National: Election panel GOP wants to eliminate is back in action | Jackson Clarion-Ledger

The federal agency that helps states improve their election systems is warning that aging voting machines could create problems in next year’s presidential election. Many of the machines were purchased more than a decade ago, according to the Election Assistance Commission. “It’s a big concern not just for us, but (for) state and local officials who are running these elections,” said Christy McCormick, new chairwoman of the independent, bipartisan commission. “Hopefully, they can prevent any major problems in 2016, but it’s going to be a challenge.” It’s one of several issues the EAC plans to highlight as it ramps up operations after four years without enough commissioners for a quorum. The commission held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss its plans, and recently kicked off a listening tour to hear from local election officials and advocates. Commissioners will visit New Orleans next week. “It’s like our moment to be able to reinvigorate the commission and figure out what our stakeholders need from us going forward,” McCormick said.

National: Supreme Court considers constitutionality of independent redistricting | Politico

The Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments that it’s unconstitutional for a state to isolate its legislature from the redistricting process, citing the federal constitution’s Election Clause. And if the court sides with the plaintiffs, it could upend political districts and election laws from coast to coast before 2016. Hundreds of congressional districts might have to be redrawn before the next election — and several other election laws could be at stake — depending on how broadly the high court rules in a much anticipated case brought by the GOP-controlled Arizona Legislature against the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission. The Legislature is claiming that the Constitution — which states that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof” — prohibits voters from taking the redistricting process out of the political arena.

National: New IRS Rules on Dark Money Likely Won’t Be Ready Before 2016 Election | ProPublica

The Internal Revenue Service says it won’t come out with new proposed rules for so-called dark money groups until late spring at the earliest, increasing the likelihood that no changes will take effect before the 2016 elections. These groups 2014 social welfare nonprofits that can engage in politics, but do not have to disclose their donors 2014 have become a major force in elections, pouring at least $257 million into the 2012 elections. The Wesleyan Media Project estimates that dark money paid for almost half the TV ads aired in the 2014 Senate races. The IRS originally issued a draft version of the rules for dark money groups more than a year ago, but withdrew them for revisions after receiving intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

National: Supreme Court to decide who can draw maps for Congress | USA Today

Supreme Court justices often grouse about the political polarization and gridlock across the street in Congress. Now they have a chance to make it worse. The high court will hear a case Monday that could give partisan state legislatures sole authority to draw congressional districts, a task voters in several states have transferred to independent commissions. The case comes from Arizona, where Republican lawmakers want to take back the power to draw the district lines. If the court sides with them after agreeing to hear their appeal, the ruling would affect similar commissions in California and a handful of other states. Such a ruling “would consign states to the dysfunctionality of a system where politicians choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians,” says a brief filed by three national experts on redistricting.

National: Democrats want to add right to vote to the Constitution | MSNBC

Democrats have came out in support of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. The proposed amendment has no realistic shot at passing for the foreseeable future. But the move points to an intensifying Democratic response to the wave of conservative efforts to restrict voting, and lays down a clear marker for the party’s long-term goal. “We have been having an expanding of the franchise in America. That’s the trajectory of history,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who, with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) has introduced legislation in Congress for a right-vote amendment, told msnbc in an interview. “But in recent years, folks who don’t want everybody to vote have been very busy, and they’re trying to peel back the trajectory of opportunity to vote and participate in our society.” At its winter meeting Saturday in Florida, the Democratic National Committee unanimously passed a resolution that supports “amending the United States Constitution to explicitly guarantee an individual’s right to vote.” The DNC also said it would urge state parties to push for statewide referenda backing the idea, and pledged to create a “Right to Vote Task Force” to offer ideas on how to protect voting rights. The resolution was submitted by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the DNC, as well as Donna Brazile, a vice chair and prominent figure in the party.

National: ‘Ballot Selfies’ Clash With The Sanctity Of Secret Polling | NPR

From Pope Francis and President Obama to the kid down the block, we have, for better or worse, become a world full of selfie-takers. But as ubiquitous as they are, there are some places where selfies remain controversial — like the voting booth. The legal battle rages over so-called “ballot selfies” in the state that holds the first presidential primary. This may be a fight of the digital age, but according to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, it involves a very old American ideal — the sanctity of the secret ballot. “If somebody wants to go out and say that they voted for this person or that person they can do it. They can do it, but that ballot is sacred,” he says. Gardner has been the state’s top election official since 1976. To say he views ballot selfies with suspicion would be an understatement. He backed a change in law last year that made New Hampshire the first state to ban them explicitly.

National: George W. Bush to join Obama in Selma march celebration | USA Today

Former President George W. Bush will join President Obama in Selma, Ala., on March 7 for the 50th anniversary of the voting rights marches there. Bush and his wife, Laura, will join a large, bipartisan congressional delegation for part of a three-day civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama, according to Robert Traynham, a spokesman for the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, which is organizing the event. Obama and Bush will be on stage together to commemorate Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers assaulted marchers on March 7, 1965, as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for African Americans. The event shocked the nation and helped win passage of the Voting Rights Act just a few months later.

National: Obama Calls Out America’s Dismal Voter Turnout: ‘Why Are You Staying Home?’ | Huffington Post

President Barack Obama urged Americans frustrated with the lack of progress on immigration reform to voice their discontent at the ballot box, lamenting the dismal turnout in last November’s midterm elections. Speaking Wednesday during a town hall in Miami, Florida, hosted by MSNBC and Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart, Obama said the immigration system won’t truly change until voters elect lawmakers who will press for reform. “Ultimately, we have to change the law,” Obama said. “And the way that happens is, by the way, by voting”

National: EAC Selects Officers & Accredits Voting System Test Lab | EAC

Members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) met Tuesday. This meeting marked the first time the Commission was able to meet with a quorum of Commissioners in four years. The Commission addressed a variety of pressing issues at the meeting. These issues included the accreditation of a new voting system test laboratory; consideration of possible updates to the standards used to test voting systems; and updates to the EAC’s voting system testing program manuals. Additionally, Commissioner Christy McCormick was selected to chair the Commission and Commissioner Thomas Hicks was selected as vice-chair. “After four years without Commissioners, the EAC has a great deal of work to do,” said Chair McCormick. “Today we took important steps in helping support state and local election officials as they continue to cope with aging voting equipment and limited funds. All three Commissioners recognize that we must operate with a sense of urgency,” Vice-Chair Hicks added.“The Commission does not have the luxury of time; we have already heard from our stakeholders that they expect us to act quickly to address many of the outstanding issues from over the last four years.”

National: Around The U.S., Voting Technology Is All Over The Place | NPR Berlin

Remember all that new voting equipment purchased after the 2000 presidential election, when those discredited punch card machines were tossed out? Now, the newer machines are starting to wear out. Election officials are trying to figure out what to do before there’s another big voting disaster and vendors have lined up to help. During their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., this week, state election officials previewed the latest voting equipment from one of the industry’s big vendors, Election Systems and Software. ES&S expects a huge surge in buying very soon. It hopes its new ExpressVote machine will appeal to those who want convenient voting as well as the security of a paper ballot that’s counted separately. “We’re seeing a buying cycle that’s starting now, and will probably go for the next maybe four or five years,” said Kathy Rogers, a senior vice president at ES&S who used to run elections for the state of Georgia. Rogers says companies have to be more flexible than they were 10 or so years ago. Both the technology and how people vote is changing rapidly. “Some are moving to all vote by mail; some are increasingly becoming early vote sites,” she said. “We have some that have moved as far away from direct record electronics as they possibly can, and then we have others who love that technology.”

National: New evidence shows election officials are biased against Latino voters | The Washington Post

Voter identification laws are cropping up around the country: 31 states had a voter identification requirement in the 2014 midterms, up from 14 states in 2000. These laws vary widely in the types of identification they accept, even in whether identification is required or merely requested. And many people don’t know whether they need identification to vote, or what type of identification to bring. Opponents argue that these laws disproportionately impact minority voters, who are less likely to have required identification. Our new research in this month’s American Political Science Review shows that minorities face another hurdle: bias in the bureaucracy that implements these laws. Roughly 8,000 local officials – county or municipal clerks and election boards – manage the nation’s election system. These officials train local poll workers, provide information, and interact with constituents with little immediate oversight from state officials.

National: Voting rights for minorities threatened, experts say | Gannett

Since 2010, 21 states have restricted voting rights, said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C., office. Proponents of the new laws, which do such things as requiring government-issued photo IDs to vote, say they are designed to combat voter fraud. Opponents point out that documented cases of in-person voter fraud are all but non-existent. The real reason for the new laws, the say, is to make it harder for minorities or poor people to vote. “The move ‘Selma’ has come out, and we’re still in the fight to secure and protect voting rights,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization founded in 1999. “We no longer have poll taxes. But instead, we have voter IDs. We don’t have literacy tests. But we have things like cuts to early voting and cuts to Sunday voting, all which are targeted at communities of color who have gained access to the ballot because of the Voting Rights Act. “We see more subtle attempts to make it harder to vote. It’s just a different page out of the playbook that makes it harder for African Americans to participate,” Browne Dianis said.

National: Lawmakers Push New Longshot Bid to Rewrite Voting Rights Act | Roll Call

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner fell short in his 2014 efforts to convince GOP leadership to take up his Voting Rights Amendment Act, but the Wisconsin Republican is ready to take another stab at passing a rewrite of the historic law. But there’s little indication this year will be any different. For Sensenbrenner and his fellow co-sponsors of the legislation introduced Wednesday, many of the same obstacles remain — along with a few new ones. On the surface, it would seem the time has never been better — nor the political pressures greater — for the Republican-controlled House to take action. The VRA’s 50th anniversary this summer has the landmark civil rights legislation back in the spotlight almost two years after the Supreme Court, challenging lawmakers to update the law for the 21st century, struck down the enforcement section of the act. Sensenbrenner chose to drop his bill on the same day the House considered legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to the “foot soldiers” of 1965’s bloody civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

National: Bipartisan duo pushes to restore the Voting Rights Act | The Hill

Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) are reintroducing their bill to restore part of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, despite warnings by prominent Republicans that they won’t support it. The bill aims to revive a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of racial discrimination to approve voting changes with the Justice Department. The Supreme Court overturned the formula in 2013, determining the criteria were outdated. The proposed overhaul from Sensenbrenner and Conyers would create new criteria for “pre-clearance,” allowing courts to place states under that standard if they commit certain voting violations. The bill would also give the Justice Department more power to step in before an election takes place to protect voting rights.

National: Paul, Reid join on offender voting rights bill | The Hill

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have revived legislation that would give the right to vote back to some nonviolent criminal offenders. The Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act would restore voting rights in federal elections to people convicted of nonviolent crimes who are no longer in prison. Under the law, offenders on probation will receive the right to vote after one year. The law also sets up procedures under which states and the federal prison system are required to notify offenders that they will be allowed to vote. States can lose federal grants for their prison systems if they do not comply with the law.

National: New Survey Highlights the 2014 Voting Experience | Pew Charitable Trusts

A nationwide study of voters’ experiences during November’s midterm federal election found that approximately 40 percent of respondents cast their ballots early or by mail. The 2014 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE)—conducted by Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin distinguished professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts—surveyed more than 10,000 registered voters nationwide. Among the findings:

41 percent of voters cast ballots before Election Day.
o 16 percent voted early in person or in-person absentee.
o 25 percent voted by mail.
o 59 percent voted in person on Election Day.

National: How The Voting Debates Will Be Different In 2015 | NPR

State legislatures are back in session, under more Republican control now than at any other time in U.S. history. One issue they’ll be debating a lot is voting — who gets to do it and how. It’s a hot topic, but this year’s debate could be less contentious than it has been in the past. One reason is that lawmakers will be considering a lot of proposals to make voting easier and more efficient. “In many states the most divisive battles have already been fought,” says David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “That does give these states an opportunity to address more of these good governance issues. Things like, how do we make the voter registration process more effective, bring it into the 21st century? Should we adopt early voting, for instance? Should we expand the reach of mail voting?” There are many such proposals among the 1,200 voting bills already introduced in state legislatures this year. Several measures would expand online voter registration, something half the states already allow. Voters like the option and it saves money — something both parties can support. Many lawmakers also want to clean up voter registration lists, which are often filled with outdated and invalid entries.

National: Federal free and fair elections amendment proposed | Associated Press

A Democratic lawmaker on Thursday called for Montana to support a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit corporate donations in election campaigns. Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula introduced House Joint Resolution 3 in the State Administration Committee. Committee members did not take immediate action. “I believe the corporate buyout of our elections is the reason to do it,” she said of a Constitutional amendment that calls for free and fair elections. It takes 34 states to trigger a convention. Thirty-eight states would then have to approve a change for the amendment to be put into effect. Twenty states have similar resolution proposals in their legislatures this year, according to Ryan Clayton with Wolf PAC, a political action committee working to promote the amendment nationwide.

National: White House seeks $50 million to restore civil rights sites as voting rights anniversary nears | Associated Press

The White House is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act by earmarking $50 million to restore key civil rights areas around the nation. The president’s budget includes money for the national historical trail from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates in part the “Bloody Sunday” attack by police on civil rights demonstrators. Their march was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film “Selma.” The attack helped boost the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which banned the use of literacy tests, added federal oversight for minority voters and allowed federal prosecutors to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.

National: Federal Election Commission Raises Contribution Caps for 2016 | Wall Street Journal

A ticket to a political party fundraiser could cost as much $100,200 in the 2016 election cycle, following a routine increase in Federal Election Commission contribution caps and last year’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the overall limit on individuals’ political contributions. Under new FEC limits, which are adjusted for inflation in odd-numbered years, individuals can give up to $5,400 to candidates—$2,700 for their primary campaigns, and another $2,700 for the general election—and up to $33,400 per year to national party committees in the 2016 cycle. Previously, the limit was $2,600 to candidates and $32,400 to national party committees per year. In April 2014, the Supreme Court threw out the $123,200 cap on what individuals could give to federal candidates and political committees over a two-year election cycle, saying the limits infringed on First Amendment free-speech rights.

National: Lynch Pressed on Voting Laws at Confirmation Hearing | National Law Journal

During the Wednesday afternoon session of Loretta Lynch’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., pressed the attorney general nominee over her position on voting laws—and at one point tried to show she’d contradicted herself. Tillis, elected to the Senate in November, asked Lynch about the sweeping voting bill North Carolina’s governor signed into law in August 2013 while Tillis was speaker of the House in the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature. “It’s not something that I’m intimately familiar with,” Lynch, born in Greensboro, N.C., responded. “I look forward to learning more about it should I be confirmed, and I believe the matter will proceed to court and we will await the results there.” Tillis then focused attention to remarks Lynch delivered on a Martin Luther King Day celebration in January 2014. At the time, Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, had more pointed comments about her native state’s new voter laws. “Fifty years after the march on Washington, 50 years after the civil rights movement, we stand in this country at a time when we see people trying to take back so much of what Dr. King fought for,” Lynch said in comments available on video. “People try and take over the Statehouse and reverse the goals that have been made in voting in this country.”

National: Lawmakers Seek to Enshrine Right to Vote in Constitution | The Dallas Weekly

Civil rights leaders and groups are hailing legislation introduced by U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on Jan. 22 that would unequivocally guarantee every American’s right to vote under the U.S. Constitution, in the wake of growing attacks on that right. “This amendment would affirm the principle of equal participation in our democracy for every citizen,” Pocan said in a statement. “As the world’s leading democracy, we must guarantee the right to vote for all.” Added Ellison: “Our nation is stronger when we make it easy for Americans to participate in democracy…A guaranteed right to vote in the Constitution would go a long way towards increasing access to the ballot box for all Americans.” Contrary to popular belief, the lawmakers said, the right to vote is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and the “Pocan-Ellison Right to Vote Amendment” would amend the Constitution to expressly guarantee that fundamental right.

National: GOP uses Loretta Lynch hearing to debate voting rights | MSNBC

Republicans used the confirmation hearings this week for Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general nominee, to stress their commitment to voting restrictions—and to try to tie Lynch’s hands on voting issues should she assume the post. One GOP senator pressed Lynch on her stance on restrictive voting laws. And Republicans asked for testimony from a witness who has led the effort to stoke fear over voter fraud, suggested her group was targeted by the Obama administration because of her group’s support for voter ID laws. Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department has acted aggressively to protect voting rights, challenging strict GOP-backed voting laws in Texas and North Carolina. Holder also has seemed to compare these laws to past efforts to keep minorities from voting. So Republicans sought to put pressure on Lynch to take a more conciliatory approach.

National: GOP Senator Says DOJ Challenge To His Voting Law Is A Waste Of Resources | Huffington Post

One of the newest members of the U.S. Senate suggested Wednesday that he did not think the Department of Justice’s decision to sue him was a wise use of its resources. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Loretta Lynch’s nomination to be attorney general, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) used his time to take issue with the DOJ lawsuit that sought to block provisions of a North Carolina election law that civil rights advocates considered one of the most restrictive in the country. Tillis, who previously served as speaker of the house in North Carolina, helped push through the law in 2013 shortly after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that had required 40 of the state’s 100 counties to obtain federal pre-approval of changes to voting procedures.

National: These States Are Actually Considering Ways To Make Voting More Convenient | Huffington Post

November’s midterm election meant grappling with new voter identification requirements, cutbacks to early voting and the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting in several states, but advocates are cautiously optimistic that 2015 could be an improvement for voting rights. Last cycle’s voter turnout, about 36 percent, was estimated to be the lowest since 1940, but changes that could make voting more convenient — like online registration — might help mitigate some of the barriers from laws that restrict access. Twenty states of varying political inclinations offered online registration as of December, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “This is a time where we should be reaching across the aisle looking for commonsense solutions,” said Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, which tracks voting legislation. “A lot of those involving technology and leveraging technology are very appealing — and it’s exciting because [electronic and online registration] both have the habit of making it simpler and easier to run elections correctly. They make the rolls cleaner and are cheaper, and we saw some bipartisan support for this last year.”

National: Koch-backed network aims to spend nearly $1 billion on 2016 elections | The Washington Post

A network of conservative advocacy groups backed by Charles and David Koch aims to spend a staggering $889 million in advance of the next White House election, part of an expansive strategy to build on its 2014 victories that may involve jumping into the Republican primaries. The massive financial goal was revealed to donors here Monday during an annual winter meeting hosted by Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that serves as the hub of the Koch-backed political operation, according to an attendee. The amount is more than double the $407 million that 17 allied groups in the network raised during the 2012 campaign. The figure comes close to the $1 billion that each of the two major parties’ presidential nominees are expected to spend in 2016, and it cements the network’s standing as one of the country’s most potent political forces. With its resources and capabilities — including a national field operation and cutting-edge technology — it is challenging the primacy of the official parties. In the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee spent $404 million, while the Democratic National Committee shelled out $319 million.

National: Professor says right to vote in U.S. ‘has never been intrinsically tied to citizenship’ | Providence Journal

Extending voting rights to non-citizens is a hot topic from Burlington, Vt., to New York City to San Francisco. Supporters say allowing non-citizens to vote would give members of the community, including large numbers who pay taxes and own property, a voice in local political affairs. Opponents argue that extending voting privileges to immigrants would demean the value of citizenship and effectively disenfranchise legitimate citizen voters by diluting their vote. Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at Queens College, City University of New York,  supported expanding voting rights in a commentary “Noncitizens voting? It’s only fair,” published Jan. 1, 2015, in The Providence Journal. … In stating his case, Hayduk made this provocative statement: “But what most don’t know is that the right to vote in this country has never been intrinsically tied to citizenship.”

National: Obama Gives A Push To Restoring Voting Rights Act: ‘The Right To Vote Is Sacred’ | Huffington Post

President Barack Obama pushed Congress Tuesday night to restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even though Republicans signaled last week they have no intention of doing so. “We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American,” Obama said during his State of the Union address. In July 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the landmark civil rights law, which required parts of the country with a history of minority voter suppression to clear changes to their voting laws with the federal government.

National: The $5 billion presidential campaign? | The Hill

The 2016 presidential election could cost as much as $5 billion, according to top fundraisers and bundlers who are already predicting it will more than double the 2012 campaign’s price tag. Behind-the-scenes jockeying to raise big bucks from bundlers connected to super-PACs and third-party groups is well underway, even with no top-tier candidates officially in the race. Potential candidates with proven fundraising prowess, such as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are throwing political elbows at each other to secure donors’ money at an early stage in the race. And then there’s Hillary Clinton. In private conversations, allies to the former secretary of State are predicting that the campaign totals on their end alone might surpass $1.5 billion and go as high as $2 billion.

National: Backers of voting rights bill try a new strategy | USA Today

President Barack Obama named voting rights protections as a priority in his State of the Union address Tuesday, but legislation that would restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act faces tough challenges this Congress. That legislation, called the Voting Rights Amendment Act, would resurrect the 1965 law’s “pre-clearance” provision requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to get federal approval before making any changes in their elections procedures. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 — in Shelby County vs. Holder — that the formula used to determine which states were subject to pre-clearance was invalid, effectively nullifying the provision itself.