How Arkansas elects top judges challenged by civil rights group

A prominent civil rights group, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has gone to federal court to get Arkansas to change the way seats on its top courts are filled.

The statewide election of all the judges on the state Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals violates the Voting Rights Act by denying "black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process," the group argued in a lawsuit filed Monday.

The state's population is 16 percent black but, because of the statewide election process, the suit maintains, no African-American candidate has ever been elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The suit asks a federal judge to strike down the current election procedure and replace it with a new one. It suggests using a cumulative system, in which voters can choose several candidates on the ballot and those with the most votes fill the vacancies.

"Judges matter," said Natasha Merle of the NAACP. "Black voters in Arkansas have been consistently denied fairness and the opportunity to elect judges of their choice."

The named plaintiffs are three African-American voters and a pair non-profits, Christian Ministerial Alliance and Arkansas Community Institute.

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Stacey Abrams testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday.

Abrams calls for reviving federal oversight of some elections

Stacey Abrams, who gained national attention during her failed 2018 bid for the Georgia governorship, is urging Congress to restore federal oversight of elections in some states.

Had she won the extremely close contest, Abrams would now be the first black female governor in America. She and her fellow Democrats maintain the election was not fairly conducted in part because her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, was secretary of state – and therefore Georgia's top elections official – at the time.

Abrams was the most prominent witness Tuesday at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on civil rights and elections in the six years since the Supreme Court eviscerated the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court struck down the part of the law requiring advance federal approval before any changes in voting laws or practices in parts of country with a history of voter discrimination. All of Georgia had been subjected to this so-called preclearance requirement, which the court ruled is now unconstitutionally outdated.

Calling for Congress to come up with a new system for preclearance that could withstand another such challenge, Abrams said that jurisdictions formerly covered by the law "have raced to reinstate or create new hurdles to voter registration, access to the ballot box, and ballot counting."

Abrams said a voter registration group she created in Georgia, which was active in her 2018 race, submitted thousands of forms to Kemp's office and soon discovered "artificial delays" in processing those registrations. The state's requirement that names on registrations exactly match records of other government agencies sidetracked thousands more.

Both practices had a greater impact on black citizens, she said, because they are more likely to register through third-party groups like the one she founded, Fair Fight Action.

And both, she said, would have been stopped in advance under preclearance.

Abrams also charged that Kemp improperly purged names from the voter rolls.

"By denying the real and present danger posed by those who see voters of color as a threat to be neutralized rather than as fellow citizens to be engaged," Abrams said, the six-year-old Supreme Court ruling "has destabilized the whole of our democratic experiment."

After the election, Abrams created Fair Fight Action to combat the tactics used against her. It has also sued the Georgia secretary of state and is asking the federal courts to revive preclearance for any election law changes in her state.

House Democratic leaders have written legislation creating a new set of rules for the Justice Department to use in determining which states must get such preclearance, and it has more than enough sponsors to pass. But the bill would almost certainly be shelved by the Republicans in charge in the Senate.

Big Picture

Dear presidential candidates: Use your manners

The National Institute for Civil Discourse has a message for the 20 Democratic presidential candidates who will participate in debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights: Remember first grade.

In other words, don't poke your neighbor, wait your turn, and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything.

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Seriously, the institute, which studies and promotes civility in political debate is reminding candidates of standards it developed in 2015 in advance of the last presidential election season.

They say that politicians living up to basic standards of civility, especially when they're on national television, is essential if the angry tribal nature of America discourse is ever going to ease. "Zingers and insults might get headlines, but it's leading to a culture of candidates who stand out by throwing punches and amplifying the polarization of our politics," said Keith Allred, the institute's executive director.

The guidelines for the candidates are:

  1. Be respectful of others in speech and behavior.
  2. Giphy

  3. Answer the question being asked by the moderator.
  4. Make ideas and feelings known without disrespecting others.
  5. Take responsibility for past and present behavior, speech and actions.
  6. Giphy

  7. Stand against incivility when faced with it.

The institute also developed guidelines for the moderators of the debates. (NBC and MSNBC are providing the ones for these debates.) They are:

  1. Address uncivil behavior by naming it and moderating the conversation to move toward more respectful dialogue.
  2. Enforce debate rules equally.
  3. Hold candidates accountable by challenging each candidate to speak the truth and act with integrity.
  4. Giphy

  5. Treat all candidates equally in regard to the complexity of questions and debate rules.
  6. Be respectful when interacting with candidates.
The NICD said its five-point plans for all the participants emerged from research on deliberation techniques, surveys to gauge citizens' definitions of what constitutes civil and uncivil language in public life, and conversations with elected officials and members of the press.