“Selma” Release Offers Great Opportunity to Organize Around Civil Rights

On May 5, “Selma” – the award-winning film chronicling the voting rights movement and its violent opposition – will be released on DVD. And while this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery that culminated in the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the fight to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth continues today. Voter suppression still threatens many Americans’ ability to cast a ballot, and we are still in dire need of a fix for the Supreme Court’s gutting of the VRA in the 2013 Shelby County decision.

“Selma” is an important film for all progressives, and its release presents a great organizing and activism opportunity for voting rights activists. The film’s creators have put together this guide for hosting a “Selma Salon” – a watch party that brings friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues together to talk about and mobilize around civil rights. If you’re interested in hosting your own Selma Salon, check out the guide for tips and discussion ideas.

If you are a teacher (or have a teacher in your life), the Selma4Students campaign is giving every high school in the U.S. a free copy of “Selma” on DVD, along with a companion study guide to help use the film as an educational tool. Learn more at Selma4Students.com.  

PFAW Foundation

Maryland Passes Bill Bolstering Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated People

Today the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would allow people to regain the right to vote as soon as they are released from prison. The legislation rights a wrong in current Maryland law, which denies people voting rights until their entire sentence has been completed, including probation and parole. Without this bill, thousands of formerly incarcerated Marylanders — many of whom are people of color — will continue to be needlessly forced to stay home on Election Day.

PFAW activists in Maryland and members of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action have been working with allies to help change this, calling their state representatives and urging them to support the immediate restoration of voting rights.

Disenfranchising those who have served their time in prison hampers the process of reintegration and shamefully blocks thousands of Americans from participating in elections. It worsens the discrimination already faced by formerly incarcerated people — who pay taxes, work, and contribute to their communities — and it weakens our democracy.

Passage of this bill is a big step forward in the movement for voting rights for all. Now it’s up to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to sign it and help make the state’s democratic process as fair and accessible as possible.
 

PFAW

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

Signs of Progress on Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated Persons

Monday night was a big one for voting rights in Maryland. The State Senate passed a bill to loosen voter registration rules for formerly incarcerated persons, allowing them to register upon release from prison, rather than having to wait until probation or parole are complete. A hearing on the House companion bill took place on March 11.

The Washington Post:

Supporters of the legislation said in floor testimony that former prisoners automatically regain a number of rights as soon as they leave incarceration — and that the list should include voting, a way to reintegrate themselves into society.

Plus, they added, many former felons are confused about when exactly they can register to vote and post-prison is the clearest milestone that’s easiest for the state to enforce.

The disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons exacerbates the discrimination they face, particularly in minority communities that are disproportionately represented in the system. They work, pay taxes, and are affected by government decisions. They should be able to hold their elected officials accountable for those decisions. They should be able to vote.

It's fitting that Maryland is showing signs of progress just as its US Senators are reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act in Congress.

Lead sponsor in the Senate, Ben Cardin:

The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system. Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights.”

Senator Barbara Mikulski:

From suffragettes through Civil Rights, expanding access to the ballot box in America has always been a move in the right direction. Disenfranchising former offenders does a disservice to the very idea of democracy. If an American citizen has paid their debt to society after committing a crime, our focus must be on their rehabilitation and full reintegration into society – voting rights and all.

Both PFAW and African American Ministers In Action support the Democracy Restoration Act.

We'll be watching for new developments in Congress and with the Maryland bill.

PFAW

Iowa's Controversial Voter Purge Will Not Take Effect

Last Friday the 13th a long-running battle to bring controversial voter purges to Iowa ended after Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate declined to continue an appeal launched by his predecessor, Matt Schultz, and the case was dismissed from the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Des Moines Register:

In a statement, Pate said he voluntarily declined to continue the appeal after consulting with the Attorney General's Office and will focus now on "building the most accurate voter registration list for Iowa."

"I will use my authority to the fullest extent of state and federal law to ensure accurate voter lists," Pate said. "There are other ways to accomplish the same goal without pursuing a course with significant legal hurdles."

ACLU of Iowa:

"This is an important victory for the protection of voters’ rights in Iowa," said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa. "It means that Iowans will not have to worry about the voter purges we've seen take effect in other states with a disastrous impact, especially for new U.S. citizens and Latinos."

[ . . . ]

Jeremy Rosen, ACLU of Iowa executive director, said "This case is part of a broader effort nationally to push back on unfair voting restrictions by politicians that make it harder for people to vote, who are more likely to be minorities, poor people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities."

Indeed we must continue pushing back, as it becomes harder to distinguish between margins of victory and margins of disenfranchisement, and as we honor the legacies of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act.

PFAW Foundation

Big Win for Voting Rights: Oregon Passes New Motor Voter Law

Yesterday the Oregon Senate passed an expansive new voter registration bill, a significant step forward in the fight to make voting easier, more secure, and more accessible for everyone in the state.

The Oregonian explains how the legislation will work:

Under the measure, driver's license data stretching back to 2013 will be used to begin registering Oregon citizens who aren't already signed up to vote. Elections officials will send a postcard to the prospective new registrants giving them a chance to opt out…. The secretary of state's office has estimated that the measure will add about 300,000 to the voting rolls, which now total just under 2.2 million.

Gov. Kate Brown, who as secretary of state supported the bill as a way to make it easier for low-income people and young people to vote, has promised to sign the measure.

With new barriers to voting taking root across the country and voting discrimination still a persistent problem, it can be easy to believe that our country is only turning back the clock on voting rights. But this win in Oregon underscores the fact that when we work together to make it easier rather than harder to cast a ballot, we can set an example of how to strengthen our democracy.

PFAW

From Selma to Shelby County to Ferguson

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Fifty years ago in Alabama hundreds of peaceful marchers calling for voting rights were violently attacked by state police. Fifty years later Americans from all walks of life are expected to gather this weekend to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday and embrace the spirit for courage, sacrifice and justice of those women and men who marched, were beaten and no doubt underestimated the impact that their bruises would have on future generations.

The events of that day and the tense days and weeks that followed shocked our national consciousness and became a catalyst for passage of what some call the "crown jewel" of the civil rights movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It's a law that held bipartisan support and helped protect countless Americans from discrimination at the ballot box for almost five decades.

Every year since that bloody day we have honored those 600-plus marchers who put their lives on the line in pursuit of basic democratic rights and racial justice. But this year, with a passion as never before, we must do more than just give lip service. This time marchers of today must clearly connect with the purpose in the pain that started in prayer on a Sunday morning and ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with blood and tears in the afternoon. Why? Because as John Legend so eloquently put it last week, "Selma is now."

The shadow of Bloody Sunday is there, nearly two years after a core provision of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County case, as we practice patience for Congress to restore and strengthen what was taken away. When our leaders say that they honor those who refused to turn around, will they also commit to restoring the kinds of voting protections that they were marching for?

Today, 40 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in states across the country, from voter ID legislation to proposals reducing access to absentee ballots to bills that would make it more difficult for those with past criminal convictions to vote. When our leaders say they honor those who were beaten and bruised with billy clubs 50 years ago, will they also commit to voting against proposed laws that would make it harder for all people to have an equal voice in our democracy? Will they commit to confirming the highly qualified Loretta Lynch, a woman with a strong commitment to civil rights, to lead -- as the first female African American -- the Justice Department in effectively monitoring and enforcing the voting rights laws we already have and those yet to come?

Today, African Americans and Latinos, especially males, endure being routinely profiled, targeted, and attacked by the police. The report released this week from the Department of Justice about policing in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed that 93 percent of arrests were of African Americans, though they make up only 67 percent of the city's population. It showed and confirmed that African Americans in Ferguson were disproportionately likely to have force used against them by the police. When our leaders say they honor those who were hospitalized for peaceful protest 50 years ago, will they also commit to fighting against discrimination and violence at the hands of those meant to serve and protect our communities?

Selma is now, and the march continues. Selma needed protection for voting rights then, and Selma needs protection for voting rights now. Many civil rights leaders, past and present, and even future leaders, will be in Selma this weekend. But thousands of others who can't be there in person will not be excluded from being a part of a new march. Men and women will with great intent make sure every registered voter gets to the polls to vote in every election, will minister with an activist heart to their neighborhoods when violence upends daily life, will use social media as a tool to motivate participation in work aimed at ending all forms of discrimination in the name of religion, and will organize their communities in active opposition when yet another bill is introduced to undermine, restrict, or deny basic civil and human rights.

On the evening of that Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. informed the media that ministers would march and called for clergy from around the country to join them. He said, "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of America, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. ... In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land."

I was not there then, but today as with every day, especially because of the Shelby Counties and the Fergusons, I give thanks and will not forget that struggle. On March 7, 1965, the world watched as nonviolent mothers, fathers, students, workers, faith leaders were beaten, tear gassed and hospitalized. On March 7, 2015, let the world watch as this next generation genuinely honors those who had the courage to take a stand that Bloody Sunday "for the survival of democracy." How? By registering, advocating, teaching, speaking up, marching and continuing their work in pursuit of voting rights, freedom, and justice as if our unseen bruises, our lives, our souls depend on it.

PFAW Foundation

Republicans Revive Bold Scheme to Rig Presidential Elections

This was originally published at The Huffington Post.

After Republicans failed to capture the White House in 2012, they dusted off a tried-and-true plan to improve their future electoral prospects. No, they wouldn't moderate their views or expand their appeal to win votes. They would just change the way that the votes are counted!

The plan: to rig the electoral college with the ultimate goal of squeaking out a Republican presidential win, even in an increasingly challenging electoral landscape.

Here's how it was supposed to work.

Before the 2010 election, Republican strategists focused energy and resources on gaining control of state legislatures, and succeeded in flipping party control of legislative chambers in blue states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. This allowed Republican legislatures to draw congressional districts, gerrymandering their states to ensure future Republican gains even in states where Democrats tend to win statewide.

GOP strategists then took it a step further. What if Republicans used their control over these blue states and their favorably gerrymandered electoral maps to make it harder for Democrats to win presidential elections?

Under the Constitution, each state determines how it will distribute its electoral votes to presidential candidates. All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) have a "winner take all" system, in which the winner of the state's popular vote earns all of its electoral votes. The Republican plan would keep the "winner take all" system in big, solidly red states like Texas. But it would change it in big, blue states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, ensuring that a Democratic candidate who wins the popular vote in the state doesn't go home with all of its electoral votes.

For instance, under the plan originally proposed in Pennsylvania after the 2012 election, which would have divided the state's electoral votes up by gerrymandered congressional districts, Mitt Romney would have won 13 of the state's 20 electoral votes, despite having lost the state's popular vote. Last year, the Republican-controlled state house in the presidential swing state of Virginia put forward a plan to do something similar. If the Virginia plan had been in effect in 2012, Mitt Romney would have carried away nine of the state's 13 electoral vote, despite having lost the state's popular vote to Barack Obama.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus made the goal of the scheme clear when he endorsed it last year, saying, "I think it's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at."

The proposals in Pennsylvania and Virginia sank after groups like People For the American Way got out the word and residents realized the proposals were part of a blatant political ploy. But this month, the scheme was resurrected in Michigan, where a Republican state lawmaker is proposing his own plan to dilute the power of his state's reliably Democratic electoral college block. Under the plan introduced by Rep. Pete Lund, Michigan's electoral votes would be distributed according to a formula tied to the popular vote. It's not as blatant as the original Pennsylvania and Virginia proposals were, but it has the same goal: If it had been in effect in the last presidential election, it would have cut President Obama's electoral total in Michigan down to 12 from 16.

These plans can initially seem reasonable, even to progressives, many of whom are wary of the electoral college system. But this isn't a good-government plan to change the way our presidential elections are conducted. It's a targeted plot to get more electoral votes for Republicans, even when they're losing the popular vote. It's no coincidence that these plans have often been quietly introduced in lame duck sessions, when voters are paying less attention. These measures, if allowed to be passed quickly in a few states with little debate and attention, could have national implications and change American political history.

Voters should be allowed to pick their politicians. But this is yet another case of politicians trying to pick their voters. Like with voter suppression schemes and extreme gerrymandering, the GOP is trying to change the rules of the game for their own benefit. Voters can't let them get away with it.

PFAW

PFAW Delivers 50,000 Petitions Against Electoral College Rigging in Michigan

If you don’t like the outcome, change the rules of the game? Not so fast, PFAW members in Michigan told their elected officials today.

This afternoon PFAW delivered approximately 50,000 petitions against electoral college rigging to a meeting of the Michigan House Committee on Elections and Ethics. The proposed bill (HB 5974) would change Michigan’s process for distributing electoral votes from a winner-take-all system — the standard process in states across the nation — to a system that would split the state’s electoral votes, effectively rewriting the rules to help the GOP presidential candidate. This is a continuation of an effort we saw after the 2012 election in some traditionally blue presidential election states where Republicans control the state government. Not surprisingly, Republicans in states like Texas (38 electoral votes) are not seeking a similar change.

One representative from Grand Rapids told the Associated Press that he believes the public will see this partisan ploy “for what it is… a brazen attempt to rig the political system.”

As many Republican legislators across the country continue to support proposals making it harder for people who traditionally vote Democrat to cast a ballot, this latest push to rig elections in the GOP’s favor may come as no surprise.

But PFAW Regional Political Coordinator Scott Foval, who joined 34 Michigan PFAW members today at a meeting of the state’s House Committee on Elections and Ethics, said that Michiganders won’t stand by while the Republican Party tries to manipulate the election process. “The people are watching, and will hold you as elected representatives accountable for enacting purely partisan and undemocratic legislation,” said Foval.

PFAW