A day after a top Republican seemed to dismiss the need to restore a critical part of the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers Thursday told NBC News they would reintroduce bipartisan voting rights legislation next week, in what the Congressional Black Caucus says will be a massive effort to aggressively defend voting rights. House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., suggested other sections of the Voting Rights Act are already strong enough. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now,” Goodlatte said while speaking to reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast. Calling Goodlatte’s statement a “bombshell,” the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., warned “If Bob Goodlatte is speaking for the Republican Conference, this is a very serious development because we are going to push back in a very significant way against the unwillingness of the Republicans to take up extending section five protections.”
National: Five years after Citizens United, new report finds wealthy have unprecedented influence | Scripps
It’s been five years since the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on how much money corporations and unions could spend putting their favorite candidates in office. The result, according to eight of the nation’s largest government watchdog groups, is that regular Americans are losing their voice in democracy while a “tiny number” of wealthy individuals have gained record influence. In the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, the Court ruled that corporations and unions were entitled to same first amendment rights to free speech as private citizens as long as they are working independent of the campaigns. The Washington D.C.-based watchdog Public Citizen suggests in a new report, however, that the very groups claiming to be independent in the wake of the Court’s decision are often closely aligned with a single candidate.
Kansas: Kris Kobach proposes bills to return straight-ticket voting, change election-withdraw procedure | The Wichita Eagle
Secretary of State Kris Kobach proposed two election bills Wednesday, one to bring back straight-ticket party voting and another that would make death the only excuse for a candidate’s name to be withdrawn from an election. The two bills are in addition to his ongoing effort to convince the Legislature to let him prosecute voting fraud. A straight-ticket system allows voters to check a single box with the name of a political party to cast a vote for every member of that party on the ballot. Kobach said he wants to bring back the straight-ticket option to cut down on the number of voters who come to the polls, vote in the major races and leave the rest of the ballot blank.
When you cast a ballot on Election Day, can you be sure your vote will count? Ohio is relying on “ancient” voting equipment to carry out that fundamental responsibility of democracy, says a Buckeye State native newly appointed to a federal commission that sets standards for voting devices. The iPhone was still two years in the future when most Ohio counties obtained their voting devices, said Matthew Masterson, a former top official with the Ohio secretary of state’s office who began work this week as one of four members of the federal Elections Assistance Commission. Even worse, Ohio’s setup is based on technology from the 1990s, he said yesterday during the Ohio Association of Election Officials’ winter conference at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. “Your voting technology is old. It’s ancient by technology standards,” said Masterson, who admits to being an elections geek. “I don’t know how old your office computer is, but I wouldn’t keep mine for a decade. And we’re asking people to run elections on it.”
National: Congressional Black Caucus, Democrats rip lack of voting right protections in Republican agenda | The Hill
The head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is teeing off on Republicans over the absence of voting right protections in the GOP’s new congressional agenda. Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said he’s “deeply troubled” by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) recent comments that Republicans have no intention of replacing central provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) shot down by the Supreme Court in 2013. “If this is indeed the position of the entire Republican Conference, then they have clearly drawn a line in the sand — one in which they are on the wrong side of,” Butterfield said in a statement. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Goodlatte said congressional action is simply not necessary to improve the VRA because the parts of the law remaining after the Supreme Court ruling are “substantial.”
Editorials: Why Obama Should Pardon former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman | Jeffrey Toobin/The New Yorker
Since the midterm elections, President Barack Obama has been acting as if he feels liberated from parochial political concerns. After taking action on immigration, Cuba, and climate change, he should take on another risky, if less well-known, challenge by commuting the prison sentence of Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama. Siegelman, a Democrat, served a single term in office, from 1999 to 2003, in the last days before Alabama turned into an overwhelmingly Republican state. He’s spent the subsequent decade dealing with the fallout from the case that landed him in prison—a case that, at its core, is about a single campaign contribution. Siegelman ran for office on a promise to create a state lottery to fund education in Alabama. The issue went to a ballot question, and Richard Scrushy, a prominent health-care executive, donated five hundred thousand dollars to support the pro-lottery campaign. (Voters rejected the lottery.) After Scrushy had given the first half of his contribution, Siegelman reappointed him to Alabama’s Certificate of Need Review Board (the CON Board), which regulates health care in the state. Scrushy had served on the CON Board through the administrations of three different governors. The heart of the case against Siegelman came down to a single conversation that he had with Nick Bailey, a close aide of the Governor’s, about a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar check from Scrushy for the lottery campaign. As summarized by the appeals court: Bailey testified that after the meeting, Siegelman showed him the check, said that it was from Scrushy and that Scrushy was “halfway there.” Bailey asked “what in the world is he going to want for that?” Siegelman replied, “the CON Board.” Bailey then asked, “I wouldn’t think that would be a problem, would it?” Siegelman responded, “I wouldn’t think so.”
Editorials: Why the Supreme Court Should Reject the Arizona Legislature’s Challenge to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission | Vikram David Amar/Justia
One of the important Supreme Court cases currently being briefed (with oral argument set for March), Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, involves the question whether the U.S. Constitution and congressional statutes permit the people of a state to implement an initiative creating an independent redistricting commission (IRC)—i.e., one that is not controllable by the elected state legislature—to devise congressional districts. Arizona voters passed just such an initiative in 2000, and the elected Arizona legislature (acting as a body) has now brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the so-called Elections Clause of Article I of the Constitution (Article I, section 4) prevents a state from divesting district-drawing power from the elected state legislature. The Arizona legislature (represented by former Solicitor General Paul Clement) has filed its brief in the Court, and the IRC (also represented by a former Solicitor General, Seth Waxman) will file its written argument very soon. In the space below, I analyze the merits portion of Mr. Clement’s brief on behalf of the Arizona legislature, and point out why I think it fails to demonstrate that the IRC’s creation and powers violate federal law. (Another part of Mr. Clement’s brief, addressing whether the Arizona legislature has “standing” in federal court to assert a challenge to the IRC at all, raises interesting questions of its own, but those will have to await another day.)
Changes to Indiana’s redistricting system likely won’t take place until at least 2017 under a new proposal from House legislative leaders, which would create a redistricting study committee. The committee would be charged with studying redistricting for the next two years, with a report due in December 2016. Under the bill, the committee would consider several issues, including state and federal redistricting laws, the cost of a reform effort and redistricting systems in other states.
Black Hawk County’s election system is ill-equipped to deal with the skyrocketing number of voters using absentee ballots. Grant Veeder, the county’s auditor and commissioner of elections, is seeking an estimated $532,000 in next year’s county budget to help purchase new voting equipment and software. The 76 precinct ballot scanners and 66 accessible ballot marking devices — purchased in 2008 with federal Help America Vote Act dollars — still work. But the system lacks a large central count machine that could efficiently tally the stacks of absentee ballots. “We’re trending towards half the votes in the state being absentee,” Veeder said.
John Kennedy O’Hara spent most of 2003 picking up garbage in city parks and cleaning public toilets as part of his sentence for illegal voting in Brooklyn. Also, he had to pay a fine and restitution amounting to $15,192. His supposed crime was that he registered to vote using the address of a girlfriend on 47th Street in Sunset Park, where he claimed to live part of the time. But he also maintained a residence 14 blocks away. While this sounds like pretty serious punishment for virtually nothing — the state election laws are so remarkably elastic on matters of residency that a former head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party was actually living in Queens during his reign — we cannot be sure if Mr. O’Hara got more than his unfair share. There are, after all, very few people to compare him with. Practically no one. It appears that the last person to be convicted of illegal voting in New York State before Mr. O’Hara was the abolitionist and suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who cast a ballot in Rochester in 1872, flagrantly disregarding that she was a woman and therefore not allowed to do so. She was not sentenced to pick up garbage in the parks, but was fined $100. She never paid.
Ohio should do more than just put absentee ballots in the hands of voters, the state’s top elections official said Wednesday. It should also reassure those voters that those ballots were ultimately counted. “With the increased popularity of our vote-by-mail program, we should also take steps to ensure that we do what we can to build confidence in that system as well,” Secretary of State Jon Husted told the Ohio Association of Election Officials at their winter conference. “A major step in this direction is to do for all voters what we already do for military voters, and that is to ensure that all Ohio voters can track their absentee ballots online,” he said. He wants local boards of elections to have such a system up and running by the presidential primary election of 2016 when the eyes of the nation again turn to the critical battleground state. That would serve as a test for the general election that November.
Texas: Lawsuit claims Dallas County’s commissioner districts discriminate against white people | Dallas Morning News
A conservative group that lists a Texas lawmaker on its governing board has filed a lawsuit claiming that Dallas County violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against white people. The suit filed in federal court Thursday by the Dallas-based Equal Voting Rights Institute argues that whites are a racial minority in the county and have been unable to elect their chosen Republican candidates to the Commissioners Court. It asks a judge to throw out the county’s district map and order a new one before the 2016 elections. “Like something out of the bad old days, a southern electoral body [is playing] naked racial politics, intentionally using its power to minimize a dissenting race’s political sway,” the suit says. Newly elected state Rep. Matt Rinaldi is one of four people on the institute’s oversight board, according to the group’s website.
Del. Rip Sullivan (D) has already filed 16 pieces of legislation, and his first session in the Virginia General Assembly is just hours old. One of his biggest priorities after being elected in August to replace Del. Bob Brink (D) will be reforming the process by which Virginia draws its districts for both state and federal legislatures. Sullivan’s legislation, HB1485, would follow through on recommendations made by a state government integrity panel last month. Although a long-shot in the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly, Sullivan’s bill calls for redistricting to become a nonpartisan process. Every 10 years, after a new U.S. Census, state legislatures redraw their district maps to align with the population changes. Often, these districts are drawn in a way to include certain blocks of voters with one another in order to gain seats in Congress or the General Assembly. The problems are not unique to Virginia, but they might be worse here.
Wisconsin election board officials told the Legislature’s audit committee Wednesday that they have been struggling with an unprecedented workload as they worked to blunt a critical evaluation of their performance and save their agency from the chopping block. The Government Accountability Board has been forced to administer multiple recall elections, implement voter photo identification and conduct a massive statewide recount with limited staff during the past four years, the board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, told the committee. “The Government Accountability Board is a Wisconsin success story,” Kennedy said. “I am disappointed that some critics of this agency have used this nonpartisan audit to make political points rather than focusing on how we can work together to maintain Wisconsin’s excellent record and reputation for running elections and transparency in government.”
Goodluck Jonathan has visited the northeast of his country amidst escalating Boko Haram violence. Ahead of next month’s election, over one million people have fled the troubled area, possibly relinquishing their vote. Johnathan arrived in the capital of Borno State, the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency, on Wednesday afternoon local time, according to an AFP journalist. He was accompanied by the chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, as well as other high-ranking military officers and some 200 soldiers. “What you’re doing is not easy,” he told officers at an army barracks in Maiduguri. “We thank you as a nation … We’re working day and night, trying to curtail this madness,” he added.
The Senate will ask the Commission on Elections to explain its negotiated contract with Smartmatic over the refurbishment of Precinct Count Optical Scan or PCOS machines, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III said Thursday. He said the Senate Oversight committee on electoral reforms will summon Comelec officials during a Senate inquiry on the “repair contract” next month. He gave no dates for the hearing but said Comelec officials should explain its contract with Smartmatic. “They should explain to the public why they entered that negotiated contract with Smartmatic,” said Pimentel who heads the Senate electoral reforms committee.
Zambians go to the polls on January 20 to elect a new leader following the death of President Michael Sata in October. Edgar Lungu, candidate for the ruling Patriotic Front party, appears to have a slight advantage. He faces stiff competition, though, from popular opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema, who has received an unexpected boost from infighting within the ruling party. The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) was rocked by a leadership battle as contenders jostled for the presidential nomination, just days after President Michael Sata’s death in late October. But seeds of the clashes started earlier, when Lungu, who holds the twin portfolios of justice and defense minister, was controversially appointed the party’s secretary-general in August. He ousted then-justice minister Wynter Kabimba, once considered the most likely successor to the top seat.
To be clear, late-night votes might be a bit of a problem for Joseph Morrissey, the newly sworn-in Virginia House delegate who must report to his jail cell about 7:30 each evening. But Mr. Morrissey — embroiled in a scandal involving sexual relations with a minor — appears undaunted. After resigning his seat in disgrace last month, Mr. Morrissey, a former Democrat, ran in the special election as an independent, handily beating challengers from both parties. He won nearly 43 percent of the vote on Tuesday, in a largely minority district that twists through various counties near Richmond. He was sworn in late Wednesday morning, shortly before the State Legislature began its 2015 session. In perhaps the most bipartisan move that might occur in the Virginia Legislature this year, lawmakers from both parties scrambled Wednesday to prevent Mr. Morrissey from serving — or to at least severely censure him.
In a preliminary vote Thursday, the state Senate approved a bill that would allow Wyoming counties to create centralized voting places. Senate File 52 has to pass two more rounds of voting before it heads to the House, and some lawmakers are questioning whether the bill would disenfranchise rural voters and endanger election records. In Wyoming, polling places are by neighborhood precinct in larger cities. In rural areas, a precinct may comprise an entire community. SF52 would let counties create centers where registered voters could cast ballots regardless of precinct. The bill would also allow electronic pollbooks, which provide information to poll workers about whether a voter is registered. Currently, pollbooks are printed on paper. The Wyoming County Clerks Association supports central polling places. It believes centers would increase voter participation.