Loopholes and Bulletholes

By: Antoinette D’Addario

On Memorial Day 2005, Timothy and Janice Heyne were docking their boat at friend Steve Mazin’s home in Thousand Oaks, California when veteran Toby Whelchel opened fire. He killed Janice and Steve and critically injured Timothy.

 

Mazin had represented Whelchel in two court cases and in his Air Force court martial and took out a restraining order against Whelchel after he attacked Mazin in his own home. According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article, Whelchel was court-martialed in 1999, fined $3,000 and discharged for failing to show up on time for work. Whelchel also had a criminal record in Florida and Indiana in addition to California.

 

“Their friend [Mazin] had a restraining order against a man [Whelchel] who came and shot the friend, shot my father three times, killed my mom [then] shot a police officer, bludgeoned a mother in front of her kids and finally turned his gun on himself,” Heyne said.

 

Shortly after losing his mother, Christian Heyne committed himself to fighting gun violence and promoting gun control.

 

“How the hell did this happen?” Heyne asked.

 

After his parents’ shooting, Heyne learned American gun laws had many loopholes.

 

“The gun lobby has made it easy for an illegal market of guns to run in our states,” Heyne said. “The majority of states in this country don’t require a background check to purchase a gun.”

 

Article XI § 7 of the California Constitution states “a county or city may make and enforce within its limits all local, police, sanitary, and other ordinances and regulations not in conflict with general laws.” This provision gives local authorities equal power to the state legislature to protect the welfare of its residents. This made it possible for Heyne and other advocates to pass and implement local ordinances preventing gun violence in their communities.

 

The state legislature’s passing of California Assembly Bill 1471, which requires guns sold in California to have a micro stamp device on the weapon, was a major victory for Heyne.

 

“The micro stamp intentionally stamps a code on the shell casing to trace the weapon,” said Heyne.  “Shell casings are often [what are] left behind at shootings and what you find out is — contrary to what CSI shows tell you — it’s extremely hard to trace guns from shell casings; it only happens about one percent of the time,” said Heyne.

 

A series of lawsuits have been filed delaying enactment of the bill, but Heyne is hopeful it will roll out soon and be implemented in other states.

 

Under President Obama, the Social Security Administration (SSA) implemented provisions of the 2007 National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act. This act allowed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to report a person who they classified as “mentally defective” to the NICS to prevent them from obtaining a firearm unless the veteran is able to prove he or she does not pose a danger to themselves or others.

 

Under this system, if a veteran was appointed a fiduciary from the VA to manage their financial affairs, they were labeled mentally incompetent and his or her name was sent to the FBI’s NICS, which could prohibit them from legally purchasing or owning a firearm. While they could apply for relief from this prohibition, the decision was in the hands of a VA bureaucrat not a judicial authority.

 

Whelchel’s actions on Memorial Day elicited questions on his mental health status and whether or not he should have had access to a gun. His killing spree and ultimate suicide is indicative of a violent streak that may have been prevented had he been prohibited from purchasing a firearm.

 

In 2014, 7,403 veterans committed suicide, averaging 21 suicides per day. Sixty-six percent of these suicides were perpetrated using firearms. Veteran suicides accounted for 18 percent of all suicides committed in the United States in 2014, according to a study by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

 

Andrew Gottlieb, director of outreach and development at the Second Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit gun rights advocacy group, thinks deeming someone mentally incompetent is walking a very fine line.

 

“Obviously, we have too many veterans committing suicide, [but] when you deem somebody mentally incompetent it becomes a huge issue,” Gottlieb said.

 

Furthermore, the idea of someone losing their rights when they admit they are having a problem bothers him.

 

“If someone seeks help [they] could lose their rights,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to not get help because of the punishment that comes with it. I don’t think someone should be punished for getting help.”

 

“We have a public health crisis,” Heyne said. “We exist in a place where every year there are 100,000 people killed, wounded or maimed by guns and we aren’t doing anything about it. If it was a disease or car accidents, we would be all over it and right now, not only are we not all over it [but] we continue to see a push to stop any kind of regulation.”

 

In 1997, the CDC was banned from doing in-depth research on gun violence after the passage of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill, also known as the Dickey Amendment. It was named after Jay Dickey, a Republican representative from Arkansas who proposed it in 1996 in response to the gun control debate heating up after the 1994 election and Clinton’s campaign on gun control legislation.

 

The bill contained clear and proscriptive language: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This stipulation, along with the stripping of all funding to gun research, effectively banned gun violence research, despite many experts viewing the problem as a public health issue.

 

The NRA has a history of defending the bill and has lobbied for additional bans on gun research since its passage.

 

But Dickey never intended for the bill to be as far-reaching as it has become. Looking back, Dickey apologized for his actions.

 

“I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey said to the Huffington Post in 2015.

 

While Dickey left Congress before changing his stance on gun research, he authored an op-ed in 2012 for the Washington Post on his new position and has encouraged his former colleagues to adopt a more open view of research.

 

In the wake of this bill, the CDC can only collect surveillance data (basically a count) on shootings. But the CDC’s gun research was never about gun control, according to CDC epidemiologist Cheryl Williams. Williams has spent over 20 years researching infectious diseases around the world. Researchers argue gun violence is similar to an infectious disease and can be studied by applying similar principles and methods.

 

“It was never gun control [research],” Williams said. “The CDC is all about prevention of illness and injury. We don’t make regulations, we don’t enforce, we just say ‘here is the evidence, x, y, z causes x, y, z, and we recommend these guidelines.’”

 

On February 16, 2017 Representative David Roe, R-Tenn., introduced the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act to Congress. This act, if passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the president, would block the VA from reporting these “mentally defective” veterans to NICS.

 

Upon the House’s passing of the bill, Rep. Roe released the following statement:

 

“I strongly believe we must do everything in our power to protect the rights guaranteed to all Americans, especially the men and women who have served, by the Constitution. The Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act does just that. I’m proud to stand with my colleagues in passing this important legislation that ensures no veteran who utilizes a fiduciary will lose their Second Amendment rights without due process.”

 

The Department of Veteran Affairs’ acting deputy assistant secretary James Hutton offered the following statement to this reporter in response to the bill’s passage.

 

“The Bill passed the House, but it’s really not a VA issue, because VA does not maintain the NICS list, but rather the Department of Justice does. VA is required to comply with the laws as they stand at any given time. At this point, the new Bill must still go to the Senate and if passed in any form, would then go to the President for signature or veto.

 

“It’s important to point out that VA sends out a letter to Veterans who are proposed to have their names submitted to NICS. There’s a 60-day time frame before submission in order to allow the Veteran an opportunity to contest the submission. We commonly refer to this as a “Due Process” letter because it affords the Veteran his/her opportunity for due process.

 

“[The] VA makes every effort to provide the Veteran the opportunity to officially challenge submission to NICS and we take Veterans’ rights very seriously.”

 

The act concerns Heyne and the CSGV. There is an important component of this vote that is not being talked about; the Republicans brought this bill forward under the Congressional Review Act, which was passed in 1996 and allows new federal regulations from government agencies to overrule a regulation and prohibits the reestablishment of the rule in the same form, according to Richard Beth, a specialist on the Congress and legislative process.

“[It] basically says ‘we are going to overturn this bill and make it so it can never be voted on again,’” said Heyne.

 

“Rather than just throwing the rule out, let’s make it better,” Heyne said. “Whereas Republicans chose to throw it out and never deal with it again.”

 

“This move could set a dangerous precedent,” he said.

 

While the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, where Heyne is currently the legislative director, was neutral on the vote, they saw flaws in how the Obama administration created the process to disqualify a veteran from owning a weapon.

 

“Our problem with the rule was [the way it was] written,” Heyne said. “The only determination they were using [for gun ownership] was a mental illness qualifier. If you look at the research, mental illness is not a huge indicator of future acts of violence. Research shows only about four percent of violence in this country is solely due to mental illness.”

 

Currently, somewhere between 168,000 and 174,000 veterans have been prohibited from purchasing weapons because of their mental illness.

 

“What we feel is grossly irresponsible is that we think that they would just blanketly [sic] give gun rights back to this at-risk group of veterans,” Heyne said.

 

Veterans have weapons training as part of their service, but this may not be useful knowledge for someone with a mental illness.

 

“Will veterans with PTSD be safe having a weapon in their home?” Hamm asked. “Many of them know their way around a weapon, but is that always a good thing? There comes a point that while you [a veteran] know what you’re doing, that may not be a good thing.”

 

“If you’re trying to give gun rights back to this population, you need to have an individualized process to prevent putting guns back in the hands of people who can potentially hurt themselves,” Heyne said.

 

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Hamm said. “Gun safety is something every American should care about because it’s one of the leading causes of death.”

 

While the two sides of the debate rarely see eye to eye, in this case Gottlieb agrees with a need to reduce the number of deaths from firearms.

 

“We never want to see someone killed or shot,” he said.

 

Despite his wins in California and his work in Washington D.C. since coming to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Heyne will never escape what brought him to the table.

 

“My wife will never even have the opportunity to meet my mother because we allowed a dangerous individual access to guns for… I still don’t know why,” he said. “My mom will never know her grandchildren.”

 

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U.S. Senate’s Nuclear Decision

The Senate Republicans’ decision to go nuclear could have lasting effects for decades but it accomplished their goal of getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court.

By Mike Brest 5/4/2017

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The United States Senate voted to confirm President Trump’s nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court earlier this month. The 49-year-old federal judge could play a major role in solidifying a conservative court for decades to come. His confirmation process was defined by the stark differences across party lines. The hearings were filled with questions of ethics and inquiries as to where Gorsuch stood on controversial issues.

The opening on the bench came from the sudden and unexpected passing of notoriously conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February of 2016. With a year left in President Obama’s office, he appointed Judge Merrick Garland to the highest bench in the country. But on the day of Scalia’s death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) publicly stated that the Republicans would not even begin the confirmation process. Garland’s nomination just withered away until it expired with the ending of the 114th Congress.

With Democrats feeling robbed of that ninth seat, they planned to filibuster whomever President Trump nominated. It became even more vital for them when such a conservative judge as Gorsuch was picked to fill the vacancy. They filibustered, but it was merely a formality because the Republicans planned to go “nuclear.” Prior to the confirmation process beginning, a potential justice would need a supermajority, or 60 of the 100 Senate votes, but all it took to lower that threshold would be a simple majority. So, the Republicans voted to reduce the number of votes to confirm a judge, and then they voted to end the filibuster to vote on Judge Gorsuch. The vote which was seemingly minor, altered 200 years over Senate history in the matter of minutes. He was confirmed with a 54-45 vote.

In approximately two hundred years of the Senate, there were hundreds of party line votes, but eliminating the ability for the minority to filibuster was not a real option until now. The divisiveness of the Senate is higher now than it has ever been. The level of partisanship, which has developed over time, made this a viable and somewhat expected decision.

During the hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats were critical of Gorsuch’s voting records, while the Republicans were more than happy to loft questions for the nominee to hit them out of the park. Democrats regularly used his previous rulings and decisions to determine how he’ll vote in the future. They asked him dozens of loaded questions to force him to pick sides on some of the most controversial topics in politics.

“I think the Senate should look at their qualifications, what they’ve written, and ask them about their view of the proper role of the president in foreign policy” former California Congressman and current vice president of the Aspen Institute Mickey Edwards said. “I think it is wrong to ask about a particular decision. I think you don’t ever want to have a justice or judge, state, federal whatever, where you try to know in advance what they would rule on a case. You don’t want judges to know how they’ll rule on a case. They have to look at each individual case on its own merits.”

Only three senators crossed party lines on this vote, while the two independents in the Senate voted against Gorsuch. The three Democrats who voted in favor of the judge were Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Hiedi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN). All three Senators are up for reelection in 2018, and their seats are considered up for grabs. West Virginia, North Dakota and Indiana also all voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. So it would surprise no one if the Republican Party targeted those vacancies. Coming from red states and facing reelection in 2018, it makes sense why these Senate Democrats would go against their own party by voting in favor of Judge Gorsuch – keeping constituents happy is the best way to retain their seat in the Senate.

The three Senators who crossed the political lines to vote in favor of Gorsuch were the fewest to do so for any of the current justices on the Supreme Court. During President Obama’s time office he nominated two justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Five Republicans voted for Justice Kagan and nine voted in favor of Sotomayor. Before them, the most recent justice to be confirmed was Samuel Alito in 2006 under President Bush. Only four Democrats voted for him. But for the five justices who have served on the bench the longest, there was an average of 30 senators who voted across party lines to vote in favor of the candidate.

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This graph depicts the number of Senators who crossed party lines to vote in favor of each of the nine current Supreme Court justices. (Wikipedia was used to obtain data used in this graph)

The Republican Party’s decision to go nuclear was expected but dreaded by the members of Congress and politicians in general. Many senators publicly expressed disappointment over the current political climate that would warrant the Republicans going nuclear. The Democrats filibustered knowing full well that the Republicans could vote to lower the threshold to confirm a Supreme Court nominee and the Republicans called the Democrats’ bluff. While it’s hard to predict exactly how this will affect Congress going forward, it’s vital to explore all possible options.

The Brookings Institution is a non-profit think tank and their congressional expert Molly E. Reynolds said, “I tend to think that Senate parties are relatively short-sighted, evaluating the immediate political consequences of a given choice.”

Now that a confirmation only requires a simple majority, confirming a Supreme Court candidate suddenly became significantly easier. Theoretically if the same party controlled the Senate and White House, they would automatically be able to confirm the nominee with people voting purely by party by virtue of having the majority. It would interesting to see what would happen if the president and Senate were of opposite parties.

Reynolds added, “Going forward, I do think that the change will make it more difficult to confirm justices during divided government but it’s hard to say whether it will be impossible.”

The president at the time will be forced to nominate a very centrist judge to even have the chance of him or her being confirmed if the Senate and White House are divided. But as the Republicans did for Merrick Garland, if the Senate and White House are divided and the president nominates someone of his or her own party, they could refuse to hold hearings for the Supreme Court candidate.

Ultimately, the Republicans’ decision to go nuclear was a result of an accumulation of actions dating back decades. Decades ago there was shift in Congress and it resulted in everything becoming a partisan issue. Following party lines became more important than voting one’s conscious or voting for what someone actually believes in. The shift in partisanship for Supreme Court nominations began when President Ronald Reagan announced his nomination of Robert Bork to serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court in 1987. There were serious character concerns of Bork and liberals used all of their power to keep him off the bench.

Howard Schwartz, an American University Law professor, said that the Republicans use a “no-holds barred fight on the part of partisan Republicans who had been out of power. Power became the be all end all.”

Judge Bork’s confirmation was doomed to fail, and it did just that when the Senate voted 42-58 on October 23, 1987. The Senate at the time was made up of 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans. Two Democrats voted in favor of Bork, while six Republicans voted against him. The Bork vote is one of the first step away from civil and political discourse and towards the bipartisan mudslinging atmosphere that currently bogs down this country.

“Well it’s part of an ongoing obstructionism that goes back to when Newt Gingrich came aboard back in the 1970s and 80s, the Republican Party switched really from being willing to be a party that wanted to govern and could make deals and essentially do things that were useful for the country,” Schwartz added.

More recently though, the Democrats went nuclear back in 2013 and it was the step that led to the Republicans doing the same now. At the time, President Obama was trying to get three judges confirmed onto the appellate court in Washington D.C. Obama was also trying to get his cabinet confirmed. But, the Republicans publically announced a plan to fight. So, the Dems, led by House Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) voted to lower the threshold for confirming federal judicial nominees and executive office appointments from a supermajority to a simple one. They made such a drastic decision because the Democrats considered the Republicans’ actions to be unreasonable, extremely partisan, and in bad faith. Congressman Reid’s strategy though made way for current majority leader, Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) plan that dated back to Justice Scalia’s death.

American University law professor Stephen Wermiel said, “McConnell had basically staked his entire reputation as Senate leader and Trump to some degree his reputation as president on this nomination, there was no way barring some scandal that they could allow this nomination to let it sit.”

“If they had a playbook of options that was not an option in the playbook, it just couldn’t happen. McConnell, since November, has been like a peacock strutting his feathers about how he saved the seat for a Republican president,” Wermiel added.

Fasting forwarding to the future, it will be very interesting to see how the next vacancy will play out. There are currently three justices all over the age of 75, and all of them are known for liberal rulings. With the current composition of liberals and conservative at four to four with Justice Kennedy often providing the deciding vote, should a Democrat step down, the bench could get even more right winged. Justices Ginsburg, 84, Kennedy, 80, and Breyer, 78, may be pressured to remain in their positions until the next administration, or at least until after the 2018 Senatorial elections should the Democrats win back the Senate.

The 2018 primaries could prove to be vital should another seat open on the Supreme Court. The current Senate is broken into 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 independents. In 2018 midterm elections, the Dems will have 23 seats up for reelections, the Reps will have 8 and the two independents will be fighting to maintain their positions. For the Democrats to retake the Senate they would have to have a net gain of five seats, but that could be reduced to three should the two independents retain their seats. Should the Democrats win back the majority, albeit unlikely, it could automatically prevent President Trump from nominating another justice should a seat open up.

Filibusters are a tool for the minority party in the Senate. It allows the party with fewer seats the ability to object and prevent something should they deem it necessary. Some filibusters are viewed as more necessary than others. The Senate has prided itself in the past for being one of the only government entities to provide the minority political party a legitimate preventative measure to block legislation. However, after both parties resorting to the nuclear option in the last four years, filibusters have become more limited in situations they can be utilized. But if the Senate chooses to continue down this path of gridlock and partisanship, it won’t be long before all filibusters for any Senate debate will be banned.

Source List:

Professor Howard Schwartz – in person interview on April 10

Professor Stephen Wermeil – phone interview on April 17

Molly E. Reynolds, Brookings – phone interview on April 20

Congressman Mickey Edwards, Aspen Institute – phone interview on April 24

Online Hate: Legal Action in the Digital Age

By Deanna Mudry

“Just make your opinions known. Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda . . .This is very important,” Andrew Anglin posted to the neo-nazi white supremacist Daily Stormer site that he’s editor of in December. “Calling these people up and/or sending them a quick message is very easy. It is very important that we make them feel the kind of pressure they are making us feel.”

What followed were over 700 harassing messages sent to Tanya Garsh, a real estate agent in Whitefish, Mo., as well as her husband and 12 year-old son. Anglin claimed that she was extorting fellow white supremacist Richard Spencer, Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The nonprofit has opened an unprecedented lawsuit against Anglin in response.

“The lawsuit in Whitefish, Montana is really the first lawsuit for trolling online,” Lecia Brooks, outreach director for Southern Poverty Law Center, said.

However, this is far from the first case of  a “troll army” being called to arms to attack someone online. In 2014 there was “Gamergate,” during which female game developers were sent insults and death and rape threats, and in 2016 actress Leslie Jones was the target of racist and sexist harassment and a leak of her private photos.

Though stories of similar, targeted online harassment such as this have gotten media attention and been the subject of discussion on forums in recent years, there is no “good data” about what is really going on, Brooks said. Advocacy groups like Southern Poverty Law Center tend to only monitor hate and harassment once it has made it into the real world, and many trolls work anonymously.

“Now we have seen an increase in the activity, chatter on these sites like the Daily Storm or the Storm Watch, but I can’t say that there is a trend in online harassment,” she said. “What we track are the actual activities of people.”

One entity that has the tools to track and regulate these trolls are the social media platforms to which they post. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have come under fire for not doing enough to curb hate speech, but some argue they’re just meant to facilitate free speech.

In her book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” law professor Danielle Citron said that the law should come down harder on internet trolls, but that any regulation must align with First Amendment doctrine. However, she said she doubts trolls are adding to the discourse for which the amendment was intended.

“Some may argue that a legal agenda will undermine the ability to discuss truths in our networked age,” she said in the book. “After all, if cyber harassers cannot speak their minds, certain ‘truths’ about victims will not come to light. The public may be unable to learn that people so dislike a blogger that they are inspired to threaten to rape and beat her.”

Ultimately though, these social media sites are private companies that can allow whatever they do, and do not, want on their platforms.

“They’re a private entity that said that these are the rules for accessing our platform that you can’t engage in hate speech, we’re just asking them to kind of hold themselves to their own rules,” Brooks said.

Legal Action

When hate speech does happen, there are several options for the victim.

“Talking to the media, blogging about victims’ struggles and fighting back online has taken us only so far,” Citron said.

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Therefore, she said victims’ best bet in a court of law is suing their abuser(s) under tort or copyright law. Tort is a body of law that requires defendants to compensate plaintiffs whose injuries they have wrongly caused. It includes libel and intentionally or recklessly causing emotional distress.

If there is a clear bias in the harassment, additional charges may be pursued.

“In the case of the Whitefish, that was clearly anti-Semitic, law enforcement adds the hate crime enhancement on the crime of harassment, so hate crimes would just be added to it if they believe the primary motivation for the harassment is based on the recipient’s identity,” Brooks said.

Brooks said that the chances an online hate or harassment charge will end with a ruling favorable to the victim are good as long as there is proof the hate was continuous and sent directly to them.
The the Southern Poverty Law Center has handled countless hate crime cases in the past, it said in a press release on the case, but “the legal strategy, however, has been adapted for the digital age.”

Government and business owners of Chestertown strive to balance regulations with sustainability

By: Greg LaMotte

In 2011, then-Mayor of Chestertown, Md., Margo Bailey pushed through the “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance,” which initiated the phasing out of plastic bag usage among retail stores. The ordinance was hotly debated, but its passage marked a trend of sustainable initiatives in Chestertown.

Six years later, current Mayor of Chestertown Chris Cerino says he has seen most businesses affected by the ordinance switch from plastic to paper with relative ease.

“We’ve had some business forums where we’ve had business owners come talk to us to let us know if there’s anything inhibiting their ability to do something, and none of them said ‘Oh the plastic bag ban is killing me,’ ” Cerino said.

Cerino and other Chestertown officials today still try to sustain Bailey’s green vision for the town while avoiding over-regulation of the businesses affected by policies such as the ordinance.

Town Manager for Chestertown Bill Ingersoll, who helped push the ordinance with Bailey, says he remembers being called out by grocery baggers who recognized him in the local grocery store.

“They actually were fairly abusive to the point where I finally said ‘Hey well I don’t have to shop here,’ Ingersoll said. “They’d say ‘Well, paper bags are more expensive for us,’ and I said ‘Well I’m bringing my own bags so you have absolutely no cost, what’s your problem with me?’ ”

Despite the occasional hostility from those opposed to the ordinance, Ingersoll said the Chestertown community was not the main barrier they faced in banning the bags.

“The real threat was not from our community, it was from the plastic bag industry,” Ingersoll said. “I mean, they were really heavy-handed, and threatening, and ‘We’re gonna take you to court.’ And because we’re a little town they were muscling up on us.”

Political leanings also had an impact on support for the ordinance, according to Cerino.

“It’s one of those 50-50 things where you have your conservative folks saying ‘That’s ridiculous, you’re just costing [small business owners] more money,’ and the folks on the left would probably be like ‘Yeah these bags are recyclable, and they’re not ending up in our drains,’ ” Cerino said.

Economic viability plays a large role in pushing for green initiatives, according to Cerino, who cited as an example a solar array that he helped implement, which now provides electricity for Chestertown’s municipal buildings. Because of federal tax incentives, both the solar companies and the town managed to save money and use more clean energy.

“At the end of the day it’s all about the money, it really is,” Cerino said. “Occasionally you get that very green business owner that is willing to spend more just because of their ethics or philosophy, or what have you, but for the most part business owners are willing to go along with green initiatives so long as they make sense economically.”

The economic recession less than a decade ago had a large impact on the vitality of Chestertown’s small businesses. Bob Ramsey, who owns a custom framing and printing shop named “The Finishing Touch,” downsized after the 2008 recession.

“Since 2008, it’s been really difficult,” Ramsey said. “I mean, I used to have 10 employees and pay a decent salary to myself. Now I have five employees, and don’t pay myself all that much.”

Although the past decade has taken its financial toll on Ramsey’s business, he says he feels “a different uptick in the last two years,” from new people with ideas, and the willingness to devote time and money into their business.

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“Downtown Chestertown has all the wonderful tools to be very successful and busy,” Ramsey said. “It’s got [Washington] College, the river , a receptive town, a historic, working town.”

This optimism is reflected in a Gallup poll released Mar. 13, which found that optimism among U.S. small-business owners has risen to 100 on the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, a 33-point increase from one year ago.

Because Ramsey works in small retail, he says he does not encounter burdensome regulations often. As for why businesses in Chestertown may fail, he said “I always like to put the blame on the business as far as not being run properly.” Ramsey also said that Kent County has managed to preserve its rurality, and ensure that when it is developed, it’s “developed smartly.”

But this could change if the federal government rolls back regulations that enforce this preservation.

“If regulations become such that the beauty of this county is dismantled or destroyed or slowly eroded, then it will affect the uniqueness of Chestertown and our small businesses downtown,” Ramsey said.

Ingersoll and other members of the Chestertown local government have worked to maintain this beauty through ordinances such as the plastic bag ban, and by purchasing a new street sweeper which helps prevent heavy rains from pushing litter and road oil into the nearby Chester River.

Because the nature in and around Chestertown, especially the Chester River, is a draw for tourism and a staple of the town’s character, its preservation is key to drawing business to downtown. With a population of around 5000, according to the 2010 census, sustaining the local economy necessitates drawing business from beyond its borders.

Bob Ortiz, a woodworker who handcrafts furniture, runs Robert Ortiz Studios. He says he strives to ensure his shop adheres to existing safety and health regulations, but doesn’t see over-regulation as a reason why small businesses may fail.

“The main reason that businesses fail in downtown Chestertown, in the downtown historic district, the main reason is that they don’t get enough traffic into their stores,” Ortiz said. “And related to that, if they don’t get enough traffic into their stores, they don’t make necessary adjustments to figure out a strategy for surviving.”

He cited as an example the popular Chestertown coffee shop “Play it Again Sam’s,” which originated as a used record store that also sold coffee, but switched to a full coffee shop once the owners realized it was the more sustainable business model.

As for times when regulations have impacted small businesses, both Ortiz and Cerino spoke about the high start-up cost for restaurants due to a law that mandates a specific kind of grease trap. Although it does prevent grease from entering waterways, it makes the demand for opening a restaurant higher.

 

“The truth is, most of the people who think that regulations are onerous are not on the factory floor, they’re up in the offices making the big bucks, and they’re leaving the people on the factory floor who make very little to do the dangerous work,” Ortiz said.

Cerino also says he believes that the Chestertown local government does not get in the way of success for its small business, and said “If anything we’ve tried to be more business-friendly.”

“It doesn’t cost you anything to encourage your customers to put your Pepsi can in the recycling that’s right outside of your store,” Cerino said. “So I don’t feel like we have a lot of [regulations] that inhibit business owners from turning a profit, I think if anything we have issues in downtown Chestertown where we just don’t have enough people sometimes.”

Although local regulations may not be burdensome for Chestertown small businesses, new state and federal ones, according to Ingersoll, can present problems.

“Every time that the state or federal government comes out with a new regulation that involves enforcement of some kind or another, it never comes with any funds to do that,” Ingersoll said. “Sometimes regulation is such a burden on us, but we’re where the rubber meets the road, so there is an impact from regulation.”

Frank Knapp, Co-Chair of the American Sustainable Business Council, brought the same point in a senate hearing with the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on Mar. 29.

“Help small businesses understand the rules, and provide compliance assistance. Once a rule has been finalized, the job of the federal government is not done,” Knapp said.

Ramsey says what he’s seen done in the past with regulation hasn’t been satisfactory, and that “it seems the government tends to swing too far from one side to the other.”

“They either get rid of everything and advantages are taken, or they go so far that it stifles the good with the bad,” Ramsey said. “So it’s a tough balance.”

Cerino also said that striking a balance between over-regulation and complete freedom is key for lawmakers in D.C. to accomplish.

He posited that while oversight is necessary to prevent a recession similar to the one in 2008, having excessive regulations especially harms entrepreneurs, who may feel that opening their business would need even be worth the time, effort and money.

Cerino commented on how he believes Donald Trump’s proposed 15% corporate tax plan will affect Chestertown as well.

“If that gets lowered to 15 for everybody, I could see it initially being a big net positive for a lot of small business owners,” Cerino said. “But again, for me, it gets back to how we mitigate the long-term risk of people being irresponsible.”

Ingersoll says he agrees that new laws will affect Chestertown, but their impact won’t be felt immediately.

“I don’t think things will change here for a while. No matter how the battle goes in Washington, it takes a long time for that specific legislation to reach us,” he said.

As for regulation in Chestertown itself, Ingersoll says there needs to be a “referee.”

“Somebody has to be the referee and say ‘You gotta do it this way. We can’t do it the old way anymore.’ ”

DCPS Faces Disparities in Mental Health Services for Students

Wilson-high-dc
Wilson High School in Ward 3. Photo from WikimediaCommons

By: Evangeline Lacroix

One man is petitioning his bosses, Mayor Bowser and City council for fairer treatment of mental health programs within DCPS. Nathan Luecking, a delegate for the union that represents School Mental Health Program workers in D.C. is a licensed clinician. He works at a South East D.C. Public School (DCPS) High school as a part of the Department of Behavioral Health’s (DBH) School Mental Health Program (SMHP). A voluntary supplementary program that installs more trained mental health providers in schools that have a large need for services.

According to Luecking, without publically consulting staff, schools or community members, DBH’s Director  Dr. Tanya Royster made an internal shift in how the program will operate. Programming will go from 70 schools that have accepted the program into their daily operations to serving every school within DCPS as a consultant to staff that already exist in schools.

This would remove all clinical services provided by the SMHP, and redistribute them around several schools in a part- time capacity. Employees such as Luecking will instead be delivering mental health presentations to students most likely to have had no prior contact or relationship with SMHP.

“It is extremely hard to justify pulling highly trained clinical therapists from our most vulnerable students especially during times of rising violence and repeated exposure to trauma,” Luecking said. “Unfortunately, Dr. Royster’s proposal will do just that.”

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Luecking says this push will make services to students impersonal and distant. Overall he believes it will be a disservice to the students he provides services to.

“We will serve each school only for small amounts of time,” Luecking said. “While Dr. Royster has made the argument that she will be staffing all DC schools with a mental-health clinician, she will be doing so in a very limited, watered-down capacity that looks much better on paper than in actual service to our children with whom the program has been working with successfully for the past 17 years.”

When reached out to comment on the situation, both DCPS and DBH declined to comment.

According to a 2012 study by D.C. Action for Children, a local advocacy group for DCPS students,  there is a disparity between how each ward receives mental health services. While D.C. keeps no record on how many students are affected by mental health issues, the study suggests, that based on national models produced by the National Comorbidity Survey, there are projected to be between 7,300 to 9,200 children between 13 and 18 affected by mental illness in D.C.

The study goes on to say that low-income students, students who are on Medicaid, are the least likely to get the mental health treatment.

In D.C. these students are most likely to populate Ward 7 and Ward 8, the two poorest Wards in the District.

In a 2009 study from D.C.’s Department of Mental Health, wards 7 and 8 have historical shortages of private clinical workers such as psychologists, social workers, and registered nurses. This has lead to 88 percent of children on Medicaid who have diagnosed mental problems do not receive proper treatment.

D.C. Action for children’s study relates this lack of mental health providers to providers in public schools as well. Wards 7 and 8 are more likely to have staffing shortages than any other wards. According to the study, in 2012 Ward 8 has eight providers for 20,000 students. Ward 3 has more than 20 providers for 10,000 students.

 

DCPS currently employs 169 school-based social workers, and nine social workers in the central office. On top of this, DCPS employs 75 school-based psychologists and 16 psychologists in the central office, according to DCPS’ filing for the 2015 performance oversight hearings. These documents show budget information for each local government department when budgets are up for review every spring. 

According to the same documents,  there are staffing gaps, shortages of positions,  for social workers at two elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and the Incarcerated Youth Program. There staffing gaps for staff psychologists at eight elementary schools, one middle school, one special education center and the Incarcerated Youth Program. There are also large staffing gaps for school counselors, occupational therapist and speech/language pathologists across DCPS. A majority of these gaps are in schools that are in wards 7 and 8. 

While these staffing gaps still exist, D.C. is consistently spending more money on special education and mental health service providers within DCPS than in past years. 

According to the 2017 proposed DC Budget from Mayor Bowser, $1.3 five million, or 17 percent of the total budget allocated to DCPS, has been allocated to special education. In the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, $99 million were spent on special education.

According to the 2016 DCPS budget, from 2013 to 2016, 148 additional special education teachers had been hired and 66 social-emotional support staff had been hired.

Where these staffing gaps exist, the DBH’s School Mental Health Program currently inserts approximately 65 full-time clinicians across 70 different  DCPS schools. Most schools are low-income schools in wards 7 and 8 where the program can be subsidized by Medicaid. If the shift is to happen in the fall, the students that receive personalized care now from SMHP employees will no longer receive this full-time care. 

 

How DCPS Compares to the DMV

In Arlington, near the Pentagon, the local public elementary school is a transitory place. For Lilie Lansman, a third-grade teacher her classroom of about 25 students has consistently fluctuated between  20 and 25 students throughout the year.

“Most of my kids are constantly moving around so you have to be stable, and consistent,” Lansman said. “Home in a way.”

One of Lansman’s most challenging moments has been a student she has from Istanbul. The girl was recently evacuated from her home because her father is American worker during the recent coup. She was traumatized.  She didn’t enter Lansman’s classroom for almost a week, crying every morning.

Lansman’s mental health training provided by the school, as well as the school’s facilities were quintessential in order make her transition safe.

“Without the training and the counselors surrounding this girl, I’m not sure I could have handled it on my own,” Lansman said. “We got her into friendship and anxiety groups. We had a system of support to meet her at the front door every day. We discussed a buddy system to develop her self-esteem. It was tough. But we did.”

Lansman says on top of teacher training throughout the year, school counselors have monthly small group meetings in classrooms to discuss topics like anxiety, bullying and time-management with students.

“I know that I love our counselors and the team,” Lansman said. “They do everything they can for my kids and at the end of the day that is the most important thing to me.” 

Stephanie Hespe, a part-time counselor at a public elementary school in Montgomery County, has a caseload of half her school, 500 kids. On a regular basis, she conducts check-ins with 12 students weekly and four students daily. She also sees several students on a bi-weekly schedule. She also conducts group sessions.

Outside of individual counseling, Hespe also facilitates classroom guidance lessons every other month. In these sessions, a small group of students is lectured on topics ranging from social skills to changing families, anxiety, friendship building, and self-esteem etc.

“At my school, we have a lot of students with anxiety,” Hespe, 25, said. “Some have outside counselors, but still need support at school and some are not seeing an outside counselor for a variety of reasons. [For Example] it doesn’t rise to that level of severity, parents are unable to afford take students, parents do not see the issue, or accept the issue.”

While wealth and agency parents have to purchase private mental health services for their children play a role in how public schools receive school-based mental health providers, it is not the end all be all to what dictates how much aid a school receives.

According to Luecking, counties like Montgomery County often times require different levels of service because of the wealth and agency parents have to provide private help for their children.

“Anecdotally, I know schools in North West and Montgomery County don’t have as many mental health services because everything goes through private insurance or out of pocket up there, and there is not a demand really for school-based mental health services like Southeast and Southwest DC,” Luecking said.

Luecking said that in Ward 3, the wealthiest ward in D.C., and an economically similar Ward to Montgomery County, only one school, Wilson High School has opted into DBH’s program. This is because other schools in the ward have too little a need for mental health services in their schools to justify the addition of a supplementary program to be relevant.

Hespe says that while many families in Montgomery county have this agency, there is still a large number of students that need school-based aid. Many schools rely on mental health services for students.

“Montgomery County has a big reputation for being a rich country with families who have access to a lot of services,” Hespe said. “This is true in some cases, but definitely not all. Montgomery County is huge and has an extremely diverse population, minorities are the majority in Montgomery County.”

Hespe says her school, while it is mainly comprised of middle and upper middle-class families, about 15 percent of the population receive free and reduced meals, a marker of low-income households. She says that public schools in Montgomery County range from a relatively low number of low-income students to schools that are majority low-income students.

“Now, is that as severe as a school in Anacostia? No, but if you think of schools in Northwest DC they probably have a very similar population to my school,” Hespe said. “My school is so massive that we really need to collaborate/ help each other out to make sure all the students are being served. I try to be very transparent with the teachers and follow through with requests: things I say I will do. Now do all the teachers love me? Definitely not, but I think overall we have a mutual respect for each other.”

For Hespe, mental health services in schools are incredibly important to the services associated with child development and public schools.

“At the most basic level if students have a mental-health concern that goes untreated there is no way they are available for learning, they fall further and further behind, and are hit like double jeopardy,” Hespe said. “Schools are a great place to intervene because every child in our country has to go to school. If we had more mental health services for students within our schools more students will have their needs met so they can be successful.”

 

Concealed Carry on College Campuses

By, Morgan Crabtree

 

WASHINGTON — Students and states are butting heads over whether or not colleges should allow the members of their campus the right to bear arms.

In the course of the last 13 years, 10 states have passed legislation that, in some way, allows concealed weapons on college campuses. Utah was the first state in 2004 to legalize campus carry, making it mandatory for public universities to allow their students to carry a weapon on their campus. Following Utah came nine other states, the most recent was Texas in 2016.

However, it is not up to the students nor the administration of the school to dictate this protocol. The University of Texas is a public institution, funded by the state, which requires the school to allow permitted students to legally carry a weapon on campus.

“It does really worry me to think that someone sitting next to me could have a gun.” Sara Buffington, freshman at The University of Texas said. “I think what scares me the most is that I don’t know who has a gun on them because it’s concealed. I think overall having guns on campus is a bad idea.”

The passing of the recent legislation led to the resignation of Frederick Steiner, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas. The president of the University has also spoken out against the policy passed in 2016.

There are three different forms of campus carry. Mandatory, which mean once the state legalizes campus carry, public college campuses have no right to ban it. Institutional, which allows universities and colleges to choose whether or not to ban campus carry. And Non-permissive, which means that campus carry is legally banned from all campuses, private and public, in that particular state. To date, nine states are considered Mandatory, 21 states are considered Institutional and 22 states are considered Non-permissive. 

Private institutions such as Baylor University, located in Waco Texas, has the right to prohibit guns on their campus regardless of state regulation. Madison Walker, a senior at Baylor, said she believes guns should be allowed on campus.

“I think that I would feel safer with someone having a gun in the room if someone dangerous were to come in,” Walker said. My mom said that the safest she’s ever felt was when she was in Israel and everyone was carrying around AK-47s on their backs. People are less likely to be violent with guns if they know there’s a chance they’ll be shot.”

Walker suggested that since Baylor is a private campus, a solution to the hesitation of allowing guns on campus is that the school has the ability to mandate counseling sessions for those who carry a weapon to ensure they are and continue to be mentally sound.

“Although I might not agree with Baylor’s decision to continue to ban guns, I do think it should be up to the school,” Walker said. “But public institutions get government funding, so schools like the University of Texas, should have to abide by state regulation.”

Joe Ross, a long-time member of the National Rifle Association, also believes that state funded institutions should not have the ability to opt out of allowing guns on campus.

“If they want private funding, then they can run like a private institutions,” Toss said. “so long as they are a public institutions, they are at the liberty of wherever they drive from their public money, whether that be state money or federal money.”

Contrary to Walker’s opinions in regards to feeling safer with more guns present, John Hopkins University published a report in October of 2016 that debunked the idea of more guns leading to less crime. Hopkin’s report stated that out of all of the mass shootings that took place between 1996 and 2016, only 12% of these shootings took place in a gun-free zone. In other words, the notion that gun-free zones lures mass shooters is inaccurate.

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“People make the argument that the shooter could have been stopped if people were armed, I think that is a flimsy argument.”  Antonia Untalan, a freshman at the University of Texas, said. “It is easy to get a license in Texas, so it makes me uncomfortable knowing that anybody can be armed, even if they are the nicest most sane person I know, accidents still happen.

The report by John Hopkin’s studied 85 incidents of shootings, whether intentional or not, between January 2013 and June 2016. The study showed that only 2.4% of these incidents involved a mass shooter, while 12% of the incidents were accidental or unintentional. A majority, 45% of the incidents, were “interpersonal disputes that escalated into gun violence.” Another 12% of the 85 incidence were found to be due to suicide or murder/suicide.

Futhermore, Mental Health America of Texas, an organization working to promote mental health and improve care and treatment for Texans who have mental illnesses, published a report that states “because alcohol and drug use are significantly present on many college campuses, the risk of violence on campus is high; when guns are present on college campuses, the risks of harm and violence become increasingly lethal.”

“Accidents happen, especially in college, especially when alcohol is involved, I can only imagine adding a gun to that equation,” Untalan said.

On the other hand, a Washington D.C. business consultant and long time member of the National Rifle Association, also known as the NRA, Joe Ross, believes that guns should be allowed on campus.

“I think it is absurd that guns are not allowed on campuses,” Joe Ross, member of the NRA since 2013, said. “Frankly, gun owners are the most law abiding citizens in the United States because their gun rights are so important to them. They are not willing to break even the smallest laws and jeopardize.”

According to the The National Rifle Association’s website, the NRA is an organization whose “objectives include protecting the right to keep and bear arms, furthering the shooting sports, marksmanship and safety training.” The NRA has also been a longstanding financial supporter of many members of the Republican Party.

“The biggest donor for Donald Trump’s campaign was the National Rifle Association, they went all in and they went all in early.” John Schwegman, a political researcher for Every Town for Gun Safety, an organization raising awareness and funds to support more education on the handling of guns.  “What I fear will happen is this money will reflect the policy of the NRA’s needs and wants as opposed to the general population.”

According to Open Secrets, a non profit, nonpartisan research group, Donald Trump received $30.3 million in funding from the National Rifle Association during the 2015-2016 election. The NRA spent another $20 million six other republican Senators, in hopes to get the men a seat in Congress.

Critics believe that the NRA has an undue level of influence on the political system because of the vast amounts of financial contributions they are able to make, however, Ross believes that is just how politics works.

“To suggest that the the NRA is hijacking the American Political system just shows how fundamentally misunderstood lobbying and the political system works. The point of a lobbying group is to influence on behalf of the will of people’s constituents. Just because people all of the sudden believe in something that a rash of the majority of Americans don’t believe in, the like the second amendment, doesn’t give them the right to demonize the only organization trying to stand up for a right those people believe in.”

Within the first two months of Trump’s presidency, the president signed a bill to overturn an executive order made by the Obama administration that was in place to prevent persons with mental health issues from obtaining a proper guns license.

However, according to the NRA, this bill was a positive decision. The website reads that the president’s “repeal of an Obama-era Social Security Administration (SSA) rule that would have resulted in some 75,000 law-abiding beneficiaries losing their Second Amendment rights each year.” However, many people believe that it is just a way to avoid giving guns to people who have been diagnosed with any form of mental illness.

The concern of mental health is already an issue on college campuses, however combining this concern with the ability to carry a gun on campus seems to pose an issue within itself.

According to the Mental Health America of Texas report, suicide prevention includes limiting the resources in which a person can complete the suicide, however with the access to guns comes the ability to carry out the suicide at an easier rate. 

The report states:

“Increasing the prevalence of guns in an area with a large concentration of individuals in an age group associated with undeveloped judgment and risk assessment cognition, higher suicide rates, and higher substance abuse rates is not prudent. Providing better mental health and substance abuse prevention and intervention services is a safer and more effective method for deterring violence.”

However, NRA members, such as Joe Ross, do not believe it is the gun that causes the accidents, but instead the lack of understanding and knowledge.

“It used to be a part of civics that children were trained for firearm safety, it used to happen as early as middle school. You know we don’t have that anymore so it is up to kids or parents who are interested in guns to educate themselves,” Ross said. “Mental illness aside and alcohol aside, there is a a degree of personal responsibility and individual freedom that we have to respect. I’m telling you back in 1776, nobody was having any apprehension of carrying firearms around while under the influence. I think there needs to be more focus on preparing and educating kids, as young as middle school.”

Ross continues by making the point that firearms are no longer the only way to truly hurt someone.

“There are cases all around the world where people are using knives or machetes, all sorts of vehicles and home made bombs, it seems that the ability to legally carry a firearm is the only way to combat these other measures,” Ross said.

Some students at the University of Texas are also having trouble understanding the need for campus safety officers to obtain a gun.

Although seemingly rare, a University of Cincinnati campus officer was charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black man after a traffic violation.

“I do not think that safety officers should be able to carry guns because I think it can lead to a lot more unnecessary deaths and an increase in police brutality.” Untalan said. I do think having mace or Tasers would be good to have to subdue people, but guns are overkill in my opinion.”

Protests for and against concealed carry are surfacing all across the nation. The University of Texas Students have started a campaign to boycott concealed carry.

“Students are actually carrying around dildos all over campus claiming it is their right to bear arms, and by arms they mean dildos,” Schwegman said. “They are making fun of a serious issue because that’s how crazy it is to have guns on college campuses.”

The campaign that Schwegman is referring to is known as ‘Cocks, not Glocks,’ where students are carrying dildos around campus in an effort to protest the new gun law.

“Even just surveying an average class lecture hall I would say at least 50% have the ‘Cocks not Glocks’ stickers on their laptops,” Untalan said in regards to the campaign against concealed carry.

Students for Concealed Carry, a student organization that promotes the access to guns on campus at the University of Texas, protested against the ‘Cocks not Glocks’ campaign by holding up signs that say to “Co-exist,” with two crossed  guns in the middle of the word.

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Credit: Students For Concealed Carry; University of Texas.

“Gun violence is so prevalent in our country and has even occurred on our campus, so I do not think that it is a good idea at all.” Untalan said. “ I am very much against this legislation and I do not think that weapons have a place on my campus.

How a 2013 Supreme Court Ruling Could Impacts Voting Today

By Aya Elamroussi

Anthony Mensah says he had no problem registering to vote in his home state of Wisconsin. When he turned of age, his mom urged him to register.

“For me personally, it was a pretty painless process,” he said. He was able to vote in the 2016 general elections via absentee ballot in his home state while he remained in Washington, D.C.—attending American University.

But he was one of the lucky ones.

To vote in Wisconsin, citizens must register using acceptable official photo ID or social security number and proof of residency 20 days before an election or on Election Day.

Since the 2012 presidential election, 20 states have implemented restrictions on registration and voting, a 2016 New21 analysis found, citing those restrictions are to combat voter fraud. But the other side of the issue is that these restrictions reduce voter turnout, particularly among minority and lower-income groups, a 2013 Cambridge University study finds.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 underwent a change in 2013. The Supreme Court ruled Section 4 of the act as unconstitutional in the case Shelby County v. Holder, which is now known as The Shelby Decision.

Section 4 lays out the procedures for how the Justice Department should enforce Section 5 of the act. Section 5 requires that states identified with a history of discrimination, particularly those in the South, must obtain approval from the federal government before they can make changes to their election laws. Election laws on the local level can take the form of changes to poll closing hours, poll locations and early voting windows.

Now, jurisdictions that were protected under the Voting Rights Act have complete authority to change voting laws—impacting voter turn-out.

Although Mensah,19 and an African-American, is not from a state that is under the act, Wisconsin– among other states like North Carolina, Texas and Arizona– has been undergoing changes in its voting laws.

 

Voter Fraud

During the 2016 presidential elections, Trump questioned the integrity of the electoral process.

“The election is absolutely being rigged,” Trump tweeted.

Even after he won the presidency, Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer stated that voter fraud  was so widespread that it cost Trump the popular vote.

While he has yet to support those claims, voter fraud does happen, but not in the widespread scale Trump and Spicer have repeatedly stated to the public. A ProPublica study estimated the rate of in-person voter fraud is around one case per 14.6 million registered voters.

But how exactly does voter fraud happen?

 A ProPublica voter fraud analysis cites the different ways voter fraud took place. The perpetrators were convicted.

  • Colorado, 2009 — Duplicate voting:

A person voting twice in different counties within the same state.

  • New Jersey, 2009– Misuse of absentee ballot:

A voter submitting multiple ballots.

  • North Carolina, 2012– Dead voter

A voter submitting an absentee ballot in the name of someone who is dead.

  • Florida, 2015– Ineligible voter felon:

Citizens on probation after they have served time in prison cannot vote.

  • Illinois, 2009– Noncitizens voting:

Permanent residents who obtain a driver’s license an use that government-issued ID to register and vote.

Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation wrote in his 2011 study on voter fraud that “requiring voters to authenticate their identity at the polling place is necessary to protect the integrity of elections and access to the voting process.”

Spakovsky- the think tank’s voter fraud expert- also said, “The only effect that voter ID will have on the midterm elections is, in the states that have such a requirement, improve the security and integrity of the election.”

But the ProPublica analysis says that requiring people to show ID at the polls would not have stopped the people convicted of voter fraud since 2000.

Voter Restrictions   

Candice Nelson, a political science professor at American University and an expert on presidential and congressional elections, says that voting laws in the US is a Republicans-versus-Democrats issue.

“It’s playing out as Democrats are more supportive of convenience voting, make it easier to vote. Republicans are less supportive,” Nelson said. “And the underlying argument that’s come out in some of the court decisions on these issues is because of race.”

In North Carolina, there was record turnout among African American voters in the 2008 presidential elections for Barack Obama.

But a month after The Shelby Decision, North Carolina passed voting laws that required strict voter ID to cast a ballot, cut a week of early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration, out-of-precinct voting and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The racial data provided to the legislators showed that African Americans used early voting in both 2008 and 2012. Evidence show that 60.36 percent and 64.01 percent of African Americans voted early in 2008 and 2012, respectively— compared to 44.47 percent and 49.39 percent of white voters, according to an appeals court document.

African Americans especially used the first seven days of early voting. Knowing this racial data, the General Assembly amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting, shortening the total early voting period from seventeen to ten days—the appeals court document says.

US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the law “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” the court appeal report said, and struck down the law.

“The laws were written, and this was in the language, to blatantly discriminate against African Americans,” Nelson said.

The Justice Department is the government agency that oversees civil rights issues—including voting rights.  Now that it is led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Nelson expresses concerns about the due diligence the DOJ would take to look into discriminatory voting laws passed as a result of The Shelby Decision.

 “I think what will be an issue in [2018] and [2020] is we now… have a Justice Department headed by Jeff Sessions, who is not particularly friendly to making it easier for people to vote,” Nelson said. “If cases come to Justice Department, [it] probably won’t rule as favorably against a state trying to cut back voter rights,” she added.

Before confirmed as AG this past February, Sessions (R) was Alabama’s senator and his confirmation faced much animosity due to allegations of past racism brought forth by Democrats.

How are voters restricted from voting?

 Voter restriction takes place in various forms. A 2013 Cambridge University study found that the following are ways that exemplify the different types of policies that have been proposed and adopted in various states:

  • Required photo identification or proof of citizenship to vote
  • More stringent regulation of groups or individuals who aim to register new voters
  • Shortened early voting periods
  • Repeal of same-day voter registration

These laws impact minority and lower-income voters because they impose an impediment to access the polls for these specific groups, Nelson said.

“If you have to vote only on Tuesday between x and y… [and] you have to be at your job at 7 a.m., and you work until 6 p.m. And you can’t vote during that time, then you’re disenfranchised,” Nelson added.

Nelson said that “it can make it hard for people who don’t have flexibility.” Lower-income workers tend less flexible work hours.

Democracy Today 

Sister Rose Stietz helped register voters in a Milwaukee church since the year 2000. But as of December 31, 2016, she can no longer do that.

The state of Wisconsin recently passed legislation that discontinued the program.

Governor Scott Walker (R) signed into law 2015 Wisconsin Act 261 in March 2016. The act eliminates “special registration deputies,” people who volunteer to register people to vote after completing at least one approved training program.

The elimination “coincides with electronic voter registration” the law says. In other words, people can now register online.

But Sister Stietz says restrictive voting laws harm the idea of democracy.

“It’s certainly killing the democratic process,” she said.

As history revealed itself, she said, more people have been able to vote—citing the progression of the groups who gained suffrage over the years: land owners, white males, African- American men and then women.

Sister Stietz added, “They struggled to do that. Now it seems to be regressing [in] that the fewer people allowed to vote the better.”

But Mawal Sidi, like Mensah, had no problem registering to vote or casting her ballot.

Sidi, now 22 and studying broadcast journalism at American University, registered to vote in her home state of Georgia when she was in high school.

“I remember it was really easy,” Sidi said of her first time voting in the 2012 presidential election.

But she said that an immigrant community in her home city was not aware of the voting process.

“It sort of  this lack of information.”

A 2016 Pew study found that one in five voters live in states requiring photos IDs, but don’t know it.

So the Sidi family took the initiative to inform the community on how to vote.

“As immigrants, we had to take it upon ourselves to educate the other immigrants.”