Voting Rights Hang in the Balance – 32 Days and Counting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

Voting Rights – We Can Win

This Saturday marks the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Though we have a long way to go to restore this landmark law and ensure that every voter can cast a ballot that counts, it's important to recognize the progress being made.

Yesterday a ruling in North Dakota provided relief for voters facing restrictive voter ID this November. From the Native American Rights Fund:

[A] federal district court enjoined North Dakota’s strict voter ID law and ruled that voters unable to obtain the necessary identification may vote in the upcoming election by completing a declaration or affidavit. The court agreed with the seven Native American voters that the new law disproportionately burdens Native Americans and denies qualified voters the right to vote.

Last week was huge for voting rights victories, with voters in five states receiving favorable rulings.

Kansas: A Shawnee County district judge ruled that thousands of questioned (thanks to Kris Kobach) voter registrations will count in the August 2 primary. As reported by the Kansas City Star:

A Shawnee County district judge ruled Friday that the votes of 17,500 people whose registrations had been questioned are to be tallied in Tuesday’s primary.

Judge Larry Hendricks issued a temporary order, meaning the votes will be counted Tuesday. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against Secretary of State Kobach on behalf of Kansas voters who were told that they could vote in federal elections but that their votes in state and local elections would not be counted.

Louisiana: A federal district court held the state accountable for its neglect of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which expands voter registration access to motor vehicle offices and other agencies. Niyati Shah provided this Project Vote analysis:

In this exhaustive opinion, the court basically held that mere lip service to the public assistance provisions of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) is not an option . . . In Louisiana, however, the state had apparently decided that our vulnerable citizens weren’t all that important, and gave all sorts of excuses for neglecting Section 7 of the NVRA. But, in a resounding victory for the right to franchise, a federal district court rejected the state’s arguments.

North Carolina: The state's monster voter suppression law that covers a number of harmful policies was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Paul Gordon provided this PFAW Foundation analysis:

A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed a lower federal court and struck down North Carolina’s notorious voter ID law, as well as its provisions curtailing or eliminating early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and preregistration of 16 and 17 year-olds.

Significantly, the unanimous circuit court concluded that the law does more than "just" have a discriminatory impact, in violation of a section of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  The court also found that the law’s purpose was to discriminate, putting it in violation of the United States Constitution. One piece of evidence: state officials moved to enact the law within days of the Shelby County case removing any preclearance requirements under Section 5 of the VRA.

Virginia: Though here it was a state court pushing back on voting rights progress, Governor Terry McAuliffe stood strong in defense of voting rights restoration for formerly incarcerated persons. After the Virginia Supreme Court struck down Governor McAuliffe’s executive orders restoring the voting rights of over 200,000 formerly incarcerated persons, McAuliffe said "he would forgo his blanket declaration — and, instead, individually sign about 206,000 restoration orders for ex-felons, including 13,000 who had registered after his April order."

Wisconsin: A federal district court struck several provisions of the state's voter suppression package. Rick Hasen provided this Election Law Blog analysis:

This is a pretty sweeping opinion, which rejects many of the state’s arguments for its restrictive voting rules as [pretextual], and really aimed at giving Republicans advantage in elections. The judge was particularly skeptical of measures which made it harder to vote in Milwaukee, with its large population of minority voters, and to a lesser extent, Madison, a liberal stronghold in the state. But this is a careful opinion which parses the evidence and does not accept all of the claims.

Two weeks ago it was Texas and, again, Wisconsin.

Texas: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings against voter ID. As reported by the Texas Tribune:

Texas' voter identification law violates the U.S. law prohibiting racial discrimination in elections, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings that the 2011 voter ID law — which stipulates the types of photo identification election officials can and cannot accept at the polls — does not comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Wisconsin: A federal district court provided relief for voters facing restrictive voter ID this November. From the American Civil Liberties Union:

Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been a mistake from day one. This ruling is a strong rebuke of the state’s efforts to limit access to the ballot box. It means that a failsafe will be in place in November for voters who have had difficulty obtaining ID.

There is a lot of work left to do in the voting rights arena. Not even these victories signal the end of the road for voting rights advocates. But they are important signs of progress.

Onward.

PFAW

House GOP Follows Orlando Tragedy with a License to Discriminate

On June 12, in a brazen attack on the LGBT community, a gunman walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people.

Since then, House Republicans have refused to take meaningful action on hate violence and gun violence prevention.

So what are they taking up instead?

On July 12, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, an odious anti-LGBT bill that would redefine and hijack the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty.

One month to the day that 49 lives were lost and 53 others were injured in Orlando, Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Representative Raúl Labrador, the bill's sponsor, are renewing their push for legislation that attempts to turn religious liberty into a license to discriminate against LGBT people. It's beyond shameful.

People For the American Way joined the American Civil Liberties Union and over 70 national, state, and local organizations in urging Chairman Chaffetz to cancel this hearing and instead consider how best to ensure that no one in this country is subjected to violence or discrimination based on who they are or who they love.

Please join us: Take a stand for equality and against hate -- add your name now to STOP the so-called First Amendment Defense Act.

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

Civil Liberties Experts: Limiting Big Money In Elections Doesn’t Infringe on Free Speech Rights

This morning, six civil liberties experts released a letter emphasizing that reasonable regulations on money in elections do not violate the free speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. The authors — academics, philanthropists, and lawyers, all of whom are former leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — make clear that the protection of civil liberties is entirely compatible with commonsense limits on money in elections.

The letter was released following a barrage of misleading arguments pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz and others about the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United that will be voted on in the Senate on Monday. Though opponents have tried to position themselves as defenders of free speech, with Sen. Cruz going so far as to claim that the amendment would repeal the First Amendment and “muzzle” Americans, this letter emphasizes that it is, in fact, the Court’s twisted interpretation of the First Amendment that threatens to leave Americans without a voice:

Rather than interpreting the First Amendment as assuring everyone a reasonable opportunity to be heard, the Court (and the National ACLU) has turned the First Amendment on its head by guaranteeing the wealthy an expensive set of stereo speakers, and leaving the average citizen with a bad case of laryngitis. Most Americans would find it preposterous to allot more time in a debate to the speaker with the most money. Yet, that is precisely how our campaign finance system functions today.

The authors, many of whom signed a similar letter in 1998, note that our country’s money in politics problem has only gotten worse since then. In the wake of decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, they write, “American democracy is almost irretrievably broken.” While they do not weigh in on the Democracy for All Amendment specifically, the civil liberties experts close the letter with a call to restore the promise of the First Amendment by overturning these damaging decisions:

We believe that overturning many of the Court’s narrow 5-4 campaign finance precedents and implementing generous, content neutral political spending limits is the best way to fulfill the promise of James Madison’s First Amendment as democracy’s best friend.

You can read the full text of the letter here.
 

PFAW

Court Restores Voting Opportunities for Ohioans

A federal district court ruled this morning that restrictions on early voting in Ohio violate both the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. This is a major setback for right-wing officials dedicated to making it harder for certain people to vote, and a major victory for Ohioans seeking to exercise their right to vote.

The Ohio legislature passed a law reducing the time for early in-person (EIP) voting from 35 days to 28 days and eliminating "Golden Week" (the first week of early voting, when people can register and vote on the same day). Adding insult to injury, Secretary of State Jon Husted issued directives setting uniform (and limited) hours statewide for EIP voting, eliminating the ability of local boards to extend hours as needed for their specific communities. It was a transparent effort to make it harder for certain people to vote – primarily African Americans. The ACLU challenged the restrictions on behalf of the Ohio NAACP, the Ohio League of Women Voters, and several African American churches.

Judge Peter Economus considered the record before him and recognized that the new rules would significantly burden certain groups' right to vote, including African Americans as well as low-income and homeless Ohioans. He also concluded that the state's purported rationales for the restrictions fell apart under careful evaluation. Consequently, he ordered the state to restore the cuts for the 2014 election.

Quoting from decades-old Supreme Court precedent, the judge framed the issue well:

The right to vote is a fundamental right. No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined. [internal quotations and citations removed]

This showcases why our federal courts are so important. When government officials act to restrict our rights, we should be able to turn to our neutral federal judiciary to vindicate those rights. Our constitutional structure and basic liberties depend on that. And that is why those who would force through unconstitutional actions – restrictions on voting rights, violations of church-state separation, intrusions on reproductive choice – have long focused their efforts on putting like-minded ideologues on the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court and our nation's circuit courts.

Today, our judicial system worked exactly as intended. As a result, efforts to make it harder for African Americans in Ohio to vote have failed.

PFAW Foundation

Same-Sex Marriages Continue in Wisconsin After Federal Judge Denies Motion to Stay

Since last Friday’s ruling by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, hundreds of same-sex couples have lined up to get marriage licenses across the Badger State. Immediately after receiving the ruling, clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties began issuing marriage licenses, and in both areas, facilities stayed open late on Friday and continued issuing licenses on Saturday. Officiants, including judges, ministers, and commissioners, married couples on-site at their respective county courthouses.

Similar to actions in other states where courts have struck down same-sex marriage bans, Wisconsin’s right-leaning GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed multiple motions to “preserve the status quo” attempting to stop same-sex marriages from happening.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 48 of the state’s 72 counties were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the ongoing legal battle. Wisconsin’s Vital Records Office is accepting the licenses, but holding them until they receive further guidance from Van Hollen.

For its part, the ACLU filed a proposal of how to implement same-sex marriage in the state. If approved, the plan would force Governor Scott Walker, Attorney General Van Hollen, and county clerks across the state to treat all same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally under the law.

Judge Crabb is set to have another hearing on June 19th.

PFAW Foundation

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

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