Monday, June 7, 2021

Adding injury to insult: the negative public health implications of Republican-sponsored voter-suppression laws

There are all sorts of reasons being offered for opposing the GOP-sponsored restrictive voting legislation being enacted around the country in states like Georgia and Texas. Most of them have to do with the fact that these measures, contrary to the claims of their authors, are intended to limit access to the polls by eligible voters, in particular by voters of color. The anti-democratic intent of these laws is clear; they are little more than a sour-grapes expression by Republicans for having lost the 2020 elections fair and square and a desperate attempt to not do so again.

But little is being said about another important reason to stand against these new voting measures that aim to thwart mail-in voting, either by making getting a absentee ballots harder to get or by reducing the number of drop boxes to which to return them, or by limiting early-voting options which distribute the otherwise large pulse of election-day voters over an extended period of time. That reason is that these voter suppression laws will also put public health at greater risk.

As much as we'd like to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is a one-off event, hopefully one we will be able place behind us soon, the fact of the matter is that it will more than likely mark the first in a series of pandemics that we will have to confront this century. This is due in part to the fact that habitat loss, either as a result of encroachment by expanding urban areas or environmental degradation, will bring wild animal populations in closer proximity to humans. The chances of the occurrence of zoonotic disease, an infection that jumps from an animal to a human, becomes more and probable. And the increasingly connected global transportation system ensures that any such spillover will spread as far and as quickly as possible.

We dodged the other coronavirus bullets of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012 which had originated in non-human animals. And, even if it turns out that COVID-19's intrusion into the human population resulted from a laboratory accident and not direct animal to human transmission, we should in no way breathe a sigh of relief. These pathogens are coming for us. When they do, they may take the form of a more virulent version of the common cold, as has COVID-19, or a more deadly strain of the seasonal flu. In this regard, an H5N1 variant of influenza, the so-called avian flu, has been on our pandemic radar for years. It really is only a matter of time.

The emergence of a novel coronavirus in China in late 2019 and its rapid spread to other parts of the world served to remind us that these kind of pandemics can arise unexpectedly. In the case of COVID-19, its U.S. debut coincided with the run-up to the 2020 primary election season. It is useful to remember that, in a time before the virus became a political hot potato, election officials began taking steps to reduce the infection risk to voters in their respective jurisdictions. These steps were viewed as prudent public health measures plain and simple.

Notably, Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took quick action to distribute absentee (a.k.a mail-in) ballot applications to all registered voters and wisely deferred primary election dates to better get a handle on how to operate in-person voting in the midst of a pandemic. Raffensperger, in spite of the fact that he had always been aligned with elements of the state's GOP-dominated government in their efforts to limit access to voting, recognized that the grave responsibility of reducing the impact of COVID-19 on Georgians going to the polls was in his hands.

And Secretary Raffensperger was not alone in this recognition; his counterparts in both red and blue states implemented similar measures, such as allowing for no-excuse absentee ballots and increasing the number and geographical distribution of drop-boxes where they could be returned. To the extent possible, especially given the short notice, these actions reduced the health risks to voters around the country who wanted to do their civic duty by participating in all phases of the 2020 election cycle. As dozens of legal challenges would reveal later that year, these voting changes were made without degrading the integrity electoral process one iota.

So, when all was said and done, as the last of the 2020 elections trickled into early 2021 with the Georgia runoffs for U.S. Senate, many states had accomplished the unexpected: they had made voting both more accessible and safer from a public health standpoint. It will be a head-scratcher for future historians who will ponder why such significant electoral achievements were dismantled almost immediately after their unalloyed success had been widely demonstrated.

Well, I guess they won't be scratching their heads about what motivated the Republican Party to turn back expansion of voter access. Due to cultural and demographic shifts in the electorate, the survival of that party has come to depend on anti-democratic measures like political gerrymandering and creating obstacles to voting by people of color. So there won't be much puzzle to the upside the GOP saw in rescinding pandemic voting procedures to renew established efforts at voter suppression.

What future historians will find puzzling is that the public health advantages that resulted from expanded absentee- and early-voting were so soon abandoned, especially since there would be a scramble to reimplement them when the next pandemic - and there would be a next pandemic - coincided with an election cycle. At a time when state officials and legislatures should have been working to refine and standardize approaches to voting that takes public health into account, they were instead preoccupied with dismantling the small advances they had made in this regard.

If you think that we reap benefits from socially-distanced approaches to voting only in the midst of a pandemic, you may want to think again. Although the Founding Fathers may have been visionary in many regards, ignorant of the germ theory of disease, they could not have contemplated that gathering large numbers of people to vote in enclosed spaces for an extended period of time in early November was a very bad idea from a public health perspective. It is the height of flu season, a reality that will likely stay with us for years until a universal influenza vaccine is fielded and widely administered.

The seasonal flu is responsible for 10,000 - 60,000 deaths in this country every year, not to mention many tens of thousands of more cases of serious illness and the hospitalizations that result from them. Its most vulnerable target is seniors, who turn out to be not only a segment of the population who vote in disproportionately large numbers but who also traditionally provide the lion's share of the army of volunteers that make in-person voting possible. Socially distanced voting measures will not only reduce the disease burden shouldered by the elderly but also by other vulnerable populations.

Admittedly, given the numerous state party primaries and runoffs, elections in the country are held at a variety of times of year well outside of flu season. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, you don't need cold weather to encourage the spread airborne diseases. Indeed, the prevalence of respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter have less to do with the temperature itself and more to do with the fact that cold weather tends to drive people indoors. Why give these diseases a foothold anytime of the year by forcing vulnerable people into polling places unnecessarily?

Yes, it should be enough to retain or even extend expanded mail-in and early voting options as a matter of increasing participation in our elections at all levels and all times of the year. In spite of a small number of isolated incidents of voter fraud, as dozens of legal challenges have indicated, the 2020 elections have been the most secure and the most transparent in this country's history.

The bottom line is that recently enacted voter suppression legislation is the wrong way to go. Rolling back the very measures that made voting safer during the 2020 COVID pandemic is ill-advised according to public health considerations. It is these regressive laws that should themselves be rescinded to ensure that our electoral process is not only fair but also healthy.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Honoring Elijah Cummings by not repeating a mistake made at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

I think it's fitting on the day that the great civil rights and congressional leader Elijah Cummings is laid to rest to take a look back at the disrespect he endured giving an opening speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Reflection on this cautionary tale is critical because failure to take what happened then into account at next year's convention could very well mean a continuation of the political nightmare we have been experiencing for the last three years.

The setup for this video is pretty simple. It was July 25, Day 1 of the 2016 convention. The opening speeches, as always, were intended to strike unifying themes, the kind of things upon which it was imagined all Democrats could agree.

Accordingly, Representative Cummings had prepared a speech that emphasized the the need to address environmental concerns, including global warming, while creating jobs and maintaining U.S. global economic competitiveness; the related need to provide American children with a first-class education to accomplish this economic goal; the need to protect women's access to reproductive health services; and the need to secure and extend the access to healthcare that had been made possible by President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

What's not to like, right?

Well, it wasn't easy going for Representative Cummings. From the get-go he had to contend with resounding shouts of "Stop TPP" from the crowd, in particular from a cadre of very vocal Bernie bros. The shouts were so loud that they made his remarks impossible to hear in the conventional hall itself. The audio feed from speaker's microphone is what saved Cumming's speech from being lost to history and internet streaming.

I recall this situation first hand. I had tuned in to listen to the opening day speeches because I knew that Stacey Abrams was scheduled to be making her first appearance on the national stage. I was already a big fan of Leader Abrams, as she is called, and wanted to witness what I believed would be a historical moment in her political career, one that a good year  before the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign that would make her a Democratic superstar. The shouting infiltrated her later appearance as well.

I remember sharing Representative Cumming's frustration as he tried to do his assigned duty by calling Democrats together to recognize, in spite of their differences, the many things that united them in common cause. And I shared in his disappointment that his important message was drowned out by those who had much more narrowly focused agendas.

Of course, it's hard to argue with true-believers of any stripe, those people who would see a promising party platform dashed to pieces unless it included a particular plank of their own insistence. Besides, as many thought at the time, the presidential election was in the bag, so why not take the opportunity to make a lot of noise about TPP, especially given how poorly the Democratic establishment had treated then upstart contender Bernie Sanders. What harm could it possibly cause?

One of the great ironies of this situation is that, as far as my informal survey would indicate, very few people now even remember what the initials TPP stand for. It's Trans-Pacific Partnership, by the way; a trade deal approved by President Obama and backed by candidate Hillary Clinton which was anathema to Democrats who saw it, understandably, as yet another big concession to multinational corporations to the disadvantage of American consumers and working people.

However important an issue TPP was at the time, it is recalled now as a vague skirmish in a fratricidal, intra-party conflict which preceded a war that Donald Trump and the Republicans would win three months later. I should add that shouts of Stop TPP will forever remind me of the unwarranted disrespect shown to the great Elijah Cummings, a man who had committed decades of his life to improving the lot of his party and the American people.

I hope that the salience of this video from July 2016 to our particular political moment is not lost. I fear that history could very well repeat itself as some notable, perhaps long-serving, well-respected Democratic leader like Elijah Cummings tries to offer a unifying message at the 2020 Democratic National convention. My genuine expectation is that person will drowned out with shouts of one sort or the other. My money is on "Medicare for all" as the deafening shout if, say, Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg is the nominee apparent, but I imagine that there is a chant available for every variation of Democratic presidential primary outcome.

Whatever slogan the crowd is shouting  in July 2020, what they won't be hearing - or allowing others in the hall to hear - is the list of things that the opening speakers are enumerating that unite us.

These will include, but not limited to: securing and extending current access to healthcare; reestablishing and defending women's right to reproductive health services; recognizing and safeguarding the rights of LGBTQ citizens in the workplace and in our society at large; restoring the EPA to former glory with a commitment to keeping our air and water clean; rejoining the Paris Climate Accords; returning our country to a progressive tax policy designed to narrow the growing chasm of wealth that separates the very rich from the middle class and the poor in this country; preserving our national wilderness for future generations to enjoy; and addressing and correcting the crimes being committed against people of color not only on our borders but also in our own communities. The list goes on.

It would seem to me that one of the most significant ways we could honor the memory the late Elijah Cummings is to remember this stain on the 2016 Democratic National Convention and vow to not let it happen again next summer. Whatever single issues inspire us, in the final analysis we need to keep focused on the constellation of concerns that bring us together. By insisting defiantly on any one thing, we risk - once again - the possibility of losing them all.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

An FAQ: Why the House should move forward with the impeachment of Donald J. Trump

My mind is made up. I think that the U.S. House of Representatives should move forward with the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Instead of writing a long argument which no one will read, I thought I would cast my position as a long and thinly-disguised FAQ. So here goes.

Q: Isn’t impeaching Trump by the House, absent the chance of conviction on the Senate, just playing into his hands? Won’t he use a failed impeachment to mobilize his base even more in 2020?

This kind of idle speculation is brought to you by the same folks who like to get Democrats to agonize over the “electability” of their competing presidential candidates. These are the very same pundits who opined in 2015 that Jeb Bush had a lock on the Republican presidential nomination and declared that nominating Trump in 2016 would lead to the GOP’s imminent downfall as well as their embarrassing rout in the general election.

The fact of the matter is that no one knows how impeachment of Trump by the House will play out. A lot depends on how the impeachment proceedings unfold and what the related investigations reveal. To make confident predictions about this process is an act of intellectual hubris. Also, I think it’s downright silly to imagine that Trump’s base could get anymore mobilized. They are full-time, Fox-News-fueled, nut-job mobilized as it is.

In addition, few commentators appear to be considering just how mobilized the Democrats might become as a result of Trump's impeachment. Sure, they're pretty pumped up coming off a very effective mobilization that led them to victory in last year’s midterm elections, but I don’t think they are anywhere near peaking. Besides, with two dozen candidates vying for the top of the Democratic ticket in 2020, the moral clarity that could result from a thorough investigation of the high crimes and misdemeanors of Donald Trump, may just what will be needed to unite a fractured party on the run-up to the general election.

There is one other component to my political analysis that recommends pursuing impeachment. And that is it will upset DJT to no end, day in and day out, for the better part of the next year. And, lest you think that I am motivated solely by wanting to see Trump suffer as some compensense for what he has put us all through these last couple of years, I point out that a fuming Trump has turned out to be a fumbling Trump.

Yes, what has gotten us to this critical point in this sad tale of presidential misdeeds, was not the original charter of the Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation itself, it was the way that original charter resulted in Donald Trump’s becoming so unhinged that he committed serial acts of obstruction of justice. (In sports parlance, I believe that these are called “forced errors.”) If you think Robert Mueller's investigation sent Donald Trump off the deep end, imagine what a months-long, 24/7 impeachment inquiry will do. Besides, if recent experience is any guide, Trump is likely to commit new crimes that can serve as more impeachment fodder should he somehow be reelected next year.

Q: Isn’t the sole purpose of impeachment by the House the real prospect of removing the president from office as a result of conviction in the Senate? Does it make any sense to forward articles of impeachment to the Senate when it's pretty much given, at least with the information we have in hand now, that Trump will be acquitted there?

Although impeachment by the House was viewed by the framers of the constitution as the first step in a two-step process of removing a corrupt president from office, there is nothing that speaks to that being its sole purpose. The House’s job isn’t to determine whether an impeachment will succeed, its job is to act as a guardian of the American democratic system of government by uncovering and documenting crimes and misdemeanors committed by the highest office holders in the land and forwarding those determinations to the Senate for their consideration in full public view.

My last qualification, in full public view, emphasizes a central purpose of the impeachment process. The House, using investigative powers granted only to it, lays out a case that the president has committed inexcusable wrongs. Its responsibility is to make that case convincingly, not only to clarify the situation to contemporary audiences, but also to set the historical record straight. Only the House can do this.

And, although it is the case with impeachment that the House proposes and the Senate disposes, I can think of no better way of documenting the moral and political failure of a craven Republican Senate than by having them dismiss the weight of the evidence brought before them by their colleagues in the lower chamber. Another way of saying this is that House is bound to proceed with a stillborn impeachment, if only to underscore the cowardice the Senate has demonstrated the last two years.

Q: Well, even if further congressional investigations of Donald Trump are a good idea, why do they have to be conducted under the rubric of impeachment? Isn’t it sufficient to have the various House committee investigations (e.g. Intelligence Committee, Oversight Committee) move forward? Won’t they eventually have the same effect as an impeachment investigation without all the hullabaloo?

In a more perfect world - one where the executive branch was responsive to congressional requests for information and complied with congressional subpoenas - the answers to these questions would be “yes.” But we don’t live in such a world. Far from it, we live in a world whether the President of the United States has vowed to refuse to cooperate with all investigations initiated by the U.S. House of Representatives.

And how these disputes between the legislative and executive branches are worked out in the federal courts will ultimately tell the tale of this corrupt administration. Depending on whether those investigations originate in, say, the House Ways and Means Committee which is seeking Donald Trump’s tax returns from the Department of the Treasury or from a committee tasked with investigating Donald Trump’s impeachment makes all the difference.

The reason behind this difference has to do with the authority that Congress relies on in pursuing its investigations. When committees like the Ways and Means Committee undertake an investigation it has to be done in order to make laws, in other words it has to have a legislative purpose. This is the legislative authority granted to the Congress by Article I, Section I of the constitution.

Not surprisingly, objections to such committee-initiated investigations often emanate from claims that the requested information serves no legislative purpose. This is exactly what has happened with the request by Ways and Means for Trump’s tax returns. Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin contends that the request - even though it conforms with the letter of the law - is intended only to harass the president and has no legislative value. Although the committee has responded with identifiable legislative objectives associated with its request, the case will have to work its way through an appeals process which could take months or years to resolve. The same is true of other committee subpoenas, although they may thwarted by other legal claims, notably exemption due to executive privilege.

But things change qualitatively when the House investigation is being conducted as an impeachment inquiry. According to Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution:

“The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

This power of impeachment exists outside of any legislative authority granted to the House in Article I, Section I and is so not subject to legislative-purpose scrutiny. The operative word in Clause 5 is “sole,” which indicates that the power of impeachment - and, by extension, necessary impeachment investigations - are exercised at the discretion of the House alone. Although this does not circumvent all federal court challenges raised by the executive branch to subpoenas issued as a result of an impeachment inquiry, it should expedite the consideration of any cases that arise as a result.

All said, the investigative power of a House impeachment inquiry, unlike that of legislative committee counterparts, is largely unconstrained. When you recall that the House is tasked with the impeachment of corrupt officials, the very people who would avoid investigation, this makes a lot of sense.

So here’s it is in a nutshell, my argument for the House moving forward with impeachment:

(1) Determining the political consequences of a failed impeachment of Donald Trump is a pundit's guessing game; the only thing I can say with any certainty is that the process will keep Trump rattled and making political mistakes for the foreseeable future, which I take to be a good thing.

(2) Even a stillborn impeachment will have the desired effect of launching an investigation which further documents the crimes of this president and of his administration for historical purposes; this record can be used to help lawmakers determine how to protect our democracy from such abuses in the future.

(3) Investigations by standing House committees are subject to challenges concerning the validity of their legislative purposes; a House impeachment inquiry, once constituted, will have much freer rein in subpoenaing essential information thus expediting a legal process that could otherwise take months or years.