Pennsylvania Supreme Court Race Breaks Fundraising, TV, and Spending Records

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Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court election set records for candidate fundraising, overall spending, and total television airtime spending a week out from election day – when voters select three for open seats on the court, according to analysis of state disclosures and television advertising by the nonpartisan organizations the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.

Candidates have raised at least $9,826,380 during the 2015 primary and general election, according to publicly filed state campaign disclosures and 24-hour contribution reports. The prior record for candidate fundraising, set in 2007, was $9,464,975. Total spending in the 2015 primary and general election is at least $11,474,570, compared to $10,519,717 in 2007.

Counting ads that already have aired in both the primary and general elections, estimated airtime spending is $6,710,990 through Oct. 26, according to the most recent estimates by CMAG/Kantar Media. Total television airtime spending in 2007 was $4,555,196.

“As these spending records fall, Pennsylvania continues to demonstrate the important role that money all too often plays in judicial elections,” said Matt Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Tracking where the money comes from is especially important to protect the integrity of the judiciary. With big money contributions, and high-spending outside groups, it is essential for the public to know who is trying to influence and shape state courts.”

“While Pennsylvania’s record-smashing judicial election may not be a shock, it’s definitely a shame,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake, an organization that tracks spending in judicial elections. “The losers in this highly politicized election are really the people of Pennsylvania. Multimillion-dollar spending binges and waves of attack ads are no way to determine who serves on the state’s highest court.”

“Watching these expensive brawls year after year is yet one more reason we say ‘Enough is enough’ for contested Supreme Court elections in Pennsylvania,” said Lynn A. Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “We are very encouraged by the bipartisan support for merit selection in the House Judiciary Committee last week. Pennsylvanians have a real opportunity to replace these appellate court campaigns with a system actually designed to get the most qualified, fair, and impartial judges.”

The three Republican candidates recently started airing ads, weeks after their Democratic counterparts began their own ad campaigns in advance of the Nov. 3 general election. Meanwhile two special interest groups continued a proxy air war, including some attack ads. The Republican State Leadership Committee has been supporting the Republicans, while Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform has been backing the Democrats.

Current totals for candidate fundraising and overall spending likely are higher. Disclosures of contributions and spending from mid-September to mid-October still had not been publicly posted on the state campaign website for four of the seven high-court hopefuls by noon ET on Oct. 27.

The three Democrats passed the $1 million fundraising threshold. Kevin Dougherty raised at least $2.2 million, although his final pre-election disclosure has not been publicly released. David N. Wecht has received at least $2 million in contributions, although his final pre-election disclosure has not been publicly filed. Christine Donohue reported nearly $1.8 million in contributions through Oct. 23.

Michael George leads Republican candidates in reported fundraising, $840,623 through Oct. 26.

Candidate fundraising and overall spending totals do not include disclosures filed after noon ET on Oct. 27, or political ads aired after Oct. 26.

The three top vote-getters among the seven candidates will win the three open seats, which each carry a 10-year term.

Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice will continue to track fundraising and spending on television advertising for this fall’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court election. Videos of television ads from CMAG/Kantar Media are available at Brennan’s Buying Time 2015 ad tracking website.

According to the most recent CMAG/Kantar estimates of television ads that have aired, candidates and interest groups spent the following on airtime for both the primary and general election, through Oct. 26:

  • Christine Donohue (D) $712,710
  • Kevin Dougherty (D) $1,960,620
  • David N. Wecht (D) $1,358,870
  • Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform $1,272,130
  • Anne Covey (R) $177,620
  • Michael A. George (R) $256,730
  • Judith Olson (R) $112,080
  • Republican State Leadership Committee $376,060
  • Anne Lazarus (D; primary only) $287,120
  • John Foradora (D; primary only) $197,050

Campaign Receipts Down from 2007 – Can Super PACs Make Up the Difference?

Fundraising by presidential campaign committees – both Democrat and Republican – are significantly behind 2007 levels, which was the last time there was an open race for the presidency.

But according to the national think tank Campaign Finance Institute, by the third quarter in 2007 all candidates for president has raised a combined $420 million dollars, $245 million for Democrats and $175 million for Republicans. This year the combined total is $273 million, 35 percent down from eight years ago.

If we were to add in the money we know has gone into Super PACs supporting candidates this gap would be easily made up. Although Super PACs won’t report activity for the second half of the year until January, Super PACs supporting presidential candidates reported raising more than $240 million dollars as of June 30, CFI reported.

However, the Super PAC money comes with some question marks.

“We know from 2012 that Super PACs can purchase effective media ads. It remains to be seen whether they can make up for deficits in a campaign’s core staff operations. Two candidates, Scott Walker and Rick Perry, have already withdrawn from the campaign despite the money raised by each of their supportive Super PACs,” the organization stated.

In third quarter fundraising, Bernie Sanders raised almost as much as Hillary Clinton ($26.1 million to $28 million in primary money). Ben Carson raised more than any of his GOP rivals ($20.5 million), but large portions of Carson’s money is being used for his fundraising. Jeb Bush ($13 million) and Ted Cruz ($11.7 million) were next among the GOP candidates for the quarter, with Walker, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Donald Trump following in that order (see Table 1).

Large & Small Donors

There continues to be a great disparity in fundraising strategies among top candidates. Jeb Bush’s campaign committee has raised 91 percent of its money from donors who gave $1,000 or more in the aggregate and 71 percent from donors who have “maxed out” at $2,700. Hillary Clinton’s fundraising is also strongly weighted to larger donors with 74 percent from donors giving $1,000 or more and 64 percent from $2,700 donors.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson have excelled at bringing in dollars from small donors. Sanders raised $28.2 million cumulatively through September 30 from donors who gave $200 or less; Carson raised $18.2 million. Next were Clinton ($12.7 million or 17 percent of her primary total) and Cruz ($9.7 million or 40 percent).

Cash on Hand

Despite a wide disparity in their cumulative campaign committee receipts, cash on hand for the final three months of 2015 was very similar among competing candidates. Hillary Clinton had $31.5 million in primary funds available, to $27.1 from Bernie Sanders. Clinton has out-raised Sanders by $36 million cumulatively, but has a higher “burn rate” because of early organizational spending for core staff and in states with primaries after the first few. On the Republican side, Carson, Cruz, Bush, and Rubio each had about $10-12 million in the bank as of Sept. 30.

Advocacy Groups Gets Serious About Fighting Big Money in Politics

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As the 2016 election season heats up, we at Pennsylvanians for Fair Elections wanted to give you a heads up about a new initiative to fight money in politics on the national level.

Advocacy groups are urging American voters to sign a petition urging presidential candidates to embrace an agenda that fights big money playing a role in elections.

Myriad nonprofit advocacy groups have signed on to the project, including the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Democracy Matters, Demos, Every Voice, Free Speech for People, Issue One, Mayday, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, Represent.Us and U.S. PIRG.

On the petition website, the groups write:

Like every generation before us, Americans are coming together to preserve a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people. American democracy is premised on the consent of the governed, and on the idea that we all deserve a say in the government decisions that affect our families. We stand united supporting commonsense protections that recognize the people as the ultimate check on the corrosive influence of money in politics, which is eroding the very foundation of self-government.
The groups write, “Any presidential candidate claiming to oppose big money in politics or the influence of wealthy special interests must lay out a concrete, detailed plan that reflects the agenda’s core principles and policies.”
That agenda calls for:
  • the creation of a system of public funding for elections
  • an increase in voter turnout by reducing barriers to the ballot
  • an increase in disclosure regarding what entities are funding what candidates’ political ads
  • overturning Citizens United
  • the creation of an agency that would enforce campaign law violations

The group is asking that American voters sign their petition, which can be viewed here.

Outside Spending Enters Pennsylvania Supreme Court Race

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A group funded mainly by plaintiff trial lawyers started running television ads this week opposing the Republican candidates for the three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, according to a search of publicly available Federal Communications Commission records by the nonpartisan organizations Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform purchased contracts for $56,320 at three stations.

Combined with ads booked by the three Democrats, Judges Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty and David N. Wecht, total television ad airtime spending in advance of the Nov. 3 general election is $862,630, FCC records show.

No television ad contracts for the general election were on file for Republican Judges Anne Covey, Michael A. George, and Judith Olson, or Judge Paul Panepinto, an Independent candidate.

“With millions of dollars raised in this contest, voters can expect an ad blitz between now and Election Day,” said Matthew Menendez, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We have been anticipating that outside money would enter the race as we got closer to Nov. 3. Given this most recent expenditure by Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, we expect other groups will follow, possibly spending heavily in the days before Election Day.”

“As expected, the TV ad war in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court election is heating up as we get closer to Election Day,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks spending in judicial elections. “This election has all the ingredients to be a highly contentious and expensive race, with a record number of seats open and the court’s ideological balance in play. A final onslaught of ads from all sides is highly likely in upcoming weeks.”

“This Supreme Court election is historic on a number of fronts, including the number of vacancies and the possibility for record high spending.  Fortunately, we’re also seeing a great many opportunities for Pennsylvanians to learn about the candidates, including public forums broadcast around the state,” added Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “It’s crucial that Pennsylvania voters look past the sound bites and evaluate the candidates based on their experience and reputation for integrity, fairness, and impartiality.”

The three top vote-getters among the seven candidates will win the three open seats, the first time so many posts have been open on Pennsylvania’s high court. Each carries a 10-year term.

Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice will continue to track spending on television advertising in this fall’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court election, with videos of ads available from CMAG/Kantar Media at Brennan’s Buying Time 2015 ad tracking website.

Candidates have spent the following on the general election, according to FCC records of airtime bookings and the most recent CMAG/Kantar estimates of ads that have aired:

  • Christine Donohue (D) Booked $224,545 in airtime for ads ending Oct. 19. Cost of ads aired through Oct. 12: $37,300
  • Kevin Dougherty (D) Booked $204,860 in airtime for ads ending Oct. 19. Cost of ads aired through Oct. 12: $83,380
  • David N. Wecht (D) Booked $376,905 in airtime for ads ending Oct. 19. Costs of ads aired through Oct. 12: $242,220
  • Anne Covey (R) No ads
  • Michael A. George (R) No ads
  • Judith Olson (R) No ads
  • Paul Panepinto (I) No ads

Green Party Calls for Voting Reforms

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Green Party leaders said that the closing of 31 driver’s license offices in Alabama, hindering Black residents from obtaining the identification necessary to vote, proves the need for full restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as other election reforms.

“The government of Alabama made the case for Voting Rights Act when it shut down 31 driver’s license offices, mostly in counties with Black majority populations,” said Thomas Muhammad, co-chair of the Green Party Black Caucus and executive board member of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute located at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

“Alabama’s restrictive ID law was a blatant attempt to obstruct Blacks from voting. States are still vulnerable to the kind of abuses that the Voting Rights Act is designed to correct,” said Mr. Muhammad.

The voter ID law, signed by Gov. Robert Bentley (R), went into effect in 2014, following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling in a case originating in Alabama (Shelby County v. Holder) that gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 establishes the formula that determines which state and local governments with a history of racial bias must clear alterations in their voting laws with the Justice Department or a federal court.

Greens said that Alabama’s combination of voter ID laws and obstruction of black voter registration are only the most recent and conspicuous assault on fair and democratic elections.

“Voter ID laws are one of several ways in which Republicans — and also Democrats — manipulate elections,” said Shamako Noble, Green candidate for the U.S. Senate in California. “Another way is gerrymandering by both parties’ lawmakers, especially by Republicans in 2011 to give them virtually permanent control over seats in statehouses and Congress. Democrats and Republicans have conspired to pass ballot-access laws that privilege their own candidates and hinder third parties and independents.”

Green Party members advocate numerous solutions to what they refer to as election manipulation and undemocratic at-large winner-take-all election systems:

  • Restoration of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, repeal of voter ID laws, and universal voter registration. Greens said that evidence shows that voter fraud rates are insignificant and that voter ID laws undermine instead of preserve the integrity of elections.
  • Proportional representation, in which parties and interest groups gain representation equal to the percentage of vote they receive. This prevents minority positions from being shut out in the election of legislatures, municipal councils, school boards, and other bodies. Greens call PR a remedy for gerrymandering. Electing Congress by PR is permitted under the U.S. Constitution.
  • Instant Runoff Voting, also called Ranked-Choice Voting, which allows voters to rank their choices. IRV ensures that the victor in at-large elections has majority support and that voters can chose third-party and independent candidates without the risk of spoiling. Removing this perceived risk increases the possibility that such candidates can win.
  • Enforcement of Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which imposes penalties on states that show evidence of voting-rights violations, as well as abolition of the Electoral College and direct national election of the president by IRV. Greens have sharply criticized and filed a civil action (http://www.electors.us) against malapportionment in the Electoral College system caused by states’ appointment of members of the winning party as electors regardless of the distribution of votes. Greens said that malapportionment dilutes the ability of millions of voters, especially Blacks, Latinos, and other minorities, to have their votes counted in presidential elections.
  • Repeal of state ballot-access rules that preserve two-party power and block third-party and independent candidates. Green Party leaders said that the only real democracy is multi-party democracy and that validation of candidates from only two parties violates the right of voters to vote for candidates who represent their interests and ideals. “Apologists for the two-party status quo claim that domination by two parties is natural and inevitable. In reality, it’s the intended result of rules enacted by the two most powerful parties,” said Carl Romanelli, Green candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2006.
  • Public funding of campaigns and legislation to overturn court rulings that confer “personhood” on corporations, most recently, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010. Greens call such measures necessary to abolish plutocratic control of government by powerful businesses and the wealthy.

Georgetown Law Becomes Permanent Home of Voting Rights Institute, Partnering with Campaign Legal Center & American Constitution Society

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The Campaign Legal Center, the American Constitution Society, and Georgetown Law announced recently that they will formally launch the Voting Rights Institute at Georgetown Law.

The Institute has held training sessions across the country since 2013 to help meet the critical need for a new generation of voting rights lawyers, experts, and community activists.

The training sessions were originally launched in the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which nullified a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“We wanted to establish a Voting Rights Institute devoted to one of the most important issues of our time, voting rights for all Americans,” said J. Gerald Hebert, Executive Director of the Campaign Legal Center.  “Georgetown University Law Center was the perfect location for the Institute because it possesses a well-deserved reputation for academic excellence and is a place where we can focus nonpartisan analysis and constructive engagement on the right to vote, while training the next generation of lawyers and leaders.”

Former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis will deliver remarks on the historic occasion, as will Dean William M. Treanor of Georgetown Law, Caroline Fredrickson, President of the American Constitution Society, and Gerry Hebert, Executive Director of the Campaign Legal Center.

The Voting Rights Institute at Georgetown Law offers opportunities for students, recent graduates and fellows to engage in voting rights work, including active litigation, and will train the next generation of attorneys and expert witnesses in the field of voting rights.

The VRI will also maintain a website with information about voting rights matters available to the general public and a legal resources library for voting rights litigators and expert witnesses.  The VRI will also promote increased local and national focus on voting rights through events, publications and the development of web-based tools; and provide opportunities and platforms for research and data base analysis of voting rights issues.

Voting Rights Institute training sessions held across the country since 2013 have instructed practitioners and law students on the ‘ins and outs’ of protecting the right to vote through the enforcement of voting rights laws.

Cases brought to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution have been a particular focus of the trainings.  Each session has featured a panel of instructors with decades of experience in the field of voting rights.

The first students in the Voting Rights Institute are currently enrolled in Georgetown Law’s Institute of Public Representation and are working on several cases identified by the Campaign Legal Center and the American Constitution Society.

The Institute has hired a clinical fellow to supervise students working on these cases and to manage legal matters within the Institute with a particular focus on voting rights issues.  A legal fellow will also assist in developing training materials for voting rights lawyers and leaders, overseeing use of the Voting Rights Institute website, and identifying appropriate voting rights cases for the clinic.

New Jersey #MoneyinPolitics Alert: Special Interest Money Pouring into Election

Independent special interest groups have been pouring money into Legislative races in New Jersey, according to analysis released recently by that state’s Election Law and Enforcement Commission.

Just how much might be surprising: According to the commission’s Executive Director Jeff Brindle, special interest groups already have spent $5.4 million on the general election for a total of $6.3 million, including the primary.

That is triple the $1.8 million spent independently during the entire legislative election in 2011.

In the 2013 legislative elections, an estimated $14.8 million was spent by independent committees. The net spending was $10.5 million after adjusting for transfers between committees.
Brindle said the burst of activity by so-called “outside” groups is further proof that independent committees have become a fixture in New Jersey elections.
For instance, Newark’s election last year drew $5.5 million in independent spending- a record for a local race.
“The last time Assembly candidates ran alone on the ticket in 1999, there was no independent spending,’’ he said. “Interestingly, independent group spending in this
year’s Assembly general election so far represents 45percent of total spending,’’ Brindle said.
“Usually, an election with just Assembly candidates on the ballot is a low-key affair. But the involvement of the independent committees is definitely adding some drama this year,’’ he said.

ACLU: Wisconsin Voter ID Law Decision Disappointing

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A federal district court this week rejected a request to increase access to the ballot for Wisconsin voters.

The American Civil Liberties Union sought to expand the list of acceptable identification to include IDs for veterans and students attending technical colleges, as well as out-of-state driver’s licenses.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said:

“Wisconsinites face barriers to the polls due to the limited forms of ID mandated under the state’s restrictive voter ID law. It’s unconscionable that even veterans, who have so valiantly served our country, can’t use their government-issued IDs under this law. People should have a broader range of common-sense options. We are looking at our next steps as we continue efforts to dismantle these obstacles to voting.”

The ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and Dechert LLP are co-counsel in this case, Frank v. Walker, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

You can check out the ruling here.
For background info on the court case, click here.

Both Lawmakers and Citizens Push for Voting Reforms Before 2016 Election

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In 2015, nonpartisan voting rights group Project Vote monitored 315 bills introduced by state and federal lawmakers that could change the way people vote in 2016 and beyond.

“It was a historic year in voting rights. Not only did we mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, but we also saw citizens and advocates on the ground demanding that our elected leaders restore voting rights protections,” said Project Vote President Michael Slater. “Although there has been a rise in positive election reform proposals, we still have a long way to go, particularly when it comes to protecting voters from new laws that undermine access to the ballot.”

According to a new report released recently by Project Vote, Legislative Threats and Opportunities: Fall 2015, there is growing interest among lawmakers to improve and modernize the administration of elections. And some of these new laws passed.

Restrictive voting proposals, however, are still on the table in the legislatures and courthouses. Without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened in 2013, only time will tell how these harmful bills could affect future elections.

In Legislative Threats and Opportunities: Fall 2015, Erin Ferns Lee summaries the content, status and potential impact of bills introduced in 2015.

Opportunities in voting rights focused on improving voter registration in 2015. Online voter registration, for example, passed in three states, and appears to be the new norm: more than half of all 50 states now offer, or are preparing to offer, this option to voters.

Automatic voter registration has been a popular and potentially exciting new reform this year, with 19 states and the U.S. Congress proposing new laws. Oregon became the first state to pass such a law, and California joined them just this past weekend.

Restrictive voting proposals are still a threat to voting rights, however, especially voter ID.

“While the threat to pass [strict voter ID] laws is always looming large, the pushback appears just as strong,” wrote Lee. “Contentious voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina faced legal challenges, and most calls for new or heightened photo ID requirements were defeated…Meanwhile, we have seen the introduction of new proposals to reduce or revoke voter ID laws on the state and federal levels.”

The rise in voter registration opportunities is a promising sign, but the yearly barrage of voter ID bills and other overzealous restrictions on voter registration and voting are signs that we still need voting rights protections in place. Such protections are outlined in the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which remains pending in U.S. Congress.

“As exhibited in cities across the country, citizens want free and fair access to the ballot, and they want our democracy to align with the values and technical advancements of the 21st century,” wrote Lee.

New Paper Explores Racial Polarization in Voting

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A newly published white paper of note tackles a subject that has been battered around along with the debate about restoring provisions of the Voting Rights Act: Is voting racially polarizing?

A draft of the 92-page paper, penned by Christopher S. Elmendorf of the University of California, Davis, School of Law; Kevin M. Quinn of the UC Berkeley School of Law; and Marisa Abrajano of the University of California, San Diego, School of Law, is titled, “Racially Polarized Voting.”

Here’s a snippet from the abstract:

Whether voting is racially polarized has for the last generation been the linchpin question in vote dilution cases under the core, nationally applicable provision of the Voting Rights Act. The polarization test is supposed to be clear-cut (“manageable”), diagnostic of liability, and free of strong racial assumptions. Using evidence from a random sample of vote dilution cases, we argue that these objectives have not been realized in practice, and, further, that they cannot be realized under current conditions.

The roots of the problem are twofold: (1) the widely shared belief that polarization determinations should be grounded on votes cast in actual elections, and (2) normative disagreement, often covert, about the meaning of racial vote dilution. We argue that the principal normative theories of vote dilution have conflicting implications for the racial polarization test.

We also show that votes are only contingently related to the political preferences that the polarization inquiry is supposed to reveal, and, further, that the estimation of candidates’ vote shares by racial group from ballots cast in actual elections depends on racial homogeneity assumptions similar to those the Supreme Court has disavowed. Our analysis casts serious doubt on the notion — promoted in dicta by the Supreme Court and supported by prominent commentators — that courts should establish bright-line, vote-share cutoffs for “legally significant” racial polarization.

The courts would do better to screen vote dilution claims using evidence of preference polarization derived from surveys, or non-preference evidence of minority political incorporation.

The entire 92-page document is available for download (for free), right here.