Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Eight: Republicans Closing Polling Places

Another headline that encapsulates a big problem in just a few words:

"GOPer opposes early voting because it will boost black turnout"

The headline refers to Georgia state Representative Fran Millar, who according to Zachary Roth of msnbc.com as linked above, "opposes new Sunday voting hours because they’ll primarily benefit African-Americans—then explaining that he simply "would prefer more educated voters." Millar is saying blacks are uneducated? Effectively yes. But he and other Republicans have created a torturous framework of faux-logic around the idea of ending early voting. This allows them to appear (in their own minds at least) to not be highly partisan and racist. You see, according to the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA), "When a voter in an early voting state casts his or her ballot weeks before Election Day, they’re putting convenience over thoughtful deliberation." Sure, because you can't possibly know a couple of weeks before election day that Donald Trump is an insane racist; you have to research that all the way to election day before you can cast an informed ballot.

Plenty of Republicans and conservatives however will be glad to tell you that they want to reduce the timeframe in which folks can vote because they don't like Democrats. Their justification is... well, I'm not sure really. All's fair in love, war and politics? Consider remarks made the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in 2013, as analyzed by Jamelle Bouie of the Daily Beast:

"Here’s Schlafly: "The reduction in the number of days allowed for early voting is particularly important because early voting plays a major role in Obama’s ground game. The Democrats carried most states that allow many days of early voting, and Obama’s national field director admitted, shortly before last year’s election, that "early voting is giving us a solid lead in the battleground states that will decide this election."""

"The Obama technocrats have developed an efficient system of identifying prospective Obama voters and then nagging them (some might say harassing them) until they actually vote. It may take several days to accomplish this, so early voting is an essential component of the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote campaign."

"She later adds that early voting "violates the spirit of the Constitution" and facilitates "illegal votes" that "cancel out the votes of honest Americans." I’m not sure what she means by "illegal votes," but it sounds an awful lot like voting by Democratic constituencies: students, low-income people, and minorities."

As of 2018, Georgia Republicans are still trying to reduce the timeframe in which the polls are open. Democrats fortunately managed to defeat Senate Bill 363, which would have forced Atlanta’s polls to close at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. and would have allowed voting in advance of Election Day on only one Saturday or Sunday. OK, so why is this bill needed exactly? From Mark Niesse of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution"Republicans complained that (early voting) gave an advantage to Democratic areas, where African-American churches could help drive turnout."

But hey, why debate what hours polling places will be open when you can just get rid of them in minority areas? In 2013 the Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 vote (surprise, surprise) gutted the Voting Rights Act, freeing nine states, mostly in the South where discrimination of minorities had historically occurred. This allowed those states for the first time in decades to change their election laws without advance federal approval. These same states of course wasted no time in making it harder for the poor and minorities to vote. From Ari Berman of the Nation: "The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights surveyed 381 of the 800 counties previously covered by Section 5 where polling place information was available in 2012 or 2014 and found there are 868 fewer places to cast a ballot in 2016 in these areas."

Berman notes that in the 2016 March primary voters waited five hours or more to cast a ballot, and that the closing of polling places in Arizona has occurred most heavily in minority areas that tend to vote Democratic:

"The lines were so long because Republican 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 21,000 registered voters."

"Tucson’s Pima County—the second largest in the state, which is 35 percent Latino and leans Democratic—"is the nation’s biggest closer of polling places," from 280 in 2012 to 218 in 2016."

"Many of these counties have been hot spots for voting discrimination. Cochise County, on the Mexico border, which is 30 percent Latino, was sued by the Justice Department in 2006 failing to print election materials in Spanish or have Spanish-speaking poll workers, in violation of the VRA. Today, the county "is the nation’s biggest closer by percentage," having shuttered 63 percent of its voting locations since Shelby. There will be only 18 polling places for 130,000 residents in 2016, down from 49 polling places in 2012."

According to a recent study from MIT, nationwide white voters have the shortest waits to vote at their polling place, followed by Latinos, followed by black Americans.

In my next post I'll have a special shout-out to the state to the state that's worked to hardest to disenfranchise everyone who doesn't usually vote Republican: North Carolina.


Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Seven: Kris Kobach and Other Bad People

If there is one person in America besides Donald Trump who deserves his own article in a series about destroying democracy, it's Kris Kobach. Mister Kobach is the Secretary of State of Kansas, and was until recently vice chair of President Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

I had sat down prepared to research and write a complete history of the trail of slime Kris Kobach has extruded over the country for the past few years, but as is often the case on the subject of politics, someone has already written that article for me. I urge you to read Kris Kobach is a Loser by Mark Joseph Stern of slate.com.

To summarize, upon his election in Kansas Mr. Kobach began a sustained campaign to convince America that vast numbers of people are voting fraudulently and that the country needs stricter voter ID laws. He got his voter ID law in Kansas all right, but his war on voters failed to identify any fraud. Never mind that, he's just the guy Donald Trump needed for a "Commission on Election Integrity" given that Trump believes that "millions" voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. Again Kobach failed miserably to identify any voter fraud. Then, (from the March, 2018 article linked above,) "Kobach limped home to Kansas to prepare for a bench trial over his proof-of-citizenship law. That trial, which began earlier this month and is ongoing, has been an unmitigated disaster for Kobach—a merciless rebuke of his professional life’s work. The trouble actually began well before the trial started, when a federal judge fined Kobach $1,000 in June for making "patently misleading representations to the court" about a document he’d taken to his initial meeting with Trump, one that proposed eviscerating a federal voting rights law." The author concludes, "Kobach’s national crusade against the phantom threat of voter fraud quickly collapsed under the weight of his own arrogance."

So has Kobach actually done more harm than good for the Republican case against "voter fraud"? Depends on how you look at it. As Republican strategist Karl Rove has pointed out, Republicans are no longer part of the "reality-based community". Do cigarettes cause cancer? We don't know; there's only a "controversy". Is the evolution of species a fact? How about global warming? Well, those elitist atheistic scientists say one thing, but who listens to them? So it goes with voter fraud. Donald Trump and Kris Kobach say one thing, and everyone else may say the opposite, but for the media and many Americans the only question is whom do they trust more, and who appears to be winning the argument.

For a few Americans, it must be noted, Kris Kobach and others like him really are a personal nightmare. That's because in their zealous campaign to prove that there is some "voter fraud" somewhere, Kobach and others have ruthlessly prosecuted people who have made innocent mistakes in attempting to vote. Kobach has pressed charges against several senior citizens who thought they could vote on local issues in each of the states where they owned homes. Interestingly, all but one of Kobach's cases have been filed against Republicans; remember, this entire campaign is based on the idea that Democrats are the ones voting illegally.

Pity poor Crystal Mason of Tarrant County, Texas. Ms. Mason voted in the 2016 presidential election while she was on supervised release from a 2011 fraud conviction. Although she was never made aware that she was not eligible to vote, a judge has sentenced her to five years in prison. I wonder how many people who are eligible vote but have past criminal convictions will look at cases like Crystal Mason's and become afraid to vote themselves. And I suspect that's exactly what Republicans hope will happen. People of color are more likely to have past criminal convictions that whites, and race certainly plays a factor in formal challenges to the right to vote in America. A Caltech/MIT study found that minority voters are more frequently questioned about ID than are white voters.

Here's another way to stop the poor and minorities from voting. In North Carolina, some Republicans with too much time on their hands have been challenging the voter registrations of black Democrats. In 2016, Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old African-American woman, was informed that her voter-registration status had been challenged by Republicans because a piece of mail sent to her home address had been returned as undeliverable. Ms. Hardison normally receives mail at a PO Box. The NAACP has stated that the voter purge that targeted Hardison violates the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits the mass removal of voters from the rolls within the 90 days prior to the election. "These purges have a long history of being racial and inaccurate," says Penda Hair, a lawyer for the North Carolina NAACP.

All of these efforts have the same goal: to reduce Democratic turnout. Shortly before the 2016 election, Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg of Bloomberg visited the Trump campaign and learned that, "Instead of expanding the electorate, (campaign chief executive Steve) Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. "We have three major voter suppression operations under way," says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans."

Thank you, Mister Trump campaign guy, your candor is refreshing.


Monday, May 28, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Six: Voter ID Laws

"Ahead of Trial, Pennsylvania Admits There is No Voter Fraud Problem"

The above headline encapsulates the farcical nature of all the fighting that's been done over new Voter ID laws and the non-existent problem of voter fraud in America in the last decade. Let's take a look at Pennsylvania, and how what happened there is a reflection of how Republicans all over America found yet another vehicle to subvert democracy.

In early 2012, Pennsylvania passed a strict voter identification law. From Jamelle Bouie of the Washington Post"Under the law, voters are required to show an unexpired government-issued ID. If an ID is not issued by either the state of Pennsylvania or the federal government, then it will not be accepted (for instance, student IDs from schools outside of the state). If you do not have an ID, you can receive a free one as long as you have a Social Security card, official birth certificate, and two proofs of residency."

There's a lot that's wrong with this law and similar laws in other states. From the same WaPo article: "It’s hard to overstate the problems with this requirement. A report released by the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month, which compared voter registration rolls with transportation department ID databases, found that more than 758,000 Pennsylvanians lack a driver’s license. According to the report, that amounts to 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million voters. This disproportionately includes students, minorities and the elderly, who tend to lack government-issued ID. According to the report, more than 21 percent of nonwhites in the state lack ID. In cities with heavy minority populations, like Philadelphia, 18 percent of the voting population lacks official identification. The ID itself is free, but when you consider the time and money involved in assembling the documents necessary to get one, this gap is likely to remain."

In other words, Republicans made voting more difficult for people who tend to vote for Democrats. In fact they're quite proud of it, with GOP House Leader Mike Turzai saying that the law would, "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

And it's not as if Republicans can claim that the new voter ID laws are in response to a legitimate problem. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New University of Law has studied election-related fraud and found for example, 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast.

Do Republicans believe that there is widespread voter fraud? That's impossible to know. President Trump claims without evidence that millions voted illegally in 2016, but then he admits to playing somewhat fast and loose with the truth. In Pennsylvania's case at least, there's a smoking gun: the Republicans attempting to defend their voter ID law in court made the astonishing admission that there "have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states."

The Pennsylvania story has a happy ending. In 2014, a state judge threw out the law, ruling, (from Rick Lyman of the New York Times), "that the law hampered the ability of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians to cast their ballots, with the burden falling most heavily on elderly, disabled and low-income residents, and that the state’s reason for the law — that it was needed to combat voter fraud — was not supported by the facts", and that, "the free IDs that were supposed to be made available to those without driver’s licenses or other approved photo identification were difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain."

The issue of the supposedly "free IDs" is an important one because it's indicative of the lengths Republicans will go to stop some people from voting. Alabama passed a strict voter ID law in 2011. Then, (surprise!) it began closing DMV offices in predominately black counties, making it all the more difficult for people to obtain the identification needed to vote. And again, some Republicans in Alabama aren't shy about what they are really trying to accomplish. From Scott Douglas of the New York Times, "A state senator who had tried for over a decade to get the bill into law, told The Huntsville Times that a photo ID law would undermine Alabama’s "black power structure." In The Montgomery Advertiser, he said that the absence of an ID law "benefits black elected leaders.""

In Texas, voters can use a concealed handgun permit to vote, but they cannot use student IDs from state universities. More gun nuts vote Republican, more students vote Democratic. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that the strict Texas law illegally discriminates against minorities; unfortunately, a slight loosening of the law means it will go into effect this year.

A recent study from the University of California San Diego found that strict ID laws doubled the turnout gap between whites and Latinos in the general elections, and almost doubled the white-black turnout gap in primary elections. Democrats can add this to the list of Republican disasters they need to fix, if and when they ever regain power in this country.