A steady drumbeat of press briefings and messaging events is reaching a crescendo as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments Wednesday in a case that questions whether a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still needed. Briefing breakfasts, afternoon seminars, information sessions on the Hill and a coordinated bus campaign that mimics the Freedom Rides of the 1960s all focus on influencing the outcome of Shelby County v. Holder. “While the justices play a distinct role in our society and in our country, they’re not divorced from society at large. I can’t see how they couldn’t be influenced by what people think about their actions,” said Ellen Buchman, vice president of field operations for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is planning a rally during Wednesday’s oral arguments.
National: Experts Debate Effects of Voting Rights Act Provision on Native Americans | The Blog of Legal Times
Days before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts said they feared that striking it down would hurt Indian Country and Native American voters. Enacted in 1965 as a temporary provision, Section 5 freezes election practices or procedures in certain states and local governments, mostly in the south, until the new procedures have been subjected to review or “precleared” by the Justice Department or a federal court. Congress has since reauthorized Section 5 four times. Currently, it is set to expire in 2031. In order to make changes to their voting rules, the states in question must demonstrate that the rules do not have the purpose of discriminating — or that regardless of intent, that the new rules will not have a discriminatory effect — based on race or color, or against a “language minority group,” including persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or of Spanish heritage.
Editorials: Voting Rights Act Case Pits the Rights of Humans Against the ‘Sovereignty’ of States | Garrett Epps/The Atlantic
Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act case the Supreme Court will hear Wednesday, is a peculiar case. Its oddity is this: no one on either side contests that Congress has the power to enact a provision like § 5, the provision at issue here. And no one on either side questions that § 5 does what it was designed to do: keep the ballot box and the political process open to formerly excluded minority voters. The Act, in other words, isn’t broken. Nonetheless, argue the plaintiffs, this key provision must be scrapped. To understand why, consider this sentence from the Petitioners’ Brief filed on behalf of Shelby County, Alabama: “determining whether the formula is rational in practice is not a substitute for testing it in theory.” “The formula” is the heart of § 5, the so-called “preclearance” provision of the Act. As devised by Congress in 1965, the Act imposes a special requirement on states or parts of states that met two conditions during the 1964 election cycle. First, those jurisdictions employed a “test or device” for voting that had been shown to lead to racial exclusion from the vote; and, second, less than 50 percent of the eligible voters actually voted that year.
The Voting Rights Act has worked for almost 50 years to remove racial discrimination from the electoral process and prevent its return. Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear oral argument on the constitutionality of Section 5, one of the act’s most powerful provisions. Section 5’s work is done, this argument goes, and the provision has outlived its usefulness. Yet some of Section 5’s most important work lies beyond its technical application. Section 5 requires that jurisdictions with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting seek federal approval for any voting changes. The aim is to ensure that new voting laws will not “retrogress” — or harm — minority voting rights. It subtly and constructively inserts race into electoral decision-making — creating a race consciousness among decision-makers that can often preempt discrimination. This deterrent effect, and its impact on the discourse of race in elections, may be Section 5’s most important — and unfinished — work.
The Washington D.C. lawyer representing the Alabama county that wants to strike down the heart of the most effective civil-rights law in historyspecialize in cases aimed at making voting harder for minorities. William Consovoy also last year argued on behalf of Republican officials in Florida and Ohio, who in both cases were seeking to significantly reduce the days allotted for early voting, which blacks take advantage of more than whites. Consovoy, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, is a partner at Wiley Rein, a Washington, D.C., law firm that bills itself as the best in the country for election law. Bert Rein, one of the firm’s principals, also is listed on court documents as representing the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in Shelby County v. Holder Wednesday. And the involvement of Consovoy and Rein in the case, which challenges the constitutionality of a key part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), underlines the extent to which it’s a product of the broader partisan voter suppression campaign pushed by Republicans last year in a failed attempt to defeat President Obama.
I can only hope that the scourge of racism is finally purged from Stewartstown and Pinkham’s Grant. These are two of 10 New Hampshire towns covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires local officials to get permission, or “preclearance,” on any changes to their election laws. Stewartstown has just over a thousand souls in it and is 99% white. In 1970, when it was put under the authority of Section 5, the census listed two blacks out of its 1,008 residents. Pinkham’s Grant boasts nine residents, and it must also beg Washington for permission to make any changes to how it votes. In 1970, New Hampshire required all of its citizens to pass a literacy test to register to vote. But Pinkham’s Grant, Stewartstown and the other eight towns also had low voter participation rates. These two factors — a test of any kind for voting and participation rates under 50% — met the criteria for oversight under Section 5. But after years of onerous preparation, the state filed for a “bailout” from the oversight provisions of Section 5 in November. And although the Justice Department hasn’t taken a whole state off its watch list since the early 1980s, New Hampshire will probably be let off the hook.
William & Mary’s recent Election Law Symposium played host to several of the leading luminaries in election administration, focusing upon issues of election delays, including but not limited to long lines. On more than one occasion, participants discussed Election Day vote centers—large voting “big boxes” of sorts at which voters from multiple different precincts may vote—as a potential instrument to combat Election Day delays (see here for a brief discussion of voting at non-precinct polling places). The subject was particularly appropriate for the panel assembled at W&M, as it included Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a lightning rod for controversy in election administration, whose state has had valuable experience with Election Day vote centers. A recent study by political scientists Robert Stein of Rice University and Greg Vonnahme of the University of Alabama has shown that use of such vote centers can increase voter turnout. Some at the conference expressed concerns about vote centers. Panelists referred to the logistical difficulties of operating voting centers—notably that the centers must have the capacity to provide several different ballots for different precincts, including situations in which different ballots require different paper sizes (a problem rendered moot where sophisticated voting machines are used, as they can easily be programmed to contain multiple electronic ballots).
Efforts by Arizona Republican lawmakers to overhaul the early voting process and fight election fraud have drawn criticism from Democrats and civic groups who fear the proposed changes would limit turnout among the state’s growing Hispanic electorate. At least seven bills in the Senate and House this year seek to adjust the early voting process. One measure would remove voters from the permanent early-voting list if they don’t vote by mail and fail to respond to a notice. Another measure would prohibit groups from collecting early ballots from voters for delivery to county election officials. Another measure seeks notarized signatures for early voters. Republican legislators argue that they must rework Arizona’s early voting process to combat unlawful votes and reduce confusion at the polls.
Delegate Ryan Ferns has authored a bill to eliminate straight-ticket voting in West Virginia – a measure he said has the support of most leadership in the House of Delegates. Ferns, D-Ohio, said he dropped off his bill to the House clerk’s office Friday, and he expects it to be assigned a bill number and officially introduced today or Tuesday. “Straight-ticket voting encourages uneducated voting,” Ferns said. “We’re telling people if they don’t want to go through the read on a ballot, they have the option of voting for just one party. At the very least, voters should have to read the names for each candidate on the ballot.” … West Virginia is one of 15 states to offer straight-ticket voting – the process of electing a party’s entire slate of candidates with just one marking, according to information compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Neighboring Pennsylvania and Kentucky have straight-ticket voting, as do Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.
The Armenian polls that saw President Serzh Sarkisian win re-election were free of any serious violations, the central elections commission said Monday as it released the poll’s final results. Serzh Sarkisian scored crushing victory in last week’s presidential elections seen as a crucial test for the ex-Soviet state. “In the course of the electoral campaign and the vote, there were no violations that could have affected the elections’ result,” said the head of the Central Elections Commission, Tigran Mukuchyan. “Serzh Azatovich Sarkisian has been elected President of the Republic of Armenia,” he announced.
According to the latest polls from two weeks ago (there is now a poll ‘blackout’ until after the election), ‘M5S’ would secure over fifteen per cent of the national vote, putting it into third place, behind Bersani’s centre-left and Berlusconi’s centre right coalitions, but ahead of former PM Monti’s group. Some internal polling suggests M5S might do even better. Grillo’s movement translates to the ‘Five Star Movement’ in English. The five ‘stars’ represent its main themes: public water, transportation, development, internet connection and availability, and the environment. Running on a simple manifesto based on these themes, he has enjoyed a rise in popularity perhaps unrivalled in post-War Western Europe: one year ago, he was polling at around five per cent. This is despite the party doing the precise reverse of what a political campaign strategist would advise: none of its members had been interviewed in the Italian media until last weekend, and its most famous member, Grillo himself, refuses to stand. What accounts for his meteoric rise? Last week, we released a new report based on a survey of almost 2,000 Facebook fans of Grillo and the M5S. The answer is a fascinating and powerful mix of anti-establishment rhetoric, new technology and old fashioned rallies and local action. If Grillo does as well as polls suggest, perhaps even so well to become kingmaker, then the whole of Europe should take note. I suspect there are plenty of other European countries where another Grillo might explode onto the scene and cause a similar political tremor: including the UK.
Italy faced political deadlock on Tuesday after a stunning election that saw the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo become the strongest party in the country but left no group with a clear majority in parliament. “The winner is: Ingovernability” was the headline in Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, reflecting the stalemate the country would have to confront in the next few weeks as sworn enemies would be forced to work together to form a government. The center-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won the lower house by around 125,000 votes, where it will have a majority because of a premium given to the largest party or coalition. Results in the upper house Senate indicated the center-left would end up with about 119 seats, compared with 117 for the center-right. Seats are awarded on a region-by-region basis in the Senate, where a majority of 158 is needed to govern. Any coalition must have a working majority in both houses in order to pass legislation.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party refused to concede defeat in Italy’s election and called for a recount of the vote. Berlusconi and his allies trailed the Democratic Party-led coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani by less than half a percentage point, a margin of fewer than 150,000 votes, with more more than 1 million votes still to be counted at 12:45 a.m. The returns “are calculated from empirical methods that are inevitably subject to a margin of error,” PDL Secretary General Angelino Alfano said at a press conference in Rome. “Even if the margin is contained, it will certainly be more than the difference in votes, which is minimal, between the two coalitions in the Chamber.”
As Kenya prepares for a presidential election next Monday, it’s trying to prevent a recurrence of the last such poll, in December 2007, when more than 1,000 people were killed in postelection violence. Last time, technology helped incite that violence. This time, the hope is that technology will help prevent a similar outburst. Last time around, a text message came on Dec. 31, 2007, four days after a presidential election that many people in the Kalenjin tribe thought was rigged. The text message said that the most powerful Kalenjin figure in the government, William Ruto, was killed. This wasn’t true. But the rumor went viral, from cellphone to cellphone. “That was around in the morning, and by 5, people were moving with their properties, the houses were being torched, and you’re just seeing smoke,” says a man named Alex, who asked that his last name not be used. Alex was in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where gangs of youths with gas canisters and machetes attacked their ethnic rivals. Now Alex is part of a private research project called Umati that scours social media for potentially dangerous speech — speech like that 2007 text message, which he says wasn’t just some falsehood. It was written to incite. “It was hate speech, because whatever was being written there, on the text message, it was for people to react against certain kind of people,” he says.
On March 16, the Southern African state of Zimbabwe is scheduled vote on whether to accept or reject a draft constitution which is the product of four years of collaboration between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriot Front and the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parties. Later in July, national presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in order to form a new government inside this country which gained its independence from British colonial settlers in 1980. Zimbabwe is still facing sanctions by Britain, the United States, the European Union and their allies. The sanctions were designed to isolate the ruling ZANU-PF party headed by President Robert Mugabe, which launched a comprehensive land redistribution program in 2000 that seized the most productive farms and turned them over to the African masses. In recent years, a national reconciliation process has led to the lessening of tensions inside the country.
A controversial change in Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s otherwise popular bill to expand early voting could lead to voter fraud and expose the state’s elections to cybersecurity threats, according to a voting group and election technology experts. The provision, sought for more than a year by Maryland’s State Board of Elections, would allow any Marylander to receive a password by e-mail to download and mark a ballot at home before mailing it back to elections officials. But the problem, critics warn, is that the e-mail system lacks basic protections and there would be no signature verification or other means to ensure that the person for whom the ballot is intended is actually the person who casts it. Experts have also warned that the proposed online ballot delivery system could be hacked on a massive scale because of a second and related vulnerability that still exists with the state’s new online voter registration system. Maryland residents can register to vote online with a driver’s license number. But in Maryland, that number is a formula of a resident’s name and birth date that can be found online.
While in town to honor a longtime Ross County Board of Elections worker for his service, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted told the Gazette he plans to ask the General Assembly for the authority to create a process for online voter registration. Voters can change their addresses online at the Secretary of State’s website, but Husted said he hopes to have online registration available in the near future. “It is more inexpensive — more cost-effective, I should say — and more secure if we can register people electronically rather than with the old paper-based system,” Husted said. “We can save between 50 cents and $1 per voter for registration and when you can electronically validate them, you can ensure that only the people that should be legally registered are actually voting.” Husted said he plans to ask the General Assembly for the authority to create the system and, if approved, he anticipates it could be turned around in six months. Husted also said other election-related innovations such as allowing everyone the opportunity to vote early via absentee ballot by mail or in local board of elections offices have proven popular with voters.
A sense of humour in adversity can be attractive, but it is not always useful. Confronted by the worst recession in their country since the 1930s and the possible implosion of Europe’s single currency, the people of Italy have decided to avoid reality. In this week’s election a quarter of the electorate—a post-war record—did not even bother to show up. Of those who did, almost 30% endorsed Silvio Berlusconi, whose ruinous policies as a clownish prime minister are a main cause of Italy’s economic woes. And a further 25% voted for the Five Star Movement, which is led by a genuine comedian, Beppe Grillo. By contrast, Mario Monti, the reform-minded technocrat who has led Italy for the past 15 months and restored much of its battered credibility, got a measly 10%. This result is a disaster for Italy and for Europe. In Rome the centre-left coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani, the pre-election favourite who ended up getting only a whisker more of the vote than Mr Berlusconi, is now struggling to form a government: it is unlikely to be stable or durable (see article). Meanwhile, financial markets across Europe swooned on the news. Share prices fell sharply almost everywhere. Sovereign-bond yields jumped across the Mediterranean countries, to levels touched three months ago, even as they fell in Germany, bringing the euro crisis back to centre-stage.
“Welcome to Valley View photographic site,” says the weathered wooden sign, boasting that you are 8,000 feet above east Africa’s Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind. A row of corrugated iron shops hawk traditional Masai cloths, soapstone chess sets and handcarved elephant, lion and zebra bookends. But today there are not many tourists to barter. Down in the valley there’s a clue as to why. Sunshine gleams off the metal roofs of housing built for families displaced by ethnic violence that followed Kenya’s general election five years ago. More than 1,100 people were killed and 600,000 fled their homes. On Monday, the nation goes to the polls again in possibly the most important vote in its 50-year history. Many fear a repeat. To outside eyes it is hard to believe that the most powerful country in the region, with its vibrant middle class, boutique malls and thriving tech sector, could be on the brink of catastrophe. But every five years, its foundations are shaken by the democratic cycle. Already in recent months more than 200 people have been killed in politically charged violence in the Tana river region and in the north. The fact that one of the front runners for the presidency has been indicted by the international criminal court is another portent of trouble ahead.