Colorado Voters' Power of the Purse

Current and former lawmakers are taking the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to court for a second opinion.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) Workers install a large U.S. flag and a Colorado State Seal on the west side of the Capitol in Denver on Friday, January 7, 2011, as part of the decoration for the inauguration of Governor-elect John Hickenlooper. M any states have provisions designed to limit the amount of taxes their legislatures can raise, but only Colorado has gone so far as to pass the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, Colorado’s unique constellation of confusing laws prevents the state legislature from raising taxes without public approval and caps the amount the government can spend in a way that’s designed to shrink it over time. All levels of government—city, county, and state—are limited in what they can spend by a complicated formula, which basically indexes revenue to inflation plus population growth. If the tax revenues the state and local governments collect in any given year are higher than the cap, which happens in good economic times or when there is an influx of new...

Who Counts in Arizona?

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Arizona Democrats celebrate as President Barack Obama is declared the winner of the presidential race at Democratic Party gathering, Tuesday, November 6, 2012, in Tucson, Arizona. W hen Arizona's secretary of state announced, one day after the election, that more than 600,000 early and provisional ballots remained uncounted, Viva Samuel Ramirez wasn’t concerned about what the news meant for the state’s close U.S. Senate race or two Congressional races that remained up in the air. (And still do, incredibly enough, one week later.) Ramirez's worry was for the tens of thousands of voters he and others in the One Arizona coalition had registered to vote. Many were Latino, and already suspicious of a state government that passed SB 1070, Arizona’s infamous “papers please” law. The 2012 election was the first time many of them had ever cast a ballot, and Ramirez had hoped it would be the start of a new wave of civic participation in the state. Now he's worried...

Law Enforcement and Decriminalized Marijuana

A happy Seattle police officer. (SPD)
On Election Day, Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The future of both laws is uncertain, due to the fact that the drug is still illegal under federal law, which makes the creation of a legal market complex, to say the least. Nevertheless, within a few days, prosecutors in Washington dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, even though the new law doesn't officially take effect until December 6. Which is an indication that in the short term, the laws may have a substantial impact on the work of law enforcement, and the relationship of citizens to the police, in those states. We don't know that for sure, of course. But the Seattle Police Department is already showing how hip it can be. As we learn via Romenesko , the SPD has a blog run by a journalist, who wrote a piece called "Mariwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use in Seattle," that is, to say the least, not the kind of thing you expect from an employee of...

Southern States to the Supreme Court: We've Changed

Critics of the Voting Rights Act say its time has passed, but as the recent spate of voter-ID laws shows, that's hardly the case.

(U.S. National Archives)
(U.S. National Archives) President Lyndon Johnson meets with civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, shortly after signing the Voting Rights Act (1965). O n March 7, 1965, peaceful protesters advocating for the right to vote were brutally attacked by Alabama authorities. A little more than a week later, President Lyndon Johnson declared in a message to Congress that "experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books ... can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it." LBJ subsequently introduced legislation that would provide an effective right to vote, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. Less than 50 years later, the Supreme Court appears poised to cut out the heart of one of the greatest triumphs of the civil-rights movement. Last Friday, the Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act. The...

The Battle for Voting Rights Isn't Over

(Flickr/Katri Niemi)
Sean Barry showed up at the same polling place in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, where he cast his ballot for Barack Obama in 2008. But when he got there, the poll workers informed him that his name was nowhere to be found on the voter rolls. They also told him he wasn’t alone; other regular voters had arrived only to find their names missing. All of them had to submit provisional ballots. Allegations of an illegal voter purge were already swirling, and Barry felt uneasy. “I feel unsteady about my vote being counted,” he said. But in the end, with or without Barry’s vote, Obama won Pennsylvania easily. Voter suppression was only going to have an electoral impact if the race got within spitting distance, and in the end, the attempted voter purges, voter ID laws, and partisan decision-making by elections administrators were not enough to swing the 2012 presidential election to Republicans. It was supposed to pick off the votes of poor and minority voters who vote disproportionately...

Ohio Legal Showdown?

(Flickr/rheanvent) I f you’re confused by the reports coming out of key battleground state Ohio about last-minute changes to voting rules there, you’re not alone. The state’s current voting regulations have more moving parts than a live Lady Gaga show. On Election Day, speculation abounds about legal battles that could lie ahead come Wednesday morning. I called up Ned Foley, professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and director of Election Law @ Moritz , a bipartisan center on electoral procedure, to guide me through the wilderness. Foley, it should be noted, thinks that the possibility we won’t know the winner of the presidential race by late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning is “quite unlikely,” despite the fact that the chattering classes have been talking about Ohio as this year’s potential Florida. That being said, semper paratus (always ready). “It’s not like there are seven different things that might happen on November 7,” Foley said. “It’s like we...

Four Things to Look for at the Polls on Election Day

Earlier this year, the outlook for voting rights was downright terrifying. Across the country, Republican legislatures had passed strict voter-ID laws, which reports showed could disenfranchise millions of voters . The political motives were clear: The people most likely to be without ID are poor and of color—groups that tend to vote for Democrats. By the summer, there was another threat to voter participation: purges of voter rolls. In Florida, and later in Colorado and Texas, voters began receiving letters saying their registrations were being questioned. While many who received the letters responded, activists worried about those voters who missed them or threw them away without responding—what if they arrived on Election Day only to discover their names had been deleted? Now, two days from Election Day, election proceedings appear significantly sunnier. When it came to voter ID, judges forced states to broaden acceptable forms of identification or delay the laws until the...

Just When You Started to Relax—More Ohio Voting Problems

(Flickr/kristin wolff)
It's no secret that the presidential race could come down to Ohio. The Buckeye State has loomed large for months, and word is, both Romney and Obama will be in Columbus on Election Night. According to Nate Silver, there’s a nearly 50-percent chance that the state will determine the election outcome. All eyes seem to be there—when WaPo ’s The Fix shifted it from “leans Democratic” to “toss up” yesterday on the electoral map, half the internet seemed to respond with either cheers or jeers. But while everyone's been watching the polls and political rallies, the chances that the election will be mired in confusion and controversy increased this week. Thousands of requests for mail-in ballots across the state may have been unfairly rejected, thanks to a technical glitch in the data-sharing software between the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of State's office. The idea is that when a voter updates her address at the BMV, it also gets updated at the Secretary of State's...

A Privacy Catch-22

WikiMedia Commons
When the Bush administration decided to wiretap some suspects without a warrant, it was acting contrary to the procedures that had been established by Congress Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Unfortunately, Congress reacted to this lawlessness by passing the Protect America Act , making warrantless wiretaps of communications involving at least one party not in the United States easier while providing immunity for past instances of illegal wiretapping. However, the new statute does not settle all of the legal questions. Congress, like the executive branch, is bound by the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of "unreasonable search and seizures." Since warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, there is at a minimum serious question about whether Congress can legally authorize the warrantless wiretapping of communications if at least one party is located overseas. It is not clear if these serious constitutional challenges will receive a fair hearing. Yesterday, the...

"Sustaining a Seemingly Permanent War"

WikiMedia Commons
Greg Miller has an essential report in The Washington Post about the institutionalization of the "war on terror," revealing that the Obama administration is institutionalizing many of the worst aspects of the arbitrary death apparatus established by the Bush administration. The "war on terror" has always been a somewhat difficult problem because it combines some aspects of ordinary police actions and some elements of war. Because the latter allows for killing without due process while the latter does not, however, it was perhaps inevitable that an executive branch whose war powers are increasingly unconstrained would gravitate to the latter. It is clear from Miller's article that this is in fact happening, as the administration is institutionalizing policies that classify people affilliated with Al-Qaeda as military targets who can be killed at the whim of the executive branch with no oversight. Particularly because these killings are certain to generate resistance and opposition,...

In Minnesota, Voting Blind on Voter ID

(AP Photo/The The Hutchinson News, Travis Morisse, File)
The fifth in a Prospect series on the 174 ballot measures up for a vote this November. Across the country, most voter-ID wars have unfolded in legislative chambers and courtrooms. But in Minnesota, a whole new battleground has opened as voters decide whether to put a photo ID-requirement into the state constitution. The constitutional amendment passed through the Republican-controlled legislature, but was foiled by a veto from Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. Now, it's up to voters to decide whether they want to put new burdens on themselves and fellow voters. The catch? Voters won't get any say about what those burdens will look like—flexible, with several forms of photo ID allowed, or super-strict, with only one or two kinds acceptable? Whichever party wins the state legislature in November will likely get to set the rules. If the Democrats win, the law could be relaxed, whereas conservatives would likely push to make the law as restrictive as they possibly can without incurring...

Making Prisoners Count

For legislative districts, inmates are considered part of communities where they’ll likely never live as free citizens.

(Flickr/AJstream) With a prison population in the millions, the current method of counting inmates skews how representative democracy operates. A dd these two facts together: (1) To the United States Census Bureau, where prisoners have their “usual residence” is the prison in which they’re incarcerated and (2) The findings of the decennial census are used to draw political boundaries. The sum of those parts does strange things to the notion of how Americans elect people to represent us in state and local governments. “Our system for making political decisions in this country,” says Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, “is being distorted by the miscounting of two million people.” In an era obsessed with political data— Microtargeting! Swing-state polling!! —and in a country where we incarcerate people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world, thinking through the political counting of prisoners calls for the same enthusiasm, because the way we do it now...

The Stronger Argument against DOMA

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Today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a major part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Since DOMA had already been held unconstitutional by the First Circuit , on one level this doesn't change anything, since the case was almost certainly headed to the Supreme Court anyway. But today's opinion is important because the theory underlying the court's holding goes much further than the First Circuit did. The Supreme Court has developed a three-pronged approach to applying the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under this framework, racial classifications have been held to require "strict scrutiny," under which the classification is constitutional only if necessary to achieve a compelling state objective. Most classifications require merely "rational basis" scrutiny—that is, the state only has to show that a classification bears any plausible rational relationship to a legitimate state interest. In practice, laws rarely survive strict scrutiny and...

Arlen Specter: A Poor Man's Richard Nixon

From Democrat to Republican to Democrat again, from his fierce opposition of Robert Bork to his cutthroat cross examination of Anita Hill, Specter was always, above all, a politician.

Flickr/musicFIRSTcoalition W hen Arlen Specter, the former Pennsylvania Senator who died Sunday at the age of 82, was negotiating to become a Democrat in 2009, he believed that he would retain his GOP-acquired seniority on the Senate committees in which he served. Specter thought he’d gotten a commitment from Majority Leader Harry Reid—Specter’s switch would not only help him avoid a primary challenge from the right, but would give the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate. However, the Democratic caucus resented the idea that Specter could jump ahead of lifelong Dems on the seniority list. Reid was thus unable to keep the agreement with Specter. Losing the committee seniority, Specter said, according to Politico , “was the worst moment of my life.” The worst moment of a then-79-year-old man’s life? Think about that. Specter had, by then, lost his parents. He had gone through several bouts of cancer, a benign brain tumor, and cardiac bypass surgery in the previous decade. He had two...


(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Imagine a college whose orchestra was missing a bassoon player, or whose football team was down a running back. It would go without saying that this school could admit an applicant who plays the bassoon over a candidate who plays the French horn, even if that French horn player had slightly higher grades, or that its admissions officers could give preference to a high school’s star running back over its equally talented defensive lineman. The entire university community benefits from a full orchestra or a football team with a complete offensive lineup, and college admissions officers routinely take similar considerations into account when they think about how to build an incoming freshman class. Nine years ago, in its landmark Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the Supreme Court recognized that race is just like an orchestra. Contrary to the common view that affirmative action is a zero-sum game—in which each seat given to a minority must be taken from a...