Close Up’s Election Recap

By the end of the day on Election Day, 47 percent of eligible voters in the United States had cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm elections.1 After a week of waiting with several races still uncalled, heading to a runoff, or requiring a recount, it looks like Republicans will have a slim majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats will keep control of the Senate.2

Governing with a divided Congress generally means that legislation moves more slowly, as a highly polarized legislature must reach agreement over issues that deeply divide the nation before President Joe Biden can sign anything into law. While the current Congress is likely to pass funding the government by its December 16 deadline, things might be much more difficult next October when the time comes to find the government again. In addition, newly elected representatives and senators must work together to raise the debt ceiling or the United States will no longer be allowed to legally borrow money to fund federal programs.3

The two parties are starting to lay out their priorities for the new 118th Congress. Some House Republicans are hoping to investigate the president and his son, Hunter Biden, believing Hunter’s business dealings have compromised the White House.4 Senate Democrats will continue to prioritize filling vacancies in the judiciary by confirming judges nominated by President Biden.5

TRACK House Election Results on CNN 

Beyond the congressional races that took place nationwide, 36 states and three territories held gubernatorial elections on November 8.6 In four races, the party holding the governorship flipped, with Democrats gaining control in three states and Republicans gaining control in one. New milestones were marked, as the largest number of women governors will take office next year, two of whom are serving with lieutenant governors who are also women—the first time women hold both of those positions at the same time.7

Ballots in 37 states included a total of 132 measures for voters to consider.8 A diverse set of initiatives affected elections and voter identification, and most states rejected measures to enhance ID requirements or reduce early voting. Recreational cannabis use was legalized in Maryland and Missouri but rejected in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arkansas.9 In the five states where abortion access was on the ballot, voters added protections for abortion or rejected additional restrictions.10

Many political pundits and journalists have expressed surprise regarding the midterm outcomes. Weeks before the election, these commentators told Americans to get ready for a “red wave” of Republican victories.11 There were reasons for this argument—inflation is high, the party in power usually loses seats, President Biden is unpopular, and past polls have overrepresented Democratic support. However, it turns out high-quality polls (conducted by professional polling companies that are unaffiliated with a political party) were quite accurate this year, with the only significant miss in Florida where Republican support was underestimated.12

Party officials are still examining what succeeded and what failed in their campaign strategies, but some trends have emerged. Abortion access was important to many voters this year.13 Candidates who campaigned on overturning the 2020 election results and those who placed doubt in election security tended to lose or do more poorly than expected.14 In some key states with close races, “split-ticket” voters were willing to vote for Republicans in some races and Democrats in others. For example, voters in both New Hampshire and Nevada elected a Republican governor and a Democratic senator.15

National and state elected officials are just getting ready to start their terms next year, but attention is already starting to aim toward 2024. The Senate map currently looks more challenging for Democrats, Donald Trump has announced he is running for president again, and Republican leadership is already assessing the best campaign strategies to use in two years.16 In the meantime, those in power face governing a public divided over issues such as climate, the economy, and individual rights.

Discussion Questions

  1. Did the results of the midterm elections surprise you? Why or why not?
  2. If you had been able to vote in this election, how would you have voted and why?
  3. Which issues are the most important for elected officials to address in the next two years? How, if at all, do your newly elected officials plan to solve these issues?
  4. Young voters (aged 18-29) are the age group least likely to vote. This time around, voter turnout among young people was at its second highest level for a midterm election in the last 30 years.17 Why do you think so many young people voted this year?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: REUTERS/Marco Bello
[1] FiveThirtyEight:
[2] CNN:
[3] Vox:
[4] CBS News:
[5] Politico:
[6] National Governors Association:
[7] New York Times:
[8] New York Magazine:
[9] CBS News:
[10] CNN:
[11] Fox News:
[12] The New Yorker:
[13] The Hill:
[14] Business Insider:
[15] WBUR:
[16] The Hill:
[17] CIRCLE.


Will the Supreme Court End Affirmative Action?

On October 31, 2022, the Supreme Court heard two cases regarding the use of race in college admissions.1 Rulings on these cases could force many universities to reshape their admissions processes.2

The History of Affirmative Action and the Supreme Court

The present-day context of the term “affirmative action” grew from executive orders by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, which stated that government contractors should “take affirmative action” to ensure nondiscrimination in employment.3 After the idea expanded to education, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), a case dealing with a California medical school that had set aside 16 of 100 spots for minority applicants.4 A fractured Court ruled that schools could use race as one of several admissions criteria, but the rigid quota in this instance was impermissible.5

In 2003, the Supreme Court found that the University of Michigan’s points system was too broadly preferential to minority candidates.6 Simultaneously, the Court ruled that race could still be considered a factor in admissions if done so in the individualized manner used by the University of Michigan Law School.7 One of the named plaintiffs in the Michigan case went on to advocate for a ballot initiative banning the state’s public universities from considering race (the Court upheld the ban in 2014).8 To date, in the 10 states with policies to this effect, universities have attempted other methods of increasing minority enrollment.9 In reviewing a 2016 case out of Texas, the Court largely upheld its 2003 decisions.10

What Are the Current Legal Arguments Surrounding Affirmative Action?

The cases presently under consideration center on the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard University.11 As a state institution, UNC is subject to the clause of the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal protection of the laws.12 That clause does not apply to Harvard as a private institution, but Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which prohibits racial discrimination in any recipient of federal funding—applies to both schools.13

The legal test that the Supreme Court uses in cases that involve equal protection and race is called strict scrutiny.14 To meet the burden, the schools must show that their policies serve a compelling government interest and use a narrowly tailored means to further that interest.15 In the Bakke decision, the Court ruled that addressing historical racial injustice was not a compelling government interest given its impact on individuals not responsible for that harm.16 However, in that case and all relevant rulings that have followed, the Court has cited the creation of a diverse student body as a compelling interest.17 In the cases presently before the Court, the justices will again decide if diversity is a compelling enough interest to allow the schools to use race as a factor in admissions.18

Even if the Supreme Court continues to uphold diversity as a compelling interest, it must still answer the other question that strict scrutiny poses: are the methods used to gain diversity narrowly tailored? Previous rulings have said that meeting that standard requires a holistic, individual review of candidates in which race is not a determining factor, that the process doesn’t cause undue harm to nonminority candidates, and that no workable alternatives would serve the school’s goal.19

What Happened at the Supreme Court Hearing This Week?

During Monday’s hearings, a majority of justices expressed skepticism about whether the current cases meet strict scrutiny.

Justice Samuel Alito seemed to suggest that there were no means schools could use that would be sufficiently narrowly tailored when he asked, “What is your response to the simple argument that college admissions are a zero-sum game?”20 Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the need to explicitly list race to achieve diversity. Justice Roberts asked if Harvard could consider “what an applicant would say in an essay about having to confront discrimination growing up and how he or she did that?”21 The lawyer challenging Harvard indicated that such a method would be acceptable.22

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson suggested that UNC’s current methods are narrowly tailored since the school examines 40 different factors, thereby “looking at the full person.”23 Justice Elena Kagan expressed support for diversity as a compelling interest, saying, “I thought part of what it meant to be an American and to believe in American pluralism is that actually our institutions … are reflective of who we are as a people in all our variety.”24

LISTEN to the Supreme Court Hearing of Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina

LISTEN to the Supreme Court Hearing of Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard

What’s Next?

If the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action, how it does so could be significant. A finding that affirmative action policies violate Title VI would be more limited than a ruling finding a violation of the 14th Amendment.25 The latter, as a constitutionally based ruling, could have implications on voting rights and other policy areas.26

Leading up to the hearing, both supporters and opponents of affirmative action rallied in Washington, D.C.27 The rallies included affected university students who promised to continue their advocacy beyond the Supreme Court’s hearing and ruling.28 The Court will likely issue its decision next year.29

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it important and valuable for universities to have a diverse student body?
  2. Justice Kagan called universities “pipelines to leadership in our society.”30 Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not? Does developing effective leaders require a diverse student body?
  3. President Joe Biden’s administration argued that it was critical for national security that service academies and universities provide the military a racially diverse officer corps, citing racial tensions and violence during the Vietnam War when the officer corps was largely white and the enlisted force was largely made up of minorities.31 In the words of White House officials, “At present, it’s not possible to achieve that diversity without race-conscious admissions.”32
    • Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not?
    • Is diversity in the military a compelling enough government interest to warrant affirmative action policies at universities? Why or why not?
  4. Is there any fair, narrowly tailored way for universities to execute an affirmative action program?
  5. During the hearing, Justice Alito cast doubt on whether any means used to execute affirmative action programs can be narrowly tailored, saying, “Two people are in a race, and you give a plus factor to one of the runners, so that runner gets to start … five yards closer to the finish line. The one who doesn’t get that plus factor is disadvantaged, right?”33
    • Do you agree with this reasoning? Why or why not?
    • Do you think this analogy fits well with college admissions? Why or why not?
  6. During the hearing, some justices asked about other programs to address diversity, such as offering significant financial aid or dedicated outreach to low-income students and those who would be the first generation of their family to attend college.34 University lawyers argued that they have tried these methods with less success than the race-conscious policies currently in use.35
    • Is socioeconomic status a good metric to use to achieve diversity? Why or why not?
    • Do you think these or other race-neutral methods can ensure an effectively diverse student body?
    • In order to effectively ensure diversity, do you think colleges must explicitly consider race? Why or why not?
  7. Consider the following two quotes from Supreme Court justices:
    • “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” —Chief Justice Roberts, 200736
    • “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” —Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 201437
    • Which of these quotes do you think is most relevant to the issue of affirmative action?
    • Which justice do you agree with more? Why?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
[1] NBC News:
[2] Politico:
[3] Smithsonian Magazine:
[4] Ibid.
[5] Oyez:
[6]. Ballotpedia:; Oyez:
[7] Justia:; Oyez:
[8] Center for Individual Rights:; NPR:
[9] Associated Press:; Associated Press: Journal-Constitution:; Century Foundation:; James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:; Politico:
[10] Oyez: Tribune:
[11] CNN:
[12] CNN:; Oyez:
[13] Bloomberg Law:
[14] Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute:
[15] Ibid.
[16] CNN:; Vox:
[17] Ibid.
[18] Oyez:; Oyez:
[19] Oyez:; Oyez:
[20] Georgia Public Broadcasting:
[21] NBC News:
[22] Ibid.
[23] Associated Press:
[24] Ibid.
[25] Bloomberg Law:
[26] Ibid.
[27] Georgia Recorder: Crimson:
[28] Harvard Crimson:
[29] SCOTUSblog:
[30] Associated Press:
[31] Georgia Public Broadcasting:; SCOTUSblog:
[32] Georgia Public Broadcasting:
[33] Ibid.
[34] SCOTUSblog:
[35] Ibid.
[36] Smithsonian Magazine:
[37] Politico:


Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness: Too Much, Not Enough, Just Right, or Beyond the President’s Authority?

In August, President Joe Biden’s administration announced a student loan forgiveness plan which would cancel up to $10,000 in debt for most borrowers and up to $20,000 for some borrowers.1 Current federal student loan borrowers who earn less than $125,000 per year (less than $250,000 per household) can have up to $10,000 forgiven and those who received Pell Grants can have up to $20,000 forgiven.2 Pell Grants are a type of federal financial aid for undergraduates who demonstrate the most need.3 As many as 43 million Americans could see their debt reduced through this plan.4

The plan is currently being challenged in court by several Republican state attorneys general. These states are arguing that President Biden is overstepping his authority and that the plan may harm some private lenders “because it would prompt millions of borrowers … to consolidate their debt into the main federal student program.”5

In addition, 22 Republican governors have argued that the plan is unfair to those who have already paid off their debt. “For many borrowers, they worked hard, made sacrifices, and paid off their debt,” wrote the governors. “For many others, they chose hard work and a paycheck rather than more school and a loan. Americans who did not choose to take out student loans themselves should certainly not be forced to pay for the student loans of others.”6

Democrats, including members of the Biden administration, have pushed back against these arguments. “Let’s be clear about what they would be trying to do here: The same folks who voted for a $2 trillion tax giveaway for the rich and had hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own small business loan debt forgiven would be trying to keep millions of working middle-class Americans in mountains of debt,” said White House spokesperson Abdullah Hasan.7

However, the Biden administration is also receiving pushback from members of its own party who believe the plan does not go far enough. For example, campaign strategist Angelo Greco said, “It’s a small, small addition. … I just don’t see how anyone who has been pushing for at least $50,000 and citing all the racial equity stats as motivation to do it can be thrilled about something that scratches the surface of a systemic crisis.”8

“We think roughly 20 million people will be debt-free,” said Thomas Gokey, an organizer with the Debt Collective. “For many others this will do very little. We have more work to do.”9 For his part, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the move “a big deal” but added he believes “we have got to do more” to make higher education more affordable, such as making public colleges tuition free.10

It is not clear how the courts will rule on the various challenges being raised against the plan, but it is clear that this issue will be on voters’ minds during the midterms and other elections to come.

Join Us! On November 16, Close Up will host a free online panel discussion about student loan forgiveness and the costs of higher education (register here). The webinar will be followed by a reflection session for students from across the country to share their views on this pressing issue (register here).

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you worried about the costs of college? Why or why not?
  2. Do you support President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think the federal government should take other steps relating to the cost of college? If so, what actions would you support?


As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
[1] The College Investor:
[2] CBS News:
[3] CNN:
[4] Axios:
[5] CNBC:
[6] Business Insider:
[7] CNBC:
[8] The Hill:
[9] Ibid.
[10] Forbes:


Despite White House Push for Updated COVID-19 Boosters, Americans Are Slow to Roll Up Their Sleeves

Last Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration expanded eligibility for updated COVID-19 booster shots to include children as young as five. Prior to this announcement, the revised Pfizer vaccine was restricted to those 12 and older and the Moderna vaccine was restricted to those 18 and older.1

These updated booster shots address the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the omicron variant that first appeared in November 2021. They also address the original strain of the COVID-19 virus and have been shown to be highly effective in combating the worst effects of the virus. While widespread vaccination continues to be a critical element in White House efforts to combat the pandemic, many Americans young and old have not received all of the booster shots recommended to them.

The updated booster shots have had a slow uptake nationally among both adults and children, proving to be a significant challenge to the pandemic strategy of President Joe Biden’s administration. The administration continues to grapple with dwindling public interest and shrinking funding for the pandemic response.

While the initial vaccines were highly sought after and widely distributed, successive boosters have received significantly less public interest. Of the 226 million Americans who completed the initial round of vaccination, only about half received at least one booster shot. Since the updated booster shots were authorized in August, only around 13 million Americans have received them.2 This may be in large part because Americans are unaware of the existence of this revised booster. According to one survey, half of adults said they had heard little or nothing about the new booster shots.3

Many families are particularly hesitant to vaccinate their children against COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about a third of children aged 5-11 have received an initial round of vaccination.4 Within that group, only about 16 percent of children received the original booster shot, which became available to them in May.5 Public health officials are working to increase this number and to encourage parents to vaccinate their children with the revised booster.

Weekly Increase in the Number of US Children Ages 5-11Recieving their Initial Covid-19 Vaccination”

The Biden administration has prioritized vaccination amidst its struggle to secure funding for the continued fight against COVID-19. This summer, the administration requested that Congress allocate billions of dollars to pay for more vaccines, testing, therapeutics, and research to combat future variants.6

In March, House Democrats dropped a COVID-19 aid package from a broader spending package to fund the government after some in their caucus disagreed with plans to pay for it by redirecting money set aside for some state governments to address their pandemic needs as part of the American Rescue Plan. A few weeks later, a smaller bipartisan deal came together in the Senate, but it ultimately collapsed when Republicans insisted the chamber vote on keeping pandemic border restrictions in place.7

To date, Congress has been unable to pass a new pandemic relief package. White House officials instead decided to repurpose federal COVID-19 funds meant for tests and protective equipment in order to supply more vaccines and antiviral pills.8 Around $10 billion in funds from the Department of Health and Human Services was rerouted, and about half of it was used to purchase vaccines for Americans ahead of a possible winter wave of virus cases. These reallocated funds were used to buy over 170 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine—enough to vaccinate most of the roughly 225 million Americans who have had an initial round of vaccination.9 Despite the Biden administration pouring resources into vaccination efforts, whether Americans will respond by rolling up their sleeves remains to be seen.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some additional reasons that Americans who received the initial COVID-19 vaccine might not be getting the booster and updated booster shots?
  2. Given the low fatality rates among children, should the federal government prioritize efforts to get children vaccinated and boosted? If not, which groups should it prioritize and why?
  3. Do you support increased spending on vaccination efforts? Why or why not?


As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Sarah ReingeWirtz/Medianews Group/ Los Angeles Daily News Via Getty Images
[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
[2] New York Times:
[3] New York Times:
[4] American Academy of Pediatrics:
[5] New York Times:
[6] CBS News:
[7] Washington Post:
[8] New York Times:
[9] New York Times:


Does Religious Freedom Guarantee Abortion Access?

On October 6, three Jewish women filed a lawsuit against the state of Kentucky claiming that the state’s current abortion restrictions are vague and violate their religious freedom.1 Kentucky’s state legislature passed a series of bills in 2019 that banned abortion from fertilization, only allowing for abortion if the mother’s life is in danger. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.2

These laws were allowed to go into effect after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). That decision overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), both of which previously found that access to abortion was a constitutional right. Because of the Dobbs decision, access to and restrictions on abortion are now in the hands of the states.3

The women in the Kentucky lawsuit all argue that the abortion ban violates Jewish law and practices and forces pregnant Jews to conform to another set of religious beliefs. For over a millennium, Jewish scholars have developed answers to questions regarding when life starts, reproductive rights, and abortion. The majority of Jewish denominations teach that a fetus becomes a human life at birth; therefore, a fetus does not have the same rights as a person. They believe that the life and health of the mother (frequently understood to include mental and emotional health) must take precedence over that of the fetus.4

The case claims that Kentucky law forces Jewish women who screen their pregnancies and in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos for genetic anomalies to violate their religious beliefs by continuing unviable pregnancies. The case also states that families are harmed financially by requiring storage for embryos indefinitely.5

Jessica Kalb, who has struggled with infertility, has nine embryos currently frozen from her previous round of IVF and wants another child. However, the embryos have not been screened to see if they are compatible with life, and under Kentucky law, it is unclear if disposing of incompatible embryos would be illegal. She has decided not to go forward with another pregnancy.

Lisa Sobel’s daughter is also a result of IVF, and the Sobel family wants more children. However, she had a very difficult first pregnancy and worries what might happen in the second. “At this point, I’m scared to try and have another child,” she said. “If I miscarry, I could bleed out before the doctors and the lawyers could decide whether or not they could treat me or if I needed to be prosecuted, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take for myself or my child or my husband.”6

Finally, Sarah Baron claims in the lawsuit that as an Ashkenazi Jew, she has a higher risk of passing on genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease, which is always fatal.7 The suit states that without the option of abortion, nonviable pregnancies cause psychological harm to the mother and cannot be terminated as is expected under Jewish law.8 The case is scheduled to be heard on November 15.

In response, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron indicated that he would defend the law. “The General Assembly has made it clear that Kentucky will protect unborn life and these laws are an important part of the commonwealth,” he said on October 6.9 Cameron is running for governor in 2023 and his platform addresses his support for ending abortion in the state.

Other states’ abortion restrictions are also being challenged in court by Jewish communities. In Indiana, Hoosier Jews for Choice are plaintiffs in a case suing the state over its abortion restrictions, and in Florida, a synagogue is taking the issue to court.10 Also in Florida, three rabbis joined a suit that includes a United Church of Christ reverend, a Unitarian Universalist minister, an Episcopal Church priest, and a Buddhist lama in order to challenge the restrictions in the state.11 It is likely that other organizations in states where abortion is restricted will follow.

Discussion Questions

  1. Kentucky law states that human life starts at fertilization. Does it matter if that law is at odds with a person’s deeply held religious beliefs? Why or why not?
  2. IVF is a medical intervention that relies on extracting and fertilizing multiple eggs at a time, knowing that not all will be used. What should be done with the unused embryos?
  3. Deeply held religious beliefs have granted individuals and organizations permission to refuse vaccination compliance or to refuse to cover certain types of health care for their employees. How is the Kentucky case similar to or different from those religious arguments?


As always, we encourage you to join the discussion about abortion and religious freedom with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Bruce Schreiner/AP
[1] Sobel et al. v. Cameron:; Washington Post:
[2] Kentucky Legislature:
[3] Supreme Court:
[4] National Council of Jewish Women:; Rabbi Susan Grossman:
[5] Sobel et al. v. Cameron:
[6] Lexington Herald-Leader:
[7] Boston Medical Center:
[8] Sobel et al. v. Cameron:
[9] ABC News:
[10] Indy Star:; NPR.
[11] Reuters:


The Voting Rights Act Goes to Court, Again

On October 4, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Merrill v. Milligan. In that case, the Court is considering whether the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should apply to Alabama’s recent congressional redistricting. One section of the Voting Rights Act requires that states provide minority voters with “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.”1

Close Up Classroom Resources

Gerrymandering: Should the federal government mandate that states end partisan gerrymandering?

What Are the Details of the Case?

Alabama has a large Black population but that population does not have a significant impact on the election of Alabama’s members of the House of Representatives.2 Only one of Alabama’s seven districts is set up so that minority voters have the potential to sway the election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect congressional candidates of their choice.3 As NPR reports, ”Black voters are either concentrated in that district so they are a supermajority there or spread out across the remaining six districts so that their voting power is diluted. It’s a practice known as packing and cracking.”4

A summary of the case’s road to the Supreme Court from Axios states:

  • A three-judge lower court, including two appointees of former President Donald Trump, found in January that Alabama’s congressional map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. “The appropriate remedy is a congressional redistricting plan that includes either an additional majority-Black congressional district, or an additional district in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice,” the judges said in a 225-page ruling.
  • The state of Alabama asked the Supreme Court to put the lower court ruling on hold while it appealed, which the justices allowed, the Associated Press reports.5

WATCH: The Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Alabama Racial Gerrymandering Case, from NBC News

What Were Alabama’s Arguments?

The state of Alabama argues that its districts are legal and that they were drawn in a race-neutral manner.6 During oral argument, the attorney for Alabama argued that there are many possible configurations of the congressional districts, and that computer models did not necessarily produce a map that was more favorable to minority voters. They stated that even the “plaintiffs’ [the other side’s] own witnesses testified about millions of possible race-neutral plans that, like Alabama’s plan, have no more than one majority-minority district. Plaintiffs were able to produce comparator plans with more majority-Black districts only by starting with a ‘nonnegotiable’ racial target and backfilling with other redistricting criteria after that target had been hit.”7

What Were the Plaintiffs’ Arguments?

Deuel Ross, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued for the plaintiffs. “There is nothing race-neutral about Alabama’s map,” he said. “The Black Belt is a historic and extremely poor community of substantial significance. Yet Alabama’s map cracks that community and allows [a] white block voting to deny Black voters the opportunity to elect representation responsive to their needs.”8

Ross also argued that the plaintiffs were not asking for guarantees that Black voters would be a majority or the major force in any district. Instead, they were asking for a plan that drew Black voters in districts where they are given “at least a fair chance—not even a guaranteed chance—to elect their candidates of choice in a second district.”9

WATCH: A Starting Point’s Divide & Conquer

What’s Next?

While the Supreme Court has already heard the case, it is unlikely that its decision will be handed down before June 2023.

Discussion Questions

  1. What have you learned about redistricting, gerrymandering, and the Voting Rights Act?
  2. What other issues relating to elections and voting do you think are important to discuss?
  3. How do you think the Supreme Court should rule in this case? Why?
  4. Do you believe that the U.S. system of campaigns, elections, and voting is fundamentally fair? Why or why not?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: William Hennessy, featured in SCOTUSblog
[1] Axios:
[2] SCOTUSblog:
[3] National Conference of State Legislatures:
[4] NPR:
[5] Axios:
[6] CBS News:
[7] National Conference of State Legislatures:
[8] NPR:
[9] CBS News:


Understanding the Iranian Hijab Protests

In recent days, Iran has been gripped by a series of mass protests that have gained international attention. The protests, largely led by women, are somewhat unprecedented. While both protest and women’s participation in protest in Iran are not new, the protests of the past two weeks are remarkable as the first of such scale specifically directed by Iranian women and centered on women’s civil rights in the country.1

The protests began in response to revelations that an Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, had died in custody of the nation’s “morality police,” an arm of the Iranian government that is responsible for enforcing religious law in the country. Amini had been arrested for refusing to wear a hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women to conceal their hair. The precise circumstances of Amini’s death are unclear. The Iranian government maintains that she died of a heart attack while in coma at a hospital in the capital city of Tehran, but protesters and critics argue that she was in a coma as a result of beatings and torture endured while in police custody.2

Understanding the Iranian Regime

In 1979, Iran experienced a revolution which installed Islamic religious leaders as the head of its government supported by opposition to Western interference in the country. The Iranian theocracy (a religious government) is an authoritarian regime led by a council of religious elders headed by the supreme leader. The supreme leader has ultimate authority over the military of Iran as well as the civilian government. Under Iran’s constitution, there is a legislature, a court system, and a president, but the supreme leader overrides all of those government bodies and is responsible for appointing most of the country’s leadership. The supreme leader holds office for life, with the current one, Ali Khamenei, having been in power since 1989.3

Iran has a culture that dates back to ancient Persia and to this day is among the most powerful nations in the Middle East. Unlike many of its neighbors where the majority religion is Sunni Islam, Iran’s dominant religion is Shia Islam, a distinct sect. Despite the theocratic government enforcing religious laws on Iranian society, Iran is actually among the most developed and cosmopolitan nations in the region and its people maintain a complex relationship with Western culture and influences. Throughout the regime’s history, the clash of theocratic rule with secular (non-religious) interests and a desire for reform in the country has led to unrest and political turmoil. Nevertheless, the theocratic government has managed to maintain its control.4

The U.S. Response to the Iranian Protests

Protests have been spreading and growing in size across Iran, a common sight being that of women burning their hijabs, dancing in the streets, and calling for freedom and the death of the supreme leader. The government has responded severely. Journalists reporting on the protests have been jailed, hundreds of Iranian women have been beaten in the streets and arrested, and at least 40 people have been killed.5

The last major period of unrest in Iran occurred in 2009. At the time, President Barack Obama’s administration (in which now-President Joe Biden served as vice president) was hesitant to publicly support the protests. However, the current Biden administration has made its support clear following a speech given by President Biden to the United Nations. The United States has since imposed sanctions on members of Iran’s morality police and is making efforts to provide satellite and internet services to Iranian citizens following a government shutdown of the country’s telecommunications.6

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe it is the obligation of the United States to provide support to the Iranian protesters?
  2. Should the United States involve itself in the internal affairs of any country? What kinds of events, if any, should necessitate U.S. involvement?
  3. Given the United States’ involvement in the Russia-Ukraine War and increasing tensions with China, do you feel the United States runs any risk of creating additional conflict by publicly supporting the Iranian protesters? Why or why not? What options should or should not be used by the United States in Iran?
  4. In 2009, the Obama administration avoided public support for protesters in part because President Obama was pursuing a nuclear weapons agreement with Iran (known as the Iran nuclear deal) and in part because the administration feared that support for the protesters would actually undermine their cause, as the regime could more easily point to Western interference as the real motive behind the unrest. The Iran nuclear deal was officially ended by President Donald Trump and there is little chance of it being revived. Do you feel that there is still a risk for the protesters in receiving the Biden administration’s support? Why or why not?

Related Posts

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images
[1] New York Times:
[2] Al-Jazeera:
[3] PBS:
[4] Yale University:
[5] United Nations:,circumstances%20surrounding%20Ms.%20Amini’s%20death.
[6] New York Times:


The Water Crisis in Jackson, Mississippi

AP Photo/Steve HelberOn August 29, 2022, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency for Jackson, the state capital, which was in the midst of an ongoing water crisis.1 Heavy rainfall caused the Pearl River and Ross Barnett Reservoir to flood, which in turn overwhelmed two water treatment plants that were already strained.2 Low water pressure and contamination left the city of 150,000 people—the largest in the state—without safe, reliable running water.3

The lack of pressure cut off thousands of homes from the city’s water supply.4 No water flowed from faucets, showers, or toilets. Residents of Jackson who did have pressure found their water to be unusable and unsafe. “The water that’s coming out of my kitchen sink smells like fresh sewage,” said Carey Wooten, who lives in Jackson with her two children. “As soon as you turn it on, it hits you right in the face. It’s horrible.”The Mississippi State Department of Health issued a boil-water notice, advising residents to not use their tap water. Lines stretched for blocks as residents waited to receive limited supplies of bottled water across the city.6

Graphic by Bethany Atkinson

Only a Matter of Time

The August flooding didn’t create the water crisis in Jackson. Instead, it exacerbated systemic problems that residents have been dealing with for years. There have been ongoing boil-water notices issued after storm events, leading to distrust by residents who feel that they are not receiving the proper services that should be guaranteed by the city.7 For years, officials have routinely warned that “pregnant people and children under five” should not drink the tap water due to elevated levels of contaminants like lead.8 Runoff from the recent flooding has only increased the contamination concerns and scope of this problem. “We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. “I have said on multiple occasions that it’s a not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail.”9

The Role of Race in the Jackson Water Crisis

Advocates argue that structural racism is at the root of the water crisis, stretching back decades to “white flight” out of the city. “This is a deep seated, decades-long in the making kind of situation,” said Arielle King, a lawyer and environmental justice advocate. “I think the history of racial segregation and redlining in this country have deeply contributed to the environmental injustices we see right now.”10 

The population of Jackson has declined more than 20 percent in the last 40 years, a trend which started with an exodus of wealthier white people to the suburbs after the city began integrating its public schools.11 Jackson is now approximately 83 percent Black, and nearly one in four residents live at or below the federal poverty line.12

These demographic shifts have had compounding effects. White flight left Jackson with lower tax revenues, as people of higher socioeconomic status no longer contributed to the city. Less money meant fewer investments in public resources. Even though upgrades to aging, underperforming infrastructure like the city’s water treatment plants were long overdue, nothing was done to improve them.13 A total breakdown of the system was inevitable after decades of deterioration and delay. The flooding in August was the breaking point that took an already vulnerable situation and made it worse.

READ: “‘A Profound Betrayal of Trust’: Why Jackson’s Water System is Broken”

Some argue that structural racism both created this crisis and is responsible for the continued inaction by local and state governments. For example, policy experts at the centrist Brookings Institution wrote, “Jackson is a city with one of the largest shares of Black people in America, in the Blackest state in the union. Ideally, infrastructure serves as a shared foundation for economic, environmental, and public health between different neighborhoods and municipalities; however, infrastructure is often poorly maintained or intentionally overlooked in particular places, leading to a lack of access, affordability, and safety for many communities of color.14

Officials estimate that it would cost at least $1 billion to fix Jackson’s water infrastructure, with even more money needed to properly maintain it.15 Jackson cannot pay for this on its own, and the state of Mississippi has not allocated money for the repairs. Plus, the wealthy white suburbs that surround Jackson do not share a sense of urgency or obligation to help a community that isn’t theirs.16 Some have questioned if this would even be an issue if Jackson were a predominately white community, wondering just how bad things have to get for something to finally be done.

Partisanship also plays a key role, as Jackson is a heavily Democratic city in a Republican-led state. While the city blames the state for the lack of proper funding, some state leaders have criticized the Jackson city government for “mismanaging” the treatment plant for years.17  With little political willpower by the state to provide funding, Jackson is caught in a cycle of suffering.

President Joe Biden has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Jackson, and Mississippi is set to receive $429 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law, but still more is needed to repair the water system, rebuild trust, and truly solve this problem.18

Discussion Questions

  1. The water crisis in Jackson has been compared to that of Flint, Michigan, which began in 2014. Are you familiar with what happened in Flint, or have you heard of any other issues like it?
  2. Do you believe structural racism has played a role in the response to this crisis (or lack thereof)? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?
  3. Do you think the state government has a responsibility to fix the water system in Jackson? How involved do you think the federal government should be, if at all?
  4. What public services do you think are most vital for a community to thrive? Should some be prioritized over others?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Steve Helber
[1] NBC News:
[2] PBS:
[3] Twitter:
[4] Mississippi Today:
[5] Associated Press:
[6] Vox:
[7] Mississippi Today:
[8] Ibid.
[9] NBC News:
[10] BBC:
[11] Mississippi Today:
[12] Vox:
[13] Mississippi Today:
[14] Brookings Institution:
[15] Mississippi Today:
[16] Vox:
[17] Politico:
[18] Ibid.


A Renewed Labor Movement?

The year 2022 has seen a historic surge in labor organizing and union activity. While union organizing at Starbucks and Amazon has garnered the most media attention, the labor movement has also been active on university campuses, at newspapers and other publishers, and in the high-tech industry at Google, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies. This is occurring after almost 70 years of steady union decline.1

Union Membership

Why is the Labor Movement Gaining Ground Now?

At the end of 2021, two major U.S. companies—Kellogg’s and John Deere—reached newly negotiated contracts with their unions after protracted, public disputes to bring formal strikes to a close.2 Since then, there has been significant union activity. Employees at more than 200 Starbucks locations have unionized and there have been unionization efforts at many Amazon locations, including one successful effort in Staten Island, New York.3

Starbucks Employees

This represents the most significant union activity since the 1930s.4 So, why is this occurring now? Observers offer several reasons, including the following:

  • There is growing income inequality and a widening gap between executive and worker pay. This has led to increased support for labor unions among the public at large.5
  • Many young college graduates are not finding work in the careers they envisioned, and instead are working in the service sector at businesses such as Starbucks.6
  • The high-profile presidential campaigns of progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helped inspire organizing in many sectors of U.S. life, including among unions.7
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is viewed as a major—perhaps the major—catalyst of the new labor movement. “The pandemic was the wakeup call or the catalyst that has prompted two perspectives: ‘is there another way to work and live?’ and the relationship between employers with workers,” said former National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) chairman and current Georgetown Law School professor Mark Pearce. “The vulnerable workers—they were not only scared, they were pissed.”8Unionizing in Washington

WATCH: CNBC reports on efforts at unionization

Should Congress Pass Legislation to Protect Workers’ Rights to Organize?

Throughout this new labor movement, organizers have complained that companies are using underhanded, potentially illegal tactics to intimidate workers and block unionization efforts. The NLRB, which enforces laws protecting unions, issued a complaint on Friday accusing Starbucks of 29 unfair labor practices that included over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act just in Buffalo, New York.9 In Seattle, the NLRB says Starbucks is violating U.S. labor law by withholding pay hikes and other benefits from stores that have voted to unionize.10 The same has happened in other regions and cities around the country, including Chicago.11 The government has also alleged that Amazon has violated labor laws in several instances.12

In this context, some lawmakers are considering strengthening labor protections. One bill, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021, would protect workers’ rights to strike, weaken “right-to-work” laws that currently exist in 27 states, and declare “it an unfair labor practice to require or coerce employees to attend employer meetings designed to discourage union membership.”13

Opponents of the law, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the bill “would undermine worker rights, ensnare employers in unrelated labor disputes, disrupt the economy, and force individual Americans to pay union dues regardless of their wishes.” And the Senate Republican Policy Committee alleges that the bill would “sabotage the economic recovery just as businesses are trying to make it past the pandemic,” as well as “curb workers’ choices, threaten jobs, and increase costs on employers” by “overriding state right-to-work laws, limiting Americans’ freedom to work as independent contractors, and allowing boycotts at businesses not involved in a labor dispute.”14

READ: A summary of the PRO Act of 2021

There are also laws being considered in many states that relate to the ongoing labor movement. Some of these laws are to strengthen the protections for organized labor while others are intended to slow the growth of unions and protect employers and small businesses.

Discussion Questions

  1. What have you heard about the new labor movement? Where have you learned about this?
  2. Do you think that income inequality is a significant problem in the United States? Why or why not?
  3. Do you support the ongoing labor movement? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think lawmakers should pass laws making it easier for workers to join a union? Why or why not?
  5. If you answered no to the question above, do you support laws that would make it more difficult for workers to join a union? Why or why not?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg
[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
[2] NBC News:
[3] Business Insider:|3
[4] WBUR:
[5] Ibid.
[6] New York Times:
[8] CNBC:
[9] CNBC:
[11] Chicago Tribune:
[12] Bloomberg News:
[14] U.S. Chamber of Commerce:,dues%20regardless%20of%20their%20wishes
Senate Republican Policy Committee:

Ranked-Choice Voting: A Curiosity or Coming Reform?

In August, Democrat Mary Peltola won Alaska’s lone seat in the House of Representatives in a special election to replace Don Young (R), who passed away in March 2022.1 Peltola defeated two Republicans, former Governor Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III. Peltola becomes the first Alaska Native person to be elected to Congress.2

This election received national attention for multiple reasons. First, Palin is a well-known figure in national politics and was the 2008 vice-presidential nominee for her party. Second, a Democrat winning in Alaska is often newsworthy. However, what most captured public attention in this special election was Alaska’s use of ranked-choice voting.

What is Ranked-Choice Voting? 

Ranked-choice voting is a system in which voters rank candidates by preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they are declared the winner. If no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. This continues until a candidate wins an outright majority.

In the Alaska special election, Peltola secured the most first-place votes (39.7 percent), but not enough to win an outright victory. Palin came in second (30.9 percent), so the first-place votes of Begich and those who had opted for a write-in candidate were eliminated. While most Begich voters ranked Palin as their second choice, enough of them put Peltola as second to put her over the 50-percent threshold.4

Should More States Adopt Ranked-Choice Voting?

Alaska is the second state to adopt ranked-choice voting; Maine also adopted the system in 2016. New York City elected to adopt ranked-choice voting in 2019.5 Several other cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, have used the system for several years.6

Advocates of ranked-choice voting argue that it will lead to less partisanship and will reduce negative campaigning and attack ads.7 Indeed, in Alaska, Palin and Peltola did not engage in much negative campaigning against each other.8

However, there are also arguments against ranked choice voting. Critics argue that ranked-choice voting is confusing and that voters are overwhelmed by the task of ranking all candidates rather than just choosing one. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter: “Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections. 60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.'”9

Some critics also argue that the second-choice votes of the top candidates should count for something. In other words, in the Alaska election, people who voted for Palin or Peltola with their first-choice votes never had their second-choice votes counted.10

Advocates, who are often a mixture of centrists and far-left progressives who dislike the mainstream Democratic Party,11 also argue that ranked-choice voting might lessen the impact of dark money and corporate spending on elections. In Alaska, Palin outspent Peltola by 400 percent and Begich outspent both of them, only to come in third.12

Lawmakers in 29 states are now considering ranked-choice voting.13 Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate and the founder of the Forward Party, argues that ”ranked choice voting ensures the most accurate allocation of delegates based on voters’ true preferences.”14 Ranked-choice voting is the central focus of the new party that Yang and others launched recently.

SEE: Is Your State Considering Ranked-Choice Voting?

In recent election cycles, voters and candidates have focused on the political and electoral process almost as much as the issues themselves. There have been arguments about voter ID laws, mail-in voting, the Electoral College, and campaign finance laws, to name just a few issues. It is possible that reforms in elections such as ranked-choice voting will continue to be prominent in U.S. political debates for some time.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe the U.S. election system functions well to represent the views of the people? Why or why not?
  2. What reforms to U.S. elections, if any, would you like to see?
  3. Do you support ranked-choice voting? Why or why not?


As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Becky Bohrer
[1] CBS News:
[2] Alaska Public Media:
[3] The Hill:
[4] Reuters:
[5] Time:
[6] Vox:
[7] Ibid.
[8] NPR:
[9] NBC News:
[10] National Review:
[11] Vox:
[12] Open Secrets:
[13] Pew Research:
[14] USA Today: