Who really needs Halloween when the bone-chilling reality of legislative folly is plenty scary?
This year, a legion of hair-raising laws, proposals and policies crawled out of the shadows across the country with the potential to adversely affect the poor, people of color, women or the LGBTQ community. Below are some of the more alarming ones, rated from one to five screams.
Voter suppression laws
This year, 28 states have considered at least 82 bills to restrict voting access. Fifteen states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (including six states with strict photo ID requirements); 12 have laws making it harder for citizens to register (and stay registered); 10 made it more difficult to vote early or absentee; and three took action to make it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.
In Arizona, lawmakers enacted voter-suppression laws SB1046, SB1072, SB1188 and SB1090, which would disproportionately impact communities of color in the state. These bills sought to extend voter ID requirements to early voting and restrict access to emergency early/absentee voting. They also remove voters from the permanent early voter list if they fail to vote in two primary or general elections; make it a crime to register voters as part of your job; and make qualifying a ballot initiative more difficult.
Voter registration restrictions
In Tennessee, a new law will make registering to vote harder in response to what Republican state lawmakers said was a deluge of voter registration forms submitted by grassroots groups like Tennessee Black Voter Project, which had signed up roughly 86,000 Tennesseans throughout the previous year to vote in the 2018 Midterm elections. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law that criminalizes voter registration efforts despite Tennessee recently being 40th in voter registration and 49th in voter turnout in 2016. However, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger blocked the law’s implementation in September, calling it a “punitive regulatory scheme”
Ohio voter list purges
In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office targeted 235,000 names for removal from voter rolls ostensibly because they hadn’t participated in the past three election cycles. However, 20% of the list, or roughly 40,000 voters marked as inactive, were actually active voters, including the head of the Ohio chapter of the League of Women Voters.
The inaccuracies were discovered by several civil rights and voting rights groups after LaRose’s office publicly released the list. Ohio State University election law professor Daniel Tokaji has testified that such purges disproportionately harm poor people and minorities. Under an agreement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio and the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, Ohioans who’ve been purged can still cast a provisional ballot at their polling place through 2022.
LaRose points to the list’s release as a show of transparency and an opportunity for voters to correct any errors. However, given both the close results of the last presidential election, and the pivotal role Ohio historically plays, any drop of voters from lists could likely have national consequences.
Formerly incarcerated poll tax
Despite the overwhelming (65%) passage of Proposition 4 in Florida in 2018 that restores voting rights to the state’s estimated over 1 million former felons upon completion of parole or probation, Florida Republicans are trying to prevent formerly incarcerated people from voting by requiring them to first pay court fines, fees, and restitution.
The change would essentially impose a poll tax on these overwhelmingly poor Floridians, 1 in 5 of which are estimated to be African-Americans. This law would continue what has been termed Florida’s reputation for so-called “cash register justice,” which finances the criminal justice system on the backs of those who can least afford it. Luckily, federal judge Robert Hinkle ruled in October, “… access to the franchise cannot be made to depend on an individual’s financial resources.” However, he did not invalidate the entire law in his ruling.
Medicaid work requirements
Mandated work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries have been approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in nine states with others pending approval or under review, including for Tennessee. It’s estimated that 589,000 to 811,000 poor people would lose their Medicaid coverage after 12 months because of this policy change, negatively affecting the lives of millions of families across the country, according to The Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit foundation that supports independent research on health policy reform. And in many cases, it would cost states more money than it saves, the foundation said.
Since Kentucky adopted work requirements for Medicaid eligibility in 2018, several other states have sought similar restrictive waivers from the federal government. Currently, there are 17 states that have adopted work eligibility measures. In Tennessee, an analysis by the state’s fiscal staff estimated new requirements will cost taxpayers nearly $19 million each year, which includes the $3.6 million of savings from the 10% of patients losing Medicaid coverage. Most of these costs are caused by the bureaucracy created by keep tabs on policing the new rules.
This year, so-called, “heartbeat laws,” which ban abortion if a heartbeat is detected, were proposed in at least 20 states — including Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, West Virginia, Texas, Maryland and Minnesota — and approved in Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri. In May, Louisiana’s Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a “heartbeat” bill passed by the legislature. Judges have blocked them all through preliminary injunctions.
Legislation prohibiting abortion after six weeks was introduced in 11 states, though Tennessee and South Carolina rejected those bills. This week, a judge blocked Alabama’s near-total abortion ban set to go into effect in November. Alabama’s efforts would most negatively impact low-income women unable to afford to travel to less restrictive states and was purposely designed to evoke legal challenges that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to overturn landmark Roe v. Wade.
In Tennessee, a heartbeat “trigger ban” bill was signed into law in May by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. It would make abortions illegal should the Supreme Court overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.
But as of now, abortion is still legal in all 50 states.
Immigration restrictions on the poor
A Trump administration policy change would deny and disqualify immigrants from visas and green cards if they use, or are even deemed likely to use, federal safety net programs such as Medicaid, food assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers. It expands the definition of so-called “public charge” beyond an immigrant’s cash alone. Public charge restrictions were first added to immigration regulation in the Immigration Act of 1882 as a nativist backlash to an influx of non-Anglo Saxon immigrants, including Italians and Jews. An estimated 31% of all non-citizens would be impacted, mainly black and brown ones.
Oppressive court debt
To raise revenue and make up for budget shortfalls, cities, states, courts and prosecutors levy hefty fines at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system, which falls heaviest on poor communities of color who are more heavily policed and less likely to have the disposable income to pay. Courts impose astronomical fees, known as legal financial obligations, on people charged with crimes including arrest fees, bench warrant fees, lawyer fees, crime lab fees, jury fees, and fees for victim assessments. There are even fees for sleeping in jail.
Guilt by association evictions
Under Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed new rules published in May, which amends Section 214 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1980, any single member of a family found to be undocumented will result in the entire family’s eviction within 18 months.
This change will have a dire impact on poor families of color, penalizing them for just being even remotely related to someone who may overstay a student, worker or tourist visa, and potentially rendering them homeless. According to critics, the proposal is a direct attack on immigrant communities and families living in poverty, callously pits poor immigrant families of color against struggling African-American and white families over access to the shrinking the pool of public housing, and would have a chilling effect on needy families even applying for low-income housing programs. As a result of this proposed rule, an estimated 55,000 children nationwide are at risk of losing the stability they need to be successful.
Since May, more than 30,000 overwhelmingly oppositional comments have been filed on the Federal Register by individuals, community groups, public health and housing experts, and educators. However, its implementation is in legal limbo. While states like California threaten lawsuits, some courts are certain to order injunctive relief, and the administration promises to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Schools shaming poor kids
A suburban New Jersey school district announced a new policy preventing poor students who owe money for lunches from going on field trips. The Cherry Hill school district’s policy prohibits any students who owe $75 or more from participating in extracurricular activities, purchasing tickets for school dances including proms, attending class trips and purchasing a yearbook. The prohibition would not only essentially name and shame these low-income children but also create a two-tiered class of students based on their family’s ability to pay for lunch.
Invasive technology in schools and hospitals
In response to the fear of shootings by disgruntled students or former employees, some schools and hospitals are using advanced technology to target individuals suspected of becoming a problem in the future. Facial recognition cameras and voice sensitive aggression detectors are two of the more Orwellian tools they will try out since Congress approved more than $25 million for school security improvements in 2018.
Aggression detectors use microphones equipped with algorithms that claim to identify stress and anger before violence erupts. Many such predictive algorithms are proven to have racial biases that negatively impact black and brown people.
California-based Louroe Electronics claims the software enables security officers to “engage antagonistic individuals immediately, resolving the conflict before it turns into physical violence.” The system can recognize and alert authorities to the sounds of gunshots, car alarms and broken glass, but also screaming, aggressive speaking, smoking or vaping, and even coughing. Microphones allow administrators to record, replay and store those snippets of conversation indefinitely. The technology has been known to equate lockers closing with gunshots and students singing happy birthday with panicked screaming, according to an investigation by ProPublica.
Tennessee’s anti-LGBT ‘Slate of Hate’
This year Tennessee Bill HB563 is advancing through the legislature, and claims to stop state and local governments from taking “discriminatory action against a business based on the policies of the business.” However, advocacy groups fear it would further an anti-LGBT agenda in the state. The Tennessee Equality Project and the Human Rights Campaign argue the bill, along with six other state house and senate companion measures, is part of a Slate of Hate that would discriminate against LGBT people in Tennessee.
Passing these bills could result in boycotts and economic fallout for the state, critics say. The proposals have drawn criticism from prominent celebrities and dozens of businesses , including Amazon, Ikea, Nike, Marriott, Lyft, Hilton, Warner Music Group and AllianceBernstein, along with local sports teams like the Tennessee Titans, Nashville Predators and Nashville Soccer Club. Though the Tennessee House passed the bill, the state Senate version was referred to committee in the 2020 legislative session.
Along with HB563, there’s the:
HB1151— prohibits transgender individuals from using certain bathrooms, locker rooms or public showers. The Tennessee House passed the bill 69–25, the state Senate approved it on a 21–5 vote, and Gov. Bill Lee signed the legislation into law on May 2.
HB1274 — requires the state’s attorney general to defend schools that discriminate against transgender students. The state Senate opted, at the end of this year’s legislative session, against voting on the measure, sending it instead to be considered again in 2020.
HB836 — prohibits private licensed child-placing agencies from acting in a way that, “would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions.” While the Tennessee House passed HB836 67–22, the state Senate reset its version of the legislation for the beginning of the 2020 legislative session.
HB1152 — allows child-placing agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples by not placing adoptive children with them. The bill did not advance this year, but remains assigned to next year’s legislative committees.
Michael Jackson is a communications fellow at Community Change, a political analyst/researcher, and freelance writer/editor living in New York City. You can read his work on Medium and follow him on Twitter at @blk_Intellect.
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