Democracy and Voting

  • February 18, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ryan P. Haygood, Deputy Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    The history-making events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, ultimately freed the vote for millions of Black voters.  But 50 years later, as we commemorate the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are also reminded that more than two million Black people continue to be denied the right to vote by one of the vestiges of American slavery.

    Black voter registration in Selma in 1965 was made virtually impossible by Alabama’s relentless efforts to block the Black vote, which included requiring Blacks to interpret entire sections of Alabama’s constitution, an impossible feat for even the most learned.  On one occasion, even a Black man who had earned a Ph.D. was unable to pass Alabama’s literacy test.

    On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams led almost 600 unarmed men, women and children in a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation their desire as Black people to participate in the political process.

    As they crossed the highest part of the bridge, the marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers, who ridiculed, tear-gassed, clubbed, spat on, whipped and trampled them with their horses.  In the end, Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick, and 17 other marchers were hospitalized.

    In direct response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson five months later signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.  Considered by many to be the greatest victory of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers, such as literacy tests, that had long kept Blacks from voting.

    Despite the promise of increased political participation by Black people and other people of color created by the Voting Rights Act, which twice led to the election of a Black president, its full potential has not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society: Americans with criminal convictions.

    Today, more than 5 million Americans are locked out of the political process by state felon disfranchisement laws that disqualify people with felony convictions from voting.

    The historical record reveals that to prevent newly freed Blacks from voting after the Civil War, many state legislatures in the North and South tailored their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those offenses committed mostly by Black people.

  • February 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Katherine Culliton-González, Chair, Voting Rights Committee of the Hispanic National Bar Association

    This morning the D.C. Circuit federal court heard important oral argument about the fundamental right to vote of persons born in the United States.  That’s right—in Tuana v. United States, the federal court will decide whether U.S. nationals have the right to vote. 

    Like millions of U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico, millions of “nationals” born in the “unincorporated U.S. territories” in American Samoa and other Pacific Islands cannot vote in the elections of the country that governs their existence.  The overwhelming majority are voters of color—and as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must wonder why any U.S. citizen or “national” governed by our laws and subject to our jurisdiction would be so flatly and unequivocally denied the fundamental right to vote. 

    Puerto Ricans living on the Island cannot vote in federal elections because they have only limited citizenship under the Jones Act of 1917.  Yet they serve in the military and must abide by the laws of the United States.  Puerto Rico is home to nearly 4 million Latino U.S. citizens who cannot vote to elect congressional representatives or the president.  This Catch-22 can also be traced to a controversial series of Reconstruction-era Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases, which created a doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for more than 4 million Americans living in “unincorporated U.S. territories” such as American Samoans.  First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella argued at a Harvard Law School conference that “the Insular Cases should be soundly rejected because they represent the thinking of a morally bankrupt era in our history that goes against the most basic precept for which this nation stands: the equality before the law of all of its citizens.” 

  • February 5, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a discussion yesterday prominently highlighted the deleterious consequences of the Court’s Citizens United decision. When asked at a Georgetown Law event which decision in the past 10 years she would most like to overturn, she responded, “I would have to say Citizens United, because I think that our system is being polluted by money.”

    Ginsburg continued, “It gets pretty bad when it affects the judiciary too. In some 39 states, judges are elected at some level, and when it costs millions of dollars to fund a campaign for a state supreme court, something is terribly wrong. I think we are reaching the saturation point.”

    What Ginsburg references is the well-documented flood of money that has saturated both political and state judicial campaigns since the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on corporate campaign contributions five years ago. One result of this monetary deluge has been harsher treatment of criminal defendants by state supreme court justices. (See the recent ACS report “Skewed Justice” for more on this matter.)

    Ginsburg’s comments touched on an additional cost of astronomical campaign spending: its negative effect on the psyche of the American voter. “One of the really shameful things is the low rate of voting in the United States,” she said.  “In many democracies, the turnout is much higher. The people have a sense -- ‘Why bother?’ It’s a foregone conclusion who is going to win.”

    As Ginsburg put it, it’s time that we reestablish “a democracy for all of the people.” Read a transcript or watch video of of the discussion here. See this post for more commentary and analysis of Citizens United.

  • January 30, 2015

     
    Five years after the Supreme Court in Citizens United struck down restrictions on corporate spending in elections, the American political landscape has become one where influence can be bought and the voices of wealthy donors drown out other perspectives. 

    Almost immediately after the Citizens United decision, outside spending in elections spiked.  Over the next five years, it more than doubled.  Super PACs used hefty budgets to produce attack ads against candidates who were not to their liking—affecting outcomes in not only political races, but also in state judicial elections. 

    Judges perceived as being unfriendly to PACs’ interests were attacked under the pretense of being “soft on crime,” resulting in measurably harsher treatment of criminal defendants by state supreme court justices.  Further, the last five years have seen a flood of dark money into elections.  As many commentators have noted, donor secrecy breeds mistrust and, possibly, corruption.

    Americans expect the courts to be fair and impartial, but as special interest groups spend more and more money to influence courts, public faith in these institutions is waning.  Soon, the Supreme Court will have to decide how important judicial independence is to our justice system in Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, a case that could, if wrongly decided, further diminish public trust in the courts.  For those concerned about Citizens United, Williams-Yulee, or the corrosive impact of unrestrained special interest spending on our democracy, see the following ACS resources:

    Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang

    Five Years Later, Citizens United Wreaks Havoc on Our Democracy, Fred Wertheimer, ACSblog

    The Top Five Myths About the Democracy For All Amendment, John Bonifaz, ACSblog

    Supreme Court Briefing: Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, Video

    Interview with Professor Tracey George on Williams-Yulee, Video

    Democracy and Our State Courts: Fighting Back After Citizens United, Video

     

  • January 21, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Fred Wertheimer, President, Democracy 21. Democracy 21 is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to strengthen democracy, prevent government corruption and empower citizens in the political process.                                                                    

    On January 21, 2010, five Supreme Court justices rejected decades of the Court’s own precedent and a century of national policy aimed at keeping corporate money out of our elections to issue the Citizens United decision.

    In issuing the decision, Chief Justice Roberts and his four colleagues wreaked havoc on our democracy and our constitutional system of representative government.

    Five years later, these five justices have bequeathed the following to the American people:

    • More than $1 billion in unlimited contributions that have flowed into federal elections through Super PACs – including more than $300 million through single-candidate Super PACS used by federal candidates and their supporters to circumvent and eviscerate candidate contribution limits.
    • More than $500 million in secret, unlimited contributions that have flowed into federal elections through tax-exempt 501(c) organizations.

    Citizens United has returned to federal elections massive amounts of the same kinds of money that played a central role in the Watergate corruption scandals – unlimited contributions and secret money.

    In 1976, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits that were enacted in response to the Watergate scandals.  The Court found that “corruption” is “inherent” in a system of unlimited contributions.  The Court also upheld disclosure on the grounds that “disclosure requirements deter actual corruption.”

    In 2012, more than thirty-five years later, U.S. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner explained the destructive impact of Citizens United.  Judge Posner, widely considered the most influential conservative judge not on the Supreme Court, said in an NPR interview:

    Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign- contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment.

    The Citizens United decision, written for the majority by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is based on a series of indefensible, if not astonishing, premises.