In 2013 the supreme court gutted voting rights – how has it changed the US?

The supreme court struck down a formula at the heart of Voting Rights Act – now voters who are discriminated against bear the burden of proving they are disenfranchised. By Sam Levine and Ankita Rao in The Guardian, 25 Jun 2020

‘If I’m a Republican political consultant or strategist, the options that are available to me are now wider than they used to be,’ said Bryan Sells.
 ‘If I’m a Republican political consultant or strategist, the options that are available to me are now wider than they used to be,’ said Bryan Sells. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Seven years ago today, the supreme court issued one of the most consequential rulings in a generation in a case called Shelby county v Holder. In a 5-4 vote, the court struck down a formula at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that required certain states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get changes cleared by the federal government before they went into effect.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision. The power of the Voting Rights Act was in the design that the supreme court gutted – discriminatory voting policies could be blocked before they harmed voters. The law placed the burden of proof on government officials to prove why the changes they were seeking were not discriminatory. Now, voters who are discriminated against now bear the burden of proving they are disenfranchised.

Immediately after the decision, Republican lawmakers in Texas and North Carolina – two states previously covered by the law – moved to enact new voter ID laws and other restrictions. A federal court would later strike down the North Carolina law, writing it was designed to target African Americans “with almost surgical precision”.

“The scope of what, frankly, the right could do, in a pre-Shelby world was very limited. Now it’s not so limited,” said Bryan Sells, a voting rights attorney in Georgia. “If I’m a Republican political consultant or strategist, the options that are available to me are now wider than they used to be… It made it more advantageous to tinker.”

We may never know the full impact of the Shelby county decision. While statewide voting changes get a lot of attention, most of the voting changes the justice department reviewed were submitted by local jurisdictions. Now it’s much harder to even hear about those local changes – which include polling place closures or changing the way candidates are elected – let alone stop them, said Deuel Ross, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) who frequently challenges voting changes in the south.

The scope of what, frankly, the right could do, in a pre-Shelby world was very limitedBryan Sells

“Unless someone happens to know to call LDF or the ACLU or someone else and flags that for them, and we happen to have the resources to bring that litigation, nothing ever happens,” he said. “There’s so many things that I think slip through the cracks and have a real impact on Black representation,” he said.

The supreme court’s decision didn’t get rid of the Voting Rights Act entirely. Congress could restore the full power of the law by coming up with a new formula to determine which places need to submit their voting changes for pre-clearance. But since 2013, that hasn’t happened. House Democrats passed a new formula late last year, but Republicans in the senate have refused to take the measure up.

Here are some ways voting rights have been stripped since 2013:

Polling place closures

Between 2012 and 2018, there were 1,688 polling place closures in states previously covered by section five of the Voting Rights Act, according to a report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Before the Shelby county decision, local officials would have had to submit these changes for federal review and show they were not discriminatory. Now, local officials are free to make those changes under the radar without analyzing the discriminatory impact of the closures

Two hundred and fourteen of those closures were in Georgia, a state previously covered by the Voting Rights Act that is emerging as a political battleground. In 2015, Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s top election official, sent local election officials a memo outlining justifications for closing the polls and reminding them they no longer had to submit the changes for review to the federal government.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes to polling places in Georgia that either would have been stopped under section five or slowed down,” Sells said.

We can’t have any level of trust that what election officials are doing isn’t politically motivatedBryan Sells

Polling place closures again came into sharp focus this month as voters faced long lines during the state’s primary. Local election officials, facing a shortage of polling locations and poll workers, consolidated polling locations for the primary.

“We could rest a lot easier if in a non-Shelby world if whatever changes were going to be more implemented as a result of the virus would not weigh more heavily on minority voters than they would on whites,” Sells said. “Now, in this kind of world we can’t have any level of trust that what election officials are doing isn’t politically motivated.”

Voter ID laws

Voter ID laws have long been found to disenfranchise people of color and marginalized communities, who are less likely to have the kinds of IDs states require to vote.

After the Shelby decision, Texas Republicans resurrected SB 14 – a strict voter ID bill that required that voters should one of a handful of government issued IDs to vote. Before Shelby, the justice department refused to approve the law, but after the decision, Texas announced the law would “immediately” be in effect. Years later, the law was found to be discriminatory against Black and Latinx communities, and struck down again. But eventually lawmakers created a new version of the bill, SB 5, with minor adjustments, which passed in 2017.

Meanwhile, Alabama enforced a law requiring photo ID starting in 2014, as did Mississippi. In North Carolina, the state where a federal court previously blocked a voter ID law, Republicans are pushing a new voter ID law that has been blocked thus far. In every state concerned, civil rights advocates have pointed out that Black and Latinx voters were more likely not to have a government issued photo ID.

Proof of citizenship

In 2013, Arizona Republicans implemented a new system requiring residents to show proof of US citizenship in local and state elections – a controversial restriction lambasted by civil rights advocates. The supreme court had decided earlier that year that Arizona, a state previously covered by the Voting Rights Act, could not require proof of citizenship to vote in federal elections, but Arizona’s attorney general and secretary of state said they could still require it for state and local elections. Now, Arizona provides separate ballots for presidential races and state elections – requiring a dual registration process that critics say depresses voter turnout, especially in Native American and minority communities.

Requiring proof of citizenship to vote, however, is an increasingly popular stance for Republican lawmakers. Last year, Texas attempted to question the citizenship status of 100,000 registered voters, before admitting its claim was based on false data. In Alabama and Georgia there have been citizenship proof laws passed before the Shelby county decision, but neither state is currently implementing them. Federal courts have also blocked a Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. The measure was estimated to have affected 30,000 people.

Meanwhile, it is very rare that a non-citizens attempt to vote in the US, according to the Brennan Center, and sometimes they are registered by accident. But requiring proof of citizenship can backfire for US citizens, especially those who live in mixed immigration status households, or those who, similar to photo IDs, lack the proper documentation.

The 2020 election will be just the second presidential contest since 1965 where the Voting Rights Act isn’t in full effect. Writing for the supreme court in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts said that voting discrimination was no longer as severe as it was when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. But the mounting evidence in the years since the decision have shown that just isn’t the case – the law may be needed now more than ever.

“Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent for the court.Topics


Sanders: Cut the Pentagon By 10% to Hire More Teachers, Build More Homes and Create More Jobs

WASHINGTON – Today, ahead of the Senate’s consideration of a proposed $740.5 billion military budget authorization, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took to the Senate floor to call for a 10% cut in annual Pentagon spending to invest in education, health care and poverty reduction in America’s most marginalized communities.

Sanders’ amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, cosponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), would take the $74 billion in annual savings from Pentagon cuts—which exempt salaries and health care of military personnel—to create a federal grant program to fund health care, housing, childcare and educational opportunities for cities and towns experiencing a poverty rate of 25% or more.

“At this pivotal moment in American history,” said Sanders, “we have to make a fundamental decision. Do we want to spend billions more on endless wars in the Middle East, or do we want to provide decent jobs to millions of unemployed Americans here at home? Do we want to spend more money on nuclear weapons or do we want to invest in decent jobs and childcare and healthcare for the American people most in need?”

The statement was carried live on the Senator’s social media channels and can be viewed on Twitter or Facebook.

The Senator’s prepared remarks are as follows:

“Mr. President, if there was ever a moment in American history when we needed to fundamentally alter our national priorities, now is that time.  

Whether it is fighting against systemic racism and police brutality, transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel, ending a cruel and dysfunctional healthcare system or addressing the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country – now is the time for change, real change.

And when we talk about real change it is incredible to me the degree to which Congress continues to ignore our bloated $740 billion defense budget – which has gone up by over $100 billion since Trump has been in office.  

Year after year Democrats and Republicans, who disagree on almost everything, come together with minimal debate to support an exploding Pentagon budget which is now higher than the next 11 nations combined, and represents more than half of our discretionary spending.  

Incredibly, after adjusting for inflation, we are now spending more on the military than we did during the height of the Cold War or during the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

This extraordinary level of military spending comes at a time when the Department of Defense is the only agency of our federal government that has not been able to pass an independent audit, when defense contractors are making enormous profits while paying their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages, and when the so-called “War on Terror” will end up costing us some $6 trillion.

I believe this is a moment in history when it would be a good idea for all of my colleagues, and the American people, to remember what former Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1953.  And, as we all recall, Eisenhower was a four star general who led the allied forces to victory in Europe during World War II.  Eisenhower said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

What Eisenhower said was true 67 years ago, and it is true today.

If the horrific pandemic we are now experiencing has taught us anything it is that national security means a lot more than building bombs, missiles, jet fighters, tanks, submarines, nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.  National security also means doing everything we can to improve the lives of our people, many of whom have been abandoned by our government decade after decade.

In order to begin the process of transforming our national priorities I have filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act with Senator Markey to reduce the military budget by 10 percent and use the $74 billion in savings to invest in distressed communities around the country that have been ravaged by extreme poverty, mass incarceration, deindustrialization and decades of neglect.

At a time when more Americans have died from the coronavirus than were killed fighting in World War I, when over 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in recent months, when tens of millions of Americans are in danger of being evicted from their homes, when education in America from childcare to graduate school is in desperate need of reform, when half a million Americans are homeless, and when close to 100 million people are either uninsured or under-insured – now is the time to invest in our people – in jobs, education, housing and healthcare here at home.

Under this amendment, distressed cities and towns in every state in the country would be able to use these funds to create jobs by building affordable housing, schools, childcare facilities, community health centers, public hospitals, libraries, sustainable energy projects, and clean drinking water facilities. 

These communities would also receive federal funding to hire more public school teachers, provide nutritious meals to children and parents and offer free tuition at public colleges, universities or trade schools.

Mr. President, at this pivotal moment in American history, we have to make a fundamental decision.  Do we want to spend billions more on endless wars in the Middle East, or do we want to provide decent jobs to millions of unemployed Americans here at home?  Do we want to spend more money on nuclear weapons or do we want to invest in decent jobs and childcare and healthcare for the American people most in need? 

Mr. President, when we analyze the Defense Department budget it is interesting to note that Congress has appropriated so much money for the Defense Department that the Pentagon literally does not know what to do with it.  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), between 2013 and 2018 the Pentagon returned more than $80 billion in funding back to the Treasury.

In my view, the time is long overdue for us to take a hard look not only at the size of the Pentagon budget, but at the enormous amount of waste, cost overruns, fraud, and at the financial mismanagement that has plagued the Department of Defense for decades.  

Mr. President, let’s be clear.  About half of the Pentagon’s budget goes directly into the hands of private contractors, not our troops.  

And, over the past two decades, virtually every major defense contractor in the United States has paid millions of dollars in fines and settlements for misconduct and fraud – all while making huge profits on those government contracts.  

Since 1995, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and United Technologies have paid over $3 billion in fines or related settlements for fraud or misconduct. Yet, those three companies received around $1 trillion in defense contracts over the past two decades alone. 

Further, Mr. President, I find it interesting that the very same defense contractors that have been found guilty or reached settlements for fraud are also paying their CEOs excessive compensation packages.

Last year, the CEOs of Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman both made over $20 million in total compensation while around 90% of the companies’ revenue came from defense contracts.  In other words, these companies for all intent and purposes are governmental agencies where the CEOs make over a hundred times more than the Secretary of Defense.  It’s not too surprising, therefore, that we have a revolving door where our military people end up on the boards of directors of these major defense companies.

Moreover, Mr. President, as the GAO has told us, there are massive cost overruns in the Defense Department’s acquisition budget that we have got to address. 

According to GAO, the Pentagon’s $1.8 trillion acquisition portfolio currently suffers from more than $628 billion in cost overruns with much of the cost growth taking place after production. 

GAO tells us that “many DoD programs fall short of cost, schedule, and performance expectations, meaning DoD pays more than anticipated, can buy less than expected, and, in some cases, delivers less capability to the warfighter.”  

Mr. President, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan concluded in 2011 that $31-$60 billion spent in Iraq and Afghanistan had been lost to fraud and waste. 

Separately, in 2015, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that the Pentagon could not account for $45 billion in funding for reconstruction projects.   

And more recently, an audit conducted by Ernst & Young for the Defense Logistics Agency found that it could not properly account for some $800 million in construction projects.  

Mr. President, that is unacceptable.

I believe in a strong military.  But we cannot keep giving more money to the Pentagon than it needs when millions of children in this country are food insecure and 140 million Americans can’t afford the basic necessities of life without going into debt.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned us that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The time is long overdue to listen to Dr. King.

At a time when, in the richest country in the history of the world, half of our people are struggling paycheck to paycheck, when over 40 million Americans are living in poverty, and when over 500,000 Americans are homeless, we are approaching spiritual death.

At a time when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on earth, and when millions of Americans are in danger of going hungry, we are approaching spiritual death.

At a time when over 60,000 Americans die each year because they can’t afford to get to a doctor on time, and one out of five Americans can’t afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe, we are approaching spiritual death.

Now, at this moment of unprecedented national crisis, it is time to rethink what we value as a society and to fundamentally transform our national priorities.  

Now at this moment of unprecedented national crises – a growing pandemic, an economic meltdown, the demand to end systemic racism and police brutality, and an unstable president – it is time for us to truly focus on what we value as a society and to fundamentally transform our national priorities.

Cutting the military budget by 10 percent and investing that money in human needs is a modest way to begin that process.

And as President Eisenhower said as he left office in 1961: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.””###