Voting Rights and Metropolitan Spatial Justice (UPDATE)

Today, the United States Supreme Court gave indication that it is preparing to turn in a ruling in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder that will rank near the top of the all-time list of shameful decisions. At least four of the  justices seem intent on overturning Section 5 of the VRA, the part that prevents covered states and localities from taking a “gerrymander and suppress the vote first, defend lawsuits later” approach to elections. One seems intent on doing so largely out of spite (quotes from Adam Liptak in the NYT):

Justice Antonin Scalia called the provision, which requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal permission before changing voting procedures, a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Let’s say that Scalia’s right in calling the act a “racial entitlement.” That entitlement comes from a particular history of disfranchisement, and it’s been paid for in blood and then some. Just ask John Lewis.

AP Photo, via National Archives

AP Photo, via National Archives

*Update: Politico did ask John Lewis. One of the small number of useful things Politico has done in its reign as “Tiger Beat on the Potomac.”*

But while Scalia’s remarks will justly garner the most scorn from right-thinking members of the media and the public, it’s probably more important to address the main premise of the plaintiffs, that the Act itself is now irrelevant to public life because the right to vote is secure.

The county’s lawyer, Bert W. Rein, said that the “problem to which the Voting Rights Act was addressed is solved.”

The Court seems prepared, if not positively ecstatic, to accept this argument, as Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the court’s narrower ruling on Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder:

“The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable,” he wrote. But “things have changed in the South.”

He said: “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

Roberts is correct in noting that minority candidates hold office at “unprecedented levels”–consider the precedent!–but his blithe assurance that this increase in minority representation is evidence of Section 5’s irrelevance beggars belief. We’re mere months from a presidential election that saw citizens waiting for the better part of a day to vote at polls that were understaffed and underequipped. John Roberts would have us believe that the location of so many of these polling places in precincts populated by the poor, racial minorities, and Democrats is mere coincidence, rather than a strategy that will surely get worse without the protection of Section 5. We’ve seen the public cast millions more votes for Democrats than for Republicans in Congressional elections while gerrymandered districts ensure the preservation of Republican majorities.

We can look to the nation’s metropolitan areas to better appreciate the likely consequences of overturning Section 5. There, where racial minorities constitute significant pluralities and even majorities of the potential electorate, we can already observe the gears of gerrymandering and vote suppression turning in anticipation of the Court’s likely decision. I blogged about this last week, in fact. Read it again, but note the way that the current assault on Section 5 is embedded in a decades-long project of partisan and racial political maneuvering that has sought to limit the control of black Atlanta voters over residents of whiter suburbs in north Fulton County.

Step 1: Start with a population of affluent white homeowners angry that Fulton County reassessed their historically underassessed property in the early 1990s to comply with state law. These folks are prepared to take the County and the city of Atlanta to court rather than accept a legally mandated tax increase. Since this reassessment follows the deepening of poverty in the region under Reagan-Bush economic and social policies, and the election of a black Democratic majority on the Fulton County Commission in 1987, resentments get expressed as grudges against black politicians and the poor. As Robert Proctor, one of the plaintiffs in the reassessment lawsuits, told a New York Times reporter in 1994,

“Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and give it to black people, pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think what we need to do in this country, if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote, unquote, racism, is we need to stop talking about race all the time. That is all we talk about: race, race, race, race, race.”

Mr. Proctor, voicing the views of many other whites, said it was blacks obsessed with race and the past who were today’s racists. “I am not a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “I’m one of those who sat silent for a long, long time. Increasingly, a great many people in the middle and upper middle classes in the South are saying what I’m saying, not publicly, but they’re saying it to all their friends.

Step 2: Mobilize this resentment through the Republican Party. Locally, that means running folks like Karen Handel and tax lawsuit plaintiff “Mitch” Skandalakis for seats on the Fulton County Commission, where their chief role is to antagonize Democrats. At the state level, this means leveraging growing suburban influence within the party to set legislative priorities around suburban interests, including defensive incorporations of cities and proposed secession from the county.

Step 3: Recognize that the presence of black Democrats in the Fulton County delegation of the General Assembly is blocking the achievement of these goals, and gerrymander legislative districts so that more conservative white suburban Republican districts include small parts of Fulton County. Now a majority-minority county has 13 white Republicans and 12 Democrats representing it in the state house and a 7-4 advantage for the GOP in the state senate!

Step 4: Use that majority to propose redistricting the Fulton County Commission. Proclaim the intention to bring county government closer to the people by replacing an at-large seat with a district seat that would, purely by coincidence, serve affluent, white-majority suburbs. Hope no one points out that making all seven seats district-based would put government even closer to the people, but that the seventh district would be government close to people who vote Democratic. Your bigger plans involve enlarging the power of that at-large chair of the commission as the inevitable tiebreaker of a 3-3 logjam among the district Commissioners.

Step 5: Here’s where the Voting Rights Act comes in. If Section 5 isn’t in the way, this redistricting plan can sail through the legislature, and if minority Democratic voters want to challenge it, they have to wait until it’s already implemented.

Step 6: You still have to win that crucial countywide election to chair the commission. Good thing that your gerrymandered GOP majority in the Fulton County delegation of the legislature also introduced a plan to take the selection of the county’s board of elections out of the hands of the County Commission and place decisive authority with…. THE FULTON COUNTY LEGISLATIVE DELEGATION.

Step 7: Install someone like former Fulton County GOP Chairman and Bush II Justice Department attorney Hans von Spakovsky as the head of elections in the county. Speaking of “racial entitlement,” here are von Spakovsky and John Fund’s observations about the NAACP, which had the gall to protest the voter ID bill that von Spakovsky authored for the state of Georgia (and, in a completely conflict-of-interest-free turn of events, shepherded through the Section 5-mandated preclearance process as a Justice Department appointee):

The NAACP has gone so far as to complain to the United Nations that voter ID requirements are a human rights violation. This silly claim would be laughable if it were not so embarrassing for that formerly respected organization, which has morphed from its beginnings as a champion for civil rights to being a subordinate arm of the Democratic Party and an advocate for the racial-spoils system of racial preferences (discrimination) in employment, contracting, and college admissions. (46)

Without Section 5, that person can install any number of Voter ID laws, change polling place locations, challenge the eligibility of voters, and whip up fears of voter fraud that justify vote suppression. Now you’ve got a fighting chance to escape the crushing burden of sharing political power with minorities!

These kinds of plans are already visible in Fulton County, but expect to see them in your state legislature too.

5 comments on “Voting Rights and Metropolitan Spatial Justice (UPDATE)

  1. […] live with areas dominated by older white Anglos. In metro areas like Atlanta, it would further shift power in state legislatures toward suburbs. This case thus presents a recurrent problem: determining the relevant universe of people for […]

  2. […] Senator Jason Carter recognizes, in terms that echo this blog’s analysis, that the gerrymandering of the legislative delegation is part of a plan […]

  3. […] ways that those kinds of boundaries structure the social and fiscal conflicts of metropolitan life, facilitate resource hoarding, and divide communities of opportunity. We’ve seen incorporation movements in north Fulton […]

  4. […] at the county level shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve written before about the way that voting rights are tied to metropolitics in Fulton County, and particularly the way that controlling the composition of the electorate is […]

  5. […] liberal city planners). Furthermore, racism has no relationship to economic opportunity, political power, or social outcomes. The metropolitan poor are not victims of historical processes put in motion to […]

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