League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania Lawsuit

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania will be filing a lawsuit in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

The League, with individual plaintiffs from each of the 18 congressional districts, is challenging the loss of representation caused by the partisan gerrymandering of our congressional district map.

All involved in the suit hope for timely redress of our existing distorted lines. All also agree that the ultimate goal is an independent redistricting commission ensuring a permanent solution to the current conflict of interest.

Redistricting efforts have had some great coverage lately. Two highlights we’d love for you to watch and share:

from PennLive: It’s time to fix PA’s broken redistricting system

from Fox43: Pennsylvania Divided: Gerrymandering in the Commonwealth

Thank you for your continued support as we continue to work to restore a representative democracy where every vote counts and every voice is heard.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but we are well on our way.

Voting Rights In the Wind?

How_to_Steal_an_Election_-_Gerrymandering.svgThe right to vote is a foundation of American democracy, along with freedom of speech and the press. When the Supreme Court speaks on the subject, or even just listens, it has an importance well beyond the seemingly minute legal details that the Justices can take up. On December 8 two voting rights cases came before the Court.

Voters are slotted into districts from which they choose their members of Congress and their state legislators. Although individual ballots are secret, today computers can tell us a lot about voting habits, and can redesign districts to shape the outcome of elections. Increasingly, elected officials know how to use this technology to choose their voters and assure their continuation in office.

One of the  two cases before the Court was the oral argument in Evenwel v. Abbott, in which Texas citizens complain that the number of registered voters varies widely between voting districts. They want the Court to require equal registration in each voting district, even if that results in widely different populations represented.  The second docket was Shapiro v. McManus, in which the Court unanimously decided that the challengers to a gerrymandered voting district in Maryland made out a case for a  three-judge trial court.

Historically the establishment of voting districts was a state legislative matter, a political matter that received very little attention from the Court.   As population moved and changed, often voting maps stayed the same, resulting in very large inequalities in representation.  Then in Baker v. Carr in 1962, the Court declared that unequal districting could be justiciable, and two years later declared that fair voting districts must have closely equal population. Since then, redistricting carried out every 10 years has focused on population equality.

Evenwel argued that population may be equal, but there are 50% more voters registered in his Texas district than the number of voters in some other districts.  Therefore he claimed that his vote has less weight than votes of those in the other districts. But is this a denial of equal protection under the Constitution?

History favors the present practice. The Constitution allocates congressional districts among the states in proportion to total population, not voter registration. Women and children were counted well before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. The ignoble three-fifths compromise was based on the number of slaves, none of whom could vote. For the 60 years that we have had the need to equalize voting districts, population has been the measure.  Almost every state follows the same model in drawing the voting maps for the  state legislature as well.

The State of Texas argued for allowing states to continue to base districts on equalizing population. Counting voter registration, not population, would seem to exclude people who cannot vote from representation: immigrants who are not yet citizens, undocumented people, those who are less than 18 years old, as well as those who decline to vote for religious reasons.  Philosophically, legislators are expected to represent and serve all people, not just registered voters.

More practically, voter registration changes materially in ways that population usually does not. Before a presidential election, registration rises. If those registered decline to vote in “off year” elections, state law may strike them from the polls. Moreover, our reapportionment is based on the national decennial census which does not try to document voter registration, usually purely a matter of state law.

What appears clear is that Evenwel’s proposition, if adopted, would significantly shift voting power from urban to rural areas. So there is much riding on the Court’s decision, which is expected in June 2016.

Shapiro presents a seemingly narrow question but has the Court watchers sifting the tea leaves for some hint that the gerrymander problem may be seriously addressed in the future.

In a district that is gerrymandered to favor one party, voters of the other party may as well stay home. They cannot hope to alter the result in an election. In such districts, important decisions are made in the primary, but only the primary of the favored party. In most states a voter can take part only in the primary of the party in which he is registered.

An obvious inconsistency in the Court’s jurisprudence is the exacting attention to equalizing the population of districts, while allowing gerrymandered districts in which disfavored voters need not even go to the polls. It is estimated that 90% of congressional districts are “safe” seats in which one party has control; how many of these districts are intentionally gerrymandered is less clear, but it is surely an important number.

Federal law grants a person challenging the constitutionality of a voting district the right to a three-judge district court for trial. In this case individuals challenged their district on grounds that it was formed from two separate areas, linked by a “ribbon” and created solely to disenfranchise the voters in the smaller half of the barbell shape.

A single judge of the United States District Court for Maryland decided that the plaintiffs did not have a claim sufficient to go to trial, based on an unbroken line of rulings of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts that district maps — except in cases of racial discrimination — are non-justiciable. Reasoning that the plaintiffs had not shown a claim sufficient to even get to a trial, the single judge rejected the claim for a three-judge court and dismissed their case.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case. Justice Antonin Scalia, usually in the vanguard in cases dismissing gerrymander claims, wrote the brief opinion ruling that the plaintiff voters’ claim against the barbell district could not be dismissed as “insubstantial.”

Alone, that ruling might itself be insubstantial. But Scalia chose to find support in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Vieth v. Jubelier in 2004. That case is the leading modern decision that election districts are political and non-justiciable.

In concurring with that decision, Justice Kennedy stated: “I would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief [in a future case] if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution …” Justice Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court in Vieth, and included an extensive critique chiding Justice Kennedy’s “never say never approach.”  It seems that “never” may have arrived.

So should we hope that Justices Scalia and Kennedy have now discovered that some gerrymanders are “justiciable” and will join with the more liberal wing of the Court to grant voters relief in Shapiro or future cases? Stay tuned for more words from the Court.

Note: The author is chair of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, one of the nonprofit groups participating in briefs before the Supreme Court in these two cases.

Allow Pennsylvanians to Vote and Count Their Votes

PA-07_zpsd6ab2432— by Ben Turner

State Reps. Brian Sims (Philadelphia), Scott Conklin (Centre) and Tina Davis (Bucks) are introducing a package of three bills to help Pennsylvanian voters:

  • Making it easier to vote: Sims introduced House Bill 1506 which would allow in-person absentee ballot voting before primary and general elections and no-excuse-needed absentee ballot voting by mail. It has been referred to the House State Government Committee.
  • Redistricting reform: Davis and Sims will introduce House Bill 1637 to create an Independent Redistricting Commission, similar to the one recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ended partisan gerrymandering in Arizona.
  • Automatic voter registration: Conklin and Sims have introduced a bill (H.B. 1306) to set up automatic voter registration of all eligible people who obtain a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver identification card, with provisions for opting out within 21 days. Similar legislation has already expanded voter rolls in Oregon and California.

[Read more…]

Why We Need the Voting Rights Act


“The First Vote”, wood engraving by Alfred Rudolph Waud, from the title page of Harper’s Weekly 11 (568) November 16, 1867.

Many of us are too young to remember the 1960s or never experienced the systematic racism found in certain states in that era, so in light of last week’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which overturned Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, it is helpful to recall the historical context which made the Voting Rights Act an essential part of our democracy.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.

Following the jump is an example of a “literacy” test which was used in Louisiana in 1964. On its face (prima facie) the test is “unbiased;” nothing in the test explicitly favors one race over another. However, the test is clearly designed so that no one can truly succeed — especially a would-be black voter with access only to the sort of education provided to blacks in the South at that time. “Designed to put the applicant through mental contortions, the test’s questions are often confusingly worded. If some of them seem unanswerable, that effect was intentional. The (white) registrar would be the ultimate judge of whether an answer was correct.”

Find out if you would have been allowed to vote in Louisiana prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The test follows the jump. Click here for the “answers”.

Slanted Media?

One phrase I have kept hearing from conservatives is about the “left-liberal-slanted news media.” It’s a convenient scapegoat for them to bring up, for when facts don’t go their way, like in how the Viet Nam war fared for our government, or how unpopular the war had become, or of the rightness of the Civil Rights movement or the other freedom movements that came from it, such as for women, LGBT people, Native Americans, Hispanics, etc.

The phrase “working the ref,” from baseball, describes the conservatives attempt to bully and dominate the news media-the coach of a team accuses the referee of bias in favor of the other team, hoping the referee will in future be biased his way. But if the referee knows he’s being “worked,” and if he has a modicum of backbone, he could see through this act and resist it.

The truth is the “mainstream news” media errs to the right, not offending corporations (such as the media are), hinting at us how we should think about issues. Even NPR I notice biases towards the Republicans when it discusses the election and how Congress (mis)handles such issues as the federal budget deficit (rung up under George W. Bush) and not mentioning how the Congressional Republican (mis)leadership just acts out of denying Obama a second term.

For my part, I noticed the “mainstream news” media follow the Occupy movement a couple of weeks after it started at Wall Street; alternative media sites, like Buzzflash and AlterNet, followed it first, and the corporate media picked up on it later. It’s corporate owners who dictate to their editors what the news should be; Fox News is the most horrific example, but it’s the same way with other news outlets. I believe that you read the “mainstream” news first, to get a baseline for what’s going on, but also read alternative media to get deeper into the issue; and try to get hold of foreign media, they would have a far different, maybe better, perspective of events than American media does.

 

Discussion on Voter ID Laws in Pennsylvania

A panel discussion about voter ID laws in Pennsylvania took place at the Liberties Bar and Restaurant, in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties area. The discussion was sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Jewish labor Committee (JLC) in collaboration with the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).

Referring to the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision suspending provisions of the voter ID law, Hornstein said, “We’re going to pivot the energy from making sure everyone has the proper ID, which is of course what the right-wing wanted us to be focused on, to actually getting out the vote.

More after the jump.
“The Jewish Labor Committee,” added Hornstein, “is really about building bridges between the Labor community and the Jewish community. Back in my grandmother’s day, Jews and Labor were synonymous. Nowadays, except for teachers and some classifications of work, Jews are now highly represented in the Labor movement, except on staffs. We feel it’s important, because the Jewish community is generally a progressive community, and generally in tune with what the Labor movement does, if they knew what was going on.”

Hornstein introduced the panel: Laura Wentz, Executive Vice-President of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and member of IATSE Local 8; Elizabeth McElroy, Secretary-Treasurer of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO; State Senator Daylin Leach; and Anne Gemmell, Political Director of Fight for Philly.

Fighting the voter ID bills was, as Dalyin Leach put it, “in the last few months my full-time job…One of my most recent experiences was debating (House Republican Leader) Mike Turzai on Fox News.” Leach described Turzai as “just out of it, reading notes and talking to people off camera during the debate.”

Judge Robert Simpson, added Leach, “was not considering the constitutionality of voter ID, as was often misrepresented in the press. Judge Simpson was considering the preliminary injunction, (and) to grant a preliminary injunction, you are not required to find that a law in unconstitutional, all you have to find is that there is a reasonable likelihood (that there is) a strong case that it’s unconstitutional.” The State Supreme Court said, added Leach, that “in order for this law to survive for the 2012 election, the judge had (to hold) another hearing and find, as a factual matter, that everyone in Pennsylvania who wanted an ID could feasibly get an ID.”

Pointing out that many of the 71 offices of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) were only open one day a week, Leach said, “If you take the total number of PennDOT hours, and the total number of people that need these IDs, every PennDOT office would essentially have to give out a thousand IDs a day. If a thousand people showed up to a PennDOT office, 970 of them would be sent home.”

Of the claim that the voter ID bills were designed to eliminate voter fraud, Leach said, “Any remedy you craft has to be in response to an actual problem. In-person voter fraud is not an actual problem, in that it never happens…People tend not to commit extremely high-risk, no-reward crimes-that’s just human nature.” Leach also raised the danger of “fistfights as polls, as people who voted for fifty years showed up at the polls show up and the person who’s been signing them in for fifty years told them they couldn’t vote- that’s going to get very ugly. There’s going to be people challenging every single ID at certain polls, and that will create long lines and (they will) hope that people go away without voting.”

Ann Gemmell pointed out the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where “they sit around and create model legislation, and as soon as they get total control of a state house and senate, they start flying this legislation in, and it happened in Pennsylvania.’ Gemmell said that progressive have been “spending a lot of time and energy that could be spent on talking about Kathy Kane (running for Pennsylvania Attorney General) and registering voters.”

Liz McElroy reminded people that “Before 2006, no state had a law in their books for photo ID every time somebody voted. Today, now, at least thirty (states) do. That’s not an accident, if you think about what happened in those intervening six years in this country.” There are many people, said McElroy, “who think, what’s the big deal about voter ID? You need a (driver’s) license to but cigarettes, you need a license to buy beer, all these things you need ID to do. It’s not necessarily crazy right-wing people who are saying this, it’s our friends, neighbors, and union members.

“It’s a big deal because,” said McElroy, “it’s not my right to get on an airplane, (but) it’s my right to go into the voting booth and vote, so they’re very different things. It’s not my right to buy cigarettes or beer, but it’s my right to walk into a voting booth.” In the years from 2006, she added, “We’ve seen a relentless attack on workers, on teachers, on public employees- I’m not just talking union workers, (but on) all workers.” Companies, she said, want to “completely cut workers’ benefits and pay, and exploit them. You’ve got to work more hours for less money, (or) we’ll ship your job to China. That conversation has been around for a long time…The same people who are coming after us as workers, or as women (attacking) our reproductive rights, or as Gays and Lesbians, whatever category, they’re the same people who are going after our voting rights. It’s all tied together, and it’s really one of those issues that, truly, we’re all in it together.”  

Volunteers Wanted to Help Voters Meet New Photo ID Mandate

While we await a final ruling on Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law, we must assume the worse and try to mitigate the damage by minimizing the number of voters disenfranchised by the law.

(JSPAN) The Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition is continuing to canvass for residents who do not have photo identification that meets the new requirements to vote on election day. The Coalition is transporting those people to Department of Motor Vehicles license centers to apply for the necessary ID. You can volunteer to help by phone banking, joining the canvass, providing transportation, or greeting and assisting people at the license centers. – Ed.

Yet Another Theory Why Romney Won’t Show His Tax Returns

M. S. Bellows of the Guardian has an interesting theory about why Romney refuses to follow the tradition of disclosing his tax returns. Perhaps he is not so worried about the bottom line (how much taxes he paid) but the top lines (his mailing address)!

Tax returns require taxpayers to state their residence address, and the Romney returns already produced, although partially redacted, state clearly that they lived in ‘Belmont, MA 02478’ in 2012 (tax year 2011) and 2011 (tax year 2010)… But the Romneys, arbitrarily, refuse to disclose a copy of the returns they filed in 2010 or 2009 (for tax years 2009 and 2008) – which, perhaps not coincidentally, bracket the time period when Romney allegedly committed fraud by voting in Massachusetts when he actually resided in California. So here’s the question: did Romney put his son’s basement’s address on the returns he filed in 2009 and 2010? Or did he truthfully use his real (non-Massachusetts) address, thus implicating himself in voter fraud?

#Occupy, Teabaggers, Voting and Kreplach

Crossposted from Democratic Convention Watch

In this week's Time magazine, Bill Bradley has a column. Bradley was a three-term US senator, ran against Al Gore in the 2000 presidential primary, was a Rhodes scholar, plus he was some type of athlete. Smart guy. You can read his full column here. I agree with parts of it, disagree with others, and was struck by this:

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street offer contrasting examples of citizen involvement. The Tea Party promulgated a very specific objective — roll back government — and immediately converted its energy into electoral politics. The result was that in 2010, 49 Tea Party Republicans won election to Congress. Through their leverage in the Republican caucus, they almost forced the country into bankruptcy during the debate on the debt limit in the summer of 2011. That's how quickly things can change. That's how easily the status quo can crumble. Occupy, on the other hand, while full of passion and solidarity and armed with a catchy slogan — “We're the 99%” — failed to have much of an impact on policy because it had no specific objective. (Emphasis mine.)

Think about it: one election, one group, all that power. And it's more extreme than Bradley counted, if you include the state governments in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, just to name a few. If you doubt the power of a few, remember that yesterday, Jan Brewer signed legislation effectually banning Planned Parenthood, which Rick Perry did in Texas (now struck down by the courts), and that today marks the Democratic primary to challenge Scott Walker next month, and where Amendment 1 will likely pass in North Carolina. 

I don't know that Bradley's conclusion about Occupy is correct: the teabag contingent was already a movement without a name prior to their rising against the ACA in 2009. The people who comprise the teabaggers are the same racist, homophobic, anti-choice, anti-Semitic, gun-toting, poorly-educated, climate change deniers they've always been. The teabag banner just gave them a clubhouse they could all share with their vitriol. 

Occupy, on the other hand, is relatively young, and has not yet gone through a legitimate election cycle: we'll see whether or not the power of that voting bloc can be harnessed in November. And it is incumbent on us, the Democrats, to reach out and bring them into our tent. It may be a transient location. In France this past weekend, Sarkozy was ousted and much of his party replaced by Socialists who realize that “austerity” is a disaster, and government spending is the only way for Europe to recover from the sins and excesses of the right wing and their bankers. By 2014, Occupy may well be organized enough to be fielding candidates who legitimately embrace the money-out-of-politics, and related, goals. This year, their choice will be to join us, or sit out the election, possibly causing further inroads on the part of the far right.

It's an “ich kreplach” moment for Occupy. (If you don't know “ich kreplach“, it's after the jump.) The idea is that they hate the influence of corporations, their money and their power, on elections, politics, and sadly, democracy. They see both parties as having fallen into the grasp of that money pit.  If you ask them about individual issues, Occupy identifies with the mainline Democratic positions: gay marriage, cap and trade, more money for education, etc. In the end though, many do not want to vote because they don't see enough difference between the two major parties, and consider them both equally corrupt.

It is up to US as individuals, to move them from that spot. Bradley's conclusion is different than mine, he thinks the answer lies in expecting more from our politicians, and making them give concrete answers. His conclusion fails in the fact that it's easy to lie, get elected, and change sides. Or just be Mittens and have a position for everyone, given the time of day. My conclusion is that we must realize that the GOP, circa 2012, is the problem, and vanquishing them is the solution. Through any non-violent way possible. 

A shout out to John McCain, who is the last Republican to have done something decent. Yesterday, Mittens was faced at a town hall by a woman who said that Obama should be charged with treason. Like all Republican candidates faced with idiocy and racism on the part of an audience member, he just ignored it. Back in 2008, in the single best moment of his campaign, McCain was faced with a woman who said all sorts of nasty things about Obama in a similar forum. McCain took the mic back and said that while he disagreed with Obama on a number of issues, Obama was a decent man, and an American.

Mic check: Vanquish the GOP at the voting booth. Bring everyone you know. It's our only chance.

Ich Kreplach

Kreplach are little pieces of pasta covered meat often put in Jewish Chicken Soup. They look a lot like wontons.

So, the story goes, there's a kid who hates kreplach. His parents take him to a Chinese restaurant and send him into the kitchen, where he tastes the filling, and declares it delicious. He tastes the pasta and loves that, too. He eats a raw one and is enthralled.  He rejoins his parents at the table, they put a bowl of wonton soup in front of him and he says “ich, kreplach.”