April 25, 2015

Should Immigrants Have the Right to Vote?

Should you have to be a US citizen to be able to vote?

NYC is now considering allowing any resident to vote if he or she”s been living in the US legally for over 6 months.

What do you think?   My view:  because they have established ties to the community, it makes sense to allow committed, long-term immigrants (i.e., greencard holders) to vote in local elections, but we should be careful about going further than that.

— Gautam Dutta

Our Day in Court: Defend Democracy on Wed (2/13)

Ed. Note:  We wanted to share this important post from our friend Michael Feinstein, the former Mayor of Santa Monica, California.

Wanted: Come Defend Democracy

Where: U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, Pasadena, CA

When:  Wed., Feb. 13, 2013, 9 am

What’s at stake is political voice and voter choice in California elections. This court challenge is to the heart of the undemocratic Top Two system imposed on our state in 2010. If the challenge prevails, it’s unclear whether the Top Two system will survive, and we may be able to overturn it and pursue truly democratic reforms like proportional representation. Please come to Pasadena on February 13th and attend this hearing. It’s critical that the courtroom is full of people to let the judges know we care about democracy in California.

In Chamness v. Bowen, a number of candidates and voters have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit) to decide whether the Top Two Primary’s implementing law is unconstitutional. In short, does the State have the power to force candidates to lie on the ballot, or to disenfranchise people who vote for write-in candidates? The Ninth Circuit appeals court will devote a full 40 minutes of oral argument for this case – a large amount of time it reserves for only a small fraction of cases. This shows how important they are taking this and why your attendance is critical.

The Top Two Primary’s implementing law (Senate Bill 6) has violated the rights of Californians in two troubling ways. First, it violated the rights of minor-party candidates, by forcing them to falsely state on the ballot that they have. Second, Senate Bill 6 disenfranchised all voters who cast write-in votes in the general election.

The hearing will be held at 9 am, Feb. 13, 2013, in Courtroom 3 of the Richard H. Chambers Courthouse, 125 South Grand Avenue, Pasadena, California.  The courtroom opens at 9 am and the hearing is open to all members of the public. Parking is available in the lot opposite the courthouse. Please attend to stand for democracy in California!

— Michael Feinstein

Federal Court Sets Hearing for California’s Top Two Primary

On Feb. 13, 2013, an influential federal appeals court will hold a hearing on whether a core part of the Top Two Primary law is unconstitutional.

In Chamness v. Bowen, a number of candidates and voters have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit) to decide whether the Top Two Primary’s implementing law is unconstitutional. In short, does the State have the power to force candidates to lie on the ballot, or to disenfranchise people who vote for write-in candidates?

The Ninth Circuit appeals court will devote a full 40 minutes of oral argument for Chamness — a large amount of time it reserves for only a small fraction of cases.

The Top Two Primary’s implementing law (Senate Bill 6) has violated the rights of Californians in two troubling ways.  First, it violated the rights of minor-party candidates, by forcing them to falsely state on the ballot that they have “No Party Preference”.  For example, Michael Chamness, who ran for U.S. Congress as a Coffee Party candidate, was forced to lie to voters that he had “No Party Preference”.

Second, Senate Bill 6 disenfranchised all voters who cast write-in votes in the general election.  Earlier, Rich Wilson and Julius Galacki cast write-in votes that were not counted.

The hearing will be held at 9 am, Feb. 13, 2013, in Courtroom 3 of the Richard H. Chambers Courthouse, 125 South Grand Avenue, Pasadena, California.

The hearing is open to all members of the public.  Parking is available in the lot opposite the courthouse.

Click here for more background on Chamness v. Bowen.

Question of the Week: Egypt

True or False:  Holding an election is undemocratic.

True — according to critics of controversial Egyptian President Morsi.

— Gautam Dutta

Profile in Courage: Richard Winger

Ed. Note:  Hear this important story of public interest activist Richard Winger (as told by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times):

Here’s a question about Charles Munger Jr. that’s been buried by coverage of his $35 million in campaign spending to pass an anti-union initiative and torpedo Gov. Jerry Brown‘s tax initiative in next week’s election: Has he been maneuvering to bankrupt a public interest activist who had the temerity to mount a court challenge to one of his previous initiatives?

That’s the picture of the multimillionaire being painted by the activist, Richard Winger, 69, who has run San Francisco-based Ballot Access News since 1985. To say Winger’s efforts to track voter-rights litigation nationwide operate on a shoestring is to insult shoestrings; he says his income in each of the last two years came to $6,000.

Now he’s been hit with a $243,000 bill for legal fees incurred by Munger, Winger’s adversary in his unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn Proposition 14. That’s the Munger-backed 2010 “open primary” initiative that turned the general election into a runoff between the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of their party.


Experts in public interest law say the fee award, if it stands, will have a chilling effect on public advocates and community activists who use the courts to challenge government decisions and even private business deals. “If citizens who dare to challenge these corporate-funded propositions then have to pay these corporate lawyers, nobody’s going to do it,” Rosenfield observes.

The fee award astonishes even experts who disagree with Winger’s legal position, such as Richard Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine. In his authoritative Election Law Blog thus summer, Hasen called the award “absolutely outrageous,” arguing that such assessments against losing litigants are justified only when an action is frivolous or in bad faith. “This lawsuit was neither,” he wrote.

Read the rest of Richard’s compelling story here.

Have You Voted Yet?

Have you voted yet?  A record number of Americans will be voting in this Presidential election by mail (though not online, but that’s an entirely different subject).  I just got my mail ballot a couple days ago, and will probably shoot it out by next weekend.

Like it or not, vote-by-mail is here to stay.  On the plus side, voting by mail saves cities and states a lot of money, and is quite convenient:  you don’t have to deal with lines, and you study up on the issues and candidates at home.  On the minus side, if you make a mistake, your vote might not be counted.  In contract, many voting machines these day “spit out” ballots if a voter has made a mistake.

How will vote-by-mail affect the Presidential election?  It all depends.  It looks like the Obama campaign’s on the ball, but we’ll only know for sure on November 6.

Meanwhile, go vote!

— Gautam Dutta

An Indian, A Texan, And A Democrat Go To Charlotte

When I first realized I was going to the Democratic National Convention, I was beyond ecstatic. It was my first convention, so naturally I wanted to make the most of it. Every day I got to go to a different event, attend another party, and meet some great new people.

I started my convention experience by attending the AAPI Caucus meeting. There, I heard from Asian-American leaders from around the country, including a panel introduced by Governor Neil Abercrombie featuring Tammy Duckworth, Tulsi Gabbard, and Mike Fong. My takeaway from that session is that minorities are going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2012. Honestly, that was the theme I witnessed the entire convention. And those of us privileged enough to be Texans felt a personal connection to that particular theme.

For the first time in history, we witnessed a Latino deliver the keynote address at a major party convention. Mayor Julian Castro’s speech was the perfect balance of inspiration and fight, but what really resonated with me was what he represented. His story is America’s story — a family who moved to America in search for a better life, who worked tirelessly to achieve the American dream, who live up to the ideal of America as a mosaic of race and religion, where hard work and smarts are rewarded, regardless of where they may have come from.

His story resonates with me, and in today’s ever-changing America, it resonates with so many others. His selection shows that Democrats are ready to embrace this new era; while at the Republican convention, we were lucky to see any minorities in the crowd. Of course, there is no reason they would be there. While Democrats are showcasing this new generation of minority leaders, the Republicans are doing everything in their power to make sure we can’t even exercise our most basic democratic right.

The rest of the convention did not disappoint. The speeches by Michelle Obama and President Clinton were two of the best speeches I have ever heard, and seeing President Obama speak in person for the first time was as amazing as I imagined. This convention proved to me that minorities are the future of the party and this country. Both parties have made their decision on how they want to handle the future, and after this convention, I know I picked the right party.

The magic of Barack Obama as President of the United States has not faded. The enthusiasm and passion have not faded. The ability of so many Americans to relate to him has not faded. I got to see it first hand: Democrats are fired up, and ready to go!

– Palak Gosar

Question of the Week: Who’s Reaching out to AAPIs?

Asian Americans could swing the vote in battleground states like Nevada and Virginia.  How aggressively are the Obama and Romney campaigns reaching out to Asian Americans?

— Gautam Dutta

Sam Yoon To Lead Council Of Korean Americans

I wanted to share an update on what has been happening since you joined me in our historic campaign for mayor of Boston in 2009.

Several months after the election I made the difficult decision to leave Boston and move to the Washington, D.C. area. Though I loved Boston dearly, I took the opportunity to move closer to my family, but also to lead a national organization advocating for community economic development.

I learned so much about how grassroots community organizations all around our country both thrived and struggled due to the Great Recession. I took their message to our national leaders and even documented them in our own YouTube channel. But by the end of 2011, I was offered a chance to serve in the Obama administration.

Most of you know I was an early and strong supporter of Barack Obama in his historic 2008 race, and I was honored to work for him during most of this year at the Department of Labor in the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) as a senior policy advisor. The time I spent there was both eye-opening and sobering. It is an enormous challenge to prepare a 21st century workforce in a struggling economy with a gridlocked Congress. Yet I saw the good people at ETA march on every day, for American workers, and I salute them.

This brings us to today. I am pleased to let you know through this email that I have recently been hired as the President of a non-profit organization called the Council of Korean Americans (CKA). CKA is a national, non-partisan group of Korean Americans whose mission is to assert a clear, strong voice on matters of importance to our community and to advocate for our full participation in all aspects of American life.

Founded in 2010, CKA fulfills a clear need in the Korean American community, which, like many immigrant and ethnic communities, lacks a national, unified voice. I firmly believe our members and our allies have the talent, energy, and drive to make this happen. I would love for you to be involved.

Check back from time to time at our website. I plan to start a blog and comment on issues of the day from a more personal point of view. I encourage you to sign up for our newsletter and stay in touch with me as I take on this new venture.

That’s my update, in two minutes or less! Thank you for reading, and thank you so much for your friendship over the years.

Please stay in touch, and God bless!

– Sam Yoon

Top Two Backers: Crushing Dissent?

Editor’s Note: This below is a re-posting of “Are Top Two Backers Seeking to Crush Dissent in California?” from our friends at FairVote.

Are Top Two Backers Seeking to Crush Dissent in California?

by Drew SpencerRob Richie // Published September 15, 2012


Latest News: The Field case interveners have asked for an emergency hearing to kick out the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration of the ruling on paying interveners’ legal fees. The judge scheduled to hear the case is Curtis Karnow, the same judge who made the initial ruling in favor of the interveners. The hearing will take place at 11 am on Monday September 17th in Department 302 of San Francisco Superior Court in downtown San Francisco (400 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94102). Despite the short notice, plaintiffs hope supporters can join them in the courtroom.

In 2010, two remarkable allies of electoral reform and independent politics– Richard Winger, a longtime editor of Ballot Access News, and Steven Chessin, president of the all-volunteer group Californians for Electoral Reform – joined four other plaintiffs in challenging California’s new “Two Two” election system. They brought the case as individuals, but represented the views of many advocates of the rights of minor parties who believed that two key aspects of the Top Two law (how it handled write-in votes and association rights) were unconstitutional. Their lawsuit, Field v. Bowen, ultimately lost in court, but led to improvements in the law that better ensure that voters and candidates can adequately assert their electoral rights.

That’s why it was a shock – not only to us, but to Top Two backes like UC-Irvine law professor Richard Hasen (who called  the ruling “absolutely outrageous” and “nonsense”) and columnist Thomas Elias  – when Judge Curtis Karnow hit Winger, Chessin and their fellow plaintiffs with a bill for their opponents’ attorney fees to the tune of $243,279.

Those opponents weren’t the state of California, which did not seek fees. Rather they were interveners in the case (meaning parties whom the plaintiffs did not sue) associated with multi-millionaire proponents of the Top Two system. They include former Lieutenant Governor and current congressional candidate Abel Maldonado, the California Independent Voters Network, and Californians to Defend the Open Primary. These latter two organizations are closely enmeshed with the politically well-connected law firm Nielsen, Merksamer; Nielsen, Merksamer’s senior partner Vigo “Chip” Nielsen maintains the books for both groups and sits on the board of Californians to Defend the Open Primary.

Nielsen is joined on that board by Charles Munger Jr.. Munger is one of California’s biggest political donors and in 2010 gave more than $12 million to the successful ballot measure establishing a more independent redistricting process in California — a donation far more than our organization FairVote’s entire budget over our 20 year history.

Both organizations pay substantial amounts of money to Chip Nielsen’s law firm. Recent Form 990 reports reveal that Californians to Defend the Open Primary doled out $379,637 to Nielsen, Merksamer in 2011, and $699,102 in 2010. The California Independent Voters Network paid $141,610 to Nielson, Merksamer in 2010. (CIVN also had the funds to sponsor “a lavish Hawaii junket for California lawmakers ,” as highlighted by Common Cause.)

Now they seem to want their money back, taking it from plaintiffs like the selfless Winger who earned all of $6,000 in 2011 as the nation’s unquestioned expert on issues relating to ballot access, with a monthly newsletter and website that has a steady stream of timely information about elections and election reform. Given Winger’s outspoken opposition to Top Two, the interveners’ drive for fees comes across as showing more interest in crushing dissent than simply defending their proposals.

Here’s more of the back story. Californians adopted the Top Two system by initiative in June 2010. Top Two ends partisan primaries and replaces them with a two-step election process: a “preliminary” election in June open to all candidates followed by a general election between only the two candidates who received the most votes in the first round, irrespective of party labels and what percentage of the vote they received in the first round.

Although many of our close reform allies oppose all forms of Top Two, FairVote applauds Top Two supporters’ recognition that many issues of political dysfunction can be traced to unfair election systems. But our August 2010 analysis shows that California’s  version of Top Two is flawed, although in ways that we believe can be addressed without going back to the state’s previous rules.

Our analysis of the June 2012 primary confirmed the legitimacy of our concerns. California had its lowest presidential year primary turnout in history, with an unrepresentative balance of participation, a near decimation of third party presence on the November ballot and several disturbing outcomes that included a congressional race where two Republicans advanced in a majority-minority, Democratic-learning district because of low turnout among racial minorities and several Democratic candidates splitting the Democratic vote.

Some of our concerns were among the motivations for the Field plaintiffs to go to court. As one example, the law implementing Top Two included a ballot line for write-ins in the final election in November, but stated that any actual write-in votes would not be counted. The plaintiffs argued that aspect of the law conflicted with constitutional principles. Although the California Court of Appeals rejected their arguments, California legislature ultimately amended the law, effectively (if still incompletely) remedying that problem

Nevertheless, the Field interveners asked for legal fees against the plaintiffs — and Judge Karnow agreed. There’s a special irony for FairVote in the role of Nielsen Merksamer as the firm representing the interveners. Nielsen, Merksamer represented the plaintiffs in the meritless – and ultimately unsuccessful  – Dudum v. Arntz lawsuit to block the instant runoff voting form of ranked choice voting in San Francisco. Among those defending RCV in the Dudum case was the New America Foundation, which filed an amicus brief written by Gautam Dutta; Dutta is same civil rights lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in Field.

The Dudum lawsuit lost in district court and in a unanimous ruling of the Ninth Circuit. Unlike Field, however, the lawsuit did not lead to any policy changes. Despite that fact and despite the case being flimsy and costly to San Francisco taxpayers, the city did not seek fees.

Unfortunately, the Field interveners and their wealthy backers see it differently. Once their case was back in district court on remand, they demanded that the court force Winger, Chessin and the other plaintiffs to pay more than $200,000 for their attorneys and fees. They made this demand, despite the fact that Winger and the other plaintiffs did not pursue attorney fees against them.

What makes the judge’s ruling so troubling is that in the United States, each party in a legal case is generally expected to pay their own legal costs. To do otherwise is to punish one side in litigation for asserting or defending their rights and interests in court. There are exceptions, to be sure. For example, plaintiffs who bring frivolous or bad faith lawsuits might have to pay the legal fees of their opponents. Similarly, a defendant who is being sued for violating important public rights or an important public policy might have to pay the fees for the individual who sues attempting to stop them.

But that was clearly not the case here. The plaintiffs brought a non-frivolous lawsuit in good faith to protect the rights of voters as they saw them. The interveners decided to join the case ensure its position was well-represented. Nonetheless, the district judge ordered the plaintiffs to pay those interveners, effectively punishing them for asserting their rights and the rights of California voters.

The court order at least has spurred a quick response. The plaintiffs promptly filed a motion to reconsider – asking the court to reverse its prior decision – and four separate parties have filed amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs in their support. In FairVote’s brief, we note the devastating effect on public interest groups that this award of fees could have and detail the order’s patent unfairness.

Americans have many options for how to conduct our elections – some good and some bad. The Top Two system is a credible reform idea that, properly constructed, could uphold majority rule without undercutting First Amendment rights of association and limiting voter choice in November elections. But no one should be punished for opposing it, whether before a legislative body,  the public, or our legal system.

As more jurisdictions consider Top Two – better forms of it, we hope — and other reform ideas. we must take a vigorous look at each proposal and be ready to determine whether any of it may violate our constitutional commitments. Seeking to take revenge on reform advocates or reform opponents when raising legitimate concerns is a dangerous precedent. We hope the interveners stand down from their position and show greater willingness to consider ways to improve their proposal. Regardless, we hope that Judge Karnow reverses his initial ruling.

— Drew Spencer and Rob Richie