Democracy and Voting

  • November 12, 2015
    Lion of the Senate
    When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress
    Nick Littlefield and David Nexon

    by Nick Littlefield and David Nexon

    The just-published Lion of the Senate offers an insider’s view of several remarkable years when Senator Edward Kennedy fought to preserve the Democratic mission against Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and a Republican majority in both houses. He not only prevailed; he was able to pass important progressive legislation even in that highly partisan, bitterly divided Congress. That story has special resonance today as a resurgent Republican right once again controls Congress and as the policy gridlock seems hopeless.   

    Nick and I were both senior policy advisors to the Senator during the period the book covers—roughly1995-1997. Nick was Senator Kennedy’s staff director on the Labor and Human Resources Committee (now the HELP Committee) and I was head of the senator’s health policy staff.  Lion of the Senate is the story of Kennedy at the height of his powers waging the fight of his life against then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the conservative movement he led. The 1995-1996 Republican House and Senate with Bill Clinton in the White House mirror the fraught circumstances on Capitol Hill today, as President Obama and the Democrats in Congress face an equally determined Republican majority seeking to enact essentially the same agenda that Kennedy defeated in the 1995-1996. In a striking parallel, today’s Republicans, like those of the Gingrich era, have used the threat of a government shutdown and even loan default to achieve their goals. What the Senator accomplished and how he did it is both an exciting narrative and a blueprint for today’s Democrats.

    In addition to its contemporary relevance, The Lion of the Senate is, I think, a book that many in the ACS community will enjoy because of their interest in politics and their long alliance with Senator Kennedy on so many issues. Told from Nick’s point of view, it is a close-up account of how Kennedy rallied the Democrats to resist and ultimately defeat the Gingrich agenda and broke through the partisan gridlock to pass a minimum wage increase, important health insurance regulatory reform, and the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The book reveals why Kennedy was such a towering figure as a politician and a legislator, what it was like to be a Senate staffer working for him, and provides a vivid picture of how the Senate operates. 

  • October 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Marissa Liebling, Legislative Director, Project Vote

    The year before a major election has brought about a flurry of legislative activity impacting voter eligibility and election procedures. Each week, Project Vote tracks such legislation and voting-related news throughout the country. Our biannual Legislative Threats and Opportunities report summarizes and highlights the information obtained from three areas: our ongoing bill tracking effort, our work with local advocates and officials, and a compilation of information on related factors like the partisan makeup of legislatures and state election officials. The report provides an important snapshot of activity by issue area and by state so we can reflect on current trends and prepare for the future.

    The good news: Recent policy trends favor voting rights expansion and election modernization over unnecessary restrictions that limit access to our democracy. Comparing the rates of both bill introduction and successful bill passage, proposals expanding voter access far outpaced those seeking to limit and restrict the right to vote. While positive legislation covered many areas, from restoring voting rights for disenfranchised felons to providing early voting, online registration and automatic registration dominated the year.

    Automatic registration leaped atop the priority list for many advocates and lawmakers. Oregon passed a law enabling the automatic registration of eligible residents using information collected by the state’s motor vehicle agency. An avalanche of registration modernization legislation followed, with California passing a similar law. While proposals vary in name and substance, automatic registration and electronic transfer policies seek to improve outdated processes and shift the burden now on citizens to proactively opt-in and maintain records in order to exercise a fundamental right.

    If automatic registration is trendy, online registration is becoming the norm. This year, online registration laws passed in three states, while two states launched online registration sites through administrative action. More states are expected to bring registration online in the coming year. Efficient and convenient, paperless registration sites are now available in a majority of states. 

  • October 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Deuel Ross, Fried Frank Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    On Friday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), on behalf of our allies at Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP, wrote a letter to the state of Alabama about its decision to close 31 of its Department of Public Safety (DPS) driver’s license-issuing offices. The state’s decision shuttered DPS offices in eleven rural counties: Choctaw, Sumter, Hale, Greene, Perry, Wilcox, Lowndes, Butler, Crenshaw, Macon, and Bullock. These eleven counties make up most of Alabama’s “Black Belt”—a region with large concentrations of African Americans, incredibly high poverty rates, and almost no public transportation.

    In our letter, LDF noted that there is a strong likelihood that Alabama’s actions violate the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the United States Constitution. But what do driver’s license offices have to do with voting? A lot, actually.

    In 2014, Alabama began enforcing a strict photo ID law which requires voters to show a driver’s license or another form of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Alabama did so despite the state’s own analysis, which found that at least  250,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID. One such voter was Willie Mims, a 93-year-old African American who was turned away from his usual polling place because he did not have a driver’s license. African Americans like Mr. Mims very likely account for a disproportionate share of those thousands of voters that the photo ID law may disenfranchise. In addition, the federal National Voter Registration Act requires Alabama’s DPS offices to provide voters with opportunities to register to vote. Alabama recently agreed to adopt measures designed to increase such opportunities for voter registration.

    In light of the close relationship between voting and driver’s license offices, and despite Alabama officials’ half-hearted denials, these closures will drastically reduce the number of locations where African-American voters can go to ensure their unfettered access to the ballot. These closings in the poorest, most rural parts of the state’s African-American community smack of the cavalier racism of the Jim Crow era and open yet another chapter in Alabama’s long and egregious history of suppressing the African-American vote.

  • October 8, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Herman N. (Rusty) Johnson, Jr., Associate Professor of Law, Samford University Cumberland School of Law

    The state of Alabama has once again relegated some of its citizens to second-class status.  The confluence of driver’s license office closures and a much maligned voter identification law fosters the dishonoring of Alabama’s black and impoverished citizens in a perpetual cycle of deprivation and struggle.

    The genesis of the recent strife begins with Alabama’s enactment of a voter ID law in 2011, requiring citizens to present a valid, government-issued ID to vote at polls beginning in 2014. One of the most common forms of ID satisfying the state law are driver’s licenses. Pursuant to the state’s own study conducted in 2014, 10 percent of registered voters – 250,000 citizens – lack any form of the required photo ID, and 20 percent of registered voters – 500,000 citizens – lack a valid Alabama driver’s license or non-driver photo ID.

    Ostensibly due to spending reductions in Alabama’s fiscal year 2016 budget, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (“ALEA”), of which the Driver License Division is a part, closed 31 part-time, satellite driver’s license offices. As a result of these closures, 28 of Alabama’s 67 counties will not have facilities to issue licenses to first-time driver’s license examinees or out-of-state transplants seeking an Alabama license. Those seeking license renewals may do so at county probate offices or online (yet those options present their own problems).

    Citizens and civil rights defenders decry the closures due to the disproportionate burden massed upon black citizens and the impoverished in the largely rural counties. The closures eradicate eight of the ten counties in Alabama with the highest percentages of non-white, registered voters. Indeed, those eight counties comprise the only counties where more than 75% of the registered voters are black citizens. A refined analysis portrays a more troublesome picture. While 80 percent of the counties with non-white voting majorities suffer the closures, only 35 percent of the counties with white voting majorities bear any consequences (20 of the 57 remaining counties in Alabama), thus leaving 65 percent of the counties with majority-white voters largely unaffected. This disparity in the closures’ impact starkly portrays the inequity in ALEA’s budget cutting.

  • August 28, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erin Casey, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Voice

    Across the country, states are leading the way in modernizing our voting system so it reflects and is responsive to the way people live today. Yesterday, Pennsylvania joined this movement, becoming the 23rd state in the nation to offer online voter registration. Five additional states and the District of Columbia have taken steps towards allowing online voter registration but have not yet implemented it. In an era when we shop online, bank online and even file our taxes online, it makes sense that we should be able to go online to register to vote as well.

    Online registration gives citizens an easier and more convenient way to register, in addition to traditional paper forms. Instead of waiting in line at the DMV or going to the post office to get and send in a registration form, eligible voters can sign up using their computers, tablets or smart phones from anywhere at any time of day. This will ensure that all eligible voters, including veterans, seniors, working people and people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard.

    During the 2014 general election, just 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s voting age population turned out to vote. And while there are many reasons for this low turnout, the fact that one out of every five of the state’s adults was not registered certainly contributed. Online registration will strengthen our democracy by bringing more voters onto the rolls and increasing the likelihood that they participate in our elections.