Tag Archives: North Carolina

Let Me Count The Ways…

There are all sorts of tactics that have been employed over the years to suppress the votes of “the other guys.” Recently, those efforts have mostly come from the GOP, but historically, both parties have engaged in them–just as both parties do (and continue to) gerrymander when they control a state legislative chamber.

I’ve recently noted that the efforts to cast doubt on voting by mail are partly motivated by the fact that vote-by-mail defeats many of the time-honored ways to suppress minority votes–and provides a paper trail.

One of the least commented methods of suppressing minority votes–and one of the most effective–is felon disenfranchisement. It is widespread–a number of states forbid ex-offenders from casting ballots–and superficially, at least, it’s race-neutral. For citizens unaware of the over-incarceration of African-Americans during America’s drug war (laid out in indisputable terms by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow), felon disenfranchisement is simply a lingering, perhaps overly-harsh “law and order” punishment of those who have broken the law.

Two recent court decisions–one honorable, one definitely not–make the implicit, explicit.

In North Carolina, a court struck down an effort to keep ex-offenders from casting ballots, holding that the state could not disenfranchise citizens who owe fines, fees, and other debts from a felony conviction. As the linked article about the ruling noted,

Many felon disenfranchisement rules, including North Carolina’s, are rooted in overt white supremacy. After Reconstruction, racist Democrats in the state sought to revoke Black citizens’ suffrage. They accomplished this task, in part, through vague criminal laws that stripped convicted felons of their civil rights—then enforced these laws disproportionately against Black people. North Carolina’s current statute is rooted in an 1877 law spearheaded by a representative who later presided over the lynching of three Black men. At the time, Democrats argued that felon disenfranchisement was necessary to stop “the honest vote of a white man” from being “off-set by the vote of some negro.” Its purpose, alongside other Jim Crow measures like the literacy test, was to “secure white supremacy.”

The law continues to work as intended, as documented in an expert report by University of North Carolina professor Frank R. Baumgartner. Today, Black North Carolinians represent 22 percent of adults and 42 percent of the disenfranchised. Black residents are denied the right to vote at three times the rate of white residents in 44 counties. The state’s disenfranchisement regime targets two groups of people: those on probation or parole, and those who’ve completed their full sentence but still owe court debt. Notably, judges may extend an individual’s probation or send them back to prison because they haven’t paid off these fines and fees.

Meanwhile, in Florida, immediately after a majority of citizens voted to overturn that state’s felony disenfranchisement law, Republican legislators passed a measure that limited that disenfranchisement to those who had managed to pay off all court costs. A federal judge ruled that the restriction was an unconstitutional poll tax. But last Friday, an appeals court narrowly overturned that decision.

The court’s 6-4 ruling dealt a significant blow to civil rights groups that have fought to expand the voter rolls with hundreds of thousands of people who had completed prison time and parole for felony convictions. It also undermined what had seemed like a major referendum victory in 2018 and served as another reminder of the decisive role that a slew of legal cases could play before the presidential election.

There are lessons here, for those of us willing to learn them.

First, racial animus dies hard, and it lurks in places we seldom think to look. Second, the competence and integrity of the men and women who occupy the nation’s bench–who act as custodians of the Constitution and defenders of the Rule of Law–is critically important.

And third, the future of both that bench and this nation depends upon massive turnout for “blue no matter who” on (or preferably before) November 3d.

 

North Carolina’s Genuine Conservatives

I’m always hesitant to post observations requiring the use of terms like “liberal” “conservative” “progressive” or especially “socialist” and “fascist,” because over the past years, any conceptual clarity those labels may once have had has disappeared. These days they tend to be used as epithets, not efforts to communicate.

For example, I used to consider myself a conservative. I wanted to conserve the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I was (and remain) convinced that fiscal prudence means that–absent emergencies–programs should be paid for with current tax dollars remitted equitably by rich and poor, and not “borrow and spend.” I believe in limited government–and I believe that “limited government” means government limited to the performance of genuinely governmental tasks, like national defense or paving streets, and not the exercise of authority over my uterus or my soul.

Thanks to the GOP’s extreme move rightward, those are now generally considered to be liberal or progressive positions.

The dramatic change in the Republican Party, culminating in its current defense of a monumentally unfit, corrupt President, has created a deep disconnect between old-timers and the current cult. That disconnect recently prompted three North Carolina County Commissionerrs to leave the GOP, while laying claim to the term “conservative.”

To be conservative is to honor and preserve the fundamental institutions, processes, structures and rule of law, ….

To be conservative is to be financially prudent while also investing in common ground works that support individual success for all citizens. To be conservative is to be welcoming and inclusive, ….

To be conservative is to have a strong moral compass and the willingness to challenge wrong regardless of its source.

We believe all of these are not merely conservative principles but American principles.

They continue…

Next, we believe elected officials have a special duty to conduct themselves beyond reproach and make genuine efforts to represent all their constituents.

Elected officials must strive to conduct all public and private actions with honor and integrity.

Elected officials must value objective truth and, in turn, be truthful in their own statements and interactions.

And elected officials must continually work to hear the voices of all while making hard decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens

“Finally, and importantly, we believe local government should not be partisan in nature.

Good ideas come from across the spectrum of political thought.

Our focus is local, our objective is problem-solving for Transylvania County and our experience is thatpartisanship is an obstacle to effective local governance.

Governing is done best when done closest, and close governing is done best when removed from partisan encumbrances.”

These local officials–all of whom have lengthy histories in Republican politics– have put their emphasis on governing, not politicking. It’s an emphasis that has been absent from the national GOP for some time–a recognition that political activity is supposed to be directed toward winning an opportunity to serve.

When asked whether their dissatisfaction was local or national, one of the Commissioners responded

Leaders at every level should also operate with strict standards of honesty and integrity, both for themselves and others they work with. And leaders at every level should work to represent all citizens, regardless of the issue. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to suggest that Republican leadership at the highest levels are no longer consistently maintaining those principles.

Let’s hope these public servants–and I am happy to use that term–are harbingers of many defections from whatever it is the GOP has become. One thing for sure: today’s Republican Party isn’t conservative–at least, not as that term used to be understood.

It’s White Nationalist, and bent on dominance, not governance.

 

“Illegally Constituted” Legislatures..

Every once in a while, I read a news release that makes me go “wow!” I read this one twice–and I love it.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins struck downtwo of the state constitutional amendments passed by North Carolina voters last November. But the reason he gave for his decision was remarkable: in his view, the state legislature is so gerrymandered as to be an illegitimate body that doesn’t really represent voters, and thus had no authority to alter the state constitution.

“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” wrote Collins.

The amendments that were struck down by this ruling were an amendment requirement that voters present a strict photo ID at the polls, which is almost identical to a previous law a federal court said targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” and an amendment capping the state income tax rate at 7 percent, which was a huge gift to the wealthy that jeopardized the state budget.

North Carolina voters had approved four constitutional amendments in a referendum, and the Judge let two of them go into effect. He found that the legislature’s description of the two amendments he struck down had been misleading. (A court had previously invalidated  an earlier draft of language explaining the amendments.)

North Carolina has been called the most aggressively gerrymandered state in the country, and a case challenging its current legislative and congressional districts will be heard by the Supreme Court during its next term.

The Judge’s decision will, of course, be appealed, and there is no telling what the final outcome will be, but the decision ranks right up there with the pronouncement by a clear-eyed child in the well-known story: “the Emperor has no clothes.”

A few days ago, I cited David Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times, in which he catalogued state legislative actions contrary to the clear desires of the relevant voters, and I compared those examples to the repeated refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to act on the demonstrable wishes of Hoosier voters that they pass a hate crimes bill.

Thanks to the prevalence of gerrymandering (and assorted other political “dirty tricks” including vote suppression), America currently has several state legislatures that meet Judge Collins’ criteria for illegitimacy.

When the “clothing” of rhetoric is stripped away, the fact that we no longer have a genuine democracy is the “naked” truth.

Three cheers for Judge Collins and his willingness to call it like it is.

Rule of Law? Respect for Democracy? Not in the Age of Trump…

Remember the quote–attributed to John Adams–to the effect that the then-new American Constitution had created “a government of laws, not men”?

One of the most important improvements in our human efforts to improve governance was development of the concept of rule of law–the radical notion that fair rules should be established and everyone–including government officials and others in positions of power– should be expected to follow those rules (including the rules on how rules should be changed).

Adherence to the rule of law, in spirit and fact, is absolutely essential to the legitimacy of a governing authority.

Which brings us to the truly outrageous behavior of Republican lawmakers in North Carolina. As the New York Times reported earlier this week,

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature on Wednesday took the highly unusual step of moving to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor after a bitter election that extended years of fierce ideological battles in the state.

After calling a surprise special session, Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly introduced measures to end the governor’s control over election boards, to require State Senate approval of the new governor’s cabinet members and to strip his power to appoint University of North Carolina trustees.

Republicans also proposed to substantially cut the number of state employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure, giving Civil Service protections to hundreds of managers in state agencies who have executed the priorities of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

These extraordinary steps–taken in the wake of a democratic (note small “d”) election that produced a result displeasing to the state’s GOP–unquestionably violate democratic norms, and may well violate the North Carolina state constitution.

The election of a Democratic governor came despite sustained Republican efforts to suppress African-American votes–efforts so transparently and blatantly aimed at (disproportionately Democratic) black voters that a court described them as “surgical.” Several of those measures were struck down, but a number of others–moving polling places, shortening voting hours–had the intended effect.

Even in the face of massive vote suppression, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate somehow won.Hence the special session to strip the new Governor of authority–and the transformation of North Carolina government into an illegitimate putsch.

As the Times editorialized

This legislative power grab is the latest underhanded step by a state Republican Party desperate to stay in power in a state where demographic changes would normally benefit Democrats. Republicans in North Carolina, a presidential battleground state, have used aggressive redistricting and voting suppression measures that are among the most brazen in the nation to win elections. The courts have blocked some of these efforts, but Republicans have found workarounds, for instance, by limiting voting hours and sites.

Calling what is happening in North Carolina a “legislative power grab” is like calling cancer a “minor illness.” It is a shocking violation of democratic norms, and a frontal attack on the rule of law.

It is one more element in America’s current wholesale retreat from the principles that did make America great.

States’ Rights and Wrongs

Indiana’s embarrassing Governor recently appealed a federal court ruling that he lacked authority to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana. From all reports, the appeal’s oral argument did not go well for the state.

A major reason for Pence’s loss in the District Court–and his probable loss at the appellate level–is that immigration is a federal issue over which states lack authority.

The notion that federal law should govern areas of national concern seems to rankle Donald Trump’s chosen running mate, and his annoyance isn’t limited to matters of immigration. In comments defending North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law, Pence recently insisted that the states “and the people” should be able to decide who gets rights.

The reason the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states was to ensure that a majority of people in a state could not use their local government to deprive their fellow citizens of the fundamental rights all Americans should enjoy.

There are areas in which the debate over local versus federal control are legitimate, but In the context of civil rights and civil liberties, “state’s rights” was and is a dog whistle meaning: we should get to pick on disfavored people if we want to, and the federal government shouldn’t be able to interfere.”State’s rights” was the (flimsy) cover used by defenders of segregation and Jim Crow.

What if we were to take that states’ rights “logic” to its ultimate conclusion?

What if the federal government couldn’t make states treat women or African-Americans equally? If I’m a woman living in, say, New York, and New York does choose to protect me, do I take a risk driving through, say, Alabama or Indiana, states that don’t protect women’s equality? If I am an African-American supplier doing business with national companies, do I hire a lawyer to tell me which states I can enter to visit with my customers, confident that I can find a hotel room or a restaurant that will serve me?

Shouldn’t Americans expect their fundamental rights to be respected in all of the states of the union?

There are certainly areas of the law that are local in nature. It would be nonsense to have a national zoning law. Certain criminal statutes are better enforced at the state or local level.  There are others. But in a country where people move freely and frequently, where commerce and transportation and communication are national, the notion that states should be able to legislate different levels of basic citizen rights is not just impractical and unworkable, not just unfair and inequitable–it’s profoundly  stupid.

Of course, for people who want to normalize discriminatory behaviors–what Hillary Clinton quite accurately called deplorable behaviors–the notion that the Supremacy Clause and/or the Bill of Rights might legally prevent them from doing so evidently pisses them off.

Pence refused to call even David Duke “deplorable.” I for one am pretty happy that my right to equal treatment under the law isn’t his or the Indiana General Assembly’s to decide.