As our friend Holly Harris tweeted, when candidates argue about who is better on criminal justice reform, that is a good day at the office. But last night’s exchange during the final presidential debate also begs some follow-up questions about what comes next to change a system that harms so many: How do we continue the trend of decriminalization and decarceration, make prisons safer and more humane, stop the revolving door of probation and parole, and end race-based policing? The discussion on health care centered on the Affordable Care Act, but missing from the debate were detailed plans for addressing some of the key drivers of high health care costs in this country, such as high provider prices, surprise medical bills, and the anticompetitive tactics by pharmaceutical companies that result in keeping life-saving medications out of reach for so many. And talk of a new COVID-19 stimulus package involved more of the same back-and-forth finger-pointing about who is at fault for leaving the American people — and many high-impact reforms — in gridlock at a time when relief is desperately needed. (States and cities both red and blue face steep losses.) The bottom line is we get closest to solving these pressing problems when both sides come together and special interests are pushed out of the way. It happened with the First Step Act on criminal justice reform, and there is a bipartisan compromise on the table now to end surprise medical billing. No matter the outcome of the next election, the American people deserve better than infighting and inaction on the issues that impact their lives and the lives of their loved ones, friends, and neighbors. Call me an idealist (or a kid raised on Mr. Rogers), but I don’t know how else to get through 2020 without the hope that something better is ahead.
The Proof Is in the History Books
By Ashley Winstead, Director of Strategic Communications
A subset of the 56,000 North Carolinians barred from voting by a state felony disenfranchisement law will be able to cast a ballot this year, after attorneys Daryl V. Atkinson of Forward Justice and Daniel Jacobson of Arnold & Porter in September won a partial victory in their effort to get the law deemed unconstitutional. In response to their court case, a three-judge panel concluded that one part of the state’s law — the requirement to pay off fines and fees, essentially a poll tax — is in violation of the state constitution. The rule will not be enforced in the upcoming election.
Some background: Central to their argument was a demonstration of how deeply rooted the disenfranchisement law is in North Carolina’s racist history. The attorneys drew on overwhelming evidence, including testimony from historians, to show that the law was originally created in response to white outrage over Black men gaining the right to vote in North Carolina circa 1868. The state imposed a number of restrictions over the years, all targeting Black voters in an effort to suppress their voting power. And while some of these restrictions have since been knocked down, requirements to complete probation and parole and pay off fees and fines before being allowed to vote remained intact.
Why It Matters: 56,000 North Carolinians' ability to vote is reason enough. But the case has implications that exceed the state of North Carolina. Opponents argue the very principle of tying a person's ability to vote to whether they've paid their court debt constitutes wealth-based discrimination, and keeping people from voting until they've completed probation or parole ignores the reality that Black communities are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and thus disproportionately disenfranchised.
What’s Next: Other states are grappling with overturning similar laws: Iowa and Kentucky still require people with felony records to complete probation and parole before they're allowed to vote, and Florida is embroiled in a fight to restore voting rights to people who still owe court debt. As Atkinson says, “If there was ever a time where we need to hear from all of our citizens, all of our community members on the proper direction of our state and federal government, now is that time. When would it not be?”
In states from Texas to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to Florida, the way district maps are drawn massively advantage the party in power, making it all but impossible for opponents to gain a majority — no matter their share of the vote. But voters in Virginia and Missouri will have a chance to strike major blows against gerrymandering this fall.
What’s Happening: Many maps, like Missouri’s, were intentionally created to protect incumbents by creating very few competitive districts, denying voters a genuine choice. Several discriminate against racial minorities by diluting their voting power for partisan gain. And many were done behind closed doors, preventing voters from seeing the manipulation done in their name. “Everything is pre-baked,” said Sean Nicholson of Clean Missouri, an anti-gerrymandering advocacy group supported by Arnold Ventures. “There's no way to hold your elected officials accountable. And there's no way to have a functional choice about who represents you.”
What’s Next: This Election Day, voters in two states face ballot measures on how to draw legislative lines:
In Missouri, Amendment 3 would undo a widely-supported 2018 reform to make the system fairer — and create a process even more rigged than the one in place. Clean Missouri has launched a campaign urging a No vote.
In Virginia, Amendment 1 would end legislators’ exclusive control of the process, giving ordinary citizens a major role. Fair Maps Virginia is leading the campaign for a Yes vote.
Bottom line: Lawmakers need to be held accountable for their actions and the people they serve. The system of gerrymandering "is resulting in politicians who don’t feel like they have to be responsive to what voters want because they feel safe and unaccountable,” says AV Vice President Sam Mar.
Related: To empower voters, former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urge a No vote on Missouri’s Amendment 3.
By Evan Mintz, Communications Manager
California’s Proposition 25 will result in fewer people detained before arraignment even in jurisdictions that already have progressive pretrial policies, according to a new report by the California Policy Lab. The study looked at booking data for 2017 and 2018 in San Francisco and Sonoma County. On a case-by-case basis, researchers worked to determine the impact on the two jurisdictions if the reforms from Prop. 25 had been in place.
Why It Matters: This report may seem like a routine piece of research, but in the context of a heated campaign for Prop. 25 it’s basically a bombshell. Some progressive organizations have expressed skepticism about Prop. 25, arguing that its use of pretrial assessment may be worse than the status quo and exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. This report indicates that those concerns are misplaced. Release rates increased for all demographics, with Black Californians especially benefitting. (However, it did not close the racial gap.)
What’s Next: Voters need to say Yes on Prop 25 and finally eliminate cash bail in California. “Referenda elections don’t usually have an October Surprise,” says AV Vice President of Criminal Justice Advocacy James Williams. “This is the sort of thing that can really change minds at the last minute to vote yes on Prop. 25.”
Related: CalMatters offers a balanced look at the Prop. 25 debate.
Small Think Tank,
Big Policy Questions
By Adrienne Faraci, Communications Manager
If we want to understand the impacts of U.S. government policy, we need more holistic ways to measure it. That’s the premise of the Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania, where Director Kent Smetters and his team have developed a rich system of mathematical modeling to forecast more accurately how public policy — such as tax cuts, stimulus checks, and coronavirus lockdowns — will affect people over a lifetime. Over the short time span of five years, this small but mighty organization has developed a framework, subject to rigorous, honest testing, that is helping policymakers across party lines and at every level of government apply data to policies and programs in real-time. As Smetters points out, “We don't try to influence outcomes or make a judgment whether it’s good or bad. What we do is provide policymakers with a sandbox that allows them to explore their ideas before they actually put pen to paper.”
Related:Penn Wharton estimates that each month of COVID-19 school closures will cost current students between $12,000 and $15,000 in future earnings.
What We're Reading
A new study by Episcopal Health Foundation on how COVID-19 is impacting Harris County (Houston) residents: They are more likely to suffer financial hardships than those living in other areas of Texas, and consistent with national studies, communities of color are hardest hit. The pandemic has also made Harris County's uninsured rate worse, with more than one-third of adults under age 65 without health insurance.
University of Virginia Health System promised to temporarily stop suing patients to collect medical debt (a tactic common in Texas as well) but it’s still squeezing money from patients — by placing liens on their homes, Kaiser Health News reports.
Researchers have finally been able to study misconduct complaints filed against NYPD officers. In a new op-ed, Anna Harvey of the NYU Public Safety Lab explains the new research and calls on Commissioner Dermot Shea to address this system of race-based policing.
Speaking of misconduct, this week Purdue Pharma agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges for its role in aggressively marketing OxyContin, which experts say helped drive the opioid epidemic, via The New York Times.
How private equity waged a successful yearlong dark money campaign so they could continue profiting off of emergency room patients getting hit with exorbitant surprise medical bills, via BuzzFeed News.
News that a federal judge rejected a settlement between the Trump administration and defrauded student borrowers, blasting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for denying 94 percent of the debt relief claims that came in since the April agreement.
A new investigation by the Wall Street Journal on how some hospitals continue to put profits over people — even during a pandemic — by refusing COVID-19 patients for financial reasons.
I’ve been binging “The Haunting of Bly Manor” in my free time, but what’s more bone-chilling than that ghost story is this documentary about the history of voter suppression in this country.“All In: The Fight for Democracy” starts with the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race between former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams and then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was both a candidate and overseer of the election process. Victory went to Kemp, but Abrams maintains that voter suppression was at play. (She is also a producer of this film, and her sections include some interesting personal history.) But this documentary is about more than one election — it illustrates vividly our dark history of voter suppression — tactics “as old as the nation” (see North Carolina story above) and still very much in use today. It’s a painful and shameful history lesson — but an essential one for all Americans in 2020. Is it time for a new Voting Rights Act?
Related: A court ruling allows Texas to reject mail-in ballots over mismatched signatures — without giving voters a chance to appeal.
Related: A Vice investigation finds nearly 21,000 Election Day polling locations were eliminated for 2020.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
By Stuart Buck, Arnold Ventures Vice President of Research
This week, I'd like to recommend a simply impressive article by the journalist Maite Vermeulen. She begins by discussing a phenomenon in the literature on migration (human migration, that is, not butterflies or salmon) in which as "poor countries become richer, outward migration increases rather than decreases" at a certain point, perhaps because people are better able to pick up and leave. She had referred to this phenomenon many times in her prior journalism.
Then, however, she saw a new study claiming that this pattern was a myth. She spoke to the researchers and was writing a new article. But she came across a refutation from another researcher. She kept digging, asking more and more experts to interpret the dispute and help resolve it.
For all the details, you'll have to read the article. But the impressive part is how seriously Vermeulen took her work, how doggedly she kept at a difficult econometric dispute, and her concluding section on how journalism and science itself ought to work:
"The only solution seems to be cumulative knowledge: asking all the smart people you can find to give it their best shot too. At its very best, that’s how science should work. And when that happens, it often turns out not to be about what’s true or false. Instead, it’s about which question we want to answer."
Some Final Inspiration
A letter (more like a plea) from working parents everywhere.
Explore the evolution of language with Merriam Webster’s Time Traveler.
Need some ambient noise to focus, sleep, or calm your nerves? Lots of options here, and they’re all adjustable! (Yes, I’d like to dial up the crashing waves on my Irish Coast.)
Stephanie DiCapua Getman develops and executes Arnold Ventures' digital communications strategy with a focus on multimedia storytelling and audience engagement and oversees daily editorial operations and design.
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