Pulse of the Peninsula: New voting rights act a good 1st step

Pulse of the Peninsula: New voting rights act a good 1st step

President Obama and many Democrats celebrated the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965  but Republicans have been completely silent. It didn’t come up at all during the “reality TV show” that was the Fox-GOP Debate (parts 1 and 2).

As President Obama said during a ceremony marking the signing, “in the abstract, at least, everybody today believes in the right to vote.  Conceptually, everybody is in favor of the right to vote. You will not hear anybody defend the notion that the law can discriminate against persons because of their color, or their faith, or their ethnicity, when it comes to going to cast a ballot.  That’s huge progress, a normative shift in how we think about our democracy.  Everybody in theory is supposed to be included. 

“But part of the reason we’re here today, part of the reason it’s so important for us to focus attention on this right is because in practice, we’ve still got problems.

 “On the ground, there are still too many ways in which people are discouraged from voting.  Some of the protections that had been enshrined in the Voting Rights Act itself have been weakened as a consequence of court decisions and interpretations of the law.  State legislatures have instituted procedures and practices that, although on the surface may appear neutral, have the effect of discouraging people from voting, may have a disproportional effect on certain kinds of folks voting. 

“And if, in fact, those practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed to continue unanswered, then over time the hard-won battles of 50 years ago erode, and our democracy erodes. And that means that the decisions that are made in the corridors of power all across this country begin to reflect the interests of the few, instead of the interests of the many….

“So we got to keep pushing.  At the federal level, we need a new Voting Rights Act passed.  At the state and local levels, we’ve got to fight back against efforts to make it harder to vote and we got to embrace those legislators that are prepared to make it easier to vote. 

 It’s not enough to renew the Voting Rights Act. We need a new Voting Rights Act.

As recently as 2006, voting rights were overwhelmingly supported by both parties, but since Obama’s election in 2008 — which he credited largely to the impact of bringing down the cruel barriers to the ballot box for blacks and hispanics — Republicans have worked diligently to reverse the “reforms” put into place after the 2000 and 2004 election debacles.

That’s because Republicans realized that demographics are against them. 

We are headed to a Majority Minority country (or a Minority Majority country) – women are 53 percent of voters, blacks and hispanics are becoming increasingly significant — indeed, the list of demographic groups that are harmed by Republican policies total  99% of the country, when you do the analysis.

“If Republicans can’t win in a fair fight, they rig the outcome — shrink the electorate so their candidates win,” Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz told some 11,000 supporters who joined a conference call on the anniversary of the VRA. “That’s not acceptable. We’re pushing back.”

That’s been very hard, especially with the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court serving as a critical partner in the Republican campaign — going back to Karl Rove — to make the United States a One Party country. Citizens United, in 2010 was a key step, negating hundreds of years of precedent in establishing cold cash as equivalent to free speech and corporations as being more entitled than human beings to exercising political speech. Then, the Rightwing Majority in 2013 took another crucial step in overturning crucial components of the Voting Rights Act based on the outrageous proposition that because a Black (actually, Obama is equally White) was elected to office, therefore the protections of pre-clearance required of overtly racist voting districts was no longer necessary.

In her vigorous dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg warned that weakening the Voting Rights Act because it was working was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”   And she was right, because hours after the decision, a host of states unleashed rules, ostensibly to prevent “Voter Fraud” but designed to give Republicans advantages in elections.

Clearly, Justice Antonin Scalia, who hails himself an “Originalist” would like to return to voting rights being exclusively reserved for “white males with property.” (Question: in the 1830s, white men without property got the right to vote under “Jacksonian Democracy.” How did that happen without amending the Constitution?)

As Scalia stated in the completely unconstitutional, fabricated-out-of-whole-cloth Bush v. Gore decision (even he said it couldn’t be used as precedent), nowhere in the Constitution does it specifically state a right to “one person, one vote,” like it does a right to bear arms. 

That will be significant in an upcoming Supreme Court case which challenges that Congressional representation should not be based on population but on registered voters — so you can see the extra incentive to impede registration.

Scalia at one point said that the Voting Rights Act did not extend to Democrats — that it was perfectly okay to institute rules that gave one party (his party) the advantage over another. Gerrymandering – which is another way of saying “packing and cracking” districts to negate any truthful expression of “one person, one vote,” is okay. Certainly — in his mind — it is acceptable for a state secretary of state who purges tens of thousands of overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic names (because similar names were felons in another state) to also be the chairman of a Presidential candidate’s election committee.

Also, there is a movement in states that are controlled by Republicans (because of gerrymandering), but that wind up voting for Democrats for President, to change the way electoral votes are awarded – instead of “winner take all,” in just these states (like Ohio and Florida), they want to apportion based on the votes, so even if the Democratic candidate wins the popular vote, the Republican candidate will still get electoral votes, while in the Red States that reliably vote for Republicans, it will still be winner-take-all, so the Democratic candidate gets no votes. (New York State has approved a measure that once the proportional system becomes the majority, it too will adopt it, and in theory, this is a better system, which would more reliably elect the winner of the popular vote, but not when it is used to advantage one side.)

All of these things combine to completely unravel even the pretense of a democracy “of the people, by the people, for the people” and  it all starts with Voting Rights – that is, who gets to vote. 

“The right to vote is both fundamental to individual liberty and to the proper functioning of representative democracy,” President Bill Clinton stated in an essay to mark the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. “When voting rights are denied, diluted, or restricted, the ability of government to respond to our challenges and increase our opportunities is impaired, and its legitimacy in doing so is diminished.”

There are renewed calls — from Democrats — to renew the Voting Rights Act, but what I is that the VRA only pertains to discrimination based on race — blacks and maybe hispanics. You can challenge laws (now, because of the Supreme Court, only after the fact) that crack and pack to nullify the votes of Blacks and Hispanics, but what about laws that are intended to shut out or negate participation by women, young voters, the elderly and infirm, and city dwellers? 

So when election hours and voting machines are reduced or access made difficult in certain precincts, hourly wage earners (who aren’t given time off and can be threatened with losing their job), single mothers, old people and the infirm (who physically can’t stand on line for eight hours like the 102 year old woman in Florida’s 2012 election), that impacts certain demographic groups not necessarily based on race.

And when Voter IDs are restrictive – gun permits okay but not college IDs in Texas, names have to be exactly the same between Drivers License and Voting Roll in Texas — that discriminates against women, particularly whose name may be changed because of marriage or divorce, college students (who likely have a drivers license with a different address than their college residence).

The Texas ID law had been rejected by federal judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos who ruled that it “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” Jude Ramos found that 608,000 voters simply did not have the required form of ID.  

But in yet another manipulation of an election outcome, the Supreme Court issued an emergency ruling, allowing the Texas ID law to remain in effect for the 2014 election. In August 2015 the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously supported Ramos’ decision that the law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

This should have resulted in negating the 2014 election and running a new election.

Indeed, because of the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the only way that a discriminatory rule can be overturned is after the fact, by proving that there was racial impact. There should be a provision that such an election will be overturned and re-run – otherwise, there is absolutely no incentive not to cheat by partisan operatives.

And where are the penalties for tearing up voter registration forms, for purging rolls based on similar names rather than making sure that those purged are correct and have recourse to challenge the theft of their franchise?

There are other systemic problems which impede voting rights. 

As President Bill Clinton wrote on the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, “Vast numbers of voters are disenfranchised — often by accident —by the nation’s ramshackle voting system.  

Today at least 50 million eligible citizens are not registered.  Many fall off the rolls when they move, as people so frequently do in our mobile society. To make the right to vote real today requires modernization of voter registration and our election systems.”  

This particularly pertains to urban dwellers, who are likely renters who move relatively frequently. There should be a rule allowing people to vote where they last registered, until they re-register.

Also, he cited “a lasting legacy of Jim Crow-era laws is felony disenfranchisement.” It is a fact that Blacks are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for crimes that Whites are not (starting from youthful “indiscretions” that are expunged for whites, but prosecuted for blacks), and therefore more likely to be branded felons and in many states, never get back their voting rights. An estimated one in five Blacks have lost their voting rights because of this. 

So far, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate for President who has made expanding voting rights a prime issue, and offered a plan to protect, preserve and expand the franchise. 

In fact, many of these ideas were part of a bill that Hillary Clinton, as Senator, had proposed. “The Count Every Vote Act, if it had become law, would have made Election Day a federal holiday and mandated early voting opportunities,” she said.

“Deceiving voters, including by sending flyers into minority neighborhoods with false voting times and places, would have become a federal crime. And many Americans with criminal convictions who had paid their debts to society would have finally gotten their voting rights back.”

In a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston in June, she laid out a plan to expand voting rights, calling for the implementation of the “common sense” recommendations of Obama’s bipartisan Presidential Commission including expanding early, absentee, and mail voting, providing online voter registration, establishing the principle that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast your vote.

“We should set a standard across our country of at least 20 days of early in-person voting everywhere—including opportunities for weekend and evening voting. If families coming out of church on Sunday before an election are inspired to go vote, they should be free to do just that. And we know that early in-person voting will reduce those long lines and give more citizens the chance to participate, especially those who have work or family obligations that make it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day.

“It’s not just convenient — it’s also more secure, more reliable, and more affordable than absentee voting. So let’s get this done.

“And I believe we should go even further to strengthen voting rights in America. So today I am calling for universal, automatic voter registration. Every citizen, every state in the Union. Everyone, every young man or young woman should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18 — unless they actively choose to opt out. But I believe this would have a profound impact on our elections and our democracy. Between a quarter and a third of all eligible Americans remain unregistered and therefore unable to vote.

“And we should modernize our entire approach to registration. The current system is a relic from an earlier age. It relies on a blizzard of paper records and it’s full of errors.”

(And it’s why “voter turnout” rate appears to be so dismally low — because voter rolls do not remove people when they die or relocate and register elsewhere.)

“We can do better. We can make sure that registration rolls are secure, up to date, and complete. When you move, your registration should move with you. If you are an eligible voter and want to be registered, you should be a registered voter—period.

“Now, Oregon is already leading the way modernizing its system, and the rest of the country should follow. The technology is there. States have a lot of the data already. It’s just a matter of syncing and streamlining.

“Now, all of these reforms, from expanded early voting to modernized registration, are common sense ways to strengthen our democracy. 

But I’ll be candid here, none of them will come easily.

“It’s going to take leadership at many levels.

“Now more than ever, we need our citizens to actually get out and vote for people who want to hear what is on their minds.

“We need more activists working to expose abuses, educate Americans about their rights, and hold authorities accountable for protecting them. Some of the worst provisions in recent laws have been blocked or delayed by tireless advocates raising the alarm and filing legal challenges. But they can’t do it alone.

“We need more grassroots mobilization efforts like the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina to build momentum for reform.

“We need more Justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, I mean the principle underlying our Constitution, which we had to fight for a long time to make apply to everybody, one person, one vote and we need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right to buy and election of a corporation.

To this I would add:

Mandating standards for voting places: a minimum standard for the number of voting machines (and workers) based on number of registered voters, access by public transportation and parking.

That election results be overturned when discrimination or intimidation or anything impedes free access to the polls, and a new election be conducted under independent monitor oversight

Mandated audits: that a random audit be conducted to confirm that electronic voting machines conform with paper ballots cast and that the tallies of the voting machines are correct (not hacked).

That districts be determined by nonpartisan, independent experts and elections overseen by nonpartisan, independent officials.

“This is the greatest, longest-lasting democracy in the history of the world. We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every roadblock anyone can imagine,” Hillary Clinton declared.

“So today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?

“I call on Republicans at all levels of government with all manner of ambition to stop fear mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.

“Yes, this is about democracy. But it’s also about dignity. About the ability to stand up and say, yes, I am a citizen. I am an American. My voice counts. And no matter where you come from or what you look like or how much money you have, that means something. In fact, it means a lot…

“I believe every citizen has the right to vote. And I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote,” Hillary said.

Meanwhile, President Obama is declaring September 22nd, National Voter Registration Day. “We’re going to have groups fanning out all across the country. And on September 22nd, we’re going to try to get everybody to register to vote.”

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