Voters wait to cast their ballot early in Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan.)
Yesterday The New York Times ran a front-page feature on attempts by Democrats, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, to pass reforms to fix the scandalously long lines faced by voters at the polls last November. It comes the same day that the Virginia House and Senate passed a bill to disallow the use of a utility bill, pay stub, bank statement, government check or Social Security card as acceptable identification to present at the polls—making it, of course, all the harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies in this crucial battleground state to have their voice heard at the ballot box.
Nation readers will be well aware of the problem, of how profoundly it contributes to our democracy deficit in America, and how neatly it notches with Republican attempts (defensive, they always claim) to sabotage Democratic turnout, at least since future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was spied intimidating Hispanic voters at Phoenix polling places in 1962. Like me, you probably keep a catalogue in your mind of the most excruciating examples thereunto, like, in this last election, the fact that the Florida ballot was larded with so many right-wing referenda that had to be printed in full, and was so confusing, that it caused four- and five-hour lines even in precincts that weren’t all that crowded.
Now, the Times piece is swell. It reports research such as the study done at MIT that determined that blacks and Hispanics waited an average of twice as long to vote as whites; work by an Ohio State professor and the Orlando Sentinel concluding that more than 20,000 Florida voters “gave up in frustration” rather than stick out the long lines; and a New York Times/CBS News poll that found 18 percent of Democrats waited at least a half-hour to vote compared to 9 percent of Republicans. Pretty damned damning. “Democrats in the House and Senate,” they note, “have already introduced bills that would require states to provide online voter registration and allow at least 15 days of early voting, among other things,” reports the Times. James Clybourn, the black South Carolina representative and assistant House Democratic leader, said of Obama, “I think he’s going to devote pretty significant political resources to bear on this question.”
But the Times piece also suffers a damning lacuna. It doesn’t note that the President and Congress have little or no constitutional authority upon which to act. Here’s a dull two-by-four to the head to all of you hoping Washington can fix the voting problem. It is one of the best kept secrets in our political life: There is no federal right to vote for Congress to guarantee. I’d be glad to be corrected, but as best I can tell, that means that technically, in almost every case, a state can make it as hard as it wants for its citizens to vote, and there’s practically nothing DC can do about it.