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.
Some of the schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped in mid-April.
Update, Friday, October 24: The deal reached last week between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram appears to have fallen apart as reports surfaced Thursday that the Islamist militants had kidnapped dozens more women and children in northern Nigeria, and had broken the recently agreed-upon cease fire.
The agreement, announced by the country's defense minister, also involves a cease fire between Boko Haram and Nigeria's military. The government expects the terror group will not back out on the deal. "Commitment among parts of Boko Haram and the military does appear to be genuine," an official with Nigeria's security forces told Reuters Friday. "It is worth taking seriously."
Boko Haram militants abducted more than 300 schoolgirls from Chibok boarding school in northern Nigeria in mid-April, sparking a worldwide outcry and propelling the group onto to the international stage for the first time. Over fifty of the girls escaped early on. The rest have remained in captivity ever since.
Boko Haram, whose name roughly means "Western education is sinful," has been terrorizing Nigeria since 2009 in an effort to return the country to the pre-colonial era of Muslim rule. Over the past half-decade, the Islamist group has killed approximately 5,000 Nigerians the group regards as pro-government in attacks on schools, churches, and mosques, as well as military checkpoints, police stations, highways, and a bus station in the capital city of Abuja.
On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's restrictive voter ID law, ruling that it violated the state's constitution. The unanimous decision, which comes just days before early voting begins in the state, could impact a Senate race considered key to a Republican takeover of the Senate.
Arkansas' law, enacted in 2013 after the Republican-controlled legislature overrode the Democratic Gov. Mike Beebee's veto, would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Studies haveshown that photo ID laws disproportionately burden minority and poor voters, making them less likely to vote. The state Supreme Court ruled that the voter ID law imposes a voting eligibility requirement that "falls outside" those the state constitution enumerates—namely, that a voter must only be a US citizen, an Arkansas resident, at least 18 years of age, and registered to vote—and was therefore invalid.
The court's ruling could help swing in Democrats' favor the tight Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.
After the Supreme Court gutted a section of the Voting Rights Act last year, Republican state legislatures around the country enacted a slew of harsh voting laws. Since the 2010 election, new restrictions have been enacted in 21 states. Fourteen of those were passed for the first time this year.
Arkansas was one of seven states in which opponents of restrictive voting laws filed lawsuits ahead of the 2014 midterms. Last week, the US Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's voter ID law. A federal court last Thursday struck down a similar law in Texas—only to have its ruling reversed this week by an appeals court. The Supreme Court recently allowed North Carolina and Ohio to enforce their strict new voting laws.
The Koch brothers, David and Charles, on a protest sign
Republicans' most likely path to retaking the Senate in November requires GOPers to pick up seats in six key states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Of the six, Alaska—where Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is facing off against former Republican Attorney General Dan Sullivan—may be the closest race. That's why right-wing groups backed by the likes of the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are dumping millions into the state—and why Alaska unions are pulling out all the stops this year to make sure Begich, a fierce supporter of labor, carries the day.
"This is literally the most active we've ever been in an election cycle," says Vince Beltrami, the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, which represents nearly all unions in the state.
Union members have been working the phones, pushing out mailings, and canvassing on behalf of Begich. Volunteers have even taken the unusual step of door-knocking in areas far outside of Alaska's urban centers, says Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Because of the unprecedented level of campaign action this year, Beltrami says, the AFL-CIO had to rent out an extra 7,000-square-foot warehouse.
In addition to boots-on-the-ground support for Begich, unions are also throwing down for TV ads to help ensure the freshman senator gets a second term in office. The political action committee affiliated with the International Association of Fire Fighters, for example, recently spent $165,000 on TV ads against Sullivan. The National Education Association's super-PAC unveiled an ad in early September slamming Sullivan for a misleading claim he made about going after a Wall Street firm that gave the state bad financial advice and cost the public pension fund billions of dollars. Around the same time, four statewide unions—Alaska Professional Fire Fighters, Alaska Public Employees Association, Alaska State Employees Association, and National Education Association-Alaska—held a press conference in midtown Anchorage to respond to the same disingenuous ad.
Labor unions are some of the top contributors to Senate Majority PAC, the organization that provides most of the funding for Put Alaska First, the political action committee that backs Begich and has run a majority of commercials supporting him.
Begich has a solid pro-labor track record. Since his election to the Senate in 2009, he has backed legislation that would give collective bargaining rights to public safety officers, cosponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize for better wages and benefits, and voted against a bill that would have banned Transportation Security Administration employees from collective bargaining. After Begich won his Senate race in November 2008, he delayed his resignation as mayor of Anchorage to oversee the signing of generous five-year contracts with unions representing municipal workers, firefighters, electrical workers, and cops. One out of every four Alaskans is either in a union or has a family member in a union. The state has the second-highest union membership rate in the country.
The giant push by labor this year comes not only because the race is one of the most competitive in the country and could decide which party controls the Senate. The wave of union action is also a backlash against the onslaught of money pouring into the state in support of Sullivan from the billionaire Koch brothers' dark-money group Americans for Prosperity and GOP operative Karl Rove's super-PAC, American Crossroads. The groups—which support the rollback of collective bargaining rights and back right-to-work laws, which prevent unions from compelling employees to join or pay dues to a union—are dumping money into the Alaska Senate race for the first time ever.
"They're up here on the airwaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to tie Mark to Obama," Beltrami says. "They say things 50 times a day on the airwaves that aren't true. You gotta push back."
Unions have a unique edge when it comes to pushing back, McBeath explains. He says unions could swing this election in Begich's favor because the amount of outside money flowing in means "the airwaves are almost bought out, and other means of campaigning—like door-to-door—are more important than they would be in a typical Senate race."
It makes sense that the unions are going no-holds-barred to make sure Begich wins in November. It'll be rough going all the way though—in part because not all rank-and-file members will fall in line with union leadership at the polls, says Carl Shepro, a former political science professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. "There are so many conservative voters in Alaska," he says. Even if they're part of a union, "that doesn't mean that they'll vote liberal."