Commentary, Voting

Unlike North Carolina, some states are making voter participation easier instead of suppressing it

Most of the voting rights news lately has not been very encouraging. State legislative leaders are promising to bring up another photo ID bill in one of the series of special legislative sessions likely to be held this summer and fall.

The last effort at enacting a photo ID requirement was part of the massive voter suppression law struck down by federal courts who said it targeted minority voters with “surgical precision.”

Things are even scarier in Washington, where President Trump’s absurd election commission held its first meeting this week with its vice-chairman Kris Kobach from Kansas refusing to admit that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 election.

The meeting’s coda was an MSNBC television interview in which Kris Kobach, the Kansas Republican who is the panel’s vice chairman and de facto head, was asked, “Do you believe Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three to five million votes because of voter fraud?” He replied: “We will probably never know the answer to that question. Because even if you could prove that a certain number of votes were cast by ineligible voters, for example, you wouldn’t know how they voted.”

But some states are not playing the dangerous voter suppression game. In fact, the Governor of Rhode Island this week signed legislation that automatically registers people to vote when they are getting a driver’s license or renewing one, unless they choose to opt out.

Steve Benen over at the Rachel Maddow Blog points out that the signature means nine states now have automatic registration and Illinois will soon become the 10th.

Not too long ago there was a consensus that the more people who participated in the Democratic process the better. The folks on the Right don’t think so anymore. Sadly, now their goal is to keep putting barriers to voting in front of people who are not likely to support them.

Courts & the Law, News

State Supreme Court takes on Cooper’s lawsuit over Board of Elections, Ethics merger

The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to expedite Gov. Roy Cooper’s appeal over the General Assembly’s law merging the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission.

The state’s highest court will hear arguments at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 28 in Cooper v. Berger, et al. The Supreme Court’s decision to take the case bypasses a review by the State Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court has heard the case twice; once ruling mostly in favor of the Governor and once dismissing the case altogether.

Senate Bill 4 was passed during a special session in December, and the three-judge panel struck down much of that law. Instead of appealing their ruling, Republican legislators rewrote the law this session and passed it as SB68, the law the Supreme Court will review.

Both bills abolish the longstanding State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission and merge the two agency’s functions, along with campaign finance and lobbying functions. The difference between the two bills is that the eight-member “bipartisan” board under SB68 would require a five-member quorum (a simple majority) for election issues. SB4 required a six-member quorum. Ethics issues would still require a six-member quorum under the law in SB68.

The other difference is that Cooper will be able to appoint all eight members of the new board with recommendations from the two majority political parties. Members of the new board will be split between Democrats and Republicans. Cooper would not be able to choose the executive director of the Board.

Cooper has not yet appointed members to the new Board.

Commentary, News

Senate will vote today on right-wing blogger nominated by Trump for court of appeals

The full U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote today at 12:15 pm ET, on the nomination of John K. Bush to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

As readers will recall, Bush has recorded his extremist views in a blog full of rhetoric so inflammatory as to call into serious question his ability to serve as an impartial judge. Among other personal diatribes, he posted a photo with a message to those who vandalized a McCain-Palin sign: ‘Do it again and you will find out what the 2nd Amendment is all about!!!’ In another post, Bush likened abortion to slavery, calling them the ‘two greatest tragedies in our country.’ The blog is full of personal attacks on those with whom he disagrees. He has no particular qualifications for the bench besides his right-wing views.

This is from court watchers at the nonpartisan Alliance for Justice:

“Paperwork submitted by John K. Bush, President Trump’s nominee for the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, reveals that Bush has spent a decade writing inflammatory and, often, offensive blog posts for the website Elephants in the Bluegrass.

Writing under a pseudonym, G. Morris, Bush authored more than 400 entries for the ultraconservative blog run by his wife Bridget Bush. While Bush pontificates on a broad swath of issues, one common theme runs throughout his writings: Bush displays a remarkable contempt for any issue he deems liberal or progressive, often launching into personal attacks on individuals he disagrees with. Bush’s writings should disqualify him for a lifetime seat on the federal bench for two reasons. First, Bush’s writings raise serious concerns about whether, as a judge, he will be able to approach the issues presented to him with an open mind, applying the law to the facts of the case without regard to his personal ideology. Second, Bush’s distasteful rhetoric demonstrates that he lacks the judicial temperament necessary to serve as a federal judge.”

As Supreme Court expert Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress explains in an excellent post, “this is not normal.” What’s more, Bush’s legal views are extreme on an array of issues:

“In any event, Bush’s public statements and writings do not simply reveal political views that place him very far to the right. They also reveal legal opinions that are widely out of step with well-established law accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike. That’s not something that presidents typically look for in judicial nominees.”

At last report, both Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis were expected to vote “yes” on the nomination.

Commentary

Scathing letter to the editor calls out Phil Berger as his hometown hospital goes bankrupt

Winston-Salem Journal reader and letter to the editor writer Wendy Marshall had some powerful words for North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem and Medicaid expansion opponent Phil Berger (pictured at left) today. Marshall’s pointed comments came in response to a recent WRAL.com editorial (rerun by the Journal) entitled “The cost of not expanding Medicaid.” As the editorial notes, the hospital in Berger’s hometown of Eden is now on “life-support” as the result of North Carolina’s failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Here’s Marshall’s letter:

Failing hospitals

Like his Republican companions in the state legislature, Senate leader Phil Berger was willing to let his hometown hospital in Eden go bankrupt rather than expand Medicaid under Obamacare (“The cost of not expanding Medicaid,” journalnow.com, July 17).

The hospital is the largest employer in Eden. Jobs will be lost, bills will go unpaid and it’s likely that people will die, largely because of the legislature’s insistence on letting our federal tax dollars go to people in other states, all so they can say they fought Obamacare.

I wish I could ask Berger to his face: Is it worth it?

Several rural hospitals in the state have closed since the legislature refused to expand Medicaid. And yet the legislature complains that rural areas aren’t getting enough resources. We also know that the opioid crisis has hit rural areas hard. Refusing to expand Medicaid makes no sense.

I can’t shake the feeling that there’s some underlying motive behind today’s conservatives’ insistence on undermining government on every level and sacrificing every common good we share, all for the holy cause of more tax cuts for the rich.

Is there? Is there something they’re not telling us?

How much evidence do conservatives need before they understand that their elected representatives mean them no good?

Wendy Marshall, Winston-Salem

News

State Board of Education puts off vote on DPI cuts, names new spokesman

Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) and State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey (right)

Members of the State Board of Education emerged Wednesday with a widely-expected decision to appeal last week’s court ruling in their case with Superintendent Mark Johnson and state lawmakers, but a final decision on how to administer $3.2 million in legislative cuts to North Carolina’s K-12 bureaucracy is still in the works.

Board members were mum on the issue following Wednesday’s conference call meeting, most of which was spent in closed session discussing their legal case and personnel matters.

Nevertheless, members are expected to move quickly on their decision in the coming days.

As Policy Watch reported Tuesday, the DPI cuts are likely to cost multiple employees their jobs and slash services to local school districts. While the agency provides oversight of the state’s public school system, it also provides professional development and intervention in low-performing schools, particularly in poor and rural portions of the state.

Board Chair Bill Cobey told Policy Watch that Johnson had shared proposals for passing down the cuts, with board members providing feedback. Neither party was willing to make those proposals public however, pointing out the plans involved confidential personnel matters.

In addition to Wednesday’s decision on the court appeal, board members also took a vote to name a former state communications officer and newspaper editor as the agency’s top spokesman.

Board members unanimously agreed to name Drew Elliot to the post, replacing Vanessa Jeter, the department’s longtime communications director who retired at the end of June.

Elliot has been an editor at the North State Journal, a statewide newspaper based out of Raleigh, for less than two years. But prior to that, he was communications chief for North Carolina’s environmental regulation agency, now called the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Elliot led communications at a tense time for the department, as it shifted to GOP-controlled leadership and dealt with a firestorm of controversy over a massive coal ash spill in Eden.

“I have no doubt he’ll be a valuable addition to our staff,” said Cobey. “This, of course, is a very key role in the agency.”

Communications at DPI have been in a state of transition in recent weeks. Policy Watch reported this month on Johnson’s controversial decision to temporarily halt some communications in the agency after Jeter’s departure.

Elliot was recommended to the board by a committee that included Cobey, Johnson, state board member Greg Alcorn and DPI Deputy Superintendent Maria Pitre-Martin.

The decision comes with Johnson and the board still entangled in a lawsuit over a December law approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly that would grant the Republican superintendent greater budgetary and hiring powers.