Landmark test for felon voting rights reaches federal appeals court
The constitutionality of one of the nation's strictest curbs on felon voting was debated in a federal appeals court Tuesday.
A coalition of groups on both the left and right, from the ACLU and NAACP to the libertarian Cato Institute, have joined the cause of almost 200,000 Mississippians who have done their time but may never vote again without a governor's pardon or a reprieve from the Legislature. The state says it has almost limitless leeway under the Constitution to set those parameters.
However the case gets decided by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a subsequent ruling by the Supreme Court could provide definitive word on the future of expanded voting rights for convicts, which has emerged as one of the top democracy reform causes of the decade.
At the oral arguments, the six felon plaintiffs asserted that a lifetime ban on their voting is a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment. They also argued that the law violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution because when it was first adopted, in 1868, the clear intent was to prevent as many black people as possible from voting and the law still affects them disproportionately.
Mississippi is among just 10 states that disenfranchise felons for long periods, sometimes forever, even once they have completed their probation and parole after prison. As a result, 9 percent of the state's adults may not vote, which is triple the national average. The number of African-Americans in that group is 127,000, or 16 percent of the black electorate, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for criminal justice reform.
The state Constitution took the vote away from those convicted of any of 10 felonies including murder, forgery and bigamy. Fourteen years ago the state attorney general added another dozen crimes to the list, from timber larceny to carjacking.
A convict may vote again only if pardoned by the governor or if a suffrage bill is passed just for them by two-thirds of the House and Senate. Eighteen such measures were introduced last year and none got a vote.
"With extremely limited and arbitrary exceptions, a citizen convicted in a Mississippi state court of a disenfranchising felony will never again vote in the state, no matter how minor the underlying crime or how long the citizen may live after sentence completion," the plaintiffs say in a brief produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"There is no question that the U.S. Constitution expressly approves of the right of a State to disenfranchise felons — including permanently," the state argues in reply brief, and besides the plaintiffs have not proved any "present-day discriminatory effects."
In its brief, the Cato Institute says the roster of crimes on the list for permanent disenfranchisement is unconstitutionally arbitrary.
"For every crime on the list there is a similar or even worse crime not on the list. Check fraud means permanent disenfranchisement. But credit card fraud carries no similar penalty," the group argued. "By disenfranchising individuals for minor crimes, Mississippi drastically departs from the states that understand permanent disenfranchisement for what it is — among the most severe penalties our society can inflict."
The state Constitution that detailed the initial list of felonies is the same document that also allowed the state House to pick a governor in some circumstances. Many of the same groups representing the prisoners have also sued in state court to have that system nullified as unconstitutionally discretionary to black voters.
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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.