Fair Election Nonprofits Want FEC to to Prohibit Campaign “Contribution Laundering”

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Two nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations have petitioned the Federal Election Commission to prohibit political campaign contribution laundering.

The two organizations, Make Your Laws PAC and Make Your Laws Advocacy Inc., which work to ensure that elections and their corresponding campaign finance activities are transparent and may be independently audited, wrote a letter to commissioners earlier this month with the request.

Here’s how the groups explain the move:

Current FEC and IRS regulations permit political committees with independent expenditure accounts (“Super PACs”) to receive contributions from corporations, including 501(c)(4) corporations, which themselves have no reporting obligations under the FECA regarding their contributions or expenditures.

This hole in the regulations, combined with recent court decisions in EMILY’s List, Citizens United, SpeechNow, Carey, and McCutcheon, has made it possible for unlimited, completely anonymous, potentially foreign-sourced money to be used to influence U.S. elections. In the 2012 federal election cycle, this “dark money” totaled roughly $257 million.

In effect, this is money laundering for political contributions (“contribution laundering”).

We believe that this plainly subverts the purpose of our campaign finance laws, as well as the assumptions of public disclosure relied on by our courts.

Recent court decisions have allowed corporations to purchase political speech through “independent expenditures”. However, this right does not extend to the purchase of anonymous speech.

The cure? Here’s an explanation from the petitioners:

Our proposal to cure this problem is simple and very narrowly tailored: we are asking the FEC to require that any corporation contributing more than $1k/yr to influence elections do so through a publicly reported bank account (known as an “SSF” or “Carey account”) — and that all reporting disclose not just the last hop in what is potentially a chain of shell corporations, but also the original, human contributor.

Want more details? Read the petition for rulemaking here.

Ben & Jerry’s Creator Needs Your Help to ‘Stamp Money Out of Politics’

monyak honeyakYou’ve likely heard of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream – the frozen dairy dessert purveyor of fine flavors such as Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia.

But did you know that co-founder Ben Cohen is rallying to get money out of politics?

Cohen is now the head of a nonprofit called Stamp Money Out of Politics. What’s the whole campaign all about? Here’s a little tidbit from the website:

The Stampede is tens of thousands of Americans legally stamping messages on our Nation’s currency to #GetMoneyOut of Politics. As the amount of stamped money grows, so does the movement to amend the Constitution.

Need some background on what amendment is sought? No problem. Here’s the issue in a nutshell (thanks to the nonprofit’s website):

The ruling that money is free speech comes from Buckley v. Valeo, a 1976 Supreme Court decision. Although the court upheld limits on direct contributions to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, they conceded that spending money to influence elections is protected speech under the First Amendment. Over the next three decades, several other decisions gave corporations more and more “rights” to political spending in elections, culminating in 2010’s Citizens United decision. Citizens United overturned court precedent by ruling that corporations, specifically, also have a First Amendment right to free speech, eliminating many remaining barriers to political spending. More recently, McCutcheon v. F.E.C, in 2014, overturned aggregate contribution limits, opening the floodgates for corporations and wealthy individuals to infect elections with even more money.
So why stamp bills? This is how the Stamp Money Out of Politics explains the movement – and why people who are concerned with fair elections should support it:

The influence of money in politics is one of the biggest problems of our time because it impacts every issue and diminishes everyone’s voice. When politicians focus more on fundraising than legislating, the elite who can afford a lobbyist or cut big campaign checks gain access and influence while ‘we the people’ get left behind. That’s not right, and people everywhere are stepping up to do something about it.

Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, had this idea to use money to get money out of politics — he calls it monetary jiu jitsu.  It became the Stamp Stampede, and we’re using it to support legislation that limits campaign spending and a constitutional amendment that states “corporations are not people and money is not speech”.

Now, by legally stamping messages on dollar bills, tens of thousands of people like me are helping to build the movement to amend the constitution and get money out of politics. Each bill in circulation reaches hundreds of people, so by stamping a few bills every day with messages to get big money out of politics, we can reach millions. It’s like a portable billboard or a petition on steroids, and it’s a fun, hands-on way to make a difference.

Join the Stampede! Together, we’re building a movement to restore our democracy.

Interested? Want to learn more? Check out the website here.

Fair Elections Group Lauds “Major Victory” for Minnesota Voting Rights

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In what the Institute of Justice is hailing a “major victory for public participation in elections,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill last week that repeals Minnesota’s “special sources limit.”

Under the previous law, the first 12 individuals who contributed to a candidate were able to contribute twice as much as subsequent donors.

The repeal followed a May 2014 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank who found the law to likely be unconstitutional and banned the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board and Public Disclosure Board from enforcing the law. That victory was part of a lawsuit by the Institute for Justice and a coalition of donors and legislative candidates, which sought to overturn the law and allow individual contributors to donate to all campaigns for Minnesota state office.

For example, before Gov. Dayton signed S.F. 205, if a candidate for State House received 12 contributions of $1,000, the 13th contributor (and all subsequent contributors) could give no more than $500. As a result, early contributors had a greater ability to support the candidate of their choice than those who contributed later.

“The government should not be using campaign finance laws to play favorites,” said Anthony Sanders, an IJ attorney and lead counsel in the case. “In 2014, for the first time in over two decades, Minnesotans who want to support political candidates enjoyed the same rights, no matter when in the election cycle they made their contribution. Thanks to the governor’s signature that change is now permanent.”

An analysis done by IJ of the final campaign finance reports for Minnesota’s 2014 election found that IJ’s victory suspending the law benefited candidates in half of all legislative and statewide races, and those campaigns raised more funds to use to speak to voters.

“First Amendment rights should not be dished out on a first-come, first-served basis,” said Meagan Forbes, an IJ attorney in the case. “Furthermore, like many laws passed for the sake of campaign finance ‘reform,’ this law was so complicated that almost no one understood it, even candidates for office.”

Van Carlson of Circle Pines, Minn., was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. In the past he had been unable to contribute funds to his own legislator, State Rep. Linda Rundbeck, who was also a plaintiff, because of the special sources limit. “I am very glad that the legislature and governor have removed this arbitrary limit on who gets to support candidates of their choice,” said Carlson. “How much I want to contribute should not depend on how much my neighbor already has contributed.”

Brennan Center: Maryland Gov. Showed “Failure of Leadership” With Voting Rights Veto

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Despite overwhelming support in Maryland’s General Assembly, Gov. Larry Hogan last week vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to about 40,000 residents who live in their communities but cannot vote because of a past criminal conviction.

The legislation was supported by a myriad Maryland groups who form the Unlock the Vote coalition — which includes faith, racial justice and civil rights leaders — and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Following Hogan’s decision, supporters are now urging the General Assembly to override the governor’s veto.

“At a time when leaders of both political parties are uniting to reform our criminal justice system, this veto is a failure of leadership by Governor Hogan,” said Tomas Lopez, counsel at the Brennan Center. “After the unrest in Baltimore, Marylanders are demanding to be heard. Restoring voting rights to 40,000 citizens would expand our democracy and increase public safety. Other lawmakers in Maryland understand this and have offered leadership. Governor Hogan has offered excuses. The General Assembly should respond by overriding his veto and giving these citizens a second chance.”

Need a little background?

Maryland law prohibits individuals from voting until they have finished probation and parole. The bill Hogan vetoed would simplify the process by allowing an individual to become eligible to vote upon release from prison or if they were never incarcerated in the first place. Lopez testified in support of restoring voting rights in front of both Senate and House committees.

The Maryland bill comes as rights restoration continues to gain bipartisan support, despite this veto. In March, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and U.S. Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill in Congress to restore voting rights in federal elections to nearly 4.4 million Americans with past convictions. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill in February that would restore rights for those who have committed non-violent offenses.

To view the Brennan Center’s proposal to restore voting rights upon release from incarceration, and our state-by-state guide on criminal disenfranchisement laws.

Public Citizen: Federal Election Commission Is Failing

In a four-page release complete with charts and graphs, non-profit group Public Citizen has said the Federal Election Commission is failing.

According to the report:

In just the last few years, a sharply pervasive partisan split on the Federal Election Commission has largely prevented the agency from fulfilling its mission. In both numbers of actions taken and immobilizing deadlocked votes, the FEC is showing a dramatic and uncharacteristic inability to perform its duties more or less in all categories enforcement, audits, regulations and advisory opinions.
One of the most critical functions of the FEC is to enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act, nation’s campaign finance law, but today’s agency is falling desperately short in this mission.
The Public Citizen report continues:
In addition to enforcing the law, the FEC is charged with conducting audits of the financial activity of candidates and committees, in order to ensure compliance with the law. The audit function is designed to monitor compliance with the contributions limits, reporting requirements and handling of public funds by presidential candidates.
Audits are performed on a random basis or when preliminary investigations suggest a need for further review, except that all publicly financed candidates are subject to regular audits.
And that’s not all:
The Federal Election Commission is that agency responsible for promulgating rules and regulations to facilitate implementation of the nation’s campaign finance laws.
The Commission clarifies the FECA and the public funding statutes through regulations, codified in Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The agency has shown episodes of conflict and deadlocked votes when it comes to promulgating regulations, with the agency today rivaling its past episodes of indecision. Furthermore, the FEC is showing a strong disinclination to make use of its rule-making authorities.
Want to check out the whole thing? It’s available right here.

Department of Justice Proposes Legislation to Improve Access to Voting for American Indians and Alaska Natives

Department of Justice Proposes Legislation to Improve Access to Voting for American Indians and Alaska Natives

Today the Department of Justice proposed legislation that would require states or localities whose territory includes part or all of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village, or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government.

“The Department of Justice is deeply committed to ensuring that every eligible individual is able to exercise his or her fundamental right to vote,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.  “That’s why, today, I am calling on Congress to help remove the significant and unnecessary barriers that for too long have confronted American Indians and Alaska Natives attempting to cast their ballots.  The legislation we recommend today will make this nation stronger by extending meaningful voting opportunities to native populations, by encouraging full participation in our democratic institutions, and by bringing us closer to our most cherished ideals.”

“As citizens of a nation founded upon the principles of liberty and equality, Native Americans have faced unacceptable barriers to participating in the franchise, a situation aggravated by a history of discrimination, poverty and — significantly — great distances from polling places,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery.  “In spite of many reforms made possible by the Voting Rights Act and other measures, voting rates among Native Americans remain disproportionately low.  The legislation proposed today would address this unacceptable gap and we look forward to working with Congress to see it enacted.”

American Indians and Alaska Natives have faced significant obstacles that have prevented them from enjoying equal access to polling places and equal opportunities to cast a ballot.  In addition to suffering from a long history of discrimination, the distance many American Indian and Alaska Native citizens must travel to reach a polling place presents a substantial and ongoing barrier to full voter participation.  Following formal consultations with Indian tribes, the Department of Justice believes that there is a pressing need for federal legislation to ensure equal access to voting by Native American voters.

Today, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Congress with a legislative proposal, which would ensure that American Indian and Alaska Natives have access to at least one polling place in their communities to cast their ballots and require a number of additional obligations to ensure parity with other polling places.

This legislative proposal, a stand-alone bill, would:

  • Enable Native Americans to vote on or near tribal lands, by requiring any state or local election administrator whose territory includes part or all of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village, or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected, and made available for the purpose of conducting elections, by the tribal government.
  • Require states to make voting machines, ballots, and other voting materials and equipment available at these tribally located polling places to the same extent that they are available at other polling places in the state.
  • Require states to provide compensation and other benefits to election officials and poll workers at these polling places to the same extent as at other polling places in the state.
  • Require states to use the same voting procedures at these polling places as at other polling places in the state — potentially including election-day voting, early voting, the hours during which polling places are open, the operation of voting mechanisms or systems, and same-day registration.
  • Allow states to meet their obligations by either creating new polling places or relocating existing ones.
  • Allow tribes with larger populations or land bases to request more than one polling place.
  • Make the states’ obligations contingent on the tribe filing a timely request and certifying that it has arranged for access to, and appropriate staffing for, the polling facility.
  • Require the tribe to ensure that the staffers for the polling place are properly trained.
  • Require the tribe to ensure that the polling place will be open and accessible to all eligible citizens who reside in the precinct, regardless of whether they are Indians or non-Indians.

The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring equal access to voting for Native American voters.  This proposal would address serious voting obstacles faced by citizens who are members of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages; provide equal access to polling places for all eligible citizens, including members of tribes and villages; reinforce our nation’s commitment to the fundamental right to vote; and strengthen the government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal nations.

In 1975, recognizing the barriers to full participation that Native Americans continued to confront, Congress expressly included American Indians and Alaska Natives as protected groups under the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act.  Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited many jurisdictions with large American Indian or Alaska Native populations from changing their voting laws until they could prove that the change would not create new barriers to effective participation.  A number of jurisdictions with large Native American populations that have limited English proficiency — in six states, including Alaska — are also covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires bilingual election materials and assistance.

Despite these reforms, participation rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to lag behind turnout rates among non-Native voters.  For example, in Alaska, turnout among Alaska Natives often falls 15 to 20 or more percentage points below the non-Native turnout rate.  The causes of these disparities are complex, but the reality is that political participation by Native Americans consistently trails that of non-Natives and unequal access to polling places is a significant contributing factor.

Four Philadelphia Election Officials Charged with Voter Fraud

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On the eve of Pennsylvania’s primary election, four election officials in Philadelphia have been charged with voter fraud.

According to a story posted by an NBC affiliate, the charges stemmed from allegations the election workers cast extra ballots.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Sandra Lee, 60, Alexia Harding, 22, James Collins, 69, and Gregory Thomas, 60, are all charged with voter fraud. Warrants for their arrests were issued Monday. All four suspects were election officials from Philly’s 18th Ward, 1st Division.

“There’s no legally justifiable reason to vote multiple times and you cannot falsely certify that you live in a particular ward and division in order to work the polls and collect a check,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “Our democracy rests on free and fair elections, but it also relies on the fact that they are conducted properly, which is why these four individuals deserve to be arrested for what they did.”

On Feb. 16, 2015, a detective from the District Attorney’s Office Special Investigations Division interviewed a poll watcher who saw the division’s election board work to correct a discrepancy between the number of votes cast and the number of voters who signed in to vote, investigators said.

Interested in reading more? Check out all the details here.

We’ve reported on voter-election related For other voter-fraud news from Pennsylvania, click here.

It’s Election Day in Pennsylvania: Get Out and Vote (an FAQ)

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Today is primary Election Day in Pennsylvania, and we here at Pennsylvanians for Fair Elections wanted to remind you to get out and vote.

Here’s what you need to know if you are a registered voter looking to head to the polls today:

How long are the polls open today? The polls will be open until 8 p.m.

How do I know which polling place to go to? Click here, and then follow the prompts.

If I have a problem at the poll, what should I do? Call your county elections office. To find that number, click here.

How do I follow the election returns once the polls close? Check out this site.

What if I want to file a complaint based on my experience at the polls? Fill out this online form.

Happy voting!

Charlotte Voters Snared in N.C. Crackdown on Alleged Non-Citizens

cropped-photo-for-header.jpgEditor’s Note: We wanted to bring this write up from the Institute of Southern Studies, which examines how some Charlotte voters were caught up in North Carolina when the state “cracked down” on alleged non citizens.

Because the Institute of Southern Studies operates under a creative commons license, we are able to post the entire story here. To check out the story on the nonprofit’s site, click here. To read more about the nonprofit itself, click here.

Without further ado, here is the story:

DENYING A DREAM: Charlotte voters snared in N.C. crackdown on alleged non-citizens

Jerome Roberts and his daughter Diana battled nearly unbelievable odds to become U.S. citizens. And one of the first things they wanted to do after becoming naturalized was to cast votes in North Carolina’s 2014 elections.

In the 1990s, they had fled their native Liberia during the West African country’s deadly civil wars, which claimed the lives of both of Jerome’s parents. After living in a U.N. refugee camp in Ghana for several years, the family was moved in 2000 by the U.S. government to a resettlement in Charlotte, where Jerome has worked as a service technician for the city for eight years.

Finally, after navigating the complicated U.S. immigration system, last year Jerome and Diana were both naturalized — and made sure they were registered to vote in North Carolina.

“We had been waiting for this,” Jerome told Facing South. “It was our first time in this country getting to vote. We were trying to be part of the American dream.”

But what Jerome and Diana encountered at the polls on Election Day was at sharp odds with their hopeful visions of U.S. democracy.

On the morning of the elections, Jerome picked Diana up from high school, where she was an 18-year-old in her last semester, and they headed to their precinct at Druid Hills Academy. When they arrived, however, they discovered that Diana — despite being a naturalized citizen, and a registered voter since September — had been flagged as a potential non-citizen by state election officials. According to state law, only naturalized citizens can vote.

Diana was apparently on a list of 1,454 names the N.C. State Board of Elections gave to local election officials shortly before the 2014 elections, identifying registered voters whose “citizenship status was in question.” More than 300 names had been sent to Mecklenburg County.

According to Jerome and Diana, their voting experience went downhill from there. A poll worker told them to wait while precinct officials “called downtown” to address Diana’s citizenship status. They waited more than two hours, to no avail. In the meantime, Jerome — unfamiliar with the voting process — asked the same poll worker for help understanding his ballot; according to Jerome, she became impatient and dismissive, saying, “We can’t help you.”

While cautious about saying so, Jerome wondered if his family’s race and immigrant background were factors in how they were treated by the poll worker, a white woman. “It was a very bad experience,” Jerome remembered. “It made me think she didn’t like us, because of who we are.”

While Jerome ended up voting on Election Day, Diana — tired and frustrated — left without casting a ballot. When I asked later if she planned to try again in the next election, Diana said, simply, “No.” To which Jerome added, “Is this how people vote in this country? Because these are the things that make people not want to vote.”

NON-CITIZEN VOTING: HYSTERIA AND REALITY

Diana Roberts’ troubled attempt to vote came amidst a controversial push by Republican lawmakers and conservative activists to clamp down on an alleged epidemic of non-citizen voting — a push that has coincided with changing demographics in North Carolina and other states.

In 2014, one such group in North Carolina — the Raleigh-based Voter Integrity Project, headed by Jay DeLancy — declared that “tens of thousands” of non-citizens were registered to vote in the state. The Project, along with the anti-immigrant group NC FIRE and others, had been making such claims for years, even after they were repeatedly debunked.

But weeks before the November 2014 elections, two political scientists at Old Dominion University revived the debate with a guest column in The Washington Post, claiming that up to 6 percent of non-citizens in the U.S. voted in 2008, nearly 18,000 in North Carolina alone. Despite being widely criticized by election experts for using unreliable self-reported survey answers and having an extremely small sample size, the story generated national buzz in right-wing media outlets and was seized on by activists like DeLancy, who contacted state officials about the alleged “non-US citizen fire storm” [pdf].

North Carolina election officials have had procedures for removing ineligible voters from the rolls, including non-citizens, for many years. However, efforts to target suspected non-citizens were stepped up in 2013, after Republican lawmakers installed new leadership at the N.C. State Board of Elections. In the fall of that year, the state board signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to verify voters’ citizenship status, using the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database.

Drawing on SAVE data, the N.C. elections board launched a “Citizenship Audit” in 2014 that identified 10,000 registered voters in need of “review.” Distancing themselves from the larger numbers floated by DeLancy and others, N.C. election officials announced they had identified only 1,454 individuals in 81 counties with possible citizenship status problems.

Despite the time and expense poured into the Citizenship Audit program, it ended up identifying few cases of potential non-citizen voting.

According to a report on the Citizenship Audit [pdf] prepared by the N.C. State Board of Elections in February of this year, out of the 1,454 names flagged by the state election board, 1,365, or 94 percent, didn’t attempt to vote. Of the 89 who did come to a voting site, 64 were challenged by election officials or stopped for further questioning. In nearly two-thirds of the cases, the voter was able to prove s/he was indeed a citizen (30 voters), or the challenge was otherwise dropped (13).

The challenges to alleged non-citizens were sustained in only 11 cases, or .0004 percent of the 2.9 million ballots cast in 2014, and .0002 percent of North Carolina’s 6.6 million registered voters.

A FLAWED PROCESS

The problems with the N.C. election board’s Citizenship Audit appear to have been exacerbated by the way it was carried out by state officials in 2014.

According to the state board’s own report, the list of potential non-citizens wasn’t finalized until Oct. 24, 2014 — a day after early voting had already begun in North Carolina and 49 days after the start of mail-in absentee voting. After the list was drawn up, there was more delay in distributing the list to county election boards, along with a 25-page instruction manual on what to do if any of the 1,454 individuals showed up to vote.

Last year, a federal court ruled that Florida violated federal election law when it purged suspected non-citizen voters within three months of the 2012 elections. Florida’s purge violated the “90 Days Provision” of the Help America Vote Act, which requires states to “complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.”

Because North Carolina didn’t actively purge the alleged non-citizen voters in 2014, it likely didn’t run afoul of the law, but the state’s last-minute watch list of flagged voters proved chaotic for local elections officials.

In Mecklenburg County, where Diana Roberts unsuccessfully tried to vote, the county didn’t receive its list of 300-plus flagged names and the accompanying training manual until after 1 a.m. on Nov. 2 — just two days before Election Day, according to the election board’s public information officer, Kristin Mavromatis. She said county staff spent 12 hours that Sunday scrambling to print out lists, verify information and advise local precincts about how to respond.

It’s impossible to tell from the state data if other voters were improperly blocked from voting like Diana Roberts. The state’s Citizen Audit report notes that 10 people on the list “left without voting” after being formally or informally challenged, but that figure — based on what counties reported back to the N.C. State Board of Elections — may understate how many were turned away. For example, figures given to Facing South detailing Meckenburg County’s report to state officials states that “0” people left without voting after facing a challenge or “unofficial inquiry,” despite Diana Roberts’ experience to the contrary.

Facing South made several attempts to get comment from the N.C. State Board of Elections, but officials there did not respond.

‘WITCH-HUNT’ VS. REAL SOLUTIONS

According to voting rights advocates, Diana Roberts’ story underscores how the crusade to stop non-citizen voting can end up causing more damage to the integrity of elections than the fraud it claims to eliminate. They also say it opens the door to a form of election racial profiling and a climate of harassment at the polls that can intimidate and ultimately disenfranchise voters.

“It’s a modern-day witch-hunt,” Bob Hall of the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina told Facing South. “When legitimate voters are stopped from voting, that’s a form of voting fraud.”

Most election experts seem to agree that voting records in North Carolina and other states do contain errors, including the names of non-citizens. But it’s a “relatively small” issue compared to the myriad other problems plaguing state and federal elections, according to Prof. Rick Hasen at the University of California-Irvine School of Law who runs Election Law Blog.

What’s more, Hasen has argued that these and other problems with registration and voting could be addressed with a federal overhaul of the election system, such as “a national voter identification program run by the federal government which paid for all the costs associated with establishing identity and citizenship.” But due to state resistance to federal intrusion in elections — especially among conservative lawmakers — Hasen added, “I don’t expect we will see this program in my lifetime.”

Jerome Roberts in Charlotte, however, wants to believe that if enough people learn about the problems his daughter and other voters have experienced in the wake of the crackdown on alleged non-citizens, it may spur lawmakers to take action. “If people hear about this,” he told Facing South, “maybe they will fix it.”

Additional research and reporting provided by Alex Kotch.