A Flurry of Courts Have Ruled on Election Maps. Here’s What They’ve Said

From today’s New York Times:

Judges in a number of states have recently thrown out election maps, saying that they have been gerrymandered to the point of being unconstitutional, effectively dooming one party to permanent underrepresentation.

The decisions are certain to have drawn the Supreme Court’s interest as it mulls a resolution to the question of extreme partisan gerrymanders. The justices are expected to decide this spring whether the practice violates the Constitution, and if so, how to determine whether an electoral map is fairly drawn.

Here are the basics of the major contested cases.

Wisconsin: State Assembly districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In the most recent general election, 52 percent of the votes were cast for Republican Assembly candidates, who won almost two-thirds of the seats — 64 out of 99. Democrats received 46 percent of the vote and won 35 seats.

What’s happened so far?

In November 2016, a panel of three judges ruled that the map was unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans, the first time a partisan gerrymander was struck down in federal court. The ruling was notable, according to experts, because it provided a clear mathematical formula to measure how partisan a district map is.

The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case(known as Gill v. Whitford) and heard arguments in October 2017.

What’s next?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the spring, probably setting the course for the other cases in federal court as well.

North Carolina: Congressional districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In 2016, Republican candidates received 53 percent of the votes cast, and won 10 of the state’s 13 seats; Democrats received 47 percent of the votes and won 3 seats.

What’s happened so far?

The map was thrown out and ordered redrawn by a panel of three federal judges on Jan. 9, who said that Republicans had drawn it most recently in 2016 in an attempt to gain a political advantage. The

Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s order to redraw the map nine days later.

What’s next?

It’s unclear. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will schedule arguments in the case, known as Rucho v. Common Cause. The court may choose instead to let whatever ruling it issues in another gerrymandering case stand as its final word on the matter. Because of the temporary block, experts say the current North Carolina map will probably remain in effect for the midterm elections this fall.

Read the complete article here.

#VotingRights Update: Group Targets GOP States to Attack Gerrymandering

From today’s New York Times:

A Democratic group backed by former President Barack Obama intends to pour millions of dollars into an eclectic array of elections in a dozen states, in an effort to block Republicans from single-handedly drawing congressional maps after 2020, officials leading the group said.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, formed last year under the leadership of Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, has settled on a strategy to contest a combination of governorships, legislative seats and more obscure state offices to chip away at Republicans’ sweeping control of the redistricting process.

Mr. Holder said in an interview that the group was chiefly determined to deny Republicans so-called trifectas in state governments — places where a single party controls the governorship and an entire legislature, as Republicans do in Ohio and Florida, among other critical battlegrounds.

The group’s list of high-priority states includes most of the critical states in presidential elections. Mr. Obama, who has made redistricting a focus of his attention since leaving office, plans to visit some of those states in 2018, and Mr. Holder reviewed his strategy with the former president in Washington on Monday, aides said.

States at the top of the just-finalized target list include traditional purple states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans can currently design maps without Democratic input, and others — including Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada — where Democrats have significant influence in government but must defend it in the 2018 elections.

Read the complete article here.

MLK Day 2018, A Time to Reflect on Socio-Economic Injustice In All Forms

In honor of MLK Day, we post a short educational video here with excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin that draw the connection between racial injustice and economic inequality in the United States. Their insights are as true today as they were fifty years ago, showing just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. If we want peace, we must work for justice in all its forms.

In win for #VotingRights, Federal Court Rules NC Electoral Map Unconstitutional

From the New York Times:

A panel of federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map on Tuesday, condemning it as unconstitutional because Republicans had drawn the map seeking a political advantage.

The ruling was the first time that a federal court had blocked a congressional map because of a partisan gerrymander, and it instantly endangered Republican seats in the coming elections.

Judge James A. Wynn Jr., in a biting 191-page opinion, said that Republicans in North Carolina’s Legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans. The result, Judge Wynn wrote, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

The ruling and its chief demand — that the Republican-dominated Legislature create a new landscape of congressional districts by Jan. 24 — infused new turmoil into the political chaos that has in recent years enveloped North Carolina. President Trump carried North Carolina in 2016, but the state elected a Democrat as its governor on the same day and in 2008 supported President Barack Obama.

The unusually blunt decision by the panel could lend momentum to two other challenges on gerrymandering that are already before the Supreme Court — and that the North Carolina case could join if Republicans make good on their vow to appeal Tuesday’s ruling.

In October, the court heard an appeal of another three-judge panel’s ruling that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s State Assembly in an attempt to relegate Democrats to a permanent minority. In the second case, the justices will hear arguments by Maryland Republicans that the Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew House districts to flip a Republican-held seat to Democratic control.

Read the complete article here.

Trump says Flynn’s actions during presidential transition were lawful

From today’s Reuter’s News Service:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that actions by his disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn during the presidential transition were lawful and said that there was no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and Russia.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion by Trump aides.

Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, held his position as Trump’s national security adviser only for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak..

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,“ Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for the New York trip. ”There’s been absolutely no collusion, so we’re very happy.”

As part of his plea on Friday, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general admitted in a Washington court that he lied to FBI investigators about his discussions last December with Kislyak.

In what appeared to be moves undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama, the pair discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia, and Flynn asked Kislyak to help delay a United Nations vote seen as damaging to Israel, according to prosecutors.

Flynn was also told by a “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the vote, the prosecutors said.

Sources told Reuters the “very senior” transition official was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Kushner’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Watch the video here.

We’re With Stupid: On Fake News and the Literacy of America’s Electorate

From New York Times by Timothy Egan (Nov. 17, 2017):

It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.

The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

Read the entire article here.

Federal Judge Blocks Texas Effort to Suppress Minority Voters with ID Law

Yesterday a federal judge in Houston blocked the state of Texas from enacting a revised version of its “Voter ID Law.” Known as Senate Bill 5, the legislation was revised from previous attempts by the state legislature to implement a strict Voter ID requirement for voters to participate in elections. The previous version was, in part, struck down because it violated certain parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit voting rules and regulations that fall disproportionately on racial minorities.

In the decision, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled that the revised law still barred voters from showing state or federal employee ID cards, and since those who lack the accepted forms of identification were “subjected to separate voting obstacles and procedures,” she wrote, “S.B. 5’s methodology remains discriminatory because it imposes burdens disproportionately on blacks and Latinos.”

With a growing Latino and Hispanic population set to eclipse the white conservative majority of Texas voters, the Republican party in that state has long sought to disenfranchise racial minorities from improving their participation rates in elections. The recent return to Jim Crow-style voting requirement laws in southern states is a clear effort to suppress minority voters in an effort to prop up the political power of white conservatives.

“Jim Crow-era tactics have kept Texas Republicans in power,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement.

In addition to Voter ID laws the anti-democratic policy of “gerrymandering” remains a significant obstacle to reforming elections in states across the country. The Republican party has taken steps to ensure the preservation of white conservative governorships and state legislatures by redrawing voting districts to favor their constituents, but such efforts are also under scrutiny. The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear a case in Gill v. Whitford this fall reviewing recent changes by the Republican legislature in the state of Wisconsin to redraw its political map in an effort to marginalize racial and political minorities.

In MT Special Election, Voters Must Reject GOP candidate Greg Gianforte

Not only is freedom of the press under assault from the rise of “fake news” and the lack of critical thinking in this country, it is also under physical threat from politicians who are treating reporters like punching bags.

Today Montana is holding a special congressional election for its “at-large” House seat to replace Ryan Zinke who Trump appointed to be Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. The contest is between Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a popular musician and rancher, and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who was rejected by the state’s citizens in November in his race to become governor against the popular Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock.

The special election is turning out to be referendum: not only about Trumps’ presidency and GOP policies, because many citizens of the state are deeply unhappy with proposed legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but also about the lack of civility and decency in American politics.

On the night before the election, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jones, a reporter for The Guardian at a campaign event, right before he was scheduled to give a televised interview with a Fox News correspondent and her crew. Here is how Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna described the incident:

At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!” 

This assault by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives on a reporter reflects the “zero sum” politics of elections in recent years, and it has to stop. The rise of social media and its outsize influence on electoral politics has come at a cost: the decline of civility and decency among and between citizens and their elected officials.

There is also another cost: with very little consequence for saying whatever people believe, the rise of “fake news” and outright lies have become part and parcel of this political in-fighting. This trend is disturbingly self-evident in the press release provided by the Gianforte campaign after the incident.

Shane Scanlon, who is Gianforte’s spokesperson, should not just be ashamed for lying about the incident in an effort to cover it up; he should also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement officials during the course of their investigation. What Scanlon describes in this press release is falsified by three eye-witnesses who confirmed the details supplied by the reporter to Gallatin County sheriff’s detectives that Gianforte assaulted him.

Unfortunately, over 200,000 Montana voters have already cast mail-in ballots before the campaign was over. If voters do not reject Gianforte at the ballot box today, he should withdraw from consideration. And if he fails to do that, and he is welcomed with open arms to Congress, it will be dark day for Montana history and American democracy.

How Tech Companies are Waging “Psyops” Warfare on American and British Democracies

From yesterday’s Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr:

In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”

Was that really what you called it, I ask him. Psychological warfare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would anyone want to intern with a psychological warfare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

Who’s her father?

“Eric Schmidt.”

Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

“Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”

I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.

In some ways, Eric Schmidt’s daughter showing up to make an introduction to Palantir is just another weird detail in the weirdest story I have ever researched.

A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

Read the entire story here.

How Democrats Can Win in the West

From yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Section by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT):

HELENA, MONT. — I AM no fan of Neil Gorsuch or his legal theories, but his appointment to the Supreme Court raises a question that Democrats must answer. Justice Gorsuch is the first person from the Mountain States named to the court since Ronald Reagan chose Sandra Day O’Connor from Arizona in 1981. Since then, Democratic presidents have appointed four justices, all more or less drawn from the Washington-New York-Harvard-Yale corridor. Why was it left to President Trump to finally take a person from the American West or, for that matter, anywhere from the interior of the country?

I ask this because a related question has been put to me lately. On the night that Hillary Clinton got 36 percent of the vote in Montana, I won re-election comfortably, running on progressive ideas and against an extremely wealthy Republican opponent. Ever since, national reporters have asked me whether Montana Democrats have some secret recipe, given that we’ve won the last four elections for governor, that might be used in national campaigns. I tell them yes, we do.

But it’s not really a secret, or all that hard to figure out. Above all, spend time in places where people disagree with you. Reach out. Show up and make your argument. People will appreciate it, even if they are not inclined to vote for you. As a Democrat in a red state, I often spend days among crowds where there are almost no Democratic voters in sight. I listen to them, work with them and try to persuade them.

Democrats as a national party have ceased doing this. This has to change. They should take a more expansive view of the America that exists beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard. To use a local analogy, Democrats should try casting the fly line a little farther out into the river.

The party has plenty of room for improvement here, in both politics and government. Only one person from the interior West has ever served as the party’s chairman. The last five came from up and down the I-95 corridor. The last vice-presidential pick from west of the Mississippi River was 29 years ago, and as concerns Montana specifically, it was not until last month, after 129 years of statehood, that a person from our state was named to a president’s cabinet.

If you’re not geographically diverse, it’s hard to even speak a language that makes sense to folks in faraway places. That’s especially a problem in the West, where voters have always mistrusted the federal government. Lately we watch cable news broadcasts coming from New York, featuring creatures of Washington and a dialogue full of lifeless talking points that either defend or assail some federal policy or proposal. That’s the native tongue of Washington, and it’s a language the Democrats’ last three losing presidential candidates spoke fluently but that almost always misses the reality of what Americans, especially those far from the nation’s capital, think and feel.

On health care, for example, Montanans aren’t in love with Obamacare — but they don’t want to see it eliminated, either. Our state voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, yes, but voters of all stripes here want a system where everyone is covered, and they supported me when I expanded Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income Montanans. And yet many of us were puzzled by the Democrats’ resistance to make any changes at all to the Affordable Care Act, given the often outrageously high premiums and deductibles.

And there are some progressive battles that Western Democrats have been left entirely to ourselves to wage. It wasn’t long ago that the Citizens United decision focused the nation on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Washington has apparently moved on, but in Montana we kept fighting; in the past few years we eliminated all of the anonymous corporate campaign expenditures that used to plague our state elections, often millions of dollars a year. This dark money is now illegal in Montana, and we are bringing, and winning, legal actions against the bad actors.

In the past decade Democrats in the West have battled a bizarre but powerful right-wing movement to allow wealthy individuals to take ownership of public lands and close them off, an issue on which even some of the most conservative voters here side with Democrats. These are our forests and parks and rivers, great equalizers where all citizens can escape to hunt, fish and hike, activities central to our heritage. But it barely moves the needle in Washington, because it seems like such a faraway issue to people inside the Beltway bubble.

I remember a humorous episode from Bill Clinton’s presidency in which his advisers prevailed upon him, one summer before his re-election campaign, to spend his vacation in Montana and Wyoming instead of the usual Martha’s Vineyard. The theory was that he’d benefit from hanging out someplace a little more down to earth. He took the advice, and won re-election. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart.