Tag Archives: california

What parts of congress to watch

One of the most fascinating moments in Sunday’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was this exchange, concerning the checks and balances that glue together our federal government:

CLINTON: Well, here we go again. I’ve been in favor of getting rid of carried interest for years, starting when I was a senator from New York. But that’s not the point here.

TRUMP: Why didn’t you do it? Why didn’t you do it?


CLINTON: Because I was a senator with a Republican president.

TRUMP: Oh, really?

CLINTON: I will be the president and we will get it done. That’s exactly right.

TRUMP: You could have done it, if you were an effective — if you were an effective senator, you could have done it. If you were an effective senator, you could have done it. But you were not an effective senator.


CLINTON: You know, under our Constitution, presidents have something called veto power. Look, he has now said repeatedly, “30 years this and 30 years that.” So let me talk about my 30 years in public service. I’m very glad to do so.

It gives us a stark contrast between the two of them, and their comparatively normative political approach and Jacksonian strongman theory of politics respectively. But it also serves as a reminder that try as they might neither candidate would really be capable of governing alone. They’re not running for a dictatorial position, just a key linchpin in a bigger political system. So, who else should we watch in the coming weeks?


The Democrats face a steeper climb than the Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, given that they have to make up for lost seats from the 2014 midterm election and consolidate large enough supermajorities to overcome procedural blocks – namely the Senate’s filibuster.

Luckily for them, however, in several Republican-held seats they now can run something of a double-hitter against those GOP incumbents. Several Republican-run state governments have been embroiled in serious scandals or become nationally embarrassing over the course of the same election year as the national nomination of Donald Trump for president. Republican-leaning voters are in many corners of the country divided as to which candidates to support. What’s more, the competition between national figures within the Party has left many of them with contradictory queues in terms of how to vote.

These dynamics play out in similar ways in various parts of the country. In Kansas, there’s Governor Brownback’s Republican state administration which has bankrupted basic state services. In Michigan, it’s that Governor Rick Snyder (R) is implicated in mass water contamination. Likewise, in Maine Republican governor Paul LePage seemingly says a new outrageous thing each day.

In four, key, Republican-held congressional districts in those states, the GOP has a slight advantage given that most voters are White and suburban-dwelling, but the compounded scandals have chipped away at their lead. The effect has made KS-02, MI-06, MI-07, and ME-02 all unexpectedly more competitive than originally perceived because of how toxic the Republican Party has become in those places.


I wrote quite a bit about this dynamic often overlooked in the national press in the last presidential cycle, in 2012. As national politics are coalesced around a pluralistic and urban Democratic Party and a nationalistic and rural Republican Party, the electoral map in California has fallen into a predictable pattern of by and large a blue coast and a red interior. With more congressional districts than any other state, it’s both a block of vital votes in the House that can’t be ignored and something of a microcosm of national political trajectories. When a party does well nationally that blue-red divide tends to shift within California locally.

In 2012, that meant a consolidation of the coast as almost entirely Democrat-held and an expansion into more contested seats right along the dividing line. Two of the districts I covered specifically in that year seem relevant again, with Democrat Ami Bera in CA-07 yet again desperately trying to maintain a blue outpost deep within redder territory and Republican Jeff Denham in CA-10 likewise trying to stave off the steady march of Democrats from the sea to the Sierras.

Further south, however, three other races seem to present interesting tests of this red-blue competition as well. In CA-24, along the southern central coast, Democrat Lois Capps is stepping down, leaving an open seat in one of the more White, rural, and centrist portions of the coast. That poses a question of just how durable Democratic holds on the coast necessarily are.

Meanwhile, in CA-25, Republican Stephen Knight is the last congressional GOP office-holder in any part of Los Angeles county. In a district that is now majority minority, his reelection bid cuts to the core problems faced by elected Republicans – both in California and nationally. Finally, in CA-49, Republican Darryl Issa is running to keep one of the few remaining coastal outposts of the California Republican Party. Can he keep it? Or has an endorsement of Donald Trump been too much even for him?


Even with those and other districts in which scandals and demographic transitions give Democrats at least a fighting chance, more seats must flip to change party dominance in Congress. If this proves to be a wave year, and it may very well be, there’s scattered rural districts around the country which seem poised to jump – but it’s not clear in what direction. Angry at an increasingly wide cultural gap and less enthused given the particularly anemic economic recovery, voters in these places seem ready to sabotage the Republican Party by going for Trump, but also ripe for a Sanders-style democratic socialism.

In PA-16 and VA-05, Republican lawmakers may have set themselves up for failure under these types of electoral conditions. Both are suburban-rural and White majority districts, designed to help boost the number of Republican-held districts in their states overall. That type of electoral math has great dividends when the electorate remains predictable, but populist sentiment has prompted voters to behave in ways that many party elites found baffling. While both districts are Republican-leaning, their current GOP representatives are not seeking reelection, adding yet another dose of unpredictability.

Many of those same underlying conditions rear their head in NH-01, but there’s an additional surreal flavor. Arguably one of the most unstable districts in the country, it’s alternated between Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta as representatives since 2006. In the past few election cycles, neither has held it for more than one of the congressional terms (which only last two years). They’re the two major party candidates this year once again. While the district leans right, and with a more rural and White composition it feels quite Republican, Shea-Porter has historically won it each recent year there’s been a presidential race. This election will test that pattern.

Among these types of districts, NY-19 stands out as defined less by dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and attraction to a type of political agitation more at home among the Democrats. It noticeably has more consistently leaned to the left of these other districts in both national and local races. This year, Zephyr Teachout who previously ran to the left of Andrew Cuomo for New York Governor, will try to capture the Hudson Valley area seat by running a Sanders-type Democratic campaign emphasizing economic equality and opportunity. Combined with yet another Republican incumbent not up for election, this is yet another test about how the Democratic Party might be able to reclaim support ceded for many decades to cross-over vote to the Republicans.


You’ll note, that all of these places to look at are congressional districts, not Senate seats, like what Clinton held. That’s because the Senate seems to be approaching heat death. For months now, the most likely outcome of the Senate races has appeared to be a deadlocked 50-50 division, with the Vice President casting the tie-breaking vote. So much for looking back to the house for an answer to where policy comes from. Maybe it’s buried in a classically overlooked spot on the Presidential ticket.

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Sanders’ lost opportunity in appealing to California

As Hillary Clinton’s delegate count creeps towards a hard fought win, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has increasingly hung their hopes on one state alone – California. It might seem like a curious choice. Racially diverse and a part of the Democrats “blue wall,” California seems more comparable to Illinois, New York, or Pennsylvania – all states Hillary Clinton won. Sanders’ support has largely come from more predominantly White states, both within and outside of typical “blue states” with his wins admittedly coming from places as socially different as Oregon and West Virginia.

In spite of breaking the pattern so far, there’s a certain logic to it, particularly if Sanders returned to the rhetoric he used when first launching his campaign. California was initially touted by many as a success story for the implementation of Obamacare, but the longer term frustrations with putting it in place have created an untapped political market in the state that could be decisive if addressed well.

Like all states, California’s experience with Obama-era health care reform boils down to effectively three big picture changes:

  • Health care providers and health insurance companies face greater obligations to their patients and customers, but in exchange those customers are required to have coverage.
  • In order to help people who would have trouble paying for that coverage, medicaid and other assistance programs are given greater resources and more people are deemed to qualify for their assistance.
  • In order to make accessing and assessing insurance plans easier for everyone who can pay for that coverage, those plans will be helpfully listed on online-accessible exchanges.

That seems simple enough, right? At first, California avoided most of the pitfalls and hangups that other states experienced with putting together those initiatives – the state didn’t drag its feet to expand Medi-Cal or leave it to the federal government to build the online exchange’s website. The system worked. The public health care available was enough of a carrot and the threat of a tax penalty for lacking coverage was enough of a stick, and so in 2014’s open enrollment alone 1.9 million people applied for coverage through Medi-Cal and 1.3 million people purchased insurance through the exchanges.

Hopefully you noticed the discrepancy there. People too poor to afford insurance asked the state to provide it for them, and waited a decision. People with enough wealth to buy it bought and had it, end of story. This wasn’t an abstract demonstration of class inequality. This was about access to health insurance, at times to cover chronic or vital health problems. People died from lack of care while the wait list ballooned into the thousands.

Worse yet, the exchanges and Medi-Cal application system – although tied together into one system – would permit people to apply for Medi-Cal, and only that program, if they met the income standards to do so (see answer 9). Lower income people were literally obligated to wait, and denied access to expensive care in the name of protecting them from the cost. Meanwhile, the question of whether they would be liable under the tax penalties for lacking coverage while waiting for an answer from the state remained hanging in the air.

For all its horrifying flaws, with court rulings and administrative decisions this privatized public health insurance model has seen some improvement. Many Californians do, at the end of the day, want to retain the Covered California system, but there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that could stand to hear some talk about how to shake up the system for the better. Looking at the numbers of applicants and enrolled, as a raw number it’s probably a bigger one that is open to criticism of it, even while wanting the system to exist in some form. That’s a tricky place to articulate, where we need this public system but with different ideas underpinning it, but whoever describes it first could become surprisingly popular in California.

Bernie Sanders seemed prepared to be that candidate and speak in that way towards the beginning of the primary campaign. His messages on how he envisions health care policy still speak to many of the fundamental problems a “success story” like California has seen under Obamacare. Health care, under the PPACA, has not become an essential human right that the state must guarantee, but only a public good it will guarantee you if you demonstrate adequate need. The practical application of that – that by the thousands people have to wait for that assessment to occur – is a nightmarish reversal of any talk about inalienable rights, which the Sanders campaign continues to use. In short, the implication in some of Sanders’ statements, that he would reduce or even dismantle the application process for publically-provided health care, taps into the precise flaws and frustrations with the system as is in a place like California.

But, as of now, those have stayed just implications. To be frank, it’s unclear how much any president can or would be able to shape a redesigned ACA that would address that problem. Sanders might actually have a greater ability to champion that within the legislature, and to the extent that he has, could rely on replaying clips of that in a last minute ad blitz in California. He has less than a fortnight for that now. Can he pivot back to that discussion and articulate this nuanced point about a flaw within a means-tested public health care system? It might already be too little and too late.

The featured image for this article is of the California State Senate Chamber in Sacramento, California.

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Genocide, Global Warming, and Garland

Dramatic announcements abounded this week, suggesting what issues to watch in the coming days.

Da’esh declared genocidal

On Monday, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that declared that the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities in parts of Syria and Iraq occupied by the Islamic State was genocidal. Several Christian advocacy groups, with varying relationships with the region, have taken this as something of a political victory, although the ramifications remain unclear – genocide is a crime, and there now exists a complex set of international courts designed to evaluate allegations of it.

As one interesting essay published by the Centre for Research on Globalization on this issue noted-

Using the word can itself be a moral assertion, and with that assertion comes the requisite action.  At least this is the theory – words generate expectations and the need for a physical component. Designating a conflict as genocidal triggers a range of obligations, as implied by the Genocide Convention itself.  The lawyers have to be mobilised; the police and military arms of the state must be readied for capturing the offenders, and more importantly, the imperative to take humanitarian measures might involve the use of armed force.

In short, it is telling that the clearest stipulation in the measure is that political figures “should call ISIL atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” When it comes to actually responding to the reality of the violence it only vaguely suggests that “member states of the United Nations should coordinate urgently on measures to prevent further war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq and Syria.” The language seems to suggest that both peacekeeping and international court activity are possible as a response, but this is only one stop in a longer conversation about what the US and and should do in the region.

California’s starting to hint at a carbon-neutral economy to come

After years of negative predictions about the Californian economy and expectations that economic alternatives capable of mitigating climate change come from English cities with names like Grimsby, Mother Jones has taken an in depth look at the emerging carbon-neutral economy in the state:

The sun bears down almost every day, and as the valley floor heats up, it pulls air across the Tehachapi Mountains, driving the blades on towering wind turbines. For nearly eight years, money for renewable energy has been pouring in. About seven miles north of Solar Star, where sand-colored hills rise out of the desert, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has built 126 wind turbines. French power company EDF has 330 turbines nestled in the same hills. Farther north, the Alta Wind Energy Center has an estimated 600 turbines. Together, these and other companies have spent more than $28 billion on land, equipment, and the thousands of workers needed to construct renewable-energy plants in Kern County. This new economy has created more than 1,300 permanent jobs in the region. It has also created a bonanza of more than $50 million in additional property taxes a year—about 11 percent of Kern County’s total tax haul. Lorelei Oviatt, the director of planning and community development, says, “This is money we never expected.”

What’s more, the things that made the Californian economy such a nice target of criticism were basically what made this possible:

“You need the coercive power of government,” he told the crowd. One of the reasons why California’s utilities already get so much of their power from renewables, he said, was because “they have no choice. The government said, ‘Do it, or you’re going to pay huge fines.'” Brown likes to upend the standard argument about government regulation gumming up innovation. To him, it’s the opposite: Regulations push businesses to try new things.

How about that? The full article warns that the state’s regulatory bodies anticipate setting even more ambitious goals for the next decades, which it remains to be seen if California can meet.

Garland’s shoe-in

A cavalcade of House Republicans have accidentally opened up that they might bother to confirm Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The catch is that they are willing to do that provided the Democratic nominee wins in the general election in November, accepting the more moderate and older Garland over a hypothetical younger radical. Garland’s nomination on March 16 would then wait until November 8 at the earliest for confirmation or rejection. That “best case” would weigh in at a 236 day wait – easily a record in US history.

2016-03-18_1458(The most recent nominations, from here.)

In fact, the only nomination to that office that was more than half that amount of time was Louis Brandeis’ which clocked in at 125 days. His was tied up in part because of his connection to many then radically progressive causes, exacerbated by the fact that, as one fellow Justice put it, “the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

Garland, since he is also Jewish, wouldn’t be a similar first for the court, and actually was selected as an alternative to one – Sri Srinivasan, who would have been the first Hindu nominee. Likewise, although comparatively liberal in contrast to the Justice he would replace, he is in no way intimately tied to today’s radical causes – his primary work has been in fairly normal prosecutor duties related to terrorism. Will Republicans really wait that long to make the choice they expect they’ll have to make anyway?

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Push and pull

There’s been a lot of strange back-and-forths in the news this week. Here’s a short list of some interesting forms of that which I saw crop up in the past couple days.

From Sanders to Clinton, yet again

I’ve written here before about one of the key dynamics in the current Democratic presidential primary being how further left critics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have nudged her into adopting more liberal policy proposals. With Clinton largely holding her own on issues of social justice, the main part of that has been on economic policy. Most obviously, sitting Vermont Senator and fellow candidate Bernie Sanders has effectively pushed Clinton into adopting similar platforms to him on the availability of higher education.

That said, similar efforts to promote unionization and financial industry regulation haven’t (yet?) become shared policy ideas between Sanders and Clinton. On Tuesday, the Campaign for America’s Future asked if one of the most recent iterations of those economic politics from the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party might be picked up by Clinton. In this case, it’s a repeal of a “performance pay” tax exemption for larger companies in order to pay for cost of living adjustments for Social Security recipients. Fresh from having failed to assure a number of people that she wants to protect Social Security in the long term, Clinton might need to pick this battle, unless she wants to write off a large chunk of the Democratic primary vote.

The Keystone Pipeline is dead! Long live the Keystone Pipeline!

Recently, the proposal to build a new pipeline from Canada to shipping areas in the southern US was officially rejected by the Obama administration. The company that has been seeking the pipeline’s construction for years now thinks they might have another Clinton-economics-related shot at getting it done in spite of that though: NAFTA. As the Hill put it, they “could ask a tribunal to mandate compensation from the United States for rejecting the pipeline, or even require that the project be approved.” With the possibility of the Trans-Pacific Partnership looming in our future, it seems important to note how its smaller, weaker predecessor allows business interests to challenge and even overrule the decisions of a democratically-elected government.

Who will survive in America?

One of the criticisms of the Keystone Pipeline, is the displacement that it already has begun to cause within certain rural communities. Unfortunately, that upheaval is hardly unique to that specific part of the US, as artist and astrophysicist Nia Imara documented in her recent photography project about gentrification in Oakland. The East Bay Express published earlier this week a short but intriguing look into her process and relationship with the community while creating her work.

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The local electoral grab bag

If you switched on the television this morning you probably saw some reporting on the results of the battery of local elections held yesterday. At least in my neck of the media woods, there’s a pretty narrow focus within that – on the Democratic loss of the Kentucky governorship to a Republican.

That story has everything. There’s the glacial pace of party realignment, with the South steadily converting from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican even at the state-level. Entangled with that is the convoluted history of Kentucky itself, the famously neutral state in the Civil War. If you want to say or write something that, instead of being deeply historied, makes this a dramatic reversal there’s something to draw on there as well – as the predictions remarkably reversed at more or less the last minute. Suddenly, Republican Matt Bevin overtook Democrat Jack Conway in what was ultimately revealed to not be a fluke poll but an accurate prediction. That race and its results are rich in narratives and national meaning.

Let’s look a little more broadly though. Here’s some interesting things that happened last night that are going a little under-noticed compared to that one race.

Ohioan Redistricting: don’t hold your breath

Ohio voters roundly supported Issue 1, giving it 71 percent support at the ballot box. The proposition overhauls Ohio’s districting system for its state legislature, which arguably has served as the gerrymandering model for Republicans around the country. In spite of a very narrow preference for Democratic candidates as an entire state, the internal boundaries have been carefully drawn (some argue for more than two decades) to pack Democratic-leaning areas into a few districts, allowing Republicans to be numerically over-represented in the state legislature. Issue 1 is designed to encourage less partisan district maps by forcing the panel that creates the maps to have more members of both major parties and to require more frequent votes to maps passed without support from both parties.

Many aren’t particularly impressed with the new system this sets up, however. Arguably many of the current Democratic representatives have a personal investment in the broken system, since the Democratic “sink” districts are incredibly safe seats for them to hold. Only one of them needs to accept a Republican-biased proposal to make the results “bipartisan” defeating the whole point of the measure. Besides that, even if the Democrats remain firm, the Republicans can arguably retain the existing map or a similarly favorable one with the more regular votes indefinitely. Either way, we’re back to square one with a gerrymandered Ohioan legislature.

Stephen Wolf at DailyKos noted that the fundamental problem here is party involvement. Increasing the diversity of party involvement in planning these maps isn’t really a solution. He pointed instead to Arizona as a model for dismantling a gerrymandered map, saying:

The biggest risk with this proposed commission is that it will destroy any appetite for further redistricting reform among Democrats and reform-minded independent organizations, just as flawed redistricting reform measures have done in other states. At best, it might just induce reformers to include Congress under the same bipartisan process as the legislature, leading to maps that, while not as aggressive as the current Republican gerrymander, would still have a clear rightward lean.

A far more ideal solution is to establish a truly independent redistricting commission free of self-interested political officeholders. Arizona did this very thing, producing a commission reformers regarded highly. After a crucial United States Supreme Court ruling validated establishing redistricting commissions by initiative, there has been a renewed push for similar reforms in other ballot measure states. It’s quite possible that renewed independent reform efforts spurred Republicans’ desire in Ohio to block a more aggressive future reform by agreeing to Issue 1 now.

The next few years will show if Ohioans can capitalize on these changes. Maybe this can be the start of a more systemic reform, but if commentators like Wolf are to be believed, that’s not likely.

Pennsylvania Swept, Republicans Wept

Amid the decline of the Democratic Party in Kentucky, there’s some bright news from the other end of northern Appalachia. Pennsylvania has been swept in an off-year election by Democrats. The bulk of the positions up for election were judicial, which in Pennsylvania have as of late been held by Republicans, and been a key part of the Republican policy control in the left-leaning state. Yesterday, for the first time since 2007, Pennsylvania voters elected a Democratic candidate to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (more or less an appellate state court), and likewise changed their state Supreme Court into a majority Democrat body.

While those were statewide elections that indicate the political temperature of Pennsylvania is shifting bluer, the mayoral election in Philadelphia indicates how the already Democratic-leaning portions of the state are moving. The Republican candidate, Melissa Bailey, lost to Democrat James Kenney by a 72 point margin. You read that right – the Democratic candidate got 85 percent of the vote to the Republican’s thirteen.

Others have previously pointed out that Republicans tend to regularly sink resources into fights they can’t win in Pennsylvania, but this indicates how out-of-reach the state has really become for their party. The state as a whole is becoming harder to win in the local, off-year elections that are supposed to be Republicans’ high water mark, and they’re barely a second party in some parts of the state. Pennsylvania may be becoming the Atlantic California.

Houston: The Arc of Justice… can double back

Trigger warning: transmisogyny, heterosexism, cissexism

There’s been some national attention on the election in Houston which changed the city policy on discrimination against LGBT people, but my impression is frankly that it’s being mischaracterized. For instance, here’s how the Texas Tribune explained the vote in one of the most widely circulated pieces on the issue:

Houston voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected an ordinance that would have established protections from discrimination for gay and transgender residents and several other classes. With 95 percent of votes counted, 61 percent of voters opposed the measure. The embattled ordinance, better known as HERO, would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The article, to its credit, does correctly go on to describe the deeply transmisogynistic rhetoric that was successfully used to create a public rejection of the ordinance. It also ultimately notes briefly that the ordinance was already in place following a 2014 vote by city officials, a bit of a different situation than implied to exist in the above description. This wasn’t legal protections and rights for LGBT people (among others) not be extended, it was them being rescinded. Combined with the on-going insult that particularly the rights and recognition of LGBT people is something to be put to a plebiscite, this flies in the face of many triumphalist narratives being pushed currently about LGBT rights.

The nation’s fourth largest city just rolled back the rights of LGBT people, and particularly indicated that transgender women can’t feel safe in public in it. This echoes some of the most painful parts of the now closing fight for marriage equality that many seem to want to forget today. Marriages were nullified. The availability of marriage was revoked. Among other important things obscured in the hazy glow of Obergefell is this: things can move backwards. Rights awarded are rights that can be withdrawn.

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Broader skepticism

With the surprisingly emergence of a bipartisan budget agreement in the House of Representatives and the on-going flashy presidential race, it seems that the familiar retread of anti-abortion activists fight against Planned Parenthood has fallen off of most people’s radar. Somewhat shockingly, this has happened while violent rhetoric coalesced into attacks at various Planned Parenthood locations – most recently, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Washington. According to many, those incidents have largely been treated as low-priority local stories by national print and television journalists. The little coverage that has happened on that scale has also missed the forest for the trees, discussing one or only a few of the incidents as totally encapsulated, independent events. The primary exception has been Rachel Maddow, who has a history of focusing on patterns of violence, particularly against vulnerable groups.

The implicit set of priorities revealed by this coverage – that violence oriented towards particularly low-income women and transgender people and denial of their medical needs are more local, less of a cause of nationwide concern – doesn’t seem unique to major media. The campaign to defund Planned Parenthood at the (largely Republican-controlled) state level led to several states quickly passing new budgets and legal standards that pulled funding for Planned Parenthood. Texas, however, has not quite yet joined them, although sitting Governor Greg Abbott has announced his intent to defund the organization. Amid that, a representative for the Texas Office of Inspector General appeared at the Dallas Planned Parenthood with subpoenas for five years of medical records for ten different facilities scattered across Texas. The requests have all the hallmarks of the purposefully burdensome regulatory regime long hoisted on Planned Parenthood facilities in many parts of the United States.

texas protest abortionA woman holding a sign saying “Rural Texas women deserve choices” in Austin, Texas, 2013, from here.

The timing is obscured by the lack of coverage, but it still seems jarringly illogical. In the middle of a wave of anti-abortion violence, thankfully non-lethal so far, Texas officials have made it clear that their scrutiny will remain tightly fixed on Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, rather than the various groups threatening them. That not only speaks volumes about what many people “count” as violence or as threatening, but also warns that public awareness of the issue and political policy are being profoundly informed by a skewed understanding of the situation. Hopefully, any regular reader of this blog is by no means a stranger to the unrealness of political ideas in the United States, but this demonstrates how an entire social and political system has built up around that Potemkin village of imagined dangers and dismissed threats.

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STEM: too few positions, too few applicants?

It’s become a cliché that news articles can brush off, but STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as a set of tightly interrelated fields) has received a long list of praises from almost every level of government and other type of authority in the US. In spite of the largely positive coverage, many critics have noted that how people talk about and seek to affect the STEM fields is often divorced from the reality that there are more than enough people capable of working in those fields (globally or nationally) and that the perceived scarcity of STEM-trained workers is maybe deliberately created to encourage certain policy ends.

Part of what seems desirable to many STEM companies is a basic outcome of supply and demand – creating a vast supply of STEM workers is of great use to those hiring in that field, in that they get their pick among them. What STEM companies need isn’t more workers trained in new technologies or otherwise more directly useful to them as workers. Rather, what they want is an even more cutthroat competition for those types of jobs, leading to applicants accepting lower wages, fewer benefits, and longer hours. Encouraging new visa policies only further intensifies the power inequalities in STEM workplaces, giving companies even more options, and increasing the number of workers whose residency status and employment are directly related.

Some new information has come to light that calls into question those dynamics. A recent report on STEM in early education by the California division of The Education Trust found that many students of color and lower income students in the diverse state have limited and lower quality opportunities to learn basic STEM concepts. While in the economy at large STEM workers are steadily becoming a less rare and hence valuable commodity, STEM teaching in California public schools faced a hiring shortfall of 199 teachers for the 2013-2014 school year. That may sound small, but that gap between needed and available STEM teachers “likely affected about 28,000 California students” and seems to be one of the key components in the racial and class-related gaps in education.

2015-10-19_1552From the report’s accompanying infographic, available here.

At first it may seem strange that STEM-trained workers simultaneously outstrip available jobs and are chronically unavailable for key positions. In some ways, however, this may regrettably reflect the cultural values encouraged in STEM fields. As most of the praise for STEM makes clear, it is seen as inherently marketable or otherwise tied to a life of security if not prosperity. Stereotypes of STEM workers – as at best socially awkward and at worst actively antisocial – are a sometimes loving and sometimes critical reflection of that assessment. They’re supposedly good with figures and money, not with people.

Recent actions within the tech industry make that seem at times intimately connected to a libertarian disdain for the public sector and a patronizing approach towards those who don’t own a company. From my parents working in STEM themselves, I have run into more than a few people who seemed intent on demonstrating that stereotype, including one who kept a (Jesus Camp style) life-size cutout of President Bush in his office well into the Obama years. There’s a blurry line between being better with code than people and actually caring more about your business than your communities. STEM seems to either attract or encourage a sizable number of people who regularly mix those personalities and politics together.

If we think of STEM as something of a subculture, the impression of many seems to be that it’s a space where a certain type of student and eventual worker is expected and others aren’t. There are racial and gendered dimensions of that, but it also leads to an anticipation that STEM workers will work primarily in non-service sectors, and largely in the private sector as well. Schools, especially underfunded public schools full of younger kids, are thought of as basically the last place a STEM worker would want to be. Potentially as a result of that, our society has created a generation of STEM workers who at an even higher rate than other potential teachers, avoid those types of jobs.

I spoke recently about this issue with a friend, herself a part-time teacher in an after-school educational environment that focuses on engineering and computer science skills. She had a number of thoughts on the issue, expressing a dissatisfaction with both the cultural norms within STEM as well as the broader education system. As someone who works at the intersection between the two, she surprised me by frankly calling them in some sense “incompatible”. She made clear that she loves her students, but thought of the work that goes into helping them as literally a “sacrifice” in spite of the culture surrounding what she was teaching her students being, in her words, “self aggrandizing”.

While she mentioned the on-going problem of low pay in education, she also seemed to note that the nature of the different types of work available to STEM-trained workers contributes to this. What seemed clear to her was the the economically devaluing of teaching younger students went hand-in-hand with the labor’s characterization as self abnegating and even feminine. Recognizing that, she said that the paucity of that type of teachers in the STEM fields probably “won’t change until there’s more women [in STEM].” Efforts to diversify STEM are widely understood as improving the lots of the many groups largely shut out of those growing industries, but it seems like it would also improve the lot of STEM itself, by ultimately challenging some common expectations about what STEM can be used for.


The featured image is from the US Naval Academy’s atomic fingerprinting workshop, more information here.

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An upcoming event

Trigger warning: anti-lesbian heterosexism, sexism, assistive reproductive technology

For all the jokes (and fears) about California state law being at the forefront of inclusivity towards LGBT people and specifically the recognition of LGBT parents, there’s been a dark history carried from the heart of the 1980s and 1990s “lavender baby boom” within LGBT communities into present day. Laws on sperm donation still specifically restrict parental rights to only biological parents with the exception for the husband (that word is specifically used) of a married woman who conceives with donated sperm. That policy and language remains law, but perhaps not for long.

California’s General Assembly already passed a new law earlier this year which seeks to dramatically improve state law on this issue, which made its way through committee and was passed by the California State Senate earlier this month. Activists and LGBT community members are holding tomorrow a mix of press conference and celebration of the hopefully soon-to-be-signed-into-law bill, which is now making its way to the governor. I will be among them, and livetweeting about the event which starts at 9 am Pacific this Wednesday. Tune into twitter to follow along. If you can join the event in person it will be on the steps of the Earl Warren Court in San Francisco, near the Civic Center Plaza.

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Twitter Livecast

It’s been a while since I’ve liveblogged much of anything, and I’m going to hop back into that with a bit of an experiment. I’m going to try out my new phone’s twitter mobile by combining a liveblog with some local politics. The Alternative Night Out, put on by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and affiliated with the #SafetyIs campaign will be held tomorrow night 5 to 8 in Oakland, at the Lake Merrit Amphitheater. I’ll be there, noting away what the ambitious event, which will in part be about “collectively developing alternatives” to the policing and security politics reinforced by the national Night Out, at which police and their local communities meet and coordinate.

As always, you can follow my reactions to, thoughts about, and descriptions of the event here, on my twitter.

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42: not the answer to life, the universe, and everything

There’s been very little coverage of California’s Proposition 42, which many voters have already voted for or against (or ignored) on their mail-in ballots and which many more will vote on, on June 3.  Both locally and nationally, this small but significant tinkering with local government accountability has largely gone unmentioned, leaving it to mostly pro-42 groups to promote it in a frankly pretty shallow way. There’s the expected glossy description from the official website for passing the proposition, which appears to have the same hosting company as this baffling site. Beyond that sort of expected oddness, there’s only been the occasional editorial in favor of it, most noticeably from a local paper and an online news source. The latter in particular, an overtly libertarian-leaning outfit, reveals a lot of the subtle politics at play.

That piece cuts to the heart of the matter, while acknowledging that it doesn’t actually change current laws about what information local governments have to provide so much as the means by which they can inform the public:

“At the root of of the disconnect between California’s ambitious open information laws and their practical application is that fact that local agencies don’t always have to comply with the laws if they’re not being reimbursed for doing so. In the current climate of budgetary belt-tightening, this can effectively block public access to government records. [… Proposition 42 resolves that] by eliminating the requirement that the state reimburse local governments and agencies for complying with records requests or public meeting information.”

Instead of considering that this will result in already tight county budgets suddenly becoming even more inadequate, the article paints a rosy picture of near-inevitable results:

“If you’re still awake, you might be wondering where the money will come from. And that is where this humble little proposition gets interesting. If 42 passes, and current polling indicates that it will, it will create an incentive for governments at all levels to preempt freedom of information requests and the costs of responding by simply publishing their data online. ‘It would be a lot cheaper to release public information as data, rather than have someone at City Hall processing these requests and eventually Xeroxing swaths of information,’ says Robb Korinke of Grassroots Lab, a public affairs firm that is supporting the measure.”

In other words, unlike the prior attempt at dismantling requests for information that resulted in an outcry from many media outlets, this one will ostensibly result in at least some counties using this sort of high-tech solution to the problem. The solution is being touted as a cheap one, but for whom? Even assuming this doesn’t majorly impact the finances of counties (who pay for large numbers of staff to provide educational, medical, and social services to their residents in the state), who is going to have the time and resources to dig through websites? Remember, this is information that supposedly counties don’t want to provide people with – it being online doesn’t necessarily mean easily and transparently accessible on a website that makes clear what information it contains. Information can and (assuming there’s an interest in hiding it) probably will be as hidden in plain sight as possible.

(Open data begs the question of – open to whom? Image from here.)

The fact is that this specific proposal is designed to make it easy for people with a lot of free time and technology on their hands (or who look through public records for their job) to find stuff. It’s overtly not designed with a person who, for example, works in a non-technological field for most of their day and doesn’t own (for any number of reasons, most obviously cost) a personal computer. Lugging themselves down to their local library after a shift is probably easier than attempting to wrangle all the forms needed to request information, but keep in mind that this is all being done at the risk of the social services many people like that depend on. It might make the information easier for everyone to find, but it’s going to make having the time and resources to access it potentially much harder for some.

The local news article contained an admission of sorts about how wrong-headed this approach to the system is. It notes that “it costs more time and energy to file the paperwork for reimbursement than what an agency typically gets back” and that “there are so many rules and regulations to meet the qualifications for reimbursement that there wouldn’t be much at stake in the end if the option were to be taken away.” In other words, the system is definitely broken, and our solution is to cut funding further. What’s not being considered is a new state law to separately fund a drive to put as much information online as possible or to generally improve the reimbursement system or ideally both.

Tellingly, the article notes that as a result of “financial difficulty, the state hasn’t always been able to pay in a timely matter or at all, thereby giving these agencies reason not to comply with such laws”. To be blunt, what financial difficulty? California is flush with cash at the moment. Now is precisely the time to create a fund for a specified and separate online program in addition to existing programs that create ways for people to get information online. Or to hire a group of people to reexamine the reimbursement system. Or otherwise pay with the funds we have to strengthen a culture of accountability (which, hopefully, will mean continued prosperity). None of those alternatives have been even remotely explored or even acknowledged by the few people talking about this. Instead, we’ve gotten glowing reviews of the proposition from the tech-oriented libertarians and professional journalists who would stand to benefit the most from this law and risk the least.

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UC Davis meetings reveals conflicts surrounding agritourism

TW: abilism

Californian Assemblymember Mariko Yamada along with several other assembleymembers presided over an informational hearing about agricultural tourism at UC Davis yesterday, with testimony provided by university staff, local farmers, and county officials. Shermain Hardesty, a university cooperative extension specialist, opened the meeting with an explanation of how “agritourism” could help create ties between farmers and other Californians. Specifically, she expressed a hope that urban residents could participate in agritourism in order to gain an “appreciation of what a farmer is going through to produce these crops and the food for them.”

olive trees
(An olive grove and agritourism destination in Oak Glen, in Southern California, from here.)

Later speakers and public comments supported the possibility of agritourism strengthening relationships between agricultural workers and others, but also expressed how agritourism created or worsened disagreements within rural communities. Penny Leff, an agritourism coordinator with UC Davis, was the immediately following speaker, who spoke almost exclusively to how agritourism businesses often struggle with existing regulations. She drew attention to a 2009 survey of 332 agritourism operations, whose owners pointed to “regulations and legal constraints” as their main obstacle to running their existing businesses.

More specifically, she noted that zoning laws and building codes are rarely written with agritourism in mind. She explained that many farmers and ranchers stand to benefit from new legal definitions which would “include some of the low-impact visitor services as a part of their operation”. These zoning and coding laws and regulations are the outcome of “each county’s planning department legitimately trying to protect agriculture.” Their narrow definition of that, however, has produced “strict zoning regulations that prohibit a lot.”

Liability laws and insurance policies are similarly designed for different industries, according to Leff. She pointed to a few states where an agritourism-specific liability law has been passed which “allows a farmer or rancher to usually register somewhere, post a sign that the farmer or rancher is not liable for things that happen out of their control.” Within California, Leff noted that similar provisions exist at the county level in California in Butte, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties particularly.

One local farmer, Chris Turkovich, spoke about how contradictory and confusing regulations made it difficult for his family’s farm to upgrade and improve its facilities with energy efficient and environmentally friendly products and processes. He noted that those outdated policies are “disincentivizing younger, newer, and smaller farmers, because of the burden and overhead cost to getting projects like these off the ground”. That sentiment that many younger farmers in particular are interested in better state and county support for agritourism was later echoed by other members of the public that came forward to speak.

Supporting agritourism in typically rural areas was discussed as not only requiring a revisiting of zoning, coding, and liability standards, but improving and expanding rural roads. Noelle Cremmers, a director at the California Farm Bureau Federation, explained that agritourism carries with it the risk of allowing tourism to come into rural communities and either impact them negatively or stretch their services beyond their limits. Cremmers explained, “If you have a three-acre parcel and you are having weddings and you regularly have a significant amount of traffic, that could impact your neighbor.”

Michelle Stephens, the “farmbudsman” for both Yolo and Solano counties, likewise echoed that point about agritourism stressing underinvested rural roads. She explained, “a less discussed component of agritourism is the rural roadways” which are “often the only thoroughfares that lead to the farms, and are commonly cited by neighbors as unsafe and a reason not to allow agritourism activities in rural areas.” Stephens additionally called for more positions that like hers to be created, to guide farmers through regulations. She also argued, however, for a critical approach towards rethinking how agricultural and rural businesses could comply with regulations written with urban businesses in mind.

Assemblymember Brian Dahle, one of the other assembleymembers in attendance, expressed appreciation for Stephens testimony, but seemed to politely disagree. He explained, “I live 75 miles away from a Walmart, to give you an idea of how rural my area is. Now, half the people there want growth, that’s usually the storefronts, the realtors. And then the other half would just like it to stay the way it is.” He added, “We want to be left alone by the agencies and everyone else.”

“Decisions have to be made with planning, and how you’re going to strike the balance between what your community wants your community to look like and how you’re going to continue one with those sorts of practices,” he ultimately explained. When he expressed specific ways that those conflicts often come up, he cited the expectations created by particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA had been previously absent from Stephens’ testimony, both in what specific regulations she referenced and the general scope of her argument. Chris Turkovich and a vineyard-owning speaker, Ann Wofford, had both briefly referenced it, as had Penny Leff who explained it might “inhibit some tours”. The crux of speeches by the various experts on the situations of these businesses had been that improving roads and revisiting regulations, if carefully done, could lead to some benefits. Dahle, a farmer himself, moved the focus of the regulations on to how ADA or environmental regulations could be weapons for petty feuds in rural communities, and reduced roads improvement to an act of intrusion.

One urban farmer from Sacramento, James Brady, declared that the testimonies about the needed changes had, immediately after Dahle’s response, made him “afraid” for how regulations might work against him. The message that many of the speakers had delivered, of agritourism bringing people together, had been soured by what conflicts had been referenced and Dahle’s anti-regulatory concluding note. What had started out as a reason for optimism on the part of agricultural communities, or perhaps a difficult but attainable goal, had been lost in the fray.

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Population determines proportion

In case you haven’t noticed yet, the past few years have seen national US media repeatedly comparing California and Texas, often in ways that are misleading if not outright wrongheaded. One of the key facts in the most recent incarnation of this is this one fact about internal immigration as referenced by Dan Balz in the Washington Post this way:

Nearly a quarter of the new, domestic immigrants to Texas between 2006 and 2012 came from California, which was by far the largest contributor of any state in the nation. Last year, according to the Census Bureau, 63,000 people moved from California to Texas, while 43,000 in Texas moved to California. […] In a recent telephone interview, [president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard] Fisher exclaimed that Texas is “a jobs machine” and noted that Texas has seen an influx of migration from other states — the biggest being from California. “People vote with their feet, and right now they’re voting to come here — from New York and Michigan and California and so on,” he said. “Those are the facts, and one can apply value judgments.”

The reality that more people are moving from California to Texas than from Texas to California is an established fact, which is directly tied to political arguments over which set of the two state’s policies are more popular or leading to more stable and successful populations. But is there possibly any other explanation for the discrepancy between how many people are leaving California, compared to Texas besides that offered by Fisher?

Like, say, the comparative size of those populations? As long as we’re citing the census, let’s note what their most recent 2013 estimates for the number of people living in those states were. California supposedly had about 38 million to Texas’ just shy of 26.5 million. California is the equivalent, in terms of just the number of residents, of about 145 percent of Texas. The number of Californians moving to Texas is 146 percent of the number of Texans moving to California. The population flows are virtually identical to the existing discrepancy between those two states in terms of population. Proportionately, the same percentage of Californians are moving to Texas as Texans are moving to California – the only reason that’s not immediately recognizable is because of how much larger California’s population is.

The way that claim appears to have jumped from the mouth of one of the people interviewed for this story to the actual reporting in the Washington Post without even a cursory exploration of alternative explanations should give you pause, especially if you regularly read that paper. This is precisely what being a stenographer to power looks like – the failure to even conceive that a source could be wrong about or misleading in their use of a statistic.

(See here for an interactive version. The color indicates the state more people are leaving, with the size adjusted to reflect the number of them.)

Chris Walker presented the same sort of proportion-blind data, in an interactive graphic for Vizynary. I suggest checking it out, while keeping in mind that not all of the states shown have equal populations, so the direction of the flow isn’t necessarily an indication of something other than differing populations. It seems notable, however, that combined, Oregon and Washington are receiving more than ten thousand more migrants from California than Texas. In terms of the exist populations that those former Californians are joining, however, that’s a more significant change to the population that’s literally out of proportion. What hasn’t been asked is whether that reflects an interest in gaining the greater degree of economic security, particularly that found in Oregon where gas station laws create a more constant demand for basic service jobs and the lack of a sales tax helps create an impression of lower costs of living.

But discussing that wouldn’t fit a narrative of arguing in favor of business deregulation, now would it?

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Cluelessness abounds – a Dan Savage update

TW: heterosexism, cissexism, racism, coerced sterilization

In case you’ve missed my previous coverage of it, the longstanding problems of heterosexist and cissexist violence in Russia have become pretty apparent to just about everyone, even those who weren’t following the slow change within the LGBT communities of Russia in terms of how visibility and activism were understood and valued. Naturally enough, Dan Savage, with his history of shoddy activist projects, has organized a twitter campaign (#dumpstoli) to respond to the actions of the Russian government, by boycotting a company legally based in Cyprus, effectively centered in Luxembourg, and with its primary production centers in Latvia. Because it has a Russian name and some of its production is still based in Russia. (Funny isn’t it, how Swedish vodka, in spite of all the extreme cissexism in Sweden, isn’t bothering Savage?)

Given that Dan Savage has now taken to posting links to videos like this, we can effectively conclude that much like his racist reaction to the passage of Proposition 8 in California, he’s decided that to be Russian is to be bigoted, as previously he assumed that to be Black was to be bigoted. Because there are never queer people who are also Black or Russian.

(Speaking of terrible politics, his current twitter icon makes clear just how central straight and cisgender allies are to his conception of activism.)

Of course, if you actually talk to just about anyone in Russia, this whole effort seems first farcical in terms of identifying this bizarre boycott as a solution and then patently offensive in that it’s seriously considered as a substitute for actually helpful behavior. Contrary to the pushback I’ve seen peddled on a few parts of the internet (namely that Russians just don’t understand boycotts – while more radical members of the political opposition have been calling for boycotts of actually Russian products), many Russians have very effectively explained their disinterest and annoyance with this campaign in pretty clear terms.

Simply read what one Russian correspondent for Gay Star News wrote on #dumpstoli: “It will impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. [… W]hat is the aim of this boycott? The producers, even if they become bankrupt because of the boycott (which is unlikely) will not be able to influence Russian politics and President Putin as well as the decisions of the State Duma [legislature]”. Given how the Putin government has lobbied for these many new laws (as an extension, arguably, to his use of patriarchal imagery while in office) and the federal Duma voted unanimously in favor of them, the necessary change here is pretty clearly political, not necessarily economic.

Particularly given how Western “assistance” in the past largely resulted in the restructuring of the Russian economy in favor of a very small number of elites, the wariness of Russians to receive incomprehensible Western help seems rather on point. In some sense, our governments forced their society to recreate itself in a way that relies on exports and international trade, and now we’re calling for boycotts on products simply associated with them?

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The buffoonery of it all

If you’ve been following the US Supreme Court’s descent into nonsense over the past near decade, Antonin Scalia’s cheerful assistance of the defendant attorney Charles Cooper’s very strange argument that procreation is essential to marriage except when it’s not shouldn’t surprise you too much. Here’s the transcript of how Scalia and Cooper talked over Justice Kagan to get out of the logical mess they walked into. It began with Cooper splicing what was really meant by regulating procreation:

Elena Kagan: Mr Cooper, supose a state said that, because we think that the focus of marriage should be on procreation, we are not going to give marriage licenses anymore to any couple where both people are over the age of 55. Would that be constitutional?
Charles Cooper: No, your honor, it would not be constitutional.
Kagan: Because that’s the same state interest, I would think. You know, over the age of 55, you don’t help us serve the government’s interest in regulating procreation through marriage, if you are… So why is that different?
Cooper: Your honor, even with respect to couples over the age of 55, it is very rare that both couples- both parties to the couple are infertile, and the traditional-
Kagan: No, really because if the couple… I can assure you, if both the woman and the man are over the age of 55, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage.
Cooper: Your honor, society’s… society’s interest in responsible procreation isn’t just with respect to the procreative capacities of the couple itself. Fidelity and monogamy, your honor, advances the interest in responsible procreation by making it more likely that neither party, including the fertile party to that… the martial norm, which imposes the obligations… [Scalia interrupts to joke about infertility exams and how Senator Strom Thurmond fathered a child when 68, with his then 25 year old wife]

Did you catch that? Individual states allegedly have the right to ban marriages between couples which are infertile as a result of their sexual or gendered composition, but not when because of their age.

(Hilarious misunderstanding ensued! From here.)

This obviously fails its own test, in that just as many older straight men who are married to post-menopausal straight women can indeed have children with other women, many queer people who are in an infertile same-sex or same-gender relationship can indeed have children with other potential partners. Expectations of fidelity are a unifying theme, and the perception that those are necessarily exotic concepts to queer families is suggestive of how much straight people believe they have exclusive cultural property over.

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What if the VRA should do more?

Ryan Emenaker has an excellent piece over at SCOTUS Blog on the current challenge to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) before the Supreme Court, which lays out a very convincing case for the court to do nothing. I’m naturally of the opinion that we live in a society where Black individuals are effectively prevented from protesting how they are targeted for attacks and murders by an unfortunately large number of police officers. In that context, does it really make sense to suggest that racism is no longer a force in the United States and existing legal protections against discrimination can be rescinded?

Covered districts in the United States - the states of Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia
(The states in red, counties in blue, and townships in pink must currently clear any changes in voting procedure with the federal Department of Justice before implementation, from here. Click to see enlarged.)

Beyond the retention of the coverage system (which districts can leave after a decade without being found to have violated bans on racial, ethnic, or similar forms of voting discrimination), Emenaker notes that it’s “difficult to argue that Congress’s coverage formula has no rational relation to reducing infringement on minority voting rights.” He expands on that in multiple ways – including how the process deters states and counties from even drafting biased changes to voting systems.

Still, Emenaker explains how in spite of that currently covered districts are far more likely to have suits of racial discrimination brought against them. Missing from his argument, I think, is perhaps a challenge to how widespread indirectly discriminatory changes in voting procedures actually are. Most topically, we should talk about whether barriers to voting (such as new ID requirements) that we think of as independent issues are perhaps having a racially-distinct impact, even if without racist intent.

Perhaps now is not the time to dismantle the existing system, and also not only retain it, but expand it. Emenaker notes, that in the current case “New York, California, and Mississippi […] filed a combined amicus brief arguing that the preclearance requirement should be upheld.” since their covered “jurisdictions receive benefits from coverage; it grants a measure of protection against lawsuits and provides DOJ feedback on proposed election law changes.” Given that political representatives in parts of this country as distinct from each other as California, Mississippi, and New York can see their personal advantages from this bill, and in such a way that overtly benefits people of color who would like to vote without a hassle, why isn’t the conversation about expanding the coverage system and perhaps making it a universal process for all states, counties, and other districts?

What good is it to have laws against racial discrimination if we don’t actually do something about it when it occurs?

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