Report: America’s Voting Machines at Risk

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In 2016, 43 states will use electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old, perilously close to the end of most systems’ expected lifespan, according to a new study released recently from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

That includes significant percentages of machines in key swing states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. Old voting equipment increases the risk of failures and crashes — which can lead to long lines and lost votes on Election Day — and problems only get worse the longer we wait.

After the Florida election meltdown in 2000, Congress appropriated $2 billion to move to electronic voting systems. But as the Center’s new study shows, this technology is rapidly aging out and needs to be replaced.

America’s Voting Machines at Risk compiles 10 months of independent research, including conversations with more than 100 election officials and specialists in all 50 states, detailing the extent of the problem. Again and again, experts spoke about the dire need to replace old machines — and local officials explained how they lacked sufficient funds to pay for them.

“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. How can we expect these machines, many of which were designed and engineered in the 1990s, to keep running without increased failures?” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Center’s Democracy Program, and co-author of the study. “Old equipment can have serious security flaws, and the longer we delay purchasing new machines, the higher the risk. To avoid a new technology crisis every decade, we must plan for and invest in voting technology for the 21st century.”

Other key findings:

  • For machines purchased since 2000, the expected lifespan for the core components of electronic voting machines is between 10 and 20 years, and for most systems it is closer to 10. In 2016, 43 states will use machines that are at least 10 years old — and machines in 14 states will be 15 or more years old. Nearly every state is using some machines that are no longer manufactured and many officials struggle to find replacement parts.
  • Jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years, but officials from 22 of those states said they did not know where they would get the money to pay for them.
  • The cost of replacing aging equipment could easily exceed $1 billion nationwide.
  • Some states leave it to individual counties to buy machines — and there is compelling evidence that bigger, wealthier counties have purchased new machines, while poorer, rural counties are left with old equipment. In Virginia, for example, the median income of jurisdictions that purchased new machines was $69,800, compared to $50,100 for those without. This preliminary analysis came before one type of machine used in Virginia was decertified, which forced many counties, rich and poor, to get new equipment.
  • State innovations offer the possibility of better and less expensive voting machines. Many of these improvements are driven by election officials. In Los Angeles, California, for example, head of elections Dean Logan is designing his own flexible, touch-screen system to meet the unique needs of a county with approximately 5 million registered voters who speak 12 languages. Counties in Texas and Colorado are also implementing innovative systems.

“Technology has changed dramatically in the last decade,” added Voting Rights Researcher Christopher Famighetti, co-author of the report. “Several recent innovations show it’s possible to move toward more affordable and flexible voting machines. States must develop plans to deal with aging machines before 2016, and invest in the next generation of machines for future elections to come.”

Read America’s Voting Machines at Risk here.

New Paper: To Reduce the Power of Outside Groups, Relax Campaign Finance Restrictions on Parties

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In a new paper, the Brennan Center comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion for a pro-campaign finance reform group: targeted measures to divert money back into the official political parties could produce a more inclusive and transparent politics by balancing the power of  the “independent” groups, like super PACs, that have come dominate our elections.

Before 2010’s Citizens United decision, reform groups like the Center backed legislation to limit contributions to political parties. While much of this regulation is still necessary to reduce the risk of corruption, the recent explosion of outside spending poses a whole host of other risks — and concentrates power in the hands of a few wealthy donors. Parties, on the other hand, are more transparent than super PACs and serve numerous constructive purposes that “independent” groups do not, especially by serving as engines of participation for ordinary citizens.

The authors propose:

  • Making public financing available to parties;
  • Raising or eliminating coordinated spending limits and other limits on party contributions to candidates;
  • Lessening federal regulation of state and local parties;
  • Relaxing certain disclosure requirements whose burdens outweigh their benefit while strengthening others, and;
  • Relaxing certain restrictions on contributions to parties.

While eliminating all restrictions on party fundraising would be a mistake, a thoughtful combination of one or more of these measures could enhance the positive roles political parties play in our politics.

Read the full paper, Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work on money in politics.

Reform Groups to IRS: End Misuse of Nonprofits to Launder Secret Contributions into Federal Elections

In a letter sent recently to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, reform groups called on the IRS to end the misuse use of nonprofit groups to launder secret contributions into federal elections.

The reform groups included the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Demand Progress, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, People For the American Way, Public Citizen, and Sunlight Foundation.

According to the letter, IRS regulations governing the eligibility of groups for tax status as section 501(c)(4) “social welfare” fail to comply with the tax laws.

The letter stated that the IRS, for years, has informally acceded to an interpretation of the regulation, without any written explanation or justification, that allows section 501(c)(4) groups to spend up to 49 percent of their expenditures on political intervention, or campaign activities. IRS Commissioner Koskinen also reportedly took this position in recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

According to the letter, however, this position “is not legally sustainable because the existing IRS regulations contradict the nation’s tax laws and court decisions interpreting these laws”:

The fact is the IRS for many years has misinterpreted and failed to properly enforce the eligibility standards for obtaining section 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code.

The letter stated that in order for IRS regulations to comply with the tax laws and applicable court decisions, the agency must “limit the campaign-related expenditures by a “social welfare” group to an “insubstantial” amount:

The requirement to limit a section 501(c)(4) organization to an “insubstantial” amount of campaign activities means, in our view, that an organization can engage in only a limited amount of campaign-related expenditures, such as no more than 5 or 10 percent of total annual expenditures.

According to the letter:

Under the language of the statute and the applicable court decisions, there is simply no way, consistent with the law, to interpret the “insubstantial” test to allow a social welfare organization to spend up to 49 percent of its expenditures on non-social welfare activities, like campaign activities.

The letter stated:

This is contrary to the framework set up by Congress to govern non-profit organizations and contrary to court decisions interpreting that framework.

The tax laws require the IRS to change the regulation.

The letter stated:

The need for you and the IRS to move expeditiously to interpret the tax laws properly is all the more important in light of the great damage that the IRS’s misinterpretation of the tax laws has done to the integrity of our political system and the interests of the American people.

The failure of the IRS to properly interpret the eligibility requirements for section 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in secret contributions being laundered into federal elections.

Secret money in American politics is the most dangerous kind of influence-buying money. It provides widespread opportunities for government corruption that remains unknown to the American people and for which neither public officials nor those seeking to influence them can be held accountable.

It is simply wrong and unfair to the American people for the IRS to fail to address this problem when the problem is being caused by the IRS’s legally erroneous interpretation of the tax laws.

The letter concluded:

The IRS has an obligation not only to ensure that the tax laws are properly interpreted and enforced, but also to avoid improperly condoning activities that misuse the tax laws and, in doing so, undermine the integrity and transparency of the nation’s elections.

If the IRS does not end the current practices, the agency will continue to provide license for hundreds of millions of additional dollars in secret contributions to be laundered into federal elections, in contravention of the tax laws.

Our organizations strongly urge you and the IRS to use the ongoing rulemaking process to conform the IRS regulations to the statute and to applicable court decisions that require social welfare organizations to spend no more than an “insubstantial” amount on campaign activities.

We also strongly urge you to make clear that the requirement for section 501(c)(4) organizations to engage in no more than an “insubstantial” amount of non-social welfare expenditures means that a social welfare organization can only spend a small percentage of its total annual expenditures on campaign activities, such as no more than 5 or 10 percent, in order to be eligible for section 501(c)(4) tax status.

To read the letter, click here.

Center for Competitive Politics Urges SCOTUS to Take Campaign Finance Case

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The Center for Competitive Politics, America’s largest nonprofit dedicated solely to defending First Amendment rights to political speech and assembly, recently announced it filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Yamada v. Snipes.

In the case, A-1 A-Lectrician, Inc., an electrical construction company, paid for newspaper advertisements and was required by the state of Hawaii to register as a PAC or political committee. A-1 sued and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Hawaii’s law, contrary to the precedents set in the Citizens United and Buckley decisions. A-1 has asked the Supreme Court to review the decision.

“Hawaii’s law hampers speech with complex paperwork burdens that generate no useful information,” said David Keating, President of CCP. “This law makes it more difficult for groups of people to speak in the public square, and we urge the Supreme Court to take this case and strike down this junk disclosure law.

Here is an excerpt from the brief:

In upholding the constitutionality of Hawaii’s law, the Ninth Circuit has ignored this Court’s decisions permitting only minimal reporting burdens on independent speech. In addition, by forcing a group to give up its right to engage in even the most incidental public electoral speech or else become a PAC, the Ninth Circuit has contributed to a circuit split concerning the burdens the First Amendment allows the government to impose on independent speakers.

Furthermore, no “sufficiently important governmental interest” justifies imposing PAC status on Petitioner. The Ninth Circuit ignored this Court’s precedent holding that independent speech does not implicate the anti-corruption interest, see, e.g., Citizens United, 558 U.S. at 360, and that there can be no anti-circumvention interest because there are no valid contribution limits that Petitioner’s newspaper advertisement expenditures could possibly implicate. That the Ninth Circuit included such inapplicable interests in its burdens calculus demonstrates the depth of its error.

Finally, while the public’s informational interest may sometimes justify some disclosure, it cannot justify the PAC regulations imposed here. Disclosure burdens applied against independent speakers may permissibly reveal information about the financial constituencies of candidates for office.

Want to read the entire brief? Just, click here.

Reform Groups Urge President Obama to Reject Campaign Finance Riders in Appropriation Bills

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Reform groups have written to President Obama strongly urging him to reject all riders in appropriations bills, including four damaging campaign finance riders, and to insist that clean FY 2016 appropriations legislation is sent to him for his signature.

The reform groups include: Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Demos, Issue One, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

In the event that Congress does not pass clean appropriations legislation, reform groups strongly urged President Obama “to take all steps necessary to prevent the four damaging campaign finance riders from being enacted into law, including the use of your veto power if it is required.”

The letter from reform groups stated:

It is also essential to ensure that no other campaign finance riders are added to appropriations legislation and enacted into law. This is all the more necessary given the enormous damage done last year to the campaign finance laws in the Cromnibus Appropriations bill.

A campaign finance rider secretly added to that legislation at the last minute, and with no opportunity for public consideration, gutted the limits on individual contributions to a national party.  When the Cromnibus bill was signed into law, the legislation increased these contribution limits to $777,600 per donor, per year.

It is essential to prevent this year’s appropriation process from being used to further undermine the nation’s campaign finance laws.

According to the letter, “the four damaging campaign finance riders that have already been added to House and Senate appropriations bills” would:

  • Prevent the White House from issuing an Executive Order requiring disclosure of campaign finance activities by government contractors;
  • Prevent the IRS from issuing new regulations to stop nonprofit groups from misusing the tax laws to spend secret contributions in federal elections;
  • Prevent the SEC from issuing regulations to require public corporations to disclose their campaign-finance activities to their shareholders; and
  • Repeal longstanding limits on the amounts that parties can spend in coordination with their candidates.

The letter stated:

Secret money in our elections provides widespread opportunities for government corruption and prevents holding public officials and influence-buying donors accountable for corrupt practices.

The letter from reform groups continued:

Given what happened last year, furthermore, our organizations are very concerned that an effort may be made to use the appropriations process this year to increase candidate limits.

The current individual contribution limit of $5,400 for a primary and general election (combined) already greatly exceeds the amount almost all citizens in the country can afford to contribute to a candidate. Any increase in the current candidate contribution limit would serve to increase the influence of only the wealthiest people in the country.

Individual candidate contribution limits were enacted to prevent the corrupting nexus between officeholders and influence-seeking donors. There is no legitimate justification for increasing these limits.

The letter concluded:

Our organizations strongly urge you to use the powers of your office to ensure that no   damage is done in this Congress to the campaign finance laws and to other reform efforts.

We strongly urge you to use all available means, including a veto if necessary, to block the four pending campaign finance riders and to block any other effort to undermine the campaign finance laws from being enacted.

To read the full letter, click here.

PA State House Members to Introduce Bill to Help Voters

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PA state Rep. Brian Simms is one of three House members who plan to introduce bills that will help Pennsylvanians vote.

State Reps. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia.; Scott Conklin, D-Centre; and Tina Davis, D-Bucks, are introducing a package of bills to help Pennsylvanians vote and make their votes count.

The three bills are:

  • Making it easier to vote: Sims will introduce a bill that would allow in-person absentee ballot voting before primary and general elections and no-excuse-needed absentee ballot voting by mail.
  • Redistricting reform: Davis and Sims will introduce a bill to create an Independent Redistricting Commission similar to the one, recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ended partisan gerrymandering in Arizona.
  • Automatic voter registration: Conklin and Sims have introduced a bill (H.B. 1306) to set up automatic voter registration of all eligible people who obtain a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver identification card, with provisions for opting out within 21 days.

Sims said:

“In 33 states and the District of Columbia, our fellow Americans now have some form of early voting. In 27 states and the District of Columbia, voters can request and cast absentee ballots without an excuse. It is time for Pennsylvania to allow and encourage these forms of legitimate voting in our elections. In election after election, editorials lament low turnout – making it more convenient to vote would help to change that.”

Conklin said:

“This is an innovative approach to helping the citizens of Pennsylvania exercise the most fundamental of rights we have. We are trying to make things easier, more efficient, and more modern when it comes to registering to vote and voting, alike.”

Davis said:

“Any serious discussion about reforming government begins with redistricting and establishing a fairer system for drawing our state’s voting maps. The independent commission that our measure would create would put voters – and not political advantage – at the forefront when electoral districts are revised.

“Voters choosing their representatives and not representatives choosing their voters is a core American principle,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, too often the outcome of a race in Pennsylvania is predetermined by how lines are drawn.”

Sims’ bill would allow in-person absentee voting, freeing voters to receive, fill out and cast their absentee ballot all in one trip, rather than having to return it through the mail. The in-person process would not require the voter to provide an approved excuse for using this method.

Sims’ bill also would remove some restrictions on mail-in absentee ballots for qualified voters. Under current Pennsylvania law, qualified voters may only use a mail-in absentee ballot given very specific reasons, and the voter must explain his or her reason in advance. Valid reasons are restricted to an illness or disability, absence from their municipality of residence, observance of a religious holiday, or official duties related to conducting the election. The bill would remove the requirement to declare what the reason is for the mail-in absentee ballot.

Sims said it’s important to note that automatic voter registration would not affect jury-duty lists since driver records are already one source of those lists in Pennsylvania. He said Oregon passed an automatic voter registration law in March and California may soon follow. “Pennsylvanians deserve that same convenience and ease of access to voting,” he said.

Happy National Voter Registration Day!

Did you know today is National Voter Registration Day?

Indeed: Hundreds of voter registration-related events will be happening across the country.

There is an entire website devoted to the day – with a database of events, links for folks to register and more.

The website sums up why Sept. 22 is hailed as National Voter Registration Day :

In 2008, 6 million Americans didn’t vote because they missed a registration deadline or didn’t know how to register. In 2015, we want to make sure no one is left out. On September 22, 2015, volunteers, celebrities, and organizations from all over the country will “hit the streets” for National Voter Registration Day. This single day of coordinated field, technology and media efforts will create pervasive awareness of voter registration opportunities–allowing us to reach tens of thousands of voters who we could not reach otherwise.

Some Things to Know About the Voting Rights Act

Given its recent 50th anniversary, much has been said of and written about the Voting Rights Act.

In case you weren’t familiar with its history, and the newest political moves to restore some provisions of the act, we wanted to share a valuable report from the Brennan Center that will help fill you in.

Here’s some background, courtesy of the good-government non-profit:

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local governments do not pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. As the leading democracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep voting free, fair, and accessible. That’s why the Voting Rights Act is so important. It makes sure every citizen, regardless of their race, has an equal opportunity to have a say and participate in our great democracy.

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, removing a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. This process, known as “preclearance,” blocks discrimination before it occurs. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 4 — which determines the states and localities covered by Section 5 — arguing that current conditions require a new coverage formula.

And there’s been movement to strengthen the VRA. Here’s a primer on what’s new legislatively:

On January 16, 2014, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and others, introduced a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. The bill would, among other changes:

  • Require jurisdictions with a recent record of repeated Voting Rights Act violations to pre-clear election law changes.
  • Expand the current “bail-in” procedures, which allow courts to subject jurisdictions to preclearance.
  • Create a uniform requirement to inform voters of certain pending voting changes.
  • Enhance the ability of lawyers to halt discriminatory election measures before they can harm citizens.
  • Allow federal observers to monitor elections to ensure compliance with laws protecting the rights of Americans who speak limited English.

The bill was reintroduced in the House in February 2015. In June 2015, Senate and House leaders introduced another bill to restore core Voting Rights Act protections.

Read more background here.

Would You Vote if You Had a Chance to Win $25K in Lottery Contest?

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Here’s a question: If you could be entered into a contest to win $25,000 just for voting, would it make you want to go out, register and hit the polls?

Because in Los Angeles, one school board race included just such an incentive.

Yes, in District 5 in L.A., every voter was entered into a lottery with a $25,000 pot.

Here’s an explanation from the L.A. Times of what is being called an “experiment” to increase voter participation:

The contest comes as officials are trying to get voters to the polls. In Los Angeles County only 31 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the November 2014 statewide election. Turnout was particularly low among Latinos, at only 23 percent. Figures for local elections are more anemic. Last year, L.A. City officials talked about giving out prizes in hopes of increasing turnout.

The lottery was the brainchild of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and its president, Antonio Gonzalez. A main focus of the nonprofit is increasing voter turnout, especially within the Latino community. The group also has recruited Latinos to run for office, although it cannot endorse candidates.

White candidates are often elected even though the majority of those being represented in the district are Latino, The Times reported.

What happened?

Through interviews with voters, researchers studied the results of the lottery, called Voteria — a spinoff of loteria, the Spanish word for lottery. Voters who’d heard of the contest were more likely to cast ballots for Rodriguez by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Voter participation did increase – and the method of getting the word out was part of the winning strategy, the report indicated.

(Organizers) relied on social media and traditional sources, such as newspaper and television coverage, to spread the word. He also apparently had some help from one or both campaigns.

All respondents who said they’d heard of the lottery mentioned that it was brought up by campaign workers who visited their home. About 1 in 3 said they’d also heard of Voteria from a flier or mailer.

Your thoughts welcome: Would you be more inclined to vote if you knew that just by doing so you had a shot at a $25,000 payday? Do you have concerns about this tactic to increase voter turn out? Tell us in the comments below.

Report: Money in Politics is Global Problem

A recent report published by the Money, Politics and Transparency project found that the role of money in politics challenges states worldwide, both rich and poor.

Its abuse often raises problems of graft, corruption and cronyism, undermining legitimacy and governance. Major scandals linked to money in politics are currently rocking ruling parties in countries such as Chile, Malaysia and Brazil, with calls for leading politicians to resign. And there are problems in established democracies as well.

In an effort to address efforts to regulate political finance effectively and to learn from best practices around the world, Money, Politics and Transparency, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, Global Integrity and the Electoral Integrity Project, is releasing a new comparative dataset in more than 50 countries worldwide accompanied by detailed case studies of campaign finance laws and practices in major states such as India, South Africa and Brazil. It also issues a draft Declaration on Political Finance Openness to encourage public debate about how to reform political finance.

“We’re thrilled to help launch the new Money, Politics and Transparency website. We’re hopeful that these tools and data will enhance the good work that’s already being done to document and promote accountability, open government and transparency around the globe,” said Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates.

The project has three components:

The Campaign Finance Indicators Dataset

The global dataset of Campaign Finance Indicators is a comprehensive, national-level investigative survey of political finance regulation and enforcement in 54 countries across the world. The dataset provides detailed information on the laws regulating campaign finance, and assesses how these regulations are enforced in practice. Each country scorecard was both thoroughly researched and peer reviewed by local political finance experts.

“This unique dataset provides an up-to-date, detailed and systematic assessment of the regulation and enforcement of political finance across 54 diverse countries,” said Global Integrity Executive Director Alan Hudson. “We don’t expect better data to improve the regulation of campaign finance just like that — politics doesn’t work that way — but we do expect that efforts to better understand and regulate campaign finance will be sharpened and informed by the data that has been collected through this project.”

The indicator dataset is available for download, and it can be compared against existing datasets, such as gross domestic product, Freedom House scores, International IDEA data and the World Bank Governance Indicators.

Case study report: Checkbook Elections

The new report, “Checkbook Elections,” provides selected detailed cases to illuminate the policies which diverse states around the world use to regulate political finance, find out what triggers landmark reforms, and establish what works, what fails and why when countries reform regulations.

“Given that the abuse of money in politics is a major challenge in many countries today, it is vital that we understand the most effective policies regulating political finance, and learn lessons from around the world about policies emphasizing transparency, contribution limits and spending caps and public funding,” said Professor Pippa Norris, director of the Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard University and the University of Sydney.

Declaration on Political Finance Openness
The draft Declaration on Political Finance Openness makes suggestions to improve political finance frameworks. This community document is intended to build consensus among the diverse interests of the reform community monitoring political finance, uniting civil society organizations, journalists, academics and even civic hackers behind an affirmative vision for what an open and accountable political finance system should look like. Comments and feedback on the declaration are warmly welcomed.

“Reforming political finance regulations and practices both inside and outside the United States is an ongoing process requiring careful monitoring and evaluation,” said Sunlight Foundation International Policy Analyst Lindsay Ferris. “Public trust in political parties is low and the cynical belief that the relationships between money and elections will inevitably be corrupt is rampant. There is much work to be done, but there’s unlimited potential for progress. A diverse, global community dedicated to this issue is essential to generating change.”

For more information, visit our website and download the executive report at www.moneypoliticstransparency.com.