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May 13, 2009

Election News Roundup: 4/29/09-5/7/09 (In memory of John Gideon)

By Ross Levin

This week: The highest ranking Green Party member in the nation switches parties, David Souter's impact on elections, flaws in voting machines, upcoming ballot initiatives across the nation, and much, much more!

::::::::

Unaltered from the original post at dailykos.com

  Before we begin, I would like to tell you some very sad news:  John Gideon of VotersUnite.org, the man who faithfully published Daily Voting News, has died.  He was born in 1947 and worked hard for voting rights of all kinds.  He was the inspiration for this series and a great source for news.  I, in fact, just talked to him for the first time a few weeks ago, and it's a tragic and shocking loss.  John Gideon posted Daily Voting News at various websites, including OpEdNews.  I will now post this series there, as well, but cannot hope to fill his void.

Election reform is one of the most important issues facing our country and our world right now, even if it doesn't get the coverage of torture or abortion.  The way that we run our elections and initiative processes determines who makes policy, the type of policy made, and the tone of our political discourse.  If we ignore it or take advantage of the electoral system, we our doing ourselves and our republic a disservice.

If you have any suggestions for a new title, any news tips, or want to volunteer to help a bit with this column (especially when I go away for the summer), please say so in the comments!

Now, onto the news...

Last week's poll - The results were pretty disappointing, with only 17 people voting.  The question was which alternative voting system is your favorite, and 8 people chose Instant Runoff/Ranked Choice.  Two chose Range/Score voting.  One chose approval voting.  Two chose to keep our current system, two chose "violent revolution," and two people said, "other."

Richard Carroll, the highest ranking Green in the nation, will switch parties - Richard Carroll, the Green Party’s only state legislator in the nation, will be switching his affiliation to the Democratic party.  He is in Arkansas, where Democrats currently control 71 out of 100 seats in the state House.  As a Green, Carroll passed a bill that lengthened independent candidates’ time to petition and established a program for deaf pages in the state House, among other things.  Carroll only joined the Greens in order to get on the ballot in 2008, and today he said, "I pretty well voted Democrat anyway, and I wasn’t basically a Green member prior to running for the seat. I felt like I needed to get with my core beliefs."  The Democrats planned to run someone against Carroll in 2010 if he did not change his party affiliation.  (Although Carroll was technically the highest-ranking, he did not represent the largest number of people - that honor belongs to Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, California, a city of over 100,000.)  From an article I wrote at Independent Political Report.

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Voting Rights Case - From Ballot Access News:

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in NAMUDNO v Holder, 08-322. The issue is the constitutionality of section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires local and state governments in part of the nation to submit election law changes to the U.S. Justice Department, before those changes can go into effect. Here is the AP story about the oral argument. UPDATE: here is the transcript, on the U.S. Supreme Court’s webpage. Thanks to Rick Hasen for that.

Panel on the National Popular Vote plan - New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg and Yale Law professor Akhil Reed Amar (who came up with the legal ideas supporting both the National Popular Vote plan and the National Initiative for Democracy) were on a panel at Harvard discussing the National Popular Vote compact.  Harvard Law Record.

Free Congressional Redistricting Tool Ready (by Kossack dgb) - dgb brings us a useful tool that anyone with basic computer skills and an interest in Congressional redistricting can use (and it's free!).  It allows you to draw your own districts based on cities, towns, old districts, census blocks, and your own knowledge.  In the right hands, this could be a great tool to hold our state representatives accountable in 2011 and stop them from gerrymandering, one of the more harmful practices carried out in state government.  I played around with the tool a bit and made a map of Washington state, and it was very interesting.  Here's the tool, and dgb's diary.

Justice David Souter to Retire  Ballot Access News brings us this history of Justice Souter's opinions on election-related cases:

Souter has never seemed very interested in the problems of minor parties or independent candidates. Although he wrote the ballot access decision Norman v Reed in 1992, which reiterated that strict scrutiny applies (which means that restrictions on ballot access are unconstitutional unless they are needed for a compelling state interest) later that year he was part of the majority in Burdick v Takushi, which said that strict scrutiny only applies if the burden is severe. The problem with that is that whether a burden is "severe" is utterly arbitrary.

Read the full thing here.  Election Law Blog also linked to this story about Souter and the Voting Rights Act.

Washington Governor Signs Bill Letting Some Ex-Felons Register to Vote - On Tuesday, the governor signed into law a bill that expands suffrage to felons who still owe "fines or restitution payments."  However, if they fall behind on the payments their right to vote is taken away.  Ballot Access News.

Louisiana Bill to Eliminate Primaries for Small Qualified Parties and Leave Them No Method to Nominate - From Ballot Access News:

Louisiana Representative Wayne Waddell (R-Shreveport) has introduced HB 776. It would deprive qualified parties of their own primary if they have fewer than 40,000 registered members...

Louisiana’s HB 776, by contrast, leaves them no legal means to nominate candidates. If HB 776 were to pass, individual members of ballot-qualified parties would pay their filing fees and go straight to the November ballot, and if two members of the same small qualified party filed for the same position, they both would appear on the November ballot. Such a result would split that party’s vote.

Upcoming ballot initiatives, referenda, and recalls - Upcoming direct democratic actions in the United States include some in Texas on May 9 (like the Hondo City Council recalls and a hotel referendum in Dallas) and a slew of them in various states on May 19.  These include Props 1A-1F in California (along with some local initiatives there) and local votes in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Washington.  Ballotpedia.

Colorado Senate Kills National Popular Vote Bill  From Ballot Access News:

On the evening of April 30, the Colorado Senate voted not to consider HB 1299, the National Popular Vote Plan bill. The bill’s sponsor asked the Senate to take the bill off the agenda, since he calculated that if it were considered, it would be defeated. It had passed the House earlier.

Do people care enough in Carefree, Arizona? - In the town of Carefree, Arizona the voters will decide on May 19 whether to start directly electing their mayor or continue leaving it up to their city council.  Hopefully they care enough to show up at the polls.  Ballotpedia.

Town of Nacogdoches, Texas votes on direct democracy - From Ballotpedia:

The Nacogdoches Petition to Allow Initiative is a proposed amendment to the city charter of Nacogdoches, Texas. If approved, the citizens of Nacogdoches could vote down or uphold decisions made by the city commissioners.

The petition was introduced by Dr. Paul Risk, the founder of Citizens Opposed to the Prison Site (COPS), a group that is protesting the building of a proposed federal private prison. If the measure is approved, COPS plan to use initiative to have a greater voice in decisions made by the city commission.

Bill Hedrick, candidate for Congress, answers my question - On Tuesday Kossack Bill Hedrick for Congress, who is running for a second time as a Democrat in California, responded to a comment of mine about election reform.  He is likely to be elected in 2010, so this is not posted here solely to stroke my ego.  Here was my question:

Since you know the pain of gerrymandering what would you do once in office to reform our election systems in this country?  There are too many problems to name - gerrymandering is one of the biggest and faulty voting machines and unfair ballot access laws and a plurality voting system that goes against the people's will (if we had a fairer system like IRV or proportional representation there's a good chance you would have been elected) and so much more.

So I ask, what would you do about these problems, especially since you've been personally touched by them?

He answered:

Thanks for bringing this issue up

As you have identified, there are plenty of problems with our current system.  First, I strongly support Instant Runoff Voting.  It will insure that those elected truly have the support of a majority of the electorate.  I also support FairVote.Org's call for a national elections commission to establish minimum national election standards.  Finally, I believe that the rush to privatize elections needs to be arrested.  The security of our elections system is the most important inheritance for Americans--and the process--machines, software, etc., should be publicly owned and absolutely transparent.

Not the best possible answer, but it is definitely encouraging to see someone running for office who is familiar and in favor of IRV, along with some other good election reforms.  I will probably donate a few bucks to his campaign, because someone who really understands the problems with our elections is rare in Congress (and so is someone in Congress who responds to comments on Dailykos!).

How Not to Reform the Initiative Process - From Joe Mathews at the Blockbuster Democracy blog of the New America Foundation:

Exhibit A is Nevada, where a bill would create a distribution requirement for signature gathering. That is, an initiative sponsor would have to get signatures equal to 10 percent of the vote in each of the state's 42 Assembly districts. That would effectively end ballot initiatives in the state. Such a process would be far too expensive and time-consuming for anyone but the wealthiest of the wealthy.

The initiative process badly needs reform. But a "reform" that merely adds unreasonable signature gathering requirements isn't worthy of the name. Yes, it perhaps should be harder to pass initiatives. But the focus should be on giving voters better choices, bringing the legislature into the process (in a way that improves voter choice but doesn't block voter preference), and fighting fraud in signature gathering. Nevada should look at adding the legislative counter proposal to its initiative process, making initiative petitions public as a fraud prevention measure, and improving the information it provides voters. That's real reform.

Too late to challenge voter intelligence - An opinion piece that offers an overview of the recent challenges to the North Dakota ballot initiative system and why they are bad for North Dakota's democracy.  The Dickinson Press.

Devil's Advocate:  Does Campaign Finance = Democracy? (by Kossack Vikingkingq) - Vikingkingq brings us a thoughtful piece about the realities of campaign finance reform and why it's not all it's cracked up to be.  Working in history, current events, and solidly based opinion, this is one of the best election reform opinion pieces I have ever seen - on Dailykos or elsewhere.  It's something that a lot of supposed reformers might not want to hear, because it challenges many people's assumptions on the topic, but it is definitely worth a read, and here is an excerpt:

Which makes the label of "reform" a tricky one. Among elite reformers in the Progressive Era, people who believed that voting should be a secret, individual, protected process; that government should be professionalized, and that political machines should be smashed, there has always been the undercurrent of dislike and distrust of poor people, immigrants (especially Catholics), and non-white voters "corrupting" the political process, and the desire to see the political process dominated by men of the right class. A lot of ink has been spilled about the extent of anti-democratic or elitist sentiment in the Progressive movement, but that's beyond the point. The question is what impact a lot of their reforms had. The written Australian ballot - introduced at a time when 17% of the population was illiterate - had a huge impact on the voting behavior of immigrants and African-Americans. The introduction of modern voter registration systems in the U.S offered huge opportunities to restrict access to the ballot on grounds of illiteracy, failure to pay taxes, or other qualifications. Non-partisan elections and the initiative system, especially in the state of California, have had the perverse effect of handing power over to incumbents (who have the name recognition to, for example, win both parties' primaries over less well-known opponents) and the wealthy (who have the cash to fund ballot initiative drives).

In sum, I think we need to be more careful about how we think about who counts as "reformers" and who counts as "special interests" and what "reforms" actually mean. Campaign finance is one of those areas where the rhetoric of reform often gets in the way of clear thinking about what we want. Ultimately, it's not the labor groups or the environmental groups or the women's groups or the NAACP that do or should bother reformers. The real threat to democracy is the unequal balance of power between the rich and the poor, between ordinary citizens and corporations in the political process. So as a campaign finance matter, I'd welcome the prohibition of all corporate lobbyist and PAC money from the Democratic Party. I'd also welcome measures to establish public funding of political parties and campaigns to balance; I'd welcome a progressive matching fund that added to the political donations of poor and working class voters and taxed the contributions of the wealthy.

Work-in-Progress Administration via Dailykos.

Colorado Senate Kills National Popular Vote Bill - From Ballot Access News:

On the evening of April 30, the Colorado Senate voted not to consider HB 1299, the National Popular Vote Plan bill. The bill’s sponsor asked the Senate to take the bill off the agenda, since he calculated that if it were considered, it would be defeated. It had passed the House earlier.

PIRG Releases Report, Recommending Automatic Voter Registration - The Public Interest Research Group has released a report recommending the following:

  1. A federal mandate should be passed to require affirmative and automatic registration. Specified and privacy protected data transfers and information sharing should occur from federal and state databases to the state voter rolls as a means of continuously updating the list.
* By eliminating the data entry
and duplicate and error
verification follow-up
responsibilities of local officials,
there will be large cost savings at
the county level.
  1. Federal funding should be provided to make it possible for states to

implement this mandate.

  1. States should also use specified private database transfers or information sharing to keep citizens on the rolls permanently at their

most up-to-date address.

  1. States should perform same-day balloting as a catch-all for citizens

who may have been missed in the automatic and permanent systems.

Richard Winger of Ballot Access News offers the following criticism:

The idea will be difficult to implement. There is no single government database that tells who is a citizen and who is not. Also it is not easy, in states which bar ex-felons from registering, to know about that variable. And because 29 states ask voters to choose a party on the voter registration form, even if automatic registration were implemented, there would be extra work involved in handling that question. Also, if the database is based on residence, that leaves the problems of homeless people, and also makes it difficult to administer situations in which some people have more than one residence.

Flaw found in electronic voting machines - Optical scan machines (which scan paper ballots) in Pennsylvania and California deleting votes without leaving a trace.  The Morning Call.

Significant election reforms to be discussed (and possibly implemented) in New York State - If you're a citizen of New York State, this is important news.  From now until November, hearings will be held on a series of election reform bills.  This past week the following bills were discussed:

The bill package for the April public hearings include:

   * S1616 (Senator Valesky) —Allows voters to register and vote on Election Day through a Constitutional amendment.
   * S3372 (Senator Addabbo) —Allows voters to register and vote on Election Day (once Constitution is amended).
   * Bill Number TBD —Reduces the deadlines for changing party enrollment to 25 days prior to an election for unaffiliated voters and 90 days for those already registered to a party.
   * S3996 (Senator Addabbo)  —Reduces the deadline by which a registration must be received from 25 to 10 days before an election.
   * S3995 (Senator Addabbo) —Provides an additional opportunity for new registrants to indicate choice of party enrollment where original choice was omitted or void.
   * S1266 (Senator Montgomery) —Educates  the incarcerated and those released but  serving sentences about their voting and absentee ballot rights and provides for assistance in registering and voting by absentee ballot.  
   * S4035 (Senator Addabbo)  —Requires State Board of Elections to address forms to local county board when voter downloads from the Web-site.

The schedule for hearings is as follows:

April—Voter Registration
Hearings April 23rd in Buffalo at the Erie County Legislature, April 24th in NYC
at 250 Broadway
Committee meeting April 28th

May—Casting a Ballot/ Poll Sites
Hearings May 11th in Albany, May 14th in Syracuse (TBD)
Committee meeting May 19th

June—Board of Elections Oversight
June 3rd in Albany, June 12th in NYC
Committee meeting June 16th

September—Election Code Reform (TBD)

November—Election Oversight (TBD)

If you're interested, more information is available here and here.

Georgia Bill Signed, Requires Proof of Citizenship When Registering to Vote - From Ballot Access News:

On May 5, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed SB 86, which requires voters to submit documents (such as a birth certificate or naturalization papers) when registering to vote. The only other state with such a law is Arizona. See this news story. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. Justice Department approves the change. Georgia is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, so Georgia can’t change any election law without getting approval.

Electronic voting machines in U.S. at risk from foreign hackers attacking military computers - A military expert warns of the dangers posed by hackers to military supercomputers and voting machines.  The government spent over $100 million fending off hackers last year, yet complaints about election machines generally get dismissed as isolated incidents.  The Boston Progressive Examiner via Daily Voting News.

[Indiana] bill would allow online voter registration - A few small changes have been proposed in Illinois voting procedure, including allowing voter registration online for voters with valid ID, consolidating Johnson County's voting centers, and allowing elected officials to see why a voter has cast a provisional ballot.  The Chicago Tribune via Daily Voting News.

Campaigners fined for illegal '08 votes - In a very, very rare case of actual voter fraud (as opposed to election fraud), three people were convicted of voting for Obama in the wrong state.  The Columbus Dispatch via Daily Voting News.

GOP Seeks Voting Changes; Opponents See Chilling Effect - An overview of recent proposals to change election and voting laws in South Carolina, and the disgustingly partisan motivations behind them.  Includes a failed attempt to end fusion voting (where more than one party nominates a single candidate), a push by the GOP to require ID from voters, and a push for early voting by Democrats.  The Free Times via Daily Voting News.

Aspen uses instant runoff voting in an election for the first time - On Tuesday, the city of Aspen in Colorado used instant runoff voting in its elections for mayor and city council for the first time.  Previously it had used a system where voters only vote for one person, with a runoff in June if there was no majority winner.  The Aspen Daily News examines the success of and debate over the new system.

Oklahomans to vote on ballot access [for initiatives] - The Oklahoma legislature has passed a bill that would amend the state constitution to make it easier to get an initiative on the ballot.  Since this bill would change the constitution, it must first be approved by a statewide referendum.  Tulsa World.

Dennis Kucinich Will Ask U.S. Supreme Court to Hear His Case Against Texas Democratic Oath - From Ballot Access News:

Congressman Dennis Kucinich expects to appeal his lawsuit against the Texas Democratic Party to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Kucinich tried to run in the Democratic presidential primary in Texas last year, he was barred from the party’s primary ballot because he wouldn’t sign an oath to "fully support" whomever became the Democratic presidential nominee. The lower federal courts ruled in favor of the Texas Democratic Party. The last ruling, from the 5th circuit, was on March 24, 2009.

Kucinich ended up supporting Obama in the Iowa Caucuses, the primaries, and the general election, even though he didn't take the oath.

Some highly recommended sources for election news:
Ballot Access News
Daily Voting News
Election Law Blog

NOTE:  I am looking for a few good suggestions about how readers can act on reforming elections.  I haven't done much myself, I mostly just read and write about it, so if you have any ideas please let me know.

 



Submitters Bio:
Ross Levin a young activist who also writes for keystonepolitics.com, operationitch.com, independentpoliticalreport.com. He first became active in politics in the 2008 presidential campaign through Mike Gravel's quixotic run for the Democratic nomination, but is still actively promoting the centerpiece of Gravel's campaign: the National Initiative for Democracy, which would allow citizens to make laws at all levels of government. You can check it out at www.ni4d.us and vote.org.

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