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.

Trump administration gives up fight over citizenship question on the census

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The Trump administration, abruptly switching course, has decided to give up its fight to add a question about citizenship to next year’s census. Word of the decision to give up the fight came initially in an email from a Justice Department attorney to the lawyers who had challenged the administration in court. The email announced the decision to begin printing census forms without the controversial question.

Administration officials did not dispute the authenticity of the email, but declined additional immediate comment. A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed the decision to print the census forms without the citizenship query.

The Supreme Court last week blocked the administration’s effort to add the question on citizenship to the census, saying Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the Census Bureau, had not provided an honest answer for why he wanted to make the move.

But the 5-4 ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. gave the administration a chance to start over and try to come up with a new rationale for adding the question for the first time in decades.

As recently as Monday, President Trump had repeated his insistence that the census should include a question about citizenship. After the high court’s decision, he had publicly called for delaying the census.

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Supreme Court decides federal judges cannot block gerrymandering

From today’s CNBC Online:

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts may not block gerrymandering in a 5-4 decision that fell along partisan lines.

The court also ruled, in a separate high-profile case decided Thursday, that the Trump administration’s reasoning for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was insufficient, effectively blocking the question for now.

On the final day of decisions before the court’s summer recess, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinions of the court in both cases.

The closely watched case on a charged political matter comes in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. The decision was met with scorn by some Democrats running for president, including former vice president Joe Biden, and a sharp dissent from the liberal justices.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote in the redistricting case. He said those asking the top court to block gerrymandered districts effectively sought “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” he wrote.

The court’s decision prompted a fierce reply from its liberal wing. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

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.

Nevada governor signs bill to restore voting rights to convicted felons

From today’s The Hill:

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) on Wednesday signed into law a pair of criminal justice reform bills, including one that restores voting rights to convicted felons following their release from prison. 

“I just signed two criminal justice reform bills that will restore fairness and justice to thousands of Nevadans,” Sisolak said on Twitter following the signing. “I’m so excited about the positive impact these bills will have on our communities, especially communities of color.”

The first measure Sisolak signed, known as Assembly Bill 431, immediately grants the right to vote to felons released from prison or discharged from parole or probation. The law will replace one that granted certain felons the right to vote two years after their prison release, The Associated Press noted

Sisolak said the legislation, which is set to go into effect on July 1, will re-enfranchise about 77,000 state residents. 

The other measure Sisolak signed into law will streamline the process for sealing low-level marijuana convictions. The AP reported that the law allows a person to ask a court to seal records for any offense that has since been decriminalized. 

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Felon voting bill goes to Florida governor’s desk amid outcry

From today’s Associated Press News Wire:

Florida felons will have to pay court-ordered financial obligations if they want their voting rights restored under a bill sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday that would implement a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

The bill, though, caused outrage among Democrats who say Republicans are adding hurdles that don’t reflect the spirit in which voters approved allowing most felons to vote once they’ve completed their sentences. The amendment was approved with 64.5 percent of the vote and excludes murderers and sex offenders from the voting restoration rights.

“I believe Floridians are smart. I believe Floridians knew exactly what they were doing,” said Democratic Rep. Al Jacquet. “White, black, Hispanic, women, male, every Floridian understanding the value of their voice, the value of their vote. But we sit here and we begin to say, ‘Well, if you want to regain it, you should do this.’”

The ballot language on the amendment said rights would be restored after all terms of a sentence are completed. Republicans said that means court costs, restitution, fees and fines imposed by a judge. Democrats have said financial burdens shouldn’t be a barrier to voting rights restoration, especially if a judge converts them to a civil judgment.

Jacquet and other Democrats argued that the original intent of the felon voting ban was to repress the minority vote, because minorities historically have been disproportionately convicted of felonies.

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.

Amendment 4 restored voting rights to felons In FL–Now that’s back in doubt

From today’s NBC News Online:

Desmond Meade thinks he may have talked to more Floridians about felon voting rights than anyone else. Since 2009, he has put thousands of miles on his car each year, driving to every corner of the state talking to people about felon disenfranchisement.

By the time a formal campaign to amend the Florida Constitution and restore felon voting rights ended in 2018, it was clear to him which arguments worked with the largest share of people. Among them: second chances and redemption are moral and national values that Americans have a collective duty to uphold, and making way for redemption is the right thing to do.

Eventually, Meade, who is black, and Neil Volz, a white man convicted of felonies in connection with the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, connected with a bipartisan funding and support network. It included the Koch brothers. And the redemption narrative — one that pushed the racist origins and racially disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws just beyond the spotlight — won a whopping 64 percent of deeply purple Florida’s votes in the November referendum on Amendment 4.

“The messaging was totally organic, totally grassroots,” said Meade, a convicted felon who after his release from prison earned a law degree. “It wasn’t a black or white thing, a conservative or liberal thing. It was a real people thing, people understood.”

But just as the campaign settled into victory, both the politics and the policy of felon voting have become unsettled again.

On Thursday, a committee of the Florida House of Representatives voted along party lines to advance a bill that could bar from the ballot box many of the estimated 1.5 million convicted felons who just regained the franchise.

Now the issue of voting rights for ex-felons is back in doubt. It looks as if the limited talk about race and partisanship during the Amendment 4 campaign created space for opponents to engage in debates about the bill’s language without attending to the racial impact of any legislative tweaks.

Read the complete article here.