Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enough!


By Arik Bjorn

When I visited Yad Vashem 15 years ago, I separated from my group and entered the Children's Memorial, not realizing what it was. I was alone for some time and became overwhelmed by the infinite regress of candlelight, by the names being read of the more than 1 million children who were senselessly murdered during the Holocaust.

I lowered my head against a rail and wept for some time.

Several days after, I was traveling through the Sinai Desert. I am grateful that I was able to be in a space so vast into which I could pitch the horrible sorrow I felt.

Today, I find myself confronted with such a sorrow again--and I think we all do as a nation. Only, I do not have the luxury of a desert around me. However, I do have something I did not have 15 years ago: a five-year-old daughter.

When I picked her up from her school today, I loved her with all the love I could muster--which is the same love I have given her since the day she was born. Unlike 15 years ago, today I understood what it was that many parents in Connecticut had stolen from them. What every parent who loses a child to senseless violence has stolen from them, from suburban neighborhoods to third-world slums to the world's all-too-numerous goddamned theaters of war.

Our nation and society has a special thirst for violence. We are not the only such nation. But we are such a nation. Personally, I don't see a shred of difference between what happened in Connecticut and what happens when a military drone kills a child "by accident." The death of any child by weaponry is obscene, immoral and damnable--and those are the kindest words one could use to describe such an act. And if you are the one who pulls such a trigger, I cannot imagine what it will be like to stand before the god of any pantheon someday.

We have every right collectively to revise our political foundations, and there is no reason that we cannot as a society revise our political foundation known as the Second Amendment--minimally--to make it damned near impossible to own munitions and firearms unless you demonstrate that you are a responsible citizen.

And I don't mean by filling out a form. If you want to own a gun, fine, then we'll make you wish you were applying to start and operate a nuclear power plant instead.

How about an 8-hour psychiatric evaluation which you must pass and the requirement of letters of recommendation from no fewer than three licensed physicians? And taxes on ammunition that make them as expensive as their weight in gold? And those are the easy regulations.

I wish we could make it similarly impossible for a soldier to fire at human beings from an unmanned plane (or a manned one, for that matter) half-a-world removed from his or her target. That's the pacifist idealist in me. But for now, I would be satisfied if our society made it more difficult to buy a bullet than to obtain a commercial driver's license.

You think you have a right to bear arms? Fine. We'll simply call it an "earned right" from now on.

And if you get so much as a speeding ticket or a DUI or any number of civil red flags, you lose that right.

Will it blaze the trail for a peaceable future of human exploration? Not by itself. Will there still be bad guys with guns? Yes. There will always be acts of senseless violence. But it will also be a start that is 200 years overdue. And until we commence such a start, we'll simply continue to watch children being gunned down and "as a nation grieve."

I am so fucking sick of "grieving as a nation." Let us ACT as a nation.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

How Bad Is Our Debt Problem, Anyway? And Will a Deal Fix It?

by Theodoric Meyer ProPublica
President Obama will meet with congressional leaders today in another attempt to avert the fiscal cliff — the automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1 unless Congress can strike a deal. The cuts and tax hikes, which total more than $500 billion, are so large and so sudden that many economists fear they would plunge the country back into recession.
As Washington tries to hash out a deal, we've taken a step back to break down the numbers behind our deficit — how it grew so big, why it is actually shrinking and whether a deal can bring it under control.

How much are we in debt?
The federal debt is just shy of $16.4 trillion at the moment, which also happens to be the debt limit that Congress set in 2011. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner announced on Wednesday that the nation would hit the limit on Dec. 31. The Treasury can take some "extraordinary measures" to keep paying its bills for a few weeks, but it'll run out of cash by February or March unless Congress raises the limit again.

And that's different from the deficit, right?
Yes. The debt is the total amount of the government's outstanding obligations. The deficit is how much the government is in the red in a given year. In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the deficit amounted to $1.1 trillion.

That seems like a huge number. How did the deficit get so big?
The 2012 deficit was actually the smallest one since 2008. But it's still a giant shortfall.
As Binyamin Appelbaum noted in The New York Times, the federal government has run a deficit in 45 of the last 50 years. (The exceptions were 1969 and 1998 through 2001.) The financial crisis in 2008, however, caused the deficit to skyrocket, as tax revenues fell because of the slump in incomes and production, and government spending on the stimulus and safety net measures such as unemployment insurance shot up. The deficit for the 2008 fiscal year was $455 billion. In 2009, it surged to more than $1.4 trillion.
Since then, the deficit has been falling, albeit very slowly. The government took in 6.4 percent more in taxes in 2012 than in 2011, as the economy improved a bit and several tax breaks expired. And it spent less on Medicaid, unemployment insurance and the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What about the total debt? How much of that is President Obama's fault?
The debt has grown by nearly $6 trillion since Obama took office, from $10.5 trillion to $16.4 trillion.
Figuring out how much of that is due to Obama is tougher. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, working with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, calculated in January that the legislation Obama had actually signed — as opposed to factors like the economy — had added about $983 billion to the debt.
Klein has also rounded up several charts that break down exactly what's caused our debt to grow so large. The biggest single factor has been the weak economy; President George W. Bush's tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also fueled the debt buildup, as did President Obama's stimulus.

Have debt levels ever been this high before?
Yes, proportionally. Economists like to talk about a country's debt in relation to its gross domestic product (a measure of the economy's total annual output). And instead of using a country's total outstanding debt to calculate this debt-to-GDP ratio, economists typically use the amount of debt held by the public. (Somewhat confusingly, the federal government holds about $5 trillion in obligations to itself, most of which is money owed to the funds that support Social Security and other programs.)
Using this measurement, our debt was about 67.7 percent of GDP last year. As this chart compiled by Quartz's Ritchie King shows, that's the highest our debt-to-GDP ratio has been since the 1940s, when the need to finance World War II caused the debt to surge to 112.7 percent of GDP. But the economy grew fast enough after the war that the debt soon became a much smaller percentage of the country's GDP.
It's worth noting that a number of other developed countries have higher debt-to-GDP ratios than the U.S. Germany's public debt is 80.6 percent of GDP, and Canada's is 87.4 percent. The euro zone's most troubled countries fare even worse: Italy's debt is 120.1 percent of GDP; Greece's is 165.3 percent.

At least we're not Greece. How much longer can we keep borrowing?
That's a tough one. Some commentators — including Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist and columnist for The New York Times — have argued that our current deficits are mostly a product of the sluggish economy. The deficit, Krugman wrote last week, "is a side-effect of an economic depression, and the first order of business should be to end that depression — which means, among other things, leaving the deficit alone for now."
Other economists — including Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who studied eight centuries' worth of financial crises for their book "This Time Is Different" — argue that countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above a certain level tend to experience slower economic growth. Reinhart and Rogoff suggest the level is around 90 percent of GDP — which the U.S. is rapidly approaching. A recent Congressional Research Service report concluded that while the debt-to-GDP ratio can't keep rising forever, "it can rise for a time." The report continued:
It is hard to predict at what point bond holders would deem it to be unsustainable. A few other advanced economies have debt-to-GDP ratios higher than that of the United States. Some of those countries in Europe have recently seen their financing costs rise to the point that they are unable to finance their deficits solely through private markets. But Japan has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio of any advanced economy, and it has continued to be able to finance its debt at extremely low costs.
How does all this fit into the fiscal cliff? Would a deal to avert it fix our debt problem?
Actually, going over the fiscal cliff would almost singlehandedly erase the deficit. Tax rates would shoot up, and the fiscal cliff's indiscriminate budget cuts would slash military and safety-net spending alike.
The problem is that all those tax increases and spending cuts would likely throw the economy back into a recession, causing the deficit to balloon again. "The economy will, I think, go off a cliff," said Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman.
(For more detail, see The Washington Post's exhaustive fiscal cliff explainer.)
What the two sides are trying to do is identify cuts that are ultimately deep enough to bring down the deficit — and thus, eventually, the debt — without stalling the economy. But negotiations collapsed last week after John Boehner, the Republican House speaker, tried and failed to pass a "Plan B" alternative to the president's proposal in the House. Obama is set to meet with congressional leaders today to try to strike a deal to block at least some of the cliff's impact by Monday night. But its prospects seem dim.
"I have to be very honest," Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, said on Thursday. "I don't know timewise how it can happen now."
Of course, some analysts have pointed out that people on both the Republican and the Democratic sides may actually want to move the cliff just slightly down the road into the next Congress, which convenes Thursday, Jan. 3. The advantages: Boehner can be safely re-elected as Speaker before he has to do serious twisting of arms of fellow GOP House members to get their votes for any compromise plan. And there will be a few more Democrats in the House and the Senate for the White House to rely on in enlisting the votes it needs to ratify any such deal. The disadvantage: Delay makes the risk of miscalculation greater for either or both sides — and for the public.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

How Dark Money Helped Republicans Hold the House and Hurt Voters

by Olga Pierce, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer ProPublica,

In the November election, a million more Americans voted for Democrats seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives than Republicans. But that popular vote advantage did not result in control of the chamber. Instead, despite getting fewer votes, Republicans have maintained a commanding control of the House. Such a disparity has happened only three times in the last century.
(Here's a chart comparing 2010 and 2012.)
Analysts and others have identified redistricting as a key to the disparity. Republicans had a years-long strategy of winning state houses in order to control each state's once-a-decade redistricting process. (Confused about redistricting? Check out our song.)

Republican strategist Karl Rove laid out the approach in a Wall Street Journal column in early 2010 headlined "He who controls redistricting can control Congress."
The approach paid off. In 2010 state races, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats, gaining complete control of 12 state legislatures. As a result, the GOP oversaw redrawing of lines for four times as many congressional districts as Democrats.

How did they dominate redistricting? A ProPublica investigation has found that the GOP relied on opaque nonprofits funded by dark money, supposedly nonpartisan campaign outfits, and millions in corporate donations to achieve Republican-friendly maps throughout the country. Two tobacco giants, Altria and Reynolds, each pitched in more than $1 million to the main Republican redistricting group, as did Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads; Walmart and the pharmaceutical industry also contributed. Other donors, who gave to the nonprofits Republicans created, may never have to be disclosed.

While many observers have noted that mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson backed losing candidates, a close look at the Republicans' effort on redistricting suggests something else: The hundreds of millions spent this year on presidential TV ads may not have hit the mark, but the relatively modest sums funneled to redistricting paid off handsomely.

Where Democrats were in control, they drew gerrymandered maps just like Republicans. They also had their own secretive redistricting funding. (Last year, we detailed how Democrats in California worked to undermine the state's attempt at non-partisan redistricting.) But Democrats got outspent 3-to-1 and did not prioritize winning state legislatures. They also faced a Republican surge in 2010.
Exactly how the Republican effort worked has been shrouded in mystery until now. But depositions and other documents in a little-noticed lawsuit in North Carolina offer an exceptionally detailed picture of Republicans' tactics.

Documents show that national Republican operatives, funded by dark money groups, drew the crucial lines which packed as many Democrats as possible into three congressional districts. The result: the state's congressional delegation flipped from 7-6 Democratic to 9-4 in favor of Republicans. The combination of party operatives, cash and secrecy also existed in other states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

Redistricting is supposed to protect the fundamental principle of one-person-one-vote. As demographics change, lines are shifted to make sure everyone is equally represented and to give communities a voice. In order for Republicans to win in North Carolina, they undermined the votes of Democrats, especially African-Americans. (Party leaders in North Carolina say they were simply complying with federal voting laws.)

The strategy began in the run-up to the 2010 elections. Republicans poured money into local races in North Carolina and elsewhere. It was an efficient approach. While congressional races routinely cost millions, a few thousand dollars can swing a campaign for a seat in the state legislature
The Republican effort to influence redistricting overall was spearheaded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has existed since 2002. For most of that time, it was primarily a vehicle for donors like health care and tobacco companies to influence state legislatures, key battlegrounds for regulations that affect corporate America. Its focus changed in 2010 when Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, was named chairman. His main project: redistricting.

Soon after Gillespie took over, the RSLC announced an effort to influence state races throughout the country, the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP. Fundraising soared. The group raised $30 million in 2010, by far its best year. (Its Democratic counterpart raised roughly $10 million.)
The RSLC is organized as a type of political group that can take in unlimited corporate donations. It must disclose its contributors. But that doesn't mean it's always possible to trace the origins of the money.

Along with Walmart and tobacco companies, the RSLC's largest funders in 2010 were the Chamber of Commerce and American Justice Partnership, which gave a combined $6.5 million. Those two groups raise money from corporations and others but don't have to disclose their donors.
As the 2010 North Carolina legislative elections heated up, the RSLC jumped into local races. But the way they made contributions kept their involvement away from the attention of state voters. Rather than running campaign ads under its own name, the RSLC distributed money to a newly formed local nonprofit. The RSLC declined to comment.

The RSLC gave $1.25 million to its vehicle of choice Real Jobs NC. The group calls itself a "non-partisan organization that believes we need to return to a reliance on the free enterprise system that made our country great for real answers." It was started in 2010 and got a hefty $200,000 boost from dollar store magnate and Republican supporter Art Pope, although Pope denies his donation was related to redistricting or REDMAP.

Real Jobs NC produced ads and mailers slamming more than 20 state Democrats.

"Steve Goss … nice guy," intoned the voiceover in one such ad in North Carolina, attacking then-Democratic State Senator Goss. "Too bad he's voting with the Raleigh liberals over hometown conservatives."

Goss lost, and Democrats lost control of North Carolina's General Assembly for the first time in a century. The pattern repeated itself across the country.

"Twenty legislative bodies which were previously split or under Democratic control are now under Republican control," said a triumphant RSLC REDMAP post-election analysis, highlighting its spending in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, among other states.

The next step for Republicans was to draw district maps, which can be expensive. The maps require expertise, extensive data and sophisticated software. Skillful map drawers can make even the most partisan gerrymander look reasonable.

To fund the work, the Republican State Leadership Committee used its previously dormant nonprofit arm, the State Government Leadership Foundation. Such dark money groups are increasingly popular because they are allowed to keep secret the identity of their donors. Federal tax law permits them to do this as long as they pledge that politics is not their primary focus.

Flush with anonymous donors' cash, the Foundation paid $166,000 to hire the GOP's pre-eminent redistricting experts, according to tax documents. The team leader was Tom Hofeller, architect of Republican-friendly maps going back decades.

"Our team would be happy to assist in drawing proposed maps, interpreting data, or providing advice," wrote Chris Jankowski, the head of both the RSLC and State Government Leadership Foundation, in a   of introduction to North Carolina legislators. The letter was disclosed as part of the North Carolina lawsuit.

"We are engaged in a number of states and believe we are playing a meaningful role in helping draw fair and legal lines that will allow us to run competitive elections in 2012 and in future cycles," Jankowski added.

The same letter emphasized that the Republican redistricting push was being funded through its dark money nonprofit: "The entirety of this effort will be paid for using non-federal dollars through our 501c(4) organization."

Jankowski, representing both the RSLC and the Foundation, declined to comment.

Because Hofeller's team was paid with dark money and the redistricting process is so secretive, it is hard to know the full extent of its activities. In Wisconsin, the team provided technical assistance to an aide to Rep. Paul Ryan as he drew new districts that favored Republicans. In Missouri, Hofeller was the sole witness called by attorneys representing the Republican legislators who drew the maps there.
In the case of North Carolina, Hofeller made his first trip to Raleigh on Feb. 1, 2011, even before final state Census data had been released, the first of 10 trips that year.

From then on, two parallel redistricting processes unfolded in the state.
Through the spring and summer, legislators in charge of redistricting traveled the state holding public meetings at local colleges, soliciting comment and proposed maps from citizens — though the Republicans on the committee would not produce draft maps themselves.

"We are not here to answer questions. We are not here drawing maps," state Senate redistricting committee chairman Bob Rucho told the crowd at a hearing in Durham. "What we are here for is to basically hear your thoughts and dreams about redistricting."

But that input had little influence on the districts that were eventually drawn.
Instead, the real maps were being produced behind the scenes by a team that based its operations at Republican Party headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. Armed with advanced mapping software, Hofeller and others crafted districts that would virtually guarantee big gains for the party.
Hofeller did not attend or read transcripts of any of the public meetings, according to his deposition.

Hofeller did not respond to requests for comment.

A mysterious state dark money nonprofit that sprung up just in time for the process, called Fair and Legal Redistricting for North Carolina, hired a technician to operate the mapping workstation day-to-day, and another Republican mapping expert. The group did not respond to our requests for comment.
State-based nonprofits have been a vehicle for Republicans to funnel anonymous money into their map-drawing operations in a number of states, including self-proclaimed nonpartisan groups in Michigan and Minnesota.

Republican state legislators tasked with redistricting frequently visited and consulted with the mapping team, according to depositions. Even Art Pope, the most influential conservative donor in the state, was appointed "co-counsel" to the legislative leadership and allowed in the room to give direct instructions to the technician.

"We worked together at the workstation," said Joel Raupe, the technical expert paid by Fair and Legal Redistricting, in a deposition. "He sat next to me."
Pope, who is a lawyer but does not actively practice, was made co-counsel to the state legislature, offering his services pro bono. Now, because he was technically a legal adviser to the state, he says any information about his involvement in the redistricting is privileged.
(The New Yorker had a sweeping profile of Pope last year, detailing how he has used his fortune to dominate North Carolina politics.)

North Carolina's Republican incumbents in Congress pushed for a so-called "10-3 map," the majority they hoped to win in the state's delegation.
Hofeller, the mapping expert, delivered. His maps kept most of the districts from being competitive — or even remotely winnable — for Democratic candidates.
A key part of the redistricting strategy was to push minority voters into three districts. Republicans insisted their maps were "fair and legal," necessary to conform to laws protecting minority voting rights, although according to a well-known voting rights attorney, the opposite is true.
But federal voting rights law "doesn't require a jurisdiction to pack blacks in districts," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. "If you tried to pack minority voters into a district, that would arguably be a violation."

In two of those districts, African-American incumbents been already been winning by large margins for years. Republicans' maps added yet more African-Americans to the districts, what's known in redistricting parlance as "packing." As Hofeller wrote in an email about one of the districts, the plan was to "incorporate all the significant concentrations of minority voters in the northeast into the first district."

A third district was 120-mile long, and sea monkey-shaped, connecting pockets of African-Americans from three different, distant cities. Republicans justified it on the basis of a common media market.
The maps were designed to "segregate African-American voters in three districts and concede those districts to the Democrats," says Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan public interest group that joined the lawsuit against the new maps.

In 2012, Democrats won the three districts by more than 70 percent of the vote. Another effect: the surrounding districts were much more Republican.
Rucho and other Republican legislators had presented the maps as advantageous to Democrats. Indeed, registered Democrats actually outnumbered registered Republicans in seven additional districts beyond those that were clearly slated to be Democratic.
Emails show Republicans decided to make that fact a major talking point.

But the stat was misleading, as the Republicans' own data indicates. An internal analysis of one of Hofeller's later drafts (code name "Blue Horizon 3") obtained by ProPublica shows that those seven allegedly "competitive" districts would have been landslide wins for John McCain in 2008, and for Republican Senator Richard Burr in 2010.

The carefully drawn maps worked. In this year's elections, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in North Carolina won 50.6 percent of the total vote. But the state's House delegation now has nine Republicans and just four Democrats. One of the Democrats won by just a few hundred voters, despite the fact that his newly drawn district skewed heavily Republican and that his own home had been drawn out of it. North Carolina's delegation before the election had seven Democrats and six Republicans

In addition to his pay from national Republican groups, invoices show Hofeller billed North Carolina taxpayers $77,000 for his services.
The Republican maps are still under threat by suits filed by Democrats and the NAACP. The lawsuits are headed to the state Supreme Court. But a flood of contributions tied to the RSLC have lowered the risk of the maps' being overturned.

While judicial elections in North Carolina are nominally nonpartisan, it was common knowledge that Republicans held a 4-3 majority on the court. One of those Republican incumbents was facing a tough challenge in 2012, potentially throwing the whole redistricting result in jeopardy.
Justice Paul Newby was running for re-election against appellate judge Sam Ervin IV, grandson of the famous North Carolina senator who investigated Watergate. With a few weeks left until the November election, Newby was trailing Ervin.

But then, in the final stretch, Newby was the beneficiary of a flood of late spending that can be traced back to the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Once again the contributions were funneled through homegrown groups. With only a few weeks to go, the RSLC gave more than $1.1 million to a group called Justice for All NC. Campaign finance filings show Justice for All NC in turn gave nearly $1.5 million to a super PAC running pro-Newby ads, the NC Judicial Coalition.

Most of the money spent by the super PAC went to pay for hundreds of airings of a jingle ad featuring lines like, "Paul Newby / Justice tough but fair / Paul Newby / Criminals best beware" set to infectious banjo music.

The spending didn't end there: and Pope's fingerprints were also on the race. Two dark money groups affiliated with Pope — the state-based Civitas Action and Americans for Prosperity — spent another $300,000 on radio ads and mailers supporting Newby. Pope's company also gave to the RSLC in the run-up to this fall's elections.

Pope says he gave money to Americans for Prosperity for years before the judicial race even came up, and that he was not involved in the decision to run pro-Newby ads.
"I'm Republican, I support Republican groups," Pope said. "But just because you support something doesn't mean you're responsible for all they do."

It was an unusually large amount of outside spending for a judicial race. The outside pro-Newby groups had spent more on the race than the two campaigns combined.
In the end, Newby eked out a 52-48 victory, preserving the court's Republican majority.
When the groups contesting the maps called for Newby to recuse himself from redistricting litigation, lawyers for Republican legislators argued that because the campaign ads were paid for by "independent" groups, they did not jeopardize Newby's impartiality.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court rejected the motion for Newby to recuse himself.
"I've got no control over who contributes to an ad. I have no control over who endorses me," Newby — who did not respond to a request for comment — told a local TV station on the eve of the election. "You've got to put your blinders on like lady justice."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Seven of the Most Striking Ways States Have Loosened Gun Laws

by Suevon Lee ProPublica

Friday's deadly rampage at a Connecticut elementary school marked the 13th mass shooting in the United States this year. Among the 11 deadliest shootings in U.S. history, more than half took place in the last five years. During the same period, states have often relaxed their gun laws, making it easier for individuals to obtain guns, extending the places where concealed guns are permitted, or giving gun owners more robust protections.
We take a closer look at some of the more striking measures:

1. Five states allow students to carry concealed guns on college campuses     
A March 2012 Colorado Supreme Court decision held that the University of Colorado could not ban students and employees with state-issued concealed weapon permits from carrying guns on campus. The decision overturned the university's long-standing gun ban. While school policy prohibits guns at ticketed athletic and cultural events, Boulder and Colorado Springs' campuses now designate dorms for permit-carrying students. (Guns are still banned in other dorms). "Not a single student has asked to live where guns are allowed," the Denver Post reported last month.
In September 2011, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued a similar ruling, allowing guns on campuses throughout the Oregon University system.
Wisconsin passed legislation in 2011 allowing college students in the University of Wisconsin school system to bring a concealed weapon on campus grounds, parking lots and "other spaces that aren't enclosed," according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The school can prohibit guns in buildings, but only if signs are posted at each entrance.
A law passed by the Mississippi State Legislature in 2011 broadly extended the places where concealed weapons are allowed, including college campuses, secondary schools, courthouses, polling locations, churches, bars and passenger terminals of an airport – places previously off-limits. This year, the University of Mississippi, which previously required students to leave guns in their vehicles, began allowing students to bring concealed weapons on campus, provided they have a concealed weapons permit and take an 8-hour training course.
Utah grants the least discretion: Since 2004, the state has prohibited any public college or university from banning concealed weapons, as campuses are considered state property.

2. Some states now allow you to bring guns into daycare centers, churches, and even "gun-free zones"
Last week, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that would allow concealed weapons in current "gun-free" zones such as schools, day care centers, bars, churches, hospitals and stadiums. Gun owners are required to receive eight hours of extra training before bringing guns into these places. The bill, which has yet to be signed into law, gives private business owners discretion to ban firearms on their property.
While Michigan's legislation has gained attention given its timing to Friday's shooting, it's far from the only law of its kind. As we've already noted, Mississippi has also expanded the list of permissible concealed carry locations.
Elsewhere, loaded guns in bars are now allowed in Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and Ohio. Georgia lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this year that would expand the list of places where you can bring in a concealed weapon, proposing to allow them in colleges, places of worship and polling places.
Virginia, Louisiana and Maine allow firearms to be carried in state parks, state historic sites and state preservation areas. Recently passed federal legislation also allows the carrying of loaded guns in national parks, but only if state laws don't interject.

3. You don't have to be 18-years-old or sober to lawfully use a gun in some states
In Missouri, it's no longer a crime for an intoxicated person to handle or fire a gun, so long as they were acting in self-defense.
Federal law prohibits licensed firearms dealers from selling a shotgun or rifle to anyone under 18, or handguns to anyone under 21. Still, some states impose minimum age limits that go below these federal limits.
For instance, in Vermont, it's legal to sell a handgun or rifle to 16-year-olds. It's legal to sell a rifle to a 16-year-old in Maine, Alaska, Minnesota or New York. In Montana, the legal age is 14, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a non-profit organization that tracks state gun laws.

4. Eight states have (symbolically) asserted their freedom to be exempt from federal gun regulation
Current federal gun laws set baseline standards regarding the sale and possession of guns. For instance, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on prospective gun purchasers. And agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can conduct warrantless inspections of any licensed gun dealer – although, as we've previously noted, its authority has been hamstrung in recent years.
Still, eight states have passed resolutions stating that guns made and manufactured in-state shouldn't be subject to federal regulation: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, Tennessee and Alaska.
The Montana gun activist behind the state's legislation, whom the Wall Street Journal profiled, explained he felt he should be "free from federal laws requiring him to record transactions, pay license fees and open his business to government inspectors."
The states' moves are basically symbolic. The states are still following the few federal rules that exist.
But that could change. Montana Shooting Sports Association and Second Amendment Foundation have filed a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the law.

5. Some states want to make it a crime for doctors and employers to ask about your gun
In 2011, Florida became the first state to enact a law prohibiting any health care professional from asking patients whether they own guns or store them safely. A federal judge later struck down the law based on free speech grounds, stating that a physician who "counsels a patient on firearm safety…does not affect or interfere with the patient's right to continue to own, possess or use firearms."
Other states have followed in Florida's footsteps: Alabama and North Carolina have introduced similar legislation in the last year.
In 2010, Indiana made it easier for people to store guns in their vehicles in a workplace parking lot. A year later, Indiana passed a law allowing job applicants and current employees to sue a private or public employer for requiring disclosure of firearm ownership or use.
6. Nearly half of states have adopted some type of "Stand Your Ground," or "Shoot First" law
Florida and 24 other states have enacted "Stand Your Ground" laws that expand a person's right to self-defense. Under these laws, individuals no longer have a duty to retreat to avoid confrontation in any place he or she has a right to be.
Florida was the first state to introduce such a law in 2005 – and many other states have followed suit. The law came into national spotlight when an unarmed 17-year-old teen, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch guard in Florida earlier this year. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was not initially charged with a crime; he has since been charged with second-degree murder and awaits trial.

7. A few states make it easy for even violent felons to get their gun rights restored
The New York Times conducted an extensive investigation into this issue last year. The story reports that in 11 states, nonviolent felons have automatic restoration of their gun rights while a handful of other states allow felons convicted of violent crimes to regain their gun rights.
In Minnesota, for instance, violent felons can petition a court to regain their gun rights by showing "good cause." There is no waiting period. In Ohio, a violent felon need only demonstrate to a judge that he or she has "led a law-abiding life" since they've left prison. In Washington State, felons can get their gun rights restored as long as they haven't been convicted of any new crimes in five years. Under Washington State's Hard Times for Armed Crimes Act, judges actually have no discretion to deny restoration based on a felon's character or mental health.
Felons in other states have other ways to get their guns back: Georgia and Nebraska have granted a high number of pardons to restore felons' right to bear arms even for those convicted of crimes like voluntary manslaughter or armed robbery.
And Montana makes it possible for felons to get their gun rights restored as long as they didn't use a dangerous weapon in the commission of their crime.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation's Underground Water Supply

by Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica,
     Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water.
In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.
EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.
"You are sacrificing these aquifers," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. "By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."
As part of an investigation into the threat to water supplies from underground injection of waste, ProPublica set out to identify which aquifers have been polluted.
We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect.
What records the agency was able to supply under the Freedom of Information Act show that exemptions are often issued in apparent conflict with the EPA's mandate to protect waters that may be used for drinking.
Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.
The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.
Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.
In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company's application.
The EPA declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, but sent a written response saying exemptions have been issued responsibly, under a process that ensures contaminants remain confined.
"Aquifer Exemptions identify those waters that do not currently serve as a source of drinking water and will not serve as a source of drinking water in the future and, thus, do not need to be protected," an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email statement. "The process of exempting aquifers includes steps that minimize the possibility that future drinking water supplies are endangered."
Yet EPA officials say the agency has quietly assembled an unofficial internal task force to re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies. The agency's spokesperson declined to give details on the group's work, but insiders say it is attempting to inventory exemptions and to determine whether aquifers should go unprotected in the future, with the value of water rising along with demand for exemptions closer to areas where people live.
Advances in geological sciences have deepened regulators' concerns about exemptions, challenging the notion that waste injected underground will stay inside the tightly drawn boundaries of the exempted areas.
"What they don't often consider is whether that waste will flow outside that zone of influence over time, and there is no doubt that it will," said Mike Wireman, a senior hydrologist with the EPA who has worked with the World Bank on global water supply issues. "Over decades, that water could discharge into a stream. It could seep into a well. If you are a rancher out there and you want to put a well in, it's difficult to find out if there is an exempted aquifer underneath your property."
Aquifer exemptions are a little-known aspect of the government's Underground Injection Control program, which is designed to protect water supplies from the underground disposal of waste.
The Safe Drinking Water Act explicitly prohibits injection into a source of drinking water, and requires precautions to ensure that oil and gas and disposal wells that run through them are carefully engineered not to leak.
Areas covered by exemptions are stripped of some of these protections, however. Waste can be discarded into them freely, and wells that run through them need not meet all standards used to prevent pollution. In many cases, no water monitoring or long-term study is required.
The recent surge in domestic drilling and rush for uranium has brought a spike in exemption applications, as well as political pressure not to block or delay them, EPA officials told ProPublica.
"The energy policy in the U.S is keeping this from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium," said a senior EPA employee who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The political pressure is huge not to slow that down."
Many of the exemption permits, records show, have been issued in regions where water is needed most and where intense political debates are underway to decide how to fairly allocate limited water resources.
In drought-stricken Texas, communities are looking to treat brackish aquifers beneath the surface because they have run out of better options and several cities, including San Antonio and El Paso, are considering whether to build new desalinization plants for as much as $100 million apiece.
And yet environmental officials have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining in Texas, records show. The most recent was issued in September.
The Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas drilling, said it issued additional exemptions, covering large swaths of aquifers underlying the state, when it brought its rules into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1982. This was in large part because officials viewed them as oil reservoirs and thought they were already contaminated. But it is unclear where, and how extensive, those exemptions are.
EPA "Region VI received a road map — yes, the kind they used to give free at gas stations — with the aquifers delineated, with no detail on depth," said Mario Salazar, a former EPA project engineer who worked with the underground injection program for 25 years and oversaw the approval of Texas' program, in an email.
In California, where nearly half of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown with water from as far away as the Colorado River, the perennially cash-strapped state's governor is proposing to spend $14 billion to divert more of the Sacramento River from the north to the south. Near Bakersfield, a private project is underway to build a water bank, essentially an artificial aquifer.
Still, more than 100 exemptions for natural aquifers have been granted in California, some to dispose of drilling and fracking waste in the state's driest parts. Though most date back to the 1980s, the most recent exemption was approved in 2009 in Kern County, an agricultural heartland that is the epicenter of some of the state's most volatile rivalries over water.
The balance is even more delicate in Colorado. Growth in the Denver metro area has been stubbornly restrained not by available land, but by the limits of aquifers that have been drawn down by as much as 300 vertical feet. Much of Eastern Colorado's water has long been piped underneath the Continental Divide and, until recently, the region was mulling a $3 billion plan to build a pipeline to bring water hundreds of miles from western Wyoming.
Along with Wyoming, Montana and Utah, however, Colorado has sacrificed more of its aquifer resources than any other part of the country.
More than 1,100 aquifer exemptions have been approved by the EPA's Rocky Mountain regional office, according to a list the agency provided to ProPublica. Many of them are relatively shallow and some are in the same geologic formations containing aquifers relied on by Denver metro residents, though the boundaries are several hundred miles away. More than a dozen exemptions are in waters that might not even need to be treated in order to drink.
"It's short-sighted," said Tom Curtis, the deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, an international non-governmental drinking water organization. "It's something that future generations may question."
To the resource industries, aquifer exemptions are essential. Oil and gas drilling waste has to go somewhere and in certain parts of the country, there are few alternatives to injecting it into porous rock that also contains water, drilling companies say. In many places, the same layers of rock that contain oil or gas also contain water, and that water is likely to already contain pollutants such as benzene from the natural hydrocarbons within it.
Similarly, the uranium mining industry works by prompting chemical reactions that separate out minerals within the aquifers themselves; the mining can't happen without the pollution.
When regulations governing waste injection were written in the 1980s to protect underground water reserves, industry sought the exemptions as a compromise. The intent was to acknowledge that many deep waters might not be worth protecting even though they technically met the definition of drinking water.
"The concept of aquifer exemptions was something that we 'invented' to address comments when the regulations were first proposed," Salazar, the former EPA official, said. "There was never the intention to exempt aquifers just because they could contain, or would obviate, the development of a resource. Water was the resource that would be protected above all."
Since then, however, approving exemptions has become the norm. In an email, the EPA said that some exemption applications had been denied, but provided no details about how many or which ones. State regulators in Texas and Wyoming could not recall a single application that had been turned down and industry representatives said they had come to expect swift approval.
"Historically they have been fairly routinely granting aquifer exemptions," said Richard Clement, the chief executive of Powertech Uranium, which is currently seeking permits for new mining in South Dakota. "There has never been a case that I'm aware of that it has not been done."
In 1981, shortly after the first exemption rules were set, the EPA lowered the bar for exemptions as part of settling a lawsuit filed by the American Petroleum Institute. Since then, the agency has issued permits for water not "reasonably expected" to be used for drinking. The original language allowed exemptions only for water that could never be used.
Oil companies have been the biggest users of aquifer exemptions by far. Most are held by smaller, independent companies, but Chevron, America's second-largest oil company, holds at least 28 aquifer exemptions. Exxon holds at least 14. In Wyoming, the Canadian oil giant EnCana, currently embroiled in an investigation of water contamination related to fracking in the town of Pavillion, has been allowed to inject into aquifers at 38 sites.
Once an exemption is issued, it's all but permanent; none have ever been reversed. Permits dictate how much material companies can inject and where, but impose little or no obligations to protect the surrounding water if it has been exempted. The EPA and state environmental agencies require applicants to assess the quality of reservoirs and to do some basic modeling to show where contaminants should end up. But in most cases there is no obligation, for example, to track what has been put into the earth or — except in the case of the uranium mines — to monitor where it does end up.
The biggest problem now, experts say, is that the EPA's criteria for evaluating applications are outdated. The rules — last revised nearly three decades ago — haven't adapted to improving water treatment technology and don't reflect the changing value and scarcity of fresh water.
Aquifers once considered unusable can now be processed for drinking water at a reasonable price.
The law defines an underground source of drinking water as any water that has less than 10,000 parts per million of what are called Total Dissolved Solids, a standard measure of water quality, but historically, water with more than 3,000 TDS has been dismissed as too poor for drinking. It also has been taken for granted that, in most places, the deeper the aquifer — say, below about 2,000 feet — the higher the TDS and the less salvageable the water.
Yet today, Texas towns are treating water that has as high as 4,000 TDS and a Wyoming town is pumping from 8,500 feet deep, thousands of feet below aquifers that the EPA has determined were too far underground to ever produce useable water.
"You can just about treat anything nowadays," said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, which advises the state on groundwater management. Arroyo said he was unaware that so many Texas aquifers had been exempted, and that it would be feasible to treat many of them. Regarding the exemptions, he said, "With the advent of technology to treat some of this water, I think this is a prudent time to reconsider whether we allow them."
Now, as commercial crops wilt in the dry heat and winds rip the dust loose from American prairies, questions are mounting about whether the EPA should continue to grant exemptions going forward.
"Unless someone can build a clear case that this water cannot be used — we need to keep our groundwater clean," said Al Armendariz, a former regional administrator for the EPA's South Central region who now works with the Sierra Club. "We shouldn't be exempting aquifers unless we have no other choice. We should only exempt the aquifer if we are sure we are never going to use the water again."
Still, skeptics say fewer exemptions are unlikely, despite rising concern about them within the EPA, as the demand for space underground continues to grow. Long-term plans to slow climate change and clean up coal by sequestering carbon dioxide underground, for example, could further endanger aquifers, causing chemical reactions that lead to water contamination.
"Everyone wants clean water and everyone wants clean energy," said Richard Healy, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey whose work is focused on the nexus of energy production and water. "Energy development can occur very quickly because there is a lot of money involved. Environmental studies take longer."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Senate Report on CIA Interrogations You May Never See

by Cora Currier ProPublica

A Senate committee is close to putting the final stamp on a massive report on the CIA's detention, interrogation and rendition of terror suspects. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who heads the Select Committee on Intelligence, called the roughly 6,000-page report "the most definitive review of this CIA program to be conducted."
But it's unclear how much, if any, of the review you might get to read.
The committee first needs to vote to endorse the report. There will be a vote next week.
Republicans, who are a minority on the committee, have been boycotting the investigation since the summer of 2009. They pulled back their cooperation after the Justice Department began a separate investigation into the CIA interrogations. Republicans have criticized that inquiry, arguing that the interrogations had been authorized by President George W. Bush's Justice Department.  (In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the investigation was being closed without bringing any criminal charges.)
Even if the report is approved next week, it won't be made public then, if at all. Decisions on declassification will come at "a later time," Feinstein said.
According to Reuters, the Senate report focuses on whether so-called "enhanced interrogation" tactics – including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other techniques – actually led to critical intelligence breakthroughs. Reuters reported earlier this year that the investigation "was expected to find little evidence" that the torture was in fact crucial.
Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and others have repeatedly said that such tactics produced important information. They've also said waterboarding was used on only a handful of high-level detainees, a claim which recently came into question. Feinstein has previously disputed claims that such interrogations led to Osama Bin Laden. (It is also still unclearwhat key members of Congress knew about the program, and when they knew it.)
Much about the CIA's program to detain and interrogate terror suspects has remained officially secret, despite widespread reporting and acknowledgement by Bush.  Obama banned torture upon taking office and released documents related to program, including a critical report from the CIA's Inspector General.
But the Obama administration has argued in courts that details about the CIA program are still classified. (As we have reported, this has led the administration to claim in some cases that Guantanamo detainees' own accounts of their imprisonment are classified.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Homeland Security Has Spent $430 Million on Radios Its Employees Don't Know How to Use


by Theodoric Meyer ProPublica
Getting the agencies responsible for national security to communicate better was one of the main reasons the Department of Homeland Security was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But according to a recent report from the department's inspector general, one aspect of this mission remains far from accomplished.
DHS has spent $430 million over the past nine years to provide radios tuned to a common, secure channel to 123,000 employees across the country. Problem is, no one seems to know how to use them.
Only one of 479 DHS employees surveyed by the inspector general's office was actually able to use the common channel, according to the report. Most of those surveyed — 72 percent — didn't even know the common channel existed. Another 25 percent knew the channel existed but weren't able to find it; 3 percent were able to find an older common channel, but not the current one.
The investigators also found that more than half of the radios did not have the settings for the common channel programmed into them. Only 20 percent of radios tested had all the correct settings.
The radios are supposed to help employees of Customs and Border Patrol, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, and other agencies with DHS communicate during crises, as well as normal operations.
DHS officials did not immediately respond to questions from ProPublica about what effect the radio problems could have on how the agency handles an emergency.
The $430 million paid for radio infrastructure and maintenance as well as the actual radios.
In a response letter to the report, Jim H. Crumpacker, the Department of Homeland Security's liaison between the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general, wrote that DHS had made "significant strides" in improving emergency communications since 2003. But he acknowledged that DHS "has had some challenges in achieving Department-wide interoperable communications goals."
The recent inspector general's report is the latest in a string of critical assessments DHS has received on its efforts to improve communication between federal, state and local agencies. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2007 that the Department of Homeland Security had "generally not achieved" this  goal.
DHS has assigned a blizzard of offices and committees to oversee its radio effort since 2003, which the inspector general's report claimed had "hindered DHS' ability to provide effective oversight."
Also, none of the entities "had the authority to implement and enforce their recommendations," the report concluded. Tanya Callender, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said the current office overseeing the effort hadn't been given the authority to force agencies to use the common channel or even to provide instructions for programming the radios.
The inspector general recommended DHS standardize its policies regarding radios, which DHS agreed to do. But it rejected a second recommendation that it overhaul the office overseeing the radios to give it more authority.
"DHS believes that it has already established a structure with the necessary authority to ensure" that its various agencies can communicate, Crumpacker wrote in his response letter.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Four Ways Ohio and Others Have Toughened Voting Rules

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica


Voter ID laws have received plenty of attention recently, but they're not the only controversial changes to election rules this year. Some states have made changes that critics say could impact individuals' ability to vote. Here are four.


Ohio won't count provisional ballots mistakenly cast in the wrong precinct.
Four years ago in Ohio, there were 200,000 provisional ballots cast among a total 5.7 million votes. This was the most among any state other than California. (Federal law requires states to use provisional ballots when a voter's eligibility is in question or if their registration doesn't reflect a new name or address.)
But Ohio requires county election boards to reject provisional ballots if the ballot doesn't correspond to the voter's assigned precinct — even if it was the poll worker's mistake. (A few other states have similar rules, but Ohio is fighting a lawsuit right now to preserve its approach.)
Such errors are bound to happen since 80 percent of Ohio's polling stations cover multiple precincts. In 2008, Ohio elections officials discarded 14,000 provisional ballots for this very reason. That number accounted for one-third of the total rejected provisional ballots that year.
In June, a group of labor organizations and advocacy groups sued Ohio to block enforcement of this requirement, arguing it could disenfranchise thousands of voters.
Ohio officials have argued the law is justified by the state's interest in "running elections fairly and efficiently."
"The argument is sometimes made that if states are required to count these ballots, more people would deliberately go and vote in the wrong precinct," said Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
During oral arguments before a federal judge earlier this year, a lawyer for Ohio hinted at such a scenario when he challenged the strength of the plaintiffs' evidence. "Something else is going on that may not be poll-worker error," he said, as noted in a footnote to the judge's ruling.
In August, a federal judge ruled against Ohio's approach. The state's interest in fair and efficient elections, wrote U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley for the Southern District of Ohio, "falls short of what is required to justify its inevitable disenfranchisement of thousands of qualified voters in the November 2012 election."
Ohio has appealed the decision, arguing that the rule helps with "counting only valid, legal ballots, in running a smooth election, and in minimizing post-election litigation." Allowing such provisional ballots to count, the state further argued, would make it "more difficult for elections officials to monitor and keep up with the voting process."
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in the case in early October, upheld the lower court's decision, concluding that the prohibition would "disqualify thousands of right-place/wrong-precinct provisional ballots, where the voter's only mistake was relying on the poll-worker's precinct guidance."
As of October 18, the Ohio Attorney General's Office told ProPublica it had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ohio tried to shorten its early voting period — until a federal court ruled otherwise.
Ohio used to permit in-person early voting for registered voters in the three days prior to Election Day. (More than 30 other states have similar early voting options, mostly for those who can't make it on Election Day.) But last year, the Ohio General Assembly limited the window. Early voting, which began Oct. 2, was scheduled to end 6 p.m. the Friday before Election Day. (Members of the military and overseas voters were exempt from the narrowed time frame.)
Democrats have been proponents of early voting: An estimated 93,000 Ohioans voted early in 2008. A subsequent University of Akron study concluded that early voters were "more likely to be strong Democrats than election-day voters" — including women, older voters and lower-income individuals.
In defending the law, Ohio elections officials argued that administering early voting the weekend before Election Day for all registered voters would interfere with counties' Election Day preparation, and that military voters have a unique need for being exempt.
In July, Obama for America, the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party asked a federal court to block the new rule, arguing that "tens of thousands of citizens who would have otherwise exercised their right to vote during this time period, including Plaintiffs' members and supporters, may not be able to participate in future elections at all."
In August, U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus in Ohio agreed to block the law, writing that creating two separate early voting deadlines would place more value on one person's vote over another's. On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed this decision. County elections officials, as in 2008, will still have discretion over whether to open up early voting to all.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 16, the justices declined to take up the appeal, prompting Husted to issue an early voting directive to the state's county boards of elections. As the Nation reports, the order provides for a much narrower early voting window than what Ohio's largest counties offered in 2008.
Iowa has hired a criminal agent to investigate voter fraud allegations.
In July, the Associated Press reported that Iowa signed a two-year $280,000 contract with an investigator from the state Division of Criminal Investigation to handle suspected cases of voter fraud. The agent's duties, according to the AP, are "subpoenaing voting records, checking their citizenship status, and interviewing suspects as he builds cases."
Iowa's Secretary of State Matt Schultz has identified more than 1,000 names of potential non-citizens to investigate. (Schultz has not responded to requests for comment.)
The first few cases haven't exactly revealed massive fraud: Two Canadian citizens arrested and charged with felony election misconduct for voting in 2010 and 2011 said they mistakenly believed they could vote in non-presidential elections as legal residents. A third person arrested was a Mexico native whose U.S. citizenship was challenged by the state.
As we've noted before, studies show that voter fraud is actually quite rare.
Other measures taken by Schultz's office — such as allowing anonymous voter fraud online complaints and pursuing non-citizen purging — has prompted legal action from the ACLU.
Texas has notified (living) voters that they are "potentially deceased."
Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill to ensure dead people were kept off its voter rolls. States have long been required to maintain clean voter rolls, so such updating isn't new.
But Texas went further, giving the secretary of state authority to conduct voter roll purges using relatively loose criteria like shared names and birthdate.
The result is that live voters have received notice that if they don't respond within 30 days, they're assumed dead and will be removed from the voter rolls.
The state's largest voting district, Harris County, has sent such letters to about 4,000 "potentially deceased" voters.
"Several hundred responded that said, 'Yeah, I'm still alive,'" said Fred King, communications manager for the Harris County Voter Registrar and Tax Office.
Election experts say that's not surprising. "The problem is that there is a much higher incidence of sharing names and birth dates than people realize," said David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States.
After a lawsuit from four quite live voters, Texas agreed last week to roll back the purge. "Potentially deceased" voters will still be flagged, but will only be removed from the rolls if there's a hard match. (Secretary of State Hope Andrade has said that's just a technical change.)
The purge had also been criticized for being started just months before the election. The new law mandating the controversial letters took effect a year ago in September 2011. Texas didn't start the purge until just this June.
"Most states recognize it's good policy to do this throughout the year rather than right before an election," says Becker of the Pew Center on the States.
So what explains Texas' decision to wait?
"We wanted to run the process with enough time between elections," Texas Secretary of State spokesman Richard Parsons told ProPublica. "Unfortunately repeated election delays, shifting deadlines and uncertainty all caused by ongoing redistricting litigation did not allow for this process to move forward any sooner."

The Campaign Finance Free-For-All: How We Got to This Point

by Justin Elliott, ProPublica
In a forthcoming law review article, Richard Briffault of Columbia Law School argues that the rise of super PACs and unfettered contributions and spending this election cycle are "effectively ending the post-Watergate era of campaign finance laws."
To help understand what is shaping up as a watershed election cycle, I asked Briffault to explain the path that took the country from stringent post-Watergate contribution limits through Citizens United to today's multi-billion-dollar free-for-all.
Briffault has written extensively about the history of campaign finance law. He has filed amicus briefs in cases on the side of defending regulation. His article on super PACs will be published in the Minnesota Law Review.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain how the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case created the foundation of modern campaign finance law?
In the Buckley case the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment applies to campaign finance regulations, but it applies in different ways to different kinds of campaign finance activities. Contributions — that is, giving money to a group, a candidate, or a political party — are less protected. The court said that contributions raise the danger of corruption, that is, that candidates will feel indebted to their large donors, and also that contributions are less pure speech than expenditures.
The court said that an expenditure, which is money being spent on communications to the voters to persuade them how to vote, gets the highest level of protection. The court said that that kind of spending cannot be limited because it comes closer to pure speech and because it raises no danger of corruption.
A particularly difficult question involves what are called independent expenditures. Having reached the limit on the amount of money he is allowed to give a candidate, the donor might then just make an expenditure by taking out his own ads praising the candidate, or condemning the candidate's opponent. In Buckley, the court said that so long as such an expenditure is not formally coordinated with the candidate it will get the full constitutional protection of expenditures.

The first big loophole in the law that politicians exploited became known as "soft money." The symbol of the soft money era was Democratic donors sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom under President Clinton. How did that happen?
As a result of some rulings by the Federal Election Commission, the political parties were allowed to accept unlimited donations and corporate and union money so long as the political party used the money not for direct candidate support, but for background activity, like voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives and certain kinds of advertising that avoided express advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates. Because the money did not go for direct support of candidates — although it certainly helped candidates — it was considered "soft money" not subject to the restrictions on the "hard money" used for direct support of candidates.
The parties and their donors started to figure out soft money in the late 80s and it really took off in the 90s, peaking in 2000 and 2002.
So the famous McCain-Feingold law passed in 2002 and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003. Explain the system that law created.
McCain-Feingold stopped the parties from collecting and using soft money. Many experts thought the parties would be hit hard by the soft money ban, but in 2004 they actually replaced all the lost soft money by redoubling their efforts to collect more hard money from individual donors.
However, there was an immediate effort to get around the soft money ban through so-called 527 committees, which were named after a section of the tax code and were in effect a kind of political committee. The idea was that they would act independently of candidates, and engage in issue advocacy that helped candidates but did not expressly support them. The theory of the 527 was that they're not working with the candidates and they're not working with the parties, and they're also not engaged in express electioneering. So they claimed that they could take unlimited individual, corporate, and union contributions.
How big a role did corporate money play in funding these 527s?
There wasn't actually very much corporate money in the groups, but you did see large individual donations to organizations like MoveOn and the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat group. For the first time since Watergate, you began to see the first real appearance of million‑dollar donations.
This is the last time the Federal Election Commission actually took any action. It brought enforcement actions against a number of the prominent 527s and several years later obtained significant multi‑hundred thousand dollar penalties from them. The commission said that a number of the 527s had crossed the line into regulated electioneering and should have abided by the rules limiting contributions and disclosing spending.
The super PAC of today in many ways looks like these 527s from 2004 that were cited for breaking the rules. The difference is the super PACs seem to be acting within the rules. So how did we get from the 527 to the super PAC?
Part of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 limited donations to all political committees, which are defined as organizations that give money to candidates or spend money in support of candidates. That law is on the books from 1974 onward and the Supreme Court upheld it. No one had focused on the idea that there might be some committees that only engage in independent spending, and do not give contributions to candidates, too.
But in the late 2000s, even before Citizens United, some independent committees began to argue "All we're going to do is engage in independent spending. If that's all we're going to do, we should not be subject to any restrictions on our donations."
The Citizens United decision is popularly known for allowing corporate spending in elections. But what did it say about this issue of independent spending?
In the course of striking down the ban on corporate and union independent spending, the Court also said that independent spending does not cause corruption and can't be limited. The solution to independent spending, the court said, is disclosure and the public reaction to candidates who do the bidding of independent spenders.
A D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals case called SpeechNow was moving through the system around the same time as Citizens United and the decision came down a couple months after Citizens United in 2010. The circuit court specifically cited Citizens United and said, in effect, "If there's nothing corrupting about independent spending, then there's nothing corrupting about donations to groups that engage in independent spending, and therefore these donations cannot be limited."
That's how we get the Super PACs.
The argument gets made that, before Citizens United and before SpeechNow, Sheldon Adelson or George Soros could have individually bought $100 million worth of ads. There was nothing stopping them from doing that.
That's right. But in reality it didn't happen. In theory, George Soros himself could have spent as much money as he wanted as long as it did not involve a committee. The ability to pool money into a super PAC turns out to be very significant.
On the issue of corporate and union expenditures, right now we're seeing 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) groups that don't disclose their donors spending a lot of money, and there are reports that at least some of that money is coming from corporations. These types of groups were active in previous elections but not to the extent they are now. How were they previously constrained by the law?
The 70s-era law said that corporations couldn't engage in independent spending in connection with an election. But "independent spending" was defined as express advocacy – that is, saying explicitly who to vote for. The McCain‑Feingold law redefined independent spending for corporations to include any broadcast message that mentions a candidate's name, within 30 days before primaries or 60 days before a general election. That greatly expanded the scope of the ban on corporate and union spending.
There was a 2007 Supreme Court case, Wisconsin Right to Life, that I think did most of the work that is attributed to Citizens United. It freed up groups funded by corporate or union money to do more in elections. Then Citizens United said that corporations and unions could also spend money on express advocacy. These groups can now contribute to 501(c) organizations that engage in electoral advocacy.
In your forthcoming article you argue, "More than a century after Congress enacted the first restrictions on contributions in federal elections, and thirty-eight years after the comprehensive post-Watergate contribution limits were adopted, we appear to be rapidly heading into an era in which those contribution limits have been rendered functionally meaningless." How did you come to this conclusion?
It will be interesting to see what the total numbers are when this cycle ends. But if it turns out that as much a significant fraction — perhaps one quarter to one third — of the spending promoting a candidate is being spent by outside groups, and funded by a very, very small number of very, very wealthy people, the candidates are going to know who they are.
The purpose of the law was to reduce the dependency of candidates on large donations, and reduce the danger that office holders will feel dependent on that and reduce the effect of those donations on policy and appointments. If a significant fraction of the money that's helping candidates is coming from a very small number of extremely wealthy people, that puts us back to where we were before.