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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Fifty Years After Freedom Summer, the Voting Rights Act Is Needed More Than Ever

Fifty years ago, Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old anthropology major at Queens College, went down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. His first stop was Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he and Mickey Schwerner, a 24-year-old graduate student in social work at Columbia University, and James Chaney, a 21-year-old volunteer with the Congress for Racial Equality from Meridian, Mississippi, were sent to investigate a church burning. Schwerner and Chaney had spoken at Mount Zion Methodist Church over Memorial Day, urging local blacks to register to vote.

In 1964, only 6.7 percent of African-Americans were registered in Mississippi and not a single one in Philadelphia’s Neshoba County. The fight for voting rights was the reason Goodman traveled to Mississippi. “He just thought it was unfair that an American citizen of voting age was restrained and stopped from voting,” said his younger brother, David.

On June 21, 1964, the young civil rights activists were arrested by the Neshoba County police and then abducted by the Klan. Their bodies were found forty-four days later in an earthen dam. Goodman and Schwerner, both white, had been shot once. Chaney, who was African-American, had been mutilated beyond recognition. Martin Popper, the attorney for the Goodman family, called it “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States.”

The murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were the starkest example of the brutality the Freedom Summer volunteers encountered from local whites. Freedom Summer “produced almost as many acts of violence by local whites as it did black voters,” wrote historian David Garrow. Mississippi didn’t change until Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. “A lot of people lost their lives getting that Voting Rights Act into place,” said David Goodman.

The legislation eliminated the literacy tests and poll taxes that for so long prevented blacks from registering to vote in Mississippi and other Southern states, and made sure those states didn’t adopt new voter suppression tactics in the future. The VRA transformed Mississippi and the rest of the country. Today, the Magnolia State has more black elected officials than any other state.

The fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer happens to coincide with the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Supreme Court’s conservative majority invalidated Section 4 of the VRA on June 25, 2013. As a result, states like Mississippi, with the worst history of voting discrimination, no longer have to clear their voting changes with the federal government.

Section 4 provided the formula for covering states that had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the VRA (known as “preclearance”). Chief Justice John Roberts struck down Section 4 for two reasons: it was based on outdated data from the 1960s and 1970s, he argued, and violated what he called the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among states. Though Roberts conceded “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” he stated that the “extraordinary measures” of the VRA were no longer justified.

Think voting discrimination is largely a thing of the past?

Take a look at this map, courtesy of the Brennan Center for Justice:

And this map:

And this map, via the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights:

Some relevant facts Roberts neglected to mention:

Since the 2010 election, twenty-two states have passed new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center. This includes requiring strict voter ID to cast a ballot, cutting early voting, making it harder to register to vote and rescinding voting rights for non-violent ex-felons. New restrictions will be in place for the first time in fifteen states in the 2014 election. All across the country, we’re seeing the most significant push to restrict voting rights since Reconstruction.

Partisanship is a strong motivating factor for the voting changes—GOP legislatures or governors enacted eighteen of the twenty-two new restrictions.

So is race. According to the Brennan Center: “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote.”

These disturbing facts suggest that the strong protections of the VRA are still needed. Nearly two-thirds of the states previously covered under Section 5 of the VRA, nine of fifteen, passed new voting restrictions since 2010.

Take another look at the maps above. You’ll see that the South continues to restrict voting rights more aggressively than anywhere else in the country. What has changed in recent years isn’t the South but the fact that states like Kansas and Ohio and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have adopted Southern-bred voter suppression tactics. Just when the VRA should’ve been expanded to cover the surprisingly wide scope of 21st century voting discrimination, the Supreme Court instead gutted the law.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissent. The central irony of the decision is that it was pouring when the Supreme Court removed the umbrella designed to protect voters from discrimination.

What happened next was entirely predictable. Within two hours of the decision, Texas implemented a voter ID law judged to be discriminatory by the federal courts. Two months later, North Carolina passed the harshest package of voting restrictions in the country.

Local jurisdictions previously covered by the law have responded in kind. Reports MSNBC’s Zack Roth:

Georgia lawmakers changed the date of city council elections in Augusta from November to July, a time when black turnout is traditionally far lower—a tactic that goes back to Jim Crow days. In Pasadena, Texas, voters approved a new “at-large” scheme for electing council members that made it much harder for Hispanic candidates to win office. A similar scheme, adopted by a school district in Beaumont, Texas, was blocked by the Justice Department under Section 5, but went into effect this year.

Since the Shelby decision, ten jurisdictions in seven states have enacted potentially discriminatory new voting changes that would’ve been subject to review under Section 5, according to the Leadership Conference.

A good case study is Decatur, Alabama, a city of 55,000 in the northern part of the state. For most of the twentieth century, whites controlled every important position in Decatur, which is 20 percent black. The first black city councilman wasn’t elected until 1988, as a result of a landmark lawsuit under the VRA, when the city shifted from citywide at-large elections to five single-member districts, including one majority-black district, for the city council.

In 2010, Decatur passed a referendum adopting a council-manager form of government, with two at-large districts for the city council and three single-member ones. The catch was that the new plan would eliminate the city’s only majority-black district. In 2011, the city submitted the change for federal approval under Section 5. After DOJ requested more information, Decatur withdrew its submission. The new plan seemed dead. But following the Shelby decision, the new system is set to go into effect. (It’s now being challenged in court by voting rights lawyers in Alabama.) As a result, the city’s lone black councilman, Billy Jackson, may soon be out of a job.

Despite these developments, new legislation to update Section 4 is stalled in Congress. Few Republicans—including the fifty-seven House Republicans who voted for the VRA’s overwhelming reauthorization in 2006 and are still serving—are willing to support it. Eric Cantor, whose backing would have been critical to the bill’s passage, will soon be leaving Congress.

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Cantor was one of three Republicans who traveled with John Lewis and David Goodman on a congressional pilgrimage to Mississippi in March to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. “He was very moved by the story of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner,” Goodman said. Cantor told Goodman: “This voting issue is not a partisan issue.” It didn’t used to be, but now it is.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. No hearing is currently scheduled in the House. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte is said to believe that a remedy for the Supreme Court’s decision is not needed. Past history and present circumstances suggest otherwise.

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on how Eric Cantor's defeat is bad news for the Voting Rights Act

Eric Cantor’s Defeat Is Bad News for the Voting Rights Act

Voting rights

Marchers carry signs to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, urging action on voting rights. (Reuters/James Lawler Duggan)

Two days ago, on KCRW’s To The Point, I was asked why so few Republicans are supporting a new fix for the Voting Rights Act when the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA passed with overwhelming GOP support, 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. I answered that the Republican Party is considerably more conservative than it was just eight years ago and significant elements of the party are actively committed to making it harder for people to vote.

Eric Cantor’s primary defeat last night offers a good explanation for why so many Republicans are no longer willing to back efforts to protect voting rights.

After the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating a key section of the VRA last year, Cantor vowed to “find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.” He was the only member of the GOP leadership to take such a position. Supporters of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 were counting on his support (even though he remained noncommittal to date).

The bill was written specifically with Cantor in mind, watered down on the key issue of voter ID to attract GOP support. I was told recently from a well-placed Capitol Hill source that Cantor planned to eventually announce his support for the bill, but was waiting for the right strategic moment. Now it’s unlikely he will be in Congress in 2014 and even more unlikely the legislation can get through the House without him.

In the run-up to the primary, Tea Party groups like True the Vote attacked Cantor for indicating a willingness to potentially support the bill (even equivocation is now a sin!). “Over the past several months we have observed an alarming ambiguity in your position,” six conservative groups wrote to Cantor earlier this week, requesting a meeting to stress their opposition to the VRA bill. The signees included former Reagan attorney general Ed Meese. “This bill will fundamentally and intentionally change American elections into race-reliant battlefields.”

“Virginians, vote in your Primary today, then ask Rep. Cantor to protect ALL Americans’ votes and stop #HR3899,” True the Vote tweeted yesterday.

There's no evidence that Cantor's position on the VRA, or lack thereof, played a role in his defeat. To my knowledge, the issue was never addressed by either Cantor or his opponent Dave Brat during the primary campaign. (Immigration seemed to be the key issue.) But my sense is that Cantor did not announce his support for VRA legislation because he was worried, like on so many issues, about the reaction from the right. The flak he caught from conservatives shows how far to the right many Republicans have moved on voting rights. Eight years ago, nearly every Republican member of Congress supported a strong twenty-five-year extension of the VRA. Now few Republicans are willing to support a modest VRA fix.

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Just look at what happened a month ago, when Rand Paul was bitterly attacked on the right for suggesting that Republicans downplay their support for voter ID laws. Paul quickly backtracked after upsetting Fox News and related audiences.

For many years, there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress in favor of voting rights. That fell apart after Obama’s election. The reaction on the right to even tepid pro–voting rights statements by Cantor and Paul suggests that other prominent Republicans will continue to support restricting voting rights rather than backing efforts to expand the franchise.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on why it's time to change US policy with Cuba.

The Debate Over Voting Rights Is Shifting Dramatically. Just Ask Rand Paul.

Rand Paul

Republican Senator Rand Paul has now spoken up in defense of voting rights. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Last August, after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Rand Paul argued: “I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.” (For a comprehensive rebuttal, read Andrew Cohen’s “Here’s Where Rand Paul Can Find ‘Objective Evidence’ of Voter Suppression.”)

Nine months later, Paul is saying of voter ID laws,: “It’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” He’s conceded that Republicans have “over-emphasized” the prevalence of voter fraud and has called cutting early voting hours “a mistake.” He’s working with Eric Holder and lobbying in his home state of Kentucky to restore voting rights to nonviolent ex-felons. This from a guy who ran for office as a darling of the Tea Party and suggested that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional.

Paul’s new religion on voting rights is evidence of a broader shift on the issue. In recent weeks, courts in Wisconsin and Arkansas have struck down voter ID laws and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett decided not to appeal a Commonwealth Court decision in January overturning his state’s voter ID law. Extensive rulings in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have strongly undercut the case for voter ID laws, showing that hundreds of thousands of registered voters lack the specific forms of newly required government-issued ID, that these voters are disproportionately black and Hispanic and lower-income, that obtaining such ID can be a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and that there is no evidence of voter impersonation to justify such burdens. As Judge Lynn Adelman wrote in Wisconsin, “It is absolutely clear that [voter ID] will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.” (A two-year investigation into voter fraud in Iowa found zero cases of voter impersonation at the polls.)

In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law in a 6-3 decision authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the most liberal Justices on the Court. Even though Indiana presented no evidence of in-person voter impersonation to support the law, Stevens wrote that the state’s “interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process” justified whatever burdens would result from strict voter ID. But in 2013, Stevens told The Wall Street Journal that he is not “a fan of voter ID” and that “the impact of the statute is much more serious” on poor, minority, disabled and elderly voters than he believed in 2008.

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Judge Richard Posner, who also upheld Indiana’s voter ID law on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has also changed his tune on the issue, calling voter ID “a type of law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.” Voter ID laws and related voting restrictions are increasingly being rejected in the courts, by politicians and among the public.

As I wrote recently, many Republicans used to strongly support voting rights and played instrumental roles in the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and its four reauthorizations. That changed dramatically following Barack Obama’s election, when GOP-backed voting restrictions sprung up all across the map. Maybe now the pendulum is swinging back to expanding the franchise. It will be a welcome sign when Paul isn’t the only major Republican to criticize his party for making it harder for people to vote.

UPDATE: Paul's office released this statement from Doug Stafford, advisor to Senator Paul:

“Senator Paul was having a larger discussion about criminal justice reform and restoration of voting rights, two issues he has been speaking about around the country and pushing for in state and federal legislation. 

In the course of that discussion, he reiterated a point he has made before that while there may be some instances of voter fraud, it should not be a defining issue of the Republican Party, as it is an issue that is perhaps perceived in a way it is not intended. At no point did Senator Paul come out against voter ID laws. In terms of the specifics of voter ID laws, Senator Paul believes it's up to each state to decide that type of issue.”

UPDATE II: On Tuesday, May 13, Paul "clarified" his views on voter ID in interviews with Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren, making clear that he supports voter ID laws but believes that Republicans should "emphasize" other issues. Read Steve Benen of Maddowblog for more.  

Read Next: Republicans used to support voting rights, what happened?

ACLU Lawsuit: Ohio Early Voting Cuts Violate Voting Rights Act

Ohio early voting

Early voting in Ohio in 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Voting rights advocates, after successfully challenging Wisconsin’s voter ID law this week, filed suit today challenging early voting restrictions in Ohio.

The GOP-controlled Ohio legislature, after repeatedly attempting to cut early voting in 2012, earlier this year eliminated the state’s first week of early voting—the “Golden Week” when voters could also register at the polls. In addition, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a directive abolishing the last two days of early voting before Election Day and eliminating early voting hours on weeknights and Sundays, when African-American churches traditionally organize “Souls to the Polls” drives.

In 2012, 157,000 Ohioans cast ballots during early voting hours eliminated by the Ohio GOP, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of groups including the Ohio NAACP and the League of Women Voters. As in Wisconsin, the lawsuit contends that such cuts violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by disproportionately burdening black voters.

Blacks in Ohio were far more likely than whites to vote early in 2008 and 2012. “In the November 2008 election in [Cleveland’s] Cuyahoga County, African Americans voted early in person at a rate over twenty times greater than white voters,” according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. In cities like Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton blacks voted early in numbers far exceeding their percentage of the population.

In the 2004 election, before Ohio adopted early voting, there were extremely long lines in large urban counties and African-American voters waited nearly three times as long as white voters to vote. One survey estimated that 130,000 Ohioans left the polls without casting a ballot. George W. Bush won the state by only 119,000 votes.

Few lawsuits have been filed challenging early voting cutbacks under Section 2 of the VRA, because early voting is a recent reform and Section 2 has traditionally applied to vote dilution cases, so the outcome in Ohio will likely have larger national implications.

Ohio is not the only battleground state to restrict early voting this year. In March the Republican-led Wisconsin legislature eliminated early voting hours on nights and weekends, when it’s most convenient to vote. Take a look at this chart comparing early voting hours in 2010 versus 2014.

Over 250,000 Wisconsinites voted early in 2012, one in twelve overall voters. Cutting early voting has a clear partisan purpose: those who voted early broke for Obama 58 to 41 percent in Wisconsin in 2012, compared to his 51 to 48 percent margin on Election Day.

Last July, as part of the nation’s harshest anti-voting law, the North Carolina legislature cut a week off early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration, which the Justice Department and voting rights groups are also challenging under Section 2 of the VRA. Seventy percent of African-American voters in North Carolina voted early in 2008 and 2012.

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An analysis for the ACLU in North Carolina projects the impact of these cuts:

During the 2012 general election, over one-half of North Carolinians voted early, with about 900,000 ballots cast during the seven days of early voting that have now been eliminated. If just four percent of those voters showed up on Election Day, waiting times to vote would have more than doubled, according to Ted Allen, professor of industrial engineering at Ohio State, who literally wrote the textbook on lines and waiting times to vote.

But some people just can’t afford to spend their time in line. With longer waits, Allen calculates that 18,000 people would have given up in frustration and left the lines without voting. And that’s just a low-end estimate: In a worst-case scenario, waiting times would have been just shy of three hours to vote. For perspective, that’s how long it takes to drive from Raleigh to Charlotte.

This is not an abstract discussion. We saw the negative impact of early voting cuts in Florida in 2012. After the legislature eliminated a week of early voting, including on Sundays, seven-hour-long lines followed and 300,000 fewer people went to the polls. Turnout declined by over 10 percent relative to 2008. Said Paul Gronke, an early voting expert at Reed College, “After Florida cut back on early voting, its population of early voters became less black, and more white.”

Early voting cuts are the most indefensible aspect of the Republican war on voting. They inconvenience voters across the political spectrum and disproportionately harm those voters who have historically been excluded from the political process.

After public outcry following the 2012 election, Florida Republicans repealed their early voting cuts. “For Republicans who want to make their whole thing on eliminating early voting, I think that is a mistake,” Rand Paul said recently. But Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin are still doubling down on making it harder for people to vote.

Read Next: A federal court recently struck down Wisconsin’s discriminatory voter ID law.

Federal Court Strikes Down Discriminatory Wisconsin Voter ID Law

Protesters in Wisconsin

Protesters in Wisconsin. (Reuters/Darren Hauck)

At 2:17 pm EST today, ESPN announced that LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been banned from the NBA for life for his racist remarks.

Seven minutes later, at 2:24 pm, the ACLU tweeted that a Wisconsin judge had struck down the state’s voter ID law because it disproportionately burdened black and Hispanic voters.

Both decisions were striking affirmations of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent last week, in a Michigan affirmative action case, that “race matters.” Sotomayor pointed to contemporary voter suppression efforts as an illustration of her defense.

Wisconsin federal district court Judge Lynn Adelman ruled today that the state’s voter ID law, which was temporarily enjoined in 2012, violated the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Judge Adelman found that 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin, roughly 9 percent of registered voters, lacked the government-issued ID required by the state to cast a ballot. “To put this number in context,” Adelman wrote, “in 2010 the race for governor in Wisconsin was decided by 124,638 votes, and the race for United States Senator was decided by 105,041 votes. Thus, the number of registered voters who lack a qualifying ID is large enough to change the outcome of Wisconsin elections.”

The voter ID law had a clear discriminatory impact, the judge found. “The evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that this unique burden disproportionately impacts Black and Latino voters,” Adelman wrote. Data from the 2012 election “showed that African American voters in Wisconsin were 1.7 times as likely as white voters to lack a matching driver’s license or state ID and that Latino voters in Wisconsin were 2.6 times as likely as white voters to lack these forms of identification.”

The judge found that Wisconsin’s ID law overwhelmingly impacted lower-income voters and that “Blacks and Latinos in Wisconsin are disproportionately likely to live in poverty…. The reason Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, and therefore to lack a qualifying ID, is because they have suffered from, and continue to suffer from, the effects of discrimination.”

Reading his opinion, it seemed as if Judge Adelman were directly addressing the “colorblind” ideology of Chief Justice John Roberts, who has argued that voting discrimination is largely a thing of the past and that consideration of race to remedy past discrimination is, in and of itself, discriminatory. “It’s not just these intentional, Donald Sterling-like acts that matter,” says Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, which challenged the Wisconsin voter ID law. “It’s laws that reinforce existing patterns of inequality which themselves are related to broad patterns of discrimination.”

Adelman’s ruling is significant for at least three reasons:

1. It’s the most comprehensive opinion yet detailing the case against voter ID laws and the paucity of evidence to justify them.

2. It’s part of a broader trend striking down new voter restrictions—Wisconsin is the fifth state where voter ID laws have been invalidated in court. “These laws, when they get seriously tested, don’t survive in court,” says Ho. The Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008, but since then legal and public skepticism of voter ID laws and related restrictions has increased considerably.

3. It’s the first time a voter ID law has been struck down under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act or the federal Constitution. Other laws had previously been invalidated under state constitutions in Missouri, Arkansas and Pennsylvania or under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted last year. Section 2 has traditionally been used to challenge “vote dilution” cases, like discriminatory redistricting plans, rather than “vote denial” efforts that prevent or obstruct minority voters from casting a ballot. But now, without Section 5, the Department of Justice is challenging voter ID laws in North Carolina and Texas under Section 2.

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Judge Adelman argued that the state of Wisconsin presented no evidence of voter fraud to justify the burdens of the ID law. “The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin,” he wrote. “The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past…. It is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.”

The problem in Wisconsin wasn’t only the large number of voters who lacked ID, but the Kafkaesque hurdles voters had to jump through to obtain the correct ID. The lead plaintiff in the case, 84-year-old Ruthelle Frank, began voting in 1948, but didn’t have a driver’s license or birth certificate and couldn’t get the state ID card needed to vote. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Frank said she tried to get a state identification card last month at a Division of Motor Vehicles office but was rebuffed when she couldn’t produce a birth certificate. She did have a notarized baptism certificate, as well as a Social Security card, Medicare statement and a checkbook.

“I was about in tears,” she said.

But she didn’t cry. She grew angry. And she called her local newspaper, the Wausau Daily Herald, which told her story.

According to the newspaper, a record of Frank’s birth does exist with the state register of deeds in Madison. She could get a birth certificate for a fee, $20. But Frank said that fee amounted to a poll tax.

There’s another problem. Frank’s maiden name of Wedepohl was misspelled by the physician who attended her home birth. To get the birth certificate amended, she could petition the court, a process that could take several weeks and cost at least $200, the newspaper said.

These horror stories have been told over and over in Wisconsin, a place that voting rights activists now call “the Selma of the North.” According to Judge Adelman, “seven of the witnesses who testified about their own lack of a qualifying ID stated that it was the lack of a birth certificate that was preventing them from obtaining an ID.”

Ironically, the negative impact of voter ID laws has undermined the purported rationale of their sponsors: to protect the integrity of US elections. “Perhaps the reason why photo ID requirements have no effect on confidence or trust in the electoral process is that such laws undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral process as much as they promote it,” Adelman concluded.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Donald Sterling ban

Republicans Used to Support Voting Rights—What Happened?

Barack Obama

Then presidential candidate Barack Obama (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

During a speech on Friday at the National Action Network, President Obama made his strongest and most extensive comments yet on the topic of voting rights. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Obama said. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”

The election of the first black president and the resurrection of voter suppression efforts was hardly a coincidence. New voting restrictions took effect in nineteen states from 2011–12. Nine states under GOP control have adopted measures to make it more difficult to vote since 2013. Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, half of the states (eight in total) previously covered under Section 5 have passed or implemented new voting restrictions.

These laws, from voter ID to cutting early voting to restricting voter registration, have been passed under the guise of stopping voter fraud, although there’s scant evidence that such fraud exists. Obama cited a comprehensive study by News21 that found only ten cases of in-person voter impersonation since 2000. “The real voter fraud,” the president said, “is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud.”

Obama’s speech highlighted how Democratic leaders are embracing the cause of voting rights. (Attorney General Eric Holder has made it a signature issue, with the DOJ filing lawsuits against new voting restrictions in Texas and North Carolina last year.)

A day before arriving in New York, Obama spoke about civil rights at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—where the subject of contemporary attacks on voting rights came up often. “Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for?” asked Bill Clinton. “Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for? Is this what America has become a great thriving democracy for? To restrict the franchise?”

Democratic presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have recently championed voting rights. The Democratic National Committee has launched a new Voter Expansion Project and veterans of the Obama campaign started iVote to elect Democratic secretaries of state in Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Nevada. Democrats hope that an appeal to voting rights will help mobilize key constituencies, like in 2012, when a backlash against GOP voter suppression efforts increased African-American turnout. “The single most important thing we can do to protect our right to vote is to vote,” Obama said on Friday.

It’s great that Democratic leaders are finally recognizing the severity of the attack on voting rights. But it’s sad that Republicans are almost unanimously supporting the restriction of voting rights rather than the expansion of the franchise.

Things weren’t always this way. In his new book about the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Todd Purdum tells the story of Bill McCulloch, a conservative Republican from Ohio who championed civil rights as the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. The Politico excerpt from the book was titled “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights.”

There would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965 without the support of Republicans like McCulloch and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. For decades after the 1960s, voting rights legislation had strong bipartisan support in Congress. Every reauthorization of the VRA—in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006—was signed by a Republican president and supported by an overwhelming number of Republicans in Congress.

Republicans like Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, an heir to McCulloch who as the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee oversaw the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA and is co-sponsoring a new fix for the VRA, used to be the norm within the GOP. Now he’s the rare Republican who still believes the GOP should remain the party of Lincoln. Where is the Republican Voter Expansion Project?

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It’s also unfortunate that many in the media continue to report on voting rights like it’s a left-versus-right issue, as if supporting a fundamental democratic right suddenly makes one a flaming liberal. Jamie Fuller of The Washington Post called voting rights “the Democrats’ most important project in 2014.” Michael Shear of The New York Times dubbed Obama’s speech an effort “to rally his political base.”

The right to vote used to be regarded as a moral issue, not a partisan one. As President Johnson said when he introduced the VRA before Congress: “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.”

As long as Democrats are the party of voting rights and Republicans are the party of voter suppression, the right to vote will continue to be under siege.

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on the Supreme Court’s ideology of more money and less voting.

The Supreme Court’s Ideology: More Money, Less Voting

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In the past four years, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.

First came the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which brought us the Super PAC era.

Then came the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act.

Now we have McCutcheon v. FEC, where the Court, in yet another controversial 5-4 opinion written by Roberts, struck down the limits on how much an individual can contribute to candidates, parties and political action committees. So instead of an individual donor being allowed to give $117,000 to campaigns, parties and PACs in an election cycle (the aggregate limit in 2012), they can now give up to $3.5 million, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports.

The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche right to buy an election, but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.

These are not unrelated issues—the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

Consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

· The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

· Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

· It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

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Now consider what’s happened since Shelby County: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to The New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

A country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect fundament rights for all citizens doesn’t sound much like a functioning democracy to me.

Read Next: Ari Berman on why the Voting Rights Act is still needed.

GOP Steps Up Attack on Early Voting in Key Swing States

early voting

Early voting lines in Cleveland, 2012, taken by Ari Berman.

On Election Night 2012, referring to the long lines in states like Florida and Ohio, Barack Obama declared, “We have to fix that.”

The waits in Florida and Ohio were no accident, but rather the direct consequence of GOP efforts to curtail the number of days and hours that people had to vote. On January 22, 2014, the president’s bipartisan election commission released a comprehensive report detailing how voting could be smoother, faster and more convenient. It urged states to reduce long lines by adopting “measures to improve access to the polls through expansion of the period for voting before the traditional Election Day.”

That would seem like an uncontroversial and common sense suggestion, but too many GOP-controlled states continue to move in the opposite direction, reducing access to the ballot instead of expanding it. The most prominent recent examples are the swing states of Wisconsin and Ohio.

Yesterday Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed legislation eliminating early voting hours on weekends and nights, when it’s most convenient for many voters to go to the polls. When they took over state government in 2011, Wisconsin Republicans reduced the early voting period from three weeks to two weeks and only one weekend. Now they’ve eliminated weekend voting altogether.

Over 250,000 Wisconsinites voted early in 2012, one in twelve overall voters. Cutting early voting has a clear partisan purpose: those who voted early voted for Obama 58 to 41 percent in Wisconsin in 2012, compared to his 51 to 48 percent margin on Election Day. Extended early voting hours were particularly critical with respect to high voter turnout in big cities like Milwaukee and Madison. “It’s just sad when a political party has so lost faith in its ideas that it’s pouring all of its energy into election mechanics,” said Wisconsin GOP State Senator Dale Schultz, a critic of the legislation.

A month ago, Ohio passed legislation cutting early voting by a week, eliminating same-day voter registration and restricting the availability of absentee ballots while Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a directive doing away with early voting on weeknights and Sundays as well. 600,000 Ohioans, ten percent of the electorate, voted early in 2012. The cuts in Ohio, like Wisconsin, have a clear partisan and racial underpinning—in Cleveland, for example, African-Americans made up 56 percent of those who voted on weekends in 2008.

Republicans are adopting the early voting cuts under the guise of “uniformity”—claiming they want all counties to have the same hours, which punishes large urban counties if small rural counties don’t have the money or manpower for extended early voting hours.

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But few believe that’s the only reason why early voting is on the chopping block. Many Republicans are predictably reluctant to admit that the main reason they suddenly disfavor early voting is because too many Democrats are using it or because they actually believe, in the words of Jonah Goldberg, that “voting should be harder, not easier—for everybody.” (See Rick Hasen’s piece “The new conservative assault on early voting.”)

The latter argument was endorsed by Florida GOP State Senator Mike Bennett in 2011, who said: “I wouldn’t have any problem making it harder...I want the people of the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who’s willing to walk 200 miles…This should not be easy.”

That view was widely repudiated in the aftermath of the 2012 election, when even Florida repealed its cutbacks to early voting. A move to significantly reduce early voting recently failed in the Georgia legislature, which can hardly be described as moderate. But Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin are stuck on the disgraced idea that the best way to win an election is to make it harder for your opponents to participate in one.

 

Read Next: An in-depth look at the growing Moral Monday Movement

Willie Horton Politics: Senate Votes Against Civil Rights

Debo Adegbile

Debo Adegbile outside the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2013, after arguments in the Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder voting rights case. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Today, the US Senate voted 47-52 not to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Every Republican senator and seven Democrats voted against Adegbile’s nomination.

Adegbile, the former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was superbly qualified for the position. He was endorsed by the American Bar Association and high-profile lawyers on both sides of the aisle, and presciently defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court last year. He would’ve made an excellent head of the Civil Rights Division.

But Adegbile was the victim of a vicious right-wing smear campaign, attacking him because LDF defended Mumia Abu Jamal’s right to a fair trial. All across the right-wing media echo chamber, on Fox News and conservative blogs, the words Adegbile and “cop-killer” were plastered in the headlines. The Fraternal Order of Police came out against his nomination, even though a court agreed with LDF that Abu Jamal had not been granted a fair trial—a basic right in American society regardless of whether he did or did not commit the crime.

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In disqualifying Adegbile, senators are establishing a very dangerous precedent that attorneys are responsibile for all of the actions of their clients. “LDF’s advocacy on behalf of Mr. Abu-Jamal does not disqualify Mr. Adegbile from leading the Civil Rights Division,” prominent members of the Supreme Court bar wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. “To conclude otherwise would send the wrong message to any lawyer who is affiliated, or might be asked to become involved, with a difficult, unpopular case for the purpose of enforcing and preserving important constitutional principles.”

It’s understandable why every Republican senator lined up against Adegbile’s nomination—the modern GOP has voted against civil rights time and time again. But the opposition of Democrats Casey, Coons, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, Pryor and Walsh is more shameful (Harry Reid voted no for procedural reasons, to keep the nomination alive). The idea that voting against the nomination of the head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division would swing a close race is laughable. Casey and Coons deserve particular scorn, since they represent safe blue states and both profess to be supporters of the causes Adegbile supports, like voting rights.

Today’s vote shows that, twenty-six years after George Bush ran the infamous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis, race-based gutter politics is still not a thing of the past. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Adegbile deserves better.”

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.

North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement Kicks Off 2014 With a Massive Rally in Raleigh

On Stage at Moral Monday

The stage at the inaugural 2014 Moral Mondays protest in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by Ari Berman.

On February 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T kicked off the 1960s civil rights movement by trying to eat at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. Two months later, young activists founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee  at Shaw University in Raleigh, which would transform the South through sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration drives.

So it was fitting that North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement held a massive “Moral March” in Raleigh today which began at Shaw University, exactly fifty-four years after North Carolina’s trailblazing role in the civil rights movement. Tens of thousands of activists—from all backgrounds, races and causes—marched from Shaw to the North Carolina State Capitol, where they held an exuberant rally protesting the right-wing policies of the North Carolina government and commemorating the eighth anniversary of the HKonJ coalition (the acronym stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street, where the NC legislature sits).

The day began cold and cloudy, a fitting metaphor for politics in North Carolina last year. Since taking over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion in 2012, controlling state government for the first time in over a century, North Carolina Republicans eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000 North Carolinians; refused Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; axed public financing of judicial races; prohibited death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts; passed one of the country’s most draconian anti-choice laws; and enacted the country’s worst voter suppression law, which mandates strict voter ID, cuts early voting and eliminates same-day registration, among other things.

The fierce reaction against these policies led to the Moral Monday movement, when nearly 1,000 activists were arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience inside the North Carolina General Assembly. Rallies were held in more than thirty cities across the state and the approval ratings of North Carolina Republicans fell into the toilet. Sample signs at today’s rally: “OMG, GOP, WTF. It’s 2014, not 1954!!!” “Welcome to North Carolina. Turn Your Watch Back 50 Years!” (See my Twitter feed for photos of the rally.)

The Moral Monday protests transformed North Carolina politics in 2013, building a multiracial, multi-issue movement centered around social justice such as the South hadn’t seen since the 1960s. “We have come to say to the extremists, who ignore the common good and have chosen the low road, your actions have worked in reverse,” said Reverend William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the leader of the Moral Monday movement, in his boisterous keynote speech. “You may have thought you were going to discourage us, but instead you have encouraged us. The more you push us back, the more we will fight to go forward. The more you try to oppress us, the more you will inspire us.”

If today’s rally was any indication, the Moral Monday movement will be bigger and broader in 2014. An estimated 15,000 activists attended the HKonJ rally last year, bringing thirty buses; this year, the NC NAACP estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 people rallied in Raleigh, with 100 buses converging from all over the state and country. It was the largest civil rights rally in the South since tens of thousands of voting rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act.

“This Moral March inaugurates a fresh year of grassroots empowerment, voter education, litigation and non-violent direct action,” Barber said. There will be a new wave of direct action protests when the North Carolina legislature returns in the spring, a new wave of activists doing voter mobilization and registration during the “Freedom Summer 2014,” and litigation challenging North Carolina’s voter suppression bill. The movement will be active in the streets, in the courtroom and at the ballot box. They will be focused not just on changing minds, but on changing outcomes.

To that end, the HKonJ coalition called for five demands:

• Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability;

• Provide well-funded, quality public education for all;

• Stand up for the health of every North Carolinian by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state's communities;

• Address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation or sexual preference;

• Protect and expand voting rights for people of color, women, immigrants, the elderly and students to safeguard fair democratic representation.

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Barber has frequently called North Carolina “a state fight with national implications,” and that message has started to break through nationally. Moral Monday spinoffs have begun in Georgia and South Carolina, and national progressive leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers traveled to Raleigh to lend their support today. “This is a movement, not a moment” is a frequent refrain among Moral Monday activists. “This was just the beginning,” Barber said after the rally. “We did not come all this way just to go home.” Barber just wrapped up a sixteen-city tour of the state last week. He’ll hit the road again next week.

By the end of the rally, the sun had finally come out. “Even the universe is blessing us,” Barber said.

Read Next: Ari Berman on the fight over voting rights in North Carolina.

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