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The Obscure Jim Crow Tactic Keeping Latinos Out Of Politics

Voting rights advocates are celebrating after a series of court rulings struck down discriminatory voter ID laws that make it harder for minorities to cast a ballot. But they’re not declaring victory just yet. Now, civil rights groups are turning their attention to districts where majority white legislatures are using an even more insidious way to dilute the influence of voters of color.

Latino voters, now one-third of the national electorate, will play a key part in choosing the next president. But just how much of a role they will be allowed to play in local elections is still uncertain.

Two new lawsuits are highlighting the battle over this role. On Monday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a suit against Gwinnett County, Georgia — the most racially diverse county in the southeastern United States — claiming the district’s combined 53.5 percent Latino, black, and Asian population is underrepresented on the board of commissioners. And last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Pasco, Washington, alleging the dearth of Latinos on the city council violates the Voting Rights Act.

As the Latino share of the population expands in many districts, their presence on city councils, county commissions, and other local bodies should grow as well. But that representation is lagging in many places where Latinos make up pluralities or even majorities. In order to maintain white control of local governing bodies, cities and counties have deployed an old Jim Crow-era tactic: at-large voting districts.

In an at-large system, every city resident votes for each member of the governing body and the city does not divide voters into districts. Instead of allowing each district to elect its own representative, an at-large system means that unless Latino populations reach a majority in the entire city or county, they will have no influence in electing their local members of government.

“Right now we’re at a moment where there’s great focus on the presidency and who will occupy the White House come January, but the reality is that these electoral positions have tremendous impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, told ThinkProgress.

No Latino, black, or Asian-American candidate has ever been elected to Gwinnett County’s board of commissioners, board of election, or any other county office, according to the Lawyers’ Committee’s lawsuit. The chair of the board of commissioners is elected at-large, and because of racially-polarized voting, white voters form a bloc to vote against minority candidates.

According to the lawsuit, white voters only make up 55.7 percent of the electorate in against Gwinnett County, so their candidates of choice should not make up 100 percent of local bodies.

“Right now we’re at a moment where there’s great focus on the presidency, but the reality is that these electoral positions have tremendous impact on people’s day-to-day lives.”

“You have a situation in which minority voters, their candidates of choice never prevail,” Clarke said. “We’ve made it a priority to mount challenges to electoral systems that unfairly deny minority voters equal access to the political process.”

The disparity is on full display in Pasco, where a Latino candidate has never won a contested seat, even though a Latino has run for city council in nearly every election since 1990, according to the ACLU. That suit also asks the city to employ a different type of election system that doesn’t discriminate against Latinos.

At-large voting systems have been around since the Jim Crow era, when Southern towns invented ways to disenfranchise their sizable African American populations. But recent challenges have successfully undercut these tactics.

In August 2014, a court in Washington struck down the city of Yakima, Washington’s at-large voting system, ruling that it was discriminatory and violated Section 2 of the VRA. Last year, Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told ThinkProgress the decision in Yakima would have a “very important impact” on future litigation against at-large districts.

Lawsuits have sprung up more frequently in areas with rapidly growing Latino populations, like Santa Barbara, California and Pasadena, Texas.

Though the lawsuits in Gwinnett County and Pasco are seeking immediate relief — potentially before November — Clarke says she expects to see more of these challenges to voting systems in the coming years after the upcoming general election, especially in 2020 when lawmakers will redrawcongressional and state legislative districts all over the country based on the new census.

“There will be more focus on some of these problematic redistricting plans and electoral systems that unfairly deny minority voters access to the political process,” she said.

Clarke noted that as the minority population grows in Gwinnett County, the stakes get higher and higher.

“With the demographic shifts we’ve seen in the last several years… it’s imperative that we bring this case now.”


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Politics Still Prevalent In The Pulpit, Survey Shows

Churchgoing Americans say their preachers often speak out on hot social and political issues and occasionally back or oppose particular candidates in defiance of U.S. law prohibiting such endorsements.

The findings from a new survey by the Pew Research Center suggest that the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” regulating political activity by churches and other charitable organizations has had limited impact in restricting such speech.

The 2016 Republican platform calls for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has promised that if elected he would work to have the law overturned.

The law, which applies to any tax-exempt charitable organization, bars such groups “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Organizations that violate the ban could lose their tax-exempt status.

Some church groups have vigorously opposed the restriction as an infringement on freedom of speech. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian advocacy group, has encouraged pastors to deliberately preach politically oriented sermons on specified “Pulpit Freedom Sundays” in an effort to protest the law and provoke a court challenge.

In practice, the IRS has made minimal efforts to endorse the statute, in part because the wording of the law is somewhat vague. According to the ADF, no church has yet been punished under the terms of the law.

The new Pew survey reports that nearly two out of three churchgoing Americans have heard their clergy speak out on at least one social or political issue, from same sex marriage to economic inequality and immigration. That type of advocacy is generally not restricted by the Johnson Amendment.

A much smaller share of churchgoers, 14 percent, say they have heard their pastors endorse or oppose a presidential candidate in the months leading up to the survey.

Black Protestants were most likely to report such statements, with 29 percent saying they heard pulpit endorsements, mostly of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, or specific denunciations, mostly of Trump. Only about one in 10 Catholics, white evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants say their clergy have opposed or supported particular candidates.


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George Soros returns to politics with $25 million splash

Billionaire investor George Soros has re-emerged this election cycle as a major Democratic donor, committing more than $25 million to Hillary Clinton and other party candidates and causes, according to Politico.

Soros spent roughly $27 million in a bid to unseat then-President George W. Bush in 2004 but later scaled back his giving, the website reported. Some associates of the Soros Fund Management chairman told Politico they expect him to give even more as Election Day approaches.

The Hungarian-born financier is worth $24.9 billion, according toForbes‘ most recent estimate, and his return as a big-time contributor will be a boon to the party as it seeks to retain control of the White House and regain a majority in the Senate.

Soros advisor Michael Vachon told Politico that Soros “has been a consistent donor to Democratic causes, but this year the political stakes are exceptionally high.”

Vachon confirmed to CNBC Politico’s report of the roughly $25 million in donations so far this cycle.

Soros’ charity, Open Society Foundations, did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.