Saturday, October 3, 2015

An Insidious Evil: Voting Rights Act, the SCOTUS Blunder and Voter ID Laws

by Nomad

President JohnsonA couple of years ago, one of the great legislative achievements from the 1960s was all but dismantled. Strange too since only seven years before it was gutted, both parties in Congress had voted to keep this landmark legislation around for another generation. We examine how this could have happened and what have been the effects.


In American history,  7 March 1965 became known as Bloody Sunday.
It was on this day that civil rights protesters clashed with Alabama State troopers. With billy clubs and tear gas, state troopers and county possemen beat, before the eyes of the nation, unarmed demonstrators. 

Despite that, two days later, a second march was organized. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was there and led the marchers and this time troopers stepped aside to let them pass. 

But that night, a gang of white thugs took their revenge of a civil rights activist, James Reeb. Reeb a white Boston minister, had come to join in the second march. Beaten to death by white men with clubs for his support of African American rights. Reeb became a martyr to the civil rights cause when he lapsed into a coma and died on 11 March 1965.

The entire nation shocked that such things could happen in the land of the free. What followed was remarkable, a national outcry against the activities of white racists leading to direct legislative action by Washington.

The Search for a Solution
On 15 March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson swiftly moved into action. He spoke before a joint session of Congress on a matter that was important to him and, he believed, important to the nation. The subject was the proposed Voting Rights Act, new laws which aimed at prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

In certain areas of the nation, racial discrimination in voting was a deeply entrenched  problem. It had become “an insidious and pervasive evil,"  the result of an "unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.” The time had come to rectify this long-standing problem as the federal government sometimes had to do.

Martin Luther King and President Johnson
What had happened in Selma, Alabama demanded a strong reaction from the federal government. It could not be ignored. In a special address, President Johnson said to Congress
There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.
The president reminded the congressmen that, in its history, America was often faced with a moments of great crisis and with debates about great issues, of war and peace, of prosperity and depression.
But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.
Equal rights for the African Americans was such as issue. But it was not just a "Negro problem," not a problem of the South, or the North. It was, Johnson said, an American problem.
Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.
The right to vote, Johnson believed, was the basic right "without which all others are meaningless." Voting offers "people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies."
And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.
Americans, the president said, are used to hearing glorious words from its great history. Words like "All men are created equal"—"government by consent of the governed"—"give me liberty or give me death" These must not be just pretty words, Johnson told the Congress. They must mean something.
Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.
The president then presented Congress with a list of shameful tactics election officials in certain states used to deny minority their right to vote. As one historian notes:
Blacks attempting to vote often were told by election officials that they had gotten the date, time or polling place wrong, that they possessed insufficient literacy skills or that they had filled out an application incorrectly. Blacks, whose population suffered a high rate of illiteracy due to centuries of oppression and poverty, often would be forced to take literacy tests, which they inevitably failed.
Martin Luther King Johnson
Sometimes officials demanded that black voters “recite the entire Constitution or explain the most complex provisions of state laws.”
White voters were not given the same treatment and would have no doubt been unable to pass the same tests.  

These tricks and games played on minority voters by the authorities were a shame for the entire nation. 

LIFE magazine reported on the Congressional speech March 26:
What happened last week shows how public indignation, sweeping the country like chain lightning can force wise and necessary action that had been balked by partisanship and governmental apathy for nearly a hundred years. It has been emphatically established that the right to vote is one Negro rights question very nearly beyond debate anywhere in the United States, except in the shrinking stronghold of the Southern diehards. ... From here on, progress will be difficult because the problems are more subtle.
Throughout that summer, Congress debated the necessity of the proposed legislation. It had taken over a year to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. In the case of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it took only five months.
The vast majority of Americans, both white and black, openly supported the speed of Congress in granting the most basic of all democratic rights - the vote- to minority Americans.

Except, that is, in the Deep South.

The Coverage Formula 
One of the more controversial provisions of the bill was found in Section 4(b) and Section 5 and is better known as the "coverage formula."

In that provision of the law, the special attention given to certain districts, most of which were in the Deep South. In these states, there had been a long history of discrimination against black voters. The Act was very specific on how and why  these states were singled out. Provisions in the Act established "a formula to identify those areas and to provide for more stringent remedies where appropriate."  

In these areas, any change to the local or state laws would require federal approval beforehand. From the moment the legislation came into effect, Jim Crow laws, and laws that had made a mockery of democracy would be subject to federal oversight prior to elections. 

Some critics saw this as a violation of state sovereignty, and states' rights, an idea which many Southern states had in the past used (or abused) to open discriminate of its black citizens. 
Originally, this special coverage was to be of a limited duration of 5 years. However, since 1965, the provision has been expanded  several times through re-authorization. 
As recently as 2006, Congress, by an overwhelming margin, voted to extend (or reauthorize) key provisions of the Voter Rights Act for another 25 years.
As one source points out, every Republican supported the bill. Said one conservative Republican, James Sensenbrenner,
“The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist and exist in its current form.”
It was not to be.
In less than a seven years after that conclusive vote, the landmark legislation had been gutted, not at the hands of Congress or the president, but by the high court.

Changes Since 1965 
In  June 2013, The Supreme Court looked into the matter in Shelby County, Alabama vs Holder, Attorney General. In a narrow decision, ruled that the critics of the Voting Rights Act were indeed correct. The federal government no longer had a constitutional right to impose special oversight on the nine states mentioned in the Voting Rights Act. 

This was not 1965, the justices reasoned, and the South had grown up and should no longer be singled out in such a way. According to their view, states must retain their sense of legislative independence and the federal government should not be a centralized authority in all matters. There simply wasn't enough proof that these special provisions of the  Voting Rights Acts were any longer necessary .

Speaking in behalf of the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote: 
“Our country has changed...While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act became law, things have changed dramatically, he wrote, and the blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are now rare. He also cited the unprecedented number of minority candidates holding in the South as proof that the Voting Rights Act had accomplished what it had set out to do. 

States Rights advocates in the South couldn't have been happier but some civil rights groups were dismayed by the decision and worried about its future ramifications.
One of those who was deeply concerned about the SCOTUS ruling was the President. Obama said when the decision was announced:
“For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act . . . has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans...Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
 Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters
“It is confounding that after decades of progress on voting rights, which have become part of the American fabric, the Supreme Court would tear it asunder.”
In the end, the test would come to see whether the SCOTUS' verdict on the maturity of the South was accurate or whether it was not. 

It didn't take long to find the truth. 
As the New York Times reported just a day later, Texas state officials announced immediately after the SCOTUS decision that it would put into immediate effect a voter identification law that had been blocked. In addition, since federal approval was no longer required, redistricting maps. Complaints by citizens could be filed after the elections.
The speed that the conservative Republicans moved in Texas, some said, really showed what Voter-ID laws were really all about.

Voter ID laws
One of the more "low-down" methods of discrimination against minorities, say civil rights advocates, are voter-ID laws.
While these laws have existed since the 1950s, the way these laws are being implemented in some states has raised a lot of questions.

These laws have been cropping up supposedly as a preventative against rampant voter fraud. Opposition groups claimed such laws are a calculated attempt to suppress minority votes. If you look hard enough, they allege, the pattern is there. 

Look  again at Rick Perry's initiative in Texas. 
The Texas Voter ID law accepted only government-issued photo identification and weapons permits, It refused to recognize college IDs, even from a state college. Critics pointed out that the fine print was actually stacking the deck come election time. They reason that students tend to liberal while gun owners tend to be conservative. 
How much a difference it would make in any election is a valid question, but then oftentimes it is about the perception of fairness that is important. 

The most insidious aspect of all isn't the actual effect of discriminatory laws, but the discouragement that they create. The disenfranchised minorities are taught that their votes really don't matter and it is easier just to drop out of the democratic process than to jump through all of the hoops.  

Many critics questioned the need for new laws in the first place. Civil rights groups have launched lawsuits in states that have passed Voter ID laws. Nevertheless, some 30 states have adopted such laws in one form or another. 

One group that was outspoken in its criticism was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such an ID and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain one or forego the right to vote entirely.
And indeed even before the SCOTUS decision, in 2011, an Associated Press analysis discovered some valid justification for those fears.
Take South Carolina as an example. The evidence showed that the proposed voter-identification legislation would affect black precincts the hardest, keeping thousands from casting non-provisional ballots.

Sweet Home Alabama
That's only one example of something going on in perhaps several key election states.
In Alabama, the legislature proposed a similar voter-ID laws and the analysis found that this law places the heaviest burden on black voters who lack acceptable forms of identification. These voters would be further disenfranchised simply because they had no means to obtain ID alternatives.
After the Nov. 4 election. Voter-ID law supporters to the legislation declared it a swell success.
Of course, that's a matter of opinion. If you define success as a resolving a problem that hardly even existed, then perhaps they are correct.
According to one report on voter fraud, since 2000, just eight cases of significant voter irregularities in Alabama were reported. Eight in all of fifteen years. Does this actually classify as "rampant voter fraud"?
But that's only half of the story.
In 2015 alone, after the new laws were introduced, there were two new cases, which involved the fraudulent use of absentee ballots in Pike and Houston Counties.  

So the new laws don't seem to have been all that great of a success but then, critics were quick to point out, it depends on what the laws were actually intended to do. 
If the law was intended to keep the turnout low in Alabama, then yes, it was a success. Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma alleged the laws were a factor in the 40 percent turnout, lowest for a general election since at least 1986.

As a matter of fact, going all the back since 2000, in Alabama, there was only one case of impersonation fraud at the polls and that involved the poll workers at the precinct finding that a voter's name had already been marked as having voted. One case.
That's not what most open-minded people would consider a pressing problem.

Crossing the Line
This week, Alabama took yet another step backward, demonstrating that, contrary to the Justice Kennedy's pronouncement, perhaps not much has really changed in Alabama. 

Citing of state budget cuts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced that driver license examiners will no longer work at 31 part-time satellite offices not owned by the state. That means people won't be able to test for a new driver's license in those county offices. Only license renewal and even then, the fee for a driver license renewal has gone up this year from $23.50 cost $36.25.

Why is this important?  Driver licenses or special photo IDs are one of the most commonly accepted forms of identification under the new law.  It's not the only forms of ID accepted at polling stations.    
  • photo- voter ID issued by another state; 
  • federal government ID; passport; 
  • state, county or municipal government employee ID; 
  • student or employee ID from a public or 
  • private college or trade school in Alabama; and 
  • ID issued by a state college in another state.
If a voter doesn't have an acceptable ID may be allowed to vote a provisional ballot provided that they submit a valid photo ID by 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election. Only then is their vote actually counted. Otherwise the vote is discarded.

As columnist John Archibald pointed out in an op-ed piece for AL.com, of the 10 Alabama counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters, namely...
Macon, 
Greene, 
Sumter, 
Lowndes, 
Bullock, 
Perry, 
Wilcox, 
Hale,
Dallas, 
and 
Montgomery
...only the last two counties will have open license offices. Why is this important? Driver licenses or special photo IDs are the commonly accepted form of identification when voting.  
Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed. Every one.
Archibald makes another correlation. Of the 15 counties that voted for Obama in the last presidential election, more than half (53%) were closed by the state. Of the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic, all had their driver license offices.
And while the cuts come across Alabama, they are deepest in the Black Belt. The harm is inflicted disproportionately on voters who happen to be black, and poor, in sparsely populated areas.
If these suspicions are correct  (and there are plenty who would argue with his conclusions), Alabama's decision to make it a little more difficult for minorities to qualify to vote is merely a devious attempt to control the outcomes.
Even it is only a bit of paranoia, the effect of the decision by the state will be the same.

The Dissenting Justice
In her dissent of the Supreme Court's 2103 decision against the Voter Rights Act, Justice Ruth Ginsburg observed that, no matter what the conservative justices might say, the special provisions in the Voting Rights had proved to be a useful tools. 

Between 1982 and 2006, the Justice Department had blocked more than 700 voting changes on the grounds that they would be discriminatory. Compare that to the miniscule number of voter fraud violations and the contradictions become more obvious. In any case, Ginsburg's example certainly refutes the idea that things have vastly improved when it comes to voter discrimination.

Justice Ginsburg was not alone in Supreme Court justices that disagreed with the majority decision. She was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

She went on to say that if the majority opinion of the court was correct, that the problem had largely been resolved, then why did Congress in 2006 come out so heavily in favor of reauthorizing the provisions?  
It was the judgment of Congress that “40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment and to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote is protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Ginsburg added:
The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the Voting Rights Act (VRA) has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed... With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.
Johnson signing Voting Rights Act of 1965Unquestioned and Unrestrained
By the end of that hot summer of 1965, President Johnson had won what he wanted.
The Voting Rights Bill became law and was to be one of the administration's crowning achievements and, as some said, the high point of the Civil Rights era.

All of the rallies, all of the civil disobedience, all of the marches had really made a difference, it seemed. The people who were beaten and the people who died, all of that now made sense. Almost beyond belief, politicians in Washington had listened and change, real change had finally arrived.

When President Johnson signed the Voter Rights Act of 1965, he told the audience in attendance:
"Until every qualified person regardless of . . . the color of his skin has the right, unquestioned and unrestrained, to go in and cast his ballot in every precinct in this great land of ours, I am not going to be satisfied."
Today, some see a failure of will to resist the attempt to undo the work that Johnson and Martin Luther King and so many others worked and fought for.
The insidious and pervasive tricks in the past to rig the vote should not be tolerated today. We moved forward and cannot allow things to slide back to the days before 1965.

Even the perception of an unfair election, or that a certain class of person's vote isn't important, is an idea that can take hold and destroy a free nation. 


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