On the 85th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, Vice President Joe Biden said he never imagined the country would once again be fighting over the Voting Rights Act. “I never thought we’d be fighting the fight again on voting rights, I really didn’t,” Biden said Monday to the annual King Day breakfast at the National Action Network. The vice president marked the civil rights leader’s birthday with a renewed call to action for the cause he said got him into public office in the first place.
Martin Luther King Jr. marched famously from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in March 1965 in a campaign that helped put the Voting Rights Act onto President Lyndon Johnson’s desk. But King didn’t live long enough to witness even the first legislative extension of the act in 1970. In fact, his murder in Memphis happened long before it became clear that the controversial federal law had succeeded, grandly, in protecting black citizens from discriminatory voting policies and practices in the Old South and elsewhere. Although its passage seemed impossible even two years before it was signed, the law was renewed five times by Congress over the next 41 years—the last time, in 2006, with extraordinary bipartisan support. Were King alive today, wizened at the age of 85, it’s likely he would have the same perspective that many of his still-alive-and-kicking civil rights contemporaries have about what the Voting Rights Act accomplished, where it failed and why the U.S. Supreme Court’s renunciation of it last June was so profoundly premature.
Signed into law as a federal holiday 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan, the occasion to honor and remember Martin Luther King Jr. is also a moment to reflect on the state of democracy in the United States. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, King called it “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.’’ His carefully chosen words highlighted the triumph of the act while signaling that there was more work to be done. For his part, King announced in his annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) a new initiative, the Political Education and Voter Registration Department. Charged with equipping poor and black voters with an understanding of the voting process and the new protections of the Voting Rights Act, King and his colleagues set out to help expand the number of registered voters. Without regard for political affiliation or outcome, this initiative championed voter education and registration as a means to allay past injustices such as poll taxes and to guide the nation toward a more free and just society.
For all its signature dysfunction, the Federal Election Commission has a staff of professionals working to track big money and shady behavior in the nation’s congressional and presidential campaigns. A dramatic — and until now overlooked — example of good staff work surfaced this month in a finding that Crossroads GPS, the shadowy, money-raising monolith of Karl Rove and other Republican strategists, probably broke the election law in 2010 when it claimed that much of its blatantly partisan campaign activities were “social welfare” initiatives.
Sparking howls from Democrats and the NAACP, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said last week that his office soon would begin Voter Purge 2.0, by sending supervisors of elections the names of voters who might not be citizens. Who could disagree with the idea that only eligible citizens should vote? But there is more to the issue. First, the purge is a solution in search of a problem. The number of noncitizens registered to vote is minuscule, mostly because there is no incentive for intentional fraud. What immigrant would risk deportation for the small reward of casting one vote?
How disappointing that in a 2,866-word State of the State address quoting the Kansas Constitution’s statement that “all political power is inherent in the people,” Gov. Sam Brownback failed to speak up for the 20,000 people in Kansas whose voter registrations are stalled. At least the U.S. Election Assistance Commission mentioned them in its ruling Friday. Kansas, Arizona and Georgia wanted the commission to provide an instruction on the federal voter-registration form regarding their requirements that those registering in their states provide proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or passport. Since the Kansas law went into effect in January 2013, more than 20,100 applicants have seen their voter registrations put on a suspense list for lack of paperwork. The EAC staff ruling denying the states’ requests said Congress specifically considered and rejected requiring such documentation when passing the National Voter Registration Act in 1993. “Such burdens do not enhance voter participation, and they could result in a decrease in overall registration of eligible citizens,” the ruling said. It pointed to Kansas’ lengthening list of applicants placed in suspense status, saying the requirements risk discouraging voter-registration drives.
For as liberal as its politics is, Massachusetts has been surprisingly conservative in its voting rights laws. Unlike blood-red states like Utah and Louisiana, the Commonwealth does not allow early voting. Nor does Massachusetts allow residents to vote absentee without a certain excuse. Voters can’t register online. And for anyone who hasn’t registered to vote within 20 days of the election, they are barred from casting a ballot.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane has stated that the decision on whether to appeal the overturn of Voter ID will be the Governor’s. Last week, Judge McGinley found that implementation efforts were insufficient to ensure free and fair elections, but also that the voter ID law is unconstitutional. When the ruling came out, many turned to Kane for her decision on whether to appeal the ruling. She served as co-counsel to the Governor and Secretary of the Commonwealth along with an outside firm commissioned by the Office of General Counsel. Today, Kane’s office released a statement saying that “To avoid further public confusion, Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane clarifie[d] that decision to appeal voter ID court ruling rests solely with Governor and Secretary of the Commonwealth.”
During the 2012 presidential election I accompanied some canvassers going door to door in Philadelphia. Their aim was to remind people in this pivotal swing state to vote and to vote Democrat. Again and again, the big concern among the folks opening their doors was the state’s new and very strict voter-ID law, which required voters to provide a government-issued picture ID. The law would have made it impossible for hundreds of thousands—some say 750,000—of people to vote, most of them likely to vote Democratic. Not even government-issued welfare cards and military identification cards were acceptable. Plenty of older Philadelphians, many of them black, do not even have a birth certificate.
The now ongoing FBI’s investigation of the Shelby County Election Administrator’s office, first reported as imminent by the Flyer in December, is moving — in the often-used bureaucratic phrase — “with all deliberate speed.” So far one employee of the Election Administrator’s office has been interviewed by the FBI, but five more designated on the Bureau’s ask list have not been, nor has the Administrator himself, Richard Holden. Earlier reports had suggested that Holden would be interviewed this week, but Robert Meyers, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, said he had been informed that Holden’s interview had been rescheduled for some time in early February. Meyers confirmed that, besides Holden himself, the FBI had designated six employees for interviews — “two in voter registration, three in the election officials department, and one trainer.” The chairman — one of three Republicans on the five-member Commission, which also includes two Democrats — declined, on grounds of “fairness,” to identify the names of the six employees involved, or to indicate the category of the employee already interviewed.
Cold temperatures and snowfall forecast for the region could complicate Northern Virginia’s special election Tuesday. Voters heading to the polls in Fairfax and Loudoun counties to choose a new state senator are expected to be confronted with the heaviest snowfall so far this winter. National Weather Service officials said the D.C. area could see 4-5 inches of snow beginning late Tuesday morning through Wednesday, with a worst-case scenario of up to 8 inches. Officials said that regardless of whether schools are closed, the election will be held and the sites that are scheduled to serve as polling locations will be open to voters.
The Scottish referendum this year, whatever the result, will mark one significant change in British politics, with 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote “yes” or “no” on the nation’s constitutional future. (Find out more here if that applies to you and you haven’t already registered.) But this won’t be a first, for 16 and 17-years-olds, all around the United Kingdom, will have an earlier opportunity to cast their vote – in the European Greens primary election, now open and continuing until January 28. Anyone aged 16 or over, who can indicate with a simple tick that they support the Greens principles, is entitled to cast their ballot – an opening up of democracy that is another European first.
Toronto is working on a system to let people with disabilities vote over the Internet, but members of the disabled community are urging the city to provide that option to all eligible voters. “There’s no reason to create a system just for people with disabilities,” said John Rae, a board member of ARCH Disability Law Centre. “If we’re going to start Internet voting, it should be available to all citizens,” said Rae, who is blind. … While increasing participation is a worthy goal, Councillor David Shiner said he’s concerned about voter fraud. “The concern with Internet voting is knowing who’s really on the other end,” said Shiner. “I’m really concerned about abuses.” Shiner doesn’t think traditional voting at a polling place isn’t that onerous since it’s usually only a short walk. “Making a small effort to get out to a polling station isn’t too much to ask,” said Shiner, chair of council’s government management committee.
Italian centre-left leader Matteo Renzi promised on Monday to reform an electoral system blamed for creating chronic political deadlock, defying party critics who had attacked him for sealing a deal on the proposals with arch-enemy Silvio Berlusconi. The 39-year-old mayor of Florence, who won the leadership of the Democratic Party (PD) in December, said he would eliminate the fragmentation that has made it impossible for successive Italian governments to survive a full term in office. “We are saying no to giving small parties the power of holding us hostage,” he told a meeting of the PD party leadership, which approved the proposals by 111 votes in favour with 34 abstentions but no votes against, despite criticism from some on the left of the PD. “I don’t rule out alliances but only if they’re made for governing, not just winning an election,” he said, adding that settling the thorny issue of voting rules would clear the way for vital economic reforms.
Hungary will hold parliamentary elections April 6, when the country’s combative Prime Minister Viktor Orban expects to win a second consecutive term in power. The sooner Hungary’s new government is in power, the smoother the country may continue to draw on vital European Union funds, President Janos Ader said in a release, in which he listed the reasons for setting the poll for the earliest date possible under the election law. The election will pit Mr. Orban against Socialist party head Attila Mesterhazy, whose candidacy is pending the undoubted seal of approval from a Socialist party congress Jan. 25. According to Mr. Orban, the election is about whether voters want to preserve the government’s massive utility price cuts in the face of strong objections and lobbying in Brussels by large multinational companies. Mr. Orban would most likely regard an election victory as a validation of his heavy-handed nationalist policy, which caused strains in relations with the EU in his first four-year term.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra seems determined to proceed with an election on February 2, despite a weekend of bloody attacks on protesters in Bangkok. In two separate incidents on Friday and Sunday, one person was killed and almost 70 others were injured when hand grenades were thrown at rally sites filled with protesters. On Monday, January 20, Yingluck refused to answer questions about whether to declare a state of emergency and possibly delay the vote. Despite several setbacks, the younger sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra has maintained that the ballot box is the best way to resolve the country’s latest political crisis. But with the vote now less than two weeks away, the latest violence has fuelled fears that the safety of voters can’t be guaranteed.
Voters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario will still head to the polls in October to vote rather than pull out their smart phones or laptops. Some votes may have switched Monday night as councilors debated a plan to head towards voting on the Web this fall. There would have been two-regular polling places but most voters would have used their computer systems.