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.

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“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Election Protection: Our Broken Voting System and How to Repair It

Desiline Victor, you are not alone.

A report released on February 12, 2013 by the Election Protection coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pledges to address the “endemic yet solvable problems [that] continue to plague our system of elections and prevent too many eligible voters from fully participating in our democracy.”

The Election Protection 2012 report begins with a brief overview of the national Election Protection program and how we mobilize to protect and assist voters around the country. Next, the report provides a summary of the voting battles fought around the country in 2011 and 2012 in the lead up to Election Day—including the coordinated effort to suppress voting and the national response by Election Protection and its partners. We then highlight the critical role voting rights litigation played in 2012 with courts striking down several restrictive state laws in places like Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Then we present what actually transpired—as documented by Election Protection—on and before Election Day through the lens of the recurring issues that continue to plague our electoral process and prevent millions of eligible Americans from exercising their right to vote. Finally, we propose needed reforms to “fix that” as President Obama decreed in his acceptance speech on Election night and spotlighted in his Inaugural Address.

The numbers alone are astounding.

  • Over 37,000 calls on November 5 and nearly 90,000 calls on November 6 from all 50 states and the District of Columbia
  • Election Protection hosted 38 call centers across the country on Election Day
  • More than 5,300 trained legal volunteers and 2,300 grassroots volunteers in 22 states and over 80 voting jurisdictions

But so are the stories.

Problems and delays regarding absentee and early voting:

Astonishingly, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, over 800 absentee ballots were discovered to be lost in the mail before reaching the voters who requested them. Rather than reach out to the pool of affected voters, election officials waited for voters who did not receive their requested ballots to contact them before issuing a replacement ballot. Similarly, over 100 ballots sent to voters were lost in Roseville, Michigan. The lack of an affirmative effort to replace the lost ballots had a significant impact on the voters who did not receive them, particularly individuals with disabilities, military voters, and elderly voters for whom it may have been difficult or impossible to get to the polling place.

Polling place problems:

Even worse was a report from Blackstone, Virginia, where voters were turned away from the polling place at approximately 5 p.m. – two hours before polls closed. The voter who reported this was told that she would need to vote at the Municipal Building, but upon arrival, she was told that she needed to go to the Police Precinct polling location. Before leaving the Municipal Building, she overheard a conversation that the Police Precinct polling place was understaffed and turning away voters. She waited in line again and ultimately left (as did others) when it became clear that they were not admitting anyone else to vote. She did not get to vote in this election.

Lack of language assistance:

Another poll worker (at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church polling place in New Orleans, Louisiana) was under the erroneous impression that only [Limited English Proficiency (LEP)] voters whose language was covered by Section 203 [of the Voting Rights Act (VRA)] would be able to obtain assistance in voting. Because Vietnamese was not “on the books,” the poll worker incorrectly informed the LEP voters that they were not entitled to assistance. The denial of assistance to these voters was a violation of Section 208 [of the VRA], which allows all LEP voters throughout the U.S. to obtain assistance in voting from a person of their choice (so long as this person is not the voter’s employer, or an agent of the employer or of the voter’s union), regardless of the voters’ language or the jurisdiction’s obligations under Section 203 [of the VRA].

As the report makes clear, these voters were not alone in the challenges they faced. Nor are they alone in the ensuing call to action. Election Protection recommends such solutions as voter registration modernization (addressing convenience and portability), same-day registration, early and absentee voting, uniform standards, and continuing to take a stand against deceptive practices and voter intimidation – advanced, at least in part, through state and federal legislation.

PFAW Foundation, a founding member of Election Protection, released its own voting rights reports in 2011 and 2012 and, with People For the American Way, continues to monitor voting rights issues nationwide.

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Foundation Submits Amicus Brief in Critical Voting Rights Case

Yesterday, People For the American Way Foundation , on behalf of its Young People For program, joined with Demos and several other civil rights groups to submit an amicus brief to the Supreme Court urging it to reject a new requirement in Arizona that requires people to show certain documents proving citizenship when they register to vote. As Demos explains in its press release about the brief, this requirement could severely hamper grassroots voter registration efforts:

The brief filed today details the real-world negative impact that Arizona’s extreme documentation requirements have on the ability of community-based voter registration organizations to register eligible citizens to vote, particularly through registration drives.  Proposition 200 requires that a potential registrant produce a post-1996 Arizona driver’s license, a current U.S. passport, a birth certificate, naturalization documents, or selected Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal identification documents.  Many eligible citizens do not possess these narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many  do not carry them while conducting their daily affairs.  Community-based registration efforts overwhelmingly rely on approaching individuals who did not plan in advance to register at that time or location and who are thus unlikely to be carrying a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.  Even when a potential registrant does happen to be carrying one of the required documents, logistical hurdles—ranging from an inability to copy documents on the spot to an unwillingness to hand over sensitive identification documents to registration drive volunteers—greatly hinder the ability of community-based organizations to register people in Arizona.  In short, community-based voter registration efforts are made more difficult, less effective, and more expensive as a result of Proposition 200’s citizenship documentation requirements.

The case in question, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, is one of two critical voting rights cases that the Supreme Court will hear this year. The Court will also be considering a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states and counties with a history of voting discrimination to get any changes to voting laws pre-cleared by the Justice Department or a federal court before they can go into effect. That law has helped to deflect numerous challenges to voting rights, including in the lead-up to the 2012 election. In fact, the Arizona law at issue in this case is a perfect example of why our federal voting rights protections should be expanded rather than eliminated.

Young People For fellows across the country worked last year to register and get young voters to the polls.

PFAW Foundation

Restrictions on Early Voting and Voter Registration Used for Partisan Gain

The past two years saw a dramatic rise in states attempting to enact voter suppression, the impact of which was certainly felt on Election Day. Under the guise of combating voter fraud and saving money, we saw strong pushes for ID and early voting and voter registration restrictions.

Florida was among the worst offenders. A recent Palm Beach Post report revealed the party politics behind the story. Jim Greer, former Chairman of the Florida Republican Party, says that GOP strategists and consultants "firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates" and simply used the issue of voter fraud as a "marketing ploy" to advocate for voter restrictions on early voting and registration. Several others stated that the restrictions on early voting and registration groups were explicitly in place to target minority voters and limit their turnout in the election.

Florida members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council said they were "appalled but not surprised" by the report and the claims that the restrictions exclusively targeted minority voters. Elder Lee Harris, Pastor of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church in Jacksonville, stated:

There’s a reason African Americans stood in line for hours on Nov. 6. We knew that these early voting and voter registration restrictions were meant to keep us away from the polls. But we’ve come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again… Even while cloaked in the dubious language of ‘voter fraud,’ the real reason for these measures was always clear. African Americans in Florida knew that, and we fought back – by voting.
PFAW Foundation

Corporations Sitting the Election Out? Hardly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning on the tremendous impact the Supreme Court will have on whether the American people will be allowed to retain control of our own democracy. Testimony focused on the Court's decision in Citizens United and the role the Court will play in upcoming cases in preserving individual citizens' voting rights.

Professor Anthony Johnstone of the University of Montana School of Law testified about Montana's experience with out-of-state corporations corrupting that state's elections. He also contrasted the Court's deep skepticism of the legislature in Citizens United to its deference in Crawford, the case that upheld a strict voter-ID law that strips Americans of their right to vote. Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, testified on the nationwide assault on voters that threatens to silence targeted communities through strict voter-ID laws, inaccurate voter purges, restrictions or elimination of early voting, proof-of-citizenship requirements, and outrageous barriers to voter registration drives. As she noted, fair and just courts are the key to protecting the right to vote that our democracy is based on.

The third witness, invited by committee Republicans, was litigator Michael Carvin. Carvin defended Citizens United and harshly criticized that part of the Voting Rights Act that requires federal approval of voting law changes in areas with a history of racial discrimination. Personally, my favorite part of the hearing was when he essentially said that corporations were sitting this election out:

Notwithstanding recent uniformed and irresponsible speculation, corporate expenditures and speech in the wake of Citizens United have not overtaken the political marketplace or drowned out speech by individuals acting alone. To the contrary, recent election cycles have seen an explosion of political participation and contributions by individual voters, and no cognizable uptick in corporate political activity.

I am not aware of any major, for-profit corporation running a single political advertisement in its own name. And the data from the 2012 Republican Presidential primary elections completely refutes the overheated rhetoric that corporations are taking over the political world. Each of the eight leading Republican Presidential candidates was supported by an independent expenditure-only committee—the so-called Super PACs. Notwithstanding the fears of some that wealthy for-profit corporations would dominate politics, we now know from the disclosures filed with the FEC that not a single one of the Fortune 100 companies contributed a single cent to any of these eight Super PACs.

Left unsaid is that corporations are spending their money in secret to make sure voters don't know what they're up to. For instance, an informative article in The Nation last week pointed out the enormous amounts being spent to affect our elections by 501(c)(6) trade associations and 501(c)(4) issue-advocacy groups. Whether it's PhRMA, Big Oil, or the Chamber of Commerce, the last thing that corporate interests are doing this year is sitting out the election. In many parts of the country, the airwaves are being blanketed by propaganda that they have paid for.

Whether it's corporate-bought elections, or corporate-supported elected officials gaming the system to prevent disfavored Americans from voting, our democracy is facing a grave threat.


UPDATE: NVRA enforcement crucial for voter participation

UPDATE: On Wednesday two federal judges approved a settlement in a case brought by the Black Political Empowerment Projectand ACTION United against Pennsylvania public assistance agencies that failed to provide voter registration opportunities for their clients. Under the provisions of the settlement, they will now offer voter registration applications on their websites and will post signs with registration information at their offices. They will also implement additional training and oversight for their employees. And when assistance recipients update their claims, voting-related forms will be mailed to them automatically. ACTION United president Lucille Prater-Holliday: "Without full and robust compliance with the NVRA the disenfranchisement and disengagement of these citizens is only perpetuated. We are glad that the Commonwealth has bound itself to a meaningful implementation of the statute." Earlier we reported about a settlement in a suit over NVRA violations in Massachusetts.

With voting rights under attack nationwide, we must remember our democracy is only strongest when all citizens have the opportunity to participate – which is exactly why the enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act has grown increasingly paramount ahead of the November election, especially its provision affording public assistance recipients the opportunity to register to vote at public assistance agencies.

A coalition of voting rights advocates is working to hold states accountable. Litigation citing NVRA violations has been brought against nine states – most recently in Nevada against Secretary of State Ross Miller and Department of Health & Human Services Director Michael Willden. Litigation could soon follow in Alabama where Demos has joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Project Vote in filing notice against Secretary of State Beth Chapman.

Sarah Brannon, Project Vote:

When done properly, public agency registration is one of the most effective means of ensuring that all citizens are offered the opportunity to participate in their government. It reaches people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled.

Lonnie Feemster, Reno-Sparks NAACP:

To empower those without a voice is our most important work and we will continue to fight to allow those without great wealth to speak truth to power. Full participation in the electoral process empowers the poor and disadvantaged.

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