The U.S. Senate Rules Committee has passed a bill aimed at strengthening voting protections for military members. The Safeguarding Elections for our Nation’s Troops through Reforms and Improvements (SENTRI) Act is co-sponsored by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Upon its passage out of committee this week, Senator Cornyn released a statement urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to “immediately” bring the bill before the full Senate. “The 2012 election made clear that there are still too many barriers to military service members and their families having their votes counted,” Cornyn wrote in his statement. “These brave men and women put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe, and the least we can do is ensure that everything possible is being done to safeguard their voting rights.”
National: Obama, Citing New Laws, Says the G.O.P. Is Moving to Restrict Voting Rights | New York Times
President Obama deplored on Friday what he called a Republican campaign to deny voting rights to millions of Americans as he stepped up efforts to rally his political base heading into a competitive midterm campaign season. Appearing at the annual convention of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Manhattan, Mr. Obama accused Republicans of trying to rig the elections by making it harder for older people, women, minorities and the impoverished to cast ballots in swing states that could determine control of the Senate. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Mr. Obama said in a hotel ballroom filled with cheering supporters, most of them African-American. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”
During the brief time in the election cycle when the voting booths are actually open, we hear a lot how smoothly elections are going—where voters are waiting in long lines, where ballots are getting rejected, and the like. Elections expert Doug Chapin, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Elections Academy, calls it “anec-data”—anecdotes substituting for hard numbers. In a presidential election, we tend to hear all about problems in swing states, since the national press corps is already there, but we’re less likely to hear about issues in Montana or Connecticut, where the election outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. Good data would make it easy to compare states’ election performance, and more importantly, let us see how states are improving or declining from one election to the next. That’s why Pew’s 2012 Elections Performance Index is a big deal. Released this week, the index uses standardized data from the U.S. Census, the Elections Assistance Commission, and a major survey to assess states on 17 different variables and judge just how well they are running their elections. Because Pew offered an index for 2008 and 2010, we can now compare two different presidential elections to actually see whether election administration is getting better or worse—rather than just guess. It’s the first time such a tool has been available. For the most part, the results are encouraging. A quick perusal shows 40 of the 50 states have improved since 2008—wait times are down an average of three minutes and online registration is spreading quickly, with 13 states offering online voter registration during the 2012 election, up from just two in 2008. (Since the election, another five states have started offering it.) Many of the top-performing states in 2008, like North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado, stayed on top in 2012 while low performers, like Mississippi, Alabama, California, and New York remained at the bottom.
President Bill Clinton ripped the Supreme Court’s conservative justices and Republicans pushing voter identification laws on Wednesday, accusing them of undermining civil rights. Clinton, speaking at an event at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, warned that some “would turn back the clock” on civil rights for short-term political gain. “Last year in one of the most radical departures from established legal decision-making in my lifetime the Supreme Court threw [The Voting Rights Act] out, or at least threw a very important provision of it out, and said ‘We don’t care what Congress found by 90 percent vote and we have no evidence to prove them wrong, but our opinion is they should not have extended the Voting Rights Act. And it sent a signal across the country,” he said.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Tuesday that he would like for the Supreme Court to overturn more campaign finance restrictions — including the limit on the amount of money someone can give to an individual or a political party. Last week, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court struck down the limit on the overall amount people can give to all candidates and parties per election cycle but left in place the limits in individual contributions.
The average voter who cast a ballot on Election Day in 2012 had to wait in line for three minutes less than he or she would have in 2008, while fewer people with disabilities or illnesses had problems voting, according to a new report measuring election administration procedures across the country. The report, published Tuesday by the Pew Charitable Trust’s State and Consumer Initiatives program, found a sharp increase in the number of states that offered online voter registration, the number of states conducting post-election audits and the number of states that offer a transparent look at the data they collect. Overall, the Pew researchers found, states that improved the most year over year embraced technological reforms that made the process function more smoothly, from evaluating absentee and provisional ballots to hurrying people through lines and judging their own effectiveness in order to spotlight areas for improvement.
People bank online and do their taxes online. But not many vote online. On Monday, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen‘s venture-capital fund said it was betting that online voting will win over skeptics worried about security and gradually become the norm for elections world-wide. Vulcan Capital’s growth equity fund, based in Palo Alto, Calif., said it will invest $40 million in Scytl, a digital voting services company based in Barcelona with customers in more than 30 countries, including Canada, Mexico and Australia. Scytl, founded in 2001, sells a range of services aimed at modernizing elections, from training poll workers and registering voters to hosting elections online and counting votes. Scytl has previously received investments from Balderton Capital, Nauta Capital and Spinnaker SCR.
Democrats and civil rights groups are stepping up demands for Congress to move on legislation that would require some Southern states, including Mississippi and Louisiana, to once again get federal approval before making election changes. Almost 160 Democrats in Congress recently wrote House Republican leaders calling for action on the stalled bill, which they said would “restore the safeguards of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., signed the letter. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, didn’t, saying the measure wouldn’t include key states with a long history of discrimination, including Alabama. “There is a lot of concern that many of those areas will not be covered with the new bill,” said Thompson. “At the end of the day if the bill comes to the floor in whatever form, in all probability I’ll support it. But at this point, I’m going to lobby for a better bill.”
For all the criticism about long lines and other Election Day snafus, most states actually improved the way they handled elections between 2008 and 2012, according to a new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The report found that, overall, wait times at polling stations decreased by about three minutes over 2008, and 40 states and the District of Columbia improved their “election performance index” scores, which Pew calculated from 17 indicators that make up the index. Pew analyzed state election administration by looking at factors such as the availability of voting tools online, voter turnout, wait times at polling stations and problems with registration or absentee ballots.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the overall cap on federal election contributions is sending ripples across American politics, as states have begun backing away from their own restrictions on donations and lawyers are forecasting a new wave of challenges to campaign finance laws nationwide. The court’s 5-4 ruling on Wednesday was unsettling for many Washington fundraisers, donors and lobbyists who were comfortable with federal rules that had limited total donations to candidates and party groups to $123,200 in the 2014 election cycle. Now, thanks to the court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, donors who are able to give millions of dollars to candidates and their parties will see their influence expanded – much as it was by a 2010 ruling that inspired the creation of independent “Super PACs” and other groups that could receive unlimited donations.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader in the House, wasted little time on Thursday blasting the Supreme Court’s latest decision freeing donors to spend more money on campaigns. The founding fathers, Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference on Thursday morning, had fought for “a government of the many, not a government of the money.” Democrats, she said, will not “unilaterally disarm.” Indeed, her fund-raisers had already begun to exploit the new ruling. That morning, Ms. Pelosi’s political team began asking donors for tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of additional contributions permitted by the decision, while circulating a legal memorandum to donors who had questions about the new rules, according to Pelosi supporters.
Republican officials and their allies, reviewing Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, say they now have ammunition for additional challenges to restrictions on political contributions and may press to strike down all limits on donations to candidates and political parties. Motivated by the ruling in their favor, GOP lawyers and conservative advocates are discussing whether to bring lawsuits that would seek to permit companies and labor unions to donate directly to candidates for Congress and the White House; allow the Republican and Democratic parties to accept unlimited donations; and raise the current $10,000 cap on yearly donations to state political parties. “The political parties are going to take a hard look at some of the more extreme provisions of [the campaign-finance rules] to see if those provisions can withstand review” by the court, said Bobby Burchfield, a longtime GOP campaign-finance lawyer.
The sweeping language and logic of Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision on campaign finance may imperil other legal restrictions on money in politics. The 5-to-4 decision, which struck down overall limits on contributions by individuals to candidates and parties, was the latest in a series of campaign finance decisions from the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. that took an expansive view of First Amendment rights and a narrow one of political corruption. According to experts in election law, there is no reason to think that the march toward deregulating election spending will stop with the ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. “Those who support limits see the court right now as the T. Rex from ‘Jurassic Park,’” said Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “What’s next? ‘Just don’t move. He can’t see us if we don’t move.’” For now, federal law bars corporations from making contributions to candidates, though they can spend what they like independently to support or oppose candidates. Contributions from individuals to candidates are capped at $2,600 per election. Individual contributions to political parties are capped, too. Public financing of elections is allowed.
National: Supreme Court Strikes Down Aggregate Limits on Federal Campaign Contributions | New York Times
The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a major campaign finance decision, striking down limits on federal campaign contributions for the first time. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and most likely increase the role money plays in American politics. The decision, by a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, was a sequel of sorts to Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. But that ruling did nothing to disturb the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties. Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.
National: Election Assistance Commission seeks stay of order in voter citizenship case | Associated Press
Federal election officials have asked a judge to temporarily suspend his own order that they help Kansas and Arizona enforce state laws requiring voters to prove their U.S. citizenship, arguing that the case “implicates the fundamental right to register to vote.” The court filing late Monday comes in response to U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren’s decision on March 19 requiring the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to immediately modify a national voter registration form to add special instructions for Arizona and Kansas residents about those states’ proof-of-citizenship requirements. More than a dozen voting rights groups, which had previously intervened in the litigation, made a similar joint request for a stay last week. Project Vote Inc. filed its own motion Tuesday seeking the same thing. Kansas and Arizona had asked the federal agency for state-specific modifications, but it refused. Secretaries of State Kris Kobach of Kansas and Ken Bennett of Arizona, both conservative Republicans, sued the agency last year.
A split Supreme Court Wednesday struck down limits on the total amount of money an individual may spend on political candidates as a violation of free speech rights, a decision sure to increase the role of money in political campaigns. The 5 to 4 decision sparked a sharp dissent from liberal justices, who said the decision reflects a wrong-headed hostility to campaign finance laws that the court’s conservatives showed in Citizens United v. FEC , which allowed corporate spending on elections. “If Citizens United opened a door,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in reading his dissent from the bench, “today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the opinion striking down the aggregate limits of what an individual may contribute to candidates and political committees. The decision did not affect the limit an individual may contribute to a specific candidate, currently $2,600. But Roberts said an individual should be able to contribute that much to as many candidates as he chooses, which was not allowed by the donation cap.
Florida is one of a handful of states that signed agreements with the Department of Homeland Security to use SAVE to search for non-citizens on voter rolls. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced Thursday that he was delaying his plan to start a new round of looking for non-citizen voters due to DHS revamping the SAVE website. DHS started changes to the website in February but may not finish the project until after the 2014 election however SAVE remains operational by agencies nationwide. So we wondered if any other agencies that use SAVE for voter registration purposes have also halted efforts as a result of the website changes.
House Democrats are amping up their pressure on GOP leaders to move on legislation to restore voting rights protections shot down by the Supreme Court last year. In a March 27 letter, Democratic leaders noted that the high court’s ruling “acknowledged the persistence of voter discrimination,” and they urged the Republicans to take up a bipartisan proposal, designed to counteract such prejudices, before November’s elections. “Some of us believe the bill should be enacted in its current form, and some of us would prefer to see it amended,” the Democrats wrote to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). “But all of us stand united in our desire for the House to consider the issue in time for the entire Congress to work its will before the August district work period.” Spearheaded by Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, the letter was endorsed by 160 Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking member of the Judiciary panel, and Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), the House dean. GOP leaders have not said if they’ll try to move legislation on the issue this year.
On Election Night 2012, referring to the long lines in states like Florida and Ohio, Barack Obama declared, “We have to fix that.” The waits in Florida and Ohio were no accident, but rather the direct consequence of GOP efforts to curtail the number of days and hours that people had to vote. On January 22, 2014, the president’s bipartisan election commission released a comprehensive report detailing how voting could be smoother, faster and more convenient. It urged states to reduce long lines by adopting “measures to improve access to the polls through expansion of the period for voting before the traditional Election Day.” That would seem like an uncontroversial and common sense suggestion, but too many GOP-controlled states continue to move in the opposite direction, reducing access to the ballot instead of expanding it. The most prominent recent examples are the swing states of Wisconsin and Ohio. Yesterday Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed legislation eliminating early voting hours on weekends and nights, when it’s most convenient for many voters to go to the polls. When they took over state government in 2011, Wisconsin Republicans reduced the early voting period from three weeks to two weeks and only one weekend. Now they’ve eliminated weekend voting altogether.
Voting rights groups filed an appeal Friday of a judge’s order that federal election officials must help Kansas and Arizona enforce state laws requiring new voters to provide documentation proving their U.S. citizenship. A court filing sent to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenges a ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Wichita. Melgren had ordered the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to immediately modify a national voter registration form to add special instructions requiring proof of citizenship for Kansas and Arizona residents. The appeal was filed by more than a dozen voting rights groups and individuals who had earlier intervened in the case on behalf of the election commission. They include the League of Women Voters of the United States, Project Vote Inc., Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Common Cause, Arizona Advocacy Network, League of United Latin American Citizens Arizona, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Chicanos Por La Causa and others.
Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing significant new electoral restrictions on registering and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused fierce partisan brawls. The bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote. Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election. Democrats in North Carolina are scrambling to fight back against the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, passed by Republicans there last year. The measures, taken together, sharply reduce the number of early voting days and establish rules that make it more difficult for people to register to vote, cast provisional ballots or, in a few cases, vote absentee.
It’s that time again, when primary voters start casting their ballots for the midterm elections. As in recent years, voters face new rules and restrictions, including the need in 16 states to show a photo ID. But this year, some voting rights activists say they’re seeing a change — fewer new restrictions and, in some places, even a hint of bipartisanship. Although that wasn’t the case last month in Ohio, when the Legislature voted along party lines to eliminate a week of early voting. Lawmakers also agreed to prevent local election officials from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballot applications. “We’re talking about disenfranchising thousands of folks,” Democratic state Rep. Alicia Reece said on the House floor. “And don’t tell me it can’t be done, because our history has shown it has been done.”
National: Republican FEC Commissioners Go Public With Complaints About Mystery Redaction | National Journal
The Republican commissioners of the Federal Election Commission have broken their silence about the mysterious 76-page document that was redacted against their wishes in the deadlocked decision over whether Crossroads GPS was a legitimate nonprofit. In a statement posted to the FEC’s website late Tuesday, the commission’s three Republicans pulled back the curtain a bit on the missing document. “We do not believe that these redactions are necessary,” they wrote, saying they had sought to release the documents in a closed-door commission meeting but “the vote failed.” National Journal first reported the existence of the massive redaction and the behind-the-scenes controversy earlier this month.
Last week, we looked at what the electoral impact of new election-law changes would be in 2014. Would stricter photo ID requirements or curtailed early voting influence the outcome of November races in the states that had passed such legislation? Ultimately, we concluded any affect would be limited. But in other ways — and in the longer term — such changes to voting rules could have a big impact. Here are a few ways in which the new changes could shape November and beyond. Several states where election-law changes are being held up in the courts are highly competitive electorally. In both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, voter ID laws are being held up in the courts. The laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors, but both of these states are politically competitive. If either law is ultimately enacted, numerous competitive races could be affected in future electoral cycles.
Alabama says it plans to move ahead with a requirement for potential voters to show concrete proof of citizenship, in the first sign of a wider impact from a court decision on Wednesday ordering a federal elections agency to help Arizona and Kansas enforce their own such requirement. Alabama is one of the four states that have adopted the extra layer of proof for people registering to vote. With such rules under a legal cloud, it held off on carrying them out. Now that may change. The federal court decision “has given us the confidence that Alabama has strong footing for implementation of the rules regarding proof of citizenship,” Secretary of State Jim Bennett said in an email. The ruling, by a district court in Wichita, Kan., is all but certain to be appealed, parties in the case said, and is unlikely to be the last word in decades-old fights over who gets to make the rules for voting and what they may require.
A federal judge’s order backing Arizona and Kansas laws that require proof of citizenship for voter registration is “not the American way” and must be challenged, opponents said Thursday. The comments came after a U.S. District judge in Kansas ordered the Election Assistance Commission to include the two states’ proof-of-citizenship requirement on federal voter registration forms, which only require that people check a box verifying their U.S. citizenship. “We will appeal it,” said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network. He said no official decision has been made, but he expects voting-rights advocates will file an appeal “within 30 to 60 days.” But state officials in Kansas and Arizona said they are confident the latest decision will stand – and that they do not intend to wait for appeals. “They have a right to appeal, but the decision was made effective immediately,” Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said Thursday. It is the latest twist in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last summer that Arizona officials could not reject federal voter registration forms because they did not require proof of citizenship.
In 2004, Verified Voting began working to make U.S. voting systems more secure. The organization sprang from the energy created when founder David Dill issued the Resolution on Electronic Voting, which today has 10,000+ endorsers including top computer security experts and elected officials. Dill was subsequently appointed to the California Ad Hoc Task Force on Touch Screen Voting by then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (now a Verified Voting Board member). Click here to read Dave and Kevin’s look back at the origin of their relationship… What a difference a decade makes! At the time, fewer than one-sixth of the states had a requirement for voters to be able to verify their vote on a paper record or ballot: today, nearly three-fourths do. Yet, this November, sixteen states will use voting systems that do not provide an independent means of verifying individual votes, and nearly half the states will not conduct post-election audits to verify the accuracy of election results.
Over the past few years, new limitations on voting — including stricter requirements for voter identification, cutbacks in early voting options and rollbacks of same-day voter registration — have spread across the nation, provoking outrage from critics who charge that Republican-dominated legislatures and GOP governors have increased obstacles to voting in order to disenfranchise minorities and less affluent voters who disproportionately vote Democratic. As three dozen states gear up for statewide elections in 2014, we thought it would be a good time to look at how these changes might affect actual electoral results this fall. Adding obstacles to voting is clearly something that’s a problem for individual voters. However, the cumulative impact of voting-rule changes on determining the winner of key races looks more likely to be hit and miss in 2014. (In our next column, we will look at some of the impacts of voting-law changes beyond the 2014 election, which are likely to be more significant.)
A federal judge in Kansas on Wednesday ordered federal election authorities to help Kansas and Arizona require proof of citizenship of registering voters, in a decision that could well set a trend for other Republican-dominated states. Judge Eric F. Melgren of United States District Court in Wichita ruled that the federal Election Assistance Commission had no legal authority to deny requests from Kansas and Arizona to add state-specific instructions to a national voter registration form. The states sued the agency to force the action after it had turned them down. The Supreme Court ruled last June that Congress holds full power over federal election rules, but indicated that states could require proof of citizenship in state and local elections. Federal rules require prospective voters only to sign a form attesting to their citizenship, a procedure favored by Democrats who want to increase participation of minorities and the poor in elections, but that Republican officials say fosters voter fraud. In his ruling, Judge Melgren, appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, characterized the decision by the election commission to deny the states’ requests as “unlawful and in excess of its statutory authority.” He said that Congress had not “pre-empted state laws requiring proof of citizenship through the National Voter Registration Act.”
The Justice Department, no longer responsible for vetting election procedures in states with a history of racial discrimination, instead plans to proactively search the entire country for voting rights violations. Its new focus is the result of a June 2013 Supreme Court decision dismantling a Voting Rights Act provision that had required all or part of 15 states to get “pre-clearance” from Justice officials or a federal court before making any changes to their election procedures. Now, the department says, it will be more proactive in protecting minority voters.