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Five Federal Policies On Guns You’ve Never Heard Of

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

1/7/2013: This story has been corrected.

U.S. gun policy is set by both state and federal law. We previously published an explainer on the ways states have eased gun restrictions. But federal policy, too, has become more gun-friendly in recent years — and we’re not just talking about the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that struck down the handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and held that people have a right to keep guns in their homes.

Here, we outline five federal policies relating to guns you may not have known about:

1. A federal firearms trace database is off-limits to the public.

How often do federally licensed gun dealers sell guns that are then used in crimes? It’s hard to know, because for nearly a decade such gun-trace data has been hidden from the public. Even local law enforcement had been, until recently, barred from accessing the database for anything but narrow investigations.

Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, licensed dealers are required to record certain information about a buyer and the gun’s serial number at the point of sale. When a gun is recovered from a crime scene, local law enforcement agencies can request The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace the firearm’s origins. The retrieved information is compiled into a crime gun-trace database maintained by ATF. A tool to catch criminals, the database in the early 2000s became a political flashpoint, as the Washington Post details. Outside research tying seized guns to a small handful of dealers spurred the federal government to impose tougher sanctions and inspections on gun retailers and manufacturers.

But those sanctions sparked a backlash: Since 2003, the Tiahrt Amendments, so named after the former Kansas Republican congressman who introduced the measures, have concealed the database from the public. Prior to 2010, local police could access the database only to investigate an individual crime, but not to look for signs of broader criminal activity.

Despite the relaxing of some restrictions, parts of the original Tiahrt Amendment remain in place. The ATF can’t require gun dealers to conduct an inventory to account for lost or stolen guns, records of customer background checks must be destroyed within 24 hours if they are clean enough to allow the sale, and trace data can’t be used in state civil lawsuits or in an effort to suspend or revoke a gun dealer’s license.

2. The military can’t impose additional regulations on servicemembers who own guns.

Following the November 2009 shooting at Fort Hood military base in Texas that killed 13 people and wounded more than two dozen others, the Department of Defense proposed guidelines that included, among other things, a new policy around private firearms. (The semiautomatic pistol used by accused gunman Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was purchased at a store off-base.)

Consideration of tighter gun regulations, such as the registering of non-military guns, sparked at least one new piece of federal legislation.

Less than a year after the shooting, U.S. senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a bill prohibiting new regulations on defense department personnel’s private guns. It also prohibited commanders from inquiring into private gun ownership. At the time, Inhofe stated that the measure would “prevent current and potential Second Amendment violations for those serving and employed by the Department of Defense.”

There has been a recent revision: In the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act  just passed by Congress, a new provision does allow military commanders to ask about private firearms if there is reason to believe a servicemember is at high risk of committing suicide.

“It codifies the ability of military commanders to have a conversation with someone they feel is suicidal. This is all about conversation, not confiscation,” said John Madigan, senior director of public policy at The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which pushed for the measure.

3. You can carry a gun inside a national park or check a gun when riding Amtrak.

In 2009, Congress passed a measure, tucked into a larger credit card reform bill, to allow visitors to national parks and wildlife refuges to carry a loaded firearm. (Previously, the guns had to be locked, unloaded and stowed away). Under the amendment, which took effect February 2010, visitors can carry firearms only in those parks located in states that permit concealed guns in their own state parks. Although the U.S. Department of the Interior had lifted the 25-year ban the year before the law passed, a federal judge had blocked implementation after gun control groups objected.

Also in 2009, Congress voted to allow customers riding Amtrak to check guns and ammunition in their luggage. (Though airlines have a similar policy, the federally subsidized national rail service barred guns in any luggage, checked or carry-on, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) In a statement shortly before the measure took effect, its sponsor, Republican senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, said it would provide “hunters, sportsmen, and gun owners with more choices for traveling.”

4. The gun industry is shielded from many lawsuits involving criminal misuse of guns.

In 2005, Congress enacted a law that immunizes gun dealers and manufacturers from liability for injuries resulting in the “criminal or unlawful misuse” of a firearm. The law authorized dismissal of any applicable pending lawsuits and prohibited future claims.

During floor debate, the bill’s primary sponsor, former Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig, said the measure wouldn’t provide the gun industry with blanket immunity, just prohibit “one extremely narrow category of lawsuits: lawsuits that attempt to force the gun industry to pay for the crimes of third parties over whom they have no control.”

Indeed, the 2005 law provides for certain exceptions, including cases in which a gun dealer or manufacturer is aware the firearm will be used to a commit a crime and the suit is brought by the victim directly harmed. The law also allows suits based on a manufacturing or design defect, but not for lacking certain safety features.

Under the law, it would be much harder to obtain a settlement of the kind that families of the victims in the Washington-area sniper shootings of 2002 received. In 2004, those families won a $2.5 million settlement from the manufacturer of the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle used in the shootings and from the licensed Tacoma,WA store from where the gun was stolen.

“The law has not stopped gun litigation, but it has created an obstacle for litigation,” said Jonathan E. Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which filed the lawsuit, alleging that the defendants’ negligence allowed the snipers to obtain the firearm. “Today, you would almost certainly face motions to dismiss by the dealer and manufacturer, and there is a significant number of judges who would dismiss the case,” he said.

5. Congress has removed federal funding for firearms-related research.

Funding used to be set aside for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the impact of gun ownership — but that was taken away in the mid-90s.

The New York Times explains that as the CDC became “increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon,” the National Rifle Association assailed its findings as politically skewed and lobbied to defund research.

One study commissioned by the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control found that the risks of keeping a gun in the home outweigh the benefits: “A gun kept in the home is far more likely to be involved in the death of a family member of the household than it is to be used to kill in self-defense,” its authors wrote in 1993.

In 1996, an amendment proposed by then-Arkansas Republican congressman Jay Dickey removed $2.6 million from the center’s budget, the same amount earmarked for firearms research. When funding to CDC was later restored, legislation included the directive that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Critics charge that language had a chilling effect on CDC’s support for gun-related research.

The CDC Injury Center today collects data generally on homicides, suicides and injuries in homes, schools and communities. But when it comes to firearms-specific research, “I never heard the money was replaced,” said Dr. David Satcher, the former U.S. Surgeon General who served as CDC’s director from 1993 to 1998 and now leads The Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine.

“I don’t think this (1993) study was saying the government should take guns away from people. I think it was saying people should know what happens when you have a gun,” Satcher told ProPublica. “A major benefit of that kind of research is, it keeps informing and updating people: What do we know about gun violence? What do we know about the benefits of owning a gun? I think those are the kinds of questions we need to ask in public health.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collects trace data only for guns involved in a criminal investigation. A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that the ATF maintains a general database of guns purchased from licensed dealers.

Photo credit: AP/Robert Ray

 

By The Numbers: Comparing Spending By Gun Rights And Gun Control Interest Groups

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

Political spending by gun rights groups far outweighs that by gun control groups. Here, we break down just how wide the discrepancy is.

We define gun rights groups as nonprofit organizations that lobby Congress and advocate on behalf of the ownership and use of firearms, and we define gun control groups as nonprofit organizations that lobby Congress and advocate for gun control legislation. (Where relevant, we’ve also included donations from Super PACs where gun control policy is a major focus.)

We’ve honed in on the largest and most prominent of these special interest groups. See how their spending breaks down

Federal Campaign Contributions

$3.13 million: Total amount of top campaign contributions by gun rights interest groups in 2012

96: Percent of the above figure donated to Republicans

$1.1 million: Total campaign contributions by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun rights group, in 2012

89: Percent of the above figure donated to Republicans

$4,036: Total campaign contributions by gun control interest groups in 2012

100: Percent of the above figure donated to Democrats

$581,394: Largest-ever total of campaign contributions from the gun control lobby (in 2000)

Independent Expenditures

(defined by the Federal Election Commission as an advertisement “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate”)

$18.2 million: NRA’s reported independent expenditures in the 2012 election cycle

$11.4 million: How much the NRA spent against all Democratic candidates in 2012

$8.2 million: How much the NRA spent against President Obama in 2012

$0: Reported independent expenditures in the 2012 election cycle by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the largest grassroots organization dedicated to gun control measures

$3.3 million: Amount spent by Independence USA PAC, a Super PAC founded by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2012 that focuses on issues of gun control, school reform and marriage equality, to help unseat former U.S. Rep. Joe Baca (R-CA), known to be pro-gun rights

$460,850: Amount spent by Independence USA PAC this election to help unseat former U.S. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, (R-NY), known to oppose restrictions on gun ownership

Lobbying

$3.8 million: Amount that gun rights groups on the whole spent lobbying Congress in 2012

$2.2 million: Amount that the NRA spent lobbying Congress in 2012

66: Number of congressional bills NRA lobbied on behalf of in 2012

242: Number of U.S. House lawmakers to whom NRA has given an “A” rating

146: Number of U.S. House lawmakers to whom NRA has given a “D” or “F” rating

46: Number of U.S. Senate lawmakers to whom NRA has given an “A” rating

35: Number of U.S. Senate lawmakers to whom NRA has given a “D” or “F” rating

$180,000: Amount that gun control groups on a whole spent lobbying Congress in 2012

83: Percent of the above figure spent solely by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors founded in 2006 dedicated to promoting gun control initiatives

$960,000: Largest-ever amount the Brady Campaign spent on lobbying (in 2004)

$30,000: Amount the Brady Campaign spent lobbying Congress in 2012

36: Number of congressional bills the Brady Campaign lobbied on behalf of in 2012

$2.1 million: Largest-ever amount gun control groups on a whole spent lobbying Congress (in 2001)

 Revenue

$228 million: NRA’s total revenue in 2010 (most recent year available)

$107 million: Total amount NRA collected from membership dues and fees in 2010

781: Number of NRA employees in 2010

125,000: Number of NRA volunteers in 2010

4 million: Current estimated number of NRA members

300,000: Estimated membership of Gun Owners of America, another gun rights lobbying group

$970,300: Total compensation for NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre in 2010

$1.1 million: Total compensation for NRA Executive Director of General Operations Kayne Robinson in 2010

$19.8 million – $52.6 million: Estimated contribution range to NRA from outside corporations since 2005 through a corporate-giving program, per a report by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for stricter gun control

74: Percent of the above amount contributed by the firearms industry (manufacturers and sellers of guns and gun products)

$11 billion: Estimated revenue in 2012 by the gun and ammunitions industry

$2.9 million: Brady Campaign’s total revenue in 2010 (most recent year available)

16: Number of Brady Campaign employees in 2010

500: Number of Brady Campaign volunteers in 2010

$264,870: Total compensation for Brady Campaign’s then-president Paul Helmke in 2010

$2.7 million: Total revenue drawn by Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action Fund in 2010

Photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci

7 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 onto 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 eight-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, daycare 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, as 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 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 under the 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 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 Time for Armed Crime 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.

 

Are Voter ID Laws Here To Stay?

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

Voter ID laws were one of the most contentious issues of the past election season. (Here is everything you need to know about the laws.) Proponents insisted IDs should be required at polling places in order to thwart fraud. But there has been little evidence of such fraud and Democrats argued that the laws were meant to suppress voters.

The impact of the laws on this past election isn’t clear. But one thing is clear: There are still pushes for the laws in many states.

So what happens next?

We’ve rounded up the places that could see voter ID in future elections, the status of laws still pending and what effect, if any, this year’s pushback against voter ID will have going forward.

Just to refresh, which states actually have photo ID laws?

Four states require voters to present a valid form of photo identification in order to cast a regular, not provisional, ballot: Indiana, Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee. The latter two phased in the law just this year; Indiana has had it since 2006 and Georgia, 2008.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, battleground for one of the fiercest disputes over the issue this year, required poll workers to request ID from voters — though voters had no obligation to present one.

And New Hampshire permitted voters without photo ID to still cast a regular ballot, as long as they signed a form affirming they were who they said they were.

So, there weren’t actually many places in the country where photo IDs were required to vote?

Correct. As we’ve laid out before, due largely to court rulings and robust opposition from the Justice Department, newly passed voter ID laws didn’t play nearly as big a role in the election this year as they otherwise might have. (In Minnesota, a ballot measure proposing voter ID was defeated after failing to get majority support.)

Could that change next year?

Yes. South Carolina and Pennsylvania have both passed voter ID laws. Judges suspended them for the past election, ruling there was too little time to implement the new law without the risk of disenfranchising voters. But the laws will be in effect next time around.

Pennsylvania’s voter ID law is set to take effect in time for the state’s May 2013 local primaries.

In other states, it isn’t so clear.

After its voter ID law was rejected by federal judges in August, Texas pledged to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That appeal may have to wait, though, until the Court rules on the Constitutional merits of a special provision of the Voting Rights Act next June.

Voter ID laws in Mississippi and Alabama are also on hold, awaiting federal review.

Where else have lawmakers expressed interest in voter ID laws?

In lots of states. A Montana state representative has proposed a bill that would restrict valid voter ID to Montana driver’s licenses, state ID cards for non-drivers and tribal ID cards. (Not even passports would qualify.)

Wisconsin’s incoming state assembly leader and Missouri Republicans want to push through voter ID laws via Constitutional amendment. Iowa’s secretary of state, who’s been aggressive about targeting voter fraud, is also still pushing for an ID law.

In North Carolina, the newly elected Republican governor has voiced support for a voter ID law to “protect the integrity of the voting system.”

“I don’t want Chicago politics to come to North Carolina,” incoming Gov. Pat McCrory told the Charlotte Observer shortly before the election.

In Nevada, Democratic secretary of state Ross Miller doesn’t want to actually require voters to bring photo identification to the polls, but proposes connecting the state’s voter rolls with photos from the state Department of Motor Vehicles so a poll worker can compare a voter name with an image.

Now that the election is over, how many instances of voter fraud have we actually seen?

There have been a handful of reports, most of which have arisen from a basic misunderstanding or a deliberate attempt to commit an infraction to prove a point.

Is there any evidence that voter ID laws suppress minority turnout as critics charge?

It’s still not clear.

“We don’t know any more than we did before,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who specializes in elections. “It’s too early to put the data together even. Any change in requirements relating to voter registration and access typically has a change by one or two percentage points. When you’re talking about that size, it’s very hard to tease out the data.”

Reuters reports that in states that have had the law on the books for a few years — Indiana and Georgia — turnout and registration actually increased after the laws took effect. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also notes that turnout among black and Hispanic voters in Georgia increased from 2006 to 2010.)

But there are important variables to consider: 2008 was also a historic presidential election that drove up voter turnout around the country.

Furthermore, Georgia, unlike other strict photo ID law states, issues a free photo ID for those who don’t have one. (Reuters reports that about 28,648 such voter cards were distributed since 2006.)

Justin Levitt, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School, said it will still take several more election cycles before the impact of voter ID laws can be discerned, just “to sort the turnout effect of ID laws from all of the other factors” — like campaign spending, the weather, and choice of candidates.

“There’s very little that we can learn about the effect from the election results or turnout figures this cycle, because the strictest laws weren’t generally in effect,” he told ProPublica.

Can we expect to see another wave of legislation over voter ID laws?

Perhaps, but it’s too early to tell.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 30 states introduced some form of voter ID legislation in both 2011 and 2012.

“What we don’t know is if from 2013 to 2014, we’re going to see that same phenomenon at that same level,” said Ned Foley, a professor of election law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Election Day concerns that affect larger swaths of voters may eventually eclipse the push for such laws.

“Other issues of election administration are likely to re-emerge as becoming more critical, such as long lines, or voting machines that are about to fail,” said MIT’s Stewart. Those are issues “felt by a great number of voters, regardless of race or party.”

Still, voter ID laws are going to be an ongoing issue.

“In the short term, these ID bills might be submerged,” said Stewart. “But I don’t think they’re going to go away forever.”

Photo credit: Associated Press

 

Why Is Arizona Still Counting Votes?

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica

It’s been two weeks since Election Day, but it’s not all over in Arizona. Thousands of early and provisional ballots remain uncounted. These votes aren’t actually expected to impact any more races — just one state legislative race is too close to call — but the prolonged vote count has drawn national attention.

So what’s the reason for the delay, who have been the most vocal critics and why did so many ballots take so long to be counted? We take a closer look:

Exactly how many provisional and early ballots were there in Arizona this year?

Out of an estimated 2.3 million votes cast, more than half consisted of early ballots. More than 400,000 of these weren’t actually turned in close to or on Election Day, catching county elections officials off guard. Arizona voters cast roughly 171,000 provisional ballots this year.

How many votes were left uncounted following Election Day?

About 602,334 votes in all, which includes those early and provisional ballots. The vast majority of these ballots came out of Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest county and voting district. There, nearly 440,000 early ballots were still uncounted the day after Election Day. And at least 115,000 provisional ballots were issued in polling locations across the county.

As of Tuesday morning, Maricopa County was still counting roughly 34,450 of those ballots. The state has until Dec. 3 to certify final election results.

Were there more provisional ballots in Arizona than past years?

Yes, but it’ll be roughly the same proportion. In 2008, voters cast 151,799 provisional ballots — or about 5 percent of the total vote. That’s about the same percentage the state will see this year, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office.

What is notable is the concentration of the overall bump in provisional ballots. They’ve largely originated out of Maricopa County, where in 2008, voters cast 99,826 provisional ballots (compared with 115,000 this year) and neighboring Pima County, where in 2008, voters cast 17,912 provisional ballots (compared with 26,194 such ballots this year.)

Is that why it’s taking so long to count these votes?

That’s one reason. Before they can be tabulated, provisional ballots have to be checked to confirm a voter’s eligibility and that they were cast in the correct precinct. For early ballots, the signature on the envelope must be independently verified. Arizona has also seen a decreased number of polling locations this year as the result of redistricting. The delay is not new to this election. “The media seems to believe that things are taking longer than four years ago, but they aren’t,” Arizona secretary of state spokesman Matthew Roberts told ProPublica. “Our counties completed their work in 15 or so days last time, and that’s what we are expecting this year.”

How many state races are still pending?

As of Tuesday, the local media reported that just one state House seat remained too close to call as the result of Maricopa County’s untabulated votes. But that’s hardly been the only — or most significant — delay. It took nearly a week for the state’s 9th U.S. congressional district to see a winner. And it took until just this past weekend for a victor to be declared in the seat once held by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Democrat Ron Barber edged out his opponent, Republican Martha McSally, by just 1,402 votes.

Despite the fact that the most crucial races are settled, the vote count continues for other reasons. “We wouldn’t want to disenfranchise Arizona’s voters that cast a ballot,” Roberts said. “We don’t necessarily have any value on who’s winning or who’s losing — we just want to make sure they’re accurate.”

So why have some Arizona groups been vocal in protesting the delays?

Because they contend that provisional ballots were issued to a disproportionate number of minority Hispanic voters — many of whom are first-time voters. Petra Falcon, president of the voter advocacy group Promise Arizona, told ProPublica her organization helped register 34,000 new Latino voters this year in Maricopa County alone.

However, Falcon said some of those registered reported never receiving a free voter registration card or a requested early ballot in the mail. Others showed up at their polling location only to be told they were not on the voter registration list and that they’d have to cast a provisional ballot instead. Falcon said she didn’t have exact figures on the number of complaints.

A national voter rights hotline illustrates the kinds of problems voters encountered this year. One person called to report that a polling location in South Phoenix was “running out of provisional ballots because they are providing so many.”

Another caller in Maricopa County reported that many voters “were denied provisional ballots even when provisional ballots were requested. Ran out of provisional ballots and people were turned away.”

The outcry in the election aftermath led Pima County to assure voters that “provisional voting is designed as a ‘fail-safe’ method to allow voters to participate in an election even if problems occur.”

What else led to these snafus?

According to Matt Roberts, the secretary of state’s spokesman, voter error can’t be ruled out. “It’s possible they didn’t receive an early ballot, or far more likely they lost or misplaced it,” he said. As far as the missing names on voter registration lists, he said: “It’s hard to say why that would occur. Would I tell you the system is 100 percent every time? Of course not, there’s not a system that’s going to function perfectly every time. That’s why we have provisional ballots.”

Yet Falcon says the day before the election, at least 6,800 voters signed up by Promise Arizona were not appearing in the state’s official voter database. “How do we know that all of our voter registrations were accounted for on their end with so many new ones coming in?” she said. “These are the questions we’re asking because there’s obviously something broken in that part of the system.”

What’s the objection to provisional ballots? Aren’t they guaranteed to count?

No. There could be any number of reasons for them to be rejected, but Arizona has a few extra. In 2008, about 29,531 provisional ballots in Maricopa County were rejected because voters cast ballots in the wrong precinct — the leading reason why such ballots were invalidated. That’s why some voter advocates are concerned by the especially high number of provisional ballots this year in Maricopa County, whose elected sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is a contentious figure. He was a vocal proponent of the controversial state law that authorizes police to question one’s immigration status when a “reasonable suspicion” of illegal status exists.

“If you’re a voter, you at the very least should expect not only that your vote is counted, but that it’s done in a timely manner. Not doing it in a timely manner shakes people’s confidence in the process,” said James E. Garcia, spokesman for ACLU of Arizona, which is calling for a deeper investigation into the state’s election delays.

It hasn’t helped that in the run-up to the election, Arizona saw several hiccups. For instance, on Spanish-language election pamphlets, officials in Maricopa County indicated that Election Day was on Nov. 8 (when it was actually Nov. 6).

And aren’t other states are still counting provisional ballots at this point?

Yes. Ohio is still counting provisional ballots — but unlike Arizona, Ohio doesn’t typically begin its provisional vote count until 10 days after the election.

Why is Arizona’s delay potentially significant?

Activists are worried it could be a harbinger of future problems in a state with a shifting demographic. According to the research organization, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the number of voting-age Latino citizens in Arizona is expected to increase by 178 percent between 2010 and 2030. The Pew Hispanic Center projects that the number of eligible Hispanic voters nationwide will increase by 40 percent in that same time frame.

Big gains were seen just in the last four years. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the number of Latinos registered to vote nationwide increased by 40 percent from 410,000 in 2008 to 576,000 in 2012.

National exit polls show that Latinos nationwide favored President Obama by 71 percent to 27 percent for Mitt Romney this election. While the state’s unofficial results show that Arizona voters on the whole voted for Romney over Obama, 54 percent to 44 percent, the state’s Latino population favored Obama with 74 percent over Romney’s 25 percent share.

Some national polls also indicate that Latinos in Arizona generally lean Democrat: A June 2012 poll by Latino Decisions found that 53 percent identify as Democrat, 9 percent as Republican and 27 percent as Independent.

What, if anything, is the federal government proposing to fix these issues?

Concern with long voting wait times this election sparked response from the president himself. Last week, during a symposium at George Washington University Law School, Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, proposed several reforms, including allowing same-day voter registration, making voter registration automatic and reducing the number of provisional ballots. We’ve asked DOJ for more details. They’ve yet to respond.

 

What Effect, If Any, Did Voter ID Laws Have On The Election?

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

Elaine Schmottlach has been a ballot clerk in the small southeastern New Hampshire town of Nottingham — population, 4,785 — for the last 25 years. Yet when it came time for her to vote on Nov. 6, she had to show valid photo identification as required under a new state law.

Schmottlach refused and submitted a challenged voter affidavit instead.

“My view is this is a horrendous law,” she told ProPublica. “I absolutely detest it. I hated having to ask my best friend to show an ID to prove that she is who she is.”

Schmottlach’s act of defiance didn’t have much effect — this time. Her vote still counted, she wasn’t handed a provisional ballot and she wasn’t required to return to the poll with ID. But that could change in future elections under New Hampshire’s plans to phase in the new law.

In the months leading up to the election, voter ID laws were seen as the biggest threat to voter turnout: More than 30 states have passed such laws, which require voters to provide some type of identification at the polls (see our previous explainer).

But many of these laws, particularly the ones requiring strict photo identification, met setbacks ahead of the election. A state judge ruled in October that Pennsylvania’s law couldn’t be implemented this election, while federal judges refused to allow similar measures take effect this year  in Texas and South Carolina.

A week before the election, the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that “for the overwhelming majority of those whose rights were most at risk, the ability to vote will not be at issue on November 6.”

Experts agree that much-assailed voter ID laws were less an issue in this election than limited early-voting hours, lengthy ballots and precincts shuttered after Hurricane Sandy. These issues contributed to long wait times, prompting some to simply throw up their hands and give up on voting.

“Of all the issues relating to voting rules, voter ID got the most attention but was probably the least significant, mainly because we didn’t have it in Pennsylvania,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in election law.

In Pennsylvania, where some feared the state’s continuing efforts to advertise the new law would confuse voters, election officials were required to ask voters for ID , but were not allowed to prevent anyone from casting a ballot for failure to produce one.

“On November 6, it was a dry run just as it was in the (April 24) primary,” said Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director at the Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan voter education group in Philadelphia. “We don’t know how many people might have been confused and didn’t show up. Among the people that did show up, there was certainly some confusion out there. But I wouldn’t characterize it as so overwhelming that it disrupted the voting process.”

In December, a state judge is expected to hear arguments to permanently block the controversial law.

In Virginia, which instituted a voter ID law approved by the Justice Department in August, watchdog groups reported few disruptions. (The state has a less stringent law, accepting non-photo IDs such as recent utility bills, bank statements or paystubs.)

The Virginia State Board of Elections estimated that there were 543 provisional ballots cast as a result of voters lacking valid ID — representing less than 5 percent of the total number of provisional ballots cast statewide.

In Tennessee, where a new photo voter ID law went into effect this year, the Secretary of State’s Office reported no negative impact on turnout, reporting turnout rates “consistent with past presidential elections,” said Communications Director Blake Fontenay.

“If anything, the law may have encouraged more people to vote because they were more confident their ballots would not be canceled out by ballots cast by ineligible voters,” Fontenay told ProPublica.

Out of 2.45 million ballots cast statewide, 674 Tennessee voters filled out provisional ballots for lacking acceptable photo ID.

New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said that while the state doesn’t have a final tally on voters who filled out challenged voter affidavit forms as a result of lacking ID, the number “appears to be quite low — possibly less than 1 percent.”

Elsewhere, there have been reports that momentum against voter ID laws, seen by critics to disproportionately affect minority, elderly and poor voters, actually helped turnout, but the evidence is  spotty.

According to a preliminary analysis by the Committee of Seventy, voter turnout in Philadelphia decreased from 61.6 percent in 2008 to 59.7 percent this year. The group’s data also shows that Barack Obama won the city by a comparable margin this year — 467,000 votes — to four years ago, when his edge was 461,670 votes.

As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog notes, voter turnout across the county, particularly in states pushing for new voter ID laws, was all over the map, according to the early estimates. Virginia saw a slight increase, New Hampshire stayed virtually the same, while Pennsylvania cast fewer votes than in 2008.

All this doesn’t mean that voting was problem-free. According to The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national election law hotline fielded roughly 90,000 concerned calls this Election Day, down from 100,000 in 2008. Many of the calls were related to antiquated voting machines, names not appearing on voter registration rolls, and polling place confusion.

“What we saw, by and large, was the same problems we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Eric Marshall, manager of legal mobilization for the Lawyers’ Committee. “The biggest theme was the recurring problems: the more things change, the more things stay the same.”

Photo credit: AP/J Pat Carter

 

Welcome To Election Day: 7 Things That Could Go Wrong (Or Already Have)

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

Get ready. Here are all the things that could go wrong (or already have) as Americans head to the polls.

1. Confusion over voter ID laws spurred by ongoing ads, litigation and misinformation

Despite a state judge’s Oct. 2 ruling that Pennsylvania voters are not required to show photo ID this election, the state is continuing with a $5 million ad campaign to broadcast the future requirement: “Show It,” the ad slogan reads, with the words, “if you have it,” in fine print. (Here’s our guide on everything you need to know about voter ID laws.)

A spokesman for the secretary of state told The Washington Post these ads remain “faithful” to the judge’s ruling, which held that elections officials could still ask voters for identification, just not require it.

In addition, the state’s largest utility company, PECO, sent a courtesy newsletter out to 1.3 million customers in seven counties informing them they’d need valid photo ID to vote — though by that time the judge had already ruled they don’t have to.

In Missouri, the Republican candidate for secretary of state is running on a platform favoring a new voter ID law. Because the state doesn’t currently have a photo ID requirement — since the courts struck it down — the outgoing secretary of state has said the campaign focus on photo ID is potentially confusing for voters.

In Tennessee, where a voter ID law went into effect this year, state officials were instructing some counties not to honor photo library cards as an acceptable form of voter ID. The city of Memphis sued, and just last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued the final word: It affirmed a lower court’s ruling that voters can cast regular ballots using free library cards.

2. Disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy — not just in the Northeast

The destruction caused by the storm is expected to disrupt voting somewhat in solidly Democratic New York and New Jersey, but there are indications it is also causing complications for absentee voting in at least one presidential swing state.

Priya Sanghvi, a 28-year-old filmmaker from Arlington County, VA, requested an absentee ballot on time but didn’t get mail at her apartment in downtown New York City all last week. Some mail arrived on Saturday and Monday, but the absentee ballot wasn’t there.

When Sanghvi called the Arlington County registrar, who confirmed that her ballot had been sent out, and Virginia’s Board of Elections, officials told her their hands were tied: The deadline for returning mailed absentee ballots was 7 p.m. on Election Day.

“I’m at a loss,” Sanghvi told ProPublica. “I would literally have to get to Virginia to vote, which I’m not going to be able to do.”

It’s not clear how widespread absentee voting problems related to disruptions in postal service may be.

“We don’t keep statistics on the possible number of ballots that could be delayed due to Hurricane Sandy,” U.S. Postal Service spokesperson Darleen Reid told ProPublica in an email. “There is no way to determine this at this time.”

Arlington County Registrar Linda Lindberg told ProPublica her office had gotten “a few” calls from people whose absentee voting had been disrupted by the storm, including a voter sent to New York as part of the relief effort.

3. Frustration over shortened early voting in Florida has led to lawsuits

In Florida, the Republican-controlled legislature shortened the early voting time frame this year from 14 to eight days — excluding the Sunday before Election Day. The tighter window has resulted in long lines, frustration and litigation. (As we’ve also noted, Florida also has among the most confusing ballots in the country — and it’s really long.)

The Florida Democratic Party filed a federal lawsuit Sunday to compel the state to extend early voting hours — or to at least allow voters in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to cast absentee ballots in person on Monday.

Long wait times prompted the League of Women Voters and the Florida Democratic Party last week to call for Florida Gov. Rick Scott to extend early voting hours in the state. Gov. Scott has refused that request.

4. Newly drawn districts may cause some voters to head to the wrong precinct

In South Carolina, according to the Spartanburg Herald Journal, up to “tens of thousands voters statewide” may have been issued absentee ballots that don’t correspond to their correct district. If a voter turns in an incorrect absentee ballot, he can’t vote again using a correct ballot, according to state elections officials.

Voters in other states may also face confusion fueled by redistricting.

5. Provisional ballots could be crucial — and take a really long time to count

In swing states such as Virginia and Ohio, provisional ballots could be the deciding factor — in 2008, more provisional ballots were cast in Ohio than in any other state besides California.

If a voter in Ohio applies for an absentee ballot, disregards it and shows up to vote on Election Day, the voter can only cast a provisional ballot, which won’t be counted until 11 days after Nov. 6. More on this can be found here.

In addition, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has ordered county elections boards to reject provisional ballots where a voter doesn’t correctly list their ID information. (Ohio law states election officials are supposed to be the ones ensuring the correct information.) Voter advocacy groups have protested the order. A federal judge is expected to rule on the motion by Nov. 17, the first day provisional ballots will be counted in Ohio.

In Virginia, which has a photo ID law, many voters may be handed such provisional ballots if they can’t initially provide an acceptable form of ID.

6. Voter suppression via deceptive mailers, intimidating phone calls

Registered voters in Florida, Virginia and Indiana have received calls from phony elections officials encouraging them to “vote by phone.” The complaints have been reported by both Democrats and Republicans.

Voters in at least 23 Florida counties also received letters on “official-looking election office letterhead” questioning their citizenship and voter eligibility. The mailers, which have also apparently targeted both Republicans and Democrats, have sparked an FBI investigation.

One liberal organization recorded a Republican state party member instructing volunteer poll monitors in New Mexico to demand that voters produce ID and to prevent voters from requesting interpreters.

Some pamphlets in Maricopa County, Ariz., incorrectly listed Election Day as Nov. 8 on the Spanish language side of the ballot, even though the correct Nov. 6 date was printed on the English language side.

7. A tie in the Electoral College

If President Obama and Romney each receive the same number of electoral votes, the House decides the presidency and the Senate the vice-presidency.

In the event of an Electoral College tie, The New York Times reports, “strategists envision an intense post-election campaign of state-by-state recounts, lawsuits, qualification challenges, efforts to flip electors, horse trading and pressure on members of Congress,” resulting in “a highly volatile 11-week obstacle course to Inauguration Day.”

And of course, there doesn’t need to be tie for there to be recount chaos.

Photo by Vox Efx via Flickr.com

 

Reading Guide: Where Romney And Obama Stand On The Supreme Court

by Suevon Lee ProPublica.

The Supreme Court has remained a largely unspoken topic on the campaign trail — even though the Court plays a critical function in Americans’ lives. (This past June’s Affordable Care Act ruling, anyone?)

The next president could very well appoint one or two new justices. And who steps down first could also depend on who’s elected.

Mitt Romney hasn’t said much about the Supreme Court, apart from expressing disagreement with the Court’s ruling on Obamacare. But his website states the candidate would nominate judges “in the mold of” the Court’s conservatives — Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts (the last two of whom then-Senator Obama voted against confirming). It also says Romney would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

President Obama, of course, has appointed two liberal justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the nation’s first Hispanic justice. His past remarks indicate a preference for nominees who bring “common sense” and “pragmatism” to the table, who’d blend Constitutional analysis with “a sense of what real-world folks are going through.”

Legal challenges to such key social issues as same-sex marriage, gun rights, immigration and separation of church and state are likely to be heard by the Supreme Court in the coming years. One justice is all it may take to tip the scale in these cases.

So what exactly have the candidates said, and why hasn’t the Supreme Court been a bigger issue? Let’s take a look.

Mitt Romney

Romney has spoken out against the president’s first-term Supreme Court picks.

In April, Romney told the National Rifle Association that he’s opposed to judges “who view the Constitution as living and evolving, not timeless and defining.”

“In his first term, we’ve seen the president try to browbeat the Supreme Court. In a second term, he would remake it,” Romney said. “Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama Court, not just for four years, but for the next 40. That must not happen.”

Romney has occasionally embraced recent Supreme Court decisions. He praised the Court’s unanimous January 2012 ruling in a religious liberty case that allowed for a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws. He favorably cited another unanimous March 2012 ruling that made it easier for property owners to challenge compliance orders from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The candidate has been vocal about abortion. In June 2011, Romney wrote that he felt Roe v. Wade was a “misguided ruling that was a result of a small group of activist federal judges legislating from the bench.” Early this year, Romney repeated that position, and again in April during an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer.

His running mate, Paul Ryan, also touched on the Court’s role when it comes to abortion. “We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people, through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process, should make this determination,” Ryan said in the vice-presidential debate.

As Vice President Joe Biden pointed out during this debate, one of the people heading Romney’s panel of advisors on judicial appointments is Robert Bork, a Reagan Supreme Court nominee who failed to win Senate confirmation in 1987 over fears he would vote to strike down a range of issues, including Roe v. Wade.

Biden, then the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped lead the opposition. The vacancy to which Bork was nominated eventually went to Justice Anthony Kennedy, typically the Court’s swing vote.

On another note, Romney would have a deep bench from which to select judicial nominees, given Republicans’ vigorous focus on this area. CNN has compiled a list of likely nominees, including former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement — who argued the Affordable Care Act challenge — and an assortment of conservative federal appellate judges.

“Romney would appoint people with a more conservative judicial philosophy, who are not transforming the Constitution, not sticking up for the rights of any particular group and are very neutrally interpreting the law,” said Curt Levey, president of Committee for Justice, an organization that promotes conservative judicial candidates.

President Obama

If Obama is re-elected, there is strong speculation that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court’s oldest member at 79, will retire to make room for a replacement. In that event, argue some, the president would likely nominate another woman (two other justices are also approaching their late 70s: Scalia and Kennedy are both 76.)

“[Obama] would place value on racial and ethnic diversity, but it wouldn’t be determinative,” said Tom Goldstein, co-founder and regular contributor to SCOTUSBlog, which provides news and analysis of the Court’s decisions. “President Obama hasn’t really pushed for very liberal nominees.”

Back in 2008, Obama shed light on his thoughts about the subject.

In remarks to the Detroit Free Press, then-Sen. Obama said he would seek Supreme Court nominees who recognize “that one of the roles of the courts is to protect people who don’t have a voice,” for instance, “the vulnerable, the minority, the outcast, the person with the unpopular idea, the journalist who is shaking things up.”

That same year, Obama, who taught Constitutional Law at University of Chicago Law School, praised former Justice David Souter and current Justice Stephen Breyer — both considered liberal votes — as “very sensible judges.”

“They believe in fidelity to the text of the Constitution, but they also think you have to look at what is going on around you and not just ignore real life,” he said.

Obama has made clear he supports Roe v. Wade, which has been narrowed in the face of new challenges.

In 2010, shortly after Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement, Obama told Senate lawmakers he’d apply no “litmus test” to potential nominees.

“But I will say that I want somebody who is going to be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights, and that includes women’s rights,” the president said, eventually nominating Kagan for the vacancy.

In February 2011, Obama spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act, which seeks to impose a definition of marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, and instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the law in court. A second federal appeals court recently struck down the law as unconstitutional; some predict the issue could next be headed to the Supreme Court.

Although the president has been criticized for taking his time with judicial appointments in the lower federal courts — a gateway to the Supreme Court — he’s also named more ethnic minorities to the bench than any of his predecessors.

More Discussion?

So, why hasn’t there been more discussion about the Supreme Court on the campaign trail? It’s a question that’s been raised again and again, especially since justices, who are appointed for life, serve on average about 30 years.

One possible explanation is that the Supreme Court strategically took itself out of the political calculus earlier this year when it narrowly upheld the health care law.

“[The issue] would have played out a little differently if the Supreme Court had struck down the health care act,” SCOTUSBlog’s Goldstein said. “It’s really hard for the president to run against the Court that has just upheld his signature legislative achievement by a whisker.”

But the silence could also just convey a perceived lack of interest among the public.

“I think the candidates realize that the Supreme Court doesn’t move independent voters,” said Goldstein, even though “the president makes a radical difference in the composition of the judiciary.”

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak, File

 

Big Bird Debate: How Much Does Federal Funding Matter To Public Broadcasting?

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica

Are Big Bird’s 15 minutes up yet? Last week, Mitt Romney pulled public broadcasting into the presidential campaign when he said he would “stop the subsidy” to PBS, despite his love for the furry yellow Muppet.

The remark launched endless Internet memes, fueled late-night television jokes and spawned a satirical Obama campaign ad (which the Sesame Workshop, a private, non-partisan charitable organization, has requested the campaign pull). Given the recent flurry of attention, we thought it would be helpful to examine how much federal funding actually affects public broadcasting.

How large is the federal subsidy to public broadcasting?

It’s not exactly breaking the bank. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity created by Congress in 1967 to disperse funds to non-profit broadcast outlets like PBS and NPR, is set to receive $445 million over the next two years. Per a statutory formula, public television gets about 75 percent of this appropriation while public radio receives 25 percent.

This amounts to roughly .012 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget—or about $1.35 per person per year. Some global perspective: elsewhere in the world, Canada spends $22.48 per citizen, Japan $58.86 per citizen, the United Kingdom $80.36 per citizen, and Denmark, $101 per citizen.

This sounds like a drop in the bucket. Why would Romney focus on such a small figure?

Because Romney’s approach is to target every government program he thinks is “not essential.” The candidate’s current spending plan not only calls for eliminating Obamacare and privatizing Amtrak, but deep reductions in subsidies to CPB and cultural agencies such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities—expenditures he says are “things the American people can’t afford.”

Public broadcasting also happens to be a popular target among conservatives, who’ve long portrayed it as an example of wasteful government spending—in the mid-90s, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed pulling federal funding from the CPB altogether.

Romney’s no exception on the campaign trail. As ABC News’ The Note reports, last week’s debate wasn’t the first time Romney has suggested Sesame Street seek outside advertisers to earn its keep. At a campaign stop last December, Romney told voters, “we’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have to have advertisements, all right?”

How crucial is federal funding to public broadcasting?

Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president told CNN last week that the company receives “very, very little funding from PBS.” Indeed, the non-profit generated nearly two-thirds of its $133 million revenue in 2010 from royalties and product licensing alone, according to its website. Its executives are also handsomely compensated: former CEO and president Gary Knell (who now runs NPR) earned $718,456 in executive pay plus $270,000 in bonuses in 2010. So, as the Washington Post points out, Big Bird doesn’t exactly depend on the federal government for survival.

PBS draws roughly 15 percent of its revenue from the CPB. NPR’s revenue mostly comes from member station dues and fees, with 2 percent coming from CPB-issued grants. Member stations, in turn, receive about 11 percent in federal grants. According to this CPB report, most revenue to both public radio and television (about 59 percent) consists of donations from individuals, corporate underwriters and private grants, followed by state and local support (roughly 20 percent).

But from a leverage standpoint, PBS says it’s pretty important. Each federal dollar local stations receive generates roughly six dollars from local sources as a type of bargaining chip, according to a coalition of public broadcasting stations, producers and viewers.

Are there downsides to scaling back federal funding?

Yes. While shows like “Sesame Street” may remain safe under Romney’s plan, its viewers in remote areas wouldn’t fare as well. Public television and radio stations in poor, rural areas depend the most on federal support to survive. So while large public television markets producing more than $10 million in annual revenue require just 10 percent of federal funds to get by, its counterparts in small towns like Bethel, AL, or Odessa, TX, may very well need up to four times that much to operate.

How many markets could be at risk today?

A CPB-commissioned study released earlier this year estimated 54 public television stations (31 in rural areas) in 19 states are at “high risk” of going dark if stripped of federal funding. The study also found 76 public radio stations (47 in rural areas) in 38 states are at “high risk” of going silent without federal funding.

Aren’t there other sources of news, culture and entertainment over the airwaves?

Yes, but public broadcasting has a specific mission of bringing a distinct brand of educational and cultural programming—free of commercial trappings—to a broad swath of the American public.

In establishing the CPB 45 years ago, Congress envisioned a broadcasting service that would encourage development of programming to address “the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities,” and which could be made “available to all citizens of the United States.”

In some areas of the country, public broadcasting still remains the only option, commercial or otherwise: at least 10 public radio stations around the country offer the only broadcast service—radio or television included—to their community.

Have there been prior attempts to defund public broadcasting?

Yes. In 2010, a flap over the firing of former NPR contributor Juan Williams (now a Fox News contributor) for comments he made about Muslims heightened the cries to cut NPR off from federal grants. Last year, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation to block NPR from receiving such grants.

Today, conservatives also argue that the smorgasbord of media offerings renders the form of public television obsolete. As the National Review recently put it, “If PBS doesn’t do it, 10 million others will.” Others, like Time’s Michael Grunwald, argue that the right to watch commercial-free TV “does not strike me as a basic human right” and that if “private funders feel it’s important for South Dakotans to watch Big Bird, they can make that happen with their own tax-deductible contributions.”

Can public broadcasting turn to alternate forms of funding?

Yes, but with varying degrees of success. In recent years, budget cuts have forced states to decrease funding for public broadcasting, The New York Times reported early this year. CPB also notes that revenue from individual donations went from $373 million in 1999 to $349 million in 2005.

CPB claims private advertising isn’t a solution—and at least one independent analysis estimated it could even lead to net losses by raising operating costs and diminishing support from corporate underwriters or private foundations. According to the report, “a shift to a commercial advertising model would lead to a chase for ratings and move public broadcasters off their fundamental role in lifting the educational and informational boat for all Americans.”

What’s the Obama administration’s stance?

In 2010, the president’s bipartisan deficit budget commission proposed cutting funding to CPB to reduce the federal deficit. But the campaign was quick to seize on the issue with its Big Bird ad. First Lady Michelle Obama followed suit, telling Virginia voters this week, “We all know good and well that cutting Sesame Street is no way to balance a budget.”

The candidates aside, what does the public think?

A March 2011 poll shows that more than two-thirds of the public opposes eliminating government funding for public broadcasting. A more recent poll indicates that 55 percent of voters oppose such cuts to public television.

Photo credit: AP/Matt Sayles, File

 

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 of 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 heard arguments in the case early last week and is expected to issue a decision soon.

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 at 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.

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 birthdates.

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 birthdates 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.”

Photo credit: AP/J. Pat Carter, File

 

A Reading Guide To True The Vote, The Controversial Voter Fraud Watchdog

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

As Nov. 6 approaches, the efforts of True the Vote, a Texas anti-voter fraud group recently profiled by the New York Times, are gaining national attention.

Despite scant evidence of voter fraud, the group is laser-focused on weeding it out. It has pushed for voter-ID laws, voter roll purges and other controversial voting-related measures in a host of states. (Here is our guide to the voter ID controversy, where we note that evidence on both sides of the issue is lacking.)

True the Vote also has promised to deliver 1 million volunteer poll watchers on Election Day, though its resources appear to be quite modest.

Given its annual summits featuring conservative speakers and its hand in spurring voter integrity projects around the country, we thought we’d take a closer look at this activist group.

The basics

True the Vote is a grassroots initiative spun out of a Houston, Texas-based Tea Party organization called King Street Patriots. Its focus is on training volunteers to serve as poll watchers on Election Day and inspecting voter registration rolls for hints of inconsistency to flag to elections officials.

The group believes that citizen vigilance is necessary to protect elections from corruption and fraud.

Its leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, a former poll worker and suburban Texas mom, has repeatedly emphasized the group’s nonpartisanship. “This has absolutely nothing to do with race or creed or color or party or politics, it’s about principle,” Engelbrecht said earlier this year in an interview to NRA News, a channel of the National Rifle Association.

But many of the group’s tactics have come under fire for intimidating would-be voters and raising the specter of voter suppression. True the Vote has been backed mainly by Republican lawmakers and opposed by voting advocates that warn of minority disenfranchisement.

True the Vote did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment about these allegations.

Last year, True the Vote and King Street Patriots jointly released a blueprint for legislation to change voter registration rules. The guide’s recommendations included requiring photo ID to vote, increasing penalties for forged or otherwise fraudulent voter registration applications, prohibiting same-day voter registration, allowing recording devices inside polling precincts and designating English as the “official language of Texas and the only language used on ballots.”

What about funding?

So far, there hasn’t been much. According to True the Vote’s tax forms, the group raised $65,000 in 2010 and $137,000 in 2011.

While much of the money has come from anonymous donors, the New York Times reported that True the Vote received a $35,000 donation in 2011 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization known to award grants to conservative groups.

According to the Times, True the Vote had to return the donation because it was given on the condition that the group’s application for tax-exempt status was approved by the IRS, which has not happened yet. We’ve asked True the Vote about this donation and it didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It’s really going to have 1 million volunteers on Election Day?

That is the goal, says Engelbrecht, the organization’s chief: To “train, mobilize, and merge a million new election workers into the 2012 process,” according to remarks she made last August during a panel hosted by the conservative group Judicial Watch.

But it’s unclear how many volunteers True the Vote actually has.

While True the Vote initially focused on Harris County, Texas – the nation’s third-largest voting district – they say they’ve since expanded into 35 states.

Michael Power, a True the Vote volunteer in Alabama contacted by ProPublica from a Tea Party Patriots group web page, said that his work involves looking out for “voters who are registered at non-residential properties, vacant lots, those types of things,” or reporting fellow poll workers “who might be improperly influencing a person’s ballot.”

According to Power, voter rolls are purchased from the state, but also from “various companies that assemble records from the state,” a strategy outlined here in this profile by ColorLines Magazine.

In interviews, Engelbrecht often discusses her observations as a poll worker during the 2008 election as her “Eureka” moment. In that year, ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, became caught up in a controversy over collecting phony voter registration applications.

In recent months, True the Vote has taken up the mantle of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which requires states to maintain their voter registration rolls by removing the deceased, convicted felons or otherwise ineligible voters from their lists. (In February, a Pew Center on the States report found that 1.8 million dead people are still included on voter rolls while 2.75 million people are registered in more than one state.)

True the Vote has sent letters to 160 counties around the country alleging they have failed to update their voter rolls, according to “Bullies at the Ballot Box,” a report by liberal groups Common Cause and Demos that is critical of True the Vote’s methods.

Through its attorneys, True the Vote has demanded a correction and retraction of the report, which it says contains “misleading information” and “false and defamatory statements.”

Partnerships

True the Vote has helped get out its name by partnering with larger, more prominent organizations. It has co-sponsored events with Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and collaborated with other nonprofits such as Tea Party Patriots in places from Colorado to Alabama to host “Election Integrity” fundraisers and recruitment events.

Its mission also strongly resembles that of Republican-led political action committee Madison Project‘s Code Red USA, which works on “participating in election integrity efforts, and/or participating in cross community engagement.”

Engelbrecht told the New York Times that her group has no connection to Code Red USA.

Connections to the Tea Party King Street Patriots

True the Vote is often referred to as an offshoot of King Street Patriots. The two share leadership: Catherine Engelbrecht, her husband, Bryan Engelbrecht, and a person named Dianne Josephs are all listed as directors on both groups’ tax forms. But a True the Vote spokesman told us that despite these connections, the group keeps separate accounting structures and staff from King Street Patriots.

That is relevant because True the Vote is seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which is for charitable or educational organizations that can only engage in a limited amount of lobbying and can’t support or oppose candidates for elected office.

King Street Patriots, by contrast, is a 501(c)(4) social welfare group, meaning it can engage in an unlimited amount of political lobbying, as long as that is not its primary purpose (the definition of which is extremely murky, as ProPublica’s recent investigation into dark money groups detailed).

While it’s common for c4 groups to have separate charitable arms—The Sierra Club and National Rifle Association are examples of this—they must keep their financial accounting separate, said Lloyd Mayer, a law professor specializing in nonprofits and election law at Notre Dame Law School.

“It can even share a name, but it has to have its own money. That’s the key thing,” Mayer said.

According to a tax filing King Street Patriots provided to ProPublica, the group received $140,722 in donations in 2010. It’s received an extension on its 2011 tax filing.

‘Verify the Recall’

Earlier this year, thousands of True the Vote volunteers got involved in the Wisconsin recall election through an initiative, “Verify the Recall,” that sought to identify illegitimate signatures on a petition to remove Republican Gov. Scott Walker from office.

Using its own methodology, True the Vote concluded that more than 63,000 signatures were ineligible. It also identified 2,590 names that were “potentially false” based on a predetermined list of names the group believed would be used fraudulently on the petition. Organizers declined to share this list with state officials.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, a non-partisan state regulatory agency consisting of six former state judge appointees, later discounted much of the group’s findings and methodology, concluding they were “significantly less accurate, complete, and reliable than the review and analysis completed by the G.A.B.” and that they “would not have survived legal challenge.”

True the Vote’s Lawsuits

Earlier this year, True the Vote teamed up with Judicial Watch to sue elections officials in Ohio and Indiana for their alleged failure to clean up their voter rolls.

In June, the group filed a motion for intervention in a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice to halt the Florida voter purge. Should the purge stop, the group argued, “registered voter members may have their votes cancelled out or diluted by unlawful ballots cast in the names of unlawfully present aliens.”

Florida elections officials originally identified up to 2,600 non-citizens registered to vote in the state. But it turns out the number was actually a lot smaller. Recently, the state reached a partial agreement with voting rights groups, agreeing to notify these flagged voters that they’ll remain eligible to vote in November.

2010 election controversy

In 2010, the Department of Justice launched a probe of alleged voter intimidation efforts by True the Vote poll watchers during the midterm elections in districts near Houston.

That year, a national voter hotline received more than 200 calls alleging voter intimidation – as well as other election snafus – from several states, Texas included. It’s unclear to what extent True the Vote was responsible for those complaints.

The Justice Department investigation didn’t proceed any further. True the Vote didn’t respond to our questions about the episode.

Photo by Vox Efx via Flickr.com

Where The Candidates Stand On Medicare And Medicaid

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica

 

Medicare and Medicaid, which provide medical coverage for seniors, the poor and the disabled, together make up nearly a quarter of all federal spending. With total Medicare spending projected to cost $7.7 trillion over the next 10 years, there is consensus that changes are in order. But what those changes should entail has, of course, been one of the hot-button issues of the campaign.

With the candidates slinging charges, we thought we’d lay out the facts. Here’s a rundown of where the two candidates stand on Medicare and Medicaid:

THE CANDIDATES ON MEDICARE

Big Picture

Earlier this year, the Medicare Board of Trustees estimated that the Medicare hospital trust fund would remain fully funded only until 2024. Medicare would not go bankrupt or disappear, but it wouldn’t have enough money to cover all hospital costs.

Under traditional government-run Medicare, seniors 65 and over and people with disabilities are given health insurance for a fixed set of benefits, in what’s known as fee-for-service coverage. Medicare also offers a subset of private health plans known as Medicare Advantage, in which roughly one-quarter of Medicare beneficiaries are currently enrolled. Obama retains this structure.

The Obama administration has also made moves that it says would keep Medicare afloat. It says the Affordable Care Act would extend solvency by eight years, mainly by imposing tighter spending controls on Medicare payments to private insurers and hospitals.

In contrast, Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, has proposed a more fundamental overhaul of Medicare, which he says is on an “unsustainable path.” On his campaign website, Romney says that Ryan’s proposals “almost precisely mirrors” his ideas on Medicare. But he’s been fuzzy on other aspects of the plan.

A Romney-Ryan administration would replace a defined benefits system with a defined contribution system in which seniors are given federal vouchers to purchase health insurance in a newly created private marketplace known as Medicare Exchange. In this marketplace, private health plans, along with traditional Medicare, would compete for enrollees’ business. These changes wouldn’t start until 2023, meaning current beneficiaries aren’t affected – just those under 55.

Under the Romney-Ryan, the vouchers would be valued at the second-cheapest private plan or traditional Medicare, whichever costs less. Seniors who opt for a more expensive plan would pay the difference. If they choose a cheaper plan, they keep the savings.

Who’s covered

In the current system, people 65 and over are eligible for Medicare, which Obama has said he would keep for now.

Romney has proposed raising the eligibility age for Medicare beneficiaries from 65 to 67 in 2022, then increasing it by a month each year after that. In the long run, he would index eligibility levels to “longevity.” Ryan’s budget plan proposesraising Medicare eligibility age by two months a year starting in 2023, until it reaches 67 by 2034.

Many others looking to keep Medicare solvent have also proposedraising the age of eligibility.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that raising the minimum age from 65 to 67 would reduce annual federal spending by 5 percent. But it would also result in higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs for seniors who would lose access to Medicare.

Obama’s health care law also adds some benefits for seniors, such as annual wellness visits without co-pays, preventive services like free cancer screenings and prescription drug savings.

Proposed Savings

The Affordable Care Act is projected to reduce Medicare spending by $716 billion over the next 10 years. These reductions, as detailed by Washington Post’s Wonkblog, will come mostly from reducing payments to hospitals, nursing homes and private health care providers.

While Ryan criticized such spending cuts in his speech at the Republican National Convention, his own budget proposed keeping these reductions.

“The ACA grows the trust fund by giving more general revenue to the Treasury, which then gives the trust fund bonds. But it then uses the money from those bonds to expand coverage for low- and middle-income people,” explains Dylan Matthews on Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

Romney hasn’t really come up with a solid answer: he previously said he would restore the $716 billion savings that the health care law imposes. Per this New York Times story, the American Institutes for Research calculates this would increase premiums and co-payments for Medicare beneficiaries by $342 a year on average over the next 10 years.

For more on where the candidates stand on the $716 billion, the private health policy Commonwealth Fund offers this helpful explanation.

Caps on Spending

Both Obama and Ryan have set an identical target rate that would cap Medicare spending at one-half a percentage point above the nation’s gross domestic product.

But they have different ideas on mechanisms to achieve it.

The Affordable Care Act establishes a 15-member Independent Payment Advisory Board that, starting in 2015, would make binding recommendations to reduce spending rates. As Jonathan Cohn points out in the New Republic, the commission is prohibited from making any changes that would affect beneficiaries.

Ryan has proposed hard caps on spending and derided this panel of appointed members as “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.” When laying out his plan in a 2011 memo, Ryan wrote that to control spending, “Congress would be required to intervene and could implement policies that change provider reimbursements, program overhead, and means-tested premiums.”

Romney hasn’t stated clear proposals for imposing a cap on spending.

THE CANDIDATES ON MEDICAID

Big Picture

Though, it’s far less discussed on the campaign trail, Medicaid actually covers more people than Medicare. The joint federal-state insurance program for the poor, the disabled, and elderly individuals in long-term nursing home care currently covers about 60 million Americans.  The Affordable Care Act has expanded Medicaid coverage further. Beginning 2014, Medicaid will include people under 65 with income below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $15,000 for an individual, $30,000 for a family of four). This was estimated to cover an additional 17 million Americans as eligible beneficiaries.

In June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could opt out of the Medicaid expansion. A ProPublica analysis estimated that the 26 states that challenged the health care law, and thus may possibly opt out, would account for up to 8.5 million of those new beneficiaries.

Romney and Ryan would overhaul this current system by turning Medicaid into a system of block grants: the federal government would issue lump sum payments to the states, who would determine eligibility criteria and benefits for enrollees. These grants would begin in 2013.

Effects on spending

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Medicaid expansion under the new health care law would cost an additional $642 billion over the next 10 years.

Under the Ryan plan, federal Medicaid grants would be adjusted only for inflation, but not health care costs, which grow at a much higher rate. The CBO estimates Ryan’s plan would save the federal government $800 billion over the next 10 years. Another study conducted by Bloomberg News shows that the block-grants could decrease Medicaid funding by as much as $1.26 trillion over the next nine years.

Actual Impact                                                                                                     

The New York Times points out that more than half of Medicaid spending goes toward the elderly and disabled. An Urban Institute analysis estimates the Ryan plan would result in 14 million to 27 million fewer people receiving Medicaid coverage by 2021.

Though rarely mentioned by any of the candidates, Medicaid costs are soaring to cover the elderly who require long-term nursing care. As the Times’ details how, states saddled by high Medicaid costs have begun turning to private managed care plans to blunt the cost.

Voting Rights Act: The State Of Section Five

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.”

 

Akin Controversy Stirs GOP: Where Do Republicans Stand On Abortion Exemption?

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

 

A Missouri congressman’s startling remarks about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy have set off a torrent of criticism from his fellow Republicans as well as from Democrats. And the episode has made the abortion issue an unwelcome focus for GOP candidates nationwide.

Key leaders in the Republican Party, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are urging Rep. Todd Akin to surrender the Republican nomination for the Missouri Senate seat now held by Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who until now has been looking very vulnerable. As of Tuesday afternoon, Akin was holding fast to the nomination, despite backlash from party members and the irritating distraction for the top of the ticket.

Some political and religious spokespeople were expressing support for Akin. The Washington Post also pointed out that others in the past have embraced Akin’s assertion that the trauma of rape can block pregnancy.

By now, Akin’s words — since disavowed — are etched in the public consciousness: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Akin, who opposes abortion in all cases, said Sunday while interviewed on a St. Louis television station. The congressman later apologized, saying he “misspoke” and that “rape is never legitimate.”

The GOP party platform, which is staunchly pro-life, has not come out in favor of an abortion exemption in cases of rape or incest. Neither the 2004 nor 2008 platforms included such exceptions. News reports state that language of the 2012 platform, heading to a vote next week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, will similarly stay silent on these circumstances.

What these platforms do include is support for a “human life amendment” to the Constitution that would bestow variously defined legal rights on human embryos.

(In contrast, the Democratic Party has expressed a firmer pro-choice stance in recent years, stating in 2008 that it “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion” while in 2004, it stated that abortion “should be safe, legal, and rare.”)

Across the board, Republicans are divided over abortion exemptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, with most remaining either unconditionally opposed or supporting an exception only when the mother’s life is threatened.

Broader GOP support for the no-exception rule, in any case, is not unusual: the Texas Tribune reports that state officials from Gov. Rick Perry to Attorney General Greg Abbott only support abortion when it endangers the health of the mother. However, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain had long supported such exceptions, according to the New York Times.

Romney has a more complex history with such exceptions — and abortion in general. Pro-choice in the early days of his political career, Romney switched his position to pro-life in late 2004, while still governor of Massachusetts.

In July 2005, then-Gov. Romney vetoed a bill to make emergency contraception — including the so-called morning-after pill — available over the counter and require that hospitals offer it to rape victims. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Romney explained that he believed the drug could terminate life after conception and reaffirmed his anti-abortion position. He also said, however, “I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother.” In any case, his veto was overturned by the Massachusetts Legislature.

By December 2005, shortly before the contraception law was to take effect, Romney ordered even Catholic hospitals to provide the morning-after pill to rape victims. In remarks to the Globe, he said, “My personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information.”

Despite a 2012 Obama ad that claims Romney favors legislation banning abortion in all cases, Romney has publicly restated his support for abortion exemptions as recently as last year.

Following Rep. Akin’s controversial remarks, a Romney spokeswoman released a statement Sunday night affirming that “a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” By Monday morning, candidate Romney issued a personal rebuke, telling National Review Online that Akin’s comments were “insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong.”

While Romney’s own views on abortion have been consistent for the last seven years, his selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate could muddle the picture. Ryan’s views on abortion are much narrower, as news outlets have documented. While running for his congressional seat in Wisconsin, Ryan said he opposed abortions in all cases except to save the life of the mother, according to a 1998 profile by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“I’m as pro-life as a person gets,” Ryan told the Weekly Standard in July 2010.

Last year, Ryan, with Akin, was one of 64 co-sponsors of the “Sanctity of Human Life Act,” also known as the Personhood Amendment, which designates the start of human life at fertilization and includes no explicit exemptions for abortion, even for health of the mother. He was also a co-sponsor, along with Akin, of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which once included a controversial measure limiting Medicaid funding for abortions to “forcible rape,” that narrowed the definition to exclude statutory rape and other circumstances.

 

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Voter ID Laws

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

 

July 24: This post has been updated and corrected.

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 advocates 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.

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 2014 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 2014 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.

Are there any other legal challenges to such laws currently in the works?

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to prevent the Pennsylvania voter ID law, signed into law by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in March, from taking effect. The lawsuit claims that elderly, disabled, low-income people and the homeless, plus married women who have changed their names, transgender individuals, and students who have photo IDs that don’t list an expiration date, will find it difficult to obtain proper ID before the November election.

In the latest development, the DOJ has now launched an investigation into 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.

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: 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.

 

Chesapeake Energy Cheat Sheet: What’s Been Uncovered So Far

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica

The last four months have been rather bumpy for Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation’s second-largest natural gas company behind Exxon Mobil.

Starting in April, Reuters took aim at the company’s flamboyant chief executive, Aubrey McClendon, in a series of articles, prompting his ouster as company chairman (he remains CEO) last month at the behest of disgruntled shareholders. The revelations also triggered an SEC probe.

The company was rocked anew last week when the news agency disclosed a series of email exchanges in which McClendon and other Chesapeake executives appeared to collude with officials at EnCana Corp., Canada’s largest natural gas company, to suppress the price of land leases in Michigan.

Reuters reported on Monday that the Justice Department has launched a probe into whether these communications violated laws against price fixing.

As a prominent player in the national debate over hydraulic fracturing, Chesapeake was hardly a stranger to controversy even before the Reuters investigation. Last May, ProPublica reported that Chesapeake was fined more than $1 million by Pennsylvania state officials — the largest fine the state had issued to an oil and gas company — for contaminating water supplies in Bradford County.

The company’s business practices earlier came under criticism when it emerged in mid-2009 that Chesapeake’s board gave McClendon a $112.5 million pay package in 2008 even as the company’s stock dropped 58 percent amid slumping natural gas prices. The contract, which included a $75 million bonus and other generous perks, was brokered as McClendon staved off a personal financial crisis by selling off approximately $552 million worth of Chesapeake shares over a three-day stretch to cover margin calls.

Shareholders expressed their displeasure with the generous compensation package, the highest awarded to any Fortune 500 CEO in 2008, by suing Chesapeake. In 2011, as part of a settlement, McClendon agreed to buy back a collection of antique maps sold to the company for $12 million under the 2008 plan. Today, the 52-year-old, who owns a 19 percent stake in the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, has an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion.

Here are some of the key findings from the recent Reuters series:

· McClendon failed to disclose up to $1.1 billion in personal loans borrowed against his share of company oil and gas wells under a unique company program that gave the former chairman a 2.5 percent stake in the profits of thousands of drilled wells. The program has since been dropped.

· For a time, McClendon operated a $200 million hedge fund that traded in oil and gas contracts. Experts have called this problematic since insider knowledge that McClendon gained as head of Chesapeake could have helped boost his personal profits at the expense of the company. Tom Ward, Chesapeake’s co-founder and McClendon’s hedge fund partner, has denied there was a conflict of interest. “We did not use any proprietary knowledge of (Chesapeake) trades to make our own individual decisions,” he told Reuters. Forbes has more on the potential breach of duty created by the fund, the existence of which wasn’t disclosed to shareholders.

· According to Reuters, top officials at Chesapeake and EnCana exchanged emails between June and October 2010, discussing ways to avoid bidding against each other at a Michigan public land auction in order to keep land prices down. The emails discussed dividing up counties to acquire land without competing against each other. McClendon, according to the story, wrote in an email to a subordinate that it was time “to smoke a peace pipe” with EnCana executives “if we are bidding each other up.”

Reuters reported that it was unclear whether the rival energy giants “consummated any collusive agreements,” but an analysis of the auction results showed that “neither company bought any land in the same county as the other.”

A spokesman for Chesapeake had no comment regarding Reuters‘ findings or the reports about the Justice Department investigation. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the findings. In a June 25 press release, EnCana officials stated that an investigation into the collusion matter had been “immediately initiated.”

In the event of criminal prosecution, the potential consequences are substantial. Under the Sherman Antitrust Act, price fixing is a felony, punishable by fines of up to $100 million for companies and $1 million for company officials.

The scrutiny of Chesapeake’s corporate practices comes during a prolonged slide in natural gas prices, which reached their lowest levels in a decade in April. Chesapeake has a projected cash flow shortfall this year surpassing $10 billion.

The spotlight on the company isn’t going away: on Monday, Bloomberg reported that over its 23-year history, Chesapeake had paid just $53 million in income taxes on $5.5 billion in pretax profits, a rate of about 1 percent, thanks to a rule that allows U.S. oil and gas producers to postpone payments to account for the inherent costs of well drilling.

Why The Feds Are Suing Florida For Allegedly Purging Voters

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Florida over its voter purge program aimed at removing non-citizens from voter rolls. We’ve taken a closer look at the controversy surrounding the program and why the federal government has gotten involved:

So what is Florida doing and why is it so controversial?

Florida has compiled a list of potential non-citizen registered voters using data provided by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. It has sent the list to county election supervisors and requested that the supervisors contact flagged voters to verify their citizenship.

In its suit, the Justice department has claimed the data is “outdated and inaccurate” and may mistakenly identify registered voters who are U.S. citizens, depriving them of their right to vote. In response, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has reiterated his support for the initiative, which he says is necessary to preserve the integrity of voting rolls.

Isn’t it important to perform such voter roll purges to make sure voter lists are up-to-date?

Yes, every state must go through its voter rolls in order to account for death, relocation out of state, or change in eligibility due to a criminal conviction or mental incapacitation. (Read more about purge practices in this 2008 report).

And of course, only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote in this country.

Florida is not the first state to flag the issue of non-citizen voting: both New Mexico and Colorado have taken similar steps. But Florida’s efforts — directing county officials to purge suspected non-citizens from the voter rolls — are getting extra attention because it’s happening so close to a presidential election.

Florida officials say they’re ordering the purge because of concerns about voter fraud. Such voting fraud appears to be quite rare, perhaps because the penalties are strict — it’s a felony in Florida and many other states — and the payoff relatively modest (a single vote). A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found very few cases. The report suggested that what was thought to be fraud was more often a result of registration error or other mistakes.

How many non-citizen voters has Florida found?

One hundred and five, according to Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida Department of State. Those are non-citizens who are registered to vote. Fifty six of them have “a voting history,” said Cate. He could not provide the number of times these people cast a ballot. Florida has 11 million registered voters.

How many U.S. citizens are at risk of being purged from the voter roll?

It’s not clear.

Some news reports place the number at 500. (Here is a profile of one of the most widely publicized cases.)

Election supervisors in every county have been instructed to send a form letter notifying a person that he or she has been flagged by state driver’s license records for suspect eligibility and must send in proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers). If a person fails to respond within 30 days, a public notice is published in the newspaper. If another 30 days pass with no response, election supervisors can remove that person from the voting rolls.

That gives flagged voters a total of 60 days to object. And isn’t this all happening pretty close to the elections?

Yes, it’s a tight timeframe and that’s why the Justice Department says it’s suing.

The federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 prohibits any action designed to adjust voter registration status 90 days before any federal election. As the government has pointed out, Florida holds its primary election for both parties on August 14 — less than 90 days away.

One provision of the law is meant to safeguard against potential error and give residents ample opportunity to challenge any false registration claims well before they head to the polls. That required 90-day window has appeared in litigation between other states and advocacy groups in previous years.

Are county officials following through on the purge?

No, only a few are.

Most of the election supervisors in Florida are opposed to the state’s voter purge initiative and have said they won’t follow through on it.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, for instance, has refused to contact any of the 115 suspected non-citizens in her county after observing that some of their interactions with the DMV dated as far back as 12 years.

“We knew the information was old,” Bucher told ProPublica.

Earl Lennard, an election supervisor in Hillsborough County, said his office won’t contact any more flagged residents “without any corroboration or additional information.”

Moreover, the general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections has recommended supervisors refrain from taking any further action until the government’s lawsuit is resolved.

If Florida is being too rushed, is there a better way to do it?

It depends whom you ask. The problem with state driver’s license records is that citizenship status can change without the DMV’s knowledge. A non-citizen who obtains a driver’s license and happens to register to vote at that time can become naturalized down the road. This new information won’t be reflected in DMV records unless that person later returned to renew their license.

The Florida Department of State acknowledges these potential limitations and has therefore sought to gain access to a federal database known as SAVE, for Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements. That database provides immigration status information to federal, state and local agencies to determine eligibility for public benefits and licenses. The Department of Homeland Security, which maintains the database, has refused to turn over the data; a June 11 Justice Department letter to Florida officials claims they must first give DHS more information about residents. Florida actually sued the federal government on Monday to get the data.

In interviews, Gov. Scott has accused the federal government of stonewalling his request, first made in September 2011.

That raises the question of why Gov. Scott’s administration has chosen to focus on this initiative now. Florida has been a key swing state, if not the decider, of past presidential elections. According to the Miami Herald, many of the voters flagged during the process have been registered independent. The Herald also reports that the voter purge was on Scott’s mind ever since early last year. Then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning told the paper he was reluctant to implement the initiative because “we didn’t have our I’s dotted and T’s crossed when I was there.”

“I wanted to make sure the data was good if it went out under my name,” Browning told the Herald.

Hasn’t there also been controversy over voter suppression in Florida?

Some critics of the voter-purge initiative say this is just one of a series of steps Gov. Rick Scott has taken to curtail voting rights. Within the last year, Florida has shortened the time frame for early voting, imposed tougher restrictions on voter registration drives and made it more difficult for released felons to regain the right to vote.  One Florida senator has compared the latest initiative with the state’s  improper removal of 1,100 eligible felons from voter rolls prior to the 2000 election.

The more stringent voting requirements are part of a national trend. Since early 2011, 41 states have introduced bills outlining more restrictive measures on voting procedures.