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“The Ghost Of Section 5 Haunts Our Elections”: 2016 Is Proof We Needed The Voting Rights Act

Most political watchers awoke yesterday morning to the news that Eric and Ivanka Trump would be unable to vote for their father in the upcoming New York state primary because they didn’t file as members of the Republican Party by October. This little-known New York rule could have a huge impact on the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both of whom are drawing voters from outside the traditional party structure, since 27 percent of the state’s voters are registered outside the Republican and Democratic parties. If they didn’t declare a party affiliation by October 9, they won’t be voting in the state’s primary.

Much of the reaction to the plight of Trump’s children was reflections on the Trump campaign’s disastrous ground game, but that misses the point: vast numbers of voters will be forced to navigate purposefully arcane rules this election season, everything from restrictive voter ID laws to altered voting schedules to decreased numbers of polling places.

Why? The 2016 presidential elections will be the first since the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court to weaken Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 mandated that states and localities with a history of racial discrimination receive permission from the federal government before enacting any changes to their voting laws; states like Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and a variety of other townships and counties around the country.

While Section 5 initially applied to states that imposed restrictive measures such as literacy tests, Congress later expanded the law to jurisdictions with sizable minority populations that used English-only election materials. States were only removed from the pre-approval list after 10 years of by-the-book elections.

Today, the ghost of Section 5 haunts our elections.

In North Carolina, which has been under fire for a variety of issues over the past few years, Republican-backed legislation has “included a reduction in early-voting days and ended same-day registration and preregistration that added teenagers to voting rolls on their 18th birthday.”

Recently in North Carolina, an attempt to gerrymander black voters into large congressional districts (to minimize their overall influence) backfired when it was found in federal court to be discriminatory — five weeks before primary elections for the illegal districts took place. While a separate congressional primary will be held June 7, the mix-up will have a tangible impact on voter turnout, given that people sometimes have to take time off, wait in long lines, and meet registration deadlines to vote.

Another recent example can be found in Arizona, whose presidential primary was a complete disaster, with some voters waiting in line for over five hours. Some didn’t wait around long, leaving without casting a vote at all. In a measure to allegedly cut costs, “election officials in Phoenix’s Maricopa County, the largest in the state, reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent from 2012 to 2016, from 200 to just 60—one polling place per every 21,000 voters,” according to The Nation.

The situation was so dire in other parts of Arizona that people passed out from sunstroke, had their party affiliation allegedly changed from Democrat to Independent, and never received mail-in ballots. Maricopa County was previously one of the counties identified under Section 5 as requiring pre-approval, due to a history of discrimination. Minorities make up 40 percent of the county’s population. Before 2013, Arizona would have had to submit the closing of polling places for review, and likely would have been denied, given Section 5 had previously blocked 22 voting changes from taking effect in Arizona.

Finally, we can also look at the state of Texas, where the state legislature passed a stringent voter ID law following the invalidation of Section 5 that the federal government had previously blocked using the same law. As a result, over 600,000 voters in the state will likely have to go through a more onerous voting registration procedure because they lack one of the forms of ID eligible under that law, if they are able to vote at all. While a federal appeals court ruled in August that the voter ID law had a discriminatory impact, Texas is currently appealing its case to a full appeals court, in the hopes it will not need to change the implementation of the law, which will remain in place as-is while the appeals process continues.

It’s clear that we are missing key protections from Section 5 that would have ensured more reasonable and less discriminatory voting processes at the state and local level. Now that states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices don’t need pre-approval to enact changes in their laws, many of them have simply passed the very same laws they were prevented from enacting for decades, and more still have enacted new laws meant to suppress the vote. In 2016, we need the full force of the Voting Rights Act more than ever. In its absence, the integrity the democratic process is in question.

 

By: Benjamin Powers, The National Memo, April 12, 2016

April 13, 2016 Posted by | Election 2016, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Waiting For Justice In Local Jails”: Why More Americans Are Dying In Holding Cells

On Monday a special prosecutor announced that neither the sheriff’s office nor jailers in Waller County, Texas, would face criminal charges related to the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested during a routine traffic stop last summer in Texas and was found three days later hanged in her cell.

In a time of heightened scrutiny following the highly publicized killings of black Americans by police, Bland’s arrest and untimely death renewed national debate over the inequitable, and sometimes brutal, treatment of black citizens by police.

Bland’s family members have since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against authorities in Texas openly questioning the official cause of death as a suicide. Friends and family have disputed that Bland would have taken her own life, saying that she was “in good spirits” and looking forward to starting a dream job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.

While it may seem unthinkable to loved ones, statistics show that Bland’s grim fate is shockingly common.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), since 2000, 4,134 people have taken their own lives while awaiting justice in local jails.

In 2013, 327 inmates—a third of the total who died while in custody of local jails—died this way. The suicide rate per jail inmates increased 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 23 percent from 2009.

Roughly 60 percent of all suicides in jails involve inmates between the ages of 25 and 44. Bland was 28 years old.

Suicide is more of a problem for jails than prisons, with half of them occurring within the first week of admission. The reason for the disparity is twofold, says Lindsay Hayes, the project director for the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and an expert in suicide prevention in prisons: fear and bad policing.

This month in Roanoke, Virginia, 22-year-old Clifton Antonio Harper was found hanging by his bedsheet in his jail cell. Harper had been in jail since March on charges of burglary, grand larceny, and assault.

And a 35-year-old Indianapolis man jailed for theft and possession of paraphernalia reportedly killed himself while in custody, prompting a review of jail suicides in Marion County.

In jails, Hayes says, people are sometimes going in for the first time, facing uncertainty and fear. Some are intoxicated at the time of their arrest, which can trigger an emotional response.

It’s what corrections expert Steve J. Martin called the “shock of confinement.” In an interview with NPR, Martin explained the trauma of being in jail for the first time: “My life is going to end right now with this experience. Everything I’ve worked for, the way people view me, the way my parents view me’—all that stuff is suddenly and dramatically in jeopardy.”

Hayes says that, while jails are getting better, there are still many that lack good training and intake screening practices that prisons have worked to institute.

“The classic response used to be, ‘If an inmate wants to kill himself, there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Hayes said. “Fast-forward to today and jails and prisons are much better resourced, and have tools now to identify suicidal behavior and manage it.”

In fact, Bland’s death prompted the Texas legislature to call for a review of local jails and how potentially suicidal inmates are handled and treated. Such reviews have resulted in an increased emphasis on training jail staff and an improvement in screening procedures in the state. New intake forms that identify suicide risks were put into practice this month by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Death by hanging is by far the most common method of suicide in U.S. jails—either by bedding, or with clothing attached to an anchoring device such as a bunk, bars, or a cell door, according to a national study of jail suicide (PDF).

Critics have blasted Waller County jailers for failing to properly monitor Bland after she told them about a previous suicide attempt. While an intake form shows Bland answered “yes” to whether she had ever attempted suicide—as recently as 2014 by “pills”—her jailers left her alone in a cell with a plastic trash bag which she used to strangle herself.

 

By: Brandy Zadrozny, The Daily Beast, December 22, 2015

December 24, 2015 Posted by | Black Americans, Incarceration, Jail Deaths, Sandra Bland | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Shut Up Or We’ll Shoot You”: Gun Nuts Are A Threat To Democracy: How Open Carry Undermines Open Debate

“Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.”

Those were the words of Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president for life at the National Rifle Association and a sputtering rageaholic. NRA leadership has perhaps never stated the aim of the group with more clarity and gusto than when LaPierre produced this gem at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He could have just as easily said might makes right or held up a fasces.

For all the talk about “the Constitution” those on the gun-fondling right like to toss out, that quote betrays the true authoritarian nature of the society he and his henchmen in NRA leadership wish to see us become. One in which the guys who choose to arm up on military weaponry dictate to the rest of us how we conduct ourselves. We can dispense with all the other stuff the founders actually spent most of their time talking about, the rule by majority vote, the right to petition, due process, the security in person and property.

This week was the ghost of Christmas future coming back to warn us, reminding us we need to continue turning back the NRA’s efforts to make guns as ubiquitous in our society as the grain in Ben Carson’s pyramids.

First, counter-protesters, who are alleged to be white supremacists showed up at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minnesota, got into an argument with the protesters, and started shooting. Then of course, on Saturday, a lunatic launched an assault on the women, patients and police guarding a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs (disclosure: I serve on the boards of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio. I am speaking only for myself in this piece, however), killing three, including a police officer and Iraq veteran.

Finally, the University of Chicago has been shut down due to a gun threat. No debate on campus, no inquiry in the classroom. Held hostage, quite literally, to a potential deranged gunman and whatever his agenda might be.

The proliferation of concealed and open carry and lack of universal background checks means anyone can be a terrorist and carry in public, so how the hell is that not going to make others think twice about what they say? Not shockingly, this has a chilling effect on democratic debate, our republican form of government and the ability to gather peacefully. If you don’t think the gun—the extended phallus of the FoxNews watcher—is about demographic shrinkage and the wish to wield unearned power, so the guys with the guns can still make the rules, let me share a few more examples.

There was Irving, Texas, just after the Paris attack, where a bunch of gun-wielding white guys surrounded a mosque. There was November of 2013, also in Texas, when a group of 40 or so gun fetishists showed up at a restaurant where members of Moms Demand Action just happened to be meeting, displaying their weapons and waiting outside the door of the joint. Anna Sarkesian, the victim of harassment at the hands of a bunch of atavistic cavemen in the gamer world, had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University because of anonymous threats and the reality that guns are allowed on campus. And there was The Virginia Citizens Defense League, who decided to make sure they’d intimidate their way to victory over their opposition to a gun store being put next to an elementary school in McLean, Virginia, by showing up at a public debate of the McLean Citizens Association with “armed individuals and a customized RV depicting a threatening image of Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui-Cho.”

The message is clear: Shut up or we’ll shoot you.

My friend Joan Peterson, president of the board of Protect Minnesota, shared a personal story about the 2013 legislative session in Minnesota when “hundreds of open carriers” showed up in the Capitol to intimidate those testifying for gun safety inside, and one of them tweeted directly at her, to ask “how she liked being surrounded by guys with guns.” They also “stared at her” for long periods of time and “took photos,” all while openly carrying their weapons.

In Texas (once again, not a surprise), this reached the point of farce when a loony-tunes group of gun nuts mad at Democratic State Rep. Poncho Nevarez because he opposed an open-carry bill, showed up at his office, and filmed themselves calling him a “tyrant to the Constitution,” saying “You won’t be here for very long” and refusing to leave after being asked to numerous times. So the Texas Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, responded by passing the open-carry bill and installing “panic buttons” the legislators’ offices. Panic buttons! What’s next, an ejector seat?

This absurdity reminds me of nothing so much as what sage comedian George Carlin once said about the danger of kids being shot because they had toy guns that looked real: “And now they’re thinking about banning toy guns, and they’re gonna keep the fucking real ones!”

All of this is part of the NRA’s plan, remember: the guys with the guns making the rules.

We can have our democracy replete with free expression, free assembly, and open debate, which our Constitution clearly prescribes. Or we can allow the angry, the unhinged, domestic terrorists, to purchase weapons of war. We can’t have both.

 

By: Cliff Schecter, The Daily Beast, December 2, 2015

December 3, 2015 Posted by | Gun Violence, National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Maintaining Its Sad Tradition Of Disenfranchisement”: Texas Lawmakers Are Busy Making It Harder To Vote

Another legislative session, another unfortunate attempt by Texas politicians to make it harder to vote. While other states move their registration systems into the 21st century — by putting the onus on the government to add eligible voters to the rolls, or letting citizens sign up online, for example — Texas maintains its sad tradition of disenfranchisement.

One measure (HB 1096) that would make it more difficult for voters to confirm their residency recently cleared the House. Another bill approved by the Senate (SB 1934) would eliminate nonexpiring photo identification cards for the state’s senior citizens. Because unexpired photo IDs or IDs that have been expired no more than 60 days are required to vote, this change would make it even harder for Texas seniors to get their ballots counted. Do we really need to wonder why lawmakers are making these changes?

While some legislators have introduced bills this session to help voters, these bills have largely gone nowhere. A bill that would issue no-charge birth certificate copies to some Texans under a limited set of circumstances passed the Senate, but the law, if passed, would help only a fraction of disenfranchised voters. This is not enough. Texas deserves a Legislature that will take action to ensure that the voices of all eligible voters are heard, rather than putting up more obstacles to the ballot box.

In 2011, Texas enacted the nation’s strictest voter ID law. It permits use of limited types of photo IDs to vote, and the ID must be current or recently expired. To obtain nearly every form of acceptable ID, an original or certified copy of a voter’s birth certificate is required. Hundreds of thousands of registered Texas voters lack the ID or supporting documents needed to meet these stringent requirements.

While Texans of all ages have felt the negative impact of the photo ID law, the burden on the state’s seniors is particularly acute. Older voters are less likely to have a current driver’s license — because many no longer drive — and are more likely to find it difficult or downright impossible to obtain a birth certificate. Many live in long-term care facilities and, because of health or liability issues, are unable to travel to renew their IDs, or are understandably overwhelmed by the required paperwork. Cutting nonexpiring state IDs for seniors would only exacerbate these burdens.

So far, two federal courts have stepped in to block the Texas ID law because it disenfranchises Latino and African-American voters. Last year, a federal court in Texas found the law not only had the effect of discriminating against minority voters but also that the Legislature passed the law with the intent of making it harder for voters of color to cast a ballot. The case is now before a federal appellate court. During oral arguments, a Republican-appointed judge pointedly asked Texas’ attorney why the Legislature hasn’t taken the opportunity to fix the problems with the photo ID law. The lawyer had no response when the judge asked why it should fall to the court to fix the law, when legislators have had years to do so.

The numbers show that some legislators have had ample opportunity to help voters. This legislative session alone, there have been at least 17 bills introduced to ameliorate the strict voter ID law. Bills that would allow expired government-issued IDs to be accepted for voting and others that would expand the list of acceptable IDs have not gotten so much as a public hearing. The Legislature has instead chosen to expend more energy on changes that would make voting even more difficult.

Bills to soften the draconian photo ID law are not the only voter-friendly measures Texas legislators have left on the table. At least 28 other bills have been introduced that would expand access to the ballot. These efforts range from proposals that would make it easier for voters to update their registration to legislation that would increase language access for voters whose primary language is not English. Nearly all of these bills have received no legislative attention.

While a proposal that would have allowed Texans to register through a secure online portal did manage to at least get a public hearing, legislators expressed skepticism that the modernizing reform — which has been successfully adopted by nearly 30 other states — could be done in Texas. They promptly killed the bill.

Given Texas’ sordid history of manipulating the right to vote, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Legislature is making voting harder. Texans should demand better.

 

By: Jennifer L. Clark and Gary Bledsoe, Cross-Posted from The Dallas Morning News; Brennan Center for Justice, May 19, 2015

 

May 24, 2015 Posted by | Discrimination, Voter ID, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Crisis Turned Catastrophe In Texas”: Women Have Been Relegated To Second Class Citizenship

Last night, a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals left Texas with no more than eight remaining abortion clinics. You would think by now the willingness of state lawmakers to deliberately create a health crisis among their constituents – and the willingness of the courts to allow it – would be no surprise. But I continue to be shocked.

“All Texas women have been relegated today to a second class of citizens whose constitutional rights are lesser than those in states less hostile to reproductive autonomy, and women facing difficult economic circumstances will be particularly hard hit by this devastating blow,” said the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Nancy Northrup.

House Bill 2 could be the grand finale in Texas’ efforts to completely dismantle its reproductive health infrastructure on which women – particularly poor women, women of color, young women, and immigrant women – have relied for decades. Pretty soon there won’t be any clinics left to close. Just three years ago, conservative lawmakers gutted the state’s family planning program, which closed approximately 80 family planning providers across the state, caused 55 more to reduce hours, and left hundreds of thousands of women without access to reproductive healthcare. Even before those programs were eviscerated, they provided care and services to only 20 percent of women in need.

And as if that wasn’t enough, lawmakers introduced HB2, a bill that imposes onerous restrictions on abortion providers and demands that all clinics meet costly – upwards of $1 million – building requirements to qualify them as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). Lawmakers claimed these regulations were critical to protecting the lives and health of Texas women, but that’s simply not the case. Currently more than three-quarters of the state’s ASCs have waivers that allow them to circumvent certain requirements: unsurprisingly, abortion providers are prohibited from obtaining those same waivers. HB2 quickly closed the majority of the state’s 41 clinics that offered abortion services – clinics that also provided birth control, pap smears, breast exams, pregnancy tests, and a host of other services. There are few, if any, providers to take their place.

These new restrictions add an unbearable weight to the burdens that too many of Texas’ women already shoulder. Texas has one of the nation’s highest unintended and teen birth rates. The nation’s lowest percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care in their first trimester. The highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. High rates of poverty and unemployment and a woefully inadequate social safety net. And lawmakers who refuse to expand Medicaid, leaving nearly 700,000 women who would qualify for coverage without it.

Just a few weeks ago, Judge Lee Yeakel of the United States District Court in Austin gave health advocates an iota of hope when he ruled HB2 to be an undue burden on women’s constitutionally guaranteed right to an abortion. Yeakel’s decision wasn’t just significant because it delivered a win for humanity in Texas after countless losses, or because the concept of an undue burden was finally being used to protect – not erode – women’s right to chose, but because it was based on facts. Facts! Judge Yeakel relied on incontrovertible data to call BS on a law that purports to protect women, but has only ever been about abolishing abortion access.

He argued that for many women, HB2 might as well be an outright ban on abortion. He asked how the eight (at most) providers left could ever each serve between 7,500 and 10,000 patients. How would they cope with the more than 1,200 women per month who would be vying for limited appointments? “That the State suggests that these seven or eight providers could meet the demand of the entire state stretches credulity,” he said.

Yeakel acknowledged the complex intersections of women’s health and economic (in)security:

The record conclusively establishes that increased travel distances combine with practical concerns unique to every woman. These practical concerns include lack of availability of child care, unavailability of appointments at abortion facilities, unavailability of time off from work, immigration status and inability to pass border checkpoints, poverty level, the time and expense involved in traveling long distances, and other inarticulable psychological obstacles. These factors combine with increased travel distances to establish a de facto barrier to obtaining an abortion for a large number of Texas women of reproductive age who might choose seek a legal abortion.

Yeakel warned that the stated goal of improving women’s health would not come to pass. And it won’t. The increased delays in seeking early abortion care, risks associated with longer travel, the potential increases in self-induced abortions “almost certainly cancel out any potential health benefit associated with the requirement,” he said.

But Yeakel’s arguments were not compelling enough for the 5th Circuit, which finds it perfectly acceptable that more than one million women now need to travel more than 300 miles (and many women even further) to access health care that is constitutionally guaranteed to them.

This decision will have a ripple effect. Other anti-choice lawmakers across the country are following Texas’ lead, imposing similar restrictions on clinics and physicians who provide abortions. The vindication of Texas lawmakers who have used their legislative power to wreak havoc on the lives of women and families will only continue to embolden other states seeking the same goals.

Conservatives like to argue that they are not waging a war on women. Today there are a whole lot of us who find it impossible to argue otherwise.

 

By: Andrea Flynn, Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, The National Memo, October 3, 2014

 

 

October 6, 2014 Posted by | Reproductive Choice, Texas, War On Women | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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