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“A Right That Is Fundamental To Our Democracy”: Two States, Two Competing Futures For Voting Rights In America

“The Voting Rights Act has been an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy,” declared a rising congressional leader in 2006, “and renewing this landmark law will ensure that each and every citizen can continue to exercise their right to vote without the threat of intimidation or harassment.”

Incredibly, that statement of unequivocal support for voting rights came not from a Democrat, but from then-House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Of course, while it’s easy to forget now, Boehner was hardly taking a courageous stand; despite a long history of right-wing opposition to the Voting Rights Act, Boehner was merely endorsing a bipartisan reauthorization bill that passed 390 to 33 in the House and unanimously in the Senate. Upon signing it, President George W. Bush said, “My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.” Nearly a decade later, the political landscape for voting rights has changed dramatically. We are now witnessing a clash between two radically opposing visions of American democracy.

One vision is on display in Alabama, where, half a century after civil rights activists marched on Selma, state officials are systematically undermining the right to vote. Following the implementation of a strict voter ID law, Alabama recently announced the shuttering of 31 driver’s-license offices across the state. The closures will make it more difficult to obtain the identification required to vote and will disproportionately affect the state’s black population. Indeed, as the Birmingham News’s John Archibald wrote , “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed.”

The other vision is on display in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently signed automatic voter registration into law, making California the second state to approve such a measure, after Oregon did so earlier this year. Under the new law, eligible Californians will be automatically registered when they apply for a new driver’s license or renew an existing one unless they opt out. The hope is that automatic registration will raise low voter turnout, which fell to 42 percent in the 2014 election. The law could affect an estimated 6.6 million voting-age Californians who are not registered. “We do not have to opt-in to other rights, such as free speech or due process,” said California Secretary State Alex Padilla. “The right to vote should be no different.”

In short, while the Alabama vision seeks to restrict participation in our democracy, the California vision aims to maximize it. As my Nation colleague Ari Berman, author of “ Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” put it, “Unlike Alabama, California is using the power of the government to bring millions of new voters into the political process — treating the vote as a fundamental right, rather than a special privilege.”

The unfortunate reality, however, is that Alabama is not alone. Today, the Republican Party appears to view legitimate voting rights as a threat to its survival. In fact, limiting the number of people who decide our elections has become a central part of the Republican Party’s mission.

Just consider the record. Over the past five years, Republican state legislators have aggressively pushed voter ID bills and other policies that make it harder to vote, especially for Democratic-leaning minority groups, successfully passing laws in 21 states. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which Republican leaders vocally praised a decade ago, in a controversial 5-to-4 ruling split along party lines. And in Congress, a Democratic bill designed to restore the law has just one Republican supporter in either chamber.

The competing visions are also apparent in the 2016 presidential race. This month, Republican contender Jeb Bush explained that he does not support restoring the Voting Rights Act because “There’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting,” making it unnecessary to impose protections “as though we’re living in 1960.” In contrast, Hillary Clinton issued a bold call for automatic voter registration in June, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced an automatic voter registration bill in August. “Today Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting,” Clinton declared. “What part of democracy are they afraid of?”

It’s no secret why Republicans would rather prevent some people from voting. While they run up big margins in midterm elections with low turnout, Republicans have won the national popular vote just once in the past six presidential elections. Moreover, instead of answering to the American public, Republican candidates are increasingly beholden to the privileged few who fund their campaigns. In the 2016 election cycle, nearly half of the contributions to presidential candidates so far have come from just 158 families. As the New York Times reports, “They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male.” They are also overwhelmingly backing Republicans, of course, thereby “serving as a kind of financial check on demographic forces that have been nudging the electorate toward support for the Democratic Party and its economic policies.” It’s a strategy of delay, of buying time, of staving off the inevitable.

But change is coming whether Republican politicians and their billionaire backers like it or not. They have disgraced our democracy with their voter suppression strategy, but they are not powerful enough to stop it. They will eventually have to reckon with a country that is more diverse, more compassionate and more progressive. The Alabama vision will not prevail.


By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, October 20, 2015

October 26, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The South Shall Not Rise Again”: But, Beware When Right-Wing Manipulators Of Historical Memory Offer Reconciliation

Let’s not get carried away here, friends told me yesterday. A flag is just a symbol. When they stop passing voter-ID laws or start passing gun laws, then I’ll be impressed.

This is a sound view, no doubt about that. But if you don’t think symbols matter, think about how tenaciously people fight to hold on to them. And more than that: In terms of our political culture, the pending removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds, and now Mississippi’s state flag—and, don’t forget, from WalMart’s shelves—represents a rare win for North over South since Reconstruction.

This is a history and set of facts that far too few Americans know, and it’s vitally important to understand it in order to grasp the full magnitude of this moment. The South, more than the North, has dominated and defined the limits of America’s political culture for most of the last 140-ish years. The North has the money, the North has Wall Street, and the North runs (most of) our high and popular culture. But the South has run our politics. And this moment that we’re witness to now could be the blessed beginning of the end of all that.

It all started during Reconstruction, when a debate ensued about how the Civil War would be remembered. Our guide through these waters is Yale historian David Blight, whose groundbreaking book Race and Reunion tells this story. He shows masterfully how collectively historical memory is constructed.

According to Blight, there were three competing interpretations of the war. The “emancipationist” one emphasized slavery as the cause of the war and the slaves’ freedom as its great moral accomplishment. The “reconciliationist” view emphasized the common hardships endured by soldiers and citizens who were after all countrymen. There was also a white supremacist version that marginalized the role of slavery as a cause of the conflict (sound familiar?), but the main interpretive battle was between the first two.

It’s a long a complex and quite revolting story about this country we love, and you should read the book. But the gist of it is that in the interest of national reconciliation, the North—where, let’s face it, there was also no shortage of racists in the late 1800s—capitulated to a view of the war with which the South could be comfortable, as a battle that fully and finally unified a country that never really had been.

Gettysburg became organized basically around Pickett’s Charge, the last thrust of the Lost Cause. By the time of Woodrow Wilson—the first Southern-born president since Andrew Johnson had taken over from the slain Lincoln, and a militant segregationist—there was a 50-year commemoration of that battle attended by 50,000 veterans, not one of them black.

Meanwhile, historical memory was morphing into political reality. In Congress, the United States entered the era of the Southern committee barons whose influence on the making of national policy was obscenely out of proportion to either their numbers or the extent to which their views, particularly on race, reflected broader American sentiment. Accruing seniority and working the rules, Southerners (and yes, conservatives, they were all Democrats then; so what?) gained power. By Franklin Roosevelt’s time, of the House’s 10 most important committees, Southerners chaired nine. As for the Senate, all you need to know is this sentence, penned by the journalist William S. White in 1957: “The Senate might be described without too much violence to fact as the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”

The Southerners used that power to one end far above all others: keep black people down. But then, starting in 1958, the Senate began to elect some liberals; and outside the halls of power, which is where change actually happens, a certain young charismatic minister was changing white minds and opening white hearts across the country, even a few in the South.

Next came the only years, roughly 1964 to sometime in the mid-1970s, depending on how you measure it, that the North vanquished the South politically since the Civil War. Many chairmanships changed hands; the racists were defeated and changed political parties; accommodation of the South was no longer something most Northerners and Westerners were interested in.

So that was all good, but that of course doesn’t end our story. The South, through the person of Californian Ronald Reagan, who gave a high-profile speech invoking “states’ rights” in the very town where erstwhile states’ righters had murdered Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in 1964, came roaring back. The Christian Coalition became a force. From 1980 until 2008, the Democrats did manage to win two presidential elections, but only because they put forward an all-Southern ticket that talked more about “family values” than most Democrats would have really preferred, even if they did understand the political reality.

Just as Blight observed a post-Civil War era that saw two world views, one fundamentally progressive and the other fundamentally reactionary, competing to interpret the past and thereby define the future, I argue that we’ve been living through something very similar since 1980. And just like the emancipationists and reconciliationists, we’re stuck in the ’60s: They were quarreling about the 1860s, we about the 1960s. And in our political culture for most of the past 35 years, the modern-day version of the reconciliationists has won.

But now that’s changing. Fortunately, the emancipationists control the culture from New York and Hollywood, and they’ve pushed back on the Southerners hard—this too is a huge change from the old days, when for example television networks were extremely careful not to offend Southern tastes. And so even the Southern Baptist Convention has quieted down about same-sex marriage, even if the Republican candidates haven’t.

But this—this flag business is the first instance I can recall of conservative Republican Southern politicians defying their right-wing base on an issue of first-order emotional importance. It’s important that this isn’t some liberal federal judge ordering the flag removed. It’s Republican politicians doing it. I’m not saying that to pat them on the back—they’re at least a decade late to be getting anything resembling credit as far as I’m concerned. I’m just observing it as telling: When future David Blights write about how the South started losing its hold on America’s political culture in 2015, they’ll write about this moment, the first time their leaders said to them, “Your position is just too morally undignified for me to defend anymore.”

For his part, the actual living David Blight isn’t as hopeful about this as I am. In response to my question, he emailed me yesterday: “This may indeed be a rare moment. But if my work shows anything it might be simply to say beware when right-wing manipulators of historical memory offer reconciliation. They are looking for cover for other and perhaps larger matters.”

He’s correct, of course. This massacre is still about guns and terrorism, and it’s about South Carolina’s voter-ID laws too, on which Clementa Pinckney was one of just two favorable votes in the state Senate. All those fights will continue, with the usual achingly slow progress (if progress at all on guns).

But this is still a big deal. It could usher in a second era of conquest over Southern political hegemony. If that happens, those other fights will be easier to win, eventually, too.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, June 24, 2015

June 25, 2015 Posted by | Confederate Flag, Deep South, South Carolina | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Voter-Fraud Witch Hunt In Kansas”: Voters Could Be Charged With A Felony For Mistakenly Showing Up At The Wrong Polling Place

In fall 2010, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach held a press conference alleging that dead people were voting in the state. He singled out Alfred K. Brewer as a possible zombie voter. There was only one problem: Brewer was very much alive. The Wichita Eagle found the 78-year-old working in his front yard. “I don’t think this is heaven, not when I’m raking leaves,” Brewer said.

Since his election in 2010, Kobach has been the leading crusader behind the myth of voter fraud, making headline-grabbing claims about the prevalence of such fraud with little evidence to back it up. Now he’s about to become a lot more powerful.

On Monday, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed a bill giving Kobach’s office the power to prosecute voter-fraud cases if county prosecutors decline to do so and upgrading such charges from misdemeanors to felonies. Voters could be charged with a felony for mistakenly showing up at the wrong polling place. No other secretary of state in the country has such sweeping prosecutorial power, says Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“It means a person and an office with no experience or background in criminal prosecutions is now going to be making a determination of whether there’s probable cause to bring a criminal case against an individual who may have just made a paperwork mistake,” Ho says. “There is a reason why career prosecutors typically handle these cases. They know what they’re doing.”

Kobach claims there are 100 cases of “double voting” from the 2014 election that he wants to prosecute, but there’s been scant evidence of such fraud in Kansas in past elections. From 1997 to 2010, according to The Wichita Eagle, there were only 11 confirmed cases of voter fraud in the state.

Such fraud has been just as rare nationally, even according to Kobach’s own data, noted The Washington Post:

Kansas’ secretary of state examined 84 million votes cast in 22 states to look for duplicate registrants. In the end 14 cases were referred for prosecution, representing 0.00000017 percent of the votes cast.

Kobach says he needs this extraordinary prosecutorial power because county and federal attorneys are not bringing enough voter-fraud cases. But Kansas US Attorney Barry Grissom said last year that Kobach’s office had not referred any cases of voter fraud to his office. “We have received no voter fraud cases from your office in over four and a half years,” Grissom wrote to Kobach.

Kobach has been a leading proponent of his state’s strict voter-ID law, which decreased turnout by 2 percent in 2012, according to the Government Accountability Office, with the state falling from 28th to 36th in voter turnout following its implementation.

He’s also been the driving force behind Kansas’s 2011 proof-of-citizenship law for voter registration, which requires voters to show a birth certificate or passport to participate in the political process. Twenty-five thousand voters had their registrations “suspended” in the 2014 election because of the law; even the right-wing group True the Vote claimed that only 1 percent of the list were verified non-citizens.

Those wrongly on the list included Da Anna Allen, an Air Force vet. She told The Wichita Eagle:

“It just caught me off guard that I was not registered. I served for a week on a jury trial, which basically told me I was a registered voter. I’m a disabled veteran, so it’s particularly frustrating. Why should I have to prove my citizenship when I served in the military?”

After the Supreme Court found that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship law violated the National Voter Registration Act, Kansas and Arizona instituted a two-tiered voting system, arguing that those who registered through the federal NVRA form could not vote in state or local elections. That system has it roots in the Jim Crow South.

Kobach, who wrote Arizona’s “papers, please” anti-illegal immigration law, alleges “in Kansas, the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive.” That defies common sense, as Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe pointed out. “Why would an illegal alien want to go to vote and draw attention to himself?” Howe asked.

Kobach has asked the Supreme Court to restore the proof-of-citizenship law. The Court will decide on June 25 whether to take the case. If Kobach succeeds, proof-of-citizenship laws will spread to more states, and Kobach’s voter-fraud crusade will become even more influential.


By: Ari Berman, The Nation, June 11, 2015

June 15, 2015 Posted by | Kris Kobach, Sam Brownback, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Universal Suffrage Is Still Under Assault”: Some Long For The Old Order Where Certain People Controlled All Levers Of Political Power

Historians refer to that day 50 years ago as “Bloody Sunday” because of the indelible images of brave men and women beaten to their knees — some knocked unconscious — as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It hardly seems possible, now, that they were attacked so viciously for something that seems so ordinary: the right to vote.

In fact, universal suffrage isn’t ordinary or mundane or inconsequential. It’s a radical notion, still rejected in much of the world. And the legacy of those marches in Selma proves that the opponents of black voting rights were right about at least this much: If they allowed black citizens to vote, the nation would be changed.

The most obvious symbol of that powerful tide of progress, President Barack Obama, occupies the Oval Office. But the inheritance that those marchers bequeathed to the nation is evident in so many other subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our political and civic life. If the election of a black governor or U.S. senator, for example, is still unusual, it’s no longer historic. Nor is the elevation of a black secretary of state or attorney general.

But that progress has not pleased all Americans. Some long for the past, for an old order in which certain people controlled all the levers of political power, where only those who looked and spoke a certain way were allowed to hold political office, where many citizens were excluded from a government allegedly by and for them. That helps to explain why reactionary forces have spent the last 15 or so years snipping at the universal franchise, cutting away at the edges of the right to vote.

Conservative Republicans label their campaign — which centers around strict voter ID laws — “voter integrity,” as if it’s a righteous project designed to uplift democracy. It’s just the opposite: It’s designed to block the ballot for a few voters, mostly poor and black, who are inclined to support Democrats. In close elections, a few votes can decide the outcome.

To be sure, no voters get their heads bashed in. No state troopers or sheriff’s deputies wait with billy clubs to attack those who dare exercise their constitutional rights. No would-be voters are asked to number the bubbles in a bar of soap in order to register.

Still, the voting restrictions that have been passed over the last several years are just an updated version of the poll tax. Make no mistake about it: The universal franchise is under assault.

Just take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s astonishing ruling in 2013, which gutted a significant portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the key federal legislation prompted by the Selma marches. An ultraconservative majority did a most unconservative thing: It tossed out a law overwhelmingly passed by Congress, declaring, in effect, that the legislative branch was wrong.

The Supreme Court had earlier endorsed voter ID laws, ruling in 2006 that an Indiana requirement for photo identification at the polls was in keeping with the state’s “legitimate interest” in protecting against voter fraud. But the fraud such laws are intended to prevent — in-person voter impersonation — is as rare as the northern white rhino. It’s pretty clear that blocking the ballot is the aim here, as Republican factotums have occasionally, if inadvertently, admitted.

In reality, they don’t want certain voters to have the ballot because it has the potential to upend the old order. Think about it: If the black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, which is 67 percent black, start to religiously exercise their right to vote, they can change the town’s leadership — and change a police department and court system that are shot through with racial bias, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

There is power in the franchise, which is why its expansion has met resistance throughout American history. Courageous patriots have given their lives to secure the ballot for every citizen.

But the struggle is not over.


By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, March 7, 2015

March 8, 2015 Posted by | Bloody Sunday, Selma Alabama, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Not That Mythical Democrat”: Republicans Finally Have A Poster Boy For Voter Fraud, But Scott Walker Won’t Like It

For years, Wisconsin Republicans have warned that voter fraud is a scourge that threatens the very survival of democracy in their state.

“I’ve always thought in this state, close elections, presidential elections, it means you probably have to win with at least 53 percent of the vote to account for fraud. One or two points, potentially,” Governor Scott Walker has said.

“I’m always concerned about voter fraud, you know, being from Kenosha, and quite frankly having lived through seeing some of it happen,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus insisted. “Certainly in Milwaukee we have seen some of it, and I think it’s been documented. Any notion that’s not the case, it certainly is in Wisconsin. I’m always concerned about it, which is why I think we need to do a point or two better than where we think we need to be, to overcome it.”

Voting rights advocates have always responded that there is no actual evidence of widespread voter fraud in the Badger State. In April, a U.S. district judge agreed, ruling that the state’s voter ID law was unconstitutional after “the evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin,” and the state “could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past”.

That all changed on Friday, when Robert Monroe was charged with 13 felonies related to his having voted 12 times in five elections between 2011 and 2012. Monroe, an insurance executive from Shorewood, Wisconsin, allegedly voted repeatedly using his own name, as well as his son’s name, and that of his girlfriend’s son. reports:

“During 2011 and 2012, the defendant, Robert Monroe, became especially focused upon political issues and causes, including especially the recall elections,” the complaint asserts in its introduction. reported the investigation into Monroe’s multiple voting last week after Milwaukee County Judge J.D. Watts ordered the records related to a secret John Doe investigation be made public after the investigation was closed.

According to those records, Monroe was considered by investigators to be the most prolific multiple voter in memory. He was a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker and state Sen. Alberta Darling, both Republicans, and allegedly cast five ballots in the June 2012 election in which Walker survived a recall challenge.

According to the John Doe records, Monroe claimed to have a form of temporary amnesia and did not recall the election day events when confronted by investigators.

That’s right: Wisconsin Republicans like Scott Walker found a perfect poster boy for the in-person voter fraud against which they’ve always warned. But it isn’t the mythical Milwaukee Democrat trading “smokes-for-votes,” to use Priebus’ colorful description. It’s a self-diagnosed amnesiac who broke the law to repeatedly vote for Scott Walker.

And to add insult to injury, the case only went public as a result of Walker’s career-threatening John Doe scandal.

To be clear, Monroe’s apparent fraud is not a valid pretext for enacting the GOP’s nearly nationwide campaign to make it harder to vote. Even taking this one supposed amnesiac’s alleged crimes into account, voter fraud is still practically nonexistent (for example, a typical American is about 34 times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than to be caught committing in-person voter fraud). But, if Wisconsin Republicans have any shame, it should at least cause them to pipe down about Democrats stealing elections for a little while.

In other words, Reince Priebus is probably coming soon to a cable news show near you.


By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, June 24, 2014

June 25, 2014 Posted by | Scott Walker, Voter Fraud, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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