Since the 2010 midterm elections, Republican-controlled legislatures in 21 states have made it harder to vote, enacting restrictions on early voting, ending same-day registration, and requiring government-issued ID at the polls. Many of these measures have been found to reduceturnout among poorer and minority voters.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act provided President Barack Obama with a tool that could have helped counter the effect of the new laws restricting voting and made it easier for nonwhite voters to get to the polls. But he decided not to use it.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act, also known as the Motor Voter law, requires that departments of motor vehicles and other public assistance agencies provide voter registration services. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act count as public assistance agencies under the statute. That means that the assistants who walk uninsured Americans through the exchange's insurance sign-up process should also have to offer to guide applicants through the voter registration process. While HHS can't directly control compliance at the state-run health exchanges, the agency can ensure that assistants who help the uninsured sign up for coverage on the federal exchange—called navigators—provide voters with step-by-step guidance on registering to vote. But that hasn't been happening.
Voting rights advocates have been pressuring HHSfor more than a year to reverse course and make sure navigators fully comply with the Motor Voter law. But since a backlash last year by Republicans, the administration has demurred. So the more than 5.4 million uninsured Americans who have signed up for insurance at HealthCare.gov since October 1, 2013, have not received extra assistance in registering to vote. Thirty-seven percent of the enrollees who chose to report their ethnicity were minorities.
Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Health Care Reform and American Politics, told me earlier this year that the administration is "running from a political fight":
GOP opposition to signing up new voters through the health insurance exchanges has been fierce. Right-wing talk show yeller Rush Limbaugh said in June that it shows "the purpose of Obamacare…It's about building a permanent, undefeatable, always-funded Democrat majority." In March, Republicans on the House Ways and Means committee worried about how Obama-friendly "associations like the now-defunct ACORN"—such as FamiliesUSA and AARP that the administration will fund to help sign up the uninsured—would use applicants' voting information. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) wrote a letter to HHS this past spring, charging that the health care law "does not give your Department an interest in whether individual Americans choose to vote," and asking HHS to provide justification for including voter registration questions in health insurance applications.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which Obama created last year to assess voting problems around the country, released a study in January calling for better enforcement of government agencies' compliance with the Motor Voter law, noting that it was "the election statute most often ignored."
While the federal exchange website provides a link to the federal voter registration website as part of the health insurance application process, advocates say the department has failed to ensure that navigators automatically offer people who need help with their insurance application aid with voter registration applications as well. "It's likely that many thousands of citizens would have applied to register to vote if the administration had complied," says Lisa Danetz, the legal director at the think tank Demos. "And we know that once registered, people turn out to vote at a relatively good rate."
It's not too late for the administration to use Obamacare to help Americans register to vote. Another 10 million uninsured Americans are expected to obtain coverage through the Affordable Care Act in 2015, and more than 24 million a year are expected to sign up 2015 and 2016.
Update, Monday November 3, 4:30pm: Over the weekend, under court order, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell released some emails requested by Alaska Public Media and Alaska Dispatch News related to the state's National Guard sexual assault scandal. However, the emails were incomplete and some heavily redacted, leaving open the question of whether Alaska GOP Senate candidate Dan Sullivan knew of allegations of sexual assault within the Guard when he was attorney general.
Alaska GOP Senate candidate Dan Sullivan claims that he did not know about reported sexual assault within the state's National Guard when he was the state's attorney general until after the allegations became public. But Republican Gov. Sean Parnell won't release the records to prove it.
In late 2010, whistle-blowers in the Alaska National Guard approached Parnell to tell him of reports of sexual assault and harassment within the guard and of allegations of financial misconduct, cover-ups, and retaliation against whistle-blowers. In recent months, Parnell, who is running for reelection, has taken fire from Democrats and the press over his mishandling of the scandal; he waited until this year to call publicly for a federal investigation into the allegations. And Sullivan—who is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Begich—has been dragged into the scandal, with local reporters demanding to know how much he knew when he was attorney general about the reported wrongdoing within the guard.
Sullivan's campaign claims that he was unaware of the allegations when he was AG, and that he only learned of them when they became public in 2013. But Parnell's office has so far refused to release emails between the governor and Sullivan from the period when Sullivan was attorney general. There's no telling what is in these emails. But Democrats say the withholding raises questions as to whether Sullivan, who served as AG under Parnell in 2009 and 2010, did get wind of the scandal back in 2010—and took no action.
In January, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) requested all the emails and written correspondence between Sullivan and Parnell during Sullivan's term as attorney general. Under Alaska law, the government is supposed to comply with records requests within 10 working days. Ten months later, the governor's office has still not released the documents.
At the end of May, Alaska Public Media (APM), which operates public radio and TV stations in Alaska, requested correspondence—including emails, text messages, and memos—Parnell sent or received related to sexual assault within the National Guard and notes on meetings in the governor's office on the matter. (This request was wider than the DSCC's and did not zero in on Sullivan.) In late September, the governor's office denied APM's request, citing executive privilege and the right to privacy of those accused of misconduct. The rejection letter also cited victims' privacy as a reason for not releasing the documents, even though Alaska media routinely withholds the identities of sexual assault victims. Rarely have Alaska government agencies used individual privacy concerns to justify denying entire records requests.
In early October, Alaska Public Media and Alaska Dispatch News jointly sued Parnell for the release of the records related to the guard scandal. The DSCC has filed a complaint with the Alaska ombudsman seeking immediate release of the correspondence between Sullivan and Parnell that the committee had requested in January.
Democrats say Parnell's reluctance to release records is suspicious, and they are openly skeptical that Sullivan, as top law enforcement official in the state, didn't know about allegations of abuse and fraud. Bruce Botelho, an Alaska Democrat who served as attorney general from 1994 to 2002, and Jim Ayers, who served as chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, say it would be highly unlikely for a governor not to consult his top lawyer about such serious allegations.
If there were no communication between Parnell and Sullivan about the matter, Ayers says, that's an indication of "serious dysfunction" within the governor's administration: "I can't believe anybody in their right might would be hearing about such allegations...and not call their attorney."
Botelho agrees: "I could not imagine if an issue of sexual abuse in the guard had come forward, and was relayed directly to the governor and his chief of staff, that one or the other would not consult with the AG."
Jolanda Smith, a hair salon owner in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is helping Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan get out the vote.
"The first question I ask my customers is: Are you registered?" Jolanda Smith says.
Smith runs a hair salon on the outskirts of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her hair is dyed lavender and her arms are covered in heart and shooting-star tattoos. In the lead-up to the midterms, she's lending her storefront to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's reelection campaign. Smith passes out sample ballots and flyers and tells customers how to register and where their polling location is. Last Saturday morning, she was talking God and voting as she straightened a customer's hair.
"It's: Are you gonna vote, yes or no?" she says, sectioning off a lock and pulling it through the iron. "God gave us a choice, and the choices are always yes or no. It's not maybe. It's not, 'Let me think about it,' 'cause those are excuses…On down from choosing Christ to voting. You gonna vote? Yes or no?"
IN 2013, North Carolina Republicans, led by Hagan's opponent, state house speaker Thom Tillis, passed a far-reaching voting law that curtails early voting and eliminates same-day registration. The Justice Department sued North Carolina over the law, charging it was discriminatory and would depress minority turnout.
Hagan's campaign knows that black voter turnout could decide her fate—and, by extension, determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term. If African-Americans manage to turn out at presidential-year levels—if they're at least 21 percent of the electorate—Hagan will probably win, says Tom Jensen, director of the North Carolina-based polling firm Public Policy Polling.
That's why the Hagan campaign, and its coordinated get-out-the-vote organization Forward North Carolina—along with the NAACP, state Democrats, and get-out-the-vote outfits—launched unprecedented efforts this year to mobilize black voters.
The president reminded him to vote this year, he says: "Obama sent me a letter."
Those efforts are paying off. On the first day of early voting last week, 76-year-old Ruben Betts was sitting on the curb in a shopping center parking lot wearing an "I just voted" sticker on his sweater. The president reminded him to vote this year, he says: "Obama sent me a letter." As of Thursday, 24 percent of early voters in North Carolina were African-American, according to records from the state board of elections. That's up from just 17 percent at the same point during the last midterm elections in 2010.
The Hagan field operation, which has 40 offices, 100 staffers, and 10,000 volunteers, is the largest that North Carolina has ever seen in a Senate race. By comparison, the get-out-the-vote campaign for North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's failed Senate bid in 2010 was almost entirely run by volunteers. "We had no money, I mean no money," says Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant who helped coordinate Marshall's field operation. "And maybe five paid staffers. The difference in what they've got now—it's just not even same thing. There's no comparison."
Democrats have spent $1 million on ads aired on black radio stations. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus this month to send black lawmakers on a bus tour through North Carolina and five other battleground states. And Hagan's campaign is collaborating extensively with black clergy across the state and roughly 150 black small business owners like Smith who are helping turn out voters this year.
Smith says the main issue that convinces her customers to go to the polls is health insurance. (North Carolina didn't expand Medicaid, so about 500,000 poor North Carolinians are still without insurance.) Jobs top the list, too. Smith's shop sits on Murchison Road, one of the main drags leading out of Fayetteville. The further you drive from the town center, the less money there is—the storefronts become more faded, the sidewalks get weedier, the landscape grayer. "It's hard to get a job even if you have a degree," she says.
Smith adds that anger over the August shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, will also bring people in her community out on Tuesday. "It was more than just him," she notes, referring to the police brutality she witnesses regularly in her community. "You have some in the system that say, 'I'm gonna hide behind this badge and use it for injustice instead of justice'…To us it feels like it's racist."
"My parents voted til the day they died. I grew up in segregation. I vote every election."
T-omnis Cox says he feels like a potential Michael Brown. A 23-year-old who works at a chicken plant in eastern North Carolina, he was hanging out in front of a corner liquor store in Goldsboro last Thursday evening. "It's hard out here in the world," he says. "Every day, we're ducking from cops, we're ducking from law." Cox says he's going to vote for Hagan because "Republicans don't care about the poor."
Hagan's campaign has also reached out to African-American churches as a key component of its voter mobilization effort, urging pastors around the state to help with voter education and registration.
The Rev. Dumas Alexander Harshaw Jr. says his church in downtown Raleigh, First Baptist—which was founded by freed slaves—has always been political. This election cycle, the church has been helping voters register, and handing out sample ballots as well as guidelines on how and where to vote. Last Sunday, Harshaw invited Dr. Everett Ward, the president of St. Augustine's University, a historically black college in the city, to speak to the members of First Baptist about voting.
"We've seen this movie before," Ward tells the congregation, referring to the slewofpolicies Tillis and his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature have enacted since 2012 that disproportionately harm minorities. "It had the same title in 1895, in 1958, in 1968: 'The South Shall Rise Again.'" A few amens rise from the pews. If North Carolina sends Tillis to Washington, Ward continues, "we will lose more opportunity for upward mobility, access to healthcare will disappear, access to higher education will disappear."
So go vote, he says. "Throughout history…When our people faced discrimination and injustice, we answered the call."
"Will you go?" Ward asks the congregation, and the chapel fills with "Yes." "Will you go?" "Yes."
Not everyone needs to be convinced to exercise their civic duty. "People died so I might have the right to vote," says Mary Bethel, who is lending her Fayetteville storefront to Hagan's ground campaign. Last Friday afternoon, she sat at her desk among stacks of papers, envelopes, Post-its and grandchild photos in her small tax shop on Murchison Road, wearing bright red lipstick and lightly smudged glasses. "My parents voted til the day they died," she adds. "I grew up in segregation. I vote every election."
Tillis' record as A leader of the unpopular state Legislature has made it easier for people like Smith and Ward to get black voters to the polls. "Kay Hagan, to me she's wishy-washy, she's two-faced. But Tillis is an out-out crook," says Michael Curtis, a 65-year-old unemployed former construction worker who lives in Raleigh. Democrats haven't done much for Curtis—he's been out of a job since Obama was elected, and says he doesn't have health care—but he's still voting Hagan. Last year, Tillis voted against expanding Medicaid in North Carolina, which would have provided coverage to a half million uninsured North Carolinians. Tillis led a GOP push to cut funding for substance abuse treatment centers by 12 percent. In 2013, he and his fellow Republicans slashed unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians and eliminated the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, while cutting taxes for rich people. And Tillis backed the harsh voter suppression law, too.
These bills and others Tillis and fellow Republicans forced through after they took control of both the legislature and the governorship in 2012 led the NAACP's Rev. William Barber to launch the Moral Mondays movement in April 2013. For 74 straight weeks now, protesters have held demonstrations near the state capitol demanding a retreat from the state's sharp right turn.
Now the NAACP is harnessing that anger to get voters to the polls in the most massive mobilization effort the group has ever made in a non-presidential year. Last Thursday, the first day of early voting in the state, the NAACP led 32 marches to the polls—more than in any previous midterm year. Barber's organization is also calling all of the 286,000 African-Americans who voted in 2012 and 2008 but didn't vote in 2010, helping register thousands of new voters, buying radio ads, and reaching out to churches. "African-Americans need to vote because we're the ones who know the most about voter suppression," Barber told Mother Jones.
If Hagan loses, though, it won't be African-Americans' fault. It will be because too many centrist Democrats voted Republican, Barber says. There are 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, many of whom are white. "You don't lay the blame of this election on black people."
On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate non-bank companies that service Americans' mortgages, noting in a letter co-signed by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that an increasing number of lawsuits has been filed in recent years against these firms—which are not regulated as strictly as banks.
Mortgage servicers, whether they are owned by banks or not, handle mortgages after they've been sold to a customer. That means they take care of administrative business including collecting mortgage payments and dealing with delinquent borrowers. What Warren and Cummings are worried about is that the share of non-banks servicing mortgages has grown astronomically—300 percent between 2011 and 2013—and it appears that the increased workload has led to shoddier service.
The rise of the industry, which typically services lower-income borrowers, "has been accompanied by consumer complaints, lawsuits, and other regulatory actions as the servicers' workload outstrips their processing capacity," according to a recent report by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Last December, for instance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the agency Warren helped create—entered a $2 billion settlement with the nation's largest non-bank servicer over mortgage mismanagement. Financial industry watchdogs and consumer advocates have charged that the non-bank home loan servicing companies are often unwilling to work with troubled borrowers to modify mortgages and prevent foreclosures.
In their letter, Warren and Cummings also urge the Government Accountability Office to investigate how consumers might be harmed in the event that a large non-bank servicer collapses during a economic downturn. Non-bank mortgage companies are not subject to the regulations governing banks that perform the same functions, such as the requirement that they hold onto a certain amount of emergency funds in case of a financial collapse.
On Saturday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas' harsh voter ID law could remain in effect for the upcoming midterm elections, potentially disenfranchising some 600,000 mostly black and Latino voters. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the law may be "purposefully discriminatory" and warned that it "likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters." And Ginsburg noted that Texas' 2011 law falls in line with the state's long history of discriminatory voting laws. Here is a look at that history, based on expert testimony by Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of history at Clemson University, and Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
1865: Voter intimidation. Beginning with emancipation, African Americans in Texas were regularly denied the right to vote, through intimidation and violence, including lynching.
1895: The first all-white primaries begin. In the mid-1890s, Texas legislators pushed a law requiring political parties to hold primaries and allowing those political parties to set racist qualifications for who could participate.
1902: The poll tax. The Legislature added a poll tax to Texas' constitution in 1902, requiring voters to pay a fee to register to vote and to show their receipt of payment in order to cast a ballot. The poll tax was equivalent to most of a day's wage for many black and Mexican workers—roughly $15.48 in today's dollars.
1905: Texas formalizes its all-white primary system. The Terrell Election Law of 1905 made official the all-white primary system, encouraging both main political parties and county election officials to adopt voting requirements that explicitly banned minorities from voting in primaries. The stated purpose of the law? Preventing voter fraud.
1918: Texas enacts an anti-immigrant voting law. The legislation banned interpreters at the polls and forbade naturalized citizens from receiving assistance from election judges unless they had been citizens for 21 years.
1922: Texas tries a new type of all-white primary. In 1918, black voters in Texas successfully challenged a nonpartisan all-white primary system in Waco. The state Legislature got around this snag by enacting a law banning blacks from all Democratic primaries. Because the Democratic Party was dominant in the South at the time, the candidate it selected through its primary would inevitably win the general election. Anyone voting in the party's primary had to prove "I am white and I am a Democrat."
1927: Texas tries a third type of all-white primary. After the Supreme Court struck down Texas' all-white Democratic primaries, the Legislature got crafty again, passing a new law that allowed political parties—instead of the state government—to determine who could vote in party primaries. The Texas Democratic Party promptly adopted a resolution that only whites could vote.
1932: Texas tries again. In 1932, the Supreme Court struck down Texas' white primaries once more. In response, the Democratic state convention adopted a rule keeping nonwhites out of primaries. The high court initially upheld the new system.
1944: And again. The high court eventually overturned the convention-based white primary system in 1944, but party leaders could still ensure that county officials were elected by whites. A nonparty county political organization called the Jaybird Democratic Association had for decades screened candidates for nomination without allowing nonwhites to participate. The Supreme Court only invalidated the practice in 1953.
1970: Texas draws discriminatory districts. The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the state's 1970 redistricting lines were intentionally discriminatory. In each redistricting cycle since then, Texas has been found by federal courts to have violated the US Constitution or the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
1971: The state attempts to keep black students from the ballot box. Once 18-year-olds got the right to vote in 1971, Texas' Waller County became a majority black county. To stave off the wave of new African American votes, county officials fought for years to keep students at the county's mostly black Prairie View A&M University from accessing the polls.
1981: Texas draws discriminatory districts again. After the state redistricted a decade later, the attorney general found that two of the new districts were discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act. (Since 1976, the Justice Department has issued 201 objections to proposed electoral changes in Texas due to the expected discriminatory effects of the measures.)
2003: And again. In a 2006 ruling, the Supreme Court found that one of Texas' recently redrawn counties violated the VRA.
2011: And again. A year later, a three-judge federal court ruled in Texas v. United States that the state's local and congressional redistricting maps showed evidence of deliberate discrimination.
2011: Texas enacts its infamous voter ID law. The state's voter ID law is the harshest of its kind in the country. Poll workers will accept fewer forms of identification than in any other state with a similar law. Earlier this month, a federal trial court struck down the law, ruling that it overly burdened minority voters. The Supreme Court reversed that court's ruling this past weekend.