Pennsylvania Makes FairVote’s List for Worst Ballot-Access Laws

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Here in Pennsylvania, advocates for fair and accessible elections were thrilled when the Keystone State’s voter-ID law was struck down as being unconstitutional.

But even with the voter-ID law off the books, Pennsylvania still made FairVote’s list of the top 19 worst ballot-access laws in the country.

Here’s what was cited as number 17:

Pennsylvania requires a party to have a membership of at least 15% of the statewide registration to remain on the ballot.  If this law were in effect in Rhode Island, DC, or Massachusetts, Republicans would be off the ballot.  If it were in existence in Idaho and Utah, Democrats would be off the ballot.  Also Pennsylvania puts petitioning groups at risk of paying court costs of over $100,000 if they submit a petition that is found not to have enough valid signatures.

Interested in reading more? Check out the entire FairVote story here.

New Report Identifies Gaps in the American Electorate

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Editor’s Note: The following is a press release issued today by Project Vote, a national nonpartisan, non-profit organization that is “dedicated to building an electorate that accurately represents the diversity of America’s citizenry.” On its website, the organization describes itself as taking “a leadership role in nationwide voting rights and election administration issues, working through research, litigation, and advocacy to ensure that every eligible citizen can register, vote, and cast a ballot that counts.” You can check the nonprofit out here.

As the 2015-2016 election cycle gets underway, nonprofit voting rights group Project Vote has released a major new report that presents a comprehensive picture of disparities in the changing American electorate.

In Representational Bias in the 2012 Electorate, Project Vote’s senior policy analyst, Dr. Vanessa Perez, analyses registration and voting rates for every presidential election in the 21st Century. The report examines participation for different demographic groups—according to race and ethnicity, age, gender, income, education and other factors—to determine the ways in which the American electorate is becoming more or less representative of the citizen population.

“America is built on the ideal of a representative democracy, so it is vital that we understand the ways in which we are still short of achieving that goal,” says Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote. “Our democracy is weakened when some groups speak louder than their size warrants.”

Representational Bias in the 2012 Electorate provides comparative registration and voting data for the presidential elections of 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, in order to trace how the composition of the electorate has changed in the 21st century, and where there is still work to be done to achieve demographic parity.

Some key findings of the report include:

  • Following surges in participation in 2008, black americans voted in 2012 at higher rates than white Americans for the first time in modern history. Voting patterns for whites and blacks in 2012 were relatively proportionate to their numbers in the general population.
  • However, America’s growing population of latino citizens remains underrepresented at the polls: Latinos made up nearly 11 percent of the adult citizen population in 2012, but only 8.4 percent of the electorate.
  • Young citizens also continue to be severely underrepresented in the electorate: Americans younger than 30 made up 21 percent of the adult citizen population in 2012, but only 15.5 percent of the voting population.
  • While turnout for young voters was low in 2012, young black voters broke this pattern, voting at much higher rates than young voters from all other ethnic groups.
  • Continuing historic patterns, the 2012 electorate skewed much wealthier than the general population. Less than half of adult citizens making less than $25,000 a year voted in 2012, compared to 73.6 percent of those earning more than $100,000 dollars.
  • Gender and marital status are positively associated with higher registration and turnout figures. Women are typically more likely to participate in elections than men, and being married increases the likelihood that an individual will register and vote.

The report shows that, if disparities in participation had been eliminated in 2012, tens of millions more Americans would have voted:

  • If non-white Americans had participated at the same rates as white Americans, 5 million more votes would have been cast in 2012.
  • If people younger than 30 had participated at the same rate as those over 30, 9.7 million more votes would have been cast.
  • If people making less that $25,000 a year had participated at the same rate as those making $100,000 or more, 11.5 million additional votes would have been cast.
  • If people with a high-school education or less had turned out at the same rate as those who had attended college, 19.1 million more votes would have been cast.
  • If persons with disabilities had turned out at the same rate as people with no reported disabilities, 1.5 million more votes would have been cast.

Looking ahead to 2016, it is clear that there is still enormous work to be done to ensure that the voice of the electorate successfully reflects the needs and interests of all Americans.

“To accomplish a truly representative democracy,” Perez writes in Representational Bias, “it is crucial to advance policies that facilitate registration and voting for all Americans, particularly for groups that are historically underrepresented in the American electorate. Such efforts must include improved enforcement of federal voting rights laws (particularly the NVRA); adoption of policies that are shown to increase registration and voting (such as online registration, early voting, and same-day registration); and laws that facilitate, instead of hinder, the important efforts of community-based voter registration drives. Doing so will greatly improve the health of American democracy.”

The full Representational Bias in the 2012 Electorate report is available at http://bit.ly/repbias2012.

A summary of key findings, and individual tables and charts from the report, are also available to download separately.

Advancement Project Supports Proposed Constitutional Amendment Recognizing Voting as Fundamental Right

U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Keith Ellison have proposed a constitutional amendment that would guarantee every American the right to vote. The proposal recognizes voting as a “fundamental right” for all Americans who are of legal voting age. The national civil rights group Advancement Project released statements recently in support of that proposal.

Here is the statement from Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis:

“We strongly support amending the U.S. Constitution to affirm the right to vote for all eligible Americans. The amendment proposed today would ensure uniform standards for elections, no longer treating voting as a privilege but an explicit right for all citizens. In the absence of a constitutional right to vote, politicians and local bureaucrats are free to enact restrictive voting policies without proving any compelling reason for imposing them. We would never tolerate this kind of deference to politicians with other rights, like the right of free speech or freedom of religion. It’s time to protect voting in the same way.”

Here is the statement from the non-profit’s Co-Director Penda Hair:

“An affirmative right to vote is essential to an equal and just democracy. This necessity has become more glaring in recent years, as politicians, state by state, increasingly pass laws that make it harder to vote, especially for communities of color. The rise of restrictive photo ID laws that allow only limited forms of identification for voting, cuts to early voting periods, large-scale purges of voter rolls and other practices constitute a relentless war on our democracy. A constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote is needed now more than ever, and we support the swift adoption of this amendment.”

Here is the statement from Advancement Project’s Right to Vote Campaign Director Shuya Ohno:

“A constitutional right to vote is not only an idea whose time has come – it’s long overdue. Out of approximately 120 democratic countries, the United States is one of only 11 in the world that does not definitively guarantee the right to vote in its constitution. With no affirmative language making this right explicit, there is no guarantee for elections that are free, fair and accessible. Instead, civil rights advocates are forced to play defense, constantly litigating against attacks on voting. The constitution should provide an explicit safeguard against these assaults, once and for all. Democracy demands no less.”

Case to Watch: Brennan Center Files Amicus Brief in Arizona Redistricting Issue

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The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could drastically limit the ability of voters to take responsibility for redistricting decisions out of the hands of legislators.

The case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, challenges a state constitutional amendment adopted in 2000 by Arizona voters which created a politically neutral commission drawing new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts every ten years. Before the amendment, the state legislature, as in many states, had been responsible for setting and adjusting district lines.

The Commission drew district boundaries in 2001 and again in 2011. After the 2011 redistricting, however, the Republican-controlled state legislature sued the Commission, arguing that use of the Commission to draw maps violated the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause.

At issue is a portion of the Elections Clause that provides that, the “times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” Because redistricting traditionally has been construed to fall within the ambit of “manner” of holding elections, Arizona argues that the strict language of the clause means that congressional districts can be drawn only by state legislatures.

A panel of three federal judges rejected the challenge earlier this year in a 2-1 decision, holding that the use of the term “legislature” in the Elections Clause should be read to refer to the entirety of a state’s legislative process, including ballot initiatives passed by the voters.

If the Supreme Court were to conclude that the Elections Clause prohibits citizen efforts to take the power to redistrict away from elected politicians, the decision could have far-reaching ramifications. A growing number of states in recent years, including California, have given independent commissions the power to set the boundaries of their congressional districts. In fact, almost half of the states now use redistricting commissions in some form, including as a backup if the legislature is unable to pass a redistricting plan. Efforts to adopt similar sorts of reforms are currently underway in Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, and Illinois – with Arizona and California frequently serving as models for proposed reforms.

A ruling in favor of the Arizona legislature could extend well beyond redistricting commissions.  A strict reading of the clause also could throw into doubt a number of longstanding state practices, such as the power governors have in most states to veto redistricting bills.

A ruling, likewise, could undermine constitutional amendments in places like Florida that have left redistricting power in the hands of elected officials but put sharp limits on what they can and cannot do in redistricting process. At its broadest, an expansive ruling could even jeopardize things such as California’s open primary system – also adopted through ballot initiative – and constitutional provisions in places like Arkansas that set out who is an eligible voter.

The District Court opinion and dissent are available here.

Pew Report: Money in Politics, Influence of Lobbyists Top Issues for Americans in 2015

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The Pew Research Center recently released an interesting read: The results of a survey that give a glimpse into what Americans consider their top national priorities for 2015.

The top priorities included:

  • Terrorism
  • Economy
  • Jobs
  • Education
  • Social Security

Pretty standard stuff, right?

Here’s the part we found interesting: Rounding out the top 20 was “money in politics.” The influence of lobbyists also made the list.

The story included another little tidbit:

The age differences are especially large when it comes to reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington. Twice as many adults 65 and older (56%) compared with those under 30 (28%) view reducing the influence of lobbyists as a top priority.

To read the entire story, click here.

Are Non-Profits Acting Like Political Entities Without Consequence?

New information from The Center for Public Integrity suggests that many non-profits may be engaging in political activity without fear of repercussion.

According to the good-government group, many non-profit organizations that have protected tax status have spent money on political activities – yet, not many get audited by the IRS to check if they’re doing it too much.

Here’s what the Center for Public Integrity wrote in a Jan. 22 post:

The IRS told the Center for Public Integrity that it has only begun auditing 26 organizations specifically for political activity since 2010. That represents a tiny fraction of the more than 1 million nonprofits regulated by the agency.

More than 100 nonprofit groups have directly involved themselves in elections during recent years, some spending into the tens of millions of dollars. The rest — largely charities that are generally prohibited from campaigning for politicians — are seldom monitored to ensure they follow federal law.

How does that affect the election process? According to the group, that lack of oversight allows nonprofits to act as political entities without fear of being held accountable for it.

But wait, there’s more: The Center for Public Integrity report also indicates that internal IRS documents show declines in both the number of IRS employees investigating nonprofits, and the number of employees approving applications for nonprofit status (which is what allows groups to avoid paying certain taxes).

What does the good-government watchdog group think about the situation?

“The IRS is not doing its job,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told the Center for Public Integrity. “There have been not only some obvious abuses of the tax exemption by some of these so-called social welfare groups, but I think some pretty flagrant ones.”

The group has said it just another way Dark Money is influencing politics and elections.

Not aware of what so-called “dark money” is? Here’s some info on the issue of “dark money” and legislation proposed to combat it.

Need to Change Your Voter Registration in Pennsylvania? Here’s How

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Did you move since the last election? Do you want to change your party affiliation? Name change?

Then you need to bookmark this website.

On the VotesPa website, prospective voters can do all of these things and more.

The easy-to-navigate site includes a drop-down menu with the prompt, “I am…” Users can choose selections that range from “citizen with a disability” to “experienced voter” to “person who has recently moved.”

The website also gives visitors some background information on the election process, the types of elections and even the types of voting machines used throughout the state.

Never voted before? Nervous about actually casting the ballot? Don’t be! There’s a tutorial on the site that allows you to walk through the process before you walk into the voting booth.

If you are a voter in Pennsylvania, definitely utilize the site.

Op Ed: Hey, Obama, Right to Vote Shouldn’t Depend on Where You Live

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We told you just the other day about the nonprofit We the People Project, and its voting-rights survey regarding the right of those who live in the U.S. territories and D.C. to vote.

Today, we wanted to share an op-ed piece the group’s president and founder, Neil Weare wrote on the Huffington Post blog.

Titled, “The State of the Union Gets Awkward When You Can’t Vote for a President,” the blog quotes President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, in which he spoke about every American’s right to exercise their right to vote.

Weare writes:

So when the president starts talking about voting rights for all Americans, heck, that’s pretty exciting if you’re a non-voting delegate. Until you realize he is not talking about you or the four million U.S. citizens you represent. Then it gets awkward.

It almost makes it worse that U.S. citizens in the territories can vote in presidential primaries. U.S. territories figured prominently into both the 2008 Democratic primaries and the 2012 Republican primaries, with candidates making appearances in Puerto Rico and opening campaign offices as far away as Guam. With a big field of candidates in 2016, their votes will once again be important at the national conventions – just not in November. Feels like a tease.

Read more here.

Public Citizen Responds to Center for Competitive Politics Comments on PAC-Candidate Coordination

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We wrote earlier this week about a Public Citizen report that dealt with Super PACs, and which candidates they gave money to in the 2014 election cycle – and specifically, that there was coordination between the two (which is a no no).

Then we shared the response from the Center for Competitive Politics, an organization devoted to the protection of political speech under the First Amendment, which was this:

“Public Citizen’s report shows no actual evidence of any coordination between Super PACs and the candidates they support,” said Center for Competitive Politics President David Keating. ”Why is it surprising that the friend of a candidate would start a Super PAC to support that candidate? Mere suspicion is not actual evidence – it’s the stuff of a conspiracy theorists and hysterics.

Now, Public Citizen has its retort in the form of an op-ed on The Huffington Post.

Here’s an excerpt:

Our report does not level any allegations of coordination, a legal violation that can hardly be proven without being privy to private conversations. We do, however, allege that many single-candidate groups are not plausibly independent of the candidates they assisted. And that helping out a friend, as referenced by CCP, is a case in point for that thesis.

To read the whole thing, click here.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day From PFFE

Today, we honor civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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In honor of the holiday, we wanted to share this op-ed piece featured on The Nation. Author Ari Berman writes:

The film Selma movingly chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight to win the Voting Rights Act (VRA). It ends with King speaking triumphantly on the steps of the Alabama capitol, after marching from Selma to Montgomery. Five months later, Congress passed the VRA, the most important civil-rights law of the twentieth century.

If only that story had a happy ending today. Selma has been released at a time when voting rights are facing the most sustained attack since 1965. The Supreme Court gutted the centerpiece of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder in June 2013. That followed a period from 2011 to 2012 when 180 new voting restrictions were introduced in 41 states, and 22 states made it harder to vote.

To read the entire piece, click here.