Thursday, January 29, 2015

Losing the Hunger Games...Again

Recently, there has been a lot of press surrounding increases in hirings and gains in hourly wages, but this overlooks the millions of people that continue to struggle to make ends meet. For some of those individuals, the struggle to get basic necessities is about to get worse.

Over the course of 2015, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Americans will be at risk of losing necessary food assistance benefits, or "Food Stamps," through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that, until now, has helped put food on their tables. As unemployment rates fall, around 1 million single adults will become ineligible to receive SNAP benefits due to a three-month time limit for unemployed, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). 

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 limits SNAP benefits to just three months in a three-year time period for ABAWDs who are not working or participating in a workfare program for at least 20 hours a week. The provision includes a clause that allows states with sustained high unemployment rates to apply for a 12-month ABAWD waiver that suspends the three-month limit. Because of the poor economic climate, in recent years, many states have received ABAWD waivers, eliminating the time limit for the ABAWD population. Current waivers will expire at the end of this fiscal year and will need to be renewed for FY2016. However, as unemployment rates fall, very few states will qualify for this waiver.

Although unemployment rates are declining, many ABAWDs are still struggling to find full-time employment due to lower education levels and limited job opportunities. While states can cut off SNAP benefits for unemployed ABAWDs after three months, according to the provisions in The Farm Bill of 2002, states are not required to fund employment and training programs for ABAWDs. In other words, states can remove unemployed ABAWDs from the SNAP rolls without making an effort to find them a position in a work or training program for 20 hours a week. In fact, most states do not offer these programs, meaning that the responsibility to search for a job or a work/training program falls on the individual, which can be very difficult as workfare programs have limited resources and openings.

Even those who are actively seeking work and are willing to accept any position offered will still be cut off from SNAP benefits and will not be provided with support to find employment. According to US Department of Agriculture, individuals who will be subject to the three-month time limit have an average monthly income of 19 percent of the poverty line (or 81% below the poverty line), making them one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.  Because this population is able-bodied and without dependents, it is unlikely for them to qualify for other benefits.

Not only do SNAP benefits put food on the tables of millions of hungry Americans, but food assistance has also stimulated the economy and served as a lifeline for entire towns.  For example, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island almost $2 million of SNAP funding pours into the town each month, stimulating the city’s food industry and starting the monthly “boom-and-bust” cycle of the nearly bankrupt town. For more information, see this article in the Washington Post.

To learn more about the relationship between poverty and food insecurity from Feeding America’s Poverty and Food Insecurity Fact Sheet click here. For statistics and infographics on food insecurity from the USDA Economic Research Service click here.

For more information about which state’s have accepted the waiver for FY2015, click here.

ThinkProgress has covered the reinstatement of the work requirements in SNAP in Maine, Ohio, Indiana, and New Mexico.

January 29, 2015 in Advocacy, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Supreme Court Set to Rule on Historic Fair Housing Case

Nearly 50 years after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project the Supreme Court recently addressed the interpretation of this law and whether the law allows for disparate-impact claims. The purpose of the 1968 Fair Housing Act was to eliminate overt racial discrimination in housing by making it illegal to “refuse to sell or rent . . . or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race.” The question at hand in last week’s case is fundamental to the interpretation and enforcement of a law meant to tackle discriminatory housing policies: Are practices and policies that are not intentionally discriminatory, but nonetheless have a discriminatory effect on certain populations, in violation of the law?

In 1988, Congress made amendments to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 but did not write discriminatory effect claims out of its scope. Despite this, and the fact that 11 federal appeals courts have found that the Fair Housing Act provides for disparate-impact claims, this case marks the third time that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts has heard a disparate-impact fair housing case. Housing advocates and civil rights groups are concerned about the potential effects of limiting the interpretation of this law in a time when it is harder to identify exclusionary housing practices as such.

In the case, the plaintiff, Inclusive Communities Project, is a Dallas based non-profit organization whose mission includes creating and supporting racially and socioeconomically integrated communities. Their role includes assisting people who receive housing subsidies find affordable housing. In 2008, they filed a lawsuit, in which they argued that the state’s allocation of low-income housing tax credits were distributed in a manner that did not make housing subsidies available in communities with more access to opportunities (like better schools systems and lower poverty rates) and that this was a violation of the Fair Housing Act. The defendants, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, argued that the law only applies to intentional discrimination and does not account for disparate-impact claims. Further, they claimed that extending its reach would force insurers, developers, and lenders into situations where they would need to make race-based decisions in order to make quotas.

Senator Warren's op-ed in WashPo from Saturday discusses the effect of the case on segregation and economic growth for communities of color.

For more information about the case, the arguments, and what’s at stake, see these pieces in the Washington Post, Scotusblog, New York Times, or read the transcript here.

January 26, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Maryland Makes the Death Penalty History. Will Connecticut and New Mexico?

On May 2, 2013, Governor Martin O’Malley signed a death penalty repeal bill that abolished the death penalty for future crimes, leaving Maryland’s death row intact.  Maryland is not alone in its prospective abolition of the death penalty.  New Mexico abolished prospectively in 2009, leaving 2 inmates on death row, and Connecticut followed suit in 2012, leaving 11 inmates on death row.  Prospective bills are pending in a number of other states, including Delaware, Kansas, Colorado, Washington, and New Hampshire. 

One might call this legislative trend “gradual abolition.”  For the first time in nearly 100 years, abolition is proceeding inmate-by-inmate.  Abolition will be achieved in states like New Mexico and Connecticut when the last death row inmate in each state dies or is released from death row, or when the executive or judiciary intervenes.

Which brings us back to Maryland.  On December 31, 2014, Governor O’Malley announced his intention to end Maryland’s death penalty completely by commuting the death sentences of Maryland’s 4 remaining death row inmates.  Legal challenges to prospective death penalty repeal are pending in Connecticut’s and New Mexico’s high courts, but they will probably fail, for reasons discussed here and here.  Although New Mexico’s and Connecticut’s legislatures almost certainly have the constitutional authority to abolish the death penalty for future crimes only, there is no record of a death row prisoner ever being executed after prospective repeal of the death penalty.  This means that, if a governor or administrative board were to permit a prisoner to be executed after prospective repeal, it would be the first to do so in all of history—a dubious distinction if ever there was one.

New Mexico’s governor and Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles should take a page from Governor O’Malley’s playbook and end their death penalties completely.  And state legislatures considering prospective death penalty repeal should reconsider, and make their repeals retroactive.  Abolition for all—not some.

January 9, 2015 in Advocacy, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Breaking Policy News: US and Cuba Seek to Normalize Relations

In the most significant change in US policy toward Cuba since the 1960s, President Obama and Raul Castro spoke Tuesday (the first direct communication between a US and Cuban leader since 1961) about normalizing relations. This announcement follows a series of diplomatic moves to improve the relationship between the two counties, including Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross the US’s freeing of three incarcerated Cubans.

The Obama administration also announced that it plans to re-open the US embassy in Havana and ease restrictions on travel and commerce between the two counties.

Obama’s actions to improve diplomacy between the two counties follow what he called an “outdated approach” to Cuba. “Isolation has not worked. . . It’s time for a new approach.” The administration’s plan is to promote reform in Cuba through engagement, rather than isolation.  

For more information, click here, here, and here.  

December 17, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 15, 2014

US Receives Failing Grade on Human Right to Housing Report Card

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) recently released its Housing Report Card, giving the United States a failing grade. NLCHP’s report card examines the current level of US compliance with the human right to housing in the context of American homelessness. Specifically, NLCHP assesses steps taken by the federal government to end and prevent homelessness, as well as relevant state and local policies.


Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 12.32.08 PM

Read the full report for detailed information about each category and grade.


December 15, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 12, 2014

FBI’s First Ever Report on Hate Crimes Based on Gender Identity. Underwhelming.

Under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the FBI began collecting data on hate crimes committed on the basis of gender identity last year.  The FBI presented that data for the first time in this year’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics for 2013 report.  Its findings are underwhelming:  for 2013, the FBI reported only 31 hate crimes based on gender identity. 

According to the Human Right Campaign, the FBI data “does not paint a complete picture of hate crimes against LGBT Americans because of two significant factors.  First, under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the FBI only began collecting data on hate crimes committed on the basis of gender identity last year and were reported for the first time in this year’s report.  HRC remains concerned that the low number of responses for hate crimes based on gender identity and gender non-conformity -- 31 incidents -- suggests that law enforcement are mischaracterizing hate based crimes as ones based on either sexual orientation or gender. Second, current statistics only provide a partial snapshot of hate crimes in America.  As in past years, the vast majority of the participating agencies (88%) reported zero hate crimes. This means that law enforcement in those participating agencies affirmatively reported to the FBI that no hate crime incidents occurred in their jurisdiction.”

In its report on hate violence in 2013, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported “twelve hate motivated homicides of transgender women of color in 2013, many of them occurring through the months of June through September,” and over 300 incidents of anti-transgender bias.

For a thoughtful and moving discussion of the intersection between violence, race, and gender identity, and a way forward, check out this brief talk by transgender activist, Laverne Cox.  Highly recommended.

December 12, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Legislative information wants to be free

 At ALICE, we’re always excited to hear about ways that legislative data is being made more easily accessible. This is one area where information wants to be free -- and really ought to be free.
At the federal level, the Library of Congress maintains, which has replaced the old Thomas library of legislative information. Most readers have probably used one or the other.
At the state level, state legislatures each have a website. Some are great, some are a total pain. If you want to track legislation across 50 states, it used to be that you'd have to visit 50 different clunky websites. Then the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) created a bill information service, with access limited to legislators and staff. (NCSL also maintains topic-specific databases that are searchable and open to the public.) But recently, data geeks have made state legislative information searchable by the public, through portals like Open States and Bill Track 50
For searching model law, there’s always the ALICE library. And, thanks to the good work of ALEC Exposed, even the ALEC library, which was once members-only, is now open to the public. 
What about cities? There are far more of them than there are states, and they have even fewer resources available for making legislative information open to the public. But here again, data geeks have been hard at work, and there seem to be great things on the horizon. Thousands of city codes are now available via municode. The next step is to make it easier to track municipal ordinances, and here Councilmatic appears to be leading the way. It was created a few years ago for the City of Philadelphia by Code for America, and the open source technology has since been redeployed by DataMade to Chicago and Oakland. In a sign that this sort of data really does want to be free, DataMade has shared the basic code that scrapes legislative data on GitHub.
We hope you find these resources to be useful. Know of other online portals for legislative data that we haven't included here? If so, please share them in the comments!

December 2, 2014 in Advocacy, Skills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

International Conference on "Legisprudence and the Legislative Process: From Theory to Practice"

Our friends at Bar-Ilan University in Israel wish to announce the upcoming international conference on Legisprudence and Legislative Process:  From Theory to Practice,  which will be held at Bar-Ilan University in Israel on December 6-7, 2014.  A brief description of the conference, as well as a link to the conference program, follows:

In recent years, there has been growing literature describing a "crying need" for improvement in the legislative process of legislatures across a wide range of legal systems. At the same time, there has been great development of a separate body of legisprudence scholarship dedicated to developing the concept of "quality of legislation" and ways to improve this quality. Bringing together leading legislation scholars and practitioners from Europe, the U.S. and Israel, this international conference aims to integrate theoretical insights with cross-national practical experience in exploring ways to improve the legislative process. The conference will cover such issues as minorities' legislative power; improving the effectiveness and efficacy of the legislative process; improving the accessibility of legislation; lobbying reform; the role of impact assessment in the legislative process; the role of legislative counsels; and the role of courts in improving the legislative process. The conference, co-organized by Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law and the Knesset Legal Department, will take place in Israel on December 10-11, 2014.

Download Confrence Plan-Final

November 30, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 24, 2014

GUEST BLOG: The End of Cause-Lawyering and Community Education Clinics?

Marcy Karin runs the Work-Life Law and Policy Clinic at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. The Work-Life Clinic is an integrated law clinic that works on administrative litigation, legislative and regulatory advocacy, and community education efforts on employment law and policy issues for low-income individuals and nonprofit organizations working on their behalf. This work includes cases and projects related to unemployment insurance, reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, time off, flexible scheduling, unpaid wages, discrimination, reentry, and civil justice for military families.

Over the summer, the ABA changed the definition of what constitutes a clinic when it published Revised Standards for law school accreditation.  Specifically, Standard 304 now reads:

Simulation Courses and Law Clinics

(b) a law clinic provides substantial lawyering experience that (1) involves one or more actual clients, and (2) includes the following:  (i) advising or representing a client; (ii) direct supervision of the student’s performance by a faculty member; (iii) opportunities for performance, feedback from a faculty member, and self-evaluation; and (iv) a classroom instructional component.

This new rule explicitly requires at least one “actual client” for a course to be considered a clinic.  This may have (presumably unintended) consequences for programs that include policy advocacy, community lawyering, or other types of experiential training that may not include client representation, but otherwise meet the ABA’s requirements.

For example, some excellent clinics train students by taking matters and projects on behalf of causes, rather than clients.  Among other things, clinics have testified as experts in front of federal, state, local, and tribal legislatures; submitted comments to rulemaking as part of the regulated community; and worked as part of loose coalitions of people in community negotiations or mobilizations.  As Kevin Barry and I have written about in the past, this type of cause lawyering is a critical component in training students to meet the standards set forth in paragraph 6 of the Preamble to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that all lawyers “should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients [and] employ that knowledge in reform of the law.”

In striving to meet this ethical standard and fulfill a critical need for lawyering services in different communities, a growing number of faculty have incorporated non-client work into clinic dockets.  In addition to law reform, some clinics regularly work in conjunction with partner organizations to offer walk-in legal clinics.  These type of drop-in events are usually undertaken without any expectation of entering into a lawyer-client relationship with event partners or the members of the public that attend these sessions for counseling services.  Other clinics focus on public education either by participating in “know your rights” workshops, by teaching high school students about the law, or by highlighting a problem that had previously remained in the shadows.  Some clinics do this by documenting human rights violations, working on grassroots media campaigns, issuing educational white papers, or volunteering to answer voter questions about how to exercise their rights on election day.

Of course, even litigation-focused clinics may work without clients.  Clinics have been asked to serve as amicus by courts on issues within their substantive areas of expertise, train judicial personnel, advocate for best practices or changes in existing judicial procedures or any number of other litigation orientated, but non-client projects.

Many (but not all) of the clinics that participate in these activities are integrated law clinics, which means they likely also have at least “one client” on a docket at any given time.  Given this, they would still qualify as a clinic.  Nonetheless, the new clinic definition remains problematic:  neither the ABA nor the academy should be sending the message that this type of work is not important in my opinion.  Nor that this work is not as important as lawyering work performed on behalf of a client.  Rather, law schools should have the discretion to offer “clinics” with substantial lawyering opportunities that educate the community about the law, identify problems with it, and/or address how best to reform it.

For the past few months, my colleague Art Hinshaw and I have been having an internal discussion about the potential unintended consequences that this revised standard may have on our clinics.  In this September post on the ADR Prof Blog, Art took our conversation public and asked whether this interpretation would be the death knell for mediation clinics like his, where students do not have clients but rather serve as mediators at the behest of our local courts.

His post spurred the mediation community into action, and he is now the co-chair of an ABA Dispute Resolution Section Task Force created specifically to address this issue.  To start off their conversations, he has suggested the following revised language for 304(b) to the Task Force:

A law clinic provides a substantial lawyering experience that (1) involves acting in a problem solving role, and (2) includes the following:

  • Any of these lawyering activities:
    • Advising or representing a client, OR
    • Acting as a third party neutral in a dispute involving live disputants, OR
    • Others???
  • Direct supervision of the student’s performance by a faculty member
  • Opportunities for performance, feedback from a faculty member, and self-evaluation, and
  • A classroom instructional component

With this post, I hope to galvanize more clinicians to join the conversation.  There is no way that this new definition will be the death of cause lawyering or community education in law school clinics. That said, ABA Standards should reflect the reality that many clinics undertake important non-client based lawyering work and training.  The new standards became operational on August 12, 2014, and Standard 304 must be phased in to apply to students who are 1Ls in Fall 2016.  This gives us a window of opportunity to help our mediation colleagues improve this new standard. 

Given this, what else should be included in the list of proposed lawyering activities?  Educating the community about legal rights or processes?  Responding to requests for technical assistance from the government?  How can we best reflect the diversity in our community with respect to clinic structures and learning opportunities?  Share your ideas in the comments!

November 24, 2014 in Advocacy, Skills | Permalink | Comments (0)

Land of the Rich and Home of the Privileged?

Two Princeton researchers, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, recently released a study, arguing that America's political system has changed from a democracy into an oligarchy controlled by the wealthy and privileged. "The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy," they write, "while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." An article on the Princeton report is available here.

What do you think?  Sound off to the Legislation Law Prof Blog editors!

November 24, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage Continues in South Carolina Following Supreme Court Ruling

Following a Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage will be allowed to continue in South Carolina. This morning, the Supreme Court denied a stay request from South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. South Carolina’s AG asked the Supreme Court to block a lower court’s ruling, which overturned South Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban.  In overturning the same-sex marriage ban, Federal District Court Judge Richard Gergel stated South Carolina is bound by recent 4th Circuit Court of appeals decision striking down Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.

The Supreme Court’s decision makes South Carolina the 35th state in which same-sex marriage is legal. 

November 20, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Do ATF stings target criminals.... or poor people of color?

Do ATF stings target criminals?  Or poor people of color?

Image from the New York Times.

The New York Times today posted an interesting article about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabacco, Firearms, and Explosive's increasing use of "sting" operations purportedly designed to capture "hardened criminals." However, critics say that these tactics are racially discriminatory and target minorities regardless of prior evidence of criminality. As the NYT article reports, a California federal judge recently agreed, describing the Bureau's efforts as “trawling for crooks in seedy, poverty-ridden areas — all without an iota of suspicion that any particular person has committed similar conduct in the past.” The entire NYT article can be found here.

November 20, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Supreme Court and the Future of the ACA

The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in the case of King v. Burwell. Under this grant, the Court will again take up the issue of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. This will be second time the Court has examined the constitutionality of the ACA (the first being in 2012 when it determined the ACA to be constitutional).

Under King v. Burwell, the Court will decide whether the government has the ability to authorize subsidies for insurance purchased on federally-run exchanges. The language of the ACA authorizes subsidies for insurance purchased on exchanges “established by the state.” ACA challengers argue that the plain language of the statute does not give the government the ability to provide subsidies to individuals who purchase insurance on exchanges run by the federal government. Supporters of the ACA argue that the intent of the law is to provide subsidies to all individuals who purchase insurance through the exchanges and that the law would not have otherwise authorized the federal government to establish exchanges when states refused to do so.

To date, nearly five million individuals have received federal subsidies to purchase insurance through a federally-run health exchange. The average subsidy is approximately $4,700 a person. There are currently 14 State-based exchanges, 3 federally-supported exchanges, 7 State-partnership exchanges, and 27 Federally-facilitated exchanges. 

The Court’s grant came despite the fact that US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit was scheduled to hear arguments on the subsidy issue in December. As a result, some see the Court’s decision to take up the issue as inappropriately political. 

November 19, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 17, 2014


If you're an avid reader of Politico, you may've noticed an article last week introducing the State Innovation Exchange, or SiX. The New York Times followed up, asking whether, in the wake of the midterm elections, "Is it Too Late for a Democratic ALEC?" 

As we noted a couple weeks ago, conservatives now control two-thirds of the state legislative chambers nationwide. Progressives seem to have taken note. Politico reported this morning that during last week's Democracy Alliance meeting of progressive donors, there was agreement to focus more on state-level races. The story quotes a progressive operative as saying “Overall, there’s a growing understanding — at least at the Democracy Alliance level — that state and local races matter.” 

So, what role might SiX play in this new focus on the states?

First -- and to explain the equation in the title to this post -- it's worth noting that SiX combines the resources of three organizations: the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE), the Progressive States Network (PSN), and the Center for State Innovation (CSI). 

In a recent email to supporters, SiX executive director Nick Rathod outlined what the new organization will do: 

SiX is a new, state-focused "action tank" that looks beyond Washington to build a powerful and permanent infrastructure for progressives. Our communications, policy and political strategies focus on passing state laws that reflect progressive values.

When we launch in December, we will waste no time in continuing the work of ALICE and the Progressive States Network -- the groups that came before us which so powerfully paved the way for this next stage of progressive policy making... SiX will act as an expert resource for legislators and their staffs to lift up the essential work being done in the states which advances progressive values and policies.

If you've been a user of the materials on the ALICE website, don't worry. All the content of the ALICE Library will be available soon at our new home -- When that goes live, we'll be sure to let you know!


November 17, 2014 in Advocacy, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Do "Penn State Laws" Turn Clinical Law Professors into Mandated Reporters?

In the wake of the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State in 2011, several states have passed so-called “Penn State laws” that amend their state mandated reporter statutes to include higher education employees.  The problem?  Some of those higher education employees are lawyers, namely, clinical law professors.  As discussed in this blog post, Connecticut’s expanded mandated reporter law, which took effect in October of this year, appears to make mandated reporters of all higher education employees, including clinical law professors.  For more information on whether your state names higher education officials as mandated reporters (and whether it contains an exception for information obtained in the course of providing legal representation), see this 2013 Report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

November 13, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Veterans, families, and homelessness


Veteran’s Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the unfortunate prevalence of homelessness among America’s veteran population.  The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently reported on the progress of their Never Another Homeless Veteran education campaign, “a two-year effort by the Alliance and its partners to build and leverage public support to end veteran homelessness.”  The NAEH reports that “in the last three years, 15 of the country's largest metropolitan areas, including New York and New Orleans, have cut their numbers of veterans experiencing homelessness by more than 50 percent.”  You can find out more about these success stories in this You Tube video.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reflected on the reported progress in reducing veteran homelessness, calling these indicators of success “a bright spot in [a] tough battle against homelessness.”  But the Post persisted in asking why—during the same period of time—the homeless family population has increased so drastically (“[s]ince 2011, while veterans homelessness has plummeted, the number of homeless residents in families increased 41 percent.”). 

Perhaps the indications of success with reducing veteran homelessness can illuminate the way for similar successes reducing homelessness among families. 


November 12, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Republicans sweep, while citizens seize the initiative process

In case you missed the news, the Republican party swept the midterm elections this past Tuesday.

Much of the post-election media coverage has been about how the Republicans picked up seven seats and gained control in the U.S. Senate. But the sweep extended to the states as well. Republicans won governors races in Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts (but lost the statehouse in Pennsylvania). And Ballotopedia reports that as of Thursday afternoon, ten state legislative chambers have flipped from Democratic to Republican control (results in two additional chambers are still pending).

This means that 31 states now have Republican governors, and the GOP controls 67 of the 99 state legislative chambers nationwide. And news reports suggests that state Republican leaders are emboldened to act on what they see as a mandate coming out of the elections. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker met with his cabinet the day after the election and told them that "We're gonna be even more aggressive now" in pushing the Republican agenda.

The other news coming out of the elections was the results of ballot initiatives. Around the country, citizens even in traditionally red states voted to raise the minimum wage and legalize marijuana. As NPR reports, voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota all voted in binding referenda to raise the state minimum wage above the federal level. (In Illinois, a nonbinding referendum to raise the minimum wage to $10/hour passed overwhelmingly, even as voters elected a gubernatorial candidate who had once favored eliminating it entirely.) And voters in Alaska and Oregon chose to legalize marijuana for recreational use, while the District of Columbia legalized possession of up to two ounces of the plant.

These apparently contradictory trends -- conservatives sweeping into elected office, even as voters support ballot referenda that enact laws often seen as progressive -- speak to the power of the initiative process. As part of some research we've been doing for a report that will be released in coming months, we've been mapping out how the initiative process works in states around the country. Based on data from NCSL, we've built the map below. Even as the map of party control turns more red, this map suggests a more complex future, should the trend toward advancing progressive policy via the initiative process hold in coming years.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 3.36.05 PM

November 6, 2014 in Advocacy, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What if Everybody Voted?

If history is any guide, turnout on this midterm election day won’t top 45% of eligible voters.  (It hasn’t since 1970.)  Over half of Americans, apparently, simply don’t feel it’s worth the trouble to vote in a midterm election. 

What if we made it easier to vote? notes that in the last census, 27% of nonvoters said they were too busy or couldn’t get the time off to vote.  This has long been the number one reason that Americans have said they don’t make it to the polls.  How might things be different if Election Day were a national holiday, or if we moved voting to the weekend?  Countries that vote on the weekend do have much higher rates of turnout: France (67.3%), Germany (80.2%), Thailand (82.1%), Russia (56.6%), Japan (68.7%).   

Some states – including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and the territory of Puerto Rico – have made Election Day a civic holiday, meaning state employees get the day off. Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) has introduced The Weekend Voting Act, H.R.1641, in the U.S. House of Representatives, where govtrack gives it a 1% chance of being enacted. (You can learn about other reforms that would make it easier to vote or increase turnout here, and sign a White House petition to make Election Day a holiday here.)

Even with these attempts at reform, it’s worth asking: is the United States in fact the greatest democracy in the world?  At least in terms of voter turnout, it definitely isn’t.  Indeed, with just 47.7% average turnout since 1945, the U.S. ranks dead last among G8 countries, and 138th out of the world's 172 countries.  The numbers are enough to make one wonder if there might be some people in the United States who like it this way, and would prefer not to have more Americans at the polls.

But what if things were different?  What if we not only got time off work to vote, but we were also expected to vote as one of our civic duties?

In 1996, Professor Arendt Lijphart used his Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association to think through these questions.  He reasoned that low voter turnout is a serious democratic problem, because, among other things, it systematically biases the vote against less well-to-do citizens, and it leads to unequal political influence. After considering possible reforms like weekend voting, Lijphart concluded that, in the end, compulsory voting is the better option – its advantages “far outweigh the normative and practical objections to it.”  If you think low turnout is problematic -- or, especially, if you don't -- the speech is worth a read.

From time to time, Americans have actually experimented with making voting a legal duty.  From 1777 to 1789, the Georgia state constitution required people to vote (at least those white men who then had the franchise).  And during the early 1890s, Kansas City required its residents to vote. In 1896, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the provision in Kansas City v. Whipple, but as former White House counsel John Dean has pointed out, that case didn't resolve the question of whether it would be permissible under the U.S. Constitution to require citizens to vote.

Looking around the world, there are 22 countries that require their citizens to vote (though not all of them enforce the requirement). These include Greece, Belgium, Mexico, most of the countries in South America, and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, voter turnout rates are regularly between 93 and 95 percent.

So when you head to the polls today – and we at ALICE certainly hope you do – take a moment to think about whether the U.S. should join the club.  Would it be un-American to require our fellow citizens to participate in choosing our elected representatives?  Or is it more un-American to be okay with the fact that in midterm elections, most of them don’t?

November 4, 2014 in Advocacy, Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Time to Vote! And, in California, Time for Proposition 47

The Legislation Law Prof Blog urges everyone to GET OUT AND VOTE!  What types of issues are most pressing on your ballots?  In King County, Washington, we've got gun control and education funding as highlights on the ballot. 

As followers of the LLP Blog may recall, we often post on the Ban the Box effort.  In California, voters will decide today on a ballot measure that could make it easier for people with felony convinctions to find a job.  Here's an excerpt from Five Thirty Eight Economic's coverage on California's Proposition 47:  

Proposition 47 would reclassify some drug and property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Proponents of the measure have focused primarily on the cost savings from sending fewer people to prison, but they argue it would also help non-violent offenders like Martin become productive members of society.2

Opponents counter that any benefits aren’t worth the tradeoffs. The initiative would reclassify possession of date-rape drugs and the theft of many firearms as misdemeanors, which some law enforcement officials argue could result in the release of violent or potentially violent offenders.

But beyond the specifics of Proposition 47, there is an emerging consensus from across the political spectrum that some sort of reform is necessary to help millions of Americans with criminal records find work. Attorney General Eric Holder and other Democrats have spoken frequently about the issue, but so have conservatives such as Rand Paul and New Gingrich, who penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times supporting the California initiative.

One reason the issue has become so pressing is the large and growing number of Americans who have criminal records — and the evidence that many of those Americans are effectively shut out of the job market. According to one 2010 study, 12 million to 14 million people had felony convictions in 2008, about half of whom spent time in prison.3 The National Employment Law Project estimates that 70 million people — a quarter of U.S. adults — have an arrest history that can show up on a background check, whether or not they were convicted. Ex-offenders are disproportionately poor, less educated and black or Hispanic — groups that often struggle to find work even without criminal records. The slow economic recovery has made it even harder.

What do you think?  Would you vote for Prop 47?  Do you have a similar or related ballot measure on your table right now?

Happy vote day, everyone.


November 4, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root

In a recent report, Richard Rothstein, an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) Research Associate, "showed that government actions such as racially explicit zoning, public housing segregation, and federal requirements for white-only suburbs systematically segregated African Americans—and set the stage for the protests and racial tension following Michael Brown’s death."

On Thursday, November 13 at 11:00 a.m. ET, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) will host a forum that continues to examine policies that led to the events in Ferguson. Rothstein and Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF Director-Counsel, will "discuss how a century of purposeful federal, state, and local policy to segregate the St. Louis metropolitan area by race was at the root of the events in Ferguson. They will also detail how these policies were not unique to Ferguson and St. Louis, but national in application."

This event is open to the public.  Register here for the DC event or tune in here next week for a live webcast.

October 31, 2014 in News | Permalink | Comments (0)