Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Shelby County v. Holder, a case concerning the constitutionality of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark law that outlawed discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised African-Americans.
Shelby Country lies just south of Birmingham, Ala. One of its largest tourist attractions is the American Village, a nationally recognized citizenship education center whose mission is to teach visitors good citizenship and remind them of the price of liberty—that freedom isn’t free.
Shelby County wants the Supreme Court to declare a part of Section 4 and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Section 4b codifies a formula to identify parts of the country where political discrimination based on race is high. Section 5 requires the Justice Department to “preclear” any changes to voting rules made in nine states, mostly in the South, and by areas in seven others.
The justices will consider an ultimate constitutional question: Does voter discrimination persist to the point where legal protections must remain in place to prevent it? The question, of course is rhetorical. It does. We only need to look at the long list of recent state-level legislative activity, both in and out of the South, that targets minority voters. Just in the last decade, lawmakers have broken up majority-minority districts with questionable redistricting practices. African-American and Latino voters have seen their names purged from voter lists under the guise that election officials were cleaning them up, and restrictive voter ID laws implemented. Laws, some argue, are the modern day equivalent of poll taxes.
If today was the opposite day, Shelby County’s case would have merit. They’d rightly argue that voting rights are color-blind. But it isn’t the opposite day, nor will that be the case for a long time to come. Shelby County ignores this fact. It forgets about Alabama’s long history of using violence fraud, poll taxes, and literacy tests to keep African-American’s from the polls.
The justices must avoid the same amnesia. In 2006, the House of Representatives voted 390-to-33 and the Senate 98-to-zero to renew the Voting Rights Act until 2031. These lawmakers, after a significant amount of testimony and impassioned debate, recognized that the threat of disenfranchisement persists. Some of the justices, however, have already signaled that it doesn’t. Justice Anthony Kennedy has questioned the fairness of the Voting Rights Act, and Justice Clarence Thomas has said flat out said that it’s unconstitutional.
Shelby County v. Holder targets the very heart of American democracy. If the justices rule in Shelby County’s favor, the right to vote will most certainly not be free. The American Village will have one more reminder to give its visitors.
By: Jamie Chandler, U. S. News and World Report, February 27, 2013
The GOP’s attempt to gerrymander the Electoral College by having a few swing states distribute their electoral votes according to congressional district rather than through the winner of the popular vote seems to be collapsing. The scheme has been voted down (Virginia) or talked down (Ohio, Florida, Michigan), in four of the states in question. Only Wisconsin (where the governor is walking back his initial enthusiasm for the idea) and Pennsylvania still seem to be seriously considering the notion.
The Maddow Blog’s Steve Benen yesterday had a good take on the implosion of the electoral gerrymander movement:
… while the relief of the scheme’s failure is understandable, it’s the result of diminished expectations.
… The “bar has shifted” so far that many of us are delighted, if not amazed, when Republican policymakers voluntarily agree not to crash the global economy on purpose. Our standards for success have fallen so low, we don’t actually expect progress—we instead cheer the absence of political malevolence.
But something’s going on here that’s larger than merely diminished expectations. The electoral vote-rigging scheme was the latest example of the end of norms in our politics. It used to be that certain tactics and certain tools simply were not used or were used only in extremis. But we are currently in an era of no holds barred politics: The end—accruing political power and/or victories—apparently justifies all means. Consider:
The filibuster was once a rarely used tool but has become the order of the day. Now the Senate passing something with less than 60 votes is the extraordinary exception where it was once the rule.
The idea of using the debt ceiling—or more specifically the threat of causing the United States to default on its obligations by not raising it—would once have been inconceivable but is rapidly becoming just another sign of gridlock.
Ditto the idea of intentionally shutting down the government.
Republicans in the Virginia state Senate last week used the absence of one Democratic member (he was attending President Obama’s inaugural) to ram through a mid-decade, partisan redistricting plan. If the new map, which the House of Delegates is slow-walking, is enacted, they are following the trail blazed in Texas by Tom DeLay (preconviction) and his state acolytes a decade ago. Redistricting is meant to take place on a decennial basis after the new census, not where political opportunity presents itself.
So is it any surprise that some conservatives thought the idea of gerrymandering the Electoral College was acceptable?
We’re in the “just win, baby” era of politics. But that attitude is appallingly short sighted because once the new normal takes hold it’s hard to walk back. If Democrats lose the Senate does anyone think they’ll throttle back on the filibuster because it’s the honorable thing to do? Or will they disavow unilateral disarmament while grinding the chamber to a halt?
The problem we all face is that the ends-justify-any-means attitude infecting our politics threatens the system itself. The Founding Fathers were brilliant and created a wonderfully durable system, but not an indestructible one.
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, January 31, 2013
Republicans shouldn’t worry that President Obama is trying to destroy the GOP. Why would he bother? The party’s leaders are doing a pretty good job of it themselves.
As they try to understand why the party lost an election it was confident of winning — and why it keeps losing budget showdowns in Congress — Republican grandees are asking the wrong questions. Predictably, they are also coming up with the wrong answers.
They prefer to focus on flawed tactics and ineffectual “messaging” rather than confront the essential problem, which is that voters don’t much care for the policies the GOP espouses.
In post-debacle speeches and interviews, Republicans sound — and there’s no kind way to put this — paranoid and delusional. House Speaker John Boehner said in a speech to the Ripon Society that the Obama administration is trying to “annihilate the Republican Party.” Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s fiscal guru and failed vice presidential candidate, claimed Sunday on “Meet the Press” that Obama seeks “political conquest” of the GOP.
It is no secret that Obama is trying to advance a progressive agenda. He promised as much in his campaign speeches. Were Republicans not listening? Did they think he was just joshing?
In five of the past six presidential elections, Democrats have won the popular vote. Republicans have done well at the state level and, through redistricting, have made their majority in the House difficult to dislodge. But it’s not possible to lead the country from the speaker’s chair, as Boehner can attest. To have a chance at effecting transformative change, you have to win the White House.
And to win the White House, you have to convince voters that the policies you seek to enact are the right ones. This is what the GOP doesn’t seem to understand.
“We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the GOP’s brightest young stars, said in a much-anticipated speech last week at the party’s winter meeting. “We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people.”
That’s all well and good. But Jindal also warned that the party should not “moderate, equivocate or otherwise change our principles” on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, “government growth” and “higher taxes.”
On abortion, there is an uneasy consensus that the procedure should be legal but uncommon; the GOP wants to make abortion illegal, and the party’s loudest voices on the issue do not favor exceptions even for incest or rape. On gay marriage, public opinion is shifting dramatically toward acceptance; the Republican Party is adamantly opposed. On the size of government, Americans philosophically favor “small” — but, as a practical matter, demand services and programs that can only be delivered by “big.” And on taxes, voters agreed with Obama that the wealthy could and should pay a bit more.
“We must reject the notion that demography is destiny, the pathetic and simplistic notion that skin pigmentation dictates voter behavior,” Jindal said. These are noble and stirring words. But the GOP is insane if it does not at least ask why 93 percent of African Americans, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for Obama over Mitt Romney.
If minority voters continue to favor the Democratic Party to this extent, then demography will indeed prove to be destiny. What would be simplistic is to attribute the disparity to the fact that Obama is the first black president, or to the fact that Republicans have been perceived as so unsympathetic on issues concerning immigration. If they want to attract minority support, Republicans will have to take into account what these voters believe on a range of issues, from the proper relationship between government and the individual to the proper role of the United States in a rapidly changing world.
I have to wonder if the GOP is even getting the tactics-and-messaging part right. Michael Steele (now an MSNBC colleague of mine) served as party chairman when Republicans won a sweeping victory in 2010; he was promptly fired. Reince Priebus presided over the 2012 disaster; last week, he was rewarded with a new term as chairman.
But no matter who’s in charge, the GOP will have a tough time winning national elections until it has a better understanding of the nation. If Boehner is worried about being swept “into the dustbin of history,” he and other Republicans need to put down the broom.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 28, 2013
As a new Congress convenes, it has become an unquestioned truth among Republicans that their party has as much of a mandate as President Obama because voters returned them to power in the House.
The mantra has been intoned by John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and many other party eminences, and there is a certain logic to saying that the voters, by giving Republicans the House, were asking for divided government.
But the claim to represent the voters’ will doesn’t add up.
The final results from the November election were completed Friday, and they show that Democratic candidates for the House outpolled Republicans nationwide by nearly 1.4 million votes and more than a full percentage point — a greater margin than the preliminary figures showed in November. And that’s just the beginning of it: A new analysis finds that even if Democratic congressional candidates won the popular vote by seven percentage points nationwide, they still would not have gained control of the House.
The analysis, by Ian Millhiser at the liberal Center for American Progress using data compiled by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, finds that even if Democrats were to win the popular vote by a whopping nine percentage points — a political advantage that can’t possibly be maintained year after year — they would have a tenuous eight-seat majority.
In a very real sense, the Republican House majority is impervious to the will of the electorate. Thanks in part to deft redistricting based on the 2010 Census, House Republicans may be protected from the vicissitudes of the voters for the next decade. For Obama and the Democrats, this is an ominous development: The House Republican majority is durable, and it isn’t necessarily sensitive to political pressure and public opinion.
According to the Jan. 4 final tally by Cook’s David Wasserman after all states certified their votes, Democratic House candidates won 59,645,387 votes in November to the Republicans’ 58,283,036, a difference of 1,362,351. On a percentage basis, Democrats won, 49.15 percent to 48.03 percent.
This in itself is an extraordinary result: Only three or four other times in the past century has a party lost the popular vote but won control of the House. But computer-aided gerrymandering is helping to make such undemocratic results the norm — to the decided advantage of Republicans, who controlled state governments in 21 states after the 2010 Census, almost double the 11 for Democrats.
To be sure, Democrats tend to be just as flagrant as Republicans when they have the chance to gerrymander. And the Republican advantage isn’t entirely because of redistricting; Democrats have lopsided majorities in urban clusters, so the overall popular vote overstates their competitiveness in other districts. An analysis by FairVote found that nonpartisan redistricting would only partially close the gap, which comes also from the disappearance of ticket-splitting voters who elected centrist Democrats.
But the 2012 House results show the redrawing of districts to optimize Republican representation clearly had an impact. Consider three states won by Obama in 2012 where Republicans dominated the redistricting: In Pennsylvania, Democrats won just five of 18 House seats; in Virginia, Democrats won three of 11; and in Ohio, Democrats won four of 16.
Using Wasserman’s tally, Millhiser ranked districts by the Republican margin of victory and calculated that for Democrats to have won the 218 seats needed for a House majority they would have had to have added 6.13 percentage points to their popular-vote victory margin of 1.12 points.
To put the Republican advantage in perspective, Democrats could win the House only if they do significantly better than Republicans did in their landslide year of 2010 (when they had a 6.6-point advantage). That’s not impossible — Democrats did it in 2006 and 2008 — but it’s difficult. Republicans don’t have a permanent House majority, but they will go into the next several elections with an automatic head start. For many, the biggest political threat comes not from Democrats but from conservative primary challengers.
In theory, the Supreme Court could decide before then that this rigged system denies Americans fair and effective representation. But this won’t happen anytime soon. For now, Democrats need to recognize that the Republican House majority will respond only sluggishly to the usual levers of democracy.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 4, 2012
“New GOP Voter Suppression Strategy”: Gerrymander The Electoral College To Dilute The Influence Of Democratic Voters
For a brief time in the fall of 2011, Pennsylvania GOP Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to deliver the bulk of his state’s electoral votes to Mitt Romney. Pileggi wanted Pennsylvania to award its electoral votes not via the winner-take-all system in place in forty-eight states but instead based on the winner of each Congressional district. Republicans, by virtue of controlling the redistricting process, held thirteen of eighteen congressional seats in Pennsylvania following the 2012 election. If Pileggi’s plan would have been in place on November 6, 2012, Romney would’ve captured thirteen of Pennsylvania’s twenty Electoral College votes, even though Obama carried the state with 52 percent of the vote.
In the wake of Romney’s defeat and the backfiring of GOP voter suppression efforts, Pileggi is resurrecting his plan (albeit in a slightly different form) and the idea of gerrymandering the Electoral College to boost the 2016 GOP presidential candidate is spreading to other GOP-controlled battleground states that Obama carried, like Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Thanks to big gains at the state legislative level in 2010, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in twenty states compared to seven for Democrats, drawing legislative and Congressional maps that will benefit their party for the next decade. (The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that Republicans picked up six additional House seats in 2012 due to redistricting.) Republicans now want to extend their redistricting advantage to the presidential realm.
Pileggi’s plan, if implemented in all of the battleground states where Republicans held a majority of House seats, would’ve handed the White House to Romney. According to Think Progress:
Assuming that Mitt Romney won every congressional district that elected a Republican House candidate in these key states, the Corbett/Husted (named after the Pennsylvania governor and Ohio secretary of state) plan would have given Romney 17 electoral votes in Florida, 9 in Michigan, 12 in Ohio, 13 in Pennsylvania, 8 in Virginia, and 5 in Wisconsin—for a total of 64 additional electoral votes.
Add those 64 votes to the 206 votes Romney won legitimately, and it adds up to exactly 270—the amount he needed to win the White House.
According to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Republicans currently hold the majority of House seats in thirty states, compared to seventeen for Democrats, giving them a big advantage in any bid to rig the Electoral College.
Take a look at Virginia, where State Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico Sr. introduced legislation to award his state’s electoral votes based on the winner of each Congressional district. Here’s what that would mean, reports ThinkProgress:
With a Republican-controlled redistricting passed earlier this year, Virginia Democrats were heavily packed into three districts. Under these maps, Obama won Virginia by almost a 4 point margin, yet he carried just four Virginia Congressional Districts. Were Carrico’s scheme in place, Mitt Romney would have received seven of Virginia’s 11 electoral votes despite receiving just 47.28% of the vote statewide.
Or take a look at Ohio, where controversial Secretary of State Jon Husted briefly voiced support for a similar plan following the 2012 election. Obama won Ohio by three points, but Republicans control twelve of eighteen congressional seats there, meaning that Romney would’ve netted more electoral votes than Obama if Husted had his way.
The GOP supported voter suppression efforts in 2012 as a way to make the electorate older, whiter and more conservative. But that push backfired when opponents of voter suppression turned out in large numbers for Obama, cementing an electorate that was younger and more diverse than in 2008. The shifting demographics of the country indicate that Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” will only grow in size in future elections. So Republicans are searching for new ways to dilute the influence of Democratic voters.
Will the GOP’s bid to gerrymander the Electoral College be more successful now than it was last election cycle? Let’s hope not. Pileggi’s plan divided Pennsylvania Republicans and ultimately went nowhere. Husted had to quickly backtrack from his statements due to the national uproar. Here’s an idea for Republicans: instead of diluting the votes of your opposition, how about supporting policies—like immigration reform and a more equitable distribution of taxes—that will win you more votes from a growing chunk of the electorate?
And here’s another idea for both parties: instead of gerrymandering the Electoral College, how about abolishing it altogether?
By: Ari Berman, The Nation, December 10, 2012