Ari Berman on the GOP voting laws, Robert Gangi on NYPD drug arrests, Alia Malek on the Irvine 11 and Peter Rothberg on Wangari Maathai


THE REAL VOTER FRAUD: After the 2010 election, a wave of GOP-sponsored laws were passed across the country, cutting back early voting, getting rid of election day registration and forcing voters to show photo IDs. The clear intention of the laws, ostensibly passed to combat “voter fraud,” was to impede traditionally Democratic voters at every step of the electoral process.

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice provides the best measure yet of the potential impact of this on the next election, estimating that these “new voting laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.”

According to the report, “States that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012— 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.” It happens that of the country’s twelve most competitive swing states, five of them (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada and Ohio) “have already cut back on voting rights.”

The Brennan Center notes that “these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities”—in other words, those most likely to vote against the GOP. Other conclusions from the report:

§ New photo ID laws will be in effect in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, which have a combined citizen voting age population of just under 29 million, more than 10 percent of whom do not have state-issued photo IDs.

§ New laws in Florida and Texas all but outlaw voter registration drives. At least 8 percent—or 176,000—of the voters were registered through drives in Florida in 2008. At least 5 percent—or 26,000— of Texas voters did so via drives.

§ In Florida, Georgia and Ohio in 2008, nearly 8 million people voted early. An estimated 1–2 million cast their ballots on voting days that have now been eliminated.

To read the report, see   ARI BERMAN

LAW ENFORCEMENT: New York Police commissioner Raymond Kelly made news in September when he issued an internal memo ordering the NYPD to follow the law regarding arrests for marijuana possession. It is noteworthy that cops are obeying the law only because for years they have disregarded it.

The ten years that Michael Bloomberg has been New York’s mayor and Kelly its police commissioner have seen a dramatic increase in arrests for marijuana possession, which went from under 10,000 in the mid-’90s to more than 50,000 last year. Nearly 90 percent of those detained have been people of color, despite research showing that the majority of marijuana users are white. Many people describe illegal searches where police officers tell people to empty their pockets—or the officers just reach into their pockets—which is prohibited by the NYPD’s patrol handbook. The practice often occurs during a “stop and frisk”; any marijuana found by police is confiscated, and officers later claim to the court that the substance was open to public view—the condition defined by law as necessary to charge someone with a misdemeanor. It is this statute that Kelly has now ordered his cops to observe by directing them to arrest people only if they display the marijuana voluntarily.

Kelly’s order could produce a welcome outcome: fewer black and brown men locked up and fewer saddled with the severe collateral consequences of a criminal record. Community leaders and police reform advocates should monitor the order’s implementation to make certain that the cops don’t replace illegal marijuana arrests with another harsh tactic aimed at continuing the harassment and detention of young men of color.   ROBERT GANGI

FROM THE LA 8 TO THE IRVINE 11: The criminal prosecution of students from the University of California, Irvine, for interrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador last year carries on southern California tradition: targeting activism that highlights Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

In this case, ten students (of the eleven originally on trial) were found guilty of misdemeanors on September 23, for statements like, “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” and “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!”

Administrative proceedings against the students and the Muslim Student Union lasted eight months. Yet the Orange County District Attorney’s Office decided to launch an investigation of its own, impaneling a grand jury (usually reserved for felonies) to force testimony from witnesses; basing at least one charge on privileged attorney-client communications; and assigning the assistant DA, who heads the homicide unit, to try the case.

The prosecution had echoes of the government’s pursuit of the LA 8, eight students arrested in Los Angeles in 1987 for handing out leaflets on behalf of a Palestinian group with communist leanings. Though the publication was available in public libraries, on college campuses and even at the Library of Congress, the government pursued the case for twenty years, spending taxpayer dollars to use both the criminal justice and immigration systems to try to convict or deport the eight. In 2007 the charges were finally dropped.

Many have decried the potential chilling effect of the Irvine 11 case, but such intimidation is not likely to work in the long run. “Such tactics don’t stifle debate or activism; what it does is propel it and energize it,” says Michel Shehadeh, one of the LA 8 defendants, reflecting on the similarities between the two cases. “If such tactics worked, then the Irvine 11 wouldn’t have happened, because the LA 8 happened twenty years ago.”ALIA MALEK

REMEMBERING WANGARI MAATHAI: When Professor Wangari Maathai died on September 25, the world lost much more than the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai created a new model for how African women could live their lives. Her holistic approach to sustainable development served, in the words of the Nobel committee, “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.” The best way to remember Maathai is to support the Green Belt Movement, which she founded and in which she invested her life’s hopes.   PETER ROTHBERG

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