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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codes withdrew the franchise from those who had committed serious crimes, most Western countries now see those codes as outdated.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

“Look No Further Than The Governor’s Race In Kentucky”: The Superficiality Of The Republican Commitment To Racial Justice

Last night in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, a Tea Party-aligned Republican who unsuccessfully attempted to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last year, was elected the state’s second GOP governor since the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

Conservatives are understandably elated. Bevin ran rightward even by Kentucky’s standards. His political career has been forged in the conservative backlash to President Obama, and Bevin supports both federalizing Kentucky’s extremely successful state-based health care exchange, and rescinding the state’s Medicaid expansion, which has brought coverage to over 400,000 poor Kentuckians since 2013. As a candidate for Senate, where his vote would’ve counted, he supported the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

But amid the euphoria over a victorious politician who wants to roll back the tide of social justice, conservatives are also celebrating their own perceived sense of racial enlightenment. Because though Bevin and most of his supporters are white, his running mate, Lieutenant Governor-elect Jenean Hampton, is black.

In Kentucky we see the general scope of Republican minority outreach in microcosm—the touting of a popular black figurehead juxtaposed against an unrelenting pursuit of policies that harm, and are unpopular with, black voters nationally.

The most apt symbol of this conception of racial tolerance is Ben Carson, who climbed out of poverty to become the most renowned black neurosurgeon in the world. He also sits well to the right of the median Republican primary candidate, which helps explain his surge in the polls. Last week, National Review’s Jonah Golberg wrote a column arguing that Carson is “even more authentically African American than Barack Obama, given that Obama’s mother was white and he was raised in part by his white grandparents.”

Goldberg interprets the fact that a person of such authentic blackness is a popular, conservative member of the Republican Party as a matter of deep significance, when in fact it confirms that the right’s commitment to racial justice has a deeply superficial quality. After a predictable backlash to the blackness scale he contrived, Goldberg revised and extended.

“The Democrats, MSNBC, Salon, et al,” he wrote, “are so invested in their narrative that the GOP is a racist cult that they have trouble dealing with the fact that Ben Carson—a black guy—is arguably the front-runner and certainly the most popular figure in the Republican field (and drawing most of his support from precisely the voters the MSNBC crowd is most convinced are the recrudescent racist heart of the conservative movement). Rather than celebrate this huge step forward in racial progress, or at least think about what it really means, they instead ignore it, dismiss it, or attack my ‘racism’ for pointing it out. Well, to Hell with that game.”

This would fatally undermine the liberal critique of racial politics on the right, if liberals argued that Republicans belonged to a segregated party that espoused hatred for minorities no matter their politics. Instead, Goldberg is celebrating tokenism on the scale of a national, ideological movement.

That Carson is black and popular among Republican primary voters is incontrovertible. It’s also largely beside the point. The question of why Carson is popular on the right is complicated, and surely in part related to his aforementioned conservative politics, his religious devotion, and his hypnotically avuncular demeanor. But it is just as surely related to the fact that Carson absolves conservatives of their coarse and patronizing view of black voters and political leaders. Carson attributes his unpopularity with liberals to the notion that he had the temerity to “come off the plantation.”

Needless to say, the fact that Republican voters like a guy who tells them that other black people—the ones who support Democrats—are like plantation slaves doesn’t harm the liberal critique of conservative racial politics at all. Nor does it cancel out or refute the existence of racism.

The Kentucky poor are now in limbo, though their position is tellingly strengthened by the fact that Kentucky is whiter than the median state. Beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion there are whiter and more geographically dispersed than in other states. The prologue to their story may come from Arkansas, which declined to rescind its version of the Medicaid expansion, even after voters there replaced a retiring Democratic governor with a Republican.

So there is hope. But there’s also peril.  What distinguishes Kentucky is that its Medicaid expansion was undertaken unilaterally by outgoing Governor Steve Beshear. Though he softened his position during the general election, Bevin could rescind it on his own, without going to the legislature.

If he declines to do so, conservatives will consider it a great setback in their ongoing campaign against the national wave of Medicaid expansion, a campaign that has done disproportionate harm to low-income black people all over the country. And that says far more about the racial politics of their movement than the fact that Kentucky’s incoming lieutenant governor is black herself.

 

By: Brian Beutler, Senior Editor at The New Republic, November 4, 2015

November 7, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Matt Bevin, Medicaid Expansion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“From GOP ‘Con Man’ To Newly Elected Governor”: Health Coverage For Kentuckians Was On The Line, And They Appear To Have Lost

Under two-term Gov. Steve Beshear (D), Kentucky has been one of the best-run states in the nation. Not only is the Bluegrass State’s unemployment rate at a 14-year low, but Kentucky has been so successful in implementing health care reform, it’s cut its uninsured by over 40%.

Perhaps the state’s voters grew tired of success and decided to go in a different direction.

Voters in Kentucky elected Republican Matt Bevin as governor Tuesday.

Bevin beat Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. Unofficial results from the Kentucky State Board of Elections had Bevin beating Conway 52.52% to 43.82% with all 120 counties reporting Tuesday night.

Independent Drew Curtis was also on the ballot, and garnered 3.6% support – not enough to affect the overall outcome. Statewide turnout was only about 30%, meaning that over two-thirds of the state’s voters didn’t bother to show up at all.

Bevin’s road to the governor’s office was, for lack of a better word, improbable. A year ago, the right-wing candidate, who’s never served a day in public office, launched a primary fight against incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Republicans quickly labeled Bevin a “con man” who lies “pathologically.” The first-time candidate was exposed a man who lied about his educational background, and who even struggled in the private sector – his business needed a taxpayer bailout.

At one point, he even delivered a speech at a cockfighting gathering and then lied about that, too.

Bevin lost that primary. A year later, he’s a governor-elect.

The smart money bet against him. Indeed, even as this year’s race unfolded, the Tea Partier seemed on track to lose. In September, the Republican Governors Association scaled back its investments in the Kentucky race, and as recently as mid-October, Bevin’s own internal polling showed him trailing.

Complicating matters, the GOP candidate “created a nightmare for Kentucky’s political reporters” by lying – about a wide variety of issues – on an almost habitual basis, and then creating an “enemies list” of journalists who challenged the accuracy of his falsehoods.

And yet, voters in Kentucky yesterday overlooked all of this and handed Bevin a relatively easy victory.

What happens now is likely to have a major impact on many of his constituents’ lives. One of the central tenets of Bevin’s odd platform has been scrapping Medicaid expansion, which would have the effect of taking away health care benefits from many low-income families statewide. And because outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D) used executive orders to create much of the state’s health network, the new right-wing governor-elect will have the power to undermine the health security of a significant chunk of Kentucky’s population rather quickly.

The question is simple: will he? This sets the stage for the the first real test of whether far-right officials are prepared to hurt their own constituents, on purpose, to advance a partisan goal. It’s one thing for Republican state policymakers to block Medicaid expansion from taking effect, but in Kentucky, the Affordable Care Act has already been fully implemented – and it’s working beautifully.

Bevin’s stated goal is to roll back the clock, consequences be damned. Coverage for over 400,000 struggling Kentuckians was on the line in yesterday’s election, and as of last night, they appear to have lost.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 4, 2015

November 5, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Kentucky, Matt Bevin | , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

“From ‘Con man’ To Governor?”: The Republican Nominee For Governor In The Great State Of Kentucky

A year ago, Matt Bevin was seen as a rather ridiculous figure in Kentucky Republican politics. He’d launched a primary fight against incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which led the GOP establishment to go after Bevin with a vengeance.

The results weren’t pretty. Bevin was labeled by leaders of his own party as a “con man” who lies “pathologically.” The first-time candidate was exposed as a man who lied about his educational background, and whose business needed a taxpayer bailout. By Primary Day, Bevin lost by 25 points, and his career in politics appeared to be effectively over.

A year later, however, Kentucky Republicans will have to stop calling him a dishonest con man and start calling him their nominee for governor. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported this morning:

After Thursday’s recanvass of votes cast in the Republican primary for governor, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said that there were “no substantial changes” and that she thought Matt Bevin would be the GOP nominee when the vote is certified June 8.

This morning, Bevin’s primary rival conceded the race. Bevin will now take on state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) in November, in the race to replace outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

McConnell, who characterized Bevin as a dangerous loon just last year, issued a statement this morning that said, “I congratulate Matt Bevin on his victory and endorse him for governor.”

It’s just such an improbable scenario. Even this year, the GOP gubernatorial primary was supposed to come down to state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner. But when the top candidates turned on each other, they ended up tearing each other down, clearing the way for Bevin.

I honestly can’t think of a comparable recent situation in which a state party viciously tore a guy down one year, only to scramble to build him back up less than a year later.

As for whether or not Bevin might actually become governor, we’ll find out soon enough – this has instantly become the most interesting race of 2015 – but as the process continues, I’m reminded of my favorite Matt Bevin story.

In early 2014, as regular readers may recall, Bevin accepted an invitation from the Gamefowl Defense Network and he delivered a speech to several hundred attendees. Asked later for an explanation, the GOP candidate claimed ignorance, saying he thought he was addressing a states’ rights group and had no idea he was speaking to pro-cockfighting activists.

The event’s hosts soon after explained that Bevin’s defense was literally unbelievable: the “entire rally” was devoted to the issue and “there was never any ambiguity” about the point of the gathering organized by the Gamefowl Defense Network.

Bevin told reporters he was “the first speaker” at the event and left before he realized what the Gamefowl Defense Network was up to. It turns out, that wasn’t true – the group’s director was the first speaker and he made it abundantly clear what the gathering was all about.

Bevin also told reporters he didn’t address the issue of cockfighting itself, which also turned out to be untrue – he specifically told attendees at the end, “I support the people of Kentucky exercising their right, because it is our right to decide what it is that we want to do, and not the federal government’s.”

Making matters slight worse, when msnbc originally asked Bevin about his appearance, he argued, “It wasn’t a cockfighting event, that’s where you all need to start telling the truth about what happened.”

Yes, telling the truth about it is important.

Bevin eventually apologized for the whole mess. Now he’s the Republican nominee for governor in the great state of Kentucky.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 29, 2015

June 1, 2015 Posted by | Kentucky, Matt Bevin, Mitch Mc Connell | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obamacare, Beyond The Label”: The Politics Of Obamacare Are Upside-Down

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to be a slam-dunk issue for the Republicans in this fall’s elections. Karl Rove told us so in April, writing that “Obamacare is and will remain a political problem for Democrats.”

So how’s that Obamacare thing working out for the GOP?

The most significant bit of election news over the last week was the decision of Senator Mark Pryor, the embattled Arkansas Democrat, to run an ad touting his vote for the health care law as a positive for the people of his increasingly Republican state.

Pryor’s ad is so soft and personal that it’s almost apolitical. After his dad, the popular former senator David Pryor, tells of his son’s bout with cancer, he notes that “Mark’s insurance company didn’t want to pay for the treatment that ultimately saved his life.” The picture has widened to show Mark Pryor sitting next to his father. “No one should be fighting an insurance company while you’re fighting for your life,” he says. “That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

Who knew a law that critics claim is so dreadful could provide such powerful reassurance to Americans who are ill?

Democrats have never fully recovered from the Obama administration’s lousy sales job for (and botched rollout of) what is, legitimately, its proudest domestic achievement. That’s one reason Pryor doesn’t use the word “Obamacare” in describing what he voted for. Another is that in many of the states with contested Senate races this year, most definitely including Arkansas, President Obama himself is so unpopular that if you attached his name to Social Security, one of the most popular programs in American history would probably drop 20 points in the polls.

So, as the liberal bloggers Greg Sargent, Brian Beutler and Steve Benen have all noted, Republicans would much prefer to run against the law’s name and brand than the law itself. They also really want to avoid being pressed for specifics as to what “repealing Obamacare” would mean in practice.

As one Democratic pollster told me, his focus groups showed that when voters outside the Republican base are given details about what the law does and how it works, “people come around and say, ‘That’s not so bad, what’s everybody excited about?’”

This consultant says of Democrats who voted for the law: “You’re going to be stuck with all the bad about this but not benefit from any of the good unless you advertise” what the Affordable Care Act does. This is what Pryor has decided to do.

In fact, according to Gallup, Arkansas is the No. 1 state in the country when it comes to reducing the proportion of its uninsured since the main provisions of the ACA took effect. The drop was from 22.5 percent in 2013 to 12.4 percent in 2014. The No. 2 state is Kentucky, where the uninsured rate fell from 20.4 percent to 11.9 percent. What they have in common are Democratic governors, Mike Beebe in Arkansas and Steve Beshear in Kentucky, committed to using Obamacare — especially, albeit in different ways, its Medicaid expansion — to help their citizens who lack coverage. Beshear has been passionate in selling his state’s version of Obamacare, which is called kynect.

Kentucky also happens to be the site of another of this year’s key Senate races. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is giving Republican leader Mitch McConnell what looks to be the toughest re-election challenge of his 30-year Senate career.

The Bluegrass State is particularly instructive on the importance of labeling and branding. A Public Policy Polling survey earlier this month found that the Affordable Care Act had a net negative approval rating, 34 percent to 51 percent. But kynect was rated positively, 34 percent to 27 percent. Grimes and the Democrats need to confront McConnell forcefully on the issue he has tried to fudge: A flat repeal of Obamacare would mean taking insurance away from the more than 521,000 Kentuckians who, as of last Friday, had secured coverage through kynect. How would that sit with the state’s voters?

Election results, like scripture, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. You can bet that foes of expanding health insurance coverage will try to interpret every Republican victory as a defeat for Obamacare. But as Mark Pryor knows, the president’s unpopularity in certain parts of the country doesn’t mean that voters want to throw his greatest accomplishment overboard — even if they’d be happy to rename it.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; The National Memo, August 25, 2014

August 26, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Mark Pryor, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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