Sasha Abramsky

Uncovered California: Why Millions Have Fallen Into Health Care Gaps

“Right now, I have a medicine sitting at Wal-Mart pharmacy that I can’t purchase till payday,” Jacqueline, a 55-year-old San Diegan told me during a telephone interview in mid-April. She asked that her last name not be used for this story. “I’ll go without, eight or nine days till payday. It’s for my high cholesterol.”

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Affordable Housing: Introduction to a Crisis

California’s housing crisis is a complex one, as befits a state with a population of close to 40 million people, spread out over 163,696 square miles, and with some of the country’s largest cities and fastest growing population hubs, as well as some of its most rugged rural areas.

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How Millions in America Get Entrenched in Poverty

The following are excerpts from Sasha Abramsky's new book The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (Nation Books, 2013): 

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Is Climate Change Driving the Southwest Toward a Dust Bowl?

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

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Defending Middle-Class Consumer-Culture on the Backs of the Poor

The economic news of the week: US inflation is now the highest it's been since 1981. In many sectors of the economy � food, energy, healthcare -- it's now running at double-digits, and the dollar's value against the euro has plummeted through the $1.50 barrier.

Faced with stagflation in the 1970s, politicians taking lessons from the monetarist school of economists decided to get a handle on inflation at whatever the cost. And so, in the years following Thatcher's election in 1979 and Reagan's in 1980, they shrank the money supply, sending interest rates sky high, deliberately raising short-term unemployment (remember the three million unemployed in the early years of Thatcher's premiership in the UK), all to the mantra of "it's for your own good."

If your measure of decent policy is "how does this effect the poorest sections of society?" -- which is as good a measure as I can think of for ethical decision-making � then the monetarists were wrong, not because inflation wasn't a huge problem (clearly it was), but because the shock tactics they used to tackle it hurt the poor, the least job-secure, the most. The only way to rein in inflation as rapidly as the monetarists wanted, during a period in which trade unions had considerable muscles to flex, was to send interest rates soaring at the same time as the government worked to shatter organised labor and use the spectre of mass unemployment to drive down real wages. Inflation was tamed - but at the cost of tremendous societal dislocation.

Today, however, when labor is utterly quiescent in the US, not reining in inflation hurts the poor the most. The reason for this is that unemployment (which, while rising, is still only 5 percent) isn't the pre-eminent concern here. Rather the bigger, broader, concern is staggeringly low wages for the working poor. Quite simply, a tremendous number of people are working for remuneration that isn't keeping up with price increases. Since poor people spend most of their disposable income on necessities, when the price of those necessities goes up, as it has for several years now, the purchasing power of the poor is hit first and hit hardest.

A moderate dose of monetarism � not of a scale to trigger the unemployment of the early 1980s, but enough to at least curb some of the inflationary pressures in the economy � combined with some smart, targeted, federal subsidies and mortgage-relief interventions would probably benefit the poor in 2008 rather than hurt them. After all, when the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates, poor people who already can't afford mortgages and can't afford mass consumption lifestyles don't really benefit � these are reliefs for the middle classes and stock owners rather than the invisible poor. But when prices of staple goods rise as a result of inflation, the people at the bottom of the economic barrel, those without the bargaining power to be able to push their wages up, suffer most.

In the past couple years, I've interviewed men and women in remote rural regions who literally have to borrow money (from family or from credit card companies) to put gas in their cars to drive to work. While a dollar extra per gallon of gas might not seem noticeable to a middle-class denizen of New York or Los Angeles, the extra $20 or $30 a week poor residents of locations such as Siskiyou County, California, are spending on gas works out to nearly 10 percent more of their total income going to filling up their cars than used to be the case. It's not uncommon these days to find working men and women who spend upwards of one quarter of their meagre paychecks on gas for their commutes.

I've also interviewed people in California, Oregon, Idaho and elsewhere who work two jobs but - faced with soaring energy and food costs - come the end of the month they no longer have money to feed their families. They end up on food lines outside church pantries and other charities, the boxes of cereal, canned soup, bread and pasta given out by these institutions the difference between full and empty bellies for them and their children.

Today, America is facing a two-fold inflation threat. The first, in a global economy it has relatively little control over, upward pressures on energy prices, surging demand for food products and increased competition for mineral and metal resources with China, as well as labor costs rising in China, are all going to feed through into global inflation. That's why food and energy prices, as well as prices of Chinese-made toys and clothes, are rising lockstep in America, India, Africa, Europe and pretty much everywhere else.

The second, however, is a made-in-the-USA problem.

The Bush government has presided over an extraordinary hollowing-out of the US economy, relying on borrowing money from overseas to shore up its spending, cutting taxes without any regard for what it will do to the budget deficit, refusing to in any way, shape or form, structure policies that favour saving over instant consumption. All of these policies help create inflationary cycles. They are squashing the value of the dollar against almost every other major currency - meaning imports cost more and any commodity priced in dollars (oil and gold, to name but two) soars in price. That's why America's 7 percent inflation rate this year is far outstripping that of Western Europe. It's why America's inflation rate will continue to outstrip that of our peer nations over coming years. Which means, over time, America's standard of living vis-à-vis our competitors and peers is steadily, dramatically, eroding.

How to rein in this cycle? Well, one sensible step would be to moderately raise interest rates � or at least not lower them � to take a partial lesson from the monetarists a generation ago. It would encourage more savings, would slow borrowing-based consumption, would put the brakes on the dollar collapse, and, in the long-run, ought to help America gets its economic house in order again.

But that's not politically palatable because it would slow down the economy right at the moment when the housing crisis and rising energy costs have already put a crimp in spending. And it would risk at least temporarily exacerbating an already awful housing slump and foreclosure crisis (though that might be an exaggerated risk, given that the Feds' recent interest-rate cuts have utterly failed to reverse the housing collapse).

The alternative -- raising interest rates, but crafting very specific federal programmes and local/state grants to help families in imminent risk of losing their homes, or even community service plans that would allow families to trade community service for temporary mortgage assistance -- won't fly because this administration can't abide the notion of an interventionist, public works-favouring federal government. And no Democrat is going to risk going into election season opposing interest-rate cuts if it leaves them open to GOP charges that they don't care about the hurt experienced by consumers facing higher car payments or credit card charges.

So we have a spectacle of the world's wealthiest nation heading in exactly the wrong direction so as to provide short-term shots of adrenaline to a faltering mass consumption economy. That's not just cynical politics, it's also deeply destructive. What it means is the rot at the centre of this economic mess will continue to spread, making it that much harder for the next administration to cut it out.

Lower interest rates might help the middle class maintain their lifestyles for a few years, but unless inflation starts to be taken seriously again an awful lot more poor Americans are going to be standing in food lines or borrowing money to buy the gas to drive to work during those same years.

If this were any other country in the world, lowering interest rates in the face of inflation numbers such as were released this week would result in condemnation from the International Monetary Fund, in financial powerbrokers strong-arming politicians to do the sensible thing and reverse course. But we're the biggest, strongest, most unilateralist nation on earth. So that's not going to happen. Nobody will strong-arm the Fed to raise rates, and, to subsidise the nation's current reckless consumption patterns, the poor will continue to see their already-shrivelled purchasing power decline.

Fear and Loathing in Middle America

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

Reviewed:Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant (Crown, 288 pages)

Every so often, you pick up a book and two pages in your nose is glued to it. Not necessarily because of the subject matter per se -- though good subject matter certainly helps -- but because the prose is so damned electric.

Usually, I've found, when it comes to reportage like this, the book's author has a single name: Hunter S. Thompson. Recently, though, I've added another name to my stuck-nose lexicon, having been utterly ensnared by Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus.

Bageant grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, ultra-working-class family in a claustrophobic little Virginia town named Winchester. Then, in his own terminology, he made his escape. He moved west and made a pretty decent career for himself in the world of journalism. A few years ago, though, he felt a craving for his childhood home and, now deep into middle-age, decided to relocate once more.

So the self-proclaimed socialist, atheist, heavy-drinking, three-times-married Joe returned home, to a landscape dominated by rabid, demon-battling fundamentalists (including his younger brother, a fire-and-brimstone preacher); NASCAR; overpriced mobile homes; greasy food; depressing, dead-end, anti-union workplaces; and gung-ho patriots whose pick-up trucks boast bumper stickers such as "Kick their ass. Take their gas."

Lucky for us, Bageant didn't hop on the next plane back west, and didn't chalk it all up to a terrible, misconstrued nostalgia. Instead, he stuck to his guns -- literally -- and tried to understand why people in his part of the country, people he genuinely loves despite his utter detestation of their politics, are so dyed-in-the-wool conservative that it'd take the Apocalypse to prize them away from supporting George W. Bush.

"In the days before the spine of the labor movement was crushed, back when you could be a gun owner and a liberal without any conflict, members of the political left supported these workers, stood on the lines taking beatings at the plant gates alongside them," he argues. "Now there is practically no labor movement, and large numbers on the left are comfortably ensconced in the true middle class... From that vantage point, liberals currently view working whites as angry, warmongering bigots, happy pawns of the American empire -- which begs the questions of how they came to be that way, if they truly are."

Deer Hunting With Jesus gets down-and-dirty with Bageant's friends, acquaintances, beer buddies, family members. He tells stories of jobs lost, of health catastrophes brought on by lifetimes of overwork and under-privilege, of huckster subprime mortgage brokers preying on near-illiterate clientele, of grown men chasing nickel-an-hour pay raises and people a paycheck away from bankruptcy swearing blind everyone can make it rich in America. He reports on karaoke nights, fundamentalist church gatherings, civil war re-enactors, and premillenialists longing for a foreign policy that can nudge nearer a nuclear apocalypse and the onset of End Times.

A common theme throughout his book is fraud, and the peculiar vulnerability to fraud of closed-in, under-invested-in communities such as Winchester: religious charlatans pushing dodgy theories into the heart of the political process; wealthy, educated men and women deliberately curtailing the educational opportunities of the poor, giving them just enough schooling to know how to dream the American Dream, but not nearly enough to ever be able to challenge their poverty and make that dream a reality; workers "encouraged" by companies like Wal-Mart to be hostile to the "special interests" represented by trade unions.

Bageant finds it tragic that the good citizens of Winchester lap all of this up, yet he clearly also relishes it as the stuff of great human drama. Life, after all, is at least [in] part an ongoing saga of pathos.

Throughout the past century, extreme insecurity and poverty has tended to pull societies in one of two directions: either toward a radical critique of the existing social order, a move toward, say, communism; or, if revolutionary organizations and philosophies are absent, toward an evermore conservative, hostile-to-outsiders, embrace of a romanticized national image -- a quasi-fascist retreat into a world of paranoia and fear and conspiracy theories.

In many ways, Bageant's description of Winchester, a place of endemic white poverty in a country whose pundit classes tend to assume modern-day hardship has almost exclusively a brown or black face, fits into the latter category.

"The working class here in what they are now calling the 'heartland,' (all the stuff between the big cities)" he writes, "exists on a continuum ranging from complete insecurity to the not-quite-complete insecurity of having a decent but endangered job. It is a continuum extending from the apathy of the poorest to the hard-edged anger of those with more to lose. Which ain't a lot, brother, when your household income hovers around $30,000 or $35,000 with both people working... Until those with power and access decide that it's beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots."

Part ethnography, part sociology, part just good, old-fashioned storytelling, Deer Hunting With Jesus uses an insider's perspective to explain, generally successfully, why parts of rural America, especially in the South, are so conservative, so suspicious of "big city liberals," and so willing to cast their lot with right-wing politicians who swiftly turn around and bite these working class supporters in their collective ass.

Imagine a cross between Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, Hunter S. Thompson's booze-and-dope fueled meditations on Nixon's political potency, and C. Wright Mills' understanding of the durability of the power elite... put 'em all into the hopper, mix them around at high speed, and you end up somewhere about where Bageant did. In other words, it's informative, infuriating, terrifying, scintillating, and, at the end of the day, when HST's ghost finally emerges triumphant, it's just downright fun.

Unlike Frank, Bageant is unapologetically the product of redneck America. As a result, in the same way as I can get away with Jewish jokes, so Bageant can get away with redneck jokes that probably shouldn't be told by a man not of the "Borderers" tribe -- the conservative descendants of the Ulster Scots -- that he so vividly describes.

"After a night of political discussion at Royal Lunch [his local greasy spoon diner-cum-tavern]," Joe recounts deadpan, "a British relative, a distant continental member of the Bageant clan, called our gang of locals 'the most intellectually squalid people I have ever met' -- and he had chewed qat with Ugandan strongman Idi Amin's bodyguards."

No single book will ever be able to fully explain why so much of impoverished America so consistently votes against its own economic self-interest. Likewise, no single book will ever fully explain the unique confluence of historical and cultural forces that created and continues to bulge the Bible Belt. But Bageant, a newcomer to the world of book writing, takes a pretty good stab at it. And he does so in a way that's accessible, raucous and unapologetically foul-mouthed. It's fun reading, and, given his depressing subject matter, that's quite a feat.

This article is available on The American Prospect website. © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

Selling Voters on the Minimum Wage Hike

David Coss sits at ease behind his large desk, his long, wiry body draped in a gray-brown linen suit. A Georgia O'Keeffe poster of a horned animal's skull hangs on the wall behind him. A second poster, in pastels, shows off a glorious Southwestern desert and mountain landscape, evoking swirling dreams and endless possibilities. With his neatly coiffed hair and graying goatee, Coss looks like a high-end attorney or, perhaps, a CEO. In fact, he has a background as an environmental scientist and a union organizer, and he is currently the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has risen to power at least in part because of his assertive championing of the most comprehensive living-wage statute in America.

Three years ago, after a decade-long campaign by social-justice activists, seven of the eight councilors in this chic -- and expensive -- desert town voted to raise the city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, with successive increases built in that would hike it up to $10.50 by 2008. In the years since, the courts have rejected legal challenges to the law, and public support for the change has remained high -- notwithstanding doom and gloom prognostications from the town's tourism-dominated service industries. As of mid-2006, the lowest hourly wage permissible in Santa Fe was $9.50. It is, Coss avers, "basic economic fairness in making the economy work for everyone and not just the people at the top." When in 2004 the Chamber of Commerce ran candidates against the four councilors most outspoken in their support of the living wage, all four of the chamber's candidates were soundly beaten on election day.

Santa Fe's move followed those of dozens of other municipalities over the past decade. In 1994 Baltimore kick-started the process by passing a modest living-wage ordinance affecting about 1,500 workers. By the turn of the century, more than sixty other cities had followed suit. In the years since, dozens more have enacted such laws. In some cases the living wage affects only city workers, or businesses that contract with city and state governments; elsewhere they apply across the board. In some cases grassroots activists have convinced developers of large construction projects to abide by living-wage guidelines [see Bobbi Murray, "Minimum Security," July 12, 2004]. What makes Santa Fe's law particularly important is its breadth and ambition.

In a town with a high percentage of practicing Catholics, the living wage in Santa Fe has been pushed not just as a sensible economic move -- as a way to stimulate spending-and-savings cycles at the bottom edge of the labor market -- but as a moral imperative, backed up by the authority of papal encyclicals dating back to Leo XIII at the tail end of the nineteenth century. "No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty," Monsignor Jerome Martinez states. The monsignor is a middle-aged man with a shock of curly gray hair, a warm smile and a deeply suntanned, slightly pocked face. He shares his cluttered office next to the spectacular Cathedral of St. Francis with two large green cactuses and several oil paintings of Jesus. "The dignity of the worker is more than just being a cog in the industrial machine," he says. "The just wage provides sustenance, housing, minimum healthcare, retirement benefits and that the worker should have an opportunity to be generous. The ability to be generous is an important aspect of the church. It makes you feel more like a human being." Smiling broadly, Martinez proudly recalls that, at a time when living-wage advocates dreamed of the $8.50 earnings floor, the church in Santa Fe paid none of its sixty-five employees less than $11.50 an hour.

In September 1997 Congress raised the federal minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, where it has remained ever since. Their income eroded by inflation, America's lowest-paid workers now receive less per hour, in real terms, than at any time in the past fifty years. Working a forty-hour week, a minimum-wage worker earns about $11,000 a year, a pitiably small amount for a single person and one that is utterly degrading to a worker supporting an entire family.

"I just barely paid my bills," recalls 49-year-old Mike Taylor, a burly man with uneven teeth and receding ginger hair, sitting in the offices of the local branch of ACORN, in a poor neighborhood of Albuquerque. Taylor is a community activist and one-time KFC worker who, before he became unemployed, pulled in a $300 weekly paycheck. "I wasn't able to go out and enjoy movies, didn't go out to dinner. I couldn't even afford KFC. And that's just a single person. I had guys over there worked two jobs and their wives worked two jobs, because they had children. There's only been a couple of times in my life I was able to save anything. There was a time I was working $10 an hour and I could pay my bills and still save up $1,000. I was 45 then. I'm 49 now."

Until recently, whenever Democratic politicians called for raising the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress blocked it. This summer the GOP changed tactics. Faced with an increasingly vociferous movement to raise it, and with attention focused on Chicago's passage of a living-wage ordinance mandating that big-box companies such as Wal-Mart increase pay and benefits, party strategists came up with a novel approach: Support a hike in the baseline pay scale, but tie it to a huge cut in the estate tax for wealthy Americans. Not surprisingly, this was unacceptable to Democrats and to moderate Republicans, and the push for a higher national minimum wage fizzled out. The maneuver served its purpose, allowing the GOP to claim they now were the party that favored raising the minimum wage, while leaving companies free to get on with the business of underpaying their employees.

While politicians have dithered and played strategy games around the issue, an increasing number of cities and states have begun stepping in, crafting their own minimum-wage and living-wage laws. "Raising the minimum wage appropriately belongs at the federal level," New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid argues. "But because they have failed to act in ten years, states and cities have taken on that role." "I'm quite happy city by city," Santa Fe's Mayor Coss argues. "The business community is soon going to want the federal government to do something, because the minimum wage is proving so successful locally." In other words, Coss believes, create a national standard or risk having electorates in many parts of the country pass initiatives raising local wages far more than Congress would ever contemplate doing.

This year legislators in Arkansas and Michigan have raised the minimum wage in their states; and California and Massachusetts now have minimum wages approaching Santa Fe's level. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the most dramatic minimum-wage campaigns are occurring in the interior Western states, in classic Barry Goldwater country, with trade unions, churches and community groups forming potent coalitions for change. "The hope is that with these minimum-wage campaigns, it's the first step to building economic-justice campaigns in these Western states," says Paul Sonn of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "There's this economic populist yearning that hasn't been recognized." Sonn and other organizers around this issue believe that it will take ten or fifteen years of work to get the federal government to restore the value of the minimum wage to the level it was at in the 1960s. In the meantime, local actions and political movements, they argue, will be key to keeping the pressure on politicians in Washington.

"That's the key to the West," argues Deanna Archuleta, a feisty county commissioner in New Mexico's Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque. "If you're not willing to do it for us, we'll do it ourselves, particularly in New Mexico. Across the board, we're just less afraid to take the risk."

In 2004 Nevada's voters passed a minimum-wage initiative, the first step in a two-stage election process to get the law onto the books. This November it's on the ballot again, and supporters believe its passage is a near certainty. A similar initiative in Arizona, backed by Governor Janet Napolitano, breezed to qualification for the ballot, with 209,000 signatures. An initiative is on the ballot in Colorado that would raise the minimum wage to $6.85 and index it to inflation, complementing an already existing living-wage statute in the city of Denver. And, although a minimum-wage increase died in New Mexico's state legislature last year, in several cities and counties, including the population hubs of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and the wilderness town of Gallup, such measures either have been passed or are on the verge of passage. Recently, Governor Bill Richardson has thrown his support behind a statewide minimum wage, and the betting money is on a statewide bill passing when the legislature next convenes, in early 2007. Since Washington, Oregon and California already have relatively high minimum wages, once this crop of initiatives passes, most of the American West will be far ahead of the standards set by the federal government.

In the West in particular, the framing of the minimum-wage debate is increasingly being turned on its head. Whereas in the past the minimum wage was portrayed by chambers of commerce and their political allies as Big Government intruding on the rights of businessmen to operate in a laissez-faire environment, today it is the absence of a viable minimum wage that is being discussed as a Big Government subsidy to corporate America. When companies like Wal-Mart pay too little for workers to meet their basic financial needs, and don't offer adequate health and pension benefits, government programs fill some of the gap, paying Medicaid bills, supporting elderly ex-workers, providing food stamps and other forms of welfare. Minimum-wage legislation is, in a sense, a way to insure that taxpayers don't have to clean up the messes left by private companies. In an era in which, for better or worse, many Americans are deeply suspicious of government, this way of framing the issue has allowed minimum-wage campaigns to garner huge levels of support even among conservative and upper-income voters in states like Arizona."[Employers] are asking state and federal governments to subsidize private business by providing welfare and food stamps," Monsignor Martinez expostulates. "It's a position the church feels is not fair."

The minimum wage, Western proponents emphasize, is a way of using government to temper the worst excesses of the market. It is, writes author David Callahan in his newly published book The Moral Center, a matter of "honoring work," something quintessentially a part of the American promise that if you put in the labor you'll have at least a chance at upward mobility.

In an era in which large numbers of working-class Americans have turned to the Republican Party because of its supposed fealty to "moral values," the minimum wage is proving fertile terrain for a more progressive brand of politics and a broader discussion of "values."

"We need to be appealing to blue-collar workers again," argues Martin Heinrich, president of the Albuquerque City Council and a leading supporter of minimum-wage legislation. "I grew up in a household where my dad worked for a utility company and my mom worked for the auto industry." Progressive politicians, Heinrich says, need to embrace "populist economics," and that means taking companies to task when they fail to pay their workers fairly. "Very few businesses will be willing to be the businesses singled out by the papers for failing to pay the minimum."

When restaurant owners bemoaned Santa Fe's living-wage ordinance, Coss was positively caustic in his response. "We didn't get the new Chili's restaurant because of the living wage. It's hilarious to me -- I'm sitting in the culinary capital of the Southwest and I'm supposed to be concerned because we didn't get a new Chili's!" Unemployment in his city, he is quick to add, is at 4 percent, just under the New Mexico state average and lower than that of the country as a whole. And, he argues, drawing on a study by University of Massachusetts economists, across the country raising the minimum wage has not hurt employment and has raised the income of non-minimum-wage workers too. "It's that old saying," explains Robin Gould, president of the Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council, while sipping tea in one of Santa Fe's numerous upscale cafes. "A rising tide lifts all boats." All told, about 9,000 workers in Coss's city, many of whom either live in Albuquerque or in the poor, unincorporated areas southwest of Santa Fe itself, now receive larger paychecks because of the minimum-wage law.

"Every time a business closes now, they blame it on the living wage," Coss says in exasperation. "But if you look at annual openings and closings, there's no discernible impact of the living wage. It gives us an opening for saying that economic development is about all of us."

Political Invisibles

What does it mean when a democracy removes the vote from several million adults? How is the political process affected when certain groups -- racial minorities and low-income whites, in particular -- bear the brunt of this disenfranchisement?

These are not abstract questions intended to tax the minds of students in a poli-sci class. Rather, they are questions about a massive contraction of the franchise that is occurring, today, largely in the shadows, in the United States.

Let me explain. Over the past quarter century, the number of incarcerated Americans and those with felony records has more than quadrupled, largely because of the ways in which drug wars have played out. The African American portion of the prison population has skyrocketed -- currently getting to the point where half of prisoners are black.

There are, in 2006, well over two million Americans living behind bars. If you pick up a felony, you automatically acquire a host of collateral handicaps. If it is a drug felony, you are ineligible for welfare and public housing in many states, you lose access to government loans, and depending on which state you happen to live in, you lose your political rights -- your ability to vote and to sit on juries.

In many states, especially those in the old South, picking up a felony means that you can never vote again, unless you complete the extraordinarily cumbersome and time-consuming process of applying for clemency.

In Florida, where nearly three-quarters of a million residents are currently disenfranchised, people who have finished their prison, parole and probation sentences and who want to vote have to fill out pages of questions, provide an array of detailed personal information, and submit an application for clemency to the clemency board, which then makes recommendations to the governor.

Four times a year, the Florida governor convenes a panel to hear these applications. Those seeking a restoration of their voting rights have to travel to Tallahassee to petition the governor in person, a significant journey for a poor person from Miami who has to find travel money, hotel money and also the money to absorb income lost from days off work. While tens of thousands start this process, the governor only hears about 50 cases per session. As a result, far more people lose their vote each year than can possibly hope to regain it.

In Mississippi, the process is even more restrictive. To get their vote back, a Mississippi felon has to convince a member of the legislature to introduce a bill specifically re-enfranchising that individual; both houses of the legislature have to support the bill; and the governor has to sign it.

Not surprisingly, few people navigate these mazes successfully, and as a result, more than five percent of all adults and a quarter of adult, male African Americans in the South are legally prevented from voting by state authorities.

Anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that we're a country divided. While the 2000 presidential election produced the freak outcome of an almost-exactly tied race, with the electoral college coming down to Florida and Florida coming down to a few hundred votes, we're in a period where Republicans and Democrats are both able to rely on support from nearly half the eligible electorate, leaving a couple million votes on the margins to decide electoral outcomes.

With more and more low-income people now being funneled into the criminal justice system -- the result of a recalibration of social priorities that has led America in recent decades to embrace a scale of incarceration not seen anywhere else on earth -- more and more people are returning to society as political invisibles. They complete their sentences, and yet they remain without rights of political participation that most of us assume to be universal.

These political invisibles have a dramatic effect on election outcomes. In 2004, for example, while many of the voteless had too many other things to worry about to care about casting ballots come Election Day, many others were desperate to vote.

Lloyd Brown, in Virginia, had spent the better part of a decade trying to convince state election officials to let him vote again. First he'd encountered active resistance, then, when a new governor came in who wanted to re-enfranchise people, he found the elections department had lost his paperwork and he had to start the multi-year process again from scratch.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Jamaica S. spent five years trying to get re-enfranchised after losing her vote on an accessory charge that had only resulted in 15 months probation. Clinton Drake, a Vietnam veteran living in Alabama, had been permanently disenfranchised following a marijuana conviction. Victoria, in Washington State, had lost her voting rights after committing welfare fraud. All of these men and women told me how frustrated, ashamed, and humiliated they felt because they couldn't vote.

Take an increasing number of poor people out of the process, and politics is increasingly becoming a game played by, and for, the affluent classes. Remove the voting power of the urban poor, for example, and issues of importance to inner-city America are unlikely to get much attention when politicians are busily stumping for votes come election time.

Since we presumably want ex-cons to rehabilitate themselves and become law-abiding stakeholders in the community, we should encourage, rather than prohibit, their political participation. By not doing so, society has given up on them. By not doing so, society is keeping them invisible.

Running on Fumes

More than 100 miles north of Sacramento, the flat farmlands of California's Central Valley give way to the forested mountains and breathtaking grasslands surrounding the 14,000-foot Mount Shasta. It is a remote landscape -- more akin to Wyoming's Big Sky Country than to the rest of California -- dominated by the glacier-covered Shasta and the menacing clouds that frequently cluster around its peak; and, when the tourists and the second-homers from the Bay Area and elsewhere in the region are factored out, it is a poor landscape. It is also a place where distance is an irreducible fact of daily life. Because so many residents rely on cars to get between the far-flung towns, they are particularly vulnerable to oil price fluctuations, and many are at risk of economic catastrophe as gas prices at the pump soar.

The towns strung along Interstate 5 and at points east and west of the highway, hamlets like Dunsmuir, Weed, Fort Jones, Callahan and Yreka, ooze character. Yreka -- one of the few towns in the region not to have witnessed a population decline since 1990 -- still calls itself "the Golden City," a throwback to its glory days in the mid-19th century, and still boasts Wild West saloons and elegant Victorian edifices along its central drags, Main and Miner streets. Similarly, the little railway town of Dunsmuir continues to pride itself on its charming, somehow anachronistic, eccentricity -- in the window of a downtown law office is a plaster-cast skeleton reclining in a dentist's chair, an aviator's leather cap and goggles adorning its skull.

But all the character in the world can't hide the fact that these are low-income communities--poor cousins to the tourist town of Mount Shasta itself, where "log cabins" sell for $1 million.

Close to 10 percent of Siskiyou County's workforce is unemployed. For those with jobs, money is tight: According to Bureau of Economic Analysis data, the county's per capita personal income is $23,807, only 76 percent of the national average, placing it 43rd of 58 California counties. Leave out the government jobs in the county seat of Yreka, and the numbers are even worse: The unincorporated town of McCloud, for example, has a per capita income of slightly less than $16,000.

Following the implosion of much of the timber industry, job options aren't exactly legion here, and what employment there is is concentrated in a handful of towns: There's a Wal-Mart on the southern edge of town at Yreka; the county has three bottling plants that package glacial waters from Shasta; there are shopping malls in Redding, to the south; and there are the hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. "We don't have very much work in the community right now," says Mike Stacher, general manager of the McCloud Community Services District. "We have $8-an-hour jobs here, which is unlivable as far as I'm concerned." Not surprisingly, since 1990 a large percentage of Siskiyou County's working-age population has decamped to other locales.

While much ink has been spilled over the potential problems suburban and exurban commuters would face if the era of cheap oil really sputtered to a close, the most immediate victims are likely to be the long-distance commuters in places like Siskiyou County, too remote even to be considered exurbs. A perfect storm of economic changes could, quite simply, render towns like McCloud and Yreka unlivable for working-class residents, administering a coup de grâce to a region already bedeviled by blue-collar job loss. In the same way that the end of ready pickings from the gold fields created depopulated mining ghost towns throughout much of the West, so the series of oil price spikes may profoundly alter the Western landscape, as well as many other remote, car-dependent regions of the country.

With only a rudimentary public transport infrastructure, centered on a handful of rush-hour bus routes to and from Yreka, and with many workers now having to commute to far-off service-sector workplaces a long way from the nation's major oil-distribution networks, these towns are being hammered by some of the highest gas prices in the nation. When I drove up I-5 on September 12, before Hurricane Rita but two weeks after Katrina made an already bad gasoline price situation worse, the lowest price I found along this stretch of highway for a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.17, with another 20 cents added for the higher-octane stuff used by many bigger cars and SUVs. The highest, in Castle Crags, was a dizzying $3.44.

"I'm spending $40 to $50 a week on gas," says 41-year-old Rosie Kerr, a resident of Grenada who works as a secretary at the Northern California Indian Development Council on Yreka's Main Street and drives a 1992 blue Ford Explorer with 164,000 miles on it. Before taxes, Kerr, a mother of four whose husband is currently unemployed, earns about $21,000 a year. After taxes, she estimates, that works out to $1,200 per month. Tearfully, as she sits at her Formica desk, the shelves behind her filled with family photos alongside a large brown teddy bear, she explains that the higher gas prices have forced her to borrow from her mother just to be able to continue working. "My mother helps me. That's the only way I've been making it back and forth for the past few months. I owe my mom thousands of dollars for gas. It doesn't feel very good. It literally makes me feel like a heel. Because I can't pay her back. And she's been helping me with food too, because I don't have enough income for that either."

Twenty miles east of the pleasant Interstate stop of Dunsmuir, 37-year-old McCloud resident Christine Gannon lives in her mountainside house. She estimates that she and her husband are now spending $300 a month on gas for their vehicles and another few hundred on oil for the generators that supply their electricity. Christine recently moved from a job at a hardware store that paid $7.25 an hour to an AmeriCorps position with the McCloud Community Resource Center that pays only marginally more. Her husband, a truck driver for a fuel-delivery company, has an income that fluctuates monthly. The family has health insurance, but it comes with a steep $4,000 annual deductible. They have student loans to pay off, car payments to make, two growing boys to feed. Add in the extra few thousand dollars a year they are now spending on gas, and something's got to give.

"We've had to cut back on entertainment. We've had to cut back on filling the house with groceries and having plenty of snackables," explains Christine. "No vacations. We've had to postpone putting money away to buy a home. It makes me feel like having a decent home and decent life without having to stress constantly and worry--it seems like it's just never going to happen, and dreams and hope and plans, they just don't work out."

In the months leading up to Katrina and Rita, as oil prices rose steadily, pundits kept saying that, in real terms, prices were still lower than their all-time highs in the early 1980s. Not until the $3 gallon was reached would that record really be broken. Moreover, many argued, at least until Katrina shattered the complacency, a vibrant economy was poised to absorb, with minimal suffering, the additional oil costs.

Yet in some remote California communities, prices had spiked well beyond the $3 mark as early as April of this year, and had been heading north for several years--in 2003, as local prices neared the $2.50 mark, residents of Yreka organized letter-writing campaigns and protests against high pump prices in front of the county courthouse, the largest, most symbolically powerful building in town. When I drove to Death Valley this spring along the arid eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, towns like Bishop and areas around Mono Lake were already at the $3 level, with local prices driven up by a combination of California's more stringent environmental standards for refined gasoline, pipeline problems in the Southwest, higher gas taxes than in most states and the sheer distances fuel-delivery trucks have to cover in the California wilderness, as well as global oil market factors. By midsummer, according to information generated by the Oil Price Information Service, as well as private websites monitoring county gas prices, a host of other desert and mountain communities had joined the $3 club. And while many parts of the country were seeing $3 gallons in the wake of Katrina, California's remotest regions, beset by long-term high gas prices for reasons having nothing to do with hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, will likely be burdened by high gas prices even if the rest of the country, after the hurricane season ends, returns to short-term "normalcy" and complacency about oil prices. That makes them, says Amy Detrick, a secretary in the county administration office, a harbinger of what's in store for the rest of the country as the world's supply of gasoline gets ever tighter and as price spikes triggered by local supply disruptions in an overstretched market become all too common.

Detrick has started taking the bus to work from the tiny village of Etna. Her daughter, however, doesn't have that option. She works at a Subway restaurant in Yreka, a job that nets her about $300 per week. Getting off work at 9:30 pm, she misses all the buses home and has no choice but to drive the more than thirty miles each way to and from work. Even in her new Honda Civic, bought with help from her parents, that's not far shy of $10 a day in gasoline costs.

"What are you going to do? Not work?" asks Mike Stacher, of McCloud Community Services. "Maybe it'll get to a point where not working is an option." Indeed, earlier this summer, as gasoline prices began hitting record highs, Rosie Kerr's two brothers did both quit their jobs in McCloud. They could no longer afford to drive their pickup trucks the fifty-plus miles each way from their homes in Hornbrook, a small community several miles north of Yreka. It was actually more financially sensible to become unemployed and to join the legion of casual workers picking up local bit work whenever possible. If more residents start making similar decisions, the region's blue-collar backbone could be broken.

That urban and suburban communities -- with their affluent professional classes, increasing numbers of status-enhancing (and expensive) hybrid cars and at least partial accessibility to public transit systems -- can absorb higher energy prices is not hard to believe. That residents of low-income areas like Siskiyou County could afford to eat the extra $5, $10, then $15, $20, $30 and $40 a week they had to spend on gas this year simply to drive to low-paying jobs in towns like Yreka and Redding, and that they can continue to do so indefinitely, is harder to believe. Indeed, the very fact that some commentators, such as the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor, so glibly assume (or, at least, assumed pre-Katrina) that an oil price shock can be painlessly absorbed shows just how invisible the country's poor have become to much of its pundit class.

These are people who are continually juggling rent and food and medical bills, who tap their resources days before the start of a new pay cycle and routinely resort to credit card debt and other borrowing to weather the lean times. How, then, can the volatile oil market not be hurting them? People like Rosie Kerr who are already spending a disproportionate amount of their income on gas face a burden far in excess of that experienced by middle-class consumers, who spend only three to five percent of their money on fuel. Moreover, in regions like Siskiyou County, where everything has to be delivered over long distances, as gas prices soar so, too, does the cost of other goods.

"Where I used to deliver free all of my printing jobs, I can no longer do so," explains 59-year-old Lyle Sauget, a Yreka print shop owner. "If it's local, I charge $1. If it's Mount Shasta or Weed, it's $5 to $7. Fuel is affecting everything. Food. Clothing. Everything's gone up. When they [locals] are already on a tight budget, it makes it pretty difficult. It takes an already depressed area and takes it down. As a business person, at a certain point you say, 'I'd rather go work for someone out of the area than be a business owner.'"

Sauget, a tough-looking Republican whose storefront is bedecked with an enormous Bush/Cheney poster and whose display case boasts certificates of appreciation from the local branch of the Army Recruiting Command, is hardly the type you'd expect to hear denouncing oil companies. But ever increasing gas prices have him looking for answers. "I'd urge Congress to put a ceiling on these extreme profits," he states, his face red with anger, his hand in a fist. "Price caps. They've got us by the short hairs, and if we don't turn this around we're never going to get out of this. I support basic Republican ideas, but I've always been of the opinion that you must control the corporations. If the corporations control you, you're in big trouble."

In a place where small houses rent for as little as $300 to $500 per month, some people, says Castle Crags Chevron station manager Nick Demarco, are likely spending more on gas these days than on rent. An average fill-up, not too long ago, would have been $20 to $40. Now, Demarco calculates, "it's $50 to $80. That's considerable change. People are still buying the same amount of gas, and buying less of other stuff to make up for it."

Kerr now changes her own oil and tries, as best she can from reading a few car maintenance books, to give her Explorer its tuneups. "I can't afford to go downtown to have someone else do it for me," she explains. "I've thought about selling some of my stuff. I have some antique radios from my grandmother. I've been putting that off for a year now. I can't fill my tank. I haven't been able to fill my tank in a year or two. I do $20 here, $20 there. I do without food to get gas, pretty much regularly. There's never any breakfast. Nobody eats breakfast in my house. My mom feeds me lunch after she gets off work. Maybe two times a week we go without dinner. Eat nothing. My boss was nice enough to let me cash in some vacation time last month, so I had enough to buy some groceries."

In a nutshell, Kerr's experience shows up the fallacy of the laissez-faire notion that free-floating prices alone are a fair way to regulate consumption of a scarce commodity like gasoline. While higher prices might stop some tourists from driving up to Castle Crags and might curtail the discretionary gas use of the middle classes, as long as people live in regions like Siskiyou County and commute to far-away jobs in places that are hard, if not impossible, to reach by public transportation, these people are going to need gas. And as long as they need gas simply to continue working, they are going to do whatever it takes -- short-changing themselves on food and medicine, charging the gas on credit cards, deferring car repairs or upgrades to better, more fuel-efficient vehicles -- to keep their tanks full. After all, entire communities and lifestyles and job choices and consumption patterns have been crafted over the better part of a century on the basis of cheap and plentiful gasoline. Suddenly change the equation without offering any government relief and, even though gas remains cheaper per gallon than in much of the rest of the world, the relative difference will prove disastrous.

Instead of demand for gas immediately responding inversely to rising prices, in places like Yreka demand will likely remain stubbornly resilient until the point of economic collapse, when it will become unfeasible to borrow any more to pay for gas and residents will simply have to up their stakes and leave. Paradoxically, it is even conceivable that the higher prices might, at least in the short term, lead to more rather than less demand for gasoline in places like Yreka.

In economics there is a mythical beast known as a Giffen Good. A Giffen Good is a basic commodity that absorbs a large proportion of a poor population's income. As its price goes up, more and more income is absorbed, leaving less for anything else. Because it is a staple, as other staples are forgone what little money is left over gets spent on the higher-priced good that's causing the financial chaos in the first place. Nobody's quite sure if such a creature exists. The Victorian-era British economist Sir Robert Giffen, after whom it is named, argued that potatoes during the Irish potato famine fit this bill for the starving Irish. Since potatoes already made up the bulk of their diet and consumed most of their income, as prices rose due to the potato shortages, what little discretionary money they had for meat and other food disappeared. No longer left with enough for even morsels of meat, the peasants desperately threw their remaining pennies back at the potato vendors for a few more spuds, thus driving prices of the scarce commodity up still further. More recently, two economists at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Nolan Miller and Robert Jensen, have made similar claims about rice consumed by peasants in southern China.

Obviously, at some point, soaring potato prices would have curtailed absolute demand simply because nobody would have had enough money to buy any, and the "normal" laws of the market would have been restored. Giffen's point, however, was that prices would have to rise beyond all reasonable levels before that critical peak was reached and demand for a scarce commodity began slacking off.

Extending the argument to gasoline, it is at least possible that, as gas eats up a higher percentage of poverty-line rural workers' incomes, drivers will scrimp on things such as their quarterly oil change, their 30,000-mile tuneups, as well as minor repairs to their vehicles. They will likely also defer the purchase of new cars. People will, in other words, probably drive older, less well-maintained cars, one side effect of which will be decreased gas efficiency and the need for even more gas to get them to and from work than they were consuming earlier in the price cycle. Kerr's old Explorer gets only twelve to fifteen miles per gallon; her husband's 1974 truck gets even worse mileage. In a rational world, both would be able to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. In the Siskiyou County of 2005, however, neither can scrape together enough to make the upgrade.

If oil prices continue their relentless march upward, Lyle Sauget fears that "Yreka will eventually collapse. You can only pass so much on to people who are already overburdened."

With the decline of the local timber industry over the past decade or so, the age distribution of Siskiyou County's roughly 44,000 residents has dramatically shifted. Young adults of child-rearing age, along with children, have been replaced by retirees, many of them coming in for the landscape from urban sprawls to the south. Fifteen years ago the county had close to 7,000 residents in the 30 to 39 age bracket. Today, it has only 3,500. Conversely, the number of residents in the 50-59 age bracket has risen from about 4,300 to almost 7,500. Add unaffordable gasoline, and Siskiyou County might one day find itself bereft of most of its working-age population, its demographics increasingly defined by the process of geriatric gentrification.

It is a preventable scenario. But prevention involves the sort of innovation the Bush Administration, besotted as it is with laissez-faire triumphalism (not to mention oil-industry campaign cash), has been reluctant to embrace. "You could," says Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, "draw an analogy with the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program [LIHEAP], a federal program where grants are given out through the Department of Health and Human Services to the states. They use the money for helping poor people pay their heating or energy bills, and to do upgrades -- you can get assistance for insulating your house, filling in cracks. At least theoretically, one could have a federal program that gives out grants to states to help people pay gas bills and possibly buy more fuel-efficient vehicles."

Absent such practical interventions and broader changes in federal energy policy, Yreka -- the Golden City -- may one day be a new sort of ghost town, its homes housing affluent outsider-retirees, its hotels and bars catering to drive-through tourists and serving up kitschy reminders of the glory days when oil was cheap and blue-collar people could afford to live in Siskiyou County.

Cruel and Unusable

On Tuesday, March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in the much-watched Roper v. Simmons case on the permissibility of states' use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders.

Roper v. Simmons, came out of Missouri and involved the vicious saga of Christopher Simmons, a man who, at the age of 17, boasted that he was planning to kill someone, then led a group of friends in kidnapping and murdering a female neighbor. Simmons was sentenced to death and has spent the early years of his adulthood on death row. When his case reached the Missouri Supreme Court, the jurists there overturned the sentence, ruling that the juvenile death penalty should, in the wake of evolving communal standards of decency, now be viewed as a cruel and unusual punishment, and thus stand in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Missouri appealed the ruling up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was here that the battle was really joined. Fifty child-advocacy organizations filed amicus briefs urging the justices to rule the practice unconstitutional. An array of internationally known political figures – including the Dalai Lama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter of the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, and F.W. de Klerk of South Africa – also called for the abolition of the juvenile death penalty. And various international treaties and legal developments were cited as objections to the ongoing use of capital punishment against those under 18 at the time of their crimes.

Tuesday's opinion, supported by five of the nine justices, reversed the Supreme Court's own decision in the 1989 Stanford v. Kentucky case and sided with the judges in Missouri in declaring capital punishment for juvenile offenders to now be unconstitutional.

"Rejection of the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders under 18 is required by the Eighth Amendment ... . Once juveniles' diminished culpability is recognized, it is evident that neither of the two penological justifications for the death penalty – retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders – provides adequate justification for imposing that penalty on juveniles," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. "When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity." Kennedy was joined in his opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

In many ways, the ruling was more about symbolism than about the nasty realities of capital punishment. Of the thousands of people handed death sentences since the practice was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, only a fraction have been juveniles. Nationwide, the ruling will remove only 72 people, 29 of them from Texas, from death rows and place them in regular prisons, where they will now serve out life sentences. And of the hundreds actually executed, a mere handful were juveniles at the time of their offense. In fact, over the past decade, only Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma have carried out such executions.

Yet, despite this, Kennedy's opinion will have enormous ramifications. First, in acknowledging the influence of international opinion and international legal norms, the ruling may well open the door to a host of Eighth Amendment challenges to practices condoned by the U.S. legal and prison systems yet practiced in few other democratic nations. International opinion, wrote Kennedy, in language that particularly irritated three of the four dissenting justices (William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas), "is not controlling here, but provides respected and significant confirmation for the Court's determination that the penalty is disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18."

Second, in further limiting eligibility for the death penalty, the opinion builds on previous Supreme Court opinions and other recent developments and may ultimately lay the groundwork for a more across-the-board challenge to capital punishment. In 2002, in the Atkins v. Virginia case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the practice of executing mentally retarded individuals. In 2000, Illinois' then-Gov. George Ryan declared a death-penalty moratorium, and in 2003 he commuted all existing death sentences in his state. Nationally, meanwhile, much attention has been focused on the problem of capital defendants being represented by chronically underfunded – and often inept – attorneys, and on the risk of innocents ending up wrongfully sentenced to death. Simmons puts a further dent in the pro-death-penalty position.

In a statement released by the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit children's-rights organization, Seth Waxman, the attorney who argued the Simmons case before the Supreme Court last October, expressed his delight "that the U.S. has joined the rest of the world in outlawing the death penalty for juveniles. This ruling affirms the position held by nearly all major national religious denominations, medical and psychological associations, and child and civil-rights advocacy groups – all of which have concluded that, as applied to juveniles under the age of 18, the death penalty punishment is both cruel and unusual."

"It's a great step in the advancement of human rights," says Texas attorney Walter Long, who represented Napoleon Beazley, a high-profile teenage killer who was eventually executed by Texas, and whose current clients include Nanon Williams, another juvenile offender residing on Texas' death row.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, goes further. "It continues the review of the death penalty, which has been more restricted lately," he explains. "Courts have taken on the issue of the death penalty."

Ex-Felons Fight To Regain Political Voice

Since the 2000 election debacle, an increasing number of politicians and activists have been fighting to end the legally sanctioned disenfranchisement of somewhere in the region of five million Americans. The disenfranchised are men and women impacted by a variety of state laws banning those with felony convictions from casting ballots at elections. After years without a political voice, these individuals are now at the forefront of a growing battle, coordinated by the New York-based Right to Vote Campaign, framed by the emotive language of civil rights.

Twelve years ago, Yvonne Kennedy, a Democratic member of Alabama's House of Representatives began a campaign to re-enfranchise ex-prisoners in the state after they had served out their sentences. At the time, Kennedy's crusade appeared little short of quixotic; in an era where politicians were made and broken according to their tough-on-crime credentials, who in their right mind would waste political capital arguing that ex-cons should have the right to vote?

By last year, however, three years after felon disenfranchisement in Florida had, at least in part, determined the outcome of the 2000 election, and with presidential wannabes jockeying for position before the start of the Democratic primaries, re-enfranchisement had become a hot-button political issue across the country. "The campaign," says Robin Templeton, national director of the Right to Vote Campaign, "has to do to felon disfranchisement what civil rights did to poll taxes and literacy tests. It's about the legacy of Jim Crow persisting today."

In their annual conference in San Francisco, the American Bar Association came out against the disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners. In July, at the NAACP convention in Miami, six of the original crop of Democratic hopefuls for the presidential nomination came out in favor of restoring the vote to felons after the completion of their sentences. In Florida, lawyers are fighting a major lawsuit against disenfranchisement codes, and, in two separate cases, the state agreed to re-enfranchise many tens of thousands of individuals, while leaving hundreds of thousands of others still voteless. In Wyoming and Nevada, the legislatures have passed partial re-enfranchisement, allowing non-violent first time felons to regain their vote after completion of their sentence.

Elsewhere, over the past couple years, Delaware has abandoned permanent disenfranchisement; Connecticut has moved to restore the vote to parolees; an appeals court in Washington state overturned a lower court ruling dismissing a challenge to that state's disenfranchisement provisions; and New Jersey and Minnesota are debating whether to restore the vote to those on parole and probation. Yet several other states have rebuffed re-enfranchisement efforts and are continuing to bar people with felony convictions from electoral participation.

"There's been a remarkable shift away from permanent disenfranchisement in a number of states," says attorney Jessie Allen, of the New York-based Brennan Center for Social Justice. Allen is currently lead attorney in a lawsuit alleging that Florida's disenfranchisement laws violate the Voting Rights Act because of their disproportionate impact on minority populations. "The ones where it's left are almost all old Confederacy states -- and I don't think that's accidental."

Perhaps nowhere has the debate been fiercer than in Alabama, one of only 13 states going into the 2000 election to still have on the books a permanent disenfranchisement statute effecting individuals ever convicted of a felony; and one of only six states not to have enacted some modifying legislation since that date.

By last summer the legislative Black Caucus was firmly in favor of re-enfranchisement, as were a large number of white Democratic politicians. Their reasoning was simple: the pols had realized that in an era of mass incarceration, disfranchisement laws relating to those convicted of felonies were hugely impacting the political process, and removing large numbers of low-income and minority voters (people demographically likely to vote Democrat) from the electoral rolls.

Recently generated numbers by University of Minnesota sociologist Chris Uggen indicate that 6.38 percent of Alabama's adult population is now legally disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, with fully 13.97 percent of the adult black population (and upwards of a quarter of all adult black men) disbarred from voting. In Florida, more than three quarters of a million residents, or over 7 percent of the adult population, cannot vote unless the governor personally pardons them. In Virginia, 310,000 are permanently disenfranchised; in Mississippi, 119,000; in Kentucky 147,000; and in tiny Iowa (the only non-Southern state to retain, in its entirety, the permanent disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions), 100,000.

"To me, this is a basic right that anybody who lives in a democracy should have," explains African-American Democratic representative Merika Coleman. Coleman says that when she campaigned for office in 2002, she remembers meeting "so many young men who said 'sister, I'd love to support you, but I'm a convicted felon. I don't have the right to vote.'"

In June, after supporters of re-enfranchisement had broken a Republican filibuster by preventing votes on a number of Republican-supported measures until after re-enfranchisement had been voted on, both Houses of the Alabama legislature finally passed a version of re-enfranchisement. The legislation was intended to restore the vote to tens of thousands of non-violent offenders who had successfully completed their sentences.

But then, disaster struck. In July, Republican Governor Bob Riley very publicly vetoed the legislation.

Riley's office did not return phone calls for this article, but proponents of the bill recall that the Alabama governor argued there was already a process in place that allowed individuals with felony convictions to apply for a pardon and re-enfranchisement (no matter that the process, including a mandatory DNA test, was so cumbersome and expensive that hardly anyone succeeded in having their vote restored). Thus, according to such logic, the bill to re-enfranchise whole groups of ex-cons was unnecessary.

But the story didn't end there. In September, the state faced both a referendum and a special legislative session on a package of tax increases that Riley said were necessary for the state to survive its current budget crisis, and it seemed likely the measure would fail without the support of black legislators and voters who were pressuring the governor to sign some limited re-enfranchisement law in exchange for their support on the tax plan.

"One of Riley's aides told me he was on a two-hour black radio program to talk about the tax package," states Merika Coleman. "For half an hour he was able to talk about taxes, then people called in and wanted to talk about the re-enfranchisement bill." Robin Templeton believes that Riley's veto of re-enfranchisement "catalyzed this movement. Riley successfully pissed off the African American community. It's a very ripe moment to make this an issue."

The tax bill went down in flames, yet, hoping to salvage some of this package down the road and thus needing to maintain a civil relationship with the Black Caucus, Gov. Riley eventually decided that his career would be best served by signing a limited re-enfranchisement bill. In late September, Riley signed a law allowing the majority of ex-cons in his state (with the exception of those convicted of murder, rape, and a handful of other charges) to apply for a "certificate of eligibility to register to vote."

While this still placed the onus on individual former felons to apply for the paperwork, it set down definite criteria for re-enfranchisement, thus ending the arbitrary nature of the old commutation system, and representing a significant first step toward re-enfranchisement in Alabama.

Yet, nationally, many millions of potential voters will still be legally barred from voting as the country heads into the presidential election season.

"It's a terrible feeling, being disenfranchised," says one-time Alabama Representative Patricia Davis, who was convicted of accepting $19,200 in bribes in 1995, and served five years in a federal prison. Davis, an African-American, has applied for a pardon so that she can vote again, yet the parole board denied her petition. "It takes so much away from you. My parents left the South in the '50s because they didn't have the right to vote. For me, now, not to have the right to vote, it's like starting all over again. You lose everything."

"Before I realized I was disenfranchised," says ex-con David Sadler of the Alabama Restore The Vote Coalition, "I didn't vote because I didn't think it mattered. Once I knew it was taken away from me, it became my mission to vote. It's a right the poorest person in the country has and the richest person in the country has. Once they take it away from you, that's when you want it most."

The Right to Vote Campaign launches its new website on March 23.

Ex-Felon Laws Cost Florida Residents Vote

The cliffhanger in Florida may ultimately be decided by those who didn't vote. Hundreds or even thousands of Florida residents may have been erroneously crossed off the voter lists because they were mistakenly identified as ex-felons.

Felon disenfranchisement laws may have hurt Gore in two ways. With the result of the presidential election coming down to a handful of votes in Florida, the disenfranchisement of close to three quarters of a million felons and ex-felons in the state may well have made the difference between a Gore presidency and a Bush one. Considering that the majority of felons are poor, black and Latino -- that is, likely Democratic voters -- had fewer than two percent of the disenfranchised in Florida voted, Gore would have probably been elected president.

But even more disturbing is the possibility that a significant number of Floridians may have been wrongfully barred from voting -- perhaps enough to have tipped the race.

Just months ago, nearly 12,000 Floridians were informed by the state Division of Elections that they had lost their voting rights because of felony convictions in other states. But the company hired by the state to compile that list of names made a massive mistake and misidentified thousands of people, according to the Palm Beach Post and other Florida papers. In response to a barrage of complaints from irate voters, nearly 8,000 of those who had received the notices were subsequently reinstated on the eligible voter lists in time for yesterday's vote.

George Bruder, senior vice president of the Boca Raton-based company, Database Technologies, called the inaccurate lists "a miscommunication." Representatives of the company did not return calls inquiring as to whether the other 4,000 voters on the list turned out to be genuine felons or ultimately had their voting rights restored. Florida election officials also could not be reached for comment.

In a state with such a huge number of disenfranchised citizens, the possibility that other such errors have gone undetected is impossible to ignore. In fact, in a separate, similar incident in August, some 500 people in Miami had their voting rights restored after they turned out to either be non-felons or felons who had been given voting clemency, according to the Tampa Tribune.

In recent years, the Florida Division of Law Enforcement has moved aggressively to remove felons who had sneaked onto the voter rolls. In 1998, the state reported that more than 50,000 felons were voting in Florida. In an effort to crack down on these voters, state authorities provided lists of resident felons to each county; counties then sent out letters informing these people they were being struck from the voter rolls. The state left it up to each county to determine whether the voters they deleted from eligibility were indeed felons; some counties, in turn, placed the onus on individuals who claimed they were the victim of a mistake to prove it, according to local newspapers. At least one county gave citizens only 30 days to respond with a notarized affidavit challenging their disenfranchisement.

In some instances, it is possible legitimate voters whose names were being used as aliases by felons were struck off the voter rolls. In Martin County, for example, Elections Supervisor Peggy Robbins remembers that two people reported being sent the letters erroneously. One person said he had been wrongly disenfranchised several times. If the recipients didn't phone to challenge the letters, says Robbins, there would be no way to rectify the mistake.

How many people might be affected? "There might be one or two," in her county, Robbins believes. "In a great big county, there might be more." Small numbers, but Florida has 67 counties; if this race comes down to just a few hundred votes, such glitches could provide the Democratic Party with grounds for challenging the result in the courts.

The wrongful-disenfranchisement question joins a lengthening list of voting irregularities in Florida. In Palm Beach County, thousands of Gore voters may have mistakenly marked their ballots for Pat Buchanan, thanks to a confusingly laid-out ballot. reports that thousands of other Gore votes may not have been counted because of a computer error in Volusia County. Officials of both major parties also reported that many voters were apparently turned away from the polls and that some precints ran out of ballots. Several papers reported that white state Highway Patrol officers set up a checkpoint near a balloting site in a heavily black district in Broward County, allegedly prompting state and federal officials to investigate whether the incident amounted to intimidation against African-American voters.

In almost any other election, the number of potential wrongful-disenfranchisement errors would be so small as to not matter. But, if a couple thousand -- or even a few hundred -- people who would have voted were wrongfully deprived of their right to do so, it is at the very least possible that the election of the most powerful man in the world will have been swung by bad information about eligible voters fed into computers.

MoJo Wire Senior Editor Vince Beiser and editorial intern Melissa Hostetler contributed to this report.

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