Democrats Need Voters’ Help To Fix Gerrymandering. Will They Get It?

Originally published in Talking Points Memo on September 6, 2018.
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In late 2017, after a first-time Democratic candidate won a special election in Washington, the Senate chamber tipped blue, giving Democrats a “trifecta” over the state’s government. One of their first orders of business was passing the “Access to Democracy” package — a sweeping set of voting reforms that included automatic voter registration and same-day registration. Over Republican opposition, Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law by March.

Also in late 2017, following Democrat Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial victory in New Jersey, the small, dense East Coast state likewise shifted to Democratic control over both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. By April, Gov. Murphy had signed automatic voter registration into law, meaning the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission will now register New Jersey voters by default when they apply or renew their driver’s license. Republican Gov. Chris Christie had vetoed similar legislation in 2016 and 2015, as well as a bill to expand early voting in 2013.

Not all the Democratic “trifecta” states have estimable voting laws — longtime blue states like New York and Delaware stand out for their barriers — but the momentum behind voting rights in newly wrested blue states reflects a growing shift in the party.

Oregon was the first state to pass automatic voter registration in 2015, going on to claim the highest turnout increase of any state the following year. Since then twelve other states and Washington D.C. have passed automatic voter registration, the result of a fast-growing consensus that making it easier to vote, not just fighting voter suppression, is the type of political battle Democrats should be embracing.

“It is striking how much people have recognized there is no downside, and a strong upside, to staking out pretty clear, strong positions on voting rights,” says Zachary Roth, a journalist and the author of “The Great Suppression,” published in 2016. Roth recalls much more reticence among Democrats even five years ago, saying: “Leaders had been in wait-and-see mode, to see how these issues were going to play politically.”

At a time when public confidence in the integrity of American elections appears to be slipping — no doubt aided by the president’s lies claiming rampant voter fraud — the efforts among progressives to prioritize voting rights marks a shift for an issue that had long been left largely to lawyers and courtrooms. With Trump as president and the next redistricting process looming large, a slew of new and old organizations is scrambling to figure out how and if they can make wonky, procedural voting issues ones that excite and motivate turnout.

The voting rights space has long been peppered by nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organizations that push pro-democracy agendas. While these organizations — like Common Cause, the NAACP, and Demos — have often navigated charges of liberal bias, their nonpartisan identities have also been important staples of the “good government” movement.

In recent years, though, there’s been a shift in the democracy reform world, with the rise of more explicitly partisan organizations.

One is Let America Vote, founded in early 2017 by Jason Kander, a Missouri Democrat who lost narrowly to Republican Roy Blunt in a 2016 U.S. Senate race. Kander, who ran one of the most viral campaign ads that cycle, was quickly dubbed a rising Democratic star and a potential presidential candidate for 2020.

Let America Vote was founded, Kander likes to say, to “win the political argument” against voter suppression, and “create political consequences” for those trying to suppress the vote. With Trump appointing federal judges and Jeff Sessions leading the Department of Justice, Let America Vote says it aims to take the fight from the courthouse to the court of public opinion. Largely fueled by volunteers, unpaid interns, and a few full-time staffers in each state, the organization sends volunteers around districts to knock on doors and meet voters.

The goal is not necessarily to talk to voters about voter suppression, though. “Sometimes it means our folks emphasize other issues,” Kander told me, pointing to the group’s campaign work for Danica Roem, who, in 2017, won a Virginia House Delegate seat. Roem was facing off against a longtime Republican incumbent, Bob Marshall, who backed a host of voting restrictions, like requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship before casting a ballot. But Let America Vote volunteers mostly talked to voters about the issues Roem was focusing on, like reducing traffic congestion.

Kander says his team adapts its strategy from race to race, but does “whatever it takes” to ensure those restricting the right to vote pay a price. “Republicans across the country are very well-aware this is no longer a consequence-free exercise,” he says.

Roth says creating political consequences really has been “a missing part of the puzzle” for voting rights advocates. The Democratic Party had done it sort of sporadically, he explains, “but not in any sustained or really effective way.”

Speculation that Let America Vote was just something of a vehicle for Kander to spin his wheels until it was time to jump back into 2020 grew more pronouncedwhen he hired a Des Moines Register political reporter in April as a speechwriter and communications director. The hire seemed like a smart choice for an insurgent candidate looking to staff up for a competitive primary. But those rumors quieted down in late June, when Kander announced he was jumping into the Kansas City mayoral race. The election is next summer, and if he won he would not then enter the presidential mix.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), launched by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in January 2017, is a different story. It’s not much of a secret that Holder is weighing whether he should wade into the 2020 fray; he says he’ll make his decision early next year.

Until then, at least, Holder is focused on NDRC, pitched as a “strategic hub” for redistricting efforts across the country. The organization is armed with millions of dollars and a four-pronged strategy of pushing reforms, waging litigation, electing Democrats, and organizing educational campaigns. It’s also armed with an important ally: Barack Obama, who jumped back into politics last summer and announced that pushing back on Republican gerrymandering would be his main post-White House focus.

It’s fitting that Obama would care about redistricting, since partisan gerrymandering complicated nearly all of presidential objectives. Republicans flipped 959 legislative seats during his tenure. In 2012 Democrats won 1.5 million more votes than Republicans in House of Representative races, but the GOP still secured a 234-to-201 seat advantage. The GOP also maintained its control in 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for the House. (Steve Stivers, a Republican House member from Ohio, even admitted this year that his party is well-positioned to maintain power in the next cycle because of its successful gerrymandering post-2010.)

NDRC’s first real foray was in the Virginia election, where it spent $1.2 million in 2017 to elect Gov. Ralph Northam. The group proudly notes that this is the first time since 1991 that Virginia will have a Democratic governor with veto power over the redistricting process.

“From my perspective, success is if you break a trifecta,” Holder told The New York Times in February. “I don’t think that in December of 2018, you measure success only by whether you have assumed control of a particular state.” NDRC regularly reminds the public that half of all leaders who will be redrawing the congressional maps in 2021 will be elected this November.

NDRC is not just focusing on governor’s mansions and congressional races. In May Ohioans voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment for a bipartisan redistricting commission. Holder’s group spent $50,000 supporting this effort, and in addition to Ohio, four more states have redistricting on the ballot this November. (This is a big shift: Only five states had redistricting ballot initiatives in entire the preceding decade.) NDRC also intervened this year in the heavily gerrymandered state of Wisconsin, spending more than $500,000 to elect Rebecca Dallet, a state Supreme Court candidate who won a ten-year term in April.

The state-level Supreme Court focus is partly due to the group’s recognition that the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to be much of an ally going forward, yet gerrymandering can’t be fully tackled without the help of the judicial system. And sometimes, state courts can still be of assistance: In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court knocked down Republican-drawn voting maps, concluding they violated the state constitution. But this past summer the U.S. Supreme Court punted on two redistricting challenges despite previously agreeing that gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles” and can amount to “rigging elections.” That combined with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement — he was the needed fifth vote to curb gerrymandering — has all but prompted advocates to look away from the nation’s highest court.

“The politicians have gotten way ahead of the courts in voting rights starting about ten years ago,” says Gerry Hebert, the senior director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center. “And by that I mean the sophisticated technology with respect to redistricting has really enabled politicians to pull the wool over the courts’ eyes, with the ability to manipulate and gerrymander maps with surgical-like precision down to the block level.” The effects of partisan gerrymandering since 2012 have indeed been more pronounced than at any point in the previous 50 years, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Hebert, who served in the Department of Justice between 1973 to 1994, says it’s gotten much harder to litigate and win voting rights cases than it used to be. With weakened legal power, political organizations like NDRC and Let America Vote arguably play an even more important watchdog role. But making issues over reapportionment accessible and exciting can be difficult.

To take this on, in 2018 the NDRC teamed up with Organizing for Action, the national activist group affiliated with Barack Obama. (The 501c4, founded by Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, formed in in 2013 and commanded the campaign’s coveted email list and relationships with donors.)

Together, in addition to raising money and blasting emails from high-profile surrogates, the two groups have been organizing events like happy hours, speeches, and citizen house parties dedicated to the stakes of redistricting, and national video conferences focused on the same.

In late July 3,000 people signed up for a joint OFA-NDRC webinar featuring Eric Holder. Participants from around the country got to ask him questions, like how to talk to friends about gerrymandering without making their eyes glaze over.

“Gerrymandering is cheating,” Holder emphasized into his webcam. “It allows politicians to pick their voters, instead of having people choose their representatives.”

The advent of explicitly partisan groups, working on both voting rights and electing Democrats, can fuel legitimate suspicion that liberals are just seeking their own ways to tip the balance of power. Some are not exactly trying to hide it. NextGen America, funded by the largest individual Democratic political donor Tom Steyer, advocates against voter suppression and for restoring the Voting Rights Act, and also aims to elect a slew of Democrats this November through a massive youth turnout effort. Other groups like the grassroots Indivisible network and the ACLU’s Let People Vote Campaign have led ostensibly nonpartisan voting rights work, but both organizations have become so heavily associated with the Trump administration “resistance” that even those efforts can feel quite partisan.

Not to mention that Democrats certainly have their own history with gerrymandering maps and erecting procedural voting hurdles. One of the two cases the Supreme Court sidestepped this summer was pushed by Republican voters in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District; they argued their district map was drawn unfairly to help Democrats win. In Rhode Island, a Democratic-controlled legislature approved a new voter ID law in 2011, pushed by a Democratic state senator. (“I would not support anything that I thought would present obstacles or limit protections,” the bill sponsor claimed after it passed.)

“It’s a scary thing for old-school politicians and their operatives to have a giant new wave of people coming in to vote that they don’t know about,” says Kathay Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause. “It’s a very small universe of people who will stand up and say they want more restrictive laws — I would say most electeds in California have decided that publicly they cannot align themselves with voter restrictions — but privately they still might support them.”

“NDRC hasn’t yet had the rubber meet the road for maps on both sides,” says Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School and a former Department of Justice attorney focused on voting rights. “If Democrats take unilateral control over some states there will likely be Democratic abuses, and we’ll see what, if anything, they do about it.”

When I asked Kelly Ward, executive director of NDRC, what she sees her group doing to push back against Democrats who might try to gerrymander themselves, she responded by pointing to her group’s focus on public education. “I think it’s going to be really important that citizens are engaged in the redistricting process,” she says. “If elected officials feel you’re paying attention, they’re more likely to do the right thing.” Whether Democratic voters would rally against Democratic gerrymandering, however, is a separate question.

There is some evidence to suggest that progressives are entering a new period, though, where they aren’t as willing to let Democrats get away with suppressing the vote. Last year in New Mexico, Democratic legislator Debbie Rodella repeatedly opposed efforts introduced by her liberal colleagues to ease voting rights. Rodella’s opposition helped kill the bills, despite Democratic majorities in both state chambers.

This year, however, voters decided to get rid of Rodella. She’s served in the state legislature for twenty-five years, but facing a primary challenger for the first time since 2006, Rodella lost in June by double-digits.

Miles Rapoport, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former president of Common Cause, says he thinks the entrance of more partisan groups is “an overall healthy development” in the voting rights space. While he acknowledges it “gives some ammunition” to those who charge democracy activists with being unforthcoming Democrats, he says these critics have already been saying that for years. And Rapoport notes that while people in the partisan world are taking up democracy issues more often, there’s still a “robust, nonpartisan movement trying to bring as many people into the fold.”

Not all from the nonpartisan universe are so enamored though. “There are a number of organizations that have sprouted up in 2017 that have very big online presences and fairly large fundraising efforts, but whether they’re really putting in money to reform efforts or to sustain themselves is less clear,” says Feng. “Unfortunately they are tapping into people’s heightened concern about a variety of issues, from voting to redistricting, and raising boatloads of money. It’s easy to send emails or write an op-ed, but the real question is whether they are supporting true state-based reform efforts.”

One area where NDRC’s fundraising prowess might be particularly useful is in Michigan, where a citizen-led effort to get redistricting reform on the 2018 ballot has dropped the jaws of cynics and pundits across the country.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory, a 27-year-old recycling program coordinator from Grand Rapids was dreading the inevitable political arguments she’d face at her Thanksgiving table. Hoping to throw herself into a cause that was something all her loved ones could agree on, she took to Facebook two days after the election, and said: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” The post blew up, and soon the author of the post, Katie Fahey, was leading Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, focused on getting a constitutional amendment for an independent redistricting commission. The proposed commission would be comprised of four Republican voters, four Democratic voters, and five independents.

For the next year Fahey and her army of volunteers canvassed the state, collecting signatures to get their amendment on the ballot. In December 2017, Voters Not Politicians submitted more than 425,000 signatures (Michigan citizen ballot measures require 315,000.) A state elections board approved it in June, and it survived a near-death blow at the state Supreme Court in July.

Feng of California Common Cause says national voting rights groups were slow to take this grassroots, citizen-led effort seriously. “The usual organized groups that put millions into such efforts were largely dismissive,” she says. “The traditional wisdom has been that for volunteer-led signature gathering campaigns, you have to pay at least $1 million-$5 million to these professional signature gatherers if you want to get something on the ballot. Katie’s grassroots campaign basically blew that out of the water.”

Michigan is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the country, and Republicans have commanded nine of the state’s fourteen congressional seats in every election since 2010, despite Democrats earning far more votes statewide some years. Republicans deny they manipulated the voting maps, but newly disclosed emails, released this summer as part of a federal court challenge, reveal GOP operatives consciously drawing the maps in their favor. Their redistricting efforts were done “in a glorious way that makes it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb counties into only four districts,” wrote a Republican congressman’s chief of staff in 2011 to a GOP strategist and mapmaker. Another email drafted by a lawyer helping to design the maps said, “We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond.”

Between now and Election Day, Fahey says a lot of her group’s work will be spent on fundraising to combat misinformation from opponents, like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Right now our deep-pocketed opponents are claiming we are trying to do crazy things like eliminate the Voting Rights Act,” she says. “Many voters don’t know what redistricting reform is, and we’re an organization that didn’t exist 1.5 years ago, which has advantages but also real disadvantages.” As of July Voters Not Politicians had raised about $1.25 million.

Ward, of NDRC, says their group is “in touch with Katie and we’ll do whatever she needs to bring it across the finish line, including resources.”

Whether the constellation of nonpartisan and partisan groups succeed in making voting rights a major issue for Democrats this November may best be exemplified by what plays out in New Hampshire.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton narrowly won New Hampshire while Republicans secured unified control of the state’s government. The Granite State has one of the nation’s highest turnout rates, and Donald Trump notoriously claimed after the election that Massachusetts voters bused into New Hampshire to cast illegal ballots. The following year state Republicans pushed legislation that would impose new fees on college students who lacked in-state driver’s licenses and wanted to vote. They claimed such reforms were necessary to restore trust in the election process. Critics blasted the bill as a new poll tax, something that could cost young voters up to several hundred dollars.

secretly recorded video from December 2017 showed the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, saying he “hated” the proposed voting requirement and hoped the legislature would kill it; he pledged never to support anything that suppresses the votes of students.

But this past July, Sununu signed it into law anyway. The law doesn’t take effect until summer 2019, so advocates are framing November as a referendum on this legislation and the broader issue of voter suppression in New Hampshire.

“I think it’s going to be a really significant issue,” says Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “I think people are really shocked the governor would sign a bill he admitted he hated, and people are concerned about what this bill will do. We don’t think politicians should be allowed to choose their voters.”

While Bissonnette says voter suppression has “always been a big issue” in his state, citing efforts back in 2012 that were later struck down by the state Supreme Courtin 2015, he says the issue has grown much more salient with Trump.

“I think his statements about Massachusetts voters really elevated the issue of voting rights here,” he says. “Opponents of voting like to claim that people don’t have faith in our elections, but people lack confidence because they’re being fed lies.”

A coalition of groups have been organizing under the banner of the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights — including nonpartisan organizations like the ACLU and League of Women’s Voters, as well as more partisan groups like Let America Vote, College Democrats, and NextGen America.

“We made hundreds of phone calls to the governor and state legislators, and organized hundreds of people to show up at the state house,” says Liz Wester, the state director for America Votes New Hampshire. “About 70 college students testified, and even dozens of students showed up the day the governor signed the bill and went back on his word.” Wester says this is an issue “voters are really fired up about.”

One reason so many partisan groups have decided to lean into voting rights is because the issue polls well.

In 2016 Gallup found 63 percent of Americans support automatic voter registration, and 80 percent favor early voting. More recent data from Civis Polling as part of the Data for Progress New Progressive Agenda Project found that 48 percent of likely 2018 voters support automatic voter registration, 37 percent oppose, and 15 percent aren’t sure. When so-called Democratic “influencers” (referring to involved party activists) were asked to pick their top political priorities from a list of almost a dozen issues, two of the top three most highly ranked issues were related to strengthening voting rights.

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, put it this way: “The way to think about voting reforms is that these policies don’t wildly motivate voters — that’s sort of a fantasy — but what is real is that the people who do not vote like progressive stuff.” Progressives should support making it easier to vote, McElwee says, partly “because it will increase turnout in our elections, and will create more space for progressive ideas.” In other words, making it easier to vote will bring in more marginal voters who lean further left than the historically more consistent voter.

Another shift that’s happened is that longtime voting rights groups have recognized the power of teaming up with those looking to get money out of politics, mobilizing together under the banner of a democracy reform agenda. Previously many players in the “good government” world were more siloed.

This past summer a host of progressive activists, organizations, and politicians rallied for a weeklong #FixDemocracyNow campaign. “It’s time to fix democracy by strengthening voting rights, fighting big money through small-donor elections, and ending gerrymandering,” a petition signed by participating groups read. “I call on my federal, state, and local candidates to campaign on their plans to create the democracy we deserve, where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s vote is counted.”

David Donnelly, president of Every Voice — a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group — says “linking money-in-politics to voting rights has been a very important strategic shift” for them over the last few years. “We’ve pivoted to frame the issue less about getting money out, and more around bringing people back in,” he explains. “Legally, the landscape has also changed and we’re thinking about money-in-politics now more in terms of participation than prohibition.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship for the voting rights world, too. New polling released this summershowed that millennials especially resonate with messages of ending corporate campaign donations and super PACs. “Since Citizens United there’s been increasing consciousness about things that are suppressing the influence of ordinary citizens, and voting rights has been part of that,” says pollster Stan Greenberg“People are very upset about it, and very supportive of things that make it easier to participate.” He adds that while voters “resent” politicians who try and limit the right to vote, the issue appears more politically motivating when included in the “larger framework” of reducing corporate money in politics.

And Democrats do seem to be responding to these signals. This past May, House and Senate Democrats released a plan entitled “A Better Deal for Democracy” with ideas to strengthen and expand voting rights, implement new campaign finance reforms, and beef up ethics laws. This builds on strong, proactive language Democrats included in their party platform for the first time in 2016. In 2012, the party’s platform criticized voter restrictions, but did not include affirmative plans to expand voting rights, and did not have as much to say about campaign finance.

This shift was probably inevitable, if not overdue. Republicans, backed by organizations like American Legislative Exchange Council, ramped up their effort to pass voting restrictions following the 2010 midterms, and robust gerrymandering efforts also worked to make threats to Democrats doubly effective. Advocates suffered yet another blow in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a central provision of the Voting Rights Act. Roth, the journalist who covers voting rights, says even a half-decade ago “there was just less of an awareness that Democrats need to get serious” about these issues.

“I think it’s become clearer for progressive organizations of every interest about our common stake in taking democracy and voting issues head on,” says Greg Speed, president of America Votes, which coordinates efforts among more than 400 state and local left-leaning groups. “Those conversations are much further along than they were even just a few years ago,” he adds.

It’s not that voting rights has never been a politicized issue before now. (“It only looks particularly polarized if you’ve got a months-long lens,” quips Levitt.) But the crop of new groups organizing and spending money, and old groups doubling down on offense with an increased sense of urgency and new tactics, suggests something may very well be different this time around. “Our democracy is under attack,” Holder said this summer. “That might sound hyperbolic,” he acknowledged, “but it’s true.”

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Florida Has Been Stealing Votes From Black People Since The Civil War. That Could Change In November.

Originally published in The Intercept on September 6, 2018.
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One in ten eligible voters in Florida are effectively disenfranchised, thanks to a draconian law that bars former felons from voting and a broken clemency system. When it comes to black voters, the numbers are even more grim: More than 20 percent of otherwise eligible black voters from Florida cannot cast a ballot. In total, more than a quarter of all disenfranchised felons in the entire country are in the Sunshine State.

But this November, Florida voters will have a chance to reverse that by weighing in on Amendment 4, a constitutional ballot measure to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.5 million Floridians who have fully completed their felony sentences. Florida is just one of three states in the U.S. that indefinitely bans citizens with felony convictions from voting.

Amendment 4 is the results of years of grassroots work by Florida organizers, but it’s also part of recent nationwide push on this front. In 2016, the Democratic Party put in its party platform for the first time a commitment to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. Earlier that same year, the Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature overrode the veto of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and restored the right to vote to more than 40,000 former prisoners still on probation or parole. Also over the course of 2016 and 2017, Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffegranted clemency to more than 168,000 former felons.

Constitutional amendments in Florida require least 60 percent approval to pass — no easy objective. In 2012, for example, there were 11 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and Florida voters rejected eight of them.

But a slew of early polling bodes well for supporters of Amendment 4: In February, a Quinnipiac University poll found 67 percent of Florida voterssupported the idea of restoring voting rights to individuals who have committed a felony and completed their sentences, while 27 percent opposed it. Another poll released in May found that 74 percent of voters say they’d back Amendment 4. However, a poll released in June by the Florida Chamber of Commerce found that just 40 percent of voters approved of Amendment 4, with 17 percent opposed and 43 percent undecided.

The passage of Amendment 4 would be monumental to the vast majority of former felons in the state, but some would still get left behind; it does not provide restoration for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. There’s a pragmatic rationale behind that: A measure that allows someone who, say, committed a robbery to vote again is much easier to sell politically than one that re-enfranchises someone convicted of rape. The amendment also has the full-throated support of Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor who won an insurgent victory in last week’s primary. (Floridians energized by Gillum’s nomination are likely to vote in favor of the amendment.) His Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, stands in opposition.

Disenfranchising criminals has a legal history that dates back well before the existence of the United States. Sean Morales-Doyle, a counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the practice was prevalent in English common law and can likely be traced back to ancient Rome.

“It comes from an outmoded concept of government and criminal justice, that if you commit a crime you become an outlaw, and in addition to potentially being subject to the actual death penalty, it is appropriate for you to suffer a ‘civil death’ and no longer be allowed to participate in society in any way,” he said.

While some states adopted criminal disenfranchisement in their early years, Morales-Doyle said many did not, and there was a lot of variation during the United States’s formative years. However, in the period immediately following the Civil War, interest in felon disenfranchisement grew far more pronounced, especially in the South. Following the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African-Americans received a wave of new rights, freedoms, and — importantly — political power, which were wholly opposed by many whites. States began to push for ways to undermine these new protections, like restrictions on voting for people convicted of crimes that black people were more likely to be found guilty of, thanks to a criminal justice system that was rife with racial prejudice. For example, South Carolina lawmakers barred those convicted of “thievery, adultery, arson, wife beating, housebreaking, and attempted rape” from voting, but not those convicted of murder or fighting. By 1869,29 states had enacted such policies.

This included Florida, which enacted a constitutional provision to indefinitely ban former felons from voting. It’s remained on the books ever since. “It was passed in 1868, after an unsuccessful attempt by Florida and other states to reject the 15th Amendment,” says Morales-Doyle. “So Florida passed a constitution with universal male suffrage — as required by the 15th Amendment — but then included some other provisions to undermine it, and one was the felon disenfranchisement provision.”

In the last half-century, many states have moved in the opposite direction. Though Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow currently incarcerated individuals to vote, it’s just Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky that still permanently bar all citizens with felony convictions from voting. But many states still have other sorts of restrictions: Nationwide, more than 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction. According to the Sentencing Project, more than half have fully completed their sentences, another quarter are under probation or parole, and another quarter are still in prison. While 1 out of every 40 U.S. adults is barred from voting due to a former or current felony conviction, one in 13 African-American adults is disenfranchised.

Florida’s system for clemency has been mostly unchanged since the 1880s, but it grew even stricter in 2011, when newly elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott issued new rules requiring citizens with a felony conviction to wait at least five years before filing for clemency, including the restoration of voting rights — a process that often takes a decade or more.

Nearly five years after taking office, Scott had issued clemency to fewer than 2,000 Florida citizens, while over 20,000 applications remained pending. The number of disenfranchised Floridians has meanwhile continued to grow. Between 2010 and 2016, nearly 150,000 more were disenfranchised, bringing the total to about 1.7 million, according to the Sentencing Project. (This figure includes people who are still serving out their sentences, who would not be covered by Amendment 4.)

There have been some unsuccessful legal attempts in the past to strike down Florida’s voting ban on citizens with felony convictions. In 2000, the Brennan Center filed a class-action suit on behalf of more than 600,000 Florida citizens, arguing that the constitutional provision was discriminatory, and a violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The federal district court for the Southern District of Florida agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in 2005 rejected it on appeal, saying the plaintiffs had failed to prove clear discriminatory intent.

A couple years later, the state started to make progress on its own. Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was in office from 2007 to 2011, granted automatic clemency for people completing sentences for certain felony convictions. More than 115,000 Florida citizens had their voting rights restored between 2007 and 2008, and by the end of his four-year term, more than 150,000 people with felony convictions regained their right to vote. (Crist is now a Democratic member of Congress.)

But within three months of taking office, Scott repealed the Crist-era reforms and issued even stricter barriers for voter restoration. He has earned a notorious record for voter suppression even beyond felon disenfranchisement, including signing a law in 2011 that reduced the window for early voting in Florida. (Facing immense public outrage, Scott and the legislature reversed course on this in 2013.)

Voting rights activists are pushing back on multiple fronts against Scott, who is now running for Senate. In addition to Amendment 4, there’s a class-action lawsuit winding through the courts — Hand v. Scott — that is trying to change the Florida voter restoration process while avoiding making the same legal argument about discrimination that failed in 2005. The Fair Elections Legal Network is representing former Florida felons who completed their sentences. The plaintiffs argue that the process used by the Florida clemency board to determine who should get their right to vote back is arbitrary and violates the equal protection clause of the 14th and 1st Amendments. In February, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed. “Disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s Governor has absolute veto authority,” Walker wrote in his opinion that struck down the state’s clemency system. “No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration.” In March, he ordered Scott to revamp Florida’s system by the end of April.

The state appealed to the 11th Circuit, putting a hold on Walker’s order. The case remains pending.

Amendment 4 is a chance to try something new — a grassroots, citizen-led effort in which the power for change is in front of voters, not judges and elected officials.

Activists started collecting petition signatures in 2015, under the banner of Floridians for Fair Democracy. Led by Desmond Meade, who was convicted of several drug charges and later completed a 15-year prison sentence for possession of a firearm as a felon. Organizers collected more than 799,000 certified signatures from registered voters in all 27 congressional districts, surpassing the minimum 766,000 signatures needed to get on the November 6 ballot.

Neil Volz, a former chief of staff to Republican Rep. Bob Ney — the congressman sentenced to jail in 2007 for corruption charges — pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to corrupt public officials. Volz paid a fine and did community service, and never served time in prison, but when he moved to Florida in 2008, he realized he was unable to participate fully in his community. When he met Meade in 2015, Volz said, he quickly decided to get involved in the voter restoration effort. Today, he serves as political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots organization led by returning citizens. “While collecting signatures I met people from all walks of life, from all over the state, from all political backgrounds, who were close to the pain of this policy,” Volz told The Intercept. “This is just about second chances.”

THE CAMPAIGN’S MESSAGING around second chances, however powerful, has its limits. Under Amendment 4, that redemptive message is not being extended to those who have been convicted of felony sex offenses or murder.

Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, a state affiliate of the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, said that she supports Amendment 4, but her group opposes the exclusion of the over 70,000 citizens currently on Florida’s sex offender registry.

“The bottom line is that they leave this population out of anything that’s positive because they have a distorted view as to who people who are,” she told The Intercept. “They look at every sex offender like they’re a Ted Bundy.”

Colletta notes that while the criminal justice system looks at drug offenders and even murderers on a graded scale, society paints sex offenders with a broad brush. “It doesn’t matter what you did, they treat you all the same with a lifetime of punishment,” she said.

Critics note that by excluding sex offenders and murderers from the November amendment, these populations will become even further stigmatized than they already are.

“This country was built on Christian-Judeo values and in my understanding, that means people deserve a second chance,” Collette said, “but here we’re willing to throw [sex offenders] under the bus for politics.”

Darryl Rouson, a Democratic member of the Florida Senate, has long been a proponent of voter rights restoration. Prior to Amendment 4 making it to the ballot, Rouson himself introduced a now-withdrawn amendment to the state constitution. It would have excluded not only sex offenders and murderers from automatic rights restoration, but 12 additional categories, including kidnappers and armed robbers.

“It would have still covered about 70 percent of the people currently disenfranchised,” Rouson told The Intercept. “I felt mine was a reasonable compromise in a state that has not indicated sensitivity to the issue of voting rights.” Passing Amendment 4 a “critical, moral issue,” he added.

When asked why the drafters of Amendment 4 opted to exclude those who committed sex offenses or murders, Volz told The Intercept that that’s “what the people wanted” and that their campaign has “been listening to people at every step along the way so we knew [those exemptions] needed to be included in the initiative.” But the petition language has remained the same since organizers began collecting signatures, and it could not have been changed based on public feedback after the drive began in 2015. “We’re focused on moving this forward, in the healthiest, broadest way that we can,” Volz said, declining to answer more specific questions. (Meade did not return multiple requests for comment on this issue.)

It’s not clear when the 11th Circuit will rule on the Hand v. Scott case, but if Amendment 4 passes, Jon Sherman, senior counsel at the Fair Elections Legal Network, said the lawsuit would be rendered moot, because all the plaintiffs would regain their right to vote.

Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center said creating exemptions for specific convictions is an exception to the larger trend of how voting rights restoration is playing out elsewhere across the country, in part because of the unique political circumstances in Florida.

“The discussion around felon disenfranchisement is more typically around ‘when does the restoration come?,’” he said. “Is it after you’ve paid off all your legal obligations, as soon as you’re released from prison, or whether you’ve completed probation and parole?” Morales-Doyle pointed to New York, which is one of the few states left in the country where citizens still lose their right to vote while on parole. (In April, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he intends to restore voting rights to the more than 35,000 felons on parole.)

“The sense of fairness is central to the question of rights restoration, the idea that if you’ve served your sentence, you should be allowed to vote,” he says. “I think what’s happening in Florida, making it contingent on the crime, is unique.” He pointed out that Florida faces some unusual political circumstances, with its anomalous rate of felon disenfranchisement, and the tough 60 percent threshold needed for an amendment to pass.

“Without passing judgment on whether that was the best place to come down, my point is just that there has to be a really broad base of support for this amendment, so the question of who will be won over by what policy is what led to the current moment,” he said.

With the election just two months away, Volz said campaign organizers will continue to hold events, educating the public about the importance Amendment 4 and rights restoration.

Rouson, the state senator, said it’s been hard for activists to sustain focus on the initiative while the primaries loomed. “We legislators could all do more to raise awareness around this issue, and there are grassroots champions across the state doing the work, but I also think the attention of the voters was divided because of the primary,” he said.

There are 13 constitutional amendments on the Florida ballot this cycle. “The worry is that voters will get ballot fatigue, under-vote, or not vote on everything,” Rousen said. “We need to educate voters early and often.”

Pushing Civic Tech Beyond Its Comfort Zone

Originally published in the Fall 2015 print issue of The American Prospect.
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You’re walking down the street in New Haven, Connecticut, texting on your smartphone. As you turn a corner, you notice a big pothole in the middle of the road. Skimming through your cell, you log into SeeClickFix, an app for citizens to report non-emergency issues to local government. Snapping a photo of the pothole and geo-coding the picture with your GPS coordinates, you submit the report and continue walking, confident the relevant agency will tend to the matter. Other SeeClickFix users can also see that a new pothole has been reported, and where.

Potholes have symbolized the everyday problems that citizens call upon local and even national politicians to address. Senator Al D’Amato of New York was nicknamed “Senator Pothole” because of his reputation for tending to his constituents’ needs. It was a compliment—it meant he was available, responsive, and got things done, at least the small, concrete things his constituents cared about. But when it comes to taking action on local civic problems, there are now options besides contacting a public official. Tools like SeeClickFix allow citizens to gather local information and organize collectively based on what they learn. “If you as an elected official have established your power on the sole exclusive rights to that information, then our app is not something you’re going to be in love with,” says Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix’s CEO and co-founder.

SeeClickFix offers some interesting opportunities for citizens, such as allowing them to monitor whether the government has dealt with their concerns and “reopening” the complaint if they dislike how the government responded. “There’s an element of shifting power that’s baked into the code of SeeClickFix that makes it more of a service for people and less of a service for bureaucrats,” says Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, which focuses on intersections between politics and technology. SeeClickFix also provides useful services for governments—Jennifer Pugh, who works in the chief administrator’s office in the New Haven local government, said that her office’s adoption of SeeClickFix technology has allowed it to organize work orders more systematically. She hopes that in a few years, when a greater number of departments start to use SeeClickFix, they will be able to conduct new kinds of citywide analysis.

Moreover, in theory, SeeClickFix technology should one day allow journalists, political opponents, and independent groups to publish data comparing the responsiveness and performance of local governments, allowing citizens to see how well theirs stacks up in relation to others.

Some, perhaps hoping to stir up excitement, inflate the case for new technology—heralding it as the savior of government accountability and promoter of a more just democracy. “With these digital tools, citizens and their officials can revolutionize local government, making it more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it ever has been,” write Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford in their book, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance. That exaggerated rhetoric about “revolutionizing” government shouldn’t be taken seriously; it only sets up people for later disappointment. But, in a more modest but still significant way, tools like SeeClickFix can help improve the accountability and performance of government—local government in particular. Accountability, however, is ultimately a political matter, and civic tech cannot simply steer clear of politics in the belief that technology will solve problems on its own.

The Obama Tech Letdown

Following his savvy 2008 campaign, Obama entered the White House with great expectations from the tech world. He was “the first Internet president,” as Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com and now an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, called him. During George W. Bush’s second term, open-government advocates had begun to lay the groundwork for increasing transparency in the next administration, whichever party won the 2008 election. Their recommendations were just being finalized at the time of Obama’s victory. “We interacted quite a bit with the transition team and really conveyed to them that this was a bipartisan area the administration could take a lead on,” said Sean Moulton, the open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

In his inaugural address, Obama declared that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” A day later, he issued two memoranda, one calling for greater government compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and another that committed his administration to bring about “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

These memos sent expectations soaring in the worlds of civic tech and open data. Silicon Valley perked up its ears. “When the president of the United States says something like that, it becomes a big deal and a big business,” says Tiago Peixoto, an applied political scientist who researches democracy’s relationship to technology. We’ve seen the rise of for-profit companies—like SeeClickFix—that focus on improving government service delivery. “Civic hackathons” began to crop up in cities across the country and even at the White House, encouraging coders, entrepreneurs, and others to figure out ways to use technology for civic ends.

“[Obama’s administration] was the first time we ever had a U.S. chief information officer, a U.S. chief technology officer, and a U.S. chief data officer,” says Gary Bass, founder of the Center for Effective Government (originally called OMB Watch), a nonprofit organization committed to public accountability, transparency, and citizen participation. Suddenly government leaders were discussing how they could recruit top tech talent. The culture of the federal government seemed to be shifting.

But several years later, public trust in government has declined to historic lows. Much of that decline reflects the general hostility of conservatives to the Obama administration, not to its information policies. But even for liberals, the promise of an “open government” seems elusive. A 2015 Pew survey found that just 5 percent of Americans say the federal government shares its data very effectively. The civic-tech community, which had hoped to facilitate a democratic revival, is also puzzling over its lack of success. “I think civic tech started getting trendy with Obama, and it’s still trendy, but we haven’t had as big of an impact as we expected,” said Dan O’Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative and one of civic tech’s early pioneers.

Local Experiments, New Tools

Still, there are plenty of examples of local governments experimenting with technology over the past few years to help increase its responsiveness and reduce government costs. With improved data analysis, New York City was better able to anticipate which buildings were at risk of catching on fire. Boston was able to speed up the time it took to deliver new recycling bins on request. Many companies, organizations, and individuals have also started leveraging government data to develop their own civic tools, from Waze, a crowd-sourced traffic-data company that provides users with timely and accurate travel information, to Nextdoor, a tool that uses census data to create private social networks for local neighbors to interact.

Apps like SeeClickFix offer a greater degree of civic opportunity than apps that allow you to track your packages in the mail or those that notify you when the next bus is expected to arrive. SeeClickFix users can earn “civic points” for utilizing different features, such as commenting on other people’s reports. Through the app’s “thanks” feature, citizens can send messages of gratitude to the government agency that addressed their complaint. Ideally these types of features can help to increase trust between citizens and government, an important ingredient for democratic participation.

One of SeeClickFix’s most admired features allows users to “reopen” a report they’ve filed if they’re not satisfied with how the government responded to it. People have praised the technology for empowering citizens with the last word.

I asked Jennifer Pugh, of the New Haven government, if there have ever been times when citizens reopen requests that her colleagues have closed, and she told me that it happened all the time. In many cases, she explains, the government is not able to provide what citizens are expecting, or the government does not agree with what an individual complainant has asked for. “We don’t have a lot of resources; we’re limited on money,” says Pugh. So New Haven often closes out requests on SeeClickFix, and if people reopen them, officials usually just leave them there. “The downside is that it looks like there is a lot of open issues out there, but in fact they’ve been dealt with. We just can’t come to an agreement about how to address it,” she says.

When citizens file complaints through SeeClickFix, there’s no guarantee that the government will do what the citizen has requested. These tech tools do not eliminate some of the basic challenges facing governments, like determining how to spend a limited budget of resources. But what SeeClickFix does offer is an easier way to raise issues, and a means for the public to better understand which requests have been addressed. This in turn creates new opportunities for activists and journalists to press for details on the government’s decision-making process. Why didn’t residents in this part of town have their pothole fixed? Why did you decline to put in the speed bump I requested when I am upset by the fast traffic on my block? Why did so many people from all over the city report vandalism on the same day? Such questions have become easier for the public to ask in the age of SeeClickFix.

Peixoto, who has been studying the intersections of democracy and technology for the past 14 years, thinks that when newcomers flooded the civic-tech space at the start of Obama’s first term, “there was no way to ensure that the critical mass of people would absorb the lessons we had already learned by then.” This has led to what Peixoto sees as “some naïve assumptions” repeated inside new civic-tech circles. Specifically, he points out that many civic-tech leaders overestimate what technology can do on its own. Some have encouraged technologists to dismiss the government entirely, or just treat it as a platform from which to launch civic projects independently. But researchers have learned that civic technology generally carries a far greater impact when it works in conjunction with the government, like SeeClickFix, rather than on its own. SeeClickFix’s government partnership helps to explain its steady growth and impact.

Why Civic Tech Isn’t Easy

It’s understandable why some civic-tech leaders feel unenthusiastic about dealing with the government. In Silicon Valley, technologists are encouraged to “fail fast, fail often.” But within the public sector, taxpayers don’t necessarily want their leaders taking big costly risks, and politicians in turn fear the backlash if innovations fail. The cultures are different.

There is also a talent pipeline problem—government simply does not have enough people coming to work for it who possess advanced technological skills. “You see so many agencies with so little knowledge and capacity around the technology, they don’t even know what they want or how to communicate with the contractors they hire,” said Moulton. The government bidding process itself is also notoriously difficult, precluding many smaller, and perhaps more talented, companies from competing for contracts.

Together, these issues create a government tech situation that is both expensive and dysfunctional. The best-known recent example was the disastrous rollout of the federal health insurance exchange website, Healthcare.gov. It not only went far over budget—originally estimated to cost $500 million, it hit $1.7 billion by its initial rollout in 2013, and exceeded $2 billion a year later—but the website also just didn’t work well at all. It continually crashed, stalled, and left customers unable to purchase health-care plans. Of course, once the website did start performing better later on, the news media had little interest in reporting on its successes.

In many ways, the embarrassing Healthcare.gov scandal served as a turning point for the Obama administration. “It was only after that that the alarm bell finally reached the Oval Office,” says Sifry. “This wasn’t working. You can’t just make good speeches. You also have to find good people who can deliver on those promises.” Since then, far more serious attention has been paid to federal information technology and government procurement.

In 2014, the administration created two new agencies in the executive branch—18F in the General Services Administration and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) in the White House—both designed to improve the government’s technological capacity. The government has been trying to improve procurement issues for decades, but the tools and methods available today are different.

“From open-source tools to the refinement of methodologies like human-centered design and agile development, these are all things you wouldn’t have heard of two decades ago,” says Aaron Snow, the executive director of 18F. “These are all things that make it actually possible for us to accelerate the rate [at which] government improves its technological capacity.” While USDS technologists consult with agencies to figure out how to improve their work, the staff at 18F helps federal agencies become savvier about procurement. Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June—an annual conference for the civic-tech community—Haley Van Dyck, USDS’s co-founder, said her office has been deploying “hyper-networked teams across government” to disrupt and transform tech practices and agency cultures. And though 18F and USDS work specifically with federal agencies, they share their code freely online so that local governments can reuse and repurpose it for their own needs. At times, federal officials will use code first developed within local city agencies, too.

From Open Data to Accountability

In 2012, David Robinson and Harlan Yu, two technology consultants and open-government data theorists, published a law review article noting that the term “open government”—which was first used in the 1950s during debates that led to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act—has now blurred considerably and confusingly with the “open data” movement. “Today, a regime can call itself ‘open’ if it builds the right kind of website—even if it does not become more accountable,” they point out. Consequently, Yu and Robinson urge the public to distinguish more clearly between efforts to hold governments accountable and technology that enhances government services.

Tiago Peixoto built off of this analysis in an essay published one year later. For there to be government accountability, he argues, four things need to happen. First, government information must be disclosed—this is where open data would come in. Second, this disclosed information must reach members of its intended public. Third, citizens—not necessarily everyone, but a constituency large enough to influence government—must be able to understand the disclosed information and react to it. Fourth and finally, public officials need to respond to the public’s reactions or be sanctioned by the public through institutional means.

So with this in mind, can tools like SeeClickFix be used to create a more accountable government? In some cases, increased public transparency now exists within areas that were previously more opaque. That’s important.SeeClickFix users can compare how long they’ve been waiting for a streetlamp bulb to be replaced or for a pothole to be fixed. They can compare which parts of town had their requests answered more quickly. “It’s helpful to have a record of needs that are systematic and easy to measure,” says Robinson. News organizations can also launch investigations when reporters or watchdog groups notice that citizen complaints are going ignored.

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a watchdog organization that seeks to promote accountability for public programs subsidizing economic development, says he first understood how crucial transparency was for accountability back in the late 1970s, when he worked for National People’s Action (NPA), a grassroots social justice network. At the time, NPA pushed for the passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (1975) and the Community Reinvestment Act (1977). “There were allegations that banks were redlining communities of color, but there was no real evidence [before these laws were enacted] to prove it,” he said.

Technology on its own cannot get the government to disclose information, but it can prove extremely valuable for those who want to understand what is released. While LeRoy’s organization has been around since 1998, he says the rise of the Internet and data technology “has everything to do” with how his organization has changed over time. All states have their subsidy information in electronic form; they could share much or all of it online if they wanted to. The first state to do so, in small amounts, was Ohio in 1999. But governments have shown that without public pressure they will generally not disclose information or will release just small amounts of information to mollify critics. Good Jobs First has tried to overcome this resistance by conducting research, promoting public discussion, and encouraging activists to push for improved transparency laws. In 2007, they published their first national report card study—“The State of Disclosure.” By that time, 23 states had put some amount of subsidy information online. Three years later, when their next study was published, the number had increased to 37.

But “the data that states do put online,” LeRoy says, can amount to a “Tower of Babel.” States often hide information in obscure appendices, upload contracts in non-searchable PDFs, or publish audits that are impenetrable. As a result, Good Jobs First recognized that “transparency” could mean very little, in practice. But this is where new civic technology developed by third-party organizations has been invaluable. Good Jobs First was able to launch its comprehensive Subsidy Tracker tool in 2010 by compiling and organizing more than 100,000 records from across the country into one unified searchable database and getting additional subsidy program information through FOIA requests. “Technology has definitely been at the core of how we improve our data and make it more accessible for average citizens to understand,” LeRoy says.

The Center for Responsive Politics, another watchdog organization that focuses on money in politics, knows its ultimate objective is to move people into action—step three of Piexoto’s four-step process. “We use technology to provide information in lots of different ways,” explains Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director, because the group recognizes that presenting information in just one format won’t resonate with enough people. Krumholz thinks the organization has played a key role in educating citizens about the impact of money in politics, but says its challenge now is to figure out how to design the kind of “aha” moments that inspire people to act on what they learn, rather than simply tune out and disengage.

But inspiring people to act inevitably has political implications. Eric Liu, the CEO of Citizen University—a group that works with leaders, activists, and practitioners around issues of citizenship and organizing—says it’s not enough to make government more efficient. He encourages civic-tech leaders to reckon more with politics, power, and inequality. While it’s great to have an app that can help you find out when the next bus is coming, it would be even better, he argues, if you could activate the smarts and skills of people within civic tech to help push city leaders to develop a stronger public transportation system.

“Civic tech is excellent at transparency, civic tech is excellent at efficiency, civic tech is excellent at creating a sense of community,” said Liu in a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June. “Civic tech is excellent at a lot of dimensions of what you might think of as customer service.”

The civic-tech community could help Americans create not only a more efficient government, but also a more politically accountable and fair one. Doing that would require the community to venture into political territory that it’s largely avoided up to this point. But if civic tech is going to make a big impact, there is no turning away from politics. It’s something investigative journalists have long understood: Making people with power uncomfortable is part of the job. It’s part of the job of civic tech, too.

The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium                   

Why Civic Tech Can’t Be Neutral

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 10th, 2015.
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Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Technology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power.

PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said.

“When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like making it easier to know when the next bus is coming or helping you file your benefits more quickly,” Sifry and Rasiej wrote in a packet given to each conference attendee. While these innovations are helpful and represent the present focus of civic tech, PDF’s co-founders insist that those innocuous steps cannot define its future—not when the barriers to political participation are so divided by class, race, and geography.

Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University also argued that impartiality is unacceptable and called for the civic tech community to focus its efforts on giving real meaning to the concept of equal citizenship. Liu urged the participants to ask themselves, “Am I developing work, tools, power, and ideas that actually help those who do not have access get access, those who do not have voice, get voice?”

Other speakers offered a vision of social change through collaboration. “Imagine how we can reshape the future of work together in humane and kind ways,” said Palak Shah, the Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), who aims to improve labor conditions through market-based solutions. Shah tries to bring about “creative collisions” between “nannies and coders, activists and hackers” to build a mutually beneficial future for businesses and social movements.

One afternoon I attended a PDF breakout session called “Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Participation”—a panel of researchers and experts exploring how to engage more people in civic life. Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, discussed some of his organization’s new research findings on millennials and voting. According to this research, while young people overwhelmingly believe they can have a greater impact locally, they are far more likely to vote in national elections. Sotsky attributed the lower rate of voting to a lack of good voting information at the local level—a problem, he said, the Knight Foundation will be addressing through new projects aimed at creating more comprehensive repositories of civic information.

No doubt we should conduct more research and improve local civic information. Whether that will actually make a difference in voter turnout is another matter.

“Technology cannot solve the big stuff, even if sometimes we’d like to believe it can,” Sotsky said, in one of the conference’s more humble moments. Technology’s role in these situations, he suggested, could be to help foster attachment between residents and communities, deepen social networks, and support the value of voting.

But we’ve already seen what can happen when the tech world turns to politics, as it did in the conflicts over SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality. What if the same energy was directed towards removing voting restrictions?

There’s a lot about civic inequality that we already know. Some barriers to participation may be reduced through better-targeted education programs and redesigned civic forums. But political inequality is not something that will be solved by an app. There’s no Uber for voting. For the marginalized to have more power, others will have to relinquish some control, and we can’t escape or obfuscate that discussion.

Should Adelson, Bennett and Lieberman be welcome at Hillel?

Originally published in Haaretz on January 1, 2014.
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Last week, the Swarthmore Hillel student board voted to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, allowing them to work with students of all political perspectives. Hillel President Eric Fingerhut responded by taking the once suggested guidelines and declaring them mandatory practice. The guidelines lay out that, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Fingerhut told the JTA that “under no circumstances” will Hillel host “anti-Zionists” who reject Israel’s Jewish character, as they undermine Hillel’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

But what of those who impugn Israel’s democratic character?

In a follow-up interview, Fingerhut made clear that the guidelines will be “applied across the political spectrum.” If Hillel International is now enforcing the Israel guidelines, then we need to know how they will be applied for those on the hard right who challenge Israel’s democratic commitments.

Would a prominent member of Knesset, like Naftali Bennett, who unflinchingly opposes a two-state solution, be barred from the Hillel building? Would we ban Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, who has said that when push comes to shove, Jewish and Zionist values should trump democratic ones? When those on the left question Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic commitments by calling for one-state, Hillel draws the line. But will it do so for the right-wing one-staters in the Israeli cabinet?

The Haredi Jewish community poses another critical question. A sizable number of Haredi Jews are avowed non- or anti-Zionists. Of course not all are antagonistic towards the state of Israel, but it is crucial to know if Hillel will bar Haredi Jews who reject a modern state of Israel from the communal conversation. Can we write off the political commitments of the Haredi community, the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community?

Hillel International endorses a two-state solution, as demonstrated by the strong consensus in our community that two-states is the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and democratic state in the future. If one calls for a one-state solution, can they still be in the tent?

Sheldon Adelson, a prominent funder of the program which provides Israel Fellows to 67 campus Hilllels across the country (not to mention one of the biggest funders of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program) has openly voiced his deep disdain for a two-state solution. If he believes in a one-state scenario in which a minority of Jews control a majority of Arabs, can he be welcome at Hillel? It certainly doesn’t seem like it under the current guidelines.

Unfortunately, there are also those who take active political steps to undermine Israel’s democracy. Members of the Jewish Home political party, now a part of the ruling coalition, called for a number of Arab parties to be banned from Parliamentary elections in 2009. Will the Jewish Home party be added to the list of banned groups with which Hillel refuses to co-sponsor?

If this is beginning to sound a bit crazy to you, it’s because it should. Even though they pose significant challenges to the Israel’s democratic commitments, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman should not be banned from Hillel. And though I find Sheldon Adelson’s politics reprehensible, I wouldn’t deny him the right to speak. Because I know my community is best served by a rigorous and deeply challenging conversation about Israel. I know that we cannot create a future generation of thoughtful, compassionate, intellectual Jewish leaders by barring uncomfortable voices. And those uncomfortable voices, especially on this issue, won’t go away by ignoring them.

Despite Fingerhut’s insistence that the overall discontent with the Israel conversation at Swarthmore is a mere “aberration,” this is not the case. As polls demonstrate time and again, young Jews want to see an end to the occupation through two-states. We’ll need a broad conversation to lead us there: a discussion that includes voices from across the political spectrum. As a pro-Israel and pro-peace student, I do not agree with anti-Zionists, but I still want to hear their perspectives. But I know I need to engage with everyone and take action with those who share my political values.

I take Eric Fingerhut at face value that from now on, speakers who question Israel’s democratic commitments will be as restricted as those who question Israel’s Jewish character. And so all invested in this discussion need to know: are Bennett, Lieberman, and Adelson welcome in the Hillel building?

The Future of Civics Education in Israel

Originally published in the Daily Beast on April 26, 2013.

The Israeli Finance Ministry’s new budget proposal states, among other things, that ultra-Orthodox schools will need to dedicate at least 55 percent of school hours to teaching the Ministry’s core curriculum if they wish to receive any state funds.

Though there are many serious, substantive problems in Israeli education that necessitate reform, and not all of them will be remedied by this new proposal, the bill does plan to address one fundamental problem facing the future of a democratic Israeli citizenry: civic education.

This past summer I traveled to Israel to learn more about how they teach civic education. I wanted to understand if and how the Israeli government fosters a sense of civic solidarity amongst Israelis who are divided into sometimes quite distinct public schools. Public schools, from a Durkheimian sociological perspective, are institutions meant to cultivate citizens—individuals with a shared understanding of norms, values and expectations of their society.

Within Israeli public education there exist four main school systems: an ultra-Orthodox system, a national religious system, a secular system and an Arab system. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the total number of students in the education system is expected to grow from 1.579 million students in 2013 to 1.695 million students by 2017—an increase of approximately 7.3 percent, at an annual growth rate of 1.83 percent.

The ultra-Orthodox student population is the fastest growing in Israel, with an average annual growth rate of 5.7 percent. The Arab student population, with an average annual growth of 3.4 percent, is the second fastest growing demographic. It is projected that by 2017, ultra-Orthodox and Arab students will make up 44 percent of all Israeli students. By comparison, the secular education system showed an annual growth rate of 0.1 percent.

The Executive Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Israel, Dr. Dan Ben-David, has been studying these population trends. If Ben-David’s findings continue on their current trajectory, it is projected that by the year 2040, 78 percent of primary school students will study in either ultra-Orthodox or Arab school systems.

There is nothing wrong with a changing demography, but it is important to ensure that there is an educational structure in place to prepare any and all citizens to participate in democratic society. As it stands now, ultra-Orthodox students are the only segment of Israeli society not required to formally study civics; this includes topics like minority rights, free speech and voting. The democratic future of Israel is already at risk, and this seems to add yet another unhelpful variable.

When I asked a representative from the Ministry of Education if this seems to present a great future challenge for socializing citizens, she replied, “Oh yes. It’s a big problem. But there are lot of politics involved so it is very hard to change.”

However, it seems as though the politics might indeed be changing. Newly appointed Education Minister Shai Piron said recently that he would refuse to fund institutions that do not teach civics, math and English. He declared, “The State cannot fund something that goes against its interests.

To be sure, organizations are already coming out to say that the proposal does not go far enough. Hiddush, an NGO that promotes the separation of synagogue and state, has criticized the bill, saying that it’s essentially “meaningless” because schools would only have to integrate 4-6 hours a week of core curriculum—an hour or less a day. Given that the core curriculum includes subjects like English, mathematics, science and Hebrew, it is unclear how these would be divided, and what role civics would play in such a division.

In Israel, policymakers are looking for a more equitable way to share both the resources from, and the maintenance of, a modern Western society. Addressing the role that the ultra-Orthodox play is a key step in that process. But when thinking about Israel’s future, it is important that civics be strongly prioritized as well. It is, arguably, most “core” of all.

On the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

There is a fundamental Catch-22 with the security rationale of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. When Palestinians respond in violence to their oppressed situation, be it through acts of terrorism or riots, Israel justifies the occupation as a national security need. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, in order to protect the Israeli population from security threats.

But then when Palestinians renounce violence and switch their resistance tactics to more nonviolent demonstrations and protests, Israel justifies the occupation as a successful national security tool. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, as evidenced by how improved the security of the Israeli population has been over the past half decade. We can’t stop now, or else they’ll just return to their violent ways.

Thus there is no end in sight. And in the meantime, Israel continues to expand settlements which make the prospects of a two state solution much more difficult to achieve. An occupation is supposed to be a temporary situation. It is a distinctive characteristic that separates occupation from annexation and colonialism. But the Israeli occupation has existed for over 45 years.

Beyond the problematic state of the occupation in a legal context, it is immoral and undemocratic to maintain the situation that exists today in the West Bank. You have Israeli settlers living in the same region as Palestinians, and if an Israeli commits a crime, they are subjected to Israel’s civil courts, like any other Israeli citizen living anywhere in Israel. But if a Palestinian commits the exact same crime, in the same exact spot, they are subjected to an entirely different set of laws and legal proceedings, and they’re sent to a military court.

First of all, there is no due process for the military courts. Second of all, the military courts have astonishingly high conviction rates. (99.74%) And thirdly, Palestinians don’t have a right to vote for the Israeli government, even though the government is the body that makes the decisions and appoints the individuals that control their lives.

So why doesn’t Israel just annex the West Bank, instead of occupying it? If Israel wants to continue to expand settlements and build up the West Bank, why don’t they just de-facto annex the territory, like they did with the Golan Heights?

There’s a simple and oft-cited calculation for this issue. It goes like this:
There are three variables. 1. Israel as a democratic state. 2. Israel where the majority of citizens are Jewish. And 3. Israel controlling all of the land.

^In any final scenario, Israel will ultimately have only two of these three variables.

To annex the West Bank would mean Israel would need to grant all the Palestinians living there citizenship, and give them the same rights as any other Israeli. Which they don’t want to do because they want to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Because of demographic realities, including the Palestinians in the citizenry would effectively end the Jewish majority. And to grant Palestinians citizenship but deny them equal rights would make Israel a patently undemocratic state. And so their solution for now is to continue to build up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, say they’re waiting for a “peace partner” (even though the current President of Israel has categorically said they already have one) and justify the occupation with “security concerns.” I’ll say it again. These Palestinians have been living under occupation for 45 years.

I care about the state of Israel. A lot. I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading and thinking about these issues. And I want the citizens of Israel to be safe and secure. Yet it really disturbs me when people, especially Jewish people, roll their eyes at the notion of “human rights”. Or even “democracy” and “dignity.” I really want to know, would all of the individuals who say the occupation is a necessary evil for security purposes, be able to look into a Palestinian’s eyes, as I did last week, and say to them, “I’m sorry but my need for safety is more important than your basic human rights.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Final thought: in terms of history, and especially history of countries engaged in conflict–one thing I learn over and over in my history classes is, there is really no such thing as a status quo. 

Günter Grass’s Bad Poem. Israel’s Troubling Response.

On April 4th, German Nobel Laureate Günter Grass published a controversial 69-line poem entitled “What Must Be Said.” It has since sparked world-wide debate.

Some quick background on Grass:
He is one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century; he has written a series of internationally acclaimed novels that explored both the origins and the implications of the crimes of the Third Reich. For a long time he was viewed as a thoughtful conscience of the German nation. In 2006, at 78 years old, (after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999) he confessed that at 17, he served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II. This confession made many see Grass as a hypocrite, where they had once seen an important moral voice.

ImageGrass’s poem was published in the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  The poem accused Israel of endangering “the already fragile world peace” by its warnings to Iran that it might strike their nuclear facilities. Mr. Grass contended that by supplying weapons to Israel, Germany risked being complicit in “a foreseeable crime.”

Two days after the poem was published, Grass clarified in an interview that he did not mean to vilify Israel as a whole, but to attack the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The international community’s condemnation of this poem was immediate and strong.

Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement saying that Grass’ poem is an example of, “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals, who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the alter of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”

German leaders from across the political spectrum denounced the poem’s message, ranging from “ill-informed” to “outrageous” to “Anti-Semitic.” Many artists said it was simply a “bad poem.”

However, while Grass’s poem was cringe-worthy and deeply misguided, some responses to the poem have been seriously troubling.

Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai has declared Grass a “persona non grata”, (which literally means an “unwelcome person”) thus barring Grass’s future entry into the state of Israel. He justified this by saying that Grass was making an, “attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and people of Israel, and thus to advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform.”

This response is worrisome. This type of measure sets a very dangerous precedent for Israel’s democracy. To ban individuals who say things that are critical or offensive from entering the state has raised serious concerns about the future of free speech.

“It’s dangerous when one politician can decide a poem is grounds for banning people. I’m sure there are quite a few short stories of mine that Yishai doesn’t like. I wouldn’t want him to prevent me from returning home next time I’m abroad,” said  Etgar Keret, an Israeli short-story writer.

Famous novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie tweeted in response to all of this, “OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.”

Even Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the United States called the move, “foolish and self-defeating.”

Dershowitz wrote in the Huffington Post last week that, “By misusing border controls to make a symbolic gesture of contempt against a writer, Israel’s Minister of the Interior weakens his nation’s otherwise strong case for excluding individuals who pose genuine threats to the physical security of Israeli citizens. Border controls should be reserved for real security threats.”

In other words, terrorists should be barred from Israel. Not poets.