Before joining Mother Jones, Matt was a local reporter for the dearly departed Washington Examiner. He has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Public Radio, and the Times of Trenton.
With the Winter Olympics less than two weeks away, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov told the BBC that there are no gay residents in his city. Meanwhile, despite President Vladimir Putin's anti-gay crackdown, Sochi's two gay clubs are thriving. Watch Pakhomov's comments here:
Parts of Australia are in the midst of a massive heat wave, straining resources and sparking fires. Matches had to be suspended at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where temperatures hit 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Here are photos showing the toll this extreme heat has taken on the country's forests, animals, and visiting tennis stars.
A fire-fighting helicopter extinguishes a fire burning throughout Victoria's Grampians region. Country Fire Authority/ZUMA
Civil rights advocates and some progressives are voicing concerns about a bipartisan Voting Rights Act overhaul introduced in both houses of Congress Thursday. The proposal would reinstate federal oversight of states with a recent history of voter discrimination, though it leaves voter ID laws off the list of grievances that qualify as discrimination.
The original Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and amended most recently in 2006, subjected states and counties that had historically used a "test or device" like literacy tests or racial gerrymandering to restrict voting to special oversight—any new election laws in those places had to be approved as nondiscriminatory by the federal government.
The formula for determining which jurisdictions needed oversight—which included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia along with parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota—was ruled unconstitutional in a controversial Supreme Court decision last year. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts called the formula outdated, writing, "It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between states in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today's statistics tell an entirely different story."
Voter ID laws are exempted from the violations list, meaning restrictive changes passed in North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere won't be held against those states. "
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to revamp that formula and reinstate the Voting Rights Act's protections. Under the proposal, any states whose electoral changes violated federal laws (like Texas' redistricting attempt, which federal judges tossed out in 2012 due to its dilution of minority voting power) five times over the past 15 years would be subject to federal scrutiny, while any local jurisdiction with three violations or one violation and "persistent, extremely low minority turnout" would get the same treatment. Under these rules, only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas would fall under statewide federal oversight.
While members of the Congressional Black Caucus signaled their support for the legislation, according to National Journal, the Hispanic Caucus and civil rights organizations have expressed misgivings. Voter ID laws are exempted from the violations list, meaning restrictive changes passed in North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere won't be held against those states. "These [voter ID] laws make it harder for people of color to have a say in our democracy," said Katherine Culliton-González, director of voter protection for the civil rights advocacy organization Advancement Project. "There's no reason for this distinction. It's arbitrary." (Voter ID laws can still be blocked if the Department of Justice or federal courts deem them unfair; they just won't count toward a state's five-violation total.)
Culliton-González also took issue with a provision that only court rulings, not consent decrees or settlements, will count in a state's violation total. Organizations like Advancement Project often settle voting rights lawsuits to get changes implemented faster, she said, whereas the proposed bill would incentivize drawing out court proceedings.
Still, Advancement Project and the ACLU have called the legislation an important first step. Provisions like the voter ID exemption may be necessary to win support from conservatives and other lawmakers from affected states, even if the legislation is a longshot to pass. For progressives on the fence, it's a matter of how much they're wiling to compromise to see a big element of the Voting Rights Act back in action.
At last week's press conference over the George Washington Bridge lane closings that left the New Jersey borough of Fort Lee gridlocked in September, GOP Gov. Chris Christie told reporters, "Whether there was a traffic study or not, I don't know." But whether or not the closures were part of a legitimate study—a Christie aide ordered the lanes closed without mentioning one—the resulting gridlock was analyzed by the Port Authority. The results were a bit obvious: If you close lanes to the George Washington Bridge, you cause traffic.
The post-jam analysis was released last week by a state assembly committee investigating the scandal. It focused on what would happen if two of the three access lanes reserved for Fort Lee residents were shut down and instead made available to other drivers. Fort Lee, according to the Port Authority, provides about 4.5 percent of George Washington Bridge traffic. The remaining 95 percent or so got to work a little quicker: The 11,592 non-Fort Lee vehicles saved about 5 minutes each during the closure, resulting in about 966vehicle hours saved. That wasn't nearly enough to outweigh the cost—Fort Lee traffic resulted in 2,800 vehicle hours of delay. And the analysis noted that even if the traffic queues were half as long, the outcome would still be a net loss. Also, many vehicles sat so long in traffic that they missed peak toll hours, resulting in a revenue loss of $550 a day (or $137,000 over the course of a year).
A review by the Bergen Record found that the actual results may have been even worse than this analysis suggests. Other towns' residents also use the Fort Lee access ramps, so the closed lanes delayed as much as 25 percent of the bridge's motorists. But Port Authority political operatives used the 4.5 percent figure to try to convince nearby Republican lawmakers that the study was legitimate and that Fort Lee didn't need three lanes, according to the Record. An email from former Port Authority official and Christie high school classmate David Wildstein to recently fired Christie aide Bridget Kelly includes talking points for Republican assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon and Jeff Bader, president of a trucking trade group, about how the closures benefited many New Jersey drivers:
Although Wildstein and other Christie allies tried to paint the closures as part of a necessary study, some Port Authority employees were suspicious. One general manager wrote in an email before the closure that the study could be done without leaving Fort Lee with only a single lane. He asked, "What is driving this?" Another supervisor replied, "A single toll lane operation invites potential disaster…It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few."
As the Washington Post's Wonkblog points out, traffic studies rarely affect traffic at all. Engineers can measure normal traffic, simulate a closure or other change, and plug the numbers into formulas provided by the Institute of Transportation Engineers to yield the likely outcomes. When traffic does need to be altered, agencies typically do limited trial runs with a public review process to minimize the impact.
Moreover, it does not take a traffic engineer to realize that taking two of three lanes away from Fort Lee would lead to long lines and lots of waiting. But the ultimate conclusion of the post-gridlock review was not so definitive: It reads only "TBD."
His city might not have been flooded with traffic as an act of political retribution, but Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop still considers himself Gov. Chris Christie's number one enemy.
Like Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, Fulop wouldn't endorse Christie in last year's gubernatorial race. (Though Fulop is a Democrat, Christie spoke at his inauguration in July.) Fulop alleged in a statement Thursday that he received swift punishment from the governor's office after informing the Christie camp in September that he would not be endorsing the Republican incumbent. Fulop claimed that Christie officials canceled meetings and rejected his requests to discuss city issues immediately following the news.
"Cancelations include an entire day of meetings with state commissioners scheduled to be in Jersey City that was abruptly canceled, with each of the commissioners individually canceling within an hour of the time I communicated my intention to not endorse," Fulop said.
The Jersey City mayor is referenced in the bridge closure emails released on Wednesday. After being told that Sokolich was asking questions about the George Washington Bridge lane closures, recently resigned Port Authority official David Wildstein replied, "Radio silence. His name comes right after mayor Fulop." Fulop told the Jersey Journal that after seeing that exchange he believes he's "Enemy Number 1."
Shortly after Christie won re-election, Fulop announced plans to sue the Port Authority for $400 million. He claims the agency, which is run by New Jersey and New York, has not been paying enough taxes on the 32 properties it owns in Jersey City.
When Christie was asked about the Jersey City controversy during his long press conference on Thursday, he said he didn't know if Fulop's meetings were canceled for purposes of payback, and he promised to look into the matter. "What Mayor Fulop knows is, when we agree with him from a policy perspective we'll work with him," Christie said. "When we disagree with him, we'll express those disagreements. And sometimes that'll mean friction."
He added: "Have I at times been angry with Mayor Fulop and disagreed with him? You bet I have."