U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican, and his Democratic colleague in the House, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, unveiled a pair of bills back in March that got little notice but could go a long way to making the nation’s reapportionment process less partisan. Ribble and Cooper would reduce the authority of state legislatures in the redistricting process, a job that must be done every 10 years after the Census to ensure equal representation in congressional districts. One of the bills would require that states establish independent commissions to do the actual drawing of lines. The other bill would require the states to put all redistricting information online and call for public comment before new district maps are approved. We favor such changes. There is little doubt that leaving the job of drawing district lines to politicians, whether for state or federal seats, opens the door to political mischief.
Editorials: Democracy Act provides first wave in restructuring of New Jersey voting laws | Richard T. Smith/Star Ledger
Voting is the most fundamental right, and yet the mechanics of registering to vote have not improved very much since the days when we had to crank down our car windows to pay a toll collector. We need to bring the mechanism of registering to vote into the 21st century. Fortunately, the first step in modernizing voting awaits Gov. Chris Christie’s signature. In the 2014 election, New Jersey ranked among the worst in the nation in voter turnout with only 30.4 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot. In late June, the N.J. Legislature passed a strong bill, the Democracy Act, which includes voting reforms that have successfully increased voter registration and turnout in other states.
“Your vote counts” is a snappy slogan just short enough to fit on a lapel button, but snappy is not the same as “secure.” As the 2016 campaign unfolds, there’s renewed interest in enabling voters to vote over the Internet. The notion that choosing a president could be as easy as using a smartphone to order a pizza is tempting to some, but until cybersecurity wizards prove that a vote cast is a vote counted, Internet balloting is unreliably risky. Internet voting has its passionate advocates. One California pundit argues that since his bills, banking, shopping, even the data on his children’s homework is on the Internet, why shouldn’t his voting be there, too. It’s not safe to vote where he shops? Exactly, says David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who was the chairman of the technology committee of the California Internet Task Force.
Editorials: Scott Walker’s Wisconsin and the End of Campaign-Finance Law | Lincoln Caplan/The New Yorker
When Scott Walker announced last week that he is running for President, he pledged to pursue a conservative agenda that will transfer power back to the states. “We need new, fresh leadership, leadership with big, bold ideas from outside of Washington,” Walker said. “The kind of leadership that knows how to get things done, like we’ve done here in Wisconsin.” A few days later, the conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision that shows an important part of how he and his political allies have gotten things done. They have substituted the misrule of politics for the rule of law. By 4–2, with the four conservatives in the majority, a liberal and a moderate in dissent, and one justice recused, the court halted the John Doe criminal investigation into whether Walker’s successful campaign to retain his post in a 2012 recall election violated Wisconsin law, by coördinating fund-raising and spending with so-called “independent” dark-money groups, and avoiding disclosure of donors’ names. The court did so by rewriting the state law in question, so that the kind of coördination the campaign was being investigated for is now unrestricted in Wisconsin.
On Monday, Gov. Scott Walker piled on with the other Republicans who are attacking the state Government Accountability Board, arguing that it should be replaced by something more accountable. The GAB is the nonpartisan state elections and ethics watchdog agency Republicans are mad at because it did its job and dared investigate Walker’s election campaign. What some of these Republicans really mean by “more accountable” is more subservient to their partisan interests. What these folks would love to do with this watchdog is pull all its teeth and keep it on a very short leash. The people of Wisconsin should tell their legislators that’s unacceptable, just as citizens did a couple of weeks ago when 12 GOP legislators tried to shut down public access to certain records.
Nearly two decades ago, New York’s Board of Elections quietly created a gigantic loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws when it decided that limited liability companies were no different from people when it came to donations to candidates. Under state law, corporations are limited to political donations of $5,000 a year. But limited liability companies are allowed to donate $60,800 a year to any statewide candidate, just like individuals. The loophole has been an invitation to abuse. The most recent campaign filings in New York revealed that in the last six months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo received $1.4 million from L.L.C.s while Attorney General Eric Schneiderman got about $220,000. Both politicians have called for closing the loophole, which allows donors to set up numerous small, secretive companies often identified only by an address. For instance, 56th Realty, 80th Realty and 92nd Realty are three L.L.C.s listed at the same address, which is also the address of Glenwood Management, a powerful real estate company.
Political power, not racial bias, was the General Assembly’s driving force for drawing district boundaries for the House of Delegates in 2011. So goes the argument made earlier this month by lawyers for House Speaker William Howell, who is the subject of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the process. The federal court hearing the case will decide if that’s true, but we cannot help but marvel at that line of defense. Even more troubling is the notion that the argument might work. After all, using redistricting to protect incumbents and preserve political power is perfectly legal so long as race isn’t the primary determining factor. Never mind what that means for citizens, who see their communities arbitrarily divided so partisan advantage remains intact.
Editorials: Minnesota should pursue reasonable strategies to make voting easier | Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesotans who defeated a proposed photo ID amendment to the state Constitution in 2012 may be following a North Carolina voting rights trial with a certain degree of smugness. They may think that democracy-loving Minnesotans wouldn’t stand for the moves that have landed the North Carolina Legislature in federal court, accused of suppressing the African-American vote. We’d like to think so, too. But we must note that while North Carolina lawmakers shaved a week off that state’s early voting period, Minnesota does not permit early voting at all — though it does offer “no excuses” absentee voting, which is more administratively complex and prone to voter error than actual early voting. Minnesota also does not allow preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds and “out-of-precinct” voting, both of which North Carolina allowed, then dropped in 2013. Minnesota 17-year-olds are allowed to register only if they will be 18 on Election Day.
Citing a Wall Street Journal editorial last week, Republican state lawmakers renewed and intensified their claim that the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board is politically biased and unfairly targeting conservatives. Little evidence supports such allegations. Moreover, GOP leaders are ignoring key facts about the GAB as they try to weaken if not disband the independent and nonpartisan watchdog agency that oversees campaign finance, elections, ethics and lobbying laws. For starters, half of the retired judges who serve on the GAB were elected decades ago as Republicans to the Legislature, Congress or district attorney. Only one member of the GAB is a former Democratic district attorney from the 1970s, and he was appointed to the GAB by GOP Gov. Scott Walker. … Now comes a Wall Street Journal editorial critical of GAB director Kevin Kennedy. Citing anonymous sources and some quotes from emails, the Wall Street Journal questioned if Kennedy was coordinating state investigations of conservative groups with the IRS.
Let’s get two things straight about next year’s presidential election. The first is, quit whining about all those Republican candidates. Seventeen is nothing — there are already at least 459 officially registered presidential candidates. (A couple more could have signed up in the time it took you to read this sentence.) And second, not one more word about how everybody who’s running sounds the same. Are you kidding? You can vote for an anarchist or a socialist or a prohibitionist, a vermin (really, that’s his name, Vermin Supreme) or even a deity. You can vote for a cat. (Slogan: “The time is meeow!”) “We’ve certainly heard from an ample number of candidates from a broad political spectrum,” agrees Christian Hilland, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission. These are determinedly diplomatic words from a guy who spends his days sorting through paperwork filed by candidates whose platforms include stuff like giving every American a free pony and turning Alcatraz Island into a temple of New Age music and light shows.
Editorials: Another civil rights struggle in the Carolinas over voting | Ruth Marcus/The Washington Post
For all the understandable attention devoted to removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, a civil rights struggle with far more practical consequences is playing out one state away. In a trial that just began in a federal courthouse in North Carolina last week, lawyers for the Justice Department and civil rights organizations are challenging a state law that limited the days for early voting, ended same-day registration and barred voters who turned up at the wrong precinct. The case presents the stark question: 50 years after its passage, does the Voting Rights Act retain any teeth? Two years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted a central aspect of the law, the “pre-clearance” provision requiring nine states and political subdivisions, mostly in the South, to submit proposed changes in voting procedures for federal approval.
Last week saw two developments that bring hope for a stronger democracy in Ohio: the kickoff of a bipartisan campaign for a constitutional amendment to reform how Ohio’s Statehouse districts are drawn, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that opens up a chance to reform the drawing of districts for Congress, as well. At the moment, Ohio’s state and national political districts are the handiwork of majority Republicans, and they’re a masterpiece of gerrymandering, drawn to produce as many Republican-dominated districts as possible. Despite the fact that Ohio voters are about evenly split and have chosen the Democrat in the past two presidential elections, Republicans have won 12 of its 16 U.S. House seats and control the state legislature by a two-thirds margin. Democrats have done the same when they’ve had the opportunity to control the process.
Those who believe that “voting online is the future” or that it is “possible given current technology” to create a secure online voting system are dangerously mistaken. According to computer experts, Internet voting is vulnerable to cyber-attack and fraud—vulnerabilities inherent in current hardware and software, as well as the basic manner in which the Internet is organized. It is unlikely that these vulnerabilities will be eliminated at any time in the near future. State legislators and secretaries of state who are considering implementing Internet voting, or even the delivery by e-mail of voted ballots from registered voters, should reconsider such measures. These programs would be vulnerable to a variety of well-known cyber-attacks, any of which could be catastrophic. Such attacks could be “launched by anyone from a disaffected lone individual to a well-financed enemy agency outside the reach of U.S. law.” They also “could result in large-scale, selective voter disenfranchisement,” privacy violations, vote buying and selling, and vote switching “even to the extent of reversing the outcome of many elections at once….” The biggest danger, however, is that such attacks “could succeed and yet go completely undetected.”
On the first day of the federal trial challenging North Carolina’s new voting restrictions, thousands of voting-rights activists marched through downtown Winston-Salem. They held signs reading, “North Carolina Is Our Selma” and “50 Years After Selma Voting Rights Still Matter.” At first glance, the comparison between the Selma of the 1960s and the North Carolina of today seems absurd. Before the VRA was passed, only 2 percent of African-Americans were registered to vote in Selma, the most segregated city in the South. Today, largely because of the VRA, 68 percent of black North Carolinians are registered to vote and black turnout exceeded white turnout in the past two presidential elections. But there’s a crucial similarity between Selma in 1965 and North Carolina in 2015—both show the lengths conservative white Southerners will go to maintain their political power. The billy clubs and literacy tests of yesteryear have been replaced by subtler and more sophisticated attempts to control who can participate in the political process.
Twice, Florida courts have rejected the Legislature’s attempts to redraw the map for congressional districts, saying that Republicans in power rigged the results to their advantage. This, after Florida voters overwhelmingly passed two amendments in 2010 aimed at keeping politics out of the process. Now, finally, can we get a nonpartisan independent commission to do what the politicians obviously can’t? On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a circuit court’s finding that political operatives had worked behind the scenes to “taint” the state’s redistricting process with “improper partisan intent.” But the high court said Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis didn’t go far enough last summer when he ordered that two congressional districts be redrawn. Instead, the Supreme Court threw out eight districts that the Legislature drew up in 2012 — and gave the lawmakers just 100 days to create a new map of congressional districts, one that makes a decisive break with the state’s long history of partisan political gerrymandering.
As he roams far from New Jersey hugging voters in his quest for the White House, Gov. Chris Christie has a golden opportunity to demonstrate his faith in the people — yes, the people — by signing a groundbreaking voter registration bill passed last month by the state Legislature. It would make New Jersey a national leader by establishing automatic voter enrollment at the state Motor Vehicle Commission, encouraging early voting opportunities and expanding multilanguage election materials. The measure has everything to recommend it as a boon for democracy.
Two years after the Supreme Court gutted a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would restore many of the lost protections. At the same time, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 would address the court’s principal objection to the provision it struck down: that the formula used to decide which states must “pre-clear” changes in their election practices with the federal government was rooted in obsolete data about political participation by racial minorities. The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, outlawed racial discrimination in voting and, equally important, required federal approval of election procedures in states (mostly in the South) with a history of disenfranchising minorities, including through the use of literacy tests. The law transformed political participation by blacks and other minorities and dramatically diversified the ranks of elected officials. In 2006, Congress extended the law, including the coverage formula for pre-clearance, for 25 years.
Editorials: Gerrymandering won’t end with Supreme Court decision | Carl P. Leubsdorf/Dallas Morning News
The Supreme Court’s decision to allow a redistricting commission set up by Arizona voters holds the potential of reducing the rampant gerrymandering that has virtually guaranteed a Republican-controlled U.S. House until at least 2022. And that would be a good thing, since partisan redistricting in a half-dozen states has skewed the makeup of the House of Representatives, which James Madison said was supposed to display “fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.” But it probably won’t happen. The reason: It’s almost impossible to take politics out of the process by which legislatures re-draw legislative and congressional district lines after every census to reflect population changes. Every unequal redistricting has essentially resulted from an election.
Finding that the problem of corruption in government contracting is still a major civic scandal, a unanimous federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a new constitutional challenge to the seventy-five-year-old ban on political contributions by individuals who are hired under contract to do work for federal agencies — an increasing way that federal agency tasks get done. The sweep of the ruling by the en banc, eleven-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit would also appear to support the ban as it applies to business firms with federal contracts, even though the ruling was technically limited to individuals who act as federal contractors because those were the only challengers.
The biggest racket in American politics is the process by which legislative district lines are decided. In most states, the party that controls the legislature also draws the map. And in a process known as “gerrymandering”, that party typically rigs the districts to make sure its candidates prosper while rival candidates lose. Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of producing congressional districts, like the one on the right in Massachusetts in 1812, so contorted that they have earned the names “Salamander”, “Hanging Claw” and “The Pinwheel of Death”.
Now that independent redistricting commissions have the seal of approval of the U.S. Supreme Court, maybe it’s time for Colorado to consider one. The high court ruled last week that Arizona voters had been within their rights when they passed a referendum stripping the legislature of its authority to draw congressional boundaries every 10 years. Voters set up an independent commission to do the job instead. The 5-4 ruling is controversial, and appears to override fairly explicit constitutional language, but it’s now the law of the land. And it provides an opportunity for Colorado to reform its redistricting process and thus address what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delicately called “the problem of partisan gerrymandering.”
Editorials: Same day voter registration will improve New Jersey’s embarrassing turnout | Star Ledger
New Jersey had an election last month, and nobody showed up. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but just barely: The primary turnout was the lowest in 90 years. Our elected officials – who apparently want to be taken more seriously than the rest of us take them – recognize this as a trend. We avoid the polls like anthrax, so the voting reform package sent to the governor included smart proposals such as early-voting accommodation, registration for eligible residents when obtaining a driver’s license, and online registration. But when the omnibus bill advanced out of committee, same-day registration – which allows for residents to register at polling places on Election Day and cast provisional ballots – wasn’t in it.
Editorials: Mindlessly Literal Reading Loses Again: This Supreme Court decision is a dig at Bush v. Gore | Richard Hasen/Slate
The Supreme Court ended its term Monday with another major rejection of conservative attempts to use wooden, textualist arguments to upset sensible policies. The result in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which upheld the use of independent commissions to draw Arizona’s congressional districts, is a big win for election reformers and supporters of direct democracy. The Arizona decision also undermines the strongest conservative argument in favor of George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore, the case that handed him the 2000 presidential election. Monday’s 5–4 decision has much in common with last week’s blockbuster Obamacare ruling. In a 6–3 decision in King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court upheld the availability of federal subsidies for those signed up for Obamacare despite language in the health care law that could have been interpreted to give those subsidies only to those on state exchanges. The court rejected a narrow reading of the term “such exchanges” in the health care case because it saw its job not to read the text out of context but to follow broad congressional purpose. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the King majority: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.”
Editorials: It’s time to make no-reason absentee voting available to all Michiganders, without restrictions | Jon Sherman/MLive.com
Election Day is the time eligible Michiganders are able to exercise one of their most fundamental American rights: the right to vote. It’s the time when voters have a chance to make their voices heard. But sometimes life gets in the way on Election Day. Maybe you’re working a long shift and can’t take time off to get to your polling place; maybe you don’t have reliable transportation; maybe you or your kids get sick and you aren’t able to leave the house. Sometimes we just don’t have time to get to the polls, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to have our voice heard. Imagine that instead of having to plan ahead and wait in line at the polls on Election Day, you could cast a ballot without having to leave your home. It would certainly make voting more convenient and would help in building a democracy that represents all people in our state.
Though the debt crisis in Greece is eating up most of the media oxygen, a somewhat similar crisis is happening in Puerto Rico. They’ve got way too much debt, and have been struggling badly since the 2008 financial crisis. The situation has reached a breaking point, and Governor Alejandro Padilla has flatly admitted the island colony cannot pay in full. Though it is an unlikely prospect, this is an area where the United States government can do some good. By proposing a referendum on statehood, and assisting with an orderly debt write-down, America can atone for past sins and put Puerto Rico back on an upward trajectory. The roots of the crisis are explained well in a piece by Matt Yglesias. For a number of years Puerto Rico had some odd tax advantages that allowed it to borrow extremely cheaply, and so it did, running up a debt vastly larger than any other American state. In 2006 the tax advantages were finally phased out, which made it particularly badly positioned to deal with the financial crisis only two years later. Now with the economy in deep trouble, the government is running short of cash, its citizens are emigrating for the mainland, and it will basically have to default.
Twenty-four hours after giving constitutional backing for Arizona’s use of an independent commission to draw new election district maps for its members of Congress, the Supreme Court on Tuesday took on a case complaining that the same state agency wrongly used race and partisanship in crafting state legislative district boundaries. This was one of five new cases in which the Court granted review in the final round of regular orders before the Justices began their summer recess. Other cases dealt with public employee unionism, states’ immunity from lawsuits in other states’ courts, federal courts’ authority to hear securities cases based on state law, and Indian tribes’ rights in contracting with the federal government over public services for tribal members. All will be heard in the new Term starting in October.
When the U.S. Supreme Court opted Monday not to decide whether the federal voter-registration form must account for Kansas and Arizona laws requiring proof of citizenship, it was another major legal defeat for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Too bad the move, though welcome, won’t do much for voter participation in Kansas. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled last November that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission need not require would-be Kansas and Arizona voters using the federal registration form to provide proof of U.S. citizenship, as per the two states’ laws. The federal form only asks applicants to swear they are citizens. Ruling that the states “have not provided substantial evidence of noncitizens registering to vote using the federal form,” the appeals court had overturned a decision by Wichita-based U.S. District Court Judge Eric Melgren siding with Kansas and Arizona.
For 79 days last year, thousands of protesters occupied major roads in Hong Kong in an attempt to force Chinese authorities to grant the territory genuine democracy. They failed. Local leaders and their overlords in Beijing refused to negotiate over an electoral plan that would allow for a popular vote for Hong Kong’s next leader but would limit candidates to nominees approved by the Communist regime. That left opposition representatives in Hong Kong’s legislature with an unappealing choice this month: Sign off on the inadequate reform or block it at the risk of freezing the current, even less democratic, system in place. “To kowtow, or to veto,” was the way opposition leader Alan Leong summed up the dilemma.
North Carolina Republicans did a startling and uncharacteristic thing last week: In the face of a potentially unfavorable legal outcome, they gutted a bad provision in a bad law. No, it wasn’t the state’s abortion ultrasound law, which finally died last week when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take it up. It also wasn’t the state’s same-sex marriage amendment, which is likely to be gone for good in the next week when those same justices decide on the issue for all states. It was another, very significant law: North Carolina’s Voter Information Verification Act (VIVA), which would have required voters to show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot beginning in 2016.
Why force citizens to register in order to vote?Secretary of State Alex Padilla raised that question this year when he proposed a law that would automatically register every eligible voter with a driver’s license. “One of the biggest barriers to citizen participation is the voter registration process,” he said. “A new, enhanced California motor-voter law would strengthen our democracy.”Many Democrats in Sacramento — and beyond — agree.Oregon’s governor recently signed an automatic voter registration bill. And this month, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for automatic, universal voter registration as well as a 20-day early voting window. She also accused her Republican rivals of “a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people from one end of our country to the other.” It is generally thought that automatic voter registration would benefit Democrats and hurt Republicans. So it’s safe to assume that politicians on both sides of the aisle are biased by that knowledge. Still, it’s possible to set partisan considerations aside and have an apolitical, substantive debate on the issue.