Supreme Court’s Denial of Wisconsin Voting Rights a Motivator for Millennials

The following is a guest post by Zachary Koop, a 2014 Young People For Fellow.

This past Monday, the US Supreme Court made a troubling decision: it rejected an appeal to overturn Wisconsin’s voter ID law, considered one of the strictest in the nation. In so doing, the justices paved the way for other states to prohibit eligible voters from casting ballots.

As a young, progressive Wisconsin student, my peers and I share the sentiment that our voices are being attacked by Wisconsin’s recent voter ID law. Indeed, this policy disproportionately impacts young voters, especially youth of color. Among voters between the ages of 18-29, 17.3 percent of black youth and 8.1 percent of Latino youth were unable to vote because of inadequate identification, compared to 4.7 percent of white youth. 

Governor Walker claims that subjugation of Wisconsinites is not the intent, but it is unquestionably the impact. This policy threatened to prevent 300,000 Wisconsinites from voting. Inclusion should be an American ideal, but that is clearly not the case today.

This attack on the voting rights is just one example of how the Right is further disenfranchising historically marginalized communities across this country. But despite their intent, these moves are also mobilizing millennials to demand that our democracy include us. While complex legal and legislative processes often make us feel frustrated and powerless, we understand we need to claim our place at the voting booth. As the largest, most diverse and most progressive demographic in history, we have the power to alter the policy and political landscapes in substantial ways – and we’re already doing it.

Millennials are advancing change across the country. I found my own place in the progressive movement thanks to programs like People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) Fellowship. Through YP4’s Vote and Courts Matter programs, I learned how to organize my peers, mobilize voters, and came to understand just how important the courts are to advancing (or dismantling) progressive policies.

Because of YP4’s support, this past fall at UW-La Crosse I passed policies through my campus’ student government that enfranchised students during the 2014 midterm elections. By requiring the administration to issue free student IDs compliant with the voter ID law to all students who requested one, running voter registration drives, and more, we helped ensure that 10,000 students could cast ballots during the election cycle. We are now creating a campus voter registration system that is easily accessible to all students and plan to share our tactics with surrounding state universities to make voting more inclusive and widespread amongst students.

Nothing is more voice-squelching than voter ID laws, an economically inefficient policy that marginalizes youth and other minorities. The Supreme Court’s decision is a call to action for Wisconsin millennials to realize that justice does not advocate for itself and that we must incorporate courts activism in our fight for civil rights.

PFAW Foundation

Wisconsin Voter ID Reminds Us of the Importance of Circuit Courts

The Supreme Court this morning denied a request to review the Seventh Circuit's decision to uphold Wisconsin's strict voter ID law. This case shows just how important fair and just courts are to protecting our most important rights, and the consequences of Republican efforts to prevent President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies.

Last spring, a federal district court struck the law down, recognizing that it would have a discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos, and that "it is absolutely clear that [it] will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes." Of course, that is no surprise, since that is the unstated purpose of these laws. Fortunately, when Wisconsinites recognized that their rights were being violated, a federal judge was able to make sure that partisan efforts to suppress the vote were not able to overcome our laws protecting the right to vote.

Unfortunately, this decision was reversed by a Seventh Circuit panel consisting of conservative judges nominated by Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. When the entire circuit was asked to review the panel decision, they split 5-5, just one vote short of preventing those rules from going into effect.

One judge could have really made a difference. And it just so happens that Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has blocked efforts to fill a longtime vacancy on that court for more than four years, since the day he took office after the 2010 elections. Make no mistake: Johnson and his fellow Republicans preventing President Obama from putting judges on the bench know full well how important the federal courts are, especially the circuit courts.

In fact, the Seventh Circuit is not the only one with a long-unfilled vacancy. Republican senators from Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama have also been blocking President Obama's efforts to nominate highly qualified jurists to fill longtime vacancies on the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits. As we have written:

[N]o senator should see President Obama's outreach as an opportunity to coerce him into naming an unacceptable far-right nominee. Keeping the judgeship vacant even longer in the hopes that a future (hopefully Republican) president will fill it is not a reasonable option, serving only to make justice less available to those who need it most. At some point, such senators have two choices. They can agree with the White House on someone everyone can support. Alternatively, they should acknowledge the extensive consultations that occurred and present any concerns about the eventual nominee in public before the Judiciary Committee, where the nominee has a chance to respond.

Either way, Republican senators cannot be allowed to indefinitely prevent anyone from being nominated to fill longtime judicial vacancies.

PFAW

Following the Money in Wisconsin and Beyond

On Monday, Wisconsin became the 25th so-called “right to work” state when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law that undermines workers’ rights and is likely to reduce wages in the state.

This divisive bill, which would have more accurately been called a “right to work for less” bill, was fast-tracked by Republican leaders despite being met with intense resistance and had the support of major right-wing funders. Two outside groups in favor of “right to work” legislation, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, spent over $5.5 million in support of Scott Walker’s reelection bid. Analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that since 2013, Republican legislators in the state have accepted “$26 in contributions from business interests for every $1 in labor contributions.” And the right-wing Bradley Foundation has given millions to groups promoting “right to work” bills, including to a number of groups in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin and across the country, when people can “follow the money” and see who is bankrolling elected officials and what their agenda is, it changes how they evaluate the bills being considered. But today it’s not always possible to follow the money. Major corporations can funnel an unlimited amount of money through “dark money” groups to influence the political process, and they can do so secretly.

President Obama can, and should, take a big step to shine a light on dark money by issuing an executive order requiring companies that contract with the federal government, companies like Verizon and Lockheed Martin and Exxon Mobil, to disclose their political spending. No matter the issue, voters deserve to know who is trying to buy influence in their state or national government.

PFAW

Lame Duck Opportunity and Obligation: Confirm Judges

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

During the upcoming lame duck session, the Senate has an opportunity to finish up a critically important task where they can act quickly by unanimous consent or voice votes: Confirming two dozen judicial nominees.

The GOP's behavior during their last few weeks as the minority party will be very telling. Before taking over the chamber next year, will they allow the Senate to do its job and confirm nominees? Or will Republicans continue their pattern of obstructing or delaying action on highly qualified nominees – even ones recommended to the White House by GOP senators – just because Democrats support them? This may give Americans some insight on whether Senate Republicans plan to use their newfound majority next year in a constructive manner, or whether they will continue to put destructive partisanship above the nation's welfare.

In September, senators left town without voting on any of the 16 district court nominees who had already been fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee and advanced to the Senate floor. Another eight district court nominees had their hearings in September and will be ready for committee approval the week the Senate returns, so the full Senate will be able to hold votes for them, as well. That's at least 24 district court vacancies that could be filled during the lame duck.

Eight of these would fill vacancies in three states – Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky – where the need is so great that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally designated them as "judicial emergencies." All three of these states are represented by Republican senators, including the future Majority Leader.

In the Northern District of Georgia, the workload has gotten so high that even if the nominees were confirmed tomorrow, it would not be enough to ensure Americans their day in court. That is why the nonpartisan Judicial Conference of the United States has urged Congress to create two new judgeships there.

The situation is even more dire in Texas, where the Senate has a chance to fill three vacancies in the Eastern and Western Districts. The Western District judgeship has been vacant since 2008, and the Judicial Conference has asked for five new judgeships there to carry the load on top of filling all the existing vacancies. Chief Judge Fred Biery discussed the need for new judges last year, saying, "It would be nice to get some help. We are pedaling as fast as we can on an increasingly rickety bicycle." Judge David Ezra, formerly of Hawaii, explained why he was moving to Texas to hear cases in the Western District: "This is corollary to having a big wild fire in the Southwest Border states, and fire fighters from Hawaii going there to help put out the fire."

The Eastern District of Texas is in similar need of getting its vacancies filled during the lame duck: Of the nation's 94 federal districts, only two have had more weighted filings per judgeship than the Eastern District, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts' most recent statistics. Small wonder, then, that the Judicial Conference has asked for two new judgeships there: Even if every judgeship were filled, that just isn't enough. To make matters worse, two more judges in the Eastern District have announced their intention to retire or take senior status next year, making it all the more important to fill the current vacancies now.

(Senators also have another opportunity to help the people of Texas: Three nominees for the Southern District will likely have their committee hearings this month. Nominated by President Obama upon the recommendation of Sens. Cornyn and Cruz, these nominees can get a timely committee vote if the GOP cooperates, making them eligible to join the others on the Senate floor. Two of these vacancies are judicial emergencies, but even if they are filled, the Judicial Conference recommended that Congress create an additional two new judgeships to bring the Southern District up to an acceptable level of efficiency.)

There is no reason not to allow the Senate to vote on the judicial nominations before it. In fact, a number of Republican senators are on record supporting specific nominees from their state who they had recommended to the White House. For instance, back in June, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson urged "swift confirmation" for nominee Pam Pepper. Last spring, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey said he would work to make sure that four nominees from the Eastern District would be confirmed "as soon as possible." During the summer, Illinois' Mark Kirk said he would "urge the full Senate to swiftly approve" John Blakey, who is expected to be approved by the Judiciary Committee later this month.

In past years, when the Senate was a more functional body, confirmation votes for district court nominees were regularly held by unanimous consent or voice vote, taking a few seconds or minutes at most. That includes during lame duck sessions.

For instance, after the 2002 midterms, even though Senate Democrats had lost control of the chamber in the elections, they worked closely with Republicans during the lame duck session to make sure that 20 of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees got confirmed. These included a highly controversial circuit court nominee who was confirmed by a 55-44 roll call vote. The other 19 were confirmed by voice vote, 18 of them on the same day. In 2014, as in 2002, the Senate can voice-vote all the consensus nominees and hold roll-call votes on the handful who may have some opposition.

If the majority is allowed to hold confirmation votes on the nominees who have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee, this will finally let the president reduce the number of vacancies in America's court system to what it was when Bush left office. Republicans should cooperate in this endeavor rather than try to frustrate it. After all, this is basic governance, and something the Senate can do easily and quickly.

Will this happen without a fight? While we don't know for sure, recent GOP actions are not encouraging. For nearly a year, Republicans have filibustered every single judicial nomination without exception, even when they support the nominee. Obstruction continues even after the cloture vote. Absent unanimous consent to do otherwise, Senate rules require a period of "post-cloture debate" after a filibuster is broken: 30 hours for circuit and two hours for district court nominees. Since the rules also let the Democrats cede their half of the two-hour period for district court nominees, those post-cloture periods can be shortened. In recent months, Democrats and Republicans have often agreed to hold confirmation votes the day after the cloture votes without actually requiring that floor time be devoted to post-cloture debate on the nominee. This is what passes for GOP "cooperation" these days: A roll-call cloture vote with near-uniform Republican opposition, a delay of at least a day, and then a time-consuming roll-call confirmation vote for a nominee who usually has overwhelming if not unanimous bipartisan support.

The Constitution assigns to the Senate the job of deciding whether to confirm the president's judicial nominees. When the Senate is prevented from acting on this basic task in a timely manner, the entire third branch of the United States government atrophies. Americans are justly proud of our judicial system, which we count on to guarantee fairness and justice for all. It is not a controversial or partisan position to state that our courts should be staffed. And it should not be a controversial or partisan position to say that the Senate should be allowed to vote by year's end on whether to confirm the two dozen judicial nominees whose time would be better spent hearing cases rather than waiting out partisan senators.

PFAW

Let Freedom (and Wedding Bells) Ring

With the far-right Roberts Court, it's usually good news when they choose not to address a case, and that's especially so this morning: The Court announced it will not be hearing the appeals of any of the pending marriage cases.

That means the stays of the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits' pro-equality rulings should be lifted and marriages should soon be allowed in Utah and Oklahoma (10th Circuit), Indiana and Wisconsin (7th Circuit), and Virginia (4th Circuit).

And in the other non-equality states in those three circuits, loving couples can now go to court and cite their circuit's ruling as binding precedent guaranteeing their right to marry. And they should win: Each circuit decision binds district courts and other three-judge appellate panels in the circuit. The only way to avoid the application of three-judge panel’s decision to other states in the circuit would be for there to be a contrary ruling by a panel - called an en banc panel - made up of all of the active appellate judges in that circuit.

Congratulations to the loving couples in those states for whom the Constitution's promise of liberty and equality will no longer be ideals withheld from them. This is a textbook case of the federal courts doing exactly what they were set up to do: vindicating those whose basic legal rights have been violated.

PFAW Foundation

Voting Developments in Ohio and Wisconsin Show, Again, Why #CourtsMatter

The past week held both good news and bad news for voting rights, depending on your part of the country. On Friday in Ohio, an appeals court declined to put on hold a ruling that expands early voting in the state, a win for those of us who believe that voting should be fair and accessible for all people. But on the same day, an appeals court gave the okay to Wisconsin’s voter ID law — a law that had been blocked months ago by a federal judge who noted that it disproportionately affects Latino and black communities.

Commentators have noted that instating the new voter ID law in Wisconsin so close to an election could cause real confusion for voters, and advocates are asking for a re-hearing. As election law expert Rick Hasen said, “It is hard enough to administer an election with set rules — much less to change the rules midstream.”

Beyond the practical implications for voters, it’s also important to connect the dots back to how these decisions happened and who was making them. As The Nation’s Ari Berman wrote on Friday night:

[A] panel of Democrat-appointed judges on the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction from a Democrat-appointed district court judge striking down Ohio’s cuts to early voting. Two hours earlier, however, a trio of Republican-appointed judges on the Seventh Circuit overturned an injunction from a Democratic judge blocking Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

This is why elections matter. And the courts are increasingly becoming the arbiters of who does and does not get to participate in them. [emphasis added]

PFAW

Koch Brothers’ Libre Initiative Aims To Increase Conservatives’ Share of the Latino Vote

While President Obama announced a delay in taking executive action on immigration reform until after the 2014 elections, conservatives are pushing to expand their footprint in the Latino community. As Ed Morales wrote in this month’s The Progressive magazine, the Libre Initiative — which promotes itself as a nonprofit that provides social services and talks about helping Latinos achieve the American Dream, ensuring economic  freedoms, and promoting a “market-based” solution to immigration reform — is making it its mission to build ties between the conservative movement and the Latino community.

“On its website, the Libre Initiative tries to soften its image with a series of gauzy and polished short videos called "Share the Dream." They feature a New Mexico preacher named Pastor Mike Naranjo, who overcame alcoholism with self-reliance and religion. They also feature Libre's national spokesperson Rachel Campos-Duffy and [Daniel] Garza himself.

“With string music playing behind her and a picture of the sun shining on the Washington Monument, Campos-Duffy tells her family's personal story. Then she adds: "I'm worried that government programs that are supposed to help Hispanics are actually doing harm. . . . A sense of entitlement and dependency on government is starting to take over." (Campos-Duffy is married to GOP Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin.)

“Garza's three-and-a-half-minute video tells of how he and his family worked in the fields. "My father never took welfare," he says, but got ahead because of self-reliance. Garza warns that folks are "caught in dependency that government offers," which, he says, has "condemned their children to a life of mediocrity and subsistence. This is not the American dream. This is an American nightmare." Garza says: "Advancing economic freedom is the best way to improve human well-being, especially for those at the bottom." Taking an evangelical tone, he concludes: "The Libre Initiative is reaching the Hispanic community before they are lost forever."”

But as Morales also points out, Libre is funded by the Koch brothers, who actively work to prevent the advancement of causes that would greatly help Latinos by fighting against them, like voting rights protections, raising the minimum wage, and expanding access to healthcare.

“And when you look at Libre's funding, you see the tentacles of the Koch brothers, who have spent millions of dollars funding rightwing groups through intermediaries like Freedom Partners and an outfit called the "TC4 Trust." Libre is one of the recipients.

"Libre received $3.8 million from TC4 and Freedom Partners" in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And Yahoo News reported that Libre's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters "also shares a floor in the same office building as Freedom Partners."”

“Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics says this type of funding arrangement is typical of the Koch brothers. "The Koch network is unique because of the concentration of money and the lengths that they go to make the flows of money as complex as possible," he says.

“Two of the main issues on Libre's agenda are denouncing the Affordable Care Act and opposing increases to the minimum wage. Ironically, Latinos stand to benefit more from expanding access to health care and raising the minimum wage than many other groups.”

Despite the challenges, Libre’s access to the bottomless bank accounts of the Koch brothers means it’s a player progressives should take seriously — and a reminder that the votes of Latino citizens are not to be taken for granted.
 

PFAW

7th Circuit Says Arguments Against Marriage Equality "Cannot Be Taken Seriously"

Today's unanimous panel ruling by the Seventh Circuit striking down Wisconsin and Indiana's marriage bans is a well-written, carefully reasoned take-down of some of the ludicrous arguments that equality opponents have been making to defend their policy of discrimination. It was written by Richard Posner, a noted conservative put on the bench by Ronald Reagan, and joined by judges nominated by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Ruling on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the court summarizes its opinion nicely:

Our pair of cases is rich in detail but ultimately straightforward to decide. The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don't need marriage because same-sex couples can't produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

Judge Posner writes:

Because homosexuality is not a voluntary condition and homosexuals are among the most stigmatized, misunderstood, and discriminated-against minorities in the history of the world, the disparagement of their sexual orientation, implicit in the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a source of continuing pain to the homosexual community.

He carefully considers the argument put forward by the states that marriage is restricted to one man and one woman to benefit children. Among the many ways this argument fails to hold water:

But then how to explain Indiana's decision to carve an exception to its prohibition against marriage of close relatives for first cousins 65 or older—a population guaranteed to be infertile because women can't conceive at that age? [Wisconsin also bans first cousins from marrying unless the woman is over 55 or where the couple presents a doctor's affidavit saying one of them is permanently infertile.] If the state's only interest in allowing marriage is to protect children, why has it gone out of its way to permit marriage of first cousins only after they are provably infertile? ... Elderly first cousins are permitted to marry because they can't produce children; homosexuals are forbidden to marry because they can't produce children. The state's argument that a marriage of first cousins who are past child-bearing age provides a "model [of] family life for younger, potentially procreative men and women" is impossible to take seriously.

With regard to the commonly heard refrain, echoed by attorneys for Indiana and Wisconsin, that courts should respect democratically-enacted bans on marriage by same-sex couples, Judge Posner points out what should be obvious to anyone who claims fealty to the United States Constitution:

Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.

Courts exist to enforce the Constitution against those who would subvert it. And that drives the right crazy.

PFAW Foundation

Walker's Failed Record Counters Current Ad’s Job Promise

Gov. Scott Walker released an ad Thursday morning promising that he “won’t stop until everyone who wants a job, can find a job.”

This sounds strangely familiar to the empty promise of his 2010 campaign. Back then, Walker repeatedly promised that he would create 250,000 private-sector jobs during his four-year term beginning in January 2011. He even emphasized that this number was “a minimum, not a maximum.”

It’s 2014, and that goal has not been met.

In fact, during his re-election tours, Walker avoided talking about his failure to create the 250,000 jobs altogether.

Protests outside a Scott Walker fundraiser on Friday prove that Wisconsinites are not falling for his empty promises. It’s time for Walker to be held accountable for his shady practices and to be voted out of office this November.

PFAW

Wisconsin PFAW Members Protest Walker Fundraiser

On Friday morning, PFAW members gathered outside the Nakoma Golf Club in Madison, WI to protest a fundraiser held by Scott Walker. Activists held signs calling on voters to “Ship Walker Overseas, Not Jobs,” and letting Walker know that “Time is Up” and Wisconsinites have had enough.

Recent media reports have exposed how Walker’s alleged efforts to garner support for his extreme political agenda violate Wisconsinites’ basic principles of fairness and honesty in the political system. The protest highlighted how Wisconsinites are sick of Walker’s shady practices while campaigning and while in office.

One sign read “Dear Governor Walker: You took my job. You took my rights. You took my money. You took my smile. Now I’m taking them back!!!”

The Progressive’s Rebecca Kemble who was at the protest wrote that with “wit and creativity” PFAW members and other activists wanted to “let Walker and his supporters know what they think of the outsized influence of money in politics and of the inhumane and unjust policies that this influence buys.”

Friday’s protest shows Wisconsinites are paying attention and don’t want Walker’s corrupt practices to continue polluting their government.

PFAW