Proposals to Expand Political Rights Surge in Statehouses


The Firewall Newsletter- By David Hawkings

While the congressional crusade to expand voting access now looks stalled at least until after the 2020 election, momentum in the state legislatures continues to appear strong.

That’s the conclusion of the Brennen Center for Justice at NYU Law School, which is out with its latest comprehensive survey of how democracy reform efforts are faring in the state capitals.

Lawmakers in 41 states have introduced 589 bills to expand political rights so far this year, a 10 percent increase from the number of such proposals at this point in the previous legislative cycle – and 25 percent more than in the spring of 2015. At the same time, just 63 measures to restrict political participation have been proposed, and in 29 states there have been none of these.

“The key question now is whether this pro-voter enthusiasm will actually be converted into law,” the center writes. “We are cautiously optimistic there will be more: 17 states have already successfully moved 34 expansive bills through one or more houses of their legislature,” while only four restrictive bills have moved through either a state House or a state Senate. But it is also the case that, in the legislative season of 2017, a surge of measures to restrict voting advanced in June, when many sessions come to an end.

So far, the most important pro-democracy changes have come in New York, the fourth most populous state. Legislators in Albany have already completed measures to expand early voting, permit people as young as 16 to pre-register to vote, expand the portability of registration records, consolidate the dates for state and federal primaries (which boosts turnout) and speed up ballot distributions to New Yorkers serving abroad in the armed forces.

The push and pull in the statehouses is all the more important now that HR 1, which the Democrats pushed through the House along party lines last week, looks destined for indefinite purgatory in the Republican Senate.

House passage “opened what is likely to be a sustained confrontation over access to the voting booth that could reshape not only the competition between the political parties but also the racial division of power in an irreversibly diversifying America,” political analyst Ronald Brownstein writes for CNN. “Democrats and civil rights groups are committed to a long-range campaign to leverage federal power to overcome state-level barriers, particularly across the Sun Belt, that local Republican parties have constructed, partly to delay the political emergence of growing minority communities, critics suspect, which tend to vote Democratic.”


House GOP Retirees Turned War Chests Into Slush Funds, Watchdog Alleges

Two once-powerful House Republicans drained their campaign bank accounts on creature comforts after retiring, the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center argues in a pair of complaints to the Federal Election Commission.

One complaint says that after his eighth and final term representing Jacksonville ended in 2017, senior Appropriations Committee member Ander Crenshaw took $60,000 remaining in his political war chest and created a political action committee. But instead of donating to candidates, the PAC spent virtually all the money on telephone services, expensive meals, Apple products and even a $5,000 trip to Disney World.

The other alleges similar behavior by John Linder of suburban Atlanta, who ran the House GOP campaign organization during a nine-term career that ended in 2011. He eventually converted $431,000 in unspent contributions to a PAC. The center said the committee spent lavishly on meals and entertainment and paid Linder’s children $72,000 for fundraising consulting, even though it didn’t raise any funds and gave very little to other candidates.

“I don’t know if these former officeholders thought they could get around the personal-use ban by laundering their personal committee funds to a multicandidate committee,” Brendan Fischer, the center’s director of federal reform,told The Tampa Bay Times, which has reported extensively on the behavior of so-called zombie campaigns. “Their theory is flawed.”

Personal use of campaign funds is against federal law , but PACs have much more leeway – a loophole that would be closed if HR 1, the political overhaul package passed by the House last week, were to become law.

The paper’s requests for comment were not returned by the former congressmen or their PAC treasurers. Crenshaw treasurer Benjamin Ottenhoff is a former chief financial officer of the Republican National Committee and a consultant for several other PACs.


House to Start Giving Low-Income Public Servants Paid Internships

The House has finalized plans for taxpayer-paid internships on Capitol Hill. It’s a symbolic watershed for efforts to enhance the long-term functionality of Congress, because there’s widespread belief the legislative branch will work better if more people who aren’t rich take jobs there. 

Congress appropriated $9 million for paying House interns this year, enough for each of the 435 members to allocate $20,000 in stipends so college or graduate school students of modest means can afford the enormous opportunity for Washington networking and public service experience. Until now, the Hill intern pool has been overwhelmingly the province of people who could afford to spend a semester or a summer working form free although some House and Senate offices have dipped into their regular budgets to pay interns.

“Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle finally have the insight they need to open up Capitol Hill internships to all students, regardless of their family’s income, and remove the extreme financial barriers that stand in the way,” said Audrey Henson, the founder of College to Congress, a non-profit that provides stipends so Pell Grant-eligible students can work for Hill offices of both parties. 


Chinese Firm Fined for Giving to a GOP Super PAC Also Helped Democrats 

While a Chinese-owned company’s $1.3 million in contributions to a pro-Jeb Bush presidential super PAC resulted in a record Federal Election Commission fine for illegal foreign interference, it was not the only money the business put into the 2016 election. American Pacific International Capital also gave smaller amounts to several state-level candidates and federal political committees supporting Democrats. 

It gave $7,500, for example, to a liberal hybrid super PAC that sought to mobilize Asian American voters in support of Hillary Clinton, the center for Responsive Politics reported.

Originally post at: The Firewall Newsletter

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Audrey Henson