5 More Revelations following Ferguson

Ferguson protestors1Tensions remain high in the wake of the Grand Jury’s report released on Monday which declared that charges would not be brought against the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. last August.

In August I composed a blog addressing 4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson where I discussed the events of Ferguson within the larger context of persistent levels of racism, discrimination, and police action against American blacks.

The four points made and discussed in detail in that article were that:

  1. Blacks continue to be excluded from mainstream America
  2. Being Black makes one look ‘suspicious’ in America
  3. The police and the courts treat Blacks far differently than Whites and
  4. Local and state police have become excessively militarized.

As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently stated,

Ferguson is not just about systemic racism – it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back.

Now, with the nation’s attention once more fixed on Ferguson it is time to add to this list and present 5 More Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson. This time they place the events of Ferguson within the larger context of widespread racial discrimination, segregation, poverty, and exclusion.

Here they are:

  1. Ferguson protestors2Most white people in America don’t understand the real effects of racial discrimination. 

As Paul Waldman recently wrote in The American Prospect,

My privilege as a white man is to be unnoticed if I choose, because when I step into an elevator or walk through a store or pass a cop on the street, I’m an individual. No one looks at me and says, “Hmm—white guy there,” because I’m the default setting. I’m not suspicious, I’m not a potential criminal, I ring no alarm bells in anyone’s head.

Similarly, Nicholas Kristof, writing in “Sunday Review” for the New York Times, observes that most whites are benignly unaware of the harsh realities of racial inequality in American society. He says,

The greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks and that gives public schools serving disadvantaged children many fewer resources than those serving affluent children. We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.

  1. American communities are more racially segregated today than they were 60 years ago. 

The failure of many white Americans to understand the stark realities faced by most black Americans is largely due to whites having a very separate social experience from blacks.

Studies have shown that the vast majority of white people simply do not mix with blacks. Most have few if any black acquaintances. A 2013 American Values Survey found that the social networks of whites contain on average only one black and one Hispanic person, with 75% of whites having social networks that contain no racial minorities.

white - black friendsAs a result, white people simply do not share the same experiences as black people, and most whites have difficulty even imagining the challenges blacks face on a daily basis.

  1. Black Americans do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as white Americans 

This racial segregation is intimately tied in with economic segregation. Blacks (and Hispanics too) do not enjoy the same economic opportunities that white people – particularly middle class whites – take for granted.

As Jamelle Boule recently reported in Slate,

Median income among black Americans is roughly half that of white Americans. But a narrow majority of whites believe blacks earn as much money as whites, and just 37 percent believe that there’s a disparity between the two groups.

However, the following information from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals the true picture. It shows the average net worth of American households, adding together “all assets including money in checking accounts, owned homes, rental properties, 401ks, stocks and vehicles” and deducting “liabilities like mortgages, student loans, and medical and credit card debt” to arrive at a family’s “net worth.” Here are the results divided into quintile groupings:

average net worthYou can view these numbers in an interactive bar graph here. The figures for middle 20% group (highlighted above) are the most telling. Statistically, they show there is essentially no “middle class” among Black and Hispanic families.

  1. Richer Americans tend to see the poor as undeserving of help. 

Most poor people (and most black Americans) do not want to remain poor. That is not their desire. Rather, most lack the financial means and life skills to escape the cycle of poverty they are trapped in.

But couldn’t they escape their poverty if they really wanted to? Despite widespread and perhaps a naïve faith in “the American dream,” the fact is, America ranks far below most other developed countries in economic upward mobility. While other countries invest considerable resources in programs to stimulate upward mobility, the vast majority of Americans who are born into poverty will never escape it.

US RankingThe campaign to vilify poor people, to treat them as lazy and undeserving of aid, to limit their access to social support services, and to make it increasingly difficult to receive adequate levels of support is, to me, racist at its root. (Click here for more on this.)

Such a policy disproportionally targets black and Hispanic minorities; it keeps them mired in poverty and systematically denies them the necessary opportunities to exit the situations that entrap them.

  1. The majority of Americans oppose “wealth redistribution” to help the poor. 

Of course, the poor could be given the means of upward mobility. If America wanted to, it could use its resources to reinvest in public education, implement job-training programs and provide loans to small start-up business ventures. It could expand public health care, institute a living wage for all workers, expand low-cost public housing, and create sustainable inner city communities.

But that would constitute a major shift in priorities. It would entail diverting some wealth away from “deserving” individuals to help the “undeserving” poor.

Recently one of my relatives enclosed the following picture in a Facebook post.

Hitler : ClintonIt seems to make a social policy of caring for one’s neighbour into some sort of dangerous a Fascist ideal. That strikes me as rather strange, since I’m pretty sure that ensuring the welfare of one’s neighbor is deeply enshrined in both Jewish and Christian Scripture.

The appropriate course of action is at once both simple and difficult. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out above,

We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.

Therefore, two things are necessary:

  • First, we need to first be aware of the current power structures that perpetuate racial injustices against blacks and other minorities in American society.
  • Then, we need to implement new social and economic structures that grant all people dignity, treat all people fairly, and promote equal opportunity for all.

That is what the Founding Fathers had in mind, after all, when they enshrined “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as fundamental and unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence.

Photo credits: Adrees Latif/Reuters; Jeff Roberson, AP

Still Waiting for Justice in Ferguson and Beyond

Ferguson protestsThe streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in violence last night with the announcement that following a three month investigation, a state Grand Jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014.

As Ben Casselman noted in writing for FiveThirtyEight that same evening, it is incredibly rare for a Grand Jury not to indict a defendant. Casselman wrote,

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries, added,

If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong, It just doesn’t happen.

But it does seem to happen when an on-duty police officer is involved in a killing. Casselman notes that,

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.

And

 Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings.

In his defence, Wilson’s attorneys claimed that Wilson had “followed his training and followed the law” in the shooting death.

The kind of training police officers receive was an apparent factor in the police shooting of John Crawford III just five days earlier, on August 5, 2014, in Beavercreek, Ohio. Crawford was seen carrying an unpackaged BB/pellet rifle in a Walmart store when police officers, responding to an emergency call from another shopper, shot him on sight.

According to the family’s attorney,

Surveillance video showed Crawford facing away from officers, talking on the phone, and leaning on the pellet gun like a cane when he was “shot on sight” in a “militaristic” response by police.

surveillance footageIt was later revealed that just two weeks prior to this incident the local police had received a training “pep talk” in what to do when faced with an “active shooter threat.” Instead of evacuating the area and calling in a SWAT team, the officers were encouraged to “engage first” and ask questions later.

tamir-riceThen there is the alarming story from just this week of police in Cleveland, Ohio fatally shooting Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy, who was playing with a fake gun in a city park. According to the reports, police fired on him “despite the fact the suspected weapon was not pointed at them and no threats were made.”

The ugly fact is that according to seven years of FBI data,

White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States, or an average of 96 times a year.

An analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 shows that

Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers, mainly at the hands of white police officers.

hands up … don't shootAs Tom McKay recently reported on News.Mic,

the number of white cops shooting black people is just part of a larger problem. Black people across the United States are more likely to face discrimination in the criminal justice system and be harassed, arrested and shot by police. Sadly, even the most extreme cases of police excess often end in little punishment.

In a country where “open carry” laws allow white citizens to walk through their neighborhoods and enter businesses and even churches armed with assault rifles, it can be a death sentence for a black person to be seen with a gun even if it is a toy.

The Scope of the Problem

There is a great deal of truth in Zeeshan Aleem’s statement in Policy.Mic yesterday that in much of the U.S.,

race determines whether you’re viewed as a citizen or a problem.

To illustrate this point, I return to the statement of Paul Waldman cited in a previous post [4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson] whre he recalls that as a white person,

in all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.

This is in stark contrast to Jonathan Capehart’s recollection of the crucial lesson his mother drilled into him as a black youth of

How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.

The systemic oppression faced by black individuals – especially male black youth – in the U.S. is almost unimaginable to white Americans. Zeeshan Aleem reports that,

Black men not only encounter constant surveillance, violence and shockingly high chances of correctional supervision for matters that the rest of the population does not, but they also then face discrimination in housing, employment, financial services and political rights after they exit prison.

The following shocking statistics reinforce this claim:

  • the U.S. currently incarcerates a far greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid.
  • more than half of the young black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records)
  • more black adults live under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole —than under slavery in 1850.

It is no wonder that many African-Americans seriously mistrust the American system of justice. Under current laws and legal practices systematic injustice has become the norm.

For many white onlookers, the recent events in Ferguson have helped to lift the veil on this sordid side of American life. But for black Americans it was no revelation at all. It was a reality they were all too familiar with.

Photo credits: AP. CCTV

Benghazi – One More Time

BenghaziOn September 11, 2012 an angry mob attacked an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya killing four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens. Conservative critics of the Obama administration immediately jumped on the story. They accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of failing in her duty to protect these American lives and suggested the administration was covering up the real facts. Fox News alone devoted hundreds of hours to reporting on this so-called ‘scandal.’

As I reported in May 2013, [7 Troublesome Facts about the Benghazi Investigation]

After 5 committees, 9 investigative hearings and 2 reports on the Benghazi events, Republicans are still looking for something conclusive to pin on the Obama administration.

Then last Friday the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee released its own report that once-and-for-all cleared the administration of any wrongdoing in the Benghazi attacks in 2012.

The Associated Press report states in part:

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

It adds that,

Many of its findings echo those of six previous investigations by various congressional committees and a State Department panel.

Mike Thompson, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee is quoted in another news article saying the report “confirms that no one was deliberately misled, no military assets were withheld and no stand-down order (to U.S. forces) was given.”

beating a dead horseThis, I hope, will finally put to rest the witch-hunting so vigorously conducted by Darrel Issa and others over the last two years and the hysteria whipped up by Fox News. But somehow I doubt it. Many in the conservative base will keep hyperventilating over the issue and ranting about the supposed “scandal” that never was. But from now on, their rants will lack credibility.

It’s time for the leaders of this charade to drop their political grandstanding and accept the real facts.

Photo credit: AP

Lame Duck or Prizefighter?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonIn the months leading up to the U.S. midterm elections President Obama seemed to be sitting on the sidelines. Supports looked in vain for any sign of movement on a host of pressing issues including immigration, the XL pipeline, climate change, net neutrality, tax reform and economic policy.

The president recognized the massive wall of opposition from his Republican critics that awaited any action he might pursue on those issues. And so, he waited it out. He held off taking action on these matters until after the midterm elections were over so that Democratic candidates would not get caught in the cross fire.

But now Obama seems to be coming out of his corner – not defeated, but invigorated, saying in effect, “Bring it on.”

Obama - lame duckTonight Obama will inform the nation of his immigration policy to be implemented by executive order. Astonishingly, the major networks have refused to broadcast it – shouldn’t the “liberal” media be jumping at the chance to grant him this exposure? Instead, people will get selected “sound bites” broadcast later on – reflecting someone else’s take on his address.

Impeach ObamaI am sure Obama’s Republican critics will immediately start howling about Obama’s executive orders, demanding his impeachment – even though Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush instituted similar immigration changes by executive order during their administrations. (What? You mean the conservative media isn’t reporting this?)

According to the analysis I have read, Obama has full constitutional authority over deportations and how they shall be carried out. A recent article in the New Republic by Erwin Cherminsky, the Dean of Law at the University of California and Sam Kleiner, a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project, state,

One thing is clear: The president has the constitutional authority to decide to not proceed with deportations. It has always been within the president’s discretion to decide whether to have the Department of Justice enforce a particular law.

They explain,

A president may choose to not enforce particular laws when deciding how to allocate scarce resources or based on his view of the best public policy. Few object, for example, when the Department of Justice does not prosecute those who possess small amounts of marijuana, even though they violated the federal Controlled Substance Act. There are countless federal laws that go unenforced. In 1800, then congressman and later Chief Justice John Marshall stated, the president may “direct that the criminal be prosecuted no further” because it is “the exercise of an indubitable and constitutional power.”

They note that, “The president’s broad prosecutorial discretion has been repeatedly recognized by the courts.” Furthermore,

This prosecutorial discretion is even greater in immigration because the treatment of foreign citizens is inextricably intertwined with the nation’s foreign affairs, an area especially under the president’s control.

In fact, they report that

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981[P]residents of both parties have tailored immigration policy to their own goals. In 1987, the Reagan administration took executive action to limit deportations for 200,000 Nicaraguan exiles, even those who had been turned down for asylum. Similarly, President George H.W. Bush in 1990 limited deportations of Chinese students and in 1991 kept hundreds of Kuwait citizens from being deported. President Bill Clinton regularly used his power of prosecutorial discretion to limit deportations; in 1993 he gave 18-month extensions to Salvadoran residents, in 1997 he limited deportations for Haitians, and in 1998 he limited deportations to Central American counties that had been devastated by hurricanes.

220px-George-W-BushPresident George W. Bush also took major steps to limit deportations on humanitarian grounds. In 2001, he limited deportation of Salvadorian citizens at the request of the Salvadorian president who said that their remittances were a key part of their nation’s economy. The Bush administration embraced prosecutorial discretion and ordered the consideration of factors such as whether a mom was nursing a child or whether an undocumented person was a U.S. military veteran in making the determination on whether to order a deportation.

Obama’s conservative opponents will no doubt howl in protest and will dire utter threats over Obama’s actions. They will seek to mobilize their base and bring in a flurry of donations to help “take Obama down.”

But they will lose in the end. And the Latino community will remember who it was that attacked them and who defended them when the next election rolls around.

Obama boxing poseTo use a boxing metaphor, the bell has rung on “Round 1” in the post-election battle. Both parties are moving to the center of the ring poised to do battle, and the sparring has begun. It should be interesting to see who flails in the wind and who ends up landing the decisive blow.

Photo credit: AP

A Real Dictator?

Dictator_Frame1When right-wing Americans accuse Barack Obama of acting like a dictator, we Canadians just laugh. Obama doesn’t posses near the executive powers of our own Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Compared to Harper, Obama is a wuss.

Here, briefly, is how the Canadian parliamentary system works. In Canada in a national election people vote only to elect their local member of parliament. They do not cast a ballot to elect a Prime Minister as such. Following the election, the leader of the party that has the most Members of Parliament (MPs) becomes the governing Prime Minister.

However, a party leader has total control over who is allowed to run in an election. For a candidate’s nomination papers to be accepted, they must bear the leader’s signature. Once elected, they are to remain loyal to their party leader. Votes in the House of Commons, where legislation is passed, are “whipped” to maintain strict party discipline.

Together, the elected members of a party form a “caucus” to determine that party’s policies and strategies. The party leader has complete authority over the caucus, can throw any member out of caucus at will, and unilaterally determines the agenda of the caucus. The system gives the party leader complete dictatorial powers.

question_period.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxIf the party in power possesses a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, its legislation will always pass. There will be debate on the floor of the House, but often it will be a sham debate held only for the benefit of the cameras. When a party member rises to ask his or her minister a question, these days it is a prepared question scripted by the party’s communication office. The minister will then rise to answer with a response scripted by that same communications office. When opposition MPs rise to ask a question of a minister, that minister will respond with one of the available scripted responses – even if it does not pertain to the question asked – a practice that has become increasingly common during Question Period under the present Conservative administration led by Stephen Harper. No one is to go off script.

As political columnist Andrew Coyne recently stated at the McKercher Lecture Series at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law,

This is “an MP’s lot: to do as they are told, speak as they are told, vote as they are told, stand in their place when they are called upon [for a vote] and sit down after, to attack their opponents on cue, and shout their support for the leader, often to the tune of a standing ovation.”

Coyne continued, saying that Canadian Prime Ministers “have amassed powers that are quite without parallel” within any parliamentary system in the world. The Canadian Prime Minister appoints the Senators who give all legislation a “second reading” and can either approve the legislation or amend it and send it back to the House for reconsideration. He appoints the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) who provides the final signature passing any bill into law. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Supreme Court and all Federal Court judges. He appoints the ministers in his Cabinet, every Deputy Minister, and all parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs. In addition, he appoints the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all major crown corporations (national public utilities, etc.), and the Chief of the RCMP (the national police force). Even the (supposedly) independent officers of Parliament such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy and Ethics Commissioners are all appointed by the Prime Minister. These appointments are not subject to opposition, debate, or review. The decision is solely the Prime Minister’s.

Coyne continued,

And that is just the start. The Prime Minister alone, for example, decides when to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections. Coupled with the power to declare any vote a matter of confidence, he effectively has a gun to the heads of any member of either side of the Commons who might be tempted to defeat a parliamentary bill.

Mind you, if government MPs are powerless, they are Caesars compare to the opposition in their desperate futile attempt to hold the government to account. Have you watched Question Period? They can’t get their questions answered when they ask them. Indeed, they can’t get the documents they demand. And when they do … they can’t trust the numbers in them. And on those rare, rare occasions when a government is finally being held to account, when it really comes under close scrutiny, it prorogues [suspends Parliament] for months at a time.

We should note that Stephen Harper has pushed the exercise of these powers further than any Prime Minister before him, leading Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party to complain that Stephen Harper isn’t acting as a “real” Canadian. Nevertheless, these powers exist under the Canadian parliamentary system.

By contrast, President Obama possesses none of these executive powers. The American system of checks and balances limits his authority in every of these areas. He will never possess the kind of unilateral executive authority that our own Canadian Prime Minister has.

So take note, Americans. If you want to see a real dictator in action, don’t look to Obama in Washington. Look north of your border to Canada’s Stephen Harper.

Photo credit: Adrian Wild / The Canadian Press

Suppressing the Vote

In my previous blog [Getting Out the Vote] I presented evidence showing that typical non-voters (those who are young, belong to racial and ethnic minorities, and are poor) tend to have more liberal and progressive views than those who actually turn out to vote.

This led to the conclusion that

when typical non-voters become mobilized, they can have a significant impact on both national and state policies.

Various studies were cited showing this to be the case.

My concluding observation in that blog was that

Of course, there are some who have a vested interest in keeping this from happening.

It is now time to address that issue.

Democratic presidential candidate Obama speaks to supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in NashuaIn 2008 younger and ethnically diverse Americans mobilized in large numbers to vote for a junior senator named Barack Obama. He was swept into office on a platform of “hope” and “change,” and promised much more progressive policies than the previous administration. His electoral victory reflected many of the aspirations of this normally unrepresented (or underrepresented) segment of the American public. If they had not rallied around him in such large numbers, he would not have been elected.

Conservatives responded with an orchestrated campaign to keep this newly elected president from achieving any of his goals. They also soon began an orchestrated campaign to keep to this new contingent of voters who had put him in office from doing so again. If Republicans could not win the support of the traditional non-voters who were now turning out to vote, they would have to limit the participation of this group in future elections.

defund ObamacareIn the 2010 midterm elections the traditional conservative base was whipped into a frenzy in opposing Obama’s signature piece of legislation – the Affordable Care Act. They turned out in strong numbers to oppose Obama and defeat Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, the contingent of Obama’s youthful, racially diverse supporters from 2008 failed to materialize in the 2010 “off-year” election. Republicans not only took back the House of Representatives, but also took control of many state legislatures and governorships.

Emboldened by their sizeable gains, especially at the state level, Republicans began to put forward legislation to restrict voters from this decidedly pro-Obama demographic group from voting in future elections. Writing in Talking Points Memo in January 2014, Tova Andrea Wang states that

Following the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans made major gains across the country, a tsunami of bills were introduced that were clearly designed to throw up obstacles to voting for traditionally Democratic constituencies: African Americans, low income people, immigrants, among others.

Show IDThis legislation mainly focused on what are commonly referred to as Voter ID laws. In its formal report on “Voting Law Changes in 2012” the Brennan Center for Justice stated that large Republican gains in the 2010 midterms turned voter ID laws into a “major legislative priority.”

In the year 2011 legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo IDs. In states that already had existing voter ID laws, lawmakers toughened the statutes, often requiring proof of photo identification. Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania passed the toughest legislation not allowing voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing a valid photo ID.

Voter ID lawsAccording to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. Nate Silver at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog estimated that these restrictions could decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 and 2.4 percent – enough to reverse the outcome of any close electoral race.

Prominent Republican officials championed these laws. In a much quoted statement, Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, praised the the Pennsylvania legislature for passing its new law, saying, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

More laws went into effect after June 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court in struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain areas, such as states in the South, to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, stated, “We haven’t seen a legislative movement like this since Reconstruction”

Some of those laws were later struck down as unconstitutional, but many others still stand. [Go here to see a descriptive listing of these laws as of May 2014.] At present, 22 states have voter restriction laws that still stand and can be used to shift the outcome in tight electoral races.

let the people voteThe respected academic journal Perspectives on Politics contained a report in its December 2013 issue by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien entitled, “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” In analyzing “the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation” through 2011, the authors state,

Our results indicate that proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments.

Their analysis shows that

in those states where there were a larger percentage of minority voters … , the number of laws restricting voting rights proposed by lawmakers also went up. Similarly, in those states where the percentage of low-income voters rose, the response was to propose more laws making it harder to vote. In those states with a bigger African-American population, more restrictive legislation also passed and became law.

They also found that in the states where Republicans dominated the legislature the most, there the most restrictive voting laws were passed. Furthermore, “in ‘swing states,’ where Republicans feared losing power, Republican lawmakers responded by passing lots of laws to make voting harder in 2011.”

In reviewing this research article, Harold Pollack of the Washington Monthly concluded that

Republican governors and legislatures have sought to hinder minority turnout for partisan purposes. States were especially likely to pass restrictive voting laws if Republicans were politically dominant, but [also] where the state observed rising minority turnout or where the state was becoming more competitive in the national presidential race.

A later study from the University of Southern California similarly concluded that

“discriminatory intent underlies legislative support for voter identification laws.”

The Campaign against “Voter Fraud”

SAMSUNG DIGITAL MOVIEThe rational given for these restrictive voting laws was that they were necessary to prevent “voter fraud.” And yet voter fraud has been found to be extremely rare

A Justice Department study found that between 2002 and 2005, just 40 voters (out of 197 million votes cast for federal candidates) were indicted for voter fraud, and just 26 resulted in convictions or guilty pleas.

A more recent study by political scientists at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin similarly found that

virtually all the major scholarship on voter impersonation fraud – based largely on specific allegations and criminal investigations – has concluded that it is vanishingly rare, and certainly nowhere near the numbers necessary to have an effect on any election.

In July of this year Christopher Ingram of the Washington Post provided a comprehensive overview of “7 papers, 4 government inquiries, 2 news investigations and 1 court ruling proving voter fraud is mostly a myth.”

Also in July 2014 Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola University Law School and an expert in constitutional law with a particular focus on election administration and redistricting, reported on his own exhaustive review of voter fraud cases saying,

I’ve been tracking allegations of fraud for years now, including the fraud ID laws are designed to stop. In 2008, when the Supreme Court weighed in on voter ID, I looked at every single allegation put before the Court. And since then, I’ve been following reports wherever they crop up.

So far, I’ve found about 31 different incidents (some of which involve multiple ballots) since 2000, anywhere in the country.

To put this in perspective, the 31 incidents [arise from] general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014. In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.

Fraud Concept - Magnifying Glass.It’s time for everyone to understand that voter ID laws aren’t really about preventing fraud. They are about keeping certain people from becoming eligible to vote. Voter ID laws require a person to present an approved state issued form of ID when they appear at a polling station so that they cannot impersonate another person when they vote. However, the vast majority of these laws do nothing to prevent people from mailing in fraudulent ballots, which is the most common form of voter fraud. But the designers of these laws do not sem to be overly concerned about that.

As Sarah Childress reported in October 2014,

A FRONTLINE analysis of voting laws nationwide found that only six of the 31 states that require ID at the polls apply those standards to absentee voters, who are generally whiter and older than in-person voters. …

In 2012, nearly half, or 46 percent, of mail-in voters were aged 60 and older, and more than 75 percent were white, according to an analysis by Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who tracks demographic trends in voting. Older white Americans generally are more likely to vote Republican.

[On the other hand,] African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are less likely to use mail-in ballots.

African-Americans tend to show up at the polls in person, often coming in groups bussed in from their churches to cast their ballots in advance on the Sunday before the election. Curiously, many states governed by Republican administrations have moved to eliminate advance polling on these Sundays.

It is also difficult for many poorer Americans to obtain these required voter IDs. As Childress reports,

African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to lack one of these qualifying IDs … . Even when the state offers a free photo ID, these voters, who are disproportionately low-income, may not be able to procure the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one.

She notes that

Six of the 16 states that have passed voter ID laws since 2010 have a documented history of discriminating against minority voters. All but one of those states’ laws were put in place after the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required them to seek approval from the Justice Department for any voting-law changes (emphasis added).

Voter-ID-protestThe unpleasant fact is that these voter ID laws as they have been implemented are discriminatory against the poor, who often are Hispanic or African-Americans, and who tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. Robert Levine, along with many others, has called it a new “poll tax” on the poor. He explains that,

Poll taxes had been in effect prior to the Civil War, with all male citizens having to pay a fee in order to vote. However, post-Civil War, the tax was selectively aimed at disenfranchising black citizens, as they were too poor to pay the fees. Similarly, since most of the former slaves had little if any education, and the school systems for blacks were generally inadequate after they were freed, literacy tests were merely a means to prevent them from casting ballots in states where whites controlled all the levers of power. Mississippi initiated the literacy tests in 1890, with other Southern states following their lead. It wasn’t until the 24th Amendment passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that poll taxes and literacy tests were declared illegal and new ways to disenfranchise minorities had to be found.

Thus, the latest iteration, voter ID laws that have been passed in the red states where the legislatures and governorships are in Republican hands. The supposed rationale for these laws is to prevent voter fraud and to encourage voter turnout. But the real … reason these laws have been passed is to curb voting by minorities, older and disabled people, and hourly workers, most of whom tend to vote Democratic. There are a higher percentage of people among these groups who do not have driver’s licenses or special IDs and it is difficult for many of these people to get the necessary IDs because they don’t drive, don’t have the necessary funds, or can’t get time off from work.

There is much more that could be reported. I have not even mentioned the attempts to restrict voting among college students or the fact that due to incredibly high incarcerations rates for African-Americans, 1 in 13 Blacks are legally prohibited from voting.

Returning to the point made earlier: afraid of losing control, Republicans have mounted a concerted attempt to keep youth, racial minorities and the poor from being able to vote in elections. It is, in my view, a desperate measure, and it is shameful. This is America, where everyone should be given an equal opportunity to vote.

Photo credits: Reuters; Corbis; Pat Carter (AP); Marc Levy (AP)

Getting Out the Vote

VotingIt is now being reported that only 36.4% of the eligible American electorate actually voted in last week’s midterm elections, a 72 year low. What do we know about this majority of eligible voters who do not turn out to vote? A PEW Research poll released just days before the midterm elections, noted that overall, these non-voters tend to be younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and less affluent and less educated than those who do vote.

PEW Voters, non-votersEarlier this week I came across a fascinating article by Sean McElwee in Talking Points Memo that profiled the views of those who vote and those who do not vote in American elections. The results were quite revealing.

The article opens by stating, “For decades, the conventional wisdom in political science was that the voting electorate was a ‘carbon copy’ of the non-voting electorate.” This led some political scientists to argue that, “outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” The article claims that while this assertion may have been tenable 30 years ago, “wide chasms have opened up” within the American populace since then that are reflected in current voting patterns.

The first observation the article makes is that voting turnout correlates strongly with income. As the level of income rises, so does the proportion of those who vote.

Voter turnout - IncomeStatistical analysis shows that those with the lowest household incomes (not surprisingly) turn out to vote in the lowest numbers, while those with the highest incomes vote most. What really caught my attention is the fact that while just over 80% of those with annual household incomes at or above $150,000 voted in 2008, nearly 100% of the super rich (the 1%ers) voted.

Moreover, sociological surveys shows that the wealthiest one percent is more conservative in their political views than the population as a whole. This is true across the board. Not only are wealthy Republicans more conservative than Republicans in general, “even wealthy Democrats are more conservative on economic issues than Democrats on the whole.”

With higher voter participation rates being linked to higher income levels and more conservative social values, one also finds an inverse correlation between progressive social values and voter turnout. Overall, those who do not vote tend to have significantly more progressive social views than voters do.

When respondents were asked their views on progressive social issues such as making union organizing easier, providing more federal assistance for schools, having government job guarantees, and the government providing public health insurance, it was discovered that non-voters were in favor of these issues much more than actual voters.

Nonvoters - more liberal1Similarly, those who do not vote tend to have significantly more liberal economic views than voters do. When asked whether they would prefer higher taxes and more government funded services or lower taxes and fewer services, the responses given by likely voters and those who were not registered to vote were quite different. Those not registered to vote were much more in favor of higher taxes and more services, whereas the opposite was true among likely voters.

Voters - taxesIn a separate study on American attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), a very similar picture emerged. Far more “likely voters” than non-voters expressed the view that “the country would be better off if [the ACA] is repealed.” In addition, far more “likely voters” than non-voters felt that “government is doing too many things,” while far more non-voters than likely voters felt “government should do more to solve problems.”

Nonvoters - more liberal2The author of the article concludes that this data suggests “more turnout, particularly among low-income voters, would shift our political system to the left.”

Because non-voters are more economically liberal than voters, the median voter is more conservative than the electorate at large. If more low-income people voted, politicians would become more economically liberal to court the new voters.

Citing a separate study by Brookman and Skovron, the author notes that in actuality this principle works in the reverse.

[C]onservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by more than 20 percentage points on average, and liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points

This, he says, is not surprising. After all, “Politicians respond to voters, not non-voters.” In fact, studies have shown that political parties consistently overlook “low-income constituents who are unlikely to vote.”

rally-150x150However, in places where lower income earners do turn out to vote, the effect can be quite remarkable. He notes that “when low income voters turn out at a higher rate, it leads to more generous policies,” and “where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.”

Studies have shown that “states with smaller voting gaps [in voting turnout] across incomes had policies more favorable to the poor.” And “States with low turnout inequality have a higher minimum wage, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits than those with high turnout inequality.”

These studies also show that “in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits,” whereas “states with a more pronounced turnout bias spend less on social welfare.”

These findings show that when typical non-voters become mobilized, they can have a significant impact on both national and state policies.

Of course, there are some who have a vested interest in keeping this from happening. That will be the subject of my next blog: Suppressing the Vote.

Photo credit: Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images;