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Democracy in Crisis: Rick Hasen’s Editorial Is A Must-Read

“Don’t Let Our Democracy Collapse”

I’m reposting Professor Hasen’s editorial in today’s New York Times (linked through his election law blog) here for three reasons.

First, it’s a clear-eyed and thorough analysis of the present danger.

Second, it nicely coincides with a question my wife asked me this week (which I’ll paraphrase here as “So … what legal mechanisms may be employed to remove bad actors from elective public office?”)¹

And third, it’s a prompt for me to ask all of you for your thoughts.

There is cause for pessimism about voting rights in general (e.g., as the Texas House redistricting trial winds down, and in the face of institutionalized hostility towards the preservation of voting rights). But there is also cause for optimism (as civil rights advocacy groups renew their focus and energy in response to the urgency of this crisis, embedded in what I might dryly refer to as a target-rich environment for litigation).

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¹With respect to my wife’s question (which was specifically about removing executive and legislative officers from the federal government), here’s the short answer – per Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, the President may be removed from office following a trial of impeachment in the Senate, based on articles of impeachment passed by the House, or he may be suspended from the duties of office based on the procedures outlined in Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Members of Congress may be expelled from office upon a two-thirds vote by their peers, per the second clause of Article I, Section 5.

 

Texas election news: Pasadena, Texas, required to seek preclearance for any changes in voting or election procedure

If you haven’t already read this excellent story from the New York Times about the City of Pasadena, Texas, check it out, as it’s necessary for context. Also, take a look at Professor Rick Hasen’s analysis of the initial court ruling and his comments on the subsequent order regarding enforcement of the initial ruling.

Other useful context: Texas has a long history of discriminatory voting laws.

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Why this matters: this is the first jurisdiction since the Shelby County v. Holder decision that has had preclearance requirements imposed on it by a federal court.

Briefly, and for those of you who are new to this story, here are the highlights:  In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the above-mentioned decision that cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, effectively eliminating the historical process whereby the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed changes in voting procedures adopted by certain jurisdictions.

Emboldened by this Supreme Court decision, the mayor of the City of Pasadena, Texas, then pushed a new city election strategy, allegedly (per the NYT story above) to limit the power of Hispanic voters in municipal elections.

Pasadena, Texas, has a large Hispanic population (about 62.2% of the roughly 154,000 people who live there), but its city government has been dominated by whites, and the city has historically been racially polarized.

By replacing single-member districts with at-large districts, the new city election plan diluted minority voting strength and reduced the likelihood that Hispanic voters could get proportionate representation on the city council.

The city was sued, and now, three years later, a federal court has ruled that the city-altered method for choosing its city council members was motivated by “racial animus,” the finding that (under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act) justified court-ordered preclearance for local laws affecting elections .

As a consequence of the federal court’s finding that the City of Pasadena’s method for electing city council members was intended to limit the ability of Hispanic voters to influence city policy, the city’s racially motivated redistricting plan has been struck down.

Importantly, the city has been ordered to submit future changes in city redistricting and voting procedures to the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice for review.

The story is particularly timely and relevant as the future of voting rights enforcement in our country hangs in the balance.

As noted in multiple news stories, Jeff Sessions—the current nominee for the position of U.S. Attorney General—has had what can best be described as a “chequered” (or “checkered,” for us Americans) past with respect to his opposition to civil rights generally, has been openly hostile towards the Voting Rights Act for his entire legal career, and is now poised to helm the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the case of Mr. Sessions’ pending appointment to the position as the highest attorney in the federal government, the clichéd phrase, “fox in the henhouse” doesn’t quite sum up the potential damage to civil rights enforcement.

Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is more, “Tyson Industries announces appointment of ravenous vulpine predator to be responsible for overseeing all domestic chicken production in U.S.”

Historical Survey of Voting Discrimination Confirms the Disastrous Short-Sightedness of the Roberts Court

We all knew that Shelby County v. Holder was wrongly decided, and now we have more data to add to the mountain of statistical evidence of why preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was so important.

Check out today’s editorial in the New York Times: “Voting Rights: By the Numbers.An October 2014 statistical survey by J. Morgan Koussler (available at Social Science Research Network or SSRN) confirms that discriminatory practices relating to voting are more common in the jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the old formula, and that while voter turnout and minority participation might seem to be a fairly blunt instrument on which to base social engineering, it was a pretty good proxy for determining where actual racial exclusions from voting were being perpetrated.

Not for nothing, but I’d like to point out that just about anybody with an interest in the preservation of voting rights for minority voters should be pushing for a renewal of the preclearance process. Congress needs to legislate away the awful Shelby County v. Holder decision.

And … I’d point out with just a hint of impatience that there are lots of potential interim solutions that might serve at least as stopgap measures to limit the appalling current trespasses against our voting rights. My own suggestion is to bootstrap preclearance into the administration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I get why my suggestion might not be one that the Justice Department is enthusiastic about – there are budget issues to be concerned about, and the physical staffing of the Voting Rights section of the Civil Rights division is a politically charged topic; any attempt to create modest election procedure reporting requirements for U.S. jurisdictions will doubtless draw howls of protest from the very jurisdictions that most desperately need to be scrutinized.

But the damage done by the Supreme Court isn’t going to magically fix itself – if Congress can’t pass a renewed Voting Rights Act (as it clearly can’t in its current status as the least functional branch of government), the only remaining avenue for reform is through administrative rule-making and executive action.

C’mon – you have to admit that some form of recordkeeping relating to changes in election procedures is better than what we have available right now, which is just a hodgepodge of piecemeal, bespoke civil rights lawsuits that are expensive and limited in effect.

Back Again After A Long Hiatus

It’s a good time to be writing about Texas Elections, given that the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery was just two days ago, and given that we are still struggling to counter the corrosive effects of endemic institutional racism even now. There’s also quite a bit of action vis-a-vis public law generally in Texas, what with the Legislature’s latest experiments.

In the midst of all this election-related news, my wife had surgery recently. Everything went great, and we’re all doing fine, but the medical prelude and aftermath were distracting, to say the least, and now I feel like the kid who comes back to school after a long break and hopes that he can still remember the combination for his locker.

Also in the midst of all this, I finished a novel for middle-grade readers called “Sky Pirates of the Aetherosphere.” What does it have to do with Texas elections? Absolutely nothing whatsoever. As in, it is about as far removed from the law and elections as it can possibly get.

If the novel is in any way tied to my work as an attorney, it grows out of the rich loam of my extended hiatus from government employment. So thanks for that, State of Texas!

Very briefly, here’s a recap and highlights of some of the things I’ll be looking at this week:

I. Selma and the the future of voting rights

Everybody and their cousin have provided transcripts and links of varying quality to one of President Obama’s best speeches, namely the remarks he delivered on the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. His speech was reprinted in full in a number of newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, but what the heck, I’ll provide the link as well. It deserves as wide an audience as possible, and if you haven’t read it elsewhere, go check out the official transcript.

2. Calls for Electronic Voter Registration

Each time a legislator calls for Texas election law to enter the 21st Century, I admire the ambition, given that nobody’s managed to drag it into the 20th Century yet. But who knows? Hope springs eternal, etc. Anyway, there are a number of proposals for encouraging voter registration, including provisions for online registration. This seems like a no-brainer, which means we’ll probably get to see it happen sometime in the mid-2100s.

3. Election administrators exit Stage Left

Major elections impose a certain amount of wear and tear on election administrators, but 2014 seems (at least anecdotally) to have been worse than usual for causing turnover among county election officials.

4. Fixing the Texas Election Code

It’s my pet peeve – what can I say? The Texas Election Code isn’t just evil, it’s badly written. I mean, evil … well, that’s a policy choice – if you want your politics evil, you’ve come to the right state. But badly written? That’s just embarrassing.

I look forward to working through this daunting backlog of election-law-related stuff. One nice thing about writing on election issues is that there’s always something going on.