The Web Goddess and I joined a small but joyous impromptu gathering yesterday evening on the steps of Maplewood Town Hall, celebrating the Supreme Court decisions in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples.
I’ve blogged and demonstrated in favor of marriage equality for years, so I’ll not rehearse those arguments today.Â Instead, I’m moved to take keyboard in hand by a comment I heard expressed twice on the Town Hall steps yesterday, to the effect that the Supreme Court “got one right the day after they got one wrong.”
A day earlier, the high court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that conditions have changed in the South since 1965. In the minds of many at yesterday’s rally, this was a setback for black rights that partly offset the victory for gay rights the following day.
But I see both rulings as a victory for federalism, or for states’ rights if you will — and anyone tempted to dismiss “states’ rights” as code for bigotry should pause to reflect on the pioneering role of the states in the marriage equality struggle.
The VRA ruling has the limited effect of restoring to nine states of the old Confederacy (and various smaller jurisdictions) the same level of control over the election process exercised by other states.Â The federal government and the courts retain the power to invalidate any specific election practice that is discriminatory.Â The VRA ruling simply shifts the burden of proof from the states to the parties seeking to demonstrate discrimination.
The pre-clearance provision of VRA was an extraordinary response to an extraordinary level of institutionalized racism, and I have no quarrel with the need for such a measure in 1965. But NBC News cited statistics compiled by the court that show how dramatically the situation has changed:
In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared â€” 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks.
As George Will noted, “Mississippi has more black elected officials â€” not more per capita; more â€” than any other state.”
The South no longer deserves a presumption of guilt on racial matters.
(Photo by Bernie Poppe)
Yes, but discriminatory practices abound. Right answer, wrong reason on the section of the Voting Rights Act. The pre-assessed discrimination is outdated, both in its data and its methodology. However there are clear ways in which Ohio misallocated voting machines and workers. And many state parties and even elected lead officials have announced their intentions to restrict the vote. The shenanigans didn’t work this time as mostly black people in Ohio and elsewhere waited 9 and 10 hours to vote and wouldn’t be put down. This is a disgusting embarrassment to the country and if we had decency in Congress, it would be quashed. Recommendations would be to empower the Federal Election Commission to preemptively head off intentional misallocations of resources. And to have the power to call for revotes in extreme circumstances.
“However there are clear ways in which Ohio misallocated voting machines and workers. And many state parties and even elected lead officials have announced their intentions to restrict the vote.”
I recall one stunningly tone-deaf comment by a Pennsylvania GOP leader about how the voter ID law would allow Romney to win in Pennsylvania (oops! Obama won 52%-47%) http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0612/77811.html
But who are these “many state parties and even elected officials”?
No matter who wins the presidential race, no matter which party controls Congress, can we at least agree as reasonable adults that when it comes to voting itself the election of 2012 is a national disgrace?
For example, what happened this weekend in Florida is simply unacceptable. According to a local election official interviewed by CBS News’ Phil Hirschkorn, the last “early voter” in line for Saturday’s truncated early voting in Palm Beach County finally got to cast a ballot at 2:30 a.m Sunday morning, which means that voter waited in line for more than seven hours. In Miami, another traditional Democratic stronghold, the wait was said to be nearly as long. On Sunday, voters all over the state were begging judges and county officials for more time to vote.
This is happening not because of a natural disaster or breakdown in machinery. It is happening by partisan design. Alarmed by the strong Democratic turnout in early voting in 2008, Republican lawmakers, including Governor Rick Scott, reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. When the restrictions were challenged in federal court under the Voting Rights Act, a three-judge panel said they would have a discriminatory impact upon minority voters. But only five of the state’s 67 counties are covered by the federal civil rights law.
When the remaining restrictions were challenged in federal court, a George W. Bush appointee said there was no proof that the reduced hours would “impermissibly burden” minority voters. How many hours in line must a Florida voter wait before the burden upon her becomes an “impermissible” one? If Florida’s election officials, and its Republican lawmakers, and its state and federal judges, all were required to stand in line for seven hours to vote those long lines would go away forever. You know it, I know it, and so do those officials.
How about Ohio, another “battleground” state governed by partisan fiat. Its election rules are administered by a secretary of state, Jon Husted, who just a few years ago was the GOP speaker of the state house. Like their counterparts in Florida, Ohio’s Republican lawmakers sought to restrict wildly popular early-voting hours around the state. And again the federal courts blunted the impact of their new rules. So what has Husted done? He’s focused his energy this weekend ginning up ways to justify discarding provisional ballots cast by his fellow citizens.
These are just two recent examples. There are more. But they all have a few core things in common. In each instance, elected officials are making it harder for American citizens to vote and to have their votes counted. And in each instance, the partisan restrictions are designed to impact the elderly, and the poor, and students. The Constitution gives power to the states to handle elections. But what we are seeing is one party’s systemic abuse of that power to disenfranchise likely voters of another party. Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the videotape.
There is no hidden agenda here. The strategy and tactics are as far out in the open as those voters standing in line for hours waiting for their turn to vote.
In Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai was caught on tape this summer boasting about his colleagues’ success: “… First pro-life legislation — abortion facility regulations — in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” In Ohio, the Republican Party chairman of Franklin County, which includes Columbus, was even more blunt. Doug Preisse said, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter turnout machine.”
There is no hidden agenda here. The strategy and tactics are as far out in the open as those voters standing in line for hours waiting for their turn to vote. This transparency — of motive and of evidence — is also what distinguishes the complaints that Democrats have about Republican tricks on voting from Republican complaints about Democratic tricks on voting. Widespread “in-person” voter fraud or voting by illegal immigrants exists mostly in the minds of conspiracy theorists. Yet proof of voter suppression is visible to all of us with the naked eye. All we have to do is look. There is no political equivalence here — only more lamentable false equivalence.
What’s happening in these states is conclusive proof that America failed to solve the fundamental problems we all saw play out in Florida during the recount of 2000. That’s just not good enough.
And the next president, whoever he is, ought to quickly empanel another Commission on Federal Election Reform to investigate these partisan state schemes and recommend ways to achieve meaningful reform. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor should head that commission. And former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should head up its investigative functions.
But I won’t hold my breath. If I’m around in 2016 I bet I’ll be complaining about the same injustices. In my lifetime, little has changed in America but the forms of indignity we all seem to tolerate when it comes to another man’s right to vote