Anyone looking for good news on the subject of voting rights and the electoral process in general these days will take anything they can find, especially if they find it in unusual places. Alabama and Louisiana come immediately to mind. So does the United States Supreme Court. But, if a goat dances ballet, you don’t criticize its arabesque.
In Alabama, a bill has advanced through the state legislature that would restore the franchise to thousands of convicted felons and Governor Kay Ivey’s office has said she would sign the bill into law. Of course, it’s not a full re-enfranchisement of every felon who’s served out a sentence, as AL.com points out.
The bill, called the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, passed both houses of the state legislature Wednesday, a victory for backers who have sought for years to see it codified into law. If Ivey signs it, the bill would more clearly define the term “moral turpitude” as it is used in the state constitution, which stipulates that “no person convicted of a felony of moral turpitude” may vote. Rather than continuing to be loosely interpreted as referring to every felony but a list of five that includes driving under the influence and aiding and abetting, the term would refer to less than 50 specific “felonies that involve moral turpitude which disqualify a person from exercising his or her right to vote,” the legislation states. By redefining “moral turpitude,” the bill would effectively restore “thousands” of felons’ right to vote.
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(Let us pause here to give thanks that the phrase “moral turpitude” still has a presence in our national dialogue. Forsooth!)
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Nine Wise Souls refused to hear the case of Louisiana Republican Party v. FEC, which left in place a lower court decision upholding a ban on “soft money,” as Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress explains. This preserves one of the remaining controls put in place in 2002 by the now-vestigial McCain-Feingold Act.
Federal law prohibits corporations from “making any contributions from their general funds to political parties and candidates for federal elections,” and it similarly prohibits individuals from contributing more than $33,400 to national political parties and $10,000 to state and local parties. Though state law sometimes permits contributions that violate these rules, such contributions may not be spent in many ways that benefit federal candidates.
Of course, around every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud. One of the two justices eager to take up this case, very probably with the intention of eviscerating the law, was our newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, who joined the inevitable Clarence Thomas in voting to hear it.
As the good people at the Brennan Center wrote last February, the good thing about Gorsuch is that he really understands the micro-details of campaign-finance laws, and the bad thing about Gorsuch is that he really understands the micro-details of campaign finance laws.
But there are a few words from Gorsuch’s opinion which should give campaign finance reformers pause. For one, he wrote “[n]o one before us disputes that the act of contributing to political campaigns implicates a ‘basic constitutional freedom,’ one lying ‘at the foundation of a free society’ and enjoying a significant relationship to the right to speak and associate—both expressly protected First Amendment activities.” In other words, Gorsuch is maintaining the link between and political money and free speech. He added, “[t]he plaintiffs before us don’t complain that Colorado’s contribution limits violate their First Amendment rights because, say, the limits are too low for everyone.” This last quote is ambiguous. It is not clear whether there is an inadvertently missing word “they” before “say” which would mean he was attributing this statement to the plaintiffs in the case. But the way it is written it sounds like Gorsuch himself is saying the contributions are too low for everyone. The limits at issue were $400 for major party candidates and $200 for minor party and write in candidates. And if this is his true belief, it would demonstrate hostility to one of the basic pillars of campaign finance reform since Watergate: modest contribution limits.
The idea that we’re wrestling, again, and in 2017, with how to run elections in the fairest way possible, and with a minimum of legalized influence-peddling, still seems extraordinary to me. Luckily, though, the president* has handed part of the problem over to Kris Kobach, the worst thing that’s happened to the franchise since Jim Crow.
But, hey, one day of decent news isn’t bad.