Michael Meeropol: Next Up For The Biden Administration, Voting Rights
The Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats are rightly being praised for passing the American Rescue Plan. Most efforts to use federal spending or tax policy to stimulate the economy – going all the way back to the Kennedy-Johnson tax cut of 1964 -- were usually focused on the middle and upper classes. The last big program that was focused specifically on lower income Americans was the passage of Medicaid back in 1965 --- which in terms of spending was dwarfed by Medicare which benefits everyone, even those who could afford all their medical expenses out of pocket.
Beginning in the 1980s, American policy to fight recessions involved tax cuts tilted towards the well to do and expenditures on the military and local police departments. Education, infrastructure, aid to the poor began to get the short end of the stick. Democrats became frightened by Republican criticisms of allegedly “wasteful” spending and began to buy the “austerity” model of how to control government spending. The Reagan tax cuts and military expenditures exploded the federal budget deficit and when the Democrats got back into power, they made a concerted effort to cut (and ultimately eliminate) that deficit. President Bill Clinton even signed “welfare reform” which terminated a program specifically aimed at supporting single-parent families with low incomes.
[For details see Meeropol, Surrender, How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution. For the Clinton Administration deficit cutting see Meeropol, Michael and Carlos F. Liard?Muriente, 2009 "The myth of Rubinomics", Humanomics, Vol. 25 Issue 3.]
When President Obama took over in 2009, his Recovery Act was heavily laden with tax cuts in a vain effort to get Republican support. The quantitative impact of the tax cuts and spending was much too small for the job it had to do. In addition, once the Republicans took control of the House, they browbeat the Obama administration into adopting austerity policies. The result was a very slow recovery that involved a lot of pain for a lot of middle class (and poor) people. In my opinion, that slow recovery was the source of much of the anger that caused enough people who voted for Obama to either switch in Trump or stay home in 2016.
This time is different. The Democrats decided they would not make that “Obama mistake” again. The proposal which was passed as the American Rescue Plan was big and clearly focused on the poor. For details of this sea change in economic policy see Jim Tankersley and Jason DeParle, “Two Decades After the ‘End of Welfare,’ Democrats Are Changing Direction The New York Times, (March 16, 2021) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/13/business/economy/child-poverty-stimulus.html?referringSource=articleShare
Unfortunately, getting the American Rescue Plan passed was the “easy part” of fulfilling Biden’s promises. Because almost all the elements in the plan could be under the rubric of “reconciliation,” it was not subject to the 60 vote rule necessary to stop a filibuster in the U.S. Senate. All the Democrats needed to do was get all 50 Senators on board. That worked, in large part because despite Senator Joe Manchin’s so-called “moderation,” he very much wants President Biden to succeed.
Until the next reconciliation bill comes up – sometime before October for the next fiscal year --- anything that passes the Senate will have to either garner 60 votes (a Herculean task given the Republican minority’s uniform desire to deny Biden and the Democrats any victories) or be turned into another exception to the filibuster rule.
Among the bills lined up (either already passed by the House or in consideration) are two voting rights bills, an immigration overhaul, a justice in policing act, a law protecting the right to organize unions, a law making the refundable child tax credit from the ARP permanent, and an infrastructure bill that will be heavily weighted towards greening our economy. (I didn’t even mention statehood for the District of Columbia).
The voting rights acts include HR 1 which was just passed by the House and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which was passed last term and will soon be passed by the House again.Neither of these laws can be passed using reconciliation. [On the Lewis bill, see here. The point of this new law is to over-rule the outrageous decision of the Supreme Court back in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder (570 U.S. 529 ) which eviscerated a major part of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Before the decision in Shelby, all states with a long history of discrimination on the basis of race to keep people from voting had to “clear” all their changes in voting rules with the Justice Department. The minute the Shelby decision came down, allegedly because the era of such discrimination was long past, states all over the country began figuring out how to restrict the voting behavior of constitutents who were likely to vote Democratic --- and this obviously disproportionately affected racial minorities. For details on the impact of Shelby, see The Brennan Center for Justice Voting Rights in America, Six Years after Shelby v. Holder(June 25, 2019. For details of HR 1, the For the People Act, see Congressman John Sarbanes, “H.R. 1, the For the People Act” available at https://sarbanes.house.gov/issues/hr-1-the-for-the-people-act]
If I were to rank by importance the various bills in the Biden program I would have to put the two voting rights bills front and center. The reason is that State Legislatures are seeking to expand on the six post-Shelby years of attempts to restrict the right to vote.
[For an interesting AP report on how the right wing is mobilizing to increase voter suppression and fight back against HR 1 see Nicholas Riccardi and Michael Bieseckerm, “ ‘An all-hands moment’: GOP rallies behind voting limits” (March 19, 20210) available here. In the article, Senator Ted Cruz argues that if HR 1 is passed Republicans will never win back control of the House or Senate, in effect admitting that the path to future Republican victories is expanded voter suppression.]
Right now, there are currently 250 voter suppression laws either being debated, already passed or about to be proposed in 42 different states. In a stunning maiden speech to the United States Senate, newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock (D. Ga) made it clear that the current set of proposals is nothing more than a return to the days of Jim Crow.
[I urge everyone who has not seen it, take the time to watch the video: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4952332/senator-raphael-warnock-maiden-floor-speech.]
Here are some details of what the Georgia Legislature has in mind as of Friday, March 19 courtesy of the on-line platform Daily Kos. ,
“In the state House, Republicans took a Senate-passed bill and drastically altered it by adding over 50 sections that largely restrict voting, unveiling it only 90 minutes before a committee hearing on the bill on Wednesday [March 17]. A committee vote will take place as soon as Monday [March 22]. Containing provisions similar to another far-reaching voting restriction bill that House Republicans passed on March 1, this latest revised bill would:
- Require voter ID for absentee voting;
- Significantly limit absentee ballot drop boxes by requiring they be located inside of early voting locations, making them only available during regular business hours;
- Standardize early voting days and hours across counties by expanding availability in many small rural counties that are heavily white and conservative but limiting availability in larger counties that are diverse and Democratic-leaning; this will particularly impact the weekend voting days that Black voters are most likely to use, rather than requiring the smaller counties to simply match what the larger ones already offer;
- Ban people from giving food and water to voters waiting in line;
- Disqualify voters from voting in the wrong precinct but in the right jurisdiction unless they show up specifically after 5 PM on Election Day;
- Allow Georgians to initiate an unlimited number of challengers to voters' eligibility, which a right-wing voter suppression group unsuccessfully tried to do to tens of thousands of voters last year;
- Limit the powers of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused Trump's entreaty to steal the election in Georgia last year, and enable GOP lawmakers to take greater control over local election boards;
- Shorten the runoff period for federal elections from nine weeks to four weeks and adopt instant-runoff voting for military and overseas voters to ensure that doing so doesn't conflict with federal law on when absentee ballots must be made available to voters abroad; and
- Require polling places servicing certain large precincts to add more voting machines or be split into multiple sites.”
The third bullet point above is specifically aimed at making it more difficult for black voters to go from Church to vote (the “souls to the polls” actions that has been a mainstay for black voters in the South for years.
The fourth bullet point actually makes is a crime (misdemeanor) to help out voters standing in long lines by providing them food or drink. Ostensibly this is to prevent “electioneering” close to the polling place, but, in fact, it is clearly aimed at making life even harder for those folks who have to stand in long lines for hours just to vote. Since most of the long lines at polling places in recent elections have been predominantly made up of black voters in large urban precincts, this law would discriminate against those voters.
Recently, I had the experience of watching a Texas politician argue for restrictive laws on the grounds that mail-in voting is subject to voter fraud. He then gave examples of one election in Patterson, New Jersey and another one (three years ago) in Mission, Texas where voter fraud in a situation where lots of ballots had been mailed in caused the results to be overturned. Of course, what was most significant about these claims is that the system actually had checks in place to CATCH those feeble attempts at voter fraud. Also, look at the list above. How many of those restrictions have ANYTHING to do with catching fraud perpetrated through mail in ballots? (Actually, only one!). All the rest were blatant attempts to suppress the vote of black people voting in large urban precincts.
Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that the Courts will be any help in the face of this onslaught of voter suppression bills. Given Trump’s remaking of the federal judiciary, including three Supreme Court Justices, the only check on these blatant racist efforts would be new federal voting rights acts that over-rule Shelby County v. Holder and outlaw the most egregious efforts to limit the impact of voters most likely to vote Democratic. In previous rulings, the Supreme Court has held that redrawing districts for both state and Congressional elections with the express purpose of reducing the representation of the opposing party is Constitutional. Only if the partisan “gerrymandering” explicitly affects people on the basis of race would a Court step in.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST VOTING RESTRICTION RODEO
It took a Civil War to end slavery in the United States and it took two amendments to the Constitution to establish that the ex-slaves were full citizens. This period of Reconstruction after the Civil War was the first dramatic improvement in the lives of African Americans. The key was not just the passage of the 14th Amendment that established black citizenship (and extended it to every person born in the United States) nor the passage of the 15th Amendment, establishing a Constitutional guarantee of the right to vote (restricted at the time to black men). The key was, these amendments were enforced by the federal government with US army troops. These amendments gave black Americans full civil rights and black men the right to vote. But Southern resistance spearheaded by home grown terrorists --- the Ku Klux Klan – ultimately prevailed – Getting US army troops withdrawn from the last states upholding the 14th and 15th amendments in 1877.
From that point through the first decade of the 20th century black political participation in Southern politics was eroded, culminating in the passage of Jim Crow legislation that eviscerated both Amendments.
With black folks at first limited in political influence after 1877 and then denied all political rights during the decade of the 1890s, it is not surprising that racism in all its disgusting attributes from scholarship, to economic opportunities, to culture, to lynching flourished.
Scholarship included the rise of the Dunning School of Reconstruction historiography that claimed the newly freed slaves had been incompetent to participate in politics and their corrupt governments oppressed the South until the defeat of Reconstruction. Scholars also took great interest in eugenics which identified lesser human beings coming from lesser genes. Such racism was ascendant in scholarship through much of the 20th century. Economic opportunities were severely limited in the South. (And until World War I, there were very few opportunities to work in the North as industrialists preferred to hire immigrants and restricted the employment of blacks to the role of strikebreakers).
As to culture, check out Disney cartoons and Marx Brothers movies for casual depictions of stereotypes of black folks. Tarzan movies from the 1940s and 50s did the same. Lynching was prevalent in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century but it still persisted into the 1930s. After the mid 1920s, however, statistics indicate lynchings of black Americans, horrific in any numbers, were down to single digits annually. The lynching of the Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955 was so shocking because lynchings had become very rare by then.
But black Americans never gave up. Even before the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement (many date that from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott), there was resistance to Jim Crow. (The role of the Southern Farmers Tenants Union during the depression is especially impressive given the danger of violence experienced by the organizers. For a specific story about a specific struggle see Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw [NY: Vintage Books, 1974]). In the 1960s that resistance finally garnered sufficient allies among their white fellow citizens to force through the “second Reconstruction” crowned by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But just as white Southerners never gave up attempting to put black Americans “in their place” after the Civil War, the mere passage of these bills did not stop racists from attempting to organize to roll back that second reconstruction. (I detailed the major efforts to respond politically from the Wallace campaign of 1968, to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, to the Reagan campaign of 1980, to the use of Willie Horton by the Bush I campaign in a previous commentary.)
White racist resistance to the Second Reconstruction bore fruit starting with the Supreme Court’s disgusting decision in Shelby County v. Holder. And the current Supreme Court may very well be on the verge of eviscerating the entire Voting Rights Act if their questions in a recent oral argument are indicative of how they will rule.
Thus, it is essential that both HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act become law. Without the protection of these laws, State Legislatures (with the blessing of Trump’s Supreme Court) will be free to suppress the vote. Successful voter suppression before the 2022 elections will pave the way for the Republicans to take back the House or the Senate or both creating a Republican veto of anything and everything the people want from the Biden Administration. With the Biden Administration unable to deliver for the American people it is hard to imagine Biden winning re-election. And the result will be we’ll either have Trump again or a Trumpist who is just as bad but probably smarter. A Trumpist President will continue the policies of the Trump Administration, including making sure that there are no limitations on the burning of fossil fuels. Another four years of Trump climate policy and we can kiss the ability of the earth to sustain human life goodbye. Therefore, we all must fight to pass HR 1 and the Lewis bill to defeat voter suppression because that is the way to make sure that a majority in Congress will be attuned to the desires of the American people in terms of infrastructure (including moving towards a green energy system), immigration reform, making the new child tax credit permanent, etc. We must fight that fight as if our lives depended on it --- because they do!
Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies
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