Montana

Big Victories for Young Progressives

This year People For the American Way Action Fund endorsed over eighty candidates of the age 35 or younger who were running for public office. Many of the candidates were already elected officials, while others were running for office for the very first time. The PFAW Action Fund helped provide young progressives with the resources to spread and bolster their messages of equality, justice, and good-government, and put them in the leadership pipeline to strengthen the progressive movement.

Of the candidates we endorsed for the general election, seventy-two of the eighty-six endorsed candidates won their races! Highlights from Tuesday include:

  • Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a solidly progressive State Representative and one of Time magazine’s 40 under 40, was elected to the State Senate.
  • Elena Parent of Georgia upset a conservative incumbent to secure a seat in the State House.
  • Ariana Kelly, a women’s-rights activist from Maryland, was elected to the House of Delegates.
  • Angie Buhl, a YP4 Fellow and Front Line Leaders Academy graduate, won a seat in the South Dakota State Senate.
  • We are also still waiting to hear the final results of Montana State Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, who is currently slightly ahead of his right-wing opponent in a competitive race for the State Senate.

Congratulations to all of the young candidates, and we hope you can support the efforts of the PFAW Action Fund to ensure a progressive future.

PFAW

The Voter-Fraud Fraud

"I don't want everybody to vote ... our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." - Paul Weyrich, founding father of the conservative movement, 1980.

When news hit last week that Democrats were doing better than expected in early voting turnout, Republican Dick Armey - whose FreedomWorks organization ensures that the Tea party is well funded by Big Business - immediately took to the airwaves with two goals: to delegitimize any potential Election Day victories for Democrats, and to justify this year's efforts by Republicans and their allies to keep people of color from voting. Armey told Fox News viewers that:

Democrats vote early because there's "less ballot security," creating a "great opportunity" for fraud. He also claimed that such fraudulent early voting is "pinpointed to the major urban areas. The inner city."

Of course, the former congressman had no more evidence to support his false and inflammatory claims than Joseph McCarthy had for his. But he does have an echo chamber of Republican and allied supporters all making the same unsupported claims of rampant voter fraud to justify aggressive efforts to keep likely Democratic voters - especially African Americans - out of the voting booth.

First, let there be mo mistake: Analysis after analysis has shown that there is no national problem with voter fraud. For instance, in its report The Truth About Voter Fraud, the Brennan Center for Justice has

analyzed purported fraud cited by state and federal courts; multipartisan and bipartisan federal commissions; political party entities; state and local election officials; and authors, journalists, and bloggers. Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated - and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.

Similarly, when the New York Times turned its investigatory resources to the "problem" of voter fraud in 2007, it found that

[f]ive years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department ha[d] turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.

Nevertheless, the Republicans and their close allies are up to their usual election-time hysterics about voter fraud, especially by nefarious dark-skinned people. They are ginning up fears of stolen elections ... so they can suppress the vote and thereby steal the elections themselves.

Over the past few weeks, as reported in Talking Points Memo and elsewhere:

  • In Illinois, Republican Senate nominee Mark Kirk inadvertently disclosed his plan to send "voter integrity" squads to two predominately African-American neighborhoods of Chicago and two other urban areas of Illinois with significant minority populations "where the other side might be tempted to jigger the numbers somewhat."
  • In Houston, Texas, Tea Party poll watchers claiming to be preventing voter fraud have been accused of "hovering over" voters, "getting into election workers' faces" and blocking or disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots as early voting got underway. The most aggressive poll watching has been at African American and Latino precincts. The Department of Justice is investigating.
  • In Wisconsin, Tea Party groups, the pro-corporate Americans for Prosperity, and the state GOP have been involved in a vote caging operation that seeks to challenge the eligibility of minority and student voters. In addition, dozens of billboards are being put up showing people behind bars with an ominous warning that voter fraud is a felony.
  • The West Virginia Republican Party plans to send "ballot security teams" to all of the state's fifty-five counties in search of "illegal activity" at the polls.
  • In Minnesota, a coalition of Tea Party and other right wing groups is offering a $500 reward for information leading to voter fraud convictions, an inducement that may encourage voter harassment.
  • In Indiana and elsewhere, Republicans and allies are photographing voters at early voting locations.
  • Michelle Malkin went on Fox News to discuss what the far right media outlet described as "reports of voter fraud on a massive scale with the intention of keeping Democrats in office." Malkin poured oil on the fire by claiming that "We are all voter fraud police now," accusing progressives of trying to win elections "by any means necessary."

This isn't new territory for the Right. For instance, in 2006, the Bush Administration fired U.S. Attorneys who refused to press phony voter fraud prosecutions. In 2008, until their plans were exposed, Michigan Republicans planned to use home foreclosure lists to challenge likely Democratic voters at the polls, supposedly to prevent voter fraud. That same year, the Montana Republican Party challenged the eligibility of 6,000 registered voters in the state's Democratic strongholds after matching the statewide voter database with the National Change of Address database to identify voters who aren't living where they are registered to vote. In Ohio, voter caging was used as a prelude to challenge individuals at the voting precinct.

These actions were part of a larger pattern. During the fall of 2008, the Right was setting itself up to challenge the integrity of the election. Across the country, they repeatedly trumped up claims of voter fraud, attacking ACORN and other voter registration efforts and lambasting the Justice Department for its failure to stop this alleged "fraud." However, that effort sputtered when the false claims of voter fraud mushroomed into threats against ACORN workers and vandalism of their offices, which PFAW helped to expose. Last year's doctored "pimp and prostitute" ACORN videos and their aftermath showed the lengths Republicans and their allies are willing to go to demonize and ultimately destroy successful minority voter registration efforts.

Clearly, the Right puts a great deal of energy into tackling a non-existent problem. But while these actions may do nothing to prevent instances of voter fraud that were never going to happen in the first place, they do accomplish something very important, as noted above: They intimidate people, often people of color, into not voting. They also work to paint any election victory by Democrats as illegitimate, thereby seriously destabilizing one of the foundations needed for America's constitutional government to work.

Voting is our assurance that those in power govern only by the consent of the people. The theory of American electoral democracy is that We the People act through government officials who we elect to act on our behalf. However, that assumes that all parties are willing to abide by the results of free and fair elections, win or lose.

Unfortunately, when the most powerful groups in society are willing to ignore democratic principles when it’s convenient - when they are eager to disenfranchise those who are most likely to vote against them - the democratic system fails.

In the past, these forces used poll taxes, literacy tests, and even brute force to keep disfavored Americans from voting, staining the legitimacy of the elected government in the process. Today, far more wary of appearances, they use the false accusation of "voter fraud" to do the same thing, often against the same targets: African Americans and other people of color.

PFAW

Pro-GOP Outside Groups Eclipse Parties in Spending

Traditionally, political parties and their campaign arms spend the most amount of money promoting their congressional and senatorial candidates across the country. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, however, a flurry of outside groups has materialized with gigantic war chests. As profiled in After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics, the Court’s decision allowed for new groups to surface and older organizations to increase their fundraising capacities. In the midterm elections, Kristin Jensen and Jonathan D. Salant of Bloomberg report that political committees supporting Republicans and attacking Democratic officials have so-far outspent both the Republican and Democratic parties’ campaign arms in 2010:

Republican-leaning groups outspent the two political parties combined during September’s first four weeks in a bid to sway the U.S. congressional elections, Federal Election Commission reports show.

The groups -- including Crossroads GPS, advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- spent more than $33 million, mainly on advertising. That compares with just under $20 million spent by the Republican and Democratic committees charged with electing their party’s candidates.

Outside organizations are focusing most of their fire on Senate races, particularly in California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania, their reports to the FEC show. Many of the groups are registered as nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors, drawing protest from Democrats including President Barack Obama and Montana Senator Max Baucus.

“Republican operatives in the shadows are clearly winning the hidden money game,” said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Obama has used two of his recent weekly addresses to blast Republicans for blocking legislation that would make groups engaged in political activity report their contributions. Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, today asked Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman to investigate the organizations.

While political parties and their campaign arms must disclose their donors and have caps on contribution amounts, many outside groups accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations and do not have to disclose the sources of their funding. Thanks to such organizational advantages, such outside groups are now overshadowing political parties as regulations concerning transparency and spending fall by the wayside.

PFAW

The Next Frontier in Undoing Campaign Finance Reform

Since the Supreme Court decided earlier this year that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend however much they like to influence elections, groups have been attempting to use that decision to hack away at the core of federal and state campaign finance laws.

Last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the federal ban on soft money (unlimited contributions to political parties), a centerpiece of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. Though that case was cut short, at least one other challenge to the law is in the works.

Now, groups at the state level are trying to use the Citizens United decision as leverage to do away with bans not only on independent expenditures by corporations, but also on corporate contributions directly to candidates’ bank accounts. 22 states, like the federal government, prohibit corporations from contributing directly to campaign committees. After Citizens United, business groups in Montana were the first out of the gates, filing suit to get rid of Montana’s 98-year old ban on both independent campaign expenditures by corporations (the spending that Citizens United allowed on the federal level) and direct corporate contributions to campaigns (which Citizens United didn’t touch).

In May, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce convinced a federal court to strike down that state’s independent expenditures ban. Now, Minnesota business interests are following the Montanans’ lead and broadening their challenge to include the state’s ban on direct contributions:

State law now allows corporations to spend money independently of campaigns on ads supporting or opposing candidates, an arrangement that the U.S. Supreme Court approved early this year.

But the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and Coastal Travel Enterprises seek to go beyond that ruling and allow direct contributions to candidates by corporations.

"Our clients believe ... that the First Amendment gives corporations ... the right to contribute to candidates and political parties through their general treasury funds," said Joe La Rue, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who sued this week in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court clearly created a slippery slope of corporate money in politics. State-level bans on independent spending by corporations have been the first to go. Will guards against corporate-to-candidate contributions—and the very clear appearance of corruption that they create—be next
 

PFAW

The Oil Industry Ties of Oil Industry Judges

We’ve been worried about what will happen if liability suits from BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf reach the Supreme Court. But it sounds like fans of justice might have more immediate concerns.

When a district court judge halted the Obama administration’s Gulf drilling moratorium last month, that judge’s history of ties to the oil industry caused a stir. Today, a three judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear an appeal of the case.

But we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Alliance For Justice has looked into the backgrounds of the three judges on the panel and found some pretty startling oil industry ties: two of the judges represented major oil companies in previous jobs, two have major investments in oil companies, and two went on an oil industry-financed junket to Montana in 2004 to learn “why ecological values are not the only important ones.”

Read the full Alliance For Justice report here.


 

PFAW

Big Money in State Elections

The PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network is gathering this week in Washington, in part to discuss how to work on national progressive issues on the state and local levels.

A panel this afternoon discussed local activism to fix the Supreme Court’s decision to grant corporation’s huge power to influence elections—and the outsized impact that corporate money can have on state- and local-level campaigns with small budgets.

Jeffrey Clements, and attorney who helped found the advocacy group Free Speech for the People, brought up the case of Montana, whose nearly hundred-year-old ban on corporate campaign contributions and expenditures is being challenged in court in the wake of Citizens United. In 2008, the average winning state senate candidate in the state spent just $17,000. An infusion of corporate cash into the state's elections would have a dramatic impact, Clements argued.

Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge, a member of the YEO Network, came to the issue with an interesting perspective—he is the only “Clean Elections” candidate to have ever won office in Massachusetts (he first ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives one year in which Massachusetts had a Clean Elections public financing program).

“When I first ran, I was entirely publicly financed,” he said, “I didn’t have to raise money and could go door-to-door talking to voters about what they cared about.”

State elections with unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals aren’t uncharted territory—six states currently have no contribution limits at all—but it will be interesting to see how campaigns in states like Montana change if the rules that candidates have been playing by for decades disappear.
 

PFAW

Roberts and Alito Legislating From the Bench

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Maryland v. Shatzer, a case involving the constitutional right to counsel during police questioning. The questions asked by the Justices – even the most conservative of them – exposed one of the great lies the Far Right tells about our nation’s judiciary: that courts should not make policy.

In 1981, the Court held that once you tell the police that you want your lawyer, the questioning must stop either until your lawyer arrives, or you yourself initiate further communication. This rule protects you from being badgered by the police to change your mind before the lawyer shows up.

In 2003, after Michael Blaine Shatzer asked for a lawyer, the police dropped their investigation and released him from their custody. Three years later, new evidence arose in the case. The rule established in 1981 would suggest that the police were still barred from questioning Shatzer. That was the issue before the Court this week. To help them analyze the case, the Justices asked the sorts of hypothetical questions they often ask. The Washington Post reports:

Justices seemed generally supportive … that police should have been allowed to question Shatzer again, but they had a hard time agreeing on how the rule should be changed.

[Chief Justice] Roberts worried that police could repeatedly question and dismiss a suspect who asks for a lawyer. "You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says, 'All right, I'll talk,' " Roberts said. ...

[T]he justices wondered what could be done about a suspect who asks for a lawyer, never actually receives one or is convicted, and then is questioned years later, perhaps for a different crime.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. posed this hypothetical: What if someone was arrested for joy riding in Maryland, invoked his Fifth Amendment protection, and was never convicted? Could police in Montana question him as a murder suspect in Montana 10 years later?

When [Shatzer’s attorney] said no, Alito replied: "And you don't think that's a ridiculous application of the rule?"

[Then] Alito raised the hypothetical ante to a crime committed 40 years later ...

If the police let a suspect go after he asks for a lawyer, does the Constitution prohibit the police from questioning him again half a century later? Should there be limits? What should they be? How do you decide?

The Justices deciding this case are not simply calling balls and strikes, the insulting umpire analogy that Roberts infamously used during his confirmation hearings. Roberts, Alito, and the other Justices are weighing the consequences of different possible interpretations of the 1981 precedent as they apply it to a new and unforeseen situation.

Just as legislators do, they will be making policy. And that's fine. That's what courts are supposed to do. It's inherent in interpreting the law in difficult cases such as this.

So the next time the Washington Post quotes a right wing propagandist condemning progressive judges for making policy or "legislating from the bench," perhaps the Post will do more than collaborate by simply reprinting the accusation. Perhaps the Post will cite its own reporting and point out that all judges weigh policies and make law, but that the Far Right is silent when conservative judges do it.

PFAW

Fighting Voter Suppression in Big Sky Country

Is “pursuing other interests” code for “ I want to figure out how to disenfranchise more people “?

After several weeks of employing controversial state-wide voter caging efforts, Montana GOP Director Jake Eaton resigned from his post to “pursue other interests.” He will be replaced by former Montana State Representative Larry Grinde.

Under Eaton’s leadership, the Montana Republican Party conducted unprecedented challenges of over 6,000 voters in Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Lewis and Clark, Deerlodge, Glacier, and Hill Counties. Though the party claimed that the challenges were non-partisan efforts to preserve election integrity and were based on where the most voter registration discrepancies occurred, the counties targeted were known to be Democratic strongholds.

Eaton’s resignation comes only one day after students at the University of Montana published an op-ed in the Missoulian condemning and calling for criminal penalties for the voter caging efforts conducted under Eaton’s leadership. These efforts have been determined to disproportionately affect the student population.

Such voter challenges are characteristic of nationwide partisan efforts to suppress voter turnout this election season, particularly among the student population, which continues to face numerous barriers to civic participation. The Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) is currently joining hands with local groups to fight youth voter suppression not only in Montana, but also in Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. People For the American Way Foundation and SAVE recently held a press conference on Capitol Hill with members of Congress highlighting some of the voter suppression tactics that disproportionally affect student voters.

With so much at stake in this election, and with so many young voters becoming civically engaged for the first time in their lives, it is imperative that we protect our democratic process from the egregious effects of the  voter suppression tactics like those that happened in Montana and across the nation.

PFAW