“I am here to sound an alarm”

As redistricting kicks into high gear, the Justice Department calls on Congress to protect voting rights. Plus: A book on student loan debt that left me both riveted and enraged as I turned each page.

Kristen Clarke, the first Black woman to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, speaking in January 2021. Clarke called on Congress today to restore a key voting rights provision before states begin the redistricting process. Photo by Susan Walsh via Associated Press

During the first few minutes of her testimony at a hearing on voting rights this morning, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke spelled out why activists and politicians on the left are so urgent in their pursuit of election reform: This is the first time states will be redrawing their district boundaries without the provision of the Voting Rights Act that prevents them from discriminating against protected minorities.

“I am here today to sound an alarm. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder suspended the preclearance process, the Justice Department’s single most powerful and effective tool for protecting the right to vote,” Clarke, who oversees the department’s Civil Rights Division and is the first Black woman to be confirmed by the Senate for the position, said during her opening statement. “The department’s ability to protect the right to vote has been eroded as a result. For the Justice Department, restoration of the Voting Rights Act is a matter of great urgency.”

The preclearance requirement in Section 5 of the VRA prohibited certain jurisdictions from implementing any change affecting voting without receiving preapproval from the US attorney general of the US District Court for DC. Clarke said that the Justice Department blocked over 3,000 voting changes while the provision was in place, 60 percent of which were found to be intentionally discriminatory. “In addition to blocking discrimination, the deterrent effect of the preclearance requirement was undeniable.”

But without this stipulation, cities and states are able to enact laws like the ones we’ve seen from legislatures in Georgia and Texas that take root immediately without meeting their burden of proof that the new rules weren’t adopted with a discriminatory purpose or would not worsen the position of minority voters. These laws cut early voting periods, place new and unnecessary restrictions to register or vote, eliminate or consolidate polling sites in communities of color, purge eligible voters from the rolls and impose limits on advocacy groups who seek to help voters participate in democracy. Here’s more from Clarke’s testimony:

The Shelby County ruling has given a green light to jurisdictions to adopt voting restrictions. Today these laws can only be challenged through long, protracted, resource-intensive case-by-case litigation. The department knows well the burden that comes with the case-by-case approach by way of cases that we’ve brought recently in states like Texas and North Carolina. This gives jurisdictions what the Supreme Court memorably called “the advantage of time and inertia.”

In June, Senate Republicans blocked the For The People Act, a comprehensive election reform bill that would blunt a lot of the damage that the hundreds of bills across the country will wreak on communities of color in upcoming elections. The GOP’s obstruction is also the basis of the left’s call to eliminate the “filibuster,” which requires a sixty-vote threshold to pass most legislation instead of a simple majority. As I wrote last month:

Right now, progressives hate the filibuster and want to abolish it because they view it as a relic to preserve Jim Crow laws (back in the day, civil rights reforms were the only measures that were filibustered by racist senators) and an impediment to passing their legislative priorities. (Most recently, this happened during a vote to advance the For The People voter expansion bill.) Conservatives (and two moderate Democrats ... and President Biden) love the filibuster because they say it preserves the rights of the minority and compels both sides to compromise.

“At some point, we’re going to get to a binary choice between protecting our democracy and protecting an arcane Senate procedure,” former attorney general Eric Holder said to Ari Berman at Mother Jones last month.

But now that the Census released the data for the redistricting process to begin, time is running out to place guardrails against Republican-led state legislatures and committees manipulating their district boundaries for partisan advantage, a process called “gerrymandering.” (This advantage is mainly achieved one of two ways. The first is by “cracking,” which spreads voters from the opposing party across many districts to dilute their voting power. Then there’s “packing,” which centralizes voters from the opposing party in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.) And the maps that are drawn for the post-2020 redistricting cycle will determine which party is empowered with representation at every level of government for at least the next ten years.

In a letter to Democratic members yesterday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will vote on updated legislation to restore the preclearance requirement when it returns to take up the Senate’s infrastructure package. Meanwhile, a small group of Senate Democrats are expected to introduce a compromise on voting reforms that would authorize automatic and Election Day voter registration and two weeks of early voting while banning gerrymandering.

And according to Clarke’s testimony today, these bills can’t come any sooner. “[Section 5 of the VRA] provided the strong medicine needed to remedy voting discrimination and enforce our Constitution’s commitment to ensuring that no citizen’s right to vote would be abridged on account of race or color,” she said. “Congress has broad enforcement powers and must act now to restore the VRA, to prevent us from backsliding into a nation where millions of citizens, particularly citizens of color, find it difficult to register, cast their ballot and elect candidates of choice.”


Afghanistan

ICYMI: Taliban insurgents seized power this weekend in Afghanistan two weeks before the US was set to complete its troop withdrawal from a two-decade war that cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

At press time, the Associated Press reported that US reached a deal with the Taliban to ensure evacuations can take place from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, without interference. (Thank goodness.) President Joe Biden was scheduled to deliver remarks on the crisis this afternoon as well.

The country’s surrender is shaping up to be a foreign policy and humanitarian disaster, with policy and political ramifications for months and years to come. Below are a few articles with live updates and analysis on where we’re at, how we got here and where we’re going:

“Afghanistan Live Updates: Fear spreads in Kabul as Taliban take charge” [NYT]

— “How did the Taliban take control so fast in Afghanistan?” [Jen Kirby / Vox]

— “Why Afghan forces so quickly laid down their arms” [Anatol Lieven / Politico]

— “The fall of Afghanistan in 2021 is the result of years of American delusion” [Noah Rothman / MSNBC]

— “Afghanistan is your fault” [Tom Nichols / The Atlantic]

Coronavirus

The US could soon hit more than 200,000 coronavirus cases per day — again. “I will be surprised if we don’t cross 200,000 cases a day in the next couple of weeks and that’s heartbreaking considering we never thought we’d be back in that space again,” Dr. Francis Collins said on Sunday. “That was January, February, that shouldn’t be August. But here we are with the Delta variant, which is so contagious, and this heartbreaking situation where 90 million people are still unvaccinated, who are sitting ducks for this virus, and that’s the mess we’re in. [Aya Elamroussi, Jamie Gumbrecht and Eric Levenson / CNN]

Politics

Chuck Schumer urges federal law enforcement to crack down on fake vaccine cards. The Senate’s top Democrat is demanding US Customs and Border Protection and the FBI partner with the Department of Health and Human Services to make clear that forging the cards could lead to federal prison time. Schumer also wants the Justice Department to prioritize cases involving fake vaccine cards and for CBP to work harder to find counterfeit cards coming in from overseas. [AP News]

Progress continues to stall on police reform. Although discussions continue on a compromise that would make citizens safer and police departments accountable for their so-called “bad apples,” negotiators are now considering a skinny bill that would pass the provisions that already have agreement from both sides. This approach is almost certain to cost progressive votes though. [Leigh Ann Caldwell / NBC News]

Related: Minneapolis police will limit traffic stops for minor violations. These “pre-textual stops” for expired license plates or rear-view mirror air fresheners are often used to search Black and brown drivers twice as often as white drivers, despite being less likely to be carrying guns or drugs. [Dennis Romero / NBC News]

The House lifts the staff salary ceiling to make Congress more competitive with the private sector. In an effort to recruit and retain top-tier talent and make public service a viable career path for people from working-class backgrounds, embers can now pay their staff a maximum of $199,300 — up from — $173,900. “Empowering congressional staff through increased pay and improved benefits will allow our body to better serve the American people with diverse and talented employees,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. [Catie Edmondson / NYT]

Incoming New York governor Kathy Hochul plans to run for the state’s top office after completing the remainder of Andrew Cuomo’s term. “I’m the most prepared person to assume this responsibility, and I’m going to ask the voters for their faith in me again,” Hochul, who will become New York’s first woman governor, said last week. [Eugene Scott / WaPo]

Business

Companies are prioritizing employee mental well-being to offset worker shortages. In addition to mental health days and online therapy sessions, businesses are entrusting mid-level management to foster an environment that empowers workers to seek care. [Erica Pandey / Axios]

Technology

Zoom announced a new Focus mode to improve online learning. The feature is designed to keep students from being distracted in a virtual classroom by disabling students from seeing each other’s videos or screen shares while enabling the host or instructor to still be able to see everyone’s webcams. [Mitchell Clark / The Verge]

NPR introduced a new tool to track the diversity of its sources in real-time. It’s called Dex — a shortened version of “Rolodex” — and will help the news organization’s journalists produce stories and shows that “look and sound like America.” For each story, reporters, producers, correspondents and editors submit information about their sources’ race and ethnicity, gender identity, geographic location and age range into a database. [Angela Fu / Poynter]

Reddit makes its short-form video feature more prominent on its iPhone app. When users tap a button to the right of their search bar, they’ll see a TikTok-like configuration that shows them a video, the poster who uploaded it and the subreddit it’s from and be able to upvote or downvote, comment, gift an award or share it. As with TikTok, users can swipe up to see another video, feeding content from subreddits the user is subscribed to, as well as related ones. [Amanda Silberling / TechCrunch]

Twitter will chill out with the high-contrast buttons and links. The app announced the update after users with sensory sensitivities reported eye strain, headaches, and migraines following the redesign it rolled out last week. [Kait Sanchez / The Verge]

Culture

Social apps reward moral outrage through likes and shares. Researchers at Yale discovered that the incentives of social apps like Twitter change how people post because users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express similar sentiment in later posts, which could contribute to a polarizing feedback loop. [Bill Hathaway / Yale News]


Read All About It

Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture on the TV white-guy crisis:

Series from this summer have found various answers to that question. Perhaps the white guy has a meltdown, or he leans into his right to take up space; maybe the best course of action is to plot his demise. In every case, it’s less a clear answer and more a thought experiment for an awkward cultural snarl — with a vague gesture about how to loosen it slightly. Although many of these shows include people of color on the directing staff or in the writers’ room, they are all created or co-created by white producers, and it’s tempting to see their own plaintive self-concern at work in them. After all, none of the shows simply jettison the white guy. They hold him close. They observe him, mock him, jab at him mercilessly. Even as he becomes a story’s central problem rather than its central character, there he still is in the middle of the narrative.

Emily Shugerman at The Daily Beast on the fight to save women’s colleges from extinction:

At least five other private colleges were felled by the pandemic this year, their relatively small endowments no match for a public health crisis that slashed enrollment rates and all but eliminated room-and-board revenue. For women’s colleges, however, these closures were not a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, but the continuation of a decades-long trend that has seen the number of women-only institutions decline by nearly 85 percent in the last 60 years.

Danielle Bernstein at The Atlantic on how #MeToo has changed the world — except in court:

Theoretically, reasonableness is up to the jury, and post-#MeToo one might assume that juries would be more favorable to victims. But judges can prevent cases from reaching a jury if they find that the employer should win as a matter of law—in other words, that no reasonable jury could find the victim to be reasonable. When courts find for employers, they might now be foreclosing a victim’s chance at relief that a modern jury would, in fact, grant her.

Derek Robertson at Politico on how stan culture infiltrated politics:

If you count yourself among any of the fan clubs mentioned above — the KHive, the Yang Gang, the Cuomosexuals — you just might be a “stan.” That term, enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an overzealous or obsessive fan, esp. of a particular celebrity,” is self-deprecatingly borrowed from Mathers’ Dido-interloping , a morbid tale about the titular Slim Shady fan whose obsession ends in tragic violence. “Stan culture,” a shorthand for the obsessive, hyper-passionate subcultures that spring up around various celebrities, has overtaken the realms of K-Pop, Marvel Comics and any number of cultural points between — and now it’s established itself in politics, a reflection of how social media and the strange passions it engenders are changing American life.

Brady Langmann at Esquire on learning how to ride a bike as an adult:

You ever feel unattractive? Try having your girlfriend’s dad prop your dead weight, saying, “Look ahead, look ahead!” as you keep running into the same fucking stump in the middle of this trail. There are few things more emasculating in this world. That’s another promise. After about an hour, I graduated from being handled like a helpless moron on two wheels, to riding along this trail with my teachers jogging along either side of me. You’d think I’d be proud of this, but the lack of a safety net only inspired more fear. Every time I thought about the stump, I’d run into it. Every time I thought about how mortifying it would be if I rode right into Corinne’s dad, I ran right into Corinne’s dad.

Shannon Keating at BuzzFeed News on the ending of The White Lotus:

But of course the dead character couldn’t be Mark. This is not a show about how workers and Native Hawaiians rise up against their oppressors; this is a show about the insidious power of wealth and whiteness, which demands — even requires — the emotional labor of the underclass to perpetuate itself. The less willing Armond becomes to soothe Shane’s fragile little ego, thus abandoning the status quo of who serves and who is served, the more he threatens to shatter the guest’s worldview that he “can’t help” the privileges into which he was born, but he nevertheless belongs in society’s upper echelons. This is power to which he is entitled, and how dare anyone begrudge him that? Shane expects his new wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a hustling freelance writer of trashy clickbait, to immediately adjust to that sense of thoughtless entitlement he’s enjoyed all his life. Why, now that she no longer has to do shitty work for money, would she bother anymore? And why doesn’t she share his anger that this hotel manager isn’t treating them like the real estate royalty they are?

Michael’s Pick

The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe by Josh Mitchell ($25): I started reading this book last week while researching this column on student loan debt and have found myself both riveted and enraged as I turn each page.