Category Archives: Voting and Democracy

Guest Blog: Unbind Section 4: The Voting Rights Act is still needed

The Voting Rights Act is Still Needed: Unbind Section 4

By Leslye Colvin
June 23, 2016

The United States of America theoretically embraces voting as a sacred right. Unfortunately, the history and lived experience of systemic obstacles to the exercise of this right underscore the urgency of its protection, and the continuing need for Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2015, NETWORK Lobby sponsored an interfaith advocacy retreat on economic inequality at Springbank Retreat Center in Kingstree, SC. Designed as a teambuilding exercise for Palmetto State advocates, invitations were extended also to those in neighboring states. More than a dozen South Carolinians from across the state, and a few outsiders, gathered on land made sacred by the blood of enslaved Africans and their descendants. After touring the former working plantation, the property managers showed a pair of shackles discovered on the grounds. This was the most emotionally charged moment of the gathering. A century and a half after the end of chattel slavery, we were hit by the literal and figurative weight of this tool of bondage. It was a tangible expression of the economic and racial injustices binding us to the struggle. Bound by this common desire, we worked, ate, and prayed together for three days.

Tragically, three weeks later, the falsehood that had sustained centuries of injustice walked into Charleston’s Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, a historic sanctuary, to dispense death. This man’s life experience was corrupted by centuries of an unjust and often legal system built upon the deception of racism and white privilege. The oppressive system simultaneously denies ones dignity and citizenry. The Martyrs of Emmanuel A.M.E. paid the ultimate price as did countless others who merely acknowledged their dignity and their citizenry.

As the nation mourned her latest martyrs, elected officials began responding to previously ignored calls to relinquish one of the final symbols of the Confederacy. Before I relocated to my home state of Alabama, the governor had unceremoniously removed the flag from the State Capitol. An act that even my optimism could not have foreseen.

Invited to be a silent observer at a meeting hosted by the Secretary of State on the possible restoration of voting rights to those who had been incarcerated, I left the meeting dismayed. Each participating elected official identified himself as a conservative as though the meeting was a campaign event. They then proceeded to address the moral turpitude of those who had been incarcerated. In Alabama and many other states, the incarcerated are disproportionately African-American. Having spent the majority of my life in Alabama and Georgia, I have never heard moral turpitude used to address those who profit from economic or racial injustice.

Whether it is real or perceived, no one freely relinquishes power. As African-Americans have demanded the recognition of their dignity and citizenship, they have often encountered violent opposition throughout history. From the Emancipation Proclamation to the 14th Amendment and Reconstruction to Brown v. Board of Education to the Voting Rights Act to the Civil Rights Act to the election of President Barack Obama – advances have consistently been met with incredulity and obstinance as opponents sought to revert progress. This is the context of Shelby v. Holder.

Amidst the pain and death, the 1960s were a season of hope.  In Christian scripture, after Jesus restores Lazarus to life, he instructs the community to unbind him. For centuries, African-Americans have called upon their government to unbind them. The Voting Rights Act was a tangible response this call. Almost as tangible as the shackles discovered at Springbank, it cannot unbind the deeply rooted systemic injustices of preceding centuries in five decades. Unbind us. Unbind Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Leslye Colvin

 

 

 

 

Leslye Colvin is the Director of the Catholic Committee of the South, and a member of NETWORK.

Blog: Still Marching towards True Freedom and Equality

Still Marching towards True Freedom and Equality

Joseline Araujo
March 24, 2016

This spring break I was selected to participate in a life changing experience: an Alternative Spring Break trip to Selma, Alabama. When I arrived in Selma, Alabama I was immediately exposed to a different environment that was much more rural. The sights were beautiful with the countryside, fresh air and animals.

joseline pettus bridgeWe were to complete community service for four days during our week-long stay in Alabama. The energy and motivation we felt doing service for the people living in Selma struggling with poverty created a bond to the place they call home. We painted, cleaned and rearranged houses inside and out to make the house feel more like a home. However, painting and cleaning was not the purpose of the community service. More importantly, we heard stories about the neighborhoods and the struggle that the Selma community faces and why. We were able to show accompaniment in listening to what these people have lived through in this historical city.

During the last two days, we visited downtown Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. In Selma we saw and walked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge- a bridge that witnessed the greatest marches of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham that shook the nation when this church was bombed in the 1960s, killing four innocent little girls inside the church. Seeing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s home in Montgomery, the Jackson home in Selma and the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University in Birmingham gave chills hearing the stories of how leaders met to create plans to overcome discrimination, oppression and violence.

If we are wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Going to Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham made me appreciate more deeply the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and what this meant for a community of people whose votes were restricted due to the color of their skin. I am motivated to continue fighting racial inequality and educating my generation about the importance of voting in every election. The entire experience changed my way of thinking about what is needed to be done in the world to create true freedom and equality.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr began a movement that took over the nation. But he was not alone, he had the support of his community to create change and spread solidarity. His work was just the beginning of a mission that future generations continue working for. His words echo for current social justice movements today:  “If we are wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong”. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Joseline Aruajo is a current NETWORK intern and a Junior at Trinity Washington University studying Sociology and History.

Voting Is a Start, Not an End

Voting Is a Start, Not an End

By Rachel Schmidt
November 03, 2015

How great it is that we live in a democratic country where we choose our elected officials. We have a government “by the people and for the people” that rejects the notion that power can be concentrated into the leadership of the unelected few. Historically, democracy has been a cataclysmic shift to the idea that all have the right to take care of society. As people of faith, we participate in our democratic government through voting on election day and through advocacy the rest of the year. This freedom to vote is an important and considerable responsibility; here are some best practices to simplify and prioritize the process.

NETWORK has a tool that can help you register to vote, vote via mail, and reminds you about upcoming elections. TurboVote helps take some of the guesswork out of voting when it comes to the logistics and can help you plan ahead for voting day. It will send text and e-mail reminders about upcoming election days. If your state allows absentee ballots, a great option is to sign up with Turbovote, vote ahead of time, and avoid the hustle of Election Day.

But what about knowing which candidates to choose? Even if you plan and/or get your absentee ballot ahead of time, choosing from a list of names you’ve possibly never heard before can be daunting. You also want to be a responsible voter who chooses a candidate who represents your values and community. It’s tempting to take the easy way out, check some boxes, and come out of the ballot box gilded in “I Voted” stickers. To avoid the ineffectiveness of being a “Gilded Voter” there are some tools that can help you research candidates. Votesmart.org offers a tool called “Vote Easy” that helps you determine which presidential candidate matches your views.

Voting is not the solution to all issues in a country or government, but it is an integral part of the solution. If it wasn’t important, gerrymandering and voter restrictive laws would not be created to sway voting outcomes. Russell Brand, an actor, comedian, and social activist, finds voting to be so meaningless that he advocates against doing it. Brand is right to want more out of our political system, but we must start somewhere. The vote has not become null and void, and it’s a start. To be fair, it is also not an end. We must use our power, as a collective voice, to raise the important issues to our elected officials time and time again. This act goes far beyond the ballot box.

When a Speaker Can’t Govern, No One Wants the Job

When a Speaker Can’t Govern, No One Wants the Job

By Rachel Schmidt

October 20, 2015

The Speaker of the House is a high-power position that sets the tone for the House of Representatives and is second in line for the presidency; a dream for any ambitious politician. Yet, no one seems to want the job. Speaker John Boehner is resigning, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) has made it clear he doesn’t want it, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the running. The reason for the widespread hesitancy could be related to the strong divisions in the Republican Party that have made Speaker Boehner’s job arduous. There is no easy way, as Speaker of the House, to be able to please the Freedom Caucus, which operates as a “squeaky wheel,” and does not allow for the compromise necessary to create laws. For those of us interested in social justice, a lack of governance and a lack of a Speaker halt any hope of systemic change.

The leadership of Speaker of the House is necessary for the proper functioning of the House of Representatives. He or she is elected from the majority party in the House, and historically, has always been a congressperson. The duties include overseeing procedure in the chamber, appointing members to committees, and setting the legislative agenda for the majority party. The Speaker is not merely an administrative or ceremonial role; there is a great deal of power exercised in this position, especially when deciding what bills are brought to the House floor for a vote.

One example during Speaker Boehner’s tenure is when he applied his power to the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 and 2014. A comprehensive bill, S. 744, went through much of the legislative process and was passed in the Senate. The hard work of immigration activists paid off as half of the legislative battle was accomplished, but they gritted their teeth in anticipation and hope of what the House would do to follow. Rep. Joe Garcia introduced an almost identical bill, H.R. 15, which received bipartisan support with 200 cosponsors (a bill only needs 218 votes to pass.) Yet, that is where the process uneventfully ended, because Speaker Boehner refused to bring it to a vote. Months of work and compromise can be all in vain, because the Speaker holds the political power to bring a bill to a vote. This situation was particularly frustrating because had the bill gone to the floor, it would have passed.

The power of this office indicates the necessity of not only having the role filled by a politician seeking to create just laws, but also a person who has the ability to govern. The current disinterest in the position of Speaker has been influenced by a House that is ungovernable. The fact is that the Freedom Caucus is difficult to politic with. They have a stringent platform that embraces no compromise, and they make a plethora of noise when they do not get their way. David Brooks, a syndicated, conservative columnist, critiqued this way of legislating as ineffective and a threat to the very institution of democracy.  

We the people cannot effect systemic change without a properly functioning House of Representatives, and therefore, the institution and its capacity for governance must be upheld and respected. Article One of the Constitution outlines the House as the chamber where the will of the people is made a reality. Pope Francis said, “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best we can offer those who govern? Prayer!” With the current Speaker situation, we better start meddling, and we better start praying!

et cursus.

Blog: Can Democracy Survive Voter Suppression Laws and Flood of “Big Money” into Election Coffers? (Part 2)

Can Democracy Survive Voter Suppression Laws and Flood of “Big Money” into Election Coffers? (Part 2)

By Carolyn Burstein
August 13, 2014

(This is the second in a two-part series addressing the question of the title. This article addresses the issue of “big money” in our elections).

Two major Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued in January 2010 and McCutcheon v. FEC issued in April 2014 – allowed unfettered amounts of money to dominate our electoral processes. The first decision allowed businesses and unions to spend unlimited and undisclosed amounts of money on political activity, which led to the creation of super “political action committees” (PACs) and nonprofit advocacy groups that engage in political campaigns. All these groups must operate separately from the candidate who is running for office. In the years since Citizens United, Super PACs have become a regular part of the political landscape and have become notorious for their highly negative ads, excoriating the opposition.

The second decision, rendered this past year – McCutcheon v. FEC – struck down the overall limits on how much individuals can donate to all candidates and political parties. In both cases, the Supreme Court (in its majority opinions) removed previous barriers to campaign contributions that they said violated a person’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The practical result of both of these Supreme Court rulings is to “open the floodgates to unbounded spending that would undermine what remains of campaign finance reform,” as Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his minority opinion in the McCutcheon case. More importantly, these rulings are undermining our participativedemocracy. As Breyer says somewhat later in his opinion, “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard … and a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.” These rulings erode confidence in our political system.

Many believe that the flow of “big money” into our political system has reached crisis proportions. Let’s enumerate its unpleasant effects:

  • American elections have grown increasingly expensive, with the 2012 elections the most expensive in our nation’s history. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), more than $144 million has been spent to date (up to August 1, 2014) on the 2014 mid-term elections, and it appears that this election is on track to spend at least $1 billion, roughly the same as in 2012, although not a presidential election.
  • The voices and policy preferences of ordinary Americans are drowned out by those of wealthy special interests, whose preferences are reflected in the national political agenda. On policies like unemployment benefits or any other safety-net program, the minimum wage or healthcare coverage, the nation’s wealthiest tend to have fundamentally different views than those of ordinary Americans.
  • As the political system becomes less responsive to their needs and preferences, ordinary Americans lose faith in our democratic system. People for the American Way, a liberal group testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 2, 2014, noted a November 2013 poll, which found that 7 in 10 Americans thought our election system was biased toward those with the most money. And Fred Wertheimer, a long-time advocate of campaign finance reform said in an interview with Bill Moyers in April 2014, “The Court’s decisions [referring to both Citizens United and McCutcheon] have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs which have come at the enormous expense of the voices and interests of 300 million Americans.”
  • It is highly likely that the biggest donors in elections will make known their specific legal or financial needs. If the candidate responds accordingly, then the outsize influence of a small number of oligarchs on public policy can transform our beloved democracy into a full-blown plutocracy. Referring to the role of money in our electoral processes, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that it “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”
  • The influence of wealth in any election, sharpens the focus on the issue of inequality in our country.
  • The deluge of spending in elections takes a toll on the effectiveness of individual lawmakers who have far less time to listen to constituents and colleagues or to craft clear public policy because they are so busy raising funds for their re-election. People for the American Way says that U.S. senators must raise at least $4,600 each day of their 6-year term (including weekends and holidays) and representatives must raise approximately $2000 each day of their 2-year term just to reach the average amount needed for reelection.

These unattractive effects of “big money” in elections have not deterred its active role in the contests underway in the 2014 midterms. Eric Pianin, writing in the Fiscal Times on August 8, says that with control of the House and Senate at stake, this forthcoming election is shaping up as one of the hardest hitting and costliest on record, with outside money pouring into all competitive contests. Voters are being targeted by political strategists who get their funding from a “new breed of plutocrats and kingmakers whose names they’ve never heard.” Outside groups are working hard to determine the outcome of elections that used to be controlled by voters, unless these voters are well-informed and are able to distinguish between propaganda and truth, often a difficult and time-consuming task.

Super PACs have become a virtual requirement in competitive congressional elections, according to Saul Anunzis, formerly the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. As he told the Washington Post recently, “Anybody giving advice to campaigns that did not recommend super PACs as part of the strategy mix would be committing political malpractice.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics (stated in an editorial in the New York Times on August 3), there are at least 64 super PACs dedicated to individual candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections, and they have already spent more than $21 million on ads, polls and robocalls. Two years ago there were just 42. Nearly all of this year’s Senate races include a super PAC that is spending unlimited donations from unnamed sources. But in many cases, the candidates have close ties to the donors and know exactly who they are. These candidates also know the people who decide how to spend the money.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to avoid the appearance of “corruption.” Critics accuse regulators of having a generally lax enforcement stance, especially when it pertains to many super PACs funded by independent advocacy groups. Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the U.S., claims that PAC systems have now become a huge funnel for corrupting elected officials across the country, as she told CNN in April 2014.

As long as candidates from both parties are benefiting from super PAC money, there is little hope of congressional relief. So what are some responses to the issue? As one would expect, they differ.

First, Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School with close ties to Silicon Valley and to Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush, recently formed “Mayday,” a super PAC, to fight money with money. Mayday began a $12-million advertising campaign on July 30 to help elect candidates of both parties who support efforts to diminish the influence of big donors.

One of Mayday’s efforts is to advocate for more giving by small donors, hoping in this way to dilute the influence of “big money,” taking a leaf from President Obama’s fundraising tactics of 2008. Another effort is underway in Congress, where Mayday allies are urging lawmakers to support legislation sponsored by Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD-03) called the “Government by the People Act” or that of Representative Tom Petri (R-WI-06) called the “Citizen Involvement in Campaigns Act.” Both measures offer tax credits or vouchers to people who make small donations. However, neither of these bills made any headway before the congressional summer recess. “What Mayday wants is to elevate the issue overall as one of the most important issues in the election,” says one ardent supporter.

The Mayday PAC will be initiated through a buy of about $4 million in ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters tend to be more receptive to the anti-big money message, advertising is cheaper than in many parts of the country, and any victories will be noticed especially by presidential aspirants.

A second response to the gusher of unlimited money into election campaigns is through a proposed Constitutional Amendment to Restore Democracy to the American People (SJRes.19) sponsored by Senator Tom Udall (D-CO) and supported by many Democratic lawmakers and reform groups. The constitutional amendment gives Congress and the states the authority to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money on elections and, among other things, attempts to advance the fundamental principle of equality for all. The Senate plans to vote on the amendment before the end of 2014, but this effort has little support among Republicans. If it is supported in both the House (highly problematic) and the Senate (not likely), then it faces the uphill battle of passage throughout the states.

For those who have surrendered in the fight to achieve any legislative triumph or who won’t “embrace the irony” (as Lessig calls Mayday) and don’t support “fighting money with money,” or are weary of the series of defeats they have suffered since Citizens United, a third effort that stops short of reversing the trend of super PACs is to bring greater transparency to the entire fundraising enterprise. These advocates (e.g. Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, Campaign Legal Center) are calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require satellite and cable broadcasters to disclose who is paying for the political ads that they air and how much they’re spending, similar to rules that as of July 1 apply to individual TV stations. The whole idea behind this effort is to give Americans access to information about the identity of the people or group(s) bankrolling the ad campaign. An August 1article from “Moyers and Company” outlined this transparency effort and further steps reformers would like to see the FCC undertake.

Even though none of the preceding proposals sounds very optimistic and we are concerned that the role of “big money” in elections heightens the tendency toward plutocracy and inequality with their corrupting powers, it is important to remember that concerned citizens of both parties as well as good government groups are pushing toward a restructure of financing elections and will hopefully succeed before long.

It is certainly possible that the failures of any proposals mentioned could bolster efforts long underway on public financing of elections. As I’ve noted in a previous blog (“McCutcheon v. FEC: A Damaging Supreme Court Decision”), more than 10 states have already successfully experimented with publicly-funded elections at the local level. Whatever the chosen method, we must work to change the current system of funding elections before we completely lose what’s left of our democracy. We have often said that NETWORK believes in a world of economic justice; now we have an added reason to be involved in achieving it.

Blog: Can Democracy Survive Voter Suppression Laws and Flood of “Big Money” into Election Coffers? (Part 1)

Can Democracy Survive Voter Suppression Laws and Flood of “Big Money” into Election Coffers? (Part 1)

By Carolyn Burstein
August 12, 2014

It sometimes seems like our once-brave experiment with democracy is today under siege with the proliferation of voter suppression laws being passed by states and localities and the Supreme Court upholding near-unbridled use of money in elections, which has eviscerated campaign reform efforts. But this is neither the first nor last time we must choose democracy and social justice over discrimination and plutocracy. Fortunately, thousands of individuals and groups have joined to wage this struggle.

This blog will be the first of two. Today’s will focus on the first problem — the gutting of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 in the Supreme Court decision Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder (Shelby, for short) handed down in June 2013. Last week (August 6) we celebrated the 49th anniversary of that significant day. The next blog will concern the issue of “big money” in the upcoming mid-term elections of 2014.

Let’s start with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of legislation that enshrines the key principles of fair voting rights so important in a democracy. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, the VRA prohibits any state or local government from imposing laws that result in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Until recently, the law enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in Congress and was reauthorized four times, most recently in 2006. Just one telling statistic from an article by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) in the August 6, 2014 issue of The Root demonstrates how significant the VRA is: only 6.7% of eligible Black Mississippians were registered to vote in 1962; by 1969 that figure jumped to 66.5%.

The Brennan Center for Justice calls the VRA “a uniquely effective law” that blocked 86 legislative discriminatory actions through its administrative process and several more through litigation just from 1998 to 2013.

This state of affairs changed dramatically in June 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby that a key enforcement provision in the VRA (Section 5) was unconstitutional. This provision, known as the “coverage formula,” encompassed those jurisdictions that had engaged in the most egregious voting discrimination in 1965. The Court reasoned that Section 5 was no longer responsive to current conditions.

Even before Shelby, the laws and practices included in the VRA were under attack, but the VRA enabled the federal government to deal forcefully with the state or locality. The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that has filed and handled many lawsuits against offending jurisdictions, maintains that an unprecedented campaign to suppress voting among students, minorities, immigrants, ex-felons and the elderly has occurred in the past few years, especially since 2010. For example, repeated attempts have been made to purge voter databases with the intent of disenfranchising certain voters.

Indeed, the Advancement Project was correct. An investigative report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) uncovered the presence of a systematic campaign that was orchestrated particularly since the mid-term election of 2010, funded largely by David and Charles Koch through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In 2011 alone, 38 states introduced legislation designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

While many of these efforts are longstanding, in the one year since Shelby, the Brennan Center for Justice has discerned three major impacts of the Supreme Court decision:

  • Section 5 (the key enforcement provision) no longer blocks discriminatory voting practices, which have reached epidemic proportions
  • Challenging discriminatory laws and practices is now more difficult, expensive and time-consuming
  • The public now lacks critical information about voting that Section 5 had made mandatory prior to changing any voting laws or practices

The first impact identified by the Brennan Center receives the most commentary because it focuses on the extensive discrimination in all voter-suppression efforts. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a report in June 2014 entitled “The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination.” The new report details 148 separate instances of racial discrimination in voting since 2000. Each activity might impact tens of thousands of voters and, as large as these numbers might be, they undoubtedly underestimate the dire situation because the numbers represent only reported and documented cases. Some key findings of the report include:

  1. Racial discrimination in voting remains a significant problem in our democracy.
  2. The problem of racial discrimination in voting is not limited to one region of the country.
  3. Voting discrimination occurs most often in local elections.
  4. Discrimination in voting manifests itself in many ways, and new methods continue to emerge.

Since the Shelby decision, voter suppression laws have been unleashed throughout the country, including polling place closures, discriminatory voter ID laws, new restrictions on early voting, and the elimination of majority-black and -Latino districts for local elections. These discriminatory practices have come to light in several states including Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina. In 2014 alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), voter ID legislation was introduced in 24 states. NCSL says that 11 states have strict voter ID laws – 8 with strict photo ID laws and 3 with strict non-photo ID laws. Twenty states have less strict voter-ID laws. The remaining 19 states currently require no documentation to vote.

With respect to photo-ID laws, CAP reports that 11% of American citizens, but 25% of African-Americans, do not possess a government-issued photo ID (over 21 million people), and three of the photo-ID bills to have passed – in South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee – expressly do not allow students to use photo IDs issued by state educational institutions to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice says that Mississippi plans to enforce its photo-ID law in this next election cycle, despite the fact that 35% of the state’s voting-age population lives more than 10 miles from the nearest office that issues photo IDs and 13 contiguous counties with sizable African-American populations lack a single full-time driver’s license office.

An often overlooked feature of the VRA that helped ensure enfranchisement of minority voters was the deployment of federal observers. To ensure fair elections from 1995 to 2012, more than 10,700 federal observers were sent to polls in the states and localities covered by Section 5. Without these observers, voters are much more vulnerable to discrimination.

A report issued by the National Commission on Voting Rights last week said that jurisdictions previously covered under parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court eliminated, “continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately affect African-American, Latino, Asian and Native-American voters.”

Without a doubt, the most restrictive voter suppression laws were passed in the state of North Carolina – a strict photo-ID requirement, a drastic cut-back on early voting, a reduction in the period for voter registration, and an inability for a ballot to be deemed “provisional” if cast in the wrong precinct. Nearly all are being challenged by the North Carolina NAACP, the Advancement Project. and the League of Women Voters.

It’s exceedingly difficult to deny that voter suppression laws are politically motivated because a major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter. Out of the 300 million votes cast during that period, only 86 people were convicted of voter fraud, and nearly all of these cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. Since these findings are fairly well-known, one has to conclude that governors who are signing new voting restrictions have solutions that are searching for a problem.

As former President Bill Clinton said in 2012, “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

Section 5’s loss will be felt most acutely at the local level, which was the focus of most discriminatory changes under the VRA. The Brennan Center for Justice indicates that 10 of the 15 states that had been covered in whole or in part by Section 5 had introduced new restrictive legislation that would make it more difficult for minority voters to cast a ballot. Many of these restrictions involved redrawing of district boundaries to impede minority (sometimes African-American, sometimes Latino) participation in local elections.

The second effect of the Shelby ruling is to make challenging discriminatory voting laws more difficult, expensive and time-consuming. When Section 5 was still in effect, the VRA enabled prior federal review to ensure nondiscrimination before any new voting law went into effect. That meant that the vast majority of actions were accomplished through an administrative process that was cheaper, faster and easier than litigation. An administrative process is no longer an option. Parties who challenge discriminatory laws can only do so ex post facto and face lengthy court filings, motions, notices and briefs, both large and small, all of which add to the time and expense of the litigants. And this is true even when lawsuits are consolidated, as they have been in a number of jurisdictions.

The third impact of the Shelby decision is a lack of transparency for thousands of election laws. Formerly, Section 5 required any change to a voting law or practice to include input from the public, during the review or practice of the law as well as during court litigation, if any. There was also a centralized method for monitoring any changes before they were implemented and a notification process after implementation. Since all of this is gone, thousands of changes to voting procedures may go unnoticed by the voting public. Such a lack of transparency also means an absence of accountability. There is now no centralized method for keeping the community informed of election-law changes.

It should be clear that any attempt to claim that the loss of Section 5 of the VRA is trivial is woefully wrong. Interestingly, Attorney General Eric Holder has been doubling his efforts to get this message across to his audiences as he crisscrosses the country speaking out on the issue of voter suppression. There is little doubt that he views voting rights as a defining moral question for this country. But his tough talk also includes action. As July ended, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed two separate “friend-of-the-court” briefs, one arguing against Wisconsin’s voter-ID law (already struck down by a federal judge and currently on appeal), and the other in opposition to Ohio’s recent cuts to early voting and same-day registration. MSNBC reports that these actions mark the first time that DOJ has intervened in voting disputes outside jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the VRA. These interventions follow up on lawsuits already brought by DOJ last year against Texas’s ID law (which Holder called a “poll tax” in one of his speeches) and North Carolina’s sweeping voting laws.

In January 2014, a group of bipartisan lawmakers, led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the Voting Rights Act Amendment (VRAA) in the Senate, and a companion bill was also introduced in the House. The VRAA offers nationwide protections for all threats to citizens’ voting rights with new tools to halt voting discrimination before it occurs. It ensures that proposed election changes are transparent and that jurisdictions that discriminate are held accountable. Many of the key provisions that allowed the VRA to effectively counter voting discrimination have been brought up-to-date, and most significantly, applied nationwide to all jurisdictions. The VRAA would immediately apply to four states – Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, but would act to remedy current voting discrimination wherever it occurs. However, while the Senate has at least begun to hold hearings, the House has not yet even considered the VRAA. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), has said he “isn’t sure new legislation is needed.”

NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials; NHLA, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; and MALDEF, the Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America are among the many organizations supporting the VRAA. Reports of these groups have outlined numerous examples throughout the country of Latino voting discrimination, indicating that it is obvious, egregious and far-reaching. Most telling is the fact that almost seven million Latinos eligible to vote live in jurisdictions previously subject to the requirements of Section 5 and since the Shelby decision are without those protections. The anti-democratic practices we have referred to above are enumerated in their reports — purges of voter lists, redistricting without warning, proof of citizenship for voter registration and restrictive voter-ID requirements. They call for a return of federal observers for all elections to ensure compliance with voting rights laws and are correct in stating strongly that it is a myth that voting discrimination has disappeared.

Eric Holder, himself, has pushed for an even stronger version of the VRAA, especially in the area of voter-ID laws. Recently, he has teamed up with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) in an effort to restore voting rights to some felons. MSNBC said on August 6, that “his commitment to ensuring access to the ballot for all eligible Americans could stand out as his most important achievement.”

We know that greater voter participation strengthens our nation and democracy. The future vitality of our democracy depends on encouraging efforts to pass the VRAA so that all people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, class, age, or gender can, without difficulty, carry out the precious privilege of voting. The fact that the United States is now a democracy does not mean that it is a foregone conclusion that it will always remain so. We must be vigilant and work to protect the rights of all to partake of the benefits and responsibilities of our democracy; working for the common good demands no less. “We the People” must cherish our vision of equity and social justice for all the people.

Blog: Where Do We Stand Today on Voting Rights?

Where Do We Stand Today on Voting Rights?

By Carolyn Burstein
May 30, 2014

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of federal legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and later amended five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, it prohibits any state or local government from imposing any laws that result in discrimination against racial or language minorities.

In light of Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and voter suppression laws of the past few years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sounds downright quaint, despite being a highly effective piece of civil rights legislation. A reminder: the Shelby County v. Holder decision struck down the “coverage formula,” which encompassed jurisdictions that engaged in the most egregious voting discrimination in 1965, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions.

For the past six years, we have been witnessing an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress students, minorities, immigrants, ex-felons and the elderly from voting, according to the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that has filed and handled many of the lawsuits against offending jurisdictions.

Rolling Stone magazine reports that Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls, quoting Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and influential conservative activist, saying back in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Thanks to sentiments like his, a systematic campaign has been orchestrated particularly since the mid-term election of 2010, funded largely by David and Charles Koch through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), uncovered by an investigative report by the Center for American Progress (CAP). In 2011 alone, 38 states introduced legislation designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

Many state legislatures have defeated these attempts, but a dozen have succeeded in approving obstacles to voting, such as voter-ID laws; restrictions on voter registration (such as placing onerous filing requirements on groups like the League of Women Voters), early voting (such as eliminating many days, especially Sundays — when many African-Americans tend to vote — formerly allowed), student voting (such as allowing voting only if students registered their cars in the state) and provisional ballots; barring ex-felons who have served their sentences from voting; and voter purges. Collectively, these laws are a significant burden for many eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right. The five worst states for voting rights in 2011 and 2012 were Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Kansas. The picture has changed somewhat in 2013 and 2014, as we’ll see below.

CAP reports that 11% of American citizens, but 25% of African-Americans, do not possess a government-issued photo ID (over 21 million citizens!) and three of the photo ID bills to have passed — in South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee — expressly do not allow students to use photo IDs issued by state educational institutions to vote.

According to CAP, the chief sponsor of Georgia’s voter ID legislation, Representative Sue Burmeister (R-Augusta), told the Justice Department the bill would keep more African-Americans from voting, which was fine with her since “if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud.”

As former President Bill Clinton said in 2012, “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

Republicans maintain that they are waging a virtuous campaign to crack down on rampant voter fraud, yet there is scant proof because voter fraud is exceedingly rare. According to Rolling Stone magazine, a major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter. Out of the 300 million votes cast during that period, only 86 people were convicted for voter fraud, and most of those cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility.

Fortunately, the courts are blocking GOP-passed voter suppression laws, including in crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. “It is a remarkable development that courts across the country have almost uniformly rejected every single law passed making it harder for eligible citizens to vote,” says Wendy Weisser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “This is a clear rejection of attempts by politicians to manipulate the election laws for political gain.” It’s important to note that voter suppression laws have not been blocked unanimously, but the pushback against these laws has been extraordinary, sending a strong signal that restrictions on the right to vote are unconstitutional, discriminatory and unnecessary.

In the past few months, the courts have continued to hand down decisions that have upset Republican plans to suppress voting. The New York Times reports that the residents in Arizona and Kansas can register to vote using a federal form without having to show proof of citizenship; voter ID laws in both Arkansas and Wisconsin have been struck down; and finally, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has become the most prominent member of his party to distance himself from campaigns for voting restrictions, declaring that these alienate the very people that the Republicans should be wooing.

Outside of a federal law that requires first-time voters to show a photo ID, state laws are completely inconsistent on this issue. During 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), voter ID legislation has been introduced in 24 states. NCSL says that 11 states have strict voter ID laws — 8 with strict photo ID laws and 3 with strict non-photo ID laws. Twenty states have less strict voter ID laws. The remaining 19 states currently require no documentation to vote.

Thanks to Judge Lynn Adelman, who invalidated the Wisconsin law in April 2014 that required a voter to present a government-issued ID, like a driver’s license or passport, judges in other states now have a detailed road map for challenges to similar laws. She found that over 300,000 Wisconsin voters, or 9% of all voters in Wisconsin, lacked the required ID — more than twice the margin of victory in the most recent election for governor. Judge Adelman found that most of these voters were lower-income and poorly educated residents who faced substantial barriers to getting the documents needed to obtain a photo ID. Furthermore, since the law had a disproportionate impact on minority voters, it also violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This finding hands a potent weapon to challengers of similar laws in Texas and North Carolina — two states that are the focus of current efforts. “Latino Decisions”, an organization focused on Latino opinion research, and the Wisconsin ACLU, carried out the research that was critical to the ruling, according to the Daily Kos.

This past week, all eyes were on developments in North Carolina. The North Carolina NAACP, the Advancement Project, and the League of Women Voters filed a brief against a dizzying array of impediments to voting passed by the North Carolina legislature in 2013. “Without same-day registration [a common practice in that state until this year], without the full schedule of early voting, without voter protection from vigilante poll watchers, without the ability to cast provisional ballots if you mistakenly go to the wrong precinct, people in North Carolina will be disenfranchised during November’s critical elections,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. The legal team is confident that their challenge to the law will be successful.

But because of the amount of time that challenges to the law take, the Southern Coalition of Social Justice and the ACLU have requested the Federal Court to put North Carolina’s voter suppression law “on hold” for the 2014 midterm election.

One helpful device that will aid states in improving their electoral performance is courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts in conjunction with MIT. PEW has launched a revised Elections Performance Index (EPI), an online tool that provides the first comprehensive assessment of election administration in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is now possible, by using data from the 2012 election, to compare performance across the states and across election years. By juxtaposing the lowest-performing states with the highest-performing states, a clear picture emerges of the distinctions between the two on the 17 indicators.

Seven of these indicators are of primary interest to this article. They relate to voter registration rates, turnout, registration or absentee ballot problems, provisional ballots (cast or rejected), and online registration availability. The entire interactive report can be viewed online at www.pewstates.org/epi-interactive.

Our vision of equity and social justice naturally allies us with those who are fighting any kind of discrimination, whether it be racism, classism, ageism or gender discrimination. The common good demands that all people share the benefits and responsibilities of a democratic society, and a most precious benefit/responsibility is the privilege of voting — letting our voice be heard. For these and many other reasons of justice, NETWORK supports those who are working against voter suppression laws across the country and invites others to do the same.

Blog: Post-election analysis by NETWORK Staff

Post-election analysis by NETWORK Staff

By Jean Sammon
November 08, 2012

The day after the election, NETWORK staff held a conference call for our members to discuss what we see going forward.

You can hear a recording of that call here:  http://youtu.be/ZR3KBJrfmEI

These are some of the things we talked about:

  • What changed in Congress, and what didn’t
  • How to use the state platforms that were created as part of the Election2012: Catholics vote for the Common Good project
  • Power shifting in the electorate — from white men to women, people of color, and low-income people
  • What will happen in the Lame Duck session of Congress
  • Three projects that NETWORK is now focused on: Faithful Budget, Mend the Gap, and Medicaid expansion
  • The “Catholic vote” and Catholic values

Blog: Will the State of the Union Speech be a Winner?

Blog: Will the State of the Union Speech be a Winner?

Jean Sammon
Jan 09, 2012

President Obama gives the State of the Union speech on Tuesday January 24.

NETWORK will be watching to see if the President talks about things we support.

Please join us.  You can use our handy bingo-like chart as you watch the speech. And then let us know what you think.

 

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Election 2012 Matters!

Election 2012 Matters!

By Eric Gibble
November 28, 2011

Over the past three years, tremendous achievements have been made on multiple fronts. Attempts to completely dismantle the security of the most vulnerable in our society have been averted. Unemployment benefits have been extended. The Iraq occupation is ending. But this is all at stake.

Your voice is just as important as your vote. We the people must engage in a national conversation for the common good.

After many months of gridlock on Capitol Hill, many now feel detached, frustrated and upset with Democrats and Republicans alike. But as NETWORK’s Executive Director Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, explains in this video, this election may be the most important of our lifetime.

ursus.