Iowa caucuses give rural voters an opportunity to be heard

Photo retrieved from archives at

In Iowa, where rural areas “make up more than three-quarters of the state’s 99 counties and are home to 40 percent of its population,” the caucuses give rural voters the chance to have their voices heard and get face-to-face time with presidential candidates, Alicia Parlapiano, Brent McDonald and Larry Buchanan report for The New York Times. “Party leaders in rural areas are well aware of the power they hold, whether they vote as a bloc to tip the result in one direction or provide just enough support to cut into a candidate’s margins from the bigger cities.”

“Iowa often has its first-in-the-nation voting status called into question, in part because its demographics (the state is 92 percent white) don’t represent the country as a whole,” reports the Times. “But Iowans will proudly defend their position, citing their deep commitment to the process and the lengths to which they will go to scrutinize the candidates.”

“Caucuses are run by the parties, not the state, so the bulk of the organizing falls to volunteer committee members, who are driven by a passion less for individual candidates than for their parties’ values and the grass-roots political process,” reports the Times. Jordan Pope, chairman of the Decatur County Democrats, who, at 18, is the youngest county chairman or chairwoman in Iowa, told the Times, “I think being in a rural area, you’re able to step up to the plate and take more responsibilities, which is awesome and a little scary also. I have friends in Texas and Alabama, and they’re always jealous when they see me taking selfies with presidential candidates. Yeah, you have primaries there, but the main way they see their candidates is on a TV screen.”

One of the strengths of the caucuses it that they “are not designed for anonymity: Everyone arrives at once and can make a pitch for their favorite candidate in front of the entire group,” reports the Times. “While the Republicans vote secretly on scraps of paper, the process for Democrats requires caucusgoers to declare their preference by physically standing in a candidate’s designated corner.”

One problem is that “Iowa’s 99 counties have shrunk in population since 1990, with the most rural areas hit the hardest,” reports the Times. “The 18- to 34-year-old share of the population has decreased in all but four counties in the state, rural and urban alike. The shedding of Iowa’s rural population has made it more difficult for the parties to recruit and maintain leaders for their county committees. At the same time, a growing dependence on out-of-state paid staff members in election years has left many counties without local volunteers who have the skills to maintain their organizations in non-election years.”

Another problem has been technology, reports the Times. Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus in 2012, but results were not released for two weeks when Mitt Romney “was said to have won.” Officials have worked to curb that problem, this year “replacing their paper and landline vote reporting system with a digital one” that will verify totals within 48 hours. Still, some are worried that a lack of high-speed Internet in some rural areas could hamper results.

Reprinted with permission from The Rural Blog.  Article written by Tim Mandell. Al Cross,  former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog.

Buckle up.

If your county government is approached by a company selling something called DirtGlue for gravel roads, what happened in Montgomery County, Virginia, may interest you and your local officials.

In an attempt to save money from “the usual $1 million per mile cost of building a new paved road, or $500,000 per mile cost of improving one to ‘rural road rustic’ standards,” the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors pushed for a company that uses DirtGlue to pave the mile-long stretch of Old Sourwood Road, Mike Gangloff reports for The Roanoke Times. The polymer was designed to “fuse the road’s unpaved surface into a hard material similar to asphalt.” The road “would not be officially classified as paved, but it wouldn’t have the maintenance costs typical of unpaved routes.”

The move was approved, and Montgomery County and the Virginia Department of Transportation split the $183,365 cost of the DirtGlue treatment, Gangloff writes. Board chairman Jim Politis told Gangloff, “We invested a little money to see if we could save a lot of money.”

Trying to save a few dollars cost the county big time when the gluing didn’t take on most of the road, Gangloff writes. “Potholes and washboarding quickly developed. There was heavy dust, according to residents and the highway department. Residents’ complaints set off a round of finger-pointing between company, county and state officials. DirtGlue blamed a contractor for applying their product during a rainstorm and said that VDOT did not prepare the surface properly. VDOT said that a company representative had been present when the DirtGlue was spread.

“Residents said that they endured an increasingly bumpy ride to and from their homes as officials wrangled about what to do next,” Gangloff writes. “Earlier this year, the company said that it planned to apply more DirtGlue but needed to coordinate with the county.” Instead, in August, the county and VDOT split the $16,000 cost to have “the road de-glued, grinding up the remaining DirtGlue and covering it with new stone,” returning the road to its original gravel state.

Update from RuralVotes: A glimpse into DirtGlue’s product claims can be found here.

Reprinted with permission from The Rural Blog.  Article written by Tim Mandell. Al Cross,  former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog.

Political differences are never a justification to insult the president.

You don’t need to look further than your internet browser to find the answer to whether the Confederate battle flag is a remnant of racism. The evidence points to it being a vile reminder of all the injustices of slavery.

In 1863, William T. Thompson, the editor of the Savannah Morning News, proposed a design that became the Confederate battle flag, the Stainless Banner recently removed from government grounds by South Carolina’s state legislature in the aftermath of horrendous tragedy. Nine people, attending Bible study, were murdered by a disturbed young man obsessed with that flag and its true meaning.  One of the flag’s designers, Mr. Thompson was a strong supporter of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.  His words leave no room for doubt what that battle flag stood for when he wrote and published multiple editorials.

“As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.… Such a flag…would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as the white mans flag.… As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.”

And so, all these many years later, most of us have finally acknowledged the truth.

With full protection under the First Amendment, there are individuals who decry the banning of the Stainless Banner. Some of those people chose to put the Confederate flag on display in Oklahoma as President Obama arrived to visit. Protected free speech. No law against it. Still, Tom Cole, Republican Member of Congress who hails from Moore, Oklahoma, stood tall against the bigotry and disrespect those flag wavers showed to the President of the United States. His words, in a statement released earlier today, make clear his honorable intentions as well as his sense of decency.

“I was shocked and disappointed by those who showed up to wave Confederate flags soon after President Obama arrived in Oklahoma.” Read Representative Cole’s entire statement here.  You’ll feel better about our nation’s leaders – on both sides of the aisle. Thank you, Congressman Cole. We needed that.

Improving health through better nutrition? Fuggedaboudit says the GOP.

Putting the fat back into America’s food policy is a loud and clear priority for the new majority in Congress this year.  First Lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move” initiative in February 9, 2010.  A widely acclaimed first step to taking on childhood obesity, the First lady hasn’t been shy about wielding her considerable influence in order to make healthier kids, with healthier parents along with healthier seniors, a priority. The Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the guidance of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, has been a willing partner in Obama administration efforts to help create a healthier America. As recently as August 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new updates in labeling to make it easier for consumers to glean nutrition information about food items they purchase.

Rolling back healthier school menus are on the table. The new Republican Congress has been busy laying groundwork to push back on better nutrition standards in 2015. Don’t be surprised to see GOP lawmakers take on school nutrition from Day One. Provisions to allow states more flexibility to exempt schools from the Department of Agriculture’s whole-grain standards, and to halt future sodium restrictions are just the beginning. The battle over new reforms championed by Mrs. Obama is expected to escalate.

The guy in charge is U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee. It’s interesting to note that Alabama has the nation’s highest rate of obesity among high school students. Still, Rep. Aderholt’s been leading the charge on school lunch backsliding nutrition standards.  Go figure.  And his cause is set to receive a boost from the House Education and Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), and the Senate Agriculture Committee soon to be chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), as they begin the re-authorization process on the law governing school nutrition programs. Republicans openly voice dissatisfaction with the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a law with many of the reforms triggering complaints among school food service providers, and Republicans who argue the rules are too prescriptive and costly.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) seems a misnomer for a group that went to war with the White house over new regulations to limit sodium, fat and sugar as well as the mandate that grain products are whole grain-rich, and that kids take a serving of fruits or vegetables. SNA’s request to drop the half cup serving of fruits or vegetables is strongly opposed by nutrition advocates, the White House, and the produce industry which has seen sales gains in produce sales because of the program.  SNA claims the requirement has led to skyrocketing waste and costs, creating dire financial consequences for some school nutrition program providers. SNA will host a fly-in to Washington and Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers the first week of March. Close to 1,000 member lobbyists will be armed with talking points against the higher standards and stories arguing that having vending machines and a la carte lines with better nutrition requirements has led to lost revenue for schools — reducing sodium is emerging as a sore point, too. Never mind the high medical costs from our nation’s not so secret killer in the form of high blood pressure fueled by high salt intake.

As for consumer nutrition labeling advances, the FDA can expect to feel the heat on its rule requiring calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants, grocery stores and movie theaters nationwide. The grocery and convenience store industries are especially upset about being included in the rule, mandated by a provision in the Affordable Care Act. FDA included calorie counts for alcoholic beverages. That seems to have really stirred the pot (or should I say martini) for the new majority with GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says the FDA’s menu labeling rule is “suffocating America’s economy.” She countered with the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, HR 1249, a bill to roll back an assortment of the new requirements. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) expects to champion a Senate version this year.

“The Food and Drug Administration has acted recklessly, mandating regulations without considering the impact they will have on American employees, business owners, and our economy,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “Adhering to these burdensome requirements will be extremely costly — in both time and resources — for restaurants, grocery stores, delivery chains, and movie theaters across the country.”

She forgot the lost revenue at neighborhood bars where patrons will certainly be counting calories before ordering that beer after work.  There is no doubt the reasons for continuing healthier practices by the food industry in allowing consumers to make choices has broad implications on our nation’s future health, and the back end of those choices in the cost of health care delivery as we grow older. The notion that America’s families don’t want or need to know what’s in their food or drink products seems more like Big Brother legislation than increased awareness of the products we consume.

For the better part of the last year, RuralVotes and South Forward have been working together on voter protection and ballot access issues. Too many voters stayed home in 2014, many stating they don’t believe their vote matters. Many people also do not believe anything changes in their personal lives based on who gets elected.  But when things like limiting our right to know about what we eat and drink are on the legislative table, it’s as personal as it gets.

Why vote?

“As we move forward, let us also look back. So long as we remember those who died for our right to vote and those like John H. Johnson who built empires where there were none, we will walk into the future with unity and strength.”  – Dorothy Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010) was an American civil rights and women’s rights activist.

The following informational ad is currently being aired in select North Carolina radio markets.  I like to think that Dorothy would have approved.


Brushes with Inequality: A Blog Action Day 2014 essay

by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

The girl was eight, in third grade, when she was introduced to inequality. She didn’t know the word, but she had a strong feeling that could be summed up as “That isn’t fair.”

Her teacher was telling the class that since colonial times, America had led the world in treating all people as equals. To prove her point she read from the Declaration of Independence the immortal phrase, ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

Never shy in class, she raised her hand. “Why just men?” she asked. “What about women?”

“’Men’ means both men and women,” the teacher explained, with an air that invited no further discussion. Unconvinced, the girl burned to know why the person who wrote that couldn’t have written “all people” instead. She didn’t see how she could be considered a man.

Now that she knew men were all that mattered she began noticing little things that made her feel dismissed: only the boys got to roll the wind-up record player from the storage closet to the classroom. Only the boys got to wind it up and place the needle on the record.The girls got to listen to the music. Only the boys got to take mechanical drawing and wood shop. The girls had to take home economics and cooking, which she got enough of at home.

Gradually she started recognizing other things that determined a person’s status and degree of privilege: skin color, how rich one’s family was, even height and weight. She learned that inequality had many facets, and that being on the low side of the equality see-saw had implications more far-reaching than most people seemed to realize.

By the time she reached her teens she was a confirmed activist, determined to call to people’s attention every instance of inequality she discovered.

Now seventy years past her first brush with inequality, she is still noticing. In the recent past she has noticed:

  • A well-known TV sports reporter was arrested for arguing with his wife in public. Someone called the state police and said he was choking her. There were no marks or bruises on the woman’s neck, not when the man was arrested, not in the police report, and not in court the next day when the woman sat next to her husband. She did not file a complaint; the police, who had nothing to go on but the anonymous phone caller’s word, did. The rest of the story is here.
  • Three young black men, one holding a sandwich, one a bag of candy, and one a toy air rifle in the toy department of a large store, were shot dead by white police officers in the last few months.
  • Hundreds of armed men, all white, held off a team from the Bureau of Land Management in support of a Nevada rancher who grazes his cattle on land owned by the U.S. government for which he is supposed to be paying rent. What do you think would have happened if the armed men were all black?
  • Research done at the University of Massachusetts finds that disadvantaged populations suffer more from pollution inequality than from income inequality.
  • The disparity in treatment of a black man from Liberia who went to an ER in Dallas complaining of a fever and was sent home with an anti-biotic, later to die of Ebola, and the white people who contracted Ebola in Liberia and came home to the US to be treated with an experimental anti-Ebola drug, is emblematic of the disparity of care between black and white, and between the insured and uninsured.
  • A state representative described a woman running for Congress in his state as “ugly as sin…and I hope I haven’t offended sin.” The opposing candidate, a member of his political party, no surprise, he said was “one of the most attractive women on the political scene anywhere, not so attractive as to be intimidating, but truly attractive.” Inagine his saying the same thing about two male candidates.

This list could go on indefinitely. There is no end to the inequality of treatment between black and white, male and female, rich and poor, and even thin and fat.

In her 79th year, the woman’s activism has diminished some, partly because of age but also because she is acutely aware of how little effect her activism has had. She is also acutely aware of the injustice that inequality engenders, and believes that without justice there will be no peace.

She still believes in the words of Theodore Parker, the 19th Century abolitionist Unitarian minister: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” She doesn’t expect to see the arc and justice intersect in her lifetime, but she’ll die with hope in her heart.

With this essay she hands the baton to another generation.

#BAD2014 #Inequality #BlogAction2014 #BlogActionDay #Blogaction14, #Oct16

Voter ID education and outreach – it’s the right thing to do.

Rural Votes and South Forward have formed an alliance to help North Carolina voters understand and comply with new voter ID laws signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory on August 12, 2013.  A little recent history about voter ID laws and the previous protections from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act may be helpful to explain why the new law in North Carolina requires action to help voters understand and comply.

Neighboring South Carolina passed its law in May 2011 that required voters to show a photo ID before they could vote. Republicans praised the law as protecting the integrity of elections. Democrats criticized the law as disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians – mostly minorities – who did not have a photo ID.  In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the bill from taking effect. You can read the entire letter from the DOJ rejecting the South Carolina law here. South Carolina sued and a federal three-judge panel then upheld the law as a result of the state deciding to agree to allow voters to opt out of the photo ID requirement if they had a “reasonable impediment” and signed an affidavit attesting to that.

That kind of check and balance fueled by Section 5 resulted in the South Carolina law being rendered largely toothless by the federal court, in essence, forcing South Carolina to adjust their requirements. The safety net of Section 5 was felled on June 25, 2013 by Shelby County V. Holder in a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

While the Court did not invalidate the principle that preclearance can be required, it held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which sets out the formula that is used to determine which state and local governments must comply with Section 5’s preapproval requirement, is unconstitutional and can no longer be used. Which means that while Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless, and until Congress can enact a new statute to determine what the coverage should be.

That’s right — Congress.

Now, let’s talk about NC. On July 25, 2013 – one month to the day of the decision by SCOTUS to make Section 5 gutless, the North Carolina legislature passed a new voter ID law. The law “limits the kind of identification that voters can use at the polls to a North Carolina driver’s license, a state-issued ID card, a military ID, or a U.S. passport.” According to the law, out of state licenses will only work for voters who have moved into the state within 60 days of the election. College IDs are not valid forms of identification. The approved bill also cut early voting. Governor Pat McCrory (R) signed the bill into law on August 12, 2013 Parts of the law are in effect now, although primary photo ID requirements are not taking effect until January, 2016.

Back to the fight. Just yesterday a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals met in Charlotte to hear arguments on an injunction to prevent elements in the law already implemented in the May primary from being used in the fall election.  It’s an appeal of a decision made little more than a month ago by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder to deny a preliminary injunction. According to Judge Schroeder, plaintiffs had not proven the premise that voters were being harmed by the law’s implementation.

Photo voter IDs were declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2008.  In a 6-to-3 ruling, the court rejected arguments that Indiana’s law imposes unjustified burdens on people who are old, poor or members of minority groups and less likely to have driver’s licenses or other acceptable forms of identification.

Notwithstanding the treat of a blistering dissent by the Honorable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, photo voter ID laws are deemed constitutional.  Until very recently, 16 states had enforceable photo ID laws, 8 were considered strict. On Friday, September 12, 2014, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that Wisconsin can implement its photo voter ID law, while the appeals process continues. The law, enacted in 2011, has been blocked by court challenges up until this point.

Wisconsin is now the ninth state to have a strict photo ID law in place, a stunning and disconcerting comeback.

A number of states, including NC and NH will be in the strict column in the not so distant future. There are court challenges in 5 states with photo voter ID laws on the books. It’s worth watching state legislatures that have had ID laws blocked by litigation. We can expect new laws, written more thoughtfully, will rear their ugly heads where legislators and bound, and determined to pass new strict voter ID laws.

Photo voter ID laws are not going away. They may be tweaked by courts along the way, one or two maybe tossed out entirely because a judge determined a particularly egregious requirement was over the top.  In the meantime, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unenforceable and we’re waiting on Congress to reaffirm that section that protects voters in certain jurisdictions. With that in mind, RuralVotes and South Forward are already working hard to help make sure every vote is counted by reaching out to average voters to help them understand and comply with the new laws before they take full effect.

It’s the right thing to do.  You can help.

Who Gets To Vote?

Two hundred thirty-eight years ago today America was born. Under the shadow of the American Revolution a nation of promise and hope was created. Then it happened: the Second Continental Congress restricted the right to vote to white, free, male landowners, over the age of 21. That was the start of our nation’s still bumpy ride on the road to voting equality.

Every time there was a boost for democracy, there came an equal opposing force. In Florida, blacks composed almost half of Florida’s population at the end of the Civil War. Like in other Southern states, most blacks in Florida were slaves and none had the right to vote.

As a condition for rejoining the Union, Florida and the rest of the Confederate states had to draft new constitutions protecting the political rights of the newly freed slaves as directed in the 15th Amendment. Florida politicians then adopted other provisions to eliminate black voting.  The 1888 poll tax and literacy test reduced black voter turnout from 62% to 11%.

In 1907 US born women lost their citizenship if they married a non-citizen.

In 1917 interpreters for Mexican-Americans were banned at Texas polling places.

In 1928 the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans living on reservations were wards of the state and could not vote.

In 1947 Caddo Parish, Louisiana, black voters were enrolled only if three white voters vouched for them.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed to shore up the 15th Amendment and fix all that. Has it?

In 2004 Arizona was the first state to require a government issued photo ID as a prerequisite for voting.

Thirty-four states have passed voter ID laws in the last ten years. According to Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “These laws represent the most significant cutback in voting rights in decades.”

Currently, the laws are being challenged in the courts by several advocacy groups, as well as the United States Department of Justice. However, court cases can take years and no matter the fate of this law in the courts, elections in the near future will be greatly impacted.

The North Carolina Center for Voter Education reported that 260 new voter IDs were issued in the first three months of 2014. Of that number 87% of the IDs were issued to new voters, leaving approximately 31 of the more than 300,000 already registered voters as having received an ID. It’s not all bad news though.

A recently released study, conducted by Jack Citrin, Donald P. Green, and Morris Levy, gives strong indicators there is opportunity in educating and assisting voters whose right to vote is at risk. The Citrin, Green and Levy study contends, “the Help message appears to raise turnout, with positive effects ranging from 0.66 to 2.03 percentage points.”

RuralVotes and South Forward have been hard at work on the North Carolina Voter Identification Assistance Project (NCVIP).  Our mission is to reach out to hundreds of thousands of affected North Carolina voters, explain the new laws and make sure they have access to the identification they need to continue to be able to vote.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal … the promise of July 4, 1776 has yet to be delivered. There is plenty of work to be done and you can help by visiting: to make a donation.

One judge issues death penalty to Arkansas Voter ID Law, Arkansas Supreme Court stays the execution…

This story says it all when it comes to relying on the courts to upend voter ID laws.

RuralVotes has teamed up with South Forward to launch a new Voter ID Project. First stop, North Carolina.

From the early suffragists, to the repeal of the Poll Tax and Jim Crow laws, it took generations of struggle for women and minorities to be granted the right to vote. With the final passage of the voting rights act in 1965, America was finally a land where every vote truly counted.

Less than one generation later, in 2012, with the stroke of a pen, North Carolina Governor McCrory disenfranchised over 300,000 North Carolinians – over half who vote regularly.

Currently, this law is being challenged in the courts by several advocacy groups, as well as the United States Department of Justice. However, as witnessed by recent events in Arkansas, court cases can take too long and and elections can be left impacted. The solution isn’t simple, it starts with hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Our mission is to reach out to affected voters in rural North Carolina counties. We will contact them, county by county, explain the new laws and make sure they have access to the identification they need to continue to be able to vote under the new laws. The most important weapon in our arsenal in defending democracy is our vigilance. Crossing our fingers is no substitute for action.

Just in from National Farmers Union

WASHINGTON (Jan. 28, 2014) – The National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson, under direction from the NFU Board of Directors, sent a letter today to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner calling for the 2014 Farm Bill to be called up and voted on this week.
Farm bill conference committee members have agreed to a compromise that will provide farmers, ranchers, rural residents and America’s consumers with policy certainty over the next five years,” said Johnson. “Thanks to the leadership of Chairwoman Stabenow, Chairman Lucas, Ranking Member Cochran, and Ranking Member Peterson, and, the farm bill is now at the final stage in the legislative process.”
The letter outlines several of NFU’s priorities that were included in the final report language.
“NFU is pleased with the conference report for a variety of reasons,” said Johnson. “The bill includes fixed reference prices to provide assistance to farmers only when truly necessary. It provides a strong crop insurance title and approximately $4 billion in livestock disaster assistance. The bill increases funding for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program and related initiatives. We are also encouraged by the inclusion of robust mandatory funding levels for renewable energy programs. We’re also very happy that the bill preserves the ability of American family farmers and ranchers to distinguish their products in the marketplace through the existing Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law.”
“On behalf of all family farmers, ranchers, fishermen, rural residents and consumers, I call on Congress to pass the bill this week,” continued Johnson. “It is time to move forward and pass the farm bill.”
Click here to view the letter.