Tag Archives: Voting Rights Act

The First Order Of Election Business

Americans may not have settled on a candidate to oppose the madman in the White House, but there is widespread agreement that the 2020 election will be a critical test of our national character.

It will also be a test of our electoral structures. Just how democratic are our elections? How easily rigged?

I’m not even talking about the threat of Russian interference. I’m talking about the glaringly obvious susceptibility of our elections to corruption–gerrymandering, of course, but also voter ID laws, and other vote suppression tactics.

It took the Guardian rather than an American news operation to do a front-page story on research by the Brennan Center.

US election jurisdictions with histories of egregious voter discrimination have been purging voter rolls at a rate 40% beyond the national average, according to a watchdog report released on Thursday.

At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to a studyby the Brennan Center for Justice. The number was basically unchanged from the previous two-year period.

While the rate of voter purges elsewhere has declined slowly, jurisdictions released from federal oversight by a watershed 2013 supreme court ruling had purge rates “significantly higher” than jurisdictions not previously subjected to oversight, the Brennan Center found in a previous report.

That trend has continued, the watchdog said, with the disproportionate purging of voters resulting in an estimated 1.1 million fewer voters between 2016 and 2018.

It will come as no surprise that the increase in purges began almost immediately after Shelby County v Holder in 2013, a decision that eviscerated the section of the Voting Rights Act that had subjected counties with histories of voter discrimination to federal oversight. The ruling was incredibly naive–it reminded me of Lee Hamilton’s comment that the Supreme Court needs fewer graduates of elite law schools and more justices who’d run for county sheriff. It simply ignored evidence of contemporary voter suppression tactics– strict voter identification laws, partisan gerrymandering and aggressive voter purges.

Voter roll purges are regularly undertaken to account for voters who move or die. But critics say that aggressive and unfair purges of voter rolls in recent years – such as a purge of 107,000 voters in Georgia in 2017 by the then secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who was subsequently elected governor by the electorate he had culled – have warped democracy.

“As the country prepares for the 2020 election, election administrators should take steps to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot next November,” the Brennan Center said in a statement. “Election day is often too late to discover that a person has been wrongfully purged.”

The Brennan Center study points to the critical importance of Stacy Abrams’ new initiative. (Abrams, of course, was the Georgia gubernatorial candidate cheated out of a likely win by Brian Kemp.) As The Atlantic  has reported

Stacey Abrams was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2018, when the former state representative came within 54,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race, in an election marred by extensive reports of voter suppression. But despite the wave of calls urging her to parlay that political stardom into a presidential (or Senate) bid, Abrams will instead focus on fighting voter suppression through a new initiative called Fair Fight 2020, which, as she put it, aims to“make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018.” …

“I think what her experience this past year revealed was, regardless of how dynamic of a candidate you are, how much mobilization that you implement—particularly to mobilize voters who may not vote regularly and could not or have not voted at all—the effort to suppress the vote was, in her case, insurmountable,” says Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University. “I think it would be a mistake for any presidential candidate not to think about it.”

American voters–and the American media–regularly focus on personalities, polls and other “horse race” metrics, giving short shrift to the systemic environment that all too often determines outcomes– and even shorter shrift to coverage of partisans who game those systems.

It isn’t just the anti-democratic Electoral College.

If Americans somehow manage to overwhelm these anti-democratic processes–if we manage to elect rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

 

Poll Taxes Were So Last-Century…

Tis the season–of voter suppression.

Vote suppression, of course, can’t be disentangled from the racism that was the subject of yesterday’s post. Efforts by the GOP to keep folks from the polls, after all, tend to be focused on black folks, and that has been true ever since poll taxes were instituted to keep former slaves from exercising their franchise.

Today’s Republicans are far more inventive–and far more overt. From Voter ID laws that are aimed at solving the  virtually non-existent problem of in-person “voter fraud,” to the chutzpah of Brian Kemp in Georgia, the GOP is pulling out all the stops to keep people of color from the polls. (And thanks to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, there are lots of stops to pull out.)

The New Yorker has an article titled “Voter-Suppression Tactics in the Age of Trump” that is well worth reading.It begins with a story.

African-Americans used to tell a joke about a black Harvard professor who moves to the Deep South and tries to register to vote. A white clerk tells him that he will first have to read aloud a paragraph from the Constitution. When he easily does so, the clerk says that he will also have to read and translate a section written in Spanish. Again he complies. The clerk then demands that he read sections in French, German, and Russian, all of which he happens to speak fluently. Finally, the clerk shows him a passage in Arabic. The professor looks at it and says, “My Arabic is rusty, but I believe this translates to ‘Negroes cannot vote in this county.’ ”

As the article notes, this old joke has a new saliency. It’s true that–thanks to litigation–literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses meant to disadvantage minority voters have all been declared illegal. But new strategies have replaced them.

One need look no further than the governor’s race in Georgia to see their modern equivalents in action. The race between the Republican, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, and the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the state House of Representatives—who, if she wins, will be the first black female governor in the country—is a virtual tie. But Kemp has invoked the so-called exact-match law to suspend fifty-three thousand voter-registration applications, for infractions as minor as a hyphen missing from a surname. African-Americans make up thirty-two per cent of the state’s population, but they represent nearly seventy per cent of the suspended applications.

This isn’t Kemp’s first effort at disenfranchising minority voters. Historian Carol Anderson has written a book titled “One Person, No Vote,” in which Kemp is prominently profiled.

In 2012, after the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, in Atlanta, discovered that many of its clients who were naturalized citizens were not on the voter rolls, despite having registered, the group raised the issue with Kemp’s office. “In a show of raw intimidation,” Anderson writes, “Kemp ordered an investigation questioning the methods that the organization had used to register new voters.” In 2014, Kemp investigated the New Georgia Project, a voter-registration initiative that Abrams had founded. In a similar vein, officials in Jefferson County last week ordered a group of African-American senior citizens off a bus taking them to an early-voting site, on the ground that the transportation, which had been organized by the nonpartisan group Black Voters Matter, was a “political activity.”

The article characterizes these and similar (if somewhat less blatant) efforts elsewhere as an attempt to place a white thumb on the demographic scale.

Georgia is far from the only state making an effort to curtail–rather than encourage–voting.  The Brennan Center reports that ninety-nine bills designed to diminish voter access were introduced last year in thirty-one state legislatures. And as early voting has started, we are seeing reports of machines that “flip” voters choices from Democratic candidates to their Republican opponents.

If and when Congress is controlled by elected officials willing to put the interests of the country above the partisan interests of their party, reinvigoration of the Voting Rights Act and measures to protect the franchise need to be priority number one.

Meanwhile, massive turnout next Tuesday will be needed in order to overcome gerrymandering and the various voter suppression and misinformation efforts that are being employed by Republican politicians who want to win at all costs–even if one of those costs is the integrity of our democracy.

 

What Planet Do They Live On?

Yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court effectively eviscerated the Voting Rights Act.

Without bothering to identify precisely what part of the constitution it violated, the Court invalidated Congress’ most recent identification, in Section 4, of the states subject to the operation of Section 5. Section 5 requires that the states so identified obtain prior approval of changes to their voting laws.

According to the majority decision, efforts to suppress minority voting are no longer a problem in the states subject to the act.  The current coverage system, according to Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

Evidently,  the newspapers on whatever planet Roberts lives on haven’t covered the persistent and concerted efforts at vote suppression that have characterized the last two election cycles.

As the New York Times noted,

The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Texas announced shortly after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.

In a saner age, the opinion would not be so devastating; it explicitly allows Congress to “update” the list of states subject to Section Five.

If we had a Congress rather than a partisan zoo, that might actually happen. As it is, however, remedial action is unlikely. When an aide to a Republican House member was asked when Congress might revisit the matter, he responded “Sometime after the Rapture.”

It’s going to get very ugly.

Circular Politics

We took our grandchildren to the Newseum today, and I would recommend it to anyone contemplating a trip to DC. It is a fabulous museum–not at all a dusty repository of newsprint, but an interactive, living testament to the practice of journalism. For our 8 and 10 year olds, there were numerous “games” and short films that buried instruction in entertainment–snapshots of the past as seen through the eyes of those who covered the events.

One of the short films focused on the Freedom Riders, the Birmingham boycott and Selma. Our grandchildren were shocked and uncomprehending, and we had a long talk about the treatment of African-Americans, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.

The film clip also showed President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. The voice-over explained that in many Southern states, ways had been found to keep black people from voting, necessitating a federal law securing their right to cast their ballots.

All I could think of was how contemporary this sounded.

Indiana passed one of the first so-called “Voter ID” laws, justified by a need to reduce a non-existent “voter fraud,” but actually intended to suppress the vote of the poor and minority citizens who vote disproportionately for Democrats. Other states have followed suit. Most recently–and most brazenly–Governor Rick Scott of Florida ordered a draconian “purge” of that swing state’s voter rolls–so draconian, and so indiscriminate (hundreds of eligible voters found themselves summarily removed from the rolls), that the state’s county election officials–Republican and Democrat alike–refused to implement it, and the U.S. Justice Department has sued to halt it.

States may not be able to employ the Poll Tax any more, but these measures have proved to be very serviceable substitutes.

I thought about that while I was assuring my grandchildren that the law signed by President Johnson secured the right to vote for all our citizens. What I didn’t have the heart to tell them was that when you close a door that is being used by dishonorable people, they’re likely to find an open window to wriggle through.

Jefferson was sure right about one thing: eternal vigilance really is the price of liberty.