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SCOTUS NVRA decision is a victory for voters — for now

June 17, 2013 Leave a comment

voteThe Supreme Court has a number of high profile, potentially wide reaching cases in front of it this term, and…we’re still waiting for decisions on most of them. However, on the slate today was a decision in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA) which challenged the citizenship verification that the state demanded to be included on voter registration forms provided under the Motor Voter law (aka the NVRA).

In an opinion written by an unlikely voting rights ally, Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court ruled 7-2 that the citizenship requirement should not be included on the voter registration forms used under the NVRA, overturning the restrictive provisions put in place by Arizona.

Brenda Wright of Demos said that the decision would preserve community voter registration drives, such as the ones hosted by League of Women Voters chapters across the country. The League also declared that state driven restrictions lost while “voters won.” Common Cause took part in the lawsuit along with a coalition of individuals and advocacy groups, with representation from MALDEF. Jenny Flanagan of Common Cause also hailed the decision as “a major victory for American voters.”

The decision this morning not only provides protection for voters amidst real, serious threats that impact real people, many of whom have already had their registration forms tangled up in the system. The case affirmed that all citizens have the right to vote, not anyone else.

While the decision provides some immediate relief against this type of restrictive voting law, some are saying that we should prepare for future challenges and be weary of the narrow ruling.

In their release, Project Vote said that the decision is a strong affirmation of the NVRA, but at the same time the door remains open for future litigation. The American Prospect also outlined the path that Arizona could take to get the provision back on registration forms:

Scalia’s opinion concludes by providing a road map for Arizona to challenge the regulations of the Election Assistance Commission: “Arizona may, however, request anew that the EAC include [a proof of citizenship] requirement among the Federal Form’s state-specific instructions, and may seek judicial review of the EAC’s decision under the Administrative Procedure Act.” It’s possible that there will be a similar attempt by Arizona to burden voters that ends up in federal court.

Professor Spencer Overton of the George Washington Law School and Demos says that Scalia’s opinion can ultimately lead to Arizona getting what it wants, and that, more importantly, states might have “exclusive control over voter qualifications”:

…Scalia’s explicit pronouncement that states have exclusive control over voter qualifications could jeopardize Congress’ power to protect voting rights. For example, today’s opinion could undermine efforts to encourage Congress to restore voting rights in federal elections to all former offenders nationwide who have paid their debt to society. Professor Marty Lederman has pointed out that today’s opinion could bring into question a federal law that requires a state to register a U.S. citizen who moved from the state and now lives abroad (e.g., many members of the military). Another thorny question left unresolved by the opinion is whether photo identification is itself a qualification the state can impose on federal elections (even in defiance of a federal statute to the contrary), or whether photo ID is simply evidence of a qualification like residency.

There’s more to come from the Supreme Court over the next couple of weeks. Still, there’s plenty to digest, even in this opinion. We’ll be waiting to see what comes next.

Reflection and Revisiting: Executive Order 9066

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

On this day in 1942, three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set the stage for the removal of over 120,000 Japanese Americans (a majority of whom were U.S. citizens) from their homes on the west coast to hastily constructed internment camps. The United States government feared that Americans of Japanese ancestry would side with Japan in the War, and commit acts of espionage. Japanese Americans from California, and parts of Washington, Oregon and Arizona could take only what they could carry, and were forced to abandon or sell their property for far less than its value.

My grandmother was one of those 120,000, forced to relocate from Fife, Washington to Minidoka internment camp in southern Idaho. Last night I revisited her junior year Hunt High School yearbook, which contained this dedication:

We, the Americans, born of Japanese ancestry, together with our fellow citizens, are at present engaged in a great conflict which will determine whether or not we can live in a world of peace and security blessed by the four freedoms of Democracy.

The members of the Memoirs staff proudly dedicate this annual to those of us who have gone off to bear arms in order that we can live in such a world.

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The phrase “Four Freedoms” is a reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. I’m paying particular attention to “freedom from fear” when I think about the connections between the speech and Internment — specifically, how those incarcerated served as scapegoats for those who harbored the most fear.

Fred Korematsu of Oakland, California challenged the internment and refused to report to camp. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the form of exclusion outlined by the government was justified in cases of “emergency and peril.” The decision has never been overturned, although the Department of Justice said in 2011 that the case was made in “error” and that it is not precedent for interning citizens. The Solicitor General at the time suppressed information vital to the case, specifically that only a small percentage of Japanese Americans presented any sort of security threat, and that the FBI and FCC discredited claims that some Japanese Americans were sending radio signals across the Pacific.

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Another page from the yearbook says “All of the Seniors of the Hunt High School started their school careers in the high schools on the Pacific Coast…Their schooling was interrupted, familiar scenes, home and friends were left behind when evacuation took place. Yet they could understand their government’s action; their hearts were young and unafraid. They have helped to pioneer a new school, in strange and unfamiliar surroundings under the cloudless skies of southern Idaho.”

After September 11, 2001, many Muslims in the United States faced hostility from the government, not unlike Japanese Americans during World War II. Members of the Japanese American community supported Muslim challenges to widespread detention, and Representative Mike Honda (interned at Amache relocation center) spoke out against Congressional hearings targeting “radical Islam.” Through these shared experiences, some Japanese American and American Muslim groups have come together in support of each-others causes.

After camp, my grandmother moved to Chicago, Illinois with her husband, where they settled and started a family. Some Japanese Americans from the camps went back to the West Coast, but very few, if any, regained the land they had left behind years earlier. Many had to start anew, and over 11,000 chose Chicago as their destination.

Let’s take some time today to remember Executive Order 9066, its aftermath, and ensure that nothing of the sort ever happens again.

There’s much more to the story of internment. Here’s some suggested further reading and additional resources:

Prison-based gerrymandering and released felons’ voting rights

Image via Democracy North Carolina’s ex-felon outreach program

Two bits of news came across today that involve the rights of people who are currently incarcerated, and those who have recently been released from prison.

First, the Supreme Court today upheld a Maryland statute that prohibited prison based gerrymandering when the state legislature and local units of government perform redistricting. Often when new districts are being drawn, prison populations are counted where the prisons are located, and because prisoners do not have the right to vote in most states, eligible voters in areas with prisons have additional voting power. An example from Prisoners of the Census:

In Texas, one rural district’s population is almost 12% prisoners. Eighty-eight residents from that district, then, are represented in the State House as if they were 100 residents from urban Houston or Dallas.

Maryland’s “No Representation Without Population Act” requires prisoners to be counted at their last home address for redistricting purposes, and not at the location of the prison, which prevents quirks like the Texas example from happening in the Old Line State. The Supreme Court did not issue a written opinion, and merely upheld a lower court ruling declaring the law constitutional. Brenda Wright, Vice President for Legal Strategies at Demos said:

The Supreme Court’s ruling is a huge victory for the national campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering.  This decision sets an important precedent that will encourage other states to reform their redistricting laws and end the distortion in fair representation caused by treating incarcerated persons as residents of prisons.

[The website Prisoners of the Census has more information on prison-based gerrymandering, and the Demos Policy Shop blog has more on this case]

Though the ideal of “one person one vote” has been upheld by the Court in the case of prison based gerrymandering, those who have been recently released from prison frequently face an uphill battle in regaining the right to cast a ballot.

A new report from the Associated Press shows that Iowa is one of the most difficult states for ex-felons to regain their voting rights. Of 8,000 felons who have been released in Iowa, fewer than twelve have been able to regain the right to vote. Iowa’s restrictions run against the tide, as now 38 states automatically restore felon voting rights once they complete their sentences. The ACLU has an interesting map showing state-by-state felon disenfranchisement laws.

From the AP, via Huffington Post:

“Iowa is in a dwindling minority of extremely restrictive states,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national group that advocates for policies to make it easier for felons to vote. For felons, Branstad is “making your right to vote contingent on your financial abilities.”

The trend in the U.S. since 1996 has been to expand felon voting rights and make it easier to have them restored, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Iowa has made their process more restrictive, other states have taken strides to restore the right to vote for felons who have been released. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the prison based gerrymandering case only applies to Maryland, and other states still count prisoners at the location of penitentiaries. Neither is a complete victory nor a complete defeat, but they show conflicting directions in terms of felon rights and representation.

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