|Number 529||April 23, 2013|
This Week: Voter Suppression 2013
I've written numerous articles over the past year or more on the issue of voter suppression. This week I return to that issue, as the President has now appointed a special commission to "improve the voting experience in America." Maybe it will do some good, but it doesn't look like it, as I report this week.
Besides being an important issue in itself, the issue of the suppression of voting rights deserves a special issue of Nygaard Notes because it well illustrates the powerful conjunction of two powerful forces in US politics: Money and Race. The likely failure of the President's Voting Rights Commission is due not primarily to cowardice on Obama's part, nor to corruption on the part of the commission's members (although they may well be corrupt, for all I know). Instead, I hope the little case study in this issue of the Notes begins to show how the political system responds to monied interests, and how the power of money combines with the power bestowed upon the majority population by the structures of racism to inhibit the exercise of power by communities that have too long been deprived of it.
I'm sorry it has taken so long for this issue of the Notes to get to you. It took me a while to figure all this out. And I'm sure—despite the tardiness and the length of this issue—that I've left out some very important things. If you notice any particularly glaring omissions, or even small ones, please let me know. Reader comments are maybe my favorite part of this job!
Happy Spring! (I'm going to keep saying this until it stops snowing in Minnesota.)
Here are the "Key Findings" of a multigenerational survey published three months ago by the very reputable National Academy of Social Insurance called "Strengthening Social Security: What Do Americans Want?" I could not refrain from adding emphasis a few times, so when you see bold print, that's me. Here are the key findings from the survey:
"Americans don't mind paying for Social Security because they value it for themselves (80%), for their families (78%), and for the security and stability it provides to millions of retired Americans, disabled individuals, and children and widowed spouses of deceased workers (84%).
"84% believe current Social Security benefits do not provide enough income for retirees, and 75% believe we should consider raising future Social Security benefits in order to provide a more secure retirement for working Americans.
"82% agree it is critical to preserve Social Security for future generations even if it means increasing Social Security taxes paid by working Americans, and 87% want to preserve Social Security for future generations even if it means increasing taxes paid by wealthier Americans.
"Americans support a package of changes that eliminates Social Security's financing gap while improving benefits. The trade-off analysis conducted for this study shows that, rather than maintain the status quo, 71% of Americans would prefer a package of changes that increases Social Security revenues, pays for benefit improvements, and eliminates more than 100% of the projected financing gap."
Read the survey results for yourself HERE.
And here—in a feature never before tried in Nygaard Notes—is a link to a relevant cartoon.
President Obama said on February 12th that he was "announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America." The Commission will be chaired, said the President, by "two long-time experts in the field—who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney's campaign." The problem with voting in this country, the President said, is that some Americans "are denied that right because they can't wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot."
While long waits to vote are certainly a problem, they are far from the most serious problem. And not only that, but the most serious problems are quite partisan, so the appointment of a "nonpartisan" commission almost guarantees a weak response to what the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has called "an assault on voting rights that is historic" in its scale. This week's Nygaard Notes takes a look at the dismaying context within which is situated the President's Commission.
The Presidential Executive Order establishing the commission came on March 28th. Here is the official "mission" of the Commission, known as the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission after the two chairs: "Sec. 3. Mission. (a) The Commission shall identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to promote the efficient administration of elections in order to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay, and to improve the experience of voters facing other obstacles in casting their ballots, such as members of the military, overseas voters, voters with disabilities, and voters with limited English proficiency."
There are four major problems with the Commission as set up by the President:
A Technical Problem? Or An Organized Effort?
There have been quite a number of studies and reports on the nature and scale of recent efforts to inhibit voting in this country. (See NN #504 for a short list.) The most recent report was released just a couple of months ago (on Valentine's Day) by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. That 150-page document, called "Our Broken Voting System and How to Repair It," pointed out many, many problems with voting in this country that go far beyond the "undue delays" that are the focus of the President's Commission. It was completely ignored in the nation's media, so I'll mention a few points here.
One only has to read the Executive Summary of the Report to learn that "complications for voters in 2012 were not different in form from previous elections." (See NN #509 for details.) The "problems," says the Committee, "which are recurrent and systemic, include: Voter registration errors; Ineffective planning; Misallocation of resources and voting equipment; Undertrained poll workers misapplying rules and not following proper procedures; Understaffed polling places; Malfunctioning voting machines; Problems with absentee ballots; Mismanaged polling locations, and; Deceptive election practices."
The Lawyers Committee noted that "Barriers continue to exist through state laws designed by politicians to make it difficult for certain Americans to vote and administrative deficiencies that impair voting rights." [Emphasis added.]
The problems extend beyond legislative attacks to involve "state election officials" in various states who "undertook statewide programs to purge voters from the voter rolls based on faulty data matches that incorrectly ensnared eligible American citizens."
Numerous voters were subjected to "mass challenges by individuals affiliated with a Tea Party group called 'True the Vote.'"
Overall, the Report makes clear the scale and breadth of the attack on voting rights, coming from "state lawmakers" "(unelected) state election officials," "anonymous groups," some non-anonymous "organizations," and "individuals."
If the problems with voting were simply the result of bureaucratic inefficiencies, then we shouldn't see any patterns in the types of people whose voting rights have been, and are being, impacted. Note the references above to "certain Americans," and "voters," and "citizens." The next article discusses which "certain Americans" it is whose voting rights are under attack, and which others it is who might have a motive for doing the attacking.
There is much, much evidence to indicate that a significant share of the problems we're seeing with voting rights are A) Targeted at certain groups of people and B) Originating from other certain groups of people. This article identifies some of the targets.
Who Voted for Obama?
We start with some basic facts about the last two Presidential elections. In 2008 and 2012 the Presidential election voting went like this:
When broken down by race, we see that Obama won among every group except those identifying as "white." In 2008 he won 95 percent of the black vote, in 2012 it was 93 percent. He got 67 and 81 percent of the Latino vote, 62 and 73 percent of the "Asian" vote, and 66 and 58 percent of those identified as racially "other." Both McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 won only among "white" voters. (The racial terminology in quotation marks is the language used by the Roper Center—one of the world's largest polling and sampling firms—from where I draw these numbers.)
Age: In 2008 Obama won among every group under age 65 (66 percent of those under age 30). In 2012, he won every group under age 45 (60 percent of those under 30). McCain won only the over-65 vote in 2008, in 2012 Romney won the over-45 vote.
When it comes to income, Obama won the votes of those earning less than $50,000/year in 2008 (it was about even among those earning over $50,000). 73 percent of those earning under $15,000 went for Obama. In 2012 Obama again won among those earning less than $50,000 (no further breakdowns available). McCain and Romney won the votes of those earning more than $50,000. (Romney by more than McCain.)
So, in summary, the voters that voted for Obama were people of color, young people, and poor people.
"Young, Minority, and Low Income Voters"
Now consider that various studies (many of which I've quoted in these pages) echo the findings that the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reported in their October 3, 2011 study called "Voting Law Changes in 2012." The study remarked "These new [voting] restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters . . . [which] could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012." The election in 2012 was decided by less than five million votes.
That Brennan study was referring specifically to so-called "Voter ID" laws, but the effects on the targeted groups extends far beyond Voter ID. Some examples:
YOUTH: Here's an MSNBC headline from February 11th of this year: "Latest Voter Suppression Target: College Students." From the lead: "Many of the recent Republican efforts to make voting harder, like requiring an ID, have appeared to target minorities and the poor. But those are hardly the only vulnerable Democratic-leaning constituencies. And in overwhelmingly white Montana, the GOP has found another group to go after." That is, they are seeking to suppress the votes of young people."
LATINOS: In an opinion piece on Fox News during the Republican National Convention last August, the Executive Director of Presente.org, Arturo Carmona, wrote that Latinos are "fighting back against. . . The unprecedented attacks against African Americans and Latinos right to vote, by well-funded and highly organized groups linked to the Tea Party and other right wing groups..." Added Carmona, "members of the Latino and African American communities are marching at a GOP convention to change the Republican Party's strategy to disenfranchise poor communities by suppressing our vote."
AFRICAN AMERICANS: In Ohio last August, the website AllVoices reported that "Ohio election board Republican Doug Preisse admitted that the goal of voter ID laws are to stop African Americans from voting." Then, in November, the website "Black Politics on the Web" reported that "Florida members of People For the American Way Foundation's African American Ministers Leadership Council today said they were 'appalled but not surprised' by a Palm Beach Post report this weekend that restrictions on Florida early voting and voter registration were explicitly intended for partisan gain. The Post interviewed current and former GOP officials who said the restrictions were targeted at African American voters, and specifically at turnout operations at black churches."
INDIGENOUS PEOPLE: Last October The Nation Magazine ran an article by Aura Bogado entitled "Democracy in 'Suspense': Why Arizona's Native Voters Are in Peril." Here's the lead paragraph: "Arizona's Apache County is obscuring the collective power of the Native vote in an unprecedented way. The County, which has previously violated the Voting Rights Act, has inaccurately placed more than 500 people who attempted to register on a list that could permanently purge these would-be voters from the rolls. And most, if not all, of those affected are Navajo."
ASIAN AMERICANS: Terry M. Ao of the Asian American Justice Center testified at a forum on state voter laws on November 14, 2011 that "The wave of voter suppression laws that have been enacted by many state legislatures has made voting more difficult for Asian American voters." Added Ao, "The reality is these laws simply create additional barriers to voting and thereby make it harder for our community to vote under the disguise of combating a non-existent problem (i.e., voter fraud)."
POOR PEOPLE: The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in discussing their interactive tool the "Map of Shame: Voter Suppression Legislation by State," reported that "Legislation that would require voters to produce photo identification at the polls is popping up in many states across the country. These bills create new hurdles to the ballot box that are especially high for low income and minority voters..."
The Inter Press Service reported in November that "Voter suppression has reached new heights in the United States. . . [and] the majority of these tactics . . . appear to be directed at black and low-income communities, as they have a disproportionate negative impact on voters in those communities."
We've seen that Barack Obama won election by winning the votes of people of color, young people, and poor people. And we've seen that the groups most at risk of disfranchisement in recent years have been... people of color, young people, and poor people. Yet, the official mandate of the Obama Voting Rights Commission mentions only four groups of people who face "obstacles in casting their ballots": Members of the military; overseas voters; voters with disabilities and; voters with limited English proficiency.
These are important groups, and their votes should be protected. Yet it is passing strange that there's no mention in the Commission's mandate of people of color, young people, and poor people, the very voters who have been shown to be the primary targets of recent efforts at voter suppression. Does this omission from the Commission have anything to do with the "nonpartisan" nature of the thing? Read on...
As I just summarized in the previous article (and discussed more thoroughly in Nygaard Notes Numbers 503—"An Assault on Voting Rights That Is Historic"—and 509—"Real Problems with Voting in the U.S."), there is a PATTERN to the ongoing initiatives in regard to voting rights, and it's not a subtle pattern. And when we see such a pattern—a pattern of legislative and other changes that would have the overall effect of impeding the rights of certain people to vote, then it is not unreasonable to suspect that the pattern may be evidence of an organized effort. And, if there is such an organized effort, suddenly we're not talking about random errors or technical shortcoming that need repair. Now we are talking about crimes being committed, and the issue becomes not repair, but justice.
When investigating any crime, a good question to ask is: Who stands to benefit from this crime? So let's ask the same question here: Who stands to benefit if millions of people who tend to vote for Democrats are prevented from voting?
Now the question is: Do we know who is behind these efforts? As it turns out, we do. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I will state before we go any further that I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican.
Obama as Target of Republicans
What do we know? We know that people of color, low-income people, and young people tend to vote Democratic, and have voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Barack Obama in the past two elections. And we know that there is an ongoing pattern of initiatives under consideration, or already adopted, that would limit—indeed, are limiting—the voting rights of these very groups. It should not be taken as evidence of "liberal bias" or "partisanship" to suggest that the group that would most obviously benefit from the success of these initiatives would be the party that competes with the Democratic Party.
Sure enough, in a Rolling Stone article from August 2011, Ari Berman reported that "Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008."
Consider Voter ID efforts. The Brennan Center for Justice issued a report in October 2012 called "Voting Law Changes in 2012." In that report they noted that "in every case but one, strict voter ID bills [at the state level] were introduced by Republican legislators." In addition, "With the exception of Rhode Island, every state that enacted stricter voter ID requirements this session had both houses and the governor's office controlled by Republicans."
Early voting—which makes voting easier by allowing people to vote by mail or in person before Election Day—had been growing rapidly around the country over the past decade. However, in the past few years early voting has come under attack, and the attack has been led by Republicans.
The Brennan Center reports that "In 2011, most, though not all, of the new restrictions on early voting have been proposed by Republicans and adopted by Republican-controlled legislatures." The report adds, "Of the five states that reduced early voting, four—Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee—saw sharp partisan divisions over those reductions. In all four cases, Republicans had uniform control over the legislative and executive branches, and passed the reductions over frequently vociferous objection by Democrats. In the fifth state, West Virginia, the law reducing the early voting period also added early voting on Saturdays for the first time. It received bipartisan support."
In at least two key states—Ohio and Florida—the effects of cutting back on early voting were understood to be felt most strongly by low-income and minority voters. The "nonpartisan" organization Project Vote reported in 2010 that "young voters, African Americans, and Hispanic voters. . . voted early in person at a far greater rate" in 2008 "than they had in previous federal elections."
The voter purges undertaken in Colorado, Florida, and Texas were all led by Republicans.
"True the Vote," the Texas group who "frivolously challenged voters' eligibility prior to Election Day," sells itself as "nonpartisan" but has fairly obvious ties to the Republican Party, according to various sources including The American Prospect and The Institute for Southern Studies.
So the pattern we see is a massive initiative on many fronts that threatens to disfranchise millions of voters, with the effects falling disproportionately on voters who vote Democratic. And we see that most of the energy—not all—behind the various initiatives seems to be coming from Republicans. So here we have a Democratic President who is confronted with a situation in which the evidence indicates that the opposing party is backing an organized campaign to disfranchise his base. And he sets up a nonpartisan commission and charges them not with investigating a massive voting rights scandal with possible criminal intent, but rather tells them to make recommendations about "efficiency" and how to avoid "undue delay" in voting places.
The next article speculates about we might explain such apparent nonsense.
Anyone who wishes to hold a high office in this country must be judged to be fit by the people who pay the costs of running for that high office. Remember The Investment Theory of Party Competition. (Explained in Nygaard Notes #56.) That theory tells us that those who provide the money needed for successful election campaigns see their contributions as investments. They watch and evaluate possible office-holders over time, and if an office-holder shows an inclination to legislate in the "correct" way—not by being told what to do, but by showing that they will not have to be told—then the money-holders will "invest" in their campaigns, and the investment-worthy candidates will continue to win elections. It's a matter of little controversy when the media reports on the "viability" or "seriousness" of a candidate, as they often do, by looking at how much money they have raised. But it's hardly a democratic process.
At the lower levels, elections can be won by renegades, or even anti-capitalists, but such people will rarely if ever be able to attract the capital to advance beyond the level of, say, state representative, or maybe City Council. It's not that the holders of higher offices are "corrupt." It's simply that they have shown themselves to be "right thinkers"—with "right" meaning that they are either in agreement with or reluctant to challenge Big Money—and thus are able to attract the funds necessary to advance to the higher levels.
The result, as I think many people feel in their bones, is that the leadership of the two main political parties is composed of "right thinkers" and, perhaps more importantly, people who know what it takes to get right-thinking candidates elected.
The higher we go in the political arena, the easier it is to see what's happening. Look, for example, at who funded the Obama and Romney campaigns. The investment firm Goldman Sachs gave $1.3 million to the Romney campaign, and $1.1 million to Obama. Financial services firm JP Morgan Chase gave $834,000 to Romney, and $809,000 to Obama. Morgan Stanley, another financial services firm, gave $911,000 to Romney, and $512,000 to Obama. What this tells us is that both candidates were judged to be acceptable by the elites of Wall Street.
In short, the leadership of both major parties is composed of, and speaks to the interests of, the One Percent, one of the results of which is that any fundamental reforms are perpetually off the table.
A partial list of policy matters that are perpetually off the table includes such things as socialized health care (or even its non-radical cousin, single-payer), a serious public-works employment program, a dismantling of the criminal banks (and imprisonment of their leaders), and a significant demobilization of the U.S. military empire. The decisions to avoid action on these issues are "nonpartisan" decisions about the policy agenda that remain beyond question, and are never discussed. The "nonpartisan" policy proposals that do get talked about are generally the ones that meet with the approval of elites and the disapproval, if not horror, of the rest of us.
Not only are some widely-supported things off the table but the converse is also true: Proposals that are hugely unpopular among the people of the United States are often considered "realistic" or even "courageous" to those at the top, from both parties. As evidence, see this week's "Quote" of the Week, where we learn that 75% of USAmericans believe we should consider raising future Social Security benefits, even as our President "courageously" proposes to decrease benefits. Courage? Or the Consensus of the One Percent?
We hear a lot about the "polarization" and "division" and "philosophical differences" in the United States, and it's supposed to explain the differences between the two major parties. But the real polarization is between the haves and the have-nots.
That Nonpartisan Commission
Which brings us back to the President's Voting Rights Commission. By setting up a Commission on voting rights and basing its credibility on being "nonpartisan," the President has taken a whole range of possible solutions off the table. The evidence suggests the existence of what appears to be a concerted, intentional campaign of voter suppression carried out by elements associated with one of the major political parties. Yet, by making it appear as if it is simply a technical problem of "efficiency" and unfortunate "obstacles," it seems logical that any needed solutions will have to be acceptable to both co-chairs, one from each party. This makes it highly unlikely that justice will be done.
Justice would involve mounting an aggressive defense of people in all of the targeted groups: poor people, young people, people with disabilities, people of color, and more. But it is the racial dynamics of the Obama presidency that shape the issue of voting rights most profoundly.
In his 2012 essay "Fear of a Black President," commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that "Obama's racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism..." In fact, citing an academic study, Coates reports that "in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961."
As Coates says, the acceptance of a black man in the White House by a largely-white America is conditional, as it "depends not just on [Obama] being twice as good but on being half as black." And the fear of appearing "too black," in turn, severely constricts the Obama presidency.
The point is well summarized by Jamelle Bouie, writing in "The American Prospect" last year: "The power and symbolism of Obama's election is compromised by the extent to which his presidency has been shaped by white expectations and white racism. Obama can't show anger, he can't propose policies tailored to African Americans and he can't talk about race. In other words, he can't remind white Americans that their president is a black man as much as anything else."
Coates agrees, saying, "Part of Obama's genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who's worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed..."
And here we return to the Voting Rights Commission. Obama set up a Commission that is co-chaired by two white, male, middle-aged lawyers drawn from the upper ranks of the two major parties—thus it is "nonpartisan." But what if Obama had labeled the attack on voting rights what it is: A de facto (or perhaps literal) conspiracy targeting the voting rights of people of color, poor people, and young people? And what if the President could express anger at such an outrageous targeting? And what if he had appointed as co-chairs some people drawn from historically targeted communities, people with experience in fighting for voting rights for people of color and poor people and young people?
For the President to take such an approach would be to transcend the idea of "partisan" entirely, which in turn would highlight some serious divisions in U.S. culture, and would define them not as partisan divisions, but as divisions based on race, class, and age, among others. And this is something that it's almost impossible to imagine the President doing, as he would quickly be condemned by very influential people as being "too black." And of being "angry," and of "injecting race into the discussion," of "taking sides," of engaging in "class war," of revealing his deep-seated "black rage," of practicing the politics of "divisiveness." All of these charges are already being made, of course, and would reach a mad crescendo if the President decided to use the power of the federal government to respond to voter suppression in the way it deserves.
This is how racism works in the "post-racial" United States. Recall the words of the Republican strategist and Reagan aide Lee Atwater, speaking to an interviewer in 1981 (anonymously, with his identity being revealed only years later). He was discussing the infamous "Southern Strategy" in which Republicans planned to win votes in the South by overtly appealing to white racists. Said Mr. Atwater:
Now, in the 21st Century, we have a race- and class-based assault on voting rights that is similarly coded, with the abstraction now being the nonexistent threat of "voter fraud." And all the "solutions" to the non-existent threat just happen to make it harder to vote for people of color, poor people, and young people.
This is what we're dealing with when we talk about "voting rights" in the year 2013. It's not about winning elections for unprincipled or deluded Democrats. It's about defending the rights of communities that suffer the most by conducting "business as usual," and it doesn't stop with voting rights. But it can start there.
The next article gives a few ideas of things we might support in this struggle.
Despite voting rights having fallen out of the headlines, there are many important efforts underway to protect and expand the rights of USAmericans to vote. Here are a few things you might want to support. Tell your friends, too—these things are not getting much press.
The League of Women Voters worked before the election on this issue, and they're still working on it. Check out their Voting Rights page on their website, sign their Pledge, and maybe click on "Get Involved."
The American Civil Liberties Union is also on top of this issue. Support them.
I've written before in these pages (NN #509 and 517) about the Voter Empowerment Act. It's a powerful bill, reintroduced in 2013 in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. The website of Congressman John Lewis has the latest on it.
You won't find much in the media about this. Maybe you can learn about it and write a letter to the editor. Or contact your elected representatives and tell them to push hard on this.
The ELECTION PROTECTION COALITION is found HERE. Click on their "Partners" tab for a really impressive list of groups doing the work.
Finally, check out Nygaard Notes #504 – "Voter Suppression Resources: Education and Action." It's from last year, but mostly still current.
The point is, don't wait until the next election cycle to take action on this. That'll be too late.