Like hundreds of thousands of other Virginians, I’ve been casting ballots for over a decade using Winvote voting machines. I now have physical proof of how catastrophically insecure those machines are. It’s a tiny key that opens the plastic door hiding the USB port on every Winvote terminal. This keepsake came my way at an eye-opening presentation about voting-machine security at this past Tuesday’s Usenix Security Symposium in Washington. Jeremy Epstein, a security scientist with SRI International, has spent years investigating the weaknesses of these and other electronic voting systems. But even he didn’t know how bad Winvote terminals were untilthis past April.
National: Nine Years Ago, Republicans Favored Voting Rights. What Happened? | Jim Rutenberg/The New York Times
On July 20, 2006, the United States Senate voted to renew the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years. The vote was unanimous, 98 to 0. That followed an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives, which passed it by a vote of 390 to 33. President George Bush signed the renewal with apparent enthusiasm a few days later. This bipartisan support for the Voting Rights Act — first enacted into law 50 years ago this month by Lyndon B. Johnson — was not unusual; indeed, it was the rule throughout most of the legislation’s history on Capitol Hill. And if you want to understand how dramatically Congress’s partisan landscape has changed in the Obama era, it’s a particularly useful example. As it happens, two bills introduced in the past two years would restore at least some of the act’s former strength, after the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which significantly weakened it. And both are languishing, with no significant Republican support and no Republican leader willing to bring them to the floor for a vote. What was, less than a decade ago, an uncontroversial legislative no-brainer is now lost in the crevasse of our partisan divide.
Barack Obama has once again called on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and make it easier for Americans to vote, in a letter to the New York Times Magazine. The letter comes more than a week after he marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 act by asking Congress to pass new, broader legislation to address recent efforts to impede Americans’ voting rights. “I am where I am today only because men and women like Rosanell Eaton refused to accept anything less than a full measure of equality. Their efforts made our country a better place,” Obama wrote in Wednesday’s letter. “It is now up to us to continue those efforts. Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act. Our state leaders and legislatures must make it easier – not harder – for more Americans to have their voices heard. Above all, we must exercise our right as citizens to vote, for the truth is that too often we disenfranchise ourselves.”
John Glover Roberts, a 25-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, arrived in Washington in early 1980. Harvard Law professor Morton Horwitz described Roberts as “a conservative looking for a conservative ideology in American history,” and he found that ideology in the nation’s capital, first as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and then as an influential aide in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department. At the time, Rehnquist and the Reagan administration were at the vanguard of a new conservative counterrevolution in the law—a legal backlash against the historic and liberal-leaning civil rights laws of the 1960s.
National: On 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act, Obama renews call for new legislation | The Washington Post
President Obama, on the 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act, renewed a call for new, broader legislation and urged people to exercise their hard-won voting rights instead of staying home on election days. Obama said that in the half-century since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act it has become impossible to hear anyone defend the idea of discrimination against certain voters. “That’s huge progress,” he said, “a normative shift in how we think about our democracy.” But he said that initiatives in state legislatures to require drivers licenses and other forms of photo identification and to make it harder to vote early were having the same discriminating effect. He said no matter how reasonable such rules may sound, they all discriminated against the poor, elderly and working-class voters who often work odd shifts or travel by bus or are single parents. Voting rights activists say that 15 states with 162 electoral votes will have new voting restrictions in 2016.
President Obama used the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday to urge Congress to restore key elements of the law, arguing that court decisions and state statutes that discourage “certain kinds of folks” from voting are threatening to erode the fundamental promise of the civil rights-era bulwark. A half-century after the measure outlawed practices that barred blacks or other minorities from voting, Mr. Obama said the nation had “conceptually” rejected discrimination in balloting, a mark of “huge progress.” But, he said, “In practice, we’ve still got problems,” including laws requiring that voters show identification before casting ballots and limiting early voting, which Mr. Obama said may appear neutral, but actually “have a disproportional effect on certain kinds of folks voting.”
Civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King III, are amping up the pressure on President Obama and the 2016 White House contenders to tackle low voter turnout by overhauling the rules governing the nation’s elections. The advocates are marking Thursday’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) with a rally on the National Mall calling for new efforts to knock down what they consider to be barriers to the polls. The activists want lawmakers to consider online registration and an expansion of the voting window to include a weekend, which they argue would make it easier for people to cast their ballots. Behind King and Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador and civil rights activist who now heads the voting rights group Why Tuesday?, the activists have challenged each of the 2016 presidential candidates to outline their ideas for addressing the low voter turnout that’s plagued recent elections — a request that came with an unveiled threat to call out those who ignore the plea.
Imagine an election – a close one. You’re undecided. So you type the name of one of the candidates into your search engine of choice. (Actually, let’s not be coy here. In most of the world, one search engine dominates; in Europe and North America, it’s Google.) And Google coughs up, in fractions of a second, articles and facts about that candidate. Great! Now you are an informed voter, right? But a study published this week says that the order of those results, the ranking of positive or negative stories on the screen, can have an enormous influence on the way you vote. And if the election is close enough, the effect could be profound enough to change the outcome. In other words: Google’s ranking algorithm for search results could accidentally steal the presidency. “We estimate, based on win margins in national elections around the world,” says Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and one of the study’s authors, “that Google could determine the outcome of upwards of 25 percent of all national elections.” Epstein’s paper combines a few years’ worth of experiments in which Epstein and his colleague Ronald Robertson gave people access to information about the race for prime minister in Australia in 2010, two years prior, and then let the mock-voters learn about the candidates via a simulated search engine that displayed real articles.
In late February 1965, during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and a few days after the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by Alabama State Troopers, a Marion civil rights activist named Lucy Foster suggested a response. “We should take his damn body and put it at the feet of Gov. (George) Wallace,” Foster told other civil rights leaders, according to Albert Turner Jr. That idea morphed into a more reasonable one: A Selma-to-Montgomery March, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and right up the Alabama Capitol steps, where protesters would demand that Wallace implement voting rights protections for all people, including blacks. That march became a national spectacle on March 7, 1965, when the protesters were met by state troopers just across the bridge in Selma and savagely beaten. It captivated the country, spurring President Lyndon Johnson to first offer the marchers protection on their journey to Montgomery and later to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It was one of the most historic bills ever passed by Congress. And when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965—50 years ago Thursday—he declared that enactment was a matter of morality and not just politics. “This act flows from a clear and simple wrong,” the president said. “Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny….It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.” He called the measure “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom”—a law that, very specifically, aimed to knock down legal barriers at the state and local levels that hindered or prevented African Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote. But the issue is still being debated today.
Among the political and legal fights over U.S. elections, some of the most contentious ones center on voter identification requirements and on the way political districts are drawn. Historically, both sometimes have been misused to suppress minority voting, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to correct. As of this spring, 32 states had voter identification laws in place; North Carolina will join them in 2016, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports. Most of the new measures have been introduced and implemented by Republican-led legislatures. While some states permit the use of bank statements, student IDs or other evidence of state residence, stricter ones require approved photo IDs, such as government-issued driver’s licenses and passports. Supporters say voter ID requirements battle fraud and build confidence in election fairness. Critics say that voter impersonation is rare and that the laws disproportionately discourage the poor, minorities, senior citizens and students from voting.
As he pitched himself to black voters in South Carolina Tuesday, Martin O’Malley called for a constitutional amendment to protect every American’s right to vote. “Many Americans don’t realize that the U.S. Constitution does not affirmatively guarantee the right to vote,” he said in an email to his supporters. “Passing a constitutional amendment that enshrines that right will give U.S. courts the clarity they need to strike down Republican efforts to suppress the vote.” O’Malley is specifically advocating for the passage of legislation introduced in the House in January, which states, “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.” The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
National: Democratic Governors Association Unveils a Plan to Fight Gerrymandering | The New York Times
The Democratic Governors Association is creating a fund dedicated to winning races in states where governors have some control over congressional redistricting, the party’s first step in a long-range campaign to make control of the House more competitive. Billed as “Unrig the Map,” the effort will target 18 of the 35 states in which governors play a role in redistricting, and where new congressional maps could allow Democrats to win House seats that are now drawn in a way to favor Republicans. The fund will be used for governors’ races over the next five years, leading up to the 2020 census. Democratic officials said that they hoped to raise “tens of millions” for the effort and that they believed they could gain as many as 44 House seats if lines were more favorably redrawn in the 18 battleground states. Many of those states still have Republican-controlled legislatures, but with Democratic governors in place they could at least veto the next round of congressional maps and send the disputes to the courts.
Fifty years ago, Southern lawmakers tried in vain to stop the Voting Rights Act, calling it an unconstitutional assault on their states’ right to decide who was qualified to cast a ballot. “The bill is tailor-made to Martin Luther King’s demand for Negro control of the political institutions of the South,” Democratic Sen. Allen Ellender of Louisiana, said on the Senate floor in 1965. “Only through such a nefarious piece of legislation could incompetents gain control of the political processes in the South or in the United States.” Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina argued that passing the Voting Rights Act would make Congress “the final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law. For it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency,” Thurmond said. As the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act approaches on Aug. 6, the law is considered a landmark achievement in the struggle for civil rights and an inclusive democracy. Bipartisan majorities in Congress repeatedly have renewed it, and it’s credited with transforming the South by giving African-Americans the ability to share in civic life. But shades of the 1965 states’ rights debate have returned to Washington. A 2013 Supreme Court decision tossing out one part of the law has reopened the 50-year-old question over whether federal officials should be able to veto local election laws before they take effect because they might harm minority voters.
The flood of seven-figure contributions to outside groups supporting presidential candidates — officially reported for the first time Friday — illustrates in stark terms how the unprecedented political buying power of wealthy donors has fundamentally shifted U.S. presidential campaigns. The 67 biggest donors, each of whom gave $1 million or more, donated more than three times as much as the 508,000 smallest donors combined, according to a POLITICO analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. The 67 mega-donors accounted for $128 million in cash to super PACs supporting specific 2016 presidential candidates. In all, POLITICO’s analysis found that 29 super PACS and other big-money non-profits dedicated to the candidates combined to raise $271 million from 9,500 donors, for an average donation of $29,000.
In 1960, a town of 38 residents in Vermont elected the same number of representatives—one—as Burlington, population 33,000. In Georgia, house districts contained between 1,876 and 185,422 constituents. In California, more than 6 million residents of Los Angeles County elected just one state senator, as did 14,294 inhabitants of three counties on the eastern slope of the Sierra. Legislative malapportionment produced staggering inequality in virtually every state in the union. It was to address this situation that the Supreme Court established “one person, one vote” as a bedrock of American democracy. Now, for the first time since that era, the “reapportionment revolution” is under threat. This fall, in Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court will weigh whether or not “one person, one vote” allows states to base apportionments on all persons living within a given district, or whether the phrase really means “one voter, one vote” and requires states to count only voters for the purposes of representation. A ruling in favor of the challengers, who claim the weight of their votes has been diluted because Texas counts all persons, threatens to undermine one of the great achievements of 20th-century American democracy.
To highlight what they say is a fresh attack on equal rights, U.S. civil rights campaigners are marching 1,385 kilometers from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. After starting at the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, the “40-day-and-40-night” march is to end September 15. To mark the start of the so-called “America’s Journey for Justice” Reverend Theresa Dear told the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper, “We are doing something of biblical proportions.” More than 200 supporters are taking part in the first leg of a march that will be about 16 times the 54-mile distance covered by voting rights activists in 1965.
House Republican leaders are slamming the brakes on voting rights legislation, insisting that any movement on the issue go through a key Republican committee chairman who opposes the proposal. House Democrats are pressing hard on GOP leaders to bring the new voter protections directly to the floor. That would sidestep consideration in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has rejected a bipartisan proposal to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a central provision of that law. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders say the bill must go through Judiciary. “Speaker Boehner has said that he believes that the Voting Rights Act has been an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy. That’s why we reauthorized the law for 25 years in 2006,” a Boehner spokesperson said Friday in an email. “He also believes that if members want to change the law, those discussions will have to begin at the Judiciary Committee.”
National: New ‘super PACs’ help 2016 mega-donors customize their political clout | Los Angeles Times
For discerning, super-wealthy donors looking for a distinctive way to advertise clout, the 2016 presidential election offers a new perk — their own specially tailored “super PAC.” Political professionals working on behalf of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both Republicans, have set up multiple super PACs with nearly identical names, all in the interest of catering to the wishes of the well-heeled, particularly the moguls willing to write seven-figure checks. The idea is to convince these donors they will have a measure of control over how their money is spent. “Whether they have $5,000 or $5 million, they want to be able to participate in the process and give their thoughts and ideas,” said Austin Barbour, main strategist for the three super PACs backing Perry — all bearing the name Opportunity and Freedom.
“Internet voting” means different things to different people. To many folks, it might mean “click a button, submit, done.” To some—and for our purposes—it means anytime a voted ballot is transmitted in any way, shape or form via the Internet. Whatever the definition, computer scientists tell us that secure online voting is still many years, or even decades, away. For now, they say, using the Internet to return voted ballots can’t be done with confidence. Like it or not, Internet voting is on the minds of legislators and other policymakers. We say that, based on the 13 states that have had legislation in 2015 that deals in some way with permitting Internet voting. Only one has been enacted, Maine SB 552. So voters’ needs and technical expectations may push policymakers toward Internet voting—and at the same time security concerns are holding it back.
Democrats gathered on the steps of Congress in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, as they called on Republicans to restore a key mandate. “It was not this warm on March 7, 1965, when we attempted to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery,” House Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said Thursday, referring to the historic “Bloody Sunday” Civil Rights march.
When Gov. Scott Walker kicked off his presidential bid this month, supporters who visited his website could view photographs of him, peruse his announcement speech, and read about the Wisconsin Republican’s life and accomplishments. Using a bit of code embedded on its website, the Walker team was able to track who visited the donation page, tell which potential backers shared interests with existing supporters, and determine who was learning about the candidate for the first time. It could then use that information to target prospective voters with highly personalized appeals. Those supporters who had already given money, for instance, were served an ad seeking another donation. But new supporters received a more modest request: to provide their email address or to click on a link to the campaign’s online store.
Maptitude for Redistricting may not be a household name, but it is dominant in the niche market of redistricting software and is used to literally shape the political landscape. Its client roster features a majority of state legislatures, two national party committees and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, plus the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which was upheld in a Supreme Court decision last month. Caliper Corporation President Howard Slavin credited Maptitude for Redistrictring’s dominance in part to its simplicity and effectiveness. “You can be productive and it doesn’t require you to be an expert user of the software,” Slavin said. “You have a good product when you know it’s simple enough for a politician to use it.” But the software’s dominance in the redistricting market happened almost by accident. “We just sort of fell into it, it wasn’t part of any grand plan or scheme,” Slavin said.
Why don’t more people vote? Only about 36 percent of the voting population turned out for the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest turnout election since 1942, according to stats from the United States Election Project. That’s a big problem and a group of experts in technology, journalism, civics and elections met at the Belo Center for New Media at the University of Texas at Austin campus last week to discuss how to get more people civically engaged. They participated in an invitation-only daylong conference hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life focused on increasing civic engagement before, during and after elections. The conference featured speakers from Google, Microsoft, Code for America, Rock the Vote, Vox Media, Texas Tribune, the clerk of Travis County and many more.
This was supposed to be the presidential campaign that ends the dominance of TV ads — the Snapchat election, the live streaming election. “If 2004 was about Meetup [and] 2008 was about Facebook, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it),” vowed President Barack Obama’s ex-communications guru Dan Pfeiffer. Not yet. It’s increasingly clear, as two dozen campaigns and their super PACs plot their strategies, that 2016, will be, once again, about television. Between campaigns and independent groups, television ad spending during the 2016 elections is projected to top $4.4 billion. That’s over a half-billion more than in 2012. And it’s at least four times what campaigns and groups are preparing to spend on their online strategies.
Since late last year, presidential hopefuls have been romancing donors, hiring staff and haunting the diners and senior centers of Manchester and Dubuque. But on paper, most of the candidates spent virtually no money exploring a presidential bid until very recently. According to campaign disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission last week, the much-promoted campaign staff they hired had other jobs. And their many, many trips to New Hampshire and Iowa had nothing to do with running for president. Such accounting — which the campaigns defended as perfectly appropriate but some election lawyers said violated the law — has allowed would-be candidates to spend months testing the presidential waters while saving cash to use later in the primaries.
Chain Bridge Bank’s single location is next to a wine store and a café on the ground floor of a luxury condo building in suburban McLean, Va., about a half-hour outside downtown Washington. It looks like any small-town bank. Tellers keep bowls of candy at their windows, and staff members talk to customers about no-fee checking accounts. But right now, Chain Bridge, which has about 40 employees, is responsible for more of the hundreds of millions of dollars flooding into the 2016 presidential race than any other bank in the country. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Chain Bridge is the sole bank serving Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, which reported raising $11.4 million as of June 30, and his allied super-PAC, Right to Rise, which says it’s raised $103 million so far. Donald Trump’s campaign banks at Chain Bridge, and it’s listed as the primary financial institution for the campaigns of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and former Texas Governor Rick Perry. It’s also the only bank used by super-PACs supporting neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, all Republicans.
Last year, House Democrats saw ex-Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a possible (if ultimately disappointing) ally in the fight to rewrite the Voting Rights Act for the 21st century. On Tuesday, Cantor’s leadership successor, Kevin McCarthy, might have revealed himself as another important potential friend to the effort. The California Republican echoed at a pen-and-pad briefing what fellow GOP lawmakers have said before: Any revision of the landmark 1965 law has to start in the Judiciary Committee — a disappointing answer for advocates who know Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is disinclined to tackle the matter. But McCarthy later said he thinks the time has come for an “overall review.” “On a personal level, I’d like to see the debate go forward,” he said. “I’d like to see [us] have the debate in committee. I think everything, when it’s first written and where the world is today, has changed. So just as most of our bills, how do you modernize? An overall review, I think, it’s the right time to do it,” McCarthy continued. “What the outcome can be, I don’t prejudge.”
In both Virginia and Florida, legislators will meet in special sessions next month to deal with an issue they thought they’d settled years ago — redistricting. Congressional maps in both states have been ruled invalid by the courts. The reasons were different in each case, but each speaks to a trend that is keeping redistricting very much a live issue midway through the decade. Political lines have to be redrawn once every 10 years, following the census. But the fight over them never really stops.
The 3rd congressional districts in Maryland and Virginia are roughly 200 miles apart — depending on which part of their ungainly boundaries one takes as a starting point — and, on the surface, seem to have little in common. Virginia’s 3rd stretches from Norfolk to Richmond. Maryland’s 3rd, with contours often likened to a blood spatter, incorporates parts of Baltimore City, as well as parts of Anne Arundel (including Annapolis), Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties. What they share is a genesis in bald-faced gerrymandering contrived by politicians intent on manipulating electoral maps to their advantage by hand-picking their own voters. Democrats are the culprits in Maryland’s case; Republicans did the deed in Virginia. Encouragingly, there are signs that the jig may be up, or that at least it is facing more pressure than ever before.