• December 7, 2012

    by Heejin Hwang

    Not long after the 2012 elections, TPM’s Sahil Kapur asked several elections experts how right-wing lawmakers were able to so easily hold their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, especially since capturing that chamber in 2010 Republican leadership had engaged in obstructionism and promoted the loopy and wildly unpopular idea of privatizing Medicare.

    Sam Wang, a Princeton University professor and co-manager of the Princeton Election Consortium, told Kapur, “The big factors are redistricting and incumbency. In the last few years, Republican-controlled legislatures were very effective at redrawing districts to favor their side. Gerrymandering gave them a built-in advantage of 1.25 percent of vote margin even before a single vote is cast. Incumbency also has its advantages, which is good for another 1.25 percent ….”

    Other states, such as California and Arizona have taken action to lessen partisanship in the creation of voting districts.

    In Nov. 2010, in adherence with the California Voters FIRST Act, State Auditor Elaine Howle randomly selected in lottery like fashion eight members the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC). Two months later, the full-fledged 14-member independent commission embarked on transforming 2010 Census data into State Assembly, State Senate, and congressional district lines.

  • November 28, 2012

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Gerrymandering is such a tried and tested electioneering technique that one might think that the founders intended for political parties to draw boundaries for congressional districts to suit their interests. Given that one of the first uses of the gerrymander was on the part of Anti-Federalists in Virginia to keep James Madison out of the House of Representatives that may well be the case. But, after a round of district drawing following the 2010 census, have the parties finally taken it too far? Now that the 2012 election results are in, for the most part, we can see the effect of partisan redistricting on the composition of the House. While that effect probably wasn’t enough to shift control of the House to the Democrats, it was enough to heavily dilute Democratic voters in several key states.

    But, before getting into that, what allows political parties to exercise so much control over the process of drawing congressional districts in the first place? The Constitution mandates that congressional districts be re-drawn after every census to reflect changes in population distribution; but how this is accomplished is largely left to states’ discretion. The two bedrock principles all states are supposed to abide by are “one person, one vote,” the idea that voters in different districts should have roughly equivalent voting power; and that districts cannot be drawn for the purpose of diluting minority voting power. However, in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, the Supreme Court largely rejected a challenge brought by Texas voters that the redistricting scheme dreamed up by the Republican legislature was wholly unconstitutional, in part because the justices believed that there was no workable test for judging partisan excess.

  • September 12, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Corporate America, thanks to an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court has even greater ability to secretly pump large sums of money into elections from coast to coast. The high court also provided an assist to state’s bent on creating more difficulties for individuals to vote through ridiculously onerous voter ID laws, curtailment of early voting, or clampdowns on voter registration drives.

    The picture is not a flattering one for a nation that staunchly promotes democracy.

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sought to bring more attention to the matter with a hearing today on those Supreme Court opinions. “I am concerned that recent Supreme Court decisions [Crawford v. Marion County, upholding a stringent state voter ID law, and Citizens United v. FEC] have dramatically altered the balance of our democracy by finding new rights for corporations to influence elections, while at the same time allowing new barriers to the right of individuals to vote,” Leahy said in his opening statement at the hearing.

    Later Leahy lamented the fact that three years after Crawford numerous states have enacted “voter ID laws and erect new barriers to voting, barriers that remind us of a time when discriminatory practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were commonplace and kept Americans from exercising their basic right to vote.” (Earlier this summer Attorney General Eric Holder blasted the restrictive voter ID law in Texas, saying it looked a lot like a poll tax.)

    Leahy added that these new barriers to voting fall the “heaviest on African-Americans, Hispanics, military veterans, college students, the poor, and senior citizens.”

    In a post for the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Text & History Blog, David H. Gans notes the recent federal court rulings from “judges across the ideological spectrum” applying a section of the Voting Rights Act to strike or slow implementation of some of those barriers to voting, noting their disproportionate impact on minorities. The federal courts said these measures were “designed to suppress the vote and dilute the voting power of racial minorities ….” Gans added, “These rulings provide critical new evidence of precisely why preclearance [of the Voting Rights Act] is still a much needed tool to protect the right to vote free from racial discrimination. Without the Voting Rights Act in place, African American and Hispanic voters in the states such as Texas might be denied their constitutional rights to cast a ballot on Election Day.”  

    In his opening remarks before the Senate panel, Leahy also expressed concern about the reach of the Voting Rights Act, in light of the current make-up of the Supreme Court. There is a case out of Alabama that could well find its way to the high court soon. Leahy said he was troubled that “these same five Justices, who in Citizens United disregard the evidence and a century of experience involving the power of money to corrupt elections, will soon be reviewing lower court decisions that examined significant evidence about the continuing need for the protections of the landmark Voting Rights Act. Will they show the same disregard for the evidence when reviewing this historic law? I hope not.”

    The committee heard from advocates intimately familiar with both campaign finance regulation and Voting Rights.

    University of Montana law school professor Anthony Johnstone defended during his tenure as the State's Solicitor the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 from corporate attacks. Montana’s high court upheld the corporate campaign finance law in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, but the Supreme Court summarily reversed the ruling, citing Citizens United. Justice Stephen Breyer lodged a dissent saying, “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens Untied, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”

    Johnstone (pictured) told the Senate panel that in Crawford and Citizens United “the Supreme Court does not consistently apply ... approaches to judicial review. It upholds the voter identification law and strikes down the corporate campaign spending law.”

  • August 30, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Whether it’s outrageous and wholly unwarranted new restrictions on voting or new voting districts concocted to keep minorities from participating in democracy, rightwing lawmakers and their corporate backers, over the past two years, have stridently pushed an ignoble and tawdry campaign of voter suppression.

    But federal courts this week dealt the anti-democracy campaign some setbacks. First, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s in State of Texas v. U.S. swept aside the state’s redistricting plans as discriminatory. The new Texas voting districts, the federal court found violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they discriminated against Latino voters.

    Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle said he would sign a permanent injunction against a provision of Florida’s voting overhaul law that made it much more difficult for groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registrations.

    Deidre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida told The Associated Press that the state’s “anti-voter law created impassable roadblocks for our volunteers, who have been bringing Floridians into our democratic process for over 72 years.”

    Florida, along with Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, has sought to implement some of the more onerous restrictions on voting. Not only did Florida seek to shut down voter registration drives, it also enacted rigid voter ID requirements and sought to greatly limit early voting opportunities.

    Earlier this month the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia held that Florida’s curtailment of early voting opportunities ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act, which applies to states and localities that have a history of voter discrimination. The court held that curtailing early voting opportunities in Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties would have a discriminatory impact on African American voters. The state, the court held, “failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters,” and that the restrictions on early voting was “analogous to closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.”

    Today the efforts of Texas to manipulate the vote were dealt yet another blow. The state’s onerous voter ID law also violates the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia ruled in State of Texas v. Holder.

  • August 29, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In its ruling yesterday rejecting several new Texas voting districts, a federal court in Washington, D.C. blasted the efforts of Texas lawmakers as seeking to suppress the vote of Latinos.

    Janell Ross for The Huffington Post noted that the federal court’s opinion provided a “sharply worded” and exhaustive account of “Texas officials’ plans to draw districts for four new congressional seats created by the state’s booming Latino population that were almost certain to elect Congress members preferred by white Republican voters. And it’s a ruling that should serve as a cautionary tale, according to voting rights advocates.”

    Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), told Ross, “For other states thinking of doing anything to dilute the [power] of their minority voters or their fast-growing minority populations, this not just a warning. This is a warning in the strongest terms.”

    Indeed as noted on this blog yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that Texas lawmakers failed badly in proving that their redistricting plans did not violate Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act applies to states and localities with a history of discriminating against classes of voters, and requires those jurisdictions to get preclearance for redistricting from the Department of Justice or a federal court.

    In State of Texas v. U.S. the federal court said Texas failed to show that its new voting maps would not discriminate against voters on “account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”

    MALDEF, which intervened on behalf of Latino voters to challenge the state’s new voting schemes, said the federal court had found the state’s congressional plan was created with “discriminatory racial intent,” and its State House redistricting plan undercut “voting strength,” while the state Senate redistricting plan “was enacted with discriminatory racial intent.”