Left and right both wrong about Voting Rights Act

The left and the right are both wrong about the Voting Rights Act.

I agree with the right, and disagree with the president and other Democrats, that it’s a good thing that the Supreme Court has struck down the provision requiring South Carolina and other pariah states get preclearance of any change in voting procedures.

That requirement was fundamentally unjust. It assumed a guilt on the part of these states, and required them to prove their innocence before they could conduct their own voting business in ways other states were free to do without undergoing such procedures.

This was wrong. It condemned people who had absolutely nothing to do with past discrimination — all those who were guilty have long, long ago left office, and most are dead. Everyone in public office, appointive or elective, today has spent his or her entire career, if not entire life, in a world shaped by the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It is completely unjust to require that some people, and not others, labor under the burden of greater suspicion because of the accident of where they happen to live.

If someone did enact new voting lines or procedures, and they in some way violated the Act, then they were subject to being accused of doing so, and having to answer for it. That will still be the case without preclearance. And that is the way it should be. Individuals, and governments, should have to answer for what they do wrong, and not be automatically punished with suspicion over everything they do.

So… preclearance has been an unjust burden, as conservatives say. And it’s particularly hard to justify such an injustice in a time when, for instance, minority voter participation is better in Mississippi than in Massachusetts.

However… where the right is wrong is when it says that the Voting Rights Act is a huge success, particularly for minorities, and that it has moved us racial discrimination in our politics.

On the contrary, under the Voting Rights Act, we have a new kind of racial tension in our politics. Conservatives rail at Democrats, saying the liberals only want to keep the thumbscrews on the South so they can draw more minority-majority districts. And perhaps they do, if they are fools. For in fact, the drawing of such districts has been a tremendous boon to white Republicans.

White Republicans in South Carolina seized power in the early ’90s by giving the Legislative Black Caucus more districts that were likely to elect black legislators. The way this was done was by putting as many black voters as possible into a few districts, and given the racial patterns common to both black and white voters, those districts had a greater tendency to elect black candidates.

But the truth, which for some reason is not painfully obvious to everyone, is that you can’t make some districts super-black without making surrounding districts super-white. What this meant was that for each new “black” district, you created several districts far, far more likely to elect white Republicans. Not only that, but a certain kind of white Republican — one far less likely to give a damn about the concerns of the black citizens who live in other districts.

So, you get two kinds of people — those from majority-minority districts, and those from ethnically cleansed white districts — who are elected BECAUSE of racial considerations, and who know that.

And the way they start to engage issues starts to reflect that. You can see it in debates over public health, education, and all sorts of things that we desperately need to be considered with regard to the good of all the public. Instead, what we get is a few lawmakers elected from districts with a high poverty rate (which tends to correlate to race, although it’s certainly not a one-to-one relationship). They tend to see the value in, say, expanding Medicaid (especially when the federal government is picking up the tab).

But they are outvoted by people from suburbs who can honestly say that their constituents don’t care about such things, and who can afford to treat the whole thing as an abstract, ideological issue. They can dismiss health care reform designed to provide care for the uninsured for something as frivolous as the fact that the name “Obama” is attached. Their constituents are largely fine with that. That is to say, enough of them are to keep electing the same kinds of representatives.

And so we don’t get policies designed for the benefit of the whole state. Because neither kind of gerrymandered district “looks like South Carolina.” Neither represents whole communities, but rather subsets of communities, defined by race. So relatively few legislators see themselves as there to serve a broad range of people in different circumstances, with different viewpoints.

It’s great that we don’t have poll taxes. It’s great that minorities who were marginalized are now so engaged with the political process. In those respects, the Voting Rights Act is a great success.

And we have seen success stories that give us hope for a future without elections that are predetermined by the skin color of the electors. Barack Obama’s two election victories offer that kind of hope.

But on the district level, our politics are still largely defined by race. And there, the Act has not been such a boon.

37 thoughts on “Left and right both wrong about Voting Rights Act

  1. Bryan Caskey

    So you would have concurred with Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion, in which he states that he would have invalidated all of Section 5. (Which is what I would have done as well.)

    As I mentioned over at my place, the opinion of the Court simply kicks the VRA back to Congress to update the formula used in Section 4. Once Congress acts (don’t hold your breath) the VRA is entirely back.

  2. Juan Caruso

    “And so we don’t get policies designed for the benefit of the whole state. ” Brad W.

    Yet, SC can proudly claim an ethnic minority governor, a minority US senator, and a former House Majority Whip (also a minority). Gee, Brad, give SC the break it deserves. Let’s compare SC to another state rarely used for such a comparison:

    Illinois is ranked:
    50th for fiscal policy;
    47th in job creation;
    1st in unfunded pension liabilities;
    2nd largest budget deficit;
    1st in failing schools;
    1st in bonded indebtedness;
    highest sales tax in the nation;
    most judges indicted (Operations Greylord and Gambat).

    Five of our last 9 elected governors have been indicted. That is more than the other 49 states added together! Then add 32 Chicago Aldermen and (according to the Chicago Tribune) over 1000 state and municipal employees indicted.

    Under our US Constitution sovereign states are self-directed. Apparently, some philosophies have not worked as well as others, even as the others are more often lampooned by the liberal press.

    Just saying…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Juan, I don’t think you understood what I was saying.

    The advances we’ve made — in Columbia, in South Carolina, in the nation — have mostly been in at-large situations. I mean, if you consider Nikki Haley being elected governor an advance (I don’t, because I don’t think in those terms), then it is one achieved on the statewide level. Just like Steve Benjamin being elected with a lot of white, and even sometimes Republican, support. Actually, a better example on the local level was when Tameika Isaac was elected at-large years ago, with quite a bit of white support. (If I remember correctly, Rusty DePass was among her supporters.)

    What I’m saying is that race-based redistricting militates AGAINST the positive trend of voters being more accepting of candidates outside their own racial groups (which I think is a very real thing, and it’s great). Such redistricting is based on the assumption that whites will only vote for whites and blacks for blacks, and it attracts candidates who run and serve based on that assumption.

    1. Juan Caruso

      Brad, you interjected redistricting, alluded to gerrymandering to wit:
      “But the truth, which for some reason is not painfully obvious to everyone, is that you can’t make some districts super-black without making surrounding districts super-white. What this meant was that for each new “black” district, you created several districts far, far more likely to elect white Republicans. Not only that, but a certain kind of white Republican — one far less likely to give a damn about the concerns of the black citizens who live in other districts.”

      Then you summarizing in part as follows: ‘ Conservatives rail at Democrats, saying the liberals only want to keep the thumbscrews on the South so they can draw more minority-majority districts. And perhaps they do, if they are fools.”

      Guess what? You are idealizing the small picture. In the larger picture, widespread racism’s impact upon voting rights has been rendered moot by SUPCO opinion and demonstrable SC election results.

      If Tim Scott does not retain his seat in a general election, it will have less to do with racism than with liberal (aka Progressive, Democratic) policy planks — the ominously looming caused for conservative agitta that you totally avoided mentioning.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I agree with your last paragraph, Juan. The folks who don’t vote for Tim Scott in the upcoming general election aren’t going to be basing it on race.

        Also, Juan: Since I know you’re such a big fan of lawyers and all things legal, you should use SCOTUS instead of SUPCO when referring to the Supreme Court of the United States. It will let the lawyers know that you’re one of the cool kids. 🙂

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I think “SCOTUS,” but that’s because that’s the slug the AP always used on stories about the US Supreme Court.

          A less well-known AP abbreviation is “XGR” for “legislature.” I often want to type that, but I stop, because I realize people won’t know what I’m talking about…

        2. Juan Caruso

          SCOTUS, thanks Bryan, I will try to remember.

          And to set the record straight, I am actually a big fan of lawyers except the excessive numbers in or running for elected office.

          One of my favorite relations was a high-level lawyer in another state. He has written fiction and factual books (including a movie best seller). i have also been privileged to work with, for and around many lawyers, one of whom is now a federal judge in SC. During military training I even played handball sets against a JAG lawyer.

          With two notable exceptions (realty attorneys), one of whom I successfully sued (very difficult to find a SC lawyer willing to sue another) all of my non-political attorney contacts have been good people, including a law-school neighbor during college who invited me to his graduation party.

          After graduation I even sat for the LSAT, Navy pilot’s aptitude exam. etc , etc.. Did fine on LSAT, flunked the pilot test. Have always preferred adventure to grind and have certainly had more than my share of both.

          Thanks again.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    I know that some people who think such things are meaningful believe that Nikki Haley represents an achievement for women. Fine, if that’s what they want to think.

    But I would actively argue against making any kind of deal about her being of Indian extraction. That’s just not the same as electing a black person as governor.

    I’ll think it more meaningful if and when Tim Scott is elected statewide. I mean, it was really something for him to be elected from a GOP congressional district — sorta, kinda — but that was sort of anomalous, too.

    In 2010, you could have been an Indian-American woman, or a black man, or a little green creature of indeterminate gender from Mars, and as long as you spouted the stuff that the Tea Party wanted to hear, you got elected.

    1. Doug Ross

      “you spouted the stuff that the Tea Party wanted to hear, you got elected.”

      Which is it – the Tea Party is a fringe group or the Tea Party is powerful enough to get a black man elected in a majority white district?

      It’s not about the Tea Party, it’s about the philosophy. The majority of voters in this state want smaller government. Simple as that.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Doug, I don’t know what you mean by “which is it?”

        I think what I said was pretty unequivocal. In 2010, if you said the right things for the Tea Party to support you, you won — in South Carolina, and in a lot of other places. That was their year.

        And that actually kind of speaks well of the Tea Party (if you like people who are motivated ideologically, which I don’t). I mean, that was a VERY white group (I remember running into Boyd Summers at a Tea Party rally; he had looked out his office window, he said, and wondered what all those white people were doing down there). And it had some overlap with nativist elements — I remember one speaker at that rally going on and on about people who came over on the Mayflower or some such, suggesting that more recent arrivals were less acceptable. But bottom line, if you spoke their lingo, they voted for you.

        And in 2010, that’s what mattered.

        This was somewhat less the case in 2012. In 2014, who knows?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            We don’t have quite enough data on the Tea Party yet to determine whether it is a “fringe group” or not.

            However, I do have a very fine young man over at the IRS looking into that right now, and we’ll know more when he reports in.

            Thanks for your interest.

            Big Brother 🙁

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      I believe such things are meaningful, but wipe that sneer off your face, privileged white WASP! Nikki Haley is hardly my choice, but when a non-European ancestored female gets elected in this backwater, the times, they are a-changing!

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, the story I linked to above was in The Wall Street Journal, and our own Alan Wilson was quoted prominently in that national story:

    South Carolina unsuccessfully challenged the Voting Rights Act immediately after its 1965 passage. On Tuesday, the state’s attorney general said the court’s ruling was long past due.

    “For nearly 50 years, Sections 4 and 5 have imposed an extraordinary intrusion into state sovereignty in certain states, including South Carolina,” said the attorney general, Alan Wilson. “This is a victory for all voters as all states can now act equally without some having to ask for permission or being required to jump through the extraordinary hoops demanded by federal bureaucracy.”

  6. Mark Stewart

    I will celebrate the day the Supreme Court (sorry, Bryan) rules that the extremes of today’s district gerrymandering are unconstitutional.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And to that, I will say an “amen.”

      And while they’re at it, they should reverse the precedents that hold that it’s OK to draw districts to protect incumbents.

    2. Lynn T

      We desperately need that, but it would probably have to be the courts rather than legislative change. Incumbents are, by definition, profiting from the current wretched gerrymandered system.

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    Here’s a bit of partisan hysteria on the subject from South Forward, that new group trying to elect Democrats in the South:

    Yesterday was a bad day for voters in the South.

    The US Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 designates which parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government—or preclearance for short.

    Most of the states where South Forward works are subject to the Section 4 requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and are unquestionably susceptible to the kind of voter suppression efforts that have gone on for much too long. Now Republican legislatures will feel empowered by the court to write laws that make it even harder for minorities to cast ballots…

    Of course, immediately after that it suggests the inevitable cure for these ills — to give money to South Forward…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You know, to hear the advocacy groups tell it, there is just no problem facing this country that can’t be solved by giving money to said advocacy groups…

      Kind of reinforces your faith in the Almighty Dollar, doesn’t it?

      1. Lynn T

        There are exceptions — the League of Women Voters, for example (although we will certainly accept donations if offered). Money doesn’t buy happiness, just legislators.

  8. Burl Burlingame

    A new Voting Rights Act is needed, one that applies to all states equally. Simple premise — all new voting legislation is subject to DOJ review, with a single question; Does this legislation disenfranchise any citizens from voting, or create unequal roadblocks from doing so?

    1. Doug Ross

      As long as this new act starts with “Any citizen who chooses to vote must identify himself and his place of residence using any form of government id…”

      Take it from there. If you don’t have an id, the government should help you get one,

  9. Scout

    I can see both sides of this issue. I do agree that it is important to use data to make decisions and I do agree that the data cited by the justices shows progress. However, I feel in my gut that that data alone may not be representative of the total picture, and that there may in fact still be a problem; thus making this a premature action. If I was approaching this like a speech evaluation, and my gut was telling me the child had issues that my standardized measures were not picking up, I’d do more observations to pinpoint the area of weakness and try to find a way to objectively measure the weakness. I suspect there is a way to measure the problem that is still out there in addition to the measures cited by the justices. I guess it is not their job to seek additional information though, just to make a decision based on the information brought to them? On that basis, perhaps this was a sound decision if that is all the information they had. It makes me nervous though.

    But maybe the point is that based on the measures they used, we have progressed enough that we don’t need a special category anymore for certain states. Maybe the remaining problem is just within the realm of normal variation of struggles that are inherent to all states and that we all need to guard against anyway. I tend to see things in educational analogies so I keep thinking this is like a kid who has been in special ed but is now doing better. The question becomes when and to what degree do you withdraw support in order to maintain continued success. Usually works best if you fade support gradually and monitor success while being on standby to provide consultative support to the teacher rather than direct services to the child but stand ready to put back direct services should the child begin to falter – rather than just abruptly pulling all support. Abruptly pulling all support is more likely to lead to a regression and to not be able to get support back in place in time.

    But maybe that’s not a valid analogy – not sure.

  10. Burl Burlingame

    Having ID is useful when voting. Since voting is a constitutional right, however, lack of “official” ID should not be a barrier to exercising that right.

    Lemme see yo’ long-form drivers license, boy.

    1. Doug Ross

      You have to be a citizen to have the rights, don’t you? Can anyone just show up and say “I’m an American, I want to vote”?

      1. Burl Burlingame

        Yes. But your vote will not count unless you’re registered.

        The problem with fraudulent elections isn’t with fake voters, its with the manner in which ballots are counted.

  11. Harry Harris

    I wish our real world conformed to your logic, Brad. It doesn’t. I have been grateful for Justice Department review of voting changes in our state because, regardless of progress made, there is still oppression at work based on political philosophy and economics moreso than race. Voter ID bills in this state have one purpose – to suppress minority and low-income voting. Narrowing voting hours and early voting days (as in Florida) have one purpose. Legislators in NC attempting to prevent parents from claiming their college student children as dependents on state tax returns if they register to vote in their college town has one purpose. If their were a functional Congress that could do anything sensible and needed in our hyper-polarized environment, your sentiment might have merit. Until then, I’ll take any ally for true democracy available – even one that may be out-of-date. Give me review of changes over the tyranny of any majority any day.


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