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Voting Rights – and E Pluribus Unum

This little essay is about voting rights, but let’s start with a “National Population” chart from the 2010 Census website.

The chart shows that America is more and more a multiracial and multiethnic country. Over one in four Americans now say they are something other than simply “white.” Blacks are no longer the largest minority group; Latinos are.

 

And blacks and whites are the slowest growing populations. Since the last census, the Latino population has grown by 43.0 percent, and the Asian population has grown even faster—by 43.3 percent. The black population has grown by only 12.3 percent, and the white population by only 5.7 percent.

And it’s interesting that the number of Americans who identify themselves as belonging to “two or more races” has grown by 32.0 percent. That doesn’t even count those Americans, like our president, who are multiracial but for whatever reason declined to identify themselves in that way on the census form.

What it shows is that it is increasingly untenable for national policies to divide individuals into racial and ethnic categories and treat people differently based on which little box is checked.  Indeed, the focus needs to be instead on common standards by which we must all abide if our multiracial, multiethnic nation is to continue to thrive.
So now let’s apply these principles to two important issues involving voting rights.

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Because of the inherent divisiveness and unfairness of racial classifications and preferences, it is a bad idea to hire people and award government contracts and admit students into universities on the basis of race—and it is likewise a bad idea to gerrymander voting boundaries along racial lines, to ensure a certain number of “minority” districts.  Alas, the latter has become the principal use for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. 

The Justice Department uses the “effects” language in Section 5—which applies to some jurisdictions and not others in a way that no longer makes any sense—to block redistricting plans if they insufficiently embrace racial gerrymandering.  This encourages racial balkanization and identity politics, as well as a lack of competitiveness in elections.  It results in districts that are more polarized (racially and ideologically), the insulation of Republican candidates and incumbents from minority voters (and from issues of particular interest to those voters), and, conversely, the insulation of minority candidates and incumbents from white voters (making it less likely that those politicians will eventually be elected to statewide positions). 
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2006 voting-rights case, “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.” 
Section 5’s constitutionality has been challenged in a number of cases and, if the Supreme Court eventually strikes the statute down, it will be a good thing.

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As for the common characteristics that Americans must share, this does not mean that we must all eat the same foods or listen to the same music or worship the same way.  But it does mean that we must be able to communicate with one another—which means learning to speak English—and, to list a few more items, that we must respect one another regardless of race, ethnicity, or sex; love our country; and follow the law.

Regarding the latter, those who do not follow the law cannot claim a right to make the law for the rest of us, which is what you do directly or indirectly when you vote.  Or, to look at it another way:  We do not let everyone vote—not children, or noncitizens, or the mentally incompetent, or criminals.  We have certain minimum, objective standards of loyalty, responsibility, and trustworthiness that exclude people in these categories.   Thus, people who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens, who have violated the social contract, cannot claim a right to participate in the sacred enterprise of self-government.

Now, this does not mean that a felon should never be allowed to vote again, but it also means that a felon should not be allowed to vote while still serving his sentence or just because he has walked out of prison the day before.
Because a disproportionate number of felons are African Americans, felon-disenfranchisement laws have a disparate impact on the basis of race, but these laws that are currently on the books—every state but two has them—are not about race.  If this were not true, then it would be easy enough to ask a court to strike them down; the Supreme Court did so in an Alabama case, in a unanimous decision written by William Rehnquist.  But such challenges are not brought, because that evidence is nonexistent.

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There is an irony here:  The Left is very unhappy with laws and rules incorporating reasonable standards if they have a disparate impact on the basis of race, even when they are not in any meaningful sense discriminatory—this is true for voting and also for police and firefighter exams, school discipline, mortgage lending, you name it—yet perfectly happy with laws that overtly discriminate on the basis of race, like racial gerrymandering and other racial preferences. 

In our increasingly multiethnic and multiracial society, this is exactly the wrong approach.  We cannot have racial classifications, preferences, and discrimination.  We must have common standards to which we all adhere.  This is true for voting and everything else.

For a longer version that was published by The New York Times, see this link:  http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/voting-rights-and-responsibilities/