Democracy and Voting

  • January 21, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Ron Fein, Legal Director, Free Speech for People

    Six years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, it’s time for campaign finance reformers to move from defense to offense—in the courts.

    Since Citizens United struck down limits on corporate and union political spending, the Court has further chipped away at federal and state campaign finance laws in areas such as per-person overall contribution limits and effective public financing in elections with big-money candidates. These decisions have led to a growing popular movement to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and the doctrines that led to it. They have also led to a florescence of innovative thinking from scholars and advocates on money in politics, corporations, and democracy.

    We have the foundation for a new jurisprudence ready for courts to adopt. And we have evidence of how big money in politics causes real harm to Americans’ wallets, justice system, environment, and even quality standards for children’s surgery.

    Now it’s time to move away from a position of indefinite defense, where James Bopp sets the legal agenda. It’s time to develop game-changing affirmative impact litigation challenging the role of big money in politics. It’s time to stop being amici in support of defendants and start being plaintiffs.

    Of course, we should be strategic in identifying the most likely avenues for success in the medium term. One area is state judicial elections, where the campaign finance reform position has won twice in a row at the Supreme Court, in cases stemming ultimately from concerns about judicial impartiality. Professors Erwin Chemerinsky and James Sample have argued that the due process implications of campaign spending in judicial elections justify a constitutional analysis quite different from legislative and executive elections.

    Another promising area involves challenging super PACs, the contribution-limit-evading mechanisms created by v. FEC, a D.C. Circuit decision that moved well beyond what the Court actually decided in Citizens United. Professors Laurence Tribe and Albert Alschuler have argued that the Supreme Court may be ready to overrule the court of appeals even while holding fast to Citizens United. Finally, we need to think beyond federal court and develop innovative cases based on state constitutions.

  • December 3, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Daniel Tokaji, Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Professor of Constitutional Law and Senior Fellow at Election Law @Moritz, The Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law

    On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Evenwel v. Abbott. The subject of the case is the meaning of the “one person, one vote” rule. The appellants argue that the Constitution requires equality of eligible voters among legislative districts. This argument is unlikely to carry the day – in fact, the appellants may well lose unanimously. Evenwel is still an important case, however, because what the Court says will affect how states draw state legislative districts after the next census and possibly even sooner. The hard question isn’t the disposition of Evenwel but rather its implications for the next case.

    The “one person, one vote” rule requires that legislative districts be drawn on the basis of population. Where single-member districts are used, each district must be of approximately equal population. In Reynolds v. Sims, the Supreme Court held that the “one person, one vote” rules applies to state legislative districting. This ended the states’ practice of using districts with very different populations – some with disparities over 40:1 – which generally advantaged rural areas at the expense of urban and suburban areas.

    Reynolds left open the population metric that states can or should use when drawing districts. There are several possible choices. The broadest measure is total population. That’s what Texas uses in drawing its 31 state senate districts, giving each one approximately the same number of people. Total population is also the metric used in the other 49 states, according to the United States’ amicus brief. A narrower basis for drawing districts is the U.S. citizen population (excluding non-citizens). An even narrower metric is the citizen voting age population (excluding those under 18) or, narrower still, the citizen voting eligible population (excluding people ineligible to vote due to felonies or mental incapacity). Counting only eligible voters would have a negative impact on the representation of racial minorities and other communities with large numbers of children, non-citizens, and other non-voters.

  • 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.