Advocacy Report, June 2014
By Toni Larson, LWVUS Advocacy Committee Chair
Nationally, the League’s advocacy continues to focus efforts on our core issues – voter protection and money in politics – the issues of voter engagement and representative government for which we are best known. But we have also been incredibly active in fighting global climate change, and we have worked hard on immigration reform, gun safety, health care reform and fiscal policy.
The last two years were defined by the many impressive efforts by the League’s grassroots. More than ever, LWVUS and state and local Leagues worked together to coordinate action on national issues and reach members of Congress and the Administration. LWVUS issued 20 action alerts from April 2012 to March 2014, resulting in more than 182,000 activist messages from our members and supporters to Congress and contributing significantly to the League’s influence on the Hill. The LWVUS volunteer Lobby Corps of some 20 Washington-area League members lobbied members of Congress on numerous critical issues, including multiple visits on voting rights, campaign finance, immigration and gun safety.
Voting rights has always been the League’s issue and over the last decade we have had many opportunities for action. The past two years are no exception as we have seen the attempts to limit voting rights and manipulate the system for political gain continue and intensify. It is a tribute to the League and our allies that even in the face of these challenges we have had some important successes, while the threats continue and remind us that we cannot let down our guard.
Two important Supreme Court decisions in 2013 have had a big impact on voting rights in this nation and have been critical parts of the League’s ongoing work. The first case, Arizona v. Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA), brought an important win for the League in our voter registration work, while the second, Shelby County v. Holder, dealt a blow to the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In the Arizona case, the Supreme Court upheld the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) while rejecting Arizona’s requirement for documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote. The Arizona League was an original plaintiff, and the LWVUS filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court. However, following our win, the Secretaries of State of Kansas and Arizona quickly tried to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling, suing the federal Election
Assistance Commission (EAC) to modify the national mail-in voter registration form to require documentary proof of citizenship. The LWVUS and the Kansas and Arizona Leagues immediately intervened in the case, now known as Kobach v. EAC. The Kansas and Arizona Leagues provided important information to the court about the harmful effects to voters in their states, but in late March 2014, a District Court decision approved the documentary proof of
citizenship requirement. We are now before the Court of Appeals on this precedent-setting case that will determine whether similar restrictions can be extended throughout the country.
Just one week after reaffirming the continued importance of the NVRA, the Supreme Court turned around and gutted a critical component of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder overturned the law’s formula for applying a key requirement that specific states “pre-clear” any changes to voting requirements or elections with the federal government. The League immediately responded, urging Congress to take decisive action. The LWVUS mobilized our grassroots activists to submit more than 37,000 letters to their Senators and Representatives. In January 2014, the U.S. House introduced bipartisan legislation, the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA) that would protect the rights of all voters by repairing the damage inflicted to the VRA by the Court’s Shelby decision. Once again, the League’s grassroots stepped up to urge Congress to quickly pass this legislation by submitting another 50,000 letters to the House and Senate.
In addition to this work at the federal level, Leagues around the country have been battling hard to protect voters. During this two-year period of the League’s groundbreaking Public Advocacy for Voter Protection (PAVP) Project, the League has ramped up our voter protection work in states across the country, providing an unprecedented level of strategic advocacy, legal, field organizing, and communications assistance to help Leagues in states like Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin combat draconian new voter suppression measures.
In over 20 states, we kept a sharp focus on opposing voter photo ID and proof-of-citizenship legislation, improving administration of statewide voter registration database systems, improving the workings of polling places, and fighting against last minute barriers to voting. We worked in partnership with the state Leagues on hundreds of activities, providing both funds and technical assistance. Broad-based advocacy efforts by state Leagues resulted in defeating voter suppression bills and halting implementation in states where laws await court action.
The League is also working hard to improve voter access. One key element is our work and our leadership in seeking compliance with the NVRA at the new state-based health care exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Working with just a few allies, the League has developed the legal rationale for NVRA application that would require voter registration to be offered both at the state-based and federally-facilitated Health Benefit Exchanges. We have reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Justice and the White House in pressing for implementation and explaining how it can best be accomplished. The Administration has been understandably reluctant to implement NVRA compliance while the basic application processes for health care under the ACA were not working well, but we are hopeful now that compliance can move forward; certainly we are providing the reasons and mechanisms for it. The League has also been working to encourage federal and state officials, “navigator” groups and other health care assistors to provide voter registration opportunities to individuals seeking benefits through the Affordable Care Act.
Money in Politics
Campaign finance reform – money in politics – has been one of the League’s trademark issues for many, many years. And, just as in voting rights, the Supreme Court has intervened in campaign finance to overturn more than 40 years of protections.
Building on its terrible 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, this year the Supreme Court decided the case of McCutcheon v. FEC and struck down the aggregate limits on an individual’s total contributions to political candidates, political committees and party committees. The removal of these limits gives big money donors even greater influence over our elected officials and opens another loophole in campaign finance law. The League joined an amicus brief in the McCutcheon case urging the Supreme Court to uphold the aggregate contribution limits and we
spoke out, disappointed by yet another irresponsible decision on money in politics by the Roberts Court.
The League has been taking action to overcome the effects of Citizens United and McCutcheon with strategies to compel full disclosure, limit so-called “independent” expenditures, ban individual-candidate SuperPACs, establish public financing of congressional and presidential elections, continue participation in Supreme Court challenges, and ensure that 501(c)4 organizations can’t abuse the tax code and carryout unlimited and secret election spending. This work included direct lobbying, repeated use of the Lobby Corps, statements to congressional committees, letters and memos to members of the House and Senate, grassroots action alerts and press, media and social media outreach.
Early in this biennium, the League mounted a campaign for passage of the DISCLOSE Act, including generating more than 20,000 letters to the Senate, dozens of letters to the editor, and radio ads in the target states of Maine and Tennessee.
In addition to these actions, the League is also going back to basics to make sure that our underlying strength -- the understanding and agreement of League members -- is solid. This biennium a talented and committed group of volunteers has served on the LWVUS Campaign Finance Task Force. The Task Force recently completed a Campaign Finance Primer and PowerPoint, thanks in large measure to LWV Massachusetts and is working on other tools all to provide critical educational materials. As the board has looked at all the issues around Campaign Finance, we are struck by the importance of building membership understanding and agreement as we move forward to protect our representative democracy from being overwhelmed by big money. The proposed program is designed to meet this need.
The League lobbied hard for passage of comprehensive health care reform and we have worked tirelessly to defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from repeated efforts to undermine the new law. Last May, League supporters submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in support of the ACA’s requirement that all insurance plans provide no-cost access to contraception as basic preventative care. In preparation for the opening of the new Health Care Exchanges, state and local Leagues across the country worked with government agencies, health care providers and advocates to educate the American people about the new law’s benefits and provisions. State and local Leagues are also at the forefront of efforts to ensure that their state legislatures work with, not against, the ACA in bringing health care coverage to all, including the expansion of Medicaid. The League also filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby.
Climate change is the one of the greatest challenges of our generation, and we in the League are focusing on solutions. Thousands of League members sent grassroots letters to the White House calling for leadership to protect the climate, and the Hawaii League and the LWVUS joined in early 2013 to sponsor a full-page ad in a Hawaii newspaper addressing President Obama during his holiday break on behalf of tough standards for power plants. We were there last June when the President announced his historic climate action plan, and the League has collected and sent more than 16,000 comments to EPA in support of tough standards on carbon pollution from new power plants. Late last year, the LWVUS and Leagues across the country testified at EPA Listening Sessions and urged the agency to quickly implement the new carbon pollution standards.
Just last week, the President and EPA Administrator unveiled the first-ever proposal for controlling carbon from existing power plants, and the League sprang into action with an action alert. We will be pulling out all the stops to build support for these new regulations, but it will be a battle. Already we have seen calls in Congress to limit the EPA’s authority to control carbon pollution and the scare stories about rate increases are already circulating. But, with a determined effort from the League and our allies, we will get millions of comments to EPA in favor of the standards and we will do whatever is needed to stop Congress from getting in the way of the protections that will protect our health and our planet.
On other environmental issues, the League continued the fight against the catastrophic Keystone XL Pipeline, urged the U.S. Senate to maintain funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and submitted comments to the EPA Science Advisory Board on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” on drinking water resources, as well as assisting state Leagues with their work on fracking.
In conclusion, let me observe that this has been a very busy biennium at the LWVUS and for Leagues around the country, although I’ve not been able in this time to mention every one of the League’s priority issues. Additional information can be found toward the back of the 51st National Convention Program and Workbook. The next two years promise to be busy as well, and we can expect historic fights on a number of our key League issues.