Free At Last – To Do What?

June 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I haven’t read most of the reactions to Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court decision that eviscerates the Voting Rights Act.  But I would guess that for pure offensiveness, adding insult to injury, it would be hard to top the WSJ op-ed by Abigail Thernstrom.

What Shelby was all about was the ability of Republican-controlled states to ensure Republican dominance by making it harder for poor and minority citizens, who lean to the Democratic party, to vote.*  In case that wasn’t clear, immediately following the decision, six states reintroduced voter restrictions that VRA pre-clearance had previously not allowed.  Texas moved ahead with redistricting designed to reduce the number of minority and Democratic districts. 

Democrats and especially Black politicians and commentators were dismayed by the Court’s decision. But Thernstrom assures them that the ruling “will benefit black America.”  Here’s how. In a state with sharp racial divisions, the only way a Black politician can get elected is to have a district where Blacks are in the majority.  If a state divides those Black voters up among two or three other districts, they will be minority in all districts and thus have no office holders. 

But such dilution of voting strength is a good thing, says Thernstrom
The black candidates who ran in such enclaves [i.e., Black-majority districts] never acquired the skills to venture into the world of competitive politics in majority-white settings . . . . In this sense, the law [that prevented that dilution] became a brake on minority political aspirations.”**
Like Chief Justice Roberts and Steven Colbert, Thernstrom doesn’t see race.  We are in the era of post-racial politics.  Poll taxes and literacy tests – that’s all history.  Even the impulses that gave rise to them have long since disappeared.  “Times have changed,” says Thernstrom, “and whites now vote for black candidates at every level of government.”  That’s right.  In Alabama, Obama did get the votes of some White people.  Unfortunately, neither of them would speak on the record.  (I exaggerate.  There were more than two.  In fact, a whopping 16% of Whites in Alabama voted for Obama, which is more than in Mississippi, 11%.) **

The message of Thernstrom’s piece is patronizing in the extreme.  Basically, she is saying, “Oh you ignorant Black people. You don’t know what’s good for you. The five Republicans on the Supreme Court (four White men plus the unfailingly loyal Justice Thomas) do know what’s good for you.  That’s why they’re giving the White Republicans in the South free rein to rewrite their voting laws.  You’ll be so much better off now. Trust me.”

As if that weren’t enough, she says that the decision to make the VRA nearly unenforceable “is a celebration of the Voting Rights Act.” 

And the crowning insult: 
With the courts decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the “covered” jurisdictions (mostly in the South) are free at last to exercise their constitutional prerogative to regulate their own elections.
That “free at last” bit surely was no accident.  Does anyone really wonder what the Republicans in Alabamac Georgia, etc. will do their with new-found freedom, or what effect that prerogative will have on minority representation?  And does anyone really wonder which side of Shelby would have had the support of Rev. King?

* They legislators never come right out and say this.  Well, hardly ever.  There was that GOP leader in Pennsylvania, who crowed about “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.”
**I wonder how Thernstrom and the SCOTUS majority would react if the colors were reversed – if Whites were a minority, and Blacks were making the voting laws.

*** I do not have data on Whites voting for Black candidates in state and local elections in Alabama and the other states designated by the VRA.  Thernstrom, needless to say, does not provide any data.


Bob S. said...

Tell me how requiring a state provided identification card is making it harder for minorities but not whites to vote?

Jay Livingston said...

The guy in Pennsylvania seemed to think so. And why else would these laws all be favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats? Are these people whose business is politics all delusional? Maybe so. But believe it or not, some people do not carry a photo ID, and those people tend to be poor and non-White. Ditto for those who are most distant from state bureaucracies. The more requirements a state imposes, the more it will exclude the poor and non-White. That was the effect of poll taxes and literacy tests. And I’d bet that if you dug around in the historical archives, you’d find politicians at the time – the politicians who passed those laws – spouting wonderful-sounding, non-race justifications and maybe even asking the same innocent question about those requirements that you ask about Voter ID.

Nate Silver here, who is usually reliable, estimates a suppression of 0.8-2.4% – not enough to effect “safe” states or districts, but possibly consequential in close races. And most of the suppressed votes will be Democratic.

Bob S. said...

And why else would these laws all be favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats?

So because some one "thinks" it will be harder -- that is a reason not to do it?
And as far as the left/right divide; which side favors following the rules more?

But believe it or not, some people do not carry a photo ID, and those people tend to be poor and non-White.

Any evidence to support that and it doesn't address the question. If poor people don't carry ID, why would it be harder for minorities to get ID?

And to bring it back to a favorite subject of mine; how does this square with suppport for gun control laws like registration, concealed carry permits, etc?

Surely those laws and permits (which costs considerable more than a free id) have to be deemed discriminatory?

Jay Livingston said...

A voter ID may be free, but the documentation required to get it (e.g., a birth certificate) may not be.

A fixed dollar amount for anything is more costly to a poor person than to a rich person. So I agree that such fees – highway tolls, driver’s licenses, carry permits, etc. – are discriminatory, and it would be fairer to base the fee on wealth. Actually assessing those fees would be impractical if not impossible.

As for evidence, no I have none. But would bet you, say, $500 that if we find such evidence, it will show that not having a photo ID is more prevalent among the poor than among those with more money, among Blacks and Hispanics rather than Whites, and among the less educated rather than those with degrees. Care to fade my action?