The Democracy Prospect: Voting on Trial

(Photo: AP/Chris Seward/The News & Observer)

The Reverend William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP announces on August 13, 2013, a lawsuit against the state's recent voter-ID bill.

Welcome to The American Prospect's weekly roundup highlighting the latest news in money and politics.

A closely watched legal challenge to North Carolina’s controversial voter-ID law went on trial this week, starting on January 25. The state’s GOP-led General Assembly approved the law within weeks of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder to overturn a key preclearance requirement the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The law has been challenged by both the Justice Department and the NAACP. An NAACP lawyer told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder that the law violates the Voting Rights Act because it makes it harder for African American and Latino voters, who disproportionately lack the required forms of photo ID, to cast ballots.

Thomas Farr, the lawyer representing the state of North Carolina, countered that the law’s opponents have failed to show evidence that the ID requirement will block anyone from voting. Farr also argued that few voters lack the required ID, a position civil-rights advocates dispute. Election law experts predict that if North Carolina prevails in court, other states will follow suit with more restrictive ID laws.

Already, 21 states have put new voting restrictions in place since the 2010 elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. These include photo ID laws in Alabama, Mississippi, and New Hampshire. The trial in North Carolina is one of several legal battles over voter restrictions that both Republicans and Democrats are watching closely in the run-up to Election Day.


Amid Darkness, a Little Light

As more and more political spending goes underground, the Federal Communications Commission has emerged as one of the only federal agencies positioned to substantially boost political disclosure without triggering a legal challenge. The FCC on Jan. 28 adopted rules to expand access to the so-called “public files” that advertisers submit to the agency, which contain much sought-after information on political ads.

The FCC in 2014 required broadcasters to submit public disclosures electronically instead of on paper, and has now expanded that mandate to include cable operators, satellite TV providers and radio companies. The action came hard on the heels of public comments to the FCC from the Center for Responsive Politics, which had urged the agency to both expand its online depository of political acd data, and to better enforce its disclosure rules. The Sunlight Foundation, which has helped lead the push for better FCC ad disclosure, applauded this week's unanimous FCC disclosure vote, calling it "another victory for transparency."

The FCC disclosures are crucial because the agency’s public files constitute virtually the only window into how much politically active tax-exempt groups, which operate outside the campaign disclosure rules, are spending on political ads.

This week, political money sleuth Bill Allison combed through FCC data compiled by Kantar Media CMAG to show that only about one-third of the money spent on campaigns so far has come from players who disclose the source of their contributions. Allison tallied $114 million spent by official campaigns and super PACs, compared with $213 million spent by tax-exempt groups not required to reveal their donors.

Disclosure is quickly becoming ground zero in the political money wars, as pressure mounts on President Barack Obama to require more corporate political disclosure via Securities and Exchange Commission and government contractor regulations. The nation’s top business trade groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have set out to discourage companies from buckling to public pressure to voluntarily disclose their political activities, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

As I have argued before, this anti-disclosure platform has the potential to backfire politically, and contradicts the conservative principle that self-regulation is preferable to government mandates. Voters on both sides of the aisle have embraced disclosure of as one of the few campaign-finance principles that everyone agrees on, and even this right-leaning Supreme Court has defended disclosure as constitutional.

One measure of voter concern is New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” which now ranks 5th on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. Speaking of Mayer, don’t miss my interview with her and with two other authors of recent campaign-finance titles, election lawyer Rick Hasen and Issue One Executive Director Nick Penniman, in my column on campaign-finance books as an emerging popular genre.


Trumping Along

The approach of the Iowa caucuses has jacked up intra-party tensions on both sides of the aisle, but the bickering is particularly intense among Republicans, who remain deeply divided over Donald Trump and his fitness to occupy the White House. Trump has lashed out against the conservative National Review, which devoted an entire issue to essays arguing against Trump.

But as Paul Waldman noted in the Prospect this week, two things are happening at once: Some Republicans remain panicked over the notion of Trump as their White House nominee. Others appear to have capitulated to the notion that Trump will be their standard bearer. The most significant development here may be that recent public comments by “establishment” Republicans aimed at papering over Trump’s political shortcomings could signal that speculation of a possible brokered Republican National Convention won’t amount to much.

Trump, in the meantime, having thumbed his nose at the most recent GOP debate, has launched a full court press to win Iowa, unleashing a volley of ads and campaigning on overdrive. Trump continues to lead his nearest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, by double digits in the polls. It remains to be seen, should Trump sail to victory in Iowa and New Hampshire, whether a scenario many Republicans once considered unthinkable becomes inevitable.

This story has been updated to reflect Federal Communications Commission action on Jan. 28.

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