The Obama administration has every right to challenge Texas’ unilateral adoption of new voting laws, a top Republican argued Thursday. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said the Voting Rights Act authorizes the Justice Department to seek a court order requiring states to get federal approval before implementing new election procedures, as Attorney General Eric Holder said he will do Thursday in the case of Texas. Holder’s announcement drew howls from Texas Republicans, who are accusing the DOJ of trampling states’ rights and ignoring June’s Supreme Court decision to eliminate a central part of the VRA. But Sensenbrenner, who as head of the House Judiciary Committee in 2006 championed the last VRA reauthorization, suggested those critics have misread his law. “The department’s actions are consistent with the Voting Rights Act,” Sensenbrenner said Thursday in an email.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says she’s not surprised that Southern states have pushed ahead with tough voter identification laws and other measures since the Supreme Court freed them from strict federal oversight of their elections. Ginsburg said in an interview with The Associated Press that Texas’ decision to implement its voter ID law hours after the court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act last month was powerful evidence of an ongoing need to keep states with a history of voting discrimination from making changes in the way they hold elections without getting advance approval from Washington. The Justice Department said Thursday it would try to bring Texas and other places back under the advance approval requirement through a part of the law that was not challenged.
Pro-tip: When you win a big court case giving you the go-ahead to suppress voter turnout for your political opponents, don’t gloat about it. That is surely one of the lessons in the remarkable news that the U.S. Department of Justice is challenging new voting-rights laws in Texas and elsewhere even after the Supreme Court ruling that eviscerated the part of the Voting Rights Act that the feds had relied on for decades to challenge voting restrictions. What made the ruling especially galling was the celebration that followed from Republicans in states, including Texas, who immediately vowed to proceed with voting restrictions that had been challenged under the now-undermined part of the VRA. The alacrity with which Texas, North Carolina and other states have rushed to take advantage of the ruling seriously weakened the sober conservative argument, from Chief Justice John Roberts and others, that Southern states no longer needed to be singled out for special scrutiny because they had long since left their discriminatory ways behind. And it all but invited Attorney General Eric Holder to take this new step, to announce that his department would still do everything in its power to ensure fairness at the polls.
Attorney General Eric Holder has opened what will be an epic battle over whether our country will remain committed to equal rights at the ballot box. In a display of egregious judicial activism in late June, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Holder made clear last week he intends to fight back. The struggle will begin in Texas, but it won’t end there. “We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve,” Holder told the National Urban League’s annual conference. He wasn’t exaggerating the stakes. From the moment the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 of the act, which subjected the voting laws in states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to Justice Department scrutiny, conservative legislators in those places gleefully signaled their intention to pass laws to make it harder to vote. In addition, Texas reimposed a redistricting map that a federal court had already ruled was discriminatory. These hasty moves were unseemly but entirely predictable, proving that Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion in the case will become a Magna Carta for voter suppression. Without having to worry about “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department, legislators can go about their business of making it more difficult for voters who would throw them out of office to reach the polls — and of drawing racially gerrymandered districts that prolong their tenure. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood a logic here that escaped Roberts. “A governing political coalition,” she wrote in her dissent, “has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power.”
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a measure into law Saturday that will make Illinois the 18th state to allow voters to register online. Supporters say the move could increase turnout at the polls and cut down on paperwork costs, while critics question the security of an online registration system and say there is a potential for fraud in a state where Chicagoans have been known to vote from beyond the grave. Under the legislation, anyone with a valid driver’s license or state identification card can go online to sign up to vote online beginning July 1, 2014. That’s the target date for the State Board of Elections to have the new system up and running.
I’ve been in Texas this week researching the history of the Voting Rights Act at the LBJ Library. As I’ve been studying how the landmark civil rights law transformed American democracy, I’ve also been closely following how Republicans in North Carolina—parts of which were originally covered by the VRA in 1965 —have made a mockery of the law and its prohibition on voting discrimination. Late last night, the North Carolina legislature passed the country’s worst voter suppression law after only three days of debate. Rick Hasen of Election Law Blog called it “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades” The bill mandates strict voter ID to cast a ballot (no student IDs, no public employee IDs, etc), even though 318,000 registered voters lack the narrow forms of acceptable ID according to the state’s own numbers and there have been no recorded prosecutions of voter impersonation in the past decade. The bill cuts the number of early voting days by a week, even though 56 percent of North Carolinians voted early in 2012. The bill eliminates same-day voter registration during the early voting period, even though 96,000 people used it during the general election in 2012 and states that have adopted the convenient reform have the highest voter turnout in the country.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory says he will sign into law a Republican-backed bill making sweeping changes to how and when citizens can vote even though he has not seen one of its key provisions. McCrory praised the bill in a media conference Friday, saying it will restore faith in elections by requiring voters to present government-issued identification at the polls. An Associated Press reporter asked the Republican governor how three particular provisions of the bill would help prevent voter fraud — ending same-day voter registration, trimming the period for early voting by a week and eliminating a program that encourages high school students to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays. McCrory talked about two other sections of the legislation — a measure added to through a Democratic amendment that directs counties to make early voting available for more hours during the abbreviated early voting period and a provision forbidding lobbyists from passing campaign donations from their clients directly on to lawmakers.
One of the more compelling arguments for voter identification is the suppression of voter fraud. But for North Carolina, the number of cases of voter fraud reported by the state Board of Elections is minimal. In 2012, nearly 7 million ballots were cast in the general and two primary elections. Of those 6,947,317 ballots, the state Board of Elections said 121 alleged cases of voter fraud were referred to the appropriate district attorney’s office. That means of the nearly 7 million votes cast, voter fraud accounted for 0.00174 percent of the ballots. Looking back at the 2010 election cycle — which was not a presidential year — 3.79 million ballots were cast and only 28 cases of voter fraud were turned over to the appropriate DA’s office. So in 2010, voter fraud accounted for 0.000738 percent of ballots cast.
In the last hours of session Friday morning, state lawmakers voted to give legislative leaders equal standing with the Attorney General to intervene in constitutional challenges to state laws. The provision, hastily attached to a health care transparency bill in House Rules committee late Thursday night, says: “The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, as agents of the State, shall jointly have standing to intervene on behalf of the General Assembly as a party in any judicial proceeding challenging a North Carolina statute or provision of the North Carolina Constitution.”
This summer, like last, teams of lawyers have spent days in a courtroom near the state Capitol arguing whether the state’s voter ID law creates too great a barrier to the polls. At a glance, the hearing last summer over the law’s enforcement at the approaching November elections and the one currently taking place in Commonwealth Court over its permanent fate are similar enough that spectators could be forgiven for a sense of deja vu. Again, voters without identification testify about their difficulties getting it. Experts estimate what portion of the electorate lacks acceptable ID. Opponents argue the law will stand between citizens and their right to vote, while the state counters it has provided ample opportunity to obtain an ID included in the law.
The same day, last month, that the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared that Texas laws that had been stopped by the Act—because courts found them to be discriminatory—would immediately go into effect. On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder struck back. In the color-blind wish-world of Chief Justice Roberts and his four conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court, Jim Crow-era restrictions on minority voting represent a sad, historical curiosity, unrelated to modern reality. Surveying the landscape from their marble aerie, these five Justices decided in Shelby County v. Holder that requiring the pre-clearance of election-law changes in certain jurisdictions, a provision of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, was now unconstitutional. Congress had passed the Act in 1965 in response to the broad denial of the right to vote; as recently as 2006, an overwhelming majority of Congress found that it was still necessary. The Court simply disagreed: “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” The majority Justices cited a newly minted “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” of states as trumping the need to assure the equal voting rights of minorities. This is consistent with their concern for the rights of entities rather than individuals. So how did states exercise their “equal sovereignty” in response to the Court’s decision? Texas is a clear example. In 2011, the Texas Legislature had approved a state-issued photo-I.D. requirement. A Washington, D.C., court struck the law down, determining that it “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities in Texas.” With the Supreme Court decision, the law was unstruck and became the law of Texas. Similarly, after Texas redrew political boundaries in 2011, another court found that minority groups “provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here” and threw the maps out. Now, with the Supreme Court decision, Texas can draw any maps it wants and they are excluded from pre-clearance.
Cambodia’s opposition leader on Saturday denounced signs of voter fraud on the eve of elections and labelled Prime Minister Hun Sen a “coward” for not allowing him to participate. Sam Rainsy said his party had uncovered irregularities such as tens of thousands of duplicated voter names that would allow some people to cast ballots twice in Sunday’s polls. He also alleged that the ink used for voting could be washed off. “We are going backward in terms of election fairness,” Rainsy told reporters. “More people will vote for us,” he said. “But I suspect the ruling party, knowing this, will cheat more, will cheat like mad.” Local and international rights groups have also voiced concerns about reports of irregularities.
Elections Canada said this week that it hopes to test Internet voting in byelections after the 2015 general federal election. If the tests are successful, the agency could adopt this form of voting in all federal elections. Elections Canada is on a perilous track. The use of computers in democracy’s most important exercise, voting, is subject to two serious dangers: inadvertent glitches and deliberate tampering. Montrealers know all about the glitches. So do voters in most of the 139 other cities and towns across Quebec that also used electronic equipment in their 2005 municipal elections (either for counting votes, as did Montreal and Longueuil, or for both voting and counting, as did Quebec City). In Montreal’s case, 45,000 ballots were counted twice (only later corrected), and election results were hours late. Snafus were also rife elsewhere. Quebec’s elections agency wisely responded to the fiasco by suspending use of such technology until it could be shown to be foolproof. Logically, this should mean suspension in perpetuity: Computers will never be risk-free.
Liberals and candidates from some of Kuwait’s more marginalized tribes have won seats in a parliament which may prove more cooperative with the ruling family after opposition Islamists and populists boycotted the election. Saturday’s ballot was the sixth since 2006 in the major oil producer, where political upheaval and bureaucracy have held up the vast majority of projects in a 30-billion-dinar ($105-billion) economic development plan announced in 2010. Kuwait has the most open political system in the Gulf Arab region but parliaments have been repeatedly dissolved over procedural disputes or for challenging the government in which members of the ruling Al-Sabah family hold top posts.
Thousands of UN troops kept the peace on Sunday as Mali went to the polls in an election that many hope will mark a fresh start after a rebellion in the north, a military coup and an Islamist uprising that led to French troops invading in January. Early indications were of a record turnout in much of the country, where voters were choosing from 27 presidential candidates – all pledging to restore peace. “We are all still recovering from the war in the north. These elections are not perfect, but we have to vote now to restore some calm to our country,” said Ibrahim Sory, a resident in the capital, Bamako, who queued up early in the morning to cast his vote. In Kidal in the far north, where an uneasy peace prevails after the Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) allowed in UN troops, voters braved the presence of heavily armed soldiers to cast ballots.
Togo’s ruling party has taken the lead in the country’s parliamentary elections, partial results showed Friday, while an opposition coalition was ahead in the capital Lome. Thursday’s long-delayed polls came after months of protests in the West African nation, with the opposition seeking to weaken the ruling family’s decades-long grip on power. President Faure Gnassingbe’s UNIR party was ahead in provisional results from the electoral commission seen by AFP, while the Let’s Save Togo coalition was the strongest opposition contender. Gnassingbe’s party was dominating the north of the country, its traditional stronghold, while Let’s Save Togo did particularly well in the capital.