By David Armiak and Arn Pearson
The American Legislative Exchange Council provides a "constituent management program" worth thousands of dollars and run by a leading Republican political data operation to its overwhelmingly Republican legislative members at no charge, in potential violation of its charitable tax status and state gift and campaign finance laws, the Center for Media and Democracy has learned.
As a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is prohibited from engaging in any electoral activity as a condition of its charitable tax-exempt status, and in most states, contributing something of value to legislators or their campaigns would trigger gift or campaign contribution limits subject to public disclosure.
In an email obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) through an open records request, ALEC promotes the constituent communication software, called ALEC CARE (for "Constituent Analytics Research Exchange"), to a Texas legislator as an inducement for renewing his membership.
"ALEC CARE, the exclusive CRM tool for members, allows you to keep track of constituent research and engagement to better serve your community," wrote Hunter Hamberlin, ALEC's legislative outreach coordinator for Texas, in an email to Texas Rep. Ben Leman.
"The program, developed by VoterGravity, typically costs legislators thousands of dollars," Hamberlin said.
According to ALEC CARE training materials obtained by CMD, the program comes "preloaded with constituent information," and can enable robocalls or send text messages to constituents. The training also revealed that the "data vendor" (Voter Gravity) has access to users' data.
ALEC frames its CARE platform as a constituent relations service, but screenshots from its promotional video include clear electoral elements, such as door-knocking goals, party affiliation, precinct, and ward information, and a "turnout score."
"With the opportunities afforded by CARE, our members can be ahead of their colleagues," the video's narrator states.
Unlike ALEC, the company is explicit about the electoral value of the services it offers. "Voter Gravity produces targeted, insightful and immediate information about voters, donors, and activists that mean the most to a campaign," its websiteclaims, giving candidates everything they need to "turn that data into votes."
Voter Gravity's demo page states that, "Voter Gravity empowers campaigns to unleash their voter contact efforts, making your strategy bigger, faster, and more targeted than ever before," and asks if the user is a member of ALEC.
ALEC provides multiple ALEC CARE training sessions for its legislative members at its annual meeting and other events.
The company was founded by its CEO, Ned Ryun, who is also the founder and president of a right-wing candidate training operation, American Majority, and its voter mobilization affiliate, American Majority Action, which are closely allied with the Tea Party.
American Majority Action's latest available IRS filing shows that it owns 84 percent of Voter Gravity, and both list a post office box in Purcellville, Virginia as their address.
In March 2018, ALEC hired Voter Gravity's client relations specialist, Aaron Gillham, to implement its ALEC CARE program. Gillham's role at the company was "providing the onboarding for all new clients," and he describes Voter Gravity as "the premier platform for Center-Right, voter contact tools" offering "map-based walkbook creation with smartphone executed canvassing."
"We take voter contact to the next level, making your efforts efficient and meaningful," Gillham wrote on his LinkedIn page.
Although ALEC tells its members that ALEC CARE data is "not shared with anybody," a 2020 investigation by the cybersecurity firm UpGuard found that this is not the case. UpGuard's research into a security vulnerability with the Republican canvassing app Campaign Sidekick revealed a "close relationship" with Voter Gravity. Campaign Sidekick is run by Ned Ryun's twin brother Drew, which UpGuard says explains "how they fit within the ecosystem of GOP campaign apps."
UpGuard also uncovered the "intermingling of code and sharing of data" between Voter Gravity and Campaign Sidekick with the Republican National Committee and FreedomWorks.
This follows a 2015 blog post where Voter Gravity announced that it was "fully integrated with the Republican National Committee database." Ned Ryun added, "Our ultimate goal is to outmaneuver the left philosophically and politically."
In 2014, voter data operations on the Right, including the Koch's i360, the RNC, the NRCC, and Ryun, met with GOP operatives and candidates "behind closed doors to discuss how to synchronize their sometimes competing tech efforts," Politico reported.
The previous year, Voter Gravity received an infusion of $2 million from an unknown investor, and Matt Schlapp, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries, joined its board of directors. Koch Industries is a major funder of ALEC and holds a seat on ALEC's corporate board.
The 2017 and 2018 IRS filings and a 2019 Annual Report from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, a consistent funder of American Majority's Wisconsin efforts, show that the right-wing foundation earmarked $1.1 million for ALEC CARE.
Ryun presented on Voter Gravity's voter data operation at a 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) "Pre-Game: Operatives in Training" session attended by ALEC's chief marketing officer, Bill Meierling.
Meierling described the data platform as a "fundamental game changer" in a subsequent ALEC CARE meeting.
According to Marcus Owens, former Director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, "The fact that ALEC's constituent management program typically costs 'thousands of dollars,' but it is being provided free of charge to selected legislators, would constitute a contribution to the legislator, quite possibly violating the [IRS] proscription on electioneering…or, potentially, an illegal gift to a legislator, depending on relevant state law."
"The fact that there may well be sub rosa links between databases created by the management program and organizations engaged in partisan political activity suggests another potential electioneering event," Owens said.
On July 30, 2020, the public watchdog Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the IRS, the state of Wisconsin, and the California attorney general's office claiming American Majority and American Majority Action are operating in violation of the federal tax code and various state laws.
The complaint argues that American Majority Action engages primarily in political activity in violation of its federal tax status and that Ned Ryun set up the nonprofits to further enrich himself and his for-profit companies.