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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The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.
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How to respond to an ubiquitous, and misleading, question about voting rights.
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Ballot integrity measure. That’s what Republican officials in Texas call SB 14, the voter identification measure designed to make it measurably harder for people there to vote. Not all people, mind you. Just people who don’t own or drive cars, and people who can’t afford to take time off from work to travel long distances to state offices that are not open at convenient times for working people, and elderly people who are ill and young people who cannot afford to pay the cost of new IDs they have never before needed. People, everyone acknowledges, who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican even in the still Red State of Texas.
So the headline alone — United States v. Texas — tells you a great deal about what you need to know about the new civil rights lawsuit filed by the Justice Department last Thursday in federal court in Corpus Christi. It tells you that the battle over voting rights in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in late June that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, has become the latest keynote in the nasty national debate between the Obama Administration and its most ardent conservative critics. And it suggests that things are likely going to get worse before they get better.
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Since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder in June, conservative governments in the South and elsewhere have raced to introduce new voting restrictions. Most prominent in the attacks is the comprehensive vote-restriction law passed by the Republican majority in the North Carolina legislature. The law cuts back early voting, restricts private groups from conducting voter-registration drives, eliminates election-day voter registration, and imposes the strictest voter ID rules in the country. There is evidence that Republican legislatures elsewhere will follow North Carolina’s lead.
Neither the American people nor the federal courts would tolerate restrictions of this sort if they were imposed on free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion, or freedom to petition government for redress of grievances. For that matter, many Southern states—and probably a majority of the Supreme Court—would reject far less onerous restrictions on the right to “keep and bear arms.” Yet each of those rights is mentioned only once in the Constitution. The “right to vote” is mentioned five times—and yet the Court has brushed it aside as a privilege that states may observe at their convenience. Even an overwhelming majority of Congress—which is given the power to enforce the right in no fewer than four different places in the Constitution—cannot protect this right more strongly than the Court feels appropriate.
What would happen if we took the Constitution’s text on this matter seriously?
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If there is one thing this election has proven, if there is one thing I have come to know, it is that Americans don’t like it when their right to vote is threatened. The very people whose votes the Republicans sought to suppress came out to vote. In places like Akron and Orlando and Denver and Milwaukee, they came. They waited in long lines and endured the indignities of poll workers. Yet they were not cowed. Today is their day. A day when they can look at one another and appreciate that they are truly a part of the history of civil rights in this country.
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