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“License Plates Are Not Bumper Stickers”: When License Plates Take On An Obvious Political Tinge, Sparks Fly

A group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans has asked Texas to issue a license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag, which many consider an emblem of slavery. Texas said no, and the Sons are suing because the state accepts other messages for specialty plates.

The Sons have a point.

North Carolina issues a license reading, “Choose Life.” When lawmakers there refused to allow a competing abortion-rights message, the American Civil Liberties Union sued.

The ACLU has a point, as well.

States have jumped on the slippery slope of letting various business and social interests promote themselves on the specialty license plates. Now they have slid into the U.S. Supreme Court, which has taken the Sons of Confederate Veterans case.

The justices have examined license plates before. In the 1977 Wooley v. Maynard case, Jehovah’s Witnesses held that the New Hampshire state motto stamped on all license plates, “Live Free or Die,” offended their religious convictions. The court ruled that New Hampshire residents had a right to cover up those words on their plates.

How about no messages on state-issued license plates? Or perhaps limiting them to such neutral bragging as Wild, Wonderful (West Virginia), Evergreen State (Washington), Sweet Home (Alabama) or Garden State (New Jersey)?

I’ll admit to a soft spot for environmental messages — such as calls on Florida plates to protect whales, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and largemouth bass — but not for blatant advertising. Sports teams are big businesses, and they have specialty plates.

Rhode Island offers a plate featuring Mr. Potato Head, marketed by the local toymaker, Hasbro. The fees car owners pay for such plates may go to a good cause (in Mr. Potato Head’s case, a food bank), and states take their cut. Still, it’s an ad.

But when license plates take on an obvious political tinge, sparks fly. And that’s why a blanket “no” to specialty plates is the right way to go.

Corey Brettschneider, professor of political science at Brown University, doesn’t agree. He sees license plate messages as “mixed speech.” Because the United States allows a freedom of expression unmatched by any other country, the state has an obligation to defend its values, he writes in his book When the State Speaks, What Should It Say?: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality.

Brettschneider believes that Texas was correct in turning down the plates displaying the Confederate Stars and Bars but that North Carolina was wrong in rejecting the abortion rights plates.

I asked him, What about the argument that many see the Confederate flag more as a historical artifact than as an endorsement of slavery? Brettschneider responded that the flag’s history, including its use in opposing civil rights legislation, suggests otherwise. And even if the intent of some of its backers is pure, the considerations are bigger than the views of a private person.

Texas would be tied to the symbol, he said. “Texas has a deep duty to avoid an association between the state’s message and a racist message.”

But who speaks for the state? What happens when one set of officials is replaced by another with entirely different interpretations?

“The Constitution requires deference to the democratic process,” Brettschneider answered, “but it also sometimes requires limits on that process.”

We do agree that bumper stickers are a great invention. They are a frugal way to advertise one’s religion, preferred candidate, dog’s breed, football team or sense of humor. State approval not required.

As for specialized messages on license plates, I persist in opposing them all. Professor Brettschneider’s approach is well constructed and certainly more nuanced, but managing its tensions would be a hard job.

 

By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, January 13, 2015

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Confederacy, States Rights, Texas | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The GOP Won’t Stop Suppressing Our Votes”: Access To The Ballot Has Become A Feverishly Partisan Issue

For me, voting rights aren’t a partisan matter. They are a fundamental right that all adult citizens should enjoy without restriction. I don’t even think there should be such a thing as “getting out the vote” because I think all citizens should be required to participate, even if it is just to express their lack of endorsement for any candidates, initiatives, or referendums. People should get themselves to the polls and political parties should focus exclusively on winning over their support. That’s how I feel, but I recognize that access to the ballot has become a feverishly partisan issue. And, I wonder if restricting ballot access was actually successful enough in these midterms that it changed the outcome of some elections. Perhaps in North Carolina?

Voters in fourteen states faced new voting restrictions at the polls for first time in 2014—in the first election in nearly fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The number of voters impacted by the new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for senate and governor in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In the North Carolina senate race, Republican Thom Tillis, who as speaker of the North Carolina General Assembly oversaw the state’s new voting law, defeated Democrat Kay Hagan by 50,000 votes. Nearly five times as many voters in 2010 used the voting reforms eliminated by the North Carolina GOP—200,000 voted during the now-eliminated first week of early voting, 20,000 used same-day registration and 7,000 cast out-of-precinct ballots.

The intention in placing these new roadblocks to voting was to change the outcome of elections. Only the worst dupe in the world thinks that the intent was to increase the integrity of the count. Even if these restrictions didn’t change any actual outcomes, the perception that they did in Republican circles assures that they will keep at it since they think it’s a winning strategy.

And it probably is.

 

By: Martin Longman, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, November 9, 2014

November 10, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , | Leave a comment

“If You’re Not At The Table, You’re On The Menu”: Republicans Fear Paying A Price For Attacks On Interests Of African Americans

North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis didn’t have any problem jamming through a so-called “voter ID” law that was intended to take away the voting rights of thousands of North Carolinians — including many African Americans.

But the moment Democrats or civil rights organizations exhort African Americans to go to the polls and stand up for their right to vote — and prevent Tillis from being elected to the U.S. Senate — the Republicans squeal like stuck pigs.

“Oh, that’s unfair, that’s playing the racial card,” they say. Wrong. That’s being held accountable for policies that intentionally attack the interests of African Americans and millions of other ordinary voters.

With Tillis as speaker, the North Carolina legislature passed “Stand Your Ground” legislation similar to the law that allowed the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in Florida. But the GOP thinks it is utterly unfair for him to be tied to the real-world consequences of his actions in government.

Community and civil rights organizations throughout the South — and around the country — are exhorting African American voters to go to the polls in the mid-term elections by pointing out that when African Americans don’t vote they get outcomes like Ferguson, Missouri. And they are dead on. Sixty-seven percent of the city’s 21,000 residents are black, but only 12 percent of the voters in the last municipal election were black. The result: a city council with only one African American member and a police force of 53 officers — of which only three are black.

There could be no better example of what African Americans get if they don’t vote. Yet the Republicans think that reference to Ferguson is “inflammatory.”

It’s not the least bit “inflammatory.” It simply means that the African American community intends to stand up for itself in the political process.

It is tribute to the fact that the leaders of African American organizations realize that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu — and that goes for all of us.

Democrats and everyday Americans of all backgrounds should take a lesson from the way African American leaders are standing up for President Obama. They are pointing out in radio spots and mailings that while it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the president in a democratic society; many of his Republican and right-wing critics have crossed the line to disrespect. They are telling African American voters: “It’s up to us to have the president’s back — vote.”

Republicans don’t like to hear that. In fact, the corporate CEOs and Wall Street billionaires who control the Republican Party — in coalition with groups of tea party extremists — don’t want most ordinary Americans to wake up and go the polls.

That doesn’t just go for African Americans. They are hoping that Hispanics, women, working people, and young people of all sorts stay home and forget there is an election. That way they hope they can elect a Republican Senate so that if a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court they can prevent President Obama from appointing a justice that is not in Wall Street’s back pocket.

They want a Senate that can work with the tea party-controlled House to hold the president and the country hostage unless they are allowed to slash tax rates for big business, eliminate the Medicare guarantee, cut Social Security benefits, gut the regulation of Wall Street, dramatically restrict women’s right to choose and limit access to contraception. And none of that is an exaggeration. Those are the positions they put right on their campaign websites.

If you are reading this article and haven’t voted, make a plan right now for how you plan to vote before Tuesday. In most states you can vote by mail, vote early at many locations or — of course — go to your precinct on Tuesday and cast your ballot.

Figure out now what time you plan to vote and how you plan to get to the polls or the early vote location. Don’t put it off.

Many critical elections in state after state are on a knife’s edge — they will be decided by a handful of voters.

Tens of thousands of Americans have given their lives — on battlefields far away and in struggles for voting rights here at home — so that every single American can have the right to have a say in determining our country’s leaders.

If you think that it doesn’t matter — or that it won’t affect you, or that your vote won’t influence the outcome — you are simply wrong.

In the end the big issues that completely shape our individual lives and the future of our society are decided by who votes.

Will there be job opportunities for our kids? Will a small group of Wall Street speculators be allowed to sink our economy once again like they did in 2008? Will you have the right to control your own reproductive decisions? Will your monthly Social Security check be cut? Will we leave our kids a planet that is so filled with carbon pollution that we can’t grow enough food or our cities are regularly swamped by monster storms like Hurricane Sandy? Will ordinary people finally get wage increases from our growing economy or will all of the growth continue to be siphoned off by the wealthiest one percent?

If you don’t plan to vote, are you really willing to allow the billionaires and CEOs to get what they want? Are you willing to let them steal your family’s security while we sleep through the election?

Don’t let it happen. Get up off the couch and go vote. Better still, call your neighbors, your sons and daughters. Tell your spouse to vote. Volunteer with a campaign to get other people out to vote — it works.

The plain fact is that if we don’t vote it won’t just be some politician who loses an election. If we don’t vote, we lose.

 

By: Robert Creamer, The Huffington Post Blog, October 31, 2014

November 1, 2014 Posted by | Midterm Elections, Minority Voters, Thom Tillis | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Larger Context Of Restrictions On Voting”: Making Voting As Difficult And Cumbersome As Possible For The Wrong Kind Of People

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued an order overruling an appeals court decision about a series of voting restrictions passed last year by the state of North Carolina, which will allow the restrictions to remain in place for this year’s election, until the case is ultimately heard by the Court. And in a happy coincidence, on the very same day, the Government Accountability Office released a report finding that voter ID requirements reduce turnout among minorities and young people, precisely those more-Democratic voting groups the requirements are meant to hinder. There’s a context in which to view the battle over voter restrictions that goes beyond whether Republicans are a bunch of meanies, and it has to do with the things parties can change easily and the things they can’t.

I’ll explain exactly what I mean in a moment, but first, the law at issue was passed just weeks after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority gutted the Voting Rights Act, allowing North Carolina and other states to change their voting laws without the Justice Department preclearance that had been required since the 1960s. The N.C. law was basically a grab-bag of everything the Republican legislature and governor could come up with to make voting more difficult and inconvenient, particularly for those groups more likely to vote for Democrats. It included an ID requirement, of course, but also shortened the early voting period, eliminated “pre-registration” (under which 16 and 17-year-olds who would be 18 by election day could register before their birthdays), repealed same-day registration, and mandated that any voter who cast a ballot at the wrong precinct would have their vote tossed in the trash. Every provision was aimed directly at minority voters, young voters, or both.

As I’ve argued before, these kinds of restrictions are almost certainly all going to be upheld by the Supreme Court, because Anthony Kennedy, for all his pleasing evolution on gay rights, is firmly in the conservative camp when it comes to voting rights. That means there will be five votes in favor of almost any hurdle to voting that a GOP-controlled state can devise.

Making voting as difficult and cumbersome as possible for the wrong kind of people is a longstanding conservative project, but it has taken on a particular urgency for the right in recent years, which helps explain why 22 states have passed voting restrictions just since 2010 (and why stuff like this keeps happening). Republicans are doing it because they can, but also because they believe they must.

Both parties approach every election with a set of advantages and disadvantages, some of which are open to change in the short term and some of which aren’t. The last couple of presidential elections, the Democrats had a more capable candidate than the Republicans did; that could be reversed next time or the time after that. The Democrats have policy positions that are on the whole significantly more popular than those of the Republicans, particularly on things like the minimum wage, taxes, and Social Security. While it would be possible for the GOP to change its positions on those issues, it’s a slow process (as they’re now seeing on gay rights), and sometimes it’s impossible.

On the other hand, Republicans have a geographic advantage we’ve discussed before, with their voters spread more efficiently throughout the country, enabling them to keep a grip on a House majority even when more Americans vote for Democratic congressional candidates, as they did in 2012. Their dominance in rural states helps them stay competitive in the undemocratic Senate, where 38 million Californians elect two Democrats, and 600,000 Wyomingers counter with their two Republicans.

There isn’t much Democrats can do about that weight sitting in the right side of the scale, but they have their own structural advantage in the fact that their coalition is a diverse one, including some of the fastest-growing segments of the population, while the Republicans are stuck with a constituency fated to shrink as a proportion of the population. In other words, the GOP’s essential disadvantages lie in the interplay between what they believe and who they are.

One way to make up for those disadvantages is by making changes to the rules to tilt things a little bit back in your favor. Making it harder for some of the other side’s constituencies to vote won’t transform elections in and of itself—and it will often spur a reaction from Democrats as they redouble their GOTV efforts—but it can give that boost of a point or two that in the right circumstances can turn defeat into victory.

Republicans, of course, claim that all these voting restrictions have no partisan intent whatsoever—that they’re just about stopping fraud and maintaining the integrity of the system. Not a single person in either party genuinely believes that’s true (even if Republicans do believe that Democrats try to steal every election, they know that things like ID requirements and shortening early voting don’t touch the biggest locus of actual voter fraud, which is absentee ballots). If it didn’t help Republicans overcome their disadvantages, at least on the margins, you can bet they wouldn’t be pursuing so many voting restrictions with such fervor.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 9, 2014

October 10, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Who Are The Judicial Activists Now?”: People Like Ted Cruz Will Never Stop Screaming Judicial Activism

As is regularly the case in American politics, you have to hand it to Ted Cruz: His reaction to the Supreme Court’s order on same-sex marriage was the best one I came across Monday for sheer outrage-iness. “Judicial activism at its worst!” he thundered (okay, the exclamation point is mine). This, remember, in response to an inaction. The Court did exactly nothing. And now that’s judicial activism.

In fact, the Court took a pass, one presumes, because there weren’t two circuit-court decisions before it that presented conflicting legal interpretations of statute. In the absence of such a conflict, the Court did exactly what most experts I’ve read and spoken to over the last few months predicted it would do. But to Cruz, it’s “astonishing.” Ditto that the Court acted (or in-acted) “without providing any explanation whatsoever.” Which it never does in such instances, but never mind.

People like Cruz will never stop screaming judicial activism. No, wait: They will stop screaming judicial activism, at least on the question of same-sex marriage; and they will stop doing so sooner rater than later. This will constitute a major victory for the forces of light, one very much worth marking and thinking back over.

Ever since, well, Brown v. Board of Education, and probably before, conservatives have complained about judges making law against the will of the majority of voters. The critique extends into nearly every little crevice and lacuna of our civic life. Roe v. Wade was legislating from the bench; affirmative action; of course taking God out of the classroom; but basically anything any court did that conservatives didn’t approve of.

And let’s admit it—on at least the abstract level, the complaint has often had merit. I mean, there can be little doubt that public opinion in Dixie in 1954 opposed the integration of the schools. So the Court of 1954 was indeed making law from the bench. And thank God for it, since the problem is that public opinion was wrong. Not just wrong like “I think I’m not putting enough salt in my grits” wrong, but immorally wrong. What’s a court to do in such a case? Many forests have been sacrificed so that various scholars could take up this question, but the answer is really quite short and simple: The right thing.

And so liberalism has lived now with decades of such criticisms from conservatives, with the understanding that it’s far better to have won the right in question from a court than not to have won it at all—and the understanding that out there in America, yes, the backlash against these judges and the policies that grew from their decisions was probably brewing.

But same-sex marriage is different for two reasons. First, the amazing and oft-commented upon speed at which public opinion has flipped. And second, the fact that if the legal consensus can be said to be coming down on one side or the other, it’s clearly coming down on the side of same-sexers having the same constitutional matrimonial rights that the rest of us have. When federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah say it, it ain’t judicial activism, folks. It’s, you know, the more-or-less-impossible-to-deny law.

So the process by which same-sex marriage has advanced in this country hasn’t been overwhelmingly judicial at all. Until the Court’s announcement Monday, in fact, the tally was that gay marriage became legal by court decision in 13 states, and by the will of the people in 11 (legislative action in eight, popular referendum in three). And in most of the states where the change happened through the courts, the issue is decreasing in controversy, and public opinion is coming along.

You may remember that Iowa was the first unexpected heartland state where the state Supreme Court made gay marriage legal, back in 2009. It’s true that three judges who so ruled were removed from the bench in judicial retention elections in 2010. But by 2012, when the “values” crowd went after a fourth, they walked away scalpless: Judge David Wiggins retained his seat by a landslide 10-point margin. The temperature had cooled. Today, polling shows that public opinion in the state is still divided on same-sex marriage but is firmly against any kind of state constitutional amendment that would ban the practice.

So now, after what the Court did Monday, same-sex marriage is going to extend into 11 new states. It seems fair to say that majorities are against gay marriage in most of these states (the aforementioned Utah and Oklahoma, plus Kansas, Indiana, West Virginia, and the Carolinas). We’re going to see the usual skirmishes and hear the predictable sound bites. In political terms, if you’re a liberal who wants to read the tea leaves, keep an eye trained on the North Carolina Senate race.

Incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is steadily but narrowly leading GOP challenger Thom Tillis. Hagan backs same-sex marriage. But the state voted overwhelmingly against it two years ago in a referendum. And now, as a part of the Fourth Judicial Circuit, North Carolina is about to have the sinful practice foisted on it. Public opinion in the state still runs strongly against same-sex marriage. I think we can reasonably expect Tillis to double down on the issue, and it would be horrible to see Hagan lose because of it.

It’ll take time in these states, but the same thing will happen in them as is happening in Iowa. People will adjust. Gay couples will marry. Straight couples will see that their own marriages were somehow not sullied after all.

This is the core dilemma for conservatives on same-sex marriage: The more widespread its practice, the more accepted it becomes. This is the exact opposite of abortion and affirmative action, two red-hot issues on which the right has used the “judicial activism” charge to great effect in recent history. If you think abortion is murder, then the more widespread its practice, the more aghast you are. If you oppose racial preferences, then ditto. But that isn’t how same-sex marriage works. It takes nothing away from heterosexual couples, or for that matter anyone.

Eventually, the Supreme Court will rule 5-4 (with Kennedy) or maybe even 6-3 (with Roberts—not completely impossible) in favor of gay marriage, because the law is clear, and because the Court isn’t going to tell many thousands of married couples in 30 states that they’re suddenly not married. Judicial activism? No. Just the right thing. The judicial activists will be those, led by their godhead Scalia, who will try to invent new ways to march backwards while pretending that they themselves aren’t trying to dictate morality from the bench. And the charge of judicial activism, which hurt liberalism because it resonated with a resentment that millions of average Americans felt, will lose its sting soon enough.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 7, 2014

October 9, 2014 Posted by | Judicial Activism, Marriage Equality, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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