Mojo - December 2011

Report: NY State Voting Machines Really Suck

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 9:30 AM EST

All is not well with the state of New York's voting machines, according to a recent study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice:

As many as 60,000 of the votes cast in New York State elections last year were voided because people unintentionally cast their ballots for more than one candidate…The excess-voting was highest in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including two Bronx election districts where 40 percent of the votes for governor were disqualified.

The study…blamed software used with new electronic optical-scan voting machines as well as ambiguous instructions for disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters. The old mechanical lever-operated machines did not allow votes for more than one candidate for the same office... [T]he authors estimate that more than 100,000 votes could be disqualified in next year’s presidential balloting, since more people will vote in the national election.

As the Brennan Center, NAACP New York State Conference, and other civil rights and good government groups argue, the New York machines failed to meet the protection standards put in place by 2002's Help America Vote Act that include providing voters with clear instructions on how to make sure their vote was processed. The state board of elections plans to fix whatever went wrong. Hopefully in time for the the 2012 elections.

Last week, I reported on a GOP-backed bill to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a four-member bipartisan body that tests electronic voting equipment for states and localities, and offers helpful guidance on proofing ballots for some 4,600 voting jurisdictions. Republicans slammed the commission as a costly bureaucratic exercise, and argued that its remaining responsibilities can be assigned to the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign spending. Their bill sailed through the House on a 235-190, mostly party-line vote.

Republicans have pushed a slew of voter ID and voter registration laws on the state level, all of which are designed to limit the allegedly widespread crime of voter fraud. But as numerous election security experts and civil rights advocates have found, such measures have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities, frequently discouraging turnout in these places.

Supporters of the EAC (also created through the Help America Vote Act) don't think the commission is fault-free. But instead of killing it, it should be strengthened and given the power to draw up enforceable standards for conducting elections, they argue. That's a position you'd think Republicans could get on board with. The idea that they'd want to legislate the death of a relatively inexpensive body (at the cost of $33 million over the next five years) that offers free guidance to local voting jurisdictions seems somewhat at odds with their stated goal of cleaning up elections.

The implications of the Brennan Center report should be clear: fixing this problem—and preserving the integrity of elections—means more votes get counted. That shouldn't be controversial for anyone, of any party (unless you're worried that those votes are going for the other guy). Sounds like a job for the EAC, no?

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 7, 2011

Wed Dec. 7, 2011 5:57 AM EST

US Army Spc. Edwarde Loeup (right), an automatic rifleman with Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, moves to high ground during a dismounted patrol on the way to a key leader engagement at a hospital in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, on November 21, 2011. DoD photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, US Air Force.

Obama Meets Occupy Wall Street

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 2:52 PM EST

In a speech delivered at Osawatomie, Kansas, today, President Obama debunked trickle-down economics, punctured the myth of the unregulated paradise, and slammed a Republican party fixated on making life better for the top 1 percent.

Calling for new investments in education and technology, Obama took it right to Republicans, defending his efforts to reform Wall Street, protect consumers through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and craft a more progressive tax code as part of a larger project to rebuild the Middle class. And his data points jibed with the income inequailty compliants that have been raised by Occupy Wall Streeters:

In the last few decades, the average income of the top one percent has gone up by more than 250%, to $1.2 million per year. For the top one hundredth of one percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her workers now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade, the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about six percent. 

This kind of inequality—a level we haven’t seen since the Great Depression—hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down the entire economy, from top to bottom…Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. And it leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them—that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.

More fundamentally, this kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try. We tell people that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, hard work can get you into the middle class; and that your children will have the chance to do even better than you. That’s why immigrants from around the world flocked to our shores…

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It’s wrong. It flies in the face of everything we stand for.

Fortunately, that’s not a future we have to accept. Because there’s another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country—a view that’s truer to our history; a vision that’s been embraced by people of both parties for more than two hundred years…

This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get to the middle class, and the economy as a whole.

"We still have a stake in each other’s success," Obama thundered at the end of his speech. "We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. The fundamental rule in our national life— the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together."

Tweeting during the speech, The Nation's Ari Berman put it into context: "Three months ago Obama's speeches were about the deficit. Now they're about income inequality, basic fairness & jobs #OWS." Consider the national conversation officially shifted—and Obama's campaign for 2012 officially begun.

Want the numbers behind the speech? Check out our income inequality charts.

Video: Ron Paul Is Your New Pickup Truck

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 1:17 PM EST

Libertarian presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is taking to the airwaves with a "fun and energetic" new ad that's heavy on graphic animation...and gumption. The spot—titled "Big Dog"—is laden with so much lush, manly word salad that NPR's calling it one of the "coolest commercials" of the season. "What's up with these sorry politicians?" the ad's gravely narrator growls. "Lots of bark, but when it's showtime? Whimpering like little shih tzus. You want BIG CUTS? Ron Paul's been screaming it FOR YEARS!"

Take a look:

Original, no? Actually, no. If you've watched any football on TV since the middle of 2008 NFL season, you've seen something like this:

That's Denis "No Cure For Cancer" Leary doing a voiceover for Ford pickup trucks. Seems like Paul's campaign is trying to appeal to the same demographic targeted by Ford when it went after "core truckers" who are into "football, NASCAR, pro bull riding, or country music." Bloomberg Businessweek ID'd those consumers less flatteringly as "'image' buyers…folks who are weekend warriors/Home Depot shoppers who liked the idea of a pickup when gas was $1.50 per gallon." The political analog for Ford's "image" buyer, I suppose, are folks who occasionally follow politics and liked the idea of Atlas Shrugged when their college tuition was being covered by government loans. If you're male, youngish, into proving that you're male and youngish, and a sucker for ads that suggest you'd never be a sucker for ads, then Ford wants to be your truck, and Ron Paul wants to be your candidate.

Aborted Fetus Campaign Ads Hit the Airwaves in Iowa

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 1:00 PM EST
Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry.

If you're a resident of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri, or Minnesota, you're on notice. Starting this week, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who is currently challenging President Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, will begin airing graphic campaign ads featuring what purport to be aborted fetuses, during local news broadcasts.

As I reported last month, the ad buy is part of Terry's nationwide strategy to take advantage of an FCC loophole barring censorship of campaign ads. Although networks and their local affiliates have the authority—and a legal imperative, in some cases—to block "indecent" material from the airwaves, there's an exception when it comes to political spots, so long as they're within 45 days of a primary or caucus.

Per a release:

The ad has multiple graphic images of babies murdered by abortion, and makes the argument that to vote for Obama knowing that Obama supports the murder of babies is a betrayal of the Catholic Faith.

The ad will run on every TV station in Iowa and the five state regions that surrounds Iowa (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota). The ad will run on at least one news broadcast per station.

Last year, following a successful trial run in a Washington, D.C. congressional race (for the non-voting "delegate" position), Terry announced plans to field single-issue congressional candidates in the nation's 25 biggest media markets, for the sole purpose of running graphic anti-abortion spots that would otherwise never make it onto the airwaves. Terry's already recruited candidates in Cincinnati, the Twin Cities, and St. Louis—and he himself is taking on Obama.

It sort of puts that controversy over Herman Cain's smoking ad in perspective.

Former Bush Officials Slam Mandatory Military Detention Bill

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 12:04 PM EST
Former State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger

It's official: Just about the only people who think the mandatory military detention provisions in the defense spending bill are a good idea are the congressional legislators trying to show everyone how tough on terror they are. 

Former Bush-era State Department legal adviser John Bellinger and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs Matthew Waxman have joined Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and FBI Director Robert Mueller in warning Congress that mandating military detention for non-citizen terror suspects apprehended in the US will harm national security.  

The detainee provisions are apparently intended by their drafters to provide tough counterterrorism powers, but in practice they could have a detrimental impact on U.S. counterterrorism operations. Indeed, while originally drafted by Senate Republicans, these legislative encroachments on the president's authorities would likely have been as strongly opposed by the Bush administration as by the Obama administration. Any president—Democrat or Republican—would object to legislation that interferes this way with his flexibility in conducting the war against al-Qaeda.

[...]

Mandating military detention for categories of suspected terrorists could also jeopardize the ability of the United States to seek extradition of al-Qaeda suspects from other countries and hamper vital intelligence-sharing and law-enforcement cooperation by U.S. allies, who would be concerned that information they shared might be used to place individuals into military detention. Likewise, extending the legislative restrictions related to Guantanamo detainees would limit the president's ability to transfer detainees to other countries in appropriate cases, as the Bush administration did with respect to more than five-hundred individuals. It is important that the United States develop a sustainable terrorist detention policy, and these restrictions could undermine diplomatic efforts critical to that effort and impede sound decision-making with regard to future captures in this ongoing war.

This isn't the first time former Bush officials have spoken out. Waxman told me in October that the provisions "curtail [the] necessary flexibility" the executive branch needs to respond to terrorist threats. His successor at DoD Charles Stimson, without referring directly to the defense bill, wrote in defense of trying underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab in civilian court saying that the president "must have the flexibility to use the most appropriate tool at any given time." It may be for very different reasons, but try to remember the last time former Bush administration officials, Obama national security officials, and the American Civil Liberties Union were on the same side of an issue. The next time this happens, the world is likely to implode. 

Republicans have invested so much rhetoric in convincing their base that FBI interrogations involve propping up a few pillows and hand feeding grapes to terror suspects in their custody that they may not be able to change course without causing a backlash. Thus far, the Republicans and Democrats who joined together to add the mandatory military detention provisions to the defense bill have also ignored the combined expertise of the entire Obama administration national security team. Perhaps they'll listen more carefully to former officials from a Republican administration whose responsibility it was to actually handle such matters—and perhaps it'll stiffen the spine of the Obama administration if and when it comes time to follow through on that veto threat.

UPDATE: I missed the latest from Stimson, who is now a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In a policy memo on Heritage's website, he criticizes the mandatory military defense provisions directly, saying that "[t]o win this long war against terrorists, the President must have the maximum flexibility to use all tools of national power. "

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NAACP Decries "James Crow Esq."

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 11:16 AM EST
NAACP President Ben Jealous

State-level voting restrictions are an attempt to suppress the minority vote and prevent them from exercising political influence, according to a report released by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Monday.

"Jim Crow is poll taxes, James Crow Esquire it's having to pay for an ID,” said NAACP Sr. Vice President for Policy and Advocacy Hilary Shelton on a conference call with reporters Monday. NAACP officials referred to the voting restrictions as "James Crow, Esq.," so as to distinguish them from the violent tactics associated with enforcing Jim Crow segregation. "The intent seems to [be to] disenfranchise people of color disproportionately," said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. 

The report exhaustively details how 25 states have passed laws restricting voting rights, either by requiring photo identification or proof of citizenship at the polls, limiting early voting, passing stricter absentee ballot requirements, curbing third-party voter registration drives and venues for registration, implementing stricter felony disenfranchisement laws, and imposing residency requirements that make it harder for people to register to vote after they've moved. The Brennan Center has estimated that stricter voting requirements could make it harder for five million eligible voters to cast ballots. While Republicans have argued such rules are necessary to combat "voter fraud," examples of the kind of in-person voter fraud that might be curbed by such requirements are miniscule

All of these new restrictions disproportionately impact the poor and minorities, the NAACP report states, and that's by design. While the report does not blame Republicans directly, it describes the restrictions as a "backlash" against an empowered minority vote in 2008 when the participation gap between eligible black and white voters was nearly eliminated. Echoing Ari Berman's* reporting for Rolling Stone, NAACP officials on the call singled out the American Legislative Exchange Council as the source of legislation implementing restrictions on voting. 

"We are experiencing an assault on voting rights this year, that is disturbing in its scope and intensity," said NAACP LDF Director of Political Participation Ryan Haygood. "It's not a mistake that the very channels through which many voters of color showed up at the polls at 2008 are" the ones being blocked, he added. In fairness, the laws are likely also the result of a 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding a strict voter ID law in Indiana despite evidence that it would disproportionately disenfranchise minorities. 

Some statistics from the report: 25 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Latinos don't have photo IDs, compared to eight percent of whites. In 2010, 14 percent of Latino voters and 12 percent of blacks registered through private voter registration drives, compared to six percent of whites. Blacks and Latinos are also far more likely to have moved recently. Forty-eight percent of Latinos and 43 percent of blacks moved within the last five years, compared to 27 percent of whites, making them far more likely to be impacted by, for instance, residency requirements in Wisconsin that only allow voters to register after having lived in the state for twenty-eight days. The disparate impact of felony disenfranchisement laws hits African-Americans particularly hard—38 percent of the more than 5 million Americans affected by felony disenfranchisement laws are black. 

The NAACP and NAACP LDF aren't the first to draw comparisons between Jim Crow-era voter restrictions and today's vote fraud push by conservatives. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz caused a firestorm last June when she said that Republicans were trying to "literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws" with stricter voting requirements. 

"The interest is not [what's in] their heart, it's their policy," said Rev. William Barber, President of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference. "If they implement these policies, and they know who these policies are going to impact, it is disparate racial treatment.”

Shelton was more blunt. "It's more sophisticated, but it really is the same old strategy being played out yet again.”

*A previous version of this piece referred to the author of the Rolling Stone piece as Ari Melber; it was Ari Berman.

Mitt Romney's Aides Spent 6 Figures to Wipe Out State Records

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 11:15 AM EST

The plot thickens in the case of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's missing emails from his time as Massachusetts governor. Reuters reports that Romney administration staffers spent almost $100,000 to buy up the hard drives in their state computers before Romney left office, preventing reporters, oppo researchers, and anyone else from obtaining the administration's internal deliberations. Staffers also purged administration emails from state servers. All of this took place months before Romney announced his first presidential run, in February 2007.

Here's more from Reuters:

Romney's spokesmen emphasize that he followed the law and precedent in deleting the emails, installing new computers in the governor's office and buying up hard drives.

However, Theresa Dolan, former director of administration for the governor's office, told Reuters that Romney's efforts to control or wipe out records from his governorship were unprecedented.

Dolan said that in her 23 years as an aide to successive governors "no one had ever inquired about, or expressed the desire" to purchase their computer hard drives before Romney's tenure.

The cleanup of records by Romney's staff before his term ended included spending $205,000 for a three-year lease on new computers for the governor's office, according to official documents and state officials.

In signing the lease, Romney aides broke an earlier three-year lease that provided the same number of computers for about half the cost—$108,000. Lease documents obtained by Reuters under the state's freedom of information law indicate that the broken lease still had 18 months to run.

As a result of the change in leases, the cost to the state for computers in the governor's office was an additional $97,000.

The Boston Globe first reported earlier this month that Romney staffers had deleted emails from a government server.

That said, some paper records from the Romney administration do remain in the state archives in Massachusetts, including emails and internal memos. Some of those documents formed the basis of a November Mother Jones story revealing how Romney and his administration prioritized hoovering up as much federal money as possible as they grappled with a $3 billion budget deficit—a message at odds with Romney's current support for slashing federal spending and downsizing the federal government.

8-Year-Old to Bachmann: "My Mommy's Gay"

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 11:00 AM EST

This video of an eight-year-old cub activist named Elijah confronting Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on gay rights hit the tubes on Sunday and went viral pretty fast. It's pretty easy to see why: Elijah tells Bachmann, "My mommy's gay but she doesn't need any fixing." Bachmann's response, other than momentary shock, is to wave "bye, bye" to the kid. 

Watch:

Bachmann is currently lagging in single digits in Iowa, where by all accounts she needs a strong showing. But she's built up enough of a reputation for her opposition to gay rights that, even as she slides in the polls, she still has a pretty sizable bullseye on her back and has been on the receiving end of a number of similar video ambushes.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 6, 2011

Tue Dec. 6, 2011 5:57 AM EST

US Army 1st Lt. Emille Prosko, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, talks to a role-playing civilian on the "Squad Attack" testing lane of the United States Army Europe's Best Junior Officer Competition in Grafenwoehr, Germany, November 15, 2011. The competition is the first of its kind in Europe and gives company-grade officers the chance to compete in multiple tasks and be named "Best Officer" for US Army Europe. Photo by the US Army.