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.

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"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.

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Supreme Court Rules that Everyone Deserves Representation

In a great victory for American democracy, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 today in Evenwel v. Abbott that when states fulfill their Equal Protection requirement to equalize populations within state legislative districts, they can use total population to do so.  The Court rejected the invitation to rule that states must use eligible voters as the measure, rather than total population.

Justice Ginsburg wrote for a six-person majority that included Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  (Justices Alito and Thomas each concurred with the result but rejected the majority’s reasoning.)  Justice Ginsburg discussed the framers’ decision to write the Fourteenth Amendment to require representational equality in congressional House districts, which undermines the idea that the same amendment would prohibit states from taking the same approach to in-state legislative districts.  She also noted that the Court has never used eligible-voter data or registered-voter data in its analyses of permissible population variances among state districts.  The majority said that for decades in some cases and centuries in others, all states and countless local jurisdictions have used total population (with occasional small exceptions for non-permanent residents such as military personnel from out of state or inmates originally from out of state).

So why does this matter?  As Justice Ginsburg wrote:

As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote. Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates—children, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public-education system—and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies. By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total-population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.

It’s simple:  Everyone deserves representation.  And that is hard to square with the idea that only eligible voters should be counted.

As we wrote in our preview of the current Supreme Court term:

A ruling in favor of Evenwel would not just be a dramatic shift for the Court: It would be a dramatic shift in American politics, as well, with diverse urban areas losing political power to suburban and rural areas.  It is for this reason that Richard Hasen has called this case “an attempted [partisan] power grab in Texas and other jurisdictions with large Latino populations.”

There are other problems, as well.  For instance, if you base the population count on registered voters or on actual voters, then both systemic and intentional obstacles to voter registration and voting are made even worse, by further weakening the political influence of the targeted communities.  A community that has a lower registration rate or turnout for any reason should not be penalized by losing their right to representation in the legislature.

Today’s majority didn’t just give a powerful defense of using total population.  They also rejected an invitation to address the merits of using eligible voters.  An opinion upholding that approach as constitutional even if not mandatory could have served as a political weapon for conservatives seeking to use that system in the next round of state and local redistricting after the 2020 Census.  But Justice Ginsburg and the rest of the majority refused to take the bait, saying that simply was not an issue before the Court and need not be addressed.

But given her powerful defense of the current system of counting total population, conservatives will be hard pressed to argue for limiting the population count to those who are eligible to vote.  In today’s decision, only Justice Thomas’s concurrence concluded that such a system would be constitutional.

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Maryland House Stands Up for Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated Persons

2/5/16 Update: PFAW has sent a new veto override message to the Maryland Senate. Their vote was to have taken place on January 21, but was postponed to today, and is now not expected until next week.

In early 2015, the House and Senate in Maryland voted to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons.

Then in May the legislation was stopped in its tracks by a veto from Governor Larry Hogan . . . until now. This afternoon the House voted 85-56 in favor of overriding the veto.

As sponsors Cory McCray and Alonzo Washington wrote in The Baltimore Sun last year:

In representative democracy, the right to vote is a fundamental interest. When folks have their access to the ballot box restricted, they lose their ability to have a voice in the decision making process. These folks are our neighbors, our friends, and even our family members. These folks have children who attend our schools. These folks care about when the recreation centers are closing. They care about high unemployment rates or cuts to program funding. They pay taxes just like the rest of us. Yet ex-offenders are systematically denied the right to vote until after any parole or probation is served.

PFAW members and supporters in Maryland called on delegates to stand up to Governor Hogan.

Tomorrow the Senate is expected to follow suit. We’re poised to win on this critical issue!

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Merry Christmas, Kentucky: Gov. Bevin Strips Voting Rights of 140,000 and Lowers Minimum Wage

Just in time for the holidays!

Kentucky’s brand new Tea Party governor just broke a campaign promise and REVERSED a positive move by his Democratic predecessor that had restored voting rights to some 140,000 Kentuckians.

Once again, Kentucky will be one of the very few states where people with felony convictions remain disenfranchised after completing their sentences. As ThinkProgress points out, this means that one in five African Americans in the state will be disenfranchised. Studies show that ex-felon disenfranchisement leads to higher rates of recidivism.  

Oh, and Bevin also lowered the minimum wage.

ThinkProgress has more:

In another executive order this week, Bevin reversed former Gov. Beshear’s move to raise the state’s minimum wage for government workers and contractors to $10.10 an hour, bringing it back down to $7.25 an hour. About 800 state workers who have already gotten raises will be able to keep them, but new hires will now have to start at the lower pay rate. In the order, Bevin hinted that he would prefer the state have no minimum wage at all: “Wage rates ideally would be established by the demands of the labor market instead of being set by the government,” he said.

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PFAW Telebriefing: The Future Of Voting Rights

Last week, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members to review the recent attacks on voting rights and illustrate PFAW’s vision for the future of voting rights in America. PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney moderated the discussion with PFAW’s Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks, Executive Vice President Marge Baker, and resident Supreme Court and judicial nomination expert Paul Gordon joining the call.

Drew began the call with an introduction to the consequences of the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The decision has resulted in many states passing new legislation that results in voter suppression. Diallo explained that 36 states have passed new restrictions on early voting and more strict voter identification laws, which disproportionately affect people of color, low-income citizens, and women. Supposedly, these efforts attempt to prevent voter fraud. However, voter fraud is not documented as a widespread, or even small-scale, problem anywhere in the country. Marge later elaborated that there is evidence that true intention of passing these laws is to suppress the vote; many right-wing organizations have acknowledged that conservative leverage in elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Many members called in with pertinent questions, including one about how members can be more involved in the fight for voting rights. Diallo described how People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers network has been active on the ground helping folks understand their local laws so that they can obtain the correct identification and register successfully. He also suggested people get involved in local groups that do similar work.

Marge detailed how people can get involved in PFAW’s efforts to fight for fair and just courts, which have an enormous impact on voting rights. The winner of the 2016 election will have the opportunity to nominate as many as four Supreme Court justices, and therefore have influence over critical voting rights cases following Shelby County v. Holder. The Supreme Court is not the only place where the fight is occurring. Marge described court challenges to voter suppression laws in numerous lower federal courts and in state courts, further highlighting the importance of courts in the progress for voting rights.

Diallo ended the call on a positive note, describing recent municipal and state-level expansions to early voting and motor voter laws, which allow citizens to automatically register to vote when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Listen to the full briefing here:

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Justice Scalia's Ironic Comments About Democracy

Justice Antonin Scalia had some interesting things to say at a speech yesterday to Georgetown University law students.  The Washington Post reports on Scalia’s response to a question about minority rights:

But a question about whether courts have a responsibility to protect minorities that cannot win rights through the democratic process — the issue that animated the court’s landmark decision this year on same-sex marriage — brought a caustic response.

“You either believe in a democracy or you don’t,” Scalia said. “You talk about minorities — what minorities deserve protection?”

Religious minorities are protected by the First Amendment, Scalia said, and so are political minorities. But beyond that, he asked rhetorically, what empowers Supreme Court justices to expand the list.

“It’s up to me to decide deserving minorities?” Scalia asked. “What about pederasts? What about child abusers? So should I on the Supreme Court [say] this is a deserving minority. Nobody loves them.”

“No, if you believe in democracy, you should put it to the people,” he said.

No, Justice Scalia, if you believe in democracy governed by the Bill of Rights, people have rights that cannot be violated by majorities.  The majesty of the Equal Protection Clause is that it was intentionally written broadly, rather than being limited to certain people.  And it doesn’t have a clause saying “except for gay people.”

In addition, given Scalia’s caustic dissents in cases recognizing the constitutional equality and basic humanity of gay people, it is hardly a surprise that he answered a question implicating LGBT equality by dragging in pederasts and child abusers.  From a legal perspective, can he really not see any difference between protecting innocent but unpopular people who aren’t harming anyone, and policies designed to prevent adults from committing acts of violence against unwilling children?

Legal comparisons aside, why bring up child molesters at all?  For far too long, far right extremists have long peddled the pernicious lie that gay people are inherently a threat to children.  Why did Scalia’s mind go there?  Surely there are other categories of people he could have mentioned to make the same point.

Scalia’s comment about believing in a democracy also has to be taken in context: He voted with the 5-4 majorities in Citizens United (opening up our elections to unlimited corporate and special-interest money) and Shelby County (gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act and empowering those who seek to win elections by disenfranchising Americans who might vote against them).  And, of course, he was with the 5-4 majority in the ultimate judicial middle finger to democracy, Bush v. Gore.

At the heart of our democracy is the right to vote in free and fair elections.  That means elections without barriers designed to keep the “wrong” people from voting, and elections where the voices of ordinary people are not drowned out by a tiny sliver of phenomenally wealthy and powerful interests.  That is what a healthy democracy looks like, and it makes Scalia’s comments quite ironic.

PFAW Foundation

Restore The Voices Of The Excluded

After more than two years stymied by congressional inaction on voting rights, House Democrats this week renewed their efforts to Restore The Voices Of The Excluded – to #RestoreTheVOTE.

The new legislative mobilization is designed to drive more support to the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill introduced this June to restore what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 lost when the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in Shelby County v Holder, and to make additional, critical updates to the landmark law.

Representative Terri Sewell:

My hope is that by launching #RestoreTheVOTE we gain grassroots support for restoring the right of every American to vote. In order to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act we must get everyday Americans to care and demand congressional action to protect voting rights. We cannot silence ANY voices within our electorate.  We must RESTORE THE V.O.T.E. — the VOICES OF THE EXCLUDED!

Want to get involved?

Sign the PFAW petition telling Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Make sure that your Representative is on H.R. 2867 and that your Senators are on S. 1659.

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Democracy for Some?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Fearless is the word that comes to mind after a recent visit to Selma with 60 members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA). Fearless were those who sat in, marched in, taught, prayed, would not be denied 50 years ago. They established the paradigm for what those of us today, who sadly are still in battles for many rights, but more specifically voting rights, must do.

Republican politicians who claim there is no need to restore the protections we lost two years ago when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) need not look any further than Alabama today to see why they are very wrong.

Alabama has a voter ID law requiring people to show government-issued identification in order to vote. But last week the state announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in all counties where Black residents comprise over three quarters of registered voters. In other words, the state is requiring that voters have ID to cast a ballot, and then taking away the places to get that ID - for Black communities in particular. If that doesn’t show that voting protections are still needed, I don’t know what does.

Despite this appalling development, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t support reauthorizing the VRA, suggesting that there’s no longer a need for it.

No longer a need for it? The destructive changes in Alabama are exactly the kind of measures that the VRA was designed to protect against. For years, Alabama was one of the states covered by Section 5 of the Act, which required certain places with a history of voting discrimination to get all changes in voting procedures cleared by the federal government before they could take effect. That law stopped scores of voting changes from being implemented in Alabama before they could do any harm. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, that safeguard is gone. On the very same day the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling eviscerated the VRA, Alabama said it would start enforcing its voter ID law.

The fearless women and men in the same state that serves as a symbol of the advancement of voting rights, those Baby Boomers, must still fight with the Millennials to protect them. Like our tour guide last month, Joanne Bland, who in 1965 was an 11 year old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, activists’ refusal to be discouraged from praying and marching in 1965 is still encouraging in 2015.  She and others were honored by thousands who marched and prayed this year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, including President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and countless faith and community leaders and activists. They remain the symbol of intergenerational strategic and sacrificial actions that must be taken still today to address and end ongoing racial discrimination in voting.

But it’s not just Alabama. In Mississippi our AAMLC members are seeing precincts closing in or near African American churches, forcing Black residents to travel to white communities to vote. In Florida, a state representative is talking about Republicans winning elections by maximizing the number of incarcerated African Americans in a district, framing the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an opportunity for political gain. Since the 2010 elections, a whopping 21 states have put new laws in place that make it harder to vote.

Like those who were fearless in the past, we must be fearless today and make sure that all know the fundamental, inalienable right to cast a ballot is in danger still, especially for people of color. Our political system is built on the promise of democracy for all, not democracy for those who can afford to drive cross-state on a weekday to get an ID. How can GOP leaders and presidential candidates continue to insist with a straight face that there’s no need to restore protections for voters? I wish they could one day walk, march in our shoes, to feel the pain of a promise with unnecessary barriers, to try to register and vote.  In the meantime let’s be fearless!

PFAW Foundation

House Judiciary Committee Takes Up Planned Parenthood Witch Hunt, Women And Voting Rights Suffer

Earlier today the House Judiciary Committee opened its fall session with the first public hearing in its investigation into Planned Parenthood, placing a one-sided, far-right smear campaign as a clear priority over a full and fair examination of the facts. Or as PFAW Senior Researcher Miranda Blue put it, "one piece of the larger far-right effort to not only shutter Planned Parenthood’s critical women’s health services but to end legal abortion entirely."

Take the title of the hearing – Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation's Largest Abortion Provider. Ranking Member John Conyers called it "one-sided." Representative Jerrold Nadler of the Constitution Subcommittee agreed that it was a "farce" for having stated the Committee's conclusion at the outset.

Then there's the witness list – Not one majority witness with direct knowledge of current Planned Parenthood practices, nor any who could speak with authority on the Center for Medical Progress. Representative Nadler pointed out that if the majority had any confidence in CMP's David Daleiden that they "would have bought him here to testify before this committee." In fact, as James Bopp twice testified, he was told by the majority that the videos were not the subject of their investigation. A further line of questioning pressed by Representative David Cicilline made clear just how little consideration the Committee has for CMP and its own practices.  

Finally the discussion itself – An overwhelming amount of energy spent rehashing decades of settled law and Supreme Court precedent at the expense of women who seek not only abortion services from Planned Parenthood, a very small portion of their work, but a wide range of reproductive and preventive healthcare.

Don't forget the discussion that they aren't having – As they take up Planned Parenthood, Congress is more than two years past due in restoring what the Voting Rights Act lost in 2013 through the Supreme Court's damaging Shelby County v. Holder decision. They should instead be holding a hearing on the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Many of you stood up to Tell House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte: Focus on Restoring the Voting Rights Act, Not Attacking Women with Planned Parenthood Witch Hunt.  

Your petition signatures were hand-delivered to the Committee prior to its hearing.

PFAW petition drop for Planned Parenthood and the Voting Rights Act

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