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“A Rare Victory For Black Voting Rights In The South”: SCOTUS, Individual Majority-Minority Districts Were Racially Gerrymandered

In 2010, Republicans gained control of the Alabama legislature for the first time in 136 years. The redistricting maps drawn by Republicans following the 2010 election preserved the thirty-five majority-minority districts in the Alabama legislature—represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats—and in some cases actually increased the number of minority voters in those districts.

For example, State Senator Quinton Ross, a black Democrat elected in 2002, represented a district in Montgomery that was 72 percent African-American before the redistricting process. His district was under-populated by 16,000 people, so the Alabama legislature moved 14,806 African-Americans and thirty-six whites into his seat. The new district was now over 75 percent black and excluded white neighborhoods that were previously in Ross’s district.

Republicans claimed they were merely complying with the Voting Rights Act. Black Democrats challenged the redistricting maps as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and took the case to the Supreme Court. Today the Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Breyer, sided with the black plaintiffs and ordered a district court in Alabama to reexamine whether specific districts, like Ross’s, were improperly drawn with race as the predominant factor. The decision was released, interestingly enough, on the same day as the fiftieth anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

“The record indicates that plaintiffs’ evidence and arguments embody the claim that individual majority-minority districts were racially gerrymandered, and those are the districts that the District Court must reconsider,” Breyer wrote. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013, in another case from Alabama) did not compel the legislature to preserve the exact number of minority voters in a given district or inflate those numbers. “Section 5 does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. It requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice,” Breyer said. The court’s majority—joined by Justice Kennedy—sympathized with the plaintiffs’ claim that Alabama’s interpretation of the VRA may “harm the very minority voters that Acts such as the Voting Rights Act sought to help.”

Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. “We have somehow arrived at a place where the parties agree that Alabama’s legislative districts should be fine-tuned to achieve some ‘optimal’ result with respect to black voting power; the only disagreement is about what percentage of blacks should be placed in those optimized districts. This is nothing more than a fight over the ‘best’ racial quota,” wrote Thomas.

The ruling could have important ramifications, since the strategy followed by Alabama Republicans—packing minority voters into heavily Democratic seats in order to weaken white Democrats—was replicated throughout the South after the 2010 elections. I wrote about this trend in a 2012 feature for The Nation, “How the GOP Is Resegregating the South”:

In virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans—to protect and expand their gains in 2010—have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats. “What’s uniform across the South is that Republicans are using race as a central basis in drawing districts for partisan advantage,” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The bigger picture is to ultimately make the Democratic Party in the South be represented only by people of color.”

White Democrats have become the biggest casualty of the GOP’s new Southern strategy. As Jason Zengerle wrote in The New Republic, “Prior to the 2010 election, the Alabama House had sixty Democratic members, 34 of them white and 26 black. Afterward, there were 36 Democrats—ten white, 26 black. Meanwhile, in the Alabama Senate, the number of black Democrats remained seven, while the number of white Democrats fell from 13 to four.” After the 2014 election, there are now only seven white Democrats in the Alabama legislature—one in the Senate and six in the House.

There are no longer any white Democrats from the Deep South in Congress, following the defeat of Georgia Congressman John Barrow in 2014. Georgia Republicans moved 41,000 black Democrats out of his Savannah-based district to make him more vulnerable to a Republican challenge.

The elimination of white Democrats has also crippled the political aspirations of black Democrats. For years, black Democrats served in the majority with white Democrats in state legislatures across the South. Today Republicans control every legislative body in the South except for the Kentucky House. Before the 1994 elections, 99.5 percent of black Democrats served in the majority in Southern state legislatures. After the 2010 election, that number dropped to 4.8 percent, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era,” the report found.

In the 1990s, some black Democrats formed an “unholy alliance” with white Republicans to create new majority-minority districts in the South. Republicans supported these districts for black Democrats in select urban and rural areas in exchange for an increased GOP presence elsewhere, especially in fast-growing metropolitan suburbs. With Democrats grouped in fewer areas, Republicans found it easier to target white Democrats for extinction.

But that unholy alliance ended after 2010, when black Democrats across the South, like Georgia Senate minority leader Stacey Abrams, denounced the GOP’s redistricting strategy. They found it especially ironic that Republicans were using the VRA as a rationale for marginalizing black voters while at the same time pushing the Supreme Court to gut the most important part of the VRA—the requirement that states with the worst history of voting discrimination, like Alabama, clear their voting changes with the federal government.

Even though Southern states like Alabama no longer have to have their redistricting maps approved by the federal government, the Court’s decision today could open the door for additional challenges to GOP-drawn racial gerrymanders in states like Virginia and North Carolina. “Today’s Alabama decision gives these challengers a new tool, making it harder for states to use compliance with the Voting Rights Act as a pretext to secure partisan advantage,” writes Rick Hasen.

It’s a modest victory, but perhaps the best that can be expected from the current Supreme Court.

 

By: Ari Berman, The Nation, March 26, 2015

March 29, 2015 Posted by | Deep South, Democracy, Gerrymandering, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Beyond Corruption”: A Campaign Finance System Warped Beyond What It Would Be Under Any Reasonable Conception Of Democracy

There was a time in our history, thankfully long past now, when bribery was common and money’s slithery movement through the passages of American government was all but invisible, save for the occasional scandal that would burst forth into public consciousness. Today, we know much more about who’s getting what from whom. Members of Congress have to declare their assets, lobbyists have to register and disclose their activities, and contributions are reported and tracked. Whatever you think about the current campaign finance system, it’s much more transparent than it once was.

But if outright bribery is rare, should we say that the system is good enough? It’s a question we have to answer as we move into a new phase of the debate over money in politics. In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C., many liberals are nervous that the Court’s conservative majority is poised to remove all limits on how much can be donated to candidates and parties. For their part, conservatives seem to be preparing to open a new front in this seemingly endless battle, this time on the disclosure requirements that allow us to track who’s spending money to get their favored candidates elected. But those of us who worry about money’s distorting effects on the process would do well to acknowledge that the combination of more transparency and more money—much, much more money—has created a new reality with dangers that aren’t well described by the traditional conception of “corruption.”

Over the last few decades of campaign finance history, the immediate arguments have changed many times. Sometimes we argued over “soft money” contributions to political parties, sometimes we argued over phony “issue ads,” or 527 organizations and 501(c)(4) organizations, or corporate contributions and aggregate contributions. The specific locus of controversy keeps changing because political money always seems to find its way around whatever obstacles are placed in its path. And the fundamental divide that runs through all these arguments is, just as it has always been, that liberals want to reduce money’s influence over politics while conservatives want to increase it.

Conservatives might protest that that’s not really true; they just care deeply about freedom. But no one buys that for a minute. Their position on the issue is both practical and ideological. They know that if the super-wealthy are allowed to put as much of their money as they want into elections, Republicans will benefit more than Democrats. It’s no wonder that Republican party chair Reince Priebus called the McCutcheon decision a “very big victory for the RNC.” And they genuinely believe that’s as it should be; both the poor person and the rich person have the same right to donate large amounts of money to candidates, and if in practice it’s a right only the rich person can exercise, well that’s the way of the world.

And exercise it they do, with candidates, parties, and independent groups the grateful recipients of that civic-minded largesse growing larger with each passing election. But if your idea of “corruption” is only that which is illegal under bribery laws, that isn’t a problem that demands a solution. In the McCutcheon decision, Justice Roberts was quite clear in his belief that “Any regulation must…target what we have called “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance…a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Large donations meant to gain the donor access or mere influence over lawmakers, he argued, aren’t enough. In his dissent, Justice Breyer took issue with this rather pinched view, saying “we can and should understand campaign finance laws as resting upon a broader and more significant constitutional rationale than the plurality’s limited definition of ‘corruption’ suggest.”

So maybe what we have here is in part a problem of nomenclature. If you don’t want to call it “corruption,” call it “distortion”—the creation of a system that is warped far beyond what it would be under any reasonable conception of democracy, even if nobody’s breaking any laws.

There is a meaningful difference. Most of the benefits big money looks for these days are spread beyond an individual, sometimes to an entire industry (like banks or oil companies) and sometimes to an even larger group of people and entities who have a common interest, like wealthy people who want to keep taxes on investment income lower than taxes on wage income. If someone like the Koch brothers succeeds in getting their favored candidates elected and their favored policies enacted, many billionaires and corporations will smile in appreciation. They won’t be doing it just for themselves.

There’s an important caveat, which is that money can have a great influence on the arcane details of legislation, where the public neither knows nor particularly cares what’s going on. Lobbyists still give plenty of money to members of Congress, and they do so to ensure the access that allows them to nibble at the nation’s laws for their clients’ benefit. In and of itself, money may not be able to buy a big, visible policy change—a reduction in the top tax rate or the killing of a minimum wage bill, for instance. But it can still buy an obscure provision in the nation’s banking laws, one that could be worth billions to some very interested parties but makes no front-page news.

Even disclosure of all campaign contributions to every type of independent group would probably have just a small impact in reducing the distortion money imposes on the system, in part because citizens can’t be expected to expend the effort to follow its every tendril. When a voter sees an ad casting aspersions on Senator Smiley’s opponent and hears “Americans for an American America is responsible for the content of this advertising,” what can she conclude? Not much, unless she happens to also read an article informing her that AfaAA is a creation of Oswald Greedyhands, whom some consider a heroic job-creator and others consider a nefarious exploiter of working people. Then she’s going to have to think about Oswald’s relationship with Senator Smiley, and learn about the Senator’s legislative record to see what favors he might have done for Greedyhands Industries. It’s a lot to expect of a citizen who has her own life to lead.

So even if the information is out there somewhere, and activists sound the alarms, so long as the money keeps pouring in, the system will bend inexorably toward the interests of those who fund it. A plutocratic system of government of, by, and for the wealthy isn’t necessarily “corrupt,” in the sense of being awash in specific, explicit bribes. But it isn’t particularly democratic, either.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The National Memo, April 7, 2014

April 8, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, Wealthy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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