Felon voting on the line in Kentucky governor's race
For advocates of restoring voting rights to felons, nothing on the ballot next week is more important than the tossup race for governor of Kentucky.
The Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, has used the closing days of the campaign to emphasize his promise to flex the governor's executive muscle to restore the franchise to about 5 percent the state's population — about 140,000 people out of prison after serving time for nonviolent crimes.
The Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, says that would be an abuse of the governor's powers and that the only way to restore criminals' voting rights is by amending the state constitution, but he has declined to commit himself to pushing that cumbersome process if he wins a second term.
Kentucky and Iowa are the only states that permanently disenfranchise all felons unless the governor grants a reprieve. Bevin has done so in about 1,200 cases. But that is a tiny fraction of the 240,000 people who have completed their sentences but may not vote.
One-quarter of them are African-American, the biggest share of disenfranchised black people in any state according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Virginia's law is almost as strict as Kentucky's but its current and previous governors, Democrats Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe, respectively, acted unilaterally to broadly restore voting rights. The result has been a boost in turnout that has benefitted the Democrats' resurgence in the state. A similar move seems unlikely to turn Kentucky blue, but it could make the state somewhat more purple.
Beshear's campaign promise is an echo of the executive order issued by his father, the state's last Democratic governor, just before he left office at the end of 2015. Burt Steve Beshear's decision was reversed by Bevin just weeks later.
The governor has declined to say what he would do if he wins a second term and the solidly Republican Legislature musters the required 60 percent supermajority for putting a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot. Such a bill is likely to get votes in Frankfort next year but passage is considered a decided longshot.
And Beshear has not specified how he would define a "nonviolent" offender or when he would judge that person's sentence as having been complete.
In the interim, a lawsuit by the Fair Elections Center and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center argues the state's system for putting voting rights restoration in the hands of the governor is unconstitutionally arbitrary.
The conventional view is that the restoration of felons' voting rights is on the rise, especially since the historic referendum in Florida last year promised to get as much as 1.7 million ex-convicts back to the voting booth. But, in fact, the roster of states that have enacted tougher felon disenfranchisement laws is much greater. In the two decades ending in 2016, the number of people who were unable to vote because of felony convictions grew 85 percent, to 6.1 million, according to the Sentencing Project.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.