Update, Sunday, October 19: On Saturday, the Supreme Court upheld Texas' "discriminatory" voter ID law, potentially disenfranchising some 600,000 largely minority voters ahead of the midterms.
Update, Wednesday, October 15: After a federal trial court struck down Texas' "discriminatory" new voter ID law last week, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the state can enforce the restrictive law after all in November. Opponents of the law may file an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.
On Thursday evening, two separate courts blocked restrictive voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas that could have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Latino voters in the upcoming November midterm elections.
Both states' laws would have required voters to provide photo identification before casting their ballots. Such laws reduce minority and youth turnout, according to a Government Accountability Office study released Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking a voter ID law Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed in 2011. The court cited no reason for its move, which is common for emergency orders. Voting rights advocates challenging the law had charged that if it were in effect in November it would "virtually guarantee chaos at the polls," the New York Times reported, as the state would not have enough time to issue IDs and train poll workers before the election. There are about 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin who lack an ID. Most of them are black or Hispanic.
Also on Thursday, a federal trial court in Texas struck down that state’s voter ID law, ruling that it overly burdened minority voters, who are less likely to have a government-issued ID, and as such violated the Voting Rights Act. More than 600,000 registered voters in Texas lack appropriate IDs.
The move by the Supreme Court reverses a recent trend by the high court upholding voting restrictions. The court upheld a law in Ohio that cut down on early voting, as well as a measure North Carolina enacted in 2013 eliminating same-day registration and banning the counting of ballots accidentally cast at the wrong precinct.
Both Texas and Wisconsin had claimed their laws would crack down on voter fraud. Confirmed instances of in-person voter fraud are rarer than UFO sightings.
Late last month, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine released a new campaign ad bragging that she tried to avert the government shutdown crisis last year, when tea party GOPers held the federal budget hostage in an effort to take down Obamacare. "On all three votes on those two days, Susan Collins voted against shutting down the government," the ad claims. That's not quite right.
Collins couldn't have voted against shutting down the government because there was never a direct vote on whether or not to close the government at the end of September 2013, explains Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institution. At the time, the GOP-controlled House would not agree to a government funding bill that was acceptable to President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. That impasse led to the government shutdown when the two sides couldn't reach an agreement. "Did she explicitly vote against the shutdown?" Binder says. "There was not such an explicit direct vote."
Instead, Collins thrice voted for bills that would have kept the government open only if Obama and Senate Democrats agreed to defund or delay Obamacare.
Here's the background. In late September of 2013, House Republicans passed a short-term spending bill that would have stripped funding from Obama's new health insurance program, even though Obama and Senate Democrats had warned Republicans that they would never support any measure that dismantled the Affordable Care Act. When the Senate took up that bill, Democrats voted to remove that provision defunding Obamacare. Collins voted with every other GOPer in the Senate to keep the anti-Obamacare measure in the bill funding government operations.
The House GOPers tried again. They took up that Senate-approved bill, added new language that would partially delay implementation of Obamacare, and passed it. Back over in the upper chamber, senators again voted along party lines to reject the Obamacare measure, with Collins and her fellow Republicans once more voting to keep an anti-Obamacare poison-pill provision in the spending bill.
The story is not over yet. The House Republicans tried a third and final time. Now they voted for a spending bill that included a one-year delay of Obamacare's individual mandate, and a provision that would have blocked members of Congress and their staffers from receiving government subsidies for health insurance they obtained through the Affordable Care Act. The Senate Democrats once more stripped the anti-Obamacare amendment from the spending legislation—and Collins and her fellow GOPers again voted to preserve it.
Experts on congressional procedure say that even though there was no direct vote on shutting down the government, Collins can claim she tried to prevent a shutdown during this dramatic legislative face-off by voting for a spending bill (even one with a provision unacceptable to the president and the Senate majority). "You can always argue that following the vote the other side would have given up," explains Scott Lilly, an expert on federal budget policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Binder echoes this: "The House version of the [spending bill] would have kept the government open—had Democrats gone along." A spokesman for the Collins campaign makes much the same argument. But that is the same as saying one voted for legislation that would have prevailed had not the majority opposed it.
At the 11th hour, House Republicans asked the Senate to negotiate a final version of the spending bill. Collins and her fellow Senate GOPers voted in favor of negotiating, but Dems rejected the move because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had conditioned negotiations on the House Republicans approving a government funding bill without any anti-Obamacare measures. No such bill passed, and the government ran out of money.
The resulting shutdown caused all manner of chaos, including the suspension of a nutrition program for pregnant women and babies, the temporary shuttering of national parks, and the furloughing of tens of thousands of federal employees.
Eventually, Republicans caved and agreed to a bill without anti-Obamacare measures—which allowed outside observers to wonder if the GOP attempt to defund Obamacare via this spending bill, an effort Collins supported, had all been for naught. But Collins did lead the bipartisan group of senators who crafted the temporary agreement to fund the government and end the shutdown, a fact her campaign has been touting as evidence of her moderate record. The truth, though, about her role in this episode of government dysfunction—she cast no vote against the shutdown—is more murky than her campaign's heroic account.
If the GOP wins the Senate, they'll no doubt use the opportunity to push through a range of measures that are kryptonite to Democratic voters—new abortion restrictions, limits on the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to combat climate change, a relaxation of the rules reining in Wall Street's worst excesses.
But Republicans are particularly keen on handicapping one particular federal watchdog: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the three-year-old agency that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) devised and helped build in the wake of the financial crisis.
The bureau's job is to make sure Americans aren't getting screwed by mortgage lenders, credit card companies, debt collectors, and other financial institutions. It's the first federal agency designed specifically to protect everyday consumers from financial wrongdoing, and Republicans have done everything in their power to hobble the agency—including fighting the confirmation of its director, Richard Cordray. Winning the Senate in November could be their best chance to roll back Warren's greatest accomplishment.
"You just have to watch the House to see what is going to come out of the Senate."
Half of their work is already done. The House has passed a bill that would limit the bureau's power by replacing its director with a five-member panel, and subjecting its budget to the congressional appropriations process—meaning that hostile lawmakers could starve it to death. (Unlike most federal agencies, the bureau is bankrolled by the Federal Reserve, an effort to free it from the whims of partisan politics.) House Republicans have also introduced legislation to let other financial regulators overturn CFPB rules,to eliminate a fund the bureau uses to compensate consumers who've been defrauded by an institution that's gone belly-up, and to restrict the kind of data the bureau may collect from consumers. (Republicans have charged that the CFPB's collection of credit data is a violation of privacy, even though the bureau does not collect any personal details the consumer doesn't volunteer.)
The Democratic-controlled Senate has refused to consider these types of bills from the House, but the floodgates would open with a GOP takeover. "You just have to watch the House to see what is going to come out of the Senate," says a Senate Democratic staffer who works on banking issues.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is expected to chair the banking committee if his party takes the Senate, has led the charge to water down the CFPB's powers. Financial-reform advocates say he would likely speed the House bills through committee.
President Obama, of course, has his veto power—Senate Dems could block legislation so long as Republicans lack a filibuster-proof majority. But Obama and his party might cave, Hill staffers say, if anti-CFPB legislation were attached to a bill they really had to pass, such as an appropriations bill or a debt ceiling measure.
The financial industry and Republicans are likely to sell these Dodd-Frank rollbacks as "small technical" fixes, a former Treasury Department official told me, and "the White House is more likely to cave" and sign them into law if "they don't have help from a Democratic Senate in blocking and tackling."
A GOP Senate would scale back financial regulations "in so many ways," the Democratic Senate staffer says, "I don't know where to start."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Last week, Congress once again delayed federal funding to help catch rapists.
Here's the backstory. In March, President Barack Obama asked Congress to fund a new Justice Department program designed to help states and localities test backlogs of rape kits, which include DNA evidence taken after a sexual assault and are used to identify attackers. The funding would likely also go toward investigating and prosecuting rape cases.
In May, the Republican-controlled House passed a massive spending bill for 2015 that included $41 million for the rape kit program, and a key committee in the Democratic-run Senate approved the same spending in June. But after a spat on the Senate floor over unrelated amendments Republicans wanted added to the bill, Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yanked the legislation. Consequently, Congress had to resort to a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating until mid-December. The House and Senate approved it last week, and Obama signed it Friday. Because it's a stop-gap spending bill, the legislation continues government spending at current levels, leaving out most new funding—including the money for the rape kit processing program.
More partisan bickering this winter could cause lawmakers to fail to pass a full appropriations bill until February or March, according to experts on congressional procedure, forcing rape victims to wait another six months or so to see the program enacted. That is, if this spending bill does include the rape kit money. (Last Thursday, the Senate approved a separate House-passed bill reauthorizing an existing program designed to process backlogged DNA evidence from all sorts of crimes, including rape kits. But the existing funding, which was first authorized in 2004, has not been sufficient to clear the backlog—which is why advocates were pushing for the new money.)
"The slowdown in appropriating funds for the rape kit program is a classic example of how Congress' legislative dysfunction blocks even the smallest of bipartisan initiatives," says Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institution.
Spokesmen for both the House and Senate appropriations committees say they are confident that local jurisdictions won't have to wait until next spring to get the federal money they need to process rape kits. They note the consensus on Capitol Hill is that Congress will pass an appropriations bill with the rape kit funding in mid-December. But Binder is less optimistic. If Republicans win the Senate in the midterm elections, she says, GOPers might block passage of a spending bill until they assume control of the Senate in January. At that point, Binder explains, Republicans may be tempted to "use those spending bills as leverage" to force Dems to accept Republican priorities. That could bring things to a halt in Congress and localities may have to wait longer until money is allocated for the rape kit program.
Meanwhile, local prosecutors are struggling to wade through their backlogs. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has a backlog of 1,650 rape cases requiring investigation and the county won't complete the probes until 2019, according to local county officials. "Our great hope from the federal money is that it would help [counties] like us…hire more investigators and advocates so we can speed that time line," says Joe Frolick, the spokesman for Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty.
Kym Worthy, the county prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, plans to apply for a portion of the $41 million grant as soon as Congress approves the funding. "I'd like it to happen tomorrow," she told Mother Jones in August. "Every day that goes by is another day that the victims have to wait for justice. This is the first grant of its kind where they really got what it takes."
"[S]o many of us—mayors, police chiefs, district attorneys, victim advocates, state legislators, and governors—are doing all we can to end the backlog," Sarah Tofte, a prominent victim advocate, says. "Isn't it time that Congress did?"
The federal government does not track the number of untested rape kits. That work has been left largely to advocates and journalists. The states with the largest known backlogs are Texas and Tennessee, which each have about 20,000 unprocessed kits in storage. Detroit has more than 11,000 unprocessed kits, and Memphis has over 12,000. Detroit recently tested 1,600 of its backlogged kits, helping the city identify 87 suspected serial rapists and leading to at least 14 convictions.
Here's a look at the rape kit backlog around the country, via End the Backlog:
States have approved more anti-abortion measures during the past three years than during the entire preceding decade. And this fall, voters themselves will also have the chance to decide whether to approve or block extreme anti-abortion ballot initiatives in three states. Ballot measures in Colorado and North Dakota would effectively ban abortion by defining personhood as beginning at conception, and a constitutional amendment in Tennessee would allow the state legislature to pass draconian anti-abortion laws, including a ban. Here's a look at those ballot initiatives:
Colorado's Constitutional Amendment 67: This ballot measure would amend Colorado's constitution to define a fetus as a person under Colorado's criminal code, a change that opponents say would make any abortion a crime, including in cases of rape and incest, and when the health of the mother is endangered.
Supporters of the amendment, including Personhood Colorado, the group backing the ballot measure, say it has nothing to do with abortion, but rather is designed to ensure that those who harm an unborn child in any manner will be prosecuted. The woman who initially pushed for the measure is Colorado resident Heather Surovik, whose fetus was killed by a drunk driver. The driver pleaded guilty to vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated, but because under Colorado law an unborn child is considered part of the mother's body and not a separate person, he was not charged with killing the fetus.
"Amendment 67 corrects the loophole in Colorado law and ensures that those criminals can be charged with killing a child in many different scenarios," Jennifer Mason, a spokeswoman with PersonhoodUSA, told the Washington Post in August.
Reproductive rights advocates say baloney. The "Vote No on 67" campaign, a broad coalition of organizations including the ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado Bar Association and NARAL Pro-Choice America, note the amendment would "give legal and constitutional rights to a woman's fertilized egg," making criminals out of women who seek abortions and the doctors who perform them. Amendment 67 could also restrict access to emergency contraception and other types of birth control, as some prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus.
Planned Parenthood of Colorado is planning to spend at least $3.8 million in an effort to defeat the amendment. And Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is harping on the ballot initiative to help drive women to the polls in November. Udall's Republican opponent, Rep. Corey Gardner (R-Colo.), says he opposes Amendment 67 but has supported personhood measures in the past.
Coloradans defeated personhood amendments in 2008 and 2010 that defined a fetus as a person from the moment of fertilization, or from the first stage of biological development. But because this time around the measure's language focuses on "protecting pregnant women," and supporters are framing it as unrelated to abortion, opponents fear it has a better chance.
North Dakota's Constitutional Measure 1: North Dakota's personhood amendment asks voters to decide whether the state's constitution should protect "the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development."
The measure would have the effect of banning all abortion services, according to the North Dakota Coalition For Privacy in Healthcare, a group opposing the initiative that includes the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition. "Victims of rape and incest could be forced to carry a pregnancy that resulted from sexual violence,” the coalition notes. “Women whose health is at risk could also be prohibited from terminating their pregnancies." The measure could even criminalize miscarriage and ban some forms of birth control. Former North Dakota Democratic lieutenant governor Lloyd Omdahl has said Measure 1 is "driven primarily by theology."
Proponents of the personhood amendment say the ballot initiative would keep existing laws governing abortion from being overturned by courts. Last year, North Dakota enacted two laws restricting abortion in the state. One forbade women from terminating a pregnancy based on sex or genetic defect. The other, which banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected—about six weeks after conception—was shot down by a federal court in April.
GOP state Sen. Margaret Sitte, a supporter of the personhood amendment, says Measure 1 is "intended to present a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade," the landmark Supreme Court case that held the constitutional right to privacy included a right to abortion. If the measure passes, North Dakota would be the first state to define life as beginning at conception. States have defeated three other personhood ballot initiatives in recent years. In addition to Colorado's 2008 and 2010 personhood amendment fails, voters shot down a similar ballot measure in Mississippi in 2011.
Tennessee's Constitutional Amendment 1: As my colleague Molly Redden reported last week, the country's biggest abortion battle is currently playing out in Tennessee, where supporters and opponents of abortion rights are fighting over a constitutional amendment that will appear on state ballots this November.
The measure states, "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion." It would allow the legislature "unlimited authority to pass burdensome and unnecessary restrictions and regulations on abortion, including banning all abortions," according to Planned Parenthood, including in the case of pregnancy from rape, or incest, or when an abortion is necessary to protect the mother's health.
Here's Redden with the backstory:
Tennessee Republicans have been striving to put this referendum before voters since 2000, when a state Supreme Court decision blocked several harsh anti-abortion measures from becoming law. The ruling, which struck down several anti-abortion laws passed in 1998, has prevented the Legislature from passing certain strict laws enacted in other states, such as a mandatory abortion waiting period.…
Amendment 1 would overturn that court decision. 'It will basically just open the floodgates for the General Assembly to pass any kind of restriction if the amendment passes,' says Jeff Teague, the president of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. 'We think they probably have a long list of things they're going to pass.'
The amendment is particularly insidious, the group Vote No on 1 says, because it "is carefully worded in order to deliberately confuse voters about the real intention and motives of those behind the amendment." The reproductive rights coalition says the language in the ballot initiative may trick voters into thinking that it includes exceptions for women who are victims of rape or incest, or when a woman's health is in danger, when it does not.
Proponents of Amendment 1 have raised over $500,000 as of early July—which they are spending on TV ads and voter outreach efforts—and hope to raise a total of $2.1 million. Opponents have raised more than $360,000 so far and hope to rake in a total of $4 million. The referendum battle looks to become the most expensive in the state's history.
If the ballot initiative passes, anti-abortion politicians in the state are expected to pass the same extreme abortion laws and regulations that have shuttered abortion clinics in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia, and Alabama.