by Jeremy Leaming
Corporate America, thanks to an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court has even greater ability to secretly pump large sums of money into elections from coast to coast. The high court also provided an assist to state’s bent on creating more difficulties for individuals to vote through ridiculously onerous voter ID laws, curtailment of early voting, or clampdowns on voter registration drives.
The picture is not a flattering one for a nation that staunchly promotes democracy.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sought to bring more attention to the matter with a hearing today on those Supreme Court opinions. “I am concerned that recent Supreme Court decisions [Crawford v. Marion County, upholding a stringent state voter ID law, and Citizens United v. FEC] have dramatically altered the balance of our democracy by finding new rights for corporations to influence elections, while at the same time allowing new barriers to the right of individuals to vote,” Leahy said in his opening statement at the hearing.
Later Leahy lamented the fact that three years after Crawford numerous states have enacted “voter ID laws and erect new barriers to voting, barriers that remind us of a time when discriminatory practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were commonplace and kept Americans from exercising their basic right to vote.” (Earlier this summer Attorney General Eric Holder blasted the restrictive voter ID law in Texas, saying it looked a lot like a poll tax.)
Leahy added that these new barriers to voting fall the “heaviest on African-Americans, Hispanics, military veterans, college students, the poor, and senior citizens.”
In a post for the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Text & History Blog, David H. Gans notes the recent federal court rulings from “judges across the ideological spectrum” applying a section of the Voting Rights Act to strike or slow implementation of some of those barriers to voting, noting their disproportionate impact on minorities. The federal courts said these measures were “designed to suppress the vote and dilute the voting power of racial minorities ….” Gans added, “These rulings provide critical new evidence of precisely why preclearance [of the Voting Rights Act] is still a much needed tool to protect the right to vote free from racial discrimination. Without the Voting Rights Act in place, African American and Hispanic voters in the states such as Texas might be denied their constitutional rights to cast a ballot on Election Day.”
In his opening remarks before the Senate panel, Leahy also expressed concern about the reach of the Voting Rights Act, in light of the current make-up of the Supreme Court. There is a case out of Alabama that could well find its way to the high court soon. Leahy said he was troubled that “these same five Justices, who in Citizens United disregard the evidence and a century of experience involving the power of money to corrupt elections, will soon be reviewing lower court decisions that examined significant evidence about the continuing need for the protections of the landmark Voting Rights Act. Will they show the same disregard for the evidence when reviewing this historic law? I hope not.”
The committee heard from advocates intimately familiar with both campaign finance regulation and Voting Rights.
University of Montana law school professor Anthony Johnstone defended during his tenure as the State's Solicitor the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 from corporate attacks. Montana’s high court upheld the corporate campaign finance law in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, but the Supreme Court summarily reversed the ruling, citing Citizens United. Justice Stephen Breyer lodged a dissent saying, “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens Untied, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”
Johnstone (pictured) told the Senate panel that in Crawford and Citizens United “the Supreme Court does not consistently apply ... approaches to judicial review. It upholds the voter identification law and strikes down the corporate campaign spending law.”