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Friday, September 14, 2012

"A disaster for our democracy"

Senate holds hearing on Citizens United and threats to American voting rights

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing concerning the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United – which Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) described as a “disaster for our democracy” – and the threat to voting rights posed by voter suppression laws in states across the country.

Senator Tester should know: the Supreme Court relied on Citizens United to invalidate, without even a court hearing, a century-old Montana state law called the Corrupt Practices Act that brought greater transparency and accountability to campaign finance in Montana. To explain the significance behind Montana’s law and Citizens United, Senator Tester introduced Anthony Johnstone, Assistant Professor at the University of Montana School of Law and former Montana solicitor. Professor Johnstone began by highlighting the recent proliferation of voter ID laws, which have been widely denounced as efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. He then connected Citizens United, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and voter suppression efforts. While Citizens United and the decisions which followed it have led wealthy and powerful interests to dominate political speech through unlimited spending, assaults on the Voting Rights Act threaten efforts to remove barriers to voting and ensure that minority citizens, specifically African Americans in the South, are able to exercise their right to vote.

Professor Anthony Johnstone
University of Montana
Professor Johnstone argued that the combination of Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to corporate spending on “independent” political communications, and the 2008 Supreme Court decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, which upheld a voter ID law in Indiana, creates a “double standard” in the Court’s approach to the political rights of different groups in America. While the Supreme Court made it more difficult for eligible minorities and disenfranchised citizens to vote, it expanded the spending powers of wealthy corporations.

One of the most compelling and forceful arguments was made by Elisabeth MacNamara, President of the League of Women Voters of the United States. MacNamara testified that voter ID laws restrict eligible voters from participating in their own government, and that these laws disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly, young voters, veterans, the disabled, and women. The result is a loss of confidence in the institutions of American government. Participation, MacNamara argued, is “key” to democracy, and thus restricting registration is an existential threat. Without broad participation, and thus without the confidence that we are truly a government run by the people, the legitimacy of government actions may be questioned. This is especially so, argued MacNamara, when considering that little evidence exists that voter fraud is a threat to our democracy, while there is evidence that voter ID laws prevent many eligible voters from registering.

Elisabeth MacNamara
League of Women Voters
An important – and insidious – aspect of the restrictive voting laws passed in many states is the effect on voter registration drives, particularly by non-profit organizations. In Florida, for example, a fine of $1,000 would be imposed on any volunteer who does not return a voter registration form within 48 hours. This heavy burden forced non-profits to stop voter registration out of fear of heavy fines. This is especially troubling for minority voters, since a much higher proportion of minority voters are registered during voter registration drives, likely because of greater difficulty in accessing registration materials. Fortunately, since a federal judge in Florida prohibited enforcement of this part of the state’s law, non-profits have been able to continue their voter registration efforts. However, after a year of the law’s existence, significant damage to these efforts has been done. The Florida saga underscores the importance of an administration willing to enforce the Voting Rights Act and judges who understand the fundamental nature of all citizens’ right to vote.

As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) noted, considering Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act is now invalidated, we will soon see which approach is more effective in curbing corruption: allowing unlimited corporate political expenditures and restricting voter registration in the name of preventing fraud, or growing the voter base and limiting corporate political expenditures. As Professor Johnstone testified, we now live under the “Citizens United Court,” of unrestrained rights for corporations and “downgraded” rights for the rest of us.

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