All posts by Tabatha Abu El-Haj

“‘We’ll See You at Your House:’ How Fear and Menace Are Transforming Politics”

NY Times. From Jamie Raskin to Chief Justice Roberts to a variety of election officials you have never heard of, these few quotes say it all.

“Public officials from Congress to City Hall are now regularly subjected to threats of violence. It’s changing how they do their jobs.”

“By almost all measures, the evidence of the trend is striking. Last year, more than 450 federal judges were targeted with threats, a roughly 150 percent increase from 2019, according to the United States Marshals Service. The U.S. Capitol Police investigated more than 8,000 threats to members of Congress last year, up more than 50 percent from 2018. The agency recently added three full-time prosecutors to handle the volume.”

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“Arizona Republicans Set Up a Ballot Measure to Squash Future Ballot Measures”

Bolts Magazine: One more Republican legislative attack on ballot measures. The Arizona legislature seeks to make the process more difficult through a constitutional amendment imposing strict geographic requirements. These measures are highly problematic because ballot initiatives are one of the few options that voters have to circumvent gridlock, polarization, and political entrenchment.

What triggered this one? An initiative to protect abortion access in Arizona that has gathered more signatures than it needs to make the November ballot.

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“Historians and the Strange, Fluid World of Nineteenth-Century Politics”

ERIK B. ALEXANDER AND RACHEL A. SHELDEN have published a blog post reflecting on the significance of their recent article, which I mentioned a few weeks back in a post on the history of third parties in the United States.

For more than half a century, historians have relied (often implicitly) on a model of organizing U.S. political history around distinct and separate “party systems,” pitting two competitive, stable, national parties against one another for long stretches of time between short bursts of realignment. In the context of the shifting political landscape of 1868, however, explaining the partisan politics of the Johnson impeachment through the party system model is the equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole.

They then apply this to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment vote.

How, then, are we to understand the partisan breakdown of the 1868 vote to impeach? If we conflate the Union Party with the Republican Party, was Johnson a Republican? He may have flirted with the Democrats in pursuing a revived Union Party, but he was not a Democrat. And while Democrats certainly supported Johnson’s vision for Reconstruction over that of the Republicans, they did not view him as a member of their party either. In other words, including Johnson in any kind of accounting of the partisan politics of impeachments is confusing at best.

. . . .

We argue that it is high time to shed the confines of that model. Nineteenth-century politics are better described as fluid, unstable, and federal, operating through a series of mechanisms—networks, newspapers, customs, and laws—unique to that era. Political actors used these mechanisms to address the most pressing ideological and constitutional conflicts of their era, often in concert with broader political activism. They could quickly organize new parties to address problems as they arose, and just as quickly discard parties when the issues were resolved (or when absorbed by another party). In this way, parties were deeply integrated into the broader fabric of American political life, rather than serving as its organizing structures.

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“RFK Jr. uses major cash infusion from his running mate to fund ballot access efforts”

Politico. RFK, Jr.’s campaign currently depends on money from his VP, Nicole Shanahan. In April, she contributed $ 8 million. Independent presidential candidate + wealthy donor as VP is a well-established pattern to avoid campaign contribution limits. In 1980, David Koch ran as the VP for the Libertarian Party for the same purpose. More interestingly, the article notes:

“Kennedy’s campaign received $843,000 from unitemized donors — those giving less than $200 — in April, down from $1.3 million from such donors in March. It was the lowest unitemized donor total for him for any month this calendar year.

Small donor money may not be necessary to fund Kennedy’s campaign if Shanahan keeps cutting big checks. But funds from donors giving only a little are also one gauge of grassroots support.”

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Democracy Fund Investing Early to Support Grassroots Mobilization

Not all money in politics is bad. This was my conclusion after writing Beyond Campaign Finance Reform. A singular focus on the ways money “amplifies the voices of the super-wealthy few” ignores that it takes money to support the political organizing and mobilizing of working and middle-class voters, and it takes money to counteract the outsized power of economic elites. “Money invested in building sustainable political consciousness and voter engagement is money well spent from a democratic standpoint,” I wrote.

“Money invested in building sustainable political consciousness and voter engagement is money well spent from a democratic standpoint.”

Philanthropists are coming around to the same view. Increasingly aware of the centrality of political engagement and organization to reinforcing democratic norms and practices, the Democracy Fund is spurring democracy grantmakers to fund nonpartisan democracy work early in the 2024 election cycle, arguing in a series of announcements, op-eds, and blog posts that donors should not wait until this coming fall to pick their priorities and should instead move monies out the door now. Grants will fund efforts to “recruit and train community canvassers, organize voter registration drives, and combat disinformation and misinformation, among other election-related efforts.” As Joe Goldman, the Fund’s president, recently wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, along with Laleh Ispihani, the executive director of Open Society-US, and Deepak Bhargava, the president of the JPB Foundation, “Nonprofit organizations perform essential election work in our democracy. In communities around the country, organizations help recruit poll workers, organize nonpartisan voter registration drives, combat misinformation, support local election officials, and work to ensure that the diversity of our electorate is represented in our election process.” This money is important to democracy but needs to be available early to be effective.

This All by April initiative follows the Democracy Fund’s January report, “Field in Focus: The State of Pro-Democracy Institutional Philanthropy.” The full Field in Focus report is rich in detail but also a rare and important window into the contemporary priorities of institutional grant-makers. It makes clear that institutional grant-makers, led by the Democracy Fund, have their eye on the right questions:

  • How can philanthropy better support the movement for a more inclusive, multiracial democracy?
  • And how should democracy work be defined?

The report makes clear that grantmakers also increasingly understand that democratic work goes beyond voter registration and election administration. Several areas of new and increased focus include ensuring an effective census and a fair redistricting process, promoting racial and social justice, preventing political violence and anti-hate efforts, and tracking and combating misinformation and disinformation.

While there is much to be commended about this turn in philanthropy, it is also worth observing the limitations that remain in their vision. Returning to where we started. Early funding is critical, especially for organizations working for and with historically marginalized voters. Nevertheless, the “boom-and-bust cycle” that grassroots organizations decry as destabilizing, the one driven by presidential election cycles, is a bug associated with the singular focus in the democracy reform community on nonpartisan actors as the solution to America’s democratic failures.

Early funding is critical, especially for organizations working for and with historically marginalized voters. Nevertheless, the “boom-and-bust cycle” that grassroots organizations decry as destabilizing, the one driven by presidential election cycles, is a bug associated with the singular focus in the democracy reform community on nonpartisan actors as the solution to America’s democratic failures.

In a functioning party system, the boom-and-bust cycle would not be an issue. Political parties would maintain a year-round presence at the state and local level, engaging and organizing the electorate, responding to their needs, and channeling the priorities of their civic allies. Community groups, unions, churches, and other peer-to-peer civic groups would be folded into the party and assured of financial support.

The democracy reform field’s focus on non-partisanship is a requirement of the Internal Revenue Code. But it is also an ideology, with deep roots back to the Progressive Era. It is a worldview that romanticizes individual voters (their interest in political knowledge and capacity for rational action) while eschewing party-centric paths to good governance and a healthy democracy. It is a worldview that romanticizes individual voters (their interest in political knowledge and capacity for rational action) while eschewing party-centric paths to good governance and a healthy democracy.

I am not suggesting that institutional philanthropy invest in political parties. That is far outside of what tax-exempt funds can or should be used for. But democracy-minded philanthropists can and should explore systemic reforms that can change the incentives shaping party behavior, with an eye toward creating a healthier party system. (In this regard, though perhaps the focus of a future post, they should be wary of systemic reforms that are candidate-centric.) They should leverage their money to create political institutions that make philanthropic investment in democracy significantly less necessary.

Democracy-minded philanthropists can and should explore systemic reforms that can change the incentives shaping party behavior, with an eye toward creating a healthier party system.

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SCOTUS Recognizes Congress’ Powers to Govern

The Supreme Court has decided Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Assn. of America, Ltd., recognizing Congress has constitutional prerogatives to govern and structure the federal government as it sees fit. The case will no doubt mostly be discussed as an obscure case that put an end to the long conservative attack on the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Board. But it should also be acknowledged as a pro-democracy case–and those are few and far between these days. This Court is arrogant in its assertion of judicial supremacy, and when it comes to Congress, it routinely minimizes that branch’s constitutional powers. This impacts democracy because as Congress lays mired in gridlock, the administrative state is the main place governance is occurring. This decision upholds Congress’s power to financially insulate administrative agencies from Congress’s dysfunction. To be sure, it is doctrinally limited and will not put a stop to other developments likely to undercut congressional flexibility to structure agencies. Nevertheless, it should be recognized as an important separation of powers decision that appears to acknowledge Congress as a co-equal branch of government.

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A Justice’s Perspective on Moore v. Harper

Justice Scott Kafker of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and his co-author Simon Jacobs have published a new article, The Supreme Court Summons the Ghosts of Bush v. Gore: How Moore v. Harper Haunts State and Federal Constitutional Interpretation of Election Laws, 59 Wake Forest L. Rev. 61 (2024).

There is a dangerous lack of clarity in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Moore v. Harper, which held that state supreme courts’ interpretations of their state election laws are subject to review and reversal in federal court when “they transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review such that they arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislature to regulate federal elections.” By resurrecting the reasoning of Bush v. Gore, with particular emphasis on the concurrence by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Supreme Court risks unleashing the same chaotic reaction to the judiciary caused by the original decision.

But this is not necessary. In our view, the original understanding of the Elections Clause provides for a very limited form of additional federal oversight. The provision does not authorize the Supreme Court to substitute its judgment for state courts on the meaning of state election statutes or state constitutions, as Chief Justice Rehnquist did in Bush v. Gore. Nor does it authorize an open-ended inquiry into what it means to transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review, as there is no consensus on the Supreme Court or other courts on what that means. It also does not prevent state courts from providing greater protection of voting rights than that provided by state legislatures or the federal Constitution when such rights are granted by the state constitution. Nor does it impose a particular interpretive methodology on state courts in interpreting their constitutions or the federal constitutional conception of separation of powers or stare decisis. It only prevents state courts from performing the function of state legislatures, as the state legislatures are expressly responsible under the federal Constitution for prescribing the time, place, and manner of elections, subject to state constitutional review. Justice Souter’s dissent in Bush v. Gore encapsulates the overreach at issue. State courts may not create new election laws untethered to the legislative act or state constitutional provision in question. Such fundamental rewriting of the election laws, and usurpation of the legislative function is forbidden.

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“Secret Service appears unlikely to move RNC protest zone despite pressure from Republicans”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Once again, the emphasis is entirely on risks of disruption with absolutely no consideration of the contribution of assembly and protest to democracy. Everyone should read Tim Zick’s wonderful forthcoming. chapter, Assembly Within ‘Sight and Sound’ of the Audience (Oxford Handbook on Peaceful Assembly 2024).

“Republicans put pressure on the U.S. Secret Service to move an expected protest area farther from the Republican National Convention in downtown Milwaukee[.]”

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New Index for California Campaign Finance Reformers

California Common Cause has released a first-of-its-kind index and report on campaign finance laws in all California cities. The report, Local Dollars and Local Democracy, is an analysis of all campaign finance reforms in California cities, as of December 2022.

Key statewide findings include:

  • 97% of all California cities now have contribution limits, thanks to AB 571 (Mullin – 2019), compared to just 22% of California cities in 2016.
  • 482 California cities (and other local jurisdictions) now have pay-to-play prohibitions that require governing-body members who accept large campaign contributions from interested parties to recuse themselves, compared to just 35 cities before the passage of SB 1439 (Glazer – 2022).

But the report’s main emphasis is on identifying those cities that go beyond these state-wide norms, and it is set up so that local jurisdictions can the Municipal Campaign Finance Index (MCFI) to see what types of reforms other cities have implemented and determine which are desirable for their jurisdictions.

The report and interactive spreadsheets of the index can be downloaded HERE. The findings in the report are a product of the data collected in the California Municipal Campaign Finance Index (MCFI), which is an organized accounting of campaign finance laws codified in the charters and/or municipal codes of all California cities.

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Travis Crum Reviews “The Court v. The Voters”

Travis Crum (Wash U) reviews Joshua Douglas’ new book in the Washington Monthly.

The Court v. The Voters: The Troubling Story of How the Supreme Court Has Undermined Voting Rights is essential for anyone who wants to understand the Supreme Court’s role in setting the rules of our democracy and what threats loom this year’s elections. As a professor of constitutional law and voting rights, I will recommend Douglas’s book to my students who are looking for a primer on election law. Here are five key takeaways from Douglas’s book.”

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Fusion as a Party-Centric Reform to Empower the Center-Right

What does it take to get a lefty union organizer and former director of the Working Families Party on stage with neo-liberals? Donald Trump. In “The Power of Fusion,” Dan Cantor provides a great overview of how fusion works and how it could empower the center-right. If we care about the future of democracy, he argues, our key goal should be to find a party home for the “politically homeless anti-Trump, pro-Constitution Republicans who continue to stand for democracy and freedom.” They still make up one-fifth of the Republican Party. What they need is a mechanism for leveraging those numbers. Fusion voting is that mechanism. The article is also just a great read.

“But here I was on a panel with a former Joe Manchin staffer and a former executive director of the Michigan GOP. I wasn’t sharing the stage with them because I had altered my views on the policies I’d like to see our government enact. But I’m traveling in more mixed company these days because I’m convinced that the threat of ethnonationalist authoritarianism must take precedence over everything else. My views on Reaganism, Bushism, and neoliberal corporatism haven’t changed, . . . But for the moment, I’m more interested in building bridges than barricades. The only way to defeat authoritarianism is with an electoral coalition that includes the center-right.”

. . . .

“If fusion voting were the norm today, it would provide a way for Republican and unaffiliated moderates and centrists to cast a vote for Biden without endorsing a Democratic party they mostly disagree with. . . . In the current moment, it will force GOP leaders to make a choice: risk more and more defections to a center party currently favoring Democrats, or change your behavior enough to warrant your share of a center party’s nominations. Either outcome should be welcomed by all supporters of pluralism and liberal democracy.”

Disclosure: I serve on the Center for Ballot Freedom’s voluntary Advisory Board and view fusion as a meaningful and achievable party-centric reform worthy of serious consideration for a variety of reasons.

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Trump’s Attacks on Judges Fan the Flames

A Reuters Special Report analyzes posts on Truth Social since March 1, 2024, showing that Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the judges presiding over his cases are fanning the flames. Presumably, the tweets of his Republican colleagues who have been joining him in court this week will do the same. The images of the posts are worth a look.

“The rhetoric is inspiring widespread calls for violence. In a review of commenters’ posts on three pro-Trump websites, including the former president’s own Truth Social platform, Reuters documented more than 150 posts since March 1 that called for physical violence against the judges handling three of his highest-profile cases – two state judges in Manhattan and one in Georgia overseeing a criminal case in which Trump is accused of illegally seeking to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.

Those posts were part of a larger pool of hundreds identified by Reuters that used hostile, menacing and, in some cases, racist or sexualized language to attack the judges, but stopped short of explicitly calling for violence against them.”

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Republican Party of Nebraska Fails to Oust Incumbents

AP News reported recently that after being taken over by loyalists to Trump, “[t]he Nebraska GOP . . . refused to endorse any of the Republican incumbents who hold all five of the state’s congressional seats.” In three instances, it endorsed challengers. In two, it simply declared it would not be endorsing the incumbents. Its efforts, however, have failed: All the incumbents won their seats, including Don Bacon, whose congressional district is “purple-ish” having gone for Obama in 2008 and Biden in 2020.

“It’s not a good look,” [Political Science Professor] Hibbing said. “You’d like the faces of your party, who would be your elected representatives, and the state party leaders to be on the same page.”

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