Annoyances of Maine’s caucuses nothing compared to denials of democracy in other states
Almost every Mainer I know voted in the caucus. Think about that; caucusing is inconvenient, and awkward, requiring people to talk about things in public that they never want to talk about, except, of course, on Facebook. And almost every Mainer I know did it! And then came away from the experience annoyed, at least, at long lines and disorganization. I know people who waited for as long as four hours to caucus.
It wasn’t because people in power were trying to keep Mainers from voting. Maine’s Republican and Democratic parties put a lot of work into the caucus. (In fact, if you blame your party for your long wait at the caucus, I’d like to suggest that you play a more active role in your party.) No, Mainers had trouble voting during the caucus because Mainers were encouraged to vote. So: good news! You may have felt infuriated, abused, and worse, on election day, but if you had to spend hours of your day just waiting in line for the opportunity to exercise a fundamental right, it was because of an excess of democracy, and not because people were actively conspiring against you.
Line at Democratic caucus in Portland, Maine keeps growing longer. pic.twitter.com/fWPkM8sQki
— Tom Bell (@TomBellPortland) March 6, 2016
On caucus day, in other words, Mainers had the opportunity to experience voting the way that many other Americans do, but it happened as the result of democratic enthusiasm. In many other states, on the other hand, people’s votes are either watered down (the exact phrase is “vote dilution”) or denied altogether as the result of calculated, systemic discrimination.
And our own little experience with painful, difficult voting provides us with an opportunity to think about what voting means for many of our fellow Americans in 2016.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to end slavery, establish birthright citizenship and ban state discrimination against American citizens, and to ensure a right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” By the turn of the twentieth century, during the “Jim Crow” era, states had compensated by imposing ostensibly universal tests – all citizens had to take the same remarkably complicated constitutional law examinations – which were administered without transparency. Middle class or wealthier white men always passed, while poor whites, most women, and all African Americans always failed. Just to demand a copy of the graded exam, to see why you failed, could cost your job, your rented property or mortgage, or your life.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act changed all that. According to Section 4 of the act, if your state had any kind of interference between voters and their right to vote – like one of those “tests” – and less than 50% of the state population eligible to vote actually participated, then your voter registration rules are frozen. And, according to
Section 5, you can’t implement new voting rules until the Department of Justice agrees that those rules are not discriminatory. The VRA was transformative; it ushered in a whole new era of voting participation, and effectively ended Jim Crow.
Indeed, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, the VRA was so successful that it needed to be dismantled. The Court’s opinion in Shelby County v. Holder held that America “has changed” since the passage of the VRA, that the Act had so successfully remedied “racial discrimination” in the “voting process,” that Section 4 had become antiquated, and, therefore, the Court threw out Section 4. That’s a big problem; without a test to trigger the Department of Justice to act, the VRA was hobbled.
That was a little less than three years ago. Now there are sixteen states that have introduced new restrictions on voting. The purported rationale behind the new requirements (that voters produce birth certificates or particular forms of photo ID) is a widespread threat of voter fraud, but that fraud has actually been so rare as to be statistically irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is that these new voting tests burden non-white voters more than white ones – in some cases, more than 300% more.
In other words, my fellow Mainers, Americans far-and-wide will face an even more frustrating set of obstructions to voting this year than you did. But they are facing acts of discrimination, direct attacks on democracy and racial equality. Remember, between now and November 8th, how fortunate we are, and please consider using your time and resources to defend your fellow citizens whose basic rights are under attack. We have some sense of what that’s like, albeit in a year when everyone is encouraged to vote. Imagine a day like March 5th or 6th, and then imagine spending that day in defiance of state officials who are going out of their way to invalidate your rights. Then, find out how your preferred presidential candidate, their likely Supreme Court choices, and your preferred Congressional candidate stands on the right to vote, and, please, vote accordingly.
Photo: Democratic caucus participants in Orono, Maine
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