"I Think of Voting as a Chess Move, Not a Valentine."

A version of this post first appeared on the Young People For blog.

In a piece published last week in The Nation, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit spoke powerfully about the importance of voting as a strategic choice rather than a solemn duty. Writing, “I think of voting as a chess move, not a valentine,” she evoked sentiments that resonated with many young progressive activists: that in casting our ballots we cannot invest all our hopes in any one candidate or institution but that through the act of voting, we’re making a deliberate choice of who we want to work with.

Over the past several months, nearly 60 Civic Engagement and Vote Fellows with PFAW Foundation’s Young People For Program have organized in 24 states to mobilize their communities in today’s local, state, and federal elections.

Our organizers have ensured prisoners in Suffolk County, Massachusetts’s pre-trial detention program have access to their absentee ballots. They’ve organized marches through Hattiesburg, Mississippi to the polls, convened conversations with immigrant and refugee communities in Kentucky about civic engagement, supported vote organizing in the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota, and worked with local government to explore pathways which would allow undocumented people to potentially cast ballots in municipal elections.

In doing so, our Fellows have organized not only because they know tonight’s electoral outcomes will shape our political landscape for years to come; they organized because they knew that building power — building movements — requires a tangible effort to bring our communities from the margins to the center of our society’s social, political, and economic concerns.

We are committed to holding space for our communities to not only survive the peaks and valleys of electoral politics but grow a robust, pluralistic democracy which addresses our needs and reflects our dreams for the future. To echo Solnit’s closing words, “We need to build a road through elections toward justice, to get on that road and never stop.”

PFAW Foundation

Maricopa County Will Address Long Lines At The Polls

Three years after the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, with the Voting Rights Act still a shadow of its former self, voters in Maricopa County, Arizona are getting some relief from the long lines that they faced in the primary.

Citing budget concerns and reduced demand, county election officials reduced the number of polling places available in the March presidential primary from the 200-plus used during the 2012 primary down to just 60. Frustrated voters faced hours-long waits and sites that ran low on ballots, or even ran out of them entirely. The Associated Press reported at the time that votes were still being cast past 10 pm at a third of those sites, and that that the last location wasn't able to close until nearly 1 am, despite polls officially closing at 7 pm. The Arizona Republic called the situation shameful.

Last Thursday, voting rights advocates that subsequently filed suit reached an agreement with Maricopa County, signing off on an official Wait Time Reduction Plan that:

[I]ncludes a formula for projecting turnout at each polling place; delineates roles and responsibilities for county officials, pollworkers, and troubleshooters in reducing wait times; outlines a mechanism to effectively respond to wait times should they exceed 30 minutes; and promotes the use of pollworker and voter hotlines for reports of long lines. For the next four years, the Plan will be shared with a network of community groups for feedback before each primary and general election. The Plan will also be included in each iteration of the pollworker training manual. Additionally, both the County and the Secretary of State will publicize the Plan before each election on various social media platforms.

While Thursday's news was welcome, the problems in Maricopa County might not have happened at all had the County's voting changes been subject to the preclearance that was in place before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, or had Arizona secretary of state Michele Reagan intervened in the VRA's absence.

Hopefully everything will go smoothly in Maricopa County this November. Still, voters there and across the country should be prepared with what they need to know to vote and what they need to do if they have a question or if something goes wrong.

PFAW Foundation

Voter Suppression Is Not The Solution To Problems With Voter Registration

Throughout out his campaign, Donald Trump has been sounding the same voter fraud alarm that Republican leaders have been sounding for years.

Trump had this to say on the subject during Wednesday's final presidential debate:

If you look -- excuse me, Chris -- if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote -- millions, this isn't coming from me -- this is coming from Pew Report and other places -- millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote.

What he appears to be referring to is a 2012 research report commissioned by the Pew Center on the States, which says:

  • Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.
  • More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.
  • Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.

Nowhere does Pew assert that there are 24 million cases of voter fraud. The only use of the word "fraud" in the entire report is this:

The inability of this paper-based process to keep up with voters as they move or die can lead to problems with the rolls, including the perception that they lack integrity or could be susceptible to fraud.

In fact, the rate of voter impersonation fraud is staggeringly low – 31 credible instances out of more than 1 billion ballots cast, according to another study.

A comprehensive 2014 study published in The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. Even this tiny number is likely inflated, as the study’s author counted not just prosecutions or convictions, but any and all credible claims.

In case you're wondering, that's 0.0000031 percent.

What we have is a system desperately in need of modernization. Some states have taken positive steps forward on voting rights, while others have failed or been unable to act, or even worse, have taken steps backward with new, potentially suppressive restrictions. Members of Congress have introduced federal legislation, which has yet to receive any meaningful attention from the Republican leadership – the failure to restore the Voting Rights Act being one of the worst cases.

So, Mr. Trump, we do have a voter registration problem in this country. But fraud isn't the problem. And voter suppression isn't the solution.

PFAW

Voting Rights Hang in the Balance – 32 Days and Counting

On June 25, 2013, the US Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in its Shelby County v. Holder decision. Congress has had more than three years since then to restore the VRA’s critical protections aimed at fighting racial discrimination in voting. Indeed, legislation known as the Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced to develop a new coverage formula and make additional updates to this landmark law. Not only has GOP leadership failed to bring it to a vote, but people like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte have outright denied the need to restore the VRA, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Now there are just 32 days left before the first presidential election in fifty years in which ballots will be cast without full VRA protections.

According to the Brennan Center, 6 of the 14 states with new restrictive voting laws in effect for the first time in a presidential election were previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA, meaning that in the past they had to get prior federal approval for any voting changes.

Nearly Half of New Restrictive Voting Laws in Former Sec 5 States

Even when we have won victories for voting rights, there have been attempts to resurrect voter suppression. Talking Points Memo spoke to voting rights advocates about this disturbing trend:

“You take a step back and it’s really appalling,” said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project who has been involved in many of the legal challenges to state voting restrictions.

“I mean the Department of Justice and other groups, we have all won the cases ... you would have thought we would have been finished with this whole thing, when, up until Election Day, we have to stay on these people," Ho told TPM.

. . . “There’s two things going on: One is that we have seen court-ordered softening [of voter ID laws] in places like Wisconsin and Texas, and then either foot-dragging or incompetence in carrying it out, which has led to follow-up lawsuits or threats of lawsuits,” said Richard Hasen, a professor at UC-Irvine School of Law who also runs the Election Law Blog. “The other thing that is going on is new shenanigans in response to court rulings. And that’s North Carolina.”

. . . “The trend that you’re definitely seeing is that although you may win in a court, so much of what actually matters to voters depends on implementation of a court victory,” said Jennifer Clark, counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. “So getting a ruling that blocks or softens a restrictive voting law is really only the first step in making sure that people have the right to vote.”

It's painfully clear that voters are vulnerable this November. But that doesn't mean that anyone should shy away from the ballot box. It just means that we need to be prepared. Our affiliate PFAW Foundation is part of the Election Protection coalition that is preparing voters with what they need to know to vote and what they need to do if they have a question or something goes wrong.

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

PFAW

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

NC Voting Restrictions Struck Down as Intentionally Discriminatory

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.

The district court had concluded that the provisions at issue had neither a discriminatory intent or effect, noting that there was little “official discrimination” in the state since the 1980s.  The unanimous Fourth Circuit took a more careful look:

The record reveals that, within the time period that the district court found free of “official discrimination” (1980 to 2013), the Department of Justice issued over fifty objection letters to proposed election law changes in North Carolina -- including several since 2000 -- because the State had failed to prove the proposed changes would have no discriminatory purpose or effect. …

During the same period, private plaintiffs brought fifty-five successful cases under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In other words, it was only the VRA (including its preclearance provision) that prevented discriminatory voting changes from being enacted and enforced.

In the court’s analysis of the law’s elimination of one of two Sunday early voting days (which were used as “souls to the polls” voting turnout efforts by African Americans), the judges pointed to North Carolina’s own attorneys’ explanation to the lower court of why the state did this.  Among other things, the state claimed it had an interest in more uniform rules across the state, and not all counties had Sunday early voting.  The attorneys elaborated on its justification, noting that counties with Sunday early voting in 2014 were disproportionately African American and disproportionately Democratic.  The Fourth Circuit judges called this as close to a smoking gun as we’re likely to see in modern times.

Using race as a proxy for party may be an effective way to win an election. But intentionally targeting a particular race’s access to the franchise because its members vote for a particular party, in a predictable manner, constitutes discriminatory purpose. This is so even absent any evidence of race-based hatred and despite the obvious political dynamics. A state legislature acting on such a motivation engages in intentional racial discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

In 2008 and 2012, the state’s more open voting laws empowered more African Americans to vote.  Armed with this knowledge, and soon after Shelby County, the state legislature took action to adopt the laws being challenged in this case.  The discriminatory intent was transparent, but with a wink and a nod, conservatives devised rationales for the restrictions.  The Fourth Circuit today rejected those rationales and recognized that these were all “solutions in search of a problem.”  Those bogus explanations may not get probed very deeply by the media, but it is harder to get away with the “wink and nod” approach before an effective federal court.  All three judges agreed that the provisions were adopted with the intent to discriminate, in violation of the Constitution.  (One of the judges would have sent the case back down to the district court to see if post-enactment changes to the voter ID law affected the court’s legal analysis.)

Although the court could have used the unconstitutional motivation as a basis to impose a preclearance requirement on the state, the judges concluded that would not be necessary in this case.

If you ever wonder if courts matter, think about this case.  We need fair and independent courts with highly qualified judges to protect our rights and our democracy.  Courts matter immensely, as does the identity of the president who nominates federal judges to the bench.

PFAW Foundation

A Renewed Cry to #RestoreTheVRA on the Anniversary of the Shelby County Decision

June 25, 2016 will mark the third anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. A coalition of more than 100 organizations, including People For the American Way, are participating in a Week of Action to raise awareness about voter suppression and to pressure Congress to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed in hopes of bringing the United States closer to the promise of a true democracy: a political system in which all people can fairly and easily participate in government, regardless of race. One of the VRA’s most significant protections was found in Section 5, which requires states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek federal preclearance to approve proposed changes to their voting process. This preclearance sought to address decades of voting practices that disenfranchised communities of color. The provision worked. For nearly 50 years, the VRA, and in particular, Section 5, helped curtail the disenfranchisement of voters of color and helped expand the electorate so that it became more representative of the populace. It succeeded in helping the United States progress towards a more inclusive democracy.

However, three years ago, on June 25, 2013, democracy in America was dealt a major blow. On this day, the Supreme Court, in its controversial Shelby County v. Holder decision, struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which defined what areas were covered by Section 5 preclearance. States immediately began to implement new voting restrictions, including strict voter identification laws, limitations on early voting, and the elimination of same-day voter registration. These barriers to voting — implemented under the guise of making elections more efficient and limiting so-called “voter fraud” — disenfranchised eligible voters across the country, disproportionally affecting underrepresented communities such as people of color, women, students, the disabled, and low-income individuals. We have already seen the negative effects of these voting restrictions in our midterm elections and presidential primaries.

Come November, the stakes will be raised. As the Leadership Conference Education Fund notes in their new report on the likely impact of the Shelby County decision in this election cycle:

2016 will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. It is also an election that could be won or lost in just a few key states – states where minority voters could determine the outcome.

The report notes that five states formerly covered, in whole or in part, by preclearance — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia — will all see competitive races in the fall, in which voters of color could be decisive. But voters in these states are now without the full protections of the VRA. The Shelby County decision still has very real consequences, and could alter the face of our political landscape in 2016.

As Election Day rapidly approaches, now is the time to call on Congress to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Shelby County decision was a huge setback to American progress towards a truly fair and accessible democracy, but we can move forward again. Legislation aimed at restoring the protections of the VRA is already pending in Congress. Tell your representatives that a democracy in which eligible voters are unable to cast their ballots is a broken democracy, and that it is their duty to help mend it.  

PFAW

VRA on the Brink a Half Century after Freedom Summer

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.

A year later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

Today, their legacy lives on in the fight to ensure that the VRA survives another half century.

The Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted Section 5 of the VRA, which requires certain covered states and subjurisdictions to submit any changes in voting and election laws to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or a federal court for approval before they can go into effect. While the Court did not strike down Section 5 itself, it said that Congress’s previous determination, through the Section 4 coverage formula, as to where Section 5 applied was unconstitutional.

It could not be clearer that the lack of VRA preclearance has left democracy diminished. And with the first presidential election since Shelby County looming large, that point is coming into even sharper focus. Yet Congress has failed to do anything but let the Voting Rights Advancement Act languish, legislation that would replace what the VRA lost and make additional, critical updates.

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman did not give their lives 52 years ago today so that Congress could allow the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the voting protections it achieved to continue to unravel. We owe it to them and the countless others who put everything on the line in defense of voting rights to make sure – once and for all – that all eligible citizens can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts.

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

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

PFAW

Democracy Awakens in Historic Mobilization Weekend

This past weekend something truly historic was set in motion. The 2016 Democracy Awakening was a first-of-its-kind event, uniting multiple movements working to promote voting rights and  money in politics reform as well as advocating for fair consideration of the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Environmentalists, social justice advocates, organized labor, and communities of faith all came together to demand a government that works for everyone, not just those with the biggest bank accounts who can buy access and influence at the expense of everyone else.

democracy awakening

The Democracy Awakening began on Saturday, April 16, with a day of workshops, trainings and film screenings and concluded on Monday April 18th with a Congress of Conscience where hundreds of people were arrested on the steps of the capitol as a massive crowd rallied alongside in solidarity. The Democracy Awakening peaked on Sunday afternoon, with a rally with thousands in attendance on the National Mall followed by a march in front of the Capitol and Supreme Court. Chants of “Money Out, People In” and “Do Your Job”  could be heard reverberating off federal buildings as marchers took over the streets.

democracy awakening

More than 300 organizations came together to participate in the Democracy Awakening and promote it to their members, demanding that Congress pass four particular bills, two that promote voting rights and two that promote money in politics reform. Additionally the Democracy Awakening demands that the Senate give fair consideration to the President’s Supreme Court nominee, which means hearings and an up-and-down vote.  Many of the organizations that collaborated on this event had previously never worked together, and there is a collective sense that things are just getting started, and that we won’t stop until we have a government that is of, by and for the people.

PFAW

"I Was Arrested to Send a Message to Congress. Here's Why."

Laura Arrested

On Monday, People For the American Way staffer Laura Williamson was one of many activists arrested outside of the U.S. Capitol during the Democracy Awakening protests. Laura writes:

Yesterday I sat on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with 300 others, singing, chanting, and eventually being arrested, to send a message to Congress --  amend the Constitution to get big money out of politics, restore the right to vote for all Americans, and do your job on the Supreme Court. With our arrests, we joined hundreds of others who have been arrested since last Monday as part of the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening; all told, more than 1,400 people were arrested as part of this escalated effort to save our democracy.

 

As I marched to the Capitol and occupied those steps  --  our steps  --  my spirit was buoyed thinking of the rich legacy of civil disobedience in our country.

The risks we faced sitting at the Capitol were negligible compared to the dangers associated with civil disobedience over the course of our nation’s history. However, the imperiled state of our democracy today must be taken just as seriously. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections, and three years later in Shelby v. Holder it held that the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that so many fought and died for during the Civil Rights Movement, were no longer necessary. Both decisions delivered devastating blows to our democracy, but from both new movements of conscience have been born.

 

Read Laura's full story here.

PFAW