It was appropriate that during the same week of commemoration and reenactment of the civil rights movement’s march across the Selma, Alabama, bridge that led to “Bloody Sunday” and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Oregon Legislature took steps to further advance the opportunity to vote. Under the “New Motor Voter” bill passed last week, Oregon, already a leader in encouraging voter participation through its vote-by-mail balloting, will have the most expansive voter registration system in the country. By providing automatic voter registration for any citizen obtaining a driver’s license who’s not already registered, the bill makes it easier for many to register, especially for poorer and younger voters who move a lot. An estimated 300,000 new voters could be added to the nearly 2.2 million currently registered voters.
It will take place less than a year from now. It will attract more news coverage than any other news event in 2015 and 2016 except perhaps the Summer Olympics and the final two weeks of the presidential campaign. Yes, the Iowa caucuses are less than 11 months away. Americans are beginning a year-long examination of the voters of one state and its quirky electoral process. So get ready for the deluge of punditry on the implications of the presidential preferences of slightly more than 300,000 likely Iowa Caucus attendees. Much will be made of the likely results of the caucuses, and indeed about the actual results, but little written on the peculiar characteristics of what has become an American democratic institution — an institution that may not be that democratic at all.
Editorials: Cubans Demand a Direct and Secret Ballot to Elect Their President | Yoani Sanchez/Huffington Post
A few years ago, I asked a friend why he had voted for a candidate he barely knew during the election of delegates to the municipal assemblies. His response at the time was simple and full of wisdom. “I don’t want to get into trouble, it’s not that the ballots are marked,” he warned me slyly. With my face showing how embarrassed I was for him, he immediately declared, “Fine, in the end, voting or not voting, it isn’t going to change anything.” My friend’s comments highlighted two of the most serious limitations of the current mechanisms for electing the people’s representatives. On the one hand, the little confidence that Cuban voters have in the secrecy of the process, and on the other hand, the inability of the candidates elected to influence the direction of the nation. Two of the aspects most mentioned in a forum about the electoral system just held on the digital site of the government newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth).
It is hoped that lowering Japan’s minimum voting age for elections from 20 to 18 — as the Diet now seems certain to approve so that it takes effect for the Upper House election next year — will encourage political participation by more youths just as Japan faces a host of long-term policy challenges that will directly affect their future. But it is ultimately up to the young voters themselves to decide whether to exercise their newly granted right to vote and have their voices heard in politics. The revision to the Public Offices Election Law, submitted to the Diet jointly by the ruling coalition and much of the opposition camp on Thursday, is set to be enacted during the current Diet session, paving the way for the first change in the voting age in 70 years since it was lowered from 25 to 20 in 1945. Japan has been the only Group of Seven industrialized economy to keep the minimum voting age at 20. All of other G-7 countries lowered the age to 18 during the period from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s.
The memory is as powerful as if it were yesterday. On March 25, 1965, tens of thousands of us gathered before the Alabama State Capitol, the endpoint of a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called out, “How long?” and the crowd responded, “Not long!” The moment was electric. We believed it would not be long before the right to vote was deeply rooted and bearing fruit in America. In one sense, we were right. The Voting Rights Act, passed just months after the Selma marches, banned the discriminatory voting practices that many southern states had enacted following the Civil War. Over time, the Act enabled millions of African-Americans to register to vote, and for decades following its passage, voting rights continued to slowly expand. But in another sense we are still waiting. Either Dr. King was wrong or “not long” is biblical, measured in generations. We came to Selma in 1971, newly married and fresh out of Harvard Law School. Our intentions were to stay for five years. We were sure that by then Dr. King’s vision of voting rights would have been realized. Over 40 years later, not only are the fruits scarce, but the roots are shallow and feeble.
Will Sen. Rand Paul run for president, re-election to the Senate, or both? That last option —both — is unavailable to Paul based on a Kentucky law that forbids candidates from appearing on the ballot for more than one office. Kentucky should repeal that law and allow the voters to decide Paul’s fate. This weekend Paul will ask the Kentucky Republican Party to change the presidential nominating process to a caucus, avoiding the need to appear on a primary ballot for both president and Senate. But this plan simply kicks the issue to the future: If Paul wins both the presidential nomination and the Kentucky Senate primary, then he would be the nominee for two offices — even though Kentucky law forbids him from appearing on the general election ballot for both. Moreover, Paul should not have to jump through these hoops to let the voters decide his fate.
Editorials: Power to the Partisans – The Supreme Court’s conservatives think democracy is overrated. | Mark Joseph Stern/Slate
In the plangent peroration of his dissent in United States v. Windsor, Justice Antonin Scalia bemoaned the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality. The justices had shortchanged democracy, he lamented: “We might have let the People decide.” But as it turns out, Scalia isn’t so fond of letting “the People decide” when those people decide to do something that actually strengthens democracy—like, for instance, drawing fair boundaries for congressional districts. Scalia may not see a constitutional right to marriage, but he definitely sees a constitutional right for partisan state legislatures to entrench their ruling parties’ power to the detriment of democracy. And after arguments on Monday, it seems likely that Scalia’s view will soon become the law of the land. Here are the basic facts behind Monday’s case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. In 2000, Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative, Proposition 106, that took congressional redistricting out of the state legislature’s hands. For decades the controlling party in the statehouse had used redistricting to put members of its own party in the House of Representatives through partisan gerrymandering. Under Proposition 106, the task of redistricting was put entirely in the hands of an independent commission. The system has worked remarkably well: Thanks to the commission’s redistricting efforts, Arizona’s House seats are consistently competitive.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a closely watched case testing Arizona’s nonpartisan redistricting commission. At issue here is how far the people may go to prevent partisans from carving up their states to maximum advantage. We hope the court recognizes the right of the people to adopt smarter, less partisan means to redraw district boundaries every 10 years. More than a dozen states now use independent commissions to draw congressional district lines — and all of them are at risk in this case. Wisconsin still relies on legislators to do the job, though it has flirted with a different model that stands a better chance of withstanding constitutional scrutiny. Senate Bill 58, which was introduced last Friday, would adopt a model pioneered by Iowa. The bill would take the task of redrawing political maps away from the partisans in the Legislature and give the job to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. But unlike the independent commission model, legislative approval would be required. We urge legislators to get behind this idea. The 2011 redistricting process, which was run by Republicans, cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than $2 million and left voters with no competitive House districts and very few in either the state Assembly or state Senate.
Editorials: Our election system’s anti-minority bias is even worse than you think | Sean McElwee/Salon.com
In the wake of the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act, partisans were quick to jump on the opportunity to restrict unfavorable voters. Across the country, conservatives in particular have debated fiercely whether to pursue voter suppression to remain competitive in an increasingly diverse electorate. There was, however, another way out, as I’ve argued before: Socially and economically conservative values are not unpopular, and if conservatives were to cease supporting people who made speeches at KKK rallies, they could garner enough votes to remain competitive. I worried, though, that the temptation of voter suppression would be too great. And, indeed, a new paper by Ian Vandewalker and Keith Bentele indicates that partisans have chosen the path of voter suppression to an even greater extent than previous thought.
Editorials: Fifty Years After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Everything and Nothing Has Changed | Ari Berman/The Nation
Congress can’t agree on much these days, but on February 11, the House unanimously passed a resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal—the body’s highest honor—to the foot soldiers of the 1965 voting-rights movement in Selma, Alabama. The resolution was sponsored by Representative Terri Sewell, Alabama’s first black Congresswoman, who grew up in Selma. Sewell was born on January 1, 1965, a day before Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma to kick off the demonstrations that would result in passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) eight months later. On February 15, 2015, Sewell returned to Selma, which she now represents, to honor the “unsung heroes” of the voting-rights movement at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the red brick headquarters for Selma’s civil-rights activists in 1965, taking the pulpit where King once preached. The film Selma has brought renewed attention to the dramatic protests of 1965. Tens of thousands of people, including President Obama, will converge on the city on March 7, the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers, including John Lewis, now a Congressman, were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers.
From time to time, at least since 1898, the people in America’s states have decided to take government into their own hands, withdrawing it from elected politicians when the voters think they have done the job badly, or not at all. “Direct democracy” has cycles of popularity, and may be in a new one now, as political polarization spreads worry that elected lawmakers think party first and public good second. The Supreme Court looks into such a reclaiming of people power next week. No act of government is more partisan these days, it seems, than the redistricting process — that is, the drawing of new election district boundaries, usually to take account of population growth or shifts as measured in each national census. When Republicans are in power, they craft districts in their favor, and the Democrats do exactly the same when they hold power. As a result, fewer districts are actually competitive at election time. The Supreme Court has been asked several times to put some limits on “partisan gerrymandering,” but has refused each time. Now, the Court confronts an alternative approach in Arizona — a state that has been making regular use of “direct democracy” since even before it was admitted to the Union in 1912. From statehood until 2000, the state legislature had the authority under the state constitution to draw congressional district boundaries, subject to the governor’s veto.
Voters in Brattleboro, Vt., will be asked this week to lower the voting age for local elections to 16, a move that some say could place the town on the cutting edge in a world where teenage political maturity may be vastly increasing thanks to online social interaction. In Brattleboro on Tuesday the Selectboard will ask voters to decide on a ballot item that would let 16 and 17-year-olds vote in local elections, according to The Associated Press. Vermont’s current voting age of 18 wouldn’t alter for state and federal elections. The proposal by Brattleboro resident Kurt Daims would lower the minimum age by two years for town elections. The Selectboard’s chair said last October that such an amendment to the Town Charter would ultimately require approval of the Vermont legislature.
Editorials: This is the best explanation of gerrymandering you will ever see | Christopher Ingraham/The Washington Post
Gerrymandering — drawing political boundaries to give your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party — is a difficult process to explain. If you find the notion confusing, check out the chart above — adapted from one posted to Reddit this weekend — and wonder no more. Suppose we have a very tiny state of fifty people. Thirty of them belong to the Blue Party, and 20 belong to the Red Party. And just our luck, they all live in a nice even grid with the Blues on one side of the state and the Reds on the other. Now, let’s say we need to divide this state into five districts. Each district will send one representative to the House to represent the people. Ideally, we want the representation to be proportional: if 60 percent of our residents are Blue and 40 percent are Red, those five seats should be divvied up the same way.
On the March 3 Los Angeles ballot are proposed Charter Amendments 1 and 2, which would cancel the city’s elections in 2019 and instead let city officials elected in March 2015 stay in office until December 2020. NBC4 News says moving city elections out from the shadows was “an effort to clean up corruption at City Hall.” Now politicians want to undo that reform and put our city elections in Junes (and for the small fraction of city elections with runoffs, Novembers) of even-numbered years. Why? They say it’s because we can call it increased turnout if voters pulled in by marquee contests end up marking city choices at the bottom of a long ballot. As if mindless, “what the hell, I’m here anyway” turnout is the hallmark of good democracy. And it’s hard to credit the leader of the effort, Councilman Herb Wesson, with sincere concern about turnout in city elections, since he’ll be termed out after getting re-elected next week.
Editorials: It’s time for Connecticut to change its outdated registrar of voters system | Hartford Courant
Twice in the last three election cycles, snafus in Connecticut elections have made national news. In 2010 it was when Bridgeport ran out of ballots. In 2014 it was when Hartford couldn’t get polling places open on time. But these aren’t the only communities that had election difficulties in this period. Fairfield, Naugatuck, West Hartford and other towns had issues as well. “Enough is enough,” Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Wednesday as she announced a radical-for-Connecticut plan to reform the administration of elections. She is submitting a bill to the General Assembly that would do away with the system of two (or three) elected registrars of voters in each town and replace them with a single appointed, nonpartisan registrar, who likely would be on the town clerk’s staff.
Editorials: The Next attack on voting rights and why Democrats should fight for a constitutional right-to-vote amendment | Jamelle Bouie/Slate
he last round of voter restrictions came after the 2010 Republican wave, when new GOP majorities passed voter identification laws and slashed ballot access in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Now, three months after the 2014 Republican wave, another class of state lawmakers are prepping another assault on voting rights under the same guise of “uniformity” and “ballot integrity.” In Georgia, reports Zachary Roth for MSNBC, Republicans are pushing a bill to slash early voting from the present maximum of 21 days to 12 days. The goal, says Rep. Ed Rydners, a sponsor of the proposal, is “clarity and uniformity.” “There were complaints of some voters having more opportunities than others,” he said, “This legislation offers equal access statewide.” If cities like Atlanta want to have more voting access, said Rydners, they could open more precincts and “pay to have poll workers present.”
It is time to try lowering the voting age to 17 nationwide. Takoma Park, Maryland, has done it. Iowa, too, for caucuses. Scotland went down to age 16 for its recent independence referendum. Evidence suggests it will boost informed participation in our democracy over time. … The political scientist Mark Franklin studied 22 democracies and found a pattern: Lowering the voting age to 18 actually caused turnout to fall in most countries. Why? Because 18-year-olds are less likely to vote than 21-year-olds. And once those 18-year-olds missed their first year as eligible voters, they were less likely to vote again — not even when they reached 21. Franklin argued that, in the United States, changing our voting age to 18 may be the sole reason voter turnout has declined since the 1970s. But 17 may be a better age. At 17, most people are still living at home, where they can see parents voting and probably hear about local issues and candidates. They also are still in school, where voting can be encouraged and become a social norm.
Editorials: How Dark Money Is Distorting Politics and Undermining Democracy | Bruce Freed & Karl Sandstrom/ Fiscal Times
The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and subsequent court rulings deregulating political spending have greatly increased the influence of corporate special interests. Today, corporations are among the leading underwriters of Washington politics and a dominant force shaping its policy-making. Long gone are the days when unions and government could balance the impact of corporations. At the same time, a large swath of political spending has gone underground. Prior to Citizens United, election spending by companies, unions and individuals was subject to limits and carried out with disclosure of donors. Post-Citizens United, the limits are gone for corporations. Donor secrecy reigns. Corporations can spend to influence elections directly, or indirectly through trade associations or so-called “social welfare” organizations as long as these groups don’t coordinate with a political candidate. The result is significant growth in “dark money” influence.
Loch Ness has its monster. The Pacific Northwest has Bigfoot. And elections have their own mythic creature, feared though seldom seen, who lurks large in the fevered imaginations of candidates, would-be pundits and some paranoid partisans. It’s the mischief-making crossover voter. In the popular telling, masses of cunning Democrats and Republicans stand ready and eager to wade into the opposition’s primary, itching to cast a calculated ballot for the weakest possible candidate, thence to be defeated in November. That sort of meddling is cited by opponents of so-called open primaries — which allow voters to cast ballots for whomever they please, regardless of party — as a reason to limit participation to those of their political affiliation. It’s also heard now and then as the reason why a certain candidate lost; last year, after the out-of-nowhere defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary, some credited (or blamed) the interference of crossover Democrats, who supposedly targeted the No. 2 House Republican. All of which is a lot of hooey.
Editorials: California fixed redistricting; will the Supreme Court break it again? | Nicholas Stephanopoulos/LA Times
Californians may not realize it, but one of their best political ideas is under attack. In 2008, voters approved an initiative that created an independent redistricting commission; then in 2010, they expanded its reach to include the state’s congressional districts. The commission, which designed its first maps in 2011, has quickly become a model for the country. Structurally, it shields its members from political pressure. Aesthetically, its districts are compact and respect community boundaries. And electorally, they are competitive and politically balanced compared to the ones they replaced. If Arizona’s commission falls, California’s cannot stand. Both were created by a voter initiative — not by the Legislature. Neither gets legislative approval for their maps. The reason this reform is in jeopardy? Arizona State Legislature vs. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission — set to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2.
“Left Party whip Keith Ellison spoke in Washington today in an attempt to rally centrist support for tighter financial regulation—his liberal coalition has support on the issue from Tea Party leader Steve King, but without more Democrats and Republicans the bill is doomed to fail. Leaders of the Green Party have yet to take a stance on the bill but …”
This might sound absurd in the United States, but it’s not as crazy elsewhere in the world. The American system of government is stable, popular, and backed by the Constitution—and dominated by two political parties. A political system comprised of multiple, smaller parties and shifting coalitions may be unimaginable in America, but it’s the norm in most other democracies. While the United States is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and spreading democracy is a central tenet of the country’s foreign policy, our winner-take-all system itself is among our least-popular exports. In Western Europe, 21 of 28 countries use a form of proportional representation in at least one type of election. What is proportional representation, or PR? It’s a system that aims to gives parties the same percentage of seats as the percentage of votes they receive—and it might be able to end our gerrymandering wars.
Gov. Bob McDonnell expedited the restoration of voting rights of nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has built on the precedent. The state Senate has taken the next step. The chamber has given first approval to a proposed constitutional amendment to make restoration automatic. Nonviolent felons would not need to apply for it. Section 1 of Article II in the Virginia Constitution describes qualifications of voters. The amendment adds the italicized language to the text: “In elections by the people, the qualifications of voters shall be as follows: Each voter shall be a citizen of the United States, shall be eighteen years of age, shall fulfill the residence requirements set forth in this section, and shall be registered to vote pursuant to this article. No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.
State lawmakers repeatedly claimed in recent years that preserving the integrity of Virginia’s elections justified – demanded, even – mandating that voters show photo identification in order to cast a ballot. This year, Republicans are pushing forward a proposal that requires voters seeking mail-in absentee ballots to provide photo ID. None of these requirements, of course, is based on evidence of widespread ballot fraud.…But the biggest risk to the integrity of Virginia’s elections exists in the unreliability of aging electronic voting machines used at four out of five polling stations across the commonwealth. And Republicans, who control both chambers of Virginia’s legislature, have taken a curiously hands-off approach to solving that problem. Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed designating $1.6 million to help reimburse localities that recently replaced their equipment, and another $28 million in bonds to help more localities purchase new electronic voting machines. Those funds could have played a vital role in efforts to ensure that every vote is counted, yet Republicans in the Senate and House of Delegates rejected the request while assembling their respective budget plans.
Editorials: The UK should encourage prisoners to be good citizens and let them vote | Juliet Lyon/openDemocracy
Last week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on prisoners’ voting reinforces previous judgments of the Court that the UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting is unlawful. But with three months to go before the UK general election, it’s clear that the government would rather flout human rights law, ignore the advice of prison governors, bishops to, and inspectors of, prisons and take up Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money in order to stop sentenced prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections. For ten years now successive UK governments have wasted public money resisting the European Court’s judgment. The current Prime Minister has even admitted to feeling “physically ill to even contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison”.
Editorials: How To Run For Congress in a District That Doesn’t Exist | Jack Fitzpatrick/National Journal
Andy Tobin has an odd problem. The Arizona Republican thinks he can win a House seat in 2016 after his 2014 bid to unseat a Democratic incumbent fell just short. But as he prepares his next bid, he can’t say for sure what district he’ll run in, or even if, by 2016, the districts he’s currently eyeing will still exist. That’s because the fate of Arizona’s electoral map is currently sitting before the Supreme Court. The court will hear arguments next month in a case that pits Arizona’s Republican-led legislature against a state commission that was assigned to draw its Congressional districts. The commission was created in 2000 in order to stop gerrymandering and create competitive districts, but lawmakers say that process was unconstitutional because the authority to draw districts should belong solely to the state’s elected officials. After the March arguments, the court will likely issue a ruling by the end of its term in late June. And when the ruling comes down, it has the potential to shake up the Congressional map not just in Arizona, but in a host of states (including California) that have looked outside their legislatures for help drawing the boundaries of their Congressional districts.
Maryland almost certainly will not enact reforms to the way it redraws legislative and congressional districts this year because the most powerful proponent of the idea, Gov. Larry Hogan, isn’t pushing it. He wants a commission to study the issue and provide advice on the best way to remove partisan politics from the process, and given the variety of reforms other states have tried in that vein, his approach makes sense. But he’d better not wait for long, otherwise the unique conditions that make this reform possible will soon evaporate. Many of the Democrats who control Maryland’s General Assembly would probably agree philosophically that district lines should be drawn without party politics in mind, and few would be willing to mount a defense of the state’s Congressional districts, which are generally considered among the nation’s most gerrymandered. But the reason reform efforts have gone nowhere in the past is that the Democratic powers that be viewed them as unilateral disarmament in the face of aggressive gerrymandering in Republican-dominated states. Indeed, a number of Democratic lawmakers have explicitly suggested that Maryland should not enact such reforms unless it could recruit a buddy state dominated by Republicans to make an offsetting switch at the same time. That’s another way of saying it’s never going to happen.
An automatic voter-registration proposal pending in the Oregon Legislature that would add roughly 300,000 voters to the rolls next year appears to be on the fast track to passage. Under the bill from Secretary of State (soon to be governor) Kate Brown, the state would collect data from Driver and Motor Vehicle Services and use that information to automatically register voters. Prospective voters would be given at least three weeks to decide whether they wanted to opt out of registering, or whether they wanted to register with any particular party. If they failed to register with a party, they would be added to the rolls as an unaffiliated voter.
Editorials: The Mystery of Lower Voter Registration for Older Black Voters | Nate Cohn/New York Times
In December, I wrote an article titled “Evidence That the Jim Crow Era Endures for Older Black Voters in the South.” The article, based on voter registration and census data in Georgia, noted that older black voters who reached voting age before the passage of the Voting Rights Act were significantly less likely to be registered to vote compared with whites of similar age and black voters who reached voting age in the years afterward. The implication, I wrote, was that black registration and turnout rates were suppressed by the lingering effects of Jim Crow laws, which disenfranchised African-American voters. The evidence underlying that statement is research suggesting that voting is a habit. Therefore, someone with fewer opportunities to register and vote should be less likely to vote than a similar person who had more opportunities.
State lawmakers draw the boundaries that define the communities they represent in the House of Delegates and Senate, and those of their counterparts in the U.S. Congress. It’s an arrangement enshrined in Virginia’s constitution, a document adopted in 1971 and reflective of the technical limitations of that era. But as each decade has passed, lawmakers have managed to precisely draw boundaries in a way that tilts elections before they are held. A combination of voting records, population data and sophisticated software has permitted lawmakers and their partisan surrogates to identify and assign voters to districts in proportions that protect incumbents and political power. That explains how eight of Virginia’s 11 congressional races last fall were won by a margin of at least 20 percentage points. Or how, in 2013, barely half of the House of Delegates seats were contested. Or how, in 2011, just six of 40 seats in the state Senate were decided by 10 points or fewer. The winner of most races is determined long before Election Day. The electorally corrupt current system serves solely to preserve political power. It is designed to dilute voters’ voices.
Editorials: Open Mic Disaster: The FEC held a hearing that revealed almost everything that’s wrong with American democracy. | Alec McGillis/Slate
Woe, to be the Federal Election Commission in the age of the Koch brothers. The agency charged with safeguarding the integrity of American democracy has, in recent years, been hit again and again by other branches of the federal government further flooding the political system with money from a small coterie of ultrawealthy donors. There was the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, which made it possible for corporations, unions, and nonprofit groups to spend directly on elections. There was the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling last year, which, while keeping in place caps on how much an individual could give directly to a candidate or political committee, eliminated the aggregate limits on how much he could give combined. And just two months ago, Congress slipped into the big must-pass spending bill a further expansion of the sums a wealthy donor could give to party committees. The FEC is about as effective as a middle-school hall monitor at a Roman bacchanal.