In Opposition to Sessions Nomination, Common Cause Activists Deliver Petitions to Senate Offices from Alaska to Florida

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This week, Common Cause activists in a dozen states—including right here in Pennsylvania—are delivering petitions urging their U.S. Senators to vote against the nomination of Sen. Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III (R-AL) to serve as U.S. Attorney General.

For decades, Sen. Sessions has been an outspoken critic of the Voting Rights Act, one of the nation’s most critical pieces of civil and voting rights legislation, which paved the way for an inclusive democracy. As Attorney General, Sessions would be charged with deciding how and when to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which he has repeatedly condemned as an “intrusive piece of legislation.” The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote today to send the nomination forward to a vote of the full Senate in the coming weeks.

“Senator Sessions represents a very serious threat to the Voting Rights Act and to the ability of millions of Americans to cast their ballots on Election Day,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn. “The right to vote is a touchstone of our democracy and we want the Senators we are contacting today to be fully aware that their constituents are watching closely to see where they come down on this vote.”

Petitions are being delivered today to district offices of Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Joe Manchin (D-WV). Due to a winter storm, petitions will be delivered tomorrow in the Lewiston and Augusta offices of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

The 596,327 signatures on the petitions were gathered by Common Cause, MoveOn.org, the NAACP, People Demanding Action, NARAL, People for the American Way and Daily Kos.

On only a handful of occasions in its 46-year history has Common Cause opposed presidential nominees. Sen. Sessions’ nomination was added to that short list based on his record and his longtime criticism of many of the laws he would be charged with enforcing as Attorney General.

Common Cause previously opposed the nominations of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, John Tower as Secretary of Defense and Ed Meese as U.S. Attorney General. The nominations of Bork and Tower were rejected by the U.S. Senate. Meese was confirmed and served as Attorney General but resigned from office over his role in a defense contracting scandal.

In 1986, Sessions’ nomination to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama was rejected by a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. After listening to extensive testimony about controversial statements made and actions taken by Sessions, the Judiciary Committee was unable to muster enough votes to even pass the nomination on to the full Senate without recommendation.

For his current nomination, Sen. Sessions attempted to create for himself a civil rights record that simply does not exist. As three former DOJ attorneys noted in a recent op-ed, Sen. Sessions completed no substantive work on at least three of the four cases he claimed in his recent questionnaire as representing his most significant civil rights cases. Tellingly, Sen. Sessions failed to include these same cases in his questionnaire for his unsuccessful 1986 nomination to a federal judgeship.

New Paper: Challenging Felon Disenfranchisement Law

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Here at Pennsylvanians for Fair Elections, we want to keep you posted not only on current events related to elections and election rights, but also academic and other scholarly reports dealing with these matters.

Today, we wanted to share details of a new paper titled, “A Pragmatic Approach to Challenging Felon Disenfranchisement Law.” The piece was written by Avner Shapiro and published Jan. 17.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

“Felon disenfranchisement is a longstanding practice in most of our 50 states, but its scope has dramatically expanded in recent decades due to the ‘War on Drugs’ and the resulting system of mass criminalization.

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by felon disenfranchisement laws, with African Americans representing more than one third of the 6.1 million whose right to vote has been taken away.

While several courts have considered whether felon disenfranchisement laws violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because of these racial disparities, and one such challenge is pending right now in a federal court in Alabama, so far courts have been reluctant to use Section 2 to to strike them down.

In this Issue Brief, Avner Shapiro analyzes why “courts would be more receptive to an as-applied Section 2 lawsuit focusing only on disenfranchised African-American ex-felons convicted of low-level, non-violent drug offenses.”

Interested in reading more? The full text is available at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

#ICYMI: Paul M. Smith, Legendary Supreme Court Litigator, Joins CLC

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The Campaign Legal Center is extremely pleased to welcome to its staff one of the nation’s leading attorneys, Paul M. Smith, as vice president of litigation and strategy. Mr. Smith brings more than three decades of experience litigating a wide range of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including cases advancing free speech and civil rights.

“The 2016 Election made it exceptionally clear: Our democracy is not working as it should,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center. “Currently, office holders are too responsive to special interests while legislators are manipulating voting maps to stay in power. At this crucial time in our nation’s history, CLC is committed to advancing legal strategies that will guarantee a democracy responsive to the people. There is absolutely no better person to lead this effort than Paul M. Smith.”

Mr. Smith will work directly with CLC’s talented team of campaign finance attorneys. CLC will be seeking a new director of trial litigation, to be hired in early 2017.

“I am thrilled to be joining the country’s top legal shop fighting for our democracy,” said Smith. “Now, more than ever, we must commit to ensuring that every American can participate in choosing our elected officials and holding those officials accountable once they are in office. I’m looking forward to getting to work.”

Mr. Smith, who has extensive experience in voting rights and redistricting, will also work side-by-side with long-time colleague and friend, Gerry Hebert, director of CLC’s voting rights and redistricting program. When CLC’s landmark partisan gerrymandering case, Whitford v. Gill, reaches the U.S. Supreme Court next term, as seems almost certain, Mr. Smith will present the oral argument.

Prior to joining CLC, Mr. Smith most recently served as a partner at the law firm Jenner & Block. In addition to his role at CLC, Mr. Smith will teach as a Distinguished Visitor from Practice at Georgetown University Law Center.

“All of us at Jenner & Block will greatly miss Paul,” said Terrence J. Truax, Jenner & Block’s managing partner. “But we also are excited to see him begin the next chapter of a remarkable career, using his many talents at Georgetown Law School and the Campaign Legal Center on election law issues. Paul’s accomplishments are legendary, from his groundbreaking work in Lawrence v. Texas, to his more recent leadership on a range of issues focused on equal protection for all Americans. He is truly one of those larger-than-life individuals who has made a mark. We are proud to have been able to call Paul our partner, and he will always be a part of the Jenner & Block family, our tradition of excellence and commitment to pro bono and community service.”

Election Data and Science Lab Launches at MIT

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A new enterprise dedicated to researching and improving elections based on scientific principles launched recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab will generate, advance, and disseminate scientific knowledge in an effort to develop a comprehensive evidence base about the conduct of elections in order to improve their performance.

Founded by Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, the Lab will address multiple audiences of academic researchers, election practitioners, and the general public.  It will serve a unique and independent role as it applies scientific principles to empirical questions about the administration of American elections.

“My hope for this Lab is that it will serve as an international, non-partisan resource for housing the expertise and evidence necessary to inform improvements of elections,” said Professor Stewart. “In the midst of a policy area that has become hyper-politicized, we hope to provide a counterbalance of hard evidence and analytical thinking.   And, we look forward to bringing together communities in the election administration debate who often talk past each other, by offering an evidence-rich focal point of discussion.“

Major funding to launch the Lab comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation through its Madison Initiative. “Our primary focus at the Madison Initiative is on improving Congress’ ability to deliberate, negotiate and compromise in ways that more Americans support,” said Jean Bordewich, program officer for the Madison Initiative. “At a fundamental level, the conduct of elections affects the experience of voters and people’s trust in American democracy.  It’s imperative that we, as a nation, get this right and we believe that this Lab, under Professor Stewart’s leadership, can move us in the right direction.”

The work of MEDSL builds on more than a decade’s worth of work by Professor Stewart to promote the nonpartisan analysis of how election processes work, how they affect voters, and how they can be improved.  Some of this work has been through the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology project, which will now be supported at MIT by the Lab.  Other lab research anticipated in the near future includes assessing the overall performance of election administration in 2016, analyzing factors that reduce lines at polling places, and studying the confidence of voters in the election process.

One of MEDSL‘s first projects, “State Election Landscapes,” will entail the collection and dissemination of data on election administration in Midwestern states, thanks to support from The Joyce Foundation. This collaborative project will be managed by MIT and includes scholars from Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin.

This project will initially entail data gathering by researchers on campuses in Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin followed up with dissemination, through publication of the enhanced data on an interactive website, release of state-specific reports that describe the electoral landscapes of the six Great Lakes states, and the holding of three public symposia that use these reports as a spur to discuss the future of elections in Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  This project will serve as a model for future work in a larger collection of states.

“We commend Professor Stewart and MIT on the launch of the Election Data and Science Lab,” said Beth Swanson, Vice President of Strategy and Programs at the Joyce Foundation. “Joyce supports efforts to ensure that the election administration process is fair and accessible for all voters, and the work of this new lab will generate the data necessary to make that possible.”

For more information on the Lab’s activities, please visit electionlab.mit.edu.

Partisan Gerrymandering & the 2016 Election the Subject of New Analysis

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Editor’s Note: Here at Pennsylvanians for Fair Elections, we are fighting for redistricting reform in the Keystone State. Part of our mission is to also keep you informed about news related to partisan gerrymandering—and its effect on voting and elections. To that end, we want to point you to a new analysis recent published by the nonpartisan nonprofit gr0up The Campaign Legal Center.

Here is an excerpt from a recent blog:

The Campaign Legal Center has conducted an initial analysis of the depth of partisan gerrymandering in the 2016 election, which was the third election held since the 2011 round of redistricting.

With three elections’ worth of data, we can now say with even more certainty that the redistricting plans in the post-2010 cycle evidence more extreme partisan gerrymandering than any other decade in modern American history. For the third time this decade, we saw huge skews in favor of either Democrats or Republicans in plans across the country.

We recommend you take a look at the entire report, which is available on the CLC website.

Stay tuned for more information about redistricting reform efforts here in Pennsylvania.

 

FCC Orders Broadcast Stations to Follow Regulations Requiring Transparency in Political Ads

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The Federal Communications Commission admonished several broadcast stations for failing to protect voters’ right to know who is behind political ads in the 2016 Election and prior elections.

The action earlier this month came in response to complaints filed by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Sunlight Foundation and Benton Foundation, represented by Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center.  The agency issued two separate orders (responding to 2014 complaint and 2016 complaint). In the orders, the FCC construed the public file rules expansively, warning broadcast stations that they must comply with FCC requirements going forward.

“This is a victory for transparency and accountability,” said Meredith McGehee, strategic adviser for CLC. “The FCC, through these orders, indicates that it takes the public file requirement of the Communications Act seriously.  It is the FCC’s responsibility to ensure stations disclose information about who pays for advertisements. These rules play a critical role in ensuring voters have the information they need and deserve.  I hope stations will heed this warning and stop freely ignoring existing regulations with impunity.”

The FCC stopped short of fining the stations at this time. Following the FCC’s order, two Republican commissioners indicated that while they agree with the substantive analysis of the orders, they would like to continue to take up the issue in the Trump Administration.

“Transparency is what the law requires and democracy demands,” said Michael Copps, former FCC Commissioner and Common Cause Special Adviser. “Good on the Commission for taking this important step to disclosing secret money. The next and most important step is accountable ads with in-ad, on-air disclosure of secret money funders.”

CLC issued a report in 2016 highlighting how frequently broadcast stations neglect to collect and report political ad sponsors and called for aggressive FCC enforcement of the regulations.

FCC Order in Response to 2014 Complaints

FCC Order in Response to 2016 Complaint

Justice Department Files Voting Rights Suit Against City of Eastpointe, Michigan

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The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit to challenge the at-large method of electing the city council of Eastpointe, Michigan.  The complaint alleges that the election system in Eastpointe violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by denying black citizens in the city the equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, follows an extensive review of the city’s electoral practices, history and current conditions, guided by extensive precedent applying Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  Among other important factors highlighted in the case law, the lawsuit alleges that Eastpointe has racially polarized voting patterns, with white voters consistently opposing and defeating the preferred candidates of Eastpointe’s sizable black community.  Although black residents comprise roughly one-third of the electorate and consistently support black candidates for local office, no black individual has ever served on the Eastpointe City Council.  With Eastpointe’s current system, voting patterns combined with other local factors dilute the black community’s voice and lead to a discriminatory result.

The complaint also alleges that changing the method of voting – for example, by electing each councilmember from a district – could create an equitable opportunity for black voters to elect a candidate of their choice to the Eastpointe City Council.  The lawsuit seeks a federal court order implementing a new method of electing the Eastpointe City Council.

“Federal law seeks to protect diverse communities from discriminatory systems that weaken the power of the franchise,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “The Justice Department hopes to work cooperatively with Eastpointe to ensure that all communities enjoy equitable opportunity in our elections.”

“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits practices such as Eastpointe’s at-large City Council system where they improperly dilute the ability of citizens to elect the candidates of their choice,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan.  “We filed this lawsuit to ensure that all voters in Eastpointe have a fair opportunity to participate in their local government.”  

The Justice Department continues to have positive discussions with the city of Eastpointe and remains hopeful that a settlement will be reached.  As Eastpointe’s next regularly scheduled city council election is set for November 2017, the department’s filing was necessary to preserve the ability of a court to hear this case in a timely manner.

Report: PA Electoral System Among Nation’s Worst

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A recent study has found what many voting advocates have long known: Pennsylvania’s electoral system is among the worst in the United States.

According to the study by the Electoral Integrity Project, Pennsylvania was tied for 45th place—making the Keystone State’s the fifth-worst in the nation.

Here’s an excerpt from a Philly Voice story about the matter:

Researchers were critical of a variety of Pennsylvania’s voting procedures, but the worst part of the state’s system was put in place long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton officially declared their candidacies for president.

The Keystone State’s district boundaries, which were last redrawn up in 2010, severely impacted the integrity of the election. Experts gave the state a score of 11 out of the 100. Only Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina had worse grades. The shapes of the districts were found to favor incumbents and discriminated against certain parties.

The study, which ranked Vermont as having the best electoral system in the country, is available on the Electoral Integrity Project’s website—and is worth the read.

Election Watchdog Group Calls for Congressional Committee in Wake of Russian Hack Report

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Editor’s Note: As news continues to roll in regarding the extent to which Russian hackers interfered with the U.S. election, the good-government non-profit, Common Cause, issued the following statement. We wanted to make sure we kept you up to date.

The newly declassified intelligence report clearly shows that Congress must act swiftly to create a Select Committee to review the findings of this report in a nonpartisan manner and make recommendations moving forward.

The integrity of our elections and national security were attacked and the issue has become too partisan to proceed through normal committee channels on Capitol Hill.

The information in the report provides evidence that Vladimir Putin ordered and the Russian government was directly involved in hacking both Democratic and Republican groups and attempted to influence the outcome of the election in favor of President-elect Trump. Russia’s activities are a serious affront to our free nation, our democratic values, and our sovereignty.

To fully protect our democracy and ensure this intrusion is not repeated, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must immediately follow the recommendation of Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jack Reed, and Chuck Schumer to create a bipartisan Select Committee.

The findings of this report demand a Select Committee to review and make recommendations and ensure that American voters know the full extent of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.