In closing arguments this Friday, attorneys for the state of Texas argued that the state should be released once and for all from the Justice Department's supervision of its voting process... which is currently authorized by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The case is widely expected to end up before the Supreme Court, where it won't be surprising if we find the five Republican appointees declaring the Voting Rights Act is no longer justified and thus gutted or entirely null.
The portion of the act at issue covers nine states, and counties and townships in seven others, largely in the South, that have a history of erecting barriers to black people exercising their right to vote.
In years past this took a variety of forms, 'grandfather' tests that stopped newly freed slaves from voting, since their grandfathers weren't on the rolls, "literacy' tests selectively administered and devilishly difficult or simple poll taxes that forced people to pay to vote... if they could afford it.
After one of the most powerful and courageous social movements in American history, one which took the lives of at least 40 people, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, LBJ famously signed the voting rights act in 1965 ending these practices.
"Wherever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down. If it is clear that State officials still intend to discriminate, then Federal examiners will be sent in to register all eligible voters. When the prospect of discrimination is gone, the examiners will be immediately withdrawn. And, under this act, if any county anywhere in this Nation does not want Federal intervention it need only open its polling places to all of its people."
It wasn't until the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the many amendments to it over the years that black people in the South and in some places outside the South could actually exercise their right to be full participating citizens in American democracy.
Texas, would now like to get rid of that rule so it can impose a voter ID requirement and more broadly do whatever it damn well pleases as far as restrictions on voting are concerned. And it just so happens that while Texas is pursuing an end to the Reign of Tyranny that is the Voting Rights Act, states around the union under Republican control have been waging an unparalleled assault on access to the voting booth for the poor and marginal.
In Pennsylvania, a recent study found that 750,000 people, or one tenth of the total electorate, don't have ID's that would enable them to vote in November. Alabama now requires voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship... which 7% of Alabama voters... or former voters... do not have.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the total number of voters nationwide imperiled by laws that have been adopted or that will go into effect is more than 5 million. Remember the margin of victory the last time an incumbent president was up for re-election was just over 3 million votes.
When defending these laws, Republicans will cite the odd anecdote of voter impersonation or voter fraud, but any and all serious inquiries into the topic find that the problem is statistically non-existent. Even U.S. attorneys hand picked by the Bush administration and pushed to prosecute voter fraud were unable to find much of any of it
Iglesias: "We took over 100 complaints. We set up a hotline. I mean, I believe there to be prosecutable cases, but I wasn't going to make up evidence. And at the end of two years, I couldn't find one case I could prosecute."
U.S. attorneys who balked at wasting resources chasing down non-existent villains, found themselves condemned by local Republican party bigwigs and ultimately fired by the White House. That was the core of the U-S Attorneys scandal. No amount of prosecutorial vigor could change the fact that voter fraud and/or impersonation is exceedingly rare, almost non-existent.
In fact, as this handy graphic created by the Democratic party shows, UFO sightings are far far more common than actual instances of voter fraud.
Because the effects of restrictions on, say, voter registration drives and requirements to show ID fall so disproportionately on poor people and people of color, it's not unreasonable to see in these efforts--pushed almost exclusively by white Republicans -- a loaded racial substext.
That's what Attorney General Eric Holder was referring to this Tuesday, when he pushed back on Texas's proposed new voting regulations.
Under the proposed law concealed handgun licenses would be acceptable forms of photo ID, but student ids would not. many of those without ids would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them. we call those poll taxes.
To conservatives, there is no greater affront than to allege racism. The reaction to Holder's comments were offended and histrionic. How could he compare the practices of the racist old south with the common sense, race-neutral desire to simply ensure clean elections?
But it's worth remembering what the original poll tax was like. Sure, we now understand it as a tool of white supremacy and oppression, but the point of the poll tax or the literacy test was that those who pushed them could claim they had nothing to do with race. On their face, they weren't disciminatory. Shouldn't people be able to read if they're going to vote? Isn't that common sense? Of course they were designed and implemented so as to create massively disproportionate racial effects.
But the genuis in many ways of the Voting Rights Act is that "intent" doesn't matter, effects do. Lawyers for the Department of Justice simply consider the effects of new proposals and redistricting, not the intent. No one has to do any mind-reading.
We can leave aside the question of what Rick Perry feels in his heart of hearts about people of color. Back in the bad old days of Jim Crow, it was of course, mostly racist White Democratic politicians who oversaw the system of mass disenfranchisement.
And there were more than a few white Republicans who boldy championed civil rights, among them this man: Republican Governor George Romney of Michigan, who marched with the NAACP in 1963 and walked out of the 1964 Republican convention in protest of Barry Goldwater's opposititon to the civil rights act.. Those days are long gone.
LBJ's embrace of the civil rights act, followed by the Republicans' southern strategy, has led to our current situation, in which Republicans essentially don't have African Americans in their coalition, but do have most of the white racists. Which means that black voters are understandably skeptical of what Republican politicians like George Romney's son are selling. Romney mentioned not a peep about voter restrictions during his speech to the NAACP this week, though Joe Biden, who addressed the group a day later, most surely did.
The awkward truth is that when a party gets essentially zero support from a sub-demographic of people, it's strategically sensible, though morally bankrupt, to attempt to reduce their participation in voting. Which means it's entirely possible that Romney's fellow Republicans want to make it harder for poor people of color to vote because they're likely to vote for Demcorats rather than because they aren't white.
But as the Voting Rights Act wisely says: the intent doesn't matter. It's the effect. And either way it's wrong.