Before the 2012 election, there were numerous efforts in the states to restrict voting. But now the pendulum appears to be swinging in the other direction, giving voting-rights advocates cause for cautious optimism. A new analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that hundreds of bills to expand voting access have been introduced in most states over the past two years. “For years, partisans have moved swiftly to restrict the right to vote,” says Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Now, given new momentum, there is a key opportunity to transform voting in America.”
Iowa legislators worked over Secretary of State Matt Schultz pretty well at a Monday hearing on Schultz’s personal push to clean up voting rolls. Schultz staked his political career on his high-profile effort to curb voter fraud. Almost immediately after being elected in 2010, he alerted county election officials he was targeting immigrants he believed were voting improperly. County auditors waited and waited for Schultz to follow through. It took more than a year for him to acquire a federal citizenship database to check the legality of perhaps 1,000 Iowa voters Schultz suspected of voting illegally. The $240,000 probe led to 26 arrests of folks who mostly seemed confused, not conspirators.
In the U.S., it is all too clear that many of the “voter ID” laws passed in several states had the all-but-overt purpose of suppressing voter turnout. We expect better of our northern neighbors, but apparently the Conservative Party government has a proposal, according to the Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase, for “stripping Elections Canada of its authority to encourage Canadians to vote in federal ballots.” The proposal would restrict the chief electoral officer on the kinds and depth of information that can be provided to the public, limiting the information to “five matter-of-fact topics related to how to vote or become a candidate.” Chase writes, “The Conservative bill will remove parts of Section 18 of the Elections Act that give the chief electoral officer the authority to provide the public with information on ‘the democratic right to vote’ and to ‘make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights.’”
A Ramsey County District Court clock has been ticking since mid-December on a lawsuit filed by a handful of Republican officials challenging DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s authority to institute online voter registration, which he did in September. The Legislature ought to beat Judge John Guthmann to the punch. Soon after they reconvene on Feb. 25, legislators ought to give Ritchie the legal green light he may or may not have had last fall. Voters, election administrators and taxpayers benefit from the convenience, accuracy and cost-saving efficiency of online registration. Ritchie, who plans to leave office at the end of this year, maintains that he has always had the law on his side. He cites a law enacted in 2000 allowing government agencies to switch to electronic records and to allow for electronic signatures on forms and documents. His application of that law to voter registration caught legislators by surprise and was met with bipartisan skepticism and the lawsuit.
The New Hampshire legislature is in the early stages of considering an electoral novelty: allowing Granite State voters to cast their ballots for “none of the above.” It’s a great idea. Every state should consider similar legislation. The New Hampshire bill, proposed by state Rep. Charles Weed (D), is an unusual idea in American politics but not a unique one: Nevada has offered its voters a “none of the above” option in statewide races since 1976. The New Hampshire version appears to have “the proverbial snowball’s chance of passing the House,” says John DiStaso at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Weed’s stated motivation for a “none of the above” option is to give voters a way to lodge a meaningful protest vote. “Real choice means people have to be able to withhold their consent,” he tells The Associated Press. “You can’t do that with silly write-ins. Mickey Mouse is not as good as ‘none of the above.'” The arguments against the bill from Weed’s colleagues range from the absurd to the nonsensical. Secretary of State Bill Gardner, for example, says that voters won’t know what “none of the above” means, since ballots now list names left-to-right, not top-to-bottom.
It goes without saying that one of the cornerstones of a functioning, modern, liberal democracy is universal suffrage. However, it appears that headlines across the state of Iowa are ringing with actions committed by state officials, which undermine that noble principle. This past week, a Republican official in Cerro Gordo County reported that mistakes made by state election officials led to three voters being barred from voting because they were incorrectly labeled as disenfranchised felons (two of the voters were felons who had had their voting rights restored, while the third was not a felon). This incident is just an anecdote amid Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s overzealous crackdown on the nonexistent threat of voter fraud, a crusade we have often criticized on this page. Firstly, it’s important to note that it is fundamentally immoral to deny anyone the right the vote, even if a citizen committed some sort of criminal offense. Free societies don’t strip their citizens of basic democratic freedoms. Authoritarian regimes do that.
Editorials: The Voting Rights Playbook: Why Courts Matter Post-Shelby County v. Holder | Center for American Progress
Voting is more than simply deciding which candidate to support; it is an experience. Depending on where you live, the laws of your state, your ease of access to transportation, and the ways your county administers elections, this experience—from registration to actually casting a ballot—differs greatly between counties and is largely dependent on the actions and laws passed by local officials. Unsurprisingly, those in power seek to maintain the status quo because that is what put them into power in the first place. Lawmakers can use their power to create laws crafted to their self-preserving advantage and make it harder for new populations—who are often viewed as threats to the status quo—to participate in the democratic process. Often termed “the tyranny of the majority,” our nation’s founders grappled with this problem of protecting the status quo, which could be used to limit the power that new demographic populations have to participate in our democracy. Our nation is currently experiencing a demographic sea change. Starting in 2012 through 2016, the number of Hispanic citizens eligible to vote is projected to rise nationwide by 17 percent—or by more than 4 million new voters. From 1996 to 2008, the number of Asian American citizens eligible to vote increased by 128 percent; Asian Americans were 3 percent of the electorate in 2012. While Asian Americans and Hispanics make up an increasingly larger proportion of the electorate, the proportion of eligible white voters has decreased. The increasingly diverse pool of eligible voters is overturning the status quo and traditional voting blocs in our nation.
Once the recount was over on Monday, control of Virginia’s Senate was determined by a margin of less than a dozen votes in a special election in which a mere 20 percent of registered voters participated. This wasn’t the first time a high-stakes race depended on an unhealthily small sliver of the electorate. Maybe only so many people will ever bother with a state senate special election. But registration and turnout would be a lot higher across the board if voting in the United States weren’t a Kafkaesque exercise. Government has got to make voting easier. The first thing politicians can do is stop trying to make it harder. GOP lawmakers should end efforts to limit access to the ballot box with restrictive and unnecessary voter identification laws, for example. Then they should fix the things the government was already doing wrong. That’s where a report President Obama commissioned after the 2012 presidential election comes in. The commission included Mr. Obama’s top campaign lawyer — and that of Mitt Romney, his 2012 rival. The result could easily have been a collection of useless platitudes. Instead, the bipartisan panel offered a set of serious changes that could, if state and local election officials took them up, make a big difference.
Last week, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz announced the state was filing charges in nine additional voter fraud cases — all concerning felons who voted in the 2012 general election without having had their voting rights restored. We’ve already opined repeatedly against Schultz’s instance on playing Captain Ahab to what he views as the White Whale of statewide voter fraud. And so far — despite Schultz’s having pledged to spend more than a quarter-million dollars on such investigations — that White Whale has seemed more like a minnow. And we’ve likewise opined repeatedly against Gov. Terry Branstad’s issuing an executive order to stop Iowa from automatically restoring the voting rights of felons once they have paid their debt to society. Branstad’s order nullified the one issued by his predecessor, Tom Vilsack, and created an incredibly complicated situation for determining which ex-felons have the right to vote and which ex-felons, if they cast a vote, risk committing yet another felony.
A felony record can make it next to impossible to find a job and build a successful life, and in Iowa felons also lose the right to vote. Now these social outcasts face the possibility of criminal prosecution if they mistakenly register to vote. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s misguided crusade to expose voting fraud has produced no evidence of voting irregularities, but it has ensnared several people whose crime was making a mistake. These are people with felony records who registered to vote, either because they did not understand the state’s confusing registration form or because they mistakenly thought their rights had been restored. Besides discouraging Iowans with criminal records from trying to exercise their right to vote, which is in society’s interest, it now is clear that Schultz’s crusade has wrongly denied some Iowans the right to have their ballots counted. That is based on the Cerro Gordo County auditor’s discovery that he wrongly rejected ballots cast by three voters in the November 2012 presidential election on the basis of a flawed criminal-records database. If this occurred in one county, it almost certainly happened in other Iowa counties, too, as there are 46,000 names in the database. It is impossible to say how many Iowans’ votes have wrongly been rejected, but it is an outrage whatever the number.
A sensible election administration reform is quietly sweeping the nation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states have implemented or recently adopted online voter registration, either initiating a new registration or updating an old one. Twelve other states have legislation winding its way through the legislative process. The reform is bipartisan in that both Democratic- and Republican-controlled state governments have adopted it, from Arizona to Maryland. Legislators are attracted to online voter registration because it offers substantial election administration savings. Arizona, the first state to adopt online voter registration in 2002, reports that over 70 percent of registrations are now conducted online. The old paper system cost 83 cents to process each registration form, compared to 3 cents for the online system. The online system is more reliable than the paper system, reducing data entry errors that can disenfranchise voters and introduce other election administration costs when communications — such as absentee ballots — from election officials to voters are sent to a bad address. With state and local governments strapped for cash, online voter registration can reduce election administration costs by millions of dollars while simultaneously improving the integrity of the system. And for those who are concerned about fraud, federal law requires first time registrants to provide identification before they are allowed to vote.
To the delight of anyone who’s ever waited in line to cast a vote, a bipartisan election commission convened by President Barack Obama concluded last week that states across the country should increase their use of early voting. As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration notes in its new report, “no excuse” early voting — meaning it is open even to those who don’t qualify for an absentee ballot — has grown rapidly in recent decades in what the commission called a “quiet revolution.” In the 2012 election, almost one-third of ballots were cast early — more than double those cast in 2000 — and 32 states now permit the practice, allowing citizens to vote an average of 19 days before Election Day. The commission rightly notes that early voting has its advantages for individual voters — not just avoiding long lines, but in many cases also getting to vote on weekends without having to miss work or school. But early voting run amok is bad for democracy. The costs to collective self-governance — which the report refers to only in passing, in a single sentence — substantially outweigh the benefits. Instead of expanding the practice, we should use this moment as an opportunity to establish clear limits on it before it becomes the norm.
Editorials: In Ohio, The Subtle – And Not-So-Subtle – Strategies of Voter Suppression | P.G. Sittenfeld/Huffington Post
As everyone knows, Presidential elections can swing on the outcome in Ohio. Voters – and votes – in the Buckeye State are courted, coveted, and counted with care. In recent days, an alarming episode has been on unfolding in Hamilton County, where I serve as a Cincinnati City Councilman. Cloaked in the guise of an administrative relocation is a Republican move aimed at voter suppression. It started innocuously enough when the Hamilton County Coroner requested a bigger space for the County’s crime lab. A large hospital network offered one of its former facilities to the County for a dollar. In addition to relocating the crime lab to the new site, it was also proposed to move the Board of Elections – and, with it, the site of early voting. Sound routine and innocent? Guess again. The proposed relocation would place in-person early voting at a site far removed from downtown with severely less access by public transportation.
President Obama is winning this war. I’m not talking about the lingering conflict in Afghanistan, that distant fight against what remains of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization and the Taliban, a feudal band of religious zealots that threatens to overturn the Hamid Karzai government that the Obama’s administration is propping up. No, the war in which Obama has just scored a major victory is being waged inside this nation’s borders. It’s the fight over voting rights — a combat that has impacted the outcome of every presidential election, and many lesser contests, for longer than U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan, which is America’s longest war on foreign soil. Obama scored this domestic victory in an unusual way: He put Republican Benjamin Ginsberg, one of his opponents’ most successful field commanders, at the head of his effort to beat back attempts to restrict the voting rights of a lot of people — many of whom are widely thought to be Democrats.
During the 2012 election, far too many Americans voters had to stand in long lines for hours in order to cast their ballot. Voters who were stuck waiting were all too frequently lower-income and non-white. The President promised to act, in order to ensure that such a disgraceful situation would never happen again. The President convened a blue-ribbon panel jointly headed by the top lawyers for the Obama and Romney campaigns. Last week, the panel issued its findings. The report, The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, called for – among other proposals – expanded early voting, online registration, and a goal of ensuring that no voter waited on line for more than 30 minutes to cast their ballot. The report was the result of a six-month-long study. The panel held public hearings as well as meetings with experts and election administrators. The report’s findings came as New York is once again debating how to strengthen its democracy. And while most of that debate has been over weak ethics laws and a “pay-to-play” political culture, the state’s obstacles to voting is another big problem.
Do the Republicans owe their current congressional majority to gerrymandering? At first glance, it seems self-evident that they do. In the 2012 election, the Democrats won the popular votes for the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives. But somehow in the House — for whose seats Republicans controlled the redistricting process in many crucial states — the Republicans managed to end up with a 16-seat majority despite losing the popular vote. The presumption among many reformers is that the Democrats would control Congress today if the 2012 election had been contested in districts drawn by nonpartisan commissioners rather than politicians. But is this true? Another possibility is that Democrats receive more votes than seats because so many of their voters reside in dense cities that Democratic candidates win with overwhelming majorities, while Republican voters are more evenly distributed across exurbs and the rural periphery. Perhaps even a nonpartisan redistricting process would still have delivered the House to the Republicans.
Editorials: Michigan legislature should act on online registration, no-reason absentee voting | Barb Byrum/MLive.com
Voting is one of the greatest privileges of being an American. The right and the ability to cast our ballots on Election Day is what help us shape our community, our nation and our future together. As our Constitution assures us, as Americans, voting is how we build a more perfect union. Unfortunately, a presidential Commission on Election Administration recently found that voting remains more difficult and time consuming than necessary. After six months of research, the bipartisan panel also found that Americans from all backgrounds – Republicans, Democrats and independents – want election reforms and a “modern, efficient and responsive” voting experience. Other states have been paying attention. They’re taking steps to help more Americans vote. Michigan, on the other hands, lags far behind and it’s time for policymakers and elected leaders in the Legislature to take action.
A superb report released Wednesday by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration can be summarized in one quick sentence: There are many ways to make voting easier in America. There shouldn’t be the slightest whiff of controversy or partisanship about that concept, or the important suggestions made in the report. But, of course, there is, and that makes the commission’s persuasive logic and research all the more valuable. President Obama appointed the commission last year to address the problem of long lines at the polls in 2012. At a time when states were deliberately keeping people from voting with draconian ID requirements, that seemed a narrow goal, but members of the commission did far better than expected in showing the many ways that the nation’s patchwork of state and local election laws has contributed to low turnouts.
When the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act last year, it seemed impossible that a divided Congress would be able to agree on new legislation that would satisfy the court’s concerns and restore robust enforcement of the landmark civil rights law. But a creative new proposal may confound the cynics. Last June, the court by a 5-4 vote struck down the formula used in the Voting Rights Act to determine which states and localities must “pre-clear” voting procedures with the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington. Although all 50 states are prohibited by the Voting Rights Act from engaging in racial discrimination in voting, pre-clearance made it harder for states with a history of discriminating against African Americans and other minorities to slide back into their old ways.
It’s way too early to forecast the fate of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, the federal legislation introduced Thursday in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder which struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. This sensible new measure has bipartisan support. But already there are grumblings on the right that the bill either isn’t necessary or that it too boldly protects the rights of minority citizens to be free from what we used to call discriminatory voting practices (but which the Supreme Court wants us now to call “the exercise of state sovereignty”). But it’s not too early to know that state voter identification laws will have an exalted place of protection in the Congressional response to Shelby County no matter what the final legislation looks like. In an effort to garner bipartisan support, that is to say in an effort to appease Republican lawmakers, the bill’s sponsors specifically exempted state voter ID laws from the litany of discriminatory voting policies and practices that would count under the new “coverage formula” contemplated by Section 4 of the proposed law. It’s like proposing a law to ban football and then exempting the Super Bowl.
Ohio’s Legislature doesn’t look like Ohio. And, in some cases, lawmakers aren’t doing what Ohioans would want them to do. And citizens have little chance to change it. That’s because the problem stems, in part, from the state’s broken system of drawing legislative district lines, in which Ohio’s majority party creates districts it can win. For example, in the 2012 election, a slight majority of votes cast in state House of Representative races went to Democrats. But after redistricting, those votes translated into a supermajority for Republicans in the Ohio House, with 60 seats to Democrats’ 39. Last year, the leaders among those 60 Republicans refused to take up bills to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act or to institute a tax on fossil fuels released through fracking, even though public polling showed a majority of Ohioans supported both measures.
Editorials: American elections need help. Here’s how to make them better | Nathaniel Persily/Washington Post
Earlier Wednesday, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released its Report and Recommendations (pdf) to improve the voting experience in the United States. Unlike many others that have entered this fray, this commission was unanimous and bipartisan in its recommendations. Of particular interest to readers of this blog: the commission relied heavily upon the expertise of the nation’s top political scientists and election administration experts. Although the most infamous problem that gave rise to the commission’s creation was the problem of long lines on Election Day, the Executive Order creating the commission tasked it with a wide range of election administration problems. The roughly 100 pages of recommendations and best practices in the report are equally broad ranging.
Editorials: Commission Wants to Make Voting More Like Disneyland and Less Like the DMV | Ben Jacobs/The Daily Beast
If a presidential commission has its way, the traditional Election Day is dead. The “traditional election day model 12 hours from x in morning to x at night is not feasible,” Bob Bauer, one of two co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, said in a panel at George Washington University School of Law on Wednesday, just hours after presenting the commission’s report to President Obama. The commission–popularly known as the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission after its two chairs, Bauer, a top Democratic lawyer, and Ben Ginsberg, the leading Republican election litigator—delivered its recommendations unanimously in a report commissioned in the aftermath of numerous reports of long lines and delays during the 2012 election. The commission dodged issues normally associated with partisan battles, such as voter ID and the Voting Rights Act. Instead it focused on the nuts and bolts of how to get voters in and out of their polling places quickly and efficiently, setting a standard of a half-hour as the longest anyone should wait to vote.
Observers of our polarized democracy often blame party primaries for producing some of our most extreme politicians. It’s well known that the most vociferous and partisan activists have a disproportionate influence in primaries. Less well known is this: 44 states have “sore loser” laws of one form or another. These laws effectively block a candidate who fails to win a party primary from appearing on the general election ballot, as either an independent or as the nominee of another party. These laws deprive voters of a full array of choices. They are arguably even more insidious than partisan redistricting, which affects House races but not Senate ones.
The world’s greatest democracy is not so great at running elections, as we all saw in 2012. There were, among other things, long lines at polling places, botched registrations, and mysterious rules on absentee ballots. As President Obama declared victory on election night, he wanted to do something about these problems. He appointed a (very) bipartisan commission, chaired by two self-described “partisan hacks”: Robert Bauer (Obama’s personal lawyer and his one-time White House counsel) and Benjamin Ginsberg (the national counsel to the Romney campaign and many other Republican causes). Wednesday, after six months of work, the “lines commission,” as it’s known, released a hundred-page report. Notwithstanding the strong party affiliations of its leaders, the group was unanimous in its recommendations. Its an unexpectedly bold document, especially in light of the strong partisan differences over voting these days. Every since the Republican landslides of 2010, states have been tightening the requirements to vote, and Democrats have cried voter suppression. The commission avoids the especially controversial issues of photo-identification requirements and the future of the Voting Rights Act, but it strikes out in a clear pro-voting direction.
Last Friday, a Pennsylvania trial court struck down the state’s voter ID law because it violates the state constitution’s explicit grant of voting rights to the citizens of Pennsylvania. This decision, issued just a day after several members of Congress introduced a sensible bipartisan update to the Voting Rights Act, shows that bipartisan solutions to repairing our broken election system are indeed possible. Amid the partisan debates surrounding election rules—charges of vote suppression on one side and vote fraud on the other—the Pennsylvania decision also highlights the fact that state constitutions can shore up the fundamental right to vote through a mechanism that should appeal to both sides of the political spectrum: states’ rights. Conservatives, who normally support voter ID laws, believe that states should retain significant autonomy and thus that sources of state law are paramount. Progressives espouse robust voting rights. The right to vote is located in state constitutions. That’s why reliance upon state constitutions to invalidate the strictest voter ID laws is a perfect, and bipartisan, solution to an intractable political problem.
Kansas’ efforts to erect barriers to voting with stringent proof-of-citizenship requirements have been rebuffed again, this time by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. And with his typical arrogance, Secretary of State Kris Kobach has brushed off the commission’s ruling as yet another partisan strike against state sovereignty and vowed to continue the legal fight. Meanwhile, Kansas is now only months away from important state elections, and more than 20,000 residents have their voting registrations on hold because of Kobach’s conflict with federal judges and elections officials. Paging Kansas legislators. The best way to avert a well-publicized elections debacle is to fix the statute that imposes the onerous documentation requirements. And the sooner the better.
At a time when some states are restricting access to the polls, following the demise of the Voting Rights Act, Massachusetts is moving to empower voters. Last week, the state Senate agreed to reforms that hold the potential to increase participation in elections and modernize how voting takes place. The bill goes now to a conference committee with representatives of both the Senate and House, whose members have passed similar legislation. We think state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, the Senate’s majority leader and future president, is right to declare that his chamber’s vote last Thursday represents the most significant election reform in two decades. As with the “motor voter” legislation in the early 1990s, which allowed voters to sign up through the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the new legislation is designed to streamline and simplify the process of voting.
Gripped by a deadly crisis, with grenades exploding in the streets of Bangkok, the people and politicians of Thailand once again find themselves back in the global media headlines. Unfortunately, much of the coverage is sexed-up and superficial, which is normally what happens when outsider journalists buzz in and out of a country (‘clusterfuck’, as they say), hastily file their reports, then move on, to the next episode of breaking news, wherever it is happening. Fellow journalists elsewhere on the planet predictably join the chorus. Perched at their desks, working to tight deadlines, they blindly repeat what’s just been said. The resulting coverage becomes fully cosmetic: it shuns the unfamiliar, ignores the cutting-edge qualities of the unfolding drama, misjudges its larger historical significance. As the case of Thailand shows, the overall result is paradoxical: news kills its own novelty. The life-and-death events gripping Thailand deserve much more careful treatment. So here are a few brief thoughts that readers might find useful when trying to figure out the wider global significance of this vexed and vicious moment in Thai politics.
Martin Luther King Jr. marched famously from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in March 1965 in a campaign that helped put the Voting Rights Act onto President Lyndon Johnson’s desk. But King didn’t live long enough to witness even the first legislative extension of the act in 1970. In fact, his murder in Memphis happened long before it became clear that the controversial federal law had succeeded, grandly, in protecting black citizens from discriminatory voting policies and practices in the Old South and elsewhere. Although its passage seemed impossible even two years before it was signed, the law was renewed five times by Congress over the next 41 years—the last time, in 2006, with extraordinary bipartisan support. Were King alive today, wizened at the age of 85, it’s likely he would have the same perspective that many of his still-alive-and-kicking civil rights contemporaries have about what the Voting Rights Act accomplished, where it failed and why the U.S. Supreme Court’s renunciation of it last June was so profoundly premature.