Project Wonderful

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Today In Voter Suppression: Bring Back Preclearance

When I first wrote about the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby v. Holder I wrote, "The Supreme Court must uphold Section 5 and identify this challenge for what it is: the latest in a long line of Republican attempts to rewrite the rules of a game they are losing." The Court did not uphold Section 5 and now we are seeing the results.

This excellent New York Times piece starts out in Sparta, Georgia telling the terrifying but true story of law enforcement tracking down citizens to challenge their right to vote.

When the deputy sheriff’s patrol cruiser pulled up beside him as he walked down Broad Street at sunset last August, Martee Flournoy, a 32-year-old black man, was both confused and rattled. He had reason: In this corner of rural Georgia, African-Americans are arrested at a rate far higher than that of whites.

But the deputy had not come to arrest Mr. Flournoy. Rather, he had come to challenge Mr. Flournoy’s right to vote.

The majority-white Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration was systematically questioning the registrations of more than 180 black Sparta citizens — a fifth of the city’s registered voters — by dispatching deputies with summonses commanding them to appear in person to prove their residence or lose their voting rights. “When I read that letter, I was kind of nervous,” Mr. Flournoy said in an interview. “I didn’t know what to do.”

The board of election claimed that these actions were taken to protect the sanctity of the process, not as form of voter suppression, but the facts tell a different story.

By October, a month before the city election, the board and a private citizen who appears to have worked with its white members had challenged the legality of 187 registered voters in Sparta. The board removed 53 of them, virtually all African-Americans — roughly one of every 20 voters. As a “courtesy,” court papers state, county sheriff’s deputies served summonses on the targeted voters, commanding them to defend themselves at election board meetings.

Some did, and were restored to the rolls. Others reacted differently to a police officer’s knock on their door.

“A lot of voters are actually calling to say they no longer wish to be on the list, so now we have people coming off the list who no longer want to vote,” Tiffany Medlock, the elections supervisor for the Hancock County elections board, told a Macon television reporter in late September. “It’ll probably affect the City of Sparta’s election in a major way.”

What does this have to do with Shelby? As the Times points out:

[T]he purge of Sparta voters is precisely the sort of electoral maneuver that once would have needed Justice Department approval before it could be put in effect. In Georgia and all or part of 14 other states, the 1965 Voting Rights Act required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to receive so-called preclearance before changing the way voter registration and elections were conducted.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court declared the preclearance mandate unconstitutional, saying the blatant discrimination it was meant to prevent was largely a thing of the past.

But since the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in the voting-rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, critics argue, the blatant efforts to keep minorities from voting have been supplanted by a blizzard of more subtle changes. Most conspicuous have been state efforts like voter ID laws or cutbacks in early voting periods, which critics say disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Less apparent, but often just as contentious, have been numerous voting changes enacted in counties and towns across the South and elsewhere around the country.

The article then goes on to point out similarly tragic and avoidable racially motivated voter suppression schemes in other parts of the country previously covered by the preclearance statute.

They appear as Republican legislatures and election officials in the South and elsewhere have imposed statewide restrictions on voting that could depress turnout by minorities and other Democrat-leaning groups in a crucial presidential election year. Georgia and North Carolina, two states whose campaigns against so-called voter fraud have been cast by critics as aimed at black voters, could both be contested states in autumn’s presidential election.

The local voting changes have often gone unnoticed and unchallenged. A June survey by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that governments in six former preclearance states have closed registration or polling places, making it harder for minorities to vote. Local jurisdictions in six more redrew districts or changed election rules in ways that diluted minorities’ votes.

Alabama moved last year to close 31 driver’s license offices, almost all in rural areas with large African-American populations, as a cost-saving measure. After lawsuit threats and complaints that the closings would severely curtail local voter registration, the state chose to open the offices at least one day a month. Gov. Robert J. Bentley, a Republican, has strongly denied that the closings were racially motivated.

In Hernando County, Fla.; Cleveland and Watauga Counties in North Carolina; Baldwin County, Ala.; and elsewhere, elections officials eliminated or moved polling places in largely minority districts; a state court overturned the Watauga County closure.

The Republican majority in North Carolina’s General Assembly redrew the political districts last year in Wake County, whose main city is Raleigh, concentrating black voters in the city center into a single voting district. (A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that map unconstitutional.) In Pasadena, Tex., officials eliminated two District Council seats in largely Hispanic areas in 2014 and replaced them with at-large seats chosen largely by white voters. Hispanic voters have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to undo the change.

In Macon-Bibb County, Ga., in February, the elections board moved a polling place in a predominantly black neighborhood from a gymnasium that was being renovated to the county sheriff’s office. Officials changed the location to a church after a petition drive legally forced a reversal.

It isn't difficult to make the connection between the recent wave of police violence toward black people with the criminalization of black people voting. This is voter suppression and racial injustice at its most base. Would you register to vote if you knew that it might result in the police at your door, even though you didn't do anything? If you lived in an environment where police shot people like you for driving, walking, and shopping? Preclearance needs to be reinstated and our country needs a good long look in the mirror.

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