U.S. should aim at raising not lowering voter turnout

For an observer from Europe, where voter turnout is over 80, even 90 percent, while turnout in American mid-term elections around a measly 50 percent and around lowly 60 percent in presidential election years, it would seem that all efforts should be concentrated on raising voter participation by simplifying and coordinating voting laws.

Instead, “voter suppression” has become a major issue in the current election campaign with the Republican Party seemingly intent to further complicate voting procedures and stifle voter participation. Foremost here is the introduction in over 30 states, all but one of them with Republican majorities in the state legislatures, of requiring government issued photo-IDs in order to vote.

These new laws, which got their start in Indiana in 2006, primarily affect the elderly, minorities — American Indians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and low-income groups, who traditionally support the Democrats. They are among the 11 percent, or 21 million U.S. voters, who do not have government issued photo ID cards, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. To obtain ID cards cannot only be difficult but also cost money, a kind of tax, critics say, like the “poll tax” used against Blacks in the Old South to prevent them from voting, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has described it.

The Republicans have called for the photo-ID laws to prevent voter fraud. But there is no widespread fraud in American elections. According to News21, quoted in an excellent overview of this whole issue on the website ProPublica, there have been only ten cases of voter impersonation since 2000 – that is one in 15 million voters. However, according to the same study, there have been almost 500 cases of alleged absentee ballot fraud and 400 cases of alleged registration fraud. But the new voter-ID laws would do nothing to avoid such fraud, as veteran reporter Lou Cannon points out on RealClearPolitics.

The blog FiveThirtyEight in the New York Times has claimed that the new ID laws may cause the turnout to decrease by between 0.8 and 2.4 percent in November. Since these voters, who now might stay home, are mostly democratic voters, it is difficult not to conclude that these efforts by a Republican party steadily marching ever further to the right are politically motivated.

A lower voter turnout could be crucial for the outcome on November 6. So much is at stake, also for the American democracy.

So that we never forget…

I saw this sign, “Torture is always wrong,” outside a Presbyterian church in Columbus, Indiana during my recent visit there. It can serve us well as a reminder that it is ten years ago this week since lawyers in the Bush Administration issued the “torture memos” justifying torture.

“Torture is always illegal,” writes Morris Davis, law professor and retired Air Force Col. and former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in today’s Los Angeles Times. “And we should mark the 10th anniversary of the effort by the Bush administration to justify torture, remembering that as a nation founded on religious and moral values, we must work to ensure that U.S. government-sponsored torture never occurs again.”

Obama and Romney speak after Supreme Court ruling

President Obama and Mitt Romney both made statements after the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier today on the President’s health care reform.

Here is Obama’s statement:

Here is Romney’s statement:

The health care law is going to be a big issue, to say the least, in the remaining four months of the presidential election campaign.

Supreme Court hands Obama big health care victory

U.S. Supreme Court today presented President Obama with an historic victory when it declared his health care reform constitutional.

The victory came with smallest possible majority, 5 votes to 4, and it came, highly sensationally, by the very conservative Chief Justice John Roberts upholding the law when he sided with the four liberal justices. Usually, the role as the swing vote is played by Justice Anthony Kennedy, but this time Kennedy went hard against health care law and joined Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas in the minority.

When the decision came down this morning, it quickly became clear that the major issue in the law– so-called individual mandate , i.e., that everyone must buy health insurance or pay a fine, was constitutional in that the mandate can be regarded as a kind of a tax, and Congress, of course, has the right to impose new taxes.

While the Democrats were jubilant, the Republicans, who were expecting a “no” from the Court, were deeply disappointed and the House Republican majority immediately declared to continue the fight to repeal the health care law. It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court’s decision will affect the presidential election in November, although the ruling seems to a big boost for Obama, and the Democrats, in general. A ‘no’ in the Supreme Court would have meant an enormous loss of prestige for Obama from which it would have been very difficult to recover.

The Supreme Court ruling is also a victory for America, the only major Western democracy without universal health coverage for its citizens. Obama’s health care reform does not institute universal coverage, but 30 million more American will now have health insurance so it constitutes a major step towards health insurance and health care for all Americans.

Here is the Supreme Court ruling with the warning that it is long, almost 200 pages!

Yes — repeal the “Shoot First” laws

The best thing that could happen as a result of the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin is that Florida’s so-called self-defense law “Stand Your Ground” and the similar laws in two dozen other States are repealed.

It’s hard to think of a worse law, and I was heartened to read on the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog that prosecutors in Florida have grave doubts about the law and that they are poised to recommend changes in the law, even its repeal. The law is presently being invoked by many to justify shootings, even by gang members when killing members of rival gangs.

It’s clear who is behind the “Stand Your Ground” law, or the “Castle Doctrine, as it’s also called. It’s the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) – just check out the New York Times on what happened in Wisconsin after a major campaign by the NRA. It’s not only about the right to bear arms it’s also about the right to carry them everywhere and to use them.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has long been a leading voice on strict gun control, has launched a nation-wide campaign to reform or repeal these, what he calls, “Shoot First” laws.

“In reality, the NRA’s leaders weren’t interested in public safety. They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it. Let’s call that by its real name: vigilantism…These laws have not made our country safer; they have made us less safe…all Americans already have a right to defend themselves with commensurate force, but these ‘Shoot First’ laws have nothing to do with that or with the exercise of Second Amendment rights. Instead, they justify civilian gunplay and invite vigilante justice and retribution with disastrous results.”

Well said, Mr. Mayor!

As Connecticut goes, so goes, hopefully, the nation

The State of Connecticut voted this week to abolish the death penalty, making it the 17th State to do so.

Since capital punishment was reintroduced in the U.S. in 1976, 1,290 people have been executed – with Texas leading the sway with 481 executions. 3,199 are presently death row in America’s prisons. This year twelve executions have taken place across the country, a steadily declining number since the highpoint in 1999, when 98 executions took place.

Almost two-thirds of Americans prefer other punishment than the death penalty for murder, according to a survey from 2010, and in the fall voters in California will decide on the death penalty there.

So, maybe, things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly, and maybe there is hope, that the United States, one day, will move away from the present dubious company of China, Iran, North Korea, and other undemocratic countries, where the death penalty is actively used against their  citizens.

“There is something stunningly disgraceful about the company we (the U.S.) keep on this issue,” columnist Robert Scheer wrote once. It’s also sad.

Supreme Court decides fate of Obama’s health care reform

An expected decision in June by the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the fate of the Obama Administration’s health care reform, the Affordable Care Act.

All major issues in America in the end reach the country’s highest court. So the fact that the Supreme Court today decided to take the case was no surprise. The Obama Administration wanted it, wanted to have the final arbiter decide the law’s fate, and wanted certainty in order to move forward.

“We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” said a White House statement.

But no one today dared to say with certainty what and how the nine justices on the Supreme Court will decide. In any case, a big battle is awaiting about the balance of power in the American political system, the extent of federal power, and the reach of Congress’ powers.

The June decision will come in the middle of the run-up to the presidential election in November. Whatever the outcome in the Supreme Court, its decision will be of great importance for the outcome of the election. A victory for reform, i.e., that it is consistent with the Constitution, will undoubtedly strengthen Obama and his chances in the election, while a victory for those who believe that reform violates the Constitution will be seen as a major setback for the president and greatly impair his re-election chances.

So much is at stake.

Lyle Denniston, veteran Supreme Court reporter, describes the thorny legal and constitutional problems on the SCOTUS blog and calls that which will now take place in the Supreme Court “an historic constitutional confrontation over federal power.”

The New York Times’ legal correspondent Adam Liptak wonders in today’s paper about how far the federal government’s power stretches and points to the many conflicting rulings in the lower courts that transcend all partisan political borders.

Was it a “justifiable killing?”

The war against terror is seen by many observers as a foreign policy success for President Obama. But was it legal to kill the Yemeni al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and his companion Samir Khan, both American citizens?

A Washington Post editorial today calls the killing “justifiable” and a news story in the paper quotes an Obama Administration official saying that “what constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war.”

Andrew Sullivan on his blog, The Dish, is of a similar view:

“My own position is that we are at war, and that avowed enemies and traitors in active warfare against the U.S. cannot suddenly invoke legal protections from a society they have decided to help destroy.”

I tend to agree, but the issue is not simple, it’s not black and white.

And many are concerned, like Glenn Greenwald at the web site Salon, who condemns the killing. It now appears, he writes, that American citizens can be killed without due process of the law.

Yale law Professor Stephen L. Carter writes on the Daily Beast that the attack raises important ethical questions.

“Obama should tell us, clearly and simply, what the goal of the drone war is; what ethical rules guide him in deciding whom to target; and how we will know when the war is won.”

After Troy Davis, is there still hope?

Troy Davis was executed last night in Georgia.

The question is whether it could be said any better than by Robert Scheer on Truthdig:

”There is something stunningly disgraceful about the company we (USA) keep on this issue…Execution is a means of summarily ending the pursuit of justice rather than advancing it.”

Scheer did not mention that another death sentence was carried out last night, in Texas, against Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist who killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., in a hideous hate crime in 1998. The execution took place, quietly, without any public protests.

Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, 1, 267 people have been executed in the United States. Of all the things about America, this is the hardest for us Europeans to comprehend, and nothing upsets us more.

Still, there might be hope that America will finally turn against the death penalty, as outlined in two recent must-read articles on the death penalty by Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic, and Dahlia Lithwick on Slate.

To Obama: use the Constitution and raise the debt ceiling

As August 2 is fast approaching, more and more politicians, legal experts and commentators, are urging President Obama, as a last resort, to take matters into his own hands and with reference to the Constitution raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.

After all the negotiations and an intense week in Congress, we are no closer to the compromise that is required, and this weekend’s upcoming votes and continued negotiations do not in any way guarantee a positive outcome for America and the world.

It is at this point of great uncertainty that the possibility for Obama to refer to the constitution and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling surfaced in the debate. It is an interesting alternative, which Obama himself has admitted, but he and constitutional experts do not seem to be really sure if that this is possible way out and if this would be constitutional.

The debate centers on the Fourteenth Amendment’s fourth paragraph, which says:

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pension and countries for service in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

In other words, U.S. government debt must not be questioned. The Amendment came about after the Civil War to prevent the South from cancelling the debt that the Union had incurred.

Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale University, shows how the Amendment could be used by President Obama on his blog Balkinization, and Ronald Dworkin, a law professor at New York University, asks on the New York Review of Books blog if Congress would act unconstitutionally if it cannot decide to raise the debt ceiling.

This “last resort” has been advocated by a number of leading Democrats led by former President Bill Clinton. The consequences are uncertain but such a decision by Obama could lead to an impeachment process in the House of Representatives. Would Obama be prepared to wage such a fight only a year before the presidential election? That is the question.

Still, Professor Dworkin sees political benefits of such a decision.

“I doubt very many now uncommitted voters would disapprove of a President who acted under a reasonable interpretation of the law to allow the government payments on which they rely to continue, and to prevent damage to our international credit that would inevitably increase their taxes and might well eventually savage their standard of living. “

Michael Tomasky on the Daily Beast realizes the political risks, but adds:

“If Obama moved forcefully and said. ‘I am the president, and I met them here and here and here, and they wouldn’t budge, and I’m finished with them, and now is the time to act,’ I have little doubt that the markets—and the people—would react positively. That would prove that he’s a leader, and it would force him to choose sides. It’s high time he did both.”