Failing to Defend the Right to Vote Is Simply Not an Option

Earlier this week, on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the important work of restoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). People For the American Way and its African American Ministers in Action program were among the many voting rights advocates who sent a loud and clear message that the VRA is still needed, and the time is now to right what the Court wronged.

As we work to ensure not only that President Obama receives legislation without undue delay, but also that whatever language he signs protects as many voters as possible from discrimination, it is important to remember those who died a half century ago fighting for this very cause.

On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi while participating in the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote.

Today, they are remembered by our friends at Bend the Arc.

Following "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965, Reverend James Reeb traveled to Selma, AL to participate in a second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge. On the 9th, he was beaten. On the 11th, he succumbed to his injuries.

Today, members of one of his former congregations, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC, are "singing on" for change.

Failing to defend the right to vote is simply not an option.

It wasn't then. It isn't now.

PFAW

Obstruction 2.0: How Republican Senators Continue to Block Judicial Nominations Post-“Filibuster Reform”

Tuesday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on the continued GOP obstruction of judicial nominees. The briefing featured PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon. They discussed how Republicans’ obstruction has reached staggering levels, despite changes in Senate filibuster rules.

Marge gave a brief background on the issue of GOP obstruction of judicial nominations, explaining how important federal judgeships are for deciding many issues that affect everyday Americans and defining why Republicans are determined to continue obstruction confirmations of judicial nominees. Their underlying goal is to keep as many seats empty as possible so a President Cruz or Rubio can fill them with right-wing ideologues.

She addressed the current narrative that President Obama has had more confirmations at this time than Bush had, and explained that these numbers need to be put in the context of the fact that Obama has had around 70 more vacancies to fill than his predecessor. That means for Obama’s confirmation results to be seen as equivalent to those of President Bush, he would have had to have many more nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency.

Paul began a discussion of some of the choke methods Republicans are employing to block the confirmation of President Obama's nominees to the bench. Paul delineated how all too often, GOP senators do not cooperate with the White House to suggest candidates for nomination, delaying the process from the very beginning. Once nominees are made and are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have seen GOP Senators delay the hearing by not submitting their blue slips, an unofficial tradition that gives home state Senators an opportunity to express their support for the nominee.

Marge explained ways in which Republicans are delaying the process once nominees are in committee, where the minority is allowed to request one-week delays. To express the magnitude of the obstruction, Marge explained how of the 270 nominees who have had a vote during President Obama's term, only 11 have had their votes held on time.

Once on the Senate floor, the situation doesn't get better as senators are able to filibuster nominees by refusing to give unanimous consent to the simple act of holding a yes-or-no confirmation vote. To offset these delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been forced to file for cloture. Since the rules change in November, there have been cloture votes on all the nominees, adding hours of senate time in post-cloture debates (30 hours per circuit court nominee).

Marge highlighted that if all 30 nominees on the floor were voted on today, which is possible, then the number of current vacancies would drop precipitously, down to the level at this point in George W. Bush’s presidency. It is essential that these be voted on now, and that confirmation votes for nominations coming out of committee be voted on expeditiously.

Fielding questions from PFAW members, Marge and Paul discussed particular cases of obstruction like that of William Thomas's nomination in Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio withheld his blue slip in support of the nominee-–one that he himself had recommended in the first place. Members also made the connection between the effect of big money in politics and the motivations for GOP senators to obstruct confirmations, and attempted to find ways in which everyday Americans can make their voices heard to their senators regarding the issues of obstruction in judicial nominations. Paul used the example of the DC Circuit Court fight, where with the activism from people across the country rallying together helped get all the court's vacancies filled.

Marge and Paul, along with PFAW members, emphasized how as activists, we can intervene in the fight to take back our democracy by letting Senators know that average Americans are paying attention, watching how they respond and vote on judicial nominations, and considering who may be pulling their strings. For instance, a caller in Florida wanting to influence Marco Rubio could call his office and ask him to prevent a delay in a committee vote for nominees to fill four emergency vacancies. And everyone, regardless of whether there are vacancies in their state, can call their senators and call for the quick confirmation of the large number of nominees awaiting a floor vote. She also highlighted what is at stake in this mid-term election since the officials we elect today will help confirm the judges that will decide important cases that affect average Americans. For this reason, it is important to have demographic and experiential diversity in the courts so judges making decisions understand the impact of the law on regular Americans.

Click here more information on our Fair and Just Courts campaign.

PFAW

“Rebranded” GOP Votes for 50th Time to Undermine Obamacare

Today House Republicans led by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) voted to delay the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. In case you haven’t been keeping track, this is the House GOP’s 50th vote to dismantle Obamacare.

In a speech last week at a DNC event, President Obama joked,

“You know what they say: 50th time is the charm. Maybe when you hit your 50th repeal vote, you will win a prize. Maybe if you buy 50 repeal votes, you get one free.” 

On Monday, in the wake of Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to veto her state’s anti-gay “freedom to discriminate” bill, People For the American Way president Michael Keegan wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed that we are continually asked to believe the “new, no-nonsense Republican Party” has finally taken to heart the “dangers of embracing extremism.” However, he writes:

“…there seems to be a Grand Canyon-like gap between what everyone knows the Republican Party should do and what they actually do. Time after time, we see that they just can't help themselves. We all know the embarrassing, crazy uncle who shows up at the family reunion. It seems like all of those crazy uncles have now banded together to control the Republican Party.”

And with their 50th vote to undermine Obamacare, it seems pretty clear that the Republican Party isn’t going to be able to rein in those crazy uncles anytime soon.

 

PFAW

Student Debt Day 2013 Makes Noise for Struggling Students and Families

On June 5th, hundreds of students made their way to Capitol Hill to express their concerns and tell their personal stories about rising student debt. We wanted to bring attention to the federal student loan interest rate that is set to expire on July 1st.  After meeting with and leaving information for over 120 Senate and House members, student advocates from affiliate Young People For, Campus Progress, and other youth organizations hope to have left an impact on the senators considering various plans to address the impending increase. 

Students roaming the halls of the Senate and House offices were passionate and excited about their movement.  In meetings with offices including Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA), students were encouraged to continue making noise about this issue, as public attention is a key factor in forcing a bipartisan solution.  We were told that the public attention brought to the issue by President Obama’s campaign and 2012 State of the Union address was a key factor in passing the one year freeze that was enacted last summer.  Although the president spoke to a group of students on Friday about the interest rates, the public attention to the matter is smaller than it was last year. 

But student debt remains a pressing issue.  The average college student graduates with roughly $26,000 in student debt, and doubling the interest rate would result in what the president referred to as a $1,000 tax hike each year for students.  Over the course of four years, that’s $4,000 in addition to the initial loan amount.  That is $4,000 that is not going towards stimulating the economy, preventing graduates from buying cars and houses, and forcing them to put off big decisions like moving out of their parents’ houses and starting families and lives of their own.  This is something each student on the Hill echoed regardless of the degree to which they are personally affected by the student loan deficit.  As the roughly 7 million students with student debt contemplate how they will face the reality of their futures, they are turning around and telling future generations something we were never told:  It is not worth it.  If you are incurring debt in your undergrad years, going to graduate school might be even further out of the question.  As one student shared yesterday, “Masters degrees have become the new bachelors.”  When students cannot afford the education needed to be hired for the jobs available, the effects are felt across the nation. We now have less than one month to ensure that students are not incurring even more unnecessary debt that does nothing for our economy but hold us back.

Kelly Mears
Intern for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program

PFAW

Why Senate Republican Claims About the D.C. Circuit Don’t Pass the Pinocchio Test

Earlier this week President Obama nominated three unquestionably qualified candidates – appellate attorney Patricia Millet, former civil rights attorney Cornelia Pillard and D.C. District Court judge Robert Wilkins – to the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the country.  Republicans are already fighting hard against these nominations, claiming that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a large enough workload to necessitate filling the vacant seats.  Sen. Chuck Grassley (D-IA) even went as far as to say, “No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload.”

Not quite.  Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post wrote an article this morning delving deeper into Sen. Grassley’s claims.  Kessler wrote,

“Challenged by Grassley’s claim that the D.C. Circuit is last ‘no matter how you slice it,’ we came up with two other measures that might shed more light on the D.C. Circuit’s workload… One way to measure this is by looking at the data for ‘administrative appeals.’

In 2012, nearly 45 percent of those appeals at the D.C. Circuit involved administrative appeals concerning federal rules and regulations, which many experts say are highly complex and take more time to review.  By contrast, at the other circuits, virtually all of the administrative appeals involve immigration cases. Using the data in Table B-3, we found that in the other circuits, administrative appeals that did not involve immigration matters accounted for less than 3 percent of the appeals. (In some circuits, it was less than 1 percent.)”

In other words, the D.C. Circuit is considering some of the most intricate and far-reaching cases of any court.  The complexity of these types of cases make apples-to-apples comparisons with other circuits difficult. 

Kessler continues:

“Another measure of the complexity of the cases are statistics on written opinions. The raw data suggest that judges on the D.C. Circuit write fewer opinions than judges on other appeals circuits. (This was one stat that Grassley staff sent us.) But Table S-3 shows that the D.C. Circuit produced a greater proportion of written, signed opinions on cases determined on the merits than most other circuits.”

Overall, the Post concludes,

“[T]he certainty in Grassley’s argument is particularly misplaced, given the unusual nature of the D.C. Circuit… you can’t just assert that one appeals filing is equal to another — or that one set of statistics is better than another. Depending on the metrics, the D.C. Circuit could very well be in first place.”

In 2005, Sen. Grassley did not seem to have these workload concerns when he voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith to the tenth and eleventh seats on the D.C. Circuit.  Yet when he and other Republicans cast those votes, the court was handling the same number of cases as it is now.  As President Obama pointed out in his speech announcing the three nominees, this is an overtly political move on the part of Senate Republicans:

“When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't – eight is suddenly enough.”

PFAW

UPDATE: Reported Voting Troubles

UPDATE: Shortly after the election, several voting rights advocacy groups released reports or statements detailing problems voters encountered at the polls. Demos put out a report describing how all the various voter suppression tactics affected the 2012 election. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement addressing the problems voters faced and the steps that should be taken to prevent future problems. Project Vote also released a statement praising diligent voters for overcoming adverse voting circumstances.

Despite the concerted efforts by conservative legislators to suppress voters’ rights throughout 2011 and 2012 using a number of tactics in the supposed interest to combat voter fraud, millions of Americans took time last week to cast their vote on Election Day. However, a number of problems for voters still occurred, shedding light on some obvious inadequacies within our voting process.

The foremost issue on Election Day: long lines of epic proportions. In Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia a lack of an appropriate amount of voting machines and too few poll workers led to hours-long waits at multiple voting locations. In Florida, voters were forced to wait until the early hours of the morning before being able to finally cast a vote due to ridiculously long lines, prompting Governor Rick Scott (a known advocate for vote suppressing measures) to call for a review of Florida’s voting process, even though his policies may have contributed to the long lines.

A recent study and a 2008 survey indicate that African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities are disproportionately more likely to be subject to longer poll lines than others and this is largely a result of reductions in early voting. In Ohio, where restrictions on early voting were blocked, early voters showed perseverance over the cold weather as they waited in long lines stretching for blocks to cast their votes. Various Representatives and even President Obama weighed in on the issue, with all agreeing that a lack of voting machines and poll workers contributed to the overwhelming lines and that the issue should be preventable.

Glitches in voting machines also added to the longer-than-usual lines. Electronic voting machines were reportedly malfunctioning, causing vote flipping and ballot presentation errors that resulted in confused voters and the shutting down of faulty machines. These errors, coupled with insufficient available machines to begin with, had voters waiting much longer than expected.

Besides the long lines, other issues arose for voters. Even though Pennsylvania’s ALEC-linked voter ID law was blocked from being enforced on Election Day, poll locations throughout the state had confusing messages about voter ID requirements with many distributing old information that said voters needed a proper ID to vote. Upon being reported, poll workers were instructed to remove the misleading information and not demand ID from voters.

Elsewhere, voters received inaccurate robocalls the night before Election Day. The Arizona Republican Party allegedly called thousands of voters and provided incorrect addresses to polling locations. Information to Spanish speaking voters distributed by an Arizona County Election Department had also listed the wrong date for Election DayTwice! The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund also brought to light several instances where required language assistance was not readily available to help communities with large non-English speaking Asian American populations and cases where poll workers separated Korean American voters into segregated lines because “there were so many."

Although things were difficult at times, Americans still got out to vote last week, demonstrating determination to overcome broken machines and patience in long lines. Voting rights also had a significant win in Minnesota, where an amendment for voter ID requirements was struck down. However, the battle for ensuring voting rights has only just begun – the Supreme Court has accepted a case arguing that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Section 5 requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before putting any voting changes into effect, a vital protection that has served as the lynchpin of protecting voting rights for nearly half a century. The Court’s decision will have a profound impact on future elections and the future of guaranteeing the fundamental right to vote for all.

PFAW Foundation

Reported Voting Troubles

Despite the concerted efforts by conservative legislators to suppress voters’ rights throughout 2011 and 2012 using a number of tactics in the supposed interest to combat voter fraud, millions of Americans took time last week to cast their vote on Election Day. However, a number of problems for voters still occurred, shedding light on some obvious inadequacies within our voting process.

The foremost issue on Election Day: long lines of epic proportions. In Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia a lack of an appropriate amount of voting machines and too few poll workers led to hours-long waits at multiple voting locations. In Florida, voters were forced to wait until the early hours of the morning before being able to finally cast a vote due to ridiculously long lines, prompting Governor Rick Scott (a known advocate for vote suppressing measures) to call for a review of Florida’s voting process, even though his policies may have contributed to the long lines.

A recent study and a 2008 survey indicate that African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities are disproportionately more likely to be subject to longer poll lines than others and this is largely a result of reductions in early voting. In Ohio, where restrictions on early voting were blocked, early voters showed perseverance over the cold weather as they waited in long lines stretching for blocks to cast their votes. Various Representatives and even President Obama weighed in on the issue, with all agreeing that a lack of voting machines and poll workers contributed to the overwhelming lines and that the issue should be preventable.

Glitches in voting machines also added to the longer-than-usual lines. Electronic voting machines were reportedly malfunctioning, causing vote flipping and ballot presentation errors that resulted in confused voters and the shutting down of faulty machines. These errors, coupled with insufficient available machines to begin with, had voters waiting much longer than expected.

Besides the long lines, other issues arose for voters. Even though Pennsylvania’s ALEC-linked voter ID law was blocked from being enforced on Election Day, poll locations throughout the state had confusing messages about voter ID requirements with many distributing old information that said voters needed a proper ID to vote. Upon being reported, poll workers were instructed to remove the misleading information and not demand ID from voters.

Elsewhere, voters received inaccurate robocalls the night before Election Day. The Arizona Republican Party allegedly called thousands of voters and provided incorrect addresses to polling locations. Information to Spanish speaking voters distributed by an Arizona County Election Department had also listed the wrong date for Election DayTwice! The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund also brought to light several instances where required language assistance was not readily available to help communities with large non-English speaking Asian American populations and cases where poll workers separated Korean American voters into segregated lines because “there were so many."

Although things were difficult at times, Americans still got out to vote last week, demonstrating determination to overcome broken machines and patience in long lines. Voting rights also had a significant win in Minnesota, where an amendment for voter ID requirements was struck down. However, the battle for ensuring voting rights has only just begun – the Supreme Court has accepted a case arguing that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Section 5 requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before putting any voting changes into effect, a vital protection that has served as the lynchpin of protecting voting rights for nearly half a century. The Court’s decision will have a profound impact on future elections and the future of guaranteeing the fundamental right to vote for all.

PFAW Foundation

Log Cabin Republicans Endorse Mitt Romney

To no one's surprise, the Log Cabin Republicans have endorsed Mitt Romney. The endorsement is as pitiful as it is predictable.

Romney supports a constitutional amendment prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying. Romney opposed the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell. He signed the National Organization for Marriage's pledge to defend DOMA, put Washington DC's marriage equality law up to a popular vote, and establish a presidential commission to "investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters." Romney has promised to nominate Supreme Court Justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who dissented in the two major gay rights decisions of the past 20 years. And his main advisor on judicial nominations is the infamous Robert Bork, who has compared gay rights to child molestation.

But it's not just LGBT people who should be worried about the prospect of a Romney Court.

The Supreme Court justices Romney promises to nominate would ensure that our nation's highest court continues to routinely bend the law and twist logic in order to favor corporate interests. They would block environmental laws that restrain large corporations from poisoning our air and water. They would severely weaken and in some cases eliminate consumers' right to sue manufacturers of dangerous products. They would make it increasingly difficult for victims of illegal employment discrimination to have their day in court. And, of course, they would continue to game our nation's electoral system to make sure that corporate interests drown out the speech of ordinary Americans, while upholding obstacles designed to prevent those same ordinary Americans from being able to exercise their right to vote.

That's an agenda that's devastating for all Americans, not just gays and lesbians.

PFAW

PFAW joins the “Stop the Greed Bus Tour” in Colorado

 

 

The "Stop the Greed" bus tour rolled into Denver, Colorado today and helped boost support for an important state ballot question on corporate political donations. PFAW’s Colorado Coordinator Ellen Dumm joined Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause (pictured above) and Luis Toro of Ethics Watch in support of the bus tour and a ballot initiative to overturn Citizens United.

On Election Day, Colorado voters will have a chance to say “no” to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited corporate campaign donations, by voting for Amendment 65. The ballot measure calls for the Colorado congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

The Stop the Greed Bus Tour is traveling to states to get the word out about how the billionaire oilmen Koch brothers are pouring millions of dollars into the 2012 elections in an effort to bolster their extreme right-wing agenda.

The Koch brothers have also bankrolled the controversial conservative group True the Vote, which has been accused of challenging eligible voters at the polls and disrupting elections.

 

PFAW

Victim of James O’Keefe’s Voter Fraud Isn’t Buying It

In early April, after she went to cast her ballot in Washington, DC, NBC Latino contributor Alicia Menendez found out that someone else had also tried to cast a ballot in her name. The perpetrator was an ally of right-wing activist James O’Keefe, who has been traveling the country trying to trick Americans into thinking widespread voter identity fraud exists by committing it himself.
Menendez writes that the attempted fraud felt like a personal “violation.” But she’s not buying O’Keefe’s scare tactics:

So why are O’Keefe & company pushing a solution in search of a problem? In 2008, a wave of inspired first-time voters flocked to the polls. That level of participation and infusion of enthusiasm is good for our democracy, regardless of how those Americans vote. But some people couldn’t abide the candidates the voters chose, and so they are trying desperately to keep a similar surge of new voters from voting this year.

O’Keefe and the people who fund groups like his want to stop people who traditionally vote against their candidates, almost all Republicans, from voting at all. To do that, they are trying to re-raise the barriers to voting that we tore down in the civil rights era. They are trying to scare us into believing that there is a massive wave of “voter fraud” sweeping the country. I will not be scared into believing their myths and neither should you.

There is something honest here though: they honestly do not understand why more people don’t try to commit voter fraud. That’s because voter suppression fraud — the kind where you keep people who don’t vote your way from voting at all — has been a standard part of their playbook for years.

For more on the “voter fraud” fraud, see People For the American Way’s report, The Right to Vote Under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box.
 

PFAW