Search Results for: voter id

Did voter ID laws impact elections in Texas?

Nov 6, 2014

Voting is, without a doubt, a quintessential part of participating in any kind of government remotely resembling a democracy. We hear it from a young age from our TV’s, celebrities, and from an increasing number of media platforms across technology. Unfortunately for some in the great state of Texas, however, those messages fall on many individuals who can’t vote even though they truly want to.

Texas’ voter ID act is a strange beast, some tout it as a great way to keep voting fraud to a minimum, especially in a state where unauthorized immigration from other countries is a reality. That said, others still see the laws as tackling a problem that doesn’t actually exist, or at least not on the scale that many in the state (and by extension their local representatives) might think.

These past couple of days, ballot counting has shown a landslide victory for republican candidates both across the state and across the country. While many, many factors come into play during an election cycle, some people can’t help but see voter ID laws as the new form of Gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering, if you don’t know, comes from the process in which states are divided up into voting districts. The regions are meant to make it so that an even number of voters will be weighing in on each representative for a state. Ideally, this would be purely geographical, where chunks of the state are divided up in an easy to figure out way. However, the process was muddled up way back in 1812 by Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts at the time. Commentators discovered that, rather than simple shapes, the voting districts in Gerry’s state were strange, and one even resembled a salamander. What was happening is that the zones were being carved up to try and grab demographics that were easy to win over by one political party while placing others outside the zone. It could also be used to dilute strong areas for one party or the other. In the end, this practice was called “Gerrymandering” and, while technically illegal, likely still occurs to an extent today.

Voter ID laws, some argue, much in the same way help to cut out certain demographics more than others, under the guise of avoiding fraud. Many ID’s, like out of state driver’s licenses aren’t accepted, even if you can prove you live in the state. This means that many students, who are traditionally younger (and also vote democrat more often than their older counterparts) can’t easily vote in Texas (while the process is quite easy in many other states for out of state students). While lawmakers state that the laws have no ties to specific political affiliation, it is almost exclusively republican senators and representatives that author and vote in favor of such bills.

Other groups said to be more affected than others are minorities or those with poor English skills, who, while legally entitled to live in the state, might not be able to easily navigate the long bureaucratic process that’s required in many cases in order to obtain an ID that the state’s laws deem acceptable. While this election cycle is over, you’ll surely hear more about such laws going forward.

Florida Legislature discarded records related to redistricting

Feb 6, 2014

New court findings reveal that the Florida State Legislature threw away records related to drawing up new districts, something that happens once in a decade.

The House Speaker said that there was nothing wrong about doing that, and he said that the Legislature was just following rules already in place that allow for the disposal of records if they are no longer required.

However, the act drew sharp criticism from individuals and groups who are challenging the new districts in court. Those groups have been pursuing additional records about the reasons why legislators drew the districts as they did.

The president of an organization for women voters said that she was in near disbelief that the documents had been thrown away.

She said that learning that they destroyed crucial records was incredibly disappointing.

The latest court filings show that lawyers representing the Legislature said that redistricting records were at times, and appropriately, discarded, and that it was allowed under existing rules. The filing went on to say that the lawyers were not sure about which of the documents were thrown away.

Florida has a very broad public records law, but the state Legislature has the authority to create its own rules regarding which public records they want to retain.

The House Speaker said in a public statement that any allegation that the House subverted the law and discarded documents is entirely false.

He went on to say that they not only complied with the public record laws and House rules, but also exceeded those standards with the issue of redistricting. He said that the opponents in the case received thousands and thousands of documents and that they should know a lot better.

Once every decade, lawmakers redraw congressional and legislative districts based on new population date. Voters in 2010 were clear that legislators should draw districts based on current political and geographic boundaries and not in some kind of ploy to aid incumbents or a member of a certain political party.

Once the “Fair Districts” amendments were passed, legislators adopted maps that led to more Democrats getting elected. However, critics say the final districts still do not accurately reflect the political divide in Florida.

Lawsuits have been filed that challenged state senate and congressional districts. The groups suing have asked for records and the ability to make legislators and legislative staff testify. The state Supreme Court said last week that legislators cannot be forced to testify in a lawsuit, and they set aside a long-standing privilege that legislators typically enjoy.

The lawsuit has already brought a certain document to light. The revelation of this document has raised some eyebrows. It shows that top GOP officials met in the latter part of 2010 to brainstorm redistricting with some legislative staffers and political consultants.

Legislative lawyers have shot back with their own ammunition, however. They have unearthed emails that show that “Fair Districts” supporters worked on a map where the ulterior motive was to increase Democratic seats.

Texas introduces body camera legislation and access exceptions

May 19, 2015

Debate over the necessity of police-worn body cameras across the United States has raged for several years now. The practice has become increasingly common among local police departments now, especially compared with a couple years ago when just a couple of departments pioneered pilot programs to see if they truly made a difference in officer and civilian behavior, complaints against the department, and more. Overwhelmingly, the results have been positive, with reports of officer use of force down double digit percentages and higher satisfaction with the department amongst citizens in their jurisdictions.

Now, the state of Texas is looking at bringing the program to its own departments, though only on a voluntary basis. In a state that favors county and municipal autonomy, this method of introduction is not surprising, and is likely to remain the structure of body camera programs in the state for some time if a recent bill is passed into law. The senate has already passed Bill 158, sponsored by democratic Senator Royce West of Dallas, which would outline program guidelines for departments with body cameras in operation.

The bill does not require all police departments to have a body camera policy in place, but it does require certain policies to be in place at departments that decide to opt in to the voluntary use of cameras. The bill, sponsors say, is an attempt at injecting some statewide uniformity into the process of how body cameras are utilized and how their recordings are stored and shared. Other bills are already up for debate and voting in the House, which will now have the option to amend and enact Bill 158.

In Texas, several departments either already use body cameras or are testing them out, including Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Of course, one of the reasons that all departments don’t have cameras yet is a factor that always crops up in body camera debates: the cost. The purchasing and fitting of actual cameras is only the tip of the iceberg, and the costs associated with backing up and storing the recordings – which can be massive in size – is a major barrier, especially for smaller departments.

Currently, West is hoping that, should the bill pass, he can secure a $10 million grant that would go toward helping the departments purchase and setup their systems. After the grant runs out, however, West admits that they couldn’t realistically expect to keep the program running unless more money was secured.

A recent amendment, by Senator Jose Menendez (D) of San Antonio, introduced some limitations on how far public records requests could reach into the recordings. Among these were exceptions for cases in which an officer was off duty or “during activities not meant to be recorded.” While the personal privacy of offers should be respected off duty, the vagueness of the language about activities not meant to be recorded is cause for concern for some, who fear it may give departments the ability to classify legitimate and relevant footage as out of reach for the public.

Texas attorney general rules that oil train records are public

Mar 8, 2015

According to the state attorney general, oil-train records that the Texas Department of Public Safety argued were exempt from public records law are, in fact, not. Last week, the attorney general ruled that the records must be made available to any and all news organizations and public parties interested in them.

The case stems from a dispute with Kansas City Southern Railway, who had previously argued that there could be a number of detrimental effects that would follow the release of their records. For starters, they argued that customer security and safety could be jeopardized, thought this was more of a stretch to make sense of than what was likely the primary concern: the fact that their competitors might gain an insight into the railway’s workings.

Last year, oil shipments by rail were at over half a million. Compare this to 2008, when just 10,000 railroad oil shipments were tracked, and it’s easy to see why the records might be relevant. In a look into railway accidents and the potential hazards of shipping oil by rail, news conglomerate McClatchy requested records from 20 states, Texas included, on their oil shipments by rail.

The requests were met with mixed reactions from state to state. In some, records were handed over, while in others railroad companies tried to get state authorities to allow the documents to stay private, provided they could be turned over to emergency medical responders when necessary. The Federal Railroad Administration also weighed in on the matter by issuing an opinion to be used as guidance by railroads, which stated that it did not find information about the number of trains running per week and their routes to be sensitive information – with regard to security or commercial interest.

Others besides Texas who did not opt to immediately release all requested information included West Virginia, where just last Monday a crude oil train exploded after coming off of its tracks mid-transport. Last May, a derailment near Lynchburg, Virginia, which resulted in an oil spill and an evacuation, caused the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin requiring reporting on shipments of crude oil across specific (though not all) state lines.

Texas and West Virginia are far from the only states to raise a fuss, however. Last July, railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern sued Maryland’s Department of the Environment in order to try and block the release of information on oil train shipments to both McClatchy and to the Associated Press. The case is still pending, with a trial date set for April of this year.

Transportation and shipping companies in general have a long history of being reluctant to comply with public records requests, often citing potential “trade secrets” release. What makes these cases more complicated, as is the case with the latest oil train issues, is that these companies are often doing business with state run agencies which are required to make all of their records public, creating a gray area that can take months or years to get cleared up by a judge.

Asbestos concerns cause drama at Kilgore College

Dec 10, 2014

For a community college with just under 6,000 students, Kilgore College is certainly making more news than the average school of its size. In fact, more-so than ‘news’ the events occurring right now sound like something out of a movie. From behind-the-back gossip, to accusations amongst board members, to student health and safety concerns, there’s a lot to keep up with. The latest event, a bullet through the door of one of the college’s president’s critics, escalated things to a whole new level.

For some months now the board of trustees has been engaged in a game of whispered concerns and accusations, mostly surrounding various policies at the schools. One of the issues has to do with asbestos in the old buildings around the college campus. Supposedly, it’s been kept quiet that some of the old buildings still contain the toxic substance, and that college officials tried to remove it from one building by themselves, without professional input, just a couple of days before a performance in the same auditorium in which it would be packed with students. The performance, by the way, came from the Kilgore Rangerettes, a world-renowned drill team whose claim-to-fame status is just another oddity of the small school.

The college’s facilities director, Dalton Smith, secretly recorded another official from president Bill Holda’s administration saying that Smith should “print a list of every student that’s been here for the last 30 years” if he wanted to find out who had been exposed to asbestos. Yikes.

Supporters say that these and other issues have been blown out of proportion, and that the board is by and large happy with the job that Holda and his administration are doing with the school. Even so, the argument seems to have escalated recently. Just after the asbestos revelation, one critic, Brian Nutt, got a bullet through his door; luckily no one was hurt in the incident. While there’s no evidence to suggest a culprit yet, Nutt said he finds it hard to believe that it was a coincidence, given the drama over the past few months and the asbestos story just before.

Since all of this began, the college as a whole has been fairly closed off to outside media. Representatives have suggested that many lines of questioning are misguided, and are being prompted by biased accusations meant to stir up drama.

The whole situation is just plain weird for most people that hear about it. The fact that all of these things are happening in the middle of a small college area makes the drama surrounding everything take on the hint of ridiculousness. On the other hand, gunfire and threats entering the picture escalate the incident from bureaucratic squabble to the potential for real trouble and harm. On a related note, Smith declined to give an interview to the press following the shooting incident, citing it in his reasons for not being so forthcoming anymore.

While the rest of the state might not bat much of an eyelash, there’s a small drama unfolding in Kilgore, and one can only hope it comes to an uneventful conclusion before too long.

Texas blog denied public records request in wake of police shootings

Dec 5, 2014

The blogosphere and government agencies have had an interesting relationship since independent websites first popped up some 20 years ago. The internet is a watchdog’s dream space; information spreads like wildfire, and once it’s out, it’s hard to ever get back in the bottle. Such a relationship also exists amongst news outlets, and everything in between. It’s no surprise then, that the San Antonio Current is finding itself in some public records turmoil after a recent request was denied. Of course, some context would probably help to setup why the request was even filed in the first place.

Ever heard of the 1033 military surplus program? In simple terms, it’s a program that allows for surplus military (army, navy, etc.) equipment to go to police departments around the country. These pieces of equipment can then in turn be utilized by the force. The range of equipment and its usage ranges from the mundane to the downright bizarre; armored assault vehicles, automatic weapons, and even tanks are all fair game.

Not surprisingly, the program has sparked up controversy as citizens have begun to question the need for a police department to have such heavy firepower. Known as the militarization of our police forces, many wonder how the surplus program helps to protect the citizens that the police serve. Because police themselves aren’t overseas on the forefront of war campaigns, it seems likely that, should this equipment ever be used, it would be against the very communities these departments exist within.

Fast forward to recent events in Ferguson and its aftermath, and numerous photos of officers facing off with rioting citizens on the street are easy to find. Now, in the wake of the country-wide turmoil that followed such events, even more light is being shined on the 1033 program.

The San Antonio Current wanted to see what equipment, if any, its own local police departments had received from the program, and submitted the appropriate public records requests to do so. Furthermore, its requests probed at some lesser known programs, which combined take in roughly half a billion dollars each year in funding. All of the programs are aimed at addressing threats in “urban” areas, basically meaning that the funding has to do with the policing of our cities.

The state’s attorney general, Greg Abbott, however, decided to step in and veto the request without much of an explanation. This is highly unusual, but the Current is left without any real recourse. The main supporting argument for the request is that the funds for the programs in question must be voted on by the city council, making them a public affair. All issues that pass through the city council are subject to sunshine laws and are generally able to be inspected by the public.

The AG’s motivations are unclear so far, but they don’t help the growing tension between communities and the various law enforcement and legal bodies meant to serve them. The Current may or may not get the information they were looking for from their inquiries. The lingering question is whether or not the AG has a valid reason to block the public records requests.