Blue Heron in flight

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Plantation Politics

The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act today, the provision of the landmark civil rights law that designates which parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court. The VRA was defeated by a 5 to 4 vote.

This ruling overrules Congress, which had near unanimously upheld the act a few short years ago. Predictably, Republicans and conservatives, especially in the southern states, were giddy, now happy that we live in a world where racism no longer exists, unless of course it is that pernicious brand that targets white people.

The opinion, authored by Chief Justice  Roberts and joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965.

The court’s opinion said it did not strike down the act of Congress “lightly." “Our country has changed, and 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,” Roberts wrote.

I wish I felt so sure about our post racial world. Texas, as well as several other states, immediately went into Voter ID operational mode and instituted their plans to redistrict in areas with historic institutional racial bias that required federal pre clearance before today. A Federal Court ruled last year that the Texas law was discriminatory and imposed undue burdens on the poor.
“The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that — at least to our knowledge — is the most stringent in the country,” the opinion, embedded below, reads. “That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. And crucially, the Texas legislature defeated several amendments that could have made this a far closer case.”
Now the Lone Star State can have at it.

Roberts has long been a warrior against the Voting Rights Act, way back when he was a lowly lawyer soldier in the Reagan Administration. Even when confronted with and acknowledging clear cases of institutional and governmental racism. Read this interesting story at Mother Jones.

Other reactions were somewhat predictable.

Arizona Governor Theresa Brewer - "It's hampered us for a long time." "I think we were being punished by the Voting Rights Act for indiscretions, for bad things that took place decades ago and those don't take place any longer. We have grown and so it was the right thing to do so I'm pleased."

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham - “Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was a necessary tool to preserve voting rights, but due to the reform and advances in South Carolina election law, it is no longer necessary." "The Supreme Court noted this tremendous progress in South Carolina’s electoral system and it was the underpinning of their decision. I concur with the Court that our state has made tremendous progress."

Adam Cohen writes an interesting piece in Time MagazineViewpoint: Voting Rights Decision Spells the End of Fair Elections It also nullifies on the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. History
The part of the Voting Rights Act that the court held unconstitutional (Section 4) was a critical one: the formula that specifies which particular states and localities must clear significant voting changes in advance with the Justice Department. That process – “pre-clearance” – ensures that unfair voting rules can be stopped before they are allowed to interfere with actual elections.
An example of why it’s needed: in 2001, the all-white leadership of Kilmichael, Miss. abruptly cancelled the town election when it looked like voters might elect the first black mayor. Using the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department required that the election go forward – and a black mayor was elected. That was only one of more than 700 discriminatory voting changes the Justice Department blocked from 1982 to 2006.

Justice Roberts cynically opines that the Congress is free to set new conditions, presumably more in tune with today's world. The reality is that in today's increasingly polarized congress, any such agreement will be near impossible.

Republicans know that they are in danger when too many people vote. Many say that Voter ID laws unfairly hurt the poor. 11% of Americans lack such identification. Last year the Brennan Center for Justice published a study that shows how such laws disproportionally affect the poor, elderly and minorities.

It is funny that southern conservative voices have trumpeted the end of discrimination in their communities today while their black peers in the same districts are clearly worried. Which side is right?

Justice Ginsburg is also worried. From her dissent today:
"The Court does not contest that Alabama’s history of racial discrim­ination provides a sufficient basis for Congress to require Alabama and its political subdivisions to preclear electoral changes. Nevertheless, the Court asserts that Shelby County may prevail on its facial chal­lenge to [Section Four’s] coverage formula because it is subject to [Section Five’s] preclearance requirement by virtue of that formula. …This misses the reality that Congress decided to subject Alabama to preclearance based on evidence of continuing constitutional violations in that State.
I wish that I was as optimistic as some that we had surmounted the forces of racism and bigotry that have long impacted our nation. I am not. They clearly continue today. Justice Roberts and his cohorts have torn down the last wall that protects the fox from the henhouse. It will be interesting to see what new methods evolve in the areas of both voter suppression and redistricting. You really think that things have changed?

Is the south more racist than the north? This current study from UC Davis says yes, yes it is. (You will need to link to the pdf to read the paper.)


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