Just before sunset on a recent evening, scores of lawyers in dark suits and polished loafers streamed into the swanky 18th-floor ballroom of a downtown high-rise here. They sipped chardonnay and nursed Heinekens, munched on cheese cubes and made small talk. The invitation to the event had asked for a “suggested contribution” of $500 to each of three candidates, who were now mingling sheepishly among the crowd. They were no ordinary politicians. In fact, they weren’t politicians at all, but rather Florida Supreme Court justices. Each has been in office since the 1990s, each retained by voters overwhelmingly in previous elections, and each now reluctantly campaigning — for the first time. While deep-pocketed super PACs and ultra-wealthy donors have attracted plenty of attention in the presidential contest this year, they are also making waves further down the political food chain. The mere possibility that a rich benefactor or interest group with endless amounts of money could swoop in, write massive checks and remake an entire court for ideological reasons has prompted judges here in Florida and elsewhere to prepare for battles they never expected to fight.
National: More voters casting ballots early – early voting benefits campaigns with money, manpower | USAToday.com
When South Carolina voters cast their ballots in the Republican presidential primary Saturday, they’ll have company. That same day, Florida Republicans can begin in-person voting for the state’s Jan. 31 primary, joining more than 100,000 state residents who already have cast absentee ballots. As the votes are counted in Florida on Jan. 31, voters in Ohio and other states with primaries on March 6 — Super Tuesday because of its 10 GOP primaries and caucuses — will begin absentee voting. That week, voters can vote early in Arizona for its Feb. 28 primary. Later in February, polls will open for early voting in the March 6 Georgia and Tennessee primaries.
Voting Blogs: Reduced and Uneven Hours for Early Voting in Florida’s Presidential Preference Primary | electionsmith
As I’ve written before, under Florida law the state must provide uniform standards for the proper and equitable implementation of voting laws. Unfortunately, House Bill 1355, enacted by the Florida legislature last May, has led to fewer and uneven opportunities for Floridians to cast ballots in the state’s January presidential preference primary.
If voting legislation in 2011 centered largely on hindering access to the ballot box, 2012 will hopefully be defined as the year that voting rights began fighting back. Last year, a rash of anti-voting legislation popped up in states around the country, from Florida to Texas to Wisconsin. New laws banning anyone without photo IDs from voting (commonly known as “voter ID”) grabbed the headlines, in part because of their potential to disenfranchise over 3 million citizens in the 2012 election, but lesser-known legislation emerged as well.
Attorney General Eric Holder says the U.S. Justice Department will move aggressively to review the plethora of new voting laws that state legislatures across the nation have passed in recent years to exclude minority voters. Get to it, Mr. Holder.
There is no better place to start than in Florida where picking and choosing voters has become a high art and low crime. And it is not just minority voters who face these new hurdles but young voters, voters who have moved into new precincts, voters whose interest in politics is newly awakened. In short, voters who aren’t part of a tightly knit group that can be counted on for party-line (dare we say, Republican) ballots in a state where Democrats outnumber GOP registered voters.
Consider the issue of restoring civil rights, including the right to vote, to people who have completed their sentences on felony convictions. Not a popular bunch, not a group easy to defend. Yet, these are people who have paid the debt demanded of them by society, and it’s in society’s best interest to give them a stake in the future of their communities.
Editorials: Holder’s Voting Rights Gamble – The Supreme Court’s voter ID showdown. | Rick Hasen/Slate
On the Friday before Christmas Day, the Department of Justice formally objected to a new South Carolina law requiring voters to produce an approved form of photo ID in order to vote. That move already has drawn cheers from the left and jeers from the right. The DoJ said South Carolina could not show that its new law would not have an adverse impact on racial minorities, who are less likely to have acceptable forms of identification.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley denounced the DoJ decision blocking the law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act: “It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th Amendment rights.” The state’s attorney general vowed to fight the DoJ move in court, and thanks to an odd quirk in the law, the issue could get fast-tracked to the Supreme Court, which could well use it to strike down the Voting Rights Act provision as unconstitutional before the 2012 elections.
The current dispute has an eerie echo. More than 45 years ago, South Carolina also went to the Supreme Court to complain that Section 5 unconstitutionally intruded on its sovereignty. Under the 1965 Act, states with a history of racial discrimination like South Carolina could not make changes in its voting rules—from major changes like redistricting to changes as minor as moving a polling place across the street—without getting the permission of either the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge court in Washington, D.C. The state had to show the law was not enacted with the purpose, or effect, of making minority voters worse off than they already were.
Editorials: Federal is the latest challenge to Florida’s politically motivated voting law | HeraldTribune.com
The venerable Florida League of Women Voters has decided to make a federal case out of a restrictive, punitive and politically motivated voting law approved this year by the state Legislature. Good for the league, and its co-plaintiffs.
The league is one of three groups that filed a lawsuit last week in a Tallahassee federal court, challenging the law. The suit asserts that the state law violates the plaintiffs’ rights to free speech and conflicts with the National Voter Registration Act. Joining the league were Rock the Vote — a national organization that engages young Americans in voting — and the Florida Public Interest Group Education Fund. This lawsuit is one of two federal cases involving the Florida voting law.
On Election Day 2000, tens of thousands of Floridians accidentally marked their ballots in ways that could not be read by the state’s voting machines. Their votes didn’t count. The identity of our next president hung in the balance for 36 days.
To prevent the Florida debacle from repeating, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The law required states to upgrade their voting machines. Voting machines must now warn voters and give them an opportunity to correct their ballot if they determined there was an “overvote,” the invalid selection of more than one candidate, on the ballot.
This technological fix was supposed to make these kinds of lost votes a thing of the past. Although there is no reliable nationwide data on the number of overvotes in recent elections, it is likely that the voting-machine changes mandated by HAVA have substantially reduced overvoting. But the HAVA requirements haven’t been enough to prevent votes from being lost — sometimes in staggering numbers — in recent elections.
The Obama administration on Tuesday will wade into the increasingly divisive national debate over new voting laws in several states that could depress turnout among minorities and others who helped elect the president in 2008.
A dozen states this year tightened rules requiring voters to present state-issued photo identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Although Democratic governors vetoed four of the measures, liberal and civil rights groups have been raising alarms about the remaining laws, calling them an “assault on democracy” and an attempt to depress minority voter turnout. Supporters of the tighter laws say they are needed to combat voter fraud.
With the presidential campaign heating up, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will deliver a speech Tuesday expressing concerns about the voter-identification laws, along with a Texas redistricting plan before the Supreme Court that fails to take into account the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population, he said in an interview Monday.
Dawn Quarles, a high school teacher, is facing a $1,000 fine for doing something Florida has been cracking down on lately: registering students to vote. The state’s leaders want to stop registration drives that add more qualified voters to the rolls – and they are having a disturbing level of success.
Florida’s crackdown on voter registration is part of a larger national campaign against voting, which includes tough new voter ID laws in many states, rollbacks on early voting and other anti-democratic measures. Supporters of these laws argue that they are concerned with deterring fraud. But the real driving force is keeping down the number of voters – especially young, old, poor, and minority voters.
Quarles is a government teacher at Pace High School in the Florida Panhandle. Along with teaching her students about democracy, she has tried to get them to participate, by helping them register to vote. This should be a good thing. Our nation’s founders insisted that government should operate with the consent of the governed. Ideally, everyone who is eligible should be registered and vote.
In the 2008 election, Barack Obama benefited from extended voting hours and early voting days, as well as rules allowing citizens to register and vote on the same day. It’s pretty obvious why: students, the elderly, and hourly-wage workers who can’t queue for hours without making the boss angry, tend to favor Democrats. Florida – which became a byword for Banana Republicanism and electoral corruption 11 years ago – has been positively zealous in attempts to restrict voting rights on the grounds that easy voting leads to waste, fraud and abuse. One lawmaker pitched a hissy fit, claiming that dead actors (Paul Newman, for one) constantly turn up on voter rolls and that “Mickey Mouse” had registered to vote in Orlando. State senator Mike Bennett wants to make voting “harder”; after all, he said, “people in Africa literally walk 200 or 300 miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it?”
Florida Republicans addressed the problem of “convenience” earlier this year by cutting early voting days from 14 to eight, cutting budgets for expanded polling places and eliminating Sunday voting: African American (and some Latino) churches had successfully run a post-sermon”Souls to the Polls” operation, getting out the vote in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Florida has also attacked civic-minded people trying to register new voters. Jill Ciccarelli, a teacher at New Smyrna Beach High School, wanted to foster a sense of citizenship amongst her pupils, so she helped the ones who were old enough register. She didn’t know she was breaking the law. Now, all individuals or groups must file a “third party registration organisation” form with the state, and instead of having ten days to deliver the paperwork,they must now do it in 48 hours. Failure to comply could draw felony charges and thousands of dollars in fines.
Barack Obama may have won this crucial state three years ago on the Sunday before Election Day when “souls to the polls” drives brought a surge of blacks and Latinos to cast ballots after church. Florida had opened the polls two weeks early, and even so, long lines across the state prompted the governor to issue an emergency order extending the hours for early voting. Propelled by waves of new voters including college students, Obama eked out a win with 51 percent.
It will be different next year, thanks to changes in the voting laws adopted by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Early voting was reduced from two weeks to one week. Voting on the Sunday before Election Day was eliminated. College students face new hurdles if they want to vote away from home. And those who register new voters face the threat of fines for procedural errors, prompting the nonpartisan League of Women Voters to suspend voter-registration drives and accuse the Legislature of “reverting to Jim Crow-like tactics.”
I’ve been writing a lot over the past five months about House Bill 1355, dubbed by many as Florida’s ignominious voter suppression law. HB1355 is being challenge in federal court, and the US Justice Department has yet to grant preclearance of portions of the law which cover five Florida counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Defending the law, the Florida Secretary of State is suing in Federal Court to not only uphold all sections of the law, but to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Most of the attention that I and others have given to HB1355 has focused on three areas that the GOP-controlled legislature cracked down on in order to make it more difficult for citizens of Florida to register to vote and cast a ballot, namely:
1) Reducing the number of days for early voting from 14 days to eight days, and altogether eliminating early voting on the Sunday before the Tuesday election.
2) Requiring third-party voter registration organizations to submit voter registration applications within 48 hours of receipt instead of ten days as provided by existing law, and imposing a fine of $50 for each failure to comply with the deadline, and imposing fines up to $1,000 for failing to comply with other provisions.
3) Disallowing voters who move from one Florida county to another to make an address change at the polls on the day of an election and vote a regular ballot, except for active military voters and their family members.
If you’re counting reasons to buy a smart phone this holiday season, here’s another: you’re going to be able to assist your civic responsibility with one. Both Hillsborough’s Supervisor of Elections and the Florida League of Women Voters are aiming to make it as easy as a snap and a click to connect and update your voter records, using tag code and smart phone technology.
Tags are those square, usually black and white symbols that somewhat resemble the now-innocuous bar codes which turn up everywhere and contain information often scanned, read and inputted when a purchase is made. Tags also are information-containing symbols that can be scanned, read and used, this time by citizens, to accomplish an objective, usually free of charge. However, to make them work, smart phone users must download the appropriate free app from the app store.
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has a novel strategy to preserve state election changes that would disproportionately hurt minority voters: Get the courts to end the federal process in Florida that could prevent the changes from taking effect in Hillsborough and four other counties. A three-judge court in the District of Columbia should not fall for the misdirection play, and it should not approve the discriminatory voting practices embraced by the governor and the Legislature.
The state first went shopping over the summer when it asked the federal court — rather than the Obama administration’s Justice Department — to sign off on four controversial provisions of a new elections law that would particularly hurt the poor and minorities. Adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature this year, the changes reduce the number of days for early voting, make it harder for people who move to cast regular ballots at their new polling places, and put up new roadblocks for voter registration drives and citizen petitions.
After weeks of controversy where it wasn’t clear if, how or when voters in Cuyahoga County, OH, would get their absentee ballots, a new issue has arisen: the ballots themselves aren’t clear.
The Plain Dealer has the story:
The Nov. 8 ballot asks Cuyahoga County voters whether they wish to approve three state issues. But some who are voting early are wondering where to mark their votes. The confusion will be the same for those who go to the polls on Election Day. The “yes” and “no” ovals that normally are under the wording for an issue appear to be missing for the state issues. The ovals aren’t under the English version of the questions. They only are under the Spanish translations.This is the first election in which bilingual ballots will be distributed countywide. The ballot design is particularly hard to follow because two of the three state issues are spread over two columns — leaving no place to vote in the column with the English-language wording.
The problem here is one of usability, which is defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”
Voting Blogs: A Win for Voters Is Colorado Secretary of State Gessler’s Second Loss | Jonathan Brater/Huffington Post
Across the country, legislators and political operatives seem determined to make it more difficult for American citizens to vote. Since January, more than a dozen states passed a variety of different laws and executive actions that will make it far more difficult for millions to vote. Seven states, including Texas and South Carolina, will now require voters to present specified government-issued photo IDs to vote. Florida has gone after organizations like the League of Women Voters, threatening them with huge fines if they try to help register citizens to vote unless they comply with a new set of byzantine state rules. Georgia and Arizona are trying to knock down the Voting Rights Act, the most successful piece of civil rights legislation, in a court challenge. And Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler made headlines with the false claim that thousands of non-citizens were voting in Colorado. Last week, Secretary Gessler was at it again. This time he asked a court to essentially freeze the Denver electorate to those who voted in 2010. The court refused.
Colorado gives counties the option of conducting certain elections by “mail ballot.” In those elections, there are no traditional polling places; instead, citizens vote by mailing in ballots sent to them by the state. Colorado is holding such an election this November, and the Denver County Clerk and Recorder had planned to take the unremarkable step of sending ballots to all registered voters in the County, as she has for the last five election cycles. Secretary Gessler sued the Denver County Clerk and Recorder to make her stop, arguing that she may only send ballots to voters who voted in the last election. This move, had it prevailed, could have kept thousands of eligible and registered Colorado citizens from participating in this November’s elections, for no good reason.
Voting Blogs: Questionable Claims Regarding Early Voting by FL Secretary State in Amended VRA Complaint | electionsmith
In its amended complaint to receive declaratory judgment from a federal court that all sections of HB 1355 are entitled to preclearance under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Florida Secretary of State plays fast and loose with the facts. With respect to the shrinking of the days permissible to vote early in Florida, the complaint states (on page 19) that:
The changes to the early voting statute contained in Section 39 were adopted to expand access to early voting and provide each supervisor of elections additional flexibility regarding the scheduling of early voting. The changes to the early voting statute contained in Section 39 were not adopted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority.
Both the motive behind the statute, HB 1355, as well as the empirical evidence regarding race and early voting in Florida, are quite clear, and do not jibe with the claims made in the Secretary of State’s complaint.
Editorials: Who Stole the Election? Dominating many state legislatures, Republicans have launched a full-on assault on voting rights | American Prospect
When Charles Webster was a member of the Maine House during the 1980s and 1990s, he and his Republican colleagues routinely proposed bills that would create restrictive voting laws—or, as Webster sees it, legislation to tamp down on the rampant threat of voter fraud. “Every year we tried to solve this problem,” he says, “and it was always a partisan vote,” with Democrats supporting laws intended to increase turnout. As a result, Webster says, “We have one of the most loosey-goosey, lax election laws in the country.”
Others would call Maine’s voting laws a striking success. Most states struggle to get citizens to the polls; national turnout for a presidential election hasn’t topped 60 percent since 1968, and turnout for midterm elections hovers in the 30s. That puts the United States far below the participation level in other Western democracies. Yet for the past four decades, Maine has stood apart. With an array of regulations that encourage voting—the state has allowed voters to register on Election Day since 1973—Maine consistently places among the top five states for turnout. Seventy-two percent of the eligible population voted in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the state.
Republicans like Webster, who now chairs the state GOP, argue that too many people are voting in the state—at least, too many illegal immigrants, out-of-state college students, and people who live in hotels. “What I don’t want is somebody coming in stealing elections who doesn’t live in the town,” Webster says.
With tight contests brewing for president and control of Congress, there’s no shortage of competitive races over the next 14 months. But a number of offices further down the ballot are also up for grabs, such as the low-profile but increasingly contested position of secretary of state.
Currently, Republicans control 30 seats; Democrats control 20. Most of these positions are officially known as secretary of state, but a few states hand equivalent duties to their lieutenant governor instead. All told, 39 are popularly elected, eight are appointed by the governor and three are appointed by the legislature.
Many secretaries of state have portfolios that include fairly neutral duties, such as overseeing the registration of businesses and lobbyists. But the main reason why they have become coveted and competitive offices in recent years is the role they can play in shaping how elections are conducted.
Amidst the ongoing controversies surrounding the Republican primary calendar — with Florida moving its contest to late January, and triggering a move up by the officially sanctioned early states — some people have probably wondered if it might be possible to come up with better ways to pick a presidential nominee. But is there, really? Already every cycle, the parties review the rules of their primary processes, and often make small or large adjustments. But can they produce major change?
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner told TPM: “Well, would another commission be successful, when we’ve had a commission almost every four years going back for 30 years?” (For the history of the New Hampshire primary, see our post in which we interviewed Garder.)
And for his own part, Florida GOP chair Lenny Curry told TPM that the state is not trying to challenge New Hampshire’s spot as the first primary. “No way,” said Curry, explaining that “there’s a tradition there, there’s a history there. It’s important, and it matters, and it works. So by no means do we want to — that was never the intent.” So what does Florida want?
The national trauma of the 2000 presidential election and its messy denouement in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court made, for a brief moment, election reform a cause célèbre. The scrutiny of election administration went far beyond the vote counting and recounting that dominated headlines. The Florida saga cast a harsh light on the whole country’s archaic and fragmented system of election administration, exemplified by a state where hundreds of thousands of citizens were disenfranchised by incompetent and malicious voter purges, Reconstruction-era felon voting bans, improper record-keeping, and deliberate deception and harassment.
The outrage generated by the revelations of 2000 soon spent itself or was channeled into other avenues, producing, as a sort of consolation prize, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, an underambitious and underfunded law mainly aimed at preventing partisan mischief in vote counting. The fundamental problem of accepting 50 different systems for election administration, complicated even more in states like Florida where local election officials control most decisions with minimal federal, state or judicial oversight, was barely touched by HAVA. As Judith Browne-Dianis, of the civil rights group the Advancement Project, told me: “The same cracks in the system have persisted.”
While campaigning to become Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris Kobach held a press conference to make the case for a photo ID requirement at the polls. In his argument, he noted that a man named Alfred K. Brewer, who died in 1996, had voted in the 2010 primary. There was just one problem with that: Brewer wasn’t dead.
Shortly after the press conference, Brewer’s wife received a call regarding her husband’s “passing.” And she says, ‘Well, why do you want to talk to me? He’s out raking leaves,'” Brewer says.
It turned out the voter rolls Kobach referenced had the birth date for Brewer’s father, who had the same name. Despite the mistake, Kobach was trying to make a serious point. He’s part of a growing number of Republican lawmakers trying to crack down on voter fraud.
National: Republicans rewriting state election laws in ways that could hurt Democrats | The Washington Post
Looking to capitalize on their historic gains last year, Republican lawmakers in several states are rewriting their election laws in ways that could make it more difficult for Democrats to win.
They have curbed early voting, rolled back voting rights for ex-felons and passed stricter voter ID laws. Taken together, the measures could have a significant and negative effect on President Obama’s reelection efforts if they keep young people and minorities away from the polls. As the primary season kicks into gear, Republican presidential hopefuls are hitting the road and meeting voters in Iowa , New Hampshire and other early primary states.
“It all hits at the groups that had higher turnout and higher registration in 2008,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, a civil rights lawyer who co-directs the Advancement Project, which has been tracking the new regulations.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is concerned voter turnout is at risk of being suppressed across the country — and thinks a spate of new state laws are to blame. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, called a hearing Thursday to examine laws that limit early voting, require photo identification and regulate who can volunteer for voter registration.
The senator pointed to Texas and Florida as states that have moved to restrict voter registration drives in the name of curbing fraud, but said such fraud is almost nonexistent and is used as an excuse to disenfranchise voters.
“Protecting the right of every citizen to vote and ensuring elections are fair and transparent are … American values,” said Durbin, who will send a letter to governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Tennessee about voter-related concerns in those states.
According to a recent report by The Florida Parole Commission, “the overall three-year recidivism rate based on all released inmates” was 33..1, while the recidivism rate for released prisoners who were given their civil rights back and were allowed to vote stood at 11 percent.
These findings were not generated by a progressive organization such as The Sentencing Project, the ACLU, or the NAACP, but by a state governmental body utilizing exacting scientific methodologies. The inescapable conclusion has to be that allowing formerly incarcerated persons to more fully participate in society will result in a reduction of crime and recidivism.