One year ago this week, the Supreme Court's conservative majority struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and took yet another step toward undermining our democracy. Since then, civil rights leaders have been hard at work trying to clean up the Court's mess.
The Shelby decision was a devastating loss, especially for those who fought to see the original Voting Rights Act enacted. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, accused the Supreme Court of "stab[bing] the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart." Civil rights advocates mourned the naïve assumption that Selma had been relegated to ancient history and that racial discrimination in voting went with it. People For the American Way's director of African American religious affairs noted on the day of the decision: "Those who sided with the majority clearly have not been paying attention, reading the paper, attending community meetings, living in America."
Indeed, anyone who has been paying attention knows that voting discrimination is far from ancient history. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found nearly 150 documented instances of voting rights violations since 2000, with each case affecting between hundreds and tens of thousands of voters.
Happily, reform is finally underway in the Senate. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on legislation to put the VRA back together again. It's a critically important first step in getting our country's laws back to where they need to be on voting rights protections. But so far House Republican leadership has refused to move forward. Maybe they think that if they pretend a problem doesn't exist, they won't have to fix it.
The push for voting rights protections isn't the only effort underway to clean up the mess the Supreme Court has made of our democracy. With the 2012 election the most expensive in history, this week the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC, the infamous 2010 ruling that paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. Like Shelby, Citizens United was a contentious 5-4 decision with a strong dissent. Also like Shelby, it set our democracy back dramatically. Citizens United let corporate bank accounts overwhelm the voices of everyday Americans. Shelby made it easier for state and local governments to create barriers to voting.
But Americans know that the answer to attacks on our democracy isn't despair -- it's action. Sixteen states and more than 550 cities and towns have called for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics like the one moving forward in the Senate, and that number is growing rapidly.
National leaders are also speaking out. President Obama has expressed his support for an amendment to overturn Citizen United multiple times since the decision. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are just a handful of other high-profile amendment supporters. And earlier this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold back her disdain for the recent democracy-harming decisions coming from the Supreme Court's majority: "Like the currently leading campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I regard Shelby County as an egregiously wrong decision that should not have staying power."
The Supreme Court has made some very bad calls when it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to participate meaningfully in our political system. But Justice Ginsburg is right: these wrong-headed decisions shouldn't have staying power. And if the American people have anything to do with it, they won't.
The day after Sen. Tom Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics was considered at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Udall joined People For the American Way activists, supporters, and staff members on a member telebriefing to discuss the amendment and what Americans can do to support it.
Sen. Udall noted in his introduction that together we have come a long way in the movement to get big money out of politics, due in part to the work of People For the American Way. He said that in the last few years, our nation’s campaign finance laws have come under increasing attack. There are only two ways, Sen. Udall said, to have lasting reform on this issue: either the Court can reverse itself, or we can amend the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC. Sen. Udall pointed out that elections should be about the quality of ideas, not the size of bank accounts.
When asked by a participant to address the false claim pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz and other right-wing politicians and activists that this amendment is an attack on the First Amendment, Sen. Udall explained: “This is about restoring the First Amendment so it applies equally to all Americans.” He pointed out that our access to constitutional rights and our ability to participate in the democratic process should not be based on our net worth.
Sen. Udall urged activists on the call to voice their support at every opportunity they have. Specifically, he encouraged advocates to get a copy of the amendment and urge their local officials to support it by passing resolutions. Despite the lengthy process of amending the Constitution, Sen. Udall asked participants not to be discouraged; with a strong grassroots movement, he said, we can make it happen.
PFAW executive vice president Marge Baker also fielded questions from participants on the call. She urged activists to connect campaign finance reform to the issues most important to them and their communities, whether that’s fighting for health and safety on the job, defending the environment, or protecting voting rights. On voting rights, Baker pointed out that the Supreme Court’s attacks on campaign finance laws go hand in hand with their attacks on the right to cast a vote; both have the effect of disempowering average Americans in our democracy. This is why, Baker pointed out, we must take on the Supreme Court and reclaim our political system – making it a democracy truly of, by, and for the people.
You can listen to the call here:
Big news for our democracy: This morning at a Senate Rules Committee hearing on “dark money,” Sen. Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate will vote this year on a constitutional amendment that would put the power of regulating the raising and spending of money in elections back in the hands of Congress and the states.
The Hill reports:
“The Supreme Court is trying to take this country back to the days of the robber barons, allowing dark money to flood our elections. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now,” said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who announced the plan.
“The only way to undo the damage the court has done is to pass Senator Udall’s amendment to the Constitution, and Senate Democrats are going to try to do that,” he said.
Adding fuel to the amendment efforts, Majority Leader Harry Reid recently signed on as a cosponsor of Sen. Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment. Sen. Reid is among the senators People For the American Way has reached out to urging cosponsorship.
In the wake of this month’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision and a recent study that found the US to be an oligarchy rather than a democracy, efforts to reclaim our political system from the outsized influence of wealthy interests are more essential than ever. Sen. Reid’s support and the newly announced Senate vote plans highlight the growing momentum of this movement, with over 150 members of Congress, 16 states, more than 550 cities and towns, and even our nation’s president already on record in support of an amendment.
As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said at the committee hearing this morning, “Unlimited campaign expenditures impair the process of democratic self-government.” You can add your name to PFAW’s petition and tell other members of Congress to support a constitutional amendment to restore government by the people.
Today Representative John Sarbanes was joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in introducing legislation to help put our democracy back where it belongs: in the hands of “We, the People.” The Government by the People Act (H.R. 20) is a bill designed to empower everyday voters to make small donations to candidates, amplify those donations through matching funds, and make our elected officials accountable to all of us, rather than to wealthy campaign donors.
In the Washington Post yesterday, Representatives Pelosi and Sarbanes penned a powerful op-ed in the support of the bill, calling for solutions to the influx of money that has flooded our elections in the post-Citizens United world. That Supreme Court decision, they wrote, “shook the foundation of our democracy: the principle that, in the United States of America, it is the voices of the people, not the bank accounts of the privileged few, that determine the outcome of our elections and the policies of our government.”
But they note that we can, and must, push for solutions – including a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United:
We must disclose the sources of the money in our campaigns, amend the Constitution to reverse the grievous error of the Citizens United decision, reform our broken campaign finance system and empower citizens everywhere to exercise their right to vote.
The Government by the People Act would help build a politics and a government that answer to the people. Together, we can reassert the full promise of our ideals and restore confidence in our democracy.
PFAW has launched a petition to urge members of Congress to do all they can to support passage of the Government by the People Act.
Last week ALEC held its annual meeting here in Washington, DC, once again bringing together state legislators and corporate representatives to advance legislation that hurts everyday Americans. But they weren’t alone.
Outside their meeting at the Grand Hyatt, PFAW and ally organizations led a protest to stand up to ALEC’s extreme agenda. Holding signs like “ALEC shoots first… and hits real people” and “Stop the war on workers,” hundreds of advocates from diverse organizations and backgrounds marched, chanted, and made speeches about the real toll ALEC-supported policies have on Americans’ lives.
PFAW’s Diallo Brooks’ speech to the crowd was interrupted many times with cheers and applause. He said:
It doesn’t matter where they meet—here in Washington or any other city. When ALEC comes to town, we need to let them know that it is not okay for them to have private meetings with our legislators and corporations and write legislation that impacts our lives every day. We’re here to let them know—loud and clear—that democracy is still alive. We’re paying attention, and we’re going to call them out wherever they go.
Following last week’s news that ALEC drafted an agreement for their state chairs calling on them to put the interests of ALEC first, Brooks and other protest leaders went into the meeting area and asked attendees to sign an alternative pledge – one asking ALEC legislators to honor the Constitution and their constituents rather than corporate interests. None of the attendees signed.
PFAW made the news this weekend with the debut of our new Spanish language ad in Virginia, part of our partnership with the McAuliffe campaign. But we’re also on the ground, taking the fight against Cuccinelli’s extreme views to the streets. This weekend, we went out to Herndon, Virginia, participating in a training for canvassing and get-out-the-vote activities—the kind of on-the-ground efforts that will make all the difference in this election.
More than 100 volunteers hit the streets to talk to Virginia voters and make sure they know just how extreme, reckless and wrong for Virginia Cuccinelli is. We were proud to be a part of the canvass — and the McAuliffe campaign told us that Herndon was the No. 1 canvassing location for the weekend!
The level of enthusiasm we saw in our activists was very encouraging, but we won’t let ourselves get complacent. We won’t stop until we’re sure that Cuccinelli won’t be bringing his right-wing agenda to the Governor’s office.
As the Supreme Court heard arguments today in McCutcheon v. FEC – a campaign finance case in which the Court will decide whether to strike down overall limits on direct political contributions – a great crowd of PFAW and allies rallied outside the Court in support of getting big money out of politics. From students and small business owners to members of Congress – including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Ted Deutch, Jim McGovern, and John Sarbanes – people from all backgrounds came together in support of protecting the integrity of our democracy.
PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker kicked off the speeches by painting a picture of the “people versus money” nature of the case:
Inside the court – right now – one wealthy man is asking for permission to pour even more money directly into political campaigns. But we’re here, too, and we have a different ask. We’re asking the justices to protect the integrity of our democracy. We’re asking them to protect the voices and the votes of ‘We the People’….We’re here today saying loud and clear: our democracy is not for sale.
Also speaking at today’s rally was Montgomery County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice, Maryland State Director of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network. Rice spoke about the effect of campaign finance laws on young political candidates:
As a young minority elected official, let me tell you: this [case] is extremely troubling….Young minority candidates throughout this country are routinely outspent and therefore denied the ability to serve in elected roles….Money should not determine who serves in office.
Howard University student Brendien Mitchell, a fellow in affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program, talked about the importance of being able to hear the political voices of young people in the midst of voter suppression efforts and massive spending by the wealthy in our democracy:
What about the freedom of young Americans who cannot donate grandiose sums of money to political candidates?....We gather to say that this is our country. And that in a case of money versus people, the answer should be apparent: the people.
One of the highlights of the day was hearing from Moral Monday demonstration leader Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a member of PFAW’s African American Ministers in Action. Rev. Barber highlighted the millions of dollars Art Pope has poured into conservative projects and campaigns in his home state of North Carolina:
We [in North Carolina] know firsthand that when you undermine laws that guard against voter suppression, and you undo regulations on the ability for corporations and individuals to spend unchecked amounts of money to influence and infiltrate and literally infect the democratic process, it has extreme impacts.
Extreme impacts – and not only on the electoral process itself, but also on a whole host of issues shaping the lives of everyday Americans. Whether you care most about protecting voting rights, preserving our environment, or workers getting paid a livable wage, a political system where the super-rich can make six-digit direct political contributions harms us all.
And that’s why organizations and activists with focuses ranging from civil rights to environmental protection to good government issues came together today with a common message: our democracy is not for sale.
As the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meets in a swanky Chicago hotel for its 40th annual summit this week, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) has raised some important questions for the corporations that may be funding the group.
Roll Call reports that Sen. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s civil rights subcommittee, has reached out to more than 300 corporations that are possible ALEC funders to ask for their positions on “Stand Your Ground” laws. Durbin announced last month that he will hold a hearing on these laws in the fall.
Because ALEC operates behind closed doors, it can be a challenge to expose the corporations, corporate trade associations, and corporate foundations backing its damaging work. Durbin’s letter notes:
Although ALEC does not maintain a public list of corporate members or donors, other public documents indicate that your company funded ALEC at some point during the period between ALEC’s adoption of model “stand your ground” legislation in 2005 and the present day.
Despite the potential roadblocks, Durbin’s letter shines a spotlight on the clear link between ALEC, an organization that connects corporate lobbyists with state legislators, and the “Stand Your Ground” laws it helped to get on the books in over two dozen states. And this is a critical connection to highlight, because as PFAW President Michael Keegan wrote last month, these are laws which “help create a climate like the one that encouraged George Zimmerman to use lethal force against an unarmed teenager.”
What was obvious to those gathered to speak out against the so-called “right to work” legislation was its damaging nature – its affront to workers’ ability to collectively bargain and its harm to middle-class families across the state.
What may have been less obvious to some were the bills’ connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a one-stop shop for corporations looking to get special-interest legislation introduced. Funded by the likes of Exxon Mobil and Charles Koch, ALEC promotes “model bills” for state legislatures on a number of issues. As People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch explained in an “In Focus” report on ALEC:
ALEC propagates a wide range of “model legislation” that seeks to make it more difficult for people to hold corporations accountable in court; gut the rights and protections of workers and consumers; encumber health care reform; privatize and weaken the public education system; provide business tax cuts and corporate welfare; privatize and cut public services; erode regulations and environmental laws; create unnecessary voter ID requirements; endorse Citizens United; diminish campaign finance reform; and permit greater corporate influence in elections.
One type of “model legislation” ALEC puts forward is a model “Right to Work” Act. And as the Center for Media and Democracy points out, Michigan’s bills included almost identical language to ALEC’s model bill. This is extremely troubling – not only for the many families in Michigan that will be affected, but also for our democratic process in general.
Because as the same Right Wing Watch report notes:
Americans are increasingly recognizing and speaking out against the disproportionate power of corporations in shaping public policy and steering politicians, and ALEC is a prime example of how Corporate America is able to buy even more power and clout in government. Rather than serve the public interest, ALEC champions the agenda of corporations which are willing to pay for access to legislators and the opportunity to write their very own legislation…. ALEC represents an alarming risk to the credibility of the political process and threatens to greatly diminish the confidence and influence ordinary people have in government.