Failing to Defend the Right to Vote Is Simply Not an Option

Earlier this week, on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the important work of restoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). People For the American Way and its African American Ministers in Action program were among the many voting rights advocates who sent a loud and clear message that the VRA is still needed, and the time is now to right what the Court wronged.

As we work to ensure not only that President Obama receives legislation without undue delay, but also that whatever language he signs protects as many voters as possible from discrimination, it is important to remember those who died a half century ago fighting for this very cause.

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.

Today, they are remembered by our friends at Bend the Arc.

Following "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965, Reverend James Reeb traveled to Selma, AL to participate in a second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge. On the 9th, he was beaten. On the 11th, he succumbed to his injuries.

Today, members of one of his former congregations, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC, are "singing on" for change.

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

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

PFAW

New Report Reflects Persistence of Voting Rights Violations

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) took a giant leap toward reducing voting discrimination, a wealth of evidence today shows that discrimination at the polls persists. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights documents148 separate instances of voting violations since 2000, with each affecting hundreds to thousands of voters.

The report, The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination, came just days before today’s one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the VRA. The litany of voting rights violations detailed therein underscores the need for reform – now.

Key takeaways gleaned from recent examples:

• Racial discrimination in voting remains a significant problem in our democracy. Nearly 50 years after the enactment of the VRA, racial discrimination in voting remains a persistent problem in many places around the country…

• The problem of racial discrimination in voting is not limited to one region of the country. The examples outlined in this report document instances of voting discrimination from 30 states, representing every region of the country…

• Voting discrimination occurs most often in local elections… They often concern the election of city, county or other local elected officials, where many of the contests are nonpartisan.

• Discrimination in voting manifests itself in many ways, and new methods continue to emerge. Voting discrimination occurs today in both overt and subtle forms.

Here are just a handful of the cases in which systematic discrimination threatened to discourage or sideline voters:

• In 2008, the state of Alaska requested preclearance of a plan to remove polling places in multiple Native villages. The state intended to consolidate predominately Alaska Native voting precincts with those of other communities, creating new polling places that were geographically remote and inaccessible by road. Instead of complying with a “More Information Request” by the Department of Justice regarding the proposed changes, Alaska withdrew their submission.

• Between 2004 and 2011, DOJ alleged that five counties and four cities in California had been in violation of Section 203 of the VRA, citing failures to implement bilingual election programs for language-minority voters, as well as failures to translate election-related materials for precincts with large language-minority populations.

• Between 2002 and 2011, multiple school districts and localities in Louisiana proposed redistricting plans that would have eliminated districts in which an African American majority was able to elect the candidate of their choice. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights notes that because the study was only able to take into account reported cases, the statistics are likely a conservative estimate of the real magnitude of the problem.

Sadly, discrimination in the electoral process still happens. Moving forward on legislation to update and modernize the VRA would help return a voting voice to Americans who are too often, even today, marginalized.

PFAW

Cleaning Up the Supreme Court's Democracy Mess

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

One year ago this week, the Supreme Court's conservative majority struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and took yet another step toward undermining our democracy. Since then, civil rights leaders have been hard at work trying to clean up the Court's mess.

The Shelby decision was a devastating loss, especially for those who fought to see the original Voting Rights Act enacted. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, accused the Supreme Court of "stab[bing] the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart." Civil rights advocates mourned the naïve assumption that Selma had been relegated to ancient history and that racial discrimination in voting went with it. People For the American Way's director of African American religious affairs noted on the day of the decision: "Those who sided with the majority clearly have not been paying attention, reading the paper, attending community meetings, living in America."

Indeed, anyone who has been paying attention knows that voting discrimination is far from ancient history. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found nearly 150 documented instances of voting rights violations since 2000, with each case affecting between hundreds and tens of thousands of voters.

Happily, reform is finally underway in the Senate. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on legislation to put the VRA back together again. It's a critically important first step in getting our country's laws back to where they need to be on voting rights protections. But so far House Republican leadership has refused to move forward. Maybe they think that if they pretend a problem doesn't exist, they won't have to fix it.

The push for voting rights protections isn't the only effort underway to clean up the mess the Supreme Court has made of our democracy. With the 2012 election the most expensive in history, this week the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC, the infamous 2010 ruling that paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. Like Shelby, Citizens United was a contentious 5-4 decision with a strong dissent. Also like Shelby, it set our democracy back dramatically. Citizens United let corporate bank accounts overwhelm the voices of everyday Americans. Shelby made it easier for state and local governments to create barriers to voting.

But Americans know that the answer to attacks on our democracy isn't despair -- it's action. Sixteen states and more than 550 cities and towns have called for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics like the one moving forward in the Senate, and that number is growing rapidly.

National leaders are also speaking out. President Obama has expressed his support for an amendment to overturn Citizen United multiple times since the decision. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are just a handful of other high-profile amendment supporters. And earlier this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold back her disdain for the recent democracy-harming decisions coming from the Supreme Court's majority: "Like the currently leading campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I regard Shelby County as an egregiously wrong decision that should not have staying power."

The Supreme Court has made some very bad calls when it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to participate meaningfully in our political system. But Justice Ginsburg is right: these wrong-headed decisions shouldn't have staying power. And if the American people have anything to do with it, they won't.

PFAW

It's Been a Pretty Great 36 Hours for Voting Rights Advocates

Hawaii update: HB 2590 still has to be signed by Governor Neil Abercrombie in order for it to become law. Voting rights advocates believe that he will approve the measure but will be working through the next week to ensure that he does.

PFAW has been keeping you informed about what has gone right for voting rights at the state level in 2014. In the last 36 hours alone, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have added new entries to the "win" column.

Thanks to the passage of HB 2590, Hawaii will likely have same-day registration for early voting in 2016 and add it for Election Day in 2018.

The measure (HB 2590) aims to encourage voting in a state where turnout is often dismal. Once the nation’s highest, Hawaii’s voter turnout cratered at 44.5 percent, the nation’s lowest, in the 2012 election, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

[ . . . ]

“It’s about making elections relevant to the modern world,” Rep. Kaniela Ing, D-Kihei, Wailea, Makena, the bill’s introducer, said in a statement. “Today’s policy decisions will impact young people for decades to come, and it doesn’t make sense to exclude them because of arbitrary registration deadlines based on technological limitations that no longer exist.”

Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said in written testimony supporting the measure that any qualified person who wants to vote should be able to register and vote.

In Minnesota, after the online voter registration system launched by Sectary of State Mark Ritchie was forced to shut down, legislators acted quickly, and Governor Mark Dayton signed into law its replacement.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Minnesota Legislature’s revival of online voter registration on Tuesday, just one day after a judge had ordered the system shut down, ruling that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie overstepped his authority in creating it last year.

“I am very pleased that this bill passed with bipartisan support in both bodies, and I look forward to signing it into law today,” Dayton said in a statement, soon after the Minnesota Senate gave the measure final approval.

The quick action means that Minnesotans’ access to Web-based voter registration, which more than 3,600 voters have used since September, will continue unimpeded. With Dayton’s signature, Minnesota officially joins about half of the states in offering some form of voter registration online.

In Wisconsin, US District Judge Lynn Adelman ruled against the state's voter ID law, saying that "it is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes."

From the American Civil Liberties Union:

"This law had robbed many Wisconsin citizens of their right to vote. Today, the court made it clear those discriminatory actions cannot stand," said Karyn Rotker, ACLU of Wisconsin senior staff attorney.

"This is a warning to other states that are trying to make it harder for citizens to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “This decision put them on notice that they can't tamper with citizens' fundamental right to cast a ballot. The people, and our democracy, deserve and demand better."

We can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.

PFAW

Voting Rights Advocates Rack Up More Wins

Earlier this month, PFAW reported on what has gone right for voting rights at the state level in 2014. While there is much more work to be done to enact needed reforms and to step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack, states like Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have shown that we can win.

Now we've uncovered even more evidence of why we can and should keep fighting the challenges that lay before us.

Voters themselves will get to decide what voter empowerment means in Illinois. House Speaker Michael Madigan's constitutional amendment providing "that no person shall be denied the right to register to vote or to cast a ballot in an election based on race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation, or income" passed both chambers and will be on the November ballot. A similar effort is afoot in Ohio.

Native American voters in Montana have seen two encouraging developments. In Jackson v. Wolf Point School District, an agreement was reached that will provide for five-single member school board districts in addition to one at-large representative, as opposed to the existing multimember districts that heavily favored the area's white population. Wandering Medicine v. McCullough, which challenges the availability of late registration and early voting for residents of the Crow, North Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap Reservations, will proceed following a failed motion to dismiss the case.

In Washoe County, Nevada, home to Reno and the state's second most populated county, voters have come to expect 14 consecutive early voting days. This year, though, county commissioners planned to eliminate the two optional Sundays that fall within that period. The American Civil Liberties Union and other allies organized quickly, sending a letter to Chairman David Humke and providing testimony at a commission meeting. Thankfully at that same meeting Chairman Humke announced that Sunday early voting was back on and warrants further study.

Tod Story, ACLU of Nevada Executive Director, said:

Early voting allows more people to participate in our democracy, and weekend voting is necessary for many hardworking Nevadans. Weekends are especially important days for voting drives, including for communities of faith

US District Judge Nelva Ramos told Texas legislators, much like US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake did in North Carolina, that their emails must be disclosed – albeit confidentially – in the ongoing Voting Rights Act challenge to the 2011 Texas voter ID law.

Huffington Post:

The United States argued that the emails could be the only existing candid evidence about the purpose of the legislation because Texas Republicans coordinated their talking points on the bill and refused to publicly engage with the concerns of minority legislators. If any of the emails reveal discriminatory intent, the U.S. will still have to argue to get them admitted as evidence during the trial phase of the lawsuit.

Finally, Utah is taking Election Day Registration for a test drive. Governor Gary Herbert has signed HB 156, which sets up an opt-in pilot program for counties and municipalities. The state will keep an eye on how they do and report back to the legislature for possible further action.

We can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.

PFAW

Applying McCutcheon's Logic to Voter ID Laws

The Chief Justice's opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC striking down aggregate campaign contribution limits dismisses several scenarios put forward to describe how funds can be rerouted to bypass the existing base limits on contributions:

The dissent concludes by citing three briefs for the proposition that, even with the aggregate limits in place, individuals "have transferred large sums of money to specific candidates" in excess of the base limits. But the cited sources do not provide any real-world examples of circumvention of the base limits along the lines of the various hypotheticals.

The dearth of FEC prosecutions, according to the dissent, proves only that people are getting away with it. And the violations that surely must be out there elude detection "because in the real world, the methods of achieving circumvention are more subtle and more complex" than the hypothetical examples. This sort of speculation, however, cannot justify the substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights at issue in this case. (emphasis added)

Yet exactly this sort of speculation is routinely used by the far right to justify the substantial intrusion on the right to vote caused by strict photo ID laws. As Hans von Spakovsky and Peter McGinley recently wrote for the Heritage Foundation:

A favorite claim made by those who oppose voter ID is that voter fraud is a rare occurrence. On the surface, this argument may have some appeal, because it is not very often that huge voter fraud conspiracies dominate the national headlines. But, by its very nature, voter fraud is hard to detect.

Unfortunately, despite the absence of evidence of the in-person voter fraud they allegedly are intended to prevent, a number of voter ID laws have been upheld despite their obvious impact on the right to vote.

If only the courts were as solicitous of the right to vote in elections as they are of the right to purchase them. The "Money In / Voters Out" approach to elections has got to stop.

PFAW Foundation

Voting Rights – We Can Win

The New York Times and NPR recently shared somewhat different takes on where voting rights stand now and what the picture might look like come Election Day 2014.

It is true, as suggested by The Times:

Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing . . . bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — [that] shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.

It's also true, as quoted by NPR from its interview with the Brennan Center's Myrna Pérez:

We've seen a lot of real momentum in 2014, thus far, towards improving our elections both at the states and nationally[.]

PFAW thought it would be good to take a step back and look at what has gone right at the state level in 2014 – and why we can and should keep fighting the challenges that lay before us.

Florida has an especially troublesome history with voter purges, but now the trouble is headed back toward the chief architects. On April 1, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Gov. Rick Scott’s voter purge of suspected non-citizens in 2012 violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), because systematic removal programs are barred within 90 days of a federal election. This came just days after Secretary of State Ken Detzner did an about-face and called off his 2014 plans.

In the final hours of its legislative session, thanks to a flaw in the bill language, Georgia looked poised to take the early voting days for municipal elections down to ZERO. Because staunch advocates like the League of Women Voters closely monitored the bill and sprang into action when that fatal flaw was discovered, the session adjourned on March 20 with early voting intact. As the League's Kelli Persons noted:

The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level[.]

Even in North Carolina, where the Moral Mondays movement began and challenges to voting reach far and wide, there's been a victory of sorts. On March 27, US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public. We need transparency as this case moves forward.

There is much more work to be done to enact needed reforms and to step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack – but we can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.

PFAW

Florida Puts Hold on Voter Purge, North Carolina Lifts the Veil on Voter ID Law

When we last checked in with the controversial Florida voter purge, advocates and media alike were speculating over what route Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner would take in 2014, with Detzner's office considering comparing its voter records with the US Department of Homeland Security's federal citizenship database known as Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE).

Now we know: the purge is off for 2014.

The about-face on Thursday by Secretary of State Ken Detzner resolves a standoff with county elections supervisors, who resisted the purge and were suspicious of its timing. It also had given rise to Democratic charges of voter suppression aimed at minorities, including Hispanics crucial to Scott’s reelection hopes.

Detzner told supervisors in a memo that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is redesigning its SAVE database, and it won’t be finished until 2015, so purging efforts, known as Project Integrity, should not proceed.

“I have decided to postpone implementing Project Integrity until the federal SAVE program Phase Two is completed,” Detzner wrote.

As the Brennan Center reported in 2008, election officials across the country are routinely striking millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.

Florida has an especially troublesome history with this practice, so voting rights advocates will have to keep a close eye on what shape it takes next year.

Also this week, in North Carolina US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public.

Dale Ho of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project:

North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote. Legislators should not be shrouding their intentions in secrecy.

Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice:

Defendants have resisted at every turn disclosing information about their reasons for enacting this discriminatory law. Today's ruling will help ensure the court has a fuller picture of why the voting changes at stake are so bad for North Carolina voters.

In other voting rights news, Colorado considers recall election changes, Pennsylvania ID remains in legal limbo, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker approves (mostly) of the state's new voter suppression law.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

Urgent Action Needed on Georgia Early Voting Bill on Last Day of Legislative Session

Updated March 21: Georgia's legislative session closed without final action being taken on HB 891. According to Facing South, "House sponsors declined to take up a vote on the revised bill, and HB 891 was dead." The report quotes Kelli Persons of League of Women Voters of Georgia, "The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level," in reference to the bill's impact on municipal early voting.

Earlier this month we told you about legislation in Georgia that would reduce the availability of early voting in municipal elections. While it was welcome news that the bill was amended to keep early voting at three weeks, requiring cities to pass their own legislation if they wanted to make further cuts, the League of Women Voters of Georgia is now reporting a flaw in the language that could take municipal early voting down to zero.

According to the League, it's time to act:

Please call, email, facebook/twitter & fax . . . Lt. Governor Cagle and Senate members,

And tell them to protect early voting and STOP HB 891 or FIX HB 891 before allowing a vote. It is a discredit to democracy to ask our Senators to vote on a flawed bill!

There is an "agreement" to correct the error before HB 891 is signed into law, but it should be fixed now – or stopped. Timing is especially critical as today, March 20, is the last day of Georgia's legislative session.

In other voting rights news, a federal judge has ruled in the Arizona-Kansas proof of citizenship case, early voting expansion suffers a setback in Louisiana, Virginia voter ID implementation moves forward – ahead of schedule, and Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans alike are speaking out against voter suppression.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

Florida Senate Committee Takes Up Voting Rights Bill

At the same time pro-democracy advocates in Wisconsin were speaking out against their state's latest suppressive legislation yesterday, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee in Florida also had election reform on the agenda.

SPB 7068 – which cleared a procedural hurdle on March 10 and is expected to come back before the Committee later this month – addresses a number of issues, including the use of certain drop-off locations for the submission of absentee ballots. Last year, Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive against the use of some drop-off sites, such as tax collector offices and county library branches, despite their use in Pinellas County since 2008.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark:

I do not understand why the secretary of state, the chief elections official for the state of Florida, would want to eliminate an option that voters have to participate by returning their ballot to the ballot dropoff locations.

Even US Senator Bill Nelson has joined the absentee ballot fray, telling Committee Chairman Jack Latvala:

The last thing Floridians need are laws that make it harder for them to exercise their right to vote.

Chairman Latvala hit back, claiming that Supervisor Clark needs to focus more on early voting and less on absentee ballots.

In other voting rights news, Minnesota moves closer to resolving its turf war over online voter registration, and Ohio considers putting voters' rights on the November ballot.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW