The War for the Soul of America

Duke University was a pleasant enough place in the early seventies – they called it the Harvard of the South and those ivy-covered gothic buildings did give the campus that sort of feel. Durham was fine too – a sleepy town that always smelled sweet and sticky. It was all the cigarette factories chopping sweet fresh tobacco all day long. And North Carolina was fine too. The dark and deep new-growth loblolly pine forests that stretched out forever were a bit depressing, but the Great Smokey Mountains were a half-day drive away, and from Asheville you could drive the Blue Ridge Parkway through the clouds. The mental hospital in Asheville where they’d locked up Zelda Fitzgerald long ago had burned down years before, so there were no bad vibes in the air.

The drive from Durham to Chapel Hill was a bit more problematic. Chapel Hill may be a Little Bit of Heaven in the South, but to get there you take the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway – a reminder of how many were still seething in anger at that totally unjustified War of Northern Aggression more than a hundred years earlier. Those of us from the North learned to be careful not to call that the Civil War – but at the time Research Triangle Park was going up along that highway. IBM and the other big tech firms were moving in. The place was turning into the New South. Sure, the perpetually angry Jesse Helms was doing his outraged evening editorials on the news station out of Raleigh, but everyone shrugged. It was odd he was elected to the Senate in 1973, where he did a lot of damage for ten full years, but he was succeeded by the pleasant and mostly harmless Elizabeth Dole. Helms had always hated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and all that other civil rights nonsense, but Elizabeth Dole was a different sort of Southern Republican. Let those people vote. Maybe they’d vote for her. Many did.

North Carolina had become the New South. Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 and came close in 2012 – and Obama seems to be a black man. The transformation was complete, except it wasn’t. That year the Koch Brothers poured millions into state races in North Carolina – exciting those who missed the Jesse Helms days and who had been enthralled by all the antigovernment back-to-the-imaginary-past talk from the Tea Party crowd, assuring the election of a solid far-right legislature and a matching governor. The Koch Brothers were never into the Jesus stuff – they’re stone-cold fabulously wealthy severely-libertarian businessmen – but that became part of the deal. They needed those votes too, and they got them – and suddenly the New South was gone.

No one saw that coming, and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wonders what the hell happened – with a list of particulars. She reviews the abortion bill tacked onto an anti-Sharia law – and when that didn’t work, how it was then added as a hidden rider to a bill on motorcycle safety law – which no one noticed until it was too late. Now the new regulations will shut down all but one clinic in the state, which was pretty clever. Another bill forces all teachers to teach seventh graders that abortion causes preterm birth (in subsequent pregnancies) – which it doesn’t, and it doesn’t mean the woman will be unable to ever have a child, which would now have to be taught too. The AMA and other professional medical groups are pretty upset, but what do they know? They also enacted legislation which has been assessed as “the harshest unemployment insurance program cuts in our nation’s history” – it seems that 70,000 North Carolina citizens are losing their unemployment benefits – which is supposed to be good for them, or something. North Carolina is also one of the fifteen states that refused Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. The elderly and disabled will have to show some personal responsibility for a change. Lithwick also mentions the proposed education bill that cuts teacher’s pay to next to nothing, even though North Carolina already ranks among the lowest in the nation – and that bill also eliminates tenure, and uses vouchers to move ninety million in public-school funding to private schools – to Christian academies and the like. Lithwick notes that the state school superintendent issued a statement saying that all this is going too far – “For the first time in my career of more than thirty years in public education, I am truly worried about students in our care.” Add to the proposed resolution allowing counties and cities to establish a state religion – because the Constitution, which forbids that, obviously only applies to the federal government. The proposed ban on nipples should be mentioned too – any display of the female nipple would be a felony, which means no one in North Carolina would be seeing a whole lot of certain Hollywood movies.

This may not be what the Koch Brothers had in mind, but they’re still pouring in millions – they’ll take it all.

It seems that only twenty percent of North Carolinians approve of all this nonsense and a few other little details:

Only 2% support a bill that would raise interest rates on consumer finance loans up to $4,000 to 30%, while 68% are opposed.

Just 21% support a bill that would allow guns on all educational properties and eliminate permits for them, 66% are opposed.

There’s only 18% support for a bill that would effectively ban Tesla from selling its electric cars in the state to 48% opposed.

What’s most notable on all three of these issues is that even Republican voters are opposed to the moves Republican legislators are trying to make. The GOP rank and file is against the loan bill by a 68/5 margin, the gun bill by a 50/32 one, and the Tesla one by a 34/26 spread.

It’s too late now. The Moral Monday movement is protesting, and they are getting arrested in large numbers. The incredibly unpopular folks in charge feel they’re being as moral as one can possibly be. If that’s unpopular, so be it. No one can stop them. They were elected, fair and square.

That’s the worry, which is why Lithwick is appalled by the proposed changes to the election laws:

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 40 counties in North Carolina had to go to the federal government for pre-approval of any change to local election law. When the Supreme Court locked up Section 5 last month, by a vote of 5–4, it gave a great gift to the disenfranchisement community. States no longer need to check their crazy with federal courts or the Justice Department. The obligation to prove that you aren’t harming minority voters (or expressly targeting them) has gone. Texas and Mississippi charged ahead with their own controversial voter ID laws within hours of the Supreme Court ruling. Alabama and Mississippi have either passed or are working on similar ones. And Tuesday, North Carolina took the first step to expanding its Voter ID bill to better disenfranchise a few more voters who might have leaned left, including students, African-Americans, and women.

Indeed, North Carolina has just put in place a voter suppression regime that can only really be described as political performance art.

It’s all in the details:

The voter ID component of the bill is probably the most draconian in the nation. It cuts to seven the forms of permissible identification. If it passes, no county or municipal government or public employee IDs will be valid proof of voter identification. Nor will any photo ID issued by a public assistance agency, or any student ID from any college. The new voter ID rules will hit African-American voters, women, and Democrats hardest. The indispensable Ari Berman sums up the aggregate effect as follows: “According to the state’s own numbers, 316,000 registered voters don’t have state-issued ID; 34 percent are African-American and 55 percent are registered Democrats. Of the 138,000 voters without ID, who cast a ballot in the 2012 election, 36 percent were African-American and 59 registered percent [sic] Democrats.”

And there’s no voter fraud, by the way – only two cases of alleged voter impersonation in the last ten years – and someone is going to have to pay to vote now. It may cost between three and twenty million to provide new ID cards to eligible voters, but the state has budgeted one million. That’s very clever.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court ruled the Voting Rights Act was outdated – from another era – so we should trust each state to do the right thing. We have a black president, after all.

Lithwick disagrees:

The underlying paradox of the Supreme Court’s June ruling is that it was deployment of the Voting Rights Act that stopped efforts to suppress votes and limit voting in Texas, North Carolina, and Florida in the 2012 elections. The law was a victim of its own success, not just in the distant past, but only months earlier. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “the sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” She famously added that throwing out the law’s key protection for minority voters “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Less than a month later, it’s raining vote suppression in North Carolina. And the forecast calls for a whole lot more of the same.

Some things will return. Let’s go back to Bush and Gore:

The Florida Central Voter File was an internal list of legally eligible voters used by the US Florida Department of State Division of Elections to monitor the official voter lists maintained by the 67 county governments in the State of Florida between 1998 and January 1, 2006. The exclusion of eligible voters from the file was a central part of the controversy surrounding the US presidential elections in 2000, which hinged on results in Florida. The Florida Central Voter File was replaced by the Florida Voter Registration System on January 1, 2006 when a new federal law, the Help America Vote Act, came into effect.

Florida hired a private firm to flag potentially ineligible voters and their lists were bogus – folks with Hispanic-sounding names from outdated random lists of this and that – there were no felons or illegals, or very few. It was just a list of similar-sounding names, and the state got caught. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that meant that if they ever tried something like that again, they’d have to run it past the feds. They had a history.

The Supreme Court just ruled that that history is moot, so now there’s this:

A federal court is dismissing a lawsuit that a Hispanic civic group and two naturalized citizens filed last year to block a voter purge in Florida.

The lawsuit became moot after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June. That decision halted enforcement of a federal law that required all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before changing the way they hold elections.

The groups fighting the state had argued that Florida’s efforts to remove suspected non-U.S. citizens needed to be cleared by federal authorities first because five counties in the state had been subject to the federal law.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. District Court in Tampa lifted a five-month old stay that had prevented Florida from sending any new names of potential non-U.S. citizens to county election officials.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in court filings the state plans to resume removal of voters even though the validity of previous state lists has been questioned.

There’s nothing to stop them now, or almost nothing:

The Justice Department is preparing to take fresh legal action in a string of voting rights cases across the nation, U.S. officials said, part of a new attempt to blunt the effect of a Supreme Court ruling that the Obama administration has warned will imperil minority representation.

The decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting issues and is likely to spark a new round of politically contentious litigation that could return consideration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the high court.

Texas is first, and now it is war. See Texas Officials, Activists to Holder on Voter ID: If It’s War You Want, It’s War You’ve Got and this:

Holder’s action was praised by civil rights groups but criticized by Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry said it demonstrated the Obama administration’s “utter contempt” for the U.S. Constitution.

“This end run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and casts unfair aspersions on our state’s common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process,” Perry said in a statement.

Yeah, well that’s too bad:

The Justice Department’s intervention in Texas will focus on those sections of the Voting Rights Act that were untouched by the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in Shelby County v. Holder, a case out of Alabama, election-law experts said.

“This is a big deal,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine. “It shows that the Department of Justice is going to use whatever tools it has remaining in its arsenal to protect minority voting rights. But the issue could well end up back before the Supreme Court, perhaps even this coming term.”

In the next few weeks, Holder is expected to use Sections 2 and 3 of the Voting Rights Act to prevent states from implementing certain laws, including requirements to present particular types of identification to vote. As with Texas, the department also is expected to try to force certain states to get approval, or “pre-clearance,” before they can change their election laws.

“Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure the voting rights of all American citizens are protected,” Holder said in a speech Thursday at the National Urban League conference in Philadelphia. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found.”

North Carolina is next, because the Supreme Court didn’t throw out the whole Voting Rights Act, as Lyle Denniston explains here in relation to the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision:

The preclearance provision is contained in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It has been widely considered to be the government’s most effective legal weapon against race bias in elections, because it requires states and local governments with a past history of racial discrimination in voting to get official permission in Washington before they may put into effect any change, however small, in voting laws or procedures.

The 1965 law provided two ways to impose a Section 5 obligation on a state or local government. One was a virtually automatic formula, contained in Section 4 of the law. If a state or local government had a sustained history of racial bias in its voting patterns in the past that triggered a coverage formula that led directly to a Section 5 preclearance obligation. Preclearance can be sought either from the Justice Department or from a three-judge District Court in Washington.

The second way to get a state or local government put under a preclearance duty is the 1965 law’s Section 3 – the one that the Attorney General said the government will now be invoking. If a state or local government is found to have recently engaged in intentional race bias in voting, a court has the power to impose the preclearance duty on that jurisdiction for a set period of time. It is not an automatic method, in contrast to the coverage formula in Section 4.

While the Supreme Court in the Shelby County ruling did not disturb Section 5 and the preclearance requirement, it did strike down the Section 4 coverage formula. That has been the quickest and most effective way to lead to Section 5 preclearance. The Court’s majority ruled that the coverage formula was seriously out of date, and could no longer be used to trigger Section 5 for any state or local government anywhere in the country.

The Shelby County decision did not disturb Section 3 as a separate way to bring about a preclearance duty. That is why advocacy groups – and now the Obama administration – are turning to Section 3 as the next-best way to enforce the 1965 law through preclearance.

In short, they were found guilty of egregiously suppressing minority votes through some very clever redistricting. Forget the past. Holder has this new decision in hand. He can use that, and that Section 3 the Supreme Court didn’t strike down. He can mess with Texas, and he will.

Maybe Holder will fail. Roberts’ Supreme Court seemed to let the Republicans off the hook, although, at the time, Josh Green wasn’t so sure about that:

On its face, this looks like a big victory for Republicans. But is it really? I suspect it will turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Many of the GOP’s current problems stem from the fact that it is overly beholden to its white, Southern base at a time when the country is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. In order to expand its base of power beyond the House of Representatives, the GOP needs to expand its appeal to minority voters. As the ongoing battle over immigration reform demonstrates, that process is going poorly and looks like it will be very difficult.

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act will make it easier for Republicans to hold and expand their power in those mainly Southern states. That will, in turn, make it easier for them to hold the House. It will also intensify the Southern captivity of the GOP, thereby making it harder for Republicans to broaden their appeal and win back the White House.

That’s a nightmare scenario for the Republicans. All this could make the Republican Party truly the Party of the South, and only the South, from here on out. It becomes a regional party, and regional parties only become national parties when the region secedes and forms its own nation. That didn’t work out last time around.

You’d think the guys in North Carolina and Florida and Texas would remember that. Claims of states’ rights over those of the federal government were the trouble last time. Another war for the soul of the nation – this time not over the issue of slavery but over who gets to vote – can only end badly. But someone’s itching for a new Civil War. We hold the union together or we don’t.

That aside, North Carolina was a quite pleasant place, way back when, in the early seventies. Maybe one day it will be again, when they figure out what century we live in.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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