This Week in 200 Words

This week in state updates, Alaska exceeded signature requirements to get a sweeping democracy reform initiative on the November ballot. The Seattle City Council unanimously passed a ban on political spending by “foreign-influenced” corporations. Kentucky is debating a controversial voter ID bill, just after North Carolina saw a similar bill struck down in court for discrimination. Florida’s law restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals continues to surmount roadblocks. New Jersey’s legislature passed two landmark democracy reform bills that address “prison gerrymandering” and online voter registration. And Texas Democrats have launched a voter registration campaign to counteract GOP voter suppression.

In other news, a hearing on Capitol Hill with top election systems vendors unearthed lingering concerns about election security in 2020. Security experts have also found many states’ voting systems are still connected to the internet and vulnerable to disruption. Scrutiny revealed that members of Congress own up to $93 million in fossil fuel stocks. A new study shed light on the barriers to voting facing low-income communities. And finally, next week marks 10 years since the Citizens United SCOTUS decision, a decade in which we’ve seen decreased transparency and proliferation of dark money in politics.

Other News

NBC News – Voting machine makers face questions from House lawmakers — but more remain

[…] Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic, are almost entirely unregulated. But in recent years, policymakers and election advocates have begun to question who owns the companies, how they make their machines and whether they could be susceptible to remote hacking.

The hearing touched on a wide range of issues from the security of the machines and the prospect of independent review to lobbying and voter registration databases. While there are certification standards for voting machines, the companies themselves are lightly regulated and must disclose little information.

The vendors agreed to support future legislation that would require additional disclosures around their supply chain, cybersecurity practices, cyber incident reports, employee background checks and screening, and corporate ownership.

American Prospect – Members of Congress Own Up to $93 Million in Fossil Fuel Stocks

[…] As of Dec. 13, 2019, 134 members of Congress and their spouses own as much as $92.7 million worth of stock in fossil fuel companies and mutual funds, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by Sludge. House members own between roughly $29.5 million and $78.2 million in fossil fuel stocks, while senators have between $3.8 million and $14.5 million invested in oil, gas, and coal interests. Members of Congress generally report the value of their investments in broad ranges, so it’s not possible to know exactly how much their stocks are worth.

“I think we’re at the point in the global warming story where anyone with an eye to history might want to ask, ‘Do I really want to be trying to profit off the wreckage of the planet?’” said environmentalist and co-founder Bill McKibben in an email to Sludge. “Also, considering how badly the fossil fuel sector is underperforming the economy, politicians might want to ask themselves, ‘Do I really want my constituents to think I’m this bad at managing my money?’”

The Temple News – The barriers to voting in low-income communities

[A] 2019 study by the Bipartisan Policy Center showed that precincts with large minority populations, low incomes and high population density were more likely to experience longer wait times at polling places than precincts that were predominantly white with higher incomes.

[…] Martin also said people in low-income areas may fail to show up at the polls because of an inability to take off of work due to financial circumstances.

Nickerson said photo ID requirements are an obstacle for low-income communities.

“There are laws championed by Republicans in recent history with the stated goal of improving election security, but have the practical effect of making voting harder,” Nickerson said. “Photo ID requirements and ‘cleaning’ the voter file are good examples of such laws. The effect of these laws are often felt most strongly in poor communities where driver’s licenses are less common.”

NBC News – ‘Online and vulnerable’: Experts find nearly three dozen U.S. voting systems connected to internet

It was an assurance designed to bolster public confidence in the way America votes: Voting machines “are not connected to the internet.”

[…] But that is an overstatement, according to a team of 10 independent cybersecurity experts who specialize in voting systems and elections. While the voting machines themselves are not designed to be online, the larger voting systems in many states end up there, putting the voting process at risk.

That team of election security experts say that last summer, they discovered some systems are, in fact, online.

State Updates

Alaska – Alaska Public Media – Alaska election reform initiative smashes signature requirements on way to November ballot

Supporters of a ballot initiative that could fundamentally change how Alaska holds its elections submitted tens of thousands of signatures to officials in Anchorage Thursday.

The ballot initiative has three aims. The first would increase reporting requirements for political groups spending money to influence elections, what critics call “dark money” that has flooded American elections since the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court. A second measure would open up primary elections, allowing unregistered or independent voters to have a say picking party candidates ahead of general elections. The last provision would move Alaska to a ranked choice voting system[.]

Washington – KOMO News – Seattle reels in spending by ‘foreign-influenced’ companies

The Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously passed a measure to reel in political spending by “foreign-influenced” companies, following city council elections last year that drew unprecedented spending — including a record $1.5 million from Amazon.

The measure puts the city in the vanguard of local efforts to control corporate political spending. It blocks any corporation from giving money to candidates or to independent political-action committees if that corporation has one non-American investor holding at least 1% ownership, or multiple non-American investors holding at least 5%.

Kentucky – Forward Kentucky – A voting rights expert weighs in on the Voter ID bill

[…] But let’s be clear: there is NO need for a photo ID law in Kentucky elections. Photo ID laws prevent only one kind of voter fraud: in-person impersonation. There is ZERO evidence of that kind of fraud in Kentucky (or any U.S.) elections.

[…] In sum, the proposed ID bill has significant flaws: (1) student IDs don’t actually work; (2) voters without an ID shouldn’t have to cast a provisional ballot; (3) voters definitely shouldn’t have to travel to the county clerk’s office to have their ballot count.

New Jersey – Insider NJ – Two Landmark Voting Rights Bills Pass NJ Legislature and Move to Murphy’s Desk

Two bills that civil rights advocates have long fought for passed through the Legislature – one that counts incarcerated people for redistricting purposes at their most recent known address rather than the address of a prison or jail, and another that enables voters to register online. Both pieces of legislation now go to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his signature.

In concert with a bill signed by the governor in December restoring the right to vote to people on probation and parole in New Jersey, these policies constitute some of the most important advances for voting rights in New Jersey history.

Florida – The Guardian – The biggest voting rights win in recent US history – and the Republicans trying to thwart it

One year ago, Florida enacted the biggest expansion of the right to vote in America in a generation.

[…] But they’ve hit some roadblocks. Last year, the state’s Republican legislature passed a law with more restrictions: requiring former felons to pay fines and fees they owe to the government before registering. This affects about 80% of those benefiting from Amendment 4, according to Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor.

Civil rights groups called the measure an unconstitutional poll tax, historically used to keep African Americans from the polls. They went to court last October. But while the judge ruled in favor of the 17 former felons in the case, the rest remain limited by the law.

Texas – ABC News – Texas Democrats launch largest voter registration campaign to hobble GOP’s grip on the state

Texas Democrats, fueled by the party’s nearly quarter-century-held dream of turning Texas blue, are mounting an aggressive ground-game operation with the largest voter registration program in the state’s history, according to the state party, and an expansive voter protection effort ahead of the 2020 election.

The two-pronged campaign, which aims to add to the party’s 2018 gains up and down the ballot, will target unregistered voters who they believe are potential new Democrats, and safeguard the right to vote for Texans, in partnership with Fair Fight 2020, the multi-million dollar initiative launched by Stacey Abrams, a Georgia Democrat who considered a bid for president and the U.S. Senate last year.