A nationwide discourse over numerous proposed and enacted changes to state voting laws has reached a new level of fervor in the United States. State legislative sessions in 2011 and 2012 have resulted in 180 different bills that restrict some aspect of state voting laws. Types of legislation introduced have varied from new demands for voter identification to tighter restrictions regarding voter registration periods and processes, as well as a shortening of time frames for casting early ballots ahead of election days. The majority of this activity has occurred in Southern and Midwest states, the bulk of which are controlled by Republican legislatures and governors whose ostensible premise is to increase protection against electoral fraud. Citing the findings of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Law Changes in 2012 report, Democrats have criticized the wave of legislation as deliberating placing restrictions on youth, minority, elderly and poor voters. The report argues that voting will become significantly more burdensome for five million eligible voters than it was in 2008 elections. The main source of debate has revolved around the questions over an increased burden on voters in the November elections, and whether it will contribute to a marked decrease in electoral fraud.
A 3-judge panel will now decide whether to let Texas implement its controversial voter ID law. In closing arguments at federal court, a lawyer for the state, John Hughes, insisted that even if non-white Texans lack an acceptable photo ID under the law, the “ultimate question” for the judges to consider is whether that disparity translates into people being turned away from the polls. The requirement enacted by the Legislature in May 2011, Hughes argued, “deters almost no one,” and even people eligible to vote in Texas who lack one of the acceptable forms of photo ID – a drivers license, concealed gun permit, passport, or citizenship card – should be able to easily obtain an alternative voter ID card provided for by the law. “People who want to vote already have an ID or can easily obtain it,” he insisted repeatedly. He noted that the Justice Department – which refused to let the state implement the law, prompting the state to turn to the federal courts – claims that 1.5 million Texas voters lack an acceptable photo ID. “If that were remotely true, the courtroom would be filled with such people,” he said, citing survey evidence that black and Hispanic Texas voters say they have ID in rough proportion to whites. The judges seemed deeply skeptical. “The record does tell us that there is a substantial number of registered voters that lack photo ID,” said U.S. Circuit Court Judge David Tatel. And District Court Judge Robert Wilkins noted that there was uncontested evidence that some Texans would have to travel 120 miles one way to the nearest state office where they could obtain a voter ID card – and that federal court rules bar subpoenas for anyone more than 100 miles from a courthouse on grounds that would be “unduly burdensome.”
Democrats launched another push for campaign finance transparency on Thursday, aiming to combat the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling as Republicans outraise them on the campaign trail. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dedicated the bulk of her weekly press conference to the DISCLOSE Act — which would increase disclosure requirements for campaign contributions — and Senate Democrats held a press conference Thursday afternoon to plug the bill, which will go before the Senate next week. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who joined Pelosi at the conference, said Democrats have filed a discharge petition for the bill in the House. “This is a House of Representatives that is pretending that it is one of the most open House of Representatives in recent times, and yet they have refused to even hold a hearing on the DISCLOSE Act,” Van Hollen said. Indeed, Democrats have been banging this drum for months to no avail, and there’s nothing to indicate their latest attempt will yield a different result.
Vice President Joe Biden delivered a rousing address to the NAACP in Houston on Thursday, bolstering support for President Barack Obama and drawing sharp contrasts with the Republican Party on civil rights issues. On the heels of recent voter identification disputes, Biden strayed from his typical campaign speech to zero in on voting rights, arguing that Republicans were making it more difficult for certain group to vote. By implementing laws requiring voters to present official identification at the voting booth, Biden said, the GOP sees “a different future, where voting is made harder, not easier.”
Jill Stein, presumptive nominee of the Green Party, is probably the only candidate on the campaign trail who spends an hour a day cooking her own organic meals — and who was, not too long ago, the lead singer of a folksy rock band. But her difference does not end there. When Dr. Stein, a former physician, is introduced on the trail as “Jill Stein for president,” she is also very likely the only candidate to be asked, “For president of what?” That’s what Keith Brockenberry, a cook, wanted to know at a meet-and-greet in Roxbury last week. After one of Dr. Stein’s supporters clarified, “for president of the United States,” Mr. Brockenberry seemed both taken aback and delighted. “Get out of here!” he blurted out. “I had no idea.”
Four months away from a presidential election still considered a tossup, new battles are brewing over state election laws. A federal court in Washington began hearing arguments this week on whether a voter ID law in Texas discriminates against Hispanic voters. Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a bill last week that would have required voters to show identification before casting absentee ballots. The Justice Department rejected South Carolina’s voter ID law for the second time, saying it could disproportionately affect black voters. The state sued earlier this year. A federal court has scheduled oral arguments for Sept. 24, just 43 days before the election. A judge ruled in June that Wisconsin’s voter ID law violates the state constitution. An appeal is likely. Attorney General Eric Holder is promising an aggressive effort to safeguard voting rights.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) this week is unveiling his next step in the battle over voting rights in the form of a pop-up Web application that informs people where to vote and how to register. Hoyer and Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the House Administration Committee, sent a letter to colleagues dated Monday to introduce the new application and encourage members to use it, specifically recommending sharing it through social media. The letter urges that it is the “responsibility” of elected leaders to help inform constituents about the democratic process. “In the last year, we have witnessed a nationwide assault on American citizens’ constitutionally-guaranteed right to vote,” they wrote. “Aside from the unnecessary, expensive, and ineffective new Voter ID laws, we have also seen targeted purges of eligible, registered voters from state rolls. Little has been done to educate the public about these actions. As a result, there are thousands of eligible voters at risk of being turned away from the polls while attempting to make choices about their federal representation.”
Voter ID laws face a high-profile test this week as the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC hears arguments about Texas’ controversial new regulations. The case pits Texas against Attorney General Eric Holder, who has earned the ire of Republicans across the country for challenging new voting restrictions. Republicans say the Justice Department should be more concerned about fraud; the DOJ counters that these laws suppress minority turnout. Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed Texas’ voter ID law in May 2011. The state already required an ID to vote; the new law requires a photo ID. Those who don’t have a valid photo ID can apply for a new “election identification certificate.” As a state with a history of voter discrimination, Texas must get preclearance from the Department of Justice for changes in election law. The DOJ blocked Texas’ law under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, declaring that it would disproportionately affect Hispanic voters.
The Voting Rights Act – a cherished safeguard for minority voters since 1965 – has been under siege for two years and this week faces one of its toughest test on an apparent path to the U.S. Supreme Court. Twenty-five hours of argument, starting on Monday and spread over five days, will help the judges of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia decide whether Texas can require voters to present a photo identification at the polls. Formulated at a time of racial turmoil, the Voting Rights Act passed 77-19 in the U.S. Senate and 333-85 in the House of Representatives. The votes transcended party lines to protect black voters of all political ideals. Ever since, it has served as the U.S. government’s chief check on the fairness of election rules imposed by local governments. While it passed with bipartisan support more than 45 years ago, a shift in political preferences along racial lines has turned the landmark piece of civil rights era legislation into a highly charged political issue. In the 1960s, Democrats held a monopoly of voters in the Southern states. But since then, most white Southern voters have shifted allegiances to the Republican Party, while black and Hispanic voters moved further toward the left.
Thousands of votes could be in jeopardy this November as more states with larger populations look to have tough voter ID rules in place that, opponents say, could reject more legitimate voters than fraudulent ones. As more states put in place strict voter ID rules, an AP review of temporary ballots from Indiana and Georgia, which first adopted the most stringent standards, found that more than 1,200 such votes were tossed during the 2008 general election. During sparsely attended primaries this year in Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee, the states implementing the toughest laws, hundreds more ballots were blocked. The numbers suggest legitimate votes rejected by the laws are far more numerous than are the cases of fraud that advocates of the rules say they are trying to prevent.
As most legislative work around the country came to a standstill over the July 4th holiday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made headlines last week when he broke with the Republican Party to veto a law that would have tightened Michigan’s current “voter ID” law, just a few months ahead of Election Day. The move is an indication that despite the intense anxiety about the wave of voter ID laws, which place new restrictions on voters before they can cast a ballot, the legislation is facing tough challenges even before being enacted. Opponents have found a variety of means to mute the impact of such legislation. Republicans backing the laws, which have passed in 11 states in the past two years alone, insist that the measures are meant to curb voter fraud and are commonsense requirements that shouldn’t prove to be too onerous for any legitimately eligible voter. But Democrats see a more sinister design in the measures — as part of a broader GOP effort to rig elections in its favor by suppressing constituencies that tend to vote Democratic: minorities, low-income voters, students, and even women. That impression was fueled recently when Republican Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, highlighted the partisan impact of the state’s new voting restrictions. “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” Turzai said to applause at a Republican State Committee meeting.
Few people — the security expert Rebecca Mercuri being the notable exception — thought much about the mechanics of voting before the Bush-versus-Gore presidential election in 2000. A few weeks of watching diligent poll workers holding up ballots to look for hanging chads changed all that. The timing — coincidental with both the rise of the internet and the dot-com bust — suddenly put voting technology on everyone’s agenda. The UK, like a number of European countries, had a brief flirtation with electronic voting. Notably, the Netherlands reverted to pencil-and-paper after a group of technical experts proved their point by getting the voting machines to play chess. E-counting is still on the UK’s agenda, however, despite objections from the Open Rights Group on technical and cost grounds. Most recently, it was used in London’s May 2012 mayoral elections. In the US, Bush v. Gore led to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandated the updating of voting equipment and set off substantial controversy.
National: US Supreme Court expected to hear Shelby County’s challenge to the Voting Rights Act | al.com
The U.S. Supreme Court ended its term with a flurry of decisions in cases with strong Alabama connections, and there are signs that trend will continue this fall as Shelby County prepares to send the justices its challenge to the Voting Rights Act in the next few weeks. The Shelby County case has been a contender for Supreme Court review ever since it was filed two years ago, and the likelihood has increased as other similar voting cases have slowed down and Shelby County’s has speeded up. It’s had two hearings in federal court and two decisions, both of which upheld the constitutionality of key sections of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court is the next and last stop for the county, which is trying to dismantle the 47-year-old law that puts elections in all or part of 16 states under strict federal supervision. “We are proceeding with our plan to file a petition with the Supreme Court,” said Shelby County’s attorney, Frank “Butch” Ellis of Columbiana.
Responding to the vocal concerns of American expatriates, the Pentagon agency responsible for overseas voting has agreed not to enforce a requirement for voters requesting absentee ballots to state categorically that they either intend to stay abroad indefinitely or not. In a separate development, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service said that it would make it easier for American citizens abroad who have not been filing tax returns — some from ignorance of new requirements — to meet their legal obligations if they owe little or no taxes. Expatriate groups applauded both developments. They had been fighting the ballot requirement, saying its black-or-white language could put overseas Americans in an untenable position and might dissuade some from voting. The groups have also complained about tough — and they say sometimes unfair — new I.R.S. enforcement of tax laws for those living abroad. Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, who heads the nonpartisan Overseas Vote Foundation, called the Pentagon’s decision “a huge win for overseas citizens” and praised the agency for responding to voters’ concerns.
It’s a group that can score respectably on the SAT, find its way to classes most days and survive most midterms. But, the young campus crowd is often new to independence and to record-keeping. So how will college students do at democracy? Tougher voter identification laws, some advocacy groups contend, might present new challenges for thousands of college students who want to cast ballots this fall. “There are more obstacles (for student voters),” said Jon Sherman, an attorney with the Atlanta-based Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “For a demographic that sometimes struggles to get out to the polls, it’s much more challenging.” The size of that challenge will vary from state to state this year. In Tennessee, for example, voters must present a photo ID to vote, but student IDs aren’t considered valid for that purpose. A Texas law — now facing a legal challenge — allows use of a concealed weapons permit as a voter ID, but not a student ID card.
Conservative megadonors Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and Donald Trump aren’t stopping with their efforts to swing the presidential election. Now, they’re shoveling cash into down-ticket races. Their big checks have helped state-focused GOP groups more than double the cash haul of their Democratic counterparts and open up another front that could help Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama.Many of the hottest gubernatorial and legislative races are in key presidential election states, including North Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, and the increased activity could add attention to conservative policies on critical issues like government spending, labor rights, voter access, gay rights and immigration, and could help tip the scales in Romney’s favor. Negative ads against the Democrats won’t hurt either.
With more and more people choosing alternative methods to casting their ballot than at a polling place on election day — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission estimated that 23.7 million voted absentee in 2008 — making sure voters have access to what they need to do so has become a top priority. This month, the U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) launched an online absentee ballot tool that allows U.S. voters anywhere in the world to download and complete a state-specific absentee ballot request. “We created this tool so that anyone who wishes to vote can be assisted – whether it be a traveling executive, a working parent, a home-bound person, or a college student away from home,” said US Vote President and CEO Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “The point of our services is access. We want to make sure all Americans are equipped with the tools they need to vote, from the polling place to the kitchen table.”
The U.S. Supreme Court decision giving corporations the same rights as people to spend money independently to support political campaigns didn’t overturn a century-old ban on direct corporate donations to candidates, a federal court ruled. A three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Virginia, made its ruling today in reinstating a criminal campaign-finance charge against two fundraisers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid who were indicted for improperly reimbursing $186,600 to donors.
The Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit last week challenging campaign contribution limits set by the federal government, continuing the party’s efforts to dismantle the laws restricting money in political campaigns. The suit challenges the cap on the total amount of money that one person may give to political candidates, parties and some types of political action committees during a two-year election cycle. The RNC lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, is the latest in a series of cases brought by conservatives challenging laws that restrict how elections are funded. So far, they have found a largely receptive audience at the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., most notably with the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Tens of thousands of military service members attempting to vote by absentee ballot in recent years haven’t had their votes counted because of various problems with the system, according to authorities that track voter participation. The Military Voter Protection Project, an organization founded by a Navy Reserve member who previously was a Justice Department lawyer, is promoting efforts to ensure that the votes of all military members are counted. “The problem has always existed, given the high degree of mobility of our fighting forces,” said Eric Eversole, founder and executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. But the issue is a bigger concern during a presidential election year with a military force totaling more than 3 million, including active-duty and reserve forces.
The Supreme Court’s Monday ruling to strike Montana’s ban on corporate campaign spending opens a new chapter in the political money wars, fueling an improbable but increasingly vocal movement to amend the Constitution. “This Supreme Court ruling could be a watershed in terms of the court aligning itself with the interests of big corporations,” said Jamie Raskin, a Maryland state Senator and law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. “And the constitutional amendment strategy will be a way to plant the flag and rally people for a different vision of the Constitution and the country.” More than a dozen Members of Congress have proposed various constitutional amendments in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling to deregulate corporate and union political spending. Some declare that corporations are not people; others empower Congress and the states to restrict campaign spending and contributions.
The Supreme Court has struck down a Montana ban on corporate political money, ruling 5 to 4 that the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling applies to state and local elections. The court broke in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock along the same lines as in the original Citizens United case, when the court ruled that corporate money is speech and thus corporations can spend unlimited amounts on elections. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the majority wrote. “There can be no serious doubt that it does.” No arguments were heard; it was a summary reversal. “To the extent that there was any doubt from the original Citizens United decision broadly applies to state and local laws, that doubt is now gone,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic campaign lawyer. “To whatever extent that door was open a crack, that door is now closed.”
In a brief unsigned decision, the Supreme Court on Monday declined to have another look at its blockbuster 2010 campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-to-4 vote, the majority summarily reversed a decision of the Montana Supreme Court that had refused to follow the Citizens United decision. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the opinion said. “There can be no serious doubt that it does. Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.” The four members of the court’s liberal wing dissented in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who said that Citizens United itself had been a mistake.
David Axelrod, President Obama’s political strategist, recently invoked a common perception about the 2012 campaign by blaming the Supreme Court for empowering 21st-century “robber barons trying to take over the government.” But that explanation does not account for another development that probably has been just as influential as the court’s Citizens United decision in creating the flood of money into the election: the demise of the public financing system for elections, hastened by Mr. Obama’s decision four years ago to abandon it. So far, Mr. Obama, Mitt Romney and their respective parties have raised more than $1.2 billion — five times the amount raised by all “super PACs” combined — as they race frenetically for the cash they need to pay for television advertising, sophisticated technology and old-fashioned get-out-the-vote efforts. Nor is there any reason to expect a slowdown. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney plans to take the $92 million per candidate on offer from public financing for this general election season, and combined they have raised less than $10 million for spending on the general election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than 95 percent of their receipts so far are for use only through the late-summer nominating conventions, meaning they still have far to go to fill their general election bank accounts.
With the Presidential elections looming up, some have been asking why the United States is not making more of electronic voting. It’s being adopted in many other countries around the world, with India, Brazil, Estonia, Norway and Switzerland as notable examples. However, the United States has several examples in recent years where it has backed out of electronic voting that it had already implemented. For example, in 2010, a trial system for remote voting over the Internet in Washington DC (known as the “Digital vote by mail”) was shown to be vulnerable, when it was penetrated by a research team from the University of Michigan, demonstrating how a real attack could render any results unsound, without detection. The attack was documented in a recent paper by researchers from the University of Michigan. So who is right?
Democrats, labor unions and civil rights groups are convinced Republicans are scheming to steal the election from President Barack Obama by suppressing the liberal vote, and they’re girding for battle. Groups on the left are spending more than they have in any previous election to lawyer up, get voters registered early and flood polling locations with trained poll workers and election watchdogs. “We’re not going to be fooled again,” said Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, which recently launched a new campaign focused on voter protection and registration in battleground states. For the left, he said, “a potentially naive mistake in 2000 was not understanding the implications of election administration and the extent to which Republican election officials can tilt things their way.”
A bipartisan push to eliminate millions of federal dollars earmarked to each party’s conventions was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate on Thursday, handing a win to critics who say taxpayer money shouldn’t be spent on orchestrated presidential nominating coronations at a time of severe budget constraints. By a 95-4 vote, the bill was adopted by the Senate as an amendment to the farm bill, a rare show of bipartisanship on an issue involving campaign finance. The bill, proposed by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), would prevent future conventions from receiving federal dollars through the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, a program that is bankrolled by about 33 million taxpayers who each year voluntarily check a box on their tax forms directing $3 to the fund.
The Supreme Court is expected Thursday to decide on a Montana case that could undercut or reaffirm the court’s controversial 2010 campaign finance decision — and don’t think Senate Democrats aren’t paying attention. Just four and a half months shy of national elections and against the backdrop of super PAC dominance, Democrats still see campaign finance as a winning issue, though admittedly not as important as jobs or the economy. The Supreme Court is considering American Tradition Partnership Inc. v. Bullock, a case in which the Montana high court ruled that the national Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling did not require the state to loosen its own campaign finance restrictions. And while a stay has been issued on that decision, most observers believe the Supreme Court will uphold its position that banning corporate political expenditures is a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee today dropped an effort to defund a new Federal Communications Commission rule that will make political ad data available on the Internet. The FCC rule, which was OKed by the commission earlier this year and is expected to go into effect sometime this summer or fall, would require TV stations to put detailed records on political ad buys on a new Web site. The files are currently public but are kept on paper at stations. The broadcast industry has vigorously fought the rule. Earlier this month Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., chair of an appropriations subcommittee, added an amendment to a bill that would have blocked the FCC from using any funds to implement the transparency measure.
Alexi Giannoulias “can’t be trusted,” the 2010 election ad said. His family’s bank loaned money to mobsters, he accepted an illegal tax break and he even squandered money that families were saving for college. If the charges were true, the U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois must have been a real creep. But they were bogus. Giannoulias, the Democratic candidate, lost anyway. His accuser was not his opponent. It was an anonymously funded, pro-Republican nonprofit called Crossroads GPS, a “social welfare” organization that, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens Uniteddecision, can accept unlimited donations from corporations, wealthy individuals and unions, and run attack ads. In short, it functions just like the better-known super PACs but with a major distinction — it is not required to disclose its donors, despite the high court’s consistent support for disclosure rules.