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 The Supreme Court overturned the formula in 2013, determining the criteria were outdated.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
National: Supreme Court considers whether judges can directly ask for campaign donations | The Washington Post
The Supreme Court’s latest test of whether campaign contribution restrictions violate free-speech rights split the justices into familiar liberal and conservative camps. And skeptical questions from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who probably holds the pivotal vote, did not bode well for Florida and 29 other states that forbid judicial candidates from directly soliciting campaign contributions. Such restrictions are needed, the states contend, because judges are not like other politicians. The public expects judges to be impartial, the states argue, and that perception is compromised when candidates directly ask for money. But Barry Richard, representing the Florida Bar Association, received sharp questioning from justices about whether Florida’s regulations are too porous to accomplish those goals. While candidates may not directly solicit contributions, they may organize a committee to ask for money, direct the committee toward potential contributors, see who gave and even send thank-you notes.
Saying voter discrimination “has not gone away,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called on GOP leaders Tuesday to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Maryland Democrat said the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision eliminating central provisions of the law “clearly undermined the protections of the right to vote in this country” and urged Republicans to replace those provisions this year. “The majority of the court was simply wrong,” Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “Something that had helped solve the problem, and made sure it didn’t reoccur, was jettisoned.” Republican leaders have shown little interest in the issue. And last week, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), head of the House Judiciary Committee, said congressional reforms are unnecessary because “substantial” parts of the VRA remain intact. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary because we believe the Voting Rights Act provided substantial protection in this area,” he said Wednesday during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
Lower income voters may not be as large of a Democratic voting bloc as once thought, but more importantly they may not vote much at all, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. “Because of their greater uncertainty about candidate preference and their lower propensity to vote, the least financially secure were poorly represented at the ballot box, with just 20 percent of this group predicted to turn out,” wrote Pew. The Pew study states that 80 percent of the lower-income demographic are not considered likely voters. The survey also says 42 percent prefer Democrat candidates, 41 percent are undecided and 17 percent prefer Republican candidates. Last year the Washington Post‘s Dylan Matthews poked holes in a theory supported by conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh and activist Gary Bauer that lower-income people are a formidable voting bloc.
Voters in the Tampa area didn’t think much of Lanell Williams-Yulee’s campaign for county judge in 2010, and the group that regulates Florida’s lawyers didn’t much like her campaign tactics. Along with being drubbed in the election, she was hauled before the Florida Bar for violating its ban on personally soliciting campaign contributions by sending a “Dear Friend” letter asking for money. Five years after the Supreme Court freed corporations and labor unions to spend freely in federal elections, the justices will hear arguments Tuesday in Williams-Yulee’s challenge to the Florida rules, which she says violate her right to speak freely. The state bar, defending the ban on personal fundraising, says it’s more important to preserve public confidence in an impartial judiciary. In 39 states, state and local judges get their jobs by being elected. Florida is among the 30 of those that prohibit candidates from personally asking for campaign contributions. If Williams-Yulee prevails, it could free judicial candidates in those states to make personal appeals for campaign cash. In the federal judicial system, including the Supreme Court, judges are appointed to life terms and must be confirmed by the Senate.
Since the 1830s, Americans have been claiming a role for themselves as voters in the naming of judges for their courts. The obvious lesson, early on and now, is that citizens trust themselves to handle that task fairly and trust that the judges who are chosen that way will do the job impartially. In modern times, some uncertainty has crept in about those assumptions, especially as the cost of elections has escalated, including the price of running for a judgeship. Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has made a new career in retirement of leading a public charge against judicial elections. If campaign money is a threat to judicial impartiality, but the First Amendment is understood to treat political money as speech, how far can states go to regulate it? The Supreme Court is no stranger to the abiding controversy over money in politics, and takes that up again this week in a Florida judicial election case. Judges are still elected in thirty-nine states, and in all but nine of those states, there is a law or an ethics code provision that bans a judicial candidate from personally asking for campaign donations. That, it appears, is more preferable as a remedy than getting rid of judicial elections altogether, or relying on judges to disqualify themselves in specific cases. A civic-minded Tampa lawyer, who decided in September 2009 that “the time has come for me to seek elected office,” is at the center of a case testing the constitutionality of that kind of ban. Lanell Williams-Yulee sent out a mass mailing saying that she was running for county judge, declaring: “I want to bring fresh ideas and positive solutions to the Judicial bench.” Her plea for money was modest indeed, by modern campaign standards: “$25, $50, $100, $250, or $500.”
A day after a top Republican seemed to dismiss the need to restore a critical part of the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers Thursday told NBC News they would reintroduce bipartisan voting rights legislation next week, in what the Congressional Black Caucus says will be a massive effort to aggressively defend voting rights. House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., suggested other sections of the Voting Rights Act are already strong enough. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now,” Goodlatte said while speaking to reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast. Calling Goodlatte’s statement a “bombshell,” the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., warned “If Bob Goodlatte is speaking for the Republican Conference, this is a very serious development because we are going to push back in a very significant way against the unwillingness of the Republicans to take up extending section five protections.”
National: Five years after Citizens United, new report finds wealthy have unprecedented influence | Scripps
It’s been five years since the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on how much money corporations and unions could spend putting their favorite candidates in office. The result, according to eight of the nation’s largest government watchdog groups, is that regular Americans are losing their voice in democracy while a “tiny number” of wealthy individuals have gained record influence. In the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, the Court ruled that corporations and unions were entitled to same first amendment rights to free speech as private citizens as long as they are working independent of the campaigns. The Washington D.C.-based watchdog Public Citizen suggests in a new report, however, that the very groups claiming to be independent in the wake of the Court’s decision are often closely aligned with a single candidate.
National: Congressional Black Caucus, Democrats rip lack of voting right protections in Republican agenda | The Hill
The head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is teeing off on Republicans over the absence of voting right protections in the GOP’s new congressional agenda. Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said he’s “deeply troubled” by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) recent comments that Republicans have no intention of replacing central provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) shot down by the Supreme Court in 2013. “If this is indeed the position of the entire Republican Conference, then they have clearly drawn a line in the sand — one in which they are on the wrong side of,” Butterfield said in a statement. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Goodlatte said congressional action is simply not necessary to improve the VRA because the parts of the law remaining after the Supreme Court ruling are “substantial.”
A top Republican has all but confirmed that Congress won’t move forward with legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was badly weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary committee, said Wednesday morning that the landmark civil rights legislation is still robust enough to stop racial discrimination in voting. “There are still very, very strong protections in the Voting Rights Act in the area that the Supreme Court ruled on,” Goodlatte said at a breakfast event with reporters, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now.” He added, according to an audio recording obtained by msnbc: “We’ll continue to examine this, we’ll continue to listen to the concerns of individuals, and we’ll certainly look at any instances of discrimination in people’s access to the ballot box, because it is a very, very important principle.”
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—social welfare non-profits that can engage in politics, but do not have to disclose their donors—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. It’s unknown how aggressive the IRS’ new proposal will be in attempting to rein in political activity by social welfare non-profits. Some observers expect the agency to set a hard limit on how much of groups’ spending can be devoted to politics, perhaps 40 percent or less.
Prospective Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush is moving to get his share via a new political committee. The way he did it could blaze a new trail for candidates seeking out million-dollar donors. Bush’s action comes just before the fifth anniversary, next Wednesday, of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that restructured the campaign finance landscape. In the five years since, there’s been an explosion of political money. The organization around Bush, a former Florida governor, has created a superPAC, a species of political committee that wasn’t possible before Citizens United. It can take contributions of any amount. Confusingly, the Bush organization also set up another political action committee at the same time, an old-fashioned PAC operating with contribution limits. The PACs have the same name, Right To Rise, similar logos and the same lawyer.
Coming soon to a battleground state near you: White House campaigns combining census reports with Instagram and Twitter posts to target teenagers who aren’t yet 18 but will be by Election Day 2016. It’s an aggressive strategy with an obvious reward. More than eight million people will become legal adults eligible to vote for the first time by the next general election. Campaigns are eager to find ways to get through to these 16- and 17-year-olds who are still minors and, in most cases, more likely to be concerned with making it to class on time than who should be elected president. “It’s got to be the right candidate with the right message to excite and motivate that age demographic, with so many distractions in their life, to register, and then turn out,” said Vincent Harris, digital director for Rand Paul’s political operation.
National: Judge candidates’ free-speech rights at issue before the Supreme Court | The Washington Post
Tampa lawyer Lanell Williams-Yulee’s 2010 campaign for Hillsborough County judge was in many ways one she might like to forget. Not only did she lose in a landslide to a longtime incumbent, she was rebuked by the Florida Bar and fined a little more than $1,800. Voters failed to find Williams-Yulee’s candidacy compelling, but the Supreme Court has taken a greater interest. Later this month, the justices will consider whether the action that got the lawyer into trouble — violating Florida’s restriction against directly soliciting contributions to judge campaigns — is instead an unreasonable constraint on Williams-Yulee’s right to free speech. Florida is among the vast majority of states that require the election of at least some judges. (Federal judges, by contrast, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to lifetime appointments.) But 30 states prohibit judicial candidates from directly asking for campaign contributions, in most cases leaving that work to a committee the candidate establishes.