Friday, July 20, 2012

Voter ID Laws

A clear and concise overview of the issue....

July 19, 2012

Legal Battles Erupt Over Tough Voter ID Laws

PHILADELPHIA — Four years ago as Viviette Applewhite, now 93, was making her way through her local Acme supermarket, her pocketbook hanging from her shoulder, a thief sliced the bag from its straps.
A former hotel housekeeper, Ms. Applewhite, who never had a driver’s license, was suddenly without a Social Security card. Adopted and twice married, she had several name changes over the years, so obtaining new documents was complicated. As a result, with Pennsylvania now requiring a state-approved form of photo identification to vote, Ms. Applewhite, a supporter of President Obama, may be forced to sit out November’s election for the first time in decades.

Incensed, and spurred on by liberal groups, Ms. Applewhite and others like her are suing the state in a closely watched case, one of a number of voter-identification suits across the country that could affect the participation of millions of voters in the presidential election.

“They’re trying to stop black people from voting so Obama will not get re-elected,” Ms. Applewhite said as she sat in her modest one-bedroom apartment in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, reflecting a common sentiment among those who oppose the law. “That’s what this whole thing is about.” 

Whether true or not, the focus on what Democrats call “voter suppression” is accelerating as the Nov. 6 election looms. Last week, Texas took the Obama administration to federal court because it blocked a voter identification law there on racial discrimination grounds. In Florida, officials successfully sued for access to a federal database of noncitizens in hopes of purging them from voter rolls, a move several other states plan to emulate. 

Advocates say the laws have nothing to do with voter suppression and are about something else entirely: ensuring the integrity of elections, preventing voter fraud and improving public confidence in the electoral process in an era when photo identification is routine for many basic things, including air travel. 

Thirty-three states have passed laws requiring identification for voting. Five — Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia — have what are called strict photo identification requirements, meaning voters must present specific kinds of photo IDs before voting. Six states — Michigan, South Dakota, Idaho, Louisiana, Hawaii and Florida — have less strict photo requirements, meaning voters may be able to sign affidavits or have poll workers who recognize them verify their identities. 

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said last week of the Texas statute, “We call those poll taxes,” a reference to fees that were once used in some Southern states to prevent blacks from voting. He said that while 8 percent of whites do not have the type of documentation that would be required by the Texas election law, the percentage among blacks is triple that. 

Opponents of the laws note that nearly every state legislature that has passed them in the past two years is Republican-run and that those most affected are minority groups and the urban poor, constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. 

In a report issued on Wednesday, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said it had found that obtaining proper voter identification in the affected states was difficult. More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office, and many of the offices maintain limited hours, the report said. Moreover, it said, despite pledges to make voter identification free, birth and marriage certificates, often needed for the process, cost $8 to $25, and many affected voters are poor. 

The argument by the Pennsylvania law’s proponents that it has nothing to do with partisan politics took a blow late last month when Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the state’s House of Representatives, addressed a group of fellow state Republicans. Listing the accomplishments of the Republican-controlled legislature, he said, “Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.” 

In Wisconsin, a voter identification requirement has been declared to be in violation of the state Constitution, but that ruling is expected to be appealed. Some Southern states, like Texas and South Carolina, have to clear any voting law changes with the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The department has rejected their identification requirements as discriminatory, and this past week Texas has been challenging that ruling in federal court in Washington. In September, South Carolina will take its case against the department to court. 

One of the most closely watched cases is here in Pennsylvania, where polls show a tight race shaping up between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. 

“We don’t know whether voter fraud is a huge or a small problem, but we believe the new law will preserve the integrity of every vote,” said Ronald G. Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State. “The goal is to make sure that every vote cast counts.” 

Supporters also point to accusations that Acorn, a community organizing group that worked to register minority group members, was engaging in voter registration fraud several years ago. 

This month, the Pennsylvania Department of State estimated that 759,000 registered voters may be at risk of not having the required identification. It promised to send a letter to each one explaining what needed to be done. 

“Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 by 600,000 votes,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is leading the challenge to the law. “What is most galling is to hear the law’s proponents argue that one person voting improperly undermines the integrity of the election. What about all the people prevented improperly from voting? Doesn’t that undermine the integrity of the election?” 

When the trial against the law starts this month in the capital, Harrisburg, Mr. Walczak will put on the stand a number of Pennsylvanians with cases like Ms. Applewhite’s, asserting that they are unable to meet the requirements in time for the November election. 

Among them will be Wilola Shinholster Lee, a 60-year-old retiree who was born in Georgia and has been unable to replace her birth certificate, which was lost in a house fire. Officials in Georgia told her that they too had suffered a fire and no longer had a record of her birth. 

“I came here when I was 5 with my grandmother, who worked as a domestic,” Ms. Lee said. “She’s 98 and doesn’t have a photo ID either. She’s upset because she loves Obama.” 

Ms. Lee has a Social Security card and an employee photo identification from her years working for the Philadelphia Board of Education. But without her birth certificate, she is unlikely to be able to vote in November. 

In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter identification law, saying that although there was little evidence of fraud, the law did not pose an undue burden on voters. But the case in Pennsylvania is based on the state Constitution, which is more specific than the federal Constitution about the right to vote. The Pennsylvania law also has tighter restrictions than the one in Indiana. 

Stewart J. Greenleaf, a Republican state senator in Pennsylvania and chairman of the judiciary committee, said in an interview in Harrisburg that he opposed the law because it was unnecessary given how uncommon in-person voter fraud has been. That will be a central argument in the lawsuit as well. 

Mr. Walczak of the civil liberties union said: “The real danger from this law will come from people who don’t even know it exists or who think they have the right ID but don’t. Our position is that we will not know until Election Day how big a problem it is, and then it will be too late.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

5 Obamacare Myths

From the NY Times....

July 15, 2012

Five Obamacare Myths

ON the subject of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare, to reclaim the name critics have made into a slur — a number of fallacies seem to be congealing into accepted wisdom. Much of this is the result of unrelenting Republican propaganda and right-wing punditry, but it has gone largely unchallenged by gun-shy Democrats. The result is that voters are confronted with slogans and side issues — “It’s a tax!” “No, it’s a penalty!” — rather than a reality-based discussion. Let’s unpack a few of the most persistent myths.
OBAMACARE IS A JOB-KILLER. The House Republican majority was at it again last week, staging the 33rd theatrical vote to roll back the Affordable Care Act. And once again the cliché of the day was “job-killer.” After years of trying out various alarmist falsehoods the Republicans have found one that seems, judging from the polls, to have connected with the fears of voters.
Some of the job-killer scare stories are based on a deliberate misreading of a Congressional Budget Office report that estimated the law would “reduce the amount of labor used in the economy” by about 800,000 jobs. Sounds like a job-killer, right? Not if you read what the C.B.O. actually wrote. While some low-wage jobs might be lost, the C.B.O. number mainly refers to workers who — being no longer so dependent on employers for their health-care safety net — may choose to retire earlier or work part time. Those jobs would then be open for others who need them.
The impartial truth squad has debunked the job-killer claim so many times that in its latest update you can hear a groan of weary frustration: words like “whopper” and “bogus” and “hooey.” The job-killer claim is also discredited by the experience under the Massachusetts law on which Obamacare was modeled.
Ultimately the Affordable Care Act could be a tonic for the economy. It aims to slow the raging growth of health care costs by, among other things, using the government’s Medicare leverage to move doctors away from exorbitant fee-for-service medicine, with its incentive to pile on unnecessary procedures. Two veteran health economists, David Cutler of Harvard and Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, have calculated that over the first decade of Obamacare total spending on health care, in part by employers, will be half a trillion dollars lower than under the status quo.
OBAMACARE IS A FEDERAL TAKEOVER OF HEALTH INSURANCE. Let’s be blunt. The word for that is “lie.” The main thing the law does is deliver millions of new customers to the private insurance industry. Indeed, a significant portion of the unhappiness with Obamacare comes from liberals who believe it is not nearly federal enough: that the menu of insurance choices should have included a robust public option, or that Medicare should have been expanded into a form of universal coverage.
Under the law, to be sure, insurance will be governed by new regulations, and supported by new subsidies. This is not the law Ayn Rand would have written. But the share of health care spending that comes from the federal government is expected to rise only modestly, to nearly 50 percent in 2021, and much of that is due not to Obamacare but to baby boomers joining Medicare.
This is a “federal takeover” only in the crazy world where Barack Obama is a “socialist.”
THE UNFETTERED MARKETPLACE IS A BETTER SOLUTION. To the extent there is a profound difference of principle anywhere in this debate, it lies here. Conservatives contend that if you give consumers a voucher or a tax credit and set them loose in the marketplace they will do a better job than government at finding the services — schools, retirement portfolios, or in this case health insurance policies — that fit their needs.
I’m a pretty devout capitalist, and I see that in some cases individual responsibility helps contain wasteful spending on health care. If you have to share the cost of that extra M.R.I. or elective surgery, you’ll think hard about whether you really need it. But I’m deeply suspicious of the claim that a health care system dominated by powerful vested interests and mystifying in its complexity can be tamed by consumers who are strapped for time, often poor, sometimes uneducated, confused and afraid.
“Ten percent of the population accounts for 60 percent of the health outlays,” said Davis. “They are the very sick, and they are not really in a position to make cost-conscious choices.”
LEAVE IT TO THE STATES. THEY’LL FIX IT. The Republican alternative to Obamacare consists in large part of letting each state do its own thing. Presumably the best ideas will go viral.
States do have a long history of pioneering new ideas, sometimes enlightened (Oregon’s vote-by-mail comes to mind) and sometimes less benign (see Florida’s loopy gun laws). Obamacare actually underwrites pilot programs to reduce costs, and gives states freedom — some would argue too much freedom — in designing insurance-buying exchanges. But the best ideas don’t spread spontaneously. Some states are too poor to adopt worthwhile reforms. Some are intransigent, or held captive by lobbies.
You’ve heard a lot about the Massachusetts law. You may not have heard about the seven other states that passed laws requiring insurers to offer coverage to all. They were dismal failures because they failed to mandate that everyone, including the young and healthy, buy in. Massachusetts — fairly progressive, relatively affluent, with an abundance of health providers — included a mandate and became the successful exception. To expand that program beyond Massachusetts required ... Barack Obama.
OBAMACARE IS A LOSER. RUN AGAINST IT, RUN FROM IT, BUT FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE DON’T RUN ON IT. When Mitt Romney signed that Massachusetts law in 2006, the coverage kicked in almost immediately. Robert Blendon, a Harvard expert on health and public opinion, recalls the profusion of heartwarming stories about people who had depended on emergency rooms and charity but now, at last, had a regular relationship with a doctor. Romneycare was instantly popular in the state, and remains so, though it seems to have been disowned by its creator.
Unfortunately, the benefits of Obamacare do not go wide until 2014, so there are not yet testimonials from enthusiastic, family-next-door beneficiaries. This helps explain why the bill has not won more popular affection. (It also explains why the Republicans are so desperate to kill it now, before Americans feel the abundant rewards.)
Blendon believes that because of the delayed benefits and the general economic anxiety, “It will be very hard for the Democrats to move the needle” on the issue this election year.
He may be right, but shame on the Democrats if they don’t try. There’s no reason except cowardice for failing to mount a full-throated defense of the law. It is not perfect, but it is humane, it is (thanks to the Supreme Court) fiscally viable, and it comes with some reasonable hopes of reforming the cockeyed way we pay health care providers.
Even before the law takes full effect, it has a natural constituency, starting with every cancer victim, every H.I.V. sufferer, everyone with a condition that now would keep them from getting affordable coverage. Any family that has passed through the purgatory of cancer — as mine did this year, with decent insurance — can imagine the hell of doing it without insurance.
Against this, Mitt Romney offers some vague free-market principles and one unambiguous promise: to dash the hopes of 30 million uninsured, and add a few million to their ranks by slashing Medicaid.
If the Obama campaign needs a snappy one-liner, it could borrow this one from David Cutler: “Never before in history has a candidate run for president with the idea that too many people have insurance coverage.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 18, 2012

An earlier version of this column referred incorrectly to one consequence of the 2010 health care law. While it is estimated to provide coverage to 30 million Americans who are currently uninsured, the estimate includes both an expansion of Medicaid and additional enrollment in private insurance plans, not only the latter.