Voting districts designed to increase the chances of electing minority candidates, a fixture in the South, could be dismantled if the Supreme Court invalidates a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in a case that challenges Section 5 of the 1965 landmark law. The section bars all or part of 16 states from making any changes to their election procedures without first proving the changes wouldn’t discriminate against minority voters. A ruling is expected in a few months. If the court rules Section 5 is no longer necessary, states, counties and local governments subject to the provision would not have to submit new election maps to the Justice Department for review. Civil rights advocates say that would open the door for jurisdictions like many in the South – where blacks tend to vote for black candidates and whites tend to vote for white candidates – to redraw districts in a way that makes it harder for minorities to get elected. “There is no doubt in my mind that if there is no Section 5, the eight black (state) Senate districts in Alabama would disappear in the very near future,” said state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, who holds one of those eight seats.
At the voting rights argument in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts tore into Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, grilling him on his knowledge of voting statistics. The point the chief justice was trying to make was that Massachusetts, which is not covered by the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act, has a far worse record in black voter registration and turnout than Mississippi, which is covered by Section 5 of the act. But a close look at census statistics indicates the chief justice was wrong, or at least that he did not look at the totality of the numbers.
The U.S. views itself as a nation progressing ever toward the ideals of justice and liberty. In many ways it’s true. The egregious violations of civil rights that kept so many from voting are sins of another era. Long gone are poll taxes and forcing black people to recite the Declaration of Independence before being given a ballot. The bodies of those who dared register minorities to vote do not wind up in a burning car. Yet these horrors did happen, and in living memory. There is danger in congratulating ourselves too readily on the progress we have made since. It tempts us to overlook what is being done today to deny those same civil rights. In the case of certain members of the Supreme Court, the attitude has ossified into a brittle arrogance. Justice Antonin Scalia called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” One can almost hear the sneer of one who believes that it is he who is the victim of discrimination.
Editorials: Voting Rights Act appeal prods us to take up mantle of naivete | Leonard Pitts Jr./Houston Chronicle
One day, many years ago, I was working in my college bookstore when this guy walks in wearing a T-shirt. “White Power,” it said. I was chatting with a friend, Cathy Duncan, and what happened next was as smooth as if we had rehearsed it. All at once, she’s sitting on my lap or I’m sitting on hers – I can’t remember which – and that white girl gives this black guy a peck on the lips. In a loud voice she asks, “So, what time should I expect you home for dinner, honey?” Mr. White Power glares malice and retreats. Cathy and I fall over laughing. Which tells you something about how those of us who came of age in the first post civil rights generation tended to view racism. We saw it as something we could dissipate with a laugh, a tired old thing that had bedeviled our parents, yes, but which we were beyond. We thought racism was over.
Forty-eight years ago, exasperated with the persistent abuse of black voters, Congress put most of the American South in a timeout. Now the Supreme Court appears poised to end those sanctions. It shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean the selective scrutiny applied to Southern states is necessarily fair. As the justices consider the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which was argued before the court Wednesday, they should keep in mind one goal above all others: protecting the right to vote, regardless of region or other circumstances. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans discriminatory voting procedures nationwide, codifying the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote regardless “of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The law has stricter requirements, however, for jurisdictions with a long history of disenfranchisement.
It’s been a week of big events in the voting rights world, and I’ve been privileged enough to witness much of it first-hand. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Even Justice Samuel Alito has acknowledged that this law is “one of the most successful statutes that Congress passed in the 20th century and one could probably go farther than that.” And earlier in the week, a three-judge panel of North Carolina state judges heard oral arguments in the case challenging the constitutionality of the state legislative and congressional redistricting plans enacted by the General Assembly in 2011. Listening to discussion of the Voting Rights Act in both cases, I was struck by contrasts between the arguments advanced by lawyers for Republicans in the North Carolina case and what the conservative justices were concerned with the Shelby case.
So far, lawmakers tasked with fixing Florida’s elections issues have focused on long lines and wait times, not the administrative and equipment trip-ups that plagued counties like St. Lucie. The Legislature kicks off its two-month lawmaking marathon Tuesday, but there’s still no official push to let the state crack down harder on elections supervisors who bungle their duties. The top lawmaker delving into elections reform, Sen. Jack Latvala, has stressed the idea does warrant discussion. “I do think this is an issue that we’re going to want to debate in this committee as we put this bill together,” Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, told the Ethics and Elections Committee he chairs on Feb. 5. But Sen. President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, stressed that it’s not a top concern. “I don’t know that giving the governor or the state more authority to remove someone takes the place of having someone who can actually do the job,” Gaetz said.
Kentucky lawmakers in the state Senate should take a cue from Thomas Vance, a retired Air Force master sergeant from Campbell County. Vance called it correctly after participating in the latest Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll on a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore some felons voting rights after they served their full sentences. “It’s just not fair. If I did my time, that should be the end of it,” said Vance, whose views were in the majority, according to the poll conducted Feb. 19-21 by SurveyUSA. The poll found that 51 percent of 616 registered voters favored the potential amendment, while 38 percent were opposed and 11 percent were unsure. It was even close among Republicans, which split 45-45, with only those who identified themselves as “conservative” opposing it, though narrowly, 47-44. Yet Kentucky remains one of only five states that bar all felons from voting unless their rights are restored through a pardon by the governor or another agency.
This may not be the legislative session for substantial election law changes. Senate Democrats moved on an omnibus elections bill in committee this week without any Republican votes, even though Gov. Mark Dayton has maintained his pledge that election legislation must garner broad bipartisan support to secure his signature. It’s unclear how Democrats expect the measure to gain Republican backing going forward. “It gives us a little bit of power, too — almost like a veto,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said on Friday. “If we don’t put any Republican votes up, he’s pledged to veto that stuff.”
Democrats on the House budget-writing committee Thursday accused the Corbett administration of not doing enough to prepare for the possibility that Pennsylvania’s embattled voter-identification law will be enforced in this year’s general election. The lawmakers questioned Secretary of State Carol Aichele about Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision not to include money for outreach efforts in his 2013-14 budget plan even though the law could be in full effect — or overturned — by the time voters head to the polls in November.
Italy may hold new elections within months should Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani fail to win support in parliament to form a government after inconclusive elections. There are no alternatives to a vote “in a few months” if Bersani doesn’t get a majority in parliament, Stefano Fassina, economic-policy spokesman for Bersani, said today on Sky TG24 TV. “We should name a new president, change the electoral law and then return to polls as soon as possible.” Italian bond yields surged after elections on Feb. 24-25 ended in a four-way parliamentary split, raising doubt over the stability of the next government. Bersani, whose party won the most votes, failed to gain control of parliament as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo won blocking minorities in the Senate.
Editorials: Welcome to Italy, where nobody knows what will happen next | Maria Laura Rodotá/The Observer
Last Monday, for the first time in my memory, nobody celebrated after a general election. No celebration from the Democrats, who were the projected winners but came out sore losers. Nor from the seven million voters (down from 13 million in 2008) who still chose Silvio Berlusconi and then became invisible – almost no one admits to having voted for the disgraced former prime minister. There was not even any celebration from the real winners, the militants and voters of the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Stars? How did Italy end up with a populist party whose name sounds like a luxury hotel chain?). Without securing a parliamentary majority, it is now the leading party in the Camera dei Deputati, and the second in the senate. But, contrary to national tradition, the movement’s supporters did not meet in piazzas, they did not take to the streets honking their car horns, they did not gather outside the party’s headquarters opening bottles of sparkling wine. Beppe Grillo’s movement voters are recession-stricken and don’t find a great deal to celebrate. Also, nobody knows, or much cares, where the party headquarters are actually based.
Kenya has deployed tens of thousands of police to ensure peaceful elections, a police spokesman said. Charles Owino said on Sunday that 99,000 police were out on the streets of major cities and towns on the eve of presidential and parliamentary elections in the East African nation. The authorities hope the move will help avert a repeat of deadly violence that engulfed the country after disputed elections in December 2007. Voters on Monday will cast six ballots for the president, parliament, governors, senators, councillors and a special women’s list. Some 23,000 observers, including 2,600 international monitors, will be deployed, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). But watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have warned that the risk of renewed political violence is “perilously high”.
The judiciary and electoral commission say they are prepared for the 4 March vote and will not repeat the mistakes of the contested December 2007 polls. What happens in Kenya’s 4 March election stretches far beyond the fortunes of the rival parties to the fate of the new institutions and political order established during the last four years. “The judiciary – not just the Supreme Court – faces a very, very serious test in these elections,” the chief justice Willy Mutunga tells The Africa Report. “Because in 2007 we were rejected, we were seen to be partisan. We’ve been building confidence in the institutions, the entire judiciary.” Mutunga explains that there are clear legal rules that will have to be followed on any of the electoral disputes. One of the rival presidential candidates, Raila Odinga, has already said that he regards the reformed judiciary as reliably impartial. In the 2007 elections Odinga told his party not to bother contesting the result because of the pervasive political bias of the judiciary. On the coming elections, Mutunga takes a fairly apocalyptic view: “We all realise that if our judiciary is rejected yet again then the institution will never survive.” But he is optimistic that the political reforms and the new constitution have changed the climate.
Swiss citizens voted Sunday to impose some of the world’s most severe restrictions on executive compensation, ignoring a warning from the business lobby that such curbs would undermine the country’s investor-friendly image. Thomas Minder, an entrepreneur and member of the Swiss Parliament who turned a personal fight against Swissair into a nationwide referendum against “rip-off merchants,” spoke to the news media on Sunday. The vote gives shareholders of companies listed in Switzerland a binding say on the overall pay packages for executives and directors. Pension funds holding shares in a company would be obligated to take part in votes on compensation packages.In addition, companies would no longer be allowed to give bonuses to executives joining or leaving the business, or to executives when their company was taken over. Violations could result in fines equal to up to six years of salary and a prison sentence of up to three years.
Swiss voters voiced their anger at perceived corporate greed Sunday by approving a plan to boost shareholders’ say on executive pay. Some 67.9 percent of voters backed the “Rip-Off Initiative,” with 32.1 percent against, according to the official count broadcast by Swiss public television station SRF. The outcome of the referendum was considered a foregone conclusion after opinion polls in recent months showed strong public support for the initiative. News last month that the outgoing board chairman of Swiss drug maker Novartis AG, Daniel Vasella, was to receive a leaving package worth 72 million Swiss francs ($77 million) further fired up public sentiment against “fat cat” bosses. Vasella later said he would forego the deal, but by that time the incident had dashed opponents’ hopes of stopping the initiative. “Today’s vote is the result of widespread unease among the population at the exorbitant remuneration of certain company bosses,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told a news conference in the capital Bern hours after polls closed.
Thailand’s main opposition party won an election for the governor of Bangkok on Sunday, dealing a surprise blow to the ruling party of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra which had hoped to win the city and cement its supremacy. Incumbent governor and Democrat Party member Sukhumbhand Paribatra beat the candidate of Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party, winning almost half the vote, the city administration said as the count neared completion. “The Democrats won because a large part of Bangkok were scared of Puea Thai holding too much power,” political analyst Kan Yuenyong at Siam Intelligence Unit, told Reuters. “In the long-term, Thailand is heading towards a system ruled by two main political parties.”