Without disclosure, we don’t know what conflicts of interest our judges may have

A sitting West Virginia judge, Beth Walker, overturned an important ruling to the benefit of companies her husband owned stock in. Now, her conflict of interest is the center of a case that may be heard by the US Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court decides whether this should have been grounds for her recusal, West Virginians should reflect on another, larger and invisible web of potential conflicts of interest surrounding many West Virginia judges — millions of dollars in secret independent campaign expenditures.

These big-money groups have names like, “Moving West Virginia Forward” and “West Virginians for Fair Courts” that hide who the wealthy special interests that fund them are, and what they want from the judges they support or oppose. Recently, there has been an explosion of secret money in West Virginia and state judicial races across the country. A Brennan Center analysis found that 70% of the spending on TV ads in state judicial races ahead of the 2016 election was from dark money sources. Last year, wealthy special interests groups pulled off another victory in a West Virginia Supreme Court race. Largely anonymous groups spent more than $2 million supporting Beth Walker’s candidacy, duplicating the feat Don Blankenship pulled off 12 years ago.

In the past, West Virginia has been a leader in supporting a fair-minded judiciary. After a particularly egregious instance of secret money influencing the court, our state legislature enacted a landmark judicial public financing system to ensure our judges rule on the constitution and law, not based on special interest influence. They also passed a groundbreaking bill limiting contributions to independent groups and requiring the groups to disclose the identity of their controlling entities and donors. However, in recent years, new US Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United and the growth in new types of dark money spending mean that these disclosure laws are not keeping up with the times. Our campaign finance disclosure laws must be revised.

In Justice Walker’s case, whatever the outcome, all parties recognize that stock ownership is a legitimate conflict of interest concern for a judge to rule fairly on a case. With this in mind, West Virginia, every other state, and federal courts address this concern through common-sense financial disclosure forms. Judges have to be transparent about the companies they invest in so that everyone knows that all rulings are fair, impartial, and free from bias.

But why should this stop at investments? Millions of dollars are being spent to elect our judges in total secrecy from the people of West Virginia. West Virginian voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their votes and their judges. While some will claim these expenditures are independent and that there are laws against coordination, this barrier is not always effective or respected. In February, for example, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice uploaded b-roll footage of herself onto YouTube, which was then used in television ads by an outside group. Even if these groups are independent, as they claim, there is no compelling interest that these donations made in secret should not be exposed to the sunlight of transparency.

Without common-sense disclosure laws, anyone could end up across the courtroom from another other party who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to a dark money group supporting the judge ruling on their case. And they wouldn’t even have the information, to ask the judge to recuse himself or herself. The faith of West Virginians’ in their courts is rightfully tarnished by such secrecy, but the solution is simple. As dark money tries to find new and hidden ways into influencing our elections, it is critical that our state legislators protect the fairness, impartiality, and public trust in the judiciary through strong, up-to-date disclosure laws.

Julie Archer is Project Manger at WV Citizen Action Group and Co-Coordinator of WV Citizens for Clean Elections, a statewide coalition working to increase transparency and accountability in West Virginia elections.

Participate about participation with Vote-by-Mail!

On October 30, 2012, Morgantown City Council will hear the public’s opinion about whether or not they support the continuation of the Vote by Mail Pilot project at the Committee of the Whole meeting in City Council chambers.

Two citizens spoke October 16, 2012 at Morgantown City Council about this issue.  Don Spencer eloquently speaks about participation and the pilot project’s history in his statement to City Council.  He points out  that “It was Morgantown which requested that the program be adopted by the legislature in the first place”.  It seems bizarre that some City Council members are now mulling over a $4,000 price increase in the next municipal election when the most fundamental right guaranteed to Americans saw a two-fold increase at the last municipal election.  Lyndell Millecchia remarked about how much she liked the convenience and how much voting methods have changed over the years.

Just this Saturday, Phil Keisling’s - former Secretary of Oregon State - letter to the editor was published in the New York Times Sunday Review.  In Phil’s letter he points out that “In November 2010, just two states exceeded 70 percent turnout of their registered voters: Oregon and Washington.”  Both of these states have vote-by-mail elections, such stellar records do speak loudly.

What part of this equation do some Morgantown City Council members not understand?   Only by completing this project will the State of WV be able to determine whether or not it was a success.  And if it is a success, we, the citizen’s of WV will be the beneficiaries.  In this age of internet technology, you may be tempted to send an email expressing your opinion, and while it may enable a moral nudge,  there is no obligation by the City that your email will ever end up in the public domain unless you post it somewhere online.  This is why I am entreating that you and as many of your friends that can attend show up at the Morgantown Council Chambers on the 30th to express your support in the continuation of this Pilot Project.

Vote-by-Mail Remarks (Millecchia) – City Council Meeting October 16, 2012

By Lyndell Millecchia

I am speaking in support of the Vote-by-Mail Pilot Program. I really liked the convenience of the 2011 election, and felt it was very successful. Yes, the cost for the first election was unexpectedly high. However, the number of voters was significantly higher than the 2009 traditional election, and the cost per vote was less. In the report prepared by the City Clerk for tonight’s meeting, the estimated costs for the vote-by-mail election in 2013 would be only slightly more than with a traditional election: $17,894 vote-by-mail vs. $13,622 traditional.

Voting methods have changed greatly over the years*. At one time, people had to bring their own ballots to the polls, and if they misspelled a name, it wasn’t counted! Gear and Lever Voting machines – with curtains for privacy – were innovations in the 1900’s. Today we are in the middle of a “test drive” for the vote-by-mail process. I feel strongly that the pilot program should be completed. What is learned in the process will be invaluable.

I am glad the city council is very careful to be fiscally responsible. However, in this case, should the bottom line be total cost, or total voter turnout? I encourage you to continue the vote-by-mail pilot program in 2013.

*A history of voting methods can be found in an article by Jill Lepore “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, The New Yorker, October 13, 2008

Note from editor:  On October 30th citizens will have the opportunity to comment on Vote by Mail at the Committee of the Whole meeting at Morgantown City Council.  DO NOT miss this important opportunity to participate for the sake of increasing participation at elections!

 

Vote by Mail Statement (Spencer) – October 16, 2012 at Morgantown City Council

By Don Spencer

Sometimes institutional memory is important in helping to make decisions. Tonight I would like to share some memory and some of the rationale that led to the establishment of the State’s Vote by Mail Pilot Program of which we are a part by the action of a City Ordinance.

The percentage of voters who voted in the 2007 city elections was 1.6%., and the turn outs in the three elections prior to 2007 were not great either. The average for the first four city elections in this decade of this century was about 9%.

In 2007 City Council was very concerned about the lack of participation and set up a special ad hoc committee meeting to assess all the different options available for increasing voter participation. That committee included:

a State Senator, 2 Delegates, the Chair and a former member of the original City Charter Board, League of Women Votes Rep., the City Clerk, 3 City Council Members.

The preferred option which emerged from that meeting was a vote-by-mail option which had originated in Oregon. The reasons were threefold:

  1. Vote by mail increased voter participation in Oregon cities from approximately 10 to 20%. The reasons that vote-by-mail was found to be successful were…
  • It allows more time flexibility for people who have demanding jobs or job schedules – often caring for very young or very old or impaired family members in the process. Travel and/or having challenging commuting or unpredictable travel schedules also can discourage participation.
  • It reduce the difficulties of persons with infirmities and disabilities who had problems with steps at school building and other institutional based polling places as well as getting in and out of vehicles to travel to these places.
  • It sometimes reduces travel costs for persons no longer having vehicles or the fuel money to operate them. For some it even reduces having to make a choice of losing income or taking time to go to vote.
  • It makes it possible for people to vote at home, to cope with the wording of referendum/recall or initiative statements, and to even have newspaper articles in front of them on their tables as they filled out their ballots.

 

  1. Vote by mail is more manageable for cities.
  • It secures each vote by the validation of the voter signature just as it is now done for absentee ballots.
  • It assures confidentiality by the use of separate return envelopes in the mailing.
  • People can still vote traditionally by voting at the City Hall. They can also choose to drop off ballots mailed to them by dropping them off at City Hall or at other designated drop off centers.
  • The process can be improved in its efficiency year by year due to the updating of the voters address thanks to the “do not forward” and “address correction requested” directives on ballot exterior envelopes.
  • And vote-by-mail has eventually been shown to reduce costs by 30% over the costs of a polling place election. (This is not something that happened all of a sudden in one year, but was a substantial saving that has been realized as a result of experience with the vote-by-mail system.)

 

  1. There are numerous voter fraud protections created/built into the system.
  • The U.S. Postal Services returns undelivered ballots, corrects addresses and provides postal inspection. It is a full partner in vote-by-mail.
  • Envelopes can be bar coded to be able to prevent count of duplicate ballots and to help cross check signature identification.
  • The vote-by-mail systems have been studied and found not to benefit any particular party or interest.

It is vitally important that the City complete its commitment to this Vote by Mail Pilot program. The Pilot Program has built into it a provision for two successive city elections. The purpose of this was to allow for changes to take place between the first and second elections and to make comparisons that would prove not only beneficial to the Morgantown voters, but to the citizens of the state and the evaluation/decision–making of the State legislature. The Pilot Program is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2013.

It was Morgantown which requested that the program be adopted by the legislature in the first place. Charlie Byrer, Jenny Selin and I went to Republican Secretary of State Betty Ireland’s office in the spring of 2008 and found that she was very supportive of the concept. After Democrat Natalie Tennant was elected Secretary of State in the fall of 2008, we went again to the Secretary of State’s office and received Natalie Tennant’s enthusiastic endorsement for it as well.

The City representatives then went to our legislators and received their support. Barbara Fleischauer at our request had H.B. 3134 drafted. It was co-signed by 10 other legislators and made its way with lots of help through 39 recorded steps to become part of State law. Ron Bane also went with the City Council delegation to visit Senator Oliverio to ask for his support for this initiative.

We must finish the job and finish strong. We need to continue to work for cost savings and efficiencies in vote-by-mail utilizing the leadership of our excellent City Clerk Linda Little and her deputy Bethany Sypolt. We also continue to need the support and cooperation of the Secretary of State. In the last election the Secretary of State’s office funded the preparation an orientation video for our City web site and prepared orientation brochures for our citizens.

We need to use this initiative to make our city just as inclusive as possible for all of our citizens. The City demonstrated its ability to improve inclusivity when Morgantown’s vote-by mail program – like those in Oregon and Washington cities – moved the total 2011 Morgantown City election votes from 9-11% to over 22% in just the first election!

The Vote-by-Mail Pilot Program is something worth working on for the continued benefits of our citizens and people in other communities throughout West Virginia. It a trial program for our State which helps to better fulfill the Constitutional rights of citizens being able to participate in their government regardless of diverse daily demands on their lives. To enable this is a matter of public leadership. It is also something on which this Council can take pride and build for a more responsive and progressive future!

Don Spencer

Note from editor:  On October 30th citizens will have the opportunity to comment on Vote by Mail at the Committee of the Whole meeting at Morgantown City Council.  DO NOT miss this important opportunity to participate for the sake of increasing participation at elections!