Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Short History of Voting, Undone

In 1787, the US Constitution established the right to elect representatives through voting.  White male property owners could vote.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to vote to former slaves and others born in or naturalized in the US.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution expanded voting rights to include women over the age of 21.

Also in 1920, the League of Women Voters was founded and has worked for the past 92 years on voter registration drives to increase participation in our elections.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act ensured that a citizen's right to vote could not be hampered by tricks such as the poll tax or knowledge tests.

In 1971, voting rights were further expanded to include 18-20 year olds, many of whom were being drafted to fight wars waged by those elected.

In the 1990s, most states made voting easier for the infirm, soldiers, travelers and others by making absentee ballots available.

In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act was passed to make participation more accessible nationwide, including at departments of motor vehicles.

In 1998, Oregon made vote-by-mail universal to ensure maximum ease and participation.  Washington soon did the same.

In 2000, thousands of Floridians were disenfranchised when the state's governor (brother of the Republican presidential candidate) and secretary of state (head of that candidate's Florida campaign) refused to have their votes recounted.  Several years later, it was determined that Gore actually would have won the state (and therefore the election) by a slim majority of 40-170 votes.

In 2004, Ohio's secretary of state (head of Mr. Bush's Ohio campaign) refused to provide sufficient voting machines to the most heavily populated -- and most Democratic -- parts of the state.  Voters stood in long lines for hours waiting to vote and many abandoned the effort.  For a full accounting of Ohio voter suppression in 2004 see Wikipedia.

In 2012, the state of Florida launched a massive purge of voter rolls just before the primary election.  The Miami Herald reported in May:
So far, Florida has flagged 2,700 potential noncitizen voters and sent the list to county elections supervisors, who have found the data and methodology to be flawed and problematic. The list of potential noncitizen voters – many of whom have turned out to be lawful citizens and voters – disproportionately hits minorities, especially Hispanics.
About 58 percent of those flagged as potential noncitizens are Hispanics, Florida’s largest ethnic immigrant population, a Miami Herald analysis found. Hispanics make up 13 percent of the overall 11.3 million active registered voters.
Independent voters and Democrats are the most likely to face being purged from the rolls. Republicans and non-Hispanic whites are the least likely.
Also in 2012, the state of Ohio chose to restrict early voting in some counties and allow it in others.  The Republican secretary of state got to choose which counties and the practice was overturned in court.  However, early voting on the days African-American voter turnout was highest would be eliminated statewide.  And late voting -- the possibility to still vote if your precinct was short-changed and you'd been waiting in line until poll closing -- was cancelled.

Also in 2010-2012, the 33 states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin passed laws requiring voter ID to cast ballots.  The objective was to limit in person voter fraud at the polls. In an exhaustive study of every state's fraud records, only ten cases nationwide were found of in person voter fraud.  Yet new laws in these states will impact about 100 million voters, particularly those without current photo ID such as elderly citizens no longer able to drive.

With 225 years of history behind us, most of it focused on expanding access to the ballot box and encouraging voting among sometimes reluctant citizens, there is something dangerous and unAmerican about the current rush to restrict voting rights.

Many others have reported on the motives behind these almost exclusively Republican attempts to begin restricting voting rights, particularly of Hispanics, Blacks, city dwellers, the elderly and others more likely to vote against their candidates.

Since 2000, the much-lauded American election system has begun to smell.  This year may well be the pivotal year when we decide if democracy and citizen participation are something we of all political stripes support, or whether gaining and wielding power is more important than preserving our precious rights.  Forget who wins the election; if suppressing the vote is the vehicle, we're all doomed.

Read more here:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Feline Liberals and Canine Conservatives

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Just in case you're not yet fed up with the inanity of our polarized political system, let me see if I can drop the level one more notch.  As a liberal living in a conservative community, I like to think I have to pay more attention to our differences than most Americans.  And as a rural American, I find comparisons to nature irresistible.

The liberal cat is a fascinating species.  She is generally suspicious, questioning everyone and everything.  She watches, studies and decides.  Sometimes she makes people nervous with all that studying.  What is obvious to dogs is far from obvious to cats.

There are no insiders and outsiders in her world.  All deserve a fair chance.  If she's affectionate, she's affectionate to everyone.  One lap is as good as another and she expects the world to treat her well.  If you pet and pamper her, be aware that she may still scratch or bite.  She does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.  On the other hand, she is unforgiving.  She may love you today and find you a disappointment tomorrow.  Right, Mr. President?

Her world is chaotic.  There is no accepted hierarchy or rules.  She does -- and allows others to do -- as she pleases. She is untrainable and frustrating to anyone who prefers law and order.  She is passionate about the environment though and always buries her own waste and keeps herself clean.  The whole world is her ecosystem and she recognizes no territorial boundaries.  In fact, she has no qualms about picking up her family (by the necks) and moving them hither and thither just because.

The conservative dog however is nothing like a cat.  To him, loyalty is the number one virtue.  If you "belong" with his group, you will be defended without question.  He would lay down his life for you.  Your actions are beyond reproach and outsiders challenge you at their peril.  If you are an "other", he will bark, snarl and charge.  He doesn't usually bite, just wants you to know you're an intruder and should stay out.  When he barks, he awakens the ire in all the neighborhood dogs too and you'd best just move on, buddy.

Within the group, there is a natural order of things that all dogs accept.  The alphas get more food, the omegas fall into line and are convinced the alphas deserve what they get.  Dogs understand rules and follow them almost all the time.  They have no desire to overturn the order of things and will learn how and when to get more petting, more frisbee play or more biscuits.  They are incredibly trainable, but only by those they are loyal to.  They have no problem with authority and love their masters to whom they are perfectly attentive.

Dogs don't care so much about the environment but they will bury a special possession, holding onto what's theirs.  Dogs believe in private property and boundaries.  They mark the limits of their territory and will defend it.  They expect others will have done the same.  Cats don't mark territory, just people. 

By and large, dogs can learn to love anyone once they get to know them, though they have the hardest time with cats.  And cats for their part tend to avoid dogs altogether.

Anyone who has lived with both dogs and cats understands how different they are.  The tension between loyalty and independence runs deeply, in their species and in our nation.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Good Enough for Grandpa

With 8.3% unemployment in the fourth year of this recession, it's hard to find much to celebrate.  We could remind ourselves that we're in better shape than Europe.  We could be glad we're not over 10% as we were in 2009.  We could be grateful for safety nets that provide some relief to the unemployed.

But jobs are what we need, not payouts in lieu of jobs.

Yesterday, went live with the 1940 US Census, now fully indexed by name in all states.  I couldn't resist checking in on the parents and grandparents.  Scott and I had grandparents living in California, Ohio and Illinois in 1940. Our grandfathers ranged in ages between 38 and 52 that year.

The census included lots of juicy information including:
  • how much schooling each had had, 
  • employment situation,
  • income, 
  • how many hours each person had worked for pay in a week, 
  • how many weeks they'd worked during the year or how long they'd been looking for work,
  • whether anyone in the household had done "emergency work" during the year,
  • whether the family had moved in the past five years and much more.
There were similarities between all four families.  None of the grandmothers worked for wages.  None of the families owned homes. All were living somewhere west of where they'd been born. None owned their own businesses.

What was most interesting to me though was that two of the four men had participated in the emergency employment programs set up by President Roosevelt and the Congress to get Americans working again.  One had worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the other for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  That's half of our grandfathers -- and their families -- benefiting from (and depending on) emergency jobs programs established to get Americans working during the Depression.

In 1940, 9.5% of the workforce (mostly male) was unemployed. That was a great improvement over the 20.6% unemployment in 1933.  President Roosevelt, a Democrat, enjoyed his party's control over both houses of Congress and pushed through several work programs.  The benefits of those programs live on today -- in rural electrification, in libraries, dams, bridges, roads, parks and other infrastructure.  There were also cultural programs, programs that focused on literature, the arts and preserving heritage.

The largest of these programs, the WPA, in 1935 cost 6.7% of the nation's entire GDP, the value of all goods and services produced.  An equivalent expenditure would be over one trillion dollars today.  Eight million Americans worked for the WPA at some time between 1935 and 1943.  One of them was Orley Menteer, Scott's grandfather, out of work again when the census taker arrived.

In 2009, Congress passed and the President signed a stimulus program for our times.  At $787 billion, it approached that trillion dollar target set by the WPA.  But remember that the WPA was one of many programs and was SOLELY a jobs program.

Our recent stimulus?  Mostly NOT a jobs program.  In order to pass it through a stymied Congress, one paralyzed by excessive use of the filibuster (so that simple majorities no longer could do business), the bill was designed to be one-third tax cuts and two-thirds spending.  The tax cuts created no calculable jobs leaving about $500 billion in actual spending, less than half the WPA precedent.  The stimulus did save and create jobs, but not nearly enough.  It extended unemployment benefits, Medicaid assistance and other safety net programs to help the jobless through tough times.  And it saved state and local government jobs (notably millions of teachers) whose jobs were promptly cut once the stimulus dollars ran out.

But for a jobs program, it was too unambitious.  The President then proposed other jobs programs, focusing on infrastructure needs around the nation, but could not get anything through a hostile Congress after the 2010 election.

And we still have 8.3% of Americans looking for work and finding none.  Orley barely subsisted with the help he got from the WPA.  Gailord was lucky to find work as a foreman on a Klamath Falls CCC project.  Nathan got by working 60 hours a week for his brother and William left his family to take a job for the Mississippi Barge Line.

In the first four years of the 1930s Depression, unemployment fell from 20.6% to 9.9%.  Most of the gain came from those emergency work programs, programs the government could not afford to launch but could not afford not to either.  (Disregarding those programs, unemployment in 1940 was still 14.6%) The nation took a gamble, risking deficits to get people working again.

Today, suggesting anything like what our nation accomplished 72 years ago is labeled "socialism".  All I know is that it was that sort of spirit, that sort of gamble, that made the United States the ultimate world power for the seven decades since.