Voting Rights – We Can Win

This Saturday marks the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Though we have a long way to go to restore this landmark law and ensure that every voter can cast a ballot that counts, it's important to recognize the progress being made.

Yesterday a ruling in North Dakota provided relief for voters facing restrictive voter ID this November. From the Native American Rights Fund:

[A] federal district court enjoined North Dakota’s strict voter ID law and ruled that voters unable to obtain the necessary identification may vote in the upcoming election by completing a declaration or affidavit. The court agreed with the seven Native American voters that the new law disproportionately burdens Native Americans and denies qualified voters the right to vote.

Last week was huge for voting rights victories, with voters in five states receiving favorable rulings.

Kansas: A Shawnee County district judge ruled that thousands of questioned (thanks to Kris Kobach) voter registrations will count in the August 2 primary. As reported by the Kansas City Star:

A Shawnee County district judge ruled Friday that the votes of 17,500 people whose registrations had been questioned are to be tallied in Tuesday’s primary.

Judge Larry Hendricks issued a temporary order, meaning the votes will be counted Tuesday. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against Secretary of State Kobach on behalf of Kansas voters who were told that they could vote in federal elections but that their votes in state and local elections would not be counted.

Louisiana: A federal district court held the state accountable for its neglect of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which expands voter registration access to motor vehicle offices and other agencies. Niyati Shah provided this Project Vote analysis:

In this exhaustive opinion, the court basically held that mere lip service to the public assistance provisions of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) is not an option . . . In Louisiana, however, the state had apparently decided that our vulnerable citizens weren’t all that important, and gave all sorts of excuses for neglecting Section 7 of the NVRA. But, in a resounding victory for the right to franchise, a federal district court rejected the state’s arguments.

North Carolina: The state's monster voter suppression law that covers a number of harmful policies was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Paul Gordon provided this PFAW Foundation analysis:

A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed a lower federal court and struck down North Carolina’s notorious voter ID law, as well as its provisions curtailing or eliminating early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and preregistration of 16 and 17 year-olds.

Significantly, the unanimous circuit court concluded that the law does more than "just" have a discriminatory impact, in violation of a section of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  The court also found that the law’s purpose was to discriminate, putting it in violation of the United States Constitution. One piece of evidence: state officials moved to enact the law within days of the Shelby County case removing any preclearance requirements under Section 5 of the VRA.

Virginia: Though here it was a state court pushing back on voting rights progress, Governor Terry McAuliffe stood strong in defense of voting rights restoration for formerly incarcerated persons. After the Virginia Supreme Court struck down Governor McAuliffe’s executive orders restoring the voting rights of over 200,000 formerly incarcerated persons, McAuliffe said "he would forgo his blanket declaration — and, instead, individually sign about 206,000 restoration orders for ex-felons, including 13,000 who had registered after his April order."

Wisconsin: A federal district court struck several provisions of the state's voter suppression package. Rick Hasen provided this Election Law Blog analysis:

This is a pretty sweeping opinion, which rejects many of the state’s arguments for its restrictive voting rules as [pretextual], and really aimed at giving Republicans advantage in elections. The judge was particularly skeptical of measures which made it harder to vote in Milwaukee, with its large population of minority voters, and to a lesser extent, Madison, a liberal stronghold in the state. But this is a careful opinion which parses the evidence and does not accept all of the claims.

Two weeks ago it was Texas and, again, Wisconsin.

Texas: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings against voter ID. As reported by the Texas Tribune:

Texas' voter identification law violates the U.S. law prohibiting racial discrimination in elections, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings that the 2011 voter ID law — which stipulates the types of photo identification election officials can and cannot accept at the polls — does not comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Wisconsin: A federal district court provided relief for voters facing restrictive voter ID this November. From the American Civil Liberties Union:

Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been a mistake from day one. This ruling is a strong rebuke of the state’s efforts to limit access to the ballot box. It means that a failsafe will be in place in November for voters who have had difficulty obtaining ID.

There is a lot of work left to do in the voting rights arena. Not even these victories signal the end of the road for voting rights advocates. But they are important signs of progress.

Onward.

PFAW

Unlike Senate GOP, Obama Continues to Do His Job on Judges

Senate Republicans insist they will not even consider any Supreme Court nominee put forth by the president of the United States, prompting calls from around the country: #DoYourJob!  But that’s not their only campaign of obstruction aimed at the judiciary. They’ve been abdicating their responsibilities to consider and vote on lower federal court nominees, as well.  Last year’s total of only 11 judicial confirmations is the lowest in more than 50 years (and there were a LOT fewer judgeships to fill back then).

Fortunately, President Obama and the White House are continuing to take their responsibilities seriously.  Just today, Obama nominated federal district court judge Lucy Koh of California to fill a vacancy on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Two weeks ago, he nominated judge Abdul Kallon of Alabama to fill a longtime vacancy on the Eleventh Circuit.  In January, he nominated Jennifer Kelmetsrud Puhl of North Dakota to serve on the Eighth Circuit, as well as Donald Schott of Wisconsin and Myra Selby of Indiana for the Seventh Circuit.  The president is also continuing to make nominations for federal district courts, as well.

The White House does not need to be told to #DoYourJob.  They’re already doing it, just as the Constitution contemplates.  Now Senate Republicans need to do their jobs on staffing our federal district courts, circuit courts, and, of course, the Supreme Court.

PFAW

Supreme Court Rejects Attempt At Restrictive Six-Week Abortion Ban

There has long been a debate raging within the anti-abortion movement between those who have mapped out a careful strategy to slowly chip away at Roe v. Wade through incremental restrictions on abortion and those who want to launch legal broadsides against abortion rights in the hopes that one will take Roe down once and for all.

The incrementalists will have their big day in court on March 2, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a challenge to a set of laws in Texas that seeks to cut off access to legal abortion even as the procedure remains legal. Whole Woman’s Health is the culmination of a decades-long strategy by groups like Americans United for Life to choke off abortion access by creating unnecessary regulations on clinics. These groups are also hoping to get the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe in the form of laws banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, just before when the court has said that abortion bans are legal.

But those who want to find a silver bullet to end abortion rights completely just had a day in court too … and it didn’t go well for them.

The Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down North Dakota’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which would have banned abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know that they are pregnant. The law was clearly unconstitutional — one prominent anti-choice lawyer has called such efforts “futile” — but North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said that it was an “attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.”

The boundaries of Roe v. Wade, it turns out, however much they may be weakened by incremental restrictions, still prevent banning almost all abortions.

Yet today’s rejection is unlikely to halt the efforts of “heartbeat bill” crusaders, the most prominent of whom is Religious Right activist Janet Porter, who is currently running for the legislature in her home state of Ohio in an effort to push such a bill through.

PFAW

Dakotans File Suit, All Fifty States Now Have Either Marriage Equality or a Legal Challenge in Progress

In May, when we last updated our numbers on the fight for marriage equality, there were just two states left with unchallenged bans on same-sex marriage.

Today that number is zero – every state now either has marriage equality (19 and DC) or a legal challenge in progress (the other 31).

First we heard from South Dakota on May 22, where Rosenbrahn v. Daugaard has been filed on behalf of six couples.

Attorney Josh Newville in the Argus Leader:

With the filing of this lawsuit, South Dakota will join the many other states in the nation who are engaged in a historic and very important discussion about it what means to treat each other equally under the law.

Two weeks later, on June 6, Newville was back in court putting the last state on the board by filing Ramsay v. Dalrymple on behalf of seven North Dakota couples.

Plaintiff Bernie Erickson on Valley News Live:

We are simply looking for the same recognition that every other couple has, every other loving couple[].

Onward!

Check out our website for more LGBT equality updates.

PFAW Foundation

Marriage Equality Now Law in 19 States, Only 2 Bans Remain Unchallenged

The march toward marriage equality nationwide continues at an astounding pace.

On Monday Oregon became the 18th state added to the win column when Judge Michael McShane struck down its ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Then on Tuesday Judge John Jones issued a similar ruling in Pennsylvania, followed Wednesday by the news that Governor Tom Corbett won't appeal – make that 19!

Wednesday also brought the filing of a marriage equality lawsuit in Montana. Governor Steve Bullock:

Montanans cherish our freedom and recognize the individual dignity of every one of us. The time has come for our state to recognize and celebrate – not discriminate against – two people who love one another, are committed to each other, and want to spend their lives together.

I look forward to a future where all Montanans have the opportunity to marry the person they love, just as Lisa and I did almost 15 years ago. We are on the path to greater understanding and equality, and we will all be better for it.

Montana is the 29th state without marriage equality that has a lawsuit pending.

That leaves only two states, North and South Dakota, with unchallenged bans on same-sex marriage. Their suits could be filed any day now.

Onward!

Check out our website for more LGBT equality updates.

PFAW Foundation

One Year After Citizens United, Right-Wing Demands Even More Corporate Money and Less Transparency in Politics

As Americans remember the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United with calls for action to limit corporate influence in politics and reverse the Court’s reckless decision, pro-corporate activists and their Republican allies in Congress seek to further erode corporate accountability and transparency. As American University Constitutional law professor, Maryland State Senator, and People For Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin writes, Citizens United not only ushered an avalanche of corporate and secret money in elections but also paved the way for more attacks on restrictions on corporate power. Raskin asks:

Do you want to wipe out the ban on federal corporate contributions that has been in place since 1907? This should be a piece of cake. If a corporation is like any other group of citizens organized to participate in politics for the purpose of expenditures, why not contributions too?

Apparently, the answer is “yes.”  While the majority decision in Citizens United said that corporations can use money from their general treasuries to finance outside groups, the ban on direct donations from corporations to candidates was left intact. But as profiled in People For’s report “Citizens Blindsided,” corporations have a number of mouthpieces, front groups, and political allies who want to create even more ways for Big Business to influence American politics.

NPR’s Peter Overby reports that pro-corporate activists from groups like Citizens United and the Center for Competitive Politics now want Republicans in Congress to further weaken already-diluted laws on transparency and fairness in elections:

Citizens United has helped to upend the debate over political money — so much so that when the American Future Fund ran a radio ad targeting Sen. Kent Conrad earlier this month for the 2012 Senate race, it was treated as just part of the political game. Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said this week that he won't seek re-election.



Michael Franz, a political scientist with the Wesleyan Media Project, tracks political ads.

"The effect of Citizens United in 2010 may not have been as huge, because what was going on had been set in motion earlier," he said. "But what the court did in Citizens United could suggest huge effects for other campaign finance laws down the road."

First of all, disclosure is under attack.

"Just because it may be constitutional to impose these disclosure rules, doesn't mean it makes for sound policy," said Michael Boos, counsel to the group Citizens United.

The federal ban on foreign donors faces a court challenge. House Republicans plan to vote next week to kill off public financing in presidential elections.

And the Center for Competitive Politics, an anti-regulation group, wants to undo the century-old ban on corporate contributions to federal candidates.

That was one of the first campaign finance laws on the books. The center says the corporate world now is far different from what it was in 1907, when Congress imposed the ban.
PFAW

Corporate Front Group on the Attack in North Dakota

Even though Election Day is almost two years away, a shadowy political organization with ties to the agriculture industry is already on the air with negative ads attacking North Dakota’s Democratic Senator Kent Conrad. The American Future Fund, as profiled in People For the American Way’s report Citizens Blindsided, is run by GOP operatives in Iowa and funded by anonymous donors who likely have ties to Big Agriculture.

A New York Times report traced the group’s founding to the ethanol industry and their lobbyists, and Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee wrote that groups like the AFF “operate in the shadows. Their donors are anonymous. The power behind them is rarely apparent. It’s impossible to track the exact amounts they spend on campaigns in any timely fashion.” The AFF is also responsible for running some of the midterm elections most misleading and disgraceful ads, including one spot that viciously attacked Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley over the Park 51 Islamic Community Center in New York.

Now, barely two months after the midterm election, the AFF is on the air in North Dakota criticizing Senator Conrad, who is up for reelection in 2012. The AFF spent over $10 million of secret money to sway the last election, and three good-government groups asked for an investigation into the AFF’s status as a 501(c)4 nonprofit. 501(c)4 groups don’t have to publicly disclose their donors but also cannot spend the majority of their money to influence elections. The AFF’s new ad campaign, which calls on North Dakota voters to “call Kent Conrad” rather than to vote against him, may be their attempt to avoid a possible IRS investigation into the amount of their political spending. But the AFF’s early spending shows that even though the midterm elections are over, political groups like the AFF with little transparency or supervision are gearing up to play an even larger role in the 2012 elections.

PFAW