Described as the crown jewel of civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act has been the target of right-wing misinformation for decades, and a parallel legal assault against its constitutionality will be argued before the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder on February 27. The VRA, enacted to stem voter suppression on the basis of race in the South, contains a provision within it - Section 5 - which identifies the worst historical offenders and requires that election changes in those jurisdictions pass federal review. The current legal challenges to the VRA focus on Section 5, and are the continuation of the same discredited claims lodged against this anti-discrimination law since its inception.
In reporting that North Carolina is likely to enact a voter ID law that was vetoed by the former governor, the Associated Press failed to acknowledge the relationship between Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and photo requirements that threaten the right to vote. Federal courts have found voter ID laws with photo requirements to be impermissible under Section 5, which bars states with a history of racial discrimination from changing election practices absent federal review.
Voter ID is a top priority for North Carolina Republicans, who gained control of both executive and legislative branches during the November state elections. Although the AP noted the opposition to this legislation, it reported it as a partisan counterargument:
[New Republican Governor] Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders pledged that if elected, they would undo vetoes from Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue that GOP legislators could not override because they lacked enough votes.
At the top of the list was the 2011 bill requiring voters to show photo identification to cast ballots in person.
North Carolina Republicans have said they wanted the photo ID requirement to ensure the integrity of elections and discourage voter fraud. But Democrats and civil rights groups have accused Republicans of passing voter ID because many people who don't have photo identification - the poor and minorities - disproportionately vote Democratic. They say that fraud is extremely rare and that photo ID would erode voting rights expanded over the past 50 years.
The extreme rarity of in-person voter fraud is a fact, not just a Democratic rebuttal to the types of voter ID laws recently proposed by state Republicans across the country. Furthermore, federal judges who examined these laws under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the run-up to the 2012 elections issued extensive findings that these laws can impermissibly disenfranchise voters of color. Nevertheless, the AP reported these points as partisan opinion, in the same fashion it commented that "Democrats and civil rights groups" maintain photo ID laws "erode voting rights expanded over the past 50 years."
Voting rights have been protected for the past 50 years because of the VRA, historic civil rights legislation that the AP did not mention. Section 5 of the VRA, which requires that changes to election practices - such as photo voter ID laws - by states with a history of racial discrimination first be reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice or a federal court, has been indispensable. Judges have noted this key role of Section 5 in fighting Jim Crow in opinions that halted impermissibly discriminatory voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, a history referenced by former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue when she vetoed the voter ID law North Carolina Republicans are now poised to pass.
The relationship between Section 5 of the VRA and North Carolina is especially relevant because the state is partly covered by the provision, and was the source of a right-wing challenge to the law in Nix v. Holder. The Supreme Court accepted a similar challenge from Alabama, Shelby County v. Holder, and oral arguments on the fate of Section 5 are scheduled for February 27.
A full understanding of why voter ID is legally problematic, especially in North Carolina, is impossible without discussion of Section 5. Putting the North Carolina version in context is especially important for the media now that those states challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 before the Supreme Court are also challenging the findings that their election practice changes illegally discriminated on the basis of race.
As the North Carolina voter ID law proceeds legislatively, the AP must discuss this clear overlap between those who continually push flawed voter ID laws and those who seek to do away with one of the most effective civil rights laws in American history. The stakes are high nationally, and certainly for North Carolina, as State Board of Election data show that nearly one in ten voters may be disenfranchised by the proposed photo voter ID law.
Karl Rove dismissed concerns that voter ID laws may disenfranchise minority voters, despite evidence that these laws could prevent minorities from voting.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rove claimed that Attorney General Eric Holder and Democrats "played the race card" by criticizing voter ID laws for their potential to suppress minority voters during the 2012 elections. But evidence backed up Democrats' assertions.
The Associated Press reported on September 12 that a study by the University of Chicago's Cathy Cohen and Washington University's Jon Rogowski concluded that "as many as 700,000 minority voters under 30 may be unable to cast a ballot in November because of photo ID laws in certain states."
George Will argues in his Washington Post column today that what he terms the Justice Department's "drive to federalize voter registration" is an unnecessarily complex answer to "the non-problem of people choosing not to vote," and that high voter turnout isn't all it's cracked up to be, citing the German elections of the early 1930s that resulted in Nazi dictatorship.
Describing "obvious reasons for non-voting," he writes:
[T]he stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.
There's a lot to unpack here, but I'll try to keep it brief. Germany in the early 1930s was reeling from the global depression, increasingly bitter over the outcome of World War I and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and overrun by extremist parties with their own paramilitary wings brawling in the streets and shooting at each other outside political rallies. Anti-Semitism was widespread, everyone hated the Weimar government, and nostalgia for the heady days of the Kaiser led most people to actually yearn for a dictatorship of some form. And in this toxic political environment, the Nazis managed to prevail over the other extremist groups -- largely due to popular support, but also through conspiracy and outright intimidation.
None of that, however, is an argument against the high voter turnout as a sign of "civic health." It's an argument against war, depression, anti-Semitism, Nazis, Communists, and political violence. Will could just as easily have argued that representative government, or elections themselves, aren't a sign of "civic health," given how they were misused and perverted by Hitler and his associates.
From the December 19 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto illogically claimed that recent comments from a National Urban League activist prove that voter ID laws do not suppress minority votes. Despite Taranto's defense of his flawed theory, research clearly indicates that voter ID laws target minority voters.
In his Wall Street Journal column, Taranto highlighted comments by Chanelle Hardy, a vice president at the National Urban League. According to Talking Points Memo, Hardy stated that Republican efforts to pass voter ID laws may have backfired by increasing enthusiasm among African American voters and increasing turnout. Taranto argued that Hardy's comments contradict claims from voter ID opponents that the laws restrict the rights of eligible minority voters.
Taranto's argument is absurd: an increase in voter enthusiasm in a specific group does not prove that other members of that group did not have their voting rights restricted. This claim is similar to one made in 2011 by Taranto's fellow voter ID proponent Hans von Spakowsky who argued at the time that high turnout in Georgia in 2008, following the passage of voter ID laws, proved that the legislation had no effect on voting rights. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, pointed out that von Spakowsky's logic was also flawed:
Opponents of effective voting rights enforcement have taken to right-wing media outlets to allege that the Department of Justice engaged in "collusive," "illegal," and "crooked" acts for its role in the determination of whether a California county and the state of New Hampshire qualify to opt-out of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). But these allegations of "trickery," most recently pushed by National Review Online contributor Hans von Spakovsky, ignore that DOJ is complying with the text of the VRA as interpreted by the courts.
Two former Bush administration DOJ officials have accused the department of acting improperly in the successful removal of Merced County, California, from the voter protection requirements of Section 5 and the ongoing consideration of such an opt-out for New Hampshire. Writing on the right-wing blog PJ Media, J. Christian Adams argued that in the Merced case DOJ had "ignore[d] the law" and "conned" a federal court as part of an "elaborate legal ruse" to preserve the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a claim that Section 5 is unconstitutional. Continuing this attack, von Spakovsky accused the DOJ in the National Review Online of similar "deception" and "manipulation" of the VRA in its considerations of the New Hampshire case, again in order to "manipulate the Supreme Court in the Shelby case." A conservative advocacy group immediately adopted their argument and filed a motion to intervene in the New Hampshire case, as was predicted by election law expert and law professor Rick Hasen:
I expect this argument to get a lot of play.
The great irony here, for those who don't follow this issue closely, is that you have people who oppose section 5 of the VRA complaining that DOJ is making it too easy for those jurisdictions subject to its preclearance provision to escape from the Act's coverage.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Southern jurisdictions who illegally denied citizens the right to vote during the Jim Crow era - and subsequent jurisdictions that engaged in similar conduct - are forbidden from changing covered election practices without federal approval. There is a legal opt-out to Section 5, by which jurisdictions can "bailout" of the "preclearance" requirements by proving they are no longer breaking the law. To encourage successful bailouts, Congress increasingly "liberalized" this process. Similarly, the Supreme Court in its last VRA case -NAMUDNO v. Holder - "rewrote" the bailout requirements to encourage even more use of the process.
Nevertheless, right-wing activists have successfully placed the Shelby case before the Supreme Court, which could release all covered jurisdictions if Section 5 is declared unconstitutional. Adams and von Spakovsky, who quote anonymous sources and internal DOJ documents to support their arguments, argue that DOJ has "designed" a "legal strategy" to avoid this outcome by aggressively following NAMUDNO.
Beyond the unremarkable fact that the DOJ - the defendant in Shelby - would prefer not to both lose the case and part of the most effective civil rights law in history, Adams and von Spakovsky misrepresent the bailout cases to claim neither Merced nor New Hampshire qualify. Adams complains that the extensive DOJ investigation of Merced's bailout request revealed that the county should have submitted certain past election changes for preclearance and because the county "settled" a Section 5 case, it was ineligible for bailout. But Merced's counsel responded to Adams' accusations, pointing out that "case law under Section 5...holds that the preclearance obligation can be retroactively satisfied":
Mr. Adams is simply incorrect about the Lopez litigation. There was no "settlement"; the County won that lawsuit outright, having summary judgment granted in its favor. See Lopez v. Merced County, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3941 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 16, 2008). Thus, the County was not disqualified from bailout by virtue of the provision relating to consent decrees entered within the last 10 years. 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(1)(B).
[R]egarding the submission of a number of historical voting changes for preclearance in connection with the bailout, there are a number of points to be made:
Section 5 itself provides that oversights in preclearance compliance may be forgiven in a bailout action if they were "were trivial, were promptly corrected, and were not repeated." 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(3). In other words, Mr. Adams's implication that Section 5 has a "no tolerance" standard--and that the Attorney General is therefore ignoring the command of Congress--is refuted by the text of Section 5 itself.
"[P]ost hoc" preclearances are typical in connection with bailout, seriously undermining the notion that such an approach is part of a vast conspiracy to save Section 5.
Adams subsequently admitted "retroactive" preclearance was possible.
Von Spakovsky repeated Adams' claim that states seeking bailouts must not have "failed to submit for preclearance...voting changes they have made" over the past ten years, without acknowledging the retroactive preclearance that may occur for New Hampshire. Von Spakovsky used this misleading point as proof that New Hampshire is actually less qualified than Shelby County for a bailout, because New Hampshire allegedly has more unsubmitted preclearance requests than Shelby County did. But the footnote from the Shelby case on appeal that von Spakovsky partially quoted for the uncontroversial rule that unprecleared voting changes - absent retroactive approval - preclude bailout, explicitly notes that Shelby County's primary problem was DOJ's objection:
Although the Court did not permit discovery into the question of Shelby County's bailout-eligibility, it is clear -- based on undisputed facts in the record -- that Shelby County is not eligible for bailout. Under Section 4(a)(1)(E), a jurisdiction is only eligible for bailout if, during the ten years preceding its bailout request, "the Attorney General has not interposed any objection...with respect to any submission by or on behalf of the plaintiff or any governmental unit within its territory." 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(1)(E). The Attorney General concedes that, in 2008, he interposed an objection [.]
In a recent column, Wall Street Journal editorial board member James Taranto seized on a tribute to lifelong civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot written by the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center as an opportunity to attack the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But Taranto's criticism of the most effective anti-discrimination law in history ignores ample relevant history and case law.
Guyot passed away on November 22 at the age of 73. As a civil rights worker in the 1960s, he was beaten, jailed, and tortured for the voting rights and anti-segregation advocacy he undertook on behalf of African-Americans in Mississippi. In their tribute to Guyot, CAC noted that while current voter suppression is nowhere as violent as the tactics Guyot suffered, if unchecked by the Voting Rights Act, their effects still present discriminatory voting obstacles.
In his November 29 column, Taranto used CAC's Guyot obituary to attack Section 5 of the VRA, which Congress and federal courts have consistently reauthorized and utilized as essential for protecting the voting rights of millions of citizens who aren't white. Taranto also criticized the absence of extensive legal analysis in the obituary, complaining that it instead had "adjectives and adverbs," and more than one use of the word "iconic."
For a pair who work for something called the Constitutional Accountability Center, [Doug] Kendall and [Emily] Phelps don't have a lot to say about the constitution. Their defense of Section 5 is purely sentimental, with lots of intensifying adjectives and adverbs. Shelby County v. Holder, they exclaim, is "a monumentally important challenge to a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the iconic law for which for which [sic] Mr. Guyot shed blood."
Taranto, who cites a map and the Supreme Court brief for the Alabama county challenging the constitutionality of the VRA, focuses solely on the obituary to accuse CAC of not discussing the Constitution more in their tribute to Guyot. Yet Taranto fails to mention the extensive legal analyses and legal briefs CAC has written on the constitutionality of the VRA, all easily accessible on their website, as well as in other news outlets.
It is true that that CAC used the word "iconic" four times. It is also true that Taranto managed to write an entire column on the inappropriateness of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act without once using the words Jim Crow, and only referencing voter suppression in quotes. Discussion of these topics is crucial to any analysis of the VRA.
Throughout his column, Taranto questions why only certain areas must get approval for changes to their election practices under the VRA. The answer is simple: even with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution following the Civil War, states of the Old Confederacy in the South refused to recognize equal protection and voting rights for African-Americans, through Reconstruction to the late Jim Crow era. From the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' 1971 introduction to the 1970 VRA amendments:
Despite these constitutional protections [of the Reconstruction amendments], blacks in the South were virtually disenfranchised from the end of the Reconstruction Period until 1965, and members of other minority groups have also frequently been denied the right to vote.
It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, however, that this right was extended to black people in the South in a meaningful way.
As Congress discovered more evidence of discrimination against racial, ethnic, and national origin minorities, more geographic areas were added to the scope of the VRA's anti-discrimination protections. Evidence of this discrimination can be shown by disproportionate effects or basic logic, which is why one appellate court recently found evidence of the former in South Carolina, and another appellate court utilized the latter to explain that if the predominant number of "young,...elderly and poor voters" affected by voter suppression in Texas are racial minorities, the VRA applies.
The reason that non-Southern areas remain uncovered by Section 5 of the VRA despite recent evidence of similar voter suppression is also unexplained in Taranto's column. States uncovered by the VRA do indeed engage in the same discriminatory tactics that have been overwhelmingly rejected in the courts. The answer to this omission is not complicated: it was difficult enough to pass the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act during a Republican presidency, and as evidenced by current Republican obstruction, updating the VRA to cover additional areas has become increasingly unlikely.
Taranto was correct that CAC's obituary of Guyot did not go into a detailed legal analysis of whether the reauthorization of the VRA in 2006 was appropriate. If he wants to see their legal analyses, however, he can read the briefs they have filed in the case or he could read any of the many blogs and articles they have written on the issue. From the CAC's Text & History:
To anyone who takes the Constitution's text seriously, there are glaring holes in the conservative constitutional attack on the Voting Rights Act. Shelby County's primary argument is that the Act's preclearance requirement is outdated and unnecessary, given changes in Alabama (where Shelby County is located) and elsewhere, but the Constitution, in fact, assigns to Congress the job of deciding how to enforce the Constitution's ban on racial discrimination in voting.
It is certainly true that the coverage formula relies on decades-old data that has less relevance today. But, as the D.C. Circuit concluded, the formula was always less important than the jurisdictions it covered. Going all the way back to 1965, "Congress identified the jurisdictions it sought to cover - those for which it had 'evidence of actual voting discrimination' - and then worked backward, reverse-engineering a formula to cover those jurisdictions." And, as the record described by Judge Bates and Judge Tatel in Shelby County shows, these jurisdictions continue to be the worst offenders, consistently refusing to live up to the Constitution's promise of a multi-racial democracy.
From the November 28 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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As Chief Justice John Roberts receives end-of-year accolades for not striking down health care reform, The Wall Street Journal is mocking this "strange new respect" on its editorial page. But the WSJ's criticism is a thin veil for its clear preference that Roberts return to his conservative ideology, while failing to acknowledge Roberts' record as a clear conservative on issues like corporate power and civil rights.
The WSJ has already called Roberts' refusal to join his conservative colleagues on the Court and declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional "misbegotten." It is no surprise that a November 20 WSJ editorial treated with disdain the praise for Roberts's late switch, mocking his place on Atlantic Monthly's list of "Brave Thinkers" and being named one of Esquire's "Americans of the Year" along with actress Lena Dunham. From the editorial:
Chief Justice Roberts shares the Esquire honor with Lena Dunham, the star of an Obama campaign ad and the creator and star of the HBO series about 20-something sexual angst called "Girls."
She and the Chief Justice also make the Atlantic Monthly's list of "Brave Thinkers" of 2012, by which they mean thinkers who agree with the Atlantic's liberal editors. Ms. Dunham is praised for taking "the soft glow off the 'chick flick,'" for instance when her character acts "like an underage street hooker to turn her boyfriend on," while the Chief Justice gets credit for "maintaining the Court's legitimacy" with a ruling "both brave and shrewd." President Obama probably has Time's "Person of the Year" nailed down, but expect the Chief to finish a close second.
Such is the strange new respect a conservative receives for sustaining liberal priorities. Our own view is less effusive, and to expiate his ObamaCare legal sins, a fair punishment would be that he hire Ms. Dunham as a clerk.
Yet Roberts' conservative bona fides are well established, which makes the editorial seem like an exercise in "ref-working," essentially haranguing the Chief Justice to ensure future conservative behavior. In Roberts' case, this would not be a stretch. On issues of corporate power, the Roberts Court is unprecedented in its well-reported conservatism and has given the WSJ much to celebrate.
Similarly, Roberts' record on civil rights is sufficiently right-wing. With cases addressing affirmative action, voting rights, and marriage equality in the pipeline, the current docket gives him ample opportunity to return to the conservative fold. Excepting same-sex marriage (which has yet to be accepted for review), Roberts' positions on the other two issues - presented in Fisher v. University of Texas and Shelby County v. Holder - clearly parallel those of the WSJ.
The WSJ has characterized precedent affirming the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies in school desegregation efforts a "large legal mistake," and has called enforcement of the Voting Rights Act the "grossest kind of racial politics." The editorial board appears to have an ally in Roberts, who has already recorded his opposition to both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act as Chief Justice. As Supreme Court expert Joan Biskupic has reported:
[T]he kinds of social policy issues that play to Roberts' true conservatism, such as affirmative action and other race-based remedies are on the agenda for the term that starts in October.
From his early days in the Reagan administration, Roberts has sought to roll back the government's use of racial remedies.[As Chief Justice, in] a 2006 case involving the drawing of "majority minority" voting districts to enhance the political power of blacks and Latinos, Roberts referred to "this sordid business (of) divvying us up by race." The following year, in a case involving school integration plans, he wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
On marriage equality, Roberts' position is more unpredictable, as he "has not yet voted in a major gay rights case." The WSJ, on the other hand, has already preemptively declared as "activist" any Court decision finding unequal restrictions on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. But both liberal and conservative reporting has questioned whether Roberts would join the WSJ's aversion to a constitutional right to marriage for all, irrespective of sexual orientation. Perhaps this is where the WSJ's pressure is most directed, out of fear that Roberts does not want to be on the wrong side of history.
Ultimately, regardless of the reasons behind the WSJ's attempt to embarrass the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, it might consider the reflections of conservative federal Judge Richard Posner on the "serious mistake" of right-wing media attacks against Roberts. From an interview with NPR:
"Because if you put [yourself] in his position ... what's he supposed to think? That he finds his allies to be a bunch of crackpots? Does that help the conservative movement? I mean, what would you do if you were Roberts? All the sudden you find out that the people you thought were your friends have turned against you, they despise you, they mistreat you, they leak to the press. What do you do? Do you become more conservative? Or do you say, 'What am I doing with this crowd of lunatics?' Right? Maybe you have to re-examine your position."
Seizing on a newspaper report, Fox News host Sean Hannity claimed voter fraud was to blame for Mitt Romney failing to get a single vote in 59 voting divisions in Philadelphia. But anecdotal and historical evidence showed that these totals were not only possible but highly likely.
Repeating a Philadelphia Inquirer article, Hannity said on his syndicated radio show it's "mathematically impossible" that no one voted for Romney in these districts and that, if true, "that means we've got cheating going on in our elections." American Center for Law and Justice chief counsel Jay Sekulow agreed with Hannity.
Hannity added to these claims on his Fox News show, claiming there was "speculation about voter fraud" and asking, "Is it possible the Governor Romney didn't appeal to a single voter -- not one -- in these places?" Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee explained to Hannity that Romney, George W. Bush, and John Kerry all had won precincts where their opponents won zero votes. Nevertheless, Hannity insisted that the possibility of this happening is "zero," adding, "I don't believe it. I think this is voter fraud."
From the November 13 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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From the November 7 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' Rush Limbaugh Show:
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From the November 6 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' Rush Limbaugh Show:
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From the November 6 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' Rush Limbaugh Show:
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