Fifty years ago, the Voting Rights Act enforced constitution rights for millions of people by removing the rights of states to disenfranchise people from this right. It has been called the most effective piece of legislation ever enacted in the United States. After the Supreme Court struck down some of its provisions two years ago, the number of draconian laws begun with the GOP sweeps in 2010 rapidly accelerated to prevent people from voting by mandating photo IDS, restricting times to vote, and shutting down voter registration drives. Chief Justice John Roberts had written in the majority opinion, “things have changed in the South.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent argued that the justices had stripped the provisions that made the Voting Rights Act a success. She 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.”
The rainstorm has flooded the country throughout the past four years. From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in forty-nine states (Idaho is the lone exception). Half the states in the country have adopted measures making it harder to vote.
In the first few weeks of this year, 40 new voting restrictions were introduced in 17 states. The Supreme Court wrote in its ruling that Congress could pass a law to allow people to vote, but the GOP-controlled federal legislature has refused to take any steps in this direction.
As with other issues of inequality, the courts have begun to act. Yesterday, the 5th Circuit Court, one of the most conservative appeals courts in the nation, used what remains of the Voting Rights Act to strike down a voter suppression law in Texas. The unanimous opinion from a three-judge panel and written by a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the photo ID requirement is illegal under Section 2, because of the negative impact it has on the voting opportunities of minorities and the poor, and that a lower court must reopen the case to determine a legal remedy for the violation. That court must also further examine the law for intentional discrimination by lawmakers.
Judge Catharina Haynes’ ruling agreed with an analysis that “Hispanic registered voters and Black registered voters were respectively 195% and 305% more likely than their Anglo peers to lack” a voter ID in the state of Texas. Texas’ own expert “found that 4% of eligible White voters lacked SB 14 ID, compared to 5.3% of eligible Black voters and 6.9% of eligible Hispanic voters.” Low-income voters are also less likely to have ID: “testimony [showed] that 21.4% of eligible voters earning less than $20,000 per year lack SB 14 ID, compared to only 2.6% of voters earning between $100,000 and $150,000 per year.”
People trying to restrict laws, although sometimes open about their desire to stop votes for Democrats, also claim voter fraud—a situation that rarely exists. In a Wisconsin study, the 2004 election had seven cases of fraud in three million votes, and none of these cases could have been stopped by a voter ID law. Iowa found exactly zero (0) cases of in-person fraud during several elections.
The court’s suggestion was that a lower court either reinstate voter registration cards or allow someone to sign an affidavit saying that they lack an acceptable form of identification before they vote. Last October, a federal judge called the law an unconstitutional “poll tax” that was intentionally discriminatory, but the Supreme Court allowed the law to be in effect of November’s midterm election with over 600,000 Texas unable to vote because they lacked the state-mandated type of voter ID. Gun licenses were acceptable, but student IDs were not.
The court’s decision is not a definite win, but it moves in the right direction. Although the ruling did not explain whether Texas needed to get official permission before changing its election or voting laws, it is the first circuit court opinion against a voter ID law and against the enforcement of it. State officials can either ask for a new review from all judges in the 5th Circuit or go back to the Supreme Court. With the stronger Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act eliminated, plaintiffs must rely on the weaker Section 5 which requires that plaintiffs cannot file until after they have suffered discrimination. Thus they have already lost the constitutional right to vote.
State officials in Texas now have two options: to seek a new review by the full Fifth Circuit, which would set aside the panel ruling, or to go directly to the Supreme Court as the next step.
In California, tens of thousands of residents will be able to vote after the state dropped its appeal of a court decision that gives voting rights to people who left prison and completed parole and are now under county supervision. When the state shifted low-level offenders into county custody, a former secretary of state, Debra Bowen, ruled that the same state law barring people in prison or on parole for felony convictions applied to ex-offenders under county supervision. The current secretary of state, Alejandro “Alex” Padilla, said:
“No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
While 113 bills to restrict voting access have been introduced or carried over in 33 states this year, four times as many—464 bills—are circulating in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Only one state, North Dakota, has managed to pass a voter ID bill this year; all others failed. Arizona and North Carolina have ongoing lawsuits.
The grandest law passed came from my home state of Oregon. All eligible citizens with driver’s license and don’t ask to stay unregistered are automatically registered to vote. The state’s “motor-voter” law is now being introduced in 14 other states as well as District of Columbia. Some of these states have bills to automatically register citizens conducting business with other government agencies. Vermont passed a bill to establish Election Day registration, and Indiana enacted a bill to allow state agencies that issue SNAP and TANF benefits to electronically transfer voter registration information to election officials (which is currently in place only at the DMV). A bill to restore voting rights to people with past criminal convictions passed the Maryland legislature but vetoed by the governor may have enough votes to override the veto.
Yesterday, Rep. Chuck Schumer (NY) introduced three bills to make voting easier for all citizens in every state—online registration, seven days of early voting plus absentee ballots for anyone, and same-day voting for people who moved within the state where they registered.
House Democrats said they would even drop bills against Confederate flags for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act that passed nine years ago and was partially struck down by the Supreme Court. The GOP isn’t interested. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has refused to have an up-or-down floor vote, and the Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) likes the status quo.
Today is another anniversary, the 70th anniversary since the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Military leaders opposed dropping the atomic bomb, but politicians told President Harry Truman that it needed to be done. Top American military leaders, mostly conservatives, who fought World War II declared that dropping the bomb was unnecessary because Japan was on the verge of surrender and the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral. Adm. William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir:
“The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.… in being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
The war hawks seem aimed toward another nuclear disaster, claiming that the president was wrong for not putting more pressure on Iran through sanctions. President Obama responded that other countries—Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany—to go along with that argument. After the existing diplomacy, the only option is military action. His talking points are here. President Obama was more direct in his speech at American University when he talked about how U.S. Republicans hope to give extremist Iranians, who hate the Iran deal, exactly what they want.
Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act made voting a reality for people in the United States; 70 years ago bombing Hiroshima showed people the terror of nuclear warfare. Today, conservatives want to keep millions of people in the U.S. from voting and engage a country in war that could end up with a nuclear weapon dropped on the United States. Those people should read what Padilla and Leahy have to say.