Voting Rights

It's Our Moment, Let's Make the Most of It!

This Tuesday marks what I hope will be the beginning of a dramatic new direction for our country. The relevance of President-elect Obama's inauguration falling one day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not lost on any of us. The swearing in of the first African American president will be one of the great moments in America's history and a massive leap toward the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream, not only because of Obama's race, but because the movement that swept him into office was born of the American people's desire to pursue a more just path as a nation. That in itself is something that Dr. King would have been proud to have witnessed.

I said that I "hope" this will be the beginning of a big change in direction because it's up to all of us to make sure that change actually happens, to make sure the new administration corrects the last president's worst mistakes in a timely fashion. And it's not just the Obama administration that needs to feel constant pressure from us, it's Congress as well. I've seen reports of senators and representatives showing some reluctance to make many of the bold changes we need. And as expected, we're seeing the resurgence of the Far Right as a backlash to new progressive power. The Radical Right is not only in a position to strengthen its grip on power in the Republican Party, it's ready to pounce on any anti-government sentiment that may bubble up in the coming months and years, especially -- and ironically -- as a result of the economic hard times their very policies have left us with. Long story short: People For the American Way is more needed than ever, and we need your support and your vigilance in the months and years to come.

When a group of activists confronted him shortly after his first inauguration seeking a list of specific reforms, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it." That is what grassroots democracy is all about -- making our leaders do what's right. January 20 is the end of our eight-year national nightmare, but it's just the beginning of a new chapter in which we must all do our part.

In the first two weeks of 2009, People For's been fighting the good fight -- our long-term efforts on two pay equity bills are paying off and the legislation has passed the House and is making its way through the Senate. And we've been answering the Right's attacks against Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder, whose Senate confirmation hearing I attended yesterday. Let me say that it was VERY gratifying to hear Holder clearly state that he believes waterboarding is torture, that renditions to countries where there reason to believe they will torture is wrong and that he is committed to restoring the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to a position of prominence and effectiveness). After this week's release of the Inspector General's report on politicization in the Justice Department, it's even more apparent that confirming Holder will be a great beginning to undoing that damage.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court handed People For the American Way Foundation (and the First Amendment) a victory by upholding the policy of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, City Council requiring that the official prayers recited at the beginning of its meetings be non-sectarian. Accepting one of the most important cases of the term, it also chose to hear an appeal of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, in which People For the American Way is defending the constitutionality of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act.

We couldn't do any of our important work without your steadfast support. And with your continued support, People For the American Way will continue to carry the progressive flag and advocate your values on Capitol Hill.

Right now is a time to celebrate. Have an amazing Inaugural weekend, MLK Day and Inauguration Day. Congratulations to Barack Obama and congratulations, America!

PFAW

Where Is Today’s Deep Throat?

Mark Felt - better known as the anonymous source Deep Throat - died yesterday at the age of 95.  The deputy director of the FBI in the early 1970s, Felt secretly led Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to the information that eventually toppled the lawless presidency of Richard Nixon.

Felt was hardly a liberal: He had supported several violations of civil liberties perpetrated by the FBI during the 1960s-1970s.  Nevertheless, Nixon’s full-scale assault against the Constitution and the rule of law during Watergate compelled Felt to put his country first and talk to the press about what he knew, albeit anonymously.

Today, we are nearing the end of another presidency that has engaged in a full scale assault against the Constitution and the rule of law.  But unlike a generation ago, the current president’s allies in Congress put partisanship above patriotism and prevented genuine investigations of the administration.

Mark Felt’s death reminds me of another key difference between the era of Watergate and today: Back then, because someone talked, those in power were held accountable.  Today, we are still waiting for people to talk – to tell us what they know and to provide us with the documents shedding light on illegal domestic spying, the outsourcing of torture, the illegal sabotage of Democratic GOTV efforts in 2002, the suppression of voting rights, the politicization of the Department of Justice, Bush’s unlawful signing statements, the arrests of peaceful anti-administration protesters … the list goes on.

The outrages committed by George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others did not happen in a vacuum.  Their illegal policies were carried out by public employees scattered across the government, from the highest levels on down.  There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who know where the bodies are buried.

For the sake of our country, it is time for them to talk.

PFAW

Putting the Justice back in the DOJ

In Washington, we're hearing rumblings that the Right may be looking to start a fight over Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, whose confirmation hearing will be in early January. It's tough to imagine the kind of audacity it would take to challenge Holder's nomination after Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales.

After eight years of being dominated by politicization, cronyism and extremism, the Department of Justice is in desperate need of a good housecleaning. The Department, like the Attorney General, is supposed to defend the rule of law and Americans' constitutional rights. But under the Bush administration, the DOJ has been used as a weapon against constitutional values, used to fight the administration's ideological and political battles.

In the wake of 9/11, John Ashcroft's Justice Department led the Bush administration's relentless assault on civil liberties. The DOJ was on the forefront of the draconian expansion of surveillance and police powers, and contributed heavily to post-9/11 era of extreme government secrecy. Career lawyers at the DOJ were subtly -- and not so subtly -- pushed out in favor of attorneys more politically and ideologically aligned with the administration. The Civil Rights Division was completely politicized and instead of using its resources to protect voters' rights (by enforcing the Voting Rights Act among other things), the DOJ waged an attack on voting rights by supporting disenfranchising policies like Georgia's restrictive voter ID law. The Department also exploited the 'widespread voter fraud' myth for politically motivated witch hunts -- part of a larger trend of selectively targeting political and ideological opponents for investigation and prosecution.

And how can we forget the Gonzales era at the DOJ! The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's lawyer, but Gonzales was more the president's bag man. The problems that existed under Ashcroft continued or got worse. As more and more news came out about the NSA's illegal warrantless spying on Americans, the torture of U.S. detainees, legally questionable military tribunals and other subversions of the rule of law, we found out that the DOJ had expressly signed off on these administration policies and in some cases even supplied the legal and intellectual underpinning out of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). And when a scandal broke over the firing of U.S. attorneys, it became clear exactly how politically motivated hiring and firing practices had been at the DOJ, which evidently was staffed with a disproportionate number of graduates of Pat Robertson's law school (including one of the people tasked with the hiring/firing)!

Attorney General Mukasey has been arguably better than his two predecessors, but following the records of Ashcroft and Gonzales, that's not very hard. Eric Holder is a stellar choice: smart, capable and able to lead the DOJ in a new direction. But he will have his work cut out for him and he'll need help from people like you and me. First, we need to make sure he's confirmed, and that could mean a campaign to defeat whatever attacks right-wing senators throw at him. Then, because of the politically skewed hiring practices, he's going to need the support of the people to make dramatic changes at one of the government's most important agencies.

For eight years, the Department of Justice -- a government agency with a rich history of enforcing civil rights and the rule of law -- has served the worst ideological and partisan impulses of the Bush administration. The era of overzealous ideologues and partisans like Ashcroft and Gonzales is coming to an end.

Thank goodness.

But now it's time to dig in our heels and do our part to put the justice back in the Department of Justice. I hope you don't mind if I call on you for help in the coming months.

PFAW

New Senate Can Deliver Some Quick Victories

A Washington Post article today points out that even not counting the two yet-undecided Senate contests in MN and GA, the Democrats could have the filibuster-proof 60 votes to move several key pieces of legislation by picking up a few Republicans. The article highlights several possible bills - two of which are civil rights bills of particular interest to People For the American Way.

First up: DC Voting Rights. The right of voters to be fully represented in Congress is paramount to the health of our democracy. Shamefully, the institutional disenfranchisement of Americans is probably most egregious in our nation’s capital, where 600,000 taxpayers have a congressional representative with no voting power.

Voting rights in Congress for the District of Columbia is another example. Legislation to expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats by giving the District and Utah an additional vote each were three votes shy of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in September 2007. Eight Republicans voted with the Democratic majority, which is 51 to 49 and includes two independents.

In addition, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - for which People For the American Way was far out front in leading the fight - could have the support it needs to correct a terrible Supreme Court decision (a decision supported by both of President Bush's right-wing Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito).

In April, 50 Democrats and six Republicans supported legislation that would have amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act by allowing more time for workers to file discrimination complaints. Five new Democrats will be replacing Republicans who opposed the legislation named after Lilly Ledbetter, the female employee who lost her suit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber over discrimination claims. The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter should have filed her claim within six months of the alleged incidents.

PFAW

How to Create a Good Voting Website

Voting rights activists and web designers alike should take a look at the Election Assistance Commission's new best practices for voter information websites.

Most of the information to be included on a website seems to be pretty obvious:

  • Answers to common voter questions such as “Am I registered to vote?” and “Where do I vote?”
  • A mapping service to show polling locations.
  • A sample ballot that is identical to the ballot issued for the election.
  • Information on the registration and voting process.

But a point later on might be easy to overlook.

  • Well designed interfaces that are easy to navigate.

God bless the District of Columbia, but its Board of Elections and Ethics website is kind of a mess. I’m sure they include everything they ought to, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find information about in-person absentee voting and it took me forever to find my sample ballot. I have to imagine that if the site were designed by, say, these guys, I’d be able to find everything just fine.

Just one of the many ways in which voting can (and should) be made less cumbersome.

PFAW

Time's A-Wastin': Get the Information You Need to Vote!

Unless you've been living under a rock these past two years, you know that Election Day is tomorrow.

So the question of today -- Election Day Eve -- is: where the heck do I vote, when do I go, and what do I need to bring with me?

You can find out the answers to those questions at GoVote.org, a one-stop shop for all that information.

For more detailed information on voter ID requirements and voting rights, check out our voter ID flyers and toolkits

And remember, if you run into problems at the polls or have questions, call the nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

After you're done voting, celebrate your participation in this grand civic ritual with a free scoop at Ben and Jerry's between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Huzzah for democracy -- and free dessert!

PFAW

The Top Five Things Voters Can Do Now

November 4 might be five weeks off, but there are a few things you can do today to help make sure you and your families' voices will be heard this Election Day.  We've rounded up our top 5 things voters should do right now in a helpful PDF document — download it here — as part of People For Foundation's Election Protection work.

Pass it on to your friends and family — and make sure they're registered to vote!

If you need specific information for your state, visit our voting rights information page or visit Vote411.org for more information.

PFAW

A Victory for Voting Rights in Ohio

Today, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a week-long window during which new voters can register and vote via absentee ballot on the same day. (

Another federal court decision was expected later in the day over the early voting window, which begins Tuesday and has become a partisan battle in a swing state where President Bush narrowly clinched re-election in 2004.

In a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court said Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner was correct in ruling that voters don't need to be registered for at least 30 days before receiving an absentee ballot.

Republicans, who claimed that Brunner was misinterpreting the law to benefit her party, had backed lawsuits filed against the measure.

The decision is a real victory for voting rights and another acknowledgement that government should encourage people to vote, not make it more difficult for them to do so.  And, of course, it will likely help increase turnout in Ohio, one of the crucial states this November.

PFAW

People For Joins Members of Congress, SAVE to Open Dialogue on Student Voting Rights

Today, student voting rights took center stage on Capitol Hill as People For the American Way and the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) joined Congressional leaders including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn to call attention to the myriad of barriers to the polls that students will face between now and November. In addition to Majority Leader Hoyer and Majority Whip Clyburn, Representatives Jan Schakowsky, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dennis Kucinich, Kendrick Meek, Tim Ryan, Susan Davis, Chris Van Hollen, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were on hand to give remarks.

Tanya Clay House, Director of Public Policy, and Michele Jawando, Election Protection Campaign Manager, explained the challenges that are in play that could keep hundreds of thousands of students from the polls – deceptive practices, voter suppression and intimidation, voter ID laws, inequitable distribution of voting machines, long lines, and improper instructions on when to offer provisional ballots, among other common problems. 

What can you do?  Spread the word about People For Foundation’s voter ID toolkits.  Opponents of voting rights have always used ignorance as a weapon and information is the best defense.  Know your rights!

 

PFAW

Don't Mourn, Organize!

If you're following the election news as closely as I am, you're probably finding a lot of reasons to holler at your TV. How about Todd Palin refusing a subpoena from the legislative committee investigating "Troopergate" in Alaska, and Sarah Palin ducking requests to testify with claims of "executive privilege" (sound familiar?) — haven't we had enough of executive branch officials insisting they're above the law? Or maybe for you it's the sight of the "get government out of the way" Republicans suddenly claiming that they're the ones to bring more effective government oversight to Wall Street. So much for free-market fundamentalism! Or maybe it's the implication by the McCain-Palin campaign with their "Country First" signs that anyone who does not support their ticket is not patriotic!

Another thing that is making me furious is that people may be kept from casting their vote. Our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation has been documenting and mobilizing opposition to voter suppression efforts around the country — but conservative officials keep finding new ways to try to keep some voters away from the polls. In Michigan — a key presidential battleground state — the Republican Party is training people to challenge voters at the polls, and is even planning to try to deny voters the chance to cast a ballot if their home has gone into foreclosure. It's disgusting, but it's only part of a much bigger picture -- we're seeing official efforts in other key states like Virginia, Ohio and Florida to find reasons to knock people off the voting rolls.

Whatever is driving you to distraction this week, keep in mind labor organizer Joe Hill's famous admonition: "Don't mourn, organize!"

There's a huge amount of exciting organizing People For and other progressive groups are doing right now — and a lot of ways for you to get involved in these last few weeks before the election.

First and foremost you should VOTE and take at least five friends to the polls with you. If your state lets you vote early, do it. But don't stop there. Here are three other things you can do to keep the White House and Supreme Court out of the hands of the radical Religious Right:

  1. Get your ringside seats on October 2 when "Amtrak Joe" debates "Mooseburger Sarah"... Host a People For vice presidential debate watch party with your friends. We have been documenting Sarah Palin's record of extremism, and we're going to keep it up — we'll help you host a great party and send people off with new ammunition for their conversations with friends and family. Sign up at http://site.pfaw.org/parties.

  2. Volunteer some of your time to a progressive campaign during the next six weeks. Campaigns need help with voter identification and turnout, and in a close election year, this kind of ground work is vitally important -- and it's a fun way to get to know others in your community who share your political passions. Soon we will have a complete list of the candidates who are endorsed by the People For the American Way Voters Alliance. Click here to affirm your membership with People For in one simple step so we can share those endorsements with you.

  3. Be on the front lines to protect voting rights and democracy. We can help you find a way to volunteer in key states on or before Election Day. Sign up here!  

Let's make sure that on November 5, we're tired but elated!

P.S.  Are you doing something new this election year that you've never done before? Do you have a creative idea for energizing people to take action? Let me know and we'll share some of your stories. You could inspire someone else to take the next step — and you could help turn the tide! E-mail me at Kathryn@pfaw.org.

PFAW

Washington Post Reports Problems on Election Day Imminent

From today’s Washington Post:

Faced with a surge in voter registrations leading up to Nov. 4, election officials across the country are bracing for long lines, equipment failures and confusion over polling procedures that could cost thousands the chance to cast a ballot.

The crush of voters will strain a system already in the midst of transformation, with jurisdictions introducing new machines and rules to avoid the catastrophe of the deadlocked 2000 election and the lingering controversy over the 2004 outcome. Even within the past few months, cities and counties have revamped their processes: Nine million voters, including many in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Colorado, will use equipment that has changed since March.

But the widespread changes meant to reassure the public have also increased the potential for trouble.

We’re pleased to see that the media’s taking seriously the concerns of the voting rights community about the problems that are plaguing the electoral system.  We’ve already seen increased pressure on our overburdened electoral system with the heightened voter turnout during the 2008 primary season – registration processing, machine failures, voter ID requirements, and poll worker training to name a few problems that were documented in the report “Will Problems in Early Primaries Affect the Buckeye State?

People For has developed helpful toolkits for voters where they can find important information like the voter registration deadline, dates for early voting, and the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot.  They’ve also explain what constitutes the proper ID you’ll need at polling precincts on Election Day.  

PFAW

GOP Gearing Up for a Comprehensive Voter Challenge Campaign

Well, I guess some people sit around and think, hey this group of people just lost their homes, why don’t we take their vote too? Civil right groups nationwide are up in arms about a reported Michigan GOP scheme to challenge voters on Election Day using the list of foreclosed homes as the basis for the challenge.

In addition to being a mean-spirited attempt to deny persons in extremely vulnerable states access to the polls, it is also an insufficient ground to challenge a voter’s eligibility!

According to former voting rights litigator J. Gerald Hebert, foreclosure notices may not, in and of themselves, be grounds for election challenges because “people often remain in their homes after foreclosure begins and sometimes are able to negotiate and refinance.”

Thus, implementing such a policy would likely have the effect of disenfranchising large swaths of voters, who would be and are eligible to vote. Additionally, most foreclosures in Michigan were on sub-prime loans, which went at a disproportionally high rate to African Americans at a rate of over 60%. Hmm, let’s look at all the pieces: African American Voters + Suppresion Tactics = same plan, different year.

While it still astonishes me to hear about the wanton depths some people will go to keep “certain” people away from the polls, it’s definitely not the first time we’ve seen deceptive and suppressive tactics used on people of color.

Perhaps most astonishing is the Party’s insistence upon ensuring that election procedures are followed. It is difficult to imagine the challenging of poor people and minorities who are struggling to fight their foreclosures as being evidence that our electoral process is running smoothly!

Foreclosures across the country have reached an all time high, with nearly 1.25 million homes in foreclosure, and it would be not be unlikely to expect challenges of this sort in other states with high foreclosure rates, such as Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Arizona (surprise, surprise — competitive election states!) While deceptive practices and voter intimidation and suppression tactics such as this have been common in federal elections, it is long past time to put an end to this.

PFAW

Voting Rights Opponent Appeals to Supreme Court

 As expected, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (NAMUDNO), a public utility district in Travis County, Tex., filed a direct appeal yesterday with the Supreme Court from a unanimous ruling last May by a three-judge federal district court rejecting NAMUDNO's claims that it is exempt from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and, in the alternative, that Section 5 is unconstitutional.

People For and a number of other parties intervened as defendants in the district court in order to help defend the constitutionality of Section 5. Section 5 of the VRA requires all or part of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to have their voting procedures pre-approved, or "pre-cleared," by the Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court in Washington before they can be changed.

For more information, view People For's statement on the district court ruling. You can also view the district court's ruling here.

PFAW

97-Year-Old Arizona Woman Disenfranchised by Voter ID Law

Shirley Preiss was born in Kentucky in 1910 — a full 10 years before American women gained the right to vote. She first voted in a presidential election in 1932, for FDR. She’s voted in every presidential election since, but that’s all about to change due to Arizona’s draconian voter ID law.

As Art Levine reported, Shirley effectively lost her right to vote when she moved to Arizona:

After living in Arizona for two years, she was eagerly looking forward to casting her ballot in the February primary for the first major woman candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. But lacking a birth certificate or even elementary school records to prove she’s a native-born American citizen, the state of Arizona’s bureaucrats determined that this former school-teacher who taught generations of Americans shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

The state’s voter ID law, passed in 2004, requires voters to show ID at the polling place and to provide proof of citizenship in order to register. But birth certificates weren’t issued in 1910 in Shirley’s birthplace of Clinton, KY, and her elementary school no longer exists.

Shirley appeared on the local news Monday night in Phoenix to tell her story:

 

 

She’s far from the only victim of this law. The Arizona Advocacy Network reports that nearly 40,000 voter registration forms have been rejected due to inadequate proof of citizenship. And it’s getting to be a national problem.

The Supreme Court gave Indiana the green light last month on its restrictive voter ID law, and other states have already or are in the process of passing similar laws. Everywhere such laws are enacted, the voting rights of thousands of Americans - especially among the poor, elderly, and minorities - are put at risk. Fortunately many other states have fended off voter ID laws, and I’m proud that People For the American Way’s Democracy Campaign played a role in many of those fights. Nothing short of a concerted effort by the progressive movement over the coming years will succeed in safeguarding the right to vote.

Cross-posted on CrooksAndLiars.com

PFAW

Brown v. Board of Education: a 54th Anniversary Reminder of the Importance of the Supreme Court

As George Orwell might put it, all Supreme Court decisions are important, but some are more important than others. And in the history of our country, there can be little doubt that one of the Court’s most important decisions was its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided 54 years ago this May 17th. Overturning the shameful “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and striking down school segregation laws, the ruling in Brown gave substance to the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. Without question, May 17, 1954 saw the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, at its very best.

PFAW