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     By Kate Queram


Ideally, the power of democracy lies in the people, who have ultimate say via their votes. But democracy has never really lived up to its own hype. In the early days of American democracy, that power of voting was restricted to white male landowners, who have since employed a number of creative strategies to claw back that power after extending it to women and people of color. And for the most part, it worked. Decades of voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering have steadily diminished the voice, and power, of the general public. We know the problem, but we still can’t seem to fix it. 

Which is by design, of course. It’s pretty hard to win a game when your opponent gets to write the rules.

 The Big Takeaway

In addition to setting the rules for their own elections (a flawed process otherwise known as redistricting), lawmakers also have jurisdiction over the procedures and policies that structure the daily practice of governing. Most of those are dull. (Try to get through a single section of the Wisconsin State Assembly rules, I dare you.) Or at least they seem dull, right up until the politicians start futzing with them.

We saw a bit of this in yesterday’s newsletter, which discussed a Republican-led rule change in Idaho that prohibits public testimony from anyone under the age of 18. The policy, adopted so far by two House committees, aims to tamp down civic engagement among left-leaning kids, who don’t even pay taxes but still had the gall to attend hearings last year to oppose anti-trans legislation. (Kids these days!)

Kids belong on legislative TOURS, not SPEAKING LISTS. (Photo by Lost_in_the_Midwest/Adobe Stock)

Kids belong on legislative TOURS, not SPEAKING LISTS.
(Photo by Lost_in_the_Midwest/Adobe Stock)

Public engagement suffered a similar death in Missouri, where a judge upheld a 2019 rule allowing lawmakers to shield certain information from public records, saying the policy did not violate the state constitution. That rule, which exempts constituent case files and caucus records from public record requests, was adopted in direct response to a voter-approved constitutional amendment that required the legislature to abide by the state’s Sunshine Law, per the Missouri Independent.

Under the amendment, “legislative records shall be public records and subject to generally applicable state laws governing public access to public records, including the Sunshine Law.” The provision hinges on a purposefully broad definition of “records,” including “but not limited to” documentation (electronic or physical) of “an official act” by the general assembly, its members and staffers; as well as any records “created, stored or distributed through legislative branch facilities, equipment or mechanisms.” 

The message is pretty clear: Members of the public should have broad access to legislative records, period. This leads me to believe that chipping away at that access is kind of … unconstitutional, but I’m not a judge, so who cares what I think? Certainly not Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem, who ruled last week that the wording of the amendment leaves just enough wiggle room for lawmakers to legally wiggle right out of obeying it.

Sure, Beetem said, the amendment says lawmakers can’t exclude their records from the definition of a public record. But it doesn’t prevent them from closing the records, which is a totally and entirely different thing, which (coincidentally) then shields them from public view. (Weird!)

“The Sunshine Law requires access to those public records which are not closed, i.e., open records,” he wrote. “The Sunshine Law clearly acknowledges the ability to protect records from disclosure by law.”

If Beetem’s decision were a road. (Photo by Marcel Poncu/Adobe Stock)

If Beetem’s decision were a road.
(Photo by Marcel Poncu/Adobe Stock)

It’s a twisty legal argument that invokes an attempt to evade a constitutional mandate to justify evading a constitutional mandate, thus negating the purpose of a constitutional mandate. And that’s a slap in the face for voters, who approved the measure specifically to keep the legislature from trying to “exempt itself from public records requirements simply by adopting a rule,” said David Roland, director of litigation for the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri.

“What Judge Beetem’s ruling says is that this amendment in 2018 didn’t change anything at all,” he said. It “should certainly be overturned.”

A different sort of legislative drama was on display in Ohio on Wednesday as Republican infighting spiced up a normally dry vote on House rules and leadership. It was only the latest battle between warring factions of the GOP supermajority, which fractured three weeks ago amid a contentious election where moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to reject a far-right candidate for House speaker, per the Ohio Capital Journal.

The reddest Republicans responded on Tuesday by electing their failed candidate, state Rep. Derek Merrin, as the official leader of the House Republican Caucus. (That position would normally go to the speaker, which was clearly a nonstarter for this group.) The vote was conducted in private and without the 22 Republicans who voted for House Speaker Jason Stephens, which members of the caucus said was only their first move in a campaign to diminish the power of the chamber’s leadership role.

With great power comes great responsibility, provided you can stave off the far-right caucus. (Photo by heliopix/Adobe Stock)

With great power comes great responsibility, provided you can stave off the far-right caucus.
(Photo by heliopix/Adobe Stock)

“We’re going to decentralize power — the speaker can’t have all the power anymore,” state Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) said. “We want input on chairs, committee assignments … we can’t have a dictator anymore.”

That’s a bold statement for a group that just held a closed-door vote that excluded a third of its members, but Merrin’s supporters were too busy concocting a package of proposed rules to grapple with nuance. Among their proposals: A measure to specify when a quorum is required, a request to lower the number of members needed to force a vote on a bill, and a policy designed to hamstring Stephens’ ability to remove committee leadership. Other changes included an amendment to allow legislators to carry firearms on the floor, and a requirement that each session begin with a “Christian prayer.”

Alas, their hard work was for naught. Not a single one of the group’s amendments had been proposed officially before Stephens called for a vote on his own package of rule changes. Predictably, this did not go over well with Merrin and his merry band of followers.

“It’s completely uncalled for, inappropriate and a violation of these rules,” Merrin said.

But Stephens was unapologetic, mostly because there was no reason to apologize. The rules, he noted, give the speaker the power “to determine when the House is ready to vote.”

“We incorporated input from all members,” Stephens said in a statement after the session. “I believe that we have a solid rules package that will ensure efficiencies and improve transparency in the Ohio House. Now, let’s get to work for the people.”

The devil’s in the details: Kansas House tangles on procedural rules before preserving late-night debates, bill bundlingFour bills making initiative petition process harder passed by Missouri House committee(Tennessee) Juvenile justice recommendations from legislature lean heavily on institutionsVirginia House votes to repeal Clean Cars law

  State of Our Democracy

Undaunted by reality, legislative responsibility or the sanctity of democracy, Republicans in Arizona on Wednesday advanced a package of election bills based entirely on conspiracy theories and their own wounded egos.

First up: House Bill 2308, which would prevent Arizona’s secretary of state — the chief election official — from handling any part of an election in which they’re also a candidate, a blatant rebuke of now-Gov. Katie Hobbs’ refusal to recuse herself during the November midterms. Then secretary of state, Hobbs’ duties included oversight and general guidance, not on-the-ground election administration or ballot tabulation.

Obviously, the timing is not coincidental. Republicans had no such concerns about elections in 2014 or 2018, both overseen by GOP secretaries of state who were simultaneously on the ballot. But times have changed, Republicans said Wednesday, and people just don’t trust elections anymore, which is entirely unrelated to the existence of bills like this one, stop looking at me. 

Pressed for a single shred of evidence that Hobbs had done anything improper during the election, state Rep. Jacqueline Parker mustered an attempt: She’d pressured local officials to certify election results. They did so “under duress,” she added.

Yeah, so here’s the thing — that’s their job. Under state law, county boards of supervisors are required to certify election results; those who don’t are subject to felony charges. A handful dragged their feet on doing so in November, based on (hello again!) those same baseless conspiracy theories that have stoked distrust in elections. And that put Hobbs in legal jeopardy, essentially forcing her to seek legal support in forcing officials to do the thing they get paid for and are also required by law to do.

But whatever, you know? Hobbs won and Republicans lost and there could be no possible explanation for that other than fraud, so the committee approved the bill 7-3. It’ll now head back to the House, along with a proposal to bar election officials from joining political action committees and another that would empower partisan observers to meddle in the ballot signature verification process. All three are likely to be vetoed by Hobbs, provided the legislature hasn’t yet stripped her of that power.

I’m joking, but I’m not joking: (Arizona) Cochise County’s elections director resigns after protecting midterm ballots from Republican officials(Colorado) Polis administration opposes new climate targets in Democratic-backed bill(Florida) Governor’s office makes it clear: No reinstatement for suspended prosecutorIndiana lawmakers roll back school choice bill, advance student literacy initiatives‘Holy tax scams’: Kansas lawmakers fight over plan to fund private schools with tax write-offs(Michigan) ‘Bigotry is bad for business,’ Whitmer declares in her State of the State speech(Tennessee) GOP senators sent message to interim correction commissioner on Community Corrections

   From The Newsrooms

One Last Thing

In 2018, six pediatricians swallowed Lego heads to determine definitively how long it would take to, uh, recover them. Five showed up in a few days, but the sixth was never seen again, according to an oral history of the project.

Here they come! (via Giphy)

Here they come!
(via Giphy)


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