Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are you Abe Vigoda? No, Are you Abe Vigoda?

I was wondering just how much more Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature can possibly suppress voting, confuse voters or otherwise ensure that Republicans have the advantage, even though Pennsylvania is already one of the most tightly controlled states in the nation when it comes to election law and despite that there are now more registered Democrats (4.1 million) than registered Republicans (3 million) statewide.
We already cannot:
  • Vote by mail as Oregon and Washington do.  Voting by mail greatly reduces the states’ costs of having to provide and man polling places and purchase voting machines and it greatly increases voter turnout, which is, of course the opposite of what Republicans want to do.
  • Vote early as nine states do, in some cases up to a week before Election Day, which also greatly increases voter turnout.  Early voting decreases the long lines that we saw, for example, in Ohio in the 2004 election, and it makes it much more convenient for workers who might have to take off Election Day to vote because we still insist on having elections on Tuesdays.  Maine’s new conservative legislature enacted a ban on early voting in 2010 but voters approved a referendum overturning it Nov. 8.  Ohio voters have submitted more than enough signatures to place a referendum on the ballot in 2012 to overturn a similar 2010 ban in that state.
  •  Have a referendum.  No way, no how do the people of Pennsylvania ever get to directly express their will on any important issue.  Don’t you often wonder how come California, Colorado and other states can put questions on the ballot but nobody in Pennsylvania ever does?  That’s because Pennsylvania law simply does not provide any mechanism whatsoever for voter initiative and referendum.   You could gather the signatures of every voter in the state to place a question on the ballot and still could not do it.  The Legislature may place specific bond issues on the ballot, but even then, the question has to be approved two years in a row before it can be put before the voters.  Local referenda are allowed, but statewide, you cannot even amend the state constitution by public referendum.
  • Register to vote or change your party registration on Election Day.  Don’t be daft!  Many states allow same day registration, but that loosens the reins the parties have over their members too much for Pennsylvania politicians to handle.  Here you have to be aware that you must register or change your registration at least 30 days before the next election in order to vote in that election and you have go to your local election bureau to do it.
  •  Mail in an absentee ballot.  You have to jump through countless hoops: first you have to apply for an absentee ballot, and then you must deliver the ballot to the county election bureau in person within a week before the election, unless you are traveling or disabled, in which case you must have someone apply to be your designated agent to deliver the ballot.  And if you suddenly become disabled just before an election, you have to go to court to get an emergency absentee ballot!  
  •  Know whether we are voting for Republicans or Democrats for judges and school board members by looking at the ballot, since these candidates usually cross-file in both party primaries, a deliberately confusing and infuriating practice.  The idea is to discourage partisanship in these positions of sacred public trust where party should not matter.  But somehow, it is only Republicans who get elected to the judiciary in Delaware County.  I want to know the party membership of judges and school board members in this day and age of corporate control of the courts and advocacy of Creationism and abstinence sex education only in schools.   By the way, have you noticed that most lawn signs for candidates rarely identify party affiliation? 
So what’s a good Pennsylvania Republican to do to suppress voter turnout even more than all these restrictions already do?  Why require each and every voter to show a state-approved photo ID to a poll worker on each and every election day, just to make sure that Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Abe Vigoda and Marilyn Monroe don’t actually show up to vote.
Republicans are terrified of voter fraud, even though there has been no reported cases of people actually showing up at the polls to impersonate someone else to vote in many, many years.  
Yes, in 2008 there was voter registration fraud.  That is a different thing.  That is when someone enters a fake name and address on a voter registration form, but those people did not then show up at the polls.  Voter-registration-drive workers, who were being paid according to how many new registrations they brought in, were making up those names merely to be paid.  The state Legislature was quick to outlaw that procedure after the 2008 elections.
So having already made it as difficult as possible for people to vote, all the Republicans have left is Voter ID.  House Bill 934 has sped through the General Assembly and is sitting in a Senate committee awaiting action to require photo IDs, which will cost the state government an additional $4.3 million to enact and greatly slow down the voting process. 
The law would require non-drivers to go to their local PennDot service agency and obtain the state-approved photo ID, but since the ID would only be for voting purposes, the state cannot charge people for that service.  That would be a poll tax and poll taxes are unconstitutional.
So college students from out of state, the elderly and non-car-owning city folk (usually Democrats) will be greatly inconvenienced, perhaps to the point of not participating, on the pretext of preventing even a single Mickey Mouse or Abe Vigoda from getting past a less than vigilant poll worker on Election Day.  
Republicans especially hate all those Swarthmore and Haverford and Bryn Mawr College students who register to vote in presidential elections and who tend to be liberal.  Don’t be surprised if you see legislation to push the registration deadline back to before these students show up on campus to eliminate these dastardly newly enfranchised citizens from voting.
But no matter how hard the Republicans try, they’re still stuck with all those Democrats in the evil big cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and increasingly their suburbs.  If they could only come up with a way to make sure that only Republicans could vote.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The new flim-flam could be happening to you right now

A few weeks ago a friend of mine received an email from a longtime acquaintance saying that he had been “mugged in London” and asking her to send him some money to help him get home.
Knowing that he had several family members and many closer friends to fall back on, she was really taken aback.
“The nerve of him,” she said.
Although I hadn’t heard of it before, I told her it sounded like a scam and suggested she call him, which she did.  It turns out it was a scam.  He was home, had not been mugged and hadn’t been to London in years.
Then, just today, I get this email text in my own inbox purportedly from a friend of mine:

“Hope you get this on time, I made a trip to Spain, Madrid and had my bag stolen from me with my passport and credit cards in it. The embassy is willing to help by letting me fly without my passport, I just have to pay for a ticket and settle Hotel bills. Unfortunately for me, I can't have access to funds without my credit card, I've made contact with my bank but they need more time to come up with a new one. I was thinking of asking you to lend me some quick funds that I can give back as soon as I get in. I really need to be on the next available flight.

Western Union transfer is the best option to send money to me. Let me know if you need my details (Full names/location) to make the transfer. You can reach me via email.

Thank you for your input and support.”

This message is especially hilarious to me because this particular friend has owed me a few hundred dollars since roughly 1999 and would never dare ask me for more money if she were dying.
The new “I’ve been mugged in – name a foreign city” is a more sophisticated version of the old “Nigerian letter” which has been around for years.  The Nigerian letter (send me your bank account number and several thousand dollars in processing fees and I’ll split this $50 million with you) is itself a new computerized version of the old “flim-flam” (Psst, I just found this money in the street.  Give me some “earnest money” to show me you’re honest and I’ll split it with you).
As it happens, journalist James Fallows details in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine how the exact same “mugged in Madrid” con happened to his wife.   
As Fallows explains it, six years of his wife’s emails disappeared from her Gmail account at the same moment that he and everyone else in her email address book received the “I’ve been mugged in Madrid” appeal in their own email accounts.  Since the two of them had just finished breakfast and were in the same house, they understood instantly that they had been hacked.
Typically, any replies to the email are actually rerouted to an account set up by the hacker, who then sends additional, seemingly personal, messages encouraging concerned friends and family to send money while preventing the victim from finding out about the scam.
If any of the victims’ friends and family members fall for it, they might be out a few hundred dollars, pain enough right there, but the real danger is that by hacking into an email account, the hacker can gain access to passwords and personal information about banks, credit cards and other online accounts that could prove much more costly.   
If the hacker gets just one such password, he may have hit the jackpot because most of us are so prone to using the same password or couple of passwords over and over.  Otherwise, how are we going to remember all of them?  The Fallows article has some good advice on this issue.  I urge you to read it.
The Fallows were forced to close out or change all of their financial accounts, but they did eventually retrieve the six-years’ worth of emails from cyberspace or, as it’s called now, “the cloud,” those remote servers that store our stuff for us.
In investigating the incident, Fallows discovered that like the Nigerian letter, most of the hackers responsible for the mugged emails are located in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast or other places in West Africa.  A convincing scammer running several of these dodges at a time can make on average $500 a day if only one or two gullible friends believe the story, investigators told him.
The swindle is so new it hasn’t even made it on to, the venerable urban legend website.  One variation that does show up there though doesn’t even need a computer, just a telephone number.  In this one, the scammer calls and claims to be the victim’s grandson in need of money in some distant city to bail himself out of a DUI.  Since grandparents often have little contact with grown grandchildren and may not know their whereabouts or recognize their voices, this could work, though a heavy foreign accent might be a giveaway.
Snopes points out that these types of scams are especially insidious because while most frauds depend on the victim’s greed (flim-flams, the Nigerian letter), this one preys on the victims’ generosity and kind hearts.
If you get an email from me saying I’ve just been mugged somewhere in Europe, just send money to my home address, and if you don’t have my home address, well, you’re not that close a friend, are you?