During the brief time in the election cycle when the voting booths are actually open, we hear a lot how smoothly elections are going—where voters are waiting in long lines, where ballots are getting rejected, and the like. Elections expert Doug Chapin, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Elections Academy, calls it “anec-data”—anecdotes substituting for hard numbers. In a presidential election, we tend to hear all about problems in swing states, since the national press corps is already there, but we’re less likely to hear about issues in Montana or Connecticut, where the election outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. Good data would make it easy to compare states’ election performance, and more importantly, let us see how states are improving or declining from one election to the next.
An evangelical Christian and former prosecutor, Mark Osler has become one of the country’s most effective advocates for criminal-justice reform.
On a Sunday in September, a few minutes before the 10 A.M. worship service, Mark Osler stands in the lobby of the First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis. He’s just been fitted with a pencil-thin, flesh-colored microphone, the kind that pop stars wear so they can dance while belting out lyrics. Fifty-one years old and of average build, Osler is the opposite of imposing. As usual, his wiry hair is a mess. A strand flops over his forehead, giving him a slightly boyish air. With his mouth set in a straight line and his thick eyebrows knitted together, his expression tends to be serious or, if he’s lost in thought, dour. “I look like Britney Spears,” he says, a bit doubtful about the microphone.
Once, long ago, lawmakers from both parties worked together to pass campaign finance reform legislation. It was a simpler time, albeit with terrorist attacks and wars in the Middle East and a presidential administration bent on giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, and in 2002, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold Republican Senator John McCain (remember him?) saw their efforts to decrease the role of money in politics turned into law, adding to an overall campaign finance regulations.
But since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens Unitedv. FEC decision, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on independent political advertising, and the rise of super PACS, the whole system has been wobbling.
This year was supposed to be different in New York. After failing to pass a comprehensive public financing system during the last legislative session, advocates for the measure believed this year, they would get the deed done, and New York state would match small-dollar donations with public funds, allowing campaigns with low-level donors to compete with those whose supporters can write big checks. But on Tuesday, the effort to get public financing in New York had been dealt a major (if not a fatal) blow. Highlighting the stakes of such legislation, Wednesday morning the United States Supreme Court removed one of the last vestiges of the nation’s campaign finance system, banning caps on the total amount individuals can give to candidates in the McCutcheon v. FEC decision.
On March 20, in between jokes—“You can’t spell ‘diet’ without ‘die,’” and sharing a picture of a man dressed as a giant iron (Iron Man, get it?)—George Takei put up a serious post on his Facebook feed. Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known for its vitriolic picketing at the funerals of soldiers and gay people, had just died. “He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many,” Takei wrote to his nearly 6.5 million followers. “Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”