Republican Voters Challenging Maryland’s Partisan Gerrymander Deserve Their Day in Court

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A group of Republican voters challenging the Maryland’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander should have their day in court, the Campaign Legal Center argued in a friend-of-the-court-brief filed in the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Maryland.

“Legislators – across the political spectrum – are increasingly abusing  the redistricting process as a powerful weapon in modern political warfare to create rigged elections,” said Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional and has kept its doors open to hearing these cases, though the Court has yet to announce a standard for deciding these claims. In allowing this case to go to trial, the parties could develop evidence and attempt to develop a workable standard for deciding future partisan gerrymandering challenges in courts across the country.”

The voters in this case, Shapiro v. McManus, argue that Maryland’s map violates their First Amendment rights because it purposefully diminished their voting power as Republican voters on the basis of their political affiliation and their voting histories. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision, reversed two lower court opinions dismissing the challenge. The case was remanded and is now once again before the district court.

“Americans are increasingly frustrated at our broken democratic process that cheats them of their ability to elect representatives of their choice,” said Danielle Lang, legal fellow with the Campaign Legal Center. “Recent studies show a significant uptick in the extremity of partisan gerrymanders. Americans want and deserve fair elections. The need to develop a meaningful and manageable partisan gerrymandering standard is becoming increasingly dire to preserve the public confidence in our democracy.”

 

Reform Groups Urge Members to Oppose Campaign Finance Riders to Appropriations Bill

In a letter sent recently, reform groups urged members of Congress to oppose all “poison pill” riders, including all campaign finance riders, to the fiscal year 2017 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill.

The groups included the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, CREW, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, Represent.Us, Sunlight Foundation, The Rootstrikers Project at Demand Progress and U.S. PIRG.

Last year four “poison pill” campaign finance riders were added to the House and Senate FSGG bills. In addition, an effort was made in finalizing the fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill to insert at the last minute another rider never considered by either congressional committee.

The letter stated:

These “poison pill” riders have no place in the appropriations process and certainly no place in the fiscal year 2017 FSGG Appropriations bill. Of the four damaging campaign finance riders added last year to the 2016 FSGG Appropriations Committee bills, two ended up in the final Omnibus bill, which applied only to FY16…

The first three of these campaign finance riders served to continue keeping the American people in the dark about hundreds of millions of dollars in secret contributions being laundered into federal elections. Secret campaign money prevents holding officeholders and influence-seeking donors accountable for corrupt practices. The fourth rider served to repeal longstanding limits on the amounts that parties can spend in coordination with their candidates.

The letter continued:

A fifth campaign finance rider attempted unsuccessfully to be inserted at the last minute into the FY16 Omnibus Appropriations bill would have repealed the presidential financing system. This system served the nation well for more than two decades before it became outdated. It needs to be repaired, not repealed.

The unprecedented role being played by big money in the 2016 presidential election is making an overwhelming case for the need to repair the presidential financing system and again provide candidates with an alternative means to finance their presidential campaigns. The Obama administration is on record as strongly opposing repeal of the presidential financing system, stating that “it is critical that the Nation’s Presidential election public financing system be fixed rather than dismantled.”

The letter concluded:

Poison pill riders have no part in any budget bill. Any effort to rewrite the Nation’s campaign finance laws and related measures should be done by regular order and through the legislative process. This should not be done by a back door misuse of the appropriations process.

We strongly urge you to oppose any campaign finance riders being included in the FSGG appropriations bills or in any final FY17 Omnibus Appropriations bill.

To read the letter: click here. 

Want National Automatic Voter Registration? Sign the Petition

As more states adopt legislation calling for the automatic voter registration of all eligible citizens, the good-government group Common Cause has launched a petition—and it needs your help.

Here’s what you need to know:

Common Cause is asking for support for the The REGISTER and Automatic Voter Registration Acts—federal bills currently before Congress that would require states to automatically register every eligible citizen to vote.

Here’s what Common Cause posted on its website:

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and anti-voter restrictions on the state level, we need reforms like automatic voter registration to engage every eligible American in our democracy.

Tell your lawmakers to co-sponsor these two vital bills to bring automatic voter registration nationwide.

You can learn more or sign the petition on the Common Cause website.

Voting Advocates to the Ohio House: Don’t Put Price Tag on Voting

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Voting advocates urged legislators to back off a fast-tracked bill that would stymie judges’ ability to ensure that all voters have equal opportunity to cast their ballot in the 2016 Presidential Election.

Senate Bill 296 has been racing through the legislature without adequate time to scrutinize the potential consequences. Senate hearings took less than a month, and the bill was amended in committee and passed on the floor the same day, with no time to review the amended bill. Now the House is moving even faster, with the bill scheduled for two hearings in the Ohio House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee this week and could see a vote as soon as tomorrow, Tuesday.

Voter advocates have been raising the alarm about serious problems with SB 296 and urging the legislature to either scrap the bill or make major changes, but legislators appear intent on moving forward with a flawed proposal.  SB 296 would drastically limit state courts’ ability to order polls to remain open past normal Election Day voting hours.

“To say that Substitute Senate Bill 296 is overkill would be an understatement. This bill is the classic case of the cure that is worse than the disease,” said Daniel Tokaji, the Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Professor of Constitutional Law at Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. “It will do nothing to solve the problem it purports to solve, especially since the Ohio legislature has no constitutional authority to regulate the procedures followed by federal courts. What it will do instead is to impose practically insurmountable barriers on access to state court for voters who are not wealthy.”

State statute requires the polls to be open on Election Day from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., thereby providing 13 hours to vote. However, courts may order extended hours for local voters when extenuating circumstances prevent voters from having the full 13 hours.  Examples include polling locations that do not open on time, voting machine failures, running out of ballots, or weather-related emergencies.  None of these unexpected problems are caused by or are the responsibility of a voter seeking to address the reduced access to the polls.

“This bill would curtail not just one but two rights that are fundamental in our constitutional democracy: the right to vote and the right of access to courts,” added Professor Tokaji. “We are tipping the scales of justice in favor of the state.”

Senate Bill 296 would not only make it harder for courts to issue such extended-voting orders, but an extreme provision would require any plaintiff seeking an emergency court order to post a cash bond in order to get relief. This bond is supposed to cover overtime costs for extended hours, essentially requiring voters to pay for running that part of the election, which totaled $58,500 for Hamilton County in 2015 and 2016.

While the bond is waived for people who are indigent, only that individual would be permitted to vote after hours leaving out any other voters in the same predicament – an absurd outcome.  The Senate-passed version of the bill gives a judge the discretion to set the bond amount, so someone seeking emergency relief has no idea if they will be required to pay one dollar or sixty-thousand dollars.

“This creates a discriminatory poll tax by allowing judges to cherry-pick which plaintiffs have to front tens of thousands of dollars to cover overtime pay for every poll worker in the county,” said Camille Wimbish of the Ohio Voter Rights Coalition. “We should never put a price tag on our right to vote.”

Substitute Senate Bill 296 is also problematic because it imposes all these harsh restrictions without even addressing the real problems that led the sponsor to introduce the bill.

“The sponsor of the bill points to problems with extended polling hours in Hamilton County during the last two elections, but this bill does nothing to address what happened during those two elections. In November 2015, a judge ordered Hamilton County to keep polls open late due to problems poll workers had using their new electronic poll books. The solution to that is better planning and training,” said Carrie Davis of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

In the primary this spring, several southwest Ohio counties were ordered to extend polling hours due to a severe highway accident that made area roads unpassable. There were communication problems with conveying the judge’s extended hours order to the Secretary of State, his office telling area Boards of Elections, and the boards telling poll workers. The Secretary of State is appealing the federal judge’s order, which is the proper method to challenge the legality of how the order was issued, since the state legislature has no authority over federal courts.

“Neither the Secretary of State’s appeal nor this bill solve the communication problems the led to the problems on Election Day Rather than racing through legislation making it harder to get an emergency court order, we ought to focus on solutions to the real problems – better Election Day communication and contingency planning,” Davis said.

The Ohio Secretary of State provided written testimony supporting Senate Bill 296. The Ohio Association of Election Officials has not taken an official position on the bill.

FBI Probe of Governor Over Campaign Finance Underscores Need for Reform

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The FBI is investigating the governor of Virginia for alleged campaign finance violations, multiple news agencies have reported.

According to CNN.com, Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe being investigating ongoing by the FBI, as well as and prosecutors from the Justice Department’s public integrity unit.

The news has advocacy groups renewing their call for campaign finance reform.

Common Cause was one of them.

Here’s what Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs had to say:

“Like everyone who is the subject of a criminal investigation, Gov. McAuliffe carries the presumption of innocence. That said, we saw in the case of former Gov. Bob McDonnell how Virginia’s anything-goes gift and campaign finance laws practically invite corruption. As they prepare to choose a new governor in 2017, Virginians should insist that candidates make campaign finance reform, including limits on contributions from individuals and political committees, a ban on direct donations by corporations and unions, and adoption of a small-dollar donor based public financing system, their top priority.”

More news coverage of the investigation can be found online.

What’s Happening With the Texas Voter ID Law?

Editor’s Note: For those following along: Texas has been in the news a lot lately over its photo ID law. Here’s the latest.

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Oral argument will take place Tuesday before the full panel of judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Texas’s strict photo ID law.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs — including the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives — will argue the ID requirement, the strictest in the nation, violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution by making it harder for African-Americans and Latinos to cast a ballot.

Texas is one of 17 states with new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election this year. More than 600,000 registered voters lack the specific form of ID required under Texas’s law.

The ID requirement, originally enacted in 2011, was initially blocked under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, on the basis that it discriminates against minority voters. It was implemented in 2013 after the Supreme Court gutted that core provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Since then, the law was ruled discriminatory by a federal trial court in October 2014, which was upheld by a Fifth Circuit three-judge panel in August 2015. Both found that the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, denying African-American and Latino voters an equal opportunity to cast a ballot. The requirement has remained in place since then despite these rulings.

The Texas State Conference of the NAACP and MALC challenged the Texas law in September 2013. That case was consolidated with other similar cases and is now known as Veasey v. Abbott. The attorneys representing the groups include Dechert LLP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Potter Bledsoe L.L.P., the Law Offices of Jose Garza, the national office of the NAACP, the Law Office of Robert S. Notzon, and the Covich Law Firm, P.C.

“The Texas photo ID law is one of the most burdensome and discriminatory voting restriction laws in the country,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “While in-person vote fraud is a fallacy, what is true is that photo id laws have an impact on hundreds of thousands of voters in the state of Texas, including a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Latinos, students and poor people. We are confident that a full panel of judges in the 5th Circuit will see the Texas photo ID law for the discriminatory barrier to the ballot box that it is.”

Need a little background? A federal court in Washington, D.C. blocked Texas’s voter ID law in 2012 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, finding that the law would make it significantly more difficult for minority citizens in Texas to vote on Election Day. In June 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court (in a separate case) ruled that the formula used in the Act for specifying the states covered by Section 5 is unconstitutional. As a result, Texas is not currently required to comply with the Section 5 pre-clearance provision. Just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the state would implement the voter ID law.

At the Sept. 2014 trial, the Texas NAACP and MALC, among others, presented evidence showing the state’s ID requirement would erect discriminatory barriers to voting. At trial, experts testified that 1.2 million eligible Texas voters lack a form of government-issued photo ID that would have been accepted under the new law — and minorities would be hit the hardest. For example, the court credited testimony that African-American registered voters are 305 percent more likely and Hispanic registered voters 195 percent more likely than white registered voters to lack photo ID that can be used to vote.

Fair Districts PA Redistricting Reform Petition Half Way to Goal

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Pennsylvanians for Fair Elections is happy to report that a petition calling for redistricting reform in the Keystone State through the creation of an independent commission to draw political lines is now half-way to its goal.

The petition is hosted by Fair District PA, a coalition of concerned nonprofits and residents who want to see voters choose their politicians, not the other way around.

Right now, we have just more than 2,500 signatures, but our goal is 5,000.

If you haven’t yet signed the petition, we encourage you to do so. If you have (thank you!), we humbly ask that you consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or another other social media network of choice. Email it to your family, mention it to your friends at work.

You get the message.

Help us usher in a new way of political map-drawing in Pennsylvania. Get involved today.

 

Answered: What IS Gerrymandering?

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Gerrymandering. Many have heard the term. Many likely have an idea of what it means—but maybe not so much of an idea of why it’s a problem, and what it’s ramifications are.

While there are myriad white papers and websites devoted to exploration and awareness of the redistricting woe known as gerrymandering, few are able to explain it in simple language.

Until now.

MTV recently published a story titled, “What the Heck is Gerrymandering” and not only is it a great primer, but it’s also an engaging, quick read.

And after your done reading the story, and feeling like, “What can I do to help end the practice of gerrymandering?” please consider signing this petition asking for reform in Pennsylvania.

How is Congressional Redistricting Done in PA?

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Editor’s Note: Because there is so much discussion about and momentum for redistricting reform in Pennsylvania, we wanted to give you a primer on how Congressional redistricting is accomplished in the Keystone State.

Congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania is done through the legislative process.  The House and Senate both must pass a bill that defines congressional district boundaries. It must then be signed by the governor.

It should be noted: While the process is supposed to be bipartisan, if one party controls both the Pennsylvania House and Senate and the governorship, that party has exclusive control over how the district boundaries are drawn.

Here’s the thing: The U.S. Constitution requires districts have about the same population.This means:

  • federal districts within a state must have about the same number of people

  • state districts within a state must have about the same number of people

  • local districts within its jurisdiction must have about the same number of people.

It should be further noted that districts in the Keystone State have become so contorted that most national discussions of gerrymandered congressional districts include examples from good old Pennsylvania.


While changing the rules for legislative redistricting would involve amending the Pennsylvania Constitution, Congressional redistricting could be improved by legislation establishing an independent citizens’ commission or setting statistical standards for equivalence, compactness and contiguity.