After several years in which so many states have created new voting restrictions, it's heartening to see a state move aggressively in the opposite direction. The Associated Press reports on a historic move in Virginia:
More than 200,000 convicted felons will be able to cast ballots in the swing state of Virginia in November's election under a sweeping executive order by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Friday that restores their rights to vote and run for office.
The Democrat said his actions would help undo Virginia's long history of trying to suppress the black vote.
"Too often in both our distant and recent history, politicians have used their authority to restrict people's ability to participate in our democracy," McAuliffe said in a statement. "Today we are reversing that disturbing trend and restoring the rights of more than 200,000 of our fellow Virginians, who work, raise families and pay taxes in every corner of our Commonwealth."
To understand how we reached this point, it's worth noting, as MSNBC's Ari Melber reported a while back, that laws blocking ex-felons from voting have a major impact on elections. Nearly 6 million Americans are currently denied the right to vote because of their criminal records, with half of the nation's states barring former convicts from voting even after they've paid their debt to society.
Virginia, in particular, created some of the most punitive policies in the nation. That is, until now.
Also note, 200,000 people is a significant number of Americans. To put this total in perspective, consider the fact that roughly 4 million Virginians voted in the 2012 presidential election, so when we talk about 200,000 people, that's roughly 5 percent of the electorate.
In 2012, President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the commonwealth by less than 4 percentage points.
The Washington Postadded that McAuliffe's order, which covers former felons who are not on probation or parole, is believed to be "the biggest-ever single action taken to restore voting rights in this country."
Periodically over the course of the last year or so, voters have been told to expect some changes in Donald Trump's persona. As the presidential race entered new stages, Americans would begin to see Trump in a new light. About six weeks ago, the Associated Press went so far as to report that the Republican frontrunner "is unmistakably evolving into a general election candidate."
But these attempts at change, while probably sincere, have been sporadic and fleeting. Every time we're told to expect a new-and-improved Trump, the candidate seems to revert to form. To borrow a phrase, the more Trump changes, the more he stays the same.
The expectations of a possible evolution, however, continue. The New York Timesreports today, for example, on the message Trump's new top aide took to Republican National Committee members in South Florida this week.
Donald J. Trump's newly installed campaign chief sought to assure members of the Republican National Committee on Thursday night that Mr. Trump recognized the need to reshape his persona and that his campaign would begin working with the political establishment that he has scorned to great effect.
Addressing about 100 committee members at the spring meeting here, many of them deeply skeptical about Mr. Trump's candidacy, the campaign chief, Paul Manafort, bluntly suggested the candidate's incendiary style amounted to an act.
Arguing that a more professional phase is poised to begin, Manafort assured RNC members, "That's what's important for you to understand: That he gets it, and that the part he's been playing is evolving."
Manafort acknowledged that Trump may not seem popular now, but in the coming months, as Trump's evolution continues, his negative ratings "are going to come down."
If this sounds to you an awful lot like wishful thinking, you're not alone.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Donald Trump's campaign isn't accustomed to spending a lot of money, but last night, his team announced a $2 million ad buy in Pennsylvania, which hosts its presidential primary on Tuesday.
* Speaking of spending, Bernie Sanders' campaign continues to put its massive financial advantage to use: it's now outspending Hillary Clinton in five of the upcoming primaries over the next couple of weeks, in some instances by two-to-one margins. (Note: Sanders also outspent Clinton in New York by a two-to-one margin.)
* In Maryland, the latest Monmouth University poll shows Clinton leading Sanders, 57% to 25%.
* In Wisconsin's closely watched Senate race, the latest Wisconsin Public Radio poll shows former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) leading incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R), 51% to 41%.
* To the surprise of no one, the Republican National Committee held its spring meeting in South Florida this week, and decided not to change its convention rules.
* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Gwen Graham (D-Fla.) announced yesterday she's retiring at the end of this term, and by all appearances, she's preparing for a gubernatorial campaign in Florida in 2018. (As Floridians probably know, Graham's father, Bob Graham, is a legendary figure in the state who served two terms as governor in the 1980s before becoming a U.S. senator.)
* After Bernie Sanders urged his followers to contribute to Lucy Flores' (D) congressional campaign in Nevada, they did: she's raised $428,000 over the last three weeks.
In every way that matters, Bernie Sanders, a Vermont liberal, has practically nothing in common with Ted Cruz, a Texas conservative. But in the 2016 presidential race, the two find themselves in a similar situation.
Both are senators who've exceeded the expectations of much of the political establishment with effective campaigns. Both face daunting delegate math that will make it difficult for them to prevail. And both believe they can work within their respective party's rules to win the nomination, even if it means overriding the will of voters.
Sanders' efforts in this area have already drawn considerable scrutiny, especially this week after two of his top aides offered competing takes for the road ahead. The senator himself acknowledged yesterday, however, "Look, if we do not have a majority, it's going to be hard for us to win."
Hard, but not literally impossible. The Vermonter realizes his campaign could, in theory, try to convince party officials and insiders to give Sanders the nomination anyway, even if it means defying voters' will. The process, controversial though it may be, invites the possibility of the second-place candidate finishing first.
And then there's Ted Cruz, thinking along similar lines. The Republicans' process is a little different -- there's technically no such thing as a GOP superdelegate -- but the Texas senator realizes that party delegates could elevate him at the national convention if the race goes to a second ballot.
The challenge, the New York Timesreported today, is making the pitch in a compelling and principled way.
Mr. Cruz has struggled to formulate a concise argument rebutting Mr. Trump's claim that the top vote-getter deserves the nomination, alternately citing the number of former Republican presidential hopefuls now supporting him, general election polls and Mr. Trump's "hard ceiling" of support.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cruz told reporters at the Republican National Committee's spring meeting in Florida that only Mr. Trump's loyalists believed that the candidate with the most votes should be awarded the nomination. When it was pointed out that a majority of Republican voters seemed to agree -- 62 percent, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week -- Mr. Cruz largely ignored that fact.
"We want to win, Republicans want to win," he said, before turning to a new talking point: Even Abraham Lincoln, the greatest Republican of them all, lagged in delegates at the outset of the party's 1860 convention.
This isn't exactly what Sanders has argued in his race, but it's close.
A House Appropriations panel this week took up a spending bill that should have been pretty uncontroversial: the package provides funding for basic federal functions such government printing, the Capitol Police, and congressional operations.
But Roll Call reported that lawmakers ran into an unexpected controversy.
[T]he bulk of an hour of debate in Wednesday's Appropriations markup was devoted to a two-word phrase the Library of Congress is trying to excise from its lexicon: "illegal alien."
The Legislative Branch subcommittee's decision to insist that the federal library continue using the phrase prompted the panel's ranking Democrat to vote against the appropriations bill.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who also happens to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee, reminded her colleagues, "We're appropriators. We're supposed to be deciding how much money we allocate for each of these agencies. It is not our place to be debating the two halves of a particular term."
Let's back up and consider how we got to this point. Late last month, officials at the Library of Congress, facing some pressure from immigration activists and research professionals at the American Library Association, agreed it's time to update their reference catalog. Going forward, they said, "aliens" will be labeled "noncitizens," while "illegal immigration" will be listed as "unauthorized immigration."
That apparently didn't sit well with 20 House Republicans, led by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who actually introduced federal legislation -- I'm not kidding -- that would require the Library of Congress to use the old language in its reference catalog, whether the institution likes it or not.
It's the sort of basic truth that most Americans take for granted: you live in a state; you pay federal taxes; and you have the right to elect U.S. House members and U.S. senators to represent you and your interests. To deny American citizens this right would be the imposition of taxation without representation.
There is, however, an exception. Between Virginia and Maryland there's an area known as Washington, D.C. -- home to nearly 700,000 American citizens who live in the nation's capital and pay federal taxes, but who have no voice in Congress*.
It is a serious and systemic flaw. The Washington Post's editorial board asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) what he thinks about this. His answer was refreshing in its candor, but discouraging in its principles.
When asked his position on D.C. voting rights, Republican presidential contender John Kasich didn't pretend to draw on any constitutional clause or existing law to explain his stance against it.
Instead, the Ohio governor stated the political reason that many already perceive as the biggest obstacle standing between D.C. and congressional voting representation: Giving D.C. voting representatives in Congress would mean more Democrats in Congress.
"What it really gets down to if you want to be honest is because they know that's just more votes in the Democratic Party," Kasich said yesterday.
Well, yes, we do "want to be honest." We also want a principled policy that's defensible and treats Americans fairly.
As a rule, Republican opponents of congressional representation for D.C. residents at least pretend to have other concerns. There are, for example, legitimate legal questions that are at least worthy of a debate.
But Kasich seems to have forgotten to stick to the usual GOP script. Instead, the candidate accidentally told the truth as he sees it: it'd be nice to give these hundreds of thousands of taxpayers a voice in their own government, but D.C. residents would likely elect Democrats if given the opportunity, so it's necessary to deny them that opportunity.
It's not uncommon for people to think of a president as a sort of omnipotent king. When we see some state doing something offensive or outrageous, some Americans very likely wonder, "Why doesn't President Obama do something about this?"
The unsatisfying answer, of course, is that it's not really up to the White House to serve as a check on state actions, and the president often doesn't have the legal authority to prevent state officials from adopting misguided policies.
But once in a while, the federal executive branch can intervene to defend a president's priorities. The Washington Postreported this week, for example:
The Obama administration on Tuesday warned officials in all 50 states that actions to end Medicaid funding of Planned Parenthood may be out of compliance with federal law.
Ten states have taken action or recently passed legislation to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood after antiabortion activists released covertly filmed video in the summer purporting to show that the women's health organization and abortion provider illegally sold fetal tissue for a profit. Planned Parenthood supporters have criticized the videos as deceptively edited, and multiple state investigations have turned up no wrongdoing on the part of the organization.
Courts have already rejected some state efforts related to Planned Parenthood, but the administration's letter was part reminder, part shot across state officials' bow. As the Post's piece added, under federal policy, "[T]erminating certain providers from Medicaid is only justifiable if those providers are unable to perform covered medical services or can't bill for those services. The guidance emphasizes that states cannot target providers for impermissible reasons and are required to treat similar types of providers equitably."
The Washington Monthly's Nancy LeTourneau added yesterday that states that choose to ignore the administration's reminder will likely jeopardize federal funding.
And while we're on the topic, let's not forget that we're not just talking about Planned Parenthood.
Raise your hand if you predicted last year that by mid-April 2016, one of the key points of contention between the top two Republican presidential candidates would be, of all things, bathrooms.
Ted Cruz went after Donald Trump on Thursday for saying transgender people should be able to use whichever bathroom they want.
"Have we gone stark-raving nuts?" Cruz said at a rally in Frederick, Maryland. [...]"Grown adult men -- strangers -- should not be alone in a bathroom with little girls," Cruz said.
The controversy, such as it is, apparently started with Trump's appearance on NBC's "Today" yesterday morning, when the Republican presidential frontrunner was asked about North Carolina's HB2 discrimination measure. Trump said the state went too far.
"North Carolina, what they're going through with all of the business that's leaving and all of the strife.... You leave it the way it is," the GOP candidate argued. "There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate." Referring to transgender people using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, Trump added, "There has been so little trouble," before marveling at the "economic punishment" North Carolina is experiencing.
Asked if he has transgender employees, the candidate said, "I really don't know. I probably do. I really don't know." Matt Lauer asked, "So if Caitlyn Jenner were to walk into Trump Tower and want to use the bathroom, you would be fine with her using any bathroom she chooses?"
Trump responded, "That is correct."
I'm not generally in the habit of agreeing with the Republican frontrunner, especially on matters related to respect for diversity, but his responses yesterday happened to be correct. It might have been the most sensible comments he's made since launching his campaign.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage's (R) ridiculous antics have made him something of a national laughingstock in recent years, with many observers inclined to laugh at his clownish behavior. But occasionally, the far-right governor's actions are more repulsive than funny.
The Portland Press Heraldreported yesterday, for example, on a LePage position that's likely to literally cost lives.
Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill Wednesday that would allow pharmacists to dispense an anti-overdose drug without a prescription, saying that allowing addicts to keep naloxone on hand "serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction."
The Legislature passed the bill "under the hammer" -- or unanimously without a roll call -- this month as part of lawmakers' attempts to address Maine's growing opioid addiction epidemic.
In a statement explaining his rationale, the Republican governor argued, "Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose."
Note, this was a written statement, not an off-the-cuff comment made during a press conference or an interview. LePage actually thought about his specific position, and argued that a life-saving drug treatment that prevents overdoes "merely extends" the lives of addicts -- and he's against that.
Maine's governor, in a rather literal sense, made the case in writing that those struggling with opioid addiction don't have lives worth saving. If LePage is convinced these people's lives shouldn't be extended, practically by definition, he's making the case that their lives should be curtailed.
John Stanton, DC bureau chief for BuzzFeed, talks with Rachel Maddow about Ted Cruz making a pro-discrimination, anti-LGBT appeal to conservative Republicans, in contrast to Donald Trump, and the likelihood of that position isolating him from most of the American electorate and a fair number of Republicans. watch
Rachel Maddow reports on the deepening ostracism of Mississippi and North Carolina for their new anti-LGBT, pro-discrimination laws, and notes Republican front-runner Donald Trump's rejection of what is a nearly uniform anti-LGBT Republican position. watch
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