A long and bitter Wisconsin trial ended Tuesday afternoon with a sweeping defeat for supporters of a voter-ID law designed to make it more difficult for citizens to cast ballots. U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman declared in a 90-page order that the state’s new voting restrictions violate both the equal-protection clause of the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The law unduly burdens minority voters, he ruled, without sufficient justification for doing so.
Adelman’s ruling will be appealed by the Republican officials who enacted it in 2011. It is far from certain that the ruling will withstand review by the very conservative 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or the even more conservative Supreme Court, which in 2008’s Crawford v. Marion County declared that state voter-ID laws could be constitutional. In the meantime, the law—which required all voters to present photo identification to vote—is enjoined from enforcement.
No matter how they rule, appellate judges can’t erase Adelman’s meticulous work. More than any other ruling yet issued on the current generation of voter-ID laws—more than the 2012 rulings in Texas or South Carolina or the ruling this year in Pennsylvania—Adelman directly confronts and demolishes the myth that these measures are necessary to ensure the integrity of elections by preventing “voter fraud.”
Tuesday’s ruling in Frank v. Walker does for the judicial canon what Jane Mayer’s work on the myth of “voter fraud” did in the realm of journalism. For page after page, Adelman lays bare the shibboleth that these measures, which disproportionately burden the poor, elderly, and infirm, are necessary to preserve the integrity of our elections.
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They’re portable, economical, and helping more than 800 million Indians cast ballots in this year’s election.
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There was great truth in the stern message President Obama delivered Friday about Republican voter-suppression efforts around the country. These measures are pernicious and partisan. They do further separate rich from poor, whites from minorities, state from state in this country. And they are based upon the demonstrably false idea that voter fraud by citizens is such a pervasive problem that it only can be thwarted by making it more difficult for already the most marginalized citizens to exercise their right to vote.
"The stark, simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago," Obama told Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in New York. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote,” he said, relating anecdotes of voters turned away because they didn’t have the right identification or because they needed a passport or birth certificate to register.”
The president should be saying these things now. This fight is essential to our democracy, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings. The idea that the Court’s five conservatives would within 10 months make it far easier for rich people to influence politics and far more difficult for poor people to cast a ballot is an affront to what we teach our kids about civics and the Constitution. We don’t teach them that you have a right to vote only if you can afford to drive.
But if the president is going to change the voting-rights debate, if he is going to win the argument he evidently feels strongly about making, he is going to have to preach to more than the converted. And few groups today are more converted on the perils of voter suppression today than NAN. By taking on the topic in New York with Sharpton, Obama made precisely the right speech to precisely the wrong crowd.
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As Christine Toretti tells it, her housekeeper was the one who staged the intervention. After logging tens of thousands of miles and helping raise hundreds of millions of dollars as a finance co-chair for the Republican National Committee leading up to the 2012 elections, Toretti was so depressed by Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid that she retreated to her home in the tiny town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, to nurse her wounds. “Finally, the cleaning lady came in one day and said, ‘I’d like to fumigate the sofa that you’ve been on for two weeks. Would you please get off?’ ”
Toretti obliged, then spent the next two months coming to terms with what had befallen her beloved GOP, and deciding what to do about it. Especially painful for her was how abysmally Romney, and Republicans generally, had fared with women. Back in 1997, she had been appointed to the RNC by then–Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who specifically tasked Toretti, then a young oil-and-gas executive, with bringing other women into the fold. Seventeen years later, Toretti cannot believe that she’s still on the same Sisyphean mission. “It’s like pushing a rope versus pulling it,” she told me during a late-September lunch near Capitol Hill.
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The venture capitalist—who compared progressivism to Kristallnacht—wants to disenfranchise non-taxpayers and give wealthier voters more votes.
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The GOP has a new strategy for turning African Americans into Republicans. Mostly, it focuses on proving that some African Americans already are Republicans. In Michigan, the GOP recently hired an African-American talk-show host to serve as “director of African-American engagement.” For Black History Month, the RNC is airing commercials that “share the remarkable stories of black Republicans.” Last March, in its “autopsy” examining why Mitt Romney lost, the RNC presented a 10-point plan for winning more black votes. None of the 10 involved policy. Five of them involved recruiting more African-American staffers, spokespeople, and candidates.
There’s an irony here. When bashing Democrats, Republicans often decry identity politics. They deride liberals for treating people as members of racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual groups rather as individuals. “I am sick and tired of hyphenated Americans,” declared Rush Limbaugh a few years ago. “It’s bullshit. We all want the same things.” But when it comes to winning the votes of African Americans, that goes out the window and the GOP decides that what really matters to black people is not the ideas Republicans espouse but the skin color of the Republicans espousing them.
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Spirituality is a big story in politics. Maybe as big a story as religion. It’s been more than a decade since evangelicals helped George W. Bush win the White House, and we’ve gotten used to the idea of the “values voter,” of religion as a political force. But while the evangelical bloc seems to have frayed a bit and liberal mainline religion continues to lose influence, another major religious category is gathering force and deserves politician and pundit attention—the “spiritual but not religious” vote.
A fifth of Americans check “none” on surveys of religious preference. Among the young adults under 30 who helped propel Obama into office, a full third check “none.” Atheist pundits are quick to claim these gains for their own, but that is not the case—nearly 70 percent of “nones” report belief in God or a universal spirit, and 37 percent describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This may or may not be the story of the decline of “religion,” but it is clearly also the story of the ascent of “spirituality.”
Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson promised to “strike at the causes, not just the consequence” of persistent poverty in America. His War on Poverty, he told a joint session of Congress, would do more than alleviate immediate economic needs; it would “strike away the barriers to full participation in our society.”
Americans may have tired of Johnson’s war, but the struggle is far from complete. Not only does poverty persist across the United States today, but American democracy itself has become impoverished. The two are more entwined than is commonly thought.
As the foregoing articles in this series have shown, tens of millions of citizens, and would-be citizens, are struggling to earn their keep and keep their faith in a democratic system from which they are excluded. Millions more low-income citizens have a hard time making it to the polls for reasons that are partly within and partly beyond their control. Making matters worse, the politicians on whom they rely do not rely on them: a tiny fraction of wealthy Americans and special interest groups lobby the federal government, and a fraction of one percent of citizens provide the lion’s share of campaign funds.
However you slice and dice the numbers, people in poverty are at a serious, structural disadvantage when it comes to making their voices heard and having their interests represented in Washington. They are far from equal citizens in the public square.
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Even when America’s underclass isn’t formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.
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How to respond to an ubiquitous, and misleading, question about voting rights.
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