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Pols decry voter ID laws on Constitution Day

Two Bay Area members of Congress used the Constitution’s birthday today as an occasion to decry voter ID laws – which they call voter-suppression efforts – in some crucial presidential swing states.

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, issued a statement noting that the U.S. Constitution, at 225 years old, “is the most enduring government charter in world history.” It laid out our national ideals including the right to vote, and that right has been expanded and protected since then, he wrote.

Pete Stark (photo by Aric Crabb)“Unfortunately, voting rights are now at risk due to a series of discriminatory and restrictive voter identification laws enacted at the state level,” Stark said. “If these un-American laws stand, they will impede the democratic process and prevent many Americans from exercising their fundamental right to vote.”

Republican-led legislatures in more than a dozen states have enacted strict new voter ID laws since 2008, claiming they’ll crack down on fraud; Democrats say the laws aim to keep millions of minority, elderly, poor and other voters from casting ballots.

Stark said he’s a proud cosponsor of HR 5799, the “Voter Empowerment Act of 2012” by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., which he said “would protect voters’ rights and ensure the integrity of our electoral system. I will continue fighting to protect the right to vote and work to ensure that all eligible citizens are able to participate in our democracy.”

HR 5799 among other things requires states to offer online voter registration; promotes same-day registration; creates requirements for states to promote registration and voting access for the disabled; and prohibits state and local officials from preventing a person from registering or voting in any federal election, or from allowing certain kinds of formal challenges to someone’s registration or eligibility to vote.

Also among that bill’s 140 cosponsors is Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, who had an op-ed piece published today on the Huffington Post and The Hill taking Republicans to task for attacking constitutional voting rights.

honda.jpg“The Republican attacks on these amendments, and their attacks on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, aim to cut the legs of citizenship from beneath us. Republicans are prohibiting access to the ballot for minorities, the elderly and young people who have been, and continue to be, historically disenfranchised,” Honda wrote. “We have fought these fights before, and it’s shameful that we have to still fight for these rights today. But fight we will. If we can vote, then we must register. If we can share time, then we must volunteer. If you believe in preserving access to our democracy, then we must speak out.”

Congress and state lawmakers should be educating citizens “instead of road blocking citizenship rights for which thousands have fought and died. We must be educating on pathways to citizenship, not restricting individuals from access to our democracy. Early voting, absentee ballots and in-language assistance are all key pillars of voting, and it is unfortunate that Democrats have to fight tooth and nail to retain them.”

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Should it be harder to amend state constitution?

A measure that would make it considerably harder to amend California’s constitution passed its first big hurdle this week.

ACA 10 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, was approved by the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting on a 4-1 vote; it now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Ultimately, two-thirds of the Assembly and state Senate would have to approve putting this to voters as a ballot measure.

The legislation would require that the signatures needed to put constitutional amendments on the ballot come from at least 27 of the state’s 40 state Senate districts, reducing the chance that a few population centers can change the whole state’s guiding document. It also would require a 55 percent majority to approve a new constitutional amendment at the ballot box, rather than the simple 50-percent-plus-one majority now required; however, a simple majority would still be enough to repeal constitutional amendments already enacted.

In a news release, Gatto noted the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times in 223 years, whereas California’s Constitution has been amended 521 times in roughly half the time.

“I would submit that one of the reasons our country has not been torn apart by strife is that, to amend our governing document, you need consensus,” he said. “California’s Constitution has been treated by special interests as just another statute, subject to the temporary whims of the majority of voters who show up and vote in any given year.”

Of the 24 states that have an initiative process, half have geographic-distribution requirements; a few require that votes cast far surpass the simple majority mark; and six have actually forbidden amending their constitutions by initiative, Gatto said.

“A constitution should be a sacred, hallowed document that contains fundamental governing principles and rights. I expect to have the support of my colleagues, who believe in the sanctity of the federal Constitution and the wisdom of our founding fathers, to support taking these steps to ensure California’s Constitution is similarly protected,” he said. “No right is permanent, and no reform has any teeth, if it can be repealed at the very next election.”

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Assembly OKs anti-Citizens United resolution

The state Assembly voted 48-22 today to urge Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution as a means of overturning a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that unleashed a deluge of unlimited political spending by corporations and unions.

If the state Senate passes it as well, Assembly Joint Resolution 22, co-authored by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, and Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, will put California amid a national grassroots movement. Hawaii and New Mexico have passed similar resolutions, as have more than 100 cities across the nation including Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and Fairfax.

Today’s vote was along straight party lines, with all the ayes from Democrats and all the nays from Republicans; 10 members were absent or not voting.

Bob Wieckowski“The Citizens United decision is judicial activism run amuck,” Wieckowski said in a news release. “For more than a century, Congress and the Supreme Court have recognized the need to differentiate between people and the vast amount of wealth at the disposal of large corporations. The floodgates were opened by this ruling and now a small number of very wealthy interests are having a greater influence on our national politics than ever before.”

The Supreme Court’s holding that the First Amendment bars the government from restricting political spending by corporations and unions led to the creation of the “Super PACs” – often funded by a just few wealthy donors – that now essentially serve as shadow campaigns for the presidential candidates, but without any fundraising limits.

Groups including Public Citizen, Common Cause, the California Public Interest Research Project (CalPIRG), California Church Impact, California Labor Federation, California Nurses Association, California Professional Firefighters and the California League of Conservation Voters support AJR 22.

Jonah Minkoff-Zern, senior organizer with Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign, said this movement has percolated up from the streets. “It is because of the work of dedicated activists throughout the state that California’s elected officials are joining them in taking a stand to say that democracy is for people, not for corporations.”

Public Citizen helped lead the introduction of similar resolutions in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland, and has supported activists’ and lawmakers’ efforts to introduce similar resolutions in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and New York.

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John Yoo defends Obama’s war powers in Libya

Cal law professor John Yoo – who as a Justice Department attorney helped build a legal framework for the “enhanced interrogation” techniques many consider to be torture and for other perceived Bush Administration transgressions – has found a new way to make Bay Area liberals mad: supporting President Barack Obama’s stance on his power to attack Libya.

In an op-ed piece that appeared in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Yoo argues House Republicans are sacrificing constitutional principle for partisan advantage in battling the President on Libya.

John Yoo “By accusing President Barack Obama of violating the War Powers Resolution, House Republicans are abandoning their party’s longstanding position that the Constitution allows the executive to use force abroad, subject to Congress’s control over funding,” Yoo wrote. “Sadly, they’ve fallen victim to the siren song of short-term political gain against a president who continues to stumble in national-security matters.”

OK, so he’s not an Obama fan by any stretch of the imagination. But Yoo wrote that “Mr. Obama’s constitutional position today on war powers is little different from that of President George W. Bush, whom Democrats portrayed as a warmongering dictator.”

“If the Constitution gives the president the executive authority to use force abroad, Congress cannot take it away,” Yoo wrote. “Surely Mr. Boehner agreed with this proposition before the current president took office. He, for instance, never claimed that President George W. Bush’s exercise of broad executive powers in the war on terror violated the Constitution. Nor does he appear to have thought that legislative authorization of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was constitutionally necessary in 2001 and 2002.”

If Republicans want to end U.S. involvement in Libya, Yoo concludes, they should cut the operation’s purse strings; refuse to lift the debt ceiling until they get what they want; or even start impeachment proceedings. “But holding hands with isolationist Democrats out of political convenience is no way to defend the Constitution.”

So, Yoo’s tally is: House Republicans are wrong; antiwar Democrats are wrong; and the President is wrong but constitutionally protected.

UPDATE @ 9:50 A.M.: Liz Cheney and Karl Rove agree.

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More briefs on whether to invalidate Prop. 8

Just as more than 50 labor organizations did yesterday, a coalition of religious groups today unveiled their friend-of-the-court brief urging the California Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban written into the California Constitution by voters in November’s election.

This latest brief was filed on behalf of the California Council of Churches, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, two Episcopal Bishops (of California and Los Angeles), the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California, and the Northern and Southern California Nevada Conferences of the United Church of Christ.

“Not even the electorate can take away these sacrosanct rights on a whim,” the religious groups’ brief says. “At the very least, article XVIII of the California Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, or a constitutional convention, before a historically disfavored minority may be deprived of equal protection of the laws with regards to ‘inalienable’ rights. Additionally, as the Attorney General asserts, an initiative that targets constitutionally ‘inalienable’ rights must survive strict scrutiny if those rights are to amount to anything. This Proposition 8 cannot do.”

The groups say they, their member congregations and parishioners depend on article XVIII “to ensure that the California Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection for religious minorities cannot be taken away without a deliberative process of the utmost care possible in a representative democracy. If Proposition 8 is upheld, however, that assurance will disappear – for, just as surely as same-sex couples could be deprived of equal protection by a simple majority vote, so too could religious minorities be deprived of equal protection – a terrible irony in a nation founded by people who emigrated to escape religious persecution.”

Conservative public-interest law firm Liberty Counsel will file a brief tomorrow urging the court not to invalidate Proposition 8, arguing that doing so would devastate the rights of those who voted for the ballot measure.

“The Constitution cannot overrule itself,” Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said in a news release today. “When the people passed Proposition 8, it became part of the state constitution and no judge, irrespective of how high or mighty, may stand above the rule of law. After the passage of Proposition 8, only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. In the same way that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished a slaveholder’s title and the Prohibition Amendment divested the right to sell liquor, Proposition 8 makes same-sex marriage licenses invisible and void.”