Opinion

The Great Debate

If the court strikes Section 5 of Voting Rights Act

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

We celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last week in the shadow of a fight over the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, raising the question whether Section 5 of the act, which requires that states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting get permission from the federal government before making any changes in election procedures, is now unconstitutional. The smart money is on the court striking down the law as an improper exercise of congressional power, although Justice Anthony Kennedy or another justice could still surprise.

If the court strikes Section 5, the big question is: What comes next? Reuters has invited a number of leading academics, who focus on voting rights and election law, to contribute to a forum on this question. In this introductory piece, I sketch out what may happen and what’s at stake.

One possibility is that nothing happens after Section 5 falls and minority voters in covered jurisdictions lose their important bargaining chip. Then, expect to see more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules in the formerly covered jurisdictions.

The fight over these rules will be mostly political, not legal. I do not expect many successful constitutional cases or cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act – a different provision which applies nationwide but is harder for plaintiffs to win.

On voting, listen to John Lewis

President Barack Obama emphasized the need to modernize the U.S. election system in his Inaugural Address. One bill to do just that is set to be introduced Wednesday by the civil rights hero Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) — who knows a thing or two about how to expand democracy.

Under his reform plan, states would have to take responsibility to make sure that every eligible voter is on the rolls. How? By taking existing computerized voter rolls, and expanding them with names voluntarily collected when citizens deal with government — including the Department of Motor Vehicles for drivers’ licenses, the Social Security Administration or other agencies. Any voter could opt in with the click of a mouse.

The proposed bill would bring our antiquated system into the 21st century. The  “Voter Empowerment Act,” introduced by Lewis with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), could transform the way we choose our leaders.

GOP v. Voting Rights Act

The Republican Party is in danger of reaping what it has sown.

Much has been written about the GOP’s problem with minority voters.  Quite simply, the party has managed to alienate every nonwhite constituency in the nation.

This is not an accidental or sudden phenomenon. Ever since Republicans chose almost 50 years ago to pursue a Southern strategy, to embrace and promote white voters’ opposition to civil rights, the party has been on a path toward self-segregation.

Successive Republican administrations have pursued agendas that included retreating on civil rights enforcement and opposing government programs that increase minority opportunity. That steady progression culminated in Mitt Romney’s disastrous showing among African-American, Latino and Asian voters.

Is Obama good for black people?

Is President Barack Obama good for black people?  While Obama heads into Election Day with strong support from black voters, some black intellectuals are pressing that question.

In a reproachful op-ed article in the Sunday New York Times, flanked by a large drawing of a black man literally muzzled by an Obama campaign placard, Columbia professor Fredrick C. Harris proposes that “black elites” and voters have effectively conspired to mute criticism of the president because of his race. This argument is plain wrong.

Obama’s presidency, Harris argues, marks “the decline” of a politics devoted to “challenging racial inequality” — a failure facilitated by black America itself. “Black elites” and black constituencies, Harris asserts, have capitulated to a president who does little for them — simply for the “pride” of “having a black family in the White House.”

We need to make campaign finance a civil rights issue

Two Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and, later, American Tradition Partnership v. State of Montana) and an appellate court decision (SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission) are fundamentally transforming our political system and our democracy to a degree we may not grasp until the results of this year’s elections become clear. Never has our electoral process been more captive to vast – and mostly anonymous – sums of money from a handful of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

For all the scorn rightfully heaped on Citizens United, however, it’s actually SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission that has been most destructive. SpeechNow allows not-for-profit organizations to accept unlimited contributions from individuals for independent expenditures, and this decision birthed both “super PACs,” which can accept unlimited contributions but must disclose donors, and “tax-exempt organizations” which are not subject to the disclosure requirements that apply to candidates, parties, PACs and super PACs.

Under these recent court decisions, a handful of immensely wealthy individuals and CEOs and boards of directors of large corporations now legally direct tens of millions of dollars to funding an overwhelming stream of political ads on behalf of candidates from whom they obviously expect some sort of fealty once the candidates are in office.

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