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More Than 200,000 of Virginia's Ex-Felons Will Soon Have Their Voting Rights Restored

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 1:09 PM EDT

On Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that more than 200,000 of the state's former felons will soon have their voting rights restored—a move that will allow convicted felons who have completed their sentences to vote in this year's presidential election. McAuliffe described the executive order as a step towards correcting the state's longstanding history of disenfranchising African Americans from the voting process.

"There's no question that we've had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African Americans—we should remedy it," McAuliffe said on Thursday.

The executive order bypassed Republicans in the state, who view former felons as potential Democratic voters. Their angry response was swift:

Nearly every state—with the exception of Maine and Vermont—has restrictions on the voting rights of felons. Virginia's restrictions have been in place since after the Civil War, when the state's constitution permanently barred former felons from being able to vote.

Recently, the McAuliffe administration has loosened the strict ban by allowing former felons who were convicted of non-violent crimes to be automatically eligible to have their rights restored. Today's announcement expands the right to include those who were found guilty of committing both violent and non-violent crimes but, as the Washington Post reports, restoration will no longer be automatic. The governor will be required to review each case on an ongoing basis.

For more on the movement to restore voting rights and the impact of disenfranchisement, read our explainer here.

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The Best Way To Promote the English Language Is to Do Nothing

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 12:13 PM EDT

This won't come as a big surprise to anyone who isn't knotted in fear about Hispanics taking over the country, but it turns out that Mexican immigrants are pretty much like every other immigrant population: the longer they're around, the more they speak English. Here is Pew Research:

About three-quarters of Hispanic Millennials are proficient English speakers — that is, they either speak only English at home (28%) or speak a language other than English at home, but speak English “very well” (48%).... Among Hispanics ages 5 to 17, nearly all of whom are U.S. born, 88% are proficient English speakers, including 37% who speak only English at home and 50% who speak another language at home but speak English very well.

It so happens that I think most liberals give short shrift to fears of official (or effective) bilingualism. My read of history and culture suggests that a common language is a key feature of a unified polity. There just aren't that many Switzerlands.

That said, there's not really a compelling reason to do much about this. I may not have any big objections to making English our official language, but why bother? Far from being unique, Hispanics are just like every other wave of immigrants in American history: they start off speaking Spanish, but the second and third generations end up speaking English. And they do it for obvious reasons: they live among English speakers, they watch English-language television, and it's hellishly inconvenient not to speak it. All we have to do is sit back and do nothing, and Hispanic immigrants will eventually all become English speakers.

Trump's Delusional Plan to Win in November Isn't Even Original

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 11:23 AM EDT

Donald Trump's political director told a room full of Republican bigwigs on Thursday that if the tower-dwelling steak magnate is the party's nominee for president, he will redraw the electoral map in November. Per the New York Times:

As the Republicans ate oysters in a dim, stuffy conference room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. [Rick] Wiley walked them through a slide show that predicted victory for Mr. Trump not just in swing states with large Hispanic populations like Nevada, Colorado and Florida, but in states that Republicans have not captured since the 1980s: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Connecticut.

This sounds crazy because it is, but it's not a kind of crazy that's unique to Trump. Republican nominees (or prospective nominees) always say this.

In a video for Republican donors in June 2008, John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, showed off a map highlighting states McCain had in the bag and states that might be in play. The list of states that were Republican locks included three that Barack Obama ultimately won: Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. The list of states that McCain's campaign considered battlegrounds included California and Connecticut. Oh, and Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Okay, that was 2008. It was a long time ago. We didn't have self-driving cars or even face-swap back then. But in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney again proposed to redraw the electoral map by flipping Midwestern states the party hadn't won since the Ronald Reagan era. His campaign spent much of the final week of the race in Pennsylvania. It considered Wisconsin the new Ohio. In October, Romney and his backers went on the air in Michigan and Minnesota.

Trump is out of step with his party's previous standard-bearers on many things, but when it comes to overstating his electoral chances in blue states, he talks a lot like the establishment.

Art Museums Should Be Allowed to Participate in Both Sides of the Free Market

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 11:08 AM EDT

New York City's Metropolitan Museum recently announced that it was running deficits and needed to restructure its operations—most likely including layoffs. Michael O'Hare is agog:

The Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be....Selling just two percent (off the bottom by quality or importance, of course, and much more than two percent of it by object count), for example, could endow free admission forever. Selling .3 percent would cover that pesky deficit, also forever. And the smaller museums and collectors who would buy works freed from the catacombs would show it.

Nothing in the Met’s mission statement suggests its purpose is to accumulate as much art as possible where no-one sees it. But the Met and all the other big art museums have insulated themselves from this sort of awkward question by writing a code of ethics that forbids any museum from selling anything except to buy more art.

Rich art lovers....Do not give a penny or so much as a tiny watercolor to any museum that doesn’t recuse itself from this provision of the AAMD rules. When a couple of big ones like the Met show some leadership, things will change, and our engagement with art will improve in many ways.

Selling off artwork is called deaccessioning, and it's become increasingly common—and controversial—in recent years. The AAMD does indeed forbid it, unless the proceeds are used to buy other art, but during the Great Recession several small museums sold off parts of their collection in order to cover operating costs anyway. The AAMD was not amused. When the Delaware Art Museum sold off a William Holman Hunt painting a couple of years ago, the AAMD asked its members to basically suspend any collaboration with the museum.

The art world generally believes that deaccessioning is a horror because art is a public trust blah blah blah. This is little more than meaningless word salad. However, on a more prosaic level, it's probably true that a strong taboo against deaccessioning prevents art museums from using their collections as an ATM machine whenever they run into a patch of trouble. That said, it's hard to understand why art museums, alone among all the institutions of mankind, should be required to never sell anything they own. Perhaps this statement from the AAMD about the Delaware Art Museum's auction tells the real story: "It is also sending a clear signal to its audiences that private support is unnecessary, since it can always sell additional items from its collection to cover its costs."

We can't have that, can we? That would prevent museums from raising money with scary campaigns about shutting down or firing half their staff or cutting hours to the bone.

But what if rules about deaccessioning were abandoned? What would happen? My guess is: nothing much. Museums that gained a reputation for doing it routinely would indeed suffer a drop in private donations, and that would act as a natural brake on the practice. Other museums would benefit, as they were freed to occasionally sell off less important parts of their collection in order to pay bills or undertake other worthy endeavors. And huge museums like the Met, with caverns full of artwork that's never shown and has limited scholarly use, could not only shore up their finances but improve the world by selling pieces to smaller, more specialized museums that would show it. In the end, a free market in art would most likely produce a net increase in public welfare, just as free markets do in nearly every other area.

I'm with O'Hare: the taboo against deaccessioning is way overdone. We should give it a rest.

Uber Agrees to Pay $100 Million to Drivers in Historic Class Action Settlement

| Fri Apr. 22, 2016 12:30 AM EDT

Ride-sharing giant Uber announced that it has agreed to pay $100 million to settle two class action lawsuits, in which thousands of drivers alleged that they were improperly classified as independent contractors instead of employees. 

The California and Massachusetts lawsuits were set to go to trial in June.

As part of the agreement, which was announced Thursday evening, drivers will keep the contractor classification, but Uber will pay out $84 million to the drivers, and an additional $16 million if the company goes public and the Uber's valuation hits certain growth levels.

The settlement is one of the largest ever achieved on behalf of workers who alleged that they were improperly classified as independent contractors, wrote Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney who represented the workers in both cases, in an email. Depending on how many miles they've driven and several other factors, individual drivers could receive up to $8,000 in settlement money, she said.

The agreement has several other significant terms, including that Uber will now be required to tell passengers that tips are not included in their fare. Drivers will be allowed to put small signs in their cars that say as much. Uber will also facilitate and help fund the creation of driver associations in both California and Massachusetts, where drivers will be able to elect peers to leadership positions, and bring drivers' concerns to management. 

For two years, Uber pulled out all the stops to fight this case. The company hired lawyer Ted Boutrous, who successfully represented Walmart before the Supreme Court in the largest employment class action in US history and it twice inserted arbitration clauses into contracts to prevent more drivers from signing on to the class action.

That's likely because classifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees is a major cost-saver that has helped Uber grow into a $60 billion company; losing that classification could have cost the company untold millions.

And Uber is not alone: Classifying workers as independent contractors is a common cost-cutting strategy among popular Silicon Valley startups (Lyft, Postmates, Washio, and more) that have relied on cheap, gig economy freelancers to provide services and have grown rapidly as a result.

While this historic agreement is a significant win for her clients, the question of worker classification in Silicon Valley has yet to be resolved, Liss-Riordan said in an email.

"No court has decided here whether Uber drivers are employees or independent contractors and that debate will not end here," Liss-Riordan wrote. "This case, however, with this significant payment of money, and attention that has been drawn to this issue, stands as a stern warning to companies who play fast and loose with classifying their workforce as independent contractors, who do not receive the benefits of the wage laws and other employee protections."

The FBI Spent More Than $1 Million to Hack One Potentially Useless Phone

| Thu Apr. 21, 2016 5:08 PM EDT

It turns out the FBI's 11-hour solution to its huge public fight with Apple didn't come cheap.

FBI director James Comey said on Thursday that the agency paid more than $1 million to unnamed private-sector hackers for help in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI first attempted to make Apple write software that would allow law enforcement to unlock the phone quickly, but the company refused and said the request could unconstitutionally expand government authority. The case sparked an uproar over digital privacy as well as a major court battle, which stopped only when the FBI announced it had received the hackers' help and withdrew its order to Apple.

Comey, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, didn't give a specific price for the hack, but said it cost the agency more than he would make in the next seven years of his term as director. The FBI director makes at least $181,500 a year by law, putting the cost of the hack at a minimum of $1.27 million, by Comey's estimate. An FBI press officer could not confirm the accuracy of Comey's estimate or provide a specific cost.

"It was worth it," Comey told the audience in Aspen. But it's not clear how much value the hacking method or the phone actually has. Comey has repeatedly said that the method used to break into the phone would work only on an iPhone 5C running iOS 9, like the San Bernardino phone, and that Apple could discover and fix the security flaw that allowed the hack to work. And on Tuesday, CNN reported that the phone "didn't contain evidence of contacts with other ISIS supporters or the use of encrypted communications during the period the FBI was concerned about." The FBI argues the lack of information is valuable evidence in and of itself.

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We Dare You to Not Break Down Watching Prince's Tribute to Freddie Gray

| Thu Apr. 21, 2016 4:19 PM EDT
Prince at Coachella music festival in 2008

Prince wasn't just a major pop icon—he was also a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last May, after weeks of protests in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, he released a tribute song, "Baltimore," which honored Gray and those demonstrating against police brutality. Prince performed the song live that month at a free show in Baltimore. He also gave a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement while presenting the award for Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys. "Albums still matter," he said. "Like books and black lives, albums still matter."

Today fans are mourning the death of the legendary pop star. This week also marks the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray's death. Check out the video for Prince's tribute to Gray below.

Hillary Clinton Really Loves Military Intervention

| Thu Apr. 21, 2016 3:17 PM EDT

Here's what's in the New York Times Magazine this week:

How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk

But...no. This piece doesn't really tell us how Hillary became a hawk—and that's too bad. It would be genuinely interesting to get some insight into how (or if) her views have evolved over time and what motivates them. Still, even if he doesn't really tell us why Hillary is so hawkish, Mark Landler makes it very, very clear that she is, indeed, a very sincere hawk:

Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts are bred in the bone — grounded in cold realism about human nature and what one aide calls “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” It set her apart from her rival-turned-boss, Barack Obama, who avoided military entanglements and tried to reconcile Americans to a world in which the United States was no longer the undisputed hegemon. And it will likely set her apart from the Republican candidate she meets in the general election. For all their bluster about bombing the Islamic State into oblivion, neither Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has.

For all intents and purposes, Landler says that Hillary has been the most hawkish person in the room in almost literally every case where she was in the room in the first place. For example:

Adm. Robert Willard, then the Pacific commander, wanted to send the carrier on a more aggressive course, into the Yellow Sea....Clinton strongly seconded it. “We’ve got to run it up the gut!” she had said to her aides a few days earlier.

....After 9/11, Clinton saw Armed Services as better preparation for her future. For a politician looking to hone hard-power credentials — a woman who aspired to be commander in chief — it was the perfect training ground. She dug in like a grunt at boot camp.

....Jack Keane is one of the intellectual architects of the Iraq surge; he is also perhaps the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues....Keane is the resident hawk on Fox News, where he appears regularly to call for the United States to use greater military force in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan....The two would meet many times over the next decade, discussing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iranian nu­clear threat and other flash points in the Middle East.

....Keane, like Clinton, favored more robust intervention in Syria than Obama did....He advocated imposing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria that would neutralize the air power of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, with a goal of forcing him into a political settlement with opposition groups. Six months later, Clinton publicly adopted this position, further distancing herself from Obama.

....The Afghan troop debate....Her unstinting support of General McChrystal’s maximalist recommendation made it harder for Obama to choose a lesser option....“Hillary was adamant in her support for what Stan asked for,” Gates says....“She was, in a way, tougher on the numbers in the surge than I was.”

And Landler doesn't even mention Libya, perhaps because the Times already investigated her role at length a couple of months ago. It's hardly necessary, though. Taken as a whole, this is a portrait of a would-be president who (a) fundamentally believes in displays of force, (b) is eager to give the military everything they ask for, and (c) doesn't believe that military intervention is a last resort, no matter what she might say in public.

If anything worries me about Hillary Clinton, this is it. It's not so much that she's more hawkish than me, it's the fact that events of the past 15 years don't seem to have affected her views at all. How is that possible? And yet, our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere apparently haven't given her the slightest pause about the effectiveness of military force in the Middle East. Quite the opposite: the sense I get from Landler's piece is that she continues to think all of these engagements would have turned out better if only we'd used more military power. I find it hard to understand how an intelligent, well-briefed person could continue to believe this, and that in turn makes me wonder just exactly what motivates Hillary's worldview.

Prince Performed "Purple Rain" Unplugged at One of His Final Shows Last Week

| Thu Apr. 21, 2016 2:34 PM EDT

Today, the world mourns the death of legendary musician Prince, the prolific artist who produced countless hits such as "When Doves Cry" and "1999."

Just a week before his death was reported on Thursday, the pop star played two sold-out shows in Atlanta, where he performed one of his most celebrated songs, "Purple Rain." The concert enforced Prince's long-standing ban on cameras, but one concertgoer managed to record a quick clip:

Harriet Tubman Was a Republican!

| Thu Apr. 21, 2016 12:54 PM EDT

Conservatives have finally found something to like about the Obama administration:

Perhaps some of the voices calling for Tubman on the $20 just wanted any prominent African-American woman to replace one of the white males on our currency. If it was political correctness that drove this decision, who cares? The Obama administration has inadvertently given Tubman fans of all political stripes an opportunity to tell the story of a deeply-religious, gun-toting Republican who fought for freedom in defiance of the laws of a government that refused to recognize her rights.

Yeah. That's the ticket. All those folks in the Obama administration had no idea who Harriet Tubman really was. They were all like, check this out, Jack: black, female, helped slaves, done. Boxes checked. Identity politics satisfied. Put her on the twenty.

The poor fools. She was religious! She carried a gun while helping slaves escape! She was a Republican! She fought for freedom against a tyrannical government! If you think about it, she's basically the poster child of the modern-day Tea Party. And none of those idiots in the White House had a clue.

Seriously. That seems to be what they think. Next they're going to remind us that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican too.