Spending By Outside Groups in Judicial Races Hits Record High, Secret Money Dominates

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Partisan rancor and an arms race of special interest spending in judicial elections reached new heights this cycle, as the record for TV spending by outside groups in state supreme court races was shattered, reaching nearly $20 million, according to a new analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.

With heavyweight figures like Barack Obama and Bill Gates taking often unprecedented steps to weigh-in on judicial races with their prestige or dollars, the state judicial selection process has become more overtly partisan and politicized, threatening the essential role courts play in ensuring fair and impartial justice, accountability, and a democracy free of undue influence.

Despite the deluge of outside money, most incumbent justices hung onto their seats — in some cases because they too were the beneficiaries of heavy spending in their favor. Ten states saw television spending in excess of $1 million, including North Carolina, where a high-profile election rife with tensions over racial gerrymandering resulted in the defeat of a Republican incumbent and the prospect of a Democratic majority on the high court, only to spill over into an apparent attempt by the Republican-dominated legislature to pack the court with new justices.

Outside groups spent an estimated $19.4 million on TV in 2015-16, 44 percent more than the prior record in 2011-12. (All figures are in 2016 dollars.) These groups also made up a record 55 percent of total TV spending, compared with 38 percent in 2011-12. The Republican State Leadership Committee was the single biggest spender, with an estimated $4 million in eight states: Louisiana, North Carolina, Montana, Ohio, Arkansas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Political parties have all but disappeared from judicial races, making up less than 1 percent of total spending (as compared to 24 percent in the last presidential cycle).

A large portion of this outside spending was so-called “dark” or “gray” money, providing little information as to the identities of the underlying donors. Of the 20 groups that spent on television in 2015-16, only three were fully transparent. The remaining 17 include groups that do not disclose their donors, as well as PACs that list other groups as among their contributors. This makes it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to discern who is trying to influence judicial races, and masks potential conflicts of interest in cases involving major spenders.

“What we’re seeing is the legacy of Citizens United in action,” said Alicia Bannon, Senior Counsel at the Brennen Center’s Democracy’s Program. “This unprecedented flood of spending from outside special interests and secretive donors is undermining faith in the fairness of our courts and the promise of equal justice for all.”

For Those Who Want to Make Automatic Voter Registration Nationwide?

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The nonpartisan nonprofit watchdog organization, Common Cause, is asking for your signature for a petition to do just that—make automatic voter registration a thing nationwide.

Here’s what Common Cause has to say about the initiative:

The REGISTER and Automatic Voter Registration Acts, federal bills before Congress right now, would require states to automatically register every eligible citizen to vote.

Oregon and California have already taken steps towards that, and they’re leading the country in helping to ensure that voting is free, fair, and accessible.

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.

Into it? To sign (or find out more info), visit the Common Cause website today.

Voters Lift Democracy Reform Ballot Measures

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In addition to populist movements that challenged both major party establishments, and was ultimately part of the winning formula for President-elect Donald Trump, voters at the local and state level worked together to win democracy reforms across the country. A total of 20 pro-democracy reform initiatives were on ballots and almost all of them won with comfortable margins.

Many Americans sense politicians don’t listen to voters, only to big donors, so ordinary Americans are taking matters into their own hands to create a 21st Century democracy that works for everyone.  Many Americans feel increasingly alienated from, or lack trust in, government and other civic institutions. They see money and gerrymandered districts as major obstacles to their full participation, and the regressive laws making registration difficult and voting less convenient as impediments intended to discourage people from voting. With support from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents ordinary people are working together to create local campaigns like these, and win! We expect to see even more in the coming legislative sessions and in the next election cycle, to involve more cities and states. Voters are focused on overcoming obstacles by solving problems to improve and strengthen our democracy for the 21st Century,

Here are ballot initiatives Common Cause led with outstanding allies:

California

  • Berkeley Citizen Funded Elections (Measure XI) WINS with 63.1 percent

California Common Cause led a campaign to create a more representative and accountable government in Berkeley with a citizen funded elections program.

  • Sacramento Redistricting Reform (Measure L) WINS with 52.9 percent

California Common Cause supported Measure L, which would create an independent citizens-led redistricting commission to draw city council districts. 

  • San Francisco Lobbying & Ethics Reform (Proposition T) WINS with 87 percent

California Common Cause supported Proposition T, which would strengthen the city’s lobbying and ethics laws to create a more accountable government.

  • Strengthening Legislative Transparency (Proposition 54) WINS with 64.3 percent

California Common Cause led a campaign to pass Proposition 54 statewide, which would strengthen transparency in the state legislature and increase citizens’ access to information.

California Common Cause led a campaign to pass Proposition 59 in California, which calls on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision.

“Voters are sending a message that we want to take our government back from special interests and ensure everyone has a voice in our democracy.” Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

Maryland

  • Howard County Citizen Funded Elections (Question A) WINS with 52 percent

Common Cause Maryland led a campaign to create a more representative and accountable government in Howard County with citizen-funded elections.

“We are pleased that Howard County is joining Montgomery County and states and cities across the country with citizen funded election. This reform will help put people back in the driver’s seat of our elections and local government, and help build momentum for Maryland and the nation to adopt their own fair elections programs.” Jenifer Bevan-Dangel, Common Cause Maryland, executive director.

Rhode Island

  • Ethics Reform (Question 2) WINS with 77.6 percent

Common Cause Rhode Island led the campaign to pass Question 2, restoring the Ethics Commission’s constitutional authority to police ethics violations by members of the General Assembly.

“By saying ‘yes’ on Question 2 today, voters said ‘yes’ to ethics, transparency, and a better Rhode Island. Because of this victory once again our lawmakers will be held accountable for any conflicts of interest, and citizens will know that legislators are serving the public interest, not their own self-interest.” – John Marion, Jr., Common Cause Rhode Island executive director.

Other pro-democracy reforms that Common Cause took a position on but did not have a lead role on include:

Alaska

  • Automatic Voter Registration (Measure 1) WINS with 63.4 percent

Alaskans will be automatically registered to vote when they apply for the permanent fund dividend (PFD), a yearly dividend funded by oil wealth that is received by nearly 90% of the Alaskan population. The measure has bipartisan support, including the endorsement of both of Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

Maine

  • Ranked Choice Voting (Question 5)

This initiative would take on political polarization and establish statewide ranked choice voting.

Missouri

  • Contribution Limits (Amendment 2) WINS with 70 percent

This initiative establishes limits on campaign contributions for state and judicial candidates, committees, and political parties.

  • Voter ID (Amendment 6) wins with 63 percent (Common Cause opposes)

A person seeking to vote in person in public elections may be required by general law to identify himself or herself and verify his or her qualifications as a citizen of the United States of America and a resident of the state of Missouri by providing election officials with a form of identification, which may include requiring valid government-issued photo identification.

Oregon

  • Benton County Ranked Choice Voting (Measure 2-100) WINS with 54 percent

Takes on political polarization and establishes ranked choice voting in Benton County.

South Dakota

  • Anti-Corruption Act (Measure 22) WINS with 51 percent

This initiative puts limits on donations from parties, political action committees, and lobbyists, require more transparency, and institute other money in politics reforms.

  • Redistricting Reform (Amendment T) loses with 42 percent

This initiative would create a statewide independent redistricting commission. 

Washington

This initiative calls on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision.

This initiative includes a menu of changes that includes publicly funded vouchers and a ban on large campaign contributions from lobbyists and public contractors.

Independent Spending Dominated the Closest House, Senate Races in 2016

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The Campaign Finance Institute today released six tables comparing candidates’ receipts to independent spending in the most competitive Senate and House races of 2016. As several of the tables show in summary form (Tables 3-6), candidates tend to raise more money as their races become more competitive. But in the most competitive ones, independent spending by party, quasi-party and non-party committees this year has far outstripped the spending by candidates.

Table 1 covering all Senate races, lists the candidates’ receipts through pre-election disclosure reports alongside summary information for all independent spending through the election. The top race for spending in 2016 was the one in Pennsylvania between incumbent Sen. Patrick Toomey against Kathleen McGinty. Independent spending in that race alone topped $116 million – more than triple the amount raised by the candidates themselves. Seven other Senate races also saw independent spending above the $40 million mark – NV, NH, NC, OH, MO, IN, and FL (see Table 1). In most of these cases, the independent spending was at least double the money raised by the candidates. Subdividing the independent spending showed that there was rough parity between formal party organizations and the four quasi-party Super PACs1 on the one hand, and non-party organizations on the other.

In House contests 40 different districts saw independent spending of at least $1 million (see Table 2). In twenty of the top twenty-two races with $5 million or more of independent spending, that spending exceeded the candidates’ receipts. Relatively speaking, the party and quasi-party committees spent less money on House elections than did non-party organizations.

Tables:

Table 1: List of 2016 Senate General Election Races Ranked by Total Amount of Independent Spending

Table 2: List of 2016 House General Election Races Ranked by Total Amount of Independent Spending

Table 3: Summary Table – 2016 House Incumbent/Challenger Races, Candidates’ Receipts and Outside Spending Grouped by Election Outcome

Table 4: Summary Table – 2016 House Open Seat Candidates’ Receipts and Independent Spending Grouped by Election Outcome

Table 5: Summary Table – 2016 Senate Incumbent/Challenger Races, Candidates’ Receipts and Independent Spending Grouped by Election Outcome

Table 6: Summary Table – 2016 Senate Open Seat Candidates’ Receipts and Independent Spending Grouped by Election Outcome

1The four Super PACs are House Majority PAC (Dem), Senate Majority PAC (Dem), Congressional Leadership Fund (Rep), and Senate Leadership Fund (Rep).

5 Voting Issues to Watch on Election Day

Editor’s Note: It’s finally here—Election Day! Before heading out to the polls, be sure to check out this list of issues to watch, courtesy of the Brennan Center (a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization).

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Voter Intimidation: Donald Trump has repeatedly told his supporters to “watch” the polls in “certain areas” for supposed fraud. Political operatives are organizing efforts to conduct so-called “exit polls” in multiple cities. Every eligible citizen has the right to vote free of obstruction. Deploying non-official, private actors to police the voting process can too often lead to illegal intimidation, discrimination, or disruption, and undermine confidence in our election system, according to a Brennan Center briefing paper. Here are resources for voters who have questions or run into problems.

Voting Machines: Election 2016 has already seen reports of voting machine problems. These include vote-flipping, where a voter intends to cast a ballot for one candidate, but another is selected by mistake. Vote-flipping is not a sign the election is rigged or machines have been hacked, but it does underscore the urgent need to upgrade aging election infrastructure. A comprehensive Brennan Center study examined America’s voting machines and found 42 states use ones that are at least 10 years old. Old equipment increases the risk of failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes. Read our briefing memo outlining steps officials can take to prevent problems at the polls, and congressional testimony explaining why our elections are not vulnerable to widespread attack.

Voting Restrictions: This year, 14 states have voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election, including swing states like Arizona, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It’s also the first race in half a century without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Even in states where strict voting laws were blocked or weakened by courts, like North Carolina and Texas, we have seen problems and confusion during early voting. Our experts have been monitoring these issues and will continue to be on the look-out for problems on Election Day.

Long Lines: Cuts to polling locations, confusion over new voting requirements, faulty machines, and other factors have led to long lines in North Carolina and Texas during early voting this year, and in Arizona during the primaries. In 2012, between 500,000 and 700,000 eligible voters did not cast a ballot due to excessive wait times. Lack of poll workers and voting machines are key contributors to long lines, according to Brennan Center research, and precincts with more minorities experienced longer waits. See our latest analysis of long lines in Arizona’s 2016 primary, which found similar results.

Voter Fraud: “Rigged” is the buzzword if this election, with Donald Trump saying there is “large scale voter fraud.” Every major study, investigation, and court decision has found voter fraud is vanishingly rare. See the Brennan Center’s briefing memo debunking the myth of fraud.

 

PA Polls Among Those Monitored By Justice Department

The Justice Department announced that its Civil Rights Division plans to deploy more than 500 personnel to 67 jurisdictions in 28 states for today’s general election.

Although state and local governments have primary responsibility for administering elections, the Civil Rights Division is charged with enforcing the federal voting rights laws that protect the rights of all citizens to access the ballot on Election Day.  Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the department has regularly monitored elections in the field in jurisdictions around the country to protect the rights of voters.

“The bedrock of our democracy is the right to vote, and the Department of Justice works tirelessly to uphold that right not only on Election Day, but every day,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.  “We enforce federal statutes related to voting through a range of activities – including filing our own litigation when the facts warrant, submitting statements of interest in private lawsuits to help explain our understanding of these laws, and providing guidance to election officials and the general public about what these laws mean and what they require.

On Election Day itself, lawyers in the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section will staff a hotline starting in the early hours of the morning, and just as we have sent election monitors in prior elections, we will continue to have a robust election monitors program in place on election day.  As always, our personnel will perform these duties impartially, with one goal in mind: to see to it that every eligible voter can participate in our elections to the full extent that federal law provides.

The department is deeply committed to the fair and unbiased application of our voting rights laws and we will work tirelessly to ensure that every eligible person that wants to do so is able to cast a ballot.”

Leading up to and throughout Election Day, Civil Rights Division staff members will be available by telephone to receive complaints related to possible violations of the federal voting rights laws (Toll free at 1-800-253-3931 or 202-307-2767 or TTY 202-305-0082).  In addition, individuals may also report such complaints by fax to 202-307-3961, by email to voting.section@usdoj.gov

Allegations of election fraud are handled by the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country and the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section.  Complaints may be directed to any of the local U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the local FBI offices or the Public Integrity Section at 202-514-1412.  A list of U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and their telephone numbers can be found at www.justice.gov/usao/find-your-united-states-attorney.  A list of FBI offices and accompanying telephone numbers can be found at www.fbi.gov/contact-us.

As always, complaints related to disruption at a polling place should always be reported immediately to local election officials (including officials in the polling place).  Complaints related to violence, threats of violence or intimidation at a polling place should be reported immediately to local police authorities by calling 911.  They should also be reported to the department after local authorities have been contacted.

On Election Day, the Civil Rights Division will monitor the election on the ground in 67 jurisdictions for compliance with the federal voting rights laws, including several in Pennsylvania. Those polling locations will be in:

  • Allegheny County
  • Lehigh County
  • Philadelphia County

It’s Election Day! Here’s What You Need to Know Before Heading to the Polls

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Good morning! It’s here: Election Day! If you’re registered to vote in this election (and we hope you all are), here is some need-to-know information:

When can I vote? In Pennsylvania, polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Where do I vote? If you aren’t sure where your polling place is, click here and enter your information.

I am registered to vote, but will not be able to make it to the polls. Can I still cast a ballot? Unfortunately, not this close to the election. In the Keystone State, an application for an emergency absentee ballot (for voters dealing with unexpected sickness or disability) no later than by 5 p.m. the Friday prior to the election.

Do I need photo identification to vote? No. Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was deemed unconstitutional. However, if you are a first-time voter, you must present identification in order to vote. For more information on that, click here.

What is a provisional ballot and why might I need one? A provisional ballot is used to record a vote when there is some question regarding a voter’s eligibility. Voters who believe they are properly registered but do not appear on the poll book, first-time voters who do not have proper identification, and voters who are told by election officials that they are not eligible to vote should ask to cast a provisional ballot.

There has been a lot said about voter intimidation in this election. Where do I file an election-related complaint? Most of the issues voters have may be resolved by speaking with the judge of elections at your polling place. Before heading to the polls, know your rights. Gov. Tom Wolf posted this blog that outlines exactly what rights and protections voters have in Pennsylvania. Please know: If you have a complaint about the regulation of Election Day activities, you can submit it online.

 

Election Protection: Know Your Rights, What to Do if They’re Violated

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Tomorrow is Election Day. Because there has been so much said about voter intimidation and suppression efforts, we wanted to make sure everyone was aware of their rights as voters in the state of Pennsylvania, and what to do if those rights are violated.

Voting and elections advocates suggest that you have a plan before heading to the polls. To ensure you’re registered, confirm your polling place and view other election-related information, feel free to check out the Election Protection website, which has tons of valuable info and resources.

Now let’s tackle what rights you have when you go to cast your ballot. Here is information published recently by Gov. Tom Wolf:

Voters have a right to assistance when voting.
  • You have the right to assistance at the polling place, including foreign language or literacy assistance. You may select any person to assist you as long as the person is not your employer or union representative or the Judge of Elections.
  • Voters do not need to be designated in the poll book as “assistance permitted” to receive help. A person who wants assistance will be asked to sign an Assistance Declaration at the precinct, unless the poll book already indicates “assistance permitted.”
Only first time voters in precincts must show identification (ID).
  • Voters voting for the first time in their precinct must show ID. The ID can be photo or non-photo ID. This is the only time ID is required.
  • Pennsylvania’s strict photo ID law for all voters is no longer in effect for voting at the polls. Unless you are voting for the first time in your precinct, poll workers should not ask you for photo ID, and you will NOT need to present ID to vote in the 2016 Primary or General Election.
  • If you are voting for the first time in your precinct, and you show a non-photo ID, it must contain your name and address. The only other voters who need to show ID are those who may need to verify that their address is correct.
A voter whose name is not in the poll book can still vote.
  • When you go to your polling place to vote but your name does not appear in the poll book or supplemental poll book, you can still vote. The local officials should place a call to the county board of elections to confirm your registration. The board of elections can determine whether you are registered and in the correct precinct.
  • If you are registered but you are in the wrong precinct, you will be directed to the correct precinct. If the board of elections cannot find your name in its voter registration database, or if you are unable to go to another precinct, you are entitled to use a provisional ballot. If you vote by provisional ballot, the Judge of Elections will give you a receipt with your provisional ballot number.
  • You can find out if your provisional ballot was counted by visiting pavoterservices.state.pa.us or by calling 1-877-868-3772.

There’s a contingency for non-operational voting machines:

  • When 50% or more of the voting machines are not working in your polling place, you have the right to vote by emergency paper ballot.If 50% or more of the voting machines in your polling place are out of service, voters are entitled to vote by emergency paper ballot. Poll workers should immediately offer the ballots, but if they do not, voters should request one instead of leaving without voting.
  • The paper ballots used as emergency ballots must be clearly identified and placed in the envelope marked “emergency ballot” and not in the provisional ballot envelope.

Next up: What do you do if your voting rights are violated, or someone attempts to impede your ability to cast your ballot. The first line of defense is always your polling location’s judge of elections. Please know, though, that thousands of volunteers for several non-partisan nonprofit organizations are mobilizing volunteers to help ensure voter protection. Part of that initiative is a toll-free number voters can call if they have an issue at the polls. Call 1-866-OUR-VOTE if you run into a problem.

Voters have a right to assistance when voting.
  • You have the right to assistance at the polling place, including foreign language or literacy assistance. You may select any person to assist you as long as the person is not your employer or union representative or the Judge of Elections.
  • Voters do not need to be designated in the poll book as “assistance permitted” to receive help. A person who wants assistance will be asked to sign an Assistance Declaration at the precinct, unless the poll book already indicates “assistance permitted.”
Only first time voters in precincts must show identification (ID).
  • Voters voting for the first time in their precinct must show ID. The ID can be photo or non-photo ID. This is the only time ID is required.
  • Pennsylvania’s strict photo ID law for all voters is no longer in effect for voting at the polls. Unless you are voting for the first time in your precinct, poll workers should not ask you for photo ID, and you will NOT need to present ID to vote in the 2016 Primary or General Election.
  • If you are voting for the first time in your precinct, and you show a non-photo ID, it must contain your name and address. The only other voters who need to show ID are those who may need to verify that their address is correct.
A voter whose name is not in the poll book can still vote.
  • When you go to your polling place to vote but your name does not appear in the poll book or supplemental poll book, you can still vote. The local officials should place a call to the county board of elections to confirm your registration. The board of elections can determine whether you are registered and in the correct precinct.
  • If you are registered but you are in the wrong precinct, you will be directed to the correct precinct. If the board of elections cannot find your name in its voter registration database, or if you are unable to go to another precinct, you are entitled to use a provisional ballot. If you vote by provisional ballot, the Judge of Elections will give you a receipt with your provisional ballot number.
  • You can find out if your provisional ballot was counted by visiting pavoterservices.state.pa.us or by calling 1-877-868-3772.
When 50% or more of the voting machines are not working in your polling place, you have the right to vote by emergency paper ballot.
  • If 50% or more of the voting machines in your polling place are out of service, voters are entitled to vote by emergency paper ballot. Poll workers should immediately offer the ballots, but if they do not, voters should request one instead of leaving without voting.
  • The paper ballots used as emergency ballots must be clearly identified and placed in the envelope marked “emergency ballot” and not in the provisional ballot envelope.

Know a PA Voter Who Needs a Ride to Go Vote? PAC, Uber, Lyft Giving’em Free

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The transit strike in Philadelphia has many voting advocates fearing that people who want to cast a ballot in the general election will not be able to do because of the lack of public transportation.

An injunction is being sought to temporarily end the strike to take into consideration the needs of voters in the election—especially the rights of the disabled and the elderly.

That news prompted a PAC in California to create an initiative called My Ride to Vote—something that has garnered more than $200,000 in donations as of Sunday afternoon.

Here’s how it works: If you want to vote in Pennsylvania (anywhere – not just Philadelphia), you can get a free ride to the polls from Uber or Lyft by entering the promo code VOTEPA.

More information can be found on the website, where you can read the fine print.