This Week in 200 Words

This week in state updates, Pennsylvania has a new election law that makes absentee and early voting more accessible. Iowa successfully restored voting rights to 400 formerly incarcerated individuals in time for the Iowa caucus. Missouri GOP Senators have moved to scrap the state’s “fair and competitive” requirements for district drawing. Meanwhile, a New Hampshire commission affirmed the need for a nonpartisan redistricting process that’s already been approved by both the House and Senate. A Massachusetts commission is mulling legislative solutions to curb the influence of money in politics. And the Oregon Supreme Court considers overturning a Citizens United-esque ruling sanctioning unlimited campaign donations, paving the way for popular campaign finance reforms.

In other updates, the Iowa caucuses yield some important takeaways for election security. And Reverend William Barber urges us to take Donald Trump’s impeachment trial as a call to action on corruption and democracy reform.

National News

The Guardian – The impeachment trial is a reminder: our democracy is fragile. Black Americans know that best

[…] But if we who have been denied full citizenship in this nation know the cost of a cover-up, we also know the power of moral movements to tap a greater power and push America toward a more perfect union. Slaveholders invested everything they had to cover up the crimes of human bondage. Jim Crow did everything it knew to cover up the immorality of separate but equal. And for a long time, it looked like they had all the votes. But movements of people committed to the truth did not give up. They kept believing and building on the conviction that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. And they uncovered the lies that crippled democracy in their day. Our present moral crisis demands nothing less of us.

The Fulcrum – 5 early lessons from the Iowa caucus catastrophe

Confidence in our elections has been shaken anew.

Belief that elections in the United States are a global gold standard for reliability were severely tested four years ago. But all the widespread, bipartisan and expensive efforts to resurrect that perception this year were rattled to the core on the very first try — by a flat inability to quickly count and announce how just 200,000 or so people voted in a single state.

[…] At the end of the day, it is important to remember that from all indications the Iowa caucuses were a huge success from the standpoint of democracy.

There was ample chance for reasoned debate among people who often disagree; we saw a record or near record turnout; there was support for numerous candidates across a wide political spectrum; the problems with the results were not hidden for more than an hour; and in the end we still expect an accurate count of the vote and correct apportionment of the delegates.

The Fulcrum – Gutted federal election watchdog struggles to recover

The Election Assistance Commission is unknown to most Americans. But it certifies the reliability of the machines most voters will use this fall, and it’s at the epicenter of efforts to protect our election systems from being hacked by foreign adversaries.

And since last fall it’s been without an executive director or general counsel to coordinate the government’s limited supervision over how states and thousands of localities plan for the 2020 balloting. In fact, none of eight top officials listed on the agency website in March 2017, when the extent of Russian interference in the last presidential election was just becoming clear, are still with the agency. Neither are eight of the other 16 staff members who worked there then. And years of budget cuts have only recently started to be reversed.

State Updates

Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Tribune-Review – Sweeping changes to Pennsylvania election law could make early voting a norm

[…] A new state election law that allows, among other things, no-excuse mail-in balloting 50 days before an election, coupled with the introduction of new voting machines in 22 counties, including Allegheny and Westmoreland, could prove the perfect storm this spring.

[…] The new law that eliminated straight-ticket voting changed the deadline for voter registration from 30 to 15 days prior to an election and requires counties to establish a permanent mail-in and absentee ballot roster. Now, those who opt to be placed on the roster are to be mailed applications for ballots by the first Monday in February every year.

There also are provisions for counties to establish remote offices where election officials could disburse and accept mail-in and absentee ballots.

Whether that will happen here and just how local election officials will notify voters of all the pending changes remains unclear.

Missouri – Moberly Monitor-Index – Missouri GOP seeks to drop “partisan fairness” in districts

Missouri’s Republican senators put forth a new plan Wednesday that would scrap “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness” from the criteria used to draw state House and Senate districts — reversing a key part of a ballot initiative approved by voters just two years ago.

Senators began debating the newly proposed constitutional amendment on Wednesday. If approved by the Legislature, it would go to a public vote later this year.

In addition to changing the redistricting criteria, it also would abolish a voter-approved state demographer position to draw districts and return the task to a bipartisan commission used in the past.

Iowa – KIWA Radio – 400 Paroled Felons Get Voting Rights Restored In Time For Caucuses

A spokesman for Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds says the backlog of applications from felons seeking restoration of their voting rights has been cleared.

Reynolds announced earlier this month that she was working with her staff as well as staff in two state agencies to review dozens of applications. This past Tuesday, Reynolds had reviewed 300 and had another 100 to go.

Friday afternoon, the governor’s spokesman announced all the pending applications had been reviewed. That means about 400 more Iowans now have the ability to participate in Monday night’s Caucuses. Iowa is now the only state that requires paroled felons to apply to the governor for restoration of their voting rights. A year ago, Reynolds asked legislators to set the wheels in motion so Iowa’s constitution can be changed so voting rights are automatically restored. It’s part of what she calls her “second chance” agenda.

Massachusetts – WBUR – Mass. Commission Studying Language Of Campaign Finance Amendment

In the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, spending on Massachusetts elections and ballot initiatives totaled $260 million. In the decade since the ruling, Massachusetts political spending soared to $700 million.

Those figures are one example of many a commission offered in a new report to describe the growing role of money in politics. The Citizens United case, commissioners say, opened the door for a flood of spending that has altered the dynamics of democracy.

Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question by a 71% to 29% margin in 2018, creating a Citizens Commission and tasking it with recommending how the state can support U.S. constitutional amendments limiting the role of money in politics and the influence of corporations.

Oregon – OPB – Oregon Lawmakers Quickly Launch New Fight Over Campaign Finance Limits

The Oregon Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn its own 1997 landmark decision declaring that strict campaign finance limits violate the state’s free-speech protections. The case involves a sweeping campaign finance measure passed by Multnomah County in 2016 that puts a $500 limit on contributions to candidates in races for that county’s offices.

The potential stakes in this Supreme Court case go way beyond a handful of Multnomah County political races.  If the court rules these limits are legal, it opens the way for a 2006 ballot measure approved by Oregon voters that approves tight limits for state races.

Under that measure also authored by Meek, candidates for governor could accept no more than $500

New Hampshire – Concord Patch – Lawmakers Mull Creating Independent Commission To Draw Political Boundaries

An independent redistricting commission is needed to begin restoring faith in the Republic, a House committee was told Tuesday. Members of the House Election Law Committee held a public hearing on House Bill 1665 to establish an independent commission to draw the state’s political boundaries in light of the 2020 census. The bill is nearly identical to one that passed the Senate unanimously last year and the House with bipartisan support, but Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed.

Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, said the bill builds on the success of work done in other states like Iowa, Maine and Vermont.

“If passed, this proposal would bring about significant positive changes,” he said. “The public should see drastic improvements in transparency and accountability and should feel more connected to representatives, improving confidence in government.

“Elected officials likewise should see more compact and cohesive districts that make it easier to campaign, connect with constituents and legislate according to their need,” Rudensky said.