Mojo - July 2013

Why North Carolina's Voter ID Bill Might be the Nation's Worst

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 5:33 PM EDT
An Obama for America voter registration drive at North Carolina Central University in 2012

UPDATE, Tuesday, August 13: On August 12, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the controversial voting ID bill into law. The measure—which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as "a greatest hits of voter suppression"--was immediately challenged by the ACLU in US district court.


For decades, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required cities, counties and states with histories of discriminatory voting laws to seek federal permission—preclearance, in legal parlance—before changing their election rules. When the Supreme Court invalidated part of the VRA last month, that all changed. The high court's decision made it easier for jurisdictions with troubled pasts to enact restrictive voting laws. Now North Carolina is set to do just that.

North Carolina's GOP-led legislature has taken many controversial steps in recent weeks—sneaking anti-abortion measures into a motorcycle safety law and cutting unemployment benefits for 70,000 North Carolinians, to name two. But new revisions (pdf) to a photo ID voting bill, which passed the House in April and is up for a Senate vote today, might take the cake. The revised bill prohibits same-day registration, ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, eliminates one week of early voting, prevents counties from extending voting hours due to long lines (often caused by cuts in early voting) or other extraordinary circumstances, scratches college ID cards and other forms of identification from the very short list of acceptable state-issued photo IDs, and outlaws certain types of voter registration drives.

It's quite possibly the most restrictive voter ID bill in recent years, says Denise Leiberman, senior attorney for Advancement Project, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

"The list of acceptable identification has been whittled away to such a small list, and that's really what makes it so repressive," she says. "The list is so small that many, many people in North Carolina aren't going to have an acceptable ID."

The bill's new provisions make it so that, with very few exceptions, a voter needs a valid in-state DMV-issued driver's license or non-driver's ID card, a US Military ID card, a veteran's ID card or a US passport. According to an April 2013 analysis (pdf) of state Board of Elections data by Democracy North Carolina, 34 percent of the state's registered black voters, the overwhelming majority of whom vote Democrat, do not have state-issued photo ID. The same study found that 55 percent of North Carolina Democrats don't have state-issued photo ID. Only 21 percent of Republicans have the same problem.

But ask the bill's Republican proponents, and they'll say that this isn't a partisan ploy to suppress voter turnout. It's all about fraud.

"People need to have confidence in the fact that everyone only votes once, and that their vote matters, and establish integrity in the electoral process," Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) told the Associated Press. "I would hope we can pass this bill and re-establish a level of integrity and confidence in the electoral system.

The problem with the GOP's argument is that this voter fraud crisis is largely a figment of the right's imagination—or a convenient exaggeration. A Democratic analysis of the last six state elections found just two instances of in-person voter fraud.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act used to provide a check on certain jurisdictions—including 40 in North Carolina—that wanted to change election rules. If they wanted to get voting changes approved by the feds, state legislators presiding over Section 5 districts had to structure new laws so they wouldn't hinder the voting rights of any specific group. If the state legislators passed discriminatory laws, the Justice Department would strike them down and the legislators would have to go back to the drawing board.

With the VRA gutted, it's open season, Leiberman says: "Unfortunately, I think that states around the country are looking at North Carolina right now—particularly those former Section 5 states—to see just how brazen they can be."

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4 Takeaways From Obama's Big Speech on the Economy

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 2:24 PM EDT

President Barack Obama delivered a major address Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in which he laid out a wide-ranging plan to get the still struggling American economy raring again, and called on Republicans to drop their obstructionism and play along. Here are four takeaways from the speech:

Obama laid out a broad plan to create new jobs and train American workers: Obama said he will push initiatives to help manufacturers bring jobs back to America, and "continue to focus on strategies to create good jobs in wind, solar, and natural gas that are lowering energy costs and dangerous carbon pollution."

The president also emphasized the importance of education and job training in bolstering the American workforce. He said he would continue to push for universal preschool, and added that "federal agencies are moving on my plan to connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed internet over the next five years." He also reminded the audience that Congress is closing in on a plan to lower student loan interest rates.

The president will circumvent Congress if he has to: In the face of an obstinate Congress, Obama said that he would reach out to the American people in speeches over the coming weeks to win them over to his side and get them to pressure their representatives. "Over the next several weeks, in towns across this country, I will engage the American people in this debate," he promised. Obama vowed to use his own executive authority, too, to push the economy forward, and said he'd also "pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents—anybody who can help—and enlist them in our efforts."

Charts: Here Is How Banks Get What They Want

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 11:31 AM EDT

The Dodd-Frank financial reform act of 2010 turns three years old this month. But because of intense Wall Street lobbying, only about a third of the provisions it requires have actually been made into rules by Wall Street regulators, and many have gaping loopholes designed by industry lobbyists. A new analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for government transparency, starkly illustrates why regulatory agencies are so swayed by industry: over the past three years, those whose job it is to police Wall Street have met with big banks 14 times more often than pro-reform groups to discuss proposed Dodd-Frank rules. 

The Sunlight Foundation reviewed three years worth of meetings that banks, industry lobbyists, corporations, and financial reform advocacy groups had with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, and found that these regulators had met 2,118 times with financial institutions, and only 153 time with pro-reform groups. Here's what that looks like, via the Sunlight Foundation:

And here is how those meetings break down by agency:

Goldman Sachs, the top meeting-goer, had 222 consultations with regulators over the past three years. JPMorgan Chase met with the agencies 207 times, and Morgan Stanley 175 times. The topics at those meetings were most likely to be derivatives (financial products with values derived from from underlying variables, like crop prices or interest rates), which Dodd-Frank brought under regulation for the first time, and the Volcker rule portion of the law, which would limit risky trading by banks.

From the Foundation's report: 

Regardless of how we cut the data, the same striking pattern holds: financial institutions, especially the big banks, are dogged and ubiquitous. Pro-reform groups are stretched thin. Lawyers and lobbyists are also active participants, primarily representing the banks. A number of other corporations show up frequently, most commonly in the energy and agro-business sectors, where derivatives and other market hedges are common practice.

Because of the barrage of industry lobbying, "Regulators themselves have become overly concerned about finalizing rules," CFTC commissioner Bart Chilton told Yahoo News recently. "Over-analysis paralysis, fears of litigation risks, and the lack of people-power have all contributed to the slowdown."

Strong-arming regulators behind the scenes is just one tactic Wall Street uses to get its way. Litigation, and new legislation to gut the 2010 financial reform law play a part too. As a result, Chilton says, "Much of Dodd-Frank is dying on the vine."

How a TV Station's Making Its Offensive Asiana Plane Crash Error Disappear

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 10:51 AM EDT

KTVU, the San Francisco TV station that reported offensive fake names of pilots involved in the Asiana Airlines crash earlier this month, has found a way to make the embarrassing mistake disappear from the Internet: US copyright law. As Media Bistro reports, YouTube videos documenting the broadcasting error made by KTVU are being taken offline, replaced with a notice that says they are no longer available because of KTVU's "copyright claim." But even KTVU admits that copyright violation isn't the real reason that it's taking the videos down:

"The accidental mistake we made was insensitive and offensive. By now, most people have seen it. At this point, continuing to show the video is also insensitive and offensive, especially to the many in our Asian community who were offended. Consistent with our apology, we are carrying through on our responsibility to minimize the thoughtless repetition of the video by others," KTVU vice president and general manager Tom Raponi told the news site.

KTVU reported the names of the pilots involved in the San Francisco crash as "Captain Sum Ting Wong," "Ho Lee Fuk," "Wi Tu Lo," and “Bang Ding Ow”—which an intern for the National Transportation Safety Board mistakenly confirmed. The news station, which is a Fox affiliate, has since apologized

The law that KTVU is permitted to take the videos down under is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—and coincidentally, this week, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee is kicking off hearings that will focus on reforming it. As Mother Jones reported last week in our roundup of outdated tech laws, DMCA—which was passed in 1998 with the aim of stopping copyright infringement—has been criticized by Internet freedom advocates as harmful to freedom of speech, because it allows companies to deliver take-down notices on any content that they don't like. Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that the fact that KTVU is able to take down the YouTube videos shows how the law makes it "very easy to get [fairly used] content taken down, and much harder to have it restored."

"Here, the law is being abused to try to shut down a political conversation—and in the process, targeting clearly noninfringing fair uses," says McSherry. "It's always particularly disappointing to see a news organization abuse copyright law in this way—they, more than most, should know how important it is to protect fair use and free expression."

 

 

Personhood Advocates Are Trying Again in Colorado

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 9:58 AM EDT

Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers debated and passed the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, which allows prosecutors to press additional charges for "unlawful termination of a pregnancy" if an unborn child is killed in the course of a crime committed against its mother. But "personhood" advocates in the state are not happy with it.

The law was spurred by a 2010 case in which a pregnant woman was hit by a car and lost the baby. The law, which Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed last month, explicitly states that it does not recognize the unborn child as a separate person from the mother, nor can it be used to prosecute a woman for attempting to terminate the pregnancy.

Reproductive rights groups called the law "thoughtfully crafted." Many other states have passed laws in recent years attempting to deal with harm done to an unborn child that have treated the fetus as a separate person. As I've reported here before, those laws have resulted in a number of cases in which women are put on trial for harm or perceived harm to their fetus (like this recent case in Mississippi). Women's rights groups say that, by treating the fetus as a separate person, these laws actually do more harm than good for women and open the door to outlawing abortion. Colorado's law is written specifically to prevent it from being used for purposes other than its original intent.

But the new law does not go far enough for anti-abortion groups in the state—particularly the Colorado Personhood Coalition, as Jason Salzman reports. They want another law on the books that specifically designates "unborn human beings" as separate people in the criminal code and allows for homicide or wrongful death prosecutions on their behalf. Personhood advocates are currently petitioning to get that measure on the ballot in 2014.

Colorado was the birthplace of the "personhood" movement, so it's perhaps not surprising that it's where advocates are now trying yet again. In 2008, anti-abortion activists put a measure on the ballot that would have granted fertilized eggs all the rights of living humans, which would outlaw abortion at any point in a pregnancy. The measure failed by a 73 to 27 percent margin. Undeterred, anti-abortion advocates tried again in 2010. Voters again rejected it by a 3 to 1 margin. Now they're just using a slightly different approach to try to reach the same end.

No, the Rolling Stones Aren't Boycotting Florida Over Stand Your Ground

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 12:52 PM EDT

On Monday, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks posted a new list of famous recording artists who have supposedly joined Stevie Wonder's celebrity campaign protesting Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law. In the wake of the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, Wonder announced a boycott of Florida and any other state that has a Stand Your Ground law on the books. The new list includes over 20 names, such as Usher, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Kanye West, Rihanna, R. Kelly, Wale, Jay Z, and the Rolling Stones. Ryan's original post, which has since been updated, cites a "source close to Stevie Wonder," and does not specify which artists are joining the Florida boycott, and which are opting for something lighter (protesting, issuing a statement, signing a petition, or whatever).

Ryan's report was picked up by various news outlets and websites (including The Hill, Us Weekly, TheWrap, and Alan Colmes' Liberaland), many of which interpreted this to mean that these artists had agreed to a boycott of the Sunshine State. But for now at least, it seems this roster of celebrities warrants greater scrutiny. Though some of the listed artists have indeed expressed outrage and support for Trayvon Martin's family, that doesn't mean they're necessarily blacklisting Florida. For instance, a source with knowledge of the situation has denied that Rihanna is joining Wonder's boycott. And when I talked to Fran Curtis, spokeswoman for the Rolling Stones, she said she was "not aware of this," and hadn't been until Mother Jones contacted her. When Curtis contacted representatives for the band in the UK, they responded by saying, "nobody's heard anything about this." (A number of industry sources also cast doubt on other portions of the list, but would not specify which exactly at this time.)

But even if the legendary British rock band isn't participating in a Florida boycott, that isn't to say that the Stones (mainly Mick Jagger) aren't political. Along with classics like "Street Fighting Man," the band has released recent politics-driven tracks like 2005's "Sweet Neo Con" and 2012's "Doom and Gloom," the latter of which riffs on fracking and US-led foreign war. Furthermore, when Jagger hosted Saturday Night Live, he performed a 2012 election-themed blues song with guitarist Jeff Beck, and sang about Mitt Romney and campaign finance.

Stevie Wonder's publicist has not responded to Mother Jones' request for comment. I have reached out to representatives of other listed artists and will update if I get any responses.

UPDATE (7/23/13, 11:34 p.m. ET): Mother Jones received the following statement from Alicia Keys' representative (Keys is one of the originally listed artists):

We question the validity of this list since Alicia's name along with many others has appeared erroneously.

Also, PolitiFact has more denials from artists' representatives.

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Does Having Sisters Turn Boys Into Republicans?

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 12:36 PM EDT
Boys with sisters grow up to be husbands who don't do housework.

Lots of people have been looking to science to explain the differences between Democrats and Republicans. Mother Jones' Chris Mooney has published a rundown of all the brain differences suspected in the gulf between liberals and conservatives. But a new study by researchers from Loyola Marymount University and Stanford University's business school suggests another factor may play a role in forming the political brain: the gender of one's siblings. According to the study, boys with only a sister were 15 percent more likely to identify as a Republican in high school, and they were 13.5 percent more conservative in their views of women's roles than boys who only had brothers. 

The reason for this difference? Not genes or neural pathways, but something more mundane: housework. The researchers speculate that boys take their cues about women's roles from an early age, and that girls tend to be assigned more traditional chores when they have a brother. Watching their sisters do this housework "teaches" boys that washing dishes and other such drudgery is simply women's work. Boys with only brothers don't seem to have this problem because the chore load at home tends to be spread around more equally. The impact on men's gender perceptions is long term, but the stark partisanship fades somewhat as men get older, the researchers say.

Perhaps even more important than the impact sisters have on men's political views is the way sisters may influence how their brothers turn out as husbands. The study found that boys with sisters grow up to be men who don't help much around the house. The researchers' data show that middle-aged men who grew up with a sister are 17 percent more likely to say their spouses did more housework than they did compared with men who had only brothers. The study suggests this might mean men's views of gender roles are permanently affected by their childhood environment. Girls weren't affected by having brothers or sisters. 

The results seemed to surprise the researchers, who thought having a sister would have a liberalizing effect on boys. Loyola's Andrew Healy said in a press release about the study:

We might expect that boys would learn to support gender equity through interactions with their sisters. However, the data suggest that other forces are more important in driving men’s political attitudes, including whether the family assigned chores, such as dishwashing, according to traditional gender roles.

Message to parents: If you want your boys to grow up to be good husbands or partners, make them wash some dishes and iron clothes when they're young!

Wall Street Cop Crosses Over to the Dark Side

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 11:51 AM EDT

In recent months, as Wall Street regulators and Congress debated how best to police American banks operating overseas, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) came under fire from financial reform advocates for the comparatively weak regulations it proposed. Financial reform advocates could have predicted this; when the agency's new chief Mary Jo White was confirmed in April, reformers warned she would be soft on Wall Street because she used to work defending some of the biggest stars in the financial industry. But a story in the New York Times Tuesday about a former SEC regulator who recently joined the dark side as a Wall Street defense lawyer, illustrates that the problem of murky boundaries between Wall Street and its overseers runs much deeper.

Six months after former SEC chief enforcement officer Robert Khuzami left his post at the agency, he took a job—which pays more than $5 million a year—doing white-collar defense at Kirkland & Ellis, one of the country's biggest corporate law firms. There, he will represent the same corporations that his former agency oversees, handling cases in which firms have violated SEC rules. (Khuzami will face a one-year waiting period during which he is now allowed to have contact with the SEC, and he is permanently banned from appearing before the agency in a case in which he was previously involved.)

This kind of cross-over, financial reformers say, undermines the ability of the SEC to do its job properly. Via the Times:

The revolving door at firms like Kirkland has alarmed some watchdog groups. The Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group, released a study this year highlighting a pattern of former SEC officials securing favorable results from the agency.

"It can really help a Wall Street bank to show they’re represented by the former top cop on Wall Street," said Michael Smallberg, an investigator at the group. "It’s not like you see an equal number of SEC lawyers going to represent shareholders and whistle-blowers."

As provisions of the 2010 Dodd Frank financial reform act finally begin to go into effect, and banking regulators warn of a new wave of crackdowns on bad behavior on the Street, Washington insiders are becoming even more desirable for firms whose job it is to save the financial industry's hide. "You want a big name you can trot out before corporate boards," Peter Zeughauser, a consultant to big financial firms, told the Times.

Khuzami was hired to the SEC after the financial crisis and was charged with ramping up its enforcement unit. He creating new ways of tracking previously unregulated corners of Wall Street, according to the Times, and initiated a record number of actions, including lawsuits and civil penalties, against big banks.

So what's with Khuzami's change of heart? He argues that white-collar defense work is critical to a functioning justice system. "It’s both aggressive enforcement and vigorous defense that are critical to justice and fairness," Khuzami told the Times.

He added that he'll be good at the job because anyone required to police Wall Street has to know how it works.

Judge Says North Dakota's Abortion Ban Is "Clearly Unconstitutional"

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 3:08 PM EDT

A judge has blocked the country's most restrictive abortion law from taking effect in North Dakota. The law, passed in March, would ban abortion at the point when a fetal heartbeat can be detected—which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The law is what earned North Dakota the championship in our Anti-Choice March Madness tournament earlier this year.

In his decision, US District Judge Daniel L. Hovland said the law would not pass constitutional muster:

The State has extended an invitation to an expensive court battle over a law restricting abortions that is a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women. The United States Supreme Court has unequivocally said that no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability. North Dakota House Bill 1456 is clearly unconstitutional under an unbroken stream of United States Supreme Court authority.

There is only one abortion clinic in North Dakota, the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, and it has to fly doctors in from out of state to provide the procedure. Hovland's ruling notes that the law would basically make it impossible to get an abortion in North Dakota:

Typically only women who have regular menstrual periods, keep close track of them, and take a pregnancy test promptly after a missed period at four weeks LMP, will know they are pregnant by six weeks. Because the Clinic only performs abortions one day per week, and cannot safely perform abortions before five weeks [of her last menstrual period], [the law] will effectively limit a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion to a single day during the pregnancy’s fifth week.

North Dakota's law is the most strict in the country so far, but last week Texas lawmakers introduced a bill that would also outlaw abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Today's ruling in North Dakota is a preliminary injunction that stops the law from going into effect until the full case can be heard.

Map: Social Mobility in America, City By City

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 12:59 PM EDT

Income inequality in America is has spiked in the past three decades, and has only worsened since the recession. But that's not the only factor contributing to the deepening divide between the rich and poor. Recent research has shown that Americans enjoy less social mobility than people in other industrialized countries—in other words, American kids are less likely than foreign kids to grow up to make more money than their parents. A new study by a team of economists at Harvard and University of California–Berkeley provides the most detailed look yet at patterns of upward mobility in the US, shedding light on why it's not so easy to pull yourself up by your bootstraps in the US of A.

The study's findings, which were first reported in the New York Times on Monday, are based on millions of earnings records. Researchers found that children born into the poorest 20 percent of households are least likely to end up in the top 20 percent of income earners (more than $70,000 by age 30) in the Southeast and the industrial Midwest. Upward mobility is particularly lacking in Memphis, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Columbus. Poor children are most likely to be able to work their way to an upper-income life in the Northeast, Great Plains and the West, including in cites such as New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Seattle. Here's what that looks like, via the Times:

The researchers were surprised that what most contributed to social mobility wasn't heftier tax breaks for the poor or a stronger safety net. The difference between high-mobility and low-mobility communities has more to do with early education, family structure, and the physical geography of metropolitan areas. The Times explains:

The researchers concluded that larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.

But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.

Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

The comparison of metropolitan areas allows researchers to consider local factors that previous mobility studies could not—including a region’s geography. And in Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be precisely that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities. "When poor communities are segregated," said Cindia Cameron, an organizer for 9 to 5, a women’s rights group, "everything about life is harder."

Although location has a lot to do with whether poor kids in Indianapolis or Montgomery will be able to live better than their parents, for rich kids, geography doesn't really matter. The study found that the chance rich kids will grow up to be rich is pretty much the same across metropolitan areas around the country. Of kids who grew up one-percenters, for example, one out of three will be making at least $100,000 by the time they turn 30.