Illustration by Jason HolleyIt's late June in North Dakota, and Galen Grote and I are bouncing over his cattle ranch in a Chevy pickup with the radio tuned to "Hair Nation." Grote's vast fields of wheatgrass bring to mind Axl Rose getting a blow-dry—a wind-tossed mane of turf stretching across the fertile remnants of ancient glaciers and river deltas. The earthbound wealth here in the Missouri Plateau convinced Grote's great-grandfather to homestead this land a century ago—long before anyone knew of the liquid riches beneath it.
After passing sloughs full of coots and mallards, we arrive at the dusty pad where an Oklahoma-based oil company called Continental Resources has hit pay dirt. A gleaming new jack pump siphons up crude and flares off fireballs of gas. All over this part of the state, Continental's rigs have corkscrewed through nearly two miles of limestone, gravel, and sandstone to tap the Bakken and Three Forks reservoirs, oil-rich bands of shale that formed millions of years ago from what was once an inland sea. This Sri Lanka-sized mineral vein straddling Montana, North Dakota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan is now the heart of America's new oil boom, the largest domestic find since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay more than 40 years ago. Continental's founder and CEO, Harold Hamm, the dominant player in the Bakken rush, estimates that there is as much oil here as has been discovered in the rest of the United States put together.
More MoJo coverage of the fracking industry's political influence:
Tapping the Bakken has already made Hamm one of America's richest oil barons, and North Dakota now rivals Texas as the top-producing oil state, with an economy hotter than a Houston sidewalk in August. In 2011, tax proceeds were up 44 percent from the year before, prompting a ballot measure that attempted (unsuccessfully) to abolish property taxes. Thousands of new oil jobs have given North Dakota the nation's lowest unemployment rate (3 percent) and overwhelmed cattle country with an influx of fortune seekers. Ranching hamlets that once had five-minute rush hours now endure endless caravans of exhaust-spewing tanker trucks filled with oil, fracking fluids, and "hot loads" of drilling waste.
"Suffrage is the pivotal right," Susan B. Anthony once said. Yet nearly 100 years after her death, our ability to vote still pivots a great deal upon who we are and where we live. Some states bar felons from voting or require proof of American citizenship. Others only ask that you mail in a ballot, take an oath, or show up at the polls. Can you vote in the next election? Take our quiz to find out, or to see how your state fits into our nation's bewildering patchwork of election laws.*
*This quiz is not intended as a stand-alone guide to election laws. If you are unsure whether you qualify to vote, we suggest double-checking your state's registration and voting requirements here.
In 1996, Shane Taylor, a 27-year-old prep cook and married father, was arrested in California's Tulare County for possession of $5 worth of methamphetamine. If charged as a felony—as it was in this case—such an offense carries a minimum sentence of 16 months in prison. But Taylor had been convicted twice in the late '80s on felony burglary charges, so his petty meth possession earned him a life term under the state's "three strikes" law.
Howard Broadman, the retired Republican judge who sentenced Taylor to life, has come to deeply regret his ruling. "I made a mistake and I'm sorry," he now says. (See video below.) Along with a surprisingly bipartisan group of prosecutors and law enforcement officials, Broadman is supporting Proposition 36, a California ballot measure that would limit three-strikes offenses to serious and violent crimes.
A second video features Kelly Turner, a three-strikes inmate who was released on a technicality, and then went on to be a productive citizen:
The three-strikes law, approved overwhelmingly by California voters in 1994, coincided with a dramatic, nationwide drop in crime that had begun three years earlier and continued unabated for more than a decade. But the punitive new measure (and a similar law in Washington state) sparked a new era of one-upmanship by elected officials desperate to demonstrate that they were tough on crime. Today, 24 other states and the federal government have three-strikes laws in place, and being "soft on crime" is considered a third rail of American politics.
Or at least it was before Prop. 36 came along.
According to a poll released last week by the California Business Roundtable, 72 percent of California voters support Prop. 36—the same percentage that backed California's original three-strikes law 18 years ago. So why have voters' fears of bad guys on the loose given way to concern about locking so many of them up?
Supporters of Prop. 36 include not just progressives, but prominent Republicans like Grover Norquist and George Schultz.
One reason could be the specter of a $28 billion state budget deficit, nearly $9 billion of which comes from paying for the state's overcrowded prison system. Among other things, Prop. 36 would grant new sentencing hearings to 3,000 prisoners who committed nonviolent crimes but received lengthy prison terms under three strikes. The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst estimates that this and future sentence reductions would save $70-$90 million a year.
The savings have caught the attention of some powerful small-government Republicans. The initiative's endorsers include Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and George Schultz, the Nixon-era treasury secretary and former chairman of Ronald Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board. "Conservatives know that it is possible to cut both crime rates and costly incarceration rates," says the website of the prison reform group Right on Crime, whose members include Norquist and politicians such as Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Yet thrift may not be the deciding factor: A September poll conducted by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times found that learning about the proposition's fiscal impact had no effect on voters' willingness to back it. "The cost savings are there, but that's not why people are supporting it," says Michael Romano, the founder of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, which challenges California three-strikes sentences in court. "It's because fair and proportionate sentencing really resonates with people."
Among the crimes that have resulted in 25 to life: lifting a pair of work gloves from Home Depot and stealing a dollar from a parked car.
Romano ticks off some of the petty crimes that have landed defendants in prison for 25 years or more: possessing one-tenth of a gram of meth (a tenth the volume of a sugar packet), reaching in a window to steal children's clothes off a table, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from Home Depot, stealing a dollar from a parked car, and possessing a stolen car radio. "As a matter of common sense and fairness," Romano says, "we don't think that repeat offenders of nonviolent crimes should get longer sentences than rapists and murderers."
Bernice Cubie, featured in the video below, is serving life in a California prison for a third strike of possessing less than $10 worth of cocaine.
Opponents of Prop. 36 point out that judges and district attorneys can already opt not to assign strikes to accused criminals. They predict mayhem if the law passes. "Prop. 36 is kind of like a Pandora's box being opened," says Ron Cottingham, the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents 64,000 public safety workers. "These are people with criminal records, and they will prey on the people of California, guaranteed."
In Ohio, possibly the decisive swing state in this year's presidential race, 10 billboard ads around Cleveland warn in big block letters and exclamation points that voter fraud is a felony punishable by up to three and a half years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
That might seem like an odd way to spend election-year advertising money, given that in-person voter fraud is less common than UFO sightings. Yet evidence suggests that the creators of the billboards, who identify themselves only as a "private family foundation," care less about voter fraud per se than scaring away certain voters from the polls.
In 2008, nearly 70 percent of voters in the county that includes Cleveland cast ballots for Barack Obama. While that on its own might suggest a partisan motivation behind the billboards, a closer examination of their locations indicates something worse: a calculated effort to target Democratic-leaning racial and ethnic minorities.
In this map of Cleveland, created by Eric Fischer using 2010 census data, each dot represents 25 residents. Red dots are Caucasians, blue dots are African Americans, orange dots are Hispanics, green dots are Asians, and yellow dots are members of other racial and ethnic groups. I've added stars to indicate the locations of the billboards. As you can see, all of the stars are in areas that are either mostly black, or, in the case of the inset, significantly black, Asian, and Hispanic:
Location of "VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY!" billboards in Cleveland Eric Fischer/Josh Harkinson
"When you have the words 'felony,' 'voter,' and 'fine' all the the same message, and by placing it where it is, the only message that you are intending to send is that this is a threat to you if you vote," Cleveland Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland told the Plain Dealer (see video below). "It's just a blatant attempt to keep people in this community, particularly black people and poor people, from voting."
UPDATE: Readers report seeing the same billboards in Madisonville, Ohio (a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Cincinnati) and in Oak Creek and Souuth Milwaukee, blue-collar areas in Wisconsin.
Forty eight representatives and 11 senators earn an "F" on a new report card that ranks lawmakers based on how well they address income inequality. All of the failing grades went to Republicans.
The "Inequality Report Card," published today by the Institute for Policy Studies, looks at how lawmakers voted on dozens of bills that would, among other things, raise taxes on the wealthy, restrict the use of offshore tax havens, increase the minimum wage, and strengthen labor unions. The report gives the worst combined grade to Arkansas' congressional delegation and the best to Vermont's. Too bad Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, isn't as exportable as Bill Clinton.
None of the senators earning an "F" grade come from the nation's five most equal states.
Lawmakers' scores on the report card correlate loosely with how much income inequality exists in their home states. California and New York rank among the highest for income inequality but employ lawmakers that earn, on average, a B- for their friendliness to the middle class. None of the senators earning an "F" grade come from the nation's five most equal states.
The report also looked at whether rich members of Congress tend to favor the 1 percent, but it seems that their votes depend more on party than pocketbook. The 10 wealthiest Democrats earned grades ranging from a "B" to "A." The best grade earned by a wealthy Republican was a C-minus.