Before the current U.S. Supreme Court term ends in late June, the justices will decide the fate of the most potent part of a law widely considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress ― the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If the court were to strike down part of the law, which it has signaled a willingness to do in the past, it would dramatically reduce the federal government’s role in overseeing voter discrimination in a wide swath of the nation. The U.S. Supreme Court prepares to enter June with the term’s biggest cases yet to be decided. NBC’s Pete Williams looks at what’s left on the docket. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson and renewed by Congress four times since then, most recently in 2006, a key provision requires states with a history of discrimination at the polls to get federal permission before making adjustments to their election procedures.
Outrage first, facts later. That’s often the way American political “scandals” unfold, and it seems to be the case with the news that the IRS targeted conservative political groups for extra scrutiny before granting them tax-exempt status as social-welfare organizations. We knew from the beginning of the IRS mess that the only group actually denied tax-exempt status was the Maine chapter of a Democratic women’s group, Emerge America. Now we’re learning about some of the right-wing organizations that came in for extra scrutiny, as reported by the New York Times Monday: a conservative veterans’ group that only backed one candidate, a Republican, for Congress; an Alabama Tea Party group that took part in a “defeat Barack Obama” voter-turnout drive, and the “Ohio Liberty Coalition” led by a Republican activist who sent his members information on Mitt Romney campaign events and recruited them to volunteer for the GOP nominee.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, aimed high with his first bill as a member of Congress: a constitutional amendment establishing the right to vote. As I explained in a recent post, the amendment may sound superfluous but legal scholars acknowledge that the right to vote is not currently guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and adding language to that effect could impact laws that affect voting, such as voter ID. The bill may have little chance of advancing in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, but it is getting attention — for all it’s worth — from progressives across the country.
A pair of Democratic congressmen is pushing an amendment that would place an affirmative right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. According to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), who is sponsoring the legislation along with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the amendment would protect voters from what he described as a “systematic” push to “restrict voting access” through voter ID laws, shorter early voting deadlines, and other measures that are being proposed in many states. “Most people believe that there already is something in the Constitution that gives people the right to vote, but unfortunately … there is no affirmative right to vote in the Constitution. We have a number of amendments that protect against discrimination in voting, but we don’t have an affirmative right,” Pocan told TPM last week. “Especially in an era … you know, in the last decade especially we’ve just seen a number of these measures to restrict access to voting rights in so many states. … There’s just so many of these that are out there, that it shows the real need that we have.”
When CVFC, a conservative veterans’ group in California, applied for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, its biggest expenditure that year was several thousand dollars in radio ads backing a Republican candidate for Congress. The Wetumpka Tea Party, from Alabama, sponsored training for a get-out-the-vote initiative dedicated to the “defeat of President Barack Obama” while the I.R.S. was weighing its application. And the head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, whose application languished with the I.R.S. for more than two years, sent out e-mails to members about Mitt Romney campaign events and organized members to distribute Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign literature. Representatives of these organizations have cried foul in recent weeks about their treatment by the I.R.S., saying they were among dozens of conservative groups unfairly targeted by the agency, harassed with inappropriate questionnaires and put off for months or years as the agency delayed decisions on their applications.
The Internal Revenue Service unit under fire for its reviews of conservative organizations has a long history of targeting groups with extra scrutiny, including foreclosure-assistance charities, credit-counseling services and New York Jewish charities, interviews with current and former employees show. The scrutiny has included such tactics as listening to telephone calls between groups and their clients, according to one group’s lawyer. In the case of tea-party organizations, IRS officials studied social-media postings to gauge political activity. Sometimes the tactic of extra scrutiny for particular kinds of groups seeking tax exemptions helped manage a flood of entities in areas where abuse was common; other times it snagged innocent parties, subjected applicants to long delays and even made IRS employees feel uncomfortable.
Is it time, at long last, for the citizens of the United States to enjoy the constitutional right to vote for the people who govern them? Phrased in that way, the question may come as a shock. The U.S. has waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan justified, at least in rhetoric, by the claim that people deserve the right to vote for their leaders. Most of us assume that the right to vote has long been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Not according to the Supreme Court. In Bush v. Gore (2000), the Court ruled that “[t]he individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.” That’s right. Under federal law, according to the Supreme Court, if you are a citizen of the United States, you have a right to own a firearm that might conceivably be used in overthrowing the government. But you have no right to wield a vote that might be used to change the government by peaceful means.
National: Official at Heart of IRS Tea Party Scandal Spiked Audits of Big Dark-Money Donors | Mother Jones
You’d have to search long and hard to find a member of Congress not outraged that politics and partisanship crept into the work of the IRS, leading to the wrongful targeting of tea partiers and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. “The American people have a right to expect that the IRS will exercise its authority in a neutral, non-biased way,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on Tuesday. “Sadly, there appears to have been more than a hint of political bias” by the IRS staffers vetting nonprofit applications. Hatch’s Republican colleagues in the House and Senate could hardly contain their anger. “Do either of you feel any responsibility or remorse for treating the American people this way?” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the former IRS chiefs Douglas Shulman and Steven Miller on Tuesday. Yet lawmakers have no qualms with using politics to bend the IRS to its will. In 2011, under pressure from House and Senate Republicans, Miller, then the IRS’ deputy commissioner, spiked audits investigating whether five big donors to 501(c)(4) groups—the type of nonprofit that can get involved in campaigns and elections but can’t make politics its “primary activity”—avoided paying taxes on their donations. Miller’s decision erased any worry that wealthy donors might have had about giving millions to nonprofits during the 2012 campaign season.
Lois Lerner, the head of the Internal Revenue Service’s division on tax-exempt organizations, was put on administrative leave Thursday, a day after she invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify before a House committee investigating her division’s targeting of conservative groups. Lawmakers from both parties said Thursday that senior I.R.S. officials had requested Ms. Lerner’s resignation but that she refused, forcing them to put her on leave instead. Whether her suspension will lead to dismissal was unclear, given Civil Service rules that govern federal employment. “The I.R.S. owes it to taxpayers to resolve her situation quickly,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. “She shouldn’t be in limbo indefinitely on the taxpayers’ dime.”
Three graduate students from Harvard University have set out to study how election officials deal with information requests from voters. The result: E-mails sent from Latino-sounding names were less likely to receive any response from local officials than non-Latinos and received less informative responses. Julie K. Faller, Noah L. Nathan and Ariel R. White contacted close to 7,000 local election administrations in 46 states to observe how they provided information to different ethnicities on the basis that voter identification requirements raised concerns over minority voter turnout. “We show that emailers with Latino names were roughly five percentage points less likely to receive a reply to a question about voter ID requirements than non-Latino whites,” states the study. The authors explained their experiment was done via e-mail to mimic reality, since Americans are increasingly likely to contact government officials via e-mail.
President Obama on Tuesday announced the eight new members who will round out his presidential commission on voting, jointing Bob Bauer, the general counsel to the president’s reelection campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, the former general counsel to Mitt Romney’s presidential effort, on the bipartisan panel. The appointments include Trey Grayson, Larry Loma, Michele Coleman Mayes, Ann McGeehan, Tammy Patrick and Christopher Thomas — all former state-level elections officials — as well as Brian Britton, a Walt Disney World executive, and Joe Echevarria, the general counsel for the New York Public library. Obama announced the panel in his State of the Union address, saying that with long voting lines, the country was “betraying our ideals.”
In a bitter fight, Colorado Democrats recently muscled through the Statehouse a massive elections reform bill that allows voters to register up until Election Day and still cast their ballots. It’s the latest – and most substantial – development in a nationwide Democratic Party effort to strike back at two years of Republican success in passing measures to require identification at polling places and purge rolls of suspect voters. Democratic-controlled states like California, Connecticut and Maryland also all have sought to make it easier to cast a ballot as late as possible. They recently passed versions of same-day voter registration measures, which traditionally help younger and poorer voters – the sort who lean Democratic. Undaunted, the GOP is aggressively fighting the efforts. Maine Republicans tried to roll back same-day registration in 2011 but were unsuccessful. And Montana Republicans hope to rescind their state’s same-day registration through a ballot referendum next year.
National: Election Officials Biased Against Latinos, Says Harvard University Study | The Latin Times
A Latino-sounding name could be detrimental to voters seeking election information. Harvard University political science graduates Julie Faller, Noah Nathan and Ariel White found in a study that election officials are less likely to give accurate, friendly information to Latinos as opposed to those who sound white, the Huffington Post reported Wednesday. The students conducted the study by ” . . . [contacting] every local official or election commission responsible for overseeing elections for each county or municipality at which elections are administered in 48 states.” Minnesota, Alaska, Maine and Virginia were dropped from the study due to irregularities that prevented gathering accurate data.
The Internal Revenue Service official who first disclosed that the agency had targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny, and in doing so ignited a controversy that has ensnared the White House, denied on Wednesday that she had ever provided false information to Congress. She then invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to testify at a House hearing on the agency’s actions. At the House oversight committee hearing, the chairman, Darrell Issa, seated second from right, talked with an aide. Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, was at left. As the official, Lois Lerner, appeared under subpoena before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she sternly told her questioners that accusations that she had misled Congress in previous testimony were false.
More than six months after declaring on election night that “we’ve got to fix” long lines at the polls that forced some voters to wait up to eight hours, President Obama has announced the members of his commission on election administration. The list includes a mix of business executives, public officials, and election administrators, but no dedicated voting-rights advocates. Obama had previously revealed that Washington super-lawyers Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, a Democrat and Republican respectively, would chair the panel. Obama also announced that Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Columbia Law School who has generally been skeptical of voting restrictions aimed at combating fraud, will be the commission’s senior research director. And the commission unveiled a new website,supportthevoter.gov.
National: Conservative group True the Vote sues IRS over being subject to heightened scrutiny | The Wahsington Post
True the Vote, a Houston-based voter watchdog group that arose from a tea party organization, filed suit in federal court Tuesday against the Internal Revenue Service over the agency’s processing of its request for tax-exempt status. The lawsuit, filed by the conservative ActRight Legal Foundation, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to grant its request for tax-exempt status and award damages for what it described as unlawful conduct by the IRS. True the Vote, which was founded in June 2010, is affiliated with the King Street Patriots, a tea party group which started in December 2009. Originally called KSP/True the Vote, the group filed in July 2010 for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) charity organization. In August 2011, the group changed its name to True the Vote Inc.; King Street Patriots has separately been seeking the 501(c)(4) status from the IRS. True the Vote has come under fire for intimidating African-American and other minority voters at the polls.
The allegations had all the makings of a perfect election-year scandal that might threaten President Obama’s chances for a second term and re-energize a listless Tea Party movement: an activist president, running an overbearing government, treating conservative groups unfairly by wielding the federal taxing power to undermine his adversaries. But a year ago, when the current Internal Revenue Service scandal that has swirled around Mr. Obama first emerged, Washington — and, apparently, the White House — shrugged. It was March 2012 and Tea Party groups around the country had been complaining for months of what they called an I.R.S. conspiracy to delay and disrupt their efforts to obtain tax-free status. A few Republicans in Congress expressed concern, sent letters to I.R.S. officials and scheduled a hearing.
National: Confusion and Staff Troubles Rife at I.R.S. Office in Ohio – Unprepared Office Seemed Unclear About the Rules | New York Times
During the summer of 2010, the dozen or so accountants and tax agents of Group 7822 of the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati got a directive from their manager. A growing number of organizations identifying themselves as part of the Tea Party had begun applying for tax exemptions, the manager said, advising the workers to be on the lookout for them and other groups planning to get involved in elections. “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as rogue agents,” said Bonnie Esrig, a former senior manager in the I.R.S. office in Cincinnati. The specialists, hunched over laptops on the office’s fourth floor, rarely discussed politics, one former supervisor said. Low-level employees in what many in the I.R.S. consider a backwater, they processed thousands of applications a year, mostly from charities like private schools or hospitals.
There’s an irony in the Internal Revenue Service’s crackdown on conservative groups. The nation’s tax agency has admitted to inappropriately scrutinizing smaller tea party organizations that applied for tax-exempt status, and senior Treasury Department officials were notified in the midst of the 2012 presidential election season that an internal investigation was underway. But the IRS largely maintained a hands-off policy with the much larger, big-budget organizations on the left and right that were most influential in the elections and are organized under a section of the tax code that allows them to hide their donors.
National: How the IRS seeded the clouds in 2010 for a political deluge three years later | The Washington Post
In early 2010, an Internal Revenue Service team in Cincinnati began noticing a stream of applications from groups with political-sounding names, setting in motion a dragnet aimed at separating legitimate tax-exempt groups from those working to get candidates elected. The IRS officials decided to single out one type of political group for particular scrutiny. “These cases involve various local organizations in the Tea Party movement,” read one internal IRS e-mail sent at the time. A few hours north in Fremont, Ohio, the owners of a drainage supply shop, Tom and Marion Bower, were wondering why it was taking so long to get a tax exemption for their new tea party group. “I didn’t think any of us thought we’d be targeted,” said Marion Bower, of American Patriots Against Government Excess. “We started the group because we wanted to learn about our country and educate people. Now I’m becoming a little paranoid. If they can do this, what else can they do?”
National: Dan Pfeiffer: Legal questions in IRS scandal ‘irrelevant’ to ‘inexcusable’ actions | Washington Post
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday the question of whether any laws were broken in the Internal Revenue Scandal is “irrelevant” to the fact that the agency’s actions were wrong and unjustifiable. “I can’t speak to the law here. The law is irrelevant,” Pfefiffer said on ABC News’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “The activity was outrageous and inexcusable, and it was stopped and it needs to be fixed to ensure it never happens again.” Stephanopoulos replied: “You don’t really mean the law is irrelevant, do you?” Pfeiffer responded: “What I mean is, whether it’s legal or illegal is not important to the fact that the conduct doesn’t matter. The Department of Justice has said that they’re looking into the legality of this. The president is not going to wait for that. We have to make sure it does not happen again, regardless of how that turns out.”
Patriot Majority USA, a social welfare nonprofit, told the Internal Revenue Service that its mission is “to encourage a discussion of economic issues.” In exchange for keeping its donors private and paying fewer taxes, it must limit its involvement in politics. Yet last year Patriot Majority, run by Democratic operative Craig Varoga in Washington, spent at least $7.5 million on TV ads attacking Republican candidates on issues such as women’s health screenings and equal pay. With the Nov. 6 election over, the nonprofit shows signs of going dormant with e-mails bouncing back unopened and phone calls unanswered.
Let’s not make excuses for the IRS. The agency shouldn’t have subjected conservative groups to special scrutiny. Campaign finance reform groups should have immediately called for hearings when this scandal broke: Imagine the hue and cry if the IRS during the Bush administration had singled out “progressive” groups for special tax scrutiny and sent themunprecedented questions about their contributors and activities. Given the danger going back to President Richard Nixon of using the IRS against political enemies, the agency has to be scrupulously nonpartisan and fair. Congressional investigations and the Department of Justicecriminal investigation announced Tuesday are inevitable and warranted. But the larger picture here shows why the IRS felt itself forced into the role of campaign finance regulator, and why people also are calling for the Securities and Exchange Commissionand state attorneys general to regulate campaign contributions. This is all about the failure of Congress to require the disclosure of donors who bankroll groups designed to influence elections.
Steven Miller, who is being forced out as acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, told House lawmakers today that the IRS has learned from its mistakes while denying that it had targeted nonprofit groups for review because of their political views. Under persistent questioning from House Republicans at the first hearing on the agency’s scrutiny of small-government groups that applied for tax-exempt status, Miller insisted that IRS employees didn’t have partisan motivations. “What happened here is that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient,” Miller said at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing that lasted almost four hours.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a point of emphasizing during the Bush v. Gore arguments in December 2000 that there is no federal constitutional guarantee of a right to vote for president. Scalia was right. Indeed, as the reform group FairVote reminds us, “Because there is no right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, individual states set their own electoral policies and procedures. This leads to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies regarding ballot design, polling hours, voting equipment, voter registration requirements, and ex-felon voting rights. As a result, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all separate and unequal.” Mark Pocan and Keith Ellison want to do something about that. The two congressmen, both former state legislators with long histories of engagement with voting-rights issues, on Monday unveiled a proposal to explicitly guarantee the right to vote in the Constitution.
In spring 2010, agents in the Cincinnati office of the Internal Revenue Service, which handles applications for tax-exempt status, faced a surge of filings by new advocacy groups, with little guidance on how to treat them. Their decision to deal with the problem by singling out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny has now triggered a criminal inquiry, congressional investigations, the departure of two top IRS officials and the naming of a new acting commissioner Thursday. For former IRS staff and tax experts, the case confirms what they view as one of the agency’s long-standing weaknesses: its inability to cope with the growing number of tax-exempt advocacy groups that appear to stretch the law to engage in politics.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently said that she has second thoughts about Bush v. Gore. Whatever feelings she now expresses, the U.S. Supreme Court’s involvement at that time obviously had implications for election law, and, of course, the direction of our nation. Since then, the court has ruled on a variety of important voting rights cases, and in a matter of weeks the court is expected to hand down decisions in two additional ones, also having far-reaching consequences. One involves an Alabama county that opposes federal oversight of its election procedures, and the other concerns the scope of Arizona’s law requiring voters to submit documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Both cases, Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder and Arizona v. Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, consider the authority of Congress to protect voters against state and local ordinances that impinge upon fundamental voting rights.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a point of emphasizing during the Bush v. Gore arguments in December 2000 that there is no federal constitutional guarantee of a right to vote for president. He was right about that. Indeed, as the reform group FairVote reminds us: “Because there is no right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, individual states set their own electoral policies and procedures. This leads to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies regarding ballot design, polling hours, voting equipment, voter registration requirements, and ex-felon voting rights. As a result, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all separate and unequal.” Mark Pocan wants to do something about that. With Minnesota Congressmen Keith Ellison — who like Pocan is a former state legislator with a long history of engagement with voting rights issues — the Wisconsin Democrat on Monday unveiled an amendment to explicitly guarantee the right to vote in the Constitution.
President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday to hold accountable those at the Internal Revenue Service involved in the targeting of conservative groups applying for federal tax-exempt status, beginning with the resignation of the agency’s acting commissioner who was aware of the practice. In a brief statement delivered to reporters in the East Room of the White House, the president announced that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had requested — and accepted — the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller. The president said the “misconduct” detailed in the IRS Inspector General’s report released Tuesday over the singling out of conservative groups is “inexcusable.”
“Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” Obama said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday warned top officials at the Internal Revenue Service that criminal laws on false statements could come into play in a Justice Department investigation on the agency’s targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. Appearing at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder said the investigation would examine whether groups of individuals had their civil rights criminally violated and whether statutes governing I.R.S. conduct were violated. After repeated accusations from senior lawmakers that top I.R.S. officials had lied to them, Mr. Holder also issued a warning: “False-statement violations might have been made, given at least what I know at this point.” Three Congressional committees already have hearings planned to investigate the agency’s activities, and an early focus appears to be on whether I.R.S. officials lied to members of Congress.