Monday, April 25, 2016

Using Federal Regulatory Agencies to Deny Fair Voting

It’s one thing to embrace a campaign platform that maintains the government over-regulates our commercial activities, slashing regulatory budgets from environmental to financial agencies. It’s quite another to create agencies that are ostensibly charged with maintaining fairness and equality in accessing voting and the election process… but making sure that they support eliminating the less affluent (read: Democrats) and super-charging the impact of those who support the wealthy (read: Republicans).
We all know about the thrust of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (Supreme Court 2010), unleashing political fund-raising, proselytizing SuperPacs, allowing the wealthy to support any issue or candidate they wish without financial controls and limits as long as their efforts are not coordinated with or directed by candidates and that their donors are disclosed. Indeed, it is the F.E.C. that is the relevant watchdog agency, but it was purposely created to remain impotent and deadlocked between two equal factions: three GOP commissioners – who rather overtly have open hostility to any attempt to impose any meaningful limits on these contribution machines – and three Democrats – who think their mission is to enforce the law.
Even the Chair of the F.E.C., Ann M Ravel (Obama appointment), has railed at the gridlock and impotence of her agency, calling it publicly, “worse than dysfunctional.” The agency has failed to issue any meaningful rules on what constitutes sufficient legally-required “disclosure” of contributors (hence folks create companies that make the actual donations, which companies are disclosed, while those owning the companies often are cloaked in secrecy) and has refused to allow investigations and prosecutions of purported and illicit direct linkage, coordination and direction of SuperPac efforts by candidates themselves.
But the F.E.C. is not the only federal agency that is eroding the Congressional intent of insuring fair elections. The April 8th New York Times explains: “The federal Election Assistance Commission was formed after the disputed 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore and given an innocuous name and a seemingly inoffensive mission: to help state election officials make it easier to vote.
“In this ideologically riven election season, it turns out, that is not easy at all… The election commission is in federal court this month, essentially accused of trying to suppress voter turnout in this November’s election. The Justice Department, its nominal legal counsel, has declined to defend it. Its case instead is being pleaded by one of the nation’s leading advocates of voting restrictions. The agency’s chairman has disavowed its actions.
“The quarrel exemplifies how the mere act of voting has become enmeshed in volatile partisan politics. Seventeen states will impose new voting restrictions for November’s presidential election. Many are the object of disputes between those who say they are rooting out voter fraud and those who say the real goal is to keep Democratic-leaning voters from casting ballots.
“The lawsuit’s origin is straightforward. The agency’s executive director, Brian D. Newby, had been in his job less than three months in January when he unilaterally reversed a policy that the body’s commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, had endorsed since the agency’s creation in 2002: that people registering to vote need offer no proof, beyond swearing an oath, that they are American citizens.
“That decision gave Kansas, Georgia and Alabama officials a blessing to alter the federal voter registration applications handed out in motor vehicle offices and many other state agencies, replacing the oath with something stiffer: a demand for proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.
“There was but one problem, critics say: Mr. Newby had no authority to make policy, a power reserved for the agency’s four commissioners… Mr. Newby calls his decision an administrative matter, not policy. He has said that he did not change the registration form, but merely its instructions, although federal administrative code calls the instructions part of the form.
“‘It wasn’t a ruling so much as a response to a request,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t looking at it through the lens of proof of citizenship. I was looking at it as state law that necessitated changes in the instructions.’
“Critics see something different… ‘It’s trench warfare in the battle of voter suppression,’ said Lloyd Leonard, the advocacy director of the League of Women Voters, the leader of the lawsuit against the commission.”
Add to this morass of voter manipulation the hideous practice of gerrymandering voters into irrelevance, where state legislatures draw congressional voting districts. For example, in highly illiberal Texas, the capital city of Austin is so far left that even New Yorkers blanch. But by corralling voters with carefully drawn districts (four of the five reach far, far into the rural hinterlands around Austin to envelop a majority of conservatives, so only one district reflects the Democratic character of the city), Austin sends four exceptionally conservative representatives to Washington (and one Dem) to represent a very liberal urban reality.
Not wanting to face the reality of demographically complex redistricting – a feat that courts are not well-structured to implement – even the Supreme Court has tried to sidestep challenges to gerrymandering, no matter how blatant and exclusionary the efforts might be. How these conservative incumbents will operate after the 2020 Census (which is the basis for how voting districts should be determined) will test the limits of their imagination… but if recent history is any indication, that won’t stop them. How will the courts respond when the unfairness screams at them?
In the end, we see a nation that has become a majority of minorities, a terrifying reality to the traditional white Christian (Protestant) rural values that still define a majority of state legislatures and governors. On a pure popular basis, these new members of the “majority of minorities” would simply overwhelm the traditionalists and so many of their values, from open acceptance of LGBT citizens and their right to pursue their own vision of life to gender pay equality or pro-choice values. Global warming would become a Congressional action point, and Wall Street would find lots of new strings attached.
But rural traditionalists and the big commercial interests that support their social causes to get lower taxes and less regulation can only maintain their restraints through making sure that voters who disagree with their values simply do not rise to a voting level to implement changes. But it is precisely this unlevel playing field, a game with lots of exclusionary rules, that is creating the polarization that is tearing this country apart. We must either learn to live together or watch America unravel.
I’m Peter Dekom, and perhaps those promulgating unfairness actually believe that the can contain the growing anger at the containment programs they are shoving on the growing majority of Americans.

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