Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
I have never seen a modern definition of democracy that was not based on near-universal suffrage. It seems that the five Republicans on the Supreme Court prefer a political system that allows states to pass voting laws that suppress the vote, denying voting to many US citizens. They found section 4(B) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) unconstitutional because it was not based on current data about voting rights violations in the nine states identified by Congress that have historically engaged in race discrimination in voting. As a result, those nine states, including Texas, no longer are required to get pre-clearance of changes to their voting laws from the attorney general or a three-judge court (section 5) until, or unless, the old data are updated.
Because section 2 of the act was unchanged, state and local governments continue to be prohibited from engaging in election practices that discriminate against and disenfranchise minority voters. However, without pre-clearance, costly and time-consuming lawsuits must be brought against discriminatory voting practices to enforce Section 2. Congress decided in 1965, and most recently in 2006, that section 2 was not a sufficient remedy for voting discrimination. That’s why it established the pre-clearance requirement.
The US began as a political system that distrusted universal suffrage, limiting the right to vote to those who owned property, were male, were not slaves, and were 21 years of age or older. One of our most revered founders and later president, John Adams, explained in a letter written in May 1776, why women, those under 21, and those who do not own property should be excluded from the voting franchise:
“But why exclude women? You will say, because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience, in the great business of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides, their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children, that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares. And children have not judgment or will of their own. True. But will not these reasons apply to others? Is it not equally true, that men in general in every society, who are wholly destitute of property, are also too little acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgment, and too dependent upon other men to have a will of their own? If this is a fact, if you give to every man, who has no property, a vote, will you not make a fine encouraging provision for corruption by your fundamental law? Such is the frailty of the human heart, that very few men, who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest . . . .”
In 1969, an acquaintance who rented an apartment and wanted to vote in a bond election in the City of Georgetown went to city hall and rendered his wrist watch for taxation and paid the taxes so that he could vote in the election. At that time, only those who paid property taxes were allowed to vote in bond elections in that town. That same year, the Supreme Court found such voting restrictions violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and thereafter bond elections were open to voting by all citizens.
The VRA was renewed by Congress in 2006 by overwhelming margins (Senate – 98-0; House – 390-33). The data used in 2006, when the act was re-authorized were data from 1975. However, extensive hearings conducted before the 2006 vote yielded 15,000 pages of new testimony showing that persistent voting discrimination based on race continued to exist in the nine targeted states after the 1975 data were compiled.
And the VRA prevented more than 700 discriminatory laws from taking effect in the last thirty years – over 100 of them occurred in Shelby County, Alabama, since 1982. Shelby County was the plaintiff in the case just decided. Now, many recently-passed laws that suppress the vote (such as the Texas voter ID law) or unfairly discriminate against minorities (such as re-districting that dilutes minority voting) are being implemented.
While the VRA eliminated explicit legal barriers to minority voting registration (such as poll taxes and discriminatory literacy tests), the dissent recognized newer forms of discrimination, such a racial gerrymandering to dilute minority votes; at-large voting in cities with large minority populations, which prevent representative elections; and racially-discriminatory annexation by cities to dilute minority votes.
And more recently, we have experienced voter identification laws that require obtaining expensive documents (which may be impossible for poor people to pay for, even if the documents are available), purges of voting rolls aimed at minorities (which often erroneously delete eligible voters from the voting rolls), voter intimidation at the polls, and practices that have yet to be addressed in most jurisdictions, such as tricking voters to vote on non-election days or at the wrong locations, all of which have the effect of reducing minority voting.
Since the voting rights decision, some states are making plans to eliminate early voting, same-day registration, and Sunday voting hours. But the voter ID laws, which are now being rushed into place (including in Texas) are the least justified because there is almost no in-person voter fraud in the US according to a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which called such fraud “infinitesimal.” It found that the “photo ID laws disproportionately affect minorities, students, the disabled and the elderly,” which is just what today’s Republicans want.
Of course, it was Chief Justice John Roberts’ predecessor, Republican William Rehnquist, who was accused by four witnesses, during his 1986 confirmation hearings as Chief Justice, of voter intimidation and harassment at polling locations in Phoenix in the early 1960s. So it is not surprising that the Republican members of the Supreme Court are insensitive to, or look favorably on, minority voting discrimination.
Another insensitive Republican and Arizona member of the Supreme Court famously ridiculed voters in Florida during the 2000 presidential election case decided by the court in favor of George W. Bush. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thought that any voters who could not follow voting instructions were too stupid to have their votes counted, even if their intent could be determined by a close examination of the ballots. Evidently, she thought confusing ballot presentations should be blamed on the voters, not the election officials who created the confusion.
But not all Republicans seem to agree with the Supreme Court about the Voting Rights Act. House Speaker John Boehner, commenting on the act’s renewal in 2006, said that it is “an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy.” It is gratifying to see that a majority of Americans seem to agree with Boehner’s assessment. An ABC/Washington Post poll released near the end of June showed that one-third of those polled approve of the Supreme Court’s decision, but just over half (51%) disapprove.
Paul Krugman had this to say in a recent column about voting rights: “America today . . . (is) a place where everyone celebrates the right to vote, yet many politicians work hard to disenfranchise the poor and nonwhite. . . . But that very hypocrisy is, in a way, a good sign. The wealthy may defend their privileges, but given the temper of America, they have to pretend that they’re doing no such thing. The block-the-vote people know what they’re doing, but they also know that they mustn’t say it in so many words. In effect, both groups know that the nation will view them as un-American unless they pay at least lip service to democratic ideals — and in that fact lies the hope of redemption.”
I wish I shared Krugman’s optimism. But I view the likelihood that America will be redeemed from its sins of hypocrisy about discrimination about as likely as that most Republicans will embrace the Affordable Care Act. The Americans who work to deny voting rights and disenfranchise minorities without admitting that this is what they are doing are like those who will not utter racially and ethnically derogatory names in polite company, but who are under their skin vicious racists. I know these people because some of them are my relatives and acquaintances.
A few years ago, these people who would deny fundamental rights if they have sufficient cover to do so included both Democrats and Republicans. But now, most of these hypocrites have moved over to the Republican Party or are members of fringe groups. This movement is as true of Supreme Court Justices as it is of politicians. The Republicans on today’s court torture logic and routinely ignore precedent in their efforts to justify their political conclusions. They often seek indirect ways to achieve the results they favor, as they have done in the VRA case.
Justice Ginsburg’s dissent to the VRA ruling raised the point that it took nearly 100 years after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (adopted in 1866 to guarantee equal protection of the laws for African-Americans) and the Fifteenth Amendment (adopted in 1870 to guarantee the right to vote for African-American men), to pass the Voting Rights Act to end the discrimination those amendments were intended to address.
If it took nearly 100 years to assure racial fairness in voting under law, then it might take longer than 48 years to remedy that problem in actual practice. Fixing society is not a mechanical process like fixing a car that has broken down. Human beings and societies are more difficult to fix than engines.
Republicans want to suppress the vote of people who may vote for Democrats. That is the clear purpose of unneeded and unjustified laws that impact the voter turn-out for elections. And gerrymandering is almost always used to reduce the election of members of the opposite party. The evidence supports these facts, even if most Republicans are too disingenuous to admit it.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.Email | Print