From the Suites to the Streets

20 05 2009

President and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. was quoted in a recent puff piece in the Politico saying, “We have to be able to move politics from the hood to the Hill and from the suites to the streets.”

Damn, why didn’t I think of that?

According to Politico, Rev. Yearwood has also been pounding the DC pavement in lobbying Congress on a variety of pieces of legislation including prisoner reentry programs, tackling climate change, and funding for a one-day voter registration drive.

Now dats what I’m talking about.

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A Skeptical Court Hears Voting Rights Act Case

30 04 2009

Yesterday, a skeptical U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states and localities with a history of voting discrimination submit changes in voting procedures, or gain “pre-clearance,” by the federal government for approval.

The case involves a municipal utility district in Texas that wants to sidestep needing to comply with the provision because it claims the kind of discrimination that it once deterred no longer exists. Board member elections in the utility district require pre-clearance since the entire state of Texas falls under the jurisdiction of Section 5.

The case is called Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder.

Adam Liptak’s summary in the NYT of yesterday’s oral argument was spot on, especially his description of Justice Kennedy’s hostile line of questioning. And if his questioning is any indication, which in this case I think it is, Kennedy will likely write the majority or controlling opinion as he did in the Section 2 case earlier this year and erode much of Section 5, while of course noting that racial discrimination “is not ancient history.”

Perhaps, the real question here is how badly the Court will gut Section 5 and if it will introduce or demand that Congress create a more precise and less far reaching standard in determining which states and jurisdictions should be covered and why, even if in 2006 it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act only after it held 19 hearings and reviewed thousands of pages of testimony and documents.

Plus, a very curious exchange between Justice Scalia and Debo Aegbile from LDF during yesterday’s oral arguments.

Scalia actually suggested that simply because the VRA was cleared both chambers of Congress by wide margins, even if both houses and the Oval Office were controlled by Republicans at the time, we should be skeptical of its validity. In other words, we should be skeptical of the law, which has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, because it got too much support. Huh?

If we applied that same line of thinking to other laws enacted by Congress such as the American Disabilities Amendments Act that passed this fall and signed by a Republican president, then I suppose we should consider them invalid too. Or maybe we should consider the unanimous opinions like in Brown v. Board of Ed invalid because they also had too much support.

What happened to judicial modesty and due deference to legislative bodies that conservatives love to spout?

Here’s the exchange:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Adegbile, what was — I read it in the briefs, and I forget what it was. What was the vote on this 2006 extension — 98 to nothing in the Senate, and what was it in the House? Was –

MR. ADEGBILE: It was — it was 33 to 390, I believe.

JUSTICE SCALIA: 33 to 390. You know, the — the Israeli Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there. Do you ever expect — do you ever seriously expect Congress to vote against a reextension of the Voting Rights Act? Do you really think that any incumbent would — would vote to do that?

MR. ADEGBILE: Well –

JUSTICE SCALIA: Twenty-five years from now? Fifty years from now? When?

MR. ADEGBILE: Justice Scalia, I think some members of Congress did of course vote against the Act.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Thirty-three members of the House and nobody in the Senate.

MR. ADEGBILE: Thirty-three members of the House, indeed. But I think the — the reason that they voted for it is what’s more important. Congress did not assume that section 5 was necessary. It took a very careful examination to see how it was operating, and the determination was that in the absence of section 5, because of the repetitive violations, because of 620 objections — there was evidence that approximately 60 percent of those show some evidence of intentional discrimination.

If you take away the prophylaxis, the discrimination will return in a way that we don’t need to revisit. The history has been that voting discrimination manifests itself through repetitive efforts and…..

Besides Texas, eight other states are covered by the provision, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Most of Virginia and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota are also covered.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate discriminatory voting practices by state and local governments. The law has been renewed and amended several times since it was passed, most recently with a 25-year renewal in 2006 where it cleared the Senate by a 98-0 and the House 390-33.





Reforming the Prison System

5 01 2009

Senator Jim Webb will introduce legislation aimed at reforming the prison system during upcoming session of Congress. According to the Washington Post, Webb wants to reform law enforcement’s efforts targeting low-level drug actors instead of more influential players in the drug trade, policies incarcerating ex-convicts for technical parole violations, and laws depriving or curtailing the voting rights of ex-offenders.

The effects of the proliferation of failed criminal justice policies and enforcement strategies have been well documented. Despite having only five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has a quarter of the world’s prison population. The 2.3 million behind bars are not only disproportionately black and Latino, but also amounts to one percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the Pew Center on the States.

In 2004, Latinos and African Americans  inmates made up 19.4  and 43.4 percent of those population state penitentiaries, respectively. Yet the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Latinos and African American only 14.8 and 12.8 percent of the U.S. population.

Approximately, one in 106 white men aged 18 or older are in prison, compared to one in 36 Hispanic men and one in 15 for black men in the same age group. More strikingly, one in 9 black men between 20 and 34 are in prison, according to Pew.

us-and-west-european-incarceration-2001

(Source: Hamilton Project)

For some, Webb seems an unlikely figure champion of progressive criminal justice, since his biography has all the makings of a law and order conservative. But the one time Republican and highly decorated Marine captain, Vietnam war veteran and former Reagan Naval Secretary, had what he described as an “eye opening” experience as a journalist reporting on how the Japanese prison were run.

In a speech at the National Press Club, Senator Webb said he was struck by how Japan in the early 1980’s managed to have only 40,000 people in prison in a society with more than 100 million. By contrast, the U.S. incarcerated about 780,000 people in a society of more than 200 million at that time, according to Webb in his speech.

He was also impressed with how the Japanese, unlike the their U.S. counterparts, separated offenders in prison by the type of offense they committed instead of lumping together violent felons with non-violent ones. And he also took notice of the overall focus on the readmission of inmates in the greater society with marketable skills. In other words, the Japanese authorities actually invested in rehabilitating people in their correctional facilities.

As a freshman Senator, Webb joined a growing number of policy experts and lawmakers advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Webb co-sponsored the Second Chance Act in the U.S. Senate, which Illinois Congressman Danny Davis helped conceive, and signed into law by President Bush in April 2008. The measure provides more than $360 million in federal funding to help ex-0ffenders reintegrate into society by providing substance abuse treatment for those who need it, assistance in obtaining identification cards, which is critical to landing a job, job training, and financial incentives for employers willing to hire ex-felons.

The goal of the bill was to reduce the recidivism rate, which has skyrocketed in recent years along with state spending supporting incarceration policies. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Annual criminal-justice expenditures for police, prisons, probation and courts have risen to more than $200 billion from $36 billion in 1982.”

Meanwhile, state correctional spending is gradually edging out other priorities such as higher education, as evidenced by the graph below. States such as Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Oregon spend just as much on corrections as they do on higher education.

state-spending-on-corrections-and-higher-ed

But in addition to reentry programs lawmakers should reconsider the variety of policies supporting the failed war on drugs too. For starters, Congress should direct its attention to correcting the disparities in sentencing guidelines for crack and power cocaine. Despite the fact that we now know that they pharmacologically induce the same effects, 5 grams of crack – less than two sugar cubes, carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. The same penalty applies to those with power cocaine if they are caught with 500 grams. That’s a 100 to 1 disparity. Interestingly enough, about 75 percent of crack cocaine defendants are only low level offenders, not the major king pings and traffickers that are truly profiting from the drug trade.

During the last 25 years or so, drug arrests have tripled, thereby creating a 1100% increase in drug offenders in prisons and jails since 1980. The U.S. went from imprisoning 41,100 in 1980 to nearly half a million on drug charges alone according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.

The same organization also found that while African Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users and yet they are still 37 percent of arrested for a drug offense in state prison.

On the change.gov website, Obama’s agenda includes not only eliminating the crack-cocaine disparity, but also the expansion of drug courts, since they are more effective at reducing recidivism, drug use and other forms of criminal activity.

States and the federal government should also reconsider jailing and imprisoning ex-convicts for mere technical violations of their parole, since they are nonviolent offenses. It needlessly enlarges the prison population and impedes the reintegration of people who deemed threats to public safety simply because he missed an appointment, failed a drug test, or lost a job. Such routine violations indicate a greater need for counseling and other forms of intervention rather than incarceration.

Lastly, felons should be allowed to vote after completing their sentence and parole.  Felon disenfranchisement laws date back to the Jim Crow era and were engineered to suppress minority voting. Today, the ACLU estimates about 5.3 million people are affected by laws barring those with criminal records from voting.

Webb seems to understand the importance of it all when he said, “If you have paid the price that your community, through its government, has decided you should pay for the crime that you have done, then you should be made whole. I don’t think that’s a difficult concept.”

Hopefully, the new administration and new Congress will move forward with these reforms while they have they still have the political momentum on their back rather fear the next campaign attack ad calling them soft on crime because they were smart on policy.





Voter Suppression and Provisional Ballots

4 11 2008

CNN is reporting “six Republican election board workers in Philadelphia were told to leave their polling precincts” since they lacked authorization such as a court order to work at that particular polling precinct. Apparently, some in the McCain-Palin campaign might respond by taking legal action. Campaign officials are even publicly suggesting that it’s part of an effort to intimidate Republicans in a part of the state where they don’t predominate.

Bill Porritt a campaign spokesperson told CNN “Election board officials guard the legitimacy of the election process and the idea that Republicans are being intimidated and banned for partisan purposes does not allow for an honest and open election process.”

Historically, its been the GOP who has led efforts to intimidate and suppress voter turnout, especially in neighborhoods filled with people of color, naturalized immigrants, and poor people. Coincidentally, 45 percent of the city is African American, 10.5 percent is Hispanic, nine percent is foreign born, and 21 percent lives below the poverty line, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau.

Nevertheless, certain Republican figures, such as former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton are propagating this ridiculous notion of “reverse intimidation” directed at GOP lawyers and officials.

Check it out.

Part of the GOP’s suppression strategy is to challenge votes, or dispute someone’s right to vote on technical grounds, at the polling sites, which inevitably extend wait times on lines. This often results in people having to cast provisional ballots, not regular ballots.

So what’s wrong with provisional ballots? Well, the Brennan Center explains:

In part because of their novelty, in many states, provisional ballots generated confusion before, during, and after the 2004 election. A number of states did not plan for provisional balloting until shortly before the election, and the rules kept changing up until the last minute. Not surprisingly, this led to widespread problems at the polls and afterward.

A report of the Election Protection Coalition found that provisional ballot problems were among the top five complaints registered on its 1-866-Our-Vote hotline. Most of the reported incidents consisted of complaints that provisional ballots were not available at polling sites, that poll workers did not offer or refused to allow voters to cast provisional ballots, and that poll workers were confused about provisional balloting procedures and rules.

Problems in administering provisional ballots may have disenfranchised many eligible voters. For example, where provisional ballots were not available or not offered, eligible voters were turned away from the polls as before HAVA. And provisional ballots also created problems that did not exist before. For example, reports from poll sites across the country suggest that many voters who should have been entitled to cast regular ballots were given provisional ballots—which had a lower chance of being counted—instead.

In addition, in part because of cumbersome procedures, provisional ballots led to delays at many polling places; the resulting long lines peeled off a not insubstantial number of voters.





Polling Still Trending in Obama’s Direction

24 10 2008

Now while most political observers fully expect the race to tighten up in the next few days nationally and in certain battleground states, the most recent polling spell nothing but doom for John McCain. Obama has the lead in two different polls in Florida and the same is true of Indiana.  He is also leading in at least one poll in Montana, and continues to lead by double digits in several different Ohio and Pennsylvania polls, and is up by a whopping 22.3 points in Michigan.

Take a look.

Though Nate Silver concedes much of this is good news for the Obama campaign, he cautions Obama supporters against reading too much into the recent polling.

To find good news for McCain, you have to go South — to the deep South — where new polling in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana suggests that those states have yet to become competitive.

As a result of all of this, there is now no perceptible rebound for John McCain; in fact, the race may still be trending toward Obama, although the safer assumption is that it’s flat. Meanwhile, Obama’s electoral position appears as strong as ever. John McCain’s chances of winning the election have dwindled to 3.7%, down from 6.5% yesterday.

Today’s article in the Washington Post on the recent polling summarized the implications of the findings:

What all the polls, battleground and national, point to is that Obama now has multiple routes to 270 electoral votes, the winning number, while McCain has to win virtually everything that is competitive. Pollster.com lists seven tossup states. All were won by President Bush four years ago.

Many analysts have long predicted that the race could stay close until the end but that it could pop open in the final weeks — and if that happened, it would most likely go in Obama’s direction.

(H/T: FiveThirtyEight.com)





Voter ID Silliness

13 05 2008

I simply do not understand how photo voter ID advocates can push for more restrictive laws as a means of preventing undocumented immigrants from swaying close elections. If you are in the country illegally why in the world would you show up at the polls? Too many immigrants are afraid to go to the hospital much less show up at the polls to cast a ballot.

That would be the last place I would go.

Plus, actual U.S. citizens are the ones who bear the brunt of these laws whether are foreign or native born. Access to or affording to pay for a birth certificate or a passport or some other type of government issued identification document to obtain a photo ID card may in fact be too expensive for some people, particularly if they have to renew those IDs often. The elderly, the poor, people of color and immigrants will be disproportionately affected by these voter ID laws.

According to the Brennan Center, “as many as 7 percent of U.S. citizens do not have ready access to citizenship documents.” The same study also found “citizens earning less than $25,000 per year are more than twice as likely to lack ready documentation of their citizenship as those earning more than $25,000.”

The New York Times is also found that since Arizona adopted Proposition 200, a measure that made voting contingent upon proof of citizenship, more than 38,000 voter registration forms have been rejected even though the vast majority of the applicants swore under penalty of law that they were native born citizens. Under federal law such penalties may include jail time and stiff fines.

Meanwhile there has been scant evidence of voter fraud being a pervasive problem. In fact, after the Bush Justice Department made prosecuting voter fraud cases a top priority for more than five years only “about 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted” in 2006. This is after two midterm and one presidential election where millions of people voted.

Unsurprisingly, most of those arrested were Democrats.

The partisan advantage of these laws and who they target is unmistakable. Royal Masset, a Texas GOP operative, reportedly told the Houston Chronicle in 2007 that Voter ID laws could lead to a reduction in legitimate Democratic voting and even add as much as 3 percent to the Republican column.

Score one for voter rights.





Superdelegates and Yet Still in College?

11 05 2008

Its fair to say that most of us, whether Republican or Democrat or Independent, consider the very notion that some people within the Democratic party get to be Superdelegates rather absurd. Its just seems silly that such public servants, most of whom were elected, should hold so much sway as to who gets the nomination.

But if that wasn’t bad enough some of those Superdelegates are not even elected officials. In fact, some of them are Democratic party activists who are still in college.

Consider Lauren Wolfe of University of Detriot Mercy and Awais Khaleel of University of Wisconsin at Madison. Both of whom, by virtue of being president and vice president, respectively, of College Democrats of America, are Superdelegates.

And apparently they made an appeal to their peers for some guidance as to who they should they endorse in
a recent YouTube video.

Watch it.

Wow. College pizza looks the same everywhere. I guess thats why I only eat real pizza when I am in New York City. Just saying….

At any rate, it seems as if the coed Superdelegates got their wish….and then some. According to Threat Level at Wired, the two have been inundated by thousands of email and Facebook messages lobbying them to choose one over the other.

Jason Rae, 21, another Superdelgete still working towards completing his undergraduate degree, and Obama supporter, also wrote an open letter lobbying in an effort to persuade his fellow coeds to support the Illinois Senator. That too was done in conjunction with Students for Obama one of the many forces behind the Obama campus insurgency.

For those wondering, according to the WSJ, Wolfe, Khaleel, and Rae complete the trio of Superdelegates still in college.

Needless to say, these kids got it made. I am sure they could use some of their leverage for a nice gig in the White House or Justice Department or at least some decent pizza in New York or a steak dinner in DC.

(H/T: Sarah Lai Stirland at Threat Level)