Monday, September 24, 2012

Beach House- Live REVIEW- 9/16, Atlanta, GA

As one can ascertain from hearing any release from the Beach House catalogue, the band's live experience is the auditory equivalent of a cinematic dream sequence.  Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally (along with touring percussionist, Daniel Franz) achieve an almost Lynchian-level of cerebral daze while sacrificing none of the warmth and tranquility that has become their trademark.

You will see fewer shows as steady and chill as a Beach House concert- September 16th at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse was no exception.  Like most acts, Beach House can live and die by sound quality and venue acoustics- and the band overcame some early technical issues to deliver a performance both memorable and surprisingly exciting.  Finishing up with an eighteen-song setlist that included a three-song encore, including tunes from all three albums, the show remained hypnotic from start to finish- even through the early tech problems- due to the magnetic presence of Victoria LeGrand. Gently controlling the ebb and flow of the audience's awe and excitement, there was never a moment where LeGrand didn't own the stage in an almost evangelical manner.

1. Wild
2. Walk in the Park
3. Norway
4. Other People
5. Lazuli
6. Gila
7. Used to Be
8. Silver Soul
9. The Hours
10. Real Love
11. New Year
12. Zebra
13. Wishes
14. Take Care
15. Myth

16. Turtle Island
17. 10 Mile Stereo
18. Irene

You can check out my review of Bloom here as well as my interview with Victoria LeGrand here.

- Fr. Jones

Crystal Castles- LIVE Preview- 9/27, Charlotte, NC- The Fillmore

The only time I've ever considered the possibility of random chaotic death during a musical event was after my first Crystal Castles show in Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club.

Notice I said "after"- because this was a "check your survivalist instincts at the door" type of shindig.

Darkness, screams, throbbing bass, distant sounds of breaking glass, and the immense pressure of a crowd moving relentlessly forward while jumping in unison- desperate to become the experience itself.

It's one of the best shows I've ever seen and a surefire reminder of your own pulse.  With a new album due in November, be sure to catch them as they make their rounds.  And if you're in the area, come find me this Thursday in Charlotte, NC as I prepare to experience Crystal Castles decimating the Fillmore.

Sept. 27 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte
Sept. 28 – Fairburn, Ga., CounterPoint Music & Arts Festival
Sept. 29 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
Oct. 2 – Philadelphia, Pa., Electric Factory
Oct. 3 – New York, N.Y., Roseland Ballroom
Oct. 6 – Boston, Mass., House Of Blues Boston
Oct. 7 – Montreal, Quebec, Metropolis
Oct. 9 – Royal Oak, Mich., Royal Oak Music Theatre
Oct. 10 – Columbus, Ohio, Newport Music Hall
Oct. 11 – Nashville, Tenn., Marathon Music Works
Oct. 14 – Austin, Texas, Zilker Park, Austin City Limits Music Festival
Oct. 16 – Kansas City, Mo., Uptown Theater
Oct. 17 – Denver, Colo., Ogden Theatre
Oct. 18 – Salt Lake City, Utah, In The Venue
Oct. 20 – Hollywood, Calif., Hollywood Palladium
Oct. 21 – San Diego, Calif., SOMA San Diego
Oct. 22 – Oakland, Calif., Fox Theater
Oct. 24 – Portland, Ore., Roseland Theater
Oct. 25 – Seattle, Wash., Showbox SoDo
Oct. 26 – Vancouver, British Columbia, Commodore Ballroom
Oct. 28 – Calgary, Alberta, MacEwan Conference And Event Centre
Oct. 29 – Edmonton, Alberta, Edmonton Event Centre
Oct. 31 – Winnipeg, Manitoba, Burton Cummings Theatre
Nov. 1 – Minneapolis, Minn., First Avenue
Nov. 2 – Chicago, Ill., Congress Theater
Nov. 4 – Toronto, Ontario, Kool Haus

 - Fr. Jones

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Voter ID Laws

by Suevon Lee ProPublica,
Voter IDs laws have become a political flashpoint in what's gearing up to be another close election year. Supporters say the laws — which 30 states have now enacted in some form — are needed to combat voter fraud, while critics see them as a tactic to disenfranchise voters.
We've taken a step back to look at the facts behind the laws and break down the issues at the heart of the debate.
So what are these laws?
They are measures intended to ensure that a registered voter is who he says he is and not an impersonator trying to cast a ballot in someone else's name. The laws, most of which have been passed in the last several years, require that registered voters show ID before they're allowed to vote. Exactly what they need to show varies. Some states require a government-issued photo, while in others a current utility bill or bank statement is sufficient.
As a registered voter, I thought I always had to supply some form of ID during an election.
Not quite. Per federal law, first-time voters who registered by mail must present a photo ID or copy of a current bill or bank statement. Some states generally advise voters bring some form of photo ID. But prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Indiana in 2006 became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law, a law that was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Why are these voter ID laws so strongly opposed?
Voting law opponents contend these laws disproportionately affect elderly, minority and low-income groups that tend to vote Democratic. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome, with even free state ID requiring documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places. According to a study from NYU's Brennan Center, 11 percent of voting-age citizens lack necessary photo ID while many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices. During closing arguments in a recent case over Texas's voter ID law, a lawyer for the state brushed aside these obstacles as the "reality to life of choosing to live in that part of Texas."
Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared the laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states during the Jim Crow era imposed voting fees, which discouraged the working class and poor, many of whom were minorities, from voting.
Given the sometimes costly steps required to obtain needed documents today, legal scholars argue that photo ID laws create a new "financial barrier to the ballot box."
Just how well-founded are fears of voter fraud?
There have been only a small number of fraud cases resulting in a conviction. A New York Times analysis from 2007 identified 120 cases filed by the Justice Department over five years. These cases, many of which stemmed from mistakenly filled registration forms or misunderstanding over voter eligibility, resulted in 86 convictions.
There are "very few documented cases," said UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist Rick Hasen. "When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can't prevent," he said.
An analysis by News21, a national investigative reporting project, identified 10 voter impersonation cases out of 2,068 alleged election fraud cases since 2000 – or one out of every 15 million prospective voters.
One of the most vocal supporters of strict voter ID laws, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that his office has prosecuted about 50 cases of voter fraud in recent years. "I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter id is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system," he told the paper. Abbott's office did not immediately respond to ProPublica's request for comment.
How many voters might be turned away or dissuaded by the laws, and could they really affect the election?
It's not clear.
According to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don't have government-issued photo ID. This figure doesn't represent all voters likely to vote, just those eligible to vote.
State figures also can be hard to nail down. In Pennsylvania, nearly 760,000 registered voters, or 9.2 percent of the state's 8.2 million voter base, don't own state-issued ID cards, according to an analysis of state records by the Philadelphia Inquirer. State officials, on the other hand, place this number at between 80,000 and 90,000.
In Indiana and Georgia, states with the earliest versions of photo ID laws, about 1,300 provisional votes were discarded in the 2008 general election, later analysis has revealed.
As for the potential effect on the election, one analysis by Nate Silver at the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog estimates they could decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 and 2.4 percent. It doesn't sound like a very wide margin, but it all depends on the electoral landscape.
"We don't know exactly how much these news laws will affect turnout or skew turnout in favor of Republicans," said Hasen, author of the recently released The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. "But there's no question that in a very close election, they could be enough to make a difference in the outcome."
When did voter ID laws get passed — and which states have the strictest ones?
The first such law was passed as early as 2003, but momentum has picked up in recent years. In 2011 alone, legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo ID — 14 of those states already had existing voter ID laws but lawmakers sought to toughen statutes, mainly to require proof of photo identification.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has a helpful breakdown of states' voter ID laws and how they vary.
Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania have the toughest versions. These states won't allow voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing valid photo ID. Other states with photo ID laws offer some more flexibility by providing voters with several alternatives.
What happens if a voter can't show valid photo ID in these states?
These voters are entitled to a provisional ballot. To ensure their votes count, however, they must produce the mandatory ID within a certain time frame and affirm in person or writing they are the same individual who filled out a temporary ballot on Election Day. The time limits vary: They range anywhere from up to three days after the election (Georgia) to noon the Monday after the election (Indiana).
Are there any exceptions to the photo ID requirement?
Yes. Indigency or religious objections to being photographed. But these exceptions don't automatically grant a voter the ability to cast a regular ballot: In Pennsylvania and Indiana, voters will be given a provisional ballot and must sign an affidavit for their exemption within the given time frame. For a more specific breakdown of all exceptions, see this state-by-state summary.
Why is the Justice Department getting involved in some cases?
Because of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states with a history of discrimination receive preclearance before making changes to voting laws. Texas and South Carolina passed strict photo ID laws in 2011 but were refused preclearance by the DOJ, which argued that these laws could suppress turnout among minority voters.
Texas went to court recently seeking judicial preclearance from a federal district court; a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is expected to issue a decision by the end of the summer. South Carolina heads to oral arguments in the same court in September.
What about challenges to the laws?
On August 15, a Pennsylvania judge shot down an attempt to attempt to block the state's voter ID law. As we've reported, other judges have also ruled in favor of other states' voter ID laws. Here's a rundown of the rulings.
The DOJ is also investigating many of the states' laws, including Pennsylvania's photo ID law. As first reported by Talking Points Memo, the DOJ's Civil Rights Division sent the state's chief election official a letter Monday afternoon requesting 16 separate items, including the state's complete voter registration list, any documents supporting the governor's prior assurance that "99 percent" of the state's eligible voters already have acceptable photo ID, any papers to prove the state is prepared to provide registered voters with ID cards free of charge upon oath or affirmation, and any studies that inform state officials of the "demographic characteristics" of residents who lack valid voter ID.
The DOJ letter states it needs these documents within 30 days to evaluate the state's compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
Have any states attempted to enact strict voter ID laws but so far been unsuccessful?
Yes. In Wisconsin, two judges have blocked enforcement of the state's photo ID law. An appeal in one case won't be heard until after the November election. Meantime, Democratic governors in Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and North Carolina have vetoed strict photo ID bills passed by their Republican-led legislatures last year.
Are there other voter ID laws in effect that ask for but don't necessarily require photo ID?
Yes. In these so-called "non-strict photo ID states" — Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Idaho, South Dakota and Hawaii — individuals are requested to show photo ID but can still vote if they don't have one. Instead, they may be asked to sign affidavits affirming their identity or provide a signature that will be compared with those in registration records.
Why has there been such a recent surge in voter ID legislation around the country?
This report by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice cites primarily big Republican gains in the 2010 midterms which turned voter ID laws into a "major legislative priority." Aside from Rhode Island, all voter ID legislation has been introduced by Republican-majority legislatures.
News21 also has this report on the close affiliation between the bills' sponsors and the conservative nonprofit group, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Republican figures have championed such laws. For instance, Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, recently praised the state's legislative accomplishments at a Republican State Committee meeting last month. "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done," he said.
A spokesman for Turzai, Steve Miskin, told ProPublica that Turzai was "mischaracterized" by the press. "For the first time in many years, you're going to have a relatively level playing field in the presidential elections" as the result of these new laws," Miskin said. "With all things equal, a Republican presidential nominee in Pennsylvania has a chance."
Correction August 20, 2012: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated "voting law advocates contend these laws disproportionately affect elderly, minority and low-income groups that tend to vote Democratic." It's voting law opponents who make that contention.
Correction July 24, 2012: An earlier version of this story said Texas went to federal court to challenge the DOJ's denial of preclearance. In fact, Texas filed a lawsuit seeking preclearance from the federal district court two months before the DOJ announced its decision. Also, some states require a government-issued photo that does not have to come from the federal government as first detailed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The xx- Coexist REVIEW

Whereas 2009’s debut album from The xx occasionally achieved a pristine level of echoed, cavernous intimacy- Coexist quickly recedes so far into itself, that subtlety is replaced by boredom.  All the pieces are in place for the London trio to further define their signature whisper-pop(?).  But with a frustrating tendency to ignore a basic pace in favor of showcasing redundant lyrical schmaltz (with banter that only knows two modes- coyness and a sense of thought-provocation about on the same level as a Keanu meme), most of these tracks wind up as puzzling dead ends.  It all adds up to an oddly premature “jump the shark” moment.

While admittedly I never quite drank the Kool-aid three years ago surrounding The xx, I did admire many components of their first album.  The intimate vocals between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim, the wirey and laconic guitar arrangements, the overall ethereal production, etc- these all added up to a delicate and entrancing debut experience found memorable by many.  Ironically enough, these exact same elements return for Coexist (albeit slightly more introverted).  Here The xx remain faithful to themselves, but to a fault.  And instead of "delicate", the experience feels largely muted as if the band is struggling to recapture the magic while simultaneously contracting their sound.  Occasionally, faint hints of a south London dubstep influence a’la Burial can be heard- most notably in tracks “Chained”, “Try”, and “Sunset” (Jamie Smith did mention earlier this year that the current record would be more club inspired).  But percussion remains largely a suggestion here instead of the necessary spine to support the album’s more amorphous tendencies.  The end result often leans dangerously close to self-parody most evident in Madley-Croft and Sims’ lyrical rapport- now front and center more than ever.  Once endearingly gentle and honest, these duets now seem hollow and self-aware (“Missing” in particular features a painful bridge).  That said, I readily acknowledge that Coexist is not a bad album (look no further than "Angels")- in fact, there is going to be a large contingent of people head over heels for this thing and that makes perfect sense.  But I will argue that Coexist is an album that insists on denying it’s own pulse- and this unfortunate trait renders it a misguided sophomore release from The xx.

 - Fr. Jones

Monday, September 17, 2012

South Carolina government is built on secrecy and cynicism

The worst-governed state in America — that's the way I have described South Carolina many times over the past 10 years, and I have previously shown the numbers to prove it. There's no need to repeat them here other than to say that in almost every national quality-of-life index — be it about income, education level, life expectancy, infant mortality, violent crime, or environmental quality — we place near the bottom.
Part of South Carolina's problem is the historic resistance of our leaders — and much of its white population — to the laws and culture of the United States. We saw it in the nullification crisis of 1832, the days leading up to secession and the Civil War, and the resistance to all civil rights and voting rights legislation in the past century. All of these federal laws have had the purpose of improving democracy and the quality of life of this backward, benighted state. Most recently the state was at the U.S. Supreme Court fighting the Affordable Care Act. Gov. Nikki Haley and the GOP legislature are sworn to resist the ACA's insurance exchanges which are intended to provide healthcare to the poor.
This angry, obstructionist behavior by state leaders is part of a pattern of anti-democratic governance that has held South Carolina back. We saw two other examples of this behavior in the news recently.
The first was a report by the Voting Integrity Program at Common Cause, which declared that South Carolina was among six states that were unprepared to deal with voting machine failures on Election Day. According to the report, we are one of only 16 states that still use paperless voting machines.
"If those machines malfunction, there's no way to independently check what the actual voter's intent was," said a spokeswoman for the Voting Integrity Project. "In these 16 states, we're very vulnerable to miscounts that won't be caught."
But if you have been following the news in recent months, you know that this is not the voting problem the S.C. General Assembly seeks to address. Following a play out of the national Republican playbook, our legislature has passed a Voter ID law to prevent voter fraud, yet there has been no evidence of voter impersonation in this state in decades. What this law will likely do, according to the League of Women Voters and the ACLU, is disenfranchise nearly 200,000 poor and elderly voters. The U.S. Justice Department has challenged the law in federal court.
That our General Assembly would ignore real and proven voting machine problems, while going to extreme and expensive measures to fix a nonexistent voting problem and in the process disenfranchise much of the electorate, says all that needs to be said about our leaders' agendas.
And yet, there is more to say. The day after the Voting Integrity Program released its report, another independent agency, the State Integrity Investigation, ranked the Palmetto State as the worst in the country for access to public records.
The Post and Courier reported that the state earned a big fat "F" for transparency. The State Integrity Investigation cited a lack of options for citizens outside of court action in appealing a denied public information request. And the state has no agency to monitor the application of its freedom of information law.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said the root of our state's transparency problem is a deep and ancient culture of secrecy, dating back to colonial times, when a "thin band of elites" ran the government.
"We took that cultural model directly from the plantation to the mill village, and in many ways that remains the dominant political culture in South Carolina," Bender told the P&C.
Anyone who has practiced journalism in this state for a while knows how difficult it is to get information from public agencies who do not want to surrender it. Not only does it make for bad governance, but it makes for bad journalism. After all, a secretive public culture makes it difficult for journalists to do their job. And without good journalism, good government is impossible.
So we have here a perfect storm of bad government. Not only do the citizens of South Carolina have little power to learn what their leaders are doing, but if they were to find out, there is little they could do about it. Voter suppression, coupled with unreliable voting technology, undermines the legitimacy of elections and of elected officials. The result is a cynical public and the worst-governed state in America.
Will Moredock is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Bailout: By The Actual Numbers

by Paul Kiel ProPublica,
 Quick, how many billions in the red are taxpayers on the bailout of GM? AIG? Fannie and Freddie? Is it true that the government has reaped a profit from bailing out the banks?
It should be easy to find answers to such questions. But while it's a snap to find rosy administration claims about the bailout, finding hard numbers is much more difficult. That's why, since the bailouts began in 2008, we've maintained a frequently updated site to provide them. Now we've retooled our database to make it even easier to find these sorts of answers.
So you can effortlessly discover that it's $27 billion for GM, $23 billion for AIG, $91 billion for Fannie, $51 billion for Freddie, and yes, the bank investments have so far returned a profit of $19 billion.
We also make it easy for you to see which investments have resulted in losses (39 so far in total) and to sort bailout recipients by how far in the red or black they are. As always, our scorecard page adds it all up and shows where both bailouts — the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP ($55 billion in the red) and Fannie and Freddie (negative $142 billion) — stand right now.
Ultimately, the bailout of GM seems likely to result in the TARP's single biggest loss. But since the government still holds about a third of the company's stock (currently worth about $10 billion), we don't include it on our list of losers yet. It's possible the government will sell the stock for more than it's currently worth, recouping more of its investment.
For now, the reigning bust is the $2.3 billion investment in the bank CIT, which landed in bankruptcy less than a year after its bailout. Second on the list is Chrysler, which resulted in a $1.3 billion loss.
"The government's financial stability programs are expected to cost far less than many had once feared during the crisis, and we're continuing to make significant progress recovering taxpayer investments," said a Treasury spokesman.
Over time, that list of losing investments is likely to grow far beyond 39, because many of the smaller banks that have yet to repay the government are struggling. Although more than 300 banks have exited TARP (often repaying with money from another government bank program), nearly 400 remain. Of those, 162 are behind on their dividend payments to the Treasury Department. According to the GAO, the banks that are languishing in TARP tend to be weaker than those that have left, and at least 130 appear on a secret "problem bank" list kept by regulators.
The TARP's main bank program was supposed to be reserved for healthy banks, but among the losing investments are banks that were troubled even when they first received the money. Central Pacific Financial, a Hawaii bank, got its $135 million in early 2009 despite regulators having just ordered it to raise additional capital. As we reported then, the approval came two weeks after staff for Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who had helped establish the bank and owned a large amount of the bank's stock, inquired about the bank's application for funds. Both regulators and Treasury denied that the inquiry affected their decision. Taxpayers ultimately lost $61 million from the investment.
Also notable among the failed investments is South Financial Group. The bank received a $347 million government investment in 2008 about a month after its former CEO, Mack Whittle, retired with a $18 million golden parachute. Taxpayers ultimately lost $200 million while the CEO kept his package. Contacted by ProPublica, Whittle said, "I founded [South Financial Group] in 1986 and take offense that anyone would imply that retirement benefits were not warranted." He added that the benefits had been negotiated long before he announced his retirement in the summer of 2008 and that he'd retired by the time the bank applied for TARP funds.
Of course, the government has already turned a profit on its bank investments overall, because the biggest bailouts — particularly Citigroup and Bank of America (each received $45 billion) — resulted in large profits. None of the banks remaining in TARP have net outstanding amounts over one billion dollars.
The Treasury wants to get rid of those remaining bank investments as soon as it can — even when that means selling stakes in apparently healthy banks for a discount, as ProPublica's Jesse Eisinger reported last month.
What defines a profit? So far, the Treasury has allowed many banks to exit TARP after receiving most, but not all, of the amount owed. But in cases where the Treasury received enough other revenue (e.g. through dividend payments) from the bank to result in a net gain, we label that investment as a profit. So far, that's been the case for 26 banks.
The final cost of the TARP, the Fannie, or the Freddie bailout isn't possible to know.
For the TARP, it depends on the biggest remaining investments: AIG and the remains of the auto bailout, GM and GMAC (now called Ally Financial). The net outstanding amount of those three companies together is about $61 billion. At this point, it seems likely that Treasury will ultimately recoup its bailout of AIG. The auto companies, on the other hand, seem likely to result in a loss approaching $20 billion, according to both Treasury Department and Congressional Budget Office estimates.
Another big factor is the TARP's housing programs, its mortgage modification program chief among them. Although Treasury set aside more than $40 billion for its various initiatives, less than $5 billion has been spent so far, a testament to the limited reach of the programs. Since those are subsidies, none of that money will be repaid, and any spending ups TARP's tab. Earlier this year, the CBO estimated that ultimately $16 billion would be spent.
Of course, all of these numbers benefit from being put in a broader context. The Obama administration argues that the TARP should be credited with blunting the force of the financial crisis and saving "more than one million American jobs." Critics like former TARP inspector general Neil Barofsky say the program may have stemmed the damage from the crisis, but it did so by largely preserving the broken too-big-to-fail system that caused the crisis. It's also worth mentioning that the Federal Reserve played an enormous role in supporting the biggest banks and allowing them to exit TARP.
The fate of the Fannie and Freddie bailouts is even harder to figure, although the Treasury recently announced that all of the companies' profits from now on will be handed over to Uncle Sam each quarter. Their tabs should decrease, but how quickly and for how long they'll be allowed to exist is unclear.
For now, our site provides a snapshot of the two bailouts as they actually stand. We've been at it since 2008, and we'll continue to update it frequently.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Flood of Secret Campaign Cash: It's Not All Citizens United

by Stephen Engelberg and Kim Barker
The emergence of nonprofits as the leading conduit for anonymous spending in this year's presidential campaign is often attributed to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which opened the money spigot, allowing corporations and unions to buy ads urging people to vote for or against specific candidates.
But a closer look shows that there are several reasons that tens of millions of dollars of secret money are flooding this year's campaign. Actions — and inaction — by both the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service have contributed just as much to the flood of tens of millions of dollars of secret money into the 2012 campaign. Congress did not act on a bill that would have required disclosure after Citizens United and other court rulings opened the door to secret political spending.
To understand how all this happened, it's worth returning to Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in Citizens United, and the political system the court envisioned. In the decision's key finding, Kennedy and four other justices said the First Amendment entitled corporations and unions to the same unlimited rights of political speech and spending as any citizen.
But in a less-noticed portion of the ruling, Kennedy and seven of his colleagues upheld disclosure rules and emphasized the role of transparency. Undue corporate or union influence on elections, he wrote, could be addressed by informed voters and shareholders who would instantly access campaign finance facts from their laptops or smart phones.
"With the advent of the Internet," Kennedy wrote, "prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters."
If a company wasted money on politics, the justices agreed, its shareholders could use the publicly available information to "determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits." Separately, the sunshine of public disclosure will let "citizens see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests."
"The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way," Kennedy concluded. "This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
A very different system has taken shape. As our reporting this week showed, money for political ads is pouring into non-profits ostensibly dedicated to promoting social welfare. These groups are paying for many of the negative ads clogging the airwaves, but are not disclosing their donors.
As a result, it's entirely unclear whether these ads are being paid for by unions and corporations empowered by Citizens United or by wealthy individuals.
Separately, corporations have resisted calls to list their donations to political social welfare nonprofits or other political spending. So far, the Securities and Exchange Commission has not responded to a rulemaking petition asking for it to develop rules to require public companies to disclose that spending.
The Supreme Court's opening of the door to hefty flows of secret money began years before Citizens United. In a 2007 case (PDF) involving a nonprofit called Wisconsin Right to Life, the justices ruled that unions and corporations could buy ads that mentioned a candidate in the weeks before an election as long as the commercials stopped short of directly advocating the candidate's election or defeat. Even if these ads, known as "electioneering communications," clearly attacked the positions of one candidate, they were permissible unless they were "susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate."
The flood began and the identities of hardly any of the donors were disclosed. The reason? A decision by the FEC, the oversight panel with three Republicans and three Democrats who frequently deadlock.
After Wisconsin Right to Life, the FEC told social welfare nonprofits that they had to disclose only if the donors specifically earmarked the money for political ads. "It proved to be the exception that swallowed the rule," said Paul S. Ryan, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, non-partisan group that tracks campaign finance. The day the FEC adopted this rule, Ryan wrote on his blog that it would allow massive amounts of secret money into politics. He proved correct.
In 2006, ads bought by groups that didn't disclose their donors amounted to less than 2 percent of outside spending, excluding party committees, research by the Center for Responsive Politics shows. By 2008, that number hit 25 percent; by 2010, more than 40 percent.
All of this raises an intriguing question: Was Kennedy aware when he drafted the January 2010 Citizens United opinion that nonprofits were being widely used to avoid public disclosure of political spending?
At the least, critics say, Kennedy was poorly informed.
"Justice Kennedy was living in a fantasy land," said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who tracks campaign finance issues. "I wish the world he envisaged exists. It doesn't."
Instead, this is the disclosure world that exists: Someone who gives up to $2,500 to the campaign of President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney will have his or her name, address and profession listed on the FEC website for all to see. But that same person can give $1 million or more to a social welfare group that buys ads supporting or attacking those same candidates and stay anonymous.
This year, a federal judge struck down the FEC rule stemming from Wisconsin Right to Life. The FEC announced in July that major donors to electioneering communications — ads that focus on issues without directly advocating for candidates — would have to be named.
Already, groups are looking for work-arounds. They're running different kinds of ads. Some will name other social welfare nonprofits as their donors.
The loose oversight by the FEC helped bring so much anonymous money into campaign finance. But no one expects the commission to take a more assertive role anytime soon. Dan Backer, a lawyer who represents several conservative nonprofits, likened the deadlocked agency to a "cute bunny" while referring to the IRS as a "500-pound gorilla."
The IRS or Congress are more plausible avenues for change, experts say. Ryan said he was hopeful that Congress and the IRS might some day limit ads from groups that don't disclose their donors. The 2012 campaign, though, appears to be a lost cause. "I think this election will be mired and perhaps overwhelmed by secret money," Ryan said.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Voting Rights Act: The State of Section 5

by Suevon Lee ProPublica,

A single provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been playing a key role on the election front this year. Section 5 has blocked photo voter-ID laws, prohibited reduced early-voting periods in parts of Florida and just Tuesday barred new redistricting maps in Texas.
It's the reason South Carolina is in federal court this week to try to convince a three-judge panel its photo voter-ID law will not disenfranchise minorities. It's the reason that Texas went to trial on the same issue last month — and on Thursday, lost.
Not surprisingly, then, Section 5 is increasingly the target of attack by those who say it is outdated, discriminatory against Southern states and unconstitutional.
Under the provision, certain states and localities with a history of anti-minority election practices must obtain federal approval or "preclearance" before making changes to voting laws. In present day, that requirement is burdensome, "needlessly aggressive" and based on outdated coverage criteria, two petitions filed in July with the U.S. Supreme Court argue.
Section 5 applies to nine states — Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Alaska — and currently to parts of Florida, California, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire. The original coverage formula looked at whether states imposed unfair devices like literacy tests in November 1964, whether less than 50 percent of the voting-age population was registered to vote as of that date, or if less than 50 percent of eligible voters voted in the November 1964 presidential election. In 1975, the formula expanded to include jurisdictions that provided election materials only in English when members of a language minority made up more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens.
Momentum is building at the highest levels to narrow or even eliminate this provision. In a 2009 majority opinion to a Section 5 challenge from Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Texas, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that preclearance and the coverage formula "raise serious constitutional questions," though the justices didn't settle them at the time. In January, in a separate concurrence to the judgment in the Texas redistricting case, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that Section 5 is unconstitutional (for more on how that case reached the Supreme Court, see our previous explainer).
Shelby County in Alabama and several citizens of Kinston, N.C., have asked the Court to review the constitutionality of Section 5 during this fall's term.
Last week, six states covered under Section 5 filed an amicus brief to the Shelby County petition, citing the time and cost of seeking preclearance and a voting landscape that's shed its racist past. Several former Justice Department officials, all of whom served in past Republican administrations, cite in another amicus brief the disparate impact the provision has on the states.
So, could this Civil Rights-era provision soon be on its way out the door? As early as 2009, UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen laid out a scenario under which that could happen. But the prospects remain murky.
There is reason to believe the Court's conservative majority is inclined to strike down Section 5, a supposedly temporary safeguard first enacted in 1965 for a five-year stretch. (It was most recently reauthorized in 2006 for another 25 years when Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act under strong bipartisan support.)
Conditions have "unquestionably improved," Roberts wrote in his NAMUDNO opinion three years ago. "Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels," he said.
Some legal experts say those comments have since encouraged states toward bolder action.
"The cases challenging Section 5 are sprouting up throughout the lower courts, partly in response to the Court's earlier decision," said Richard Pildes, a professor at NYU School of Law who co-edited the book, "The Future of the Voting Rights Act." "I think the Court will feel a responsibility to bring clarity to these momentous issues by returning to the constitutional question and resolving it."
Before making any changes to criteria for voter registration, voting eligibility, the counting of votes or redistricting, covered states and jurisdictions must get preclearance from the Justice Department or from a panel of judges at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Covered states have the burden of proving that any voting law changes lack a discriminatory purpose or effect and wouldn't "diminish a minority group's ability to elect a favored candidate."
That's the reason why on Tuesday, a panel of federal judges in D.C. refused to allow Texas's redistricting plan: It ruled that the redrawn maps would dilute the impact of black and Hispanic votes and that legislators could well have had a discriminatory purpose when they drew up these new districts. Texas has said it will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department has objected to a substantial number of proposed voting plans over the last few decades from states seeking administrative preclearance. Between 1970 and 2000, the DOJ raised nearly 1,000 objections to proposed changes; many plans were later withdrawn.
States also have the option to seek a favorable judgment from the federal court in Washington, D.C. — a costlier, longer and, therefore rarer, route to take.
Although there's been a large drop-off in the number of DOJ objections since 2000, the recent surge of voting law changes have helped bring Section 5 back into the national spotlight. After Florida passed a statewide law reducing its early-voting period from 12 to eight days, a three-judge federal panel said the rule couldn't take effect in five covered counties, unless the state submitted a revised plan in which those counties extended their voting hours to 12 hours a day during that period.
The DOJ has already opposed voter-ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, arguing they will disenfranchise minorities since that's a group more likely to lack valid photo identification. On Thursday, a three-judge panel that heard the Texas case agreed, calling the state's voter ID law "the most stringent in the country." Texas said it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Department preclearance is also pending for a voter-ID law in Mississippi.
Recently, the DOJ gave the green light to Virginia's voter-ID law, which, unlike some other states, accepts non-photo IDs such as a utility bill or pay stub with a printed name and address.
Critics of Section 5 say that it's unfair to require covered jurisdictions to undergo preclearance when states like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are not bound by the provision, have enacted just as tough or tougher voting laws.
In non-covered states, challenges to such voter-ID laws can always be brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, but the burden to prove minority voter infringement falls onto the plaintiffs, not the state or local government as is the case for states and other jurisdictions covered under Section 5.
It's not just large-scale changes like photo voter-ID laws and redistricting to which Section 5 extends, either — it applies to even incremental changes at the local level. For instance, when the Pitt County School District in North Carolina wanted to reduce in 2011 the number of school board members from 12 to seven and shorten their terms of office, the DOJ objected on grounds the changes would decrease representation of minority-preferred candidates on the school board.
It's at these local levels where elimination or dilution of Section 5 may be most consequential.
Michael Pitts, a law professor at Indiana University, told ProPublica that it's "really speculative" to predict the long-term consequence of a narrowing of Section 5. "I suspect that there would be more discrimination in lower profile places, like school boards and town councils and smaller city councils," he said. "The further away you get and the less high profile it is, the more the influence of having to go that route makes the difference for racial minorities."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Animal Collective- Centipede Hz REVIEW

More impressive than the music of Animal Collective itself is that somehow Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, et al have managed to skirt self-parody over the course of their immense catalogue while also maintaining a high level of indie relevance.  At this point in the band's career, a new full-length Animal Collective album is really a wonder to behold before the first track is even heard.  And that’s saying something for a group of artists whose work demands repeated, frustratingly labor-intensive listening sessions (Radiohead are another band which come to mind that actually require an extended gestation period before an opinion is formed).  Expectations are of course divided for Centipede Hz- and more likely than not, in some fittingly bizzare asymmetrical fashion.  But no matter how die-hard of an Animal Collective fan you are, each release carries the weight of “is this the one where they truly lose me?”.  Of course, others will readily admit to calling bullshit on the band long ago (the second half of Feels is a popular reference point)- while others took one sniff of the Water Curses EP and went on their merry may.  One point, however, remains undeniable- 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was a profound artistic statement.  Warm, melodic, and fitfully trippy, MPP was a Pet Sounds for the new millenium- a genuine treasure of an album for a band whose main detractors often complained of their tendency to abrasively avoid harmony.  It seemed that Animal Collective had officially arrived to the masses in a tidy, brilliantly off-kilter, fairly accessible package.  Centipede Hz doesn’t think twice about making a dead sprint in the opposite direction.

Animal Collective have always been a band capable of producing something completely awful.  For all intents and purposes, Centipede Hz really should be that album.  Gone are the psychedelic poppy fields of MPP- in their place is an aggressively industrial and claustrophobic power plant.  Make no mistake, Centipede Hz is intense in the most pell-mell way possible (relatively speaking, there hasn’t been a more relentless Animal Collective release to date) and utterly lacking in any type of expansive mid-album breather (“Wide-Eyed”- with Deakin on vocals- comes the closest).  Furthermore, the album seems to actively avoid any element of precise instrumental or vocal layering.  Instead- sounds, screams, etc all just mash together again and again until what we’re left with is something akin to a brown, auditory sludge.  Perhaps this has something to do with all four band members being back together for the first time since 2007’s Strawberry Jam.  Needless to say, this joint definitely feels crowded essentially rendering Centipede Hz a mess.  But- that said- what an amazing mess it is.  Ballsy, chaotic, and confoundingly galvanizing, hearing Animal Collective this unhinged is an exhilarating experience.  Case in point: lead single “Today’s Supernatural”, an anarchic tour-de-force of cascading percussion amidst tumbling organ lines that would make Ray Manzarek proud.  Both the Beatles-esque “Rosie Oh” and “Applesauce” also bear mentioning as freakishly endearing tunes in their own right.  And while the album does have some glaring flaws (taking a page from Feels, the tracklist is incredibly top-heavy in terms of quality- with clunkers “New Town Burnout” and “Mercury Man” creating a lengthy divide between the wondrous “Father Time” and the startlingly soothing “Amanita”), Centipede Hz sounds unlike anything the band has done before and most importantly, it never gets so caught up in it’s experimentation that it forgets to rock.  It’s comforting to know that, in 2012, Animal Collective can not only still surprise us- but that the shock value feels incredibly authentic.  Centipede Hz doesn’t lose us, but merely finds us in a new place- all over again.    

 - Fr. Jones