Michael Meeropol: This Economist Is Now Just A Citizen Concerned About The Right To Vote

Jul 12, 2013

Today I want to talk about the Supreme Court’s recent decision eviscerating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

( See NY TIMES “Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act”)

Back in the late 19th century, a Chicago writer, Finley Peter Dunne, created a fictional commentator on all things political and named him “Mr. Dooley.”   With a heavy Irish brogue, “Mr. Dooley” opined on the politics of his day,  One of his well-known pronouncements is “The Supreme Court listens to the illection [sic] returns.”

The recent rulings on Gay Marriage have clearly fit that point.  It was less than 30 years ago (in Bowers v. Hardwick, 1986) that the Supreme Court held that it was permissible for states to punish homosexual activity.  Having overruled that decision in 2002, (Lawrence v. Texas) they have recently gone so far as to uphold marriage equality.  As Virginia Slims commercial stated “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

The decision on the Voting Rights Act was focusing on a different aspect of the election returns. There, the majority on the Supreme Court are “listening to the election returns” not to learn the wisdom of the public as they did when they changed their approach to gay rights.  Instead, the majority seems to be recoiling in horror from recent election trends and by this ruling has thrown in its lot with those hell bent on erecting walls to prevent current electoral trends from continuing. 

The electorate is becoming younger, and less white.  These new voters reject extreme social legislation and anti-immigrant extremism.  Also, unlike the older, whiter, generations, these new voters support much more expansive roles for government in addressing inequalities and economic failures such as high unemployment. One of the most significant things about these new, younger, voters is that they are very environmentally conscious.  (And finally, these new voters are more likely to vote Democratic.)

States with Republican-dominated legislatures and Republican governors have hit on a series of solutions to the demographic tide that is poised to sweep them and their policies from office sooner or later – a tide that has protected a Democratic majority in the Senate and delivered strong electoral and popular vote majorities for President Obama in two Presidential cycles.  The method chosen by these Republicans at the state level is voter suppression.

(For details on how it works and why the argument that this is merely to “protect against voter fraud” is so specious, see the report from the BRENNAN CENTER, “Ballot Security and Voter Suppression”)

Some states tried to engage in voter suppression during the run-up to the 2012 elections – and some did succeed in making it extremely difficult to vote.  That is why there were long lines on election day with some people waiting over six hours.  Some states, however ran into difficulties because of the requirement under the Voting Rights Act that changes in states that had previously practiced egregious discrimination must be pre-cleared by the Justice Department.  The recent Supreme Court ruling threw out all pre-clearance requirements.

According to the New York Times of July 6, states all over the south are rushing to implement tough “voter ID” laws ---

[See Michael Cooper, “After Ruling, States Rush to Enact Voting Laws” NYT, p. A9.  The states mentioned in the article are Texas, Alabama, and North Carolina.]

These laws disproportionately affect the elderly, students at universities, and those who do not own cars and have no driver’s license.  Lower income people, disproportionately black and Latino, will be most affected by these laws.  Coupling these stringent voter ID laws with restrictions on early voting and the reduction in the number of polling centers, one can see a clear pattern emerging to reduce the turnout of groups that are more likely to vote Democratic.

In this context, it is obvious that Mr. Dooley’s comment about the Supreme Court’s response to public opinion can be taken two different ways.  IN the case of the rights of gay people, the Supreme Court has changed with the change in public attitudes.  However, when it comes to the right to vote of the poor, elderly, non-whites, the Court has joined those attempting to hold back the demographic tide – to keep those with power in power – for as long as possible.

There is no other way to describe this --- the Supreme Court majority was throwing its lot in with the most retrograde elements of our American political system --- the people who want to turn back the clock on political participation to before 1965 just as they want to turn back the clock on economic policy to before the 1930s. 

Put this decision together with the Supreme Court decision handing the 2000 election to George W. Bush and the Citizens United decision, handing an open political checkbook to the billionaires of this country, and we have a Supreme Court that is as bad as any in American history – notwithstanding its recent gay rights decisions.

If I were younger and lived in Washington, DC, I just might make it a habit of yelling uncomplimentary things at members of the Supreme Court until physically ejected every time I’d get a chance to get in as a spectator.  The majority who wrote the Voting Rights decision deserves our contempt – and the positive gay rights rulings do not give Mr. Anthony “Swing Vote” Kennedy a pass.  I predict this Court will go down in history as badly as the one that gave us Dred Scott before the Civil War and Plessy v. Ferguson legalizing segregation in 1896.

Shame on that Supreme Court majority --- Now what will the rest of us DO about it?

Michael Meeropol is visiting professor of Economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He is the author of Surrender, How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution.

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