When the Republican candidates for president expounded on what they would do for ordinary Americans in their debate this month, they neglected to mention that more than half the money underpinning their campaigns has been coming from just 130 big-spending families and the businesses they run. These families are determined to influence the election with six- and seven-figure checks. The stark, sad truth of modern campaigning is that a small pool of the richest Americans is making the candidates in both parties increasingly dependent on special-interest money. Fewer than 400 of the nation’s most affluent families have supplied almost half of the money raised so far by presidential candidates in both parties, according a survey of federal campaign data by The Times.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law 50 years ago to rectify a “clear and simple wrong.” Throughout the Jim Crow South, African Americans were systematically denied their right to vote through tactics like literacy tests and poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act outlawed these and other targeted voting restrictions. It also sought to prevent future violations in particularly problematic regions of the country through Section 5 of the act, which requires certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures for “pre-clearance” by the federal government. This pre-clearance safeguard has allowed the Department of Justice to block discriminatory changes to voting laws over 700 times between 1982 and 2006. Unfortunately, this pre-clearance protection was dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, just a day before the court also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While Section 5 was technically left untouched, with Chief Justice Roberts writing for the majority, the court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which determined which jurisdictions would be subject to pre-clearance, was unconstitutional because it relied upon formulas that were out of date. The effect of this ruling essentially stripped the federal government of its ability to block discriminatory voting laws in those places until a new formula is established.
Thomas Paine, the most radical of the nation’s Founders, wrote in 1795: “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Eighty years later, feminist Susan B. Anthony quoted Paine’s exact words to defend herself—and make the case for women’s suffrage—when she was being prosecuted for having persuaded her local poll-keepers in upstate New York to allow her to cast a ballot. And on signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson observed that “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” If only the words spoken by Paine, Anthony, and LBJ were not just moving, but also true. The right to vote has been fundamental to the struggle for freedom, equality, and democracy—and surely, the most defining experience of citizenship is that of casting a ballot at election time. Nonetheless, we should never forget, first, that even if we define democracy simply as universal adult suffrage, the United States has only recently come close to living up to its proclaimed purpose of serving as history’s grand democratic experiment; and second, that even when the right to vote itself has finally been won, it does not mean it has been fully secured. Enfranchisement has neither prevented ruling elites from continuing to exploit and oppress, nor kept them from turning things around and effectively stripping fellow citizens of their hard-won rights—including the right to vote itself.
What could be more patriotic in our narcissistic social-media age than posting a picture of yourself on Facebook with your marked ballot for president? Show off your support for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Last week, a federal court in New Hampshire struck down that state’s ban on ballot selfies as a violation of the First Amendment right of free-speech expression. That might seem like a victory for the American Way. But the judge made a huge mistake because without the ballot-selfie ban, we could see the reemergence of the buying and selling of votes — and even potential coercion from employers, union bosses and others.
Who represents Hillsborough County in Congress is at the center of what might become the latest political divide in the Florida Legislature, where acrimony is a consistent theme. The county became a flashpoint Monday after state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, successfully rewrote the Senate’s congressional redistricting plan to assure that more than 520,000 people in eastern Hillsborough will be represented by just one member of Congress, rather than be split into two or three pieces, as is currently the case. Under his plan, most people living east of Interstate 75 would be in one congressional district for the first time in decades.
A pair of voting-rights groups whose lawsuit led to the state’s current congressional districts being struck down by the Florida Supreme Court say that a new proposal appears to be tilted to favor a Republican congressman in South Florida. In a letter to state House and Senate leaders, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida said a “base map” crafted by legislative staff members and currently working its way through a special session largely follows the Supreme Court’s ruling. The court last month found that current districts violated the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards approved by Florida voters in 2010. But League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman and Common Cause Chairman Peter Butzin said the base map appears to try to protect Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo after the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to unite the city of Homestead in one district. That shift would add thousands of African-American voters to Curbelo’s swing district.
The newest tool for Hawaii voters went live last week, with the implementation of an online voter registration system. It’s part of an overall process to streamline the voting process and increase accessibility and participation. “It is (about) convenience,” said Pat Nakamoto of the county elections division. A bill passed during the 2012 legislative session required the online system to be in place by 2016. In order to register to vote, residents must have a Hawaii driver’s license or state ID. Voters who are already registered also can use the system to update their own information, such as name and address changes.
They sound about as exciting as buying tube socks, but proposed administrative rules will help put Montanans back in control of state elections after being overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, state officials believe. The rules, written by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and currently open for public comment, are meant to strengthen campaign disclosure requirements after the high court threw out Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, a 1912 law that banned corporate political spending. The justices said such spending is a constitutionally protected form of speech. After the ruling, “social welfare” corporations — known by their IRS tax-exempt status 501©4, which don’t disclose their donors — began to hammer Montana candidates using “issue ads.”
Vote-by-mail nearly doubled voter turnout in Salt Lake County and other municipalities across Utah for Tuesday’s primary election, but the new program — a first for many cities — also caused a few problems. It will take at least a week to officially determine the winners in six close city council races in Salt Lake County and Davis County because many last-minute mail ballots could still be making their way back to clerks’ offices. In Utah County, Orem received nearly 1,300 by-mail ballots the day after the election due to a miscommunication at a post office, so that bulk of votes won’t be made public until the city finishes its canvassing on Aug. 25.
The public never got its say on changes to Virginia congressional district boundaries and the state’s political redistricting process.
But federal judges soon will. A public hearing on redistricting ended abruptly Monday when the House Privileges and Elections Committee chairman, Mark L. Cole, R-Spotsylvania, refused to take further testimony after announcing that the Senate had adjourned the special legislative session hours after it began. Cole interrupted Diana Egozcue, president of Virginia NOW and the sixth of 19 scheduled speakers, with the announcement, “We’re no longer in session, so we can no longer take your testimony.”
House Republican leaders appeared shell-shocked by the Senate maneuver, which ensures the General Assembly will not meet a Sept. 1 deadline imposed by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to fix unconstitutional defects in the redistricting plan that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell signed in January 2012.
If you voted in a Virginia election any time between 2003 and April of this year, your vote was at serious risk of being compromised by hackers. That’s the assessment reached by Virginia’s board of elections, which recently decertified some 3,000 WINVote touchscreen voting machines after learning about security problems with the systems, including a poorly secured Wi-Fi feature for tallying votes. The problems with the machines are so severe that Jeremy Epstein, a computer scientist with SRI International who tried for years to get them banned, called them the worst voting machines in the country. If the WINVote systems weren’t hacked in a past election, he noted in a recent blog post and during a presentation last week at the USENIX security conference, “it was only because no one tried.” The decision to decommission the machines, which came after the state spent a decade repeatedly ignoring concerns raised by Epstein and others, is a stark reminder as the nation heads into the 2016 presidential election season that the ongoing problem of voting machine security is still not taken seriously by election officials. Virginia officials only examined the WINVote systems after Governor Terry McAuliffe tried to vote with one during the state’s general elections last November.
When Stephen Harper’s Conservative government passed the Fair Elections Act last year, 160 university professors warned in an open letter it “would damage the institution at the heart of our country’s democracy: voting in federal elections.” The proof of the pudding will be in the eating once we see whether voting rates are affected by the new law. The Oct. 19 federal election is ushering in new rules on voting that experts fear could discourage participation by certain groups, like youth and indigenous peoples. “It will have an impact, but just how big it’s going to be is open to debate,” said Brian Tanguay, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. The turnout in the 2011 election was 61.1 per cent, up slightly from 2008’s all-time low of 58.8 per cent.
Early elections in Greece are “imperative” to maintain the country’s political stability as it begins to implement an unpopular third debt bailout, a minister said Monday. “Elections are imperative for purposes of political stability. Given the problems in the government’s (parliamentary) majority, the situation can be called anything but stable,” Energy Minister Panos Skourletis told Skai TV. A third of MPs from the ruling radical left party Syriza last week rebelled against Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in a vote on the three-year, 86-billion-euro ($96-billion) package, forcing him to rely on opposition parties to ratify it. “Such a major numeric loss of parliamentary majority is unprecedented,” said Skourletis, a former spokesman for Tsipras.
Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa at first conceded defeat but later rowed back, saying instead that he was unlikely to be prime minister, as figures began to come in following parliamentary elections on Monday night. Electoral authorities said the vote was orderly; however there were fears that if Rajapaksa won a mandate to be prime minister it could trigger a prolonged power struggle with the president, Maithripala Sirisena, who has said he will not appoint him regardless of the outcome. Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa to become president in a January 2015 election. “My dream of becoming prime minister has faded away,” Rajapaksa initially told the Agence France-Presse news agency on Monday night. “I am conceding. We have lost a good fight.” But speaking later to the Reuters news agency he was less definite, saying only that he was unlikely to lead the next government.