UPDATE: DOJ and Houston senator take a stand for voting rights, against ID law

UPDATE: Texas has responded to last week’s DOJ ruling against the Texas voter ID law. Attorney General Greg Abbott has amended the state’s complaint in pending litigation to not just defend the law but to also add a direct challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, saying, “For the Department of Justice to now contend that Texas cannot implement its voter ID law denies Texas the ability to do what other states can rightfully exercise under the Constitution.” Austin American-Statesman reporting. US Senator John Cornyn also hit back at DOJ, saying, “The Justice Department's refusal to preclear this change in Texas law by the Texas Legislature is simply inexcusable.” As you can see below, the data just doesn’t back up their political claims. Texas is not subject to VRA preclearance without cause. In all locations, but especially where there are histories of discrimination, we must remain vigilant when voting law changes are made and bear out the review process.

Last May, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed SB 14 into law. An ALEC award-winner himself, Governor Perry had the support of several ALEC members and others who pushed the legislation. Together they made Texas a photo ID state.

Not so fast, says the Department of Justice.

Today DOJ issued an official objection that will stop SB 14 from going into effect, saying that it disproportionately affects Hispanic voters.

Thus, we conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.

DOJ said that Texas did not meet its burden of proof and failed to demonstrate that SB 14 made positive progress, without discriminatory intent, in ensuring election integrity.

In conclusion, the state has not met its burden of proving that, when compared to the benchmark, the proposed requirement will not have a retrogressive effect, or that any specific features of the proposed law will prevent or mitigate that retrogression. Additionally, the state has failed to demonstrate why it could not meet its stated goals of ensuring electoral integrity and deterring ineligible voters from voting in a manner that would have avoided this retrogressive effect. Because we conclude that the state has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the proposed law will not have a retrogressive effect, we do not make any determination as to whether the state has established that the proposed changes were adopted with no discriminatory purpose.

DOJ’s action flows from its mandate under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to review election law changes in certain jurisdictions, Texas being one of them.

State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston sent DOJ a letter last week, urging:

Regardless of the excuses for why the State fails to fully answer the DOJ’s question, it is clear that the State falls far short of meeting the standards set out in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. As outlined on the DOJ’s own website, Section 5 “requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. If the jurisdiction is unable to prove the absence of such discrimination,” then the proposed change cannot receive preclearance and is legally unenforceable.

Again, given the State’s failure to prove that Senate Bill 14 has neither the purpose nor the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, I respectfully request that the DOJ deny preclearance of Senate Bill 14. We must not proceed recklessly with far-reaching electoral changes that could potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of legal voters.

Senator Ellis was responding to an in-depth Houston Chronicle review of the data that the state submitted to DOJ in support of its preclearance request.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

DOJ and Houston senator take a stand for voting rights, against ID law

Last May, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed SB 14 into law. An ALEC award-winner himself, Governor Perry had the support of several ALEC members and others who pushed the legislation. Together they made Texas a photo ID state.

Not so fast, says the Department of Justice.

Today DOJ issued an official objection that will stop SB 14 from going into effect, saying that it disproportionately affects Hispanic voters.

Thus, we conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.

DOJ said that Texas did not meet its burden of proof and failed to demonstrate that SB 14 made positive progress, without discriminatory intent, in ensuring election integrity.

In conclusion, the state has not met its burden of proving that, when compared to the benchmark, the proposed requirement will not have a retrogressive effect, or that any specific features of the proposed law will prevent or mitigate that retrogression. Additionally, the state has failed to demonstrate why it could not meet its stated goals of ensuring electoral integrity and deterring ineligible voters from voting in a manner that would have avoided this retrogressive effect. Because we conclude that the state has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the proposed law will not have a retrogressive effect, we do not make any determination as to whether the state has established that the proposed changes were adopted with no discriminatory purpose.

DOJ’s action flows from its mandate under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to review election law changes in certain jurisdictions, Texas being one of them.

State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston sent DOJ a letter last week, urging:

Regardless of the excuses for why the State fails to fully answer the DOJ’s question, it is clear that the State falls far short of meeting the standards set out in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. As outlined on the DOJ’s own website, Section 5 “requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. If the jurisdiction is unable to prove the absence of such discrimination,” then the proposed change cannot receive preclearance and is legally unenforceable.

Again, given the State’s failure to prove that Senate Bill 14 has neither the purpose nor the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, I respectfully request that the DOJ deny preclearance of Senate Bill 14. We must not proceed recklessly with far-reaching electoral changes that could potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of legal voters.

Senator Ellis was responding to an in-depth Houston Chronicle review of the data that the state submitted to DOJ in support of its preclearance request.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

Justice Department Charges Anti-Immigrant Hero Joe Arpaio with Long List of Civil Rights Violations

Sheriff Joe Arpaio is something of a hero to the anti-immigrant Right. He was one of the most outspoken proponents of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law last year, in a large part because he had already been using the racial profiling tactics it authorized for years. He delighted in punishing prisoners –including protestors of his tactics – by making them wear pink underwear, a practice he commemorated last month by giving Sarah Palin her very own pair. He briefly had his own reality TV show. He was courted by the Tea Party. GOP presidential candidates, including Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain vied for his endorsement, which he ultimately gave to Rick Perry before joining the candidate on the campaign trail.

Arpaio’s reckless flair for self-promotion and disregard for civil rights have been well-known for as long as he has had national fame. But today, the Justice Department released a long and scathing report detailing the Sheriff’s record of civil rights violations, including his discrimination against Latinos and non-English speakers, “excessive use of force” and “unlawful retaliation against individuals exercising their First Amendment right to criticize MCSO’s policies or practices.”

The AP outlines some of the most shocking allegations in the report:


The civil rights report said Latinos are four to nine times more likely to be stopped in traffic stops in Maricopa County than non-Latinos and that the agency's immigration policies treat Latinos as if they are all in the country illegally. Deputies on the immigrant-smuggling squad stop and arrest Latino drivers without good cause, the investigation found.

A review done as part of the investigation found that 20 percent of traffic reports handled by Arpaio's immigrant-smuggling squad from March 2006 to March 2009 were stops - almost all involving Latino drivers - that were done without reasonable suspicion. The squad's stops rarely led to smuggling arrests.

Deputies are encouraged to make high-volume traffic stops in targeted locations. There were Latinos who were in the U.S. legally who were arrested or detained without cause during the sweeps, according to the report.

During the sweeps, deputies flood an area of a city - in some cases, heavily Latino areas - over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders. Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by his office since January 2008, according to figures provided by Arpaio's office.

Police supervisors, including at least one smuggling-squad supervisor, often used county accounts to send emails that demeaned Latinos to fellow sheriff's managers, deputies and volunteers in the sheriff's posse. One such email had a photo of a mock driver's license for a fictional state called "Mexifornia."


The report said that the sheriff's office launched an immigration operation two weeks after the sheriff received a letter in August 2009 letter about a person's dismay over employees of a McDonald's in the Phoenix suburb of Sun City who didn't speak English. The tip laid out no criminal allegations. The sheriff wrote back to thank the writer "for the info," said he would look into it and forwarded it to a top aide with a note of "for our operation."
 

Federal investigators focused heavily on the language barriers in Arpaio's jails.

Latino inmates with limited English skills were punished for failing to understand commands in English by being put in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day or keeping prisoners locked down in their jail pods for as long as 72 hours without a trip to the canteen area or making nonlegal phone calls.

The report said some jail officers used racial slurs for Latinos when talking among themselves and speaking to inmates.

Detention officers refused to accept forms requesting basic daily services and reporting mistreatment when the documents were completed in Spanish and pressured Latinos with limited English skills to sign forms that implicate their legal rights without language assistance.

The agency pressures Latinos with limited English skills to sign forms by yelling at them and keeping them in uncomfortably cold cells for long periods of time.

These allegations are disturbing enough in themselves. But what’s even more troubling is that the person behind them has been not only held up as a hero by the Right, but has served as an inspiration for immigration legislation around the country. In a report last year, we examined the ways the anti-immigrant Right has worked to dehumanize immigrants in order “to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment and build political opposition to comprehensive immigration reform.” It should come as no surprise that Sheriff Joe is the movement’s figurehead.
 

PFAW

Holder: Protecting Voting Rights a ‘Moral Imperative’

In a groundbreaking speech last night, Attorney General Eric Holder promised that the Obama administration would fight back against attacks on voting rights – whether they’re launched by individuals committing voter intimidation or state governments suppressing the vote through restrictive and discriminatory laws.

Holder said the administration would fight for voting rights on three levels: prosecuting voter intimidation, ensuring that state redistricting efforts are not discriminatory; and urging lawmakers to reform election laws “in ways that encourage, not limit, participation.”

A People For the American Way Foundation report in October examined the proliferation of right-wing attacks on voting rights, from restrictive Voter ID laws to illegal but hard to trace deception campaigns.

Holder addressed the efforts of dozens of states to make voter registration more difficult, saying:

As concerns about the protection of this right and the integrity of our election systems become an increasingly prominent part of our national dialogue – we must consider some important questions. It is time to ask: what kind of nation – and what kind of people – do we want to be? Are we willing to allow this era – our era – to be remembered as the age when our nation’s proud tradition of expanding the franchise ended? Are we willing to allow this time – our time – to be recorded in history as the age when the long-held belief that, in this country, every citizen has the chance – and the right – to help shape their government, became a relic of our past, instead of a guidepost for our future?

For me – and for our nation’s Department of Justice – the answers are clear. We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence – and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.

Today, Senators Ben Cardin and Charles Schumer introduced legislation that would impose tough penalties on those who create and distribute deceptive information about voting and elections. PFAW Foundation’s Andrew Gillum responded:

Right-wing politicians and talking heads have aggressively pushed the myth that ‘voter fraud’ is a great threat to the sanctity of our elections. However, the evidence shows that the real threat to our democracy comes from laws that discourage whole communities of people from voting and from devious voter suppression practices like those that took place in Maryland last year. We must fight suppressive laws, like Voter ID requirements, at the legislative level. Deceptive practices can, and should, be combated by law enforcement. This bill takes an important step toward ensuring that all Americans are free to exercise their right to vote without intimidation and harassment.
 

PFAW

President Obama Calls DOMA Unconstitutional

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Department of Justice will no longer defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in court because it is unconstitutional. This is the provision prohibiting federal recognition of the marriages of gay or lesbian couples. As if that wasn't big enough news by itself, DoJ has concluded that legal classifications based on sexual orientation, like those based on race, sex, national origin, and religion, should be subject to a higher level of judicial scrutiny.

While the Department has previously defended DOMA against legal challenges involving legally married same-sex couples, recent lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of DOMA Section 3 have caused the President and the Department to conduct a new examination of the defense of this provision. In particular, in November 2010, plaintiffs filed two new lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in jurisdictions without precedent on whether sexual-orientation classifications are subject to rational basis review or whether they must satisfy some form of heightened scrutiny. Windsor v. United States, No. 1:10-cv-8435 (S.D.N.Y.); Pedersen v. OPM, No. 3:10-cv-1750 (D. Conn.). Previously, the Administration has defended Section 3 in jurisdictions where circuit courts have already held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to rational basis review, and it has advanced arguments to defend DOMA Section 3 under the binding standard that has applied in those cases.

These new lawsuits, by contrast, will require the Department to take an affirmative position on the level of scrutiny that should be applied to DOMA Section 3 in a circuit without binding precedent on the issue. As described more fully below, the President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law, Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

This is the first recognition by the United States government that gays and lesbians have suffered a long history of discrimination so bad that it makes suspect any laws that treat people differently based on sexual orientation.  Moreover, that discrimination continues today and limits their political influence.

[T]he adoption of laws like those at issue in Romer v. Evans [prohibiting the state from passing civil rights protections for gay people] and Lawrence [laws making their private sexual conduct a crime], the longstanding ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and the absence of federal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation show the group to have limited political power and "ability to attract the [favorable] attention of the lawmakers." Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 445. And while the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act and pending repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell indicate that the political process is not closed entirely to gay and lesbian people, that is not the standard by which the Court has judged "political powerlessness." Indeed, when the Court ruled that gender-based classifications were subject to heightened scrutiny, women already had won major political victories such as the Nineteenth Amendment (right to vote) and protection under Title VII (employment discrimination).

The Attorney General's announcement notes that it will continue to enforce DOMA until it is repealed by Congress or struck down definitively by the courts. In addition, it will work to ensure that Congress, should it wish, has the opportunity to defend the law in court since the Administration cannot in good conscience do so. (This would presumably avoid a situation like the one in California, where the state refused to pursue an appeal of the district court ruling against Proposition 8, leaving in doubt whether anyone has standing to do so.)

PFAW

White House staff: It gets better

In recent months I’ve written about various contributions to the It Gets Better Project. Dan and Terry. Ellen DeGeneres. President Obama. Secretary Clinton. Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. Yesterday brought a video from White House staff members.

The video’s release notes:

Inspired by President Obama’s It Gets Better video, several LGBT White House staffers decided to add their voices to the project. President Obama has more LGBT appointees than any previous administration and he is committed to making his administration reflect the diversity of our nation.

I also just came across a page that collects It Gets Better videos produced by the Obama Administration. Some I’d seen. Some I hadn’t. Check it out!

PFAW agrees that every student, LGBT or not, has the right to be educated in the same way. Click here for more information.

PFAW

Justice Department, Civil Rights Division: It gets better

In recent months I’ve written about various contributions to the It Gets Better Project. Dan and Terry. Ellen DeGeneres. President Obama. Secretary Clinton. Today brought a video from the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.

As you can see:

The Civil Rights Division, and the entire Justice Department, is committed to ending bullying and harassment in schools, and the video highlights the Department’s authority to enforce federal laws that protect students from discrimination and harassment at school because of their race, national origin, disability, religion, and sex, including harassment based on nonconformity with gender stereotypes. The video also features Division employees who share their individual stories and personal messages that a better future awaits youth who may be experiencing bullying or harassment.

PFAW agrees that every student, LGBT or not, has the right to be educated in the same way. Click here for more information.

PFAW

The Long Term Cost of GOP Obstruction

Usually when we talk about Republican obstruction, it’s to explain the immediate problems that need to be fixed, but can’t because Republican Senators won’t let the solutions come up for a vote—an understaffed Department of Justice, empty seats languishing on the federal judiciary, an impending budget deadline, etc.

Currently, for example, there are 34 judicial nominees pending on the Senate floor, the vast majority of which are to fill vacancies deemed “judicial emergencies.” 26 of those nominees have faced no Republican opposition; one received only one negative vote - but all of them are held up anyway, waiting endlessly to start their new jobs.

But perhaps the most damaging effect of this delay won’t become apparent for years. Delaying simple confirmation votes forces nominees to put their lives on hold for months or even years, for a job with longer hours and less pay than they could find elsewhere. The excruciatingly long confirmation process is making it harder and harder to recruit qualified candidates to fill critical government positions.

Already, some nominees have decided that they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, deal with the ugly process any longer.

Dawn Johnsen, President Obama’s pick to head the Office of Legal Counsel, eventually withdrew her name because Republican senators so politicized her nomination that they undermined her primary goal of depoliticizing the OLC itself. Mary Smith, nominated to head the Tax Division of the Justice Department, asked for her name to be withdrawn when she concluded GOP obstruction would drag on for months longer. And any number of judicial nominees have displayed borderline heroism by sitting by silently as their reputations are smeared by critics playing fast and loose with the truth.

After seeing the treatment that even exceedingly well qualified nominees receive from the Senate, should it be any surprise if well qualified individuals in the future just decide that they don’t want the trouble?

Of course, if you’re in the business of attacking the Obama Administration at all costs, maybe scaring off qualified government officials isn’t a problem, it’s the goal.

 

PFAW

Paycheck Fairness Act defeated, but we shouldn't be

There’s no denying the fact that it was frustrating to see the Paycheck Fairness Act defeated in a 58-41 vote – 2 votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle that has stopped the bill itself from coming to the floor.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, was herself frustrated.

Today, only Democratic senators voted to support Paycheck Fairness for women -- not a single Republican voted to allow the Senate to move forward. It is notable that the first vote after the election in which the American people sent a clear message that they want Washington to work better, the Republicans blocked a common sense measure aimed simply to help ensure that women get the pay they deserve.

But in the same post, it’s clear that neither she, nor President Obama, nor his Administration are ready to give up.

Despite today’s vote, the Administration will continue its fight for equal pay for women – an issue that in these trying economic times is even more pressing given American families’ reliance on women’s income. The National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, with representatives from the Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Office of Personnel Management, (“OPM”) continues its pursuit of pay equity for women. The agencies are strengthening their own enforcement efforts and working together, building regional partnerships to promote earlier and more effective collaboration on investigations. And with leadership from OPM, we will continue to improve the federal government’s role as a model employer.

This Administration will keep fighting to improve the economic security for women and their families. This includes working hard in this session and the next Congress we will keep fighting for things such as an extension of emergency unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other measures we have supported that must now be extended. The President is committed to working with the women who joined us today and people around the country to support women and their families.

I think the President himself said it best.

Click here for People For the American Way’s statement on the vote.

PFAW

The Voter-Fraud Fraud Continues

As my colleague Paul recently pointed out, the trouble with voter fraud is not that voters are committing fraud – it’s that we’re constantly being told that voter fraud is a pervasive national problem when it simply isn’t. Paul notes that analysis after analysis has shown this to be true. The Right Wing uses this myth to downplay Democratic gains or keep Democrats away from the polls in the first place.

Here’s some more of what the Right Wing has been up to.

Minnesota.
Last year, a group called Minnesota Majority alleged that 1,250 individuals in Hennepin County had committed voter fraud in the 2008 election. This past Tuesday, prosecutor Mike Freeman announced that only a small fraction – 47 – would be charged. And he added that there was no evidence of a coordinated campaign to commit fraud. It’s important to note that Minnesota Majority has admitted membership – but disputes claims of intimidation – in a coalition that Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison condemned for hanging in plain view of students “posters showing a person in handcuffs, with the warning that ‘voter fraud is a felony.’”

Nevada.
If you were to believe a recent fundraising letter from Cleta Mitchell, Counsel to Friends of Sharron Angle, you’d not only think that Harry Reid was committing voter fraud, but you’d think that he had lawlessly hijacked his entire campaign in order to outright steal the election from Angle. In response, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller cautions that such serious allegations must “contain specific information, not conjecture and rumor used in support of a plea for financial contributions, as the foundation of the violation.”

North Carolina.
When poll watching is done right, it serves a very important purpose: root out wrongdoing and help well-intentioned voters make their voices heard. When it’s done wrong, it simply adds another layer of intimidation to the process. Wake County has been plagued by complaints from voters that Republican observers are doing just that. Alarmingly, “the offending observers have reportedly stood behind the registration table (where they're not allowed) and taken pictures of the license plates of voters using curbside voting (also illegal).”

The Right Wing has also taken their campaign online.

Fox News. Megyn Kelly recently disputed good faith efforts by the Department of Justice “to ensure that all qualified voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots and have their votes counted, without incidence of discrimination, intimidation or fraud.” DOJ isn’t doing its job, so Fox will. They’ve set up their very own email account – voterfraud@foxnews.com – to field complaints.



American Majority Action. Not to be outdone, American Majority Action has released a voter fraud app that enables iPhone, BlackBerry, and Droid users to “defend our democracy and uphold credibility directly from your phone.”

PFAW