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- 08/09/16--02:01: _An alleged housing ...
- 08/10/16--13:50: _Analysis: Donald Tr...
- 08/10/16--11:32: _New data on dark mo...
- 08/11/16--02:01: _A reality check on ...
- 08/12/16--07:37: _High profits fertil...
- 08/12/16--11:25: _Congressman-car dea...
- 08/12/16--10:50: _Center environmenta...
- 08/17/16--19:57: _HUD mortgage sales ...
- 08/18/16--12:21: _How Bernie Sanders ...
- 08/18/16--13:16: _Shedding new light ...
- 08/20/16--02:01: _New laws leave vote...
- 08/20/16--14:00: _Super PACs boost Li...
- 08/20/16--21:31: _21 numbers to know ...
- 08/21/16--02:01: _A review of key sta...
- 08/22/16--02:01: _America scrubs mill...
- 08/23/16--02:01: _New voting laws in ...
- 08/24/16--11:30: _Asian-American popu...
- 08/24/16--11:49: _Liberal billionaire...
- 08/25/16--02:01: _Frustrated with Dem...
- 08/26/16--12:41: _Reports to the fede...
- 08/09/16--02:01: An alleged housing scam grows in Brooklyn
- 08/10/16--13:50: Analysis: Donald Trump, propagandist-in-chief?
- 08/10/16--11:32: New data on dark money, a dirty bomb scare and more
- 08/11/16--02:01: A reality check on crime
- 08/12/16--07:37: High profits fertilize five new marijuana ballot measures
- 08/12/16--11:25: Congressman-car dealer refuses to cooperate with investigators
- 08/17/16--19:57: HUD mortgage sales harm black neighborhoods, lawsuit says
- 08/18/16--12:21: How Bernie Sanders beat the clock — and avoided disclosure
- 08/18/16--13:16: Shedding new light on presidential campaign TV ads
- Presidential campaigns, along with organizations advocating for or against presidential candidates, have already aired more than 104,000 TV ads on broadcast and national cable outlets.
- Clinton and her political allies — primarily supportive super PACs — account for more than 90 percent of all TV ads. Clinton's own campaign leads all organizations with nearly 68,000 ad spots aired. Next is pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action, with more than 25,000 ad spots.
- Trump's campaign hasn't aired a single TV ad during the general election, although that will soon change, as Trump is planning a significant TV ad blitz. To date, only about 7,000 TV ads have been sponsored by a pair of pro-Trump groups — the NRA Political Victory Fund and the Rebuilding America Now super PAC.
- Live in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Virginia? You're enduring the brunt of the presidential TV ad blitz so far. Floridians alone have seen more than 23,500 ads — more than residents of any other state.
- 08/20/16--02:01: New laws leave voters to navigate maze of requirements
- 08/20/16--21:31: 21 numbers to know about the 2016 White House race
- 08/22/16--02:01: America scrubs millions from the voter rolls. Is it fair?
- 08/24/16--11:30: Asian-American population surges, but voter turnout still lags
- 08/24/16--11:49: Liberal billionaires bankroll Hillary Clinton’s super PAC attack dog
- 08/25/16--02:01: Frustrated with Democrats, white working-class voters turn to Trump
This is the fifth and final installment in an investigative series on the federal government's loan modification program.
On a cool evening in early November 2014, a Rolls Royce pulled up to Joseph Clarke’s modest home in Brooklyn, New York. Two men stepped out, approached the front door and bluntly announced they were the property’s new owners.
Clarke, 65, and his wife, Jacqueline Knights, 64, were stunned. Just hours earlier, Clarke had been at the offices of a local foreclosure “rescue” firm where a lawyer handed him papers to sign — documents Clarke, who had lost income due to an injury, said he believed would save his home of 15 years from being taken over by the bank.
Instead, the owners of the firm tricked him into authorizing a short sale of the property to a company they also ran, Clarke and Knights alleged in a lawsuit filed last year.
“I took what they said for granted,” Clarke said in an interview. He said he was told the lawyer was present to represent his interests, which he trusted.
“I assumed they knew what they were doing,” said Clarke, a retired driver for United Parcel Service.
Since the nation’s housing bubble burst nearly a decade ago, tens of thousands of distressed homeowners have alleged they were cheated by foreclosure-prevention and mortgage-reduction firms, in which attorneys often have played pivotal roles.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation links tens of millions of dollars in consumer losses to firms that participated in a government-backed mortgage-reduction program called loan modification. Over the years, many schemes have apparently targeted minorities, charging thousands of dollars for help in reducing their mortgage payments or for other services the firms never delivered.
The scams continue to this day.
In Brooklyn, alleged abuses of the federal loan-modification initiative have proven even more costly — in some cases taking peoples’ homes.
One group of foreclosure specialists in the New York area, where housing prices have soared, has been singled out for allegedly targeting minorities and immigrant homeowners with financial troubles and wresting away their property through short-sale scams or other fraudulent deed transfers.
“There’s kind of an insatiable thirst for property in New York City. It can’t be quenched,” said Jennifer Eisenberg, a staff attorney with South Brooklyn Legal Services, who represents Clarke and Knights in their court battle.
The couple is suing Homeowner Assistance Services of New York and related companies. Their case is one of more than a dozen civil suits filed by aggrieved homeowners since 2013 that allege wrongdoing by the foreclosure group or its associates.
Many homeowners tell similar stories of unwittingly signing over deeds to their property — and then facing harassment or an eviction notice, or both, from the new owners. New York City property records show the groups operated mainly in neighborhoods that are more than 70 percent minority, and include many immigrants with limited understanding of legal and property issues.
Three men associated with Homeowner Assistance Services and its related companies, such as Launch Development LLC, also are facing criminal charges.
Amir Meiri, Mario Alvarenga and lawyer Rajesh Maddiwar were indicted in May 2015 by a federal grand jury in New York on conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and telemarketing fraud charges. All have pleaded not guilty. Three others associated with Launch Development have also been charged in the case.
Real estate developer Meiri, who has lived in a $4.8 million home in Great Neck, New York, began trolling for the property of less fortunate homeowners as early as January 2013, according to an FBI complaint filed to support the criminal case. It says Meiri instructed Launch Development employees to search online for distressed properties in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx on propertysharks.com, a website that provides ownership and financial details on residential and commercial properties.
Launch Development then sent owners mailers offering foreclosure relief services using the letterhead of Homeowner Assistance Services of New York, or HASNY. Telemarketers followed up by inviting the homeowners to a meeting at HASNY offices in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens to hear more about steps to avoid foreclosure.
HASNY also pitched its services on a website that said: “Homeowners unable to make their mortgage payments can look for alternatives to avoid foreclosure. … Let us work on your situation and preserve your dream of homeownership.”
One of the “alternatives” HASNY touted was loan modification, created by federal officials in 2009 to encourage lenders to voluntarily reduce mortgage payments to a more affordable level.
Federal officials expected loan modification to keep millions of Americans from losing their homes. But almost from the start, the program has been marred by scam artists who charged thousands of dollars for services they never delivered.
Since 2010, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has collected more than 46,000 complaints alleging losses topping $100 million from scams, which often attracted customers through misleading, if not downright false, promises made by telemarketers, deceptive mailings or websites. Losses have been the highest in minority communities, complaint data show.
Federal prosecutors allege that HASNY and its affiliates dangled the possibility of a loan modification to lure many homeowners whose property they later made their own.
The FBI complaint cites the experience of a woman who thought she was applying for a loan modification at HASNY’s office in Hollis, but wound up selling her home to Launch Development.
The woman, who is identified only as “Victim-4,” had fallen behind on mortgage payments on her Brooklyn home and in December 2013 asked HASNY to arrange a loan modification.
After a meeting in early 2014 at the HASNY offices she met Rajesh Maddiwar, who was said to be there to act as her attorney. The woman signed papers, some of which were blank, which Maddiwar allegedly told her was “normal and typical” for loan modifications, according to the FBI.
In actuality, she had just sold her home to Launch Development for about $335,000. That’s less than half of what she paid in October 2006, according to the FBI, which added that the woman moved out in August 2014, after the new owners began eviction proceedings.
Just how many people lost their homes is not clear. The FBI found, however, that Launch Development had targeted 219 properties in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens by filing bogus Uniform Commercial Code liens indicating that the homeowners owed the company a debt. This was done to discourage the property’s sale to any party but Launch Development, authorities said.
The government’s forfeiture motion says that at least 58 properties were obtained as part of the scam, including the 9,400-square-foot home in Great Neck and the HASNY office building in Hollis. The forfeiture motion seeks those properties, or the proceeds from their sale. Seventeen of the properties were sold for nearly $9 million, according to the government.
‘I Got Tricked’
Joseph Clarke bought the two-story frame house on East 95th Street in Canarsie, a neighborhood in southeastern Brooklyn, in 1999. He liked the off-street parking, good-sized backyard and the upstairs apartment. That’s a common feature in neighborhoods where many owners rely on tenants to help with hefty mortgage payments.
But in early February 2013, Clarke was in default on the mortgage and threatened with foreclosure. He said he was unable to get a stable tenant and had an injury that kept him off the job, cutting his income.
In late 2013, Clarke took a call from a HASNY representative who claimed she could help him refinance his loan and stay in the house. He said he felt comfortable dealing with the woman because he could tell from her accent that she also was of Guyanese descent.
But after months of reviewing paperwork he submitted, HASNY told him that his “credit was shot,” according to the lawsuit, and his “best option” would be a short sale. Clarke said he was told he could “buy back” the property and would never have to leave.
In November 2014, Clarke signed forms in HASNY’s conference room, documents that he said he didn’t understand. What he signed turned out to be a deal to sell his property for $210,000, according to the suit.
He had never met lawyer Elliot Bakst, who was said to be there representing Clarke’s interests, nor did the lawyer offer to answer any questions. According to the lawsuit, Bakst didn’t explain to Clarke what he was signing and told him he “wouldn’t need copies of these documents.”
About a month after the closing on Clarke’s home, the Supreme Court of New York suspended Bakst from practicing law for misconduct involving other unrelated real estate transactions. He has since been disbarred.
A few hours after the closing, when the two men first showed up at his door, Clarke realized his mistake.
“When the guy comes and says he’s the new owner, that’s when I realized I got tricked,” Clarke said in an interview.
Clarke said the men told him he could buy the house back in 90 days with a down payment of $20,000. When he refused to sign more papers, the men said he would have to move out within 10 days or start paying rent of $5,600 a month, an impossibly high figure.
Appearance of Legitimacy
During the next few months, neighbors saw the Rolls Royce and a Lamborghini parked outside with men watching the home, according to the complaint.
Clark and his wife, Knights, said the new owners stepped up harassment to pressure them to move out, but they refused. At one point, four men tried to change the locks on an interior door, but three of them left after Knights called the police.
A man who remained told police the home had new owners. When police asked to see the deed to the property, and neither the man nor Knights could immediately produce it, officers advised Knights to contact an attorney and told the man to leave, according to the lawsuit.
Eviction papers were served on the couple in February 2015. In April 2015, Clarke obtained a temporary restraining order blocking the eviction, but the title to the home is still in dispute.
“Ever since then we have been afraid that we will be forced out of our home, with no place to live. Our home is our only asset and an important source of income,” Clarke wrote in a discrimination complaint he filed in April of this year with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Clarke’s lawyers at South Brooklyn Legal Services argue the case reflects a pattern of “obtaining title to homes through a pattern of deception and fraud.” The suit seeks to invalidate the sale by claiming it was fraudulent.
Clarke never would have signed the papers had he known it could have led to an eviction. Attorney Bakst never explained that simple fact, according to the complaint, and his presence was “nothing more than a sham to lend an appearance of legitimacy to a fraudulent scheme,” according to the suit.
Other suits against Launch Development make similar accusations, such as the case filed by Milton Shaw, also an immigrant from Guyana, who lost a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
In early 2014, Shaw, then 66 and an unemployed bindery worker, thought he would lose his home to foreclosure.
HASNY promised him he could “re-establish” his mortgage, according to the suit. Instead, he signed documents that sold the property for $350,000 to Launch Development. At the time, his home was worth about $850,000, and Shaw owed about $615,000 on the mortgage. But the short sale wiped out the equity, according to the suit.
Shaw also said he was put at ease by the presence of Maddiwar, the attorney charged in the criminal case.
According to the lawsuit, Maddiwar kept passing documents to Shaw for his signature, but “did not explain the nature or consequences of these documents.”
Maddiwar’s attorney, Michael L. Soshnick, had no comment. Soshnick said in a January court hearing that Maddiwar’s arrest had “devastated his law practice … and we just want him to be vindicated as quickly as possible.”
Other property owners caught in the same circumstances are keeping an eye on the criminal case, though they aren’t sure how it will end for them.
Federal prosecutors filed legal papers in May seeking the forfeiture of dozens of properties owned by the firm, including homes they took from Clarke and Shaw.
Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, said prosecutors contend the properties on the forfeiture list were “fraudulently acquired.” In an email, Biase wrote: “We decline comment on what would happen to them — other than that, if the government prevails, the properties would be forfeited.” He said the case is set for trial in early 2017.
Clarke said he hopes that if the government gets the deed to the house, officials will give it back to him.
“After 17 years in that house, it’s a part of me,” Clarke said.
The Trump phenomenon can’t be explained through factual reporting and reasoned analysis on his positions. What’s really going on here is an exercise in the art of propaganda. Effective propaganda isn’t about facts and policy, it’s about emotion.
In Trump’s case, the emotions being provoked are fear and rage.
Trump seems to come by this talent naturally. His methods for stirring up the masses, though, are tried and true and have been used over and again throughout the course of history.
Propaganda has been deployed by politicians in both parties, not to mention advertisers and public relations professionals. But seldom has there been a candidate who has used it so deftly. He also takes it to extremes, said Aaron Delwiche, a professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and an expert on the subject.
“He does not hesitate to demonize large groups of people,” he said. “That, I think, is new. You would have been more likely to hear that rhetoric on Internet forums and on talk radio.”
Appeal to fear
Trump’s view of America in his convention speech was widely described as “dystopian.” The New York Times editorial board wrote that his intention was to “terrify voters into supporting him.”
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” said Trump. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”
What followed was a litany of alarming statistics, many of them since refuted by fact-checkers, laying out just how dire the situation is for Americans. The economy is in the Dumpster. Terrorists frolic in our midst. Immigrants are endangering our safety.
“Together, we will lead our party back to the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace,” he said. “We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order.”
In 1932, another budding politician used an appeal to fear to rally the masses, notes Delwiche on his handy website, which delves into these techniques. That was Adolf Hitler. It’s absurd to compare Trump to Hitler, but it’s important to grasp how powerful the fear card can be.
“By playing on the audience's deep-seated fears, practitioners of this technique hope to redirect attention away from the merits of a particular proposal and toward steps that can be taken to reduce the fear,” writes Delwiche.
The professor bases his website largely on the work of the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis, created in 1937 to educate the public about the dangers of the propaganda. The privately funded institute was staffed by social scientists, opinion leaders, historians, educators, and journalists. It ran out of money in 1942.
Appeals to fear work better if there are recommendations for reducing the threat. Trump’s proposals to ban the immigration of Muslims to the U.S. and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — and make Mexico pay for it — are simple solutions that have no doubt appealed to his followers.
‘She’s the Devil’
Trump is famous for his name calling, which is also an effective technique, according to information published by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis.
In addition to referring to Clinton as the Devil, Trump also calls her “crooked Hillary.” He’s also called U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, his former primary opponent, “lyin’ Ted.” He’s called Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida “little Marco” and Jeb Bush “low-energy Jeb.” Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is called “goofy” and “Pocahontas.”
Why is such a seemingly juvenile practice so effective?
“The name-calling technique links a person, or idea, to a negative symbol,” Delwiche writes. “The propagandist who uses this technique hopes that the audience will reject the person or the idea on the basis of the negative symbol, instead of looking at the available evidence.”
This is closely related to scapegoating, another effective technique. An excellent example: Trump blaming the ills of the nation’s economy on immigration — Mexicans crossing the border. He’s also had harsh words for China.
But Hillary Clinton is the true enemy, as portrayed by Trump and his supporters.
Tell a lie often enough…
Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister in Nazi Germany, knew that the facts were often inconvenient, and in the end, irrelevant when the goal was to whip the masses into a frenzy.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” he is alleged to have said.
PolitiFact, the fact-checking website, awarded Trump the 2015 “Lie of the Year” award for a series of false statements. The site rated 76 percent of 77 statements “Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.”
“No other politician has as many statements rated so far down on the dial,” reported the website.
Among them, his claim that “thousands of people” in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center came down on Sept. 11, 2001. Public safety officials say it never happened.
Trump has flummoxed the fact checkers.
The Poynter Institute quoted Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact checker, as saying: “Trump is unusual in that even though he’s corrected or fact-checked, he keeps saying it, says it over and over.”
Trump also uses what’s known as “glittering generalities,” a propaganda device common to politics. It is basically name calling in reverse. His campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again,” is an illuminating example. Great how? And for whom?
Glittering generalities are words that have no specific meaning. They appeal to the emotions and are associated with high-minded ideals and beliefs. They inspire us, yet are usually not accompanied by specifics.
The close of Trump’s convention speech marked the pinnacle of his use of the technique.
“To all Americans tonight, in all our cities and towns, I make this promise: We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And We Will Make America Great Again.”
Well, who can’t get behind that?
John Dunbar is deputy executive editor and political editor for The Center for Public Integrity. He is also creator of The Misinformation Industry, a project that looks at propaganda and other misleading communication techniques used in the mass media.
Fresh data on dark money
Data journalism is crucial to the Center as we seek to put unarguable fact and depth of background into our work.
News applications developer Chris Zubak-Skees is something of a star-cum-quiet achiever in this area, constantly noodling with existing and prospective datasets and thinking of ways to display data that add value to our journalism and contribute to the core mission of shedding light on money in politics.
Anyone concerned about the flow of untraceable money into the U.S. political process will benefit greatly from the latest remarkable tool that Chris created, which we released last week. Users of “The Nonprofit Network” tool can trace grants made to “dark money” groups, organizations that participate in elections, but are not required to reveal the sources of their funding.
Creation of the tool has already generated stories of its own. And other organizations working in the area of promoting transparency have reached out to Chris and the team with rave reviews like these:
"Great job, we are working on building something like that as well. You beat us to it” and “This new research tool is excellent! Thank you for developing this resource….this is precisely the tool I needed to run additional queries on groups for which I’d hit a dead end.” and “The tool you developed is fantastic! It’s going to make researching organizations much easier. I’ve already discovered things I didn’t know.”
Dirty bomb risks
National security reporter Patrick Malone and managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith send a shiver of concern down anyone’s spine with a piece— co-published with our home town friends at the Washington Post and with the Texas Tribune— on the ease of assembling a dirty bomb.
It’s part of a long-standing project led by Jeff and with his team on nuclear proliferation and analysis of the ways in which fissile material is stored across the United States. Their work makes grim reading if you thought those issues were dealt with with after the Cold War.
The piece spread rapidly across the net this week with citations in more than 23 U.S publications online.
Jeff elaborates: "It explains how a secret group in three states (actually a bunch of GAO auditors) was able to purchase the radioactive ingredients of a dirty bomb without difficulty despite regulations meant to prevent such illicit sales. While the GAO published a poorly-written and highly-vague report about it last month, Patrick’s wonderful reporting teased out key details, including the location where the regulatory controls fell apart (Dallas, Texas), and the type of radioactive materials that were involved. It can probably be termed a worrisome success for the federal auditors who conceived of the sting and carried it out, since it highlighted a gap in federal oversight that needs to be closed quickly.”
Also on Jeff’s team Lauren Chadwick published a strong account of how Afghanistan’s persistent use of child soldiers has been ignored by the Obama administration so it can keep aid money flowing there, despite a U.S. law that bars foreign aid for countries that employ child soldiers. It also ran in Foreign Policy magazine.
Recognition for our work
Encore kudos to Talia Buford and Kristen Lombardi, and environment editor Jim Morris, for their series “Environmental Justice Denied,” which received two Salute to Excellence awards last weekend from the National Association of Black Journalists; NABJ was meeting here in Washington with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Talia, Kristen, Susan Ferriss and Ben Wieder also put on a panel at the convention —“The Data Have a Familiar Face” —about how to create compelling narratives out of deep data research.
What we’re reading and thinking about
I’m just about to finish a remarkable take on the Holocaust by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. His latest book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” is a forensic analysis of the way conditions in eastern Europe became ripe for the Holocaust and what lessons they have for today.
It’s something I drew on recently in a piece for The New European, a “pop up” newspaper which emerged on the pro-European side after the recent Brexit vote. Snyder, a long time collaborator with the late Tony Judt, offers a chilling view of the risks of the European Union being undermined by right wing forces and the wedges pushed into it by the tactics of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his tactics of “hybrid war”. Snyder, writing a year or more before Brexit, says: “The EU not only embodies a tradition of learning from the Second World War, it also supports sensible climate policies and bolsters the sovereignty of small states. Its collapse would thus weaken the structures that separate the Europeans of today from a history of mass killing.”
I welcome feedback on this note. Thank you.
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity
When Secretary of State Michele Reagan put her stamp of approval on petitions bearing 177,000 signatures in Phoenix Thursday, Arizona became the fifth state to schedule a ballot measure for November on legalizing recreational marijuana — joining California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts.
Each of the measures calls for making it legal for people over age 21 to possess small amounts of pot, taxing the drug and allowing regulated stores to sell it. Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota will vote this fall on legalizing medical marijuana. And Oklahoma may yet join the fray.
The activity is a sign of just how much momentum the movement has picked up in only a few years. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to pass ballot measures making the sale and use of pot legal. Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia followed in 2014. Twenty-five states and D.C. have medical marijuana laws, and others have decriminalized small amounts of the drug.
As the movement has grown, the politics behind marijuana is also undergoing a subtle shift. Though traditional pro-pot activists have given the bulk of the money supporting the five recreational pot ballot measure campaigns — roughly $7 million of the $11.6 million raised so far — more and more of the backers are coming from the new but growing marijuana industry. Two-thirds of the big donors — those giving at least $5,000 to the campaigns for this fall’s measures — have direct financial stakes in the weed business, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state records.
A new group of players
Indeed, as legalized pot grows in state after state, so has the industrial complex around it. This year, though, marks the first time this new legal pot industry has significantly contributed to making itself bigger. Now the movement’s campaigns are starting to resemble most other big-money ballot measure fights, with business-minded donors looking to protect or enhance their profits.
“It has gone from an activist influence and is in transition to an industry influence,” said Joe Brezny, who is directing Nevada’s legalization campaign and also co-founded the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association. “The industry is required to step up more now.”
In Nevada, for example, at least 39 out of 47 major donors — who gave at least $5,000 each to the campaign supporting legal weed — have financial interests in expanding the legal marijuana market. They contributed $625,000 of the more than $1 million that the pro-pot political committee has raised so far. Among them: more than a dozen existing medical marijuana dispensaries and five beer distributors, which would have the first shot at being the state’s recreational pot dispensaries and distributors, respectively.
Similarly, in Arizona, where a pending court case could complicate marijuana advocates’ path to the ballot, at least 26 of the 35 top donors potentially stand to make a profit if recreational marijuana is legalized there. The campaign so far has raised $2.2 million.
In Massachusetts, 11 out of 18 major donors came from the marijuana industry, though they accounted for only $80,000 of the nearly $500,000 supporters raised.
In contrast, only two of the 17 major donors to the measure that legalized weed in Colorado in 2012 had ties to the marijuana industry. They raised just $42,000 of the $3.3 million total raised by supporters.
Likewise in Washington that year, the list of donors who raised $6.2 million was dominated by activist groups and philanthropists, such as Phil Harvey, the multi-millionaire who made his fortune on sex toys, and Rick Steves, of travel book fame. The George Soros-backed Drug Policy Alliance and billionaire Peter Lewis of Progressive Insurance also gave to legalize marijuana there, as they did in Colorado and in other states.
In other states voting this year, the funding is more of a mixed bag. In California, where campaign supporters have raised more than $7.1 million, Napster and Facebook investor Sean Parker has bankrolled the campaign to the tune of $1.5 million. But Weedmaps, a company that helps customers locate pot shops, contributed $1 million. The Werc Shop, a laboratory that tests marijuana for potency and pesticides, pitched in $5,000, as did several other weed-related businesses.
Jeffrey Raber, a California chemist who founded the Werc Shop acknowledged his company would benefit from the measure’s passage, since it requires legal marijuana to be tested at facilities like his. But he and his clients mostly want the state to regulate their business so they can “be recognized as responsible citizens who are legitimate actors,” he said.
In Maine, only one of the major pro-marijuana contributors is closely related to the pot industry. The initiative there is in part led by a group representing small marijuana farms, which has donated $10,000 of the $692,000 raised by the committees supporting the measure.
Those interested in legalizing marijuana are trying to adjust to the new funding dynamics.
“Marijuana legalization in the past has depended on “a few kind of eccentric old white guys who had money, and some of them are literally dying off,” said Ellen Komp, deputy director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We’re starting to see the industry get to a level of maturity where they’re getting involved in the political sphere, as they have the right to.”
Twenty-six states allow residents to put measures on the ballot. The efforts are notoriously expensive, often requiring generous donors to pay workers to gather enough signatures to allow the measures to go before voters and then promote them with pricey ads. So major ballot measure fights are often dominated by corporations spending to support or block measures that would affect their bottom lines.
The contributions are flowing in even though marijuana remains illegal under federal law, forcing pot companies to operate outside the banking system and run all-cash operations.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit known for its major influence in making marijuana legal in Colorado and Alaska, acknowledges that the industry is more involved in bankrolling the political movement now — and sees potential for even more funding.
“This is really the first major election cycle where there’s actually a business community already up and running in the states that are considering these broader reforms,” said Mason Tvert, MPP’s spokesman. “We’d still like the industry to step in and contribute a little more… The vast majority of marijuana businesses are not getting involved or contributing.”
Others are dismayed at the legalization movement’s new corporate friends.
Dan Riffle quit his job as a lobbyist at the Marijuana Policy Project because he said he was uncomfortable with how closely tied the advocacy group had become to industry.
“Drug policy is all about reducing demand, and a company that has a profit motive is only going to increase demand,” Riffle said. “Having a big commercial marijuana industry runs counter to public health goals.”
Some long-time marijuana activists breathed a sigh of relief when an investor-backed marijuana measure in Ohio failed last year. The measure would have given the right to farm pot for profit exclusively to the investors who paid for the campaign. Some, like the Drug Policy Alliance’s executive director Ethan Nadelmann, worry that the same kind of entrepreneurial mindset will drive the future of legalization.
“We don’t want to be creating mini-Ohios here,” said Nadelmann. “Our ability to shape the future of marijuana legalization is going to diminish over time simply because our ability to raise the funds for this work from people who are driven by social justice values... is diminishing.”
But some industry donors say they’re not solely motivated by dollar signs. Steve White, whose company owns marijuana dispensaries in Arizona and other states, said he gave more than $54,000 to the Arizona measure because he believes it will help medical users of marijuana avoid unfair prosecution, among other reasons.
“Like any place you’re going to have some people that are more concerned about what’s in their cash register at the end of the day,” he said. But “in Arizona there are a lot of individuals in the industry who really, really care about the social justice issues."
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U.S. Rep. Roger Williams’ financial interest in his auto dealership may have “influenced his performance of official duties,” and the House Ethics Committee will extend its investigation into the Texas congressman’s conduct.
The determination was made by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which advises the House Ethics Committee, in a report issued Thursday. Investigators noted the Republican congressman did not cooperate with the probe and recommended the House Ethics Committee issue subpoenas to Williams and his dealership to obtain information on its rental practices.
It was a serious setback for the representative, who in a 12-page statement says he has done nothing improper.
The Center for Public Integrity was first to report accusations against the congressman in a report last November. The story drew a request for a review by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C. legal watchdog.
Williams offered an amendment to a transportation bill that safety advocates say would have benefited his business. Prior to passage of the legislation, it was legal for businesses to rent vehicles that were the subject to safety recalls. The law stopped the practice, but Williams’ amendment, which failed, would have exempted car dealerships that issue loaners and rent cars to customers.
In his response, Williams stated that his dealership "makes no profit from facilitating rental vehicles or in offering loaner vehicles for its customers" and that he offered the amendment “without any improper motivations, and without any desire or possible effect of personal gain.”
The House Code of Conduct generally prohibits a member from taking an official action that may benefit his or her financial interest. Officially, a member cannot receive compensation where “the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from the position of such individual in Congress.”
From here, the House Ethics Committee may convene an investigative subcommittee.
The rental car provision in the legislation, which was also in the Senate version, was spurred by the deaths of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, ages 24 and 20. The two sisters were killed in 2004 while driving a rented, recalled vehicle that caught fire and crashed head-on into a semi, according to consumer groups that have backed the rental car proposal.
Williams’ amendment would have made the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision existed in the Senate bill.
Williams is chairman of Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM SRT in Weatherford. In his remarks on the House floor, Williams said the bill was bad for small businesses.
Though Williams’ amendment did not make it into law, a House-Senate conference committee decided that rather than exempting auto dealers from the requirement, it would exempt rental fleets with 35 or fewer cars. That provision was included in the larger transportation bill and signed into law in December.
Punishment for violating House rules can include a formal reprimand, censure or even expulsion. Each action would require a vote of the full House.
A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights has won two awards from the National Association of Black Journalists.
The series, done in tandem with NBCBLK, part of NBC News, was honored in the categories of “Online Project: News” and “Single Story: News” at the recent NABJ and National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Washington, D.C.
The investigation found that communities of color living in the shadows of polluters had seen their claims of civil-rights violations denied 95 percent of the time by the EPA, and that the Office of Civil Rights had never made a formal finding of a violation in its 22-year history.
After the series was published, the EPA announced that it was making a “wholesale attempt” to reform the office. The stories were produced by Center reporters Kristen Lombardi and Talia Buford; NBCBLK producer Amber Payne; and former Center staffers Ronnie Greene, Yue Qiu and Kristian Winfield.
New York City homeowners filed a class action lawsuit on August 12 alleging that auctions of government-insured mortgages discriminate against predominately African-American neighborhoods.
The lawsuit involves a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program that since 2010 has auctioned delinquent mortgages insured by HUD’s Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
The program, the lawsuit states, strips homeowners of FHA protections without first informing them that their mortgage could be sold.
The Center for Public Integrity first investigated the HUD program in 2015, finding that the mortgages were sold at a steep discount and only 16.9 percent of mortgages sold between 2010 and 2014 successfully avoided foreclosure.
As part of that investigation, the Center for Public Integrity mapped the results of HUD’s auctions in New York City and Baltimore. The map showed that the mortgages clustered in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of minorities.
FHA mortgages have been a popular means for African Americans to buy homes because they are available to borrowers with lower credit scores and typically require smaller down payments. Borrowers pay an FHA premium in return for protections such as intervention options when borrowers fall behind, a mortgage modification program and refinancing options.
Because of that, the lawsuit claims the sales have a disparate impact on African Americans. The FHA insures 43 percent of all mortgages made to African-American homeowners, according to HUD.
“HUD, in selling these loans out of the FHA mortgage program, they’re depriving homeowners out of a sustainable mortgage product that ensures they will be able to stay in their home for years to come,” says Christopher Fasano, a staff attorney with MFY Legal Services Inc., which filed the lawsuit along with Emery Cilli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, another New York City based law firm.
Although just 36 percent of FHA loans issued in the New York City area from 2012 to 2014 were issued to African-American borrowers, Fasano says 61 percent of the mortgages sold through HUDs program were in predominately African-American neighborhoods, such as St. Albans and Canarsie, in Brooklyn.
“It’s not just going to affect the homeowners who will lose these benefits once their mortgage gets sold,” Fasano said, “it’s also is going to destabilize these neighborhoods that have historically been bastions of African-American homeownership.”
The lawsuit also lists as a defendant Caliber Home Loans, a mortgage servicer owned by Lone Star Funds, a Dallas-based private equity firm.
After purchasing mortgages through the program, Caliber offered five-year, interest-only loan modifications, which the plaintiffs claim would result in unsustainable “balloon payments” and eventually foreclosure. The Center for Public Integrity described similar offers in the 2015 report, including one that would lead to a $70,000 balloon payment after a modification term.
“Caliber is committed to treating all borrowers fairly, to helping families stay in their homes where it is feasible, and has complied with all FHA-mandated servicing requirements,” Caliber’s head of servicing Marion McDougall told the New York Times in a statement.
HUD declined to comment on the lawsuit, but in July announced changes to the sales program, including requiring that buyers of FHA mortgages evaluate borrowers for principal reduction, limiting interest rate increases and alternative bidding process for non-profit buyers.
As a Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont vociferously argued for political transparency, especially when money was concerned.
On June 30, Sanders’ campaign requested a second 45-day extension, saying the senator had “good cause” to delay because of his “current campaign schedule and officeholder duties.”
Again, regulators approved Sanders’ punt.
Now that Sanders’ second extension has expired, spokesman Michael Briggs confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that the senator won’t file a presidential campaign personal financial disclosure after all.
“We were told that since the senator no longer is a candidate there was no requirement to file,” Briggs said.
FEC spokesman Christian Hilland verified that Sanders has not filed a personal financial disclosure. He likewise confirmed that Sanders, who technically ceased to be a presidential candidate when Hillary Clintonsecured the Democratic nomination on July 26, is no longer required to file one.
A 2011 legal advisory from the United States Office of Government Ethics provides Sanders cover, stating that “the requirement to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report … ends when the candidate is no longer seeking nomination or election to the office of president.”
On the one hand, who now — beside political voyeurs and snoopy journalists, perhaps — would care about the investments and income of an also-ran presidential candidate who hasn’t been a major factor in Election 2016 for more than two months?
But on the other, Sanders expertly exploited a system that effectively allowed him to delay, delay, delay — all while he chided Clinton receipt of six-figure paydays for delivering closed-door speeches to officials at investment bank Goldman Sachs and other powerful special interests. (Both Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump filed their personal financial disclosures on time in mid-May without asking for extensions.)
Therefore, in the teeth of a Democratic primary where Sanders posed a bona fide threat to Clinton, voters couldn’t definitively know whether Sanders — historically one of the Senate’s least wealthy members— suddenly parlayed his political fame into personal profit. Or, for that matter, whether he sustained financial distress.
The form Sanders didn’t file would have detailed his finances through the middle of May 2016.
His most recent U.S. Senate disclosure, which details only his 2015 assets, show his wealth concentrated in a collection of mutual funds owned by his wife, Jane Sanders.
Beyond his Senate salary, Sanders himself draws a small pension from the government of Burlington, Vermont, where he once served as mayor. And he’s also received a handful of modest honoraria for speeches and television show appearances, although he reported donating them to charity.
Sanders also carried up to $50,000 in credit card debt and up to $1 million in mortgage debt, according to his 2015 U.S. Senate personal financial disclosure.
Sanders filed that Senate disclosure document on June 6. This somewhat undercuts his presidential campaign’s argument, made around the same time, that Sanders was too busy campaigning to complete and submit a presidential disclosure covering his finances during early 2016.
“It’s disappointing that a candidate who spent so much time talking about political reform ... and was critical of Hillary Clinton’s personal finances, chose not to let us know anything about his own,” said policy analyst Richard Skinner of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for political transparency.
Had Sanders filed a personal financial disclosure report this month, it would have looked more or less like the ones Sanders had filed in the past, Briggs said.
“There’s a couple decades’ worth of congressional financial disclosure reports that show pretty much the same thing from year to year,” Briggs said.
The public will eventually find out how Sanders managed his assets while running for president: As a sitting senator, Sanders must next year file a personal financial disclosure with the U.S. Senate covering calendar year 2016.
The Center for Public Integrity has added a new feature to its "Tracking TV ads in the 2016 presidential race" interactive graphic that illuminate how Democrat Hillary Clinton is walloping Republican Donald Trump on the airwaves.
The updated ad tracking tool now allows readers to explore how candidates and their allies — super PACs, political parties and the like — have bombarded potential voters with political messages since the presidential race's general election phase effectively began in mid-June.
Among the notable takeaways during the general election:
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This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
CINCINNATI – With the presidential election less than three months away, millions of Americans will be navigating new requirements for voting – if they can vote at all – as state leaders implement dozens of new restrictions that could make it more difficult to cast a ballot.
Since the last presidential election in 2012, politicians in 20 states passed 37 different new voting requirements that they said were needed to prevent voter fraud, a News21 analysis found. More than a third of those changes require voters to show specified government-issued photo IDs at the polls or reduce the number of acceptable IDs required by pre-existing laws.
“We have two world views: the people that think voter fraud is rampant and the people who want to push the narrative that it’s hard to vote. The bottom line is neither is true,” said Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has been sued several times over his state’s removal of some voters from the registration rolls, elimination of same-day registration and curbs to early voting. “I believe that both political parties are trying to push a narrative that suits their agenda.”
Adding to the uncertainty for millions of voters, not all the changes may be in place for the November election because some were limited or overturned by court decisions still subject to appeal.
The new voting requirements, enacted in states mostly in the South and Midwest, were nine times more likely to have been passed by Republican legislatures than those controlled by Democrats, and almost five times more likely to have been signed by a GOP governor, the News21 analysis found.
In addition to requiring voter ID, they reduced the number of days voters can cast ballots in person before election day, placed new restrictions on voter registration drives, eliminated opportunities to register and vote on the same day, or moved up deadlines to register and still vote on election day. Republican-controlled Texas and Wisconsin passed the strictest voter ID laws, while North Carolina and Ohio are among those that eliminated same-day registration and reduced early voting days.
“These laws can be explained by partisanship and by race,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal civil rights advocacy group. “It’s hard to reconcile these actual laws with the stated purpose. The more reasonable and likely explanation is political self-interest. Voting laws are a way to restrict voters you think are more likely to vote for the other side.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an early 2016 Republican presidential candidate, told News21 that such criticisms are unfair. “It’s a discriminatory statement to say that in today’s society, people regardless of race or status aren’t able to get photo ID, particularly when the state provides it for free,” he said. Days earlier, a federal court ruled that, for the November election, Wisconsin must offer those without photo ID the option of signing an affidavit swearing to their identity, a decision that was later overturned by a federal appeals court.
Those were part of a flurry of court rulings in late July and early August that struck down, weakened or altered new voting requirements in Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina and North Dakota because, the courts concluded, the laws would disenfranchise people of color. In some cases, judges ruled that the laws’ discriminatory effect was intentional.
By contrast, some Democrat-controlled states, mostly in the West and New England, have passed laws that gave voters the option to register every time they walk into a motor vehicles office or at the polls on Election Day, made it easier to vote early or have converted their elections to entirely vote-by-mail.
Republican state leaders and conservative advocates of voter ID and other new requirements have insisted that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud and protect the integrity of elections. But a 2012 News21 50-state analysis of cases since 2000 found that the rate of voter fraud is infinitesimal compared with the total number of voters nationwide and that in-person voter impersonation on election day – the type of fraud voter that photo ID is designed to prevent – is virtually nonexistent. A 2016 update, in which News21 revisited five sample states that enacted new voting requirements to reduce fraud, again found few convictions for voter fraud and none for voter impersonation.
The ongoing political and legal wars over voting rights date to the mid-2000s, when the first new state voting requirements were enacted. Their number greatly increased after the 2010 off-year election, in which Republicans more than doubled the number of states they controlled – from nine to 20 – with majorities in state legislatures and the governor's party, according to a News21 analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats, by comparison, lost control of five states, going from 16 to 11. Party control remained divided in the other states.
A 2014 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that laws requiring specific kinds of voter ID in Kansas and Tennessee depressed voter turnout in those states in 2012, with African-Americans and young voters disproportionately affected. Ten state-specific and nationwide studies within the GAO report found that African-Americans and Latinos were always less likely to have the required voter ID than whites, and Native Americans and Asian-Americans were frequently at a similar disadvantage.
The National Commission on Voting Rights, a civil rights advocacy group, similarly contended in a 2014 report that minority populations were more likely to be disenfranchised by voter ID requirements and reductions in early voting and same-day registration, new restrictions for voter registration drives and limits on the restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their sentences.
Richard Hasen, an expert in voting law trends and a professor of political science and law at the University of California, Irvine, told News21 he believes the nation is now at a turning point because of the recent court decisions overturning new voting requirements in some states.
“In the past, courts seemed to be divided on partisan and ideological lines on how to approach these cases, but in 2012 and now in 2016 we see the courts becoming skeptical of what appears to me to be Republican overreaches in making it harder to register and to vote,” he said. The court decisions could deter more states from instituting similar laws, Hasen added, because “it signals they are not going to have an easy path.”
However, a June 2016 report by a collection of civil rights advocacy groups, including the ACLU and the NAACP, cited problems with minority and low-income voter access in the presidential primaries of several states that had implemented new voting requirements. These “warning signs,” the groups said, indicated that the new laws could still affect the outcome of November’s presidential election.
In Ohio, for example, recent changes to voter ID requirements, same-day registration and early voting could affect a tight election, according to Melissa Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University. “The question becomes what kinds of changes to voter laws make it easier versus harder for those who don’t tend to vote,” Miller said. “I think the effects tend to be marginal, but occasionally you’ll get an election like 2000 where a particular swing state – in that year it happened to be Florida, it could be Ohio in 2016 – where the result may be very, very close.”
Some states put new voting requirements in place only after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case negated the provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required them to clear such changes in advance with the U.S. Justice Department. For example, Texas enacted one of the strictest photo ID laws in the country in 2011, only to have its implementation blocked by the federal government. But on the same day in 2013 on which the Shelby County decision was handed down, state officials announced that the ID law would finally be enforced. While it has since been ruled to be discriminatory four times by federal courts, it was kept in place while the state appealed those decisions.
“We think it’s perfectly reasonable when you need to show a photo to pick up your kids from school, sometimes to pick up your pet from the kennel, that it’s OK to show a photo to prove that you are the person who is voting,” Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a co-author of the voter ID law, told News21.
The plaintiffs in the Texas court case argued that the law amounts to a modern poll tax because many voters without photo ID are low-income people who, without driver’s licenses, faced trips of 90 minutes or more via public transportation to government offices to pay for and obtain the required forms of ID.
It wasn’t until July 2016 that another appellate ruling kicked the case back to a lower court to determine ways to make it easier for Texans without ID to vote, after the court found that more than 600,000 lacked the required ID. Then, for the November election, the plaintiffs and the state reached an agreement to allow people without ID to have their votes count if they sign a sworn statement.
On Aug. 1, a federal judge blocked a strict photo ID law in North Dakota from being enforced for the November election. The judge concluded that the state’s 2013 law, which only allowed four types of acceptable government-issued ID, would cause undue burdens for Native Americans, especially when “voter fraud in North Dakota has been virtually non-existent.”
After the Shelby County decision, North Carolina’s Republican-majority Legislature passed legislation that eliminated same-day registration, required a photo ID to vote and reduced the number of early voting days, eliminating one of the two Sundays for it. Early voting has been popular among African-Americans in the South, including the “souls to the polls” tradition of going to the polls together after church services on the Sundays leading up to Election Day.
The North Carolina law was struck down in July, when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that its provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” noting that they are “disproportionately Democratic.” Eliminating one of the Sundays for early voting “comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times,” the appellate court said.
North Carolina state Sen. Ron Rabin, who helped pass the law, told News21 that it still allowed 10 days of early voting and that same-day registration caused voter confusion. “Let people be responsible for themselves once in awhile and what their duties are as a citizen,” Rabin said, “as opposed to keep trying to spoon-feed them everything, or give them everything.”
The Shelby County decision also undermined the Justice Department program that had monitored elections in states and localities previously covered under the Voting Rights Act. Now, Justice can only send observers to where they are ordered by a federal court. Otherwise they must get local permission to enter polling places. There are just seven counties or cities in five states that will fall under court-ordered observation for the November election, according to a Justice spokesman, compared with the 11 states where observers formerly had authority under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of discrimination.
Steven H. Wright, a federal observer coordinator for the Department of Justice from 2007 until 2012, said this will leave a “gaping hole” in the government’s ability to investigate and sue over unjust election practices. “If you call a polling place and you ask, ‘Are you complying with federal law?’ they're going to say, ‘Yes,’ because no one is going to admit they're violating federal law. The only way (to make sure) is to have people in the polls,” he said. “If you're concerned about voter fraud the only way you can verify that happens is through federal observers. And likewise, if you’re concerned about people being turned away, the observers are going to see that.”
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, announced in May that he, along with other Democrats, were forming the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus to kick-start support for a Democrat-proposed bill to revitalize the Voting Rights Act. So far, no Republicans have joined the caucus.
“You look at some of the things that happened after the 1960s and after the Civil Rights Movement and after the Voting Rights Act, we’ve made lots of gains, lots of strides, but there’s definitely been, sadly, some things Republicans have done to scale back that momentum,” Veasey told News21.“There’s a lot of work we still have to do.”
Courtney Columbus, Mike Lakusiak and Sean Holstege contributed to this report.
Earlier this summer, the Libertarian Party — which advocates an agenda that is generally fiscally conservative and socially liberal — picked former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as its presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld as its vice presidential nominee.
So far this month, two super PACs backing the Libertarian ticket — known as Purple PAC and Americans Deserve Better — have combined to spend more than $100,000 on TV and radio ads to boost their profile, the Center for Public Integrity has learned. And more ads are on the way.
“America deserves a better option than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” proclaims the new ad from Purple PAC, which goes on to call Johnson the “honorable choice,” after touting him as committed to the Constitution, fiscal responsibility and freedom.
For its part, Americans Deserve Better is trying to cast Johnson and Weld as “the adults” in the 2016 presidential race.
“We don’t have to choose between criminal or crazy,” says a narrator in one of the group’s radio ads. “This fall, vote for the adults, the candidates we can trust — Governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld.”
The ads’ sponsors
Americans Deserve Better is a brand new super PAC. The nascent group registered its website — VoteForTheAdults.com— on August 1. And it has yet to submit any filings with federal regulators.
Geoff Neale, a former chairman of the Libertarian National Committee who serves as Americans Deserve Better’s treasurer, told the Center for Public Integrity that its required paperwork will soon be submitted to the Federal Election Commission.
Meanwhile, Purple PAC was formed in May 2013. It spent about $420,000 that year in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where it backed Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who garnered 6.5 percent of the vote. And earlier this year, it spent about $670,000 supporting U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s unsuccessful GOP presidential bid.
As super PACs, both Americans Deserve Better and Purple PAC may collect unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations or labor unions — so long as they don’t coordinate their spending with the candidates they are seeking to aid.
Since its founding, Purple PAC has raised about $2 million. Nearly two-thirds of that — $1.25 million — has come from Philadelphia investor Jeff Yass, a founder of the Susquehanna International Group who favored Paul in the GOP presidential race.
Other top donors to the super PAC include Philip Harvey, the head of sex toy company Adam and Eve, who has given $400,000; Richard Masson, the owner of a thoroughbred horse racing and breeding operation in Kentucky, who has given $250,000; and real estate investor Howard Rich, who has given $50,000.
Harvey himself has also donated $2,700 to Johnson’s presidential campaign committee.
Purple PAC entered July with about $570,000 in its coffers, according to its most recent campaign finance disclosure.
Meanwhile, because it's so new, it is unclear how much money Americans Deserve Better has at its disposal.
Neale, the treasurer, said a "major donor” had provided seed money to the group, but he declined to identify the funder.
The nascent super PAC will not be required to publicly disclose its donors until later this fall.
Americans Deserve Better’s ad strategy is starting with an experiment: It’s focused on voters in the 2nd Congressional District of Maine. Maine is one of two states that awards Electoral College votes to the victor in each congressional district, rather than winner of the statewide popular vote.
The group will be spending about $80,000 on a combination of broadcast, cable TV and radio ads in Maine during August, according competitive data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
Neale said that Maine was a good site to see “how far we can move the needle.” He added that hoped success there would “inspire other donors to give more money” to Americans Deserve Better.
Purple PAC, too, is ramping up its efforts.
It has so far spent about $35,000 on its pro-Johnson ad campaign, according to campaign finance filings. The group’s ads have so far targeted viewers of Fox News, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.
Libertarian activist Ed Crane— a co-founder of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and the founder of Purple PAC — told the Center for Public Integrity that “there will be additional ad buys starting next week.”
Why it matters
Supporters of the Libertarian Party hope 2016 will be their moment to shine. Others worry Johnson could play spoiler in key battleground states.
Four years ago, when Johnson was also the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, he garnered only about one percent of the vote on Election Day.
Now, however, he’s typically polling in high single digits or low double digits. If he can reach at least 15 percent in the polls, he could qualify to participate in the official presidential debates this fall. Not since businessman Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign has an independent or minor party candidate earned a spot in a general election debate.
Political observers say super PACs could help boost Johnson as a credible alternative to Trump and Clinton.
“We know there are disgruntled partisans on the right and left, so in some ways conditions are ripe for attracting people to vote for Johnson,” said Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.
But, she added: “The buys would have to be quite big to have an effect.”
Neale, of Americans Deserve Better, is hopeful.
“We’re trying to make the Libertarian Party a true player in the game,” he said.
Here are 21 key facts and figures that help explain the 2016 White House race to date.
Amount of money Clinton and her main supportive super PAC had in the bank heading into August: $97 million
Amount they had in the bank heading into August: $43 million
Amount of money Trump, in 2011, said he'd be willing to personally spend were he to ever run for president: $600 million
Amount Trump has so far given to his 2016 campaign: $52 million
Number of TV ads that have aired in the presidential race since the general election effectively began in mid-June: 104,000
Portion of those ads sponsored by Clinton, her super PAC backers and other allies: 90 percent
Minimum number of TV ads targeting residents of the battleground state of Florida: 23,500
Clinton's current lead in Florida, based on an average of recent polls: 3.5 percent
Date on which Clinton ally and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Clinton would support the TPP if elected president: July 26, 2016
Portion of Trump’s $37 million in July receipts that came from small-dollar donors giving $200 or less: 35 percent
Portion of Clinton’s $52 million July haul that came from small-dollar donors: 22 percent
Approximate percentage of the vote Johnson earned as the Libertarian Party nominee in 2012: 1 percent
Number of super PACs supporting Johnson that have started airing TV ads this month: 2
Dave Levinthal, Carrie Levine and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.
This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
Politicians and voting rights advocates continue to clash over whether photo ID and other voting requirements are needed to prevent voter fraud, but a News21 analysis and recent court rulings show little evidence that such fraud is widespread.
A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found only 10 cases of voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls.
This year, News21 reviewed cases in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Kansas, where politicians have expressed concern about voter fraud, and found hundreds of allegations but few prosecutions between 2012 and 2016. Attorneys general in those states successfully prosecuted 38 cases, though other cases may have been litigated at the county level. At least one-third of those cases involved nonvoters, such as elections officials or volunteers. None of the cases prosecuted was for voter impersonation.
“Voter fraud is not a significant problem in the country,” Jennifer Clark of the Brennan Center told News21. “As the evidence that has come out in some recent court cases and reports and basically every analysis that has ever been done has concluded: It is not a significant concern.”
Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden who wrote a book on the phenomenon in 2010 called “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” said in an interview that she hasn’t seen an uptick in the crime since. “Voter fraud remains rare because it is irrational behavior,” she said. “You’re not likely to change the outcome of an election with your illegal fraudulent vote, and the chances of being caught are there and we have rules to prevent against it.”
Christopher Coates, former chief of the voting section in the Department of Justice, disagrees. “The claim by the liberal left that there is no voter fraud that is going on is completely false,” he told News21. “Anytime that there are people voting that are not legally entitled to vote that’s a big issue. It carries with it the potential for deciding elections a way that is contrary to the voting majority of people.”
Coates, who now works as the general counsel for the American Civil Rights Union, pointed to a list of voter fraud allegations kept by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. The list, based largely on news clippings and news releases, counted more than 100 allegations of voter fraud in the U.S. since 2012, only two of which were allegations of voter impersonation that could have been prevented by voter ID. The Republican National Lawyers Association also has a list of more than 200 allegations of election fraud of all kinds reported by news outlets since 2012.
The 2016 Republican platform, adopted in July, urges states to require proof of citizenship and photo ID out of concern that “voting procedures may be open to abuse.” At the same time, this summer, several federal courts struck down or revised a number of the state laws requiring specific forms of photo ID at the polls.
In July, U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, concluding that there is “utterly no evidence” that in-person voter impersonation fraud is an issue in Wisconsin, or in the rest of the United States.
“The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities,” Peterson wrote in his ruling. “To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”
Reid Magney, spokesperson for Wisconsin elections, told News21 that the state did not track voter fraud until recently. The responsibility to prosecute those crimes lies with district attorneys across the state. “The numbers of prosecutions are so low that it hasn't been a priority for us to track those things,” Magney said. “If somebody was charged with fraud it would make (the) newspapers."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told News21 that the number of fraud cases is beside the point. “All it takes is one person whose vote is canceled by someone not voting legally and that’s a problem,” he said. “I always tell folks who oppose (the ID law) tell me whose vote they want canceled out.”
A similarly strict Texas voter ID law was weakened by a federal appeals court after a panel of judges determined that the law violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minority voters. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that African-Americans were 1.79 times more likely – and Latinos 2.42 times more likely – than whites to lack the required identification.
Judges have also found that minority voters are less likely to own a car and therefore less likely to get a driver's license that could be used as an ID.
The appellate court did not strike down the Texas law entirely, but under a temporary fix signed off on by a federal judge, the state's voters won't have to show ID in the November general election.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called voter fraud “rampant” in Texas. A records request from News21 to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas shows that more than 360 allegations of voter fraud were sent to the attorney general since 2012. Fifteen of those cases were successfully prosecuted. Four of those convicted were voters – the rest were elections officials or third-party volunteers.
Minnite, who has studied voter fraud for 15 years, said that actual instances of fraud lie somewhere between the number successfully prosecuted and the number of allegations. In her experience, few allegations meet the criteria of fraud: “intentional corruption of the electoral process” by voters.
“Large numbers getting reduced, reduced, reduced at each level is the pattern that I’ve seen over and over and over again,” Minnite said. “The assumption should be the reverse of what it is. It should be ‘We’ve got a lot of errors here.’”
Kim Strach, director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, testified in a recent court case about North Carolina’s voter ID law that she has referred two cases of voter impersonation to prosecutors since 2013.
In July, a federal appeals court for the 4th Circuit decided that the North Carolina law intentionally discriminated against minority voters and ordered the state to make voter ID requirements less strict. In attempting to “combat voter fraud and promote public confidence,” the state ignored the issue of absentee ballot fraud, instead cracking down on voter impersonation, a problem “that did not exist,” according to the court decision. Absentee ballots are “disproportionately used by whites,” the court said, while the voter ID restrictions enacted “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
State Sen. Ron Rabin, who helped push the voter ID bill through the North Carolina Senate, said the law wasn’t intended to discriminate. “I don’t want to disenfranchise anybody,” he said. “I want to have them enfranchised so that one vote, one person. That’s the whole thought behind that whole bill.”
Presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that he was “afraid the election was going to be rigged” without ID laws. “There’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “If you don’t have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting.”
To vote repeatedly in person on Election Day – the kind of fraud that Trump worries about – someone would have to steal another voter’s ballot. Minnite, the Rutgers professor, says that’s as difficult as “pickpocketing a cop.”
A voter would need to know names, addresses and other identifying information about whoever they were impersonating, she said. Then they would have to show up to the polling place and pretend to be that other person in front of the same elections officials who had likely seen them vote in their own name. Beyond that, they’d have to hope that nobody in the polling place knew the person they were impersonating.
Given that America’s turnout rates are so comparatively low, the idea of widespread voter fraud just doesn’t make sense, said David Schultz, professor of public policy at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. “There’s this image that somehow, people are clamoring to go to the polls on Election Day to commit fraud,” he said. “Look at our voting statistics. It just doesn’t bear out.”
That’s not to say fraud doesn’t happen at all.
In Arizona, 13 cases were prosecuted for double voting. One of those was Mesa resident Regina Beaupre, who was convicted in 2015 after voting in Michigan and Arizona. She was 71 years old. Carol Hannah was similarly caught for voting in Arizona and Colorado. She argued in court that both cases involved local races and didn’t constitute double voting, because no candidates appeared on both ballots. An appeals court agreed and threw out the 2015 conviction. Neither of these cases would have been prevented with voter ID.
In 2014, Verna Roehm, a 77-year-old from Waxhaw, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to voting twice. Roehm voted once at the polls and a second time with an absentee ballot in the name of her dead husband. She told prosecutors she had fulfilled her husband’s dying wish to cast his ballot for Mitt Romney in November 2012.
Since only one of Roehm’s ballots was cast in person, her crime also would not have been prevented with voter ID.
Sean Holstege, Hillary Davis and Andrew Clark contributed to this report.
This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
SPARTA, Ga. – The cleansing of America’s voter registration rolls occurs every two years and has become a legal battleground between politicians who say the purges are fair and necessary, and voting rights advocates who contend that they discriminate.
Voting rights groups repeatedly have challenged states’ registration purges, including those in Ohio, Georgia, Kansas and Iowa, contending that black, Latino, poor, young and homeless voters have been disproportionately purged. In Florida, Kansas, Iowa and Harris County, Texas, courts have ordered elections officials to restore thousands of voters to the registration rolls or to halt purges they found discriminatory.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act mandates that state and local elections officers keep voter registration lists accurate by removing the names of people who die, move or fail in successive elections to vote. Voters who’ve been convicted of a felony, ruled mentally incompetent or found to be noncitizens also can be removed. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that 15 million names were scrubbed from the lists nationally in 2014.
News21 analyzed lists of nearly 50 million registered voters from a dozen states, and 7 million more who were removed over the last year. By comparing voter registration and purge lists against U.S. Census data, News21 found no national or statewide pattern of discrimination against voters based on race, ethnicity, poverty, age or surname.
But the data did show that purges disproportionately affected minority or low-income voters in certain communities, and white voters in others. In Cincinnati, poverty rates and voter removals appeared interrelated, while race appeared to affect the removal of voters in rural Hancock County, Georgia. In Vermillion County, Indiana, a shrinking population accounted for large numbers of white registered voters being removed from the rolls.
David Becker, the director of elections initiatives at the nonpartisan Pew Center for Charitable Trusts, said the national pattern makes sense to him. “I think you’re finding exactly what I’ve found in my experience,” he told News21.
But Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who created the United States Election Project to track election and demographic data, said he was surprised by the lack of a pattern in the national findings, although hidden patterns of discrimination can be found on the local level. “Sometimes you have to look under the hood,” McDonald said.
Local election officials clean up voting registration lists under state laws governing who should be removed from the lists. Some states bar felons from voting, but they vary dramatically on which crimes disqualify voters or how quickly they can be reinstated. Some, but not all, states require elections officials to mail warning notifications to voters whose names are slated for removal. States also vary on how many elections a voter can sit out before being classified as “inactive” and later culled.
Most states work together or with the federal government to compare voter registration lists to stop people from voting in two states in the same election. One in eight Americans move every year and often remain registered in two places. Few cancel their old registrations. The NVRA directed local elections officials to mail reminders to registered voters who had stopped voting in their jurisdictions to verify whether voters still live where they are registered and to establish who has moved. Those who fail to respond are placed on an inactive list and cut from voter registration rolls after one more missed election.
In 2005, Kansas created the Interstate Crosscheck System in which 30 states compare registration lists for duplicate entries. When duplicate listings are found, state elections notify each other or local elections offices. It’s up to those local offices to remove those names from the voter rolls. Some do, some don’t.
Pew created another name-matching tool in 2012. Its Electronic Registration Information Center has 21 state partners and compares more extensive records than Crosscheck.
At least 16 states also work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to apply its immigration database, called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, to confirm the citizenship of registered voters.
Some states use multiple systems to verify registrations. About 24 million U.S. voters have a mismatched name, address, signature or other clerical error on their voter registration forms, according to Pew, that can cause them to be struck from the rolls.
Nationwide, there are around 10,500 state, county and local elections offices. Resources for managing elections vary widely from large urban counties like Chicago’s Cook County to small rural communities like Starr County, Texas. That accounts for much of the variety in how registration rolls are maintained.
“Often it’s an administrative or technical issue,” Pew’s Becker said. “People are not deliberately trying to remove people. They have a very hard job. They have a legitimate interest to make sure we are not spending taxpayer money to send information to people who are not voters.”
“You want to make sure all eligible voters have a chance to vote and only eligible voters register,” Becker said. “Every eligible voter who wants to vote should have one record in one state list. That should be the goal. That’s an attainable goal.”
Vermillion County, Indiana, typifies why cleaning up voter registration rolls is necessary.
In the two years leading up to the 2014 election, Vermillion County Clerk Florinda Pruitt scrubbed nearly 4 registrants in 10 in the small western county of corn and soybean fields.
Most of the 1,191 voters were removed in the current election cycle because of death or change of address, a News21 analysis found.
“We really want people to vote. We really work at it. But if you don’t want to vote, don’t register. Don’t clog our system,” Pruitt said, adding no voter there had ever challenged a removal.
Indiana counties grew more assertive about culling registrations after the U.S. Justice Department sued in 2006 and the conservative group Judicial Watch sued in 2012. Judicial Watch argued successfully that Indiana had violated the NVRA by falling behind on keeping voter lists accurate.
Vermillion County’s seat, Newport, boomed during World War II, when locals worked in a nerve gas factory. A peeling mural portraying GIs and aircraft winning the war covers one side of a brick building. Like the munitions plant, residents are gone now.
“Lots of people move. The powerhouse cut down work,” construction worker Byron Fultz said over a Jim Beam and Sprite at Corner Bar, Newport’s place for drink and debate. “A lot of people move here regularly, live here a year and move on.”
By contrast, few people leave Sparta, the seat of Hancock County, Georgia, where race appeared to play a critical role in a voter purge in 2015. Hancock County has the third-lowest median income in the state. Half of the storefronts on Sparta’s main street are boarded up.
Last year, Sparta, whose population of around 1,300 is about 80 percent black, was about to choose between white and black candidates for mayor. The majority-white Hancock County Board of Elections sent teams block by block through Sparta looking for residents to vouch that their neighbors still lived where they were registered to vote.
On the say-so of neighbors, 174 voters were listed for removal, including Dion Hubert and his brother, who’d been taking care of their ailing mother across town. Hubert, 29, skipped work to attend a hearing at the courthouse to petition the elections board. He prevailed, but many other Sparta residents never showed up.
“They called name by name and if they didn’t answer, they’d just cross them off the list,” Hubert said. “They got a kind of excitement out of what they were doing, by taking people’s names off the list.”
Almost all voters purged from the rolls were black, according to a lawsuit filed later by the NAACP. The Hancock County Board of Elections declined interviews, but the county denied every allegation in court without elaboration. The case has not yet gone to trial.
Ohio became a target of a voting rights lawsuit after Secretary of State Jon Husted oversaw the removal of about 2 million voters in the last two years. The ACLU and other advocacy groups argued that Ohio struck names exclusively because of voter inactivity, in violation of the NVRA.
Ohio State University election law professor Daniel Tokaji, who volunteered for the plaintiffs, told News21 that purges tend to disportionately harm poor people and minorities. “We don’t have to prove a racially discriminatory impact to win.”
A federal judge agreed with Husted, ruling that Ohio did not violate the law because voters were purged for a variety of reasons. The case has since been appealed to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in late July and has not yet ruled.
When Hamilton County, Ohio, where Cincinnati is the county seat, removed 75,000 voters this year, nearly half, and in some neighborhoods far more, were purged because of “non-response.” A News21 analysis found a connection between the poverty rate and racial composition of ZIP codes in the county and the purge rates of registered voters.
In central Cincinnati, where the poverty rate in the Clifton Heights neighborhood is double the city’s average, Hamilton County officials so far removed 27 percent of the voters. Six miles west, in the almost exclusively white suburban Cheviot neighborhood where the poverty rate is half that of the region, the county purged 9 percent of voters.
Just south of Clifton Heights, near downtown Cincinnati, Brittany Middlebrooks, 26, walked through Washington Park with a clipboard, registering voters earlier this summer. She cited Ohio’s recent purges to warn people they might not get to vote if they don’t re-register. “I feel like they are trying to do their best to get us not be able to vote,” MIddlebrooks told News21.
But conservative activist groups view inaccurate registration rolls as a problem for democracy. The conservative American Civil Rights Union has sued eight counties to cleanse the rolls. A year ago the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which litigates on behalf of the ACRU, said it sent warning letters to 141 more. In January, the legal foundation said it threatened to sue 30 counties.
“Across the country, hundreds of other counties have more registered voters than people alive. If they don’t clean up their rolls, they risk litigation,” ACRU Chairwoman Susan Carleson wrote on the group’s website. “Every time an illegal voter casts a ballot, it steals someone else’s legal vote. The goal is to ensure the integrity of the voting process.”
The ACRU sued three small counties in Texas along the Rio Grande, which are overwhelmingly Latino, plus four Mississippi counties with black populations ranging from 34 percent to 72 percent. In Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Walthall counties, plus Zavala County, Texas, the ACRU won what it called “historic consent decrees” to compel reinvigorated purges.
Sean Young, senior staff attorney for the Voting Rights Project at the liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, said the renewed focus on purging registration lists is no coincidence.
“These groups are trying to use the statutes in the NVRA as a tool to disenfranchise voters,” Young said. “Their efforts have certainly been reinvigorated, in direct response to record numbers of registrations of African-Americans.”
Election officials rely on a hodgepodge of data sources and name-matching tools to clear out ineligible voters: local death and marriage records, state or federal prison and court notices, the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Death Index, the U.S Postal Service’s national change of address database, various immigration databases, vehicle registration records and other state voter lists.
The 30 states using the Kansas-based Interstate Crosscheck System match last names, first names and partial Social Security numbers to identify people who potentially have registered in more than one state. Some states include birthdays, ages or full birthdates. The service is free to member states.
Pew’s ERIC system charges 21 states $25,000 a year, plus their share of annual overhead costs. Created in 2012, ERIC is managed by a nonprofit partnership comprising the states’ elections officials. ERIC adds full middle names, suffixes like Jr. or Sr., full driver’s license numbers, addresses and full birthdates to the matching software. States pay for the subscription to access more complete federal databases and promise to mail all eligible voters to remind them to register.
States also can use the Homeland Security Department’s SAVE immigration database to check individuals in the voting rolls against the government’s lists detailing the citizenship status of foreigners who’ve entered the country.
In 2012, Florida used SAVE to identify 180,000 mostly Hispanic noncitizens and told county elections officials 2,650 of them were registered to vote, according to court records. The Justice Department sued to halt the purge. When Latino advocates alleged that some purged voters were, in fact, citizens, they also sued in federal court. Florida volunteered to suspend its use of SAVE, recognizing mistakes.
Latinos and Asians are more likely to be falsely matched with noncitizens because those cultures have fewer surnames, demographers and election experts widely agree. Nonetheless, at least 16 states, many, such as Texas and Arizona, with large Latino and immigrant populations, still use SAVE or have sought federal approval to use the database.
State elections officials in Washington and Colorado, which both use Crosscheck and ERIC, told News21 that ERIC was more reliable.
Colorado Elections Director Judd Choate gave Crosscheck mixed grades. “It’s the only tool for identifying double voters across states,” Choate said, noting ERIC does not yet track voting histories and “when they do, we’ll drop out of the interstate (Crosscheck) compact.” He said the Crosscheck data can be a year out of date, which makes it “kind of lousy” for keeping accurate lists and finding people who voted in two states.
A Washington state audit of the ERIC system in 2014 found statistically no cases in which people who were legally registered were falsely flagged as ineligible. ERIC also identified more dead voters, Washington found.
“We never took action on any of the Interstate Crosscheck, the Kansas program,” said Stuart Holmes, election information systems supervisor for the Washington secretary of state’s office.
“There will always be problems. We will not have a mistake-free election,” Pew’s Becker said. “We’re doing better than we ever have before. We’re not doing as well as we’d like in an ideal world.”
Emily L. Mahoney, Hillary Davis and Jimmy Miller contributed to this report.
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Selma, Ala. –- Joanne Bland, at age 11, marched toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965 as hundreds of African-Americans protested, demanding the right to vote. State troopers beat her sister. Bland fainted in the clouds of tear gas.
Change followed, with Congress passing the Voting Rights Act that same year. But 51 years later, a wave of new voting laws has emerged in the Southern states, potentially disenfranchising a large percentage of the roughly 3.72 million unregistered African-Americans in the region as of 2012.
Nine Southern states have implemented voting restrictions since 2012. Most require voters to show state-issued photo ID at the polls.
African-Americans who fought for voting rights during the Civil Rights movement claim the new laws are meant to secure a Republican majority in states with large black populations that consistently vote Democrat. In July, a North Carolina federal court overturned the state’s voter ID law, ruling that it targets African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
“It’s all about the political will,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "If you look at a map where African-American populations are the largest, it’s basically all of the Southern states, and that’s where most of these new voting restrictions have been enacted."
But Southern black lawmakers, activists and citizens say multiple factors have left the African-American vote at its most vulnerable, citing apathy in the post-Barack Obama era, the declining influence of former civil rights activists and the difficulty of voter mobilization.
Nowhere in America is the debate over voting rights more symbolic than in Shelby County, Alabama. That's where Frank “Butch” Ellis still lives on the same Columbiana farm where he grew up and in the same city where his grandfather Leven “Big Handy” Ellis served as mayor.
“Big Handy” Ellis was a founding member of the States Rights Democratic Party, or the Dixiecrats, formed in 1948 to oppose the Democratic Party’s support of civil rights. Sixty-five years later, his grandson set in motion the most significant Supreme Court decision on voting rights since the civil rights era - Shelby County v. Holder.
Gone is the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prevented certain states, primarily in the South, from passing voting laws without approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the tactics used to disenfranchise voters were a relic of the past and pre-clearance no longer was necessary.
“What the Supreme Court said in our case is history didn’t stop in 1965. History kept going and that Amendment 15, which is the enforcement power for discriminatory practice in voting, that it was not designed to punish for the past, but was designed to ensure a better future,” “Butch” Ellis told News21.
Ellis has been Shelby County’s attorney for 52 years. Unlike many of the counties south of it and Birmingham to the west, Shelby County has no significant civil rights history. The county is and always has been predominantly white.
And it continues to grow. The population increased by 65,000 people between 2000 and 2015, and is 83 percent white. Every elected official within Shelby County is a Republican. In some races, Democrats don’t run for office, leading to highly contested Republican primaries.
Ellis says the Shelby County case was not meant to affect the power of minorities or civil rights. Instead, it was necessary to cease the filing of paperwork and the spending of taxpayer dollars.
Ellis says the county hasn’t changed much since the Supreme Court decision, but it’s saving money and time. He says the county supports the Voting Rights Act, but Section 2 - which bans states from instituting any barriers to voting, like poll taxes or literacy tests - was its intended permanent enforcement, which still stands.
In 2011, Alabama passed a statewide voter ID law that took effect in 2014 after the Shelby County decision. Opponents of the law say it was an effort to discourage the black vote. The 2012 American National Elections Study found that 13 percent of African-Americans do not have photo ID; 5 percent of white people do not have IDs.
“The reason I supported the bill was to ensure that we had credibility and integrity in the electoral process,” said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who co-sponsored the law while a state legislator. “The right to vote is one of the most basic rights that we have, and we want to make sure that everybody that wants to participate in the process is allowed to.”
Last year, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries filed a federal lawsuit against the voter ID law, alleging that it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. It claims that since the turn of the century, 22.4 million votes have been cast in Alabama with one “documented case where one Alabama voter sought to impersonate another.”
“It is no accident that a disproportionate number of those disfranchised voters are African-American and Latino. Indeed, the Photo ID Law is simply the latest chapter in Alabama’s long and brutal history of intentional racial discrimination,” the lawsuit says, estimating it will disenfranchise more than 280,000 citizens in Alabama.
Merrill disputes this: “We don’t know what the number (of voters in Alabama without photo ID) is. But that’s a made-up number.”
The number is a large jump from the 600 ballots the Legal Defense Fund said weren’t counted in the 2014 elections due to a lack of photo ID. One study published by the International Society of Political Psychology says the concerted mobilization efforts by Democrats and voting rights groups may cancel out any effect of the new ID laws.
Just two hours south of Columbiana is Selma, the birthplace of the best-known voter mobilization efforts in U.S. history. On March 7, 1965, 600 marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state Capitol to protest the death of a black voting rights activist shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper. When marchers crossed the bridge, they were met by officers who released tear gas into the crowd, and beat protesters. The event became known as Bloody Sunday.
Two weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. led another march to the state Capitol for a new law to allow blacks to vote without barriers. The Voting Rights Act was passed that summer.
But Selma is a city still struggling. Its population has plummeted by about 30 percent since the Civil Rights movement, and at least 43 percent of its people live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. Almost all of those leaving Selma are white.
Though 80 percent black, it took almost a decade after the Voting Rights Act was passed to elect a black city council member. A black mayor wasn’t elected until 2000.
According to Who Leads Us, a project of the nonprofit San Francisco-based Women Donors Network, most Southern states are behind the rest of America in the diversity of elected officials. The Center for American Progress Action Fund also gave previously covered Section 5 states low marks in accessibility of the ballot.
“We look at surface gains. We have African-Americans in office, we own businesses - businesses we never owned before,” Bland said. “We are much more prosperous in so many ways, yet each day our rights keep being eroded by hateful, mean people.”
In September 2015, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also announced plans to close 31 driver’s license offices throughout the state. Critics said the closures would make it more difficult to get photo IDs. Less than a month later, Bentley announced services would instead be reduced to one day a month.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s website shows 30 of Alabama’s 67 counties currently have one Department of Motor Vehicles office open once each month. According to U.S. Census data, counties in Alabama with the smallest number of DMV services have an average population of almost 29,000. About a quarter of them live in poverty. A third of them are black.
“People say the Civil War is not over,” said Joe Reed, a lawyer in Montgomery. “The shooting has stopped, but the war is not over.”
Democratic state Sen. Hank Sanders, who represents the state’s Black Belt, introduced a bill last session that would have required each county to have at least one DMV open twice a week. It overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the state Legislature. The governor vetoed the bill, citing a lack of resources. “I think it has caused people to lose faith in government,” Sanders said.
In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened an investigation into whether the cuts violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination in state programs receiving federal support. A DOT spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Since then, the Alabama secretary of state’s office has been sending staff members to each county at least once a year to give free photo IDs to any citizen who needs one. Carl Nelson, who works in Selma for the Dallas County Board of Registrars office, set up a registration drive in Selma in June. No one showed up.
Nelson, who is white, says that everyone who wants to be registered to vote in the area is already registered. “Honestly, by this time we should be registering people and we’re not. I don’t know why we’re not having people here today, really,” Nelson said. “If folks don’t get registered, it’s their own fault.”
“There are some naysayers who say these are hard times (to get an ID). They’re not. If they want to get registered, they can get registered,” he said.
One of the harshest critics of the Alabama ID law is Johnny Ford, the mayor of Tuskegee. “There should be no barriers,” he said. “(Voting’s) a freedom.”
Tuskegee is in Macon County, deep in the rural Black Belt where 82 percent of residents are African-American. Macon was among the counties selected to have a DMV office open only once a month.
“One day a month is just not adequate,” Ford said. But he called Alabama’s mobile ID units “a step in the right direction.”
Alabama overall had a 40.45 percent turnout rate in this year’s presidential primary. Macon County had a turnout of 31.25 percent – the second lowest of any county in the state.
But Ford says the new laws won’t stop registration efforts in Tuskegee. “It won’t discourage us; it has empowered us,” he said. “We are more encouraged than ever to register our people to vote, educate them on how to vote, and most importantly turn out the vote. In the words of Tuskegee Airmen: We fight. We fight. We fight. We fight.”
According to a 2012 Brennan Center study, more than 213,000 Alabama citizens have no vehicle access and more than 57,000 lived more than 10 miles away from the nearest state licensing office. Alabama also spends no state money on public transportation.
John Jackson, a former civil rights activist and mayor in Lowndes County – a rural area between Selma and Montgomery – calls the lack of access to DMVs “a disgrace.”
Although the state’s mobile ID unit has visited Lowndes County, Jackson said it is not comforting to its rural residents. “If they send it to Hayneville, from here that’s 15 miles. From Fort Deposit, that’s 30 miles,” said Jackson. “This is a poor county. … A lot of the time, people have to pay people to go into Hayneville.”
Lowndes County is 57th out of 67 Alabama counties in per capita income.
Even poorer, at 62nd of the 67 counties, is Barbour County, where the history of the South is preserved in cities like Clio and Clayton. In Clayton, a Confederate soldier memorial sits in front of the county courthouse, and in Clio, the painted image of former Gov. George Wallace, a pro-segregationist, is the centerpiece of a mural dedicated to the city’s history.
Total turnout in the county in the 2012 election was 66.9 percent, below the state average of 73.2 percent. And despite the nearly 1-to-1 black-white ratio today, whites held 11 of 12 elected official positions in Barbour County in 2015, according to data from the Who Leads Us project.
Registration, voter purging, redistricting and a lack of communication between elected officials and the black community remain prevalent, according to Clayton Councilman and former mayor Charles Beasley. Barbour County also has the highest purge rate of any county in the United States, according to a News21 analysis of voter purges across the country.
“They depress the vote,” Beasley said. “Some of these people that get purged from the voter’s list, they don’t even know, especially if they are elderly. They should be going around making sure people get their rights restored to vote.”
Skeptics say voting doesn’t matter because it won’t improve the racial and economic disparities. Clayton is 63.8 percent African-American, and Clayton’s per capita income is $12,121. Sitting on his friend’s front porch, Kevin Beasley wonders why people his age would vote for anyone besides the sheriff because of the tension, both locally and nationally, between young blacks and law enforcement.
Clayton’s mayor is Rebecca Beasley, who also runs the local newspaper, the Clayton Record. Her family has a history of political leadership - her husband is Billy Beasley, who is a Democratic senator in the Legislature. Her brother-in-law, Jere Beasley, served as lieutenant governor in 1972.
She said the best way to increase turnout is to convince voters that if they don’t vote, they don’t have a voice. Any issues faced because of the ID law is the voter’s responsibility, she added.
“It was said that (the law) was to hinder the black vote. That was a lot of the opposition to the photo ID and maybe so. Yet if a person wants to vote, do what you have to do to get that photo ID,” she said. "A voter has to take that initiative and the resources out there that you help a voter do what is necessary.”
Cynthia Franklin, who has worked as a registrar for the Clayton-based Barbour County Commission for 15 years, says that “everything here is transparent,” and that various things affect the turnout in Clayton.
“We have the office here, we have voter drives, we encourage people to come in,” Franklin said. “We’re here. We manage the county's voter list. We interact with the community, we have materials for people here in the office.”
Primary turnout indicates these outreach efforts might not be enough, with Democratic voter turnout in Southern states dropping by an average of 44 percent. High rates of poverty among African-Americans in these states, lack of transportation and difficulty obtaining ID may keep many away from the polls.
And Alabama is still behind the rest of America in terms of ballot accessibility and representation in government, placing last in the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s rankings. Neighboring Georgia received the lowest possible mark in ballot accessibility.
Located in the Black Belt of Georgia, Americus has been a battleground for voting access and representation issues since the Civil Rights era.
Juanita Wilson, 68, a councilwoman for the 59 percent African-American city, experienced these conflicts in her youth, when she protested in the city streets for racial equality. She was jailed and detained in an abandoned stockade for 30 days. Today, the fight is different. She says much of her advocacy efforts go toward motivating younger black residents to go to the polls.
“I know I can go home and retire, but I won't. I will keep fighting for justice until I die,” she said. “Our older people vote, because they will do absentees and things like that. But when you get to the 20s and 30s, they just don’t care.”
Young black turnout in Sumter County, where Americus is located, is significantly lower than other demographic groups. Only 9.7 percent of African-Americans ages 18-29 turned out in the May primary, compared with 48 percent of blacks ages 60 and up. For whites, 27.8 percent ages 18-29 turned out, compared with 59 percent older than 60.
But just a few houses down from the home where Wilson was raised on Forrest Street, 18-year-old Eddie Lusane says he is ready to vote for the first time in November. “I think if I can get a lot guys and females in my neighborhood who are about to turn 18 to come with me to vote, I can bring change,” he said.
Three years after the Shelby County v. Holder decision, some in Americus say the progress of the past has diminished significantly. “(The South) is going back in terms of voting rights, and it’s going back in terms of civil rights right now,” said the Rev. Mathis Wright, the NAACP president for Sumter County.
Wright is the lead plaintiff in a case against the Sumter County Board of Elections and Registration over the county’s implementation of electing two at-large members of the Sumter County Board of Education. The change would make it more difficult for African-Americans to be elected and represented equally in the majority-black county.
“It’s important because you don’t want just a small segment of your community dictating all the policy,” Wright said. “I’ve had conversations with all our politicians here, and I certainly always try to tell them that for Americus to really succeed, we have to include everyone.”
The school board once had a 6-3 African-American majority, but now has a 5-2 white majority. Robert Brady, the elections supervisor for Sumter County, declined to comment on the case.
The debate of district changes reducing minority power is not exclusive to Americus. In Macon-Bibb County, district changes already have altered the racial makeup of the county commission. Former city councilman Henry Ficklin says this has reduced black influence in his hometown’s historically strong black community.
A 3-2 black majority on the county commission in 2012 is now a 6-4 white majority due to the addition of districts when the city of Macon and Bibb County consolidated governments in 2014.
“Consolidation is a Southern phenomenon that basically tries to take away the voting rights of blacks so their strength won’t be where it should be under the old system, which is the system that generally most of America has,” Ficklin said.
The change also brought new district lines. Macon’s Cotton Avenue district used to be the hallmark of black success in the South. Today, it represents its new divide. One side is in District 8, represented by Virgil Watkins, who is black: the other is in District 2, represented by Larry Schlesinger, who is white. The new lines affected Ficklin directly in his race for commissioner of District 2 in 2013, which is 62 percent black, according to data from the county Board of Elections. Districts 2 and 3 split an apartment complex, but all voters from that complex were mistakenly put into District 3.
The people who cast ballots in the wrong district exceeded Ficklin’s 26-vote loss in the run-off election. The Board of Elections allowed for a final redo, in which Ficklin lost again. Ficklin attributed his third loss to Schlesinger in five months to the way voting districts were redrawn by the Republican-led state Legislature, and poorer residents having trouble getting to the polls for the third vote.
While the number of districts has increased, the number of voting precincts has dropped from 40 to 33 in the county. Six of those seven precincts voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in 2012.
Efficiency and cost cutting is the main reason for polling place consolidation, according to Macon-Bibb County Elections Officer Tom Gillon. He said when the city and county merged, both had to reduce their total number of employees. Poll workers were among the first positions cut, meaning several precincts wouldn’t be properly staffed.
“If we had enough money, we’d go up to 50 (precincts) if we wanted,” he said.
In the traditionally black stronghold of Durham, North Carolina, the Legislature’s efforts to implement an extensive voter ID law and political apathy among young African-Americans have voting rights advocates worried about the strength of the city’s political future.
“Durham is a fairly unique place,” said the Rev. Albert Shuler, a pastor at the New Creation United Methodist church. “Black folks have always had a very important part of the decisions in the city.”
“Durham’s a progressive town in what used to be a pretty progressive state, and just recently we’ve noticed how much our values are being challenged at the statewide level,” said Kate Fellman, director of You Can Vote, a voter registration coalition based in North Carolina.
You Can Vote is one of the many voter advocacy groups in the state opposed to House Bill 589, often referring to it as the monster voting law. It required voters to present acceptable photo ID, cuts a week off the early voting period and eliminates same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. An amendment to the bill in 2015 allowed voters with a reasonable impediment to getting photo ID to cast a provisional ballot.
As it stands now, the law has been struck down by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled it targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”
"We cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history," Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in the ruling. State Republicans have said they will appeal the law and seek other possibilities to keep it in effect in November.
"Photo IDs are required to purchase Sudafed, cash a check, board an airplane or enter a federal courtroom,” Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement. “Yet, three Democratic judges are undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state.”
Critics of the bill say the law discriminates against minorities, college students and the poor, saying these groups are less likely to have photo ID, a consistent home address or the means to learn the proper election procedures.
According to court documents, African-Americans cast 34 percent of photo-ID-related provisional ballots that were not counted in the state’s March primary and made up 23 percent of registered voters in the primary. The data exclude any voter whose race was undesignated.
Gunther Peck, a public policy professor at Duke University who leads teach-ins on voting, said the law unintentionally might affect everyone, including Republicans.
“There was an African-American woman in my precinct who is a registered Republican because her grandmother was emancipated by Abraham Lincoln, and she’s going to vote the party of Lincoln (Republican),” he said. “She has no photo ID, and I don’t have the heart to tell her the party of Lincoln disenfranchised her.”
Those for the bill say the strict measures are to prevent voter fraud, including Ron Rabin, a North Carolina state senator. Rabin adds that voter ID is essential for daily life. “What can you get in this country without having some kind of photo ID?” he said. “Almost nothing. So what’s the big deal on voter ID?”
Voters on both sides are typically for voter ID, according to a 2013 Elon University poll. Ninety-three percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats polled were for it.
Whether or not the bill in its current form lives to see the presidential election, its effect was tested in the primary.
State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach said in a statement that “comprehensive voting station guides” were put in place in the primary so every voter knew what options they had. The statement also said 99.5 percent of voters brought proper ID.
The law’s other implementations would be a bigger factor, with same-day registration during early voting and out-of-precinct voting on Election Day, allowing more than 29,000 people to vote in the primaries, according to a Democracy North Carolina analysis. Neither voting method will be available in November if the law is in place.
With North Carolina being a closely contested state the past few election cycles, any sort of voter apathy or suppression could have big ramifications, according to Peck.
“This law could compromise the integrity of the vote,” he said. “The stakes are pretty dire. And it doesn’t matter who wins. Here, it’s about the integrity of our democratic process.
“History is on our side, I do believe that.”
Correction, Aug. 24, 2016: An earlier version of this story about the Asian-American voting bloc inaccurately described Jerry Vattamala’s title on second and third reference. He is the director of the Democracy Program at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Beth Vang grew up with a conflicted view of civic life. Vang, a 21-year-old college student, lives near St. Paul, Minnesota, in one of the largest Hmong communities in the U.S.
In traditional Hmong culture, Vang said only the elite discuss politics and government. Young people conform to their parent's ideologies. And personal politics take a backseat to community harmony.
But Vang is American. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. the year before she was born.
In school, she learned the importance of political education, the value of individualism and the significance of issues affecting the public sphere.
She considers herself caught between the old world and the new.
“In America, it’s OK to do certain things that it’s not OK to do in the Hmong heritage,” Vang said. “That’s something that we need to overcome if we want to make it in the U.S. and if we want to adapt to how the U.S. political world works.”
Vang said she personally has overcome some of those cultural barriers, and she does plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election: “Luckily, I grew up with exposure to American culture and therefore knew that I should pay attention to politics and elections.”
St. Paul’s Hmong, who largely immigrated to the U.S. as refugees after civil war in Southeast Asia, are among the nearly 20 million Asian-Americans living in the U.S. For the upcoming presidential election, Asian-American voters are projected to make up 4 percent of eligible voters. This percentage may seem small, but the population has grown rapidly since just 2012.
Besides being the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., Asian-Americans have the highest income and are the best educated – both factors that have traditionally produced high voter turnout.
However, as a voting bloc, Asian-Americans don’t. In fact, they have the lowest voter participation of any demographic group.
Many Asian-Americans, mostly first-generation immigrants, don’t speak English well or might not be familiar with the democratic process. But experts and advocates said even those more familiar with American culture say they feel neglected by political candidates who don’t reach out or understand their issues. Some say they’ve faced discrimination when they’ve gone to vote.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the political research group AAPI Data, said parties are less likely to reach out to Asian-Americans than any other race. “They’re your quintessential swing voter because their party identification tends to not be as strong,” he said. “And right now, there's a big missed opportunity for Republicans as well as Democrats to reach that population.”
Language creates barriers to voting
One in 3 Asian-Americans speaks limited English, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. From Bengali to Tagalog, their native tongues and dialects are numerous and varied. This can thwart prospective voters from reading or filling out a ballot.
“We’re talking about many, many, many different languages, many different cultures, many different experiences with voting and political processes,” said Sundrop Carter, director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. “Even people who maybe do their day-to-day business in English don’t feel completely comfortable doing something as important as voting in a second language.”
The national Voting Rights Act has two clauses designed to protect minority language voters. The first, Section 203, requires that voting divisions translate their ballots when their population has more than 5 percent or 10,000 limited-English speakers who share the same native tongue. Currently, only 22 counties or cities in the U.S. meet that requirement for any Asian language.
Another minority protection in the voting law, Section 208, allows voters to bring translators into a voting booth with them. But this isn’t always allowed. Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said it’s not uncommon for his office to hear about poll workers refusing to allow translators into the booths. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued 12 counties for violating Section 208 since 1998.
Asian-Americans are part of the rapidly changing demographics of U.S. cities. For example, between 1990 and 2010, Philadelphia’s white population fell by a third – the Hispanic and Asian populations have filled that gap. Between 2000 and 2010, Philadelphia’s Asian-American population grew around 40 percent. Today, they make up 7 percent of the city.
Pockets of Asian-Americans have sprouted up in areas that used to be predominantly white. Former residents of industrial Chinatown, priced out by gentrification, have spread out. Ethnic grocery stores and Vietnamese bakeries have cropped up along Washington Avenue, a southern strip that runs the width of the city.
As the immigrant population grows, Philadelphia officials are trying to meet their needs at the polls. Spanish translation is federally required at Philadelphia’s polls, and the city will provide translators for other languages if polling places find translators willing to do the work.
In the 2016 primaries, the city hired and trained 41 Asian-language translators. But city officials say that the low pay – $105 max for a 13-hour day – doesn’t provide much incentive.
The city also has a phone-in translation service available to second-language citizens who need help with any government interaction. At voting booths, instruction cards tell people how to reach the language hotline. But advocates said those language cards aren’t always present, or that poll workers aren’t always trained to refer the hotline to second-language voters.
City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, one of three Philadelphia officials who oversees voting in the city, wants the city to require language translation cards at every polling place. The cards are currently translated into more than 20 languages.
“There’s an election every six months in Philadelphia. We need to make sure that everybody is taking advantage of their right to vote – whether it’s in English or Chinese or Vietnamese,” Deeley said. “Residents who need assistance should be able to get it with as much ease as possible.”
Vang, the student from St. Paul, said language issues go beyond translation. Directly translating words such as “president” and “democracy” into Hmong can seem impolite and harsh.
“Words that have a relation to politics sound very, very powerful. … It sounds like something you should never talk about,” she said. “You can’t just say those specific words in Hmong and not get away (without) an argument or something like that.”
About half of the citizens who speak Hmong in St. Paul speak English “less than very well,” according to U.S. Census data. These limited-English voters, like Wang Mua, Yolanda Loura, Nou Moua and Yer Yang, rely on translators, who are federally required in St. Paul, to help them vote.
Each of the four women said they vote every time there’s a presidential election.
Behind the row of food stands at the annual Fourth of July weekend Hmong festival, these women sliced fruit in a circle amid smoke from nearby grills. To communicate with English speakers, they relied on translator Kaohly Her.
“Society does not find any value in us anymore because we are old, and we are useless, but we can still vote and our voice still matters,” they said through Her. “‘We fought our way to this country, we made it here and this is the least we can do.’”
Although a translator may help them read the ballot at the polls, the service doesn’t necessarily help them prepare. This election, for example, the women said they were planning to vote for President Barack Obama.
“They don’t always get the information that they need in a way that they can process the information,” Her said. “They rely a lot on the rest of us who do speak the language to be able to tell them.”
Cultural issues may thwart voting
When David Oh won his seat on the Philadelphia City Council in 2011, Oh, a Korean-American, became the first Asian-American elected to local office in Philadelphia. In those five years, Asian-American voter registration in the city has roughly doubled from 5,000 to nearly 10,000.
He and his associates have gone door to door in the city’s Asian neighborhoods to register voters.
“Many of them really never knew that you could vote for your elected officials,” Oh said of Asians in Philadelphia. “Many of them are from China. You don’t vote in China. It’s kind of a new thing, and they sign up, and they’re quite happy about it.”
He said it also helps that he and his associates speak to residents in their heritage languages, which makes people feel more at ease.
Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, uses a similar tactic when calling voters to remind them of upcoming elections. She said they’re more likely to respond to someone speaking their native tongue.
“When someone with some kind of modicum of authority or legitimacy or credibility asks Thais to do something, they automatically feel obligated,” she said.
But American democracy can be overwhelming, even frightening for immigrants.
The Fresno Center for New Americans’ Lue Yang, a Hmong who came to the United States in 1976, said speaking up is valued here – an uncomfortable concept for some.
“Back in the country of Laos under the communist control, the more you say, the more bad (things would) come back and harm you,” he said.
The varied and complex systems at the polls can even confound those who did not flee authoritarianism.
“The first time I voted in Pennsylvania was very different than where I had voted before and as a fluent, very well-educated person, (I) walked in and was like, ‘Whoa, which buttons?’ There were all these flashing lights. I voted in New York before, which has a very arcane lever system,” said Carter, of Pennsylvania’s immigration coalition. “It can be confusing. And imagine if this is your first time ever voting, you’re not super confident with English, and no one has ever told you what a voting machine looks like. It can be a hugely intimidating process.”
Martorell, of the Thai center in Los Angeles, explained that most Thai immigrants since the 1980s have come from the country’s poor, rural corners, and many have little education or work skills. Politics aren’t a part of their lives. Oftentimes, they ask her staff members for help, which nonprofits aren’t legally allowed to give.
“They don’t know the difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” she said. “They don’t know the difference between liberal and conservative.”
In San Francisco, the Chinatown Community Development Center hosts monthly town halls to increase voter participation.
It addresses a variety of topics, from health department regulations to voter education. Staff members also can help register them to vote, said the organization’s executive director, Norman Fong.
Fong, 65, is one of the neighborhood’s biggest advocates. His mother was a San Francisco native. His father came to the U.S. in 1919 but was detained for years just offshore at Angel Island, ensnared by the Chinese Exclusion Act.
In 1990, Fong began working for the community center, housed in a modest, 105-year-old walk-up a few blocks from the city’s famed Pier 39. At that time, many residents, old-timers included, didn’t vote, he said. His parents didn’t care much for politics, either.
He credits grassroots outreach for drumming up engagement.
According to the city’s elections department, Chinatown voter turnout has increased at roughly the same rate as voter participation citywide over the past five presidential elections.
“We’ve gotten to that stage,” Fong said. “The residents of Chinatown know that their vote makes a difference.”
Many Asian-Americans say they’re not treated equally
In 2014, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund received more than 340 complaints from Asian-Americans reporting problems voting. More than 1 in 5 of these grievances involved being asked to prove their U.S. citizenship in states that don’t require ID to vote. Generally, only a few people in those states would have to provide proof of citizenship.
Vattamala, the democracy program’s defense fund’s director, said another common problem among Asian-American voters is mistakes with their names, causing them to not show up correctly on voter rolls. He said Asian-American names may be unusual to people entering the voter roll data.
“(The people entering the voter registration data may) see three names and don’t know which one is the first or last name. … There might be a space added or deleted or a couple letters screwed up when the data entry is taking place,” he said. “And then it’s up to the poll worker to say if the names substantially match up to each other.”
Vattamala also said Asian-American voters may have Western nicknames on their licenses but not on the voter rolls. If poll workers determine the names do not match, they must give the voters provisional ballots. He said some poll workers do not know this, so they turn the voters away.
“(It) happens a lot to Asian-Americans, unfortunately,” he said.
Other Asian-Americans may be targeted based on how they look or where they were born.
Twenty-year-old Thanh Mai said she tried to register three times in Louisiana and was denied.
Mai’s family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was about a year old. She became a citizen when she was in her teens.
“I assumed since I was a U.S. citizen, I could vote and didn’t realize there could ever be a time or place where I couldn’t,” Mai said. “I’ve been living in the U.S. basically my whole life.”
But at the time, Louisiana had a 142-year-old statute requiring naturalized citizens to prove their U.S. citizenship to register to vote. Voters born in the U.S. were not required to do so.
Mai tried to register during her freshman year at Loyola University New Orleans in 2014. Once she discovered she wasn’t on the voter roll during the 2015 governor’s election, she registered again at her school and online early in 2016.
She said she received a letter from Jefferson Parish officials saying she needed to prove her citizenship to register to vote. Mai only had 10 days to do so – and she said she didn’t see the time constraint.
Her name did briefly appear on the online voter rolls, but the parish sent Mai a letter saying its office had reason to believe she was not a U.S. citizen, so she could not register to vote. The letter said Mai had 21 days to prove her citizenship, but it did not include instructions on how to do so, according to her attorney. Officials removed Mai's name from the online voter rolls.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Fair Elections Legal Network filed a lawsuit over the Louisiana law on May 4, with Mai and two other naturalized citizens as plaintiffs. Collectively, the three citizens tried to register to vote eight times. The lawsuit detailed how the state law violated the 14th Amendment by illegally targeting naturalized citizens in the registration process.
There are more than 72,000 naturalized citizens living in Louisiana. The state law was not documented on the state’s voter registration form or the secretary of state’s website, the center alleged.
Less than a month after the center filed the suit, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed legislation repealing the law, and the advocacy groups withdrew the lawsuit.
“I’m just really relieved because I worked so much, I registered so many times, I’ve been disappointed so many times,” Mai said. “Now that I can register to vote, I appreciate my right to vote much more now than before. Even though it was a horrible experience, the fact that I can now vote and partook in this lawsuit makes me really want to get more people to vote.”
Expert: Asians must become part of 'machine'
Andy Toy, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s chapter of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, said there’s still work to be done in his city.
It’s a “machine town,” where the white machine and black machine are well-established political players, he said. There is no Asian machine.
Toy compared these machines to “old boys networks” or fraternities. Asian-Americans haven’t developed those long-standing political dynamics, he said. At least not in Philadelphia.
“Machines often come with a promise of a job or a connection to something to get something done,” he said. “(They) haven’t been around enough to have the sense that you have to kiss somebody’s ring to do something. … And it’s not always bad, but that’s the way it is.”
Toy said the machines show the strength of those particular demographics. To become a political player, Asian-Americans must increase their population or increase voter turnout.
The group is increasing its population, largely thanks to its immigrant population. According to the Pew Research Center, Asians make up the largest group of recent immigrants. Seventy-four percent of Asian-American adults were born outside the U.S.
And that’s one potential reason this demographic hasn’t seen big bumps in voter turnout. More than half of the respondents in the Pew survey said they see themselves as different from “typical Americans.”
Vattamala, the democracy program’s defense fund’s director, said his organization started exit polling to articulate the issues important to Asian-Americans.
“For the first time, people are starting to ask what issues are important and how they’re voting,” he said. “Things have gotten slightly better. Some media outlets are asking now.”
But data show it’s not necessarily easy to nail down how Asian-Americans “think” because so much depends on their individual background, their individual culture.
In 2012, the defense fund polled about 9,000 Asian-American voters in 14 states. Although 65 percent strongly supported immigration reform, responses varied within ethnicity groups. For example, 78 percent of Bangladeshi respondents supported reform while only 49 percent of Vietnamese respondents did.
David Ryu, a Los Angeles city councilman, said politicians didn’t pay much attention to Asian-Americans voters during campaigns, but that’s starting to change. Ryu is the first Korean-American elected to the council.
“After my election, many people are looking towards Asian-Americans as being that swing vote,” he said. “And as we saw in the last presidential election, where Asian-Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama and the Democrats.”
Obama received about 70 percent of Asian-American votes in 2012.
There is hope for the future, Ryu said. Politicians are getting better at removing Asian-American voting barriers.
“It’s not a rocket science,” he said. “It’s just doing it … and simply going out and asking.”
Rep. Judy Chu, congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus chairwoman, said people are starting to pay attention to the Asian vote because it could affect certain swing areas.
“(My group is) pushing very hard to target the swing votes in the swing states for this presidential election,” she said. “That’s Nevada, that’s Virginia and even includes Pennsylvania. So we need to make sure that we concentrate on those particular states and ensure that we register those (Asian-Americans), and we motivate them to go out to vote.”
The 2016 presidential election’s most powerful super PAC is the one backing Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Fully 100 percent of them have attacked Clinton’s Republican rival, celebrity businessman Donald Trump.
Live in a swing state? These ads have been unavoidable.
So far in August, Priorities USA Action has aired more than 2,100 ads in Florida — about one ad, on average, every 15 minutes. And in Ohio this month, Priorities USA Action has so far aired more than 1,800 ads — an average of about one every 17 minutes.
This week alone, this anti-Trump attack dog is out with two new ads. Both target residents of Florida and Ohio, as well as voters in Iowa, Nevada and North Carolina.
Priorities USA Action’s new spots — entitled “Watching” and “Pledge” — are laced with some of Trump’s most contentious remarks, such as when he appeared to mock a disabled reporter and when he suggested that Mexicans who immigrate to the United States are rapists and criminals.
These comments are juxtaposed with video of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in “Pledge,” and, in “Watching,” with shots of people Clinton has dubbed “everyday Americans” — a man washing dishes, a man in a wheelchair, a Korean War veteran, a mother heading out the door to work.
The ads’ sponsor
Allies of President Barack Obama — including former White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney— launched Priorities USA Action in April 2011 to support Obama’s re-election. In 2014, the super PAC transformed itself into a pro-Clinton operation.
Like any super PAC, Priorities USA Action is legally allowed to collect unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations or labor unions — so long as it doesn’t coordinate its spending with the candidate it is seeking to aid.
But that limitation hasn’t stopped Clinton herself, as well as former President Bill Clinton, from helping the super PAC raise money — while also trying to distance herself from it as she touts campaign finance reform.
Who’s behind it?
Priorities USA Action’s chief strategist is Guy Cecil, who served as Hillary Clinton’s political and field director during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. He also served as the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, after a stint as chief of staff for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Priorities USA Action’s executive director is Anne Caprara, the former vice president of campaigns at EMILY's List, an organization that exists to help abortion rights-supporting Democratic women — including Clinton— win political office.
Several other longtime Democratic operatives and Clinton allies are also involved with the super PAC, including labor lawyer Harold Ickes, EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock and Greg Speed, the president of America Votes, a liberal nonprofit that bills itself as the “coordination hub of the progressive community.”
Priorities USA Action raised about $110 million from January 2015 through July 2016, according to federal campaign finance filings. That’s already about $31 million more than it raised during the entire 2012 election, when it fought to defeat Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Everyday Americans are not fueling this super PAC: Just 33 Priorities USA Action donors— who each have donated at least $1 million — account for 90 percent of this nine-figure haul, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance records.
The super PAC’s top donor — hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman— alone accounts for $1 out of every $10 Priorities USA Action raised through the end of July.
Overall, Sussman has given $11 million, including $3 million last month, according to the group’s most recent campaign finance report.
Other Priorities USA Action billionaire backers include SlimFast founder S. Daniel Abraham, who has donated $6 million, and entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who has given $5 million. His wife, Cheryl Saban, a philanthropist and writer, has likewise contributed $5 million.
A number of labor unions are also among Priorities USA Action’s biggest supporters, including the Laborers' International Union of North America, which has contributed $4 million — ranking it as Priorities USA Action’s largest union donor.
Documents submitted to the Federal Election Commission show that Priorities USA Action has so far spent more than $48 million on ads. (It spent a shade more than $65 million on ads during the 2012 election cycle.)
The bulk of this — about $35 million — has been spent on TV ads focused on voters in nine states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The super PAC has also spent about $10 million on digital ads.
A mix of radio ads and direct mail account for the rest of its 2016 advertising expenditures.
Priorities USA Action spokesman Justin Barasky told the Center for Public Integrity the super PAC is airing ads “where we can make the most difference.”
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Priorities USA Action has also helped fund other pro-Clinton organizations.
For example, Priorities USA Action has given EMILY’s List’s Women Vote! super PAC about $3 million so far this year, and it gave $1 million to another pro-Clinton super PAC, Correct the Record, in December.
Priorities USA Action also contributed $1.5 million to the committee that hosted the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Furthermore, it gave $50,000 in June to America Votes’ super PAC.
Why it matters
Democrats have long argued that they shouldn’t “unilaterally disarm” in the campaign fundraising game, and Priorities USA Action has aggressively pursued the money it believes is necessary to help Clinton win the White House.
With fewer than 11 weeks until Election Day, the super PAC — which had about $39 million in the bank heading into August — has no plans to let up.
“Donald Trump is uniquely unfit to be president” Barasky told the Center for Public Integrity. “We want to do everything we can to beat him.”
This story was co-published with TIME.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Trump signs in her backyard. Trump magnets on her refrigerator. Trump buttons on her dining room table. Kathy Miller is the Mahoning County chairwoman for Donald Trump.
While handing out Trump signs in June at a Republican headquarters just south of Youngstown, Ohio, she was approached by a woman in her late 80s, who said, “I have never voted Republican in my life. Give me the biggest sign you’ve got.”
In economically struggling communities like Mahoning County – where most steel mills have closed – many white, working-class Democrats are voting for Trump, registration records and 2016 presidential primary results show.
“They’re just all fed up,” Miller said. “It may be the economy for some, it may be the school systems, it could be health care, it could be immigration, education, it could be anything. They’re just fed up with the direction of our country. Mr. Trump showed up at the right time.”
According to a November 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll, 72 percent of Americans and 78 percent of white working-class Americans believe the country still is in a recession. A News21 analysis of the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago also found that in 2002, the percentage of white Americans with hardly any confidence in the executive branch of the federal government was just under 20 percent, the lowest it had been between 2002 and 2014. By 2014, that number was nearly 50 percent.
“The disenfranchised voter who has lost their job as a result of policies affecting the coal industry and other heavy manufacturing jobs are feeling very frustrated with Washington,” said Rex Repass, founder and CEO of Repass, a national public opinion research and strategic consulting firm. “Even though many are historically Democratic counties, they have become very red and very angry.”
In Tennessee, after a clothing factory outsourced jobs and operations to Mexico, a county that voted Democratic in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections went Republican in both 2008 and 2012.
In Mahoning County, Ohio, as its county seat Youngstown labors under the loss of the steel industry, more than 6,000 voters have switched from Democrat to Republican this year.
Similarly, frustration over closing steel mills and rising health care costs has swayed nearly 5,400 voters to switch parties in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
And in one Kentucky county where residents frustrated with the demise of the coal industry voted about 31 percent Republican in the 2000 presidential election, they voted more than 72 percent Republican in 2012, even though a majority of its voters remain registered Democrats.
Clay County, Tennessee, which borders Kentucky, used to be home to four garment factories. Celina, the county seat, had two.
The largest of these factories was children’s clothing factory OshKosh, which employed between 1,500 and 2,000 from the 1950s to the 1990s. In a county with a population of between 7,000 and 8,000, everyone worked there or knew someone who did.
“Just about everybody who wanted a job, if they’d work, they had a job at OshKosh,” said Doug Young, director of the county’s Three Star Initiative, a program focused on improving the county’s infrastructure to bring jobs to the area.
The factory shut its doors in November 1996 and moved its operations to Mexico, taking advantage of the cheap labor options the North American Free Trade Agreement provided. The agreement’s purpose was to establish a free-trade zone in North America by lifting tariffs on a majority of goods the U.S., Mexico and Canada produce and trade with one another.
Almost overnight, unemployment spiked to nearly 30 percent as hundreds of northern Tennessee residents lost jobs.
Racoe Inc., a military fabric cutting company, moved into the old OshKosh factory in December 1997. Only six people now work in the 66,000-square-foot building.
The county worked to recover from the loss, and logging is now a valued industry in the heavily forested area. Log trucks pass through the small downtown several times an hour.
Unemployment in Clay County, which is nearly 97 percent white, has petered out to a little more than 5 percent in May 2016, just over the May national average of 4.7 percent.
Yet the county still has a 24 percent poverty rate and historically Democratic voters are switching to the Republican Party. In March’s Republican primary, Trump won Clay county 57.1 percent to Ted Cruz’s 17.1 percent and had more than double the votes of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Timothy Scott, the former Democratic chairman in Clay County, said older people come to retire in Clay County because of nearby Dale Hollow Lake, which attracts 3.2 million visitors to the county annually. Scott said more of these retirees tend to vote Republican, but he still attributes much of Trump’s appeal to his rhetoric.
“I think his popularity is (because) just everybody is mad, and he is saying what they feel,” he said. “There will be a lot of Democrats voting for him.”
While older generations have been moving into the community, Scott said young people in the area are leaving because there aren’t jobs once they graduate.
Young said Clay County voters feel ignored by politicians who they believe aren’t doing anything to bring jobs back to the area. “I really do think it’s this attitude that we lost our jobs and nobody’s really come to help us,” Young said.
In the Rust Belt of Ohio and Pennsylvania, steel was the dominant industry. But as steel companies outsourced their labor to mills in China, voters also grew frustrated with the job loss.
“When the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s … this region was literally not prepared for the shutdown of the steel mills,” said Bertram de Souza, a political columnist for the Vindicator newspaper in Youngstown.
Forty years after its steel mills closed, Youngstown’s poverty rate is just over 40 percent.
“The opportunities aren’t here,” said Frankie Susany, 50, who grew up in the Youngstown area and now works there as a small-business owner. “What used to be a thriving city in Youngstown is brown fields, abandoned mills, abandoned buildings, abandoned factories.”
Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message resonates with Susany, who said that when he grew up, young people who worked in the steel mills had great lives. They drove new cars and had their own places to live right out of high school.
Now, with that steel industry gone, Susany believes voters need to cast their ballots with future generations in mind. “That’s what this election is about,” he said. “If we don’t change it now, our grandchildren are never going to know the America that (people my age) grew up in.”
In the March 2008 primary, just under 14 percent of registered voters in Mahoning County – where Youngstown is located – voted Republican. During this year’s state primary in March, more than 48 percent of the county’s registered voters cast a Republican ballot, and poll workers had to print additional Republican ballots. More than 6,000 voters then switched from Democratic to Republican this year.
Leo Connelly Jr. is a Vietnam veteran and former salesman who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched to Republican this year to vote for Trump in the primary. “I was sold on the fact that Obama could turn this country around,” he said. “We don’t want to get fooled again.”
In Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, which is 94 percent white with nearly a 10 percent poverty rate, 5,400 voters switched to the Republican Party to vote for Trump in the primary. The region’s steel factories shut down in the 1980s, and residents remain bitter about the job loss, said Blair Adams, a third-generation owner of K Castings Inc., a manufacturing plant.
“The steel industry as a whole, the big foundries that pour the molten metal, they’re gone,” he said. “All these people that are in this manufacturing area are definitely shifting (parties) because they understand that their jobs are at risk.”
For generations in Kentucky’s coalfields, including the town of Hindman, families spent most of their lives working underground in the mines. As those jobs disappear, Democrats are looking to options outside their party for change and the chance for an improved economy.
“What’s happened here (is) a catastrophe on top of a disaster,” said Mimi Pickering, a filmmaker with Appalshop, a media training center in nearby Whitesburg. “The last few years we’ve lost a great number of coal mining jobs, but really the coal economy has been declining and the employment in the industry has been declining since the 1950s.”
As coal became more scarce and expensive to mine in eastern Kentucky, coal companies moved to states such as Montana and Wyoming, where the work is easier and cheaper. The companies also started to use advanced mining technology, eliminating the need for a large number of miners.
Meanwhile, the government put environmental regulations into place, encouraging states to switch from coal to natural gas as a power source. Kentucky residents such as Ballard Combs, an 81-year-old former coal miner from Knott County, see Obama as the face of these changes.
“I loved the mines,” said Combs, who worked underground most of his adult life. “Obama shut them all down.”
But since 2008, the county has increasingly voted for the Republican presidential candidate. Both Combs and his father were Democrats, but he’s voting for Trump.
Knott County Clerk Ken Gayheart said registered Democrats come into his office daily to switch their registration to the GOP. When the coal companies left, Gayheart said no industries moved in to fill the vacancy.
“These old hills were never worth much,” Gayheart said. “We don’t do anything, we don’t make anything here in Knott County.”
“Eastern Kentucky is in tough shape, but a lot of rural America is in a tough time,” said Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies in nearby Whitesburg. “Something needs to change. That’s the point for the residents on the Trump side.”
Pervis Jacobs, 65, grew up in Hindman, Kentucky. He’s a lifelong Democrat, but he’s voting for Trump. “I feel like I have no choice,” said Jacobs. “I just don’t like the Democrats’ policies anymore.”
Many Trump supporters criticize increasing government regulations, President Obama’s health care law and immigration.
Nick Patterson, joint operating officer of Honest Abe Log Homes and president of Barky Beaver Mulch in Clay County, Tennessee, said the companies used to employ about 500 people and now employ 130.
“I think one of the things that’s so key in this political conversation over the last couple years is our overhead per employee has increased drastically,” he said. “It has come from federal regulations.”
Patterson said China’s economic situation has hurt his small business because there’s not enough domestic business. Over 50 percent of his produced lumber will end up overseas.
Leslie Rossi, leader of a grassroots movement for Trump in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, said she was initially drawn to Trump because he said he would repeal Obamacare. Rossi, a landlord, painted one of her rental houses red, white and blue to support the GOP candidate.
“Obamacare didn’t work, and it’s just been a burden,” Rossi said. “People still don’t have health care, and the people that did are paying more than they’ve ever paid. It’s changed in such a worse direction.”
Rossi also said she believes immigrants take benefits that Americans, especially veterans, should be receiving. “How can you bring an immigrant in and give them free health care, and people that are American citizens that fought for us, you’re just not giving them the things they need,” Rossi said. “It’s sickening.”
Lawfully present immigrants in the U.S. are able to purchase health care, but undocumented immigrants are not eligible to purchase coverage unless they apply on behalf of documented individuals, according to HealthCare.gov.
Veterans are eligible for coverage through the Veterans Health Administration.
A News21 analysis found in 2014, just over 48 percent of white Americans thought the number of immigrants should be reduced, according to data from the General Social Survey. Only 13 percent of the same demographic believe the number of immigrants should be increased.
The survey also found in 2014, nearly 29 percent of white Americans think immigrants take jobs away, and roughly another 7 percent strongly agree.
Patterson said Trump is seen as a political outsider, especially to those who have felt ignored by typical politicians.
“When you get to the federal level, I think people do feel like they've not been listened to because you've seen policies being handed down that have not helped them,” he said. “I think some of the campaign promises that were made on that have simply not been true. And I think that affects people.”
Miller, the Mahoning County chairwoman for Trump, said Americans should forget politicians. Trump appeals to her because he’s a businessman, and Trump’s business background will create jobs and improve the economy.
“We need someone who understands business, can get things done, understands how the economy works (and) has employed people,” she said. “I think that’s my biggest beef with our regular politicians. … And I think Mr. Trump, he’s done it all.”
Scott, the former Democratic chairman in Clay County, Tennessee, said Republican candidates always talk about social issues such as immigration, gun control and gay rights, but the discussion this year seems louder than in past elections.
“(Trump’s) demeanor has brought a lot of these people out,” said Scott, who isn’t voting for Trump. “He’s made them vocal. He gives them courage.”
Miller said his supporters are seeking a definitive change, one they believe they will find in Trump.
“I think the generation like mine, we’ve seen it all. We’ve heard all the promises and we’ve just decided we’re done,” she said. “We just want a country that works, we want jobs, we want to protect our borders, we want to have a life for our children.”
Taylor Gilmore contributed to this report
When Americans vote for president in November, many of the 1.4 million active-duty U.S. military personnel stationed or deployed overseas will not know whether their absentee ballots have reached their home states to be counted. And the federal Election Assistance Commission, charged with monitoring their votes, may not know either.
Under the Help America Vote Act, the ballots of military and overseas voters are supposed to be tallied by their home states and sent to the EAC, which reports them to Congress. But a News21 analysis of the EAC’s data found at least 1 in 8 jurisdictions reported receiving more ballots than they sent, counting more ballots than they received or rejecting more ballots than they received.
Some jurisdictions blame the EAC for confusing forms on which they are supposed to record military and overseas participation numbers. Paul Lux is supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County, Florida, home to Eglin Air Force Base and a large number of military voters.
“It will ask me how many ballots were mailed to overseas voters and how many ballots were returned from overseas voters in various locations in the survey. That is fine, but how am I supposed to account for ballots that are sent to domestic addresses but are returned from overseas?” said Lux. “There are just too many potential anomalies in the way we have to provide service to these voters.”
Military and overseas voting can be a complicated process. Service members can file a Federal Post Card Application, which allows them to both register to vote and request an absentee ballot from their home state or county. If the service member doesn’t receive their ballot in time, they can use a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot as a backup.
EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks told News21 that some of the inconsistencies between ballots sent and ballots returned are likely the result of military voters printing out the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot and sending it back home. Since the ballots are not sent by local jurisdictions, they might be counted as ballots returned but not mailed out.
The commissioner stressed that ensuring the accuracy of that data is up to states and not the EAC. “I’m confident in that it is the data coming from the states and I think that we put that data out and it’s accurate,” said Hicks.
Advocates for military voters say that anomalies in reporting do a disservice to them and their families, many of whom have been deployed to war zones.
“The military represents the people that are fighting for our freedom, fighting for our democracy, representing us around the world, and it’s tragic if they do not take part in the franchise,” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the U.S. Vote Foundation. She also oversees the foundation’s Overseas Vote Initiative, which provides voter registration and voting tools to military and overseas voters.
“It’s a reason that a lot of reforms have happened around military voting in the past, let's say actively, in the last six to eight years. I guess there’s a symbolism around it that goes beyond the actual value of one vote. For us, if it's one vote from the military it means just so much more. It’s not just the vote, it’s all that it represents,” she said.
The Election Administration and Voting Survey is distributed nationwide by the EAC to local jurisdictions, where it is filled out after federal elections. However, each state or local election office tracks its voting information differently, many of them in ways that conflict with how the EAC requests it.
“At first they were asking for information that we could or could not really supply because our system just didn’t divvy out the information the way they thought they might be able to ask for it,” said Joseph Paul Gloria, registrar of voters for Clark County, Nevada. “Each state is unique in the way that they vote, the system they use. So it’s hard to make that report usable for all jurisdictions.”
Hicks said the EAC is working to address these problems. “We’ve finished with the 2014 survey and we’ve seen what sort of improvements can be made,” said Hicks. “And so from now on we’re - in terms of what I’m doing as chair - is to look to see how we can improve the survey going forward.”
Orange County, California, Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said his staff places numbers into the Election Administration and Voting Survey manually. This means, according to Kelley, there always is the chance for human error.
“I’m an advocate of automating that process because then you are not making these decisions among human beings,” said Kelley, who serves on the EAC’s Board of Advisors and its Voting Systems Standards Board.
The structure of the survey causes additional complications, according to Margarita Mikhaylova, acting spokeswoman for the District of Columbia Board of Elections.
“That entire survey is very lengthy and in some instances very confusing to understand,” said Mikhaylova. “The EAC does issue directions and they do issue explanations, but there are just so many different ways to poll the same thing that it can be a bit tricky.”
For example, one question on the survey says, “Enter the total number of all UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act) ballots (including regular UOCAVA absentee ballots and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots (FWAB)) returned by UOCAVA voters and submitted for counting for the November 2014 general election. Please include both those ballots that were later counted and those that were rejected. Do not include ballots that were returned undeliverable.”
Lux, of Okaloosa County, said that federal write-in absentee ballots, which are rejected if they are not returned to the voter’s correct jurisdiction, create further confusion when counties send their reports to the EAC.
Uniformed and Overseas absentee ballots can be rejected for any number of reasons, but the most common reason, according to a July 2013 EAC survey, is that ballots were sent back late and missed deadlines to be counted.
Yet, the EAC data make it difficult to know exactly how often and to what extent military absentee ballots have been rejected. In August last year, at a meeting held by the EAC in Washington, D.C., some election officials raised doubts about trusting their data.
“So, you’ve got a number in a box that looks like data,” said Keith Ingram, Texas director of elections. “But if you put any confidence in that number at all, you’re missing the boat.”
“I can guarantee you we are unable to educate local election officials as to what these categories are, and so, they’re plopping voters into various categories, and I would not have a lot of confidence that they’re hitting the right ones,” Michigan Director of Elections Christopher Thomas said at the meeting.
The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires that all ballots be mailed to service members no less than 45 days before an election to give military voters the chance to return them. They can take 11 to 18 days to arrive once mailed, according to the Military Postal Service Agency. At least 36 days are needed to transmit the ballot. If there are no shipping delays, service members have only nine days to complete and return the ballot.
There are a number of reasons ballots may be mailed out after the 45-day deadline: lack of information among military voters about how to cast a ballot, administrative errors at the state and local level, and the logistics of mailing ballots out.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program is part of the Department of Defense. It works alongside the Election Assistance Commission, using EAC data to track voting trends. Its director, Matt Boehmer, is working to dispel what he considers misgivings among military voters that their votes are not counted.
“There is a data point out there that says 67 percent of active-duty members aren't confident that their ballot was counted, right? Now, when you take a look at that, you take a look at election data, it is impossible. There is no way that 67 percent of ballots are being rejected,” Boehmer said.
Boehmer said confusion about ballot rejection is exacerbated by the fact that overseas voters never receive confirmation that their ballots were counted, or that returning those ballots to home jurisdictions involves sending them on a convoluted journey across multiple continents and through multiple mailing systems.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program, under Boehmer’s direction, has recommended state election officials notify military voters when their ballots arrive and are counted. The advice is a pointed attempt to remedy perception among armed forces voters that their vote actually doesn’t count.
Capt. Yikalo Gebrehiwet, a company commander at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, emphasized the unique importance of the military vote. “It’s really part of the Army values, right? So we encourage soldiers to go out and vote, be a part of the community,” he said. “It’s really part of the Constitution and it’s what you raise your right hand to do, support and defend the Constitution. The best way to do that is by voting.”
The 2000 presidential election between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore brought critical scrutiny to overseas and absentee ballots in Florida. Attempts were made to throw out ballots that arrived past the election deadline or without a postmark. The Bush campaign joined legal efforts to force the counting of these ballots, which ultimately, were counted.
The chaos of the Florida recount led to the passing of the Help America Vote Act, which aimed to improve voting systems and increase voter access. It also established the EAC as a national clearinghouse of information on elections.
“The thing that spoke to me about military voting is we have lower numbers, as far as voter participation nationally,” said Tacinta Connor, who is married to an active-duty soldier at Fort Bragg.
“Sometimes it could be a bit confusing and therefore having the information and providing it to a wider base would increase our voting participation in this election and going forward,” said Connor, who volunteers with Fort Bragg’s voting assistance program.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program provides reports to Congress that help create and guide policy. In both its 2014 and 2015 reports to Congress, the program touted EAC initiatives as “successful.” But in the footnotes of its own 2014 report, that success is contradicted.
The footnote says questions on the survey could easily have been misinterpreted by those filling it out and that state employees might have entered incorrect numbers. It also claims the complex nature of the survey makes it difficult to keep ties between different parts of the survey clear, and that missing data from the survey could make it hard to interpret.
As unreliable as some consider the EAC data to be, it is still in use by the president and Congress. EAC survey results land on their desks through the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s report, the Government Accountability Office’s report and the EAC’s report.
“We use it to inform our communications efforts and then we use it to ultimately make decisions about what we need to do in the program,” said Boehmer, of the Federal Voting Assistance Program. He added that the survey data play an important part in making recommendations for the correction of voting issues.
Kamanzi Kalisa is the director of the Overseas Voting Initiative with the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization created to help state officials shape public policy. His program is working alongside the Federal Voting Assistance Program to make recommendations for improving the survey.
“I think the accuracy of the collection process is very important, but I also want to make a really important clarifying point: At the end of this, there will be recommendations in which all of the sentiments of our group members are shared. It will be presented to the EAC,” said Kalisa. “Now, it is up to the EAC. … CSG (Council of State Governments) has no power over what the EAC will do with those recommendations.”
Five years ago, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican, tried to eliminate the EAC, claiming it had “outlived its usefulness.” His bill would have moved the EAC’s responsibilities and power to the Federal Election Commission. The bill failed, as did a second attempt in 2013. A third attempt made in 2015 has yet to come to a vote.
According to the commission’s own documents, the EAC was without an executive director from December 2010 until November 2015. In 2013, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, tried and failed to restore leadership to the commission, which didn’t have the officers necessary to conduct votes and govern itself. This led Harper to refer to the commission as a “zombie agency lumbering forward lifelessly devouring taxpayer dollars.”
While election officials and advocates examine data issues from an administrative level, military installations such as Fort Bragg are engaging in grassroots awareness campaigns. The U.S. Army released a statement in November 2015 advising that “units and installations will host voter registration promotion events.”
“Most of our soldiers, they are so busy with mission. So we kind of stop them and be like, ‘Hey, you know this is your right to vote?’” said Fort Bragg Unit Voting Assistance Officer Laurie Joseph. “And that is the biggest thing. That's the biggest mission. To get everybody registered and aware that they can vote.”
Judith Higgs is the installation voting assistance officer at Fort Bragg. She also served in the U.S. Army for 24 years.
“We have the armed forces voters week, we also have the absentee voters week … in order to get the last push for everyone to get their absentee ballot,” Higgs said. “We also have voting assistance officer workshops that we conduct for election years. We have those workshops to engage all the unit voting assistance officers so they all could be on one playing field on what to expect as we disseminate the information to our service members.”
Tech. Sgt. Tonia Jones, a member of the 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group at Pope Army Airfield in North Carolina, said she’s confident her vote is counted. “As a military (member) I am confident. Because when we are giving our information, we let the individuals know that this is your deadline, this is when you’re voting, this is when you have to ensure that your ballot is sent out so that it can get counted.”
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