The First Order Of Election Business

Americans may not have settled on a candidate to oppose the madman in the White House, but there is widespread agreement that the 2020 election will be a critical test of our national character.

It will also be a test of our electoral structures. Just how democratic are our elections? How easily rigged?

I’m not even talking about the threat of Russian interference. I’m talking about the glaringly obvious susceptibility of our elections to corruption–gerrymandering, of course, but also voter ID laws, and other vote suppression tactics.

It took the Guardian rather than an American news operation to do a front-page story on research by the Brennan Center.

US election jurisdictions with histories of egregious voter discrimination have been purging voter rolls at a rate 40% beyond the national average, according to a watchdog report released on Thursday.

At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to a studyby the Brennan Center for Justice. The number was basically unchanged from the previous two-year period.

While the rate of voter purges elsewhere has declined slowly, jurisdictions released from federal oversight by a watershed 2013 supreme court ruling had purge rates “significantly higher” than jurisdictions not previously subjected to oversight, the Brennan Center found in a previous report.

That trend has continued, the watchdog said, with the disproportionate purging of voters resulting in an estimated 1.1 million fewer voters between 2016 and 2018.

It will come as no surprise that the increase in purges began almost immediately after Shelby County v Holder in 2013, a decision that eviscerated the section of the Voting Rights Act that had subjected counties with histories of voter discrimination to federal oversight. The ruling was incredibly naive–it reminded me of Lee Hamilton’s comment that the Supreme Court needs fewer graduates of elite law schools and more justices who’d run for county sheriff. It simply ignored evidence of contemporary voter suppression tactics– strict voter identification laws, partisan gerrymandering and aggressive voter purges.

Voter roll purges are regularly undertaken to account for voters who move or die. But critics say that aggressive and unfair purges of voter rolls in recent years – such as a purge of 107,000 voters in Georgia in 2017 by the then secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who was subsequently elected governor by the electorate he had culled – have warped democracy.

“As the country prepares for the 2020 election, election administrators should take steps to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot next November,” the Brennan Center said in a statement. “Election day is often too late to discover that a person has been wrongfully purged.”

The Brennan Center study points to the critical importance of Stacy Abrams’ new initiative. (Abrams, of course, was the Georgia gubernatorial candidate cheated out of a likely win by Brian Kemp.) As The Atlantic  has reported

Stacey Abrams was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2018, when the former state representative came within 54,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race, in an election marred by extensive reports of voter suppression. But despite the wave of calls urging her to parlay that political stardom into a presidential (or Senate) bid, Abrams will instead focus on fighting voter suppression through a new initiative called Fair Fight 2020, which, as she put it, aims to“make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018.” …

“I think what her experience this past year revealed was, regardless of how dynamic of a candidate you are, how much mobilization that you implement—particularly to mobilize voters who may not vote regularly and could not or have not voted at all—the effort to suppress the vote was, in her case, insurmountable,” says Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University. “I think it would be a mistake for any presidential candidate not to think about it.”

American voters–and the American media–regularly focus on personalities, polls and other “horse race” metrics, giving short shrift to the systemic environment that all too often determines outcomes– and even shorter shrift to coverage of partisans who game those systems.

It isn’t just the anti-democratic Electoral College.

If Americans somehow manage to overwhelm these anti-democratic processes–if we manage to elect rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

 

Trump And Netanyahu

Every once in a while, we Americans need to remind ourselves that our problems are not unique. As we agonize over the daily offenses against sanity, humanity and ethics emanating from the Trump White House, other countries are also suffering under “leaders” concerned more for their personal aggrandizement than the interests of their citizens. Some of them–like Trump– were even elected.

Which brings me to the recent acquiescence of Israel’s Netanyahu to Trump’s demand that Israel bar two American lawmakers from entering the country.

Trump babbled nonsense about his support of Israel and the “weakness” Bibi would show if he allowed the two to enter the country. The reality–as usual with Trump–was far different; refusing U.S. lawmakers’ entry was an unprecedented and offensive act against elected officials of a close ally. In fact, it was so unprecedented–and so harmful to Israel’s own interests–that even AIPAC issued a reproof. (If you are unfamiliar with AIPAC, it is Israel’s most devoted lobby in the U.S., known for slavish defense of virtually anything Israel does.)

I think it is notable that some of the most severe criticisms have come from AmericanJewish organizations and pundits. If Trump assumed he would get plaudits from American Jews, he was sadly mistaken. (That mistake probably explains yesterday’s anti-Semitic outburst questioning the loyalty of any American Jew who dares to criticize his position on Israeli leadership or policies, let alone any American Jew who has the gall to vote Democratic.)

Tom Friedman pulled no punches in the New York Times:

Trump — with the knowing help of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — is doing something no American president and Israeli prime minister have done before: They’re making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics.

Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military and economic backer in the world.

I particularly liked this column by Josh Marshall. Marshall is Jewish, and the editor of Talking Points Memo. 

Let me comment on Israel’s apparent decision to bar entry to Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Israel is supposedly doing this because the two support BDS. As it happens, I’m not even sure this is entirely true. Tlaib, who is Palestinian American and has relatives in the territories, does. Omar has actually made contradictory or equivocal comments about BDS. Regardless, it simply doesn’t matter. They are elected members of the United States Congress. They are part of the US government and their treatment bears directly on the respect accorded our system of government or interference with our democratic system. The idea that a government which has long benefited from US protection and aid would do such a thing is outrageous….

This betrays an established and dangerous pattern with Donald Trump: his personal alliances always come before allegiance to country, law and Constitution. This is not surprising and it is of a piece with his collusion and tacit alliance with Russia during the 2016 election.

What you think about Omar and Tlaib is irrelevant. I have criticized Omar when I think it is merited. All that matters here is that they are elected representatives. Punishing or excluding them is a strike against our democratic system. An ally should never do such a thing.

Marshall also pointed out that this pettiness was emphatically not in Israel’s own interests.

One final, important point. This does not even make sense from the point of view of narrow Israeli self-interest – not in Israeli or Zionist terms. The US has two major parties and they frequently rotate in power. Omar and to a lesser extent Tlaib are controversial in US politics but they have many ardent supporters in the Democratic Party. They are both women of color. The Israeli government under Netanyahu has increasingly identified itself with the GOP and actively worked with the GOP against Democrats as the GOP has become more associated with white nationalism. Democrats will be back in power again. The party is increasingly based on a multiracial political coalition. Sowing antagonism at a level so deep and visceral is obvious folly.

Marshall’s final paragraph draws a painfully obvious parallel to the occupant of the Oval Office:

The truth is that this isn’t Israeli policy or even precisely Netanyahu policy. This is an electoral gambit. Israel has an election next month and Netanyahu is in a fight for his political life. He may even be in a fight for his freedom since remaining in office is his best play to delay or quash corruption charges. This is an effort to juice outrage and support from the Israeli far right.

When countries are governed by people whose mantra is “It’s all about me,” the interests of the country take a back seat.

Far, far back.

 

 

They Aren’t Even Pretending Anymore

If there was ever any doubt about the Republican approach to the 2020 elections, people like Scott Walker are dispelling them. As Talking Points Memo reported a few weeks back,  Walker, who was formerly governor of Wisconsin, currently runs a group called the National Republican Redistricting Trust. That organization is allied with the (misnamed)  “Fair Lines America,” which is suing Michigan in an effort to overturn a recently passed anti-gerrymandering referendum.

In a preview of the coming war over redistricting reform, Republican politicians and operatives in Michigan filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the state’s new, voter-approved redistricting commission.

Behind the lawsuit is Fair Lines America Foundation, which, according to the Detroit News,is affiliated with the Scott Walker-led National Republican Redistricting Trust.

The Republicans allege that the independent commission violates the Constitution’s First Amendment and its Equal Protection Clause by imposing certain requirements on who can serve on the commission. Specifically, individuals cannot serve on the 13-member commission if they, in the past six years, were partisan candidates, elected officials, political appointees, lobbyists, campaign consultants or political party officials.

There is a Yiddish word that fits this lawsuit perfectly: chutzpah. (Google it.)

Conditions like the ones imposed for serving on the Michigan commission are common in states where independent redistricting commissions are in place. The new GOP lawsuit alleges, however, that these conditions–imposed to ensure a lack of partisan bias on the part of citizens drawing district lines–are unconstitutional.

“Plaintiffs have been excluded from eligibility based on their exercise of one or more of their constitutionally protected interests,i.e., freedom of speech (e.g., by the exclusion of candidates for partisan office), right of association (e.g., by the exclusion of members of a governing body of a political party), and/or the right to petition (e.g., by the exclusion of registered lobbyists),” the lawsuit alleged.

The article predicts that the Michigan lawsuit is only the first of several that will be filed in states that have addressed the anti-democratic effects of partisan redistricting (aka gerrymandering) by establishing nonpartisan commissions.

Before Mitch McConnell and Trump succeeded in adding numerous right-wing ideologues to the federal judiciary, I wouldn’t have worried about this lawsuit. I would expect its patently ridiculous argument to be given short shrift. But given the caliber of people elevated to the federal bench (several nominees even refused to affirm that Brown v. Board of Education is good law…), all bets are off.

With the Supreme Court ruling last month that federal judges cannot rein in partisan gerrymandering, voting rights advocates will be only expanding their efforts to implement redistrict reform via independent commissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority in the case, name-checked Michigan’s ballot initiative specifically to argue that there other avenues besides the federal judiciary to address the problem of extreme gerrymanders.

How his court will handle the coming wave of lawsuits challenging those commissions remains to be seen.

It has become glaringly obvious that the GOP cannot win a national election unless it can gerrymander districts and suppress minority votes. In their desperation to keep control of the mechanisms that ensure a non-democratic result favoring Republicans, party functionaries aren’t even giving lip service to majority rule. They aren’t even pretending to care about democracy and/or the integrity of the electoral process.

The midterm elections pointed to the only available remedy: turnout so massive that cheating can’t carry the day.

Trump’s Influence

Mass shootings and hate crimes have both increased since Donald Trump was elected. It is not a coincidence.

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, the United States is continuing to experience a steady rise in hate crimes in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

The report compiles data collected at the city level for hate crimes as well as extremist activity, providing what Levin described as a “proxy” for information around the country.

Levin found that American cities are experiencing decade-high rates in hate crimes, after an eight percent increase in 2018 compared to the previous year.

The rise is occurring amid a broader decrease in crime and homicide rates, with white nationalists and far-right extremists continuing to be the “most ascendant” group behind violent extremism, the report found. The “overwhelming majority” of extremist domestic homicides in 2018 were committed “by white nationalist/far right sole assailants who attacked around the mid-term elections,” per the report.

“The overwhelming majority of declining extremist domestic homicides in 2018 were by white nationalist/far right sole assailants who attacked around the mid-term elections,” the report reads.

The data on hate crimes comes from 30 U.S. cities, assembled to provide a top-down view of the situation. Fourteen out of the 30 experienced decade-high rates of hate crime occurrences last year.

It no longer surprises us to learn, in the wake of a mass shooting, that the perpetrator was a member of one of America’s proliferating rightwing groups. In a post following the killings at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Ed Brayton commented on the predictability of the discovery.

Here’s a shocker. The guy who shot up the Gilroy Garlic Festival (which I’ve attended before and it’s amazing) turns out to be a white supremacistwho posted anti-immigrant rhetoric on his social media and told everyone to read a book from the late 1800s that advocated violence based on eugenics and is a popular book among other white supremacists.

The shooter had posted diatribes asserting that only “strength and violence” determine morality, and referencing a book –“Right is Might”–that Brayton notes is “filled with misogynistic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and is a staple among neo-Nazis and white supremacists on extremist sites.”

This is not the least bit surprising. In 2018, 50 people were killed by domestic terrorists and the ADL reports that those acts of terrorism were “overwhelmingly linked to right-wing extremists” and that “White supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case.” In fact, all but one of those acts in 2018 was committed by a right-wing extremist and that one terrorist used to be a white supremacist and converted to Islamic extremism shortly before he went off.

Bloggers and political pundits have linked this increase in white supremacist mayhem to Trump and his rhetoric. Scholarship confirms the accusation. Recently, The Brookings Institution published an analysis well worth reading in its entirety. Noting that many observers have questioned the connection, they consulted the data.

It would be naïve to think that data will change many individuals’ minds on this topic, but nonetheless, there is substantial evidence that Trump has encouraged racism and benefitted politically from it….

There is a clear correlation between Trump campaign events and incidents of prejudiced violence. FBI data show that since Trump’s election there has been an anomalous spike in hate crimes concentrated in counties where Trump won by larger margins. It was the second-largest uptick in hate crimes in the 25 years for which data are available, second only to the spike after September 11, 2001….

The association between Trump and hate crimes is not limited to the election itself. Another study, based on data collected by the Anti-Defamation League, shows that counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 saw hate crime rates more than double compared to similar counties that did not host a rally.

Bottom line: 2020 will be a referendum on hate.

At this point, the Democrats could nominate a potted plant and it will have my vote.

 

 

 

 

Civility And The First Amendment

How many times have we heard someone defend a racist, belittling or otherwise nasty tweet or Facebook post by claiming that critics were attacking his or her  “First Amendment rights”?

The First Amendment may protect that person’s right to spew vitriol against government censorship, but it also protects the speaker’s critics–including, for that matter, decisions to fire the speaker from a private-sector position. Beyond that widespread misunderstanding of just what it is that Freedom of Speech protects, however, is a lack of appreciation of the important role of civility in America’s marketplace of ideas.

I recently participated in a “civility training” for Women4Change Indiana, and dug out a brief introduction to the topic that I had delivered a couple of years ago. Given how very un-civil American discourse has become, I thought it might be timely to share.

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Twenty-five years ago, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU,  I mounted a campaign to promote civility and a more civil discourse. Several members let me know that they were upset, because they were convinced that an emphasis on civility somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

That misunderstanding is evidently shared by the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, the creators of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic websites, and participants in proliferating Facebook confrontations and Twitter wars. They defend vitriol as “Free Speech;” and disparage and dismiss civility as “political correctness.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion.They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and dangerous–words and ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—to decide what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous.

But that’s where civility comes in. If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racial “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.

There are multiple reasons for the recent rise in incivility, but the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet and social media is clearly an important contributor. As many of you know, I have a daily blog, and I’ve found it necessary to impose standards of conduct for commenters. Civil disagreements are encouraged; ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and will not be tolerated– not just because they are unpleasant and hurtful, but because people engaging in those behaviors derail the substantive and instructive disagreements that people with different perspectives need to explore if we are going to live and work together.

Responding to a Facebook argument or Twitter blast with an insult may make you feel better, but it doesn’t advance the conversation, and it certainly doesn’t count as participation in the marketplace of ideas.