When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act last June, justices left it to Congress to decide how to fix the law. But while Congress deliberates, activists are turning again to the courts: At least 10 lawsuits have the potential to bring states and some local jurisdictions back under federal oversight – essentially doing an end-run around the Supreme Court’s ruling. A quick refresher: The Voting Rights Act outlaws racial discrimination against voters. But the law’s real strength comes from its “preclearance” provision, which forces jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to submit new voting measures to the federal government for approval. In last summer’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling, the Supreme Court threw out the part of the law that spelled out when states were automatically subject to federal oversight. States that have been released from preclearance have already passed a rash of new restrictive voting measures, as ProPublica reported earlier. Enter the lawsuits, which hinge on a different part of the Voting Rights Act, the so-called “bail-in” provision. It lets federal courts impose preclearance if a state or local jurisdiction violates the Constitution’s 14th or 15th amendments, which guarantee equal protection and the right to vote.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s call to restore voting rights to felons after they’ve served their time in prison has split Senate Democrats. Liberal Democrats who are not facing tough re-elections this year say it’s the right thing to do, but vulnerable incumbents are steering clear of the proposal. Holder has become increasingly outspoken recently. This week he declared that state attorneys general are not obligated to defend laws that are discriminatory. Political experts say barring ex-felons from voting impacts African Americans disproportionately. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who faces a competitive challenge from former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, is torn over the idea. Warner supports restoring voting rights to non-violent ex-felons but he’s not sure it’s a good idea to automatically enfranchise former violent felons.
In elections that begin this week, voters in 10 states will be required to present photo identification before casting ballots — the first major test of voter-ID laws after years of legal challenges arguing that the measures are designed to suppress voting. The first election is Tuesday in Texas, followed by nine other primaries running through early September that will set the ballot for the midterm elections in November.
The Federal Election Commission is deadlocked on whether to exempt mobile ads from the disclaimers that appear by law on political messaging — throwing a wrench in the plans of a left-leaning communications firm and pitting its strategists against the FEC’s Democratic appointees. The firm in question is Revolution Messaging, whose clients include MoveOn.org, Organizing for America and various Democratic committees. Last fall, Revolution asked the FEC for permission to eliminate disclaimers from its digital banner ads, arguing that the small screens on mobile devices made it impractical to include the legalese. Republican officials sided with Revolution, saying that a disclaimer was unnecessary; Democratic commissioners disagreed.
Is the tide turning on voting rights? Leading up to the 2012 election, state legislatures passed dozens of laws to make it more difficult to cast a ballot. Last year, the Supreme Court gutted a key voting rights protection. Despite ongoing shenanigans in some parts of the country, things look much brighter two months into 2014, with increasing public bipartisan support for making our elections more free, fair, and accessible. Look at what has happened this year already. Last month, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (co-chaired by the heads of both President Obama and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns) agreed on common-sense recommendations to improve elections, including ideas to expand early voting and modernize registration. Bipartisan leaders in Congress introduced a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act (revisions made necessary after the Supreme Court eviscerated one of its most powerful tools against discriminatory election practices). And, this month, Attorney General Eric Holder and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — unlikely bedfellows in almost any policy debate — each spoke out in favor of restoring voting rights to people with past criminal convictions.
Arizona: Governor signs bill to repeal 2013 election reform law, kills referendum | Arizona Capitol Times
It’s official: Arizonans won’t get the last word on a series of controversial changes in state election law. Without comment, Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation Thursday to repeal the 2013 law. More to the point, by repealing the law the governor killed the referendum drive that had held up enactment until the voters made the final decision. Democratic lawmakers who opposed the 2013 law sought to keep the referendum on the ballot, saying voters deserved to have their say. Foes of the changes gathered more than 146,000 signatures on petitions to put the law on “hold” pending the election. But Democrats also were interested in attracting voters to the polls in November who objected to the changes forced through by the Republican-controlled Legislature. That included limiting who can take someone else’s early ballot to polling places, erecting some new procedural hurdles in the path of citizens proposing their own laws, and requiring minor parties to get far more signatures to get their candidates on the ballot.
Arkansas: Pulaski County to sue over state election board’s rule on absentee voting | Arkansas Times
As expected, the Pulaski County Election Commission voted this morning to sue over a new state Board of Election Commissioners rule on handling absentee ballots submitted without ID required under a 2013 law. The action will be broad, which means it could expand into the whole question of the constitutionality of the Voter ID law generally. The vote was 2-0 by Democratic commissioners Chris Burks and Leonard Boyle. The Republican member, Phil Wyrick, resigned last week because he became a candidate for county judge. The Party must appoint a replacement. Wyrick had favored following the attorney general’s opinion on handling absentee ballots, which is at variance with the state board’s new rule.
Nacivre Charles sat behind the wheel of a black 2008 Toyota Tundra in Miami late last year when police pulled him over. It was no routine traffic stop. The cops knew Charles, a 56-year-old political operative known as “Charlie,” was driving with a suspended license. Yet that’s not why they had been secretly trailing him. They were after evidence of attempted elections mischief. In the SUV, officers found numerous Miami-Dade County absentee-ballot request forms. The same day, investigators raided the private business office of Lucie Tondreau in connection with 60 unlawful absentee-ballot requests submitted online. The recently elected North Miami mayor had paid Charles to be her campaign treasurer.
Illinois: New law permits 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, many say they’re ready | Chicago Tribune
As she juggles Advanced Placement classes and baby-sitting three nights a week during her final semester of high school, Neli Farahmandpour is researching candidates and where they stand on issues she cares about, like the cost of state college tuition and public schools funding. She won’t turn 18 until after this month’s primary election, but she’ll get to vote under a new state law that allows most 17-year-olds in Illinois to cast a ballot. “It’s not illogical,” said Farahmandpour, during a recent comparative politics class at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. “If you’re going to be picking the big players (in November), then why not be able to pick the ones that are going to be in the big election?” Advocates say the change allows youth to develop voting habits early, a key to ensuring they turn into lifelong voters. Critics have questioned whether teens are engaged enough to cast meaningful votes.
On paper, it looks pretty simple. Albany legislators are proposing the state join 32 other states in allowing voters to cast their ballots in person a week or two early. Proponents say more opportunity to vote equals more votes. More votes means increasing the voice of the state’s voters. It’s not as if the state is outstanding in this regard, they say. New York had the country’s 44th-lowest voter turnout in 2012. The turnout nationwide was 58 percent. In Orange and Ulster counties, it was 72 percent and in Sullivan 60 percent. That was a presidential election year; in off-presidential election cycles, local voter turnout drops into the mid-30s or low-40s percent range. So why not try early voting, the state’s Democrat-dominated Assembly asks. Not so fast, members of the Republican-dominated Senate say.
New York: NYC Department Of Investigation Chief: Board Of Elections “Hostile” To Reform Recommendations | New York Daily News
The new head of the city Department of Investigation testIfied Friday that his staff has encountered “outright hostility” at the highest levels of the Board of Elections while trying to get the embattled agency to clean up its act. The Board has not been “anywhere near as cooperative” as necessary in responding to a 2013 DOI investigation that detailed nepotism, incompetence, inefficiency — and even possible crimes, DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (pictured center) told a joint hearing of the City Council Government Operations and Oversight and Investigations Committees.
Leaders in the Utah Legislature and of the Count My Vote Initiative held a press conference Sunday at the State Capitol to officially announce that a deal has been made that will change the way Utahns elect their leaders. Utah legislators from both sides of the aisle, as well as officials with the Count My Vote initiative, are calling this a great compromise, and that’s because the deal includes both the caucus convention system as well as a direct primary election. But of course, not everyone saw it that way. “We are confident that the results will be a win for voter turnout and citizen engagement,” said Wayne Niederhauser, a Republican who is President of the Utah Senate. In a press release issued Saturday by CMV officials and Utah legislators officials stated: “The new legislation will preserve Utah’s caucus-convention system and provide a direct primary alternative based on gathering a threshold of voter signatures.”
Harry Neufeld, who wrote a report on problems in the last federal election, is warning of the potential for more abuse at polling stations if one part of the government’s proposed fair elections act goes ahead. Neufeld, B.C.’s former chief electoral officer and now an independent electoral management consultant, wrote the compliance review that identified polling problems in the 2011 election and made recommendations on how to fix them. He says Section 44 of the government’s new legislation would allow all central polling supervisors to be appointed by a riding’s incumbent candidate or the candidate’s party. “It’s completely inappropriate in a democracy, ” said Neufeld.
Libya’s electoral commission Saturday announced the preliminary results from polls for an assembly to draw up a new constitution, although 13 of 60 seats remained vacant after unrest in several areas stopped voting. The election to choose the body to draft a new constitution had been billed as a milestone in the country’s transition from the 42-year dictatorship of Moamer Gathafi, but failed to spark enthusiasm among voters. Political parties were not officially represented at the vote, which was organised on February 20, and only individuals were allowed to present themselves as candidates. Early results suggested liberal candidates did well in the capital Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, which has been a hotbed of Islamist unrest since Gathafi’s ouster in October 2011. But the electoral commission said voting had not taken place in 93 out of some 1,600 stations because of unrest and a boycott by minority groups in some areas.
Thailand: Voting in re-run elections peaceful as protesters regroup in central Bangkok | Australia Network News
Thailand has held elections in five provinces where voting was disrupted in last month’s poll by anti-government protesters trying to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. There were no reports of violence at Sunday’s vote, although gunfire and at least two explosions have raised tension in Bangkok before the Feb 2 polls. Election re-runs planned for April in other provinces have been suspended pending a court decision on procedures. Voting was disrupted in 18 per cent of constituencies, 69 out of 375 nationwide, the Election Commission said, affecting 18 of 77 provinces. The demonstrators, who have blocked intersections in the capital for weeks, say Prime Minister Yingluck must resign and make way for an appointed “people’s council” to overhaul a political system they say has been taken hostage by her billionaire brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Voting has ended in five provinces in Thailand that were unable to hold polls in last month’s general election because of anti-government protests. No disturbances were reported in Sunday’s ballot, but correspondents say voter turnout was only around 10%. Polls also stayed closed in many areas affected by February’s rallies, with the election commission saying the situation there remained too tense. Thailand has been in a political crisis since mass rallies began in November. Protesters are calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign, and want her government to be replaced by an unelected “people’s council” to reform the political system.
National elections in Ukraine are scheduled for 25 May. If these go ahead – and in the changing situation in Ukraine nothing is certain – they will be bitterly fought and there will be a significant risk of outside interference. All this applies in spades to Crimea, where a referendum is due around 30 March – brought forward yesterday from 25 May – to determine the status of the peninsula. Yesterday Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, said it had agreed that legitimate, democratic elections in Ukraine were “now impossible”. The organisation for monitoring the quality of elections in Europe is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – both Russia and Ukraine are members; the institution that deals with elections, human rights and democratisation is the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is part of it.