Exactly 50 years ago this summer, Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old anthropology major at Queens College, Mickey Schwerner, a 24-year-old graduate student in social work at Columbia University, and James Chaney, a 21-year-old volunteer with the Congress for Racial Equality, participated in Freedom Summer, urging Mississippi blacks to register to vote. In 1964, only 6.7 percent of blacks were registered in Mississippi; the county where they spoke had not one registered black person.
On June 21, 1964, the three were arrested, released, and then abducted by the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were found 44 days later in an earthen dam. The two white men had each been shot once; Cheney, who was black, had been mutilated beyond recognition. Only the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed on August 6, 1965, moved the country toward voting rights for eligible citizens. The law stopped literacy tests and poll taxes used to keep blacks from registering in the South and prevented future voter suppression methods. Now Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state.
One year ago on June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling that invalidated the requirement that states and regions have to “preclear” their voting changes with the federal government. Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that the data was outdated and cited the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among states. He did concede that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that” but that the country didn’t need the “extraordinary measures” of the VRA. Tuesday’s blog shows the need for these “extraordinary measures.”
The 22 states suppressing voting since the 2010 election are using “extraordinary measures” to ensure that only “certain people” could vote: strict photo IDs, elimination of early voting, harsher laws to register people to vote, rescinding voting rights for non-violent ex-felons, etc. Conservative discrimination against low-income people and minorities were obvious in the new laws. Eighteen of the 22 states have GOP legislatures or governors. Seven of the 11 states with the highest black turnout in 2008 have new restrictions. Nine of the 12 states with the biggest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010 have the same new restrictions. Nine of the 15 states previously covered by the Voting Rights Act, almost two-thirds, passed new voting restrictions.
Although most of these states are in the South, other states farther north joined them: Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Two of these have backed down, but Kansas and Wisconsin kept their oppressive anti-voting laws.
In her dissent to overruling the VRA section, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” People in Texas lost the umbrella protecting them from voter restrictions within two hours of the decision’s announcement. North Carolina waited only two months to pass the most stringent set of voting restrictions among all 50 states.
Local governments have also adopted strategies to cut out minorities. Augusta (GA) moved city council elections from November to July when black turnout is traditionally far lower. Pasadena (TX) approved an at-large system for electing council members to reduce the number of successful Hispanic candidates. Beaumont (TX) followed the same process for its school board. The federal government blocked the move, but Beaumont did an end run and succeeded in state court. Decatur (AL) has a new system to rid the city council of its one black member.
After the five conservatives of the Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA, it claimed that Congress could clean up their mess. With the GOP-caused gridlock, this will not happen now or, possibly, in the near future. Rep. Eric Cantor seemed amenable to listening to the voting problems after a trip to Mississippi with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who was beaten by state troopers during the civil rights movement, and David Goodman, who is the brother of the slain Andrew Goodman. Cantor said, “This voting issue is not a partisan issue.” He has not been re-elected.
[Thanks to Ari Berman for these thoughts and words.]
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, believes that there is no voting discrimination because current laws don’t allow this to happen. Goodlatte still thinks that Section 2 of the VRA, which remains after the Supreme Court ruling, is sufficient protection. It allows victims of racial discrimination in voting to file suit. Therefore, Goodlatte will not schedule a hearing on the issue.
A broad coalition of civil rights, labor, and progressive leaders launched the VRA for Today Coalition with a petition signed by more than 500,000 Americans who strongly support restoring the Voting Rights Act and protecting all voters from discrimination. Advocates who tried to deliver the names of the petition signers this month found that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had locked his office door during normal business hours.
The voiced argument for voting suppression in 34 states has always been a self-righteous claim that laws are necessary to stop voting fraud. Sworn congressional testimony by Loyola Law Prof. Justin Levitt in September 2011 cited only nine potential cases of in-person impersonation since 2000 out of 400 million votes cast during that time. A non-partisan news consortium in 2012 found one more case. Levitt updated his data recently and found 31 cases out of 1 billion ballots cast in the past 14 years. Some of these 31 cases have not been thoroughly investigated which means that they may be debunked through computer error or confusion of names. This is a fraud rate of 0.00002 percent. Impersonation results in a $10,000 fine and three years of imprisonment—for just one vote. It would also require the name of another person registered at a specific polling place who has not yet voted and does not know the person.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), presidential wannabe, has waffled about photo ID, but this week he again argued that the GOP is causing problems for minority voters. At the Liberty PAC conference, he said:
“So many times, Republicans are seen as this party of, ‘We don’t want black people to vote because they’re voting Democrat, we don’t want Hispanic people to vote because they’re voting Democrat. We wonder why the Republican Party is so small. Why don’t we be the party that’s for people voting, for voting rights?”
As a U.S. senator, Paul has sponsored no legislation to protect voters targeted by the GOP. In July he said that he wanted to bring back a federal role for the Voting Rights Act, but he has failed to sign on to a legislative proposal to do just that. He hasn’t even come up with an alternative.
Update to Kansas: Since my report two days ago about Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s insistence that the Democrats name a candidate for the U.S. Senate on the ballot, a Kansas Democrat, whose son is the regional field director for GOP Gov. Brownback’s re-election campaign, filed a lawsuit intended to force Democrats into selecting a new candidate for the highly contented U.S. Senate race. The Kansas Supreme Court sent the case to a lower court which must consider barriers to mandamus relief. It’s doubtful that the case will be settled there before ballots have been printed for Election Day on November 4. The Kansas Secretary of State polls show that Kris Kobach and his Democratic challenger Jean Schodorf are even in the race.
The residence of the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, incumbent Pat Roberts, is in question. He has signed a mortgage on a Virginia residence that declares Fairfax County as his “principal residence.” In Kansas he owns a duplex in Dodge City and registers to vote at the home of supporters and donors C. Duane and Phyllis Ross. He joked, “I have full access to the recliner.” For this privilege he pays $300 a month. He said in an interview, “Every time I get an opponent — I mean, every time I get a chance — I’m home.” (No, that’s not satire.)