Two and a Half States

Fact, Politics and History in the Mid-Atlantic

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

If you are one of the estimated 5.7 million adults in North Carolina who did not even bother going to the polls to stop the gay marriage ban:

SHAME ON YOU!

O’Malley, McDonnell Together on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press”

Politically speaking, there couldn’t be a starker contrast between two men than Martin O’Malley (D-MD) and Bob McDonnell (R-VA).  These two men rarely see eye to eye on the issues, and appear in public together even more rarely.  Sunday’s episode of “Meet the Press” on MSNBC, in which David Gregory interviewed both Governors, was a rare event in American politics.  The two discussed the economy, the 2012 election, abortion and the possibility of a Vice Presidential bid for McDonnell.  As with any interview, however, there were some moments where the rhetoric got in the way of the facts.

The interview began with David Gregory breaking the news about an American servicemember who allegedly went on a shooting rampage in Afghanistan, killing at least a dozen Afghan civilians.  Both Governors expressed their regret for the incident, as well as for the negative way in which it will characterize the actions of the entire US Armed Forces.  The conversation quickly turned back to domestic matters, though, as Gregory abruptly segued to the election.

Asking Governor O’Malley about the President’s reelection prospects, Gregory cited the improving job numbers since 2009 and 2010, “10% then, 8.3% now… Is he now the favorite, given the optimism about the economy?”  O’Malley – without actually answering the question – said that 24 consecutive months of job growth and the success of the auto bailouts in his case that the economy is, indeed improving.  Turning to McDonnell, Gregory asked if the recovery would dim the election prospects of Mitt Romney, whom McDonnell has endorsed.  McDonnell predictably downplayed the recovery, pointing out that there are 864,000 fewer people employed in the private sector than at the start of 2009 and emphasizing that the unemployment and national debt remain high.  O’Malley then stopped mincing words, stating that both Obama and Romney have records with regard to job creation, and that Obama’s is clearly stronger.  With such ambivalent statements coming from both parties, it helps to have an eye on the actual numbers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans employed in January of 2009 – when Obama took office – was 140,436,000.  This is a far cry from the 146,867,000 that were employed just six months previous, meaning that the labor market was shedding an average of a million jobs per month in the months leading up to Obama’s inauguration.  This contraction of the job market slowed gradually for the first 15 months of the Obama administration, until April of 2010, when it started to add jobs again.  The overall upward trend has continued since then, but it does not conform the O’Malley’s claim of 24 straight months of job growth.  A dip in June of 2011 means that this winning-streak is limited to just 8 consecutive months of growth.  This, however, does not change the fact that the labor force is now slightly stronger than when Obama took office, with 140,684,000 Americans employed at the end of last month.  The nonpartisan Conference Board’s Employment Trends Index shows that this trend will not only continue, but will increase in speed in the coming months.

After the discussion on the economy, Gregory steered the conversation to women’s reproductive rights, pressing McDonnell for an explanation on his support of a Virginia bill requiring women to receive a transvaginal ultrasound prior to getting an abortion.  “That was one bill out of a thousand that we passed,” said McDonnell, “that was (sic) all focused on jobs and economic development and education.” When asked if it was wrong to support that mandate, McDonnell said “No, I never said that… What we said was that we support the concept of an ultrasound, and through the committe process I realized that there were some other things in the bill that needed to be amended.”  While it is true that McDonnell never explicitly stated support for a transvaginal ultrasound, he was the original author of an identical, failed bill nearly a decade ago.  The imprecise language of that bill, mandating the informational results of the ultrasound rather than the method itself, could only have been fulfilled in the majority of cases by a transvaginal procedure.  It is important to note, however, that McDonnell did not sign the original version of the bill when it reached his desk, sending it back to the General Assembly for an amendment which explicitly removed the transvaginal requirement – albeit after a media firestorm over the requirement.  More information about this bill can be found here.

O’Malley returned to the economy by saying that cultural issues such as abortion, contraception and labor unions serve as wedges to cloud out the central issue of this election, which is the economy.  After O’Malley contrasted the job creation rates of Virginia and Maryland, Gregory asked “Do you think your counterpart here in Virginia would be a good running-mate for Romney, or would you cast him as an extremist?”

Stopping short of either option, O’Malley once again contrasted his state’s job creation rate to that of Virginia, but then compared the job creation rates of Virginia and Massachusetts, stating that “Governor McDonnell would be a better job creator [than Romney.]”

For his part, McDonnell insisted that he has no Presidential hopes.  “I’ve got the job held by Jefferson and Henry.  I love being Governor of Virginia, but I do want a Republican President who will get us out of this malaise.”

Watch the full interview, courtesy of MSNBC.

Speed Camera Legislation Progresses in Maryland

Maryland’s General Assembly has certainly been busy with legislation regarding its use of speed enforcement cameras, which were approved in 2009.  So far this year, the House of Delegates has heard no fewer than seven bills regarding the subject.  These run the gamut from common sense measures regarding the calibration of these cameras to extremely controversial provisions altering the meaning of due process.

The motivation behind HB 1044 [Full Text] is fairly easy to understand.  The Municipality of Baltimore City has had a spotty record of accuracy and accountability with their speed camera program.  Over the last 3 years, Baltimore City has issued over 2,000 erroneous tickets based on three speed cameras that were set up to enforce the wrong speed limit.  The city has reluctantly issued refunds for all of these citations, but this bill seeks to prevent the issue from reoccurring.  If passed, it would require all speed cameras to meet a minimum quality standard and be inspected and calibrated by an independant laboratory, not affiliated with the manufacturor or the municipality or company that operates it.  That’s not all that it does, however, it also requires that calibration information be a part of the public record, that drivers who are issued a speed camera citation be allowed to use the image as evidence of their innocence, and it prohibits private contractors from collecting fees for operating speed cameras based upon the number of citations that are issued.  Overall, this bill includes numerous, behind-the-scenes tweaks that will make the process of issuing speed camera tickets more transparent and fair to the public at large.

Somewhat more controversial is SB 57 [Full Text], also known as HB 326.  This bill would have altered the definition of a work zone to prohibit the use of work zone speed cameras while there are no construction crews actually working.  Its supporters asserted that using speed cameras in such a manner only serves to raise revenue at the expense of motorists.  Its detractors wish to keep the current, 24/7 usage of speed cameras in work zones because narrower lanes and adjustments to traffic patterns make driving in a work zone more dangerous, regardless of the absence of workers.  This bill was stopped in both the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Environmental Matters Committees.  When this measure failed, its Senate sponsors reintroduced it as an amendment to a separate bill, SB 486.  This amendment was defeated by a 23-22 vote on Thursday.

Unamended, however, SB 486 [Full Text] is far more controversial than the defeated amendment ever could have been.  This bill, if approved, will authorize the privatization of certain law enforcement functions with regard to speed cameras.  Currently, when a speed camera is triggered, the image is reviewed be a law enforcement officer for the final determination of whether or not a citation will be issued.  Under the proposed law, municipalities will be authorized to hire private contractors to take over this function.  This allows law enforcement officers to spend more time physically patrolling the streets, but it also allows these citations to be issued by contractors with less accountability for wrongfully issued citations.  This bill has passed the Senate, and is now pending approval by the House of Delegates.

Perhaps more troubling than that, however, is HB 1030 [Full Text].  This bill, if signed into law, would remove judges from the hearings that result from a challenge to a speed camera ticket in Prince George’s County.  These challenges would instead be heard by an attorney, who would be paid based upon the total value of all speed camera fines paid.  A defendant who wishes to appeal this attorney’s decision would then have to file an exception, thereby requesting a trial before a judge.  These proceedings, unlike a traditional appeal, would be limited only to the aspects of the attorney’s decisions that the defendant listed as objectionable in the exception.  This makes it much more difficult for a defendant to overturn a wrongfully issued fine, and creates a system under which private law offices profit directly from this increasingly restrictive appeals process.  It is also worth noting that the Delegate who authored this bill is Tiffany Alston, from Prince George’s County.  Delegate Alston was indicted late last year on allegations that she added an attorney from her own law firm to the state’s payroll, to be paid by public funds rather than from the firm’s coffers.

With bills like these on their agenda, the only thing that is certain for Maryland’s lawmakers in the days ahead is the controversy that will surround them.

Virginia House Approves Voter ID Bill

There is little doubt that Voter ID requirements are a hot-button issue in this election cycle, and the Commonwealth of Virginia has just thrown itself into the fray, becoming the 31st state to pass such a provision through its legislature.  On Thursday, the House of Delegates passed SB 1 [Full Text] with a 66-31 vote.  Supporters of the bill, mostly Republicans, assert that such a measure is necessary to combat voter fraud that is already widespread and influencing elections.  Detractors, mostly Democrats, are labelling such measures as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress voter turnout or a return to “Jim Crow.”  With all of this rhetoric, it’s hard to know what the real effects of such a bill are.

SB 1, and an identical House bill named HB 9, are in a category of ID laws known as “Non-photo ID laws.”  This means that they remove the option to cast a full ballot with a sworn statement affirming the identity of the voter, but also expands the list of acceptable forms of ID.  Any voter who does not present an acceptable form of ID at the polls will instead be given a provisional ballot, which will only be counted if the voter presents acceptable ID by email, fax or in person before the vote count is finalized on the sixth day after the election.  The list of acceptable forms of ID is as follows: A Virginia voter registration card, social security card, Virginia driver’s license, any other ID card issued by any state or by a municipality within the Commonwealth of Virginia, a valid student ID from a 4-year institution within the Commonwealth, a valid employee ID card containing a photo of the employee, or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck that shows the voter’s name and address.

This extensive list of acceptable identification makes Virginia’s bill one of the more lenient of this trend. 6 states require photo ID only (with 2 more states pending Department of Justice approval for the same) and 7 states require photo ID unless the voter meets another requirement such as being recognized by a poll worker or answering personal questions.

With such an extensive list, comes a number of opportunities for a competent fraudster to evade the new requirement, but the evidence is limited that such a problem exists.  In Georgia, Politifact reports that between 2009 and 2011, the Secretary of State investigated 647 cases of election or voter fraud.  The number of convictions, however, is not available in the public record – even if it were, 647 extra votes are highly unlikely to change the outcome of an election.  Florida’s numbers are significantly lower, with 33 cases investigated during the same time frame.

As for the effects on the voter turnout, a study by the Election Assistance Commission found that there was a 2.9% lower overall voter turnout in states with voter ID laws, though the effect was different on varying subsets of the population.  Less educated voters were 5.1% less likely to show up to the polls, while racial minorities had a turnout that was reduced by 6-10%.  The numbers from other studies are somewhat less conclusive, with comparisons of voter turnout before and after a voter ID in the same state showing no significant difference in turnout.  Both of these methodologies, however, fail to take into account other factors, such as voter enthusiasm for candidates in those states for those election years.  A study by the Harvard Law & Policy Review, however, does take these factors into account and finds a small – though significantly significant – drop in voter turnout after the implementation of such a law.  The effect that it found was that of a 1.6-2.2% reduction in turnout [Full study results] (PDF).

When it comes to Voter ID laws, then, it comes down to the lesser of two evils.  The state legislatures now face the choice of a few cases of voter fraud or voter disenfranchisement.  Virginia’s General Assembly has chosen, and the Commonwealth is waiting for Governor McDonnell to decide whether or not he agrees.

A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

These are the words of Charles Dickens, written about Paris and London in the 19th century, but Europe is not the subject at hand.  Setting aside the perils that face the Euro Zone, there is a much more intriguing political drama unfolding.  It’s far closer to home, it’s far easier to relate to, and it’s perhaps far more difficult to truly understand.

The cities in question are Richmond, VA and Annapolis, MD, and the story is currently unfolding in their respective state houses.  On February 23rd of this year, Maryland’s Senate passed HB 438 [Full Text], a bill from the House of Delegates that changed the legal definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two individuals not otherwise prohibited.”  It was then passed on to Governor Martin O’Malley (D), who signed it into law on March 1st, making Maryland the 9th jurisdiction in the Union to recognize same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Alternate-Universe doorway that is the Potomac River, the Virginia Senate passed HB 462 [Full Text] on February 28th.  It was quickly signed into law by Governor Robert McDonnell (R), who had been providing the impetus for the bill from the start, on March 8th.  This law now requires that any woman seeking an abortion in the Commonwealth of Virginia be given an ultrasound prior to the procedure.  The final version of the bill wasn’t what he wanted, however.  The first version of the bill, which passed the House of Delegates on a party-line vote, would have required those same women to undergo a “Trans-vaginal” ultrasound, during which an approximately 8-inch “wand” is inserted… well, I think you can guess from the name.

To understand these disparate approaches to legislation on social issues, it helps to first understand the respective Governors.  O’Malley was elected in 2006, after a campaign predicated upon his record on education, crime, and balanced budgets as the Mayor of Baltimore.  McDonnell took office after the 2009 gubernatorial elections, during which he ran on a platform of economic growth and transportation, under the slogan “Bob’s 4 Jobs.”  Their actions in office, however, are far more telling about their agendas than the campaigns, as is often the case.  O’Malley signed the largest single round of tax increases in Maryland’s history to close a projected budget deficit of $1.7 billion dollars, authorized the use of speed cameras to increase revenue and established a $14 million campaign to raise awareness of children’s dental health.  With the budget well under control, he ran his reelection campaign on a social platform, promoting equal legal protection for illegal immigrants (which he dubbed “New Americans”) and the LGBT community.  McDonnell, on the other hand, issued an executive order a scant three weeks after his inauguration, which removed anti-discrimination protections from gay and lesbians within the Commonwealth.  He expressed support for HB 1, a bill which would have effectively banned all abortions, but after a large media backlash, directed Senate Republicans to table the bill.  He also cut $646 million from a proposed $11.4 billion budget for K-12 education, and issued $5 billion in transportation bonds which will be paid back from future general fund revenues.  These funds are virtually guaranteed to be offset by additional education cuts.  McDonnell’s official position on these bonds is that they will be paid with “future revenue growth.”  He has also been a champion for privatization in the Commonwealth, selling liquor stores to private entities, as well as outsourcing the state government’s IT requirements to Northrop Grumman, at an expense to the Commonwealth of $12 million to $15 million.  It is worth noting that Northrop Grumman donated $90,672 to Republican organizations during the 2009 elections, over half of which went directly to McDonnell’s campaign fund.

All of that information, though, does not adequately explain the cause of the political differences between these neighboring states, both of which are below the Mason-Dixon line, and which have shared similar population demographics on the basis of ethnic and national origin.  The roots of the differences rest in Catholicism, slavery and the elderly.  The Maryland colony was founded upon the premise of being a safe haven for England’s Roman Catholic minority in the New World.  After Virginia declared Anglicanism to be the official religion of the colony, many members of its Puritan population moved to neighboring Maryland for refuge.  Soon after, these Puritans revolted against the government of their new home, fighting off an army sent from England to retake the colony in 1654, and continued the ban until 1658.  Despite all of this, the Catholic population remained large in Maryland, but virtually non-existent in Virginia.

Fast-forward to the American Civil War.  Maryland’s Catholic population were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement within the state.  The political capital of these Catholic abolitionists was enough to keep Maryland from seceding from the Union.  The cultural rift that opened between the North and South during the pre-war and war years only widened during the Reconstruction era, when lingering resentment of the Federal Government and its then-progressive policies caused the Southern states to turn largely to socially conservative policies and limits to Federal power.

This staying power of this trend was evident with the use of the “Southern Strategy” in 1968, and the subsequent realigning of Republicans as the socially conservative party.  Then-candidate Richard Nixon listened to the advice of his political strategists, including Kevin Phillips, who said in a 1970 New York Times article:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats. “

This trend of pandering to latent racism gradually died out, as younger generations who had never known a segregationist civilization started to turn out at the polls.  The Republicans, therefore, were forced to find a new strategy for capitalizing on the Southern vote following the political rout that they suffered at the hands of Jimmy Carter in 1976.  They found just such a strategy in the politics of religion.  Republican strategists saw a significant potential for votes in the South in the – then largely apolitical – Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian churches.   The Republican party then set up a series of political seminars designed to train pastors and ministers to mobilize the members of their churches to vote for Republicans.  This strategy gave Ronald Reagan the margin that he needed to win in 1980, and set the stage for the partisan divide over reproductive rights, marriage equality, and even the very separation of Church and State upon which the structure of our government is built.

In light of the explosive population growth in Northern Virginia, however, this strategy alone does not explain why Virginia is on the conservative side of this divide.  Northern Virginia’s population growth has been fueled by migration from the Northern states in pursuit of high tech, largely defense-sector jobs in the greater DC metro area.  The population of Virginia, therefore, is now largely comprised of Northerners, recent immigrants and African Americans, three population groups which vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, yet its state government is controlled entirely by the Republicans.  The explanation lies, oddly enough, in the elderly.

The Federal Government’s elections are all held on even-numbered years, with two-year terms in the House, six-year terms in the Senate, and four-year terms in the White House.  The near-constant nature of Federal elections, combined with the lack of a Presidential election atop the ticket to generate enthusiasm, leads to “mid-cycle” elections having an extremely low turnout compared to years in which a Presidential election is to take place.  This situation is exacerbated by the structure of Virginia’s elections, which take place on odd-numbered years, giving voters a steady stream of campaign messages and electoral organization.

The result of low voter turnout has historically been a boon for conservatives in the United States, as the elderly and religious are the two groups most likely to get out the vote despite voter fatigue and low enthusiasm.  These two groups are, coincidentally, the most likely to support conservative candidates and ideas.

Thus, the deck is stacked in each state to keep political pressure moving towards the respective extremes of social policy.  In Maryland, where state elections are run concurrently with Federal elections, high voter turnout and a relatively high Catholic population – which, according to The Public Religion Research Institute supports gay and lesbian marriage or civil unions by 74% – pushed the General Assembly and the Governor to establish marriage equality.  In Virginia, low voter turnout and relatively high populations of Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians pushed the General Assembly and the Governor to establish new obstacles to abortion, despite extremely low support for these policies among the population-at-large.

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