The cries for changing the Federal Election Commission from some editorial boards and campaign finance lobbyists overlook the obvious dangers of an unchecked federal agency regulating the political involvement of citizens. When Congress created the FEC, it did not design an agency that could be wielded as a partisan weapon; instead, the agency is required to be equally divided, with, at most, three of its six members from the same party. Thus, the FEC is designed to ensure fair and impartial regulation and administration of campaign finance laws — not partisan or ideological witch hunts.
In a joint op/ed Wednesday, the three Republican members of the Federal Election Commission blasted campaign finance reformers and good-government groups for proposing changes to the impotent agency, defending themselves as “fair and impartial” regulators and administrators of campaign finance laws. But this same trio has been responsible for historic deadlock at the Commission and has openly refused to follow the campaign rules enacted by Congress. FEC Commissioners Caroline Hunter, Donald McGahn II, and Matthew Petersen, all three of whom continue to serve though their terms have expired, wrote that “The agency’s harshest critics disregard the agency’s prime enforcement directive: Enforce the law as it is, not as some wish it to be.”
It hasn’t gotten the national attention it deserves, but a sweeping measure to overhaul elections in Colorado is swiftly moving towards passage — one that could function as a model for other voting reformers in other states, and perhaps even nationally. The Colorado measure will represent a big step forward, because it sticks to the most fundamental principle that most reformers think should guide our efforts to fix voting: That voting should be made easier for as many people as possible. This, at a time when conservative groups are working to restrict voting in the name of “voter fraud.” As Reid Wilson recently put it, the Colorado measure is “the Democratic comeback to voter ID.”
Last year, the Pew Center for the States released a report titled “Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade.” Among other things, it revealed that “almost 2.7 million people appear to be registered in two states, and more than 70,000 people could be registered in three or more.” The Colorado legislature isn’t helping matters with House Bill 1303, which has passed both chambers and awaits the governor’s signature. The bill requires mail ballots be sent to all registered voters, whether they’ve cast ballots in recent elections or not — and halted when the ballot is returned or the state learns through other checks that someone has moved or died. One critical backstop is the National Change of Address file maintained by the Postal Service. But in an era in which snail mail is rapidly losing its relevance, particularly for young adults, that file is hardly comprehensive. And yet as Pew points out, “Census numbers from 2009 reveal one in four adults ages 25 to 34 changed residences.” So what happens in homes where, say, a 20-something takes a job in another state? The ballots could just keep on coming.
The inspector general for the Justice Department, Michael Horowitz, recently issued a report recommending that the Civil Rights Division should no longer favor applicants who have demonstrated an interest in civil rights or “the enforcement of civil rights laws.” This report ignited debate because the Senate is now taking up the nomination of Tom Perez, the division’s current head, to serve as secretary of labor, and the Supreme Court is pondering a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5, a key part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). It also comes out as the Republican Party is seeking urgently to rebrand itself to appeal to minority voters.
Before Indiana GOP officials bluster on too long about how dirty the Indiana Democratic Party’s kettle is when it comes to election fraud, they should keep in mind their own record. On Thursday, state GOP Chairman Eric Holcomb sent out a caustic fund- raising email to party faithful saying “Election fraud is alive and well within the Indiana Democratic Party” and suggesting a donation to the Republican Party “will help ensure the integrity of our electoral process.”
Editorials: How Colorado’s Forthcoming Election Law Incentivizes The GOP | Reid Wilson/National Journal
The Colorado state Senate on Thursday passed legislation requiring the state to conduct its elections entirely by absentee ballot. The party-line vote, and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s likely signature, means Colorado will become the third state, alongside Washington and Oregon, to hold elections entirely by mail. I’ve been a little obsessed with this bill since it passed the state House last week, and here’s why: It exposes, and exacerbates, the largest structural advantage Democrats hold over Republicans. From an academic standpoint, the new system shouldn’t make much of a difference. Chelsea Brossard, the research director at the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, says there’s no academic research that shows higher levels of early voting, whether in person or through the mail, benefits one party over the other.
Three years ago, when the Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited political donations by corporations, Justice Anthony Kennedy made the case for transparency as the best way to keep politics clean. Thanks to the power of the Internet, Kennedy wrote in the landmark Citizens United decision, “shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.” Alas, the world he described does not exist. Citizens and shareholders can’t make these determinations because they lack the basic information to do so.
Back when Sandra Day O’Connor was still on the Supreme Court, busy saving affirmative action and the right to abortion, liberals who wanted a reason to forgive her vote in Bush v. Gore often asked me — begged me — to assure them that Justice O’Connor was sorry. No, she’s not, I would reply, anticipating the heartbroken expressions my words always evoked. It seemed to me that this was a woman who looked forward, not back, and who never wasted energy on regret. So now it turns out that the retired justice, just past her 83rd birthday, does have second thoughts about Bush v. Gore and, more to the point, is willing to express them.
In light of the recent failure of gun control legislation despite widespread public support for change, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a government entity more dysfunctional than Congress. But that is only because most people have never heard of the Federal Election Commission, which is more out of touch with common sentiment than the House and Senate combined. Voters have become cynical about elected leaders, believing many are bought and paid for. While decrying this public perception, politicians on both sides of the aisle have little interest in taking any concrete action to improve the situation.
Caroline Hunter’s six-year term on the Federal Election Commission expires today. If recent history is any guide, what will happen next is … nothing. Of the six seats on the FEC, which interprets and administers the nation’s election laws, one is vacant and the others are occupied by commissioners with expired terms. It’s tempting to conclude from this that inertia dominates the FEC but that would be mistaken: The commission is more destructive than mere inertia could possibly allow. The most recent effort to instill even rudimentary accountability at the agency took place four years ago, in May 2009, when President Barack Obama nominated labor lawyer John Sullivan to a seat. Sullivan’s nomination sank in senatorial quicksand, and he never made it to the FEC. His nomination represents the bulk of the Obama administration’s work in the field of campaign finance reform.
As campaign finance reform groups complain that President Obama hasn’t done enough to limit the flow of big money into politics, it’s worth asking, are Americans riled up about the issue? The answer: not really, even though they back strict limits on campaign contributions in overwhelming numbers. Here’s a look at the numbers. On the question of whether super political action committees (Super PACs) should be able to raise and spend unlimited amounts on federal campaigns, the vast majority of Americans say they should be banned. When given arguments for and against their existence, nearly seven in 10 Americans–69 percent–said in a March 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll Super PACs should be illegal, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Now she tells us. More than 12 years after the fact, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said it was probably a mistake for the Supreme Court to hear Bush v. Gore and anoint George W. Bush as president of the United States. “It took the case and decided it at a time when it was still a big election issue,” Justice O’Connor told the Chicago Tribune editorial board on Friday. “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’” She continued: “Obviously the court did reach a decision and thought it had to reach a decision. It turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn’t done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the Supreme Court added to the problem at the end of the day.”
As the 2012 election approached, Republican governors and legislators in battleground states across the country rushed to enact restrictive Voter ID laws, to eliminate election-day registration and to limit early voting. Those were just some of the initiatives that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People identified as “an onslaught of restrictive measures across the country designed to stem electoral strength among communities of color.” Why did so much energy go into the effort? John Payton, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, explained, “These block the vote efforts are a carefully targeted response to the remarkable growth of the minority electorate, and threaten to disproportionally diminish the voting strength of African-Americans and Latinos.” Civil rights groups pushed back, working with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other organizations to mount legal and legislative challenges. But the most dramatic pushback may well have been the determined voter registration and mobilization drives organized on the ground in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other battleground states.
Editorials: Scalia’s understanding of the Voting Rights Act is shortsighted | Gary May/The Washington Post
In the debate over the future of the Voting Rights Act , it sometimes becomes apparent that certain members of the Supreme Court are either oblivious to our nation’s recent history or willfully ignore it. Justice Antonin Scalia made this abundantly clear in his comments during the Feb. 27 oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder , statements that he repeated in a speech on April 15. To Scalia, the Voting Rights Act — especially Section 5, which requires covered states to submit any changes in voting practices to the Justice Department or a Washington court for approval — is a “racial entitlement” and a violation of state sovereignty. In his view, it unfairly and unnecessarily treats seven Southern states, plus Alaska, Arizona and parts of six others, differently from states not covered by the act. This month, according to the Wall Street Journal, he called the act a form of “racial preferment” that affected only African Americans while ignoring the white population.
Congratulations to D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D) for winning Tuesday’s special at-large election and also to Elissa Silverman (D) for a strong showing as a first-time candidate. But the abysmal voter turnout that saw a winner supported by roughly 3 percent of eligible voters must prompt concern about how these elections are held. Not only does the District need to examine how to boost voter participation but it also should move to a system of instant-runoff voting. Ms. Bonds did not receive our backing in the campaign to serve the at-large council term vacated when Phil Mendelson (D) was elected chairman, but we hope she succeeds in meeting her election-night pledge to bring people together to help meet the city’s potential. It’s also clear from the way Ms. Silverman’s campaign resonated that she could have a political future, one that should be followed with interest. By contrast, prospects for the future of the local Republican Party appear dim with the third-place finish of GOP standard-bearer Patrick Mara.
North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers are now exploring a new way to take the state backward: Impose a five-year waiting period before felons who have served their time can get back their right to vote. And there’s more. After waiting five years, they would need to present affidavits from two registered voters attesting to their “upstanding moral character” and get the unanimous approval of their local board of elections. This is another pound-the-marginalized bill that reflects a meaness common to many bills offered by Republicans flexing their newfound legislative muscle. This one has the additional negatives of being politically self-aggrandizing and un-American.
The new Ohio state budget has some interesting components, but most important for college students is the effect it could have on both tuition rates and voting rights. Republican Gov. John Kasich released his budget on Feb. 12, and legislators have been debating it since. A proposed amendment would require public universities that issue students a letter or utility bill for voter ID purposes to grant those students in-state tuition. Critics charge it would prompt Ohio’s universities to stop issuing the documents to prevent the loss of the tuition revenue. “This is another attack on Ohio voters,” State Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) told The Plain Dealer. “This provision will make it very difficult for Ohio’s universities to help students vote. I think it’s outrageous. The problem, if we have one, is that not enough students are voting.” Proponents of the bill say it’s about getting students better tuition rates, rather than suppressing their voting rights.
The United States Supreme Court will soon begin conference deliberations on the Shelby County Voting Rights Act case, which could change the face of American politics.
The Alabama county is challenging the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the “triggering mechanism” for federal intervention, which is based on the population of eligible voters in the 1964, ‘68 and ‘72 general elections. When Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 2006, the triggering mechanism was not updated.
It is apparent from the U.S. Supreme Court justices’ questions during oral arguments that the Shelby County plaintiffs have a reasonable chance for victory in their efforts to end federal oversight. Devastating consequences, however, for minority officeholders and Republicans will result.
Section 5 requires jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act to obtain Justice Department “pre-clearance” for all election code changes, but this does not invalidate any state laws. Instead, the affected laws become unenforceable. Section 5 essentially acts as a statutory injunction. If Shelby County succeeds, the injunction will be lifted and the laws previously stayed will become enforceable.
Let’s use the state of Florida’s congressional plan as an example of what could happen in Voting Rights Act jurisdictions over the next decade without Section 5.
Florida’s political maps are being litigated over a 2010 voter-passed redistricting initiative. Should the plaintiffs in the case win a strong likelihood if the Supreme Court sides with Shelby County all of the Sunshine State maps probably will be redrawn before the 2014 elections.
Included in the Florida ballot proposition is a provision that maintains whole counties unless the principle of one person, one vote or the Voting Rights Act requires otherwise. The state has seven big counties, such as Miami-Dade, that exceed the population requirement for a congressional district. If Shelby County wins, 10 seats would be fully contained within the counties. Today, only two complete districts reside within those particular confines. If the state criteria are enforced without the tempering effect of the Voting Rights Act, then two of Florida’s three protected black districts likely will disappear.
A few weeks ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was motivated by a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Now comes word that on Monday night, Scalia told a group of students that the provision is an “embedded” form of “racial preferment.” He believes the provision is a racial entitlement because the federal government does not take a similar interest in protecting the voting rights of whites. Even aside from improperly commenting on a pending case, Scalia is wrong. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — currently under review by the Court — is not a quota system to elect minority candidates. Instead, it is an enforcement tool to prevent voting discrimination. Section 5 requires that covered states “preclear” their proposed election law changes with federal officials to ensure the changes are not discriminatory. Nine states plus parts of six others are “covered.” States and localities that maintain a clean record for 10 years can “bail out” of coverage.
Editorials: A Simple Plan to Drastically Improve Voting, Stop Fraud, and Save Money | Trevor Potter/The Atlantic
Bipartisan agreements seem possible on immigration and perhaps even on guns. Could election reform be next? Is there an opportunity to move past the partisan rancor of the voting wars and modernize America’s out-of-date election system? We all know it needs improvement. Long lines on Election Day are only the most visible symptom, as some voters from Florida to Virginia to Ohio waited up to seven hours to make their voice heard in last year’s election. The culprit often turns out to be the old-fashioned, paper-based registration system used across the country. According to the Pew Center on the States, approximately 51 million Americans are not registered to vote but should qualify to do so. One in eight registrations contain errors or are no longer valid. Nearly 2 million dead people appear on the voter rolls. In 2008, estimates are that at least 3 million voters who thought they were registered showed up at the polls, only to be turned away because of registration problems.
Editorials: Scalia’s take on Voting Rights Act a slap in the face to civil rights advocates | theGrio
Is the U.S. Supreme Court ready to kill the Voting Rights Act? If Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent comments are any indication, we’re in for some trouble. On Monday at the University of California Washington Center, the high court judge said that the law an “embedded” form of “racial preferment.” According to Scalia’s interpretation, the Voting Rights Act was enacted as an emergency measure, but now amounts to a federal racial preference system for black people that discriminates against whites. “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes,” Scalia said. “Even the name of it is wonderful, the Voting Rights Act. Who’s going to vote against that?”
Just when it seemed that the democratic process had reached its apotheosis with the election of America’s first black president, a political earthquake occurred in 2010 that threatened all that had been accomplished since 1965. Two years after Obama’s election, the midterm elections saw a conservative backlash that swept Republicans back into office in droves. As the media focused on the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and increases in the Senate, more important developments were occurring closer to home. Republicans now controlled both legislative bodies in 26 states, and 23 won the trifecta, controlling the governorships as well as both statehouses. What happened next was so swift that it caught most observers off guard — and began surreptitiously to reverse the last half-century of voting rights reforms.
Editorials: No vote for you: How Idaho lawmakers are silencing the vote of the people | Arbiter Online
The Idaho Legislature altered ballot measure rules earlier this year, making a successful petition campaign more difficult to achieve. Starting July 1, when Senate Bill 1108 goes into effect, it will be harder for Idahoans to gather enough signatures to place initiatives and referendums on the ballot. Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter signed a bill into law on April 2 thatwill require petitioners to gather six percent of registered voters’ signatures from a minimum of 18 districts. Currently, petitioners must collect six percent of registered voters’ signature statewide. SB 1108 originally required each signature sheet to be separated by legislative district, but the statehouse quickly pushed through Senate Bill 1191 last month to remove that stipulation.
Three Republican senators are apparently so anxious to suppress Democratic-leaning voters that they have gone to an extreme considered heresy in the GOP: They’re proposing a tax increase. Young voters, especially college-aged students, have been trending Democratic in recent elections. Often rallied by campus get-out-the-vote efforts, students can be a significant factor in college-town elections.
Can congressional Democrats and Republicans put aside partisan politics to seriously address the major issues facing our country? With the debt crisis ever looming and judicial and executive nominees languishing, there is plenty of opportunity for partisan rancor. But there is one area where politics should be — and, surprisingly, may be able to be — tossed aside: voting. In 2011 and 2012, we saw a wave of states pass restrictive laws that would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. Citizens and voting advocates mounted a massive effort to push back and ensure everyone could have their say at the ballot box. In state after state, courtroom after courtroom, the most serious efforts to restrict the vote were rolled back and voters won. Now, there are signs of a sea change: Politicians are pulling back from efforts to rig the system before they even get signed into law.
It is an open scandal in Washington that the Federal Election Commission is completely ossified as the referee and penalizer of abuses in national politics. Karl Rove’s powerful Crossroads GPS money machine cruelly underlined the agency’s impotence last week with a snippy rebuff of a legitimate inquiry from the commission staff about the shadowy sources of the group’s war chest. Crossroads GPS archly replied that continued inquiries on the matter “are unnecessary,” but that if they keep coming, it will offer the same unrevealing response.
The General Assembly is considering a bill to require voters to present photo identification in order to be allowed to vote. Proponents of the bill say the ID requirement is necessary to protect the integrity of elections and stamp out voter fraud. Opponents claim that there is no significant evidence of in-person voter fraud and that the bill is simply an attempt to make it harder to vote for persons without ID who tend to be older, poorer and more minority than those with ID. Putting aside the public policy debates, the voter ID bill has one significant problem: It violates the N.C. Constitution, which deliberately puts the issue of voter qualifications beyond the reach of the General Assembly. To understand how and why requires some knowledge of the history of North Carolina, including the crucial role of voting rights in North Carolina.
In the 2012 elections, we saw a glimpse of a more robust and inclusive democracy. Hispanic and youth voters turned out in record numbers, and African Americans may have voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time in U.S. history. But this turnout happened in spite of the most widespread assault on voting rights that we’ve seen since the Reconstruction era. Thankfully, courts blocked many of the recent state laws that make it harder to vote. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of citizens — disproportionately African Americans and Latinos — had to wait in outrageously long lines and many were improperly forced to cast provisional ballots. While the resolve of voters who stood in line for up to eight hours was inspiring, it showed that election reform is needed. As President Obama said on election night, “We have to fix that.”
Venezuela’s first post-Chavez presidential election, taking place on April 14, has the unfortunate likelihood of suffering from the same shortcomings of the contest that occurred when Chavez was re-elected this past October: the vote was neither free nor fair but extraordinarily distorted by incumbent advantages and political intimidation. On October 7, Hugo Chavez was re-elected to a fourth term by a decisive margin, with 55 percent of the vote. In power since 1999, and emboldened with six-year terms and the right to indefinite reelection as a result of constitutional changes they forced through, the chavistas, now represented by Chavez’s anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, appear as firmly entrenched as ever. Last October, the opposition candidate in next month’s contest, Henrique Capriles, mounted the most serious electoral challenge to Chavez since he assumed power, uniting disparate opposition forces, attracting many disillusioned former backers of Chavez, and giving hope to Venezuela’s youth in particular. If there had been a reasonably level playing field or an electoral climate free of the pervasive fear that Chavez’s forces provoked, Capriles might well have won the presidency. The April contest will be a rematch on the same unlevel playing field. Thus, it is unlikely that Capriles will secure the presidency.