The Georgia Republican Party and a conservative nonprofit have come under scrutiny for allegedly violating federal campaign finance law during the state's Senate runoff elections in January.
A pair of good-government groups, the Campaign Legal Center Action and Common Cause Georgia, filed a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission alleging that True the Vote, which says its mission to restore confidence in elections by combating voter fraud, illegally coordinated with the Georgia Republican Party ahead of the runoffs.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, True the Vote is prohibited from donating directly or indirectly to a political committee. Because it coordinated with the Georgia GOP, the complaint alleges, both parties violated campaign finance rules.
In December, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht announced in an email to supporters and in a press release that the Texas-based organization would assist the Georgia Republican Party with the runoffs. Her group helped with signature verification training, ballot curing support, a voter hotline, absentee ballot drop box monitoring and other election integrity initiatives.
Federal law prohibits corporations from making contributions — which include "coordinated expenditures" — to a political committee (other than a super PAC). The complaint alleges that the services True the Vote provided constitute expenditures and because they were done at the request of and in coordination with the state GOP, the activity amounts to prohibited in-kind contributions.
"It doesn't matter if True the Vote expressly urged voters to elect Republicans, the relevant legal question is whether True the Vote spent money 'in connection with an election' and coordinated that spending with the Georgia Republican Party," said Brendan Fischer, CLCA's director of federal reform. "The evidence shows that it did."
True the Vote did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the time the partnership was announced, Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer wrote that he was grateful for True the Vote's help in fighting for election integrity. "The resources of True the Vote will help us organize and implement the most comprehensive ballot security initiative in Georgia history," he said in the press release.
While working with the Georgia GOP, True the Vote challenged the eligibility of more than 364,000 voters ahead of the runoffs, claiming those voters may have recently moved and therefore weren't eligible to vote. In response, Stacey Abrahm's voting rights group Fair Fight filed a lawsuit alleging True the Vote's challenge amounted to voter intimidation.
A federal judge ultimately denied Fair Fight's request to stop the challenge, but expressed "grave concerns" about True the Vote challenging hundreds of thousands of voters' eligibility so close to the runoffs.
CLCA and Common Cause Georgia went further, filing a complaint.
"Corporations are not supposed to act as arms of campaigns, and since coordinated spending is just as valuable to candidates and political parties as direct contributions, coordination between outside spenders and their preferred political party must be strictly policed and enforced," the groups wrote in their press release about the complaint.
It will now be reviewed by FEC staff attorneys, who will develop a report and recommendation to the six commissioners about whether there is reason to believe the law was violated.
But this won't likely be a quick process. While the complaint's review will only take a few months, it could sit in the FEC's backlog of pending cases for as long as two years, Fischer said, since the agency has been slow to move on such issues.
If the FEC fails to take action in a timely manner, CLCA and Common Cause Georgia could sue the agency in order to have the complaint addressed more expeditiously.
"This is a striking example where the violations were hiding in plain sight," Fischer said. "We hope and expect that the FEC would enforce the law here and penalize both True the Vote and the Georgia Republican Party for this unlawful coordinated activity."
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Despite record-high turnout in last year's general election, a new report found that a majority of congressional elections in 2020 were determined by only a small number of voters due to the widely used partisan primary system.
Unite America, which released "The Primary Problem" on Tuesday, found that just 10 percent of voters cast ballots in primaries that ultimately decided the winners of 83 percent of House seats. These "safe" seats are in districts that are reliably retained by the same party in nearly every election, so the real competition is not in the general election but in the primary.
The resulting problem, the report concludes, is high re-election rates for members of Congress, even though most voters don't feel adequately represented by their elected officials or approve of the job they are doing. Unite America's solution: Adopt open and nonpartisan primaries.
In most states, primaries are closed so only registered Democrats or Republicans can vote for which of their party's candidates they want to advance to the general election. This not only leaves out millions of minority party or unaffiliated voters, but it also leads to more polarizing politics.
Candidates in those districts tend to fall more on the extreme ends of the political spectrum in order to have a better chance at winning a partisan primary. Therefore, districts are pushed further into uncompetitive territory when it comes time for general elections.
Last year, in 151 of the 361 congressional districts considered "safe," candidates for the dominant party ran unopposed in the primary. In the remaining 210 "safe" districts, voters in the non-dominant party "effectively had no voice in choosing their representative," per the report.
Unite America, which is a financial supporter of The Fulcrum, says more states adopting nonpartisan primaries will help solve the country's twin issues of dysfunction and polarization.
Nonpartisan primaries are designed to serve the voters, the report says. "They can give every citizen an equal voice, produce more representative outcomes, and improve governing incentives by ensuring our elected leaders are accountable to a broader swath of the electorate."
The most recent state to adopt such a system is Alaska. In last year's election, voters approved a nonpartisan top-four primary system that also uses ranked-choice voting. Starting in 2022, voters will rank their top candidates, with the four who receive the most support advancing to the general, regardless of party. California, Nebraska, Louisiana and Washington also use nonpartisan systems in which all candidates appear on the same primary ballot.
But most of the country uses some form of a partisan primary system. Nine states have closed primaries in which voters must be a registered Democrat or Republican and all other voters are excluded from participating, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 15 states, unaffiliated voters can participate in primaries, but the contests are still closed to cross-party voting. Six states allow voters to cross party lines in a primary, but they must publicly declare they are doing so. And the remaining 20 states are considered to have open primaries that either have all candidates listed on one ballot or allow voters to privately choose which party's ballot to vote.
There has been recent movement in Wisconsin to change the state's primary system to a nonpartisan one. Last week, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a bill to adopt "final-five voting." Under this system, there would be a single ballot for all primary candidates and the five who receive the most votes would advance to the general election. Then, voters would rank candidates in order of preference to determine the winner.
Democracy Found Executive Director Sara Eskrich, whose organization advocates for final-five voting in Wisconsin, said she's seen a lot of interest in this reform from voters and legislators alike because they recognize there is a systemic problem and the nonpartisan solution benefits everyone.
"Until major systemic reform is undertaken, it is likely incumbents will continue to change their behavior to avoid being primaried, rarely lose to more moderate challengers, and continue to put the interest of their narrow primary electorates over the public interest," the report concludes.
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Tuesday was a big day for fans of alternative voting systems.
Two-thirds of voters in Burlington cast ballots in favor of restoring ranked-choice voting in Vermont's largest city. If Vermont's Democratic-majority General Assembly and GOP Gov. Phil Scott also sign off on the ballot initiative, ranked-choice voting will be used for city council elections starting next March.
And a rival method, approval voting, made its debut in St. Louis after winning its own approval last year.
With this latest win in Burlington, momentum for ranked-choice voting continues to build across the country. More than 20 cities or counties use RCV, and Alaska just joined Maine as the first states to implement the system. More than two dozen states have active campaigns advocating for RCV, but its biggest debut will be in the New York mayoral primary in June.
Burlington was an early adopter of ranked-choice voting in 2005, when voters chose to implement it for city council and mayoral elections. However, five years and two mayoral elections later, voters decided to revert back to traditional plurality voting after a controversial mayor was elected through RCV.
After a decade without ranked elections, the city council attempted to put an initiative to use RCV for all citywide elections on the ballot last November, but the effort was vetoed by Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger. Council members then amended the initiative so RCV would only be used for council elections. The mayor approved this narrower use and the initiative was placed on the March 2 ballot.
The pro-RCV campaign Better Ballot Burlington was led by City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, a member of the Progressive Party, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat.
Under this alternative voting system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In the case that no candidate receives majority support, the election goes into an instant runoff in which the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that person's support is redistributed to voters' second choices. This continues until one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold.
Proponents say ranked-choice voting deters negative campaigning and supports more consensus-driven politics, while also boosting the election prospects of women and people of color. Opponents argue the system is confusing and doesn't necessarily lead to better representation.
While ranked-choice voting is probably the most widely known and used alternative voting method, it's not the only option. St. Louis used approval voting for the first time in its mayoral election Tuesday, becoming the second city to employ the system (after Fargo, N.D.).
This voting system allowed the city's voters to "approve" of as many of the four mayoral candidates as they liked. The two candidates who received the most votes, Tishaura Jones and Cara Spencer, will now advance to the April general election — guaranteeing the city will have its second female mayor.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed a slew of election changes mostly aimed at restricting mail voting, which he and other Republicans erroneously claim is riddled with fraud.
During a Friday news conference, DeSantis said his proposal would protect the state's election integrity, and at the same time touted Florida's election system as the most "transparent and efficient" in the country.
In last year's election, more than 9 million Floridians cast their ballot early, either in person or by mail — a 41 percent increase from 2016. And former President Donald Trump, who instigated the attacks on mail voting, won the state and its 29 electoral votes by 3 percentage points.
DeSantis' proposal would codify the current practice of not proactively sending mail ballots to all eligible voters. Further, voters would need to submit a vote-by-mail request each year instead of every two years. The governor also seeks to limit the use of drop boxes, so voters would have to return ballots by mail or at a local elections office.
Other elements of the plan include a limit on who can turn in ballots for another person ("ballot harvesting") and a ban on third-party funding for county-led voter drives.
"Last November, Florida held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country. While we should celebrate this feat, we should not rest on our laurels," said DeSantis, who has emerged as a potential 2024 presidential contender. He added that by taking these actions Florida would remain a leader on election integrity.
DeSantis wants the Legislature to take up his proposal when it convenes in Tallahassee next month. GOP lawmakers, who control both the state House and Senate, have already introduced their own bills to restrict voting by mail.
Florida isn't the only state where Republicans are pushing for limits to mail voting, though. In two-thirds of the states, legislators are considering more than 165 bills to restrict mail voting and impose voter ID requirements, among other changes.
Experts have repeatedly debunked claims of voting in the 2020 election. A recent report by MITRE Corporation reiterated this by concluding there was "no evidence of fraud, manipulation, or uncorrected error" in the eight battleground states.
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