Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s surprise entrance into the New York City comptroller race highlights one issue that will be ignored — how New York laws continue to serve incumbents and the existing political system at the expense of the voters. Spitzer’s entry was a last-minute decision. He had four days to gather 3,750 signatures on nominating petitions. This may not seem to be a high bar, but obviously Spitzer didn’t agree — he reportedly paid signature gatherers as much as $800 a day to get their John Hancocks. He said he ended up with 27,000. Why did Spitzer need to gather so many? It wasn’t because he wanted to show that he had a popular following. Nor was it an example of a gross overpayment. Instead, it was simply because New York’s ballot-access laws remain convoluted enough to require candidates to get a very large cushion of signatures to prevent them from being tossed off the ballot by party regulars who know — and make — the rules.
The story of voting rights in the year 2013 — how the five conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court undercut them last month and what Congress must do to restore them now — is really the story of America itself. There has been much premature self-congratulation mixed in with a great deal of denial and dissonance. There has been a widening gulf between promise and reality. Patriotic words of bipartisanship have flowed, promises of cooperation have oozed, but there are few rational reasons to believe that the nation’s representatives will quickly rally together to do what needs to be done. The premature self-congratulation came from the Court itself. Less than one year after Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act stymied voter suppression efforts in the 2012 election in Florida, Texas and South Carolina, Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion in Shelby County v. Holder heralded the “great strides” the nation has made in combating such suppression and the fact that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Not so rare. Before the sun set that day, June 25th, officials in Texas and North Carolina had moved forward with restrictive voting measures that had been blocked by the federal law.
A key date — July 26 — has now been set for a test of the Obama administration’s view on a legal mechanism for continuing to protect minority voters against discrimination at the polls — including court review of new election laws before they go into effect. The mechanism potentially could allow the government to salvage something very significant from its defeat in the Supreme Court’s ruling last month on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The mechanism is the 1965 law’s Section 3. Under that provision, if a state or local jurisdiction has a recent history of racial discrimination in its elections, a court can order it to get official clearance in Washington before it can implement changes in its voting laws or methods. This is known as the statute’s “bail in” mechanism. The so-called “preclearance” process — for decades a very successful way to protect minority voters’ rights – comes under the law’s Section 5, and both Sections 3 and 5 are at least technically intact even after the Shelby County decision. The state of Texas has insisted that it has now come out from under Section 5, as a result of that ruling, but that claim is now being challenged in a lower-court case over new redistricting maps for the Texas legislature and the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives. And it is that case on which the Justice Department’s views about Section 3 are to be filed by a week from tomorrow, under an order issued this week by a three-judge district court in Washington.
As Congress held hearings this week on whether to resurrect the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina Senate introduced a harsh new voter ID law that could be passed in a matter of days. (See my new piece on the state’s Moral Monday protest movement for how activists are resisting the GOP’s agenda.) The Senate version of the bill, posted today, is significantly tougher than the House bill passed in April. North Carolina was one of fifteen states subject to Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional, so the state no longer needs to clear its voting changes with the federal government. North Carolina Republicans have acted accordingly, making a very bad law even worse.
Few Togolese would seem less likely to offer praise for their country’s political system than Gilchrist Olympio. His father, Sylvanus, Togo’s first post-independence president, was assassinated in 1963 by a hit squad led by Eyadéma Gnassingbé, who seized power in a coup four years later and ruled Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. A severe critic of his father’s murderer, the exiled Mr Olympio was twice sentenced to death in absentia. But much has changed in this country of 6m-plus people, wedged between Ghana to the west and Benin to the east, since the presidency passed to Faure Gnassingbé, the coup-plotter’s son (pictured), in 2005. Slowly but noticeably he has begun to loosen the reins. Three years ago he created a national unity government that includes Mr Olympio, who is repaying the favour by praising Mr Gnassingbé ahead of a general election, delayed from last year, that is due to take place on July 25th. “We are now in a democratic system,” he says, while gearing up to oppose the president’s party in the poll.
Imagine an intersection with a long history of high-speed car crashes, injuries and fatalities. Authorities put up a traffic light and a speed camera — and the accidents and injuries plummet. A few years later, authorities declare “mission accomplished” and remove the light and speed camera. No surprise, the high-speed crashes and fatalities resume almost immediately. This is the logic that animated Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to fillet the Voting Rights Act and that had conservative pundits, including George F. Will, praising the act as they simultaneously exulted in its demise. The predictable result took less than a day: Texas reinstated its racially tilted gerrymandered redistricting plan and moved to implement its highly restrictive voter ID law, under which voters can be required to travel as far as 250 miles to get identification. The real intent, voter suppression, is clear in the legislation’s provision that a concealed-weapon permit can be used to vote but a valid student photo ID cannot.
Should Congress accept Chief Justice John Roberts’ invitation? Roberts, in his dramatic voting rights ruling last month, said Congress has a duty to update Jim Crow-era civil rights laws for a post-Jim Crow world. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court basically found that Congress committed an unforced error by renewing the Voting Rights Act without updating its formula for patrolling discrimination against voters. Now Congress can finish what the court started. As the Senate holds its first hearing in response to Shelby on Wednesday, with the House of Representatives due to hold one on Thursday, there are indications that a precise piece of legislation could pass even this divided Congress. Here are two strong ways to renew the Voting Rights Act. The first thing Congress can do is update the law’s formula for hunting down discrimination. A clear bill can begin by answering the core question in Roberts’ opinion: Is there a better baseline for discrimination than the literacy tests and voter turnout numbers from the 1960s?
The delays yesterday during the special voting for police and other Government officials who are likely to be deployed away from their constituencies on July 31 were a result of events, not fundamental flaws in the electoral process or its organisation. The main problem was that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission did not have a final list of candidates, with their political affiliation, until late on Friday when the results of several court cases became known. But that final list for this weekend is the same final list for the main Election Day at the end of the month. So the ballot papers that were available for special voting are the same ballot papers that will be issued on July 31.
Editorials: The Federal Election Commission’s wrong-headed proposal to change rules | The Washington Post
Immobilized by political gridlock, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has allowed its enforcement actions to nosedive in recent years. Now outgoing commission Vice Chairman Donald F. McGahn II, a former general counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee, could be seeking to take advantage of a temporary 3-to-2 Republican majority on the FEC to write Republican stall tactics into agency rules. Mr. McGahn and other Republican commissioners have proposed a version of the FEC enforcement manual that would prevent the agency’s general counsel from consulting, without commission approval, publicly available information when considering an enforcement matter. It would also severely restrict information-sharing between the FEC and the Justice Department.
Last month’s Supreme Court ruling weakening the Voting Rights Act has left voting-rights advocates and Democrats fearing that a potential new wave of suppression tactics could keep poor and minority voters from the polls. Voter ID laws have topped the list of concerns, with several southern states vowing to push forward with such measures now that it’ll be harder for the federal government to stop them. But a close look at the research on how voter ID laws affect elections suggests that, from a purely political point of view, the anxiety may be misplaced: The picture is murky, but there’s no clear evidence that requiring voter ID significantly reduces turnout. And some experts say that other voting restrictions—especially those that make it harder to register and to vote early—are likely to have a bigger effect.
Editorials: North Carolina redistricting decision a setback for voting rights | Brentin Mock/Facing South
This week, a three-judge panel in North Carolina voted to preserve the 2011 GOP-drawn redistricting plans that civil rights and voter groups say are racially gerrymandered. “It is the ultimate holding of this trial court that the redistricting plans enacted by the General Assembly in 2011 must be upheld and that the Enacted Plans do not impair the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina as those rights are defined by law,” reads the judges’ ruling. What does this mean for voters of color and citizens of North Carolina? Well, challenging the redistricting plans was already a tough deal to begin with. Republicans drew the post-2010 Census lines to their advantage, giving themselves a 9-4 congressional district edge, up from the 7-6 split with Democrats before. They also placed roughly 27 percent of African-American voters in newly split state House precincts, compared to just 16.6 percent of white voters. There was similar disproportional segregation of black voters in the new congressional and state Senate districts. But Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice precleared the plans, more than once, when counties were still subjected to the Voting Rights Act.
In the old days, the U.S. Supreme Court took strong steps to protect the right of ordinary citizens to vote. But culminating in the recent Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder decision that struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court in the past decade has turned its back on protecting the franchise, especially for the poor and minority groups. In 1915, the court struck down the notorious grandfather clause established in many Southern states, which allowed persons to vote only if their grandfathers could. That was a crude device to disenfranchise the descendants of black slaves, who, of course, could never vote. In the 1940s and 1950s, the court held that the Democratic Party in the Southern states could not treat its primaries as a private affair, open only to white voters. In 1964, the court established the one-person, one-vote rule, so that states could not apportion districts in a manner that allowed rural voters to have 50 times the voting strength of their urban counterparts. In 1966, the court first upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, which established federal control over states and other political entities that had used one or another blatantly discriminatory devices to prevent African-Americans and other minority voters from casting ballots. In the same year, it struck down a Virginia poll tax law that required state residents to pay $1.50 a year for the right to vote in state elections. (The 24th Amendment, adopted in 1964, prohibited poll taxes for federal elections.)
A frequently made argument by GOP apologists, like Robert Robb of the Arizona Republic, is that Arizona should not be a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act.
Arizona failed to meet certain criteria in 1972 to get federal approval for any state legislation or procedural changes that could impact voting, which included having low voter turnout and not offering election materials in other languages. Arizona in 1974 implemented bilingual voting, but Congress never removed Arizona from the Section 4 covered jurisdiction formula in subsequent renewals of the Act. “We’re being punished for the past!”
This argument requires one to ignore the fact that Arizona has always had the opportunity to “opt out” of the covered jurisdiction formula if it could adequately demonstrate a clean bill of health for a period of 10 years without any violations for discrimination against voters. A number of jurisdictions have successfully “opted out’ over the years.
Think the Texas redistricting fight is over? Think again. Last week, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, State Attorney General Greg Abbott said the voter ID law and the redistricting plan the Texas Legislature approved were good to go. “With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” Abbott said in a statement. “Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.” But — as opponents of the voter ID law and the redistricting plan predicted after the high court ruled that Texas and other (mostly Southern) states no longer require federal approval of voting laws or redrawn maps — on Monday a federal court in San Antonio basically told Abbott: “Not so fast.”
Hank Sanders grew up in segregated, rural southern Alabama and in 1971 moved to Selma—the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act. Before the VRA, only 393 of the 15,000 black voting-age residents in Dallas County, where Selma is located, were registered to vote. Less than a year later, after federal registrars arrived in August 1965, more than 10,000 black voters had been added to the rolls. Sanders experienced firsthand how the VRA transformed Selma and the rest of the country. In 1983, he became the first African-American state senator from the Alabama Black Belt since Reconstruction, representing a new majority-black district created by the VRA. Thirty years later, Sanders watched in disbelief this June as the Supreme Court overturned the centerpiece of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder. “It’s the most destructive Supreme Court decision in my lifetime,” Sanders said. “It reverses the very foundation of all the progress that we have made.” Reactions in Selma, he said, “ranged from shock to resignation.” The Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the law, which determines how states are covered under Section 5—the vital provision that requires states with the worst history of racial discrimination in voting, dating back to the 1960s and ’70s, to clear electoral changes with the federal government. Without Section 4, there’s no Section 5. The most effective provision of the country’s most important civil rights law is now a ghost unless Congress resurrects it.
Surely, street cred in conservative circles is not worth becoming the poster child for voter suppression. Again. What’s the rush? The ink was barely dry on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act, and there was Attorney General Greg Abbott saying Texas’ voter ID law would go into effect immediately. The problem: the ink has been quite dry for a while on another federal court ruling. This one, in August 2012, said discrimination and voter suppression was written all over Texas’ voter ID law. Yet, the state is now gearing up to implement this law, and county election officials around the state are surely scratching their heads. Why would a state, whose voting numbers are nothing to write home about, want to diminish them further? Particularly since this is ostensibly to address voter fraud — a problem that substantially doesn’t exist.
The Federal Election Commission is already in a state of wretched dysfunction, but it will only get worse if Republican members succeed in crippling the agency further when the commission meets on Thursday. The three Republicans on the commission appear ready to take advantage of a temporary vacancy on the three-member Democratic side to push through 3-to-2 votes for a wholesale retreat from existing regulations. Under their proposals, agency workers would no longer be allowed to routinely forward information about potential criminal violations by campaigners to the Justice Department, and the commission’s staff investigators would be severely hobbled in conducting preliminary inquiries. This would provide further aid and comfort to politicians and operatives who run roughshod over campaign laws.
Editorials: North Carolina Speeds Up to Run Election Red Light? | Michael P. McDonald/Huffington Post
Republicans are at it again, making it harder to vote. This time, North Carolina Republicans are contemplating reducing the number of days of in-person early voting, including the Sunday before the election; axing the state’s “one-stop” voting which allows people to register and vote in-person early, and implementing a new voter photo identification law that may adversely affect seniors, students and minorities. It is no coincidence that these major voting changes are being considered a week after the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in the recent decision, Shelby County v Holder. As a result, North Carolina and other states are no longer bound to seek approval from the federal government before implementing their new election laws, formerly required under Section 5.
Arrows thud into a wooden target, and the men with bows sing in celebration. One of those watching the archery tournament is Gyeltshen, an 89-year-old who remembers Thimphu, Bhutan’s sprawling capital, as a “few houses and a forest”. Entering it without wearing your gho, a knee-length Bhutanese robe, meant risking arrest and a fine. Much is changing. He approves of how the king “granted us democracy” in 2008, when the Himalayan country had its first election. On July 13th Mr Gyeltshen will vote in the second. Like many in Thimphu, he says the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Peace and Prosperity Party) kept its promises to build roads and airports and to provide hydro power. Almost everyone has a mobile phone, and most of the country has electricity. The party expects to win.
Editorials: Voting Rights Act ruling changes course of history | Natasha Korgaonkar/The Detroit News
In justifying the decision to quash the protections of the Voting Rights Act for African-American, Latino and other voters of color, John Roberts, chief justice of the Supreme Court, wrote that “things have changed.” In a sense, Roberts is correct: As this nation has tumbled through time grappling with its own history, the persistence of states of the former Confederacy in suppressing African-American voting power has adapted, shape-shifted and adopted clever disguises. Efforts to extend voter suppression against Latino, Native, and Asian-American voters in these states have also proliferated. Indeed, things have changed. Of course, there has been significant progress for voters of color since 1965, when hundreds of heroes risked their lives in crossing a small bridge in Selma, Ala. — a bridge named after Confederate brigadier and “Grand Dragon” Edmund Pettus.
This week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a key piece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) could generate controversy in an empty bar. Amid all the anger and shouting, let’s take a closer look at the background and context of this case and the statute at its heart. The problem with what the Court did in Shelby County v. Holder is that it missed the subtle ways in which state and local governments have used their power to regulate the vote to dilute and even suppress it. The problem focuses on an early success of the VRA. In early 1969, VRA enforcement stood at a crossroads. As originally conceived, the Act attacked the wide range of voter exclusion strategies adopted by Southern states to deny African Americans access to the polls — for example, (1) unfairly applied literacy and/or understanding tests requiring voters to read, understand, and interpret any section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of a white (usually hostile) election official, (2) complicated registration requirements excluding minority voters on technical grounds and (3) financial barriers such as poll taxes. One simple way to undermine the black vote was to set up polling places in areas inconvenient for blacks for instance, in distant locations or in the middle of white sections of the town or county. By 1969, those methods were all but dead, thanks to combination of court rulings and the effective use of the pre-clearance provisions of the Act’s Section Five.
Editorials: Voting rights ruling a dagger in heart of civil rights movement | Leonard Pitts Jr./Miami Herald
Last week was bittersweet for the cause of human dignity. On one hand, the Supreme Court gave us reason for applause, striking down barriers against the full citizenship of gay men and lesbians. On the other, it gave us reason for dread, gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 5-4 decision was stunning and despicable, but not unexpected. The country has been moving in this direction for years. The act is sometimes called the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement, but it was even more than that, the most important piece of legislation in the cause of African-American freedom since Reconstruction. And in shredding it, the Court commits its gravest crime against that freedom since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. That decision ratified segregation, capping a 30-year campaign by conservative Southern Democrats to overturn the results of the Civil War. Given that the Voting Rights Act now lies in tatters even as Republicans embrace Voter I.D. schemes to suppress the black vote, given that GOP star Rand Paul has questioned the constitutionality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one has to wonder if the results of the Civil Rights Movement do not face a similar fate. Or, as Georgia Rep. John Lewis put it when I spoke with him Monday, “Can history repeat itself?”
The May 30 ruling of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District 4, which found Wisconsin’s voter ID law to be constitutional, was ill thought out and inconsistent in its arguments. Yet there are many Wisconsinites who suggest that the state Supreme Court will uphold the ruling because the court is so politicized that it will simply take the side of Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies. The governor and irresponsible legislators have advanced a number of voter suppression initiatives and the theory is that the court is so biased in favor of Walker’s political project that the justices will simply rubber-stamp the restrictive voter ID scheme. But we refuse to accept that the majority of justices on the high court have rejected the rule of law.
So, American citizen, you think you have a right to vote for your federal representatives? Think again. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia just disabused you of that notion — although in a backhanded sort of way. In his majority opinion earlier this month striking down the Arizona law requiring voters to produce documentary evidence of citizenship in order to cast a ballot, Scalia stated in no uncertain terms that the Constitution allows Congress to “regulate how federal elections are held, but not who may vote in them.” Notably, not one of the liberal members of the court challenged his assertion. The actual language of the Constitution gives Congress the power to override state laws governing the “time, place and manner” of conducting federal elections. Many scholars believed that the term “manner” was broad enough to encompass the qualifications of voters. But the Scalia opinion took pains to disavow the one Supreme Court opinion which seemed to suggest just that. In 1970, in the case of Oregon vs. Mitchell, the court upheld a congressional enactment requiring states to allow 18-year-olds to vote in federal elections.
Editorials: How President Obama Could Fix The Federal Election Commission With One Stroke Of A Pen | ThinkProgress
With the news, reported Friday by ThinkProgress, that President Obama will apparently have the power to make recess appointments over the coming week, he will have the unique opportunity to fix the Federal Election Commission (FEC). By announcing six recent appointments, he could completely remake the broken elections agency. Since April 30, the terms of every single commissioner have been expired. Five commissioners appointed by President George W. Bush are permitted to stay on indefinitely until replaced — one seat is vacant. While no more than three members of the Commission can be of either political party, all six must be appointed by the president.
As the city kicks off its annual Independence Day celebration, it’s important to remember that there is little freedom without participation. And freedom was threatened last year not only by voter-ID laws, which set up barriers to legitimate democratic participation, but also by confusion at the polls in Philadelphia, where thoughtful revolutionaries once gathered to write the Declaration of Independence. Seven months after the Nov. 6 election, three separate investigations – by Mayor Nutter, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, and the City Commissioners – have examined why more than 27,000 city voters had to use provisional paper ballots instead of voting machines. A little more than half of them weren’t properly registered or had shown up at the wrong polling place, in which case provisional ballots were appropriate. But far too many problems were caused by official incompetence.
Editorials: Conservative Supreme Court Justices Hypocritical on Voting Rights | US News and World Report
Most reaction to this week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act will center on whether the court was right that the law (or at least its Section 5) is outdated. But under the approach long advocated by the court’s majority that very argument is itself outdated. The conservative vision of an unchanging Constitution – that means for all time what the Framers meant when they wrote it – has triumphed on the court, in which case, it doesn’t matter whether times have changed and the VRA is “outdated.” If it was constitutional when adopted, it should still be constitutional today. In short, the VRA’s invalidation by those who trumpet conservative values is really about just one thing: hypocrisy. For years, conservatives have argued for a theory of constitutional interpretation called “originalism.” Originalism asserts that a constitution must mean what its framers originally intended it to mean – at least until that constitution is formally changed through the required mechanism of amendment. Liberals, in contrast, tend to argue that a constitution must be a “living document” that changes and grows with the times.
In a vacuum, perhaps, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court would be correct. Maybe, just maybe, five decades of the Voting Rights Act could undo two centuries of brutal disenfranchisement against blacks and other minorities in a large swath of the country. It’s much easier today for African Americans to cast ballots in nine “covered” states – including Virginia – than it was when the law took effect in 1965. Of course, we don’t live in a vacuum in America. Race still affects many facets of society, from housing to schools to political representation. That’s why the high court’s sharply divided ruling Tuesday, which gutted one of the nation’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation, was so obtuse – and so disappointing.
A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday invalidated a crucial component of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, ruling that Congress has not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when singling out certain states for federal oversight. The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the other conservative members of the court in the majority. The court did not strike down the law itself or the provision that calls for special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination. But it said Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements. Proponents of the law, which protects minority voting rights, called the ruling a death knell. It will be almost impossible for a Congress bitterly divided along partisan lines to come up with such an agreement, they said. There could be immediate consequences from the court’s ruling. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said his state would move forward with a voter-ID law that had been stopped by a panel of federal judges and would carry out redistricting changes that had been mired in court battles.
“While any racial discrimination in voting is too much,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told us in Tuesday’s decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Well, here’s a current condition: the ink was barely dry on the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder when Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas announced that his state’s voter-ID law, blocked by a federal court last summer, “will take effect immediately.” The Texas statute has the most stringent requirements of any voter-ID law in the country. The three-judge federal panel, pointing out in a 56-page opinion the several less onerous versions that the Legislature had rejected, found that the state had failed to meet its burden under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to show that the law wouldn’t have the effect of suppressing the minority vote. With his precipitous in-your-face move, the Texas attorney general may be doing us a favor, making clear that the court’s decision has real and immediate consequences. Welcome to the Roberts court’s brave new post-Voting Rights Act world.