Congress kicked off an effort to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with a series of Capitol Hill hearings this week, less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court severely weakened the law by striking down a key anti-discrimination provision. No legislation has been proposed yet. But senators and a leading representative spoke during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday about their appetite to fix the now-unconstitutional Section 4 formula, which set out when a state or local jurisdiction warrants special scrutiny before it can implement electoral changes. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who led the House effort to reauthorize the VRA in 2006, testified that he is committed to crafting a constitutional response to the Shelby County v. Holder decision that “will last a long time.”
Congress took the first step Wednesday toward trying to repair a vital section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, a month after the Supreme Court ruled the provision unconstitutional. In a packed hearing room, witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Congress needs to put partisanship aside and work together to come up with a solution to fix the Section 4 formula, a linchpin of the act. “A bipartisan Congress and Republican presidents worked to reauthorize this law four times,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, told the Senate committee. “The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated; it is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act. And we must do it on our watch, at this time.”
Key lawmakers vowed Wednesday to ensure the full Voting Rights Act is restored to full strength, following the Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down part of the law. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the GOP negotiator of the law’s most recent reauthorization, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the high court decision “severely weakened the protections both Republicans and Democrats fought hard to preserve” and that he already is working on a response to deal with the new gaps in the law. “The Voting Rights Act is the most successful of all civil rights acts in actually limiting discrimination. We cannot afford to lose it now,” the former House Judiciary chairman said. “I’m working to pass a constitutional response to the Shelby v. Holder decision.” In front of his Senate colleagues, however, Sensenbrenner conceded the challenges he faces in the GOP-controlled House. When he pushed to reauthorize the legislation in 2006, it was in part because he feared that when he surrendered his gavel to caucus-imposed term limits, his successor would not work to re-up the law. “Sometimes the difference between [the House] and the Senate is the difference between here and the moon,” Sensenbrenner said.
Several Republicans spoke out against VRA reform today, but softly. Rep. Franks, who is known for his strident abortion views and opposition to the VRA, struck a respectful and bipartisan tone. He hailed John Lewis as a civil rights hero. He emphasized his openness to working with James Sensenbrenner, the most prominent Republican backer of the VRA. But Franks has not changed his mind. After the hearing, he told me that his “heart and mind is open,” but he doesn’t think VRA reform is necessary. He pointed to parts of the law that the Supreme Court didn’t strike down. And he said when he assesses racism in America, he looks to the Court’s standards, voter turnout in the South, and the “mechanisms of discrimination” that were used in the 1960s. “I don’t know all of the suppression that existed at the time,” he volunteered, but still, Franks said he believes under current precedent, DOJ no longer needs to oversee local voting in advance. Several witnesses and Democratic members marshaled data showing the persistence of voter discrimination today, and the need for the VRA’s supervision. But just as Senate Democrats muddled their focus at yesterday’s hearing, some House Democrats hit on themes that are unlikely to recruit GOP support. (Rick Hasen, an election law expert, has more on that point.)
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were mostly no-shows at Wednesday’s high-profile hearing on restoring a portion of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last month. The Republicans chalked up their absence to scheduling confusion. With a brief appearance, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the only Republican to join Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and a packed room to hear testimony about updating formulas in the 1965 law that required jurisdictions in 15 states to clear changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department. “I actually was asking my staff, I think that may have been an oversight,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who sits on the committee, said. “I think that might have been an oversight because I had other scheduling, other matters scheduled.”
National: Should Congress restore key part of Voting Rights Act? House hears both sides. | CSMonitor.com
Voting rights experts presented sharply divergent opinions to a House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday as members of Congress tried to assess the impact of the US Supreme Court’s decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Some analysts told the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice that the remaining provisions of the VRA were more than enough to safeguard minority voting rights. Others said the high court’s action marked a considerable setback to future efforts to fight discrimination in the United States. “We have made amazing progress in this country over the last 50 years,” said Spencer Overton, a voting rights scholar and professor at George Washington University Law School. “Unfortunately, evidence shows that too many political operatives maintain power by manipulating election rules based on how voters look and speak.” Professor Overton said Congress must update the VRA and reauthorize the section struck down by the Supreme Court.
The story of voting rights in the year 2013 — how the five conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court undercut them last month and what Congress must do to restore them now — is really the story of America itself. There has been much premature self-congratulation mixed in with a great deal of denial and dissonance. There has been a widening gulf between promise and reality. Patriotic words of bipartisanship have flowed, promises of cooperation have oozed, but there are few rational reasons to believe that the nation’s representatives will quickly rally together to do what needs to be done. The premature self-congratulation came from the Court itself. Less than one year after Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act stymied voter suppression efforts in the 2012 election in Florida, Texas and South Carolina, Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion in Shelby County v. Holder heralded the “great strides” the nation has made in combating such suppression and the fact that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Not so rare. Before the sun set that day, June 25th, officials in Texas and North Carolina had moved forward with restrictive voting measures that had been blocked by the federal law.
A key date — July 26 — has now been set for a test of the Obama administration’s view on a legal mechanism for continuing to protect minority voters against discrimination at the polls — including court review of new election laws before they go into effect. The mechanism potentially could allow the government to salvage something very significant from its defeat in the Supreme Court’s ruling last month on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The mechanism is the 1965 law’s Section 3. Under that provision, if a state or local jurisdiction has a recent history of racial discrimination in its elections, a court can order it to get official clearance in Washington before it can implement changes in its voting laws or methods. This is known as the statute’s “bail in” mechanism. The so-called “preclearance” process — for decades a very successful way to protect minority voters’ rights – comes under the law’s Section 5, and both Sections 3 and 5 are at least technically intact even after the Shelby County decision. The state of Texas has insisted that it has now come out from under Section 5, as a result of that ruling, but that claim is now being challenged in a lower-court case over new redistricting maps for the Texas legislature and the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives. And it is that case on which the Justice Department’s views about Section 3 are to be filed by a week from tomorrow, under an order issued this week by a three-judge district court in Washington.
Alabama’s new law requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification to vote is raising some concerns for Jefferson County officials. The law — to get around accusations that it’s a modern poll tax to make people buy ID — requires that the state have an option for a free ID. Jefferson County, which has more voters than any other county in the state, may be forced to come up with money to cover personnel and labor costs associated with producing new voter IDs, said Barry Stephenson, chairman of the Board of Registrars. “I want to do everything possible to help the voters and to have fair and honest elections,” Stephenson said. “However, I only have so many resources in my budget and the state has made no mention of reimbursing the counties for any personnel or labor costs associated with producing the new free identification cards.” The state is going to provide the equipment for the ID cards, “but that’s it,” Stephenson said.
Helen McNeil remembers sitting in her grandmother’s living room in Juneau listening to her relatives talk about some people who’d recently moved in from the villages. When these people tried to register to vote in Juneau, they were presented with a literacy test. McNeil’s grandparents were officials in the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood, which advocates for Native people’s rights in southeast Alaska. “They ended up going to the ANB hall, and getting an ANB representative to go with them and it was cleared up,” she said. “So they were able to register to vote.” But in the villages, she said, where ANB and ANS presence wasn’t always as strong as it was in Juneau, literacy tests were used to keep Natives from registering to vote. It was a problem that often came up for discussion at ANB meetings, she said.
Calling a referendum drive misleading, a state senator has launched a campaign to keep voters from overturning extensive changes to voting laws made by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, wants to collect funds to counter the petition drive that would force a public vote on the provisions of HB 2305. The provisions range from allowing election officials to stop sending early ballots to some voters, to putting potential new legal hurdles in the path of people who want to propose their own state laws and constitutional amendments. Reagan said each of the sections helps ensure the integrity and fairness of elections.
A Denver judge refused Thursday to stop recall elections for two Colorado Democratic senators who supported gun restrictions, even though the lawmakers are challenging the validity of the petitions. Denver District Court Robert Hyatt ruled against Colorado Springs Senate President John Morse and Pueblo Sen. Angela Giron, who tried to have recall elections blocked because of a technical glitch on petitions to recall them. Morse and Giron argued the petitions were invalid because they didn’t ask for an election for a successor, as detailed in the state constitution. Hyatt ruled that the successor language isn’t required and that the petitions were acceptable. The lawmakers sought a preliminary injunction from the judge, which prompted the ruling.
Kentucky: U.S. appeals court overturns convictions in Kentucky vote fraud case | The Courier-Journal
Eight people from southeastern Kentucky were granted new trials Wednesday after a federal appeals court overturned their convictions in what prosecutors described as a massive vote buying scheme that stretched over three elections. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves allowed jurors to hear some evidence that should not have been admitted and erred in his handling of transcripts of secret tape recordings that an informant made during the FBI investigation. The unanimous ruling means former Clay County Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle, former school superintendent Doug Adams and six other defendants will get a second chance to contest the allegations stemming from the 2002, 2004 and 2006 elections.
A coalition of voters’ rights groups say long lines and old equipment slow down state elections. Voter rights groups say three hour wait times and malfunctioning voting machines gave some Massachusetts voters a tough time during last year’s presidential election. They’re calling for an update on election laws to modernize the state’s election process. State lawmakers have filed legislation that requires voting machines to be randomly checked by comparing machine ballot counts with manual ballot counts. Voter rights groups also want online voter registration to cut down on costs and give voters a convenient option to register for elections.
The election for Ward 1 alderman in Canton is going back to the voters after a Circuit Court judge ruled Tuesday that illegal voting and voter intimidation occurred in the May Democratic primary. After a two-day hearing, Judge Forrest Johnson Jr. of Natchez said the will of the voters could not be determined through the May 7 ballot box. He ordered the election results for Ward 1 alderman be tossed and a new election called while allowing Rodriquez Brown, who won the June 4 election, to remain in office. “Whether one agrees or disagrees, the evidence I heard is disturbing to say the least,” said Johnson, who was appointed to hear the case by the Mississippi Supreme Court. “For poll workers to endure what I’ve heard is not right.”
Special elections for non-candidate issues in Nebraska conducted exclusively by mail in 2011, 2012 and 2013 continue to reflect higher voter turnout rates than non-candidate special elections at polling places, according to Secretary of State John Gale. So far in 2013, of the 15 special non-candidate elections where county election officials had the option of using all-mail in ballots or polling places, 10 have used the all-mail method or 67 percent. Turnout for the all-mail elections averaged 49 percent, versus 32 percent for elections using polling places. As Gale explained, the all-mail method can only be used to decide special ballot issues. Special elections involving an office vacancy or a recall of an official must by law still use polling places. “All-mail elections for small rural precincts eliminate concerns about finding ADA compliant polling sites or about getting to a polling place in poor weather for farmers or ranchers in those precincts. In addition, election officials can avoid the costs and challenge of finding and training poll workers for those small precincts in a special election,” Gale said.
With special elections to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat fast approaching, Mercer County election officials received word yesterday that the state will reimburse their election expenses — but they are still trying to figure out how they will come up with the upfront costs of the balloting. “It looks like it’s going to cover the majority of the costs,” Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello said. “It’s a very good thing and I was pleased to see the letter.” Mercer County’s costs for a primary next month and the special election in October are expected to approach $1.2 million. A letter from the Department of State says the state will cover costs such as ballot printing, board worker salaries, overtime for county or municipal election office staff, polling place rentals and voting machine transportation.
New Jersey: Hunterdon, Warren counties won’t receive special election funding until after votes | lehighvalleylive.com
State reimbursement for the costs of the upcoming special primary and elections will not come until after October’s election is over, Hunterdon County Administrator Cynthia Yard told freeholders Tuesday. That means the county should be prepared to authorize and pay overtime for poll workers during both elections, Yard said. Though the board offered no protest, Freeholder Matthew Holt asked Yard to reassure him that poll workers would be closely monitoring their hours and expenses. “I just want to make sure they’re tracking that,” Holt said. …The state Office of Legislative Services projects both elections to cost about $24 million statewide.
Two powerful Democrats are poised to urge President Obama to resuscitate a defunct federal panel created to help Americans vote. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) are preparing a resolution calling on the president to fill the vacancies on the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), Hoyer said Tuesday. The four-seat board has been empty for more than a year, largely because GOP leaders — wary of Washington’s role in state-run elections — have refused to recommend nominees to fill the spots, as current law dictates. That’s a mistake, Hoyer said, particularly in a political environment where an increasing number of states have made it tougher to vote in the name of fighting fraud. “The Election Assistance Commission was established to provide advice and council on best practices on elections. It has been allowed to atrophy, and the Republicans want to eliminate it,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol. “It’s interesting but disappointing.”
As Congress held hearings this week on whether to resurrect the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina Senate introduced a harsh new voter ID law that could be passed in a matter of days. (See my new piece on the state’s Moral Monday protest movement for how activists are resisting the GOP’s agenda.) The Senate version of the bill, posted today, is significantly tougher than the House bill passed in April. North Carolina was one of fifteen states subject to Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional, so the state no longer needs to clear its voting changes with the federal government. North Carolina Republicans have acted accordingly, making a very bad law even worse.
Calling her a common criminal who abused her authority as a poll worker by violating the principle of “one person, one vote,” a judge sent Melowese Richardson to prison Wednesday for five years following her illegal voting conviction. “This is not a little thing. It’s not a minor thing. This is what our country’s based on – free elections,” Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman told Richardson. In a case watched around the country, Richardson was a Hamilton County poll worker from 1998 until her arrest earlier this year when she was charged with eight counts of illegal voting. In May, she accepted a plea deal and was convicted of four counts in exchange for the other four being dismissed. She was convicted of voting twice in the 2012 election and voting three times – in 2008, 2011 and 2012 – for her sister, Montez Richardson, who has been in a coma since 2003.
A witness described his efforts to help homeless people in Philadelphia qualify for state photo identification cards, and lawyers clashed over a year-old survey that showed large numbers of voters lacking acceptable IDs as a trial on the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s yet-to-be-enforced voter ID law reached its third day Wednesday. Late in the day, a lawyer for plaintiffs seeking to overturn the law began questioning Jonathan Marks, a high-ranking elections official, about the evolution of a special Pennsylvania Department of State photo ID available to voters who can’t obtain other acceptable identification, but the testimony was continued until Thursday.
Cambodia: Exiled opposition leader returns home to spearhead election campaign against Hun Sen | Telegraph
“I have come home to rescue the country,” Rainsy told the crowd gathered at the Phnom Penh airport, after kneeling to kiss the ground. “I am happy to be here!” Rainsy told the crowd speaking through a microphone as the supporters chanted, “We want change!” The French-educated leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party has been in exile since 2009 to avoid serving 11 years in prison on charges many consider politically motivated. Rainsy, 64, received a royal pardon last week at the request of Hun Sen, his bitter rival whose ruling party is almost certain to maintain its ironclad grip on power in the July 28 general election.
Attempts over the last decade to emphasize the importance of clear policy platforms in Japanese elections seem to have come full circle. Baffled voters in the current campaign are facing a bewildering array of candidates and a muddle of issues in Sunday’s upper house poll. With newspapers and Internet sites vying to give voters clearer ideas on which candidates to vote for, an independent political think tank has judged the election manifestos of Japan’s main parties to be the worst in years. In a study published on its website Wednesday, Genron NPO dissected the election platforms of the nine national parties contending the election, as it has done for the last seven elections since 2003. In a thorough analysis, it graded each manifesto for elements such as clarity of goals, achievability, relevancy and presentation on 12 main issues, including fiscal, economic, social security, energy, diplomatic and agricultural policy. The results were the equivalent of straight F grades for all the parties. On a scale of 1 to 100, the best manifesto was judged to be the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s with 29 points. Its coalition partner New Komeito scored 21, Your Party came in at 21 points, and the Democratic Party of Japan placed fourth at 16 points.
Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been jailed for five years for fraud, after a trial he says was politically motivated. Mr Navalny could now be barred from running in the Moscow mayoral election set for September. He also joins a growing list of opponents of President Vladimir Putin who have ended up on the wrong side of the law or in exile, or have met their deaths in suspicious circumstances. When Mr Putin first became president in 2000, he immediately set about curbing the power of the oligarchs – the group of billionaires who exerted huge influence over Russia’s political system and media. His first victim was media magnate, Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of NTV, a station that at the time was highly critical of Moscow’s war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and was home to the satirical puppet show Kukly, which mercilessly mocked the new president. When Mr Gusinsky refused to allow the Kremlin to influence NTV’s editorial policy he quickly found himself charged with fraud in June 2000, and fled the country shortly afterwards. Within months, he was joined by his fellow media magnate and political fixer Boris Berezovsky.
Few Togolese would seem less likely to offer praise for their country’s political system than Gilchrist Olympio. His father, Sylvanus, Togo’s first post-independence president, was assassinated in 1963 by a hit squad led by Eyadéma Gnassingbé, who seized power in a coup four years later and ruled Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. A severe critic of his father’s murderer, the exiled Mr Olympio was twice sentenced to death in absentia. But much has changed in this country of 6m-plus people, wedged between Ghana to the west and Benin to the east, since the presidency passed to Faure Gnassingbé, the coup-plotter’s son (pictured), in 2005. Slowly but noticeably he has begun to loosen the reins. Three years ago he created a national unity government that includes Mr Olympio, who is repaying the favour by praising Mr Gnassingbé ahead of a general election, delayed from last year, that is due to take place on July 25th. “We are now in a democratic system,” he says, while gearing up to oppose the president’s party in the poll.
The United States said on Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” by a lack of transparency in preparations for Zimbabwe’s 31 July general elections and called on the government to ensure the vote was peaceful, fair and credible. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said elections that were not seen as credible would have implications for US sanctions against Zimbabwe, suggesting Washington could maintain or increase sanctions depending on the election outcome. The run-up to the election has been peaceful, but Western critics and the opposition say the process has been poorly planned, underfunded and plagued with irregularities, increasing fears of a repeat of the violence and bloodshed that marred a 2008 vote.
I just read Doug Chapin’s article on the vote rigging at Cal State San Marcos, and I would add several observations. Had this been a public election conducted via Internet voting, it would have been much more difficult to identify any problem or to capture the perpetrator, Mr. Weaver. Mr. Weaver was captured because he was voting from school-owned computers. This was networked voting but not really Internet voting. The IT staff was able to notice “unusual activity” on those computers, and via remote access they were able to “watch the user cast vote after vote”. But in a public online election people would vote from their own private PCs, and through the Internet, not on a network controlled by the IT staff of election officials. There will likely be no “unusual activity” to notice in real time, and no possibility of “remote access” to allow them to monitor activity on a voter’s computer. Note also that university IT staff were able to monitor him while he was voting, showing that they were able to completely violate voting privacy, something we cannot tolerate in a public election.