,” said Folabi Olagbaju, Greenpeace’s democracy campaign director. The telecommunications giant is based in Texas, where, at 3 a.m. on Friday morning, a voter suppression bill passed in the state House of Representatives.
While Greenpeace is calling on companies to support what it considers pro-democracy legislation, like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the new report is focused on corporate support for the bills that the group opposes. Olagbaju said, “We want them to stop funding politicians who support anti-protest and anti-voter measures.”
Separate phenomena are to some degree driving the uptick in voter suppression and anti-protest bills. Voter suppression bills respond to President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to undermine the 2020 election by spreading false claims of voter fraud. In turn, state lawmakers introduced bills that contain a range of provisions: eliminating automatic voter registration, making voting by mail and absentee voting more difficult, requiring IDs for voting, shrinking the number of ballot drop box locations, or creating systems for regularly purging voter rolls.
The proliferation of anti-protest bills is driven by fears surrounding the uprisings against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of law enforcement agents last summer. The bills include measures such as broadening the definition of unlawful assembly, barring protesters from public benefits, providing legal protections for people who run over demonstrators with vehicles, and allowing protest participants to be held without bail.
For many of the anti-protest bill sponsors, no outside law enforcement influence was necessary. In 19 states where anti-protest bills have been introduced since June 2020, former law enforcement officers-turned-lawmakers acted as sponsors. Four of the co-sponsors of Arizona’s pending anti-protest bill, for example, have law enforcement ties.
Law enforcement groups did support many of the efforts, though. Such organizations donated $342,602 in the 2019-2020 election cycle to sponsors of anti-protest bills in 2021. The vast majority of those on the list are police and correctional unions. The Southern States Police Benevolent Association and Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York were the top two law enforcement donors to anti-protest bill sponsors, contributing $39,300 and $38,350 respectively. Neither group responded to a request for comment. Also included were a handful of campaign funds for sheriff’s office candidates.
The most meaningful demonstration of an organization or interest group’s support for a bill is to lobby for it. In 13 states, law enforcement officers or police unions have expressed support for at least one anti-protest bill since June, according to Gibson, the researcher. Among them are Arkansas, Florida, and Indiana, where bills recently passed into law, and Arizona, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, where bills are still being considered.
There is a set of exceptions to the trend of corporations failing to show up to lobby for anti-protest bills. A subset of the bills claim to protect so-called critical infrastructure, such as utilities or energy infrastructure, like oil pipelines. The bills would enhance penalties for trespassing on property containing such infrastructure, for impeding the operation of the facilities, or for conspiring with an individual to do so. Those bills are a reaction to Indigenous-led movements to halt pipeline construction, such as the ongoing fight against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. According to the Greenpeace analysis, all of the top 10 most prolific lobbyists for critical infrastructure bills since 2017 are fossil fuel corporations.
After Trump supporters broke into the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election, a spotlight was placed on corporate support of anti-democratic movements. Organizers are increasingly pressuring companies to stop funding and publicly disavow lawmakers who advance efforts to override election results or prevent people from voting. But there has been less focus on funding for supporters of anti-protest legislation.
The Greenpeace report targets that blind spot as well as the disconnect between companies’ rhetoric and the lawmakers they fund. “These legislators are not paying any price for what they are doing to undermine our democracy and undermine our right to protest,” said Olagbaju.
(Of the five companies that were among Greenpeace’s top 10 corporate contributors to sponsors of both anti-protest and voter suppression legislation, only Comcast responded to The Intercept, saying, “We believe that all Americans should enjoy equitable access to secure elections and we have long supported and promoted voter education, registration and participation campaigns across the country to achieve that goal. Efforts to limit or impede access to this vital constitutional right for any citizen are not consistent with our values.”)
In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, numerous Fortune 500 corporations promised to pause contributions to federal legislators who voted against certifying the vote for Biden — or to pause contributions to federal candidates altogether. Among those that pledged were four of the five top corporate contributors to state anti-protest and voter repression bills (the Intercept could find no record of Reynolds American making such a pledge), as well as at least 43 other corporations that had also recently contributed to future sponsors of voter suppression bills.
AT&T stands out for the size of its contributions and its lackluster attempts to respond to the moment. The corporation was the largest corporate donor in the 2019-2020 election cycle to Republicans who voted against election certification, and it is also among a small set of companies that have already broken their commitment to cease contributions to objectors, an analysis by the Los Angeles Times showed. An AT&T spokesperson asserted to the Times that they’d been assured that their money wouldn’t go to anyone who voted against election certification when they contributed to a multi-candidate PAC chaired by one such objector.
None of the group of five signed a statement created by the Black Economic Alliance condemning state voter suppression bills. AT&T has also evaded local organizing efforts. The Dallas-based telecommunications giant became the target of protest for its failure to strongly oppose Texas’s voter suppression bill. The corporation continued to sit on the sidelines this week, even as two dozen corporations signed a statement by Fair Elections Texas urging lawmakers to “oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot.”
“This is Jim Crow 2.0. This is not a partisan issue.”
What AT&T has said was tepid. “We understand that election laws are complicated, not our company’s expertise, and ultimately the responsibility of elected officials,” CEO John Stankey said. “We are working together with other businesses through groups like the Business Roundtable to support efforts to enhance every person’s ability to vote. In this way, the right knowledge and expertise can be applied to make a difference on this fundamental and critical issue.” Voter rights groups argue that it isn’t enough.
“The fact that they do give money on both sides of every issue makes it more critical for AT&T to state its own position,” said Devin Branch, the Texas Organizing Project’s Harris County political organizer, which includes Houston, where voter turnout increased 10 percent in 2020 with no evidence of fraud. The bill seeks to prevent a fundamental shift in power in Texas, Branch said. “This is Jim Crow 2.0. This is not a partisan issue.”
AT&T is also the largest contributor to lawmakers who sponsored anti-protest bills — something that has gotten less attention.
Branch said it only heightens the urgency for the corporation to take a stand. “It is only through protest and the vote that Black and Latino working-class people have made any advances toward equality in this society,” he said. “It is hypocritical for politicians and corporations like AT&T to say that they stand for equality and racial equity and social justice while undermining the only peaceable means we have to achieve it.”
The Greenpeace report points out that, despite the distinct driving factors, 44 state legislators have sponsored at least one anti-protest bill as well as at least one voter suppression bill. The two types of bills have a similar impact: They are both expected to hit hardest communities of color.
Olagbaju said, “There is a clear racial justice connection between voter suppression and anti-protest bills.”
Update: May 10, 2021
This article has been updated to include a link to a Greenpeace report which has now been published.
Correction: May 12, 2021
Due to an editing error, this story misstated Devin Branch’s title with the Texas Organizing Project. He is the group’s political organizer for Harris County.