New state voting laws face first presidential election test

, USA TODAY10:22 p.m. EST January 29, 2016

WASHINGTON — Battles are being waged across the country over new voter ID laws and other election changes that have never before been tested in a presidential election.

National and local civil rights groups also have launched grass-roots efforts to fight state laws that they say could suppress voting by minorities and the elderly.

President Obama joined the cause in pledging during his Jan. 12 State of the Union Address to travel the country lobbying for steps to make voting easier.

“You’re going to see some ramping up of activism,’’ said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “The president is right, but everybody should be joining in that (effort).’’ Barber’s group will lead a voting rights rally Feb. 13 in Raleigh.

Some of the new state election laws require would-be voters to show specific forms of identification. Others cut back on the time period that voters can cast ballots early, or make it more difficult to register to vote.

Supporters of the laws say they protect against voter fraud. They say Obama and voting rights groups should leave the issue to states.

“It seems that the president is moving to … federalizing the way we handle elections,’’ said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Fifteen states have enacted more restrictive election laws never before tested in a presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Those states — Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin — account for 162 electoral votes of the 270 necessary to win the presidency.

Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Election Project, said voters in some of those states, “are going to be voting in a presidential election with fewer federal protections than they’ve had in the last 50 years.”

In some states, new voting laws took effect soon after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Courtdecision nullifying a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Under that provision, states and other jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination — mostly in the South — had to obtain advance permission, or “pre-clearance,” from federal officials before making any changes to their election systems.

The new laws attracting the most attention were adopted by Republican-run state legislatures and focus on voter ID requirements. Thirty-three states have voter ID laws — some enacted many years ago — that will be in place on Election Day in November, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mississippi’s 2012 voter ID law didn’t hamper participation in last year’s governor’s race, according to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

The law requires would-be voters to show one of 10 forms of photo ID. Eligible IDs include a driver’s license, a firearms license, a passport, and any state or federal government ID bearing a photo.

​Hosemann said Mississippi is the only state that wasn’t sued by the Justice Department over its voter ID law, “because we did it right.’’

“President Obama doesn’t have to come here to talk about voter ID because that’s in our rearview mirror … We’re moving on,’’  he said.

Last week, Hosemann proposed an election law package that includes allowing people to register to vote online, a 21-day early voting period, tougher penalties for election-law crimes, and moving the state’s presidential primary up by a week to the first Tuesday in March. The package is expected to be part of legislation introduced next week.

“I’m just real pleased about where we’re going in Mississippi,’’ Hosemann said. “Right now it’s such a difference from where we were half a century ago.’’

Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, which opposed the voter ID law, said the group continues to review complaints and monitor its implementation.

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How Misguided Drug Policies Are Failing the EDM Community

ON JANUARY 27, 2016, 9:00AM
 In 2002, a bipartisan group of three Republicans and four Democrats led by then-Senator Joe Biden responded to growing public concern about MDMA use. A flurry of legal pressure had risen from the drug-related death of 17-year-old Jillian Kirkland, who passed away after an evening at New Orleans’ State Palace Theatre in 1998. Nearly four years later, the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, aka the R.A.V.E. Act, was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
The loosely worded act was an extension of the 1986 “Crack House Statute,” under which promoters and event organizers could be charged with “maintain[ing] a drug-involved” premise. Wondering what that phrase actually means? So have US promoters, venue owners, advocates, artists, and fans since a slightly augmented act — the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act — was tacked onto a 2003 Amber Alert bill, which passed without a vote or much debate. Like most US drug policies, the act has hindered true harm reduction within club and festival culture.
During what has been reported as the plateau of MDMA use and resultant hospitalizations in the US, the DEA sent baby-faced undercover agent Michael Templeton to the site of Kirkland’s death to acquire a firsthand account of the environment and the interactions between club owners, drug dealers, and revelers. During a six-month period in early 2000, Templeton and a fellow DEA agent were able to, according to a Time report, purchase 45 hits of ecstasy. Instead of arresting any of their dealers, the DEA and the New Orleans Police Department gathered info to prosecute State Palace managers Robert and Brian Bruner, as well as promoter Donnie Estopinal, aka Disco Donnie.
The feds weren’t just building their case on the ecstasy hits, but the culture itself: uptempo beats, touching and massaging, glow sticks, availability of free water, and even the energetic style of dancing. “The country was a lot more conservative and much less open-minded,” remarks Estopinal via telephone about the era. “Scary times in this industry … [we] didn’t know who would be next.”
Unable to convict any party under the Crack House laws, the government pushed for new regulations that would allow for easier prosecution. By naming easy access to free water and “chill rooms” as indicators of drug-involved premises, authorities eliminated two primary harm reducers in order to make their next arrests. While the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act has yet to be used to successfully prosecute a single promoter or venue owner, the lack of those harm-reduction essentials has itself claimed multiple lives.
After heading to D.C.’s Echostage with some of her fellow University of Virginia Alpha Phi sorority sisters on August 30th, 2013, Shelley Goldsmith consumed unadulterated MDMA as many of her classmates had done since heading off to university. Later, she would succumb to hyperthermia, possibly to do excessive dehydration, and eventually die of cardiac arrest at the age of 19.
Eight months later, Shelley’s mother, Dede Goldsmith, would lead the collective efforts to Amend the R.A.V.E. Act. “In this situation, it became very clear that there is a problem with the law, but also a problem on college campuses in terms of identifying and supplying harm-reduction techniques for these substances just like there already is with alcohol,” says Goldsmith via phone.

Misinformation about MDMA is rampant. In contrast to underage drinking, little has been done at universities and colleges to properly educate young adults on the risks associated with club drugs. As Goldsmith points out, “[There are] organizations like SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy) that work with more of an alternative crowd, but no one that really reaches out to Greek Life.” Given the increased risk of drug use within the US Greek system, that’s one communication gap that needs to be bridged.


“Everyone feels safe to come together around the drug war. ‘Those evil drugs, we gotta get ‘em,’” quips Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ (MAPS) Policy and Advocacy Manager Natalie Ginsberg.

Even though we are nearly 50 years removed from the cultural renaissance that was 1968, politicians are still wary of the PR associated with progressive drug reform policies. While Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has assisted Goldsmith in officially connecting with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and Goldsmith herself has been appointed to the Virginia Commission on Youth, no legislator has officially supported or introduced an amendment initiative. And Goldsmith doesn’t envision any campaigning politician to support the policy shift in the foreseeable future.


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Daughter-in-Law of Chile’s President Faces Corruption Charge

SANTIAGO, Chile — Prosecutors on Friday charged President Michelle Bachelet’s daughter-in-law, Natalia Compagnon, and 12 others in a corruption case that touches the presidential family and has damaged Ms. Bachelet’s popularity.

In a court session shown on national television, the prosecutors, Luis Toledo and Sergio Moya, accused Ms. Compagnon and her business partner in the firm Caval, Mauricio Valero, of issuing false invoices in a scheme to avoid paying about $165,000 in taxes. The court ordered Ms. Compagnon not to leave the country and confined several other defendants, including Mr. Valero, to their homes at night.

The defendants in the case include other Caval employees, former bank and municipal officials, a businessman and several lawyers, who were charged with a number of crimes. Five of them, including Mr. Valero, were also accused of bribery. Prosecutors said they were all involved in a speculative land deal that yielded millions of dollars in profit for Caval, with large kickbacks paid to those who facilitated it.

A Chilean magazine, Qué Pasa, reported last year that Caval, a small firm started by Ms. Compagnon and Mr. Valero in 2012, had secured a $10 million loan to buy about 270,000 acres of rural land in Machalí, south of the capital. At the time, the municipality was considering rezoning the land for urban development, which would greatly increase its value.

The Bank of Chile approved the loan the day after Ms. Bachelet was re-elected in December 2013, after a meeting Ms. Compagnon and her husband, Sebastián Dávalos, had with a vice president of the bank.

When the deal came to light, public attention focused at first on how Caval had come to know that the land would be rezoned and whether Ms. Compagnon and her husband had done anything improper to obtain the loan. Mr. Dávalos soon resigned from a position on his mother’s staff overseeing government-sponsored charitable foundations and social programs, and has stayed out of the public spotlight since.

The Caval scandal prompted investigations by the country’s tax authorities as well as the public prosecutor’s office and two congressional commissions, which issued a report describing Caval as a lobbying firm“whose profile and comparative advantage lies in its political and government connections.”

Mr. Toledo, the prosecutor, said this week that there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Dávalos.

Ms. Bachelet has said she was not aware of the business dealings of her son and daughter-in-law. Even so, her ratings in opinion surveys have fallen steeply. In a poll by Plaza Pública Cadem released this week, just 25 percent of respondents said they approved of her presidency.

The Caval matter is one of a series of high-profile corruption scandals that shook the corporate and political establishment of Chile over the past year, involving collusion and price-fixing by major industries and companies, illegal corporate financing for electoral campaigns and misuse of military spending.

“These times have been hard and very painful for me and my family,” Ms. Bachelet said in a statement Friday. “Chileans demand and deserve equal opportunities and rights, and this also means equality before the law.”

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Erin Brockovich appeals to Porter Ranch residents as law firms push gas leak suits

Alice Walton and Louis Sahagun Contact Reporters

Movie-famous activist Erin Brockovich stood in front of 400 Porter Ranch residents on a recent weeknight and told a disturbing personal story.

“When I first came to Porter Ranch I couldn’t believe it,” she said of her visit to the community closest to Southern California Gas Co.’s leaking well. “I was in somebody’s house and within 10 minutes, I started feeling kind of dizzy.”

She said she saw a doctor who told her she “had what they called a chemically induced kind of bronchitis.”

The message was clear. If Brockovich, 55, became ill after just 10 minutes, Southern California Gas Co.’s ruptured well must be harming anyone who breathes the fumes even for a short time — and for that, the victims should get compensation. Brockovich and the law firm she was advocating for, Weitz & Luxenberg, invited the residents to join their lawsuits against the gas company.

Across the region, other law firms are holding similar meetings and running advertising campaigns using a mix of dire warnings about health risks and reduced property values, promises of money and practical advice to try to persuade aggrieved Porter Ranch families to join lawsuits.

Since the leak began at the Aliso Canyon well nearly three months ago, at least 25 lawsuits have been filed seeking damages from the utility and its parent firm, Sempra Energy. The attorneys say their take could range from almost nothing to more than one-third of the awards, depending on the outcome of the cases.

A majority of the lawsuits have been filed by residents of Porter Ranch, a community of 30,000 people in the rolling hills of the north San Fernando Valley. The legal actions claim negligence, hazardous activity, nuisance and trespass and seek compensation for emotional and physical injuries, as well as for diminished property values.

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Attorney General Defends Executive Actions on Guns as Legal


WASHINGTON — Jan 20, 2016, 1:10 PM ET

Attorney General Loretta Lynch defended President Barack Obama’s executive actions curbing guns before Congress on Wednesday, telling lawmakers that the president took lawful steps to stem firearms violence that kills and injures tens of thousands of Americans yearly.

“I have complete confidence that the common sense steps announced by the president are lawful,” Lynch told the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that oversees the Justice Department. Early in an election year in which both parties seem ready to make guns a political issue, Lynch called Obama’s moves “well-reasoned measures, well within existing legal authorities, built on work that’s already underway.”

The modest steps Obama announced two weeks ago were immediately attacked by a top Republican, who said the measures were the latest of the president’s actions infringing on the constitutional right to own guns and exceeding his executive branch powers.

“The department is on notice,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the subcommittee, told Lynch. “This subcommittee will have no part in undermining the Constitution and the rights that it protects.”

Some GOP senators on the panel mixed distaste for Obama’s unilateral moves with an openness to some of the details. That included his proposal to boost the number of FBI personnel who process background checks so the system can operate 24 hours daily instead of its current 17 hours.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., in whose state the background check system is based, said some of Obama’s proposals were “political messaging” but expressed support for buttressing the “overstressed” system.

Backed by the National Rifle Association, the GOP-led Congress is all but certain to take no action curbing firearms this year. But the gulf between Lynch and Shelby underscored that the issue will be part of the presidential and congressional campaigns.

Already, Democratic presidential candidates have backed Obama’s moves while GOP contenders have lambasted them as wilting gun rights and abusing his presidential powers. House Republicans have said they will create a task force to study “executive overreach” by Obama and other presidents.

Shelby, who faces a conservative challenger in his March 1 Senate GOP primary, criticized Obama’s response to recent mass shootings, including last month’s killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, by a Muslim couple that authorities say had been radicalized. Shelby said that instead of tightening screening for potentially violent immigrants or addressing “our law enforcement’s failures,” Obama has instead resorted to “grandstanding and engaging in anti-gun theatrics.”

Lynch said the actions were appropriate.

“As the list of tragedies involving firearms has grown, so has the American people’s belief that we must do more to stem the tide of gun violence, and this administration is committed to doing our part,” she said.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, backed Lynch’s remarks, saying, “We do need to change our nation’s culture of violence. We do need to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands.”

Obama’s actions include guidance on who the government will consider “in the business” of selling firearms — a phrase used to describe which dealers must obtain federal licenses and conduct background checks on buyers. Even those selling a few guns online or at gun shows can be required to get licenses and perform background checks, the administration said.

Other steps include hiring 230 more FBI background check examiners; adding 200 agents to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; boosting federal research on gun safety technology and asking Congress for $500 million to improve mental health programs.

Lynch said Obama’s 2017 budget, to be released in February, will seek $80 million for his gun proposals, largely for the additional FBI and ATF agents.

Gun violence has flared anew as a political issue following the San Bernardino killings. Obama failed to push gun curbs through Congress in the months following the 2012 killings of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, and despite periodic mass shootings the GOP-led House and Senate remain opposed to restricting firearms.

Government statistics show that over 30,000 Americans die from firearms wounds yearly, two-thirds of which are suicides.

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