Nina Liss-Schultz

Nina Liss-Schultz

Senior Online Editorial Fellow

Before joining Mother Jones, Nina was an editorial intern at Bitch Magazine in Portland, Oregon. In the past she has worked for Think Progress, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. You can follow her @NinaLisss and email her at nliss-schultz [at] motherjones [dot] com.

Get my RSS |

The Obama Administration Wants 6 Million Americans to Get Back Their Right to Vote. Here's How.

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 4:00 AM PST

On Tuesday morning, Attorney General Eric Holder made a plea to states to overturn laws barring people convicted of felonies from voting. "It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed," he said at a criminal-justice symposium in Washington, DC. "And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore—it is also too unjust to tolerate."

As the New York Times pointed out, Holder's comments were largely symbolic, since he doesn't have the authority to personally enact changes. Regardless, Holder called attention to a huge, largely overlooked demographic. So what's the lay of the land when it comes to felony disenfranchisement laws? Here are some facts to help clarify the issue.

So how common are laws restricting felon voting? As we've reported before, nearly every state restricts the voting rights of people convicted of felonies. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on voting; in these, felons can vote while still in prison. On the other hand, 11 states restrict voting even after a person has completed their prison sentence and finished probation or parole. Twenty states require completion of parole and probation before voting is allowed, and 14 states allow felons to vote after they leave prison. 

Among states that bar voting even after a person has completed their sentence, the laws still differ greatly. In Alabama, only certain felony offenses result in disenfranchisement. In Florida, Nebraska, and Virginia, felons are able to vote after waiting periods between two and five years. And in Nevada, almost all felony offenders are completely barred from the polls (first-time, nonviolent felony convictions are exempt).

Eight states also completely bar people with misdemeanor convictions from voting while incarcerated.

How did this practice start? In his speech, Holder rightly pointed out that laws barring felons from voting are a relic of post-Civil War America. "After Reconstruction, many southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations," he said. The Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice advocacy and research non-profit, confirms this, though notes that the revocation of voting rights dates back even further, to colonial America, when English colonists introduced the common law practice of "civil death," a set of criminal penalties that included the stripping of voting rights. Later, as slavery was outlawed after the Civil War, the qualification of needing to own property to vote was gradually repealed across all states, notes the Sentencing Project. This meant that felony disenfranchisement policies "served as an alternate means for wealthy elites to constrict the political power of the lower classes." 

How many people do these laws really affect? Nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to felony disenfranchisement laws. Moreover, the bulk of disenfranchised felons—75 percent—are no longer in prison. Approximately 2.6 million of those remain disenfranchised despite having completed all parts of their sentence (prison time, parole, probation) because they live in states that bar felons from the polls for life or require a post-sentence waiting period.

The number of felons without voting rights has ballooned significantly along with the growing prison population. The United States has the world's highest rate of incarceration: Department of Justice statistics show that the number of people under correctional supervision has increased from fewer than 2 million in 1980 to more than 7 million by 2011. As a result, the number of disenfranchised felons has grown from 1.17 million in 1976 to 5.85 million by 2010, and at a rate of 500 percent since 1980. 

Who gets the brunt of these laws? Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color. Black men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the Urban Institute, 11.4 percent of African American men aged 20 to 34 were in prison in 2008, compared with just 1.8 percent of white men. One out of every 13 black Americans of voting age can't vote due to criminal disenfranchisement laws, a number much higher than for any other demographic. This ratio is more stark in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, where more than 1 in 5 black adults is barred from the polls. Overall, 2.2 million black Americans have lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. 

"The impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable," Holder said on Tuesday. "These individuals and many others—of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life—are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance."

Advertise on

Barbie Designer: If We Made Her Look Normal, Her Clothes Wouldn't Fit

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 3:43 PM PST

By now, it's well known that Barbie's body isn't exactly realistic. If the famous doll were human, her waist would be just 16 inches around—half the size of the average American woman's. She hasn't always been this way; in fact, before 1997, Barbie was even less realistic.

In an interview with Fast Company Design, Kim Culmone, vice president of design for the Barbie doll, spoke candidly about why the doll remains so proportionally different from real women. Her argument essentially boiled down to: We can't make Barbie more realistic because her clothes wouldn't fit anymore.

Co.Design: What's your stance on Barbie's proportions?

Culmone: Barbie's body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress. And she's had many bodies over the years, ones that are poseable, ones that are cut for princess cuts, ones that are more realistic…Primarily it's for function for the little girl, for real life fabrics to be able to be turned and sewn, and have the outfit still fall property on her body.

Co.Design: So to get the clean lines of fashion at Barbie's scale, you have to use totally unrealistic proportions?

Culmone: You do! Because if you're going to take a fabric that's made for us…her body has to be able to accommodate how the clothes will fit her.

In actuality, Barbie was created in 1959 so that the daughter of Ruth Handler, co-founder of the Mattel toy company, could imagine herself as an adult. In 1977, Handler told the New York Times she invented Barbie because "every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future."

When asked whether she thinks girls compare their own bodies to Barbie's, Culmone said no way.

Co.Design: You don't think there's a body comparison going on when you're a girl?

Culmone: I don't. Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do…Clearly, the influences for girls on those types of issues, whether it's body image or anything else, it's proven, it's peers, moms, parents, it's their social circles.

When they're playing, they're playing. It's a princess-fairy-fashionista-doctor-astronaut, and that's all one girl.

But a 2006 study in the American Psychological Association found that girls exposed to Barbie had lower self esteem and a desire to be thinner. Another 2006 study showed that young girls ate significantly more after playing with average-sized dolls.

Quick Reads: "Extreme Medicine" by Kevin Fong

| Mon Feb. 3, 2014 4:00 AM PST

Extreme Medicine

By Kevin Fong


The devil's in the physiological details as physician, NASA adviser, and outdoor fanatic Kevin Fong explores how feats at the edge of possibility—from the first major Antarctica expedition a century ago to the first manned landing on Mars at some future date—rely upon and, in turn, inform an ever-greater understanding of our own biology. With clear, evocative prose, he takes readers to ocean depths and mountaintops, and also deep within our bodies, in this entertaining exploration of human limits.

This review originally appeared in our January/February 2014 issue of Mother Jones.

Why Are These States Actively Trying to Confuse Their Residents About Obamacare?

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 4:00 AM PST

To help consumers and small businesses make sense of their new health insurance options, the Affordable Care Act created outreach personnel, or "navigators," tasked with distributing information about coverage and walking people through the application process. On January 23, Texas passed a set of measures aimed at restricting these navigators because of lawmakers' concerns about patient privacy. That same day, a federal judge in Missouri temporarily blocked enforcement of similar restrictions, ruling that they created too large an obstacle to enrollment.

"It is an abuse of your oversight authority to launch groundless investigations into civic organizations that are trying to make health reform a success."

This tug of war is about a seemingly straightforward program: The navigators, who are required by law to be both unbiased and free, are meant to help uninsured Americans enroll in either Medicaid or private insurance plans. Depending on whether a state has opted to use its own insurance marketplace, navigators get funding through state or federal grants. For example, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, in Iowa, received a $214,427 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to employ navigators, which will give in-person assistance by preparing applications and helping consumers determine which plans they qualify for, in 61 of 99 Iowa counties.

But Republican lawmakers have cried foul, arguing that navigators could steal private information like Social Security numbers and medical records. In an August letter to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the HHS, the attorneys general of 13 states said they were concerned that HHS had "failed to adequately protect the privacy" of consumers because it does "not even require uniform criminal background or fingerprint checks before hiring personnel." Texas Sen. John Cornyn, for example, praised his state's regulations, saying on his Facebook, "Obamacare presents enough problems for Texans without the risk of a convicted felon handling their personal information."

Privacy claims have led to a surge of restrictive measures like those in Texas. At least 17 states have passed regulations on health care navigators since, including Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee, which barred navigators from educating consumers about the specific benefits, terms, and features of a particular health plan. Here is a map of states that have passed laws restricting navigators:

Many policymakers and health care professionals say that these privacy concerns are unfounded and worry that partisan bickering will hurt underserved populations. After 15 Republicans members of the House asked for details and briefings on 51 navigator groups, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote, "It is an abuse of your oversight authority to launch groundless investigations into civic organizations that are trying to make health reform a success." The Democratic members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce also noted that there are already significant privacy safeguards in place, including a $25,000 penalty for disclosing personal information and mandatory navigator training.

Peter Shin, professor of health law and policy George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services, says that conservatives are more interested in decreasing enrollment and making Obamacare look bad than they are in protecting patient privacy. "I think the privacy concern is more of a political issue than a common sense one," says Shin.

The result of conservative politicking? Underserved populations will remain so, as outreach resources are strained. "The purpose of the navigator programs is to help those who will need most in terms of understanding their options," says Shin. "The more disenfranchised communities will be hurt the most from the navigator restrictions."

Several navigator programs have already closed shop because of anti-navigator laws. Cardon Outreach, a Texas-based organization that has helped people enroll in Medicaid in the past, returned its grant from HHS. As the Columbus Dispatch reported, Cardon's chief legal adviser stated in an email that the state and federal regulatory scrutiny surrounding navigators "requires us to allocate resources which we cannot spare and will distract us from fulfilling our obligations to our clients."

A Soundtrack for Your Roadtrips: Tinariwen's "Emmaar"

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 4:00 AM PST



In keeping with its origins, the renowned North African band Tinariwen has moved yet again: this time to Joshua Tree, California. The group, composed of Tuareg nomads from Mali, left the desert dunes of the Sahara to escape from regional violence. Despite the relocation to American desert country, the music will sound familiar. The gritty, rocking guitar in "Chaghaybou," and the weaving vocals over soft hand drums you'll hear in the songs "Sendad Eghlalan" and "Timadrit In Sahara" are unmistakable, and an ideal soundtrack for your own wanderings.

Like their last recording, which featured members of TV on the Radio and Wilco, and which won Tinariwen a Grammy, Emmaar includes guest artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, Matt Sweeney from Chavez, Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin, and the poet Saul Williams. "We wanted something which sounded natural and live" says multi-instrumentalist band member Eyadou Ag Leche. Indeed, the tracks on Emmaar have the same organic vibe as those produced thousands of miles away. By all accounts the band has succeeded: With this album, the members of Tinariwen have again proved they are as at home on the global music stage as in the deserts of Mali.

Mon Mar. 31, 2014 4:38 PM PDT
Mon Mar. 17, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
Fri Feb. 21, 2014 4:00 AM PST
Mon Feb. 3, 2014 4:00 AM PST
Thu Jan. 9, 2014 4:00 AM PST
Mon Dec. 16, 2013 4:00 AM PST
Fri Nov. 15, 2013 4:00 AM PST
Tue Sep. 10, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Fri Aug. 23, 2013 3:00 AM PDT