Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reversing Directions on Money and Politics

In the Citizens United decision, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court decided to treat corporations as persons and grant them so-called “free” speech rights to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections.

For American democracy the change goes far beyond the newfound capacity for Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, AIG or any corporation to pour money into elections. Seizing on a minor campaign case about a movie, the court took aim at the very definition of democracy itself. Democracy at its core means power exercised by people not corporations. People through their representative government passed laws to create corporations in order to conduct commerce or do business, not to sway elections. The people and its government have, or certainly should be expected to have, the right to regulate corporations as deemed necessary.

The actions of five justices go further than any previous governmental action to take the “free” out of free speech. It hands the megaphone and soapbox to those with the greatest access to private wealth. Heretofore corporations were strictly limited on their ability to spend money in elections. Now the democratic principle of one person, one vote gets ever more replaced by pay to play.

Large flows of special interest money from corporate executives, PACs, lawyers, and lobbyists are already flooding elections. Individuals tied to banks, insurance companies, drug companies and others industries and interests invested more than a billion dollars in large election donations in 2008 alone. Instead of swinging the door open wider to include corporate treasuries, the courts and Congress should, to save democracy, be exploring ways to limit or end the undue influence of all big money out of elections.

Larger flows of money for or against candidates can only spawn higher levels of cynicism by the public with more reason to believe their democracy and their elections are controlled by large monied interests. Big money, as courts have noted before, is corrupting in appearance and actuality. In the end, there is no difference between large money transactions to candidate campaigns called campaign donations or independent expenditures any bribe or payment to a candidate to gain access, influence and win an outcome – be it their election or defeat or derailing a proposed policy or enacting a new one.

Every advanced democracy has sought and continues to find reasonable ways to regulate the flow of money in campaigns and creation of public policy. As they should. Cast aside by this court is the compelling public interest government has in creating a level playing field for competitive elections and balancing in the ability of the wealthy versus the common citizen to determine public policy outcomes. Democracy requires fair elections and equitable public deliberation or there’s another name – plutocracy.

What next? It’s a bad decision but so polar to the principle of democracy that it can’t last in this form. Short run fixes are being called for and may help. But there are only two solutions. Public election funding and free media used in all modern democracies to take big money out of elections and to discourage or eliminate the unlimited independent expenditures the court now sanctions. Systems that combine public campaign funding with incentives for the greater participation of small donors allowing ordinary candidates to mount campaigns and get their message out on a level playing field.

The other solution is for the evolution of a Supreme Court that gets democracy and the corrupting role of money. It is a Court looking forward not back that restores the rights of citizens over corporations and the meaning of “free” in free speech. In the 19th century the courts endorsed racial segregation and even slavery. Today courts have endorsed “free” speech rights to those who can pay the highest price. These things can change and, in the resilience of American democracy, they will.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Citizens United vs. FEC

Hillary: The Movie, a film by Citizens United and the basis for the challenge to restrictions on corporate spending in Citizens United vs. FEC

Although the main conversations on the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision have been about the impact on and by for-profit corporations, there are implications for nonprofit organizations as well.

The opinion, issued on January 21st and decided in a 5-4 split, supports the constitutionality of corporations making independent expenditures from their general treasury for electioneering communications (previously these expenditures had to be made through voluntary donations via a Political Action Committee).
Justice Stevens gave the dissenting opinion, quoted in part here:

"In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races."
Alliance for Justice offers some simplified bullet points for understanding the impact of Citizens United on nonprofit organizations, along with some key questions (will this ruling apply to labor unions?) . It also offers the following advice:
"While much of the focus has been about increased spending by for-profit corporations, it is important to remember that these changes apply to issue-based organizations that promote the social good. More than ever, nonprofit corporations can and should actively participate in elections. Even if you think the case was wrongly decided, 501(c)(4)s and other nonprofit corporations (except for 501(c)(3)s) should take advantage of it--use it to strengthen democracy by increasing your public communications about the candidates and what’s best for the future of our country."
Finally, in a recent phone briefing, the Alliance for Justice reminded the nonprofit community:
"501(c)(3)s remain subject to the absolute prohibition on intervening in an election campaign on behalf of or opposition to a candidate for public office. Therefore, little will change for public charities and private foundations as a result of this opinion."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Attitudes towards the Census

A national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted Jan. 6-10 on public knowledge and attitudes towards the 2010 Census.

Among the results were:

- Nine-in-ten Americans describe the census as either very (60%) or somewhat (30%) important for the country, and about eight-in-ten say they will either definitely (58%) or probably (23%) participate.

- Unfamiliarity with the census is most widespread among younger adults and Hispanic Americans.

- 64% are aware that the census is used to decide how many representatives each state will have in Congress.

- 59% are aware that the census is used to decide how much money communities will get from the government.

- 11% incorrectly believe that it the census is used to locate illegal immigrants so they can be arrested.

- Only 31% of Americans are aware that participation in the census is required by law.

To read more, click here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rhode Island Assembly overrides veto of teen registration bill

From the Brookings Institute-
After three consecutive years' of governor vetoes, the Rhode Island assembly succeeded in enacting into law a teen voter pre-registration bill. It joins Hawaii and Florida, as well as Puerto Rico, in permitting pre-registration for teenagers. Click here to read the press release.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Racist terms or not, fill out that form.

There has been some hubbub lately about the inclusion of a certain racial term on the 2010 U.S. Census form.

Question number 9 on the form will ask: "What is Person 1's race?" You will be asked to mark an answer box. The choices are

Black, African-American, or Negro;
American Indian or Alaska Native;
Asian Indian
etc., etc.

Here are the 3 best explanations I've heard in response to outcries that people should refuse to participate in a Census is that includes such a seemingly outdated, racially loaded (if not outright racist) term.

Why is the term "Negro" included alongside "Black" and "African-American" on the 2010 Census form?
The 2010 Census questions underwent strenuous focus groups test; no question is on the form by accident, habit or tradition. During testing, it was found that many older, black Americans (particularly in southern parts of the US) still identify along this term. Census officials report that many wrote in "Negro" on their 2000 Census form (CBS News). The term is included in an effort to encompass the variety of racial categories with which black people in America currently identify.

Why is boycotting the Census based on the inclusion of this term a bad idea?
As Bridgette Rongitsch, NVEN National Director, puts it: refusing to fill out a Census form on this basis "is only a win" for those groups and individuals who want to deny resources and funding to black communities, and only a lose for these black communities. Period. Each person on each completed form is worth about $1200 a year to local communities - at the end of the day, this is what matters most.

What if I still feel the Census Bureau's use of this term is wrong?
If individuals want to protest the inclusion of this term on the form, a good way to convey disapproval in a proactive way would be to include a note with their completed Census questionnaire when they mail it back.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

IMPORTANT - QACs still needed!!!

It's an easy, free, and effective way to directly help your local communities - volunteer your space as a Questionnaire Assistance Center for the 2010 Census.

***Learn how to become a QAC by contacting your local or regional census operations partnership specialist- click on your state for local contact information.***

Why does the Census Bureau need your organization's help?
Questionnaire Assistance Centers will be a crucial part of Census operations this year. For those who are having difficulties in understanding or filling out their Census forms, having personal, confidential assistance available in convenient locales -i.e., Questionnaire Assistance Centers- helps those individuals get their families are counted, so that that their communities can receive needed resources and funding.

***Learn how to become a QAC by contacting your local or regional census operations partnership specialist- click on your state for local contact information.

What does it mean to become a Questionnaire Assistance Center? Signing on to become a QAC entails donating a small area of space in your facility for 15 hours per week (3 hours during the day or the evening, 5 days a week) during parts of March and April to Census employees. These employees will set up and staff 1 table and 2 chairs to help people who are having difficulties in filling out their Census forms.

***Learn how to become a QAC by contacting your local or regional census operations partnership specialist- click on your state for local contact information.***

What does the agreement form mean?
The form outlines the donation agreement, along with some legal language aimed at protecting the nonprofit donor from liabilities. "The form is not even absolutely necessary," says one Regional Census Office representative. "Organizations can donate space without going through the formalities of a signed agreement simply by contacting their local or regional partnership specialist and indicating their interest in assisting."

***Download the QAC agreement form.***
***Learn how to become a QAC by contacting your local or regional census operations partnership specialist- click on your state for local contact information.***
The Boston Regional Census Office is still confirmed as still signing on organizations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. For more information on becoming a QAC in this area, contact Norman Eng by email at or by phone at (617) 223-3701.

Other Regional Offices may still be recruiting as well - to find out, contact your local or regional Census partnership specialist. Find your contact info by clicking on your state here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Court rules against Washington's ban on felon voting

(WA SOS blog, NY Times)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out Washington’s longstanding ban on voting by felons.

The surprise 2-1 ruling comes in a case brought in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington almost 14 years ago by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan and three other black inmates, and by a Native American and a Latino inmate. The inmates said minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and sentenced to prison, and that their automatic disenfranchisement violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

The ruling means the more than 18,000 felons behind bars in the state could get back their right to vote -- without having to wait until they are released from prison and are no longer on probation or parole. The ruling also could open the door to similar lawsuits in the 9th Circuit's eight other states and two territories.

In recent years, only two states - Maine and Vermont - have allowed inmates the right to vote.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Coming to a city near you- the Portrait of America Tour!

Across the country, the new year has marked the kickoff of the Census Bureau's coordinated nationwide and regional "Portrait of America" van tours, designed to help inform people in undercounted communities about the importance of filling out their 2010 Census form.

Participants will share images and stories, explaining why the census will make a difference to their communities.

To learn about the national "Portrait of America" tour, click here.

To find out about your region's "Portrait of America" tour, contact your local or regional partnership specialist (find contact information here).