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“A Law Embedded Then Civil War-Era”: Restoring Voting Rights To Felons Is The Right Thing To Do

Of all the consequences of the nation’s decades-long infatuation with building more and more prisons and locking up more and more citizens, perhaps the most curious is this: More than 4 million Americans who have been released from prison have lost their right to vote, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project.

Even after men and women have served their time — after they have paid their debt to society, as the cliche goes — most states restrict their franchise. It’s an odd idea: Those men and women are harmless enough to release onto the streets, but they can’t be trusted to vote. They have finished serving their sentences, but they are barred from full citizenship.

A disproportionate number of those second-class citizens are black. Because black Americans, particularly men, are locked up at a higher rate than their white peers, this peculiar practice falls heavily on them. Nationwide, one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction, as opposed to one in 56 non-black voters, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for alternatives to mass incarceration.

It’s undemocratic, it’s unfair and it’s un-American. While ancient Greek and Roman codes withdrew the franchise from those who had committed serious crimes, most Western countries now see those codes as outdated.

Recognizing that, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, used his executive power earlier this month to sweep away his state’s laws limiting the franchise for felons. With that action, about 200,000 convicted felons who have completed their prison time and finished parole or probation are now eligible to vote.

McAuliffe noted that Virginia’s law — one of the nation’s harshest and embedded in a Civil War-era state constitution — didn’t hobble the voting rights of black citizens through mere coincidence. That was its purpose. McAuliffe’s staff came across a 1906 report in which a then-state senator gloated about several voting restrictions, including a poll tax and literacy tests, that, he said, would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years,” according to The New York Times.

You’d think that McAuliffe’s fellow Virginia politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, would celebrate his decision. Eliminating barriers to the franchise — especially those with obviously racist roots — can only polish the state’s image and strengthen the civic fabric.

But GOP leaders have objected, accusing McAuliffe of “political opportunism” and a “transparent effort to win votes.” Well, OK. Let’s stipulate that politicians are usually in the business of trying to win votes.

Having conceded that, though, isn’t restoring the voting rights of men and women who have served their time a good idea? If a crime renders a man beyond the boundaries of civilized society, he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Otherwise, his crime shouldn’t place him in an inferior caste, without the privileges of full citizenship.

Curiously, though, many conservatives seem to disagree. After Democrat Steve Beshear, then Kentucky’s governor, issued an executive order last year similar to McAuliffe’s, his Republican successor, Matt Bevin, overturned it. Bevin signed a law allowing felons to petition judges to vacate their convictions — a bureaucratic hurdle not easily overcome. Maryland’s GOP governor, Larry Hogan, vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to felons, but the Democratically controlled legislature overrode him.

Those Republican governors are simply following the party’s script, which has focused for the last several years on ways to block the ballot, starting with harsh voter ID laws. While advocates of such laws claim they are meant to protect against voting fraud, the sort of in-person fraud they would prevent hardly exists.

The real motivation for GOP lawmakers is to restrict the franchise from people unlikely to vote for them — especially people of color and millennials. Rather than campaign on a platform that attracts support, they rely on barriers to voting.

That’s wrong. The strength of American democracy depends on persuading more citizens that their votes count; carelessly — or intentionally — disenfranchising those with whom you disagree rends the civic fabric, distorts the political process and stokes the flames of discontent.

We surely don’t need more of that in this political season.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, April 29, 2016

April 30, 2016 Posted by | Citizenship, Criminal Justice System, Terry McAuliffe, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Week Of GOP Cowardice And Bigotry”: In Time Of Crisis, Too Many Politicians Feed Fear And Scapegoating”:

In the somber days since ISIS terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on Paris, elected leaders from around the world have been searching for solutions. But far too many American politicians have fallen back, instead, on that old standby in times of crisis: Stirring up fear and finding someone, anyone, to scapegoat, no matter how unconnected the scapegoated person is with the problem at hand.

Sadly, in Congress that took the form of a House vote to in essence stop the U.S. resettlement of refugees from Iraq and Syria by imposing nearly impossible bureaucratic requirements on what is already the toughest vetting system for anyone seeking entry into the U.S. This bill was scapegoating in its purest form, framing as terrorists people who are fleeing the very violence that this bill was supposedly trying to prevent.

The House vote — in which 47 Democrats joined nearly every Republican — was the culmination of a week of cowardice and bigotry sweeping the political landscape.

There was the Missouri state legislator who urged his governor to watch out for “all flavors” of Muslims and the mayor of Roanoke who invoked the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a positive model for how to treat American Muslims.

And there were the 31 governors who declared that their states would turn away Syrian refugees who go through the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Not wanting to miss out on the action, of course, Republican presidential candidates have been tripping over themselves to outdo one another. Donald Trump has speculated that refugees from Syria “could be one of the great Trojan horses.” Mike Huckabee, in what can’t even be described as a dog-whistle, has told Americans to “wake up and smell the falafel” when it comes to Syrian refugees. Chris Christie said he’d get tough on Syrian orphans. Ted Cruz has suggested that the U.S. only admit Christian refugees from Syria, although how he plans on testing people’s religious faith is unclear. Jeb Bush has hinted at the same thing, saying he would back refugees who can “prove” that they’re Christian, which shows what this is all about. If you have a system that’s strong enough to “prove” someone’s true religion, don’t you think it could also properly vet people for national security purposes? Jeb Bush was supposed to be the mature establishment candidate. So much for that.

These politicians are feeding what a new Public Religion Research Institute poll reports is an “increased xenophobic streak in the American public.” It’s no coincidence that threats against American Muslims have been reported across the country in the days since the Paris attacks.

It is of course reasonable to ask that refugees be vetted — they already are — but if security were the real issue, our current debate wouldn’t be about refugees at all. In fact, if someone were intent on sneaking into America to cause harm, exploiting the refugee resettlement program with its intensive and lengthy screening processes would be the hardest way to do it. No, what is behind the anti-refugee campaign of the Right is not reasonable concerns about security, but something much uglier.

The candidates who are now spewing cynical anti-refugee rhetoric are often the same ones who claim that their opponents don’t believe in “American exceptionalism,” and the movement so willing to embrace explicit anti-Muslim bigotry is the same one constantly telling us that religious freedom is under attack. They seem to have forgotten the vibrant pluralism and commitment to shared values that make us exceptional, and a beacon of freedom to the persecuted, in the first place. Looking back on the history of our country, our best days have been when we opened ourselves to people facing persecution, not the times we turned them away and demonized them. Let’s not let this become the American Way.

 

By: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way; The Blog, The Huffington Post, November 24, 2015

November 27, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Bigotry, House Republicans, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“So Much For American Exceptionalism”: Fear Of Syrian Refugees Brings Ugly Past Incidents To Mind

It didn’t take long for the stampede to start.

By Sunday, even as stunned Parisians were still placing flowers at the sites of the terrorist atrocities that claimed more than a hundred lives and injured hundreds more, a couple of American governors had announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome on their turf.

Within a few days, more than half the nation’s governors had signed on. (Never mind that governors have no authority to control borders.) Republican presidential candidates rushed to keep up, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz pledging a religious test that would admit only Syrian Christians. By Thursday, the House had passed a bill with such stringent vetting standards that it would be virtually impossible to admit any Syrian refugees.

How depressing. Whatever happened to political leadership?

Yes, yes, Americans are shocked and frightened — and understandably so. The savage attacks on unarmed Parisians were carried out by affiliates of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL), which has established a stronghold in Syria, and were calculated to produce horror, to instill fear, to provoke panic. The point of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize.

And since fear is such a powerful emotion — with the capacity to overwhelm reason — it’s no surprise that the American public is now exhibiting a deep reluctance to take in Syrians displaced by war, even though many of them are also targets of ISIL’s brutality. A Bloomberg survey conducted in the wake of the Paris attacks showed that 53 percent of Americans oppose granting asylum to Syrian refugees.

But the proper duty of political leaders is to, well, lead. They shouldn’t pander to our fears or inflame our basest instincts. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many of them chose to do.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, desperate to raise his standing in the GOP presidential race, was more shameful than his rivals: “I don’t think that orphans under 5 should be admitted to the United States at this point.” Even for a governor who prides himself on in-your-face provocations, that’s pretty despicable.

But some pols managed to sink even lower. One Tennessee legislator, Rep. Glen Casada, proposed sending the National Guard to round up any Syrian refugees who’ve been resettled in his state and ship them out. Casada has clearly refused to learn from some disgraceful episodes in the nation’s history.

In 1939, for example, the United States, along with Cuba and Canada, denied entry to more than 900 Jews aboard the MS St. Louis seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. The refugees were forced to return to Europe, where, historians estimate, about a quarter of them later perished in death camps.

As historian Peter Shulman, a professor at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, recently pointed out, antipathy toward European Jews ran high even as the Nazis began their campaign of extermination. He cited a 1938 poll showing that 67 percent of Americans opposed bringing in “German, Austrian and other” political refugees.

The historical comparison isn’t perfect. The U.S. had not fully emerged from the Great Depression, and fear of economic competition was certainly a factor. But so was anti-Semitism — just as an anti-Muslim xenophobia is now. Among some, including President Roosevelt, there was also the suspicion that Nazi agents might be hiding among Jewish refugees. Sound familiar?

The nation’s hysteria didn’t stop with the refusal to aid the Jews aboard the St. Louis. Roosevelt also signed an executive order to round up more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent and hold them in internment camps; 62 percent of them were American citizens, some with sons serving in the U.S. armed forces. Decades later, the U.S. government officially apologized and acknowledged that the camps resulted from, among other things, “race prejudice.”

History, then, offers some powerful lessons about fear and the shameful reactions it can provoke. So let’s all keep our heads.

The Obama administration already has a thorough and painstaking vetting process for Syrian refugees that can take as long as two years. Is it perfect? No, it isn’t. But it sets a high bar for entry while also preserving our ability to assist those who most need our help.

Isn’t that what American exceptionalism is all about?

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, November 21, 2015

November 23, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, GOP Presidential Candidates, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“GTFO”: Congress To Refugees; You Don’t Have To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here

“Can you name for me – or identify for me – a suicidal terrorist who hasn’t been Muslim?” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez at a hearing on Thursday.

“I’m not even going to answer that question, congressman,” a stunned Rodriguez replied just hours before the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to keep Syrians out of the U.S.

“Why can’t you answer that question?” King goaded.

“What I can say is that we do our job,” Rodriguez said. “If terrorists are attempting to gain admission to the United States then we do our job to prevent them from doing so.”

“You’re telling me that you’re doing a thorough vetting process, but you aren’t able to tell me that you specifically ask them what their religion is?” King said as Democrats shuddered. “And if you don’t specifically ask them than neither are you able to quantify the risk to the American society?”

So began the day that the U.S. House may have handed ISIS a huge gift when it voted to erect new hurdles to keep Syrian refugees out of the country.

Newly-minted Speaker Paul Ryan tried to assure reporters early in the week that the bill – hastily assembled in the wake of the attacks in Paris – wasn’t about keeping Muslims out of the country, but other Republicans didn’t listen to their party’s standard-bearer. Instead, they unleashed borderline (and beyond) Islamophobic rhetoric to all who would listen.

It’s not just Steve King. Throughout the week 30 Republican governors (and one Democrat) went further than the House as they rushed to close their borders to all Syrians (even though they can’t legally do it), including GOP presidential candidates Chris Christie (NJ) and John Kasich (Ohio). Donald Trump called for closing mosques. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) readied legislation to ban Muslim Syrians from entering the U.S.

And local Republican leaders garnered national headlines for arguing everything from interning Syrian refugees to activating the National Guard to keep Syrians from crossing state lines.

The debate about Syrian refugees came less than a week after terrorist attacks rocked Paris, and it was centered more on unknowns and potentialities than on any tangible threats to the homeland from ISIS, also known as Daesh in the Arab world.

Democrats were appalled, but none more than the only two Muslims in Congress (the first and the second ever elected): Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison and Andre Carson.

“The language we use reinforces them. Daesh is trying to make a case that the West is at war with Islam,” Ellison (D-Minn.) told The Daily Beast. “They’re trying to say they’re the ones defending themselves. The truth is, that’s a lie; that’s completely untrue. But when we say ‘we’re only going to take in Christian refugees, Daesh gets up and says, ‘Told ya. The Crusaders are looking out for the Crusaders.”

Carson said the language was hurtful.

“It’s sad. It’s unacceptable,” Carson told The Daily Beast as he grimaced. “We have to be careful that we’re not making statements for what we perceive to be political gain that at the same time undermines our values.”

Carson said his fear is the heated charges against Muslims play into the strategy of Daesh.

“Young people are very vulnerable. [Daesh] is operating the way, a lot of sociologists have noted, that cults behaved in the 70s, 80s and even 90s. They are capitalizing off of disillusionment,” he said, adding that Congress ought to be engaging people from other countries; not alienating them.

“There is a tendency, or a human impulse, in the midst of these kinds of incidents for elected officials to live in absolutes,” Carson said. “To live in an absolute without noting the nuance that is there, that you have good Muslims who are working in their intelligence agencies and law enforcement communities to keep their countries safe, really does a disservice to all the contributions that Muslims are making.”

The legislation the House passed requires the heads of some of the nation’s top security agencies to personally certify that anyone from Syria or Iraq seeking refuge in the U.S. is “not a threat to the security of the United States.”

Experts argued about worst case scenarios but, on Thursday, their objections seemed to fall on deaf ears.

“No terrorist in his right mind would use the refuge program as a way to enter the United States,” Immigration Services Director Rodriguez said. “They may find other channels; it’s not going to be through the refuge program. It’s too intrusive. It’s too invasive. It’s too thorough in the security checks that it does.”

The government estimates there are more than 19 million refugees displaced across the globe – the most in history – and roughly a quarter of them are from Syria. The Obama administration maintains they’re trying to attract the most vulnerable to the United States.

“We are looking at people who have been tortured,” testified Anne C. Richard, the Assistant Secretary of Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department.

She then continued the gruesome list of asylum seekers. “Burn victims from barrel bombs, people who are widows and children, but also the elderly, families that have been ripped apart as members have been murdered in front of their eyes.”

King was unmoved.

“We’re talking about a huge haystack of humanity,” King chided the witnesses. “And that hay is benign, relatively speaking, but in that haystack are the needles called terrorists.”

 

By: Matt Laslo, The Daily Beast, November 19, 2015

November 20, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Steve King, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“John Kasich And Matthew 25, Revisited”: We’re All Just One Big Freedom-Loving Family In The West

This is Republican Gov. John Kasich explaining in March why he expanded coverage for Ohio’s Medicaid recipients:

The conservative movement — a big chunk of which is faith-based — seems to have never read Matthew 25. … There’s so much we have to do to clean ourselves up. … So instead of getting into the judgment, why don’t we get into the feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and helping the imprisoned and helping the lonely? That’s what we’re commanded to do.

This is Republican presidential candidate John Kasich explaining on Tuesday why he has joined more than two dozen governors who say they’ll refuse to accept any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees, many of them widows and children, to arrive in the U.S. in the next fiscal year:

“We understand these people are in trouble, but think about … us putting somebody on our street, in our town or in our country who (means) us harm. … We just got to be very careful for our friends, our neighbors, our families and our country. … Until we get a handle on where we are, we need to stop. And once we have a rational program and we can determine who it is that’s coming, then it’s another story. But for this point in time, in light of what we’re seeing in the world, it’s reasonable to stop.”

What happened to Matthew 25?

Pfft. So pre-primary.

I listen to these governors — all of whom know they have no power to defy the president and close their borders — and marvel at how readily they pander to the worst among us. I don’t know what version of the Bible they’re thumping, but I sure would like a cloud-side seat on that storied day when they try to explain themselves to you-know-who.

For me, the joking ends here.

Just a few short weeks ago, we reeled at the sight of a little boy named Aylan Kurdi. The 3-year-old Syrian Kurd tried to flee with his family from Turkey to Europe. Their boat capsized, and Aylan’s lifeless body washed ashore. His 5-year-old brother and mother drowned, too, but it is Aylan we remember because of the photographs of him that were published online and in newspapers around the world.

In the pictures, he is wearing a red shirt and shorts, lying on his stomach. His face is turned ever so slightly to his left, his arms resting palms up by his side. His was the universal pose of a busy little boy surrendering to a nap. Maybe that’s why he got to us. He was every child we’ve ever known.

On the same day that Kasich said Syrian refugees are not welcome in the state he has abandoned for his presidential race, he announced his nifty idea to fight the Islamic State group: a new agency to impose “the core Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share.” He would target China, Iran, Russia, and the Middle East.

“We need to beam messages around the world about what it means to have a Western ethic,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “It means freedom. It means opportunity. It means respect for women.”

Let’s stop right there.

Respect for women? This, from the governor who has championed some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country.

And what about this notion of a universal set of Judeo-Christian values in the Western world?

On Wednesday, I spoke to Colin Swearingen, an assistant professor of political science at John Carroll University, near Cleveland, to talk about Kasich’s theory that we’re all just one big freedom-loving family in the West.

“The Declaration of Independence centered on liberty,” Swearingen said. “A lot of Western civilization focuses more on equality. This is a significant difference in how you set up government.”

So what does he make of Kasich’s idea?

“Well, the establishment clause certainly jumps out at you,” he said. “Was it a slip-up, or is he trying to reach out to the Iowa caucuses? In 2012, 57 percent of them were evangelicals. Maybe this is some sort of coherent strategy where Kasich sees an opening in Iowa.”

I have searched and searched my Bible, and I cannot find any holy dispensation for presidential candidates who turn away widows and orphans to help their poll numbers with people who like that sort of thing. I did, however, find last month’s Quinnipiac poll that showed Kasich trailing far behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson in his own state.

Overall, we’re seeing some interesting timing from Kasich, don’t you think?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how this new interpretation of Matthew 25 works out for him.

 

By: Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist: The National Memo, November 19, 2015

November 20, 2015 Posted by | ISIS, John Kasich, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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