Some feedback on a couple recent blogs showed that I didn’t do such a great job on defining how our OVR work creates public benefit. So let me try again, with thanks to a canny reader who pointed out the subtlety involved. But first, let me restate what our OVR work is: online voter registration assistance technology for NGOs like RockTheVote and government organizations like state and local boards of election. Through our work with RockTheVote, a large and expanding number of good government groups and other NGOs can quickly get an OVR system of their own, without deploying software or operating computers; and some can take advantage of options to largely re-work the appearance of the OVR web application, and/or integrate with mobile clients and social media. We’re also helping drive registrants to the government organizations as well, for those states with a strong online voter registration systems, who have requested that the Rocky OVR system give users the option of registering with the state board of elections. Then, out at the bleeding edge, it is even possible for local or state election officials to piggyback on the OVR system to have their own 100% election-official-managed online voter registration assistance system, with the same look and feel as other county or state web sites, and all without any procurement or deployment.
The Spirit of Democracy America super PAC, which registered with the Federal Election Commission on May 14, has no website. Money, however, was not a problem. The super PAC reported spending more than $160,000 supporting Republican Rep. Paul Cook with a series of media buys during his tightly contested primary campaign in California’s 8th congressional district — a total that accounted for 64 percent of all the outside spending in the race. The source of the funds that fueled Spirit’s expenditures in that race, though, is still unknown. Thanks to a particular quirk in FEC reporting rules, the group was able to run ads in the run-up to the California primary without disclosing its donors. When voters went to the polls June 5 and sent Cook on to the general election ballot, they did so without knowing where a heavy hitting super PAC came up with the money it used to try to influence their votes. The office of Spirit’s treasurer, Thomas Hiltachk — a partner at a law firm with which the group shares an address — did not respond to requests for comment. And Spirit of Democracy America is not alone. It and eight other super PACs that collectively spent nearly $1.3 million in recent primaries disclosed just $37,318 in 2012 cycle contributions prior to the time votes were cast, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis.
Amid the excitement over last week’s health care decision, the Fourth Circuit’s major campaign finance decision in a case called United States v. Danielczyk received relatively little attention. However, Danielczyk is a crucially important case, affirming the constitutionality of a longstanding federal law banning corporations from giving campaign donations directly to candidates. The opinion overturned a flawed lower court decision — and limited the reach of Citizens United. The federal ban on corporate contributions, now located in the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, has been in force since Congress passed the Tillman Act in 1907. For more than a century, it has been one of the core protections against corruption in our democracy.
Voting Blogs: The Current Electoral College is Like the World Series (Which is Why We Need to Change It) | FairVote.org
Defending the current structure of the Electoral College is a difficult task. The winner-take-all method–in which states allocate all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate carries the state–is still used by the vast majority of states today. Its apologists, struggling to make this outdated and unfair system appealing to Americans, have tried to make it seem quintessentially American by comparing it to the most quintessentially American thing possible: baseball’s World Series. This analogy, introduced by MIT researcher Alan Natapoff in the 1990s and widely circulated after the controversial presidential election of 2000, is still commonly cited today as a defense of a winner-take-all Electoral College. It should not be. If anything, comparing these two American institutions perfectly illustrates we why we need to get rid of the winner-take-all Electoral College rules and establish a fairer system of electing the president based on a national popular vote. The basic argument goes like this. The World Series is divided into seven games. The winner of the World Series is the team that wins four out of the seven games, not the team that scores the most aggregate runs over the course of the series. Likewise, the winner of the Electoral College is the candidate that wins the majority of electoral votes through winning states, not the candidate that receives the most aggregate votes in the total population.
Yesterday was a big news day. We learned of the long-awaited health care decision and the historic contempt finding of Attorney General Eric Holder by the House of Representatives. But less attention was paid to the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate Justice Kennedy’s temporary stay of a 9th Circuit decision overturning Arizona’s law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. This means that for the November 2012 election voters in the Grand Canyon State will be able to register without first having to produce additional documentary proof of their citizenship beyond what is currently required on the federal voter registration card.
Voting Blogs: The constitutionality of the national popular vote: refuting challenges based on Article II, Section One | State of Elections
The National Popular Vote (NPV) plan guarantees election of the presidential candidate who earns the greatest number of votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. NPV does not dispense with the Electoral College, and is not a constitutional amendment. Rather, the plan is based on two clear powers given to the states under the Constitution: the power under Article 2 Section 1 to choose how to allocate its presidential electors, and the power under Article 1 Section 10 to enter into interstate compacts. States in early U.S. history often exercised the power to change rules for allocating electoral votes. While today, 48 states and the District of Columbia award their electoral votes to the winner of that state’s popular vote, the founders did not originally contemplate this type of system, as James Madison explained in 1823.
Voting Blogs: Dollars and Sense: Election Policy Decisions Cost New York City, North Carolina Big Bucks | Election Academy
I talk a lot about election costs on this blog … and when I do, I’m usually discussing how states and localities are finding ways to spend less on elections in order to make their budgets work. Recently, however, we’ve seen two stories that involve funding challenges for election offices, both involving a a twist that has an impact on election administrators’ bottom lines. One story is already familiar if you’ve been following this blog. Last week, New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) released a report estimating the cost of a Citywide election in 2012 at approximately $23 million per election. As the report notes, that figure is particularly significant because it represents the extra funds required for a fourth election made necessary by the legislature’s failure to harmonize the election calendar in the wake of a federal court order.
In the next several years, new voting equipment will need to be begged, borrowed or bought in most of the nation’s jurisdictions. This raises at least two questions: In an age of galloping technological advancement, what should we buy? And, who’s going to pay for it? … When levers and punch cards went out, what came in? Two systems, one based on electronics (often with a touch screen) and the other based on optical scanners that “score” hand-marked paper ballots in the same way that standardized tests are scored. The electronic machines (aka DREs, short for “direct recording electronic” voting machines) dominated the market in the early part of the 2000s; but by 2008, optical scanning equipment had become more common. (See the map provided by Verified Voting.org for details.) A debate still rages between advocates of the two systems. Those who distrust electronic machines say they make votes hard to recount when an election is contested. Additionally, “there should be a way that a voter can check on a hard copy—independent from the software—that their vote was captured as they intended it to be,” says Pam Smith of Verified Voting.org, an organization that advocates for a voter-verifiable paper trail for elections.
One of the most common criticisms of plans to modify or eliminate the Electoral College is that to do so would be to deviate from the wisdom of the Founders of the American political system. But the “Father of the Constitution” himself, James Madison, was never in favor of our current system for electing the president, one in which nearly all states award their electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner. He ultimately backed a constitutional amendment to prohibit this practice. As historian Garry Wills wrote of our fourth president, “as a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer.” Yet, when he helped create the Constitution and when he defended it years after his presidency, Madison repeatedly argued for alternatives to the winner-take-all method of choosing a state’s presidential electors. Like other leaders of that time, he looked at the world with clear eyes and learned from experience, unafraid to support change when that change made sense.
Voting Blogs: Voting Rights Groups Move to Hold Alabama Accountable to Federal Voter Registration Law | Project Vote
Citing clear evidence that Alabama public assistance agencies are violating their federally-mandated responsibilities to offer tens of thousands of public assistance clients opportunities to register to vote, today attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a pre-litigation notice letter to the Alabama Secretary of State on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP. The letter details violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and demands that the Secretary act immediately to bring the state into full compliance with the law or face litigation. The groups forwarded copies of the letter to the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) and Medicaid Agency.
Voting Blogs: U.S. Court of Appeals Says Government Never Needs to Count Write-in Votes | Ballot Access News
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, issued a short, thoughtless opinion in Libertarian Party v District of Columbia Board of Elections. It says that because the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 said that the U.S. Constitution does not require states to print write-in space on ballots, therefore it follows logically that if governments do allow write-in space, the same government can refuse to count them.
The fight over photo ID requirements for voters is once again finding its way into courts – but this time the issue isn’t about the merits of ID but rather about ballot language putting the question to voters. In Minnesota, voter ID is supposed to be on the November 2012 ballot. After DFL Governor Mark Dayton vetoed ID legislation in 2011, GOP majorities in the Legislature agreed earlier this year to put the question to voters – action that does not require the Governor’s approval. Given that public opinion polls suggest that voters favor ID, supporters are hopeful that voters can provide the energy to push ID past the opposition of the Governor and DFL legislators. As it has in virtually every state, the dispute has sharply – and fiercely – divided the state’s political establishment. Groups across the spectrum have lined up to support and oppose the amendment. There is a chance, however, that voters may not get the chance to have their say. The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments about whether or not the ballot language describing the amendment is sufficient. As the language currently stands, voters will be asked if the state constitution should be amended “to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters”.
Voting Blogs: Walker, most other Republicans reportedly survive Wisconsin recall elections | The Brad Blog
“It was a great demonstration of democracy, whether you agree or disagree with the outcome,” Huffington Post’s political reporter Howard Fineman told Ed Schultz on MSNBC late tonight, while discussing the results of the historic Wisconsin recall elections. Fineman’s comment is either accurate or it is not. Just as the results reported by the computers across the Badger State are either accurate or not. Who knows? Nobody in WI does, and that’s exactly the problem. The early Exit Poll results had reportedly predicted the race between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett a virtual tie, leading media to plan for a long night tonight. A second round of Exit Polls results, however, were said to have given Walker a broader lead over Barrett. Even so, we were told, the race based on the Exit Poll data alone was still “too close to call.” That data was either accurate or it was not.
Staying out of the increasingly controversial use of the criminal law to police political campaign donations, the Supreme Court chose on Monday to leave undisturbed the convictions of an ex-governor and a campaign contributor who sought to test the issue anew. The action had no direct connection to the recent case of the failed criminal prosecution of former presidential candidate John Edwards, but that case has added to the legal controversy. The Court took no action Monday on any of the seven new cases filed by Guantanamo Bay prisoners, leaving those to be rescheduled. The Court granted review of one new case, Bailey v. United States (docket 11-770), that will clarify the authority of police to detain a suspect while they are waiting to carry out a search warrant. The specific issue is whether police may hold a suspect who has left the place where a search is to be carried out, and is then kept in custody until the search is completed. Federal and state courts are split on the issue, which involves the interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Michigan v. Summers.
Local election administrators form the front line in protecting voters from disenfranchisement. It was certainly welcome news that the Department of Justice sent a letter last week to Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner to remind him of federal law prohibiting the Sunshine State from purging the voter rolls so close to an election. Voters and the courts also make a tremendous difference in the fight against state policies that could make it harder formillions of eligible Americans to vote. After seeing a wave of restrictive voting laws sweep the nation in the last year or so — the worst since the Jim Crow era — push back against these new but regressive policies is occurring across the country, from Maine to Texas andWisconsin to South Carolina. The quiet heroes in the Florida purge story, however, may be those fastidious local supervisors of elections who have committed themselves to protecting voters, following federal law, and publicly stating their opposition to sloppy purge practices. In mid-May, Detzner issued a press release announcing that he had a list of 182,000 people who were on the voter rolls, but ineligible to vote because they were non-citizens. Reports of similar lists for allegedly deceased voters and voters with criminal convictions soon surfaced. There is no dispute that our voter registration lists should be clean and accurate. However, the methodological problems with these types of purges and the proximity to the August primary generated abundant criticism. The almost immediate influx of stories of eligible Americans being incorrectly identified as non-citizens lent fuel to the fire, and many local supervisors of elections publicly criticized the planned purge.
Voting Blogs: Injunction in Florida Voter Registration Case Speaks to Clarity in Election Legislation | Election Academy
On May 31, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in the case of League of Women Voters of Florida et al v. Browning et al, a case challenging Florida’s new voter registration law. In particular, the League and other plaintiffs were concerned about the requirement that voter registration groups must submit applications within 48 hours of the voter’s completion of the form – or face the prospect of fines. The judge’s order halts enforcement of the law (and its supporting rule) pending a full trial on the merits. Judge Hinkle’s order recognizes the interests of the state in enacting the law:
The state has a substantial interest in seeing that voter-registration applications are promptly turned in to an appropriate voter-registration office. Applications that are not promptly turned in may be lost or forgotten or otherwise mishandled. Just as a prudent law-enforcement officer promptly delivers evidence to the evidence room, a prudent voter-registration organization promptly delivers voter-registration applications to the voter-registration office. And applicationsthat are held and delivered to a voter-registration officeen masse, especially near a voter-registration deadline, impose an unnecessary burden on voter-registration officials. The state’s interests are easily sufficient to uphold a requirement for reasonably prompt delivery of applications. (pp.7-8)
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” So said Madison famously, in Federalist 51. He continued with a more significant observation: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Underlying this observation was his recognition that political science could not count on politicians always acting virtuously. Yet Madison also knew that if politicians lacked virtue altogether, democracy (or what he would have called “republicanism”) would be impossible. Here’s how he put this important counterpoint in Federalist 55:
“Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Thus, Madison saw the challenge of successful constitutional design for a democracy as economizing upon an existent but finite supply of virtue among otherwise self-interested politicians. To this end, he gave us the architectural principles of federalism and separation of powers. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”—so that no single institution of government, even in a democracy, can exercise too much power over the lives of the citizenry. Yet, as I read recent news reports of efforts in Florida to purge the state’s voter rolls of noncitizens, I wonder if Madison’s principles of constitutional design are adequate to the task of election administration in the twenty-first century. Or perhaps the better question is whether the current institutional arrangements we use in the United States for election administration are adequately in accord with Madison’s fundamental principles of constitutional design.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to spend $100 million to influence this year’s elections, and it will do anything to make sure no one knows where it gets its money from. In March, a federal judge issued a decision concerning a type of political ad that the Chamber has used heavily in its attempts to influence elections, called “electioneering communications.” The decision requires that any group (or individual) that runs electioneering communications must disclose its donors. Advocates of transparency in elections praised the ruling, hoping it would increase the disclosures that allow voters to evaluate the messages they are being bombarded with this election. But the Chamber is defiant. It has announced that it will switch from using electioneering communications to another type of ad, called “independent expenditures,” which still allow spenders to avoid disclosing donors.
Voting Blogs: Super PACs, “Shadow Super PACs” and the Avalanche of Money | Campaign Legal Center Blog
Super PACs are a blight on America’s political landscape. They provide a means for very wealthy individuals and corporate special interests to evade anti-corruption laws that have been on the books for decades. The courts have long recognized that large contributions to political candidates can corrupt and reduce public confidence in our democratic system. So courts have upheld limits on how much individuals may contribute to candidates, as well as outright bans on corporate and union contributions to candidates. But today, Super PACs are operating as de facto campaigns unrestricted by such limits. Super PACs have the ability to both distort the political process and to affect the outcome of a federal election. Super PAC spending buys access and influence for the Super PAC funders.
Bill Internicola is a 91-year-old, Brooklyn-born, World War II veteran. He fought in the Battle of the Buldge and received the Bronze Star for bravery. He’s voted in Florida for 14 years and never had a problem. Three weeks ago, Bill received a letter from Broward County Florida stating “[Y]ou are not a U.S. Citizen” and therefore, ineligible to vote. He was given the option of requesting “a hearing with the Supervisor of Elections, for the purpose of providing proof that you are a United States citizens” or forfeit his right to vote. This decorated World War II veteran is just one of hundreds of fully eligible U.S. citizens being targeted by Governor Scott’s massive voter purge just prior to this year’s election, according to data obtained from Florida election officials by ThinkProgress.
Voting Blogs: The Cracked Pipeline: How Redistricting Targeted Women Lawmakers In Statehouses Around The Country | TPM
That Democrats became roadkill during the latest round of redistricting, mostly at the hands of Republican state legislatures, has been well documented. But less widely known is that the casualties at the state level often hit women lawmakers the hardest — eating into the slow but steady gains women have made in statehouses across the country. A closer examination shows that it’s not just Democratic women officeholders who have taken it on the chin, being drawn into districts with either more voters from the opposite party or another incumbent — or both. The redistricting process in several states could set women of both parties back, including many women in leadership positions. In North Carolina, where Republicans controlled the redistricting process and women lawmakers have been particularly hard-hit, those dealt a tough blow by redistricting include state Sen. Linda Garrou, the deputy Democratic leader, and Rep. Martha Alexander, who has served for nearly 20 years and is a former co-chair of the redistricting committee. In all, 10 of 25 Democratic women lawmakers in the state were either “double bunked” — forced into a district with another incumbent — or drawn into heavily Republican districts.
Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. But the burglary was the tip of the iceberg: the bigger scandal involved President Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign brazenly peddling government favors for millions of dollars of political donations. In Watergate’s aftermath and the decades since, Congress strengthened our campaign finance laws. But the Supreme Court has chipped away at those reforms, making it harder to fight the corruption that flows from money in politics. Supreme Court missteps, compounded by lower court decisions, have produced the current anything-goes campaign environment. The Court now has an opportunity to undo some of the damage. It is considering a request to take up a case out of Montana that could clarify how much leeway the government has to regulate corrupting political money. Understanding why the Court should do so requires looking at where we are — and how we got here.
Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an opinion in Shelby County v Holder, voting 2-1 to uphold the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states and jurisdictions to obtain federal approval of election changes before they can go into effect. I’ve already blogged about the effects of Section 5, especially in the context of current national fights over voter ID – and any change in Section 5 that reduces federal oversight in covered jurisdictions would be significant to the combatants on either side of that and other debates.
Rick links to an excellent Providence Phoenix article on the Rhode Island voter ID law. It’s a great in-depth look at the political calculus. But the lede poses a question — “how is it that one of the bluest states in the nation enacted a law so red?” — that may set the piece in a misleading light. The question seems to presume that Rhode Island’s new law is the same as the restrictive laws recently passed in, say, Kansas or Tennessee or Texas or Wisconsin. It’s not. As the article itself notes (buried in the political who-dun-it), Rhode Island not only phases its requirement in over several years, but also allows eligible voters without one of the specified photo ID cards to vote a ballot that will count. In Rhode Island — as in Florida — voters without photo ID vote a provisional ballot, and if there’s no other reason to think the ballot is invalid (including a signature match to the registration form), the ballot counts.
Voting Blogs: Americans Elect Shows Voters May Be Ready For A Third Party Candidate, But Not A Third Party | TPM
“None of the above” will now be the only real option for voters frustrated with the tired choice between two parties now that Americans Elect, the well-funded nonpartisan organization that sought to nominate a legitimate third-party candidate for president in 2012, has folded. (Only Nevada has an actual “none of the above” option on the ballot.) It seems that the inability to create a movement in this vein was less about the sentiment — polls show Americans are aren’t fans of either party specifically or the political process generally — but it was lacking a key ingredient: leadership. “You can’t fill a political vacuum with a concept,” Lee Miringoff, assistant professor of political science and director the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told TPM. “The context is there, and the climate is right, but you need someone you can look at, a person, a candidate. Politics has become much more about personal qualities of individuals.”
Florida does not have a good track record with voter purges. In 2000, Florida’s efforts to purge persons with criminal convictions from the rolls led to, by conservative estimates, close to 12,000 eligible voters being removed because the state’s process was so imprecise that an eligible voter named John Michaels could be confused with an ineligible person named John Michaelson. In 2004, Florida’s purge had a blatant racial disparity. Now, in 2012, Florida’s Secretary of State recently announced new efforts to purge Florida’s voter rolls. The initiative purports to be targeting non-citizens and deceased persons for removal from the voter rolls, but because Florida’s past efforts purged eligible voters from the rolls, careful scrutiny is warranted to ensure eligible Americans will not be blocked from voting. Clean voter rolls are very important. We all benefit when states undertake responsible list maintenance procedures. Because the fundamental right to vote is at stake when voter list cleansing efforts are undertaken, the process must be transparent, accurate, and under reasonable time frames, especially when the list maintenance effort is of the scale Florida is proposing.
Over the past few years, there has been some concern about the transparency of the counting process in American elections, especially where votes are cast and counted electronically. For instance, last spring in Waukesha County during the Wisconsin Supreme Court run-off, a last minute correction to a clerical error changed the results of the election. In March of this year, an electronic voting system mistakenly recorded two losing city council candidates in Palm Beach County, Florida as receiving the most votes. On May 3rd the people of Greater London went to the polls to elect a new mayor and local assembly. Voters marked their votes on paper ballots. At 8 am the next morning, poll workers began counting the votes electronically at three different locations across Greater London. The process used to count ballots allowed for a high degree of transparency in the count.
Recently, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) proposed eliminating limits on contributions to political candidates as the solution to the current campaign finance mess. He says unlimited contributions to candidates won’t further empower the wealthy; they will just create more political speech. And he said this with a straight face! Sen. Alexander said that if Congress eliminated the limits on contributions to candidates, there would be no need to worry about large contributions to outside groups taking over our elections and as they would become minor players in our elections. The Supreme Court has recognized that large contributions to candidates and parties can corrupt and create the appearance of corruption. Because they can reduce public confidence in our democratic process, the Court said Congress can limit the size of such contributions. By contrast, the Court naively proclaimed in Citizens United that unlimited money spent “independently” of candidates does not corrupt candidates. Senator Alexander points to that same unlimited outside spending to justify elimination of limits that undoubtedly prevent corruption.
Voting Blogs: Montana and Vote-By-Mail: Change Coming Slowly – but Coming Nonetheless | Election Academy
Friday’s Great Falls (MT) Tribune had a great piece on Montana’s slow evolution toward vote-by-mail. There isn’t necessarily a whole lot of news in the piece for someone who follows elections across the nation, but I thought the article was terrific in how well it captured the nature – and pace – of change in elections. Recent headlines have all been about struggles in states where legislatures have made significant and rapid changes to election procedures. As I’ve discussed here in many different posts, such change is a natural offshoot of the different policy views of the parties combined with change in legislative control due to elections.
Every now and then, a really interesting piece rolls through my Twitter feed; earlier this week, it was a Wired piece about the growing use of “A/B testing” on the web:
Welcome, guinea pigs. Because if you’ve spent any time using the web today — and if you’re reading this, that’s a safe bet — you’ve most likely already been an unwitting subject in what’s called an A/B test. It’s the practice of performing real-time experiments on a site’s live traffic, showing different content and formatting to different users and observing which performs better.
The article notes that A/B testing (explained in further detail here) has been around for a little more than a decade, most notably by giants like Google and Amazon, who use the procedure to test and tweak virtually every aspect of their online experience.