Signed into law as a federal holiday 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan, the occasion to honor and remember Martin Luther King Jr. is also a moment to reflect on the state of democracy in the United States. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, King called it “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.’’ His carefully chosen words highlighted the triumph of the act while signaling that there was more work to be done. For his part, King announced in his annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) a new initiative, the Political Education and Voter Registration Department. Charged with equipping poor and black voters with an understanding of the voting process and the new protections of the Voting Rights Act, King and his colleagues set out to help expand the number of registered voters. Without regard for political affiliation or outcome, this initiative championed voter education and registration as a means to allay past injustices such as poll taxes and to guide the nation toward a more free and just society.
For all its signature dysfunction, the Federal Election Commission has a staff of professionals working to track big money and shady behavior in the nation’s congressional and presidential campaigns. A dramatic — and until now overlooked — example of good staff work surfaced this month in a finding that Crossroads GPS, the shadowy, money-raising monolith of Karl Rove and other Republican strategists, probably broke the election law in 2010 when it claimed that much of its blatantly partisan campaign activities were “social welfare” initiatives.
Sparking howls from Democrats and the NAACP, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said last week that his office soon would begin Voter Purge 2.0, by sending supervisors of elections the names of voters who might not be citizens. Who could disagree with the idea that only eligible citizens should vote? But there is more to the issue. First, the purge is a solution in search of a problem. The number of noncitizens registered to vote is minuscule, mostly because there is no incentive for intentional fraud. What immigrant would risk deportation for the small reward of casting one vote?
How disappointing that in a 2,866-word State of the State address quoting the Kansas Constitution’s statement that “all political power is inherent in the people,” Gov. Sam Brownback failed to speak up for the 20,000 people in Kansas whose voter registrations are stalled. At least the U.S. Election Assistance Commission mentioned them in its ruling Friday. Kansas, Arizona and Georgia wanted the commission to provide an instruction on the federal voter-registration form regarding their requirements that those registering in their states provide proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or passport. Since the Kansas law went into effect in January 2013, more than 20,100 applicants have seen their voter registrations put on a suspense list for lack of paperwork. The EAC staff ruling denying the states’ requests said Congress specifically considered and rejected requiring such documentation when passing the National Voter Registration Act in 1993. “Such burdens do not enhance voter participation, and they could result in a decrease in overall registration of eligible citizens,” the ruling said. It pointed to Kansas’ lengthening list of applicants placed in suspense status, saying the requirements risk discouraging voter-registration drives.
Congress leaned toward a breakthrough on Thursday, as elder statesmen from both parties agreed on a plan to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten during the Selma march for civil rights in 1965, joined Rep. John Conyers, first elected that same year, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the conservative author of the Patriot Act and a longtime backer of the Voting Rights Act. They offered the first legislative response to the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the law last year. In June, the court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act because the law was not updated for current conditions. Chief Justice Roberts criticized Congress for using “40-year-old data” to patrol modern voter discrimination. That was peculiar logic, since most federal regulations sit on the books without updates. After all, laws aren’t iPhone apps. Their power comes from permanence, not a constant refinement. As Richard Posner, a respected appeals judge, explained in a critique of the ruling, “ordinarily… a federal statute is not invalidated on the ground that it’s dated.”
Civil rights advocates and some progressives are voicing concerns about a bipartisan Voting Rights Act overhaul introduced in both houses of Congress Thursday. The proposal would reinstate federal oversight of states with a recent history of voter discrimination, though it leaves voter ID laws off the list of grievances that qualify as discrimination. The original Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and amended most recently in 2006, subjected states and counties that had historically used a “test or device” like literacy tests or racial gerrymandering to restrict voting to special oversight—any new election laws in those places had to be approved as nondiscriminatory by the federal government.
Only seven months after the Supreme Court shattered the Voting Rights Act, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has come up with a bill that would go a long way toward putting it back together. If they can persuade Republicans in Congress to set aside partisanship and allow it to pass, they would begin to restore justice to a deeply damaged electoral process. It would be an ideal way to observe the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this week. The bill is far from perfect. In particular, it does not give enough weight to the discriminatory effect of voter ID laws. But it would make it more difficult for states and localities to take other actions that reduce minority voting rights. Jurisdictions would once again be put under Justice Department supervision if they committed multiple violations of the Constitution. All states and cities would be required to make public any last-minute changes to election practices, an improvement over current law, which requires such public notice in just a few states. And the bill would make it easier to stop harmful voting changes in court before they happen.
Conventional wisdom among some liberals, conservatives, and moderates is that a “polarized Congress” will never update the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act bill introduced today in Congress (summary here, bill text here), however, shows that a bipartisan update is possible. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court scaled back part of the Voting Rights Act. The Act required that all or parts of 15 states (many in the South) preclear their changes to election rules with federal officials. The Court ruled that the formula that determined which states had to preclear their changes was unconstitutional because it was based on election data from the 1960s and ’70s, and the decision effectively released those 15 states from preclearance. The new bill responds to the Court’s decision by tying preclearance to recent discrimination. For example, the bill would require a state with five or more Voting Rights Act violations in the last 15 years to preclear new election law changes. While the new bill would require that fewer states preclear changes, the new bill expands nationwide some of the functions served by preclearance.
The crowded field of candidates for D.C. mayor opens up the possibility that the winner of the upcoming Democratic primary will have less than a majority of votes. Perhaps as little as 30 percent of the total vote could spell victory. Obviously, that would not be ideal. More people voting against the winner than for the winner seems a strange way for democracy to operate. While it is too late to change the rules for this year’s elections, the District’s political leaders need to look ahead to future contests and put in place reforms that require a majority vote.
This month we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment and accomplishments for equality — including voting rights — during the civil-rights movement. Even though great voting rights accomplishments have been achieved over the decades, injustices still exist. U.S. citizens residing in American territories such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Samoa are denied the right to vote for president. The premise is that these territories are not states of the union, and therefore, U.S. citizens residing in these territories must be denied the right to vote. But a U.S. citizen, for example, residing in, say, North Korea, under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, will still maintain his or her right to vote. This is the same for any other country that the citizen moves to as long as they resided in a state of the union prior to moving. However, a U.S. citizen who was born in a territory will never have the right to vote as long as they are a resident of that or another U.S. territory.
Yesterday’s fascinating New York Times deep dive into partisan money networks, state legislative elections, and the resulting policy outcomes really underlines the sometimes-complex relationship between campaign finance regulations and effective disclosure: “Not unlike a political version of Cayman Islands banks, the networks allow political strategists to sidestep regulations and obscure the source of funds. Campaign contributions that would be banned or restricted in one state can be sent to a state where the rules allow money to flow more freely, often scrubbed of the identity of the original donor. Some groups work behind the scenes to orchestrate ‘money bombs’ of smaller contributions from hundreds of different donors, allowing the groups to provide candidates with large doses of cash — fingerprint-free — even in states with low contribution limits.” Under current constitutional doctrine — and, really, this has been true since the 1970s, well before Citizens United and other recent court cases — regulations are generally incapable of preventing big money from ending up wherever it wants to go. What regulations can do is disrupt the way money is raised by candidates and parties, forcing political actors to innovate to gain access to funds.
During his Senate hearing yesterday, Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s pick for Justice Department Civil Rights Division chief, was asked by Sen. Chuck Grassley if he would block state voter ID laws if confirmed. In his previous capacity, Adegible served as attorney and one-time acting president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has been in litigation with Texas over its voter ID law for the past three years. Adegbile also twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of the Voting Rights Act. Sen. Grassley’s question mistakenly assumed that the assistant attorney general could unilaterally veto a state’s law, through dictatorship or executive order or something. The role of the Assistant Attorney General is not “to determine in the first instance how states run their voting systems,” said Adegbile in response to Grassley. “It’s only in the context of a particular law that is passed that [it] then occasionally becomes subject to review either because of the way in which it was passed or because of its impact.”
Fights over the laws governing voting rights are nothing new – but 2014 is shaping up to be a big year for court decisions that will determine whether millions of Americans will face new and unnecessary barriers at the polls. Since the disputed 2000 elections, states have increasingly moved to change voting rules, and litigation on these issues has more than doubled. In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder to strike down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had long required states with a history of discrimination to “pre-clear” proposed voting rule changes with the U.S. Department of Justice. Republican-led states have since redoubled efforts to restrict voting – and civil rights groups and the Justice Department have responded by filing new challenges. In 2014, the courts will weigh in, revealing what role, if any, U.S. judges will play in checking moves to make voting harder.
Although the Constitution is silent on whether people convicted of felonies should have their rights curtailed, most American states have chosen to restrict the franchise in modern times. Nearly 6 million people in 48 states—2.5 percent of the adult population—are currently ineligible to vote because of a prior conviction. Two-thirds of them have completed their prison terms, including two million people in 35 states who are prevented from voting while on probation or parole, and two million more in 12 states who continue to be disenfranchised once they have served out their sentence in full. In the four most restrictive states—Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—all citizens who are convicted of a felony permanently forfeit the right to vote, regardless of the offense. Ten states even disenfranchise citizens convicted of misdemeanors while they are serving time.
Editorials: Want to Rock the Vote? Fill the Election Assistance Commission. | Abby Rapoport/American Prospect
Just days after the 2013 elections, former Congresswoman Mary Bono and I were on MSNBC discussing voter-ID laws. A moderate Republican, Bono tried hard to shift the focus to a universally hated aspect of American elections—the lines. “There should be no reason there should be long lines, ever,” she said. “Why [can’t they] orchestrate and engineer a solution that you get to the polls, and there’s 15 minutes, guaranteed in and out, and you vote?” It’s a good question. Even if we forget about the disturbing rash of voting restrictions—the ID laws, the cutbacks to early voting, the efforts to make it harder to register—a basic problem remains: We don’t invest enough in our elections. Across the country, machines are old and breaking down, and we’re failing to use new technology that could clean up our voter rolls and make it easier to predict—and thus prevent—those long lines. The odds of Congress allocating the billions it would take to help localities buy new voting machines and solve other voting problems are slim to none. But there’s already an agency in place that can help jurisdictions run better elections. All Congress has to do is allow it to function. But for House Republicans, that’s asking too much.
Editorials: Colorado’s terrible election law has real-world consequences | Jon Caldara/Greeley Tribune
I’m not going to jail, at least not for voting. That means good news for me, and a chance to keep Coloradans’ trust in our election results, but only if the new General Assembly is willing to act on the terrible election law passed last year. While anti-gun legislation dominated the media during the last Colorado legislative session, the most dangerous bill passed was a revamp of our voting laws. Thanks to House Bill 1303, Colorado is now the poster child for sloppy election law. Not only does a cable TV or phone bill serve as a valid form of voter identification, but we’re also the only state in the country that has both all mail-in ballots and same-day voter registration. Under the new law our ballots, including yours, are flung through the mail like grocery-store coupons, whether you want them delivered that way to you or not. As the news site CompleteColorado.com reported, ballots in the last election were readily found in trash cans and apartment mail rooms, just ready to be harvested.
Voter turnout in Michigan’s last presidential election was 63%, better than the national average of about 57%, but far below turnout in Georgia, at 72%, or Maryland, 74%. The difference between the states? Georgia and Maryland are among the 28 states that allow something called “no-reason absentee voting.” In Michigan and in 21 other states, voters who would like to vote absentee must present a reason to be allowed to do so. To receive an absentee ballot a voter must be 60 or older, unable to vote at a poll without assistance, plan to be out of town, in jail awaiting arraignment or trail, working as an election inspector or unable to vote at a poll for religious reasons. And because Michigan is also one of a small number of states that don’t offer early voting, folks who can’t make the wait have few options.
At first sight, the suggestion from the Electoral Commission that voters should be required to show photographic ID at polling stations appears sensible. On closer examination, it is not so straightforward. The rationale for the move is to reduce the incidence of electoral fraud. Yet the latter is, as Jenny Watson, chairman of the commission, pointed out, fairly unusual. So before the entire population is required to provide such ID, there should surely be a greater effort to clamp down on fraud where it is known to exist. The commission identifies 16 “suspect” areas and makes the point that some communities, “specifically those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh”, are particularly vulnerable to the practice. Yet politicians are reluctant to say so, not least because when they do, the roof caves in – as Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, found a few weeks ago when he raised the issue in an interview with this newspaper.
Taxpayers want the government to use their money wisely, so efforts to save money or reduce spending usually receive high marks. However, sometimes spending extra money can be justified. That was the case with the special election to fill the remaining time in the term of U.S. Rep. Mel Watt. Watt, a Democrat, resigned his seat representing North Carolina’s 12th District, which includes part of Davidson County, on Monday to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Later that day, Gov. Pat McCrory announced the dates for the special election to fill Watt’s term. Rather than set a date as soon as possible, McCrory decided to overlap the special election with the electoral dates already set for 2014: May 6 for a primary, July 15 for a run-off and Nov. 4 for the general election. McCrory cited logistical issues with the special election along with costs for setting the schedule he did. He estimated it will save $1 million statewide.
Another day, another group trying to pass legislation on the basis of perception. The Electoral Commission is generous enough to preface its demand for voter identification at polling stations with the admission that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. But, in a now traditional refrain, it adds that something must anyway be done because “the public remain concerned that it is taking place”. That is not in itself problematic. Where confidence in the electoral system can be enhanced, one should be open to doing so. Unfortunately, the Commission’s proposal would further disenfranchise young people, women, the poor and minorities. Sometime before the 2019 European and English local elections the Commission will publish details of a proof of identity scheme and enact it. Its report makes frequent reference to Northern Ireland, where such a scheme is already in place. The most thorough data on the effect of voter ID comes from the US, where cynical Republicans have been deploying it to counter demographic changes which are not to their advantage. A particularly brutal example was recently introduced in Texas.
America enters the election year 2014 with considerable uncertainty about two major constitutional issues: what will the rules be for financing the federal campaign, and what is the outlook for minority and poor voters at the ballot box? Two controversial Supreme Court decisions will have a continuing impact: the ruling four years ago in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and the decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder. It is not too much to say that the money side of national politics has been turned upside down by the Citizens United decision – a ruling that, after a century of restrictions on political financing by corporations and labor unions, turned them loose to spend as much as they liked as long as they did so independently from candidates running for Congress and the Presidency.
In just a few weeks Minnesotans will attend their party caucuses as part of the process of selecting the candidates who will run for governor and other constitutional offices, U.S. Senator and House of Representatives, and the Minnesota House of Representatives, among other positions. Yet if the past is any indication of what will happen, very few individuals will attend these caucuses–some by choice–but others will be excluded by economic or practical necessity, without the option of participating by absentee voting or through technologies that would make it possible to engage, even halfway around the world. The exclusionary nature of Minnesota’s caucus system questions what the right to vote really means. Who gets to participate in our political system and how is among the topics I address in my new book, Election Law and Democratic Theory, published this month by Ashgate Publishing. It is if not the first at least one of the first books that makes a simple argument–election law are the rules that make democracy possible.
Street protests in three Asian countries — Cambodia, Bangladesh and Thailand — are a vivid reminder of the fragile state of democracy in many developing countries, particularly those that do not have independent judiciaries and professional police forces and militaries. While the immediate causes for the turmoil are different in each country, they share several shortcomings. The lack of sufficient democratic checks and balances in all three countries has undermined faith in elections and helped to create the conditions for civil unrest. Autocratic and corrupt political leaders have used government agencies, in some cases over decades, to serve themselves and their cronies.
Editorials: Secretaries of State: A Key Front in the Battle to Protect Voting Rights | Steve Rosenthal/Huffington Post
Across the country we are witnessing a wholesale attack by the right wing on workers, unions, women’s health, the environment, LGBT issues, civil rights, immigration and nearly every other right, protection and civil liberty that Americans hold near and dear. In recent years, Republicans have invested in and won key state legislative victories, which has resulted in lopsided redistricting that will make the work for progressives even more difficult at the state and federal level for years to come. At the cornerstone of the GOP strategy is an assault on voting rights in state after state, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in this country in decades. The right wing understands that their views are out of step with the rapidly increasing progressive majority in America — women, people of color, union members, LGBT and young voters. And the only way they can win is by attempting to prevent this new progressive majority from voting. If we are to turn things around, finding new ways to defend fair and equal access to the ballot must be a top priority for progressives.
Editorials: ‘If I Need ID to Buy Cough Syrup, Why Shouldn’t I Need ID to Vote?’ | Andrew Cohen/The Atlantic
I spent hundreds of hours talking about the law on the radio this year but one question, one exchange, especially sticks out. It was this summer, a few weeks after the five conservative justices of the United States Supreme Courtextinguished the heart of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The station’s host had with him a local lawmaker who supported voter identification efforts underway in her state. “If I need to show identification at a pharmacy to get cold medicine” she asked me on the air, “why shouldn’t I have to show identification to vote?” It’s a question loaded with import as we begin what promises to be yet another year of voter suppression in America. For it’s a question that Republican officials and other supporters of voting restrictions have been asking all over the country over the past few years, in countless iterations, as they relentlessly push ahead with measures that purport to ensure “fairness” and “accuracy” in voting but that are designed instead to disenfranchise the poor and the elderly, the ill and the young, and, most of all, people of color. They ask that question in Florida and in Texas and in North Carolina and in Virginia, in virtually every state that was, until last June, encumbered by Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. And they ask that question in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Ohio. They ask that question wherever partisan efforts are underway to further cleave the electorate into haves and have-nots. It’s a question as simple as it is flawed, one that polls well even though it is based upon a series of self-perpetuating myths.
One of the most shocking political developments of last year was the speed with which Southern, Republican-controlled states embraced voter identification laws after the Supreme Court overturned section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. To critics, including myself, this was an easy call: GOP lawmakers were taking advantage of a newly permissive policy environment to suppress minority voters, and African Americans in particular. If this sounds like an outrageous accusation, then it’s worth reading a recent paper from Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien, which brings statistical analysis to bear on the question of voter identification laws. What they found was surprisingly straightforward: Between 2006 and 2011, if a state elected a Republican governor, increased its share of Republican legislators, or became more competitive while under a Republican, it was more likely to pass voter ID and other restrictions on the franchise. Likewise, states with “unencumbered Republican majorities” and large black populations were especially likely to pass restrictive measures.
State politicians across the country, including in New Hampshire, have spent the past few years debating a variety of ways to limit access to the ballot box – various forms of voter ID requirements, limiting hours and polling places, changing same-day registration rules and more. That context makes it all the more encouraging that there are two state legislators in New Hampshire actually working in the opposite direction: a plan to expand access to the voting booth. When the Legislature returns in January, one of the proposals on their agenda will be a constitutional amendment to allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by November to vote in that year’s primary elections. The idea sounds sort of random until you think about it a bit: The target audience are those teenagers who will have the right to vote in November but – without the change – get no say in whose names appear on that general election ballot. If you consider party primary elections part of that year’s total election process, why not let them participate in the entire operation?
Gov. Rick Scott’s latest purge of Florida’s voter rolls is lurching forward, despite the skepticism and outright opposition of many county elections supervisors. True to his “tea party” roots, Scott dreams of the days when most voters were cranky, middle-aged white people, his core constituency. Up for re-election next year, the governor fears a high voter turnout, because that would mean lots of Hispanics and African-Americans standing in line to cast their ballots. They tend to vote Democrat, grim prospects for a Republican who isn’t exactly beloved in his own party. Scott’s first voter purge was a debacle. Initiated ahead of the 2012 elections, the idea was to thwart President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates by reducing the number of Hispanic, Haitian and other foreign-born voters. Screening drivers’ licenses, the Division of Elections produced a list of about 182,000 possible non-citizens who were registered to vote. Unfortunately, the list proved worthless because the data was outdated or flat-out wrong. County officials were left exasperated and angry.
The timing was perfect for Secretary of State Matt Schultz when he ran for office in 2010. The Republican was able to ride a national wave of trumped-up hysteria about hundreds of non-citizens supposedly voting illegally. Schultz made rooting out voter fraud the centerpiece of his campaign, and he won the election, unseating incumbent Michael Mauro. Schultz went on to propose rules seeking to purge ineligible voters from voter lists. This move became the subject of a lawsuit. In July 2012, he struck a deal with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to assign a full-time agent to investigate suspected voter fraud. The state auditor’s office is now reviewing whether it’s appropriate for Schultz’s office to use federal election-improvement money to pay for fraud investigations. After 18 months of scouring the state for voting scofflaws and spending $150,000 in tax money on the effort, what serious problems have been uncovered? None — other than we now know that there isn’t a problem with voter fraud in Iowa and that some Iowans are confused about voting laws.
Editorials: Signing campaign finance bill would betray Michigan Governor Snyder’s pledge to voters | Detroit Free Press
That grunting and straining you hear is the sound of Gov. Rick Snyder’s struggle to reconcile campaign finance legislation recently adopted by state lawmakers with a pledge he made as a candidate to help voters learn who’s spending how much to influence Michigan’s political process. But it simply can’t be done — and we urge the governor to stop trying before he hurts himself and the state government he has repeatedly promised to make more transparent and accountable. Senate Bill 661 started out as an unnecessary initiative to double the maximum amount that Michigan’s wealthiest political donors and political action committees could legally contribute to election campaigns.