Two months ahead of major elections, and four years after the passage of the Help America Vote Act -- which was designed in part to eliminate, nationally, the kind incompetence and outright criminality that marred the 2000 election -- the machinery of US democracy still leaves much to be desired. As Sasha Abramsky notes in the current issue of Mother Jones, the chances that your vote will count, the ease with which you can cast your ballot, even your odds of getting on a voter roll, greatly vary according to where you live.

As it turns out, except for a rudimentary federal framework (which determines the voting age, channels money to states and counties, and enforces protections for minorities and the disabled), U.S. elections are shaped by a dizzying mélange of inconsistently enforced laws, conflicting court rulings, local traditions, various technology choices, and partisan trickery.

Among the more striking regional discrepancies:

  • In some places voters fill in paper ballots; in others they vote with ancient machines; in still others they use state-of-the-art touch-screen technology
  • Some states encourage voter registration, others make it a hassle
  • Some states allow prisoners to cast a ballot, others don't allow even ex-felons tovote

The piece offers a partial--but sadly emblematic-- list of "American democracy's more glaring weak spots."

Read it here...and weep.

Yesterday Tucker Carlson got into a tiff with Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff over the justification for putting Warren Jeffs on the FBI's 10 most wanted list. That the polygamist has been charged with first-degree felony rape and has victimized countless women and children doesn't stop Tucker from defending him.

"A lot of these things are not teach animals to kill animals with your bare hands," for example. He goes on to argue that Jeffs is accused of doing things that are merely "titilating," adding: "There are 10 spaces on the list, but is this guy one of the 10 most threatening people to America?" Shurtloff points out that he doesn't have to be a threat to America but a threat to society and to individuals, thousands of them in this case.

Tucker counters: "He's more threatening than, say, the Islamic radicals huddling in a basement right now figuring ways to blow up airliners? Or people who are working to overthrow the government?" Shurtloff tells him that Osama is on the list, as are child abusers, rapists and the like.

If only Tucker had bothered to vist the FBI's site he would have seen, too, that there's a separate list of Most Wanted Terrorists. This list features not 10, but 26 mug shots, making Carlson's "either/or" argument all the more absurd.

Eric Hamlin, a middle school geography teacher in Jefferson County, Colorado, received a letter of reprimand his very first week of class. The reason? He displayed the flags of Mexico, China and the United Nations in his classroom as teaching aids, as he has always done throughout his geography-teaching career.

Hamlin was told to take the flags down by the assistant principal. She said it was Jefferson County School District policy that he could not display the flags. Hamlin said he took issue with that, and an hour later, she returned, saying it was actually state law, and she handed him the statute:

Any person who displays any flag other than the flag of the United States of America or the state of Colorado or any of its subdivisions, agencies, or institutions upon any state, county, municipal, or other public building or adjacent grounds within this state commits a class 1 petty offense.

However, the statute does include an exception for "a temporary display of any instructional or historical materials not permanently affixed or attached to any part of the buildings." Apparently, the word "instructional" is a new one to the administration at Hamlin's school. When he pointed it out, he was told that the flags "seemed permanent."

The principal then told Hamlin to take the flags down, which he refused to do. He was then given the letter of reprimand, and told that he could regain his good standing if her would agree not to display flags of foreign nations, and always obtain administrative approval for any classroom displays he put up. Hamlin refused, and was placed on administrative leave.

Once the news media learned about the incident, things changed. School and county officials agreed to "allow" Hamlin to rotate the flags on a temporary basis, which is what he has done for his entire career. Hamlin resigned from his job, but said that he feels bad for the principal, who is getting "unfair" emails, calling him "Nazi and things like that."

How's this for a blistering editorial, from the Beaver County Times?

One year after Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi, huge swaths of that area look as bleak as they did in the days immediately following the storm.

Debris is piled in massive mounds everywhere; block after block of homes are boarded up; signs of rebuilding are few and far between; thousands of residents are still displaced.

In a way, that's to be expected. Katrina was a storm of such immense proportions and the geographic area it hit was so widespread and populated, especially in regard to New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., that the resulting damage was on a scale that is and was unimaginable.

And yet, and yet...

[E]ven given the depth and breadth of the destruction, the response of government at the local, state and federal levels has been pathetically inadequate.

This isn't just about the rip-offs and scams, the squabbling over how to proceed, the blame-gaming and the power plays. These things are going to happen when dealing with an unprecedented event like Katrina.

However, it's the paralysis that continues to grip government that is long-term scary. For a nation and a people who pride themselves on problem solving, post-Katrina muddling stands as a rebuke to that can-do attitude. ...

...the failure of government post-Katrina to do what it is supposed to do - look out for the common good - is a bad sign.

Mark Fiore makes much the same point in his own inimitable way. (Click on the image below.)


California legislators really do seem to be poised to pass the modestly named Global Warming Solutions Act, which would require the state to bring greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels (and how sad that that's an ambitious idea). The Assembly has signed off and the Senate is expected to by midnight today; Arnold is on board. No doubt there's a downside to this somewhere, but until we find it, it looks a lot like saving our species from extinction comes with an economic bonus: A new University of California-Berkeley study finds that going back to 1990 emission levels would boost the annual Gross State Product (GSP) by $74 billion and create 89,000 new jobs by 2020.

Ok, anything that gets the American public more interested in science is good. And yet, I really have to question the judgment of Neil de Grasse Tyson—the man who first demoted Pluto!; but on that front, people, deal—and other notable scientists for appearing on ABC's pseudo-scientific offering, "Last Days on Earth!"

Now, given that a huge chuck of TV programming on any given night is devoted to the grossly overstated threat from serial killers and pedophiles (more on that in a later post), people are probably relieved to confront threats they cannot hope to protect against. ABC has obliged with a Top Ten list of scary, scary threats to the planet, such as:

No. 8: Gamma radiation from nearby astral implosion. Anyone got the odds on that one?

No. 7: Black hole swallowing earth. What, does it just appear astern, like on the season premiere of "Deep Space Nine"?

No. 6: AI Gone Wild! Yes, indeedy, many Disney-owned film clips were pressed into service.

Number 5: Killer asteroid. Yawn.

Number 4: Still not entirely sure. "Many of our threats come from above. Only one comes from below…" i.e. some kind of geophysical meltdown that, according to ABC, "might" happen under Yellowstone. (You know, it is one thing to rope in media-sophisticated scientists interviewed in some kind of Truthiness studio setting to do your bidding. It is another thing to interview every law-enforcement official and EMT guy in Rapid City, SD, and ask: What could you hope to do if a giant cloud of ash swallowed your city?)

Number 3: Nuclear war. Wait, that's a real threat. Yet, while experts sanely noted the biggest risk still from U.S./U.S.S.R, most of the file footage was about Iran.

Number 2: Plague/Flu. Oddly, since 10 minutes earlier, ABC had made the point that only one threat "comes from below," plague is now shouted out to be the only threat "not sent from above." And wait, plague or flu could be weaponized! One biologist notes: "some people say, thank god that Ted Kaczynski was a mathematician, not a biologist." Snap!

Number 1: Wait for it…yes, it is global warming. And, though sensationalized and overly reliant on Al Gore (yet another indicator he's running, btw.), the segment was relatively smart.

Smart enough that it made me wonder if this whole show wasn't the product of some producers concerned about global warming asking themselves: How do we sell this to network brass/ advertisers? Wait! I know! A Top Ten list!

Earlier today, General Motors announced that's it's ending its 6-year sponsorship of the CBS reality show, Survivor, saying it needs to shift its media dollars from prime-time to live sports and award shows. Officials insist the announcment has nothing to do with the show's controversial new format that divides contestants by race.That struggling GM needs to rethink its strategy on all fronts is understandable. That the announcement comes today, in the midst of protests over the show? Their denial has a familiar ring.

Remember last year when that other ailing car company, Ford, pulled its ads for Jaguar and Land Rovers from gay publications, right around the time when anti-gay-rights groups were threatening a boycott of the company? Ford insisted their decision was strictly about numbers, advertising, the bottom line.

Then a week later the company reversed its decision, making its earlier denials sound downright absurd. In this case GM could, even if its decision is totally unrelated, use this opportunity to highlight the importance of diversity in the workplace, to say something in acknowledgment of the controversy, however reality show-esque, that is unfolding. This was a sliver of a chance for GM to stand for something other than a tanking business, I mean, could it kill them to mention their diversity program?

The American public is tired of denials in such announcements, and there was potential for nobility in this one (as opposed to Ford's cowardice) that might have even distracted folks from a company that is creeping further afield, and that is becoming less and less of a survivor.

By now, most readers know that Sen. Bill Frist did not meet the requirements to have his medical license renewed in Tennessee. However, there is now a new twist to the story: Frist not only did not get the 40 ceus he needed for renewal--he informed the Tennessee Health Department that he did. Now Frist says he "may not have done his continuing education, after all."

Tennessee law states that physicians who do not complete their required continuing education "will be subject to disciplinary action."

This is not the first time Frist's medical ethics have been questioned. As a med student, he filled out adoption papers for a number of shelter cats, whom he later killed in order to do medical experiments. And during the Terri Schiavo affair, Frist "diagnosed" Shiavo via his television screen.

A few days ago, a lawyer friend sent me a daily law journal article about the paucity of female Supreme Court clerks this year-- 19% of the 2006 clerks are women, down from 37-41% over the five previous terms. Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Souter hired only male clerks this term.

Somebody must have sent Linda Greenhouse the same article, because she's all over it today. (Legal Times covered this back in May, when the clerkships were announced.)

It's truly unfortunate that not only are there almost no women on the actual court, but the clerks (the people who actually write opinions and screen new cases) are also mostly male.

In a brief telephone interview, Justice O'Connor said she was "surprised" by the development, but declined to speculate on the cause. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed no such surprise. In a conversation the other day, she knew the numbers off the top of her head, and [...] she also observed with obvious regret that "I have been all alone in my corner on the bench" since Justice O'Connor's retirement in January.
Justice Ginsburg, who will have two women among her four clerks, declined during the conversation to comment further on the clerkship numbers. Why not ask a justice who has not hired any women for the coming term, she suggested.

Souter explains that this is "no more than a random variation," which is a really annoying excuse for his lack of female hires. I suppose the fact that there's only one female justice on the bench is also just a "random variation"?

The dearth of female clerks is certainly not for lack of women at prestigious law schools-- in fact, schools are where women in law have made the most progress. American Bar Association data shows about half of recent law grads were female, and the percentage of women in tenured positions at law schools increased from 5.9%5 to 25.1% between 1994 and 2002. Women are making professional progress, too, but the numbers aren't as dramatic when you start talking about positions of power after graduation.

It's also worth noting, as the Legal Times article did, that there are very few minority clerks, too:

Eight years after attention was first called to the dearth of minorities among high court clerks, it appears that only three of the 37 clerks serving at the Court this term are nonwhite. [...] It appears that the current number of minorities is substantially lower than in recent years. The three minorities this term compare with five last term, eight the previous term and a record nine in 2002. ...if the proof is in the pudding, the pudding, this term at least, is vanilla.

Male vanilla.

See the Volokh Conspiracy for more.

In mid-August we reported that shortly before Congress recessed an anonymous senator placed a hold on widely popular anti-pork legislation introduced by Senators Barack Obama and Tom Coburn. The bill, which has backers on both sides of the aisle, would create a publicly accessible database that tracks federal contracts, loans, and grants, giving taxpayers the opportunity to actually see how their tax dollars are spent –- and, all too often, misspent.

After we broke the story, a grassroots campaign began in earnest to unmask the offending legislator, with citizens around the country contacting their senators. Well, the anonymous senator is no longer anonymous. TPMmuckraker is reporting that Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican, is holding the bill back from floor consideration. Yes, that's the same Ted Stevens who earmarked more than $200 million to build the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," which would connect Ketchikan, Alaska, a city of 8,900, with the its airport on Gravina island, home to all of 50 inhabitants. There's speculation that Stevens may have blocked this important legislation simply out of spite for its co-sponsor, Tom Coburn. Last fall, it was Coburn who led the charge to block Stevens' outlandish earmark, suggesting that the money be spent instead on rebuilding a Louisiana bridge damaged during Hurricane Katrina. When Coburn's proposal was considered, Stevens "threw the senatorial version of a hissy fit," as The Washington Post described it, during which he bellowed this warning to his fellow senators: "I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body." As the Post put it, and no doubt many would agree, that "sounds awfully tempting to us."

Update: This is rich. Stevens' spokesman, Aaron Saunders, is now saying that the senator placed a hold on the bill because he's concerned about its potential cost. Stevens "wanted to make sure that this wasn't going to be a huge cost to the taxpayer and that it achieves the goal which the bill is meant to achieve," Saunders said. The whopping price tag of the database: about $15 million, which is approximately $208 million less than the amount Stevens earmarked for the "Bridge to Nowhere."