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Ohio Supreme Court strikes down state legislative maps as unconstitutional gerrymander

The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps on Wednesday in a victory for advocates of fair elections.

The gerrymandered maps are the product of the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, which includes five Republicans and two Democrats. The commission produced a map – over the objections of the two Democratic members – that was expected to give Republicans a 62-37 advantage in the state House and a 23-10 advantage in the state Senate.

That’s despite former president Trump only winning Ohio 53-45% during the 2020 presidential election. Such skewed maps were likely to result in a Republican majority in both chambers regardless of the will of voters – even during campaign cycles that strongly favored Democrats.

However, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 that curtailed gerrymandering within the state. The amendment requires the commission to create boundaries that result in politically competitive districts.

“The commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages,” the Ohio Supreme Court majority wrote, rebutting Republican commissioners who contended that the constitutional amendment was merely “aspirational” in nature. “Section 6 speaks not of desire but of direction: the commission shall attempt to achieve the standards of that section.”

“We reject the notion that Ohio voters rallied so strongly behind an anti-gerrymandering amendment to the Ohio Constitution yet believed at the time that the amendment was toothless,” the majority added.

The Ohio Supreme Court has a 4-3 Republican majority. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, cast the deciding vote.

In addition to the state legislative maps, the Ohio Supreme Court is also considering a challenge to Ohio’s Congressional map, which is even more skewed in favor of Republicans. According to an analysis of the approved Congressional map, Republicans are favored in 12 of 15 districts – 80 percent of districts versus the 53 percent that the party received at the top of the ballot.

“This case is about how the General Assembly has thumbed its nose at these reforms and enacted a plan that palpably violates Article 19’s new anti-gerrymandering protections,” attorney Ben Stafford told the Ohio Supreme Court, which is expected to decide on whether to throw out the Congressional map in the coming weeks.

Photo Credit: Sixflashphoto, CC BY-SA 4.0

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DOJ sues Georgia over voter suppression law

The United States Department of Justice announced on Friday that it is suing the state of Georgia over its recently-passed voter suppression law.

USA Today reports:

The Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia in an effort to overturn a sweeping state law that federal officials claim restricts Black voters’ access to the polls.

“The rights of all citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday, adding that recent changes to Georgia law amounted to voter suppression.

“This lawsuit is the first step of many we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate information.”  

The government alleges that the state law was passed with “discriminatory purpose … that departed from normal practice and procedure.”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, chief of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said Friday the state acted with the “intent” to deny Black voters’ access.

As we reported back in March, Georgia’s voter suppression law makes it illegal to give water to voters who are waiting in line. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The law also limits the use of convenient and secure ballot drop boxes, shortens the window to request a mail-in ballot, and restricts in-person early voting hours.

The Department of Justice’s lawsuit is an important step to ensure that voting rights are upheld. We encourage the DOJ to pursue lawsuits in other states – including critically important swing states like Arizona and Florida – where voter suppression has become the primary strategy for Republicans to retain power.

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Should Donald Trump be permanently banned from Facebook and Twitter?

Free speech and free assembly are essential rights in any democracy.

Average citizens should always have the right to petition their government for redress, peacefully assemble (with reasonable limits during true emergencies, including pandemics), and protest. We hold these values deep in our hearts.

Speech, assembly, and protest are clearly protected under the First Amendment, but they only prevent the government from imposing undue restrictions on the population. It is a failsafe against an unchecked, Chinese-style authoritarian government where censorship is the rule.

That being said, corporations are not the government. They may restrict content on their platforms – and there are many legitimate reasons why they should. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media companies all have sets of rules that define a code of conduct for users – and users agree to those terms in order to use their services.

So when we hear griping from some about how Facebook or Twitter ban high-profile politicians like Donald Trump from their platforms, it is not a genuine First Amendment argument so much as a political or ideological argument. Seeing that Trump routinely broke those platforms’ terms of use with little or no consequences for years, it’s more surprising that he was allowed to continue to use them despite breaking the rules than that he eventually faced a ban.

In fact, it took a coup attempt on January 6 for Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to finally crack down on the former president. Likewise, it took far-right extremists organizing a violent insurrection online for Apple and Google to pull the far-right social media app Parler from the App Store and Google Play. (Parler is already back on the App Store.)

Big Tech’s laissez-faire attitude toward violent extremist groups organizing, recruiting, and spreading dangerous conspiracy theories and propaganda on their platforms is disconcerting, to say the least. They have contributed to the erosion of American democracy, allowing anti-democratic forces to propagate and thrive online while restricting users for artistic expressions of nudity.

So what should Twitter, Facebook, and other social media giants do about Trump?

Until January 20, 2021 at noon, Donald Trump was president of the United States. In effect, as president, he was the most visible representation of the American government with a dedicated communications staff, a press pool, and access to the international press. He was a regular on cable’s highest-rated ‘news’ network, Fox.

Needless to say, Trump enjoyed (as do all presidents) a giant platform, a megaphone – or, as President Theodore Roosevelt would say, a bully pulpit – even without his Twitter account. The idea that Trump’s Twitter and Facebook bans amount to unconstitutional censorship is laughable on its face.

However, just as social media companies have the right to ban him from their platforms, they also have the right to unban him. But should they?

As the lead organizer of anti-democratic and white supremacist forces in the United States, Trump poses a particular threat to American democracy. He has already attempted a coup, inspiring supporters to gather in Washington DC on January 6 and then instructing the mob to go to the Capitol as Congress convened to certify the Electoral College results.

Trump’s actions that day – and in the months both prior and since – have endangered the lives of our nation’s leaders. Former vice president Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were specific targets of insurrectionists, although all members of Congress can count their lucky stars that the plot was ultimately thwarted.

Indeed, law enforcement was less fortunate on that day. Outrageously, countless Republicans in Congress ignored the pleas of  Gladys Sicknick, the mother of fallen Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. Instead, the focus of the likes of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been to re-write history and cover up Trump’s unprecedented attacks on our democracy.

Facebook’s ban extended but not permanent

In response to news that Facebook would extend Trump’s ban on the platform until January 2023 – while leaving the door open for a return – the disgraced former president yet again repeated the Big Lie.

“Facebook’s ruling is an insult to the record-setting 75M people, plus many others, who voted for us in the 2020 Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said in a statement.

Should the ban get lifted, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he will immediately resume the same behavior that got him banned from social media platforms in the first place. He will use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms to lie, divide, incite violence, and spread conspiracies.

A second insurrection is certainly not farfetched. His supporters – including disgraced former National Security Advisor, retired general, and convicted felon Michael Flynn – are calling for a military coup. Flynn previously called on Trump to declare martial law and overturn the election results.

Should the government sanction Big Tech?

It should go without saying that what Trump and his acolytes are doing is not normal political discourse. It is sedition.

Social media companies who aid in undermining our democracy – either directly advocating the overthrow of a democratic government or simply failing to police their platforms – should find themselves in legal trouble for facilitating violence.

That being said, I do not support governments – federal or state – taking action to force social media companies to restrict or ban speech from any particular individual. Social media companies should, however, face civil penalties if they fail to act when there are credible threats of violence. They should also have clear terms of use that are applied consistently.

I also oppose laws in states like Florida that compel social media companies to host content that violates their terms. A new Florida law makes it illegal for companies to ban candidates. The Florida law directly challenges Facebook and Twitter’s ability to moderate content, including fake news and hate speech. It’s a dangerous law that should be immediately struck down.

We need to strike a balance – one that protects the rights of individuals to express themselves in actual public forums (i.e. on the street) and curtails the ability of violent extremists to organize.

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Scholars alarmed at ‘deterioration’ of American democracy

In an open letter, dozens of scholars from prestigious universities warned that American democracy is at risk.

“We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm. Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk,” the scholars write.

The scholars – who span the ideological spectrum and represent universities like Brown, Stanford, Notre Dame with notable names like Norm Ornstein and Larry Sabato – add that:

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators. State legislatures have advanced initiatives that curtail voting methods now preferred by Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as early voting and mail voting. Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the “purity” and “quality” of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.

State legislators supporting these changes have cited the urgency of “electoral integrity” and the need to ensure that elections are secure and free of fraud. But by multiple expert judgments, the 2020 election was extremely secure and free of fraud. The reason that Republican voters have concerns is because many Republican officials, led by former President Donald Trump, have manufactured false claims of fraud, claims that have been repeatedly rejected by courts of law, and which Trump’s own lawyers have acknowledged were mere speculation when they testified about them before judges.

In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

The consequence of these voter suppression laws is that America may soon cease to be a democracy. In fact, the scholars argue that some states “no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana have already passed voter suppression laws that put their status as democracies into doubt. Texas is among the numerous states that is still considering laws to restrict voting.

What can be done?

The scholars argue that the federal government must step in to ensure equal access to the ballot box in order to maintain free and fair elections since state legislatures are moving to undermine democracy within their borders.

The federal government has a history of intervention in order to ensure that voting rights are upheld in jurisdictions where voter suppression is common – particularly in the South. These laws date back at least to Reconstruction and more recently with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The scholars write that Congress should pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, although they argue that that “alone is not enough.” They endorse suspending the filibuster in order to pass a new voting rights law and a “comprehensive set of national standards” to maintain election integrity.

They conclude the letter with a warning: “Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.”

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For the People Act aims to build a real American democracy

Praised by many as a sweeping and historic reform to US democracy, House Democrats passed H.R. 1, also known as the For The People Act. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on March 3, 2021. This is the second time the bill has been voted on by the House. The bill was first introduced and then passed in the newly-Democratic House in March of 2019 but was quickly blocked from ever receiving a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. The current bill, which aims to greatly expand voting rights, develop a strategy to lower the influence of money in politics, end gerrymandering, foster government transparency, and more, will again face hurdles in the Senate, but this time because of the filibuster. 

So, what’s in the bill? Below, we’ll take a look at a few of the bill’s most important components. 

Voter registration modernization

All states would be required to begin Automatic Voter Registration for federal elections. Eighteen states, plus DC, have already implemented AVR. Voter registration in every state would become opt-out as opposed to the opt-in system most states have. In this case, eligible citizens would need to indicate that they don’t want to be registered to vote. This is likely to be a very insignificant number of people. Some 50 million eligible voters would be added to the rolls.

Voter purging has been one of the main tactics employed by Republicans to suppress Democratic turnout. A state’s ability to purge voters from voter rolls would be greatly curtailed under  H.R. 1. H.R. 1 would not stop all cross-check purges, as there does need to be a system that identifies duplicate registrations, but it aims to stop the abuse of the system through voter suppression purges by putting in place needed protections or so-called conditions on removal of registered voters.

As it becomes harder for Republicans to win majorities, we’ve seen them engage in increasingly brazen voter intimidation tactics. One example, among dozens, is in Michigan in October 2020, where far-right actors were charged with felonies by the state’s Attorney General for voter intimidation where they used racist robocalls to target and intimidate Black voters from voting.  H.R. 1 would ban these and many other deceptive practices and all voter intimidation in federal elections.

H.R. 1 aims to end the disenfranchisement of individuals with previous felony convictions. States would be required to inform citizens of their restored voting rights in writing; however, this does not apply to those who are currently incarcerated. An amendment to H.R. 1 that would have restored the voting rights of those who are currently serving time in prison, failed in a 97-328 House vote. 

The Appeal explains:

Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Mondaire Jones of New York, who were both elected to the House last year, proposed an amendment to H.R. 1 that would have allowed those convicted of felonies to vote from within prison. Only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., enable anyone with a felony conviction to vote from prison, and other states are debating whether to join them. Some other nations, including Canada and Israel, have national mandates that extend voting rights to incarcerated people.

The amendment failed today in a 97-328 vote. Not a single Republican voted for the measure, and it also failed among Democrats. However, activists and lawmakers fighting to expand voting rights say they’re hopeful that the vote was the beginning, rather than the end, of a national debate on voting rights for prisoners.

“This fight is not over—it’s only the beginning,” Bush told The Appeal: Political Report. “The victory was in getting those 97. Look at who those 97 are. They’re a mixture of what our caucus is made of: not just progressives, not just people who claim to be progressive, not just people who look like me.”

Even with the failure of the amendment, this is a monumental step in the right direction and a sign that we are moving closer to voting rights for those who are currently incarcerated.

The end of gerrymandering

Under H.R. 1, partisan gerrymandering would effectively be banned, an extraordinary development for US elections and politics. Independent redistricting commissions would be created in states and they would be tasked with developing plans to redraw districts. The redistricting process would be open to participation and review of the public. Efforts would be made to ensure that the commission equally represents Democrats, Republicans, and even third parties. Most importantly, rules would be put in place to ensure that the political power of communities of color is not diluted, a current practice that ensures Republicans win far more seats than they should based on their vote share.

Limiting the power of big money in politics

The passing of Citizens United in 2010 was a crushing blow to democracy. 11 years and 6 federal election cycles later, we are seeing the consequences of this disastrous Supreme Court decision. Extremely wealthy individuals can now spend unlimited sums of money on Super PACs which can have large impacts on political races.

The intercept explains:

Under the bill, candidates for congressional office could opt into a system that would provide matching funds for small donations. To qualify, the candidate would need to raise $50,000 from at least 1,000 individuals; take no more than $1,000 from any contributor; and spend no more than $50,000 of their own money.

In return, all donations to the candidate up to $200 would be matched with public funds at a 6 to 1 ratio. Thus if you gave $10 to someone running for Congress, they would receive that plus another $60, totaling $70.

The Civil Rights Act of our time

We’ve only covered just a few of the historic components of H.R. 1. Just these components alone would make H.R. 1 one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of this country besides the 1964 Civil Rights Act. H.R. 1 would not only repair the damage done to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Republicans in the decades since its passing, but it would greatly expand access to voting and put in place protections against voter suppression in unprecedented ways. The act would help to build a political and electoral system worthy of the 21st century. 

The stakes in passing this historic legislation in the Senate are monumental. As Republican politics continue to become more unpopular with time and as demographics continue to trend against them, they have now completely jettisoned democracy for authoritarian measures even as they already have a structural advantage in the House and the Senate. Let there be no doubt that Republican attempts to further impair US democracy will continue and grow. 

The Washington Post explains the current, broad attack on US democracy in 43 states:

In 43 states across the country, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 250 laws that would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting with such constraints as stricter ID requirements, limited hours or narrower eligibility to vote absentee, according to data compiled as of Feb. 19 by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Even more proposals have been introduced since then.

The impact of H.R. 1 not passing the Senate will have immediate effects. It will likely impair Democrats’ chances of holding on to their very slim majorities in the House and Senate in 2022, making passing this type of legislation impossible for many years to come. 

What’s required is filibuster reform. Right now, current Senate rules require 60 votes to break a filibuster. It’s more likely that we will figure out interstellar space travel this year than it would be to find 10 Republicans to help break a filibuster for ground-breaking legislation. It’s also unlikely that we can even eliminate the filibuster outright since conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have both voiced that they are against eliminating the filibuster. Still, passing H.R. 1, or any other progressive legislation, doesn’t require the elimination of the filibuster. There are ways to reform the filibuster in a way that establishes majoritarianism in the Senate. Our recent article offers a fair compromise on the filibuster. The Washington Post article referenced above also offers proposals for filibuster reform.

We must pass H.R. 1 — for the people and for the survival of our democracy.

Photo Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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President Carter condemns Georgia voter suppression efforts

President Jimmy Carter has released a statement condemning voter suppression efforts and calling for “fair, open, and secure” elections.

The former president is a resident of Georgia. Republicans in the state legislature are pushing voting restrictions following President Joe Biden’s win in the traditionally-Republican state in November. Democrats won two subsequent runoffs for United States Senate seats in January.

The statement reads:

In 1962, I ran to represent the 14th Senate District in the Georgia legislature. I won my Senate seat, but only after the courts ruled that a ballot box had been illegally “stuffed” with votes for my opponent. My experience with our election system was one of the reasons Rosalynn and I created The Carter Center. Since 1989, we have observed 113 elections in 39 countries and helped build consensus on standards for democratic elections, perhaps the most fundamental of which are the rights to vote and be elected.

One thing we have learned from our international work is that while states must safeguard the integrity of the election process to prevent fraud, this should not be at the expense of voters’ access to the polls. They should proactively expand voter access through safe, secure administrative practices.

Since that 1962 Senate race, Georgia has established itself as a leader in providing voter access and taking steps to enhance election integrity. Georgia now uses technologies that provide a paper trail allowing voters to review their ballot before it is cast. In addition, Georgia requires post-election risk-limiting audits that make it possible to check the accuracy of voting machines. Indeed, November saw a successful set of elections with record turnout and few or no fraudulent ballots counted—which should make us all proud.

Now, as our state legislators seek to turn back the clock through legislation that will restrict access to voting for many Georgians, I am disheartened, saddened, and angry. Many of the proposed changes are reactions to allegations of fraud for which no evidence was produced—allegations that were, in fact, refuted through various audits, recounts, and other measures. The proposed changes appear to be rooted in partisan interests, not in the interests of all Georgia voters.

I also am disappointed that advocates for these restrictive changes have repeatedly and selectively referenced a report prepared by a 2005 commission that I co-chaired with former Secretary of State James Baker. While our report noted a few good and bad examples of vote-by-mail practices, its main recommendation was that further study of voting by mail was needed. In the 16 years since the report’s release, vote-by-mail practices have progressed significantly as new technologies have been developed. In light of these advances, I believe that voting by mail can be conducted in a manner that ensures election integrity. This is just one of several ways to expand access to the voting process for voters across the state, regardless of political affiliation.

American democracy means every eligible person has the right to vote in an election that is fair, open, and secure. It should be flexible enough to meet the electorate’s changing needs. As Georgians, we must protect these values. We must not lose the progress we have made. We must not promote confidence among one segment of the electorate by restricting the participation of others. Our goal always should be to increase, not decrease, voter participation.

Photo Credit: Children’s Bureau Centennial, Flickr