Wisconsin’s voter ID law was on, then off, and now back on again—for now. A similar Texas law was blocked by a federal court before going into force last year, and could now be nixed once more. North Carolina’s sweeping and restrictive voting law looks likely to be in effect this November, but there’s no guarantee. Ohio’s cuts to early voting were put on hold recently, but that decision too could be reversed. And no one seems to know what’s going to happen with Arkansas’ ID law. In a slew of states with crucial races this fall, access to the polls is in the hands of the courts. That reality underlines how last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that weakened the Voting Rights Act has transformed the legal landscape on the issue — but also how the conservative push to restrict voting is now a national, not a regional, campaign. It’s a situation that is likely to cause confusion for voters no matter the legal outcomes. And looming at the end of the road is the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, no friend of voting rights, which could upend everything if it decides to clear things up by weighing in. “That is the big question right now,” said Myrna Perez, a top voting rights lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, who has been arguing the Texas case. “Is this going to get before the court before the 2014 election? It’s certainly something that folks are pondering.”
A recent presidential commission report on election administration characterizes the state of U.S. voting machines as an “impending crisis.” According to the report, created in response to a presidential order, existing voting machines are reaching the end of their operational life spans, jurisdictions often lack the funds to replace them, and those with funds find market offerings limited because several constraints have made manufacturing new machines difficult. On Election Day, these problems could translate into hours-long waits, lost votes and errors in election results. In the long term, such problems breed a lack of trust in the democratic process, reducing the public’s faith in government, experts say. According to Barbara Simons, a member of the board of advisers to the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the problem can’t be avoided any longer. “People died for the right to vote as recently as the civil rights movement,” she said. “The American Revolution was all about being able to control our own democracy, and that means voting … We know that a lot of machines were breaking in the 2012 election. It’s not that it’s an impending crisis. This crisis is already here.” Also, outdated voting machines can present security risks both in hardware deficiencies (some machines use generic keys to protect sensitive panels) and in software flaws that are difficult if not impossible to detect when compromised, according to security audits. Assessing the security of many of these systems is difficult, however, since companies insist proprietary software and hardware may not be disclosed to third parties. Government audits are often not fully public. The current problem is rooted in the short-term fixes that were implemented to solve the last major voting crisis, in 2000, when unreliable punchcard machines led to ambiguous ballots in Florida, putting the presidential election into question. After further issues in the 2002 midterm elections, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that fall. HAVA gave states millions of dollars to replace punchcard machines and created the EAC, charged with establishing standards for voting systems.
Every big election year, horror stories surface around the South and the rest of the country of voters having to wait for hours to cast their ballots. In 2008, reports came out of Georgia of voters having to stand in line for up to 12 hours to vote. In 2012, the battleground state of Florida garnered national headlines with accounts of voters waiting six hours at the polls. In 2013, President Obama assembled a 10-member bipartisan commission to look into the experiences of voters in the previous year’s elections and to propose solutions to help streamline the voting process. The commission found that the Florida and Georgia experiences weren’t isolated: More than 10 million people had to wait more than half an hour to vote in 2012. Arguing that “no citizen should have to wait in line for more than 30 minutes to vote,” the group outlined a series of ways election officials could make voting easier, saying that “jurisdictions can solve the problem of long lines through a combination of planning … and the efficient allocation of resources.” Yet despite a flurry of election law bills at the state level, many states have failed to act on the commission’s proposals and make improvements to ensure long wait times don’t taint the 2014 mid-term elections.
American election reform, where states look to either impede or assist people’s ability to influence government with their vote. Ballots in at least five states — Connecticut, Montana, Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas — focus on some kind of election reform. Most states have made voting harder in the past decade by enacting voter ID laws, ostensibly to guard against voter impersonation, a problem that the public believes to be more widespread than the evidence suggests. For example, a five-year crackdown by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush resulted in only 86 people being found guilty of voter fraud across all 50 states, according to a 2007 investigation by The New York Times. In part because many of these voter ID laws have already passed, the majority of the legislative activity in 2014 actually focused on making voting more convenient. … Based on interviews with state and local election officials in states with early voting, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School argues that early voting brings a host of benefits, including shorter lines and less administrative burden on election day. Nonetheless, eight states have cut back on early voting since 2010. One recent example is North Carolina, where the legislature decided to cut a week of early voting, eliminate same-day registration during early voting and reduce the hours of early voting on the final Saturday before election day.
In an era of early voting, no-fault absentee ballots and all-mail elections, Election Day is something of a misnomer. Candidates and their supporters now drive their voters to the polls for days, weeks, sometimes more than a month. And it’s already kicked off: 379 voters in North Carolina have requested and returned absentee ballots from state elections officials. More states join in this week. Somewhere in Minnesota this Friday, a voter will cast the first ballot of that state’s midterm election. The following day, voters in Maine, New Jersey, South Dakota and Vermont will be able to go to local elections offices and do their civic duty, too. Before the month is out, voters in Iowa and Wyoming will start casting their ballots, too.
National: The average margin of victory for 2014 House primary winners was 77 points | The Washington Post
There is one key way to increase the margin by which you win your primary: Be the incumbent. Granted, it’s hard to be the incumbent until you’ve already won a race (although not impossible!). But it’s still about the most sure-fire way to ensure you’ll win handily. That’s still very much true, but at least things are getting more competitive. With the 2014 primary season concluding Tuesday, we pulled data on the five most recent primary seasons to see how much that incumbent effect changed over time. The good news: Races are getting closer! The bad news: Only under a very particular subset of conditions. And they’re not getting very much closer. But, still! The average margin of victory for winners of House primaries in 2014 topped 77 percent; for the Senate, it was nearly 70.
Approximately 24,000 transgender citizens do not have the proper identification to comply with certain states’ strict voter ID laws, leaving them vulnerable to significant barriers at the polls and possibly disenfranchisement this November, a new study from the Williams Institute has found. According to the report, the 10 states where transgender voters stand to face the toughest challenges this election cycle include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Most of those states have passed photo ID requirements – the strictest kind of voter identification law – which call for citizens to present a specific type of government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. For some with gender dysphoria, a condition in which there is a marked difference between a person’s expressed or experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, updating state-issued IDs can be prohibitively difficult and costly.
The Supreme Court’s decision last year eliminating a barrier against voting procedure changes in mostly Southern states came with a caveat: Chief Justice John Roberts warned that the Voting Rights Act still included a “permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting.” Now federal courts from Texas to Wisconsin are on the verge of deciding whether Roberts was right — or if what remains of the 1965 law after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling is less able to stop states from making it harder to vote. An appeals court hearing Friday in the Wisconsin case, following a two-week trial in a Texas district court, might point the way back to the Supreme Court. Cases in North Carolina and Ohio also could be headed that way. Those states and others have made voting more difficult in recent years to combat what they claim are instances of voter fraud. Texas imposed strict new photo identification rules hours after the Supreme Court ruling. North Carolina cut back on early voting, same-day registration and provisional balloting. They were among 15 states freed in whole or in part from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of discrimination to clear any changes with the Justice Department. The high court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down the list of states dating back a half century.
Senate Republicans unanimously rejected a constitutional amendment sought by Democrats that would allow Congress to regulate campaign finance reform. The measure failed to clear a 60-vote threshold on Thursday afternoon, 54-42. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) quickly moved to hammer Republicans and tie them to Charles and David Koch, billionaire brothers who back national conservative political operations. “Senate Democrats want a government that works for all Americans — not just the richest few. Today, Senate Republicans clearly showed that they would rather sideline hardworking families in order to protect the Koch brothers and other radical interests that are working to fix our elections and buy our democracy,” Reid said after the vote. The constitutional amendment would allow Congress and state lawmakers to override recent Supreme Court decisions that have struck down campaign finance laws previously passed by Capitol Hill — language that Republicans argued amounts to an attack on the Bill of Rights.
Your Facebook profile doesn’t have boxes to check which political party you belong to or whether you voted in the last election. But political organizations who already know that can now deliver Facebook ads to fit your political preferences. At least two statewide campaigns during the past year have used the new tool, “Custom Managed Audiences,” to reach Facebook users who are registered voters or political supporters. Facebook says Terry McAuliffe’s election as Virginia governor in 2013 and this year’s re-election effort of John Cornyn, a Texas Republican senator, are examples of successful user targeting via voter lists. The company first introduced the tool in February 2013 and recently upgraded its capabilities. Linking the two isolated sets of data and teasing out information on voter preferences and opinions is a new front in microtargeting. Even smaller campaigns could use the technique to sway small but crucial sets of voters with very specific messages. Facebook’s most notable achievement may be that it makes some of the sophisticated approaches used during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns affordable to other kinds of political contests.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed cloture on a constitutional amendment meant to reverse two recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign spending. Republicans are likely to vote against the amendment on a procedural vote that is expected to occur Thursday. Earlier this week, Republicans supported advancing the measure because they said it deserved debate — that move also tied up the Senate from considering anything else for nearly three days. Democrats have had less time to hold other political votes during the two-week session before adjourning for the midterm elections. Reid has said he also wants to hold votes on Democrats’ political priorities, such as equal pay for women and refinancing student loan rates.
The Senate voted overwhelmingly Monday to debate a proposed constitutional amendment that would let Congress and the states put caps on political spending. But that’s probably the high-water mark for the amendment. When Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) called the vote tally, it looked like a big win for advocates of the constitutional amendment: 79 ayes, 18 nays. That’s a dozen votes more than the 67-vote majority needed to actually move the amendment out of the Senate and over to the House. But it was a strategic move as 25 of the Senate’s 45 Republicans voted aye. It allows the GOP to prolong the debate and spend less time on other measures that Democrats want to vote on before the midterm elections – measures such as equal pay for women and college affordability. Democrats pretty much ignored the stalling tactic and insisted this is an important vote. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said, “There are times when action is required to defend our great democracy against those who would see it converted into one more rigged game where the rich and the powerful always win. This is the time to amend the Constitution.” But setting the political gamesmanship aside, one question lingers. When pollsters ask Americans about the political money system, overwhelming percentages basically say they hate it. So why doesn’t Congress do something?
The number of military and overseas voters who have downloaded Federal Post Card Applications from the DoD website is down by more than half compared the 2010 midterm elections, Defense Department officials said. But that’s not necessarily an indication that voter turnout among the military and overseas absentee voter population will be low, officials said. For one thing, the number of troops deployed has decreased, which reduces the number of absentee voters. Other factors are in play as well. In the past, the rate of military voter registration and election participation has been higher than in the general population, noted Matt Boehmer, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
With control of the Senate up for grabs and a Republican House looking to expand its majority in November, it would seem strange for DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to spend even a minute thinking about usually sleepy down-ballot races like the open seat for Iowa’s Secretary of State. But at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting last month, Wasserman Schultz not only talked about that Iowa contest—she also promised to campaign for the Democrat in the race, Brad Anderson, and four other Democratic secretary of state candidates in swing states across the country this fall. Why use so much fire power on such low-profile offices? “We’re committed to ensuring that those who administer elections do so fairly,” Wasserman Schultz said, singling out five races in Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, in addition to Iowa, as the ones she’s most focused on. “The fights over voter ID and early voting are just the latest reminder of how important the rules for elections are in shaping the electorate and determining the eventual outcomes.”
Voting in midterm elections that will determine control of Congress ends this fall. But it starts in North Carolina this week. On Friday, election officials begin mailing absentee ballots there, followed soon by Alaska and Georgia — with no excuses required. Iowans can vote in person beginning Sept. 25. After decades of expansion in American voting methods, an estimated one-third of all ballots will be cast before the traditional Election Day on Nov. 4. Yet this year, the trend collides with a Republican-led pushback in some states — for reasons of cost-cutting and election integrity or, as the Obama administration and civil rights groups suggest, crimping turnout by Democrats. Various new restrictions on voting, which range from more stringent identification requirements to fewer registration opportunities to curbs on early voting, have been put into place. A key election variable is whether the new limits will tilt close races. They might not. New voting restrictions have proven to be mobilizing tools for constituencies that feel threatened by them. In 2012, President Obama won battleground states, such as Florida and New Hampshire, where new limits had taken effect.
With counties staring down eventual replacement of their election management systems, some in California and Texas are leading the charge for an alternative that could save counties a lot of money and change an industry. Open-source voting would use software designed by counties, which could run on inexpensive computer terminals to design, print and count paper ballots. All of which purportedly increases transparency and security, Most of the savings would come from eliminating the software license fees charged for management system vendors’ proprietary programs. Twelve years after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandated new voting technology, the machines and software are reaching the end of their usable lives in counties nationwide, and voting officials are feeling pressure. Travis County, Texas’ machines have generally been reliably operational — though a few have begun freezing — but County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she is worried they won’t remain in working order for long. HAVA’s $3.5 billion that helped fund the new election management systems will likely not be replenished to help replace them. “It’s the same urgency we all feel in counties everywhere,” she said. “We all bought new voting systems at the same time and now we’re all watching them approach their ends-of-life at the same time. Counties just don’t have multi-millions to pay for new voting systems.”
National: Wealthy political donors seize on new latitude to give to unlimited candidates | The Washington Post
Andrew Sabin gave Republicans so much money in 2012 that he accidentally went over a limit on how much individuals could donate to federal candidates and party committees. So Sabin, who owns a New York-based precious-metals refining business, was delighted when the Supreme Court did away with the limit in April. Since then, he has been doling out contributions to congressional candidates across the country — in Colorado, Texas, Iowa and “even Alaska,” he said. Top Republicans have taken notice: Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott have paid him personal visits this year, he noted proudly. “You have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues,” said Sabin, who has given away more than $177,000. “They know that I’m a big supporter.”
The three Republican and three Democratic appointees of the Federal Election Commission had reached yet another deadlock: They would issue no advisory opinion on whether the Conservative Action Fund could accept contributions of Bitcoin, the online currency created to be untraceable. But a ruling of sorts emerged nonetheless in the hearing, held late last year, when one of the Republican commissioners, Lee E. Goodman, suggested that the group could essentially do as it pleased. The fund “has a clear statutory right to give and receive in-kind contributions regardless of what we say here today,” Mr. Goodman said. The case was just one of the more than 200 times in the past six years that the commission has split votes, reflecting a deep ideological divide over how aggressively to regulate money in politics that mirrors the partisan gridlock in Congress. But instead of paralyzing the commission, the 3-to-3 votes have created a rapidly expanding universe of unofficial law, where Republican commissioners have loosened restrictions on candidates and outside groups simply by signaling what standards they are willing to enforce.
When Republican Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado announced in March that he would run for the U.S. Senate, he knew he could count on backing from national Republican groups, including so-called super PACs. But he wasn’t allowed to talk to them directly. Federal election law prohibits campaigns from having contact with the super PACs and advocacy organizations that have come to dominate political spending since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Those rules were intended to put a wall between candidates, whose fundraising is constrained by federal limits, and special interest groups allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money promoting candidates and issues. In practice, campaigns have found ways to talk to super PACs while staying on the right side of the law. Gardner’s race illustrates how the system works. Within weeks of his declaring his Senate run, Americans for Prosperity, backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, told the Washington Post it would spend $970,000 on three weeks of television, radio, and online ads attacking incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall. That news was a signal that Gardner, who was unopposed in the primary, could hang back and focus on raising money—even as Democratic groups began running their own ads attacking him.
The 2010 Supreme Court decision that helped usher in a new era of political spending gave Republicans a measurable advantage on Election Day, according to a new study. The advantage isn’t large, but it is statistically significant: The researchers found the ruling, in Citizens United v. FEC, was associated with a six percentage-point increase in the likelihood that a Republican candidate would win a state legislative race. And in six of the most affected states — Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee — the probability that a Republican would be elected to a state legislative seat increased by 10 percentage points or more. In five other states — Colorado, Iowa, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming — Republican candidates were seven percentage points more likely to win.
National: Ballot initiatives become pricey playgrounds of parties and corporations | The Washington Post
In a midterm election season when control of the United States Senate hangs in the balance, Democrats are increasingly turning to ballot measures to get otherwise reluctant voters to the polls. Big Business is, too: Some of the most expensive races in the country this year will be ballot measures written by, and for, major corporations. Some the hardest-fought ballot battles of 2014 won’t involve candidates at all. They’ll be questions that come with big implications for corporate bottom lines — or promise big benefits to political strategists, especially Democrats, looking to drive turnout for other races. For the first time in history, spending on the approximately 125 ballot questions facing voters in 41 states is likely to top $1 billion in campaign spending this year — and perhaps much more: Oil and gas companies in Alaska spent more than $170 for every vote they won in a successful campaign to reject higher taxes earlier this month.
As President Obama’s second term winds down and Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential campaign winds up, it feels like the 2016 election is drawing even more attention than the upcoming midterm races. But there’s another election increasingly on the minds of Democratic lawmakers, party operatives, big money donors, and progressive activists: 2020. That’s the year voters will elect state lawmakers who will redraw congressional and state legislative districts all over the country. Last week, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee announced it would commit at least $70 million to Advantage 2020, a program aimed at targeting legislative chambers in key states over the next four election cycles with the specific aim of influencing redistricting. The plan calls on Democrats to invest resources not just in state chambers the party has a shot at winning this November, but in legislatures where they might have a chance at slowly eroding a GOP majority over time thanks to demographic trends.
One day before Arizona’s primary election, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver heard arguments Monday on the constitutionality of voters having to prove citizenship through a passport or birth certificate before they can register to vote. Arizona and Kansas have both passed laws requiring voters to prove citizenship before they can register. That is stricter than federal law, which requires a voter simply to affirm U.S. citizenship in writing. On Tuesday, Arizona voters who have not proved their citizenship to the state’s satisfaction will be able to cast ballots only for U.S. Congress — not for governor or any other state offices. Kansas held such a two-tier primary earlier this month. “The Founding Fathers didn’t want that,” said Kansas Atty. Gen. Kris Kobach, who argued the case for both states. “They are using the federal form as a lever to displace the state’s power,” he said in an interview after the hearing. Supporters contend such laws prevent voter fraud. Opponents maintain that the real motivation is to make it more difficult for minorities and the poor to vote.
A federal appeals panel in Denver on Monday suggested that a partisan stalemate in Congress may mean that Republicans in Kansas and Arizona will be unable to force federal election officials to impose proof-of-citizenship requirements on voter registration forms. Those two states sued the Elections Assistance Commission after the agency refused to adjust the federal voting registration forms it distributed in Kansas and Arizona to reflect those states’ requirements that voters present documentation that proves they are citizens. A lower court found the commission needed to include the more stringent state language. But on Monday, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Congress has not approved a single commissioner to sit on the commission in three years.
National: U.S. Court to Hear Case on Voting Restrictions as Arizona Prepares for Polls | New York Times
A decades-old effort by Congress to make voter registration simple and uniform across the country has run up against a new era’s anti-immigration politics. So on Tuesday, when Arizona’s polls open for primaries for governor, attorney general and a host of other state and local positions as well as for Congress, some voters will be permitted to vote only in the race for Congress. As voter registration drives intensify in the coming weeks, the list of voters on the “federal only” rolls for the November general elections could reach the thousands. These are voters who could not produce the paper proof of citizenship that Arizona demands for voting in state elections. The unusual division of voters into two tiers imposed by Arizona and Kansas, and being considered in Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere, is at the center of a constitutional showdown and, as Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California, Irvine, put it, “part of a larger partisan struggle over the control of elections.”
A lawsuit filed by Kansas and Arizona will be argued before a federal appeals court panel this week as the states seek to force federal election officials to impose proof-of-citizenship requirements on national voter registration forms. At the crux of the closely watched case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver is whether the federal government or states have ultimate authority to regulate voter registration. Each side contends that the U.S. Constitution supports its position. Monday’s arguments come after the U.S. Election Assistance Commission filed an appeal seeking to overturn a federal judge’s order that the commission modify a federal form to include special instructions requiring Kansas and Arizona residents to provide citizenship documentation when they register to vote.
Leaders of the Democratic Party adopted their 2016 presidential nominating calendar on Saturday, setting the stage for a successor to President Barack Obama. The Democratic National Committee, or DNC, approved rules for its 2016 convention along with a primary schedule that will begin with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, 2016, followed by voting later that month in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The 2016 framework is in line with plans pushed by Republicans and gives states incentives to hold their primary contests between March and June, aiming to avoid a front-loaded calendar that encroaches on the Christmas holidays. Pointing to the 2016 national meeting, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz predicted it will be the convention where “we will nominate the 45th president of the United States of America.” The plans were approved unanimously without any discussion.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) would presumably like to run against Joe Miller (R) in the November election. Miller, the GOP’s surprising 2010 nominee who eventually lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) write-in bid, emerged from that campaign extremely unpopular and now fares worse than his primary opponents in general-election polling against Begich. At the very least, Begich’s supporters see former state attorney general Dan Sullivan as the biggest threat in Tuesday’s three-way Republican Senate primary in the state, judging by ads run by the group Put Alaska First are any indication. The pro-Begich PAC has been hammering Sullivan, in a move that some Republicans critique as undue “meddling” in their primary. A better descriptor than “meddling” might be: How politics works.
Passing a new Voting Rights Act in the GOP-dominated House was never going to be easy, supporters acknowledge. But with a powerful Republican such as Eric Cantor as an ally, hope flickered for nearly a year. Then came June 10 and the shocking primary defeat that tanked Cantor’s congressional career — taking with it, in all likelihood, any prospect for an update of the landmark 1965 civil rights legislation that had been weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. Even with Cantor as majority leader, said a House aide close to the VRA negotiations, “I would have speculated that it was certainly a very steep climb. That it was unlikely, but there was still hope.” But with the Virginia Republican out of the mix, the aide said, “it doesn’t appear we’re going to see it this Congress.”
An enduring Republican fantasy is that there are armies of fraudulent voters lurking in the baseboards of American life, waiting for the opportunity to crash the polls and undermine the electoral system. It’s never really been clear who these voters are or how their schemes work; perhaps they are illegal immigrants casting votes for amnesty, or poor people seeking handouts. Most Republican politicians know these criminals don’t actually exist, but they have found it useful to take advantage of the party base’s pervasive fear of outsiders, just as when they shot down immigration reform. In this case, they persuaded the base of the need for voter ID laws to ensure “ballot integrity,” knowing the real effect would be to reduce Democratic turnout. Now a researcher has tried to quantify this supposed threat by documenting every known case of voter fraud since 2000 — specifically, the kind of impersonation that would be stopped by an ID requirement. (Note that this does not include ballot-box stuffing by officials, vote-buying or coercion: the kinds of fraud that would not be affected by an ID law.)