|Number 539||July 25, 2013|
This Week: Voting Rights and the Constitution
I'm aware that I've been writing a lot of "theoretical" pieces lately, which is due to my working on the book I'm writing, which seems to need some theoretical chapters. But I hope to get back to writing some more "nuts and bolts" pieces for these pages in the coming months.
I suppose I should have written about the government shutdown this week, since everyone seems to be so obsessed with it. Maybe I will next week. What I can say in this Editor's Note is that I think the real fight was over a while ago, and the reactionary right won. More on that later.
But whatever the media tells us the people in Washington are fighting about, isn't it important to figure out how we can increase mass participation in the political process in ways that lead to revolutionary change? I think so and, while voting is not going to bring about revolutionary change—ya think?—the issue of voting rights offers some great opportunities for organizing. I hope that's the point I make this week. Let me know what you think.
On Page 6 of the October 5th New York Times the headline read: "Impasse With Afghanistan Raises Prospect of Total U.S. Withdrawal in 2014." One of the "sticking points" the article mentions in explaining the "impasse" in the negotiations about the U.S. role after next year is the U.S. demand that it be allowed to attack anyone, anywhere, at any time in Afghanistan if the U.S. decides they are a "terrorist." To which Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, responds, "After 2014, will any foreign military be free to go where it pleases and operate the way it pleases in Afghanistan? The answer is no."
That's a good "Quote," but the honor of being "Quote" of the Week here goes to the lead paragraph:
"The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that American forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal—an outcome that the Pentagon's top military commanders dismissed just months ago... The impasse, after a year of talks, has increased the prospect of what the Americans call the zero option—complete withdrawal—when the NATO combat mission concludes at the end of 2014. That is precisely the outcome they hoped to avoid in Afghanistan, after having engaged in a similarly problematic withdrawal from Iraq two years ago."
Translated from the Propaganda, the phrase "problematic withdrawal" means "defeat." That's what "they hoped to avoid." At least it's been avoided (so far) in the U.S. media, in which I have to date been unable to find a news report that includes the words "complete withdrawal" and "defeat" in regard to Afghanistan. But that's in the United States.
For another perspective, we turn to the Afghan newspaper The Frontier Post, and an August article called "Afghanistan Needs Peace:" Says the author, Iftikhar Ahmad Yousafzai, "One of the trickiest issues involved [in peace negotiations] has been the US endeavour to affect its withdrawal in a manner signaling its victory." He adds that, in those negotiations:
"The most important and potent factor is the Taliban. They have the aura of having defeated the mightiest and sole super power of the world. This is not a mean achievement for them. They are the victors of this whole story."
You can read the Post article for yourself HERE.
I talked a lot about voter suppression in these pages last year, during the 2012 election campaign. The struggle is far from over. At the end of last month Nevada Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, a Republican, told a conservative talk-show host that Republicans "have some real opportunities in 2014," and he explained why:
He may be correct, but right-wingers aren't leaving anything to chance, choosing to press forward with their agenda of suppressing access to the ballot box by those whose votes could conceivably make it a bad year for Republicans (and their reactionary allies). They don't want people of color, poor people, and young people to vote. Which brings us back to voter suppression.
On June 25, 2013, three months before Mr. Hickey made his revealing comments, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its Shelby County v. Holder decision, which had the effect of weakening one of the main enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The law had said that voting jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices had to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws. This approval was required by Section 5 of the VRA and was known as "preclearance." The Supreme Court threw it out in a 5-4 ruling.
And, sure enough, "Within days of the Supreme Court decision, six states with histories of pernicious voting suppression moved swiftly to restrict voting rights, unchecked by the preclearance process..." (as reported on the political website Politico). It was literally only hours after the Supremes issued their ruling that the State of Texas reintroduced "one of the strictest photo ID laws in the nation," which had been passed in 2011 but blocked by a lawsuit based on the VRA.
A few weeks later, on August 12th, an omnibus bill was signed into law in North Carolina that "goes far beyond requiring photo IDs in order to vote, but goes on to cut out a week of early voting, eliminate out-of-precinct voting, do away with same-day registration for early voting and open up ballots to challenge from voters outside the precinct." That's according to Legal Monitor Worldwide.
As I reported last year in NN #503 ("An Assault on Voting Rights That Is Historic"), there are as many ways to suppress votes as there are people who want to preserve white privilege in this country. What to do? Keep reading...
Is anybody doing anything to protect and strengthen the voting rights of historically disfranchised people, the people whose voting rights are currently under severe attack? Well, yes, lots of people—including elected officials—are doing lots of things, although the media has so far chosen to basically ignore any and all positive initiatives. I'd like to remind you of a couple of initiatives that I've mentioned before, and then talk about an attempt to address the problem by amending the Constitution. Then I'll give a few voting rights resources so you can learn more, and maybe get involved.
I reported in May of this year that President Obama has created something called the "Presidential Commission on Election Administration," which he said is supposed to "improve the voting experience in America." It is known as the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission after its two chairs, Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg, although to say that it's "known as" anything is misleading, since not a word has been heard of the Commission since it was created on May 21. (I explained the Commission and why it is likely to fail to address the problem in Nygaard Notes #529.)
The Commission has apparently been doing something. The Philadelphia Enquirer last month (in one of the rare news reports that mentions the Commission) reported that "a parade of election experts, academics, and activists" addressed a hearing held by the Commission (which they call "the panel") in that city on September 4th. The Inquirer reported, "Having already hosted meetings in Washington, D.C., Colorado, and Florida, the panel focused on training of poll workers, problems with voting machines, voter data management, overseas and military voting concerns, and ballot clarity—all of which, critics say, disproportionately affected poor and minority voters in the last election. After a final hearing in Ohio, the panel is to make its recommendations by December."
I'd like to report on what the Commission is up to lately, but a trip to their website finds this message: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available." Doh!
In June of last year, in Nygaard Notes #509, I highlighted a legislative initiative called the Voter Empowerment Act, which is aimed at addressing the problem of voter suppression. It was introduced in 2012, and reintroduced in 2013, by Georgia Congressman John Lewis in the U.S. House of Representatives and NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the U.S. Senate. As with the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission, these bills have been ignored by the media. But they're still there; Lewis' bill has 176 co-sponsors, Gillibrand's has 12. Ask your elected legislators what they're doing to support these bills.
Amending the Constitution
The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to vote. As the civil rights organization The Advancement Project says, "Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that there is no provision of U.S. law that affirmatively guarantees citizens the right to vote. No such right is explicitly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the 1965 Voting Rights Act or any other federal legislation." (I recommend you check out, and support, The Advancement Project and their Voter Protection Initiative)
Speaking about the lack of a constitutional guarantee, the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch said in May, "This gap in our founding document has provided an opening for the wave of voter suppression measures that swept the country in recent years, and before that, the poll taxes and Jim Crow restrictions that disenfranchised millions."
Stepping into the breach, Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and 21 co-sponsors introduced House Joint Resolution #44 in May of this year. The amendment they propose would simply guarantee every U.S. citizen of legal age the fundamental right to vote. Here's the whole amendment, as currently written:
It doesn't get much simpler than that. Talking Points Memo quoted Pocan explaining why it would be effective. "Essentially," says Pocan, "what it would do is it would put the burden on any of these states that try to make laws that are more restrictive that they would have to prove that they're not disenfranchising a voter. Rather than, currently, where a voter has to prove they've somehow been wronged by a state measure." It's like preclearance, but better.
Brentin Mock, wrote in Colorlines in August, "With a fractured Voting Rights Act now limited in how it can protect the ballot for people of color, and low confidence that Congress can fix it, the call for a constitutional amendment that enshrines the right to vote is growing louder."
In the wake of the June Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act, the Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, Rashad Robinson, issued a statement saying that
Organizing For Yes Instead of No
Any drive to amend the U.S. Constitution is an uphill battle, for sure. But remember that an organizing drive is not only about "winning." It's about changing hearts and minds. It's about learning to think and act strategically. It's about organizing.
Much of the energy of people concerned about voting rights in recent years has been defensive: NO to Voter ID. NO to the end of early voting. NO to felony disfranchisement. These battles are important, but when the attacks are occurring on so many fronts at once, it starts to feel a bit like a game of Whac-A-Mole—as soon as we knock one down, another one pops up.
A campaign for a Constitutional amendment could be different. The very fact that such a campaign would be bringing people together to affirm the right to vote even as that right is being attacked could offer a forward-looking basis for political engagement to a whole new generation. Such a proactive campaign to affirm a fundamental right has the potential to energize people in a way that a reactive, defensive battle has a hard time doing. I hope Colorlines is right when they say that "the call for a constitutional amendment is growing louder."
People who organize long-term know that the road is steep and full of bumps. Here's how a lot of organizers will tell you these things go: You lose. You lose. You lose. You lose. And then you win. So who knows if a campaign for a Right To Vote Amendment will succeed in the short term? But if a campaign can be put together that succeeds in uniting people around a vision of involvement, around a vision of engagement, of building a deeper and more meaningful democracy, then who knows what sort of victories might become possible? Only one way to find out...
In that spirit, here are a few groups to check out:
FairVote.org has a section of their website titled "Right to Vote Amendment." It's very useful, and I found the 19-page FairVote policy brief on right to vote amendment particularly interesting, if a little bit technical at points.
Other groups working on voting rights that you might want to check out include:
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has a Voting Rights Project, with lots of updates on legal fights around the nation.
I've already mentioned The Advancement Project's Voter Protection Initiative.