Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, Battleground Texas' pick in the 2014 governor's race.
Battleground Texas, the effort by Obama vets to turn the nation's biggest red state blue, got off to a rough start last fall when Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis lost by 21 points. But now, as the organization looks to rebuild toward its long-term goal of mobilizing the state's long-dormant Democratic base, its leaders are doing a public dissection of what went wrong—and what to do differently next time.
In a feature published by Texas Monthly in late February, Robert Draper broke down the organization's financial struggles and turf wars, but also the difficulties Battleground faced with the field of battle of itself. The newcomers, Draper explained, had no idea just how hard it would be enroll new voters while complying with the state's Byzantine rules:
For a group like Battleground to register Texans to vote, they themselves must be Texas residents, must be eligible to vote and—in a wrinkle that is unique to Texas—must be deputized by each county where they're registering. In some of the state's 254 counties, going through the requisite voter registration training course can be done online; in others, certification is offered only once a month, at the county courthouse during work hours. But as the Battleground team came to learn, the complications only begin once a deputy registrar is certified. If a Dallas County-certified volunteer registers someone who says they live in that county when in fact they live just across the border in Tarrant County, then the deputy registrar has committed a misdemeanor. If the volunteer turns in the completed registration forms more than five days after they've been collected, that’s also a misdemeanor.
"When we first heard about these laws," recalled [executive director Jenn] Brown, "I said, 'There's no way this is the law—this is unbelievable.'"
The organization has released a 36-page report documenting the findings of its voter-protection program. There's plenty to chew over, some of it anecdotal, some of it not. In Texas' five largest counties—the urban, majority-minority areas heavily targeted by Democrats—provisional ballots were rejected more than four times as often as the national average. (Only one in four provisional votes was accepted.) That's significant because a variety of factors on the most recent Election Day—like the debut of a voter ID requirement that affected as many as 600,000 eligible voters, and a breakdown of the state's voter registration portal—made it much more likely that citizens who showed up at the polls had to fill out provisional ballots.
The report highlights another inconsistency in the state's voter law—what happens when you move:
Unfortunately, although more than one in 10 Americans move annually, Texas law requires voters to completely re-register after moving between counties within the state. If a voter fails to do so, her ability to vote is dependent upon a seemingly irrelevant factor—whether that voter casts a ballot during Early Voting or on Election Day. If a voter has moved to a new county and the voter rolls have not been updated, she is only permitted to vote a so-called limited ballot for statewide offices, and can only do so during Early Voting or by mail. On Election Day, by contrast, that same voter cannot vote at all. We received more than a hundred reports involving voters who had recently moved within Texas, yet whose address had not been updated on the voter rolls.
This isn't Battleground's attempt to explain away that 21-point stomping, and there's plenty of debate on that in the Texas Monthly piece. But it's a revealing look at what's on the organizers' minds as they retool for 2016 and beyond.
For the past few years, tiny Doyline, Louisiana, best known as the Southern Gothic setting of HBO's True Blood, has been perched next to a powder keg. Next month, the Environmental Protection Agency will decide whether to light a match.
In 2012, an explosion at Camp Minden, a former military base just outside of town that had become a hub for munitions contractors, sent a 7,000-foot mushroom cloud into the Louisiana sky. The blast rattled homes as far away as Arkansas and forced Doyline residents to evacuate. "I thought I was in Afghanistan," one resident told the Associated Press. State police investigators, who raided Camp Minden soon after, discovered that Explo Systems Inc., a munitions recycling company that operated there, was storing 15 million pounds of toxic military explosives on-site—with some of it in in paper sacks, cardboard boxes, or even outside. After the raid, the company, at the direction of state officials, moved the munitions into old bunkers the Louisiana National Guard had made available on the base in order to reduce the risk of an explosion caused by a fire or a lightning strike.
A Louisiana grand jury indicted seven Explo employees on multiple charges, including unlawful storage of explosives and conspiracy. (The case has not yet gone to trial.) Two months later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms revoked Explo's explosives licenses. The next week, the company declared bankruptcy, triggering a fight among state and federal regulators over whose job it was to clean up the toxic mess.
Now the race is against the clock. The bunkers are falling apart—pine trees are growing on the roofs of several of them—which means the increasingly unstable materials are now being exposed to moisture. And the EPA has warned that the explosives, which become more unstable over time, are increasingly at risk of an "uncontrolled catastrophic explosion." So in October, the EPA announced it would do something it had never done before—approved a plan for a large-scale controlled burn of the hazardous military waste.
It may be that the fastest-growing demographic in the Republican Party is pro-life, telegenic, homeschooled, and mostly under the age of 27—you know, the Duggars. As in the stars of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting.
In the past couple election cycles, this birth-control-shunning family has emerged as a political player on the right. And now it looks likely that they will face a tough decision when it comes to which social conservative GOPer to back in the 2016 presidential race. The Arkansas clan helped propel Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. And they did it with Rick Santorum in 2012. Now, with both Huckabee and Santorum considering presidential campaigns this year, the Duggars may have to choose between them. Or might they dump both for a new favorite?
Southwest Times Record; John Paul Hammerschmidt Papers, Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
Even the onetime leader of the free world was once just a lowly Area Man. That headline, from the Southwest (Arkansas) Times Record, heralded the inconspicuous start of Bubba's political career, when he launched his first campaign in 1974, against Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.) Clinton, at the time a law professor at the University of Arkansas, hoped to ride anti-Watergate sentiment to Congress in the state's most conservative congressional district, but fell just short. It might have been for the best—he was elected the state's attorney general two years later and, two years after that, became America's youngest governor.
The newspaper clipping was included in Hammerschmidt's personal and public papers at the University of Arkansas. Also in the collection: what appears to be the first ever anti-Clinton whisper campaign, from a former law student of Clinton's who claimed the candidate had once lost a bunch of papers:
John Paul Hammerschmidt Papers, Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
Jordan Mansfield uses a video visitation system to speak with her husband at the DeSoto County jail in Hernando, Mississippi.
On a chilly Sunday evening in December, a smattering of parents and small children trickled into a graffiti-covered concrete building on the grounds of the DC Jail. It was the last day to visit with prisoners before Christmas Eve, and some of the visitors were wearing Santa hats or bearing presents. The only thing missing was inmates. Three years ago, Washington, DC, eliminated in-person visitation for the roughly 1,800 residents of its jails and installed 54 video-conferencing screens in this building across the parking lot from the detention facility. The screens were installed, at no expense to taxpayers, by a Virginia-based company called Global Tel*Link (GTL), which had scored a lucrative contract for the facility's phone service.
Now the only way families in the capital can see their loved ones in jail—many of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime and will be shipped out of state if they are—is to sit in front of a webcam for 45 minutes. (Two free weekly visits are allotted.) The video on the laptop-size screens often lags, creating an echo effect. It's a cold, impersonal way to speak with someone a few hundred feet away. The effect, the Washington Post editorial board charged, has been "to punish prisoners and families."