Abby Rapoport

Can Reformers Save Our Election System from the Supreme Court?

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh Cornell Woolridge of Windsor Mill, Md., takes part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, as the court heard arguments on campaign finance. O ver the past few years, given the bad news that just keeps coming their way, America’s campaign-finance reformers have started to look like eternal optimists. They’ve pretty much had to be. Take the one-two wallop they suffered early this spring. First, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York state legislators killed reformers’ best chance of a breakthrough in 2014—a public-financing program in which small-dollar donations would be matched or multiplied by public funds. (New York City already runs its own “matching” program.) The idea was to give less-wealthy donors a bigger voice in legislative and gubernatorial races while decreasing the clout of those with deep pockets. Instead, reformers ended up with a microscopic pilot program for the state comptroller’s race. A few days later...

Pardon Me, Mr. President?

Flickr/Salticidae
Flickr/Victoria Pickering T his week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the start of a new initiative on clemency, encouraging thousands of inmates—particularly those convicted during the Drug War crackdown of the 1990s—to send in petitions to have their sentences commuted. The new initiative offers six new criteria by which petitioners will be judged, including the following: prisoners must have served 10 years of their sentence, must not have lengthy criminal records or gang convictions, and show that they would have gotten off with a lighter sentence had they been tried today. In his more than five years in office, Obama has been the stingiest president in history when it comes to granting pardons; the new program could make him one of the most generous. But the biggest news for criminal-justice reformers has been the administration’s appointment of a new pardon attorney to oversee the program: Deborah Leff , who spent her years at DOJ working on the Access to Justice...

Get Ready for the Datapalooza of Election Performance!

AP Images/Toby Talbot
D uring 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. That’s why Pew’s 2012 Elections Performance Index is a big deal. Released this week, the index uses standardized data from the U.S. Census, the Elections Assistance Commission, and a major...

It’s Andrew Cuomo’s Fault!

AP Images/Evan Agostini
T his 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. Now, the progressives who formed the Fair Elections Campaign have begun a new set of strategies to pass their public financing plan, largely by going to war with the most powerful Democrat in the state—Governor...

George Takei, Living Long and Prospering from Social Media

AP Images/Wong Maye-E
O n 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.” To newcomers, the abrupt change of tone might sound odd. But Takei's followers weren’t likely surprised; in the midst of humor, they know, he often delivers wise and solemn messages to fans. For decades, Takei, who turns 77 in April, was most famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series (catchphrase: “Oh my!”). But since he started his Facebook page in 2011, the actor has been a social-media whiz. He’s got more than a million Twitter...

No Fear of Flying

AP Images/Kathy Willens
AP Images/Kathy Willens I was terrified for the first 15 minutes of watching Born to Fly . Okay, maybe for closer to 30 minutes. For much of the documentary film by Emmy-nominated director Catherine Gund, you watch dancers with the STREB dance company fling their bodies across the stage, landing loudly on their backs or stomachs with hard thuds. They leap around giant iron beams and slam against hard plastic screens. Thanks to beautiful cinematography from Albert Mayles, who’s made 36 films and helped create the narrative nonfiction film genre, you feel the height in every jump and the fragility in the bodies moving fast through time and space. There’s little music and instead, it’s the performers’ grunts and thuds that accompany the movement, so even on film , it’s hard not to wince and seriously fear for the safety of those on screen. If you’ve ever struggled to appreciate avant-garde artistry, Born to Fly is the movie to see. The film, which premiered March 8 at the SXSW festival,...

When Death Comes to the Festival

AP Images/Austin American-Statesman/Jay Janner
AP Images/Austin American-Statesman/Jay Janner O n Monday, 26 year-old Sandy Le died in the hospital, the third fatality of last week's crash at the SXSW music festival. Another person, 18 year-old DeAndre Tatum, is in critical condition, and seven others remain in the hospital. The incident occurred shortly before 1 a.m. on March 13, when a drunk driver, chased by police, sped into a crowd outside Austin’s Mohawk Bar, on a closed-off section of road, injuring a total of 23 people, and leaving two dead at the scene. Hours before the crash, I stood at the Parish, a downtown music venue, waiting for the Kooks to play. First up, however, was Claire, an electronica band from Munich. They seemed to personify every idea I had about what going to a music club in Munich would be like. Lead singer Josie-Claire Bürkle came out in a black, witchy outfit, with her midriff exposed, with her long blond hair in a slicked back ponytail. She sang overly mysterious lyrics in a low sonorous croon while...

Why Does the National Media Get Texas So Wrong?

AP Images/Eric Gay
T uesday, as Texas primary voters headed to the polls, Politico published an article titled, “ The Texas tea party’s best days may be behind it.” Below the headline were photographs of Governor Rick Perry, the state’s junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Steve Stockman, who had decided to wage a last-minute, barely visible campaign again Texas’s senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn. The article focused on the Cornyn-Stockman race, and it mentioned a congressional primary in which incumbent Pete Sessions faced a Tea Party challenge from Katrina Pierson. To anyone familiar with Texas politics, the article was baffling. It made no mention of the state’s most-watched (and most important) GOP primary, the race for the lieutenant governor nomination, and it made only a passing reference to the attorney general race, even though both contests featured bloody fights between so-called “establishment” and Tea Party candidates. The state’s hardest-right election force, the Empower Texans...

Why Obama Should Take a Cue from Gerald Ford on Crack Pardons

AP Images/Felipe Dana
I n late December, the Obama administration announced that the president would commute the sentences of eight prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack-cocaine distribution (or intent to distribute). Last week, at a New York State Bar event, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that there may be more—many more. The administration, he said, will seek other drug cases to consider for clemency, working with the Bureau of Prisons to encourage inmates to request commutations and asking that state bar associations help with preparing their petitions. After five years of organizing and lobbying the president to use his pardoning power for thousands still jailed under draconian sentences for crack, you might have expected the news to have clemency advocates jumping for joy. But they responded with well-worn skepticism. On his widely read blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, Ohio State law professor Doug Berman speculated that Obama's actions were more about holiday traditions...

The Year in Preview: Post-Preclearance Voter Protection

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Lots of things happened in 2013. President Obama was sworn in for a second term. We got a new pope and a new royal baby. Two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon and scared a nation. The Supreme Court stripped power from the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act. But these are all stories we've heard before, and if you haven't, you certainly will in the millions of "Year in Review" pieces set to be posted between now and New Year's. Over the next two weeks, our writers will instead preview the year ahead on their beats, letting you know far in advance what the next big story about the Supreme Court—or the environmental movement, immigration reform, reproductive rights, you get the picture—will be. You're welcome in advance for not making you read a dozen more retrospectives on Ted Cruz and Twerking and fiscal cliffs and shutdowns and selfies. Below, we tackle voting rights. AP Photo/Tony Dejak A nyone concerned about voting rights will remember 2013 as the year the...

Fifty Shades of Purple

AP Images/The Gazette/Mark Bugnaski
T he second week in October, while Tea Partiers in Congress were tanking the GOP’s approval numbers with a government shutdown, the Republican National Committee traveled to Los Angeles to make an announcement: The party was investing $10 million to woo Latino voters in California and 16 other states. This might seem newsworthy, considering that Republicans spent much of the 2012 campaign repelling Latinos. But the event received little attention, though the Los Angeles Times did note that it featured “roast beef and cheese enchiladas.” (Ick.) The notion of Republicans competing for Latino votes in California seems ridiculous; ever since Governor Pete Wilson led an effort in 1994 to keep undocumented immigrants from accessing state services, Latinos have viewed the party as toxic. With Republicans in Washington blocking immigration reform and Medicaid expansion, the divide between Republicans and Latinos has only grown. It will take more than $10 million to bridge it. But the Latino...

How Virginia Ended Up with a Stinker of a Governor's Race

AP Images/Steve Helber
AP Images/Steve Helber K en Cuccinelli wasn’t even supposed to be running. Among Virginia Republicans, everyone knew the order of succession—after Governor Bob McDonnell wrapped up his term in office, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling was supposed to be next up. That was the bargain the two men struck in 2009 to avoid a messy primary battle. But no one had consulted Cuccinelli, the attorney general and the state’s social conservative darling, and he wasn’t content to wait his turn. In December 2011, Cuccinelli, the man who made his name fighting against abortion and gay rights, announced his candidacy. It looked like a smart move. Cuccinelli had national ambitions; already, some saw him as a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, following in the footsteps of Rick Santorum and other far-right figures. But first he needed a higher-visibility role—and he needed to prove that he could make his message attractive to a wider audience. His vehement opposition to abortion and gay...

Texas's Ruling on Abortion Law: A Silver Lining to a Storm Cloud

AP Photo/Eric Gay
AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File W hen the court ruling came down on Texas’s law restricting abortions, media outlets didn’t hold back. The Huffington Post went with the headline “Texas Abortion Restrictions Declared Unconstitutional by Federal Judge” while CNN blared “Judge Blocks Parts of Abortion Law.” Let’s just be clear: The law still bans abortions after 20 weeks and the state is still in the process of creating codes so that next year abortion clinics will have to meet the same building code standards as hospitals that perform invasive surgery. The lawsuit instead, focused on two other provisions of the law—one requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals, the other requiring anyone using abortion-inducing pills to follow an outdated medical regime, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakal’s ruling, knocking down the admitting privileges requirement, while approving the outdated FDA protocol, helps to...

Kasich Goes Rogue on Medicaid

AP Images/Tony Dejak
AP Images/Tony Dejak W hen news broke Monday that Ohio would be the 25 th state to expand Medicaid, there were plenty of cheers on the left. After months of negotiations with lawmakers that repeatedly broke down, Republican Governor John Kasich, who has made the expansion a centerpiece of his agenda, decided to take a new tack. With the legislature out of session, Kasich, through his Medicaid director, requested a waiver from the federal government to expand the existing Medicaid program without the assembly’s approval. It was an unusual move. He got permission to spend the money from a small body, called the Controlling Board, composed of three lawmakers from the House and Senate, respectively, as well as a governor appointee. The board normally moves money between programs to adjust for shifts in spending throughout the year. This time, it approved $2.5 billion in federal funds to open up health care for nearly 300,000 Ohioans. Kasich has been one of the leading Republican voices...

What Explains Ted Cruz?

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana
B etween his 21-hour non-filibuster to halt Obamacare, his impassioned, hard-line speech at the right-wing Values Voters Summit, and his meeting with House Republicans at the mediocre Mexican joint, Tortilla Coast , it’s clear Ted Cruz has been conducting the shutdown train, even as the country heads into default and his party heads over a cliff. Just about every write-up of the man portrays a smart and opportunistic political mind, eager to be, as The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith puts it, “the Tea Party’s one true standard-bearer.” But is his strategy just crazy? Pundits in Washington can’t decide what to make of it. At The Washington Post alone, you can find a number of conflicting opinions. Jonathan Capehart, for one, thinks Cruz is just like Sarah Palin. But he also thinks he’s deeply cynical . WaPo’s The Fix blog notes Cruz has hurt himself badly based on poll numbers. But the blog’s main writer, Chris Cilliza, also notes he’s set himself up perfectly for the 2016 presidential...

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