Thursday, September 27, 2012

Same-Day Voter Registration Comes to California

Good news for all of you procrastinators out there. This week Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will permit voters to register on Election Day. Say goodbye to the days of having to register 15 days prior. But heed this warning: Do not wait until November 6 to register to vote this election cycle; the bill, AB 1436, will take effect in 2014, at the earliest.
Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D) of Los Angeles sponsored the bill. California Common Cause, a non-profit organization pushing for, among other things, increased civic engagement, has long advocated for same day voter registration.
Governor Brown's decision to sign AB 1436 sets him apart from other governors throughout the country, who have signed laws making it more difficult for citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote. But California is not alone in allowing voters to register on the same day as the election -- ten other states permit some kind of same-day registration.
The passage of same day voter registration in California comes on the heels of a new system allowing voters to register to vote online.
The debate over laws that make it easier to vote tend to fall predictably along party lines. Democrats advocate for laws like same-day voter registration, arguing that they increase civic engagement. Republicans, on the other hand, oppose such measures, contending that could lead to fraud.
So what's next for California? Well, now that we can register to vote online on Election Day, the next logical step is online voting. That strikes me as still being quite far off. Online voting brings up a host of technological issues which will have to be answered before it is implemented on a large-scale basis.

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Endeavouring to Excite the Electorate

My latest piece on the Huffington Post is here.

Last week, members of our nation took part in a momentous event. We studied, we discussed, we stood in line, we cheered and we watched news coverage. We waved American flags and chanted "USA! USA!" We introduced our children and grandchildren to camera crews, telling reporters that we wanted to make sure that our children and grandchildren took part in this historic event. "We want them to be able to say they were here, at this moment," we said to the men and women with microphones.

We talked about the event afterwards, shared our thoughts, and posted and tweeted photographs. We spoke of national pride in what we've accomplished. We spoke wistfully and hopefully about what the future holds for our country. We talked of the budget, the economy and changing public-policy priorities. 

What was this event that excited so many members of the American public? This is not a rhetorical question.

If you said the 2012 elections, or the presidential election, you're wrong, but I was so hoping that would be your answer.

Elections, even a high-stakes presidential election -- and when is a presidential election ever not high-stakes? -- do not capture the imagination of the American public. By and large we do not engage in a great debate, study the issues and the candidates, take off work to stand in long lines, wave flags, cheer and overtly discuss national pride.

No, when it comes to elections, many of us do not engage at all. Far too few of us exercise our hard-fought, fundamental right to vote. (More on that pesky right to vote in a moment). Instead, we throw up our hands and leave the "nasty business" of politics to others.

Those of us who do vote often do so somewhat begrudgingly. We sigh and complain about having a choice only between "the lesser of two evils." We bemoan the pervasive and pernicious influence of money in politics. We feel, not incorrectly, that politics is largely a game played only by those who can pay the price of admission. 

Few of us speak about elections with the same enthusiasm of the actual event I was referring to -- the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour. Last week, the Endeavour soared through the sky on the back of a 747 airliner. It captured our collective imagination. It was exactly what I read and heard it would be -- a space shuttle on an airplane -- but I still, for a moment, thought it was something wondrous. It represented the best of us, the most impressive strides taken by the best and brightest among us.

Few of us use words like "wondrous" or phrases like "captured our collective imagination" to refer to elections in our country. But in many ways we should. The American experiment in democracy is amazing. Every two, four or six years, we go to a polling place (or mail in a ballot) and anonymously pick our government representatives. We send those elected officials to city halls, state capitals and the District of Columbia to make laws that we hope embody sound public policy.

So why do we feel, at best, lackluster about this grand experiment? Why do those of us who exercise the right to vote feel less than enthused about the experience?

One reason is an issue I've mentioned above. The ubiquitous influence of money in campaigns means that moneyed interests play an outsized role in our electoral process. More than 30 years ago, in a case called Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court found that political money is the equivalent of political speech. That opinion made it difficult -- and in many cases impossible -- to limit the amount of money spent by, in support of, or against political candidates. While the Supreme Court purported to uphold First Amendment rights, it actually harmed those rights by giving moneyed interests a megaphone through which they could drown out the voices of others. The Supreme Court only exacerbated the harm imposed by its flawed framework in Citizens United, when it ruled that corporations must be treated as identical to people for purposes of analyzing restrictions on campaign spending. When people and organizations can spend unlimited sums in the political marketplace, it actually harms, rather than bolsters, the breadth and depth of the political debate.

Another reason for our lack of excitement in the electoral process may be that our fundamental right to vote is under attack all throughout the country this election cycle. Under the guise of protecting voter fraud, conservative legislatures throughout the country have passed voter identification laws. Put most charitably, voter identification laws are a solution in search of a problem, as the fraud that would be prevented by these laws is nearly infinitesimal. We should be honest about what these laws are meant to accomplish. Voter identification laws overwhelmingly harm poor and minority members of the electorate who tend to vote democratic. Let's just say it: These laws are about eliminating the number of democratic ballots cast.

When our elected representatives play partisan games with our fundamental right to vote, the right that preserves so many other rights, it is not difficult to see why the elections that put those politicians in power are seen as less-than-wondrous events.

We can hope that the Supreme Court reverses course and state lawmakers stop enacting laws that burden the ability to vote. In the meantime, our main recourse, perhaps ironically, is at the ballot box. Although it may not be as awe-inspiring as watching a space shuttle glide across the clouds, let's treat the 2012 election as the vitally important event that it is.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Super PACs bolster Congressional campaigns in San Bernardino and Ventura counties

Quoted in this piece on KPCC.

Here is an excerpt:

Limits lifted
There used to be limits on what a person or company could give to a candidate for federal office or spend independently in support of a campaign.
But things are different now.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in a campaign spending case that you're hearing a lot about these days — Citizens United — found those limits to be an unconstitutional restraint on freedom of speech.
So now, people and companies can give unlimited amounts to political action committees called Super PACS — and those Super PACSs can spend it in support of or opposition to candidates for federal offices as long as they don't coordinate with the candidates' own campaigns.
Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson studies campaign finance law and suggests three reasons for the spending in California: First, a nonpartisan citizens commission redrew district lines to make elections more competitive. Second, California changed election laws to permit voting for candidates of any party in the primary, with the top two going to the general election — even if they're from the same party.
"Three, as a result of Supreme Court decisions, particularly Citizens United, the handcuffs are really off corporations to spend unlimited funds on independent expenditures," Levinson said.
Ventura County
The second-biggest investment of Super PAC money in a California Congressional race is $1.59 million spent on a single race in Ventura County, where Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat, ran in the primary against Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland and an independent, Linda Parks.

In contrast to the San Bernardino County race and the corporated-funded Super PACs, in Ventura County much of the money came from political parties.
"Businesses can have a different and more narrow interest in electing candidates with favorable positions," said Levinson, "while political parties are trying to build the party, build the party ideology and increase their numbers."
In that Ventura County race, the House Majority PAC — a Super PAC for Democrats — spent money on two fronts. It spent nearly $627,000 in support of Democrat Brownley and $177,000 against the independent candidate, Parks.
"This is a race where the House Majority PAC has a lot of interest," said Jay Costa, who analyzes political spending for the MapLight Foundation, a California nonpartisan organization.. "It wouldn't surprise me if they are willing to pour a lot more money into this race."
Brownley advanced to the general election against Republican Tony Strickland, but she'll soon feel the sting of Super PAC money being spent against her. The Republican National Congressional Committee recently put $447,000 into a media buy opposing her.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Breaking: Court of Appeals re Corporate Disclosure

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reverses Van Hollen, overturning a law requiring disclosure regarding certain non-profit corporate political spending. 

Here is the opinion. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Proposition 32: The Battle Heats Up

On November 6, California voters will be faced with eleven ballot measures. Ten are initiatives, one is a referendum (what's the difference?), and none of these were legislatively initiated. One of these initiatives is Proposition 32, which is deceptively being peddled as a good government reform. It is not.
Prop 32 would prohibit unions from using funds deducted from payroll for political purposes. The prohibition also applies to corporations and government contractors. Among other things, it would also prohibit unions and corporations from giving campaign contributions directly to candidates or the committees that candidates control.
While it may seem even-handed, it will have a much, much greater impact on unions, dramatically reducing their power, than corporations. Corporations have many other avenues to raise political funds. Money is, after all, power, particularly in political campaigns in California.
So who would support Prop 32, a proposal to similar, rejected ones in 1998 and 2005? Recently an organization connected to the conservative Koch brothers (who have spent enormous sums to support conservative causes and candidates throughout the nation) gave $4 million to a new committing supporting the passage of Prop 32. It is important to note that the non-profit organization that came forward with these funds does not have to report its donors.
Supporters of Prop 32 had previous raised approximately $3 million; opponents have raised more than $36 million. For a breakdown of who is donating (at least of who is legally reportable), check KCET's campaign finance database here.
If you want unions to have much less political power in California but are comfortable with corporations maintaining their current level of control, and you don't mind voting "yes" on ballot initiatives, then you might want to take a look at Prop 32. If you are either opposed to initiatives, or believe in a more even-handed approach to reducing the influence of money in politics, then Prop 32 is not for you. 
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Time for More Disclosure of Independent Expenditures in California

Californians may soon be able to obtain more information about those giving and spending money in political campaigns. Assembly Bill (AB) 481 recently passed through the Legislature with support from both sides of the aisle. That bill would increase disclosure for independent expenditures.

Independent expenditures are campaign funds spent by people or entities independent of, meaning not coordinated with, candidates. The Supreme Court long ago ruled that independent expenditures cannot be limited, because any limitation would pose an unconstitutional burden on free speech under the First Amendment. Most recently, the Citizens United, the Supreme Court reiterated that holding and concluded that independent expenditures by corporations could not be restricted.
Money now flows quite freely through our electoral processes. AB 481 would shine a light on much of the independent spending in California. Specifically, AB 481 would increase disclosure for independent expenditures made in support or opposition to candidates or ballot measures. For instance, AB 481 would require disclosure within 24 hours of independent expenditures above $1,000 involving local races and ballot measures, which are made within 90 days of an election (current law already requires this disclosure for state candidates and ballot measures). Among other things, AB 481 would also require disclosure on newspaper ads and billboards of the independent expenditure committee's name and its top two donors of at least $50,000 (and current already law requires this disclosure for broadcast advertisements and mass mailings).
Disclosure laws allow the public to obtain vital information about the source and use of campaign funds. This information allows the public to evaluate the weight to give political advertisements. There is a reason that on commercials people are required to disclose whether they are a paid spokesperson -- we accord more credibility to advertisements depending on the source of that advertisement.
AB 481 looks like a big step in the right direction. The state's political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), is advocating for its passage. The FPPC has been tracking independent spending for years and is in a great position to push for smart reform.

Saturday, September 1, 2012