My trip to Selma

TroopersThis weekend I was in Selma, Alabama for the commemoration of the 49th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”–the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Check out tweets and photos of the experience by clicking here.

I did not tweet on a meeting I had Friday with about a dozen mayors of small Southern cities and towns (300 to 20,000 people, and largely African-American).  We talked about the unique challenges of some of their towns, such as ensuring that state officials allocate to all towns a fair proportion of federal dollars (regardless of the race or voting patterns of residents), expensive grant application requirements that apply to small towns but not to larger cities, decaying/inadequate infrastructure (including limited Internet access), sanitation issues, and extreme poverty.  They are compiling a formal list of issues for me in a letter.

We have much work to do.

First Week at the Joint Center

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Joe Biden Address 2.preview

This past week I started as Interim President and CEO of the Joint Center.  Founded in 1970, the Joint Center is a leading think tank on public policy and people of color.  The picture above is from our 2013 dinner, and for a flavor of some of our work see this short “Place Matters” video (where you live affects your health) and these foundational studies on improving the lives of young men of color.

Various supporters got us off to a good start with wonderful words (thanks Cory Booker, Ralph Everett, Caroline Fredrickson, Ben Ginsberg, Fred Humphries, Barbara Johnson, Heather McGhee, Charles Ogletree, Norm Ornstein, Dan Pabon, Chellie Pingree, Rashad Robinson, Terri Sewell, and Brian Smedley).  Several organizations extended special support, including but not limited to the Advancement Project, the Brennan Center, Demos, and W.K. Kellogg.

Along with navigating a blizzard during a NYC trip, the week included great conversations with many stakeholders (e.g., Joint Center staff, leaders from racial equity organizations, foundations, organizations of elected officials of color, and others).  I have many more important stakeholders with whom to connect in the near future.   We also took initial steps to build a vibrant online community, improve our collaborative work, and generate resources for general capacity building.

Personally, I’m thrilled to be at the Joint Center at this critical moment.  While the challenges we face are similar to those of other nonprofits, the challenges are not insurmountable, and are outweighed by opportunities.

I am optimistic about the future of the Joint Center for several reasons.

Legacy organizations often deny that change is necessary.  I am encouraged that the Joint Center board and staff all agree we must revamp the organization.  Already, we have started making some difficult decisions, including cutting spending.   We are rethinking everything – operations, development, talent, the method of delivering ideas, and much more.

Evolving technology has transformed many industries—including the think tank and policy arenas.  The opportunities for increased efficiencies, effectiveness, and capacity at the Joint Center are clear and significant.

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act is a key national issue, and the Joint Center’s Health Policy Institute–led by Dr. Brian Smedley–remains a national leader on health policy equity.

Further, increasing diversity, economic and racial disparities, media fragmentation, and polarization create a significant need for a well-functioning Joint Center.  The Joint Center is uniquely positioned to bring together government officials, the private sector, communities of color, racial equity and grassroots advocacy groups, think tanks, scholars, and the philanthropic community to devise new ideas and solutions.

This is a leadership moment for all of us.  The Joint Center represents an incredible and important opportunity—a platform for us to work together to solve many of our nation’s most pressing problems.  My first ask—please follow the Joint Center on Twitter here,  Facebook here, and/or email updates here (scroll to bottom left).  More soon.  I look forward to your ideas, and to working with you on this important cause.  Our moment is now.

The State of the Union & African Americans

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HuffPost Black Voices just posted on its front page my latest piece, “The State of the Union and African Americans.”

My take in a nutshell:  The themes of this year’s speech–opportunity, action, and optimism–have special relevance for African Americans.  African Americans have more to accomplish in the final three years of President Obama’s administration and beyond.  Instead of engaging in cynical rhetorical debates over whether the President’s speeches focus too much on individual responsibility rather than structural racism, African Americans should take action to push concrete policy changes that tangibly improve the lives of real people.

Voting Discrimination Differs from Election Administration Challenges

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Earlier today, Heritage Sr. Legal Fellow John Malcolm and I had a lively discussion on the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s recommendations on NPR’s Tell Me More.

My take in a nutshell–voting discrimination and election administration challenges are different problems that require different solutions.  Republicans and Democrats in Congress should work together to prevent voting discrimination by passing the Voting Rights Amendment Act, and officials in the approximately 8000 state and local jurisdictions that administer American elections should review and implement many of the election administration recommendations proposed by the Presidential Commission.

At GW Today: Briefing by Presidential Commission Co-Chairs

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Moments ago, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released its report, which is here.  

At 2:30 pm ET today, immediately after meeting with President Obama, the co-chairs of the Commission and several commissioners will come to GW Law.

In their first extensive discussion after releasing the report, co-chairs Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg will provide a briefing on the report and the process, including an extensive opportunity for questions from election experts, the press, and other audience members.

Watch video of event by clicking here.

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I expand on my thoughts from earlier today in my new piece on the front page of the Huffington Post, “A Bipartisan Voting Rights Act is Possible.”  Some excerpts . . . 

Conventional wisdom among some liberals, conservatives, and moderates is that a “polarized Congress” will never update the Voting Rights Act. . .

While the new bill would require that fewer states preclear changes, the new bill expands nationwide some of the functions served by preclearance.

For example, before the Court’s decision, preclearance deterred discrimination in covered states because bad actors knew their voting changes would be reviewed. The new bill attempts to deter bad activity by requiring that states and localities nationwide provide public notice of particular election changes (I discussed this in my Harvard Law Review Forum essay “Voting Rights Disclosure“). . . .

Despite the naysayers, a bipartisan Voting Rights Act update is possible.

Some dismiss Congress as too polarized to pass a Voting Rights Act. All past renewals of the Voting Rights Act were signed into law by a Republican president, however, including the 2006 renewal.

Others believe that instead of preventing discrimination, an updated Voting Rights Act should explicitly prohibit restrictive state photo ID requirements and other rules that many Republicans favor. This move, however, would only fuel partisan divisions.

No doubt, anti-civil rights ideologues will try to fuel polarization and undermine the Voting Rights Act by framing it as a partisan Democratic effort (which it is not). Despite the fact that Republican opposition to the bill would stimulate minority voter turnout and backlash in the 2014 midterm elections, a few conservative extremists may try to scare Republicans away from supporting the bill by threatening them with labels (e.g., “RINO”).

Some liberals may use similar rhetoric from the other side (e.g., “sellout”) because the new preclearance coverage formula does not include states like Alabama and treats ID differently than other election changes in certain limited circumstances. These concessions, however, may be necessary to satisfy the states’ rights concerns of the Roberts Supreme Court and the political concerns of Republican members of Congress.

I recognize that today was just the first step, and that passage is not guaranteed. I also recognize that the bill is far from perfect.

The bill, however, is an important first step, and it includes measures that are real building blocks for an approach that protects voters. Further, introduction of the bill rebuts the rhetoric of pundits who claimed, without any evidence, that the update was “stalled.” It is far from naive or foolhardy to recognize that this Congress could update the Voting Rights Act.

The full piece is here.

Participation as a Campaign Finance Value on C-Span 2

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20140113_111056This morning at 9:30 am ET Professor Michael Miller is talking on his public financing book “Subsidizing Democracy at the New America Foundation, and I’ll comment along with Michael Malbin and Matt Heinz (Mark Schmitt is the moderator).

The book is an important empirical contribution (Miller’s data shows that public financing results in participating candidates spending less time fundraising, voters being more likely to vote in down-ballot races, and Republican candidates being less likely to accept public financing and more likely to face a challenger).

The book, however, focuses largely on systems that provide public financing grants to candidates that were hampered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of the trigger provision in Arizona Free Enterprise, and has only a few pages on systems that provide a multiple match of donations (e.g., NYC’s 6-to-1 match which makes a $100 contribution worth $700 to the candidate).  For me, increasing incentives for candidates to engage citizens (broaden participation) is more important than limiting spending or increasing the pool of new candidates.  I also think public financing should be accompanied by “insurance policies” in the form of Small Donor PACs and increased coordinated spending limits by parties when using money from small donors (or the first $200 of any contribution), so that if future politicians balance budgets by cutting public financing, revenue-neutral laws remain that incentivize small donor engagement.

A summary of the panel is hereC-Span 2 is covering it  (watch here), and my Minnesota Law Review article on public financing (“Matching Political Contributions”) is here.