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Monday, March 04, 2013

Old Jim Crow, Back for an Encore

Modern voter suppression protest
Take a moment and consider how unlikely this headline would be:


Doesn't seem like much of a danger, does it? And that tells you all you need to know about the continuing necessity of the Voting Rights Act, currently under attack by the right and the conservative members of the Supreme Court. America has moved on, they argue. There is no polling place discrimination anymore. Racism has been solved.

Yet in Florida, early voting lines were hours long in many places. And for many, early voting isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. Contrary to conservative rhetoric, minority voters work. And most workers don't get to set their own hours. Being able to vote when they have the time off is the only way they can vote. The crooked Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, refused to reverse changes he'd made to election rules and, when told of the long lines, tried to spin it as the consequence of a vibrant democracy; "People are getting out to vote," he said. "That's what's very good."

People having to wait hours to vote is not "what's very good," it's what's very bad. And -- surprise! -- my headline about the travails faced by the intrepid with rich fella doesn't apply here. Reality is pretty much the opposite case.


New York Times:

...A Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis determined that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average than whites. Florida had the nation’s longest lines, at 45 minutes, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Charles Stewart III, the political science professor who conducted the analysis.

A separate analysis, by an Ohio State University professor and The Orlando Sentinel, concluded that more than 200,000 voters in Florida “gave up in frustration” without voting.

“When I got there, the line was around the building,” said Jonathan Piccolo, 33, who said he had waited nearly eight hours to cast a ballot in Miami-Dade County the Monday before Election Day.

When lines are so long and so slow that people walk away without voting, those votes have been stolen. Those people have been disenfranchised. When it happens to minorities instead of whites at a ratio of two to one, it's not coincidence or a statistical anomaly. Minority voters are deliberately being discouraged from voting -- exactly the problem that the Voting Rights Act was meant to address. Florida is not fully covered under the Voting Rights Act -- only five counties must clear changes with the Justice Department. Clearly, the Voting Rights Act needs to be expanded, not gutted. When you look at the plain facts, you see it's needed more than ever.

Which is why plain facts have been banished from this debate -- as they have been with so many issues conservatives decide to take on. The data showing -- not suggesting, showing -- that minority voters were discriminated against at the polls just months ago isn't a point worth talking about, because it doesn't support their predetermined conclusion. What supports those conclusions is bad math.

National Public Radio:

At the voting rights argument in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts tore into Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, grilling him on his knowledge of voting statistics.

The point the chief justice was trying to make was that Massachusetts, which is not covered by the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act, has a far worse record in black voter registration and turnout than Mississippi, which is covered by Section 5 of the act.

But a close look at census statistics indicates the chief justice was wrong, or at least that he did not look at the totality of the numbers.

Roberts' argument was that Massachusetts had a lower black voter turnout than Mississippi -- a "fact" he got from a minority dissent in a lower court decision. According to NPR, those numbers come from the census and are the result of statistical sampling. The sample is meant to be representative of the nation as a whole, not of the individual states. And this means numbers from different states have vastly different margins for error.

The number of black citizens eligible to vote in Massachusetts is 236,000, while it is 721,000 in Mississippi, more than three times that number. Therefore, according to Census officials, when looking at the estimated turnout rate in Massachusetts, the voting percentage for African-Americans at first blush is estimated at 39.3 percent. But the margin of error is 11.5 percentage points, meaning that the black voter turnout actually could be as high as 50.8 percent (or, conversely, as low as 27.8 percent).

Now, look at Mississippi, where black turnout is listed at 48.7 percent. But because of the large size of the African-American population that was sampled, the margin of error is only 5.4 percentage points.

That means that factoring in the margin of error, the black turnout rate in Mississippi could be as high as 54.1 percent, or as low as 43.3 percent.

So, if you figure in the margins for error -- which both Chief Justice Roberts and the lower court selectively did not -- the numbers could just as easily show that "Mississippi could have had a black voter turnout rate that was 7.5 percentage points lower than Massachusetts."

In other words, since the numbers are being applied in a way they were never meant to be, they're meaningless, incomplete, and malleable as clay. To hang the fate of the voting rights of millions on this lousy math would be insane. Yet that's what Roberts seems to have in mind.

Striking down the Voting Rights Act and denying millions of Democratic voters their right to vote may be the only way Republicans can win national office going forward. Of course, they could always just be less racist in their policies, but that would mean progressive change. The only time a conservative talks about "change" is when they want to change something back; i.e., regressive change. So the conservative members of the Supreme Court -- through transparent judicial activism and bad math -- want to change voting laws back to the bad old days of Jim Crow, when America's wealthy white elites were safe from democracy.

And Republicans wonder why they have so much trouble attracting minority voters.


[photo via Michael Fleshman]

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