In a private meeting last month with big-money donors, the head of a top conservative group boasted that her outfit had crafted the new voter suppression law in Georgia and was doing the same with similar bills for Republican state legislators across the country. “In some cases, we actually draft them for them,” she said, “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.”
The Georgia law had “eight key provisions that Heritage recommended,” Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, told the foundation’s donors at an April 22 gathering in Tucson, in a recording obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with Mother Jones. Those included policies severely restricting mail ballot drop boxes, preventing election officials from sending absentee ballot request forms to voters, making it easier for partisan workers to monitor the polls, preventing the collection of mail ballots, and restricting the ability of counties to accept donations from nonprofit groups seeking to aid in election administration.
All of these recommendations came straight from Heritage’s list of “best practices” drafted in February. With Heritage’s help, Anderson said, Georgia became “the example for the rest of the country.”
The leaked video reveals the extent to which Heritage is leading a massive campaign to draft and pass model legislation restricting voting access, which has been swiftly adopted this year in the battleground states of Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Iowa. It’s no coincidence that so many GOP-controlled states are rushing to pass similar pieces of legislation in such a short period of time.
Republican legislators claim they’re tightening up election procedures to address (unfounded) concerns about fraud in the 2020 election. But what’s really behind this effort is a group of conservative Washington insiders who have been pushing these same kinds of voting restrictions for decades, with the explicit aim of helping Republicans win elections. The difference now is that Trump’s baseless claims about 2020 have given them the ammunition to get the bills passed, and the conservative movement, led by Heritage, is making an unprecedented investment to get them over the finish line.
“We’re working with these state legislators to make sure they have all of the information they need to draft the bills,” Anderson told the Heritage Foundation donors. In addition to drafting the bills in some cases, “we’ve also hired state lobbyists to make sure that in these targeted states we’re meeting with the right people.”
To “create this echo chamber,” as Anderson put it, Heritage is spending $24 million over two years in eight battleground states—Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin—to pass and defend restrictive voting legislation. Every Tuesday, the group leads a call with right-wing advocacy groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, Tea Party Patriots, and FreedomWorks to coordinate these efforts at the highest levels of the conservative movement. “We literally give marching orders for the week ahead,” Anderson said. “All so we’re singing from the same song sheet of the goals for that week and where the state bills are across the country.”
Days before the Georgia legislature would pass its sweeping bill rolling back access to the ballot, Anderson said she met with Gov. Brian Kemp and urged him to quickly sign the bill when it reached his desk. “I had one message for him,” said Anderson, a former Trump administration official in the Office of Management and Budget. “Do not wait to sign that bill. If you wait even an hour, you will look weak. This bill needs to be signed immediately.” Kemp followed Anderson’s advice, signing the bill right after its passage. Heritage called it a “historic voting security bill.”
Anderson said she delivered “the same message” to Republican governors in Texas, Arizona, and Florida. Texas is the next big fight for Heritage. Anderson said Heritage Action wrote “19 provisions” in a Texas House bill that would make it a criminal offense for election officials to give a mail ballot request form to a voter who hadn’t explicitly asked for one and would subject poll workers to criminal penalties for removing partisan poll challengers who are accused of voter intimidation. It’s expected to pass in the coming days.
“Gov. Abbott will sign it quickly,” Anderson said. She warned of corporate opposition to the bill, following actions by Georgia-based companies to distance themselves from the restrictive voting bill there. “American Airlines, Dell, they’re coming after us,” she said. “We need to be ready for the next fight in Texas.”
In response to a request for comment, Anderson said in a statement, “We are proud of our work at the national level and in states across this country to promote commonsense reforms that make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. We’ve been transparent about our plans and public with our policy recommendations, and we won’t be intimidated by the left’s smear campaign and cancel culture.”
Heritage Foundation fellow Hans von Spakovsky, a former George W. Bush administration official who for two decades has been the driving force behind policies that restrict access to the ballot, spoke alongside Anderson at the donor summit.
“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,” Anderson said. “No leaks.”
Though the bills shaped by Heritage have been sold as advancing “election integrity,” they appear aimed more at helping GOP candidates take back power. “We are going to take the fierce fire that is in every single one of our bellies,” Anderson told the donors in April, “to right the wrongs of November.”
The Heritage Foundation was co-founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a well-connected conservative activist on a mission to create more aggressive conservative infrastructure to rival more liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution. Weyrich, who was also Heritage’s first president, went on to co-found the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pairs corporations with conservative state legislators to draft model legislation, and the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell, which mobilized evangelical voters behind GOP causes and candidates. Heritage received major funding from leading right-wing donors such as Charles and David Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Joseph Coors.
Speaking in 1980 at a meeting of evangelical leaders in Dallas, Weyrich bluntly articulated his radical views on voting rights. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” he said. “Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
In the years since, the Heritage Foundation became the driving force behind much of the Republican Party agenda, writing many of the policy recommendations that were enacted under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
It remains one of the best-funded organizations in GOP circles. It raised more than $76 million in 2020, according to its most recent annual report. More than $1.6 million of that was raised from corporations, most of which chose to remain anonymous. But according to the annual report from 2019, Google, the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and the multi-level marketing company Amway all gave at least $100,000, and Citigroup and Hitachi each gave $25,000.
In 2010, as opposition on the right to the Obama administration reached a fever pitch, Heritage launched Heritage Action, a dark money group that does not have to disclose its donors but has received at least $500,000 from the Koch brothers. The goal was to connect the Heritage Foundation to the growing Tea Party movement and to enable the group to undertake more aggressive political activities, such as leading opposition to the Affordable Care Act and promoting a government shutdown in 2013. This right-wing advocacy alienated Republicans on Capitol Hill, with former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn accusing the group of “destroying the Republican Party.”
Former Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint described the relationship between Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action as “the one-two punch.” The foundation writes the policy, and Heritage Action makes it happen. Heritage Action raised more than $11 million in 2019.
The mastermind behind the nationwide voting restrictions operation is von Spakovsky, who’s done more than just about anyone in GOP circles to spread the myth of widespread voter fraud over the past two decades.
During the Bush administration, von Spakovsky was a special counsel at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, where he played a key role in the department’s approval of a 2005 voter ID law from Georgia—among the first of its kind—over objections from career department lawyers, who said it was discriminatory. While advocating internally for the law, von Spakovsky published a law review article under the pseudonym “Publius” praising voter ID laws, in a move that experts said violated Justice Department ethics guidelines. (Von Spakovsky said in a statement that he received approval from a Justice Department ethics adviser and his supervisor for the article. He added, “Contrary to the maliciously false claims in the Mother Jones story, I have worked hard for many years to ensure that every eligible citizen is able to vote.”)
“It’s like he goes to bed dreaming about this, and gets up in the morning wondering, ‘What can I do today to make it more difficult for people to vote?’” the late civil rights icon John Lewis once said of von Spakovsky.
In 2017, von Spakovsky joined Donald Trump’s ill-fated Commission on Election Integrity, which was formed after Trump falsely claimed 3 million people voted illegally in California in the 2016 election, with the aim of unearthing evidence of voter fraud in order to justify new ballot restrictions. Von Spakovsky argued the commission should exclude Democrats and “mainstream Republican officials and/or academics” and helped Vice Chair Kris Kobach, then the Kansas secretary of state, draft a letter requesting sensitive voter data from all 50 states. The request was met with massive pushback, and the commission, facing a flurry of lawsuits, abruptly disbanded in January 2018 without finding any evidence of fraud.
Though Anderson called von Spakovsky “the premier election law expert across this country,” his work has not fared well in court. During a trial challenging Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship law for voter registration, Kobach hired von Spakovsky to support his claim that illegal votes by noncitizens had swung US elections. But under questioning, von Spakovsky admitted he couldn’t name a single election where votes by noncitizens had decided the outcome. A federal judge wrote that the court gave “little weight to Mr. von Spakovsky’s opinion,” citing “several misleading and unsupported examples of noncitizen voter registration.”
Nonetheless, von Spakovsky’s sensationalist claims about stolen elections and advocacy for policies that restrict voting have found an increasingly receptive audience among Republicans following Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
“The one good thing that came out of last year’s elections,” von Spakovsky said at the Heritage Action event in April, “is I think finally a lot of members of the public, and particularly state legislators, realized that these vulnerabilities exist, have existed for a long time, and have figured out in many states we really need to do something to fix it.”
Indeed, Heritage has been at the forefront of weaponizing Trump’s Big Lie of widespread voter fraud in order to build support for policies that restrict access to the ballot. “A lot of bad things happened in 2020,” Heritage Foundation senior adviser Genevieve Wood said in April to the donors, who ranked “election integrity” as their top issue in a survey this year. “But you should know a lot of good things are beginning to happen now in 2021. You’re seeing it in Georgia. You’re seeing in the state of Arizona. You’re beginning to see it in Texas and so many more.”
Heritage began its lobbying campaign early in Georgia. In February, a representative from the group delivered a letter signed by 2,000 conservative activists to Republicans in the state legislature, urging them to rewrite the state’s voting laws after GOP defeats in the November presidential election and the January Senate runoffs (where Heritage Action contacted 1.5 million voters on behalf of the losing Republican candidates). The activists wrote that they had “lost faith in the process and the outcome of their elections.” Soon after, bills restricting voting access started moving through the legislature.
“Then we provided testimony, expert witnesses, analysis, and actually how to draft these bills so that they were legally tight,” Anderson said. “So, [Democratic voting rights lawyer] Marc Elias, if you know that name from the progressive left, he’s like their legal pit bull. He goes after all of this with lawsuits, so that Marc Elias can’t find any holes.”
Elias has filed a suit challenging the Georgia law. “The Georgia law violates both the Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution,” Elias told Mother Jones. “Heritage Action claiming that this is legally tight is like hearing from the Titanic shipbuilders about how much confidence they have in its maiden voyage. This law is based on a Big Lie, denies Black, Brown, and young voters of their rights, and will be struck down in court.”
Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming, the author of the bill in the Georgia House, was a guest at Heritage’s donor summit. “I can tell you, back in February, I felt like some days we were alone in Georgia,” Fleming said. “And then the Heritage Foundation stepped in, and that began to bring us a boost to help turn around, get the truth out about what we were really trying to do. And I’m here in part to say thank you and God bless you.”
A number of majority-Black counties that Fleming represents as a lawyer in private practice when he’s not at the legislature fired him in protest after the bill passed. But he credited Heritage for helping Republican legislators resist what Anderson called “economic terrorism.” (The group has launched a $1 million ad campaign to defend the law on CNBC and local Georgia stations, which Anderson said is aimed at “woke CEOs [who] didn’t read the bill.”)
“But for the Heritage Foundation and you stepping up to help us, what are other part-time legislators across this nation going to think when they try to do the right thing and secure our elections if they’re allowed to fire us from our jobs, threaten our livelihoods just because we stood up to try to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat?” Fleming asked.
Other measures Anderson said Heritage drafted included “three provisions” in legislation adopted by Iowa Republicans a few weeks before Georgia’s law, including one placing voters on inactive status if they sit out one election cycle and removing them from the rolls if they fail to take action, a system that could lead hundreds of thousands of voters to be purged.
“Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson said. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’” (Elias has also filed suit against the Iowa law.)
Anderson also took credit for a Arizona law enacted in early April that prohibits election officials from accepting private funding, which was used in 2020 in both red and blue counties for things like opening more polling locations and drop box sites, saying, “We’re kicking Mark Zuckerberg out of all of our state and federal elections.” And she claimed that another bill signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday, which could purge more than 100,000 people from the state’s list of voters who automatically receive a mail ballot, was “straight from the Heritage recommendations.”
A Heritage lobbyist met early on with Florida Republicans to draft a bill largely mimicking the Georgia law, which passed the legislature over the unanimous opposition of Florida’s county elections supervisors. While the bill worked its way through the legislature, Anderson urged DeSantis to champion it. “I’ve got a call this afternoon with Gov. DeSantis’ team getting an update,” she said on April 22 to her donors. “Why is that? He needs to do more. He needs to say, get this bill on my desk.” DeSantis signed the bill on May 6 behind closed doors, with only Fox & Friends cameras allowed in for an “exclusive.”
“The scandal is the national pressure coming down on states with an intent to keep people from voting,” says Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of the corporate watchdog group Public Citizen. After record turnout in 2020, “writing these bills, pushing these bills, is a mechanism to attempt to return to those new voters being unable to vote.”
In addition to pushing state-based voting restrictions, Heritage Action is leading the effort to block the passage of HR 1, Democrats’ sweeping democracy reform bill that would preempt many of these voter suppression laws by enacting policies like automatic and Election Day registration, two weeks of early voting, and expanded mail-in voting on a nationwide basis. “HR 1 is basically the dream bill of every left-wing advocacy group we’ve been fighting against for years on election issues,” von Spakovsky said at the donor event.
Von Spakovsky said at the beginning of the year that Heritage put out “a short summary of the worst provisions of a 900-page bill. Now, you all know congressional staffers don’t like reading 900-page bills. That fact sheet we put out is being used by congressional staffers, members of Congress, to go up and fight HR 1.” The group dubbed the bill the “Corrupt Politicians Act,” a label that was soon being used by leading Republicans like Ted Cruz.
“We’ve made sure that every single member of Congress knows just how bad the bill is,” Anderson added. “Then we’ve made sure there’s an echo chamber of support around these senators driven by your Heritage Action activists and sentinels across the country where we’ve driven hundreds of thousands of calls, emails, place letters to the editor, hosted events, and run television and digital ads.”
In March, the group organized a rally in West Virginia to urge centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to oppose the bill and “stand up for WV values,” according to an invitation obtained by Documented, even as it bused in conservative activists from states hundreds of miles away. Heritage Action announced on Wednesday it would run ads this summer pressuring Democratic senators in West Virginia, Arizona, Montana, and New Hampshire to preserve the filibuster in order to block HR 1.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Anderson said in April. “If we don’t win this, we lose our republic, period.”
To Elias, the video from the Heritage summit is proof that Republican state lawmakers are pursuing voting restrictions not in response to real local problems, but at the behest of well-funded Washington insiders. “It’s not being run by a coalition of state legislators,” he says. “It’s not being run by election administrators. It’s being run out of an office in Washington, DC, by people whose sole agenda is to make it harder for Black, Brown, and young voters to participate in the electoral process. Republicans who adopt these model laws should be ashamed of themselves.”
Watch the full video here. This story has been updated to include comment from Hans von Spakovsky.
Nick Surgey is an investigative reporter and the executive director of Documented.