One year gone, but the fight lives on. Civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis died on July 17, 2020.
Over his decades of service, Congressman Lewis called on people to get into good trouble as he fought for equal rights and better voting access for all. Championing voting rights for the Black community was a major issue for Lewis and he inspired many to fight for their right to vote alongside him. RepresentUs reminds us that now more than ever, we must honor John Lewis by protecting the precious right to vote, and get in good trouble.
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Texas is once again in the voting rights spotlight after GOP lawmakers this weekend revived a bill to tighten the state's election rules.
In May, Democratic lawmakers blocked the first round of voting restrictions by staging a dramatic walkout. But now in the special session, Republicans are getting a second chance to advance their legislative priorities.
And while much of the attention is on Texas, several voting restrictions have gained traction under the radar in 13 other states. RepresentUs, a prominent democracy reform advocacy group, released a report last week highlighting these lesser-known measures that impact more than 35 million voters overall.
So far this year 35 anti-voter bills have been enacted across 18 states, according to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab. In its report, RepresentUs identified 27 of them as "especially worrying and underpublicized cases."
Here are some of the recently enacted voting changes you may have missed:
Arkansas and Iowa have limited in-person early voting options. Voting by mail and access to ballot drop boxes have also been restricted in five states: Arkansa, Idaho, Iowa, Montana and Wyoming.
Additionally, a handful of states have adopted tougher rules for voter identification, including requiring an affidavit to cast a provisional ballot (Arkansas) and mandating photo ID at the polls (Montana and Wyoming).
Three states — Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky — have all reduced the power the secretary of state has over elections. For instance, a new law in Arizona gives the attorney general the authority to defend state election laws, rather than the secretary of state.
Seven states have rolled back or completely prohibited local and state election officials from using private money for election administration. This came in response to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded by Mark Zuckerberg, providing $350 million in grants for last year's elections. Banning such funds could make paying for elections difficult when help from the federal government is lacking.
Several states have also made changes to the voter registration process. Arizona and Iowa have ramped up their voter roll maintenance, which could inadvertently disqualify eligible voters. Iowa also cut its registration period by four days. Montana will no longer allow residents to register and vote on Election Day. And voters in Utah will now have less time to update their party affiliation before a primary election.
More voting changes are sure to come, though, as legislative sessions, regular and special, are still ongoing in 17 states and Washington, D.C.
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As American politics has become more divisive over the past few decades, the country has also become more racially segregated.
More than 80 percent of the large metropolitan areas in the United States were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990, according to a new study by the University of California at Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute. Released last week, "The Roots of Structural Racism: Twenty-First Century Racial Residential Segregation in the United States" found that this increased segregation has contributed to poorer life outcomes, especially for people of color.
Areas with more racial segregation also had higher levels of political polarization, the study found. These divisions could play a huge role in how severe this round of gerrymandering is as states will soon redraw election maps for the new decade.
The Othering & Belonging Institute's study refutes the prevailing perception that the United States has become more integrated since the civil rights era. While metropolitan areas overall have become more diverse over the years, the neighborhoods within them are now highly segregated.
This racial residential segregation, the study found, will likely make it easier for politicians to use gerrymandering techniques like "packing" and "cracking" to draw election districts to their party's advantage.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal for states to draw maps in ways that dilute the voting power of protected minority communities. And in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering was an issue best litigated in state courts.
While racial gerrymandering remains unconstitutional, it can still occur when it becomes conflated with partisan gerrymandering, said Stephen Menendian, the study's lead researcher of the study and assistant director of the institute.
"Regions and states that have a lot of racial residential segregation make it much easier for state legislatures to draw boundaries in ways that are ostensibly political gerrymanders but actually racial gerrymanders," he said.
For instance, Menendian said, the state legislators in charge of mapmaking can make assumptions about which political party will draw voters from people of certain races, and then draw district lines accordingly.
Severe partisan gerrymandering leads to a disparity in political representation. One party may receive a majority of the votes in an election, but end up as the minority in the state legislature or Congress because of map manipulation. And this issue has only become more acute with modern technology.
"In 1890 you didn't have a computer that allowed you to generate literally thousands of scenarios in a minute, and then select the most fine point scenario that allowed you to maximize your political advantage," Menendian said. "It's basically politicians selecting voters, rather than the other way around."
Gerrymandering has larger implications on policies, including those related to ballot access, that are enacted at the state and federal levels. To make the mapmaking process more fair and representative, some states have adopted independent or hybrid commissions. However, politicians still have control over a majority of the state legislative and congressional maps.
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Advocates for congressional term limits have an easy target: representatives and senators so easily reelected that they can elevate their own and their donors' interests above those of their voters. Adding to this worry over real or perceived self-interest, with or without actual corruption, is concern about our long-serving elected leaders' reduced capacities to govern as they age.
But the advocates – whether good-government reformers, conservative originalists, thoughtful independents, or combinations of the three – keep missing the bull's eye. And they miss by a decade or more. They anchor their proposals with a two-term limit in the Senate, which they should consider doubling if they want positive governing change.
Such 12-year limits have dominated congressional term-limit proposals ever since they began emerging in the latter half of the last century. The problem targeted decades ago was congressional "rigidity" or "inertia;" today it is swampiness. Now as well as then, such short limits would fail to fix the problem and would cause serious additional harm.
First, limiting congressional tenure to a dozen years would shift governing and policy expertise outside the institution; further empowering lobbyists and special interests would serve neither representational nor national interests. Second, such short tenures, combined with periodic partisan rotation of institutional control, would weaken the legislative branch internally and diminish its ability to check the executive branch. (There are additional drawbacks as well.)
So where does the real tenure problem lie? With the long-serving veterans who choose not to leave. Their extended service constrains the institution's succession pathways and, more frequently than anyone likes to acknowledge, produces less skilled governance. Limits of four Senate terms would address both challenges.
We must first deflate the notion of citizen legislators, who serve the nation briefly before returning to their states to continue their careers. This was the norm before the Civil War, when 40% of Representatives would not run for reelection after any given Congress. The 20th Century, particularly after WWII, saw the importance of the federal government grow and careers in Washington become attractive. Since 1900, the share of members not running for reelection averaged just 11.5%.
But such careerism is not the problem. The country's development and the nature of its challenges require that national effort and expertise be deployed. Rather, it is the unwillingness of senior members to relinquish power.
By the end of the 19th Century, only nine people elected to Congress had ever served 30 years or more; at the start of the 21st Century, fully 5% and then 6% of the institution – 28 members in 2007, rising to 34 in 2009 – was made up of 30+-year veterans. Today, seven percent of Senators have reached the three-decade threshold and the average age of all Senators is over 64, the highest ever.
What's wrong with such long tenures and the Senators' correspondingly advanced ages? First, less-than-capable leadership does become more common. Recall your reaction to seeing eight-term Senator Patrick Leahy preside over the second Trump impeachment trial, or the contributions of now seven-term Senator Charles Grassley or six-termer Diane Feinstein during the Judiciary Committee's last two confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justices. Second, our more senior members of Congress can be a bit out of touch; think of their questions about Facebook's operation during Mark Zuckerberg's testimony in 2018.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, such senior senators block the ascension of three- and four-term colleagues who are fully capable of leading the body. A two-term limit in the Senate would only penalize the now ready, able, and too-long waiting senators who have no path through the logjam at the top.
The challenge in the House is similar, where Representatives Pelosi (serving her 18th term), Hoyer (his 20th) and Clyburn (15th) have sat atop the Democratic leadership for nearly two decades (since 2003). You need not oppose their reign to ask if others could run the institution. Chris Van Hollen, for example, was serving his seventh term in the House in 2015 and, an already-risen star, could have become Speaker after Pelosi. But his blocked path made his choice to mount an ultimately successful run for the Senate easier, a genuine loss for the House (notwithstanding its gain of Jamie Raskin, his successor).
Hence my call for term limits of more than two decades' service, e.g., four terms in the Senate and 10 to 12 in the House. Such limits need vetting, of course; perhaps three or even five terms would work in the Senate, or, as advocated by Rep. Bill Frenzel fifty years ago, nine terms in the House. Only passing consideration need be given to limits instead on party leadership positions, since they would do nothing about long tenures' other problems and would remain comparatively easy to change – by self-interested veteran legislators. As for exceptions for future lions of the Senate, like the nine-term Ted Kennedy, very few could be allowed if necessary politically, but they could be considered later in the review process.
The key is to get off the two-Senate-term mistake promoted by the Congressional Term Limit Caucus, presidential candidates from Donald Trump in 2016 to Beto O'Rourke and Tom Steyer in 2020, or Senator Ted Cruz earlier this year.
The tangible benefits of a Congress made less sclerotic by longer term limits aren't easy to entertain when so many immediate election reform challenges command our attention. Additionally, there is the question of whether they are worth the effort to amend the Constitution, which imposing any term limit would require.
But our core electoral structure is eroding and, like your favorite underappreciated bridge or critical pipe, needs repair if not replacement. Vetting and debating longer term limits would get us one step closer to addressing this foundational issue, which, whether in years or decades, will demand our attention and action.
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