Thursday, February 28, 2013

Expanding the Voting Rights Act

Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act... still considered too much too soon by some

Given the nature of "law" and "justice" in this country, it's likely that the Supreme Court will find a way to strike down the Voting Rights Act and will leave it up to a dysfunctional Congress to rectify the consequences... or not as the case may be. Neo-Jim Crow, here we come.

For generations states have been trying to get out from under the onerous burden of holding free and fair elections in which voting is not "unduly" restricted, and given the successful efforts of many of them to interfere with the voting rights and opportunities of their citizens these last few years, it's clear they are champing at the bit to be liberated from oversight and get on with the business of limiting the franchise to the right sort of people once again -- free at last! Thank gawdal mighty, we free at last!

Though there have been no overt efforts to "unduly" restrict the franchise in New Mexico, there have been a number of ham-handed actions by county clerks and elections officials to gum up the works, most notoriously in Sandoval County in the last general election when far too few voting machines were provided for large-population precincts leading to unprecedentedly long lines and hours long waits to vote. It was so bad that the governor herself came down from Santa Fe and handed out bottles of water and snacks to those in line.

For the most part, elections in New Mexico are handled smoothly and relatively well given the vast empty expanses of the state and the heavy concentration of population in the Abq Metro area as well as the relatively primitive procedures employed -- such as (eek) hand-counting ballots.

If the Voting Rights Act is struck down, it's widely assumed that many states will revert to pre-VRA policies and procedures, which essentially means reverting to Jim Crow exclusionary laws and policies. What most Americans seem not to understand is that Jim Crow-style laws and policies were not limited to the South, they were practically universal throughout the country, and in many cases, the first order of business was disenfranchisement of large segments of the population. This was unfortunately considered a 'progressive' means of 'curbing corruption.'

So it is likely to be again if Congress doesn't intervene, and there is no sign whatever that this Congress will do any such thing.

Millions of course are already disenfranchised by the fact that they are on some list somewhere of convicted felons or other miscreants. Of course, non-citizens are unable to vote in any case. So part of the process of disenfranchisement includes restrictions on citizenship. In effect, those disenfrancised become a separate class of non-citizens who can be subjected to all kinds of mistreatment with impunity -- as they were when time was.

Those who advocated for the Voting Rights Act knew full well what these consequences were, and that was part of the motivation for the Act in the first place. It's not solely a matter of being able to vote, it is a matter of citizenship itself, and the dignity that is supposed go with it.

Apparently, the issue before the Court is whether things have reformed enough in the subject states that there is no longer any need for the oversight and conditions imposed on them by the Voting Rights Act. Practically everyone seems to think that the conservative majority of the Court will agree that the time has come to lift these provisions and overturn the Act, but not because things are necessarily permanently better. No, the issue now is that voting restrictions are being emplaced outside the designated states and jurisdictions, and therefore, the Act no longer works the way it was intended. By the authority vested in the Court, the time has come to overturn the Act and do something else.

There is no federal constitutional right to vote (despite references to it in some of the amendments.)  Perhaps the ideal "something else" would be an amendment that specifically grants the right to vote to all Americans in all elections with few restrictions -- as is customary in almost every other democracy on earth. The second choice might be to expand the provisions of the Voting Rights Act to all states without restricting its provisions to only those jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression. One of the interesting objections I've heard to that idea is that the DoJ would be "overwhelmed" with voting rights cases and issues and would be essentially paralyzed due to the sheer volume of voting rights violations. That may be. Would it necessarily be such a bad thing?

It would be in the sense that the issue would likely be litigated forever, which would more than likely mean that there would be endless delays in lifting "undue" voting restrictions, all the while endless creative attempts at enhancing voting restrictions would be undertaken. We know how these things play out.

On the other hand, I've said many times that voting as such is not the most effective means of making desirable policy changes, as the Voting Rights Act itself demonstrates. The Act was never subject to a vote of the People, of course, nor would it have been in any case. Nor, in fact, were those who voted for it in Congress elected on the understanding that the provisions of the Act would be their objective. That's not to say that the Act was somehow a mistake. It is to say that "voting" as such had little or nothing to do with the creation, passage and implementation of the Act. And so it is with most public policies especially at the Federal level. You don't get a vote on policy. You get to vote for personalities.

Policy changes generally happen through pressure from outside the electoral system, by effective and well placed advocates and activists. Which may mean high-priced lobbyists and their running dogs, or it may mean massive demonstrations in the streets, or it may mean populist uprisings of one sort or another. Strikes. Shutdowns. Resistance.

Voting by itself is generally not an effective means of accomplishing desirable change, nor is it meant to be.

But then, who really wants change, anyway?

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