(image by robertreich.org)
My guest today is economist, author and political commentator, Robert Reich.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome back to OpEdNews, Robert. You sent out a recent Common Cause missive about getting Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act. Why all the commotion?
Robert Reich: Because several key states that, prior to the Supreme Court's "Shelby County vs. Holder" decision were under Justice Department review, are now free to put roadblocks in the way of minority voters. Unless Congress acts quickly to amend the Voting Rights Act, those states will be actively suppressing their votes November's midterm elections.
JB: More background, please. Why were some states being supervised in the first place? Which ones?
RR: They were southern states with long records of voter suppression. Even as late as 2006, Congress by huge margins reauthorized this part of the Voting Rights Act, recognizing that the problems continued. A majority of the Supreme Court -- all Republican appointees -- chose to disregard this explicit decision of Congress, and instead decide on their own that these states no longer merited Justice Department review. The Court used the fact that Barack Obama carried several of these states as evidence.
JB: How often is the Voting Rights Acts reauthorized? Is it subject to the whims of Congress on a yearly basis? And since when has the Supreme Court weighed in on it? We need some more historical context.
RR: Okay. Some background: The Voting Rights Act has been amended five times to expand its protections. Section 5 prohibits certain states from implementing any change affecting voting without first obtaining approval from the Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the of the U.S District, who must find that the voting change doesn't have a racially discriminatory purpose or effect. The states covered by that provision had engaged in the most egregious voting discrimination in 1965. Congress updated the formula in 1970 and 1975, and then, in 2006, extended the provisions for another 25 years with the same coverage formula. The vote in the Senate was 98 to 0, and George W. Bush signed it into law. That's what's so odd about the Court's reasoning in "Shelby County," only seven years later -- arguing that the coverage formula was unconstitutional because it was no longer responsive to current conditions. How did the Court know? That's also why it's so important for Congress to enact a new formula for determining what states are covered. Otherwise, none will be.
JB: What do you mean when you ask, "How did the Court know?" How does the Court know anything? What do they base their decisions on? Sound reasoning? Whim? Political agenda? Something else?
RR: That's the problem. The Court's majority merely assumed that those particular states had somehow remedied their histories of discrimination because many of their citizens had voted for Barack Obama for president, and for black candidates for some other offices. But that's like arguing that there's no need for an umbrella because the sun is shining. The reason these states were required to get clearance from the Attorney General before changing their voting laws in the 1965 Act was they had a long record of altering their voting laws in ways that discriminated against African-American voters, and might well do so again. And an overwhelming majority of Congress recognized this reality as recently as 2006.
JB: How do we go about remedying the situation so we won't suffer from more voter suppression going forward? And we do have the midterms coming up so it has be to fast.
RR: Congress has to come up with a new formula for determining which states need pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act -- and has to do so well before November's midterm. Granted, that's going to be hard to do, given the prevailing gridlock. But without it, the Voting Rights Act won't be the bulwark against voter suppression it was intended to be. In the meantime, the Justice Department must take to the federal courts any and all states that may be suppressing minority votes.
JB: Is there any sign that the Justice Department is on top of this? Sees this as a priority? And if not, what's to be done?
RR: The Justice Department is taking voter suppression very seriously. The problem is the Department is understaffed, with too many important laws to enforce and too few enforcement resources. Taking a state to the federal courts, and getting an injunction against state laws or rules that suppress the votes of minorities, is labor-intensive and difficult. Many district court judges are reluctant to intrude unless the Department has ample evidence of discriminatory effect. Yet several of the laws and rules that now impose burdens on voters (such as providing a driver's license at polling places, or eliminating early voting) have been implemented recently, and don't yet show they'll have a disproportionate burden on minority voters.
JB: What're we talking about numbers-wise? How many votes in how many states will be affected?
RR: If nothing is done, potentially millions of votes.