Stacey Abrams’s Fight for a Fair Vote

From today’s New Yorker Magazine:

mong the many issues currently polarizing American politics—abortion, climate change, health care, immigration, gun control—one of the most consequential tends to be one of the least discussed. The American electorate, across the country, is diversifying ethnically and racially at a rapid rate. Progressives, interpreting the shift to mean that, following traditional paths, the new voters will lean Democratic, see a political landscape that is turning blue. Conservatives apparently see the same thing, because in recent years many of them have supported policies, such as voter-I.D. laws and voter-roll purges, that have disproportionately affected people of color.

The issue has become more pressing with the approach of the 2020 Presidential election. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that federal judges do not have the power to address partisan gerrymandering, even when it creates results that “reasonably seem unjust.” Last month, President Donald Trump was finally forced to abandon his effort to add, in defiance of another Court ruling, a citizenship question to the census—an idea that Thomas B. Hofeller, the late Republican strategist who promoted it, believed would aid the G.O.P. in further redistricting. But, days later, the President was telling four American women of color, all elected members of the House of Representatives, to “go back” to where they came from.

The nation got a preview of the battle for the future of electoral politics last year, in Georgia’s gubernatorial race. The Republican candidate was declared the winner by a margin of less than two percentage points: fifty-five thousand votes out of nearly four million cast—a record-breaking total for a midterm election in the state. Many Georgians, though, still use the terms “won” and “lost” advisedly, not only because the Democrat never technically conceded but also because of the highly irregular nature of the contest. The Republican, Brian Kemp, was Georgia’s secretary of state, and in that role he presided over an election marred by charges of voter suppression; the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, has become the nation’s most prominent critic of that practice.

Although she has only recently come to wide attention, Abrams, a forty-five-year-old tax attorney, romance novelist, and former state representative, has been working on electoral reform—particularly on voter registration—in Georgia for some fifteen years. In that regard, some Georgians view her campaign as a success; she won more votes than any Democrat has ever won for statewide office. Georgia is representative of the nation’s demographic changes. The population is 10.5 million, and, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was 57.5 per cent white in 2008, fell to 54.2 per cent white in 2018, and will be 53.6 per cent white next year. It will be majority-minority by 2033. Democratic leaders from red states in the South and beyond with shifting populations—they include the Presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, of El Paso, Texas, as well as the former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who is considering a second run for the U.S. Senate, in Mississippi—have examined Abrams’s campaign to see how they might adopt its strategies. Espy described his discussion with her as “a graduate course in politics.”

Read the complete article here.

League Of Women Voters Mark Voting Rights Laws With Vigilance

From today’s Charleston Chronicle:

The day of August 6 marked the 54th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For many the monumental civil rights event went unacknowledged. Barbara Zia, Citizen Education coordinator for the Charleston Area League of Women Voters, called the event an important one prompting a Charleston vigil August 6 at the Circular Congregational Church.

Instead of just commemorating the landmark voting rights legislation, many advocates in Charleston and around the nation are fighting to curb the voter suppression unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to gut it, Zia said.

The Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision paved a path for states to pass a wave of new restrictive voting laws that disproportionately impact people of color by removing the preclearance requirements in the Voting Rights Act that applied to many states, including South Carolina. Preclearance required certain states to get federal approval before making changes in voting laws. Since the Supreme Court decision, restrictive voting laws have been passed in 20 states. Extreme gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and voter purges all infringe on Americans’ ability to exercise their right to vote, the League purports.

Despite its history of voter suppression, South Carolina has avoided much of the egregious erosion of voting rights experienced in neighboring states, Zia said. Still South Carolina struggled to defend against attacks such as picture ID requirements that could have been more detrimental without vigilance. The two-year struggle against the legislation enacted in 2013 drew the line in the sand, Zia said. The August 6 vigil served notice the League still is standing on that line, she emphasized.

Read the complete article here.

Prior to 2020 debate, MT Gov. Bullock handed victory in dark money case

From today’s ABC News Online:

Moments before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joined other 2020 candidates on the Democratic debate on Tuesday, his team delivered news about a victory back home: the governor just won a year-long lawsuit against the Trump administration.

Bullock, whose campaign message centers on removing dark money from politics, sued the Internal Revenue Service a year ago over a rule requiring that politically-active nonprofit groups disclose to the IRS names of donors. The rule had been overturned by President Donald Trump’s administration.

A federal judge in Montana, Brian Morris, ruled on Tuesday evening that the rule would be reinstated.

According to the docket, which was provided to ABC News by the Bullock campaign, the court “holds unlawful” the rule as adopted by the IRS and said the agency “must follow the proper notice-and-comment procedures pursuant to the APA it if seeks to adopt a similar rule.”

Under the previous law, the names of donors who gave $5,000 or more in their tax returns would be disclosed to the IRS, although the IRS would redact those names when making those documents public. Such groups are commonly called “dark money” groups because they don’t disclose their donors publicly unlike other politically active groups that disclose their donors to the FEC such as super PACs.

Read the complete article here.

Battle over Georgia voting rights escalates in federal court

From today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution:

A lawsuit alleging widespread voting problems in Georgia is pursuing an ambitious solution: restoration of the Voting Rights Act and federal oversight of elections.

After notching an initial court victory last month, allies of Stacey Abrams will now attempt to prove through their lawsuit that Georgia’s election was so flawed that it prevented thousands of voters from being counted, especially African Americans.

The lawsuit links civil rights and voting rights with the aim of showing that elections are unfair in Georgia because racial minorities suffered most from voter registration cancellationsprecinct closureslong linesmalfunctioning voting equipment and disqualified ballots. More than 50,000 phone calls poured into a hotline set up by the Democratic Party of Georgia to report hurdles voters faced at the polls.

If successful, the case has the potential to regain voting protections that were lost because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in a case involving the Voting Rights Act, the landmark legislation approved in 1965. The court decided that several states with a history of discriminatory practices, including Georgia, no longer had to obtain federal clearance before making changes to elections.

Bringing Georgia back under the Voting Rights Act will be tough because the lawsuit would have to prove intentional discrimination in the state’s election laws and practices. But the plaintiffs see an opportunity to try to make that case.ADVERTISING

Free from federal supervision, voter suppression has been on the rise in Georgia, said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for the plaintiffs, which include Fair Fight Action, an advocacy group founded by Abrams, along with Ebenezer Baptist Church and other churches.

“This is modern-day Jim Crow,” Lawrence-Hardy said. “Minority voters simply have a harder time voting and having their vote counted in the state of Georgia than other voters. That’s just factual, and that’s part of the information we’ll be submitting to the court.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump Is Urged to Fire Kellyanne Conway for Hatch Act Violations

From today’s New York Times:

An independent government agency recommended on Thursday that President Trump fire Kellyanne Conway, his White House counselor, for repeated violations of an ethics law barring partisan politics from the federal workplace.

In a letter accompanying a report to Mr. Trump, the agency called Ms. Conway a “repeat offender” of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in campaign politics at work, saying that her flagrant defiance of the law justified her dismissal from the White House.

“As a highly visible member of the administration, Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” said the letter to the president, signed by Henry J. Kerner, the head of the agency. “Her actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

The agency, called the Office of Special Counsel, enforces the Hatch Act and is not related to Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Despite its official mission, the office has no power to force Ms. Conway’s dismissal, and the White House quickly made clear that Mr. Trump would not follow its suggestion.

Read the complete article here.

FACT CHECK: Foreign Interference And ‘Opposition Research’ Are Not The Same

From today’s NPR News Online:

President Trump has conflated an infamous practice in and among political campaigns — “opposition research” — with foreign election interference like that launched by Russia against the United States in 2016.

Are they the same thing? Is foreign interference just a kind of “oppo research,” as Trump said in an interview with ABC?

The short answer: No. Oppo research is part of politics. But the law prohibits American political campaigns from taking “a contribution or donation of money or any other thing of value” from foreigners. The ban isn’t limited to money, as Justice Department investigators wrote.

The long answer: Trump told ABC News that essentially every political candidate is willing to accept information that could be of use against an opponent.

“You go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it. They always have. And that’s the way it is. It’s called ‘oppo research,’ ” he said.

What’s the difference?

Opposition research is what campaigns and political operatives use against each other. If one candidate running for office dug up a story about something embarrassing her opponent had done, the first candidate might bundle it together and see that it found its way into the newspaper.

Active measures

In 2016, however, the Russian government also launched a broad wave of “active measures” from outside the U.S. and used sophisticated tools found only in the arsenal of a major government. Its ultimate goal was to help elect Trump.

Trump’s campaign counted on the boost it got from WikiLeaks in 2016, according to the report by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Donald Trump Jr. also accepted the offer of a meeting, via intermediaries, to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Read the complete article here.

Deceased G.O.P. Strategist’s Hard Drives Reveal New Details on the Census Citizenship Question

From today’s New York Times:

Thomas B. Hofeller achieved near-mythic status in the Republican Party as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the architect of partisan political maps that cemented the party’s dominance across the country.

But after he died last summer, his estranged daughter discovered hard drives in her father’s home that revealed something else: Mr. Hofeller had played a crucial role in the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Files on those drives showed that he wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats. And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

Those documents, cited in a federal court filing Thursday by opponents seeking to block the citizenship question, have emerged only weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the citizenship question. Critics say adding the question would deter many immigrants from being counted and shift political power to Republican areas.

Read the complete article here.

Federal court: Michigan political maps illegally rigged to ‘historical proportions’

From today’s Detroit News:

Michigan must redraw legislative and congressional districts for the 2020 election because current maps drawn by Republicans represent a political gerrymander “of historical proportions,” a three-judge federal panel ruled Thursday.

The blockbuster ruling — which a GOP leader said the party will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — requires Michigan to conduct special state Senate elections for certain seats next year, cutting in half the four-year terms that current lawmakers are now serving. 

The “predominate purpose” of the redistricting plan approved by the Michigan Legislature in 2011 “was to subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power,” said the unanimous decision written by U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“Therefore, the enacted plan constitutes a durable partisan gerrymander” that violates the First and 14th Amendment rights of plaintiff voters, the court concluded.

The panel is giving the Republican-led House and Senate until Aug. 1 to redraw the maps and get them signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The judges said they want all the parties and processes used in the redistricting process to be made public, including any alternative plans that the Legislature rejects.

If state officials do not finalize new maps by then, the federal court would draw new boundaries itself and could appoint a special master to do so. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and some aggrieved Democrats. The complaint was eventually narrowed down to target 34 of the state’s 162 congressional and legislative districts that would need to be redrawn, along with any bordering districts they impact. 

Read the complete article here.

Interior nominee David Bernhardt’s ethics problems aren’t going away

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s pick to the lead the Interior Department heads for a confirmation vote as early as Thursday, with his career as a lobbyist raising ethical and legal concerns and doubts about his independence from the energy and water industry groups he long represented.

Acting Secretary David Bernhardt spent about eight years as a partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the nation’s top-grossing law and lobbying firms, according to public rankings. There he represented energy, mining and Western water interests that deal with the Interior Department, including two California entities, Westlands Water District — the nation’s largest irrigation district — and Cadiz Inc.

Bernhardt’s firm sued the department four times on Westlands’ behalf. He personally argued one appeals case challenging federal endangered species protections for imperiled salmon. He did legal work for Cadiz, which wants to build a water pipeline on a railroad right of way that crosses federal land in the California desert.

When Bernhardt was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017, he had to sign the administration’s ethics pledge and recuse himself from participating in “particular matters” involving more than two dozen former clients. Some of the recusals were effective for two years, others for one. In the last year, he has helped put policies in place that benefit businesses he once represented as a lobbyist.

Read the complete article here.

Op-Ed: Consumer rights are worthless without enforcement by the state

From today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

57 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned pitch for stronger consumer rights.

“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”

Kennedy offered these words of warning on March 15, 1962, a date now celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. He then called on Congress to enact legislation to protect four fundamental consumer rights: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard.

The address has become known as the “consumer bill of rights.” But Kennedy also discussed an equally important issue: how such rights would be enforced. After all, without enforcement, consumer rights are just empty promises.

Consumer rights flourish

The idea of consumer rights was nothing new in 1962.

As I describe in my research on the history of consumer credit regulation, the states took an early interest in protecting ordinary Americans against abuse by lenders and debt collectors, beginning in the earliest days of the republic. Most adopted usury laws limiting the price of credit in the colonial period, exemption laws shielding property from seizure by creditors in the 19th century and more tailored consumer credit regulations in the early and middle 20th century.

What was noteworthy about Kennedy’s address was not his push for more consumer rights, but rather his call for the federal government – “the highest spokesman for all the people” – to act on behalf of consumers instead of ceding the role of consumer protector to the states.

Congress heeded Kennedy’s call and passed a flurry of consumer legislation.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, it required lenders to clearly disclose loan terms through the Truth in Lending Act, mandated fair credit reporting and debt collection practices, created safety standards for cars and other consumer products, and banned discrimination in housing and consumer lending. More recently, in 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and tasked the agency with guarding consumers against unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices in financial services.

The states also reinforced their decades-old consumer laws in the 1960s and ’70s by banning unfair and deceptive acts and practices under state “UDAP” laws.

Accordingly, consumer rights today are far more robust than they were when JFK gave his speech. To be sure, new business practices regularly require that existing laws be updated to address unanticipated threats.

But the biggest challenge today is not the need for new consumer rights. Rather, it is ensuring that existing rights are enforced.

Legal fee recovery and class actions

There are basically two ways to enforce a consumer right: privately with a lawsuit or publicly via regulators.

The biggest barrier to effective private enforcement is financial. First of all, the harm to an individual consumer from a rights violation is often small, reducing the economic incentive to sue. Secondly, to sue in court, a consumer generally requires the assistance of an attorney, who must be paid. Finally, even if the individual goes to court and wins, the damage award is frequently too insignificant to deter the violator from engaging in profitable but illegal practices in the future.

Fortunately, two legal innovations have helped consumers overcome some of these hurdles.

One, rules allowing prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees, expanded with the raft of consumer rights legislation of the late 1960s. These provisions gave consumers the right to recover the costs of their legal representation along with any actual damages for some rights violations.

The other was the birth of the modern class action lawsuit in 1966, which allowed consumers who suffer similar monetary harms to aggregate their claims into a single large lawsuit, leading to multimillion dollar settlements.

Public enforcement

The other way to give consumer rights teeth is through public enforcement. And besides the potential for monetary awards, this method opens the door to other types of remedies for consumers.

For example, the New Jersey attorney general recently sued two auto dealerships, alleging that they sold damaged vehicles at unaffordable prices to “financially vulnerable” customers who were then left stranded when the dealers repossessed the cars without advance warning. The complaint seeks to ban the violators from selling car in the future, in addition to monetary relief.

Enforcement shortfalls

Recent developments, however, raise concerns about the future of consumer rights enforcement through both public and private channels.

The strength of public enforcement is subject to the whims of state and federal officials, who may reduce enforcement resources or refuse to bring enforcement actions.

A prime example is the weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which from 2011 through 2017 helped millions of consumers receive nearly $12 billion back from misbehaving financial institutions. A recent study found that CFPB enforcement activity has declined significantly since the end of 2017, when Richard Cordray, its first director, stepped down.

Paper tigers

Compared with 1962, when President Kennedy put consumer concerns on the national agenda, ordinary Americans now have far more robust rights to safety, to information, to choice and to a fair hearing.

But consumer rights do not enforce themselves. Public enforcement requires funding and willing leaders. Private enforcement requires legal devices that allow consumers to pay attorneys for their work.

Without an ongoing commitment to enforcement, consumer rights may become paper tigers, offering the appearance of protection without any teeth.

Read the complete article here.