What’s Happening to My Right to Vote?
The US constitution, 15th amendment, is quite clear and straightforward. It was added to the constitution to assure voting rights for all citizens of the United States – everyone knows that to be fact. However, it appears that our elected federal representatives have ignored responsibility assigned to them by the 15th amendment. It charges congress to enforce this right through appropriate legislation. Yet congress seems content to allow the Supreme Court to make law in this regard.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the legislation written to prohibit discrimination in voting. It was signed and became law as a consequence of the civil rights movement 50 years ago. Congress has considered and modified the law five times, each time expanding and clarifying protections guaranteed by the constitution. In 2006 congress reconsidered the special provisions in the law. These gave the US Department of Justice responsibility to “pre-clear” any changes in state voting laws that were seen as discriminating against minorities. In the end, Congress reauthorized all of these special provisions.
Then in 2013, the Supreme Court in, Shelby County v. Holder, upheld the constitutionality of preclearance—the requirement that certain jurisdictions submit proposed election changes to either the U.S. Department of Justice. However, it invalidated one section of the act. This provision, sometimes called the "coverage formula", identifies which jurisdictions are subject to preclearance requirements. The court's rationale was that this formula was outdated and, therefore, an impermissible standard by which to subject any jurisdiction to the preclearance requirements. In short, the Shelby County ruling gutted the Voting Rights Act unless and until Congress revises it.
The most dramatic consequence of Shelby County is that new election laws and regulations are being established that would not have survived the scrutiny contained in the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Across the US, legislation is being passed that makes voting more restrictive. For example, there are new laws that reduce the number of early voting days, impose a strict voter photo ID requirement, eliminate same-day voter registration, and make it easier to challenge voters at the polls. New state restrictions might, however, only be the initial approach to shaping voter turnout through limiting legislation. In spite of widespread concern among voting rights advocates, the trend continues.
In another ruling by the Supreme Court, known as “Citizens United” the whole balance of campaign funding protections blocking big money from overwhelming the voice of ordinary voters was changed. In short, the majority of the Supreme Court claimed that Corporations, like people, have constitutional protection to free speech by the constitution – and use of money is “free speech.” From the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.
The Court opened the door to allow unions and organizations, including for-profit corporations, to spend unlimited amounts on elections, as long as that money is not given directly to or used in coordination with a candidate. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said: “Ingratiation and access are not corruption. The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” In dissent, Justice Stevens wrote: “In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.” The majority prevailed, election campaigns were changed – probably forever – and the consequences are becoming more apparent each year.
The Citizens United decision allowed for and promoted for the creation of Super PACs, or “independent” political groups that can take in and spend unlimited sums. These groups, unrestrained corporations, and unions, have contributed to never before seen political spending. Outside groups spent billions of dollars on the 2012 election…more than the total outside spending reported to the Federal Election Commission in the past 3 decades. The same is true for state elections where outside – out of state and corporate - spending is increasing. This money is untraceable for the most part. In many cases, it is impossible to know the identity of contributors, their motivation, and the amount of money they spend. One thing is clear; the “big spenders” can dominate the media and drown out the voices of individuals.
Lawmakers have constitutional basis, and a democratic duty, to take measures designed to assure the rights of the people. These laws must protect the 15thamendment right to vote for all citizens. They must also fashion laws to guard against the potentially dangerous effects of corporate spending in local and national races. All of these concerns were exacerbated by the recent Supreme Court action known as the McCutcheon ruling that opens the floodgates to allow individual spending without limit, absent of disclosure. When will congress do the work we elected them to do? Where has our democracy gone?
Marvin J. Christensen (2014)