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Context of 'March 24, 1966: Supreme Court Finds Poll Taxes Unconstitutional'

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The US Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment, giving African-American men, and in theory men of other minorities, the right to vote. The Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Over a century later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will write, “In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, the Fifteenth Amendment is one of the major tools which enabled African-Americans to more fully participate in democracy.” It will be ratified by the states in 1870. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; The Constitution: Amendments 11-27 2012)

Florida’s legislature passes a number of laws designed to disenfranchise African-American voters. The provisions include a poll tax and an “eight box law,” under which voters are required to place ballots in correct boxes which are then shifted throughout the day. Between 1888 and 1892, voter turnout among African-Americans will drop from 62 percent to 11 percent. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Justice Henry Brown.Justice Henry Brown. [Source: Wikimedia]The US Supreme Court rules 7-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law requiring “equal but separate accomodations for the white and colored races” is constitutional. Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man who sometimes “passed” as white, took part in a plan by a small number of black professionals seeking to have a court overturn the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890. Plessy boarded a whites-only railroad car and was arrested, as per arrangement, by a private detective. The group intended to use Plessy’s light skin tone to demonstrate how arbitrary and unconstitutional the law was. Plessy’s lawyers argued that Louisiana’s segregation law violated both the Thirteenth Amendment, which bars slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law (see July 9, 1868). Louisiana courts consistently found against Plessy, and the case moved all the way to the Supreme Court. Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Henry Brown rules that the law does not “discriminate” among legal rights by race, but merely recognizes a “distinction” between races “which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color.” He adds: “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” The ruling establishes the “separate but equal” doctrine that informs many states’ decision to segregate public facilities—schools, railcars, even drinking fountains. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner and a pro-slavery politician, writes a fiery dissent that refutes Brown’s assertion that the Louisiana law discriminates equally among whites and blacks. Harlan writes, “Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons.” He disagrees with the majority opinion’s finding that segregation on railcars does not violate African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. But Harlan does not advocate social equality among the races. Instead, he argues that legally imposed segregation denies political equality. Harlan writes: “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” Harlan’s dissent becomes the underpinning of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (see May 17, 1954). (Konkoly 12/2006; PBS 12/2006)

The US Supreme Court upholds a Mississippi law requiring citizens to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote. The Williams v. Mississippi decision holds that such tests do not violate the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869) as long as they are applied equally to all prospective voters. The literacy test stemmed from a state “Constitutional convention” that codified a “compromise” between white slaveowners and those who opposed their iron control of the Mississippi state government. The compromise would declare all illiterate Mississippi citizens as ineligible to vote, but the real purpose of the convention—to disenfranchise blacks—was well known. James Kimble Vardaman, who would later become governor, said of the convention: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n_gger from politics; not the ignorant—but the n_gger.” White Republican Marsh Cook challenged the Democrats for a seat to the convention and was murdered in response. The only African-American delegate to the convention, Isaiah Montgomery, was invited because of his willingness to support disenfranchisement. The convention established the literacy test, establishing as a proper test the reading of any selected section of the Mississippi Constitution, or giving a valid explanation of it once it was read to the voter. Registrars would interpret the success or failure of the voters’ attempts to pass the test. Since all Mississippi registrars are white, the likelihood that even a literate African-American would pass the test was slim at best. However, the Court ignores the intent of the law to disenfranchise blacks, writing: “[T]he operation of the constitution and laws is not limited by their language or effects to one race. They reach weak and vicious white men as well as weak and vicious black men, and whatever is sinister in their intention, if anything, can be prevented by both races by the exertion of that duty which voluntarily pays taxes and refrains from crime.” Other states, mainly Southern, will quickly adopt their own version of literacy tests. (PBS 2002; PBS 12/2006)

The US Supreme Court overrules Oklahoma’s “grandfather clause” law in the case of Guinn v. United States, finding the law unconstitutional. The Oklahoma law is similar to laws passed in Louisiana and other states (see 1896) in order to ensure that African-Americans cannot legally vote regardless of the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869). Illiterate males can vote only if they can prove their grandfathers had the right to vote. Since almost all African-Americans were slaves during that time, it is impossible for almost all African-Americans to prove their grandfathers had the right to vote. Illiterate white men, however, can often prove their grandfathers could vote. (PBS 12/2006; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court, ruling in Breedlove v. Settles, finds a poll tax implemented in Georgia law to be constitutional. The Court decision effectively abrogates the right of most African-Americans in Georgia to vote, as most of them cannot pay the poll tax. The Court ruling serves to disenfranchise many African-Americans for decades. Some Southern states will employ poll taxes well into the 1960s. (PBS 12/2006; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress 1994; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1957, the first such law to pass Congress since the federal civil rights laws of 1875. The law allows the US attorney general to bring suits to address discrimination and voter intimidation against African-Americans and other minorities. The CRA is the jumping-off point of successive legislative attempts to grant equal rights and protections for minority citizens. President Eisenhower was never a vocal supporter of civil rights, believing that such changes had to come from within the “heart” and not be imposed by legislation from Washington. However, he does support the CRA, and helped push it through Congress against entrenched resistance, largely but not entirely from Southern Democrats determined to protect segregationist practices even after the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954). The CRA originally created a new division within the Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses, but Senate Democrats, led by Lyndon Johnson (D-TX), worked to water down the bill in order to keep Southern Democrats and more liberal Democrats from the west and northeast from tearing the party apart along ideological lines. Johnson, along with Senator James O. Eastland (D-MS), rewrote the CRA to take much of its power away. The final version does grant new protections for African-American voters, pleasing the liberals of the Democratic Party, but contains almost no enforcement procedures for those found obstructing African-Americans’ attempts to vote, thus mollifying the conservative wing of the party. Eisenhower himself admitted that he did not understand parts of the bill. African-American leader Ralph Bunche, a prominent US diplomat, calls the act a sham and says he would rather have no bill than the CRA. But Bayard Rustin, a leader of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), says the bill has symbolic value as the first piece of civil rights legislation passed in 82 years. (History Learning Site 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court rules in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections that literacy tests for voting in North Carolina are constitutional. The case was brought by an African-American voter who argued that his right to vote was being unconstitutionally constrained. The Court rules that because the literacy test applies to all voters, it is legal (see April 25, 1898). The American Civil Liberties Union will call the ruling “a major setback to voting rights.” (PBS 12/2006; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The adoption of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibits Congress and the 50 states from imposing poll taxes or other types of taxes on voters participating in federal elections. Before World War II, an African-American citizen told a reporter, “Do you know I’ve never voted in my life, never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the poll tax?” During the ceremony formalizing the adoption of the amendment, President Lyndon Johnson says, “There can be no one too poor to vote.” (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; The Constitution: Amendments 11-27 2012; America's Library 2012) Among other laws it overturns, the amendment invalidates the 1937 Supreme Court ruling that found poll taxes legal (see December 6, 1937).

Alabama police attack civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, Alabama.Alabama police attack civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, Alabama. [Source: Library of Congress]Over 500 non-violent civil rights marchers are attacked by law enforcement officers during a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The attack takes place while the marchers are crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma. The march is to protest the disenfranchisement of African-American voters, and to protest the fatal police shooting of civil rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson. The marchers are badly beaten by police officers and white residents wielding billy clubs and tear gas, and driven back into Selma. The marchers heed the non-violent teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, and refuse to counterattack. The attack, later termed “Bloody Sunday,” is shown on national television, sparking a national outcry. Two days later, King will lead a symbolic march to the bridge, and he and other civil rights leaders will secure court protection for a third, large-scale march from Selma to Montgomery. A week later, President Lyndon Johnson will denounce the attack as “deadly wrong.” On March 21, King will lead some 3,200 marchers from Selma to Montgomery, reaching the capitol on March 25. By the time they reach Montgomery, the number of marchers will have grown to around 25,000. The attack helps spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965). (Finch 2001; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869), the VRA is a potent set of statutes that permanently bars direct barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities. It bans any election practice that denies the right to vote due to race, and requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval of changes in their election laws before they can take effect. The VRA forbids literacy tests (see 1896, April 25, 1898, and June 8, 1959) and other barriers to registration that have worked to stop minority voters from exercising their rights (see 1888, June 21, 1915, and February 4, 1964). Sections 2 and 5 of the VRA work together to prohibit states from establishing voting qualifications or standards that interfere with a citizen’s right to vote on a racial basis. Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before altering any laws pertaining to voting—this includes changing electoral districts, voter qualification rules, and even changes in government structure such as making a formerly elective office appointive. If the changes can be seen as possibly “diluting” minority voting strength, they can be disallowed. States wishing to challenge the VRA restrictions have the opportunity to have their cases heard in federal court. Section 2 has similar, if less restrictive, provisions that apply nationally. Section 10 of the VRA takes direct aim at the Breedlove ruling from the Supreme Court (see December 6, 1937), which had legitimized poll taxes used to disenfranchise minority voters. That portion of the VRA finds that poll taxes “impose… unreasonable financial hardship” and “precludes persons of limited means from voting.” The VRA also forbids the use of literacy tests, good character tests, and other such tests used in the past to suppress minority voting. The law urges the attorney general to urge the Court to overrule Breedlove; minutes after Johnson signs the bill into law, he directs the attorney general “to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax.” The Court will find poll taxes unconstitutional in its Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections ruling (see March 24, 1966). The US Department of Justice and the federal courts now have the power to monitor problem jurisdictions and assist private citizens in seeking redress through the courts if their voting rights are infringed. Months later, the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the VRA. (eNotes 2004; American Civil Liberties Union 2012; Ackerman and Ayres 2/8/2012)

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, finds Virginia’s law upholding “poll taxes” to be unconstitutional. The 7-2 decision finds that poll taxes—fees demanded of voters, which have been used for over a century to disenfranchise minority voters (see February 4, 1964 and December 6, 1937)—violate the Constitution by imposing discriminatory restrictions on voting. Justice William O. Douglas writes the majority opinion, with Justice Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II dissenting. Douglas cites the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954) and the recently passed Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965) in his ruling. (Legal Information Institute 2011)

Congress renews the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA—see August 6, 1965) for five more years. Unfortunately, the law’s provisions are temporary. Congress also finds that many states are purposefully ignoring some provisions of the law. In the hearings about the law’s extension, Congress heard about the many ways voting electorates were manipulated through gerrymandering, annexations, at-large elections (see April 22, 1980), and other methods to disenfranchise minority voters. (African American Voices in Congress 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

President Gerald Ford reauthorizes the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and 1970). The reauthorization contains new provisions to permanently bar literacy tests nationwide and provide language assistance for minority voters. The law also extends the “preclearance” provisions that require courts to monitor states with a history of discrimination. During hearings about the bill, Congress heard testimony about voting discrimination being carried out against Hispanic, Asian, and Native American citizens. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; African American Voices in Congress 2012)

The Supreme Court alters voting rights in the case of Beer v. United States. The Court rules that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) allows for “preclearance” of election changes that are unfair to minorities as long as the changes are not “retrogressive,” or make conditions worse than they already are. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; BEER v. UNITED STATES, 425 U.S. 130 (1976) 2012)

The US Supreme Court guts a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) by ruling that voters must prove racially discriminatory intent in order to prevail in litigation under the VRA. In the case of City of Mobile v. Bolden, the Court rules 6-3 that the previous standard of proving discriminatory results is no longer adequate. Disenfranchised voters must now prove intent, a far higher standard, before receiving redress. The case originates in Mobile, Alabama’s practice of electing city commissioners under an at-large voting scheme. No African-American had ever been elected to the commission, and a number of Mobile citizens challenged the constitutionality of the at-large scheme. The Court found that at-large schemes such as that employed by the city of Mobile only violate the Constitution if they deliberately serve to minimize or cancel out the voting potential of minorities. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the plurality, finds that the right to equal participation in the electoral process is aimed not for the protection of any political group. Moreover, he writes that the evidence fails to show that Mobile operates a voting system with the intent to discriminate. The conservative justices largely side with Stewart. The liberals are split. Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens concur with Stewart’s ruling for different reasons than those expressed by Stewart. Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Byron White dissent, with Brennan and White arguing that the burden of proof had been met, and Marshall arguing that the burden of proof should be on Mobile to show that it refused to modify its voting scheme despite the evidence of discrimination. (MOBILE v. BOLDEN, 446 US 55 (1980) 4/22/1980 pdf file; Casebriefs 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Congress reauthorizes the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) for 25 years, until 2014. It also overturns via legislation the Supreme Court’s decision to force voters to prove discriminatory intent before receiving redress (see April 22, 1980). President Reagan signs the bill into law. The reauthorization also adds protections for blind, disabled, and illiterate voters. Reagan calls the right to vote a “crown jewel” of American liberties. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Florida, already using controversial and error-ridden “purge lists” to remove tens of thousands of minority voters from the voting rolls (see 1998 and After), uses voting machines and voting procedures to disenfranchise eligible voters. The Florida elections system is grossly underfunded, resulting in the use of obsolete and error-prone machines (disproportionately used in counties with large minority populations), and elections officials lacking fundamental training and even information about their jobs. During most of 2000, county supervisors warn Tallahassee that Florida could expect an unprecedented number of voters on November 7, especially among the black voting community. But Secretary of State Katherine Harris (see After 3:30 a.m. November 8, 2000 and After) and Division of Elections chief Clay Roberts, by their own subsequent testimony, fail to address the problem. Roberts tells Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho, “It’s not that bad.” Thusly on November 7, 2000, many polling places experience massive difficulties. An investigation by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) turns up thousands of voters who are turned away for a number of reasons, including but not limited to being on the purge lists. Some voters who registered are not listed on the voting rolls—many of whom were registered through NAACP efforts to register voters via the “motor voter” procedures (see May 20, 1993). County supervisors calling Tallahassee with questions and problems routinely find themselves unable to get through. Many precincts lack access to central voter rolls to verify questionable registrations. Some voters who are in line to vote at the 7:00 p.m. closing time are told to leave, even though the law mandates that any voter standing in line to vote can vote even if closing time occurs. Florida law also allows voters whose status is questionable to complete affidavit votes that will be counted later after their eligibility is confirmed, but many election workers know nothing of these procedures, and thusly many voters who are eligible to vote via affidavit are not given that opportunity. Many disabled voters find no procedures in place to allow them access to voting machines. Many precincts lack procedures to assist Spanish-speaking voters, including failing to provide bilingual ballots or bilingual poll workers. (The Voting Rights Act of 1965—see August 6, 1965—mandates that such provisions be made at every polling place without exception.) The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund later concludes that several thousand Hispanic voters are disenfranchised because of these failures. Black voters in Leon County complain that the Florida Highway Patrol set up a roadblock that denied them access to their polling place (see 11:30 a.m. November 7, 2000); Highway Patrol authorities later admit the existence of the roadblock, but say that it was a routine vehicle inspection checkpoint.
Punch Card Voting - Florida generally uses two voting systems—the more sophisticated computer “optiscan” system, which features ballots where choices are made by “bubbling in” an oval with a pencil and then feeding into a scanner, and the obsolete “punch card” system, which uses “punch cards” where choices are made by a voter “punching” a hole in a card with a stylus and then feeding the card into a scanner. Counties with large African-American populations are disproportionate in having to use the obsolete punch card machines. In four of these counties—Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Duval—over 100,000 votes are discarded due to problems with punching the holes correctly (see November 9, 2000). This total is more than half the discards in the entire state. Of the 19 precincts in the state with the highest rate of discard, 18 are majority-black. Seventy percent of black Floridian voters are forced to use the punch card machines, a percentage far higher than that of other ethnic groups. The NAACP later sues to force Florida to discard punch card machines entirely. The Florida government’s response to the punch-card disenfranchisement can perhaps be best summed up by a statement made by Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney, who responds to a question about the infamous “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach County (see November 9, 2000) by saying: “Voter confusion is not a reason for whining or crying or having a revote. It may be a reason to require literacy tests.” Literacy tests, a legacy of the Jim Crow era of massive voter discrimination, are unconstitutional (see 1896 and June 8, 1959). (Tapper 3/2001; Lantigua 4/24/2001)
Subsequent Investigation - A later investigation by the progressive news magazine The Nation will document widespread voter disenfranchisement efforts in Florida (see April 24, 2001).

For 13 years, Texas Republicans have complained that Texas Democrats have “gerrymandered” the state’s electoral district to give Democrats an undue representation in the state’s US House delegation (see 1990 - 1991 and 2000-2002). Now, with Republicans in control of both houses of the state legislature, they decide to redistrict the state to favor Republican representation in Congress. In 2002, Democrats hold a 17-15 edge in US Representatives. The decision is unusual inasmuch as states usually only redraw their district boundaries once a decade, in concurrence with the federal census. Democrats wage a bitter battle against the Republican redistricting efforts, even fleeing the state for a time to prevent the legislature from reaching a quorum (see May 12-15, 2003), but Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), eventually win out, and the Texas legislature enacts a new redistricting plan, Plan 1347C, that concentrates large numbers of Democrats, including minority voters, in a relatively small number of districts and gives Republicans a majority of prospective voters in a much larger number of more sparsely populated districts. In the November 2004 elections, the plan works as envisioned: Republicans have a 21-11 majority in the US Congressional delegation, and obtain a 58 percent to 41 percent edge in statewide voting results. Even before the elections, a number of organizations and individuals file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the redistricting map under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989), charging that the plan unlawfully dilutes racial minority voting strength and is designed to maximize partisan advantage at the voting booths, in essence gerrymandering the state’s electoral districts. A district court finds the redistricting plan is essentially legal, but the Supreme Court vacates that decision and remands the case for reconsideration; the court again finds in favor of the plaintiffs, affirming the map as lawful. (Susswein 5/14/2003; Eggen 12/2/2005; FindLaw 6/28/2006; Oyez (.org) 2012) That decision will be substantially affirmed by the Supreme Court (see June 28, 2006). DeLay says that President Bush, the former governor of Texas, is squarely behind the redistricting efforts. After a Congressional leadership breakfast in May 2003, DeLay says he spoke briefly with Bush: “As I was walking out, I said, you know, that redistricting is ongoing. And he said, ‘Well, good, I’d like to see that happen.’” (Jackson 5/14/2003) During the battle over the redistricting, Texas Democrats insist that the new districts will not only illegally protect Republican majorities, but will dilute the impact of votes from outside cities and suburban areas. US Representative Max Sandlin (D-TX) tells a reporter: “This plan doesn’t just destroy Democratic representation… it destroys rural representation. East Texas has had tremendous battles with Dallas over water rights. It is absolutely ridiculous to have a Dallas Congress member represent East Texans concerning water rights. And you can go issue by issue.” Republicans from rural districts say they have no such worries. (Susswein 5/14/2003)

The US Senate refuses to pass an amendment to the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) that would restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences throughout the nation. The amendment was strongly opposed by senators from former Confederate states, who voted 18-4 against the measure, and the amendment fails on a floor vote, 63-31. (US Senate 2/14/2002 pdf file; ProCon 10/19/2010)

Six lawyers and two analysts at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) conclude, in a classified memo, that the controversial Texas Congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) is illegal. The memo states that the plan violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. The plan also eliminated several other districts that contained substantial minority voting blocs. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers write in the memo. The memo says that the Texas legislature went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. The memo concludes, “The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed Congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect.” A concurring opinion written by one of the DOJ lawyers finds: “This result quite plainly indicates a reduction in minority voting strength. The state’s argument that it has increased minority voting strength… simply does not stand up under careful analysis.”
DeLay, Aide Ignored Concerns about Voting Rights Discrimination - One of the senior aides to DeLay, James W. Ellis, is cited in the memo as pushing for the plan despite fears that the DOJ would reject it. According to the memo, Ellis and other DeLay aides forced the adoption of the plan over two other versions adopted by the Texas Legislature that would not have raised as many concerns about voting rights discrimination. The memo quotes Ellis in an October 2003 memo writing: “We need our map, which has been researched and vetted for months. The pre-clearance and political risks are the delegation’s and we are willing to assume those risks, but only with our map.” Later testimony will show that DeLay and Ellis forced last-minute changes in the map; DeLay attended many of the meetings that produced the map, and Ellis worked through the state’s lieutenant governor and a state senator to shepherd the changes that he and DeLay desired. The final changes were not necessary, the memo finds, except to advance partisan political goals.
Findings Overruled - Regardless of the findings, the lawyers and analysts’ judgment is overruled by senior officials at the DOJ, all appointed by the Bush administration. The DOJ’s civil rights division will affirm the plan as legal and valid. The memo is kept secret for almost two years, and the lawyers and analysts involved in the case, including the authors of the memo, are bound to silence under an unusual gag rule. The DOJ is under no legal burden to accept the findings of the memo, but historically, such findings are given great weight in DOJ rulings. Former Justice Department lawyer Mark Posner later says that it is “highly unusual” for the DOJ to overrule a unanimous finding such as this one: “In this kind of situation, where everybody agrees at least on the staff level… that is a very, very strong case. The fact that everybody agreed that there were reductions in minority voting strength, and that they were significant, raises a lot of questions as to why it was” approved. (US Department of Justice 12/12/2003 pdf file; Eggen 12/2/2005) In December 2005, the Washington Post will reveal the existence of the memo (see December 2, 2005). Days after the Post article, Posner will write an article for the prestigious legal Web site FindLaw that will opine that the DOJ memo was ignored for partisan political reasons, and not because of honest differences of opinion between legal experts (see December 5, 2005).

John Tanner, the head of the civil rights division’s Voting Rights Section (VRS) in the Justice Department, writes a four-page letter to Nick A. Soulas, a civil prosecutor in Franklin County, Ohio. The letter is a notification that Tanner is ordering the closure of a VRS investigation into the unbalanced distribution of voting machines in Franklin County, which contains the large urban area of Columbus. Complaints had been filed alleging that districts with a predominance of white voters received a disparately larger number of voting machines than districts with a predominance of African-American voters. Although that disparity has been proven, Tanner writes that the disparity does not violate the Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965). The letter essentially defends the disparity, arguing that the use of such disparate numbers of machines is acceptable. It also praises the Franklin County Board of Elections for buying approximately 2,100 new voting machines. Sources, including a VRS staffer who left the section in late 2004, will later tell the citizen journalism project ePluribus Media (ePM) that many inside and outside the VRS found the letter “repugnant.” Moreover, they will tell the ePM researchers that the DOJ almost never writes such a letter: when it finishes an investigation it deems unworthy of pursuing, it merely sends a letter informing the involved parties that it is closing the investigation. For Tanner to write and send such a letter is highly unusual. And, Tanner’s is the only signature on the letter. No staff attorneys sign off on the letter. Sources will tell ePM that the lone signature apparently indicates that Tanner was the only person working the investigation. Section chiefs such as Tanner almost never handle investigations. ePM will say that the letter presents what it calls “convoluted excuses for why black voters didn’t have enough machines and white voters did.” (US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division 6/29/2005 pdf file; ePluribus Media 5/7/2007)

Congressional Republicans jump-start the process to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989) in what media and political observers believe is an effort to outflank Democrats, who are traditionally the most staunch supporters of the bill. Key portions of the bill are set to expire in 2007, including Section 5, which requires that states, districts, and other locales with a history of racial discrimination in their electoral processes get Justice Department approval before making any changes to voting procedures. Section 5 is intended to ensure that minorities are not disenfranchised due to their race. Observers believe Republicans want to avoid a showdown over the bill in light of the upcoming midterm elections in 2006. In 1982, the Reagan administration fought Congressional Democrats over an expansion of the law, and Republicans want to make sure that scenario does not play itself out again as the midterm elections approach. Republicans also want to reach out to African-American voters, traditionally a strong Democratic voting bloc. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), a veteran of the civil rights struggle, says, “I’m not surprised at all” that Republicans want to renew the VRA and reach out to black voters. “The Republicans are reaching out to the African-American voters.… They want to make a dent with the black electorate, take some of those voters away from the Democratic side.” Lewis intends to insert language into the renewal bill that would invalidate a recent Georgia law requiring photo identification for prospective voters, a requirement he and many others say would discriminate against the poor and the elderly. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) broke with recent Republican tradition by calling on Congress to renew Section 5 and other portions of the VRA at the NAACP’s annual convention in July. “I am here to tell you publicly what I have told others privately, including the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Mel Watt,” Sensenbrenner told the assemblage. “During this Congress we are going to extend the Voting Rights Act. We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains. The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist—and exist in its current form.” Sensenbrenner said at the convention that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) considers renewal of the VRA “high on his list of issues the House will address this Congress.” A representative for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) says Frist is “fired up” over renewal of Section 5. Only a few months ago, Bush appeals court nominee William Pryor, a Republican from Alabama, called Section 5 “an affront to federalism and an expensive burden that has far outlived its usefulness,” a controversial characterization that Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and other Republicans defended. In May, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested that the Bush administration is not fully behind reauthorization of Section 5. Political observers say that Democrats intend to use any further Republican opposition to the VRA to claim that Republicans are insensitive to black voters, even as senior Republican strategists like Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman say they want the party to appeal to that demographic. Mehlman told the NAACP convention in July that Republican leaders had tried over the past 40 years “to benefit politically from racial polarization.” He then said, “We were wrong” to do so. (Curry 10/4/2005)

The Washington Post reports that the controversial Texas congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) was found to be illegal by Justice Department lawyers, but their judgment was overruled by senior political appointees at the Department of Justice (DOJ) who approved the plan. The information comes from a previously undisclosed memo written in December 2003 (see December 12, 2003) and provided to the Post by, the Post writes, “a person connected to the case who is critical of the adopted redistricting map.” Six lawyers and two analysts at the DOJ found that the DeLay plan violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers wrote in the memo, but went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. In the 2004 federal elections, Texas sent five additional Republicans to the US House, helping to solidify GOP control of that body. A lawyer for the Texas Democrats and minority groups who are challenging the redistricting in court, J. Gerald Hebert, says of the DOJ memo: “We always felt that the process… wouldn’t be corrupt, but it was.… The staff didn’t see this as a close call or a mixed bag or anything like that. This should have been a very clear-cut case.” DOJ spokesman Eric W. Holland, defending the decision by senior DOJ officials to approve the plan, points to a lower-court decision in the case that affirmed the plan’s legality. “The court ruled that, in fact, the new congressional plan created a sufficient number of safe minority districts given the demographics of the state and the requirements of the law,” he says, and notes that Texas now has three African-Americans in Congress whereas in the years before redistricting, it had only two. Hebert says the DOJ’s approval of the redistricting plan was a critical factor in the court’s decision to affirm the plan. DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden accuses Hebert of engaging in what he calls “nonsensical political babble,” and says the DOJ is correct to have found that the plan has no discriminatory effects. Under both the older plan (see 2000-2002) and the DeLay plan, minority-led districts number 11, but under the DeLay plan, Texas gained two more Congressional districts, both represented by Republicans. Recently, a similar case was reported in which DOJ lawyers found a Georgia redistricting plan to be illegal, but senior political appointees overruled the legal judgment and approved the plan. A court later found the plan to be illegal. (Eggen 12/2/2005)

Mark Posner, a law professor at American University who served in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for 23 years and supervised the DOJ’s “Section 5” reviews under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) for 10 years, writes an article for the prestigious legal information Web site FindLaw that says the DOJ found the controversial Texas redistricting plan (see 2002-2004) legal for purely partisan political reasons. Posner’s article is spurred by the recent revelation of a 2003 DOJ memo (see December 12, 2003 and December 2, 2005) that found the redistricting plan to be illegal, and the Washington Post’s finding that the memo was rejected by political appointees at the DOJ, who saw to it that the plan was approved by the civil rights division. Posner is more specific than the Post article, writing: “A Republican appointee overrode the staff recommendation and granted approval, allowing the plan to go into effect for the 2004 Congressional elections. In so doing, the official sided with his political party and with one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.” Posner notes that the Bush administration has defended the decision, claiming that it was merely the result of what he calls “an honest disagreement between the career and political staff about how to apply the law to a complex set of facts.” In spite of the defense, including a statement by the attorney general, Posner writes that “this is not a case of an honest disagreement between lawyers. Rather, there is strong objective evidence that politics prevailed over the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.” The civil rights division of the DOJ is required under the VRA to “pre-clear,” or approve, any redistricting plan that might result in the unwarranted dilution of minority voting strength in particular districts. Texas, as a state with a history of discriminating against its minority citizens, is one of a number of states required to obtain DOJ approval for new redistricting plans. The DOJ has examined some 435,000 election changes since 1965, Posner writes, and thusly must “follow procedures which… ensure that preclearance decisions are based on the law and the facts, and not on extraneous factors. Among other things, these procedures must guard against the temptation that some political appointees can have to decide matters based on what would benefit their political party.” The DOJ career staff play a key role in such procedures, though the assistant attorney general (AAG) for civil rights makes the final decision. Until the Texas redistricting plan, Posner writes, AAGs have generally relied on the opinions and findings of their staff to help them craft a final decision. “When the career staff unanimously recommends that preclearance be denied, the AAG almost never overrides that recommendation and approves the change. On the flip side, the staff’s unanimous preclearance recommendation always results in the change being approved.” But the Texas redistricting approval upended the usual procedure. Despite the unanimous recommendation from the staff that the DOJ block Texas from implementing the plan due to its discriminatory effect, the AAG granted approval to the plan. “The influence of politics is evident,” Posner concludes. The DOJ “significantly and substantially deviated from the decisional practice which, for nearly four decades, has served the department well in enforcing Section 5 in a fair and nonpartisan manner.… [T]he evidence points to a single conclusion: the Justice Department did not serve the interests of minority citizens in this case, but, instead, served the political interests of the Republican Party.” (Posner 12/6/2005)

The Washington Post learns that the Justice Department has barred staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965) cases, a drastic change from the earlier policy, which was designed to insulate such decision from political considerations. The decision comes amid what the Post calls “growing public criticism of Justice Department decisions to approve Republican-engineered plans in Texas (see December 12, 2003, December 2, 2005, and December 5, 2005) and Georgia (see 2005, November 25, 2005, and September 19, 2006) that were found to hurt minority voters by career staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. Political appointees overruled staff findings in both cases.” In the Georgia redistricting case, a staff memo advised rejecting the Georgia plan because it required voters to show photo ID at the polls, a policy that the memo said would disenfranchise some African-American voters. Under the new policy, that recommendation was removed from the memo and was not forwarded to higher officials in the civil rights division (CRD). The DOJ has claimed the August 25 memo was “an early draft,” even though the DOJ gave “preclearance” for the Georgia plan to be adopted on August 26. A federal judge blocked the law’s implementation, calling it a return to Jim Crow-era policies. The policy was adopted by John Tanner, the head of the CRD’s voting rights section (VRS). DOJ spokesperson Eric Holland says, “The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected and continue to be an integral part of the internal deliberation process upon which the department heavily relies when making litigation decisions.” Tanner has recently lambasted the quality of work by the VRS staff, some of whom have been in the section for decades. Some of the staff members boycotted the staff Christmas party because they were too angry to attend, sources within the section say. Experts like Jon Greenbaum, a VRS veteran who now directs the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says that stopping staff members from making such recommendations is a significant departure and runs the risk of making the process appear more political. “It’s an attempt by the political hierarchy to insulate themselves from any accountability by essentially leaving it up to a chief, who’s there at their whim,” he says. “To me, it shows a fear of dealing with the legal issues in these cases.” Congressional Democrats are critical of the new policy and are joined by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is considering holding hearings on the Texas redistricting case. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) says, “America deserves better than a civil rights division that puts the political agenda of those in power over the interests of the people its serves.” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other DOJ officials have disagreed with the criticism, and asserted that politics play no role in civil rights decisions. Assistant Attorney General William Moschella has recently written to Specter, criticizing the Post’s coverage and claiming that the department is aggressively enforcing a range of civil rights laws. “From fair housing opportunities, equal access to the ballot box, and criminal civil rights prosecutions to desegregation in America’s schools and protection of the rights of the disabled, the division continues its noble mission with vigor,” he wrote. (Eggen 12/10/2005)

Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA).Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA). [Source: That's My Congress (.com)]The House Republican leadership cancels a vote to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989) after a number of House Republicans declare their opposition to renewing key portions of the legislation concerning the requirement of bilingual ballots and continued federal oversight of voting practices in some Southern states. Eight months ago, Congressional Republicans announced they intended to take the lead in renewing the VRA (see October 4, 2005). The press reports that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was taken off-guard by the vehemence of the opposition within his party; he and other senior House Republicans believed that renewal of the VRA was on track. President Bush has said he supports renewing the VRA. In early May, House Republicans and Democrats joined on the steps of the Capitol to announce bipartisan support for the renewal of the law. However, some Southern Republicans argue that the law has served its purpose and is no longer necessary. They are now joined by Republicans from other states who resist providing ballots in languages other than English. Hastert says the Republican leadership “is committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible,” while some House Republicans say it is unclear whether the issue will be resolved before the Independence Day recess. Hastert and other House Republican leaders apparently did not anticipate the surge of anti-immigrant sentiment among their colleagues, which fuels the opposition to bilingual ballots. A previous attempt by Senate Republicans to include a provision in the VRA proclaiming English the “national language” failed. Seventy-nine House Republicans, led by Steve King (R-IA), an outspoken opponent of immigration, signed a letter written by King objecting to the VRA’s provision for bilingual ballots in precincts with large Hispanic and Asian populations. The requirement is costly and unnecessary, King wrote, adding, “The multilingual ballot mandate encourages the linguistic division of our nation and contradicts the ‘Melting Pot’ ideal that has made us the most successful multi-ethnic nation on earth.” Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) says: “A lot of it looks as if these are some old boys from the South who are trying to do away with it. But these old boys are trying to make it constitutional enough that it will withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.” King said in committee, “There is no need to print ballots in any language other than English.” When King’s provision to end multilingual requirements was removed in committee, King and his fellow anti-immigration Republicans publicly withdrew their support for the VRA. Charles Whitlow Norwood (R-GA) says flatly: “What people are really upset about is bilingual ballots. The American people want this to be an English-speaking nation.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) says: “Clearly, there are some on the Republican side who object to this legislation, and they forced the leadership’s hand today. House Democrats stand in virtual unanimous support for this important bill.” Mel Watt (D-NC), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says, “We fear that pulling the bill could send the wrong message about whether the bill enjoys broad bipartisan support and that delaying consideration until after the July 4 recess could give those with partisan intentions space and time to politicize the issue.” Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed that the House did not vote today to renew and restore the Voting Rights Act because a small band of miscreants, at the last moment, hijacked this bipartisan, bicameral bill.” Henderson’s colleague Nancy Zirkin agrees, saying: “The fact of the matter is that you have a small group of members who have hijacked this bill, and many of these individuals represent states that have been in violation for a long time. We believe these individuals do not want the Voting Rights Act reauthorized.” (King 1/28/2006; Hulse 6/22/2006; Washington Post 6/22/2006)
Opposition Letter Written by Far-Right Anti-Immigration Advocate? - Citizen investigators later demonstrate that many portions of the King letter may not have been written by King or his staffers, but by a representative of two far-right anti-immigration groups, NumbersUSA and ProEnglish. Both organizations belong to a network of groups operated by anti-immigration leader John Tanton (see February 2009). The provisions in the King letter were apparently written by K.C. McAlpin, a member of NumbersUSA and the executive director of ProEnglish. The latter group proclaims itself “the nation’s leading advocate of official English,” working “through the courts and in the court of public opinion to defend English’s historic role as the common, unifying language of the United States of America, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government.” The investigators will be unable to prove McAlpin’s authorship beyond dispute, but through comparison of the King letter with McAlpin’s written testimony to Congress in November 2005, they find significant conceptual and linguistic similarities. The investigators will posit: “Given that the King letter posted at [the US House Web site, before being removed] was authored by McAlpin on software registered to NumbersUSA, coupled with its striking similarities to McAlpin’s testimony, only one of two possible causes seem plausible. Either King copied his letter from ProEnglish literature almost word for word, and then asked McAlpin, or someone using his computer, to type up a copy to post at the House of Representatives Web site, or McAlpin authored the letter himself. Either way, the letter that 79 Representatives signed to force the cancellation of the renewal of the VRA came from ProEnglish.” (King 1/28/2006; Duke Falconer 7/12/2006)

The Supreme Court upholds most of Texas’s far-reaching redistricting plan as engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004). The case is League of United Latin American Citizens et al v. Perry et al. The Court rejects one element of the plan, saying that some of the new boundaries fail to protect minority voting rights. Some district boundaries will need to be redrawn, particularly one “oddly shaped” district, District 23, in the Associated Press’s description, that saw the shift of 100,000 Hispanics out of a district represented by a Republican incumbent and into the unusually crafted district. Critics called District 23 the result of illegal gerrymandering, and said it violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989). Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion, says that under the plan, Hispanics have no chance to elect a candidate of their choosing. Democrats and minority groups have accused Republicans of unconstitutionally redrawing Texas’s electoral districts to ensure that the state’s legislature is controlled by Republicans. In the 2004 elections, the first with the new districts, Republicans took control of Texas’s legislature and four Democratic incumbents lost their seats. The Court upholds the contention that states can redraw district maps when they choose, not just once a decade as claimed by Texas Democrats. In essence, this means that any time a political party takes power in a state legislature, it can redraw maps to suit its purposes. The Constitution mandates the redrawing of state congressional district boundaries once a decade to account for population shifts; the Court says such redrawings can be more frequent if desired. The 2003-2004 redrawing of the Texas district map cost DeLay his position; he has resigned from Congress in the face of money laundering charges in relation to his fundraising activities for legislative candidates. While two other states, Colorado and Georgia, have undertaken similar redistricting efforts, law professor Richard Hasen says he does not believe many more states will move in the same direction. “Some people are predicting a rash of mid-decade redistricting. I am skeptical,” he says. “It would be seen as a power grab in a lot of places.” The 5-4 Court majority is not along ideological lines. While Kennedy, who usually joins the other conservatives, writes the majority opinion, the four liberals of the Court—Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter—write their own concurrences in conjunction with his opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts dissents, and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas join his dissent. Justice Antonin Scalia writes his own dissent. (Associated Press 6/28/2006; FindLaw 6/28/2006; Oyez (.org) 2012)

A Washington State district court dismisses the case of Farrakhan v. Gregoire, a 2003 lawsuit which contended that Washington’s felon disenfranchisement laws and restoration policies were discriminatory against racial minorities and thusly violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989). The court writes that it is “compelled to find that there is discrimination in Washington’s criminal justice system on account of race,” and that such discrimination “clearly hinders the ability of racial minorities to participate effectively in the political process.” Even in the face of its own finding, the court dismisses the case, citing a “remarkable absence of any history of official discrimination” in the state’s electoral procedures and felon disenfranchisement policies. “Washington’s history, or lack thereof, of racial bias in its electoral process and in its decision to enact the felon disenfranchisement provisions, counterbalance the contemporary discriminatory effects that result from the day-to-day functioning of Washington’s criminal justice system,” the court finds. The case will continue in the court system, and the district court’s findings will ultimately be upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will cite the state’s lack of “intentional discrimination” (see October 7, 2010). (Brennan Center for Justice 1/5/2010; Kamisugi 10/14/2010; ProCon 10/19/2010)

The US House of Representatives overcomes challenges by conservative Republicans and votes overwhelmingly in favor of renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989). Congressional Republicans originally voiced strong support for renewing the landmark voting rights legislation (see October 4, 2005) but some 80 House Republicans have worked for weeks to block renewal of the bill over objections to providing bilingual ballots in some areas, and over continued oversight by the Justice Department in areas with a history of racial disenfranchisement and discrimination at the voting booth (see June 22, 2006). The renewal bill, officially entitled the “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act” after a number of prominent civil rights figures, passes the House on a 390-33 vote. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), an African-American veteran who was beaten by white police officers during the civil rights struggle, gives an impassioned speech on the House floor before the vote is cast. Lewis reminds the House that “I gave blood” to ensure that blacks and other minorities had the right to vote without discrimination. “Some of my colleagues gave their very lives. Yes, we’ve made some progress; we have come a distance. The sad truth is, discrimination still exists. That’s why we still need the Voting Rights Act, and we must not go back to the dark past.” Lewis and other supporters took part in over a dozen House hearings where, according to Lewis, proof of voter discrimination was highlighted. Some conservative lawmakers have argued that such discrimination is a thing of the past, and therefore the VRA is obsolete and need not be renewed. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) is one of those making that argument, telling the House: “A lot has changed in 40-plus years. We should have a law that fits the world in 2006.” Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) agrees: “Congress is declaring from on high that states with voting problems 40 years ago can simply never be forgiven. That Georgians must eternally wear the scarlet letter because of the actions of their grandparents and great-grandparents.… We have repented and we have reformed.” Westmoreland says many people are “prejudiced” against Southern states. David Scott (D-GA) accuses House Republicans such as Gingrey and Westmoreland of working “to kill the Voting Rights Act” both through opposition and through the attempted addition of a number of unpalatable amendments that would strongly water down the law, such as an amendment by Steve King (R-IA) that would have removed the provision for bilingual ballots and forced naturalized citizens to prove their fluency in English before being allowed to vote. The bill moves to the Senate, where Democrats are urging quick passage and accusing House Republicans of unjustly delaying the bill’s passage. “For two months, we have wasted precious time as the Republican leadership played to its conservative base,” says Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “There are only 21 legislative days left in this Congress, and the time to act is now.” (Hernandez 7/13/2006; Kellman 7/14/2006)

The US Senate votes 98-0 to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989). Many Republicans in the House have attempted to thwart the law’s renewal, citing their opposition to providing bilingual ballots in some areas, and over continued oversight by the Justice Department in areas with a history of racial disenfranchisement and discrimination at the voting booth (see June 22, 2006). However, that opposition was overcome by a bipartisan effort when the House voted to reauthorize the law (see July 13, 2006). Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that racial discrimination and efforts to disenfranchise minority voters still exist: “Despite the progress [some] states have made in upholding the right to vote, it is clear the problems still exist,” says Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). On the same day that the Senate votes to approve the bill, President Bush, on a visit to the annual NAACP convention, promises to sign the bill into law. One senator voicing his objection to the bill is Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who says: “Other states with much less impressive minority progress and less impressive minority participation are not covered, while Georgia still is. This seems both unfair as well as unwise.” Chambliss is not joined in his opposition by fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose home state of South Carolina is, like Georgia, subject to Justice Department oversight for any changes to its voting procedures. “South Carolinians, you have come a long way,” he says. But we, just like every other part of this country, still have a long way to go.” (Hulse 7/21/2006)

President Bush signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989) reauthorization into law. The extension, called the “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act,” makes the VRA the law until 2031. It also overturns the decision rendered in Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (see May 12, 1997) by outlawing electoral redistricting for discriminatory purposes, and invalidates the decision rendered in Georgia v. Ashcroft by declaring that Section 5 protects the ability of minorities “to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” (Curry 10/4/2005; White House 6/27/2006; American Civil Liberties Union 2012) In October 2005, Congressional Republicans declared that they intended to lead the way towards renewing the VRA, particularly Section 5 (see October 4, 2005). But in June 2006, House Republicans balked at renewing Section 5 and another provision mandating bilingual ballots in many areas (see June 22, 2006). The bill survived a number of attempts to derail or weaken it by those House Republicans (see July 13, 2006), and was upheld 98-0 in the Senate (see July 20, 2006).

By a 5-4 vote, the US Supreme Court narrows the provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and July 27, 2006), ruling in Bartlett v. Strickland that the VRA does not require state governments to draw electoral districts favorable to minority candidates in places where minorities make up less than half the population. The Court rules that race must be considered only in drawing boundaries where a “geographically compact group of minority voters” make up at least 50 percent of a single-member district. Law professor Richard Hasen says that because of the Court’s ruling, 50 percent is now a “magic number.” The decision makes it more difficult for minorities to challenge redistricting efforts that they believe may dilute voting rights after the upcoming 2010 census. Writing for the plurality opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes: “There is an underlying principle of fundamental importance: We must be most cautious before interpreting a statute to require courts to make inquiries based on racial classifications and race-based predictions.” Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito join with Kennedy’s opinion; Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas file a concurring opinion that claims no minorities should ever be able to go to court with complaints about minority vote dilution. The four moderate/liberal justices on the Court dissent. Hasen says that Kennedy’s opinion makes it likely that he will join the Court’s right wing to further limit the VRA in upcoming cases: Hasen says Kennedy seems open to interpreting the VRA “in ever stingier ways.” However, Kennedy also writes: “Racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions.” The case hinges on a decision by the North Carolina legislature to enhance minority representation by creating a voting district that crosses county lines; the Court strikes down the district and rejects arguments that the district is needed for North Carolina to comply with the VRA. Instead, Kennedy writes, only districts where minorities made up more than 50 percent are protected under the VRA. Justice David Souter, writing the four-justice dissent, says that such “crossover districts” are sometimes needed to fulfill the goals of the VRA, and that the Court’s finding will “force the states to perpetuate racially concentrated districts, the quintessential manifestations of race consciousness in American politics.” It will require states “to pack black voters” into districts in which minorities make up the majority, Souter writes, “contracting the number of districts where racial minorities are having success in transcending racial divisions.” (Liptak 3/9/2009; Barnes 3/10/2009)

In an 8-1 decision, the US Supreme Court refuses to rule against one of the main components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989). Many conservatives had seen the case as an opportunity for the Court conservatives to either drastically narrow or entirely gut the VRA, and were hopeful of that outcome in light of a recent Court decision narrowing the VRA’s effect on districting (see March 9, 2009). Instead, the Court chooses not to rule on the central tenet of the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, which is that the VRA is largely unconstitutional. The case was brought by a Texas utility district that claimed in arguments that the VRA was unconstitutional and unnecessary in a time when the nation has elected a black president. The plaintiff argued that districts and other governmental entities should be allowed to “bail out” from being covered by the VRA. (Liptak 6/22/2009; Cave 6/22/2009) Many observers were concerned that the conservative wing of the Court would use the case to overturn large portions of the VRA, especially in earlier questioning, when Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio. The sovereignty of Alabama is less than the sovereign dignity of Michigan. And the governments in one are to be trusted less than the governments in the other.… No one questions the validity, the urgency, the essentiality of the Voting Rights Act. The question is whether or not it should be continued with this differentiation between the states. And that is for Congress to show.” (Liptak 4/29/2009) Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, says that the Court should avoid tackling large constitutional questions when it can. “We are now a very different nation” than the one that first passed the Voting Rights Act, he writes. “Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.” Roberts’s opinion says that “a broader reading” of the VRA’s bailout provision should be implemented. Moreover, he writes, the federal oversight of states and areas with a history of discrimination may have served its purpose and may need to be phased out, a position supported by the lone dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, who writes that the oversight provision of Section 5 of the VRA should be overturned entirely. It is possible that others will take advantage of the Court’s hesitation to file other “opt out” or “bailout” challenges to the VRA. Some legal experts found the basis of the case to be lacking. Ellen Katz, a law professor at the University of Michigan, calls the Court’s ruling “improbable,” and Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School says “virtually no lawyer” sees the Court’s interpretation as reasonable. NAACP lawyer Debo P. Adegbile says that regardless of questions surrounding the Court’s verdict, the ruling is one to celebrate: “This case was brought to tear the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, and today that effort failed.” (Liptak 6/22/2009)

Former Governor Sarah Palin speaks at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville.Former Governor Sarah Palin speaks at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville. [Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer]Tea Party Nation (TPN), one of the national “umbrella” organizations that coordinate and promote local tea party events and groups (see August 24, 2010), holds a two-day Tea Party Convention in Nashvillle, Tennessee. Around 600 people attend, with another 500 or so attending only the speech given by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who ran for vice president in 2008. “America is ready for another revolution,” she tells the crowd. In a statement addressed at President Obama, she says the tea party movement is “about the people, and it’s bigger than any one king or queen of a tea party, and it’s a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter.” A Harvard Crimson report describes TPN as an “eclectic mix of Ron Paul libertarians” and “George W. Bush social conservatives” who are “predominantly white and above age 50” and have a common “dislike of President Obama, the debt, future tax increases, and the bank bailout.” Some critics accuse TPN of profiteering from the convention; tickets cost $549 ($349 to just hear Palin’s speech), and Palin receives a $100,000 speaker’s fee, which she claims “will go right back to the cause.” Some prominent lawmakers, including Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), canceled their planned appearances at the event, saying that their appearance at such an event would conflict with House rules. (National Tea Party Convention 2/2010; The Week 2/4/2010; Beth Rowen 2/9/2010)
Incendiary Rhetoric Opens Event - Speakers include Fox News contributor Angela McGlowan, WorldNetDaily founder Joseph Farah, and Rick Scarborough, an author who writes of the impending tyranny of “activist” judges. Some of the topics discussed during the convention include: “Correlations between the current Administration and Marxist Dictators of Latin America”; “5 Easy Fixes to the High Cost of Mass Immigration”; “Defeating Liberalism via the Primary Process”; and “Why Christians Must Engage.” The first speaker is former Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who insults minority citizens and rails against the Obama administration. Tancredo says “illiterate” minority voters are responsible for putting Obama, “a committed socialist,” into office, and he goes on to say that perhaps literacy tests (see 1896 and June 8, 1959) and poll taxes (see February 4, 1964) should be reintroduced to ensure that candidates such as Obama never be elected again (see August 6, 1965). Tancredo says that the voters who put Obama into the White House “could not even spell the word ‘vote,’ or say it in English.” Tancredo goes on to say: “The president and his left-wing allies in Congress are going to look at every opportunity to destroy the Constitution before we have a chance to save it. So put your running shoes on. Because I’ll tell you, I’ve heard we need a revolution. My friends, we already had it. We lost. I mean, what happened to us in that last election was a revolution.… This is our country. Let’s take it back.” Hilary Shelton of the NAACP later calls Tancredo’s remarks “the politics of denigration.” (National Tea Party Convention 2/2010; The Week 2/4/2010; Chattahbox 2/5/2010)
Rival Tea Parties Boycott Event - A number of rival tea party organizations and leaders asked tea party members to boycott the convention. One of those, organizer Shane Brooks, recently left TPN after deciding that the organization was too cozy with the national Republican Party. In a YouTube video, Brooks asked tea partiers to “boycott the National Tea Party Convention” and said: “[W]e will not allow Tea Party Nation or any group to achieve national leadership of this historic grassroots revolution by the people!… We must not allow the tea parties and other patriotic grassroots movement to be hijacked by the GOP.” Prominent Seattle tea party leader Keli Carender (see February 16-17, 2009) also decided not to attend after being listed as a convention speaker, telling an NPR reporter that she did not want the tea party movement to become too centralized. Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots said that the $549 convention attendance fee was far too high: “Most people in our movement can’t afford anything like that. So it’s really not aimed at the average grassroots person.” TPN founder Judson Phillips told a reporter that the high fees would allow TPN to make a profit and “funnel money back into conservative causes” through a 527 group it plans to set up. TPN leaders refused to discuss Palin’s speaking fee. A local tea party member said skeptically, “The tea party movement is a grass-roots movement; it’s not a business.” Another accused Phillips of being “someone who is trying to make a grab.” Others echo Brooks’s concerns that Phillips and TPN are attempting to “co-opt” the movement and become power brokers within the GOP. The Tea Party Express, an organization run by a small group of well-financed Republican consultants, is part of the convention, dismaying some more independent tea party leaders. One activist wrote in an online comment: “The tea party movement is about to be hijacked. TeaPartyNation.com organizers are hard lined GOP who use the proverbial veil of ‘conservatism’ to attract supporters.” RedState blogger Erick Erickson called the convention “scammy.” (Roth 1/11/2010; Roth 1/18/2010; Kissel 2/3/2010)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules 11-0 that Washington State’s felon disenfranchisement law does not violate the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989). The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, has been in the court system for seven years (see July 7, 2006), and an appeals court panel found by a 2-1 vote that the felon disenfranchisement law did indeed violate the VRA by racially discriminating against voters. The appeals court finds that Washington committed no “intentional disenfranchisement” in its denial of the right to vote to convicted felons, and writes: “Because plaintiffs presented no evidence of intentional discrimination in the operation of Washington’s criminal justice system and argue no other theory under which a section 2 challenge might be sustained, we conclude that they didn’t meet their burden of showing a violation of the VRA. Accordingly, the district court didn’t err when it granted summary judgment against them.” (Brennan Center for Justice 1/5/2010; Kamisugi 10/14/2010; ProCon 10/19/2010)

Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) withdraws a request to have the federal government approve two new Florida redistricting amendments. Under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989), the Justice Department (DOJ) must approve any redistricting changes made by Florida to make sure they do not diminish minority voting access. Amendments 5 and 6 were approved by 63 percent of Florida voters in November 2010, the same election that awarded Scott the governorship. The amendments impose new standards for legislators to follow for redistricting in 2012. Then-acting Secretary of State Dawn Roberts submitted the new standards to the DOJ for approval. Scott does not explain his withdrawal, but media reports speculate that he is working with Florida Republicans, who have challenged the new amendments in court. Scott replaced Roberts with former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the head of Protect Your Vote, an organization which led the opposition to Amendments 5 and 6. Scott only says: “One of the things that we’re looking at is the amendments that were passed, how they’re going to be implemented. We want to make sure that with regard to redistricting, it’s fair, it’s the right way of doing it. So it’s something I’m clearly focused on.” Of Browning, he says, “My agents will do everything we can to make sure it’s fairly done.” The Florida Department of State denies any involvement by Browning in the decision to withdraw the request. Scott’s spokesman Brian Hughes says, “This withdrawal in no way impedes the process of redrawing Florida’s legislative and Congressional districts.” Florida Democrats say Scott is attempting to delay or block implementation of the amendments. Fair Districts Now, the organization that proposed the amendments, issues a statement accusing Scott of trying to subvert the will of the people. It says: “Within its first days in power, the new administration of Governor Rick Scott, through its Department of State, took extraordinary steps to thwart the will of the overwhelming majority of Florida voters who voted for redistricting reform in Florida. On, November 2, 63 percent of Florida voters amended the Florida Constitution to include new non-partisan redistricting standards. When new laws affect voting as these do, the Voting Rights Act requires that the standards be reviewed and ‘pre-cleared’ by the Justice Department (DOJ). It is the duty of the state to request DOJ pre-clearance. Governor Crist ordered that a formal request for pre-clearance be filed. The Florida secretary of state’s office filed that request on December 10, 2010. On January 7, 2011, as one of its first acts, the new administration of Governor Rick Scott, through its Department of State, in an apparent attempt to thwart the will of the voters, wrote to DOJ withdrawing the amendments from review.” Fair Districts Now may sue Florida to have the new standards reviewed by the DOJ. Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich says Scott should follow the “will of the voters,” and adds: “The governor got elected with 48 percent and he calls that a mandate. I think that the amendment passing with 63 percent is definitely a mandate.” NAACP board member Leon Russell, who supports the two amendments, says Scott is abusing his power “to prevent implementation of these needed reforms.” Regardless of what is and is not done, the redistricting plans will have to receive “pre-clearance” under the VRA before being implemented. Scott does not inform the media of his withdrawal, and reporters do not learn of it until almost the end of January. Scott makes the withdrawal three days after being sworn in as governor. (Bender and Bousquet 1/25/2011; Fineout 1/25/2011; Levey-Baker 1/25/2011)

Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), joining the race to contend for the Republican presidential nomination, tells an audience at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington that America was a much better place before 1965, when the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989) was enacted and the “welfare state” began. “Social conservatives understand that America was a great country because it was founded great,” Santorum says. “Our founders, calling upon in the Declaration of Independence, the supreme judge, calling upon divine providence, said what was at the heart of American exceptionalism.… ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.‘… Ladies and gentlemen, America was a great country before 1965.” Reporter David Love notes that in 1965, institutionalized racism was still the law in many areas of the country. Police brutalized voting rights protesters and civil rights workers were murdered without legal repercussions. The civil rights legislation enacted during this time began the variety of federal “safety net” programs such as food stamps, aid for mothers and their children, disabled citizens, and others, and also began stamping out institutionalized, legal racism. Medicare and Medicaid were enacted under the Social Security Act of 1965. The 1965 Omnibus Housing Act provided funds for building housing for indigent Americans, including many African-Americans. The federal government began funding public schools in 1965. And two years later, the courts used 1965 legislation to overturn laws against miscegenation—interracial marriage. Love concludes: “So the question remains, was America better before 1965? Well, it depends on your point of view. If you are a conservative who views the Great Society legacy as a big government intrusion into the lives of people, then the answer is yes. If you think government has no business protecting civil rights, funding schools and feeding hungry children, increasing economic opportunity, and promoting the arts, your answer will undoubtedly be yes. However, if you are an African-American who enjoys exercising the right to vote, or a senior who doesn’t want anyone touching your Medicare, or someone who believes the federal government has a role to play in fighting poverty, chances are you have a different view of things.” (Love 6/7/2011)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) tells a reporter that the Supreme Court issued its 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) in part because none of its members have ever been elected officials and thusly they have no personal experience with the corruption that comes with unregulated money being allowed into political campaigns. The Court’s majority opinion found that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Whitehouse says in part: “Unfortunately you had the five right-wing judges, none of whom have ever run for any office ever and have zero political experience between the five of them, offering opinions about what money can do in elections.… So clearly the finding of fact in Citizens United that unlimited corporate spending cannot either increase the risk of corruption or increase the appearance to the public that there’s corruption is ludicrous.… The president asked me who I thought, you know, what were the characteristics of somebody that should be appointed to the Court, and I said I think it should be somebody who has some actual political experience out there so that they are not operating in this political arena with absolutely no knowledge. Even if they wanted to come to the result that Citizens United came to, I think those judges would have had a hard time getting there if they’d had actual practical political experience because they would have known what a preposterous finding they were making.” Legal scholar Ian Millhiser of the liberal news Web site Think Progress writes: “The current Supreme Court includes eight former US Court of Appeals judges and one former law school dean. Four of the five current justices responsible for Citizens United served as political appointees in Republican administrations. The justices who decided Brown v. Board of Education (see May 17, 1954), by contrast, included one former governor, three former US senators, and one former state lawmaker.” (Millhiser 5/23/2012)


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