Two Small But Significant Steps To Make Elections Better Took Place This Week
There are two big pieces of election news this week out of Florida, known for its historically torrid election administration. The Supreme Court, following a string of rulings unleashing big money into politics, has finally found a small but significant campaign finance law that it is willing to uphold. Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that would finally bring online voter registration to the state — should Gov. Rick Scott sign the bill. The decision and the law together augur a better approach to election administration in Florida and across the country.
In Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that campaign solicitation bans for judicial candidates are constitutional. This follows years of decisions where the Court facilitated the rise of big money in our politics, seven times since 2006. In the 5-4 decision, conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. voted with the four liberal-leaning justices, arguing that “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot,” and therefore they “cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity.
Unfortunately, Roberts’ decision did not go far enough. While he acknowledged that campaign contributions to judicial officials could give off the “appearance of corruption,” Roberts contained his opinion to the judiciary. This flies in the face of what we have seen in our elections, as big money’s influence has only increased thanks to Roberts’ Court especially since Citizens United. Ian Millhiser, editor of ThinkProgress Justice, broke down why Roberts’ reasoning is flawed:
Most Americans would undoubtedly agree that judges should not “follow the preferences” of their political supporters, as they would agree that judges should not “provide any special consideration to his campaign donors.” But the implication of the passage quoted above is that members of Congress, state lawmakers, governors and presidents should provide such consideration to their supporters and to their donors. The President of the United States is the president of the entire United States. A member of Congress represents their entire constituency. Yet Roberts appears to believe that they should “follow the preferences” of their supporters and give “special consideration” to the disproportionately wealthy individuals who fund their election.
As Justice Ginsburg noted in her concurring opinion, “Numerous studies [including some by CAP!] report that the money pressure groups spend on judicial elections ‘can affect judicial decision-making across a broad range of cases.'” It is inconceivable that big money in non-judicial elections would not have the same effect. The public understands that, which is why they have consistently shown that they are against the rising tide of big money in politics. According to one recent poll, 61 percent of voters oppose the Citizens United decision that ushered in this latest wave of big money politics.
This decision is only the latest demonstration of the importance of our court systems. For more information on the importance of our courts and how we can leverage them to create true progressive change, go to WhyCourtsMatter.org.
Although imperfect, hopefully this momentum on making our election system better for everyone will extend into Florida’s battle over online voter registration. Florida’s Republican-controlled House and Senate passed important legislation that would require online voter registration in the state by October 2017. As shown in over twenty other states that allow online voter registration, registering online is “more accurate, less expensive and a convenience to voters.” Despite the overwhelming evidence, Governor Rick Scott was previously reported to be working to kill the legislation. And his chief election official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, came out against the bill, oddly claiming that “forces of evil” would sabotage such a system. Online voter registration is good for voters, good for Florida and Governor Scott should bring Florida’s election system into the 21st century by signing this bill into law.
BOTTOM LINE: After a string of poor decisions, and public momentum building for real reform on money in politics, the Supreme Court has finally taken steps, however late and limited, to stem the corrosive effects that big money has in our politics, at least in the judiciary. The Florida law behind the decision is an important piece of ensuring the integrity of the judiciary. But Florida can do even more to strengthen their election system, and Scott should take the opportunity to do so by bringing voter registration into the 21st century.
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