It Would Be So Un-American If It Wasn’t So Historically Popular

The article’s subtitle is “Republican lies about voter fraud are giving way to naked grasping for power”. From Joyce Vance for MSNBC (links in the original):

We’re living in a time where one political party openly believes it’s more important to win elections than it is to let Americans choose their own representatives in free and fair elections. And whether they’re going to get away with it is shaping up to be one of the most important issues the country faces.

The Supreme Court isn’t a venue where you typically expect to hear the quiet part said out loud. But that was what happened Tuesday, when an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, Michael Carvin, advised the court that provisions that made it easier for eligible Americans to vote put “us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.” He was implicitly characterizing laws that make voting more difficult for likely Democratic voters, often people of color, as the difference between winning and losing elections.

Carvin was, of course, not the first person to say out loud what has become increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention: Republicans’ support for laws that make it more difficult to vote has little to do with their boogeyman — voter fraud — and everything to do with winning elections despite the will of the voters.

The former president did the same when he told “Fox & Friends” last March that Covid-19 mitigation proposals that included provisions that made it easier for more people to vote safely would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Historically, restrictive voting measures have been justified as necessary to keep a shadowy group of people who are allegedly intent on casting fraudulent ballots from stealing elections. But those people never seem to materialize, and we’ve watched that narrative implode over the past few months as claims of fraud in the election were definitively rejected in over 60 lawsuits.

Similarly, after the 2016 election, [the winner of the Electoral College] established a so-called Election Integrity Commission to prove the existence of “widespread voter fraud.” It was forced to shut down just months into its work when it was unable to find evidence to substantiate that claim. Still, the fraud lie is routinely used to burden minority voting rights.

This happens despite the conclusion by the Brennan Center for Justice, based on the data, in December that “voter fraud is extraordinarily rare and our system has strong checks in place to protect the integrity of our voting process. These are the facts.”

It was in this landscape that the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, in which Democrats sued Arizona under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs argued that a policy that kept otherwise lawful ballots that had been cast in the wrong precincts from being counted, as well as a law that broadly restricted people from having other people turn in early ballots for them, amounted to unlawful voter suppression. The court seemed inclined to approve both of the Arizona provisions; the Court of Appeals had ruled that they unfairly burdened Black, Latino and Native American voters.

When the Supreme Court issues its ruling, what’s really at stake is whether its holding will affect more than just the Arizona provisions. Brnovich gives an increasingly conservative court the opportunity to adopt a standard of proof in Section 2 cases that would make it easier for Republican legislatures to enact policies that make it more difficult for people of color to vote, simply by claiming they are guarding against voter fraud. Brnovich might result in a strict test that would apply to future cases — like those that may need to be brought if some of the more than 250 bills Republicans have offered to restrict voting pass in their legislatures.

It’s clear that Republican operatives and legislatures have adopted voter suppression through restrictive legislation as a political strategy. Now that a lawyer has confirmed before the Supreme Court that it’s really just about winning elections, what’s a constitutional republic to do?

It’s probably too much to hope that the court will have a moment of righteous indignation. This is an even more conservative court than the one that gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accused the majority of taking away the umbrella that protected us in the middle of the rainstorm because we were still dry while using it.

It seems like it would be easier to go out and compete for votes with attractive policies and ideas than to engage in complicated legislative shenanigans and expensive litigation, but some Republicans seem to be as afraid of voters as a kid headed home to his parents with a bad report card.

So the only real solution to protect the right to vote is for the Senate to pass the For the People Act, which the House cleared Wednesday night, and for both chambers to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Those laws would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act and remove barriers that make it difficult for eligible people to register and vote. If passed, they would restore the mechanism to challenge unduly restrictive state practices.

Unless the Supreme Court does something unexpected, this is the only path forward.
Otherwise, next year and beyond, a party that controls its state’s legislature can impose rules that make it confusing and difficult for some people to vote. It can create an array of last-minute changes and restrictions that defeat your right to vote, for instance by changing your polling place and rejecting your ballot if, unaware, you go to the previous one.

While your choice of whom to vote for may be political, the right to vote itself isn’t. Instead, it’s a fundamental right that defines who we are as Americans. In part, the story of America has been about expanding groups of people who can exercise the franchise. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s gaining the right to vote last year. Important parts of our history are about people who persisted in demanding the right to vote and the dignity that comes with it for Black people, including the Selma march and the use of dogs and fire hoses against protesting schoolchildren in Birmingham. If we become a country where the right to vote can be restricted through political machinations, then who are we?

People who are afraid of the results of elections in which everyone who is eligible to vote can vote are people who don’t believe they have a good case to make to the voters — people who think they’re going to lose because they haven’t governed well. In the words of the lawyer in the Brnovich case, “Politics is a zero-sum game, and every extra vote they get … hurts us.” But voting is about our rights, not about gamesmanship. Elections should be decided by the people, not by slick efforts to make it harder for some people to register or vote.

Tyranny On The Docket

The Supreme Court should unanimously choose democracy over tyranny, possibly as soon as today. I use “should” in both of its senses: it is the right thing to do and they will do it. The only question is whether they dismiss Texas’s outrageous lawsuit with or without an explanation. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post argues that we need to consider what’s at stake: 

President Txxxx has once again demanded that the Supreme Court invalidate millions of votes in four states, nullifying the election and keeping him in power illegitimately.

Indeed, Txxxx was unintentionally explicit on this point: He predicted that Joe Biden’s presidency will be corrupt, and commanded the court to overturn the election results on that basis, in the process making this command with no legitimate legal or constitutional basis at all.

As early as Friday, the Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on this demand, which has taken the form of a lawsuit waged by the state of Texas, and backed by Txxxx and his propagandists, against four swing states that Biden won. The court will likely refuse to hear the case.

All of which is why the scorching reply brief that Pennsylvania has now filed is an extraordinarily important document. It frames the stakes with appropriate urgency, by essentially arguing that the Texas lawsuit and its supporters are, in effect, asking the court to arbitrarily and lawlessly impose the will of Txxxx supporters on that of the majority that rejected Txxxx — i.e., tyranny.

Even if the court does reject the lawsuit, it’s important for Americans to understand what Txxxx and his co-conspirators are attempting. Now that more than 100 House Republicans, more than 15 Republican state attorneys general and the two GOP senators running in the Georgia runoffs have endorsed this lawsuit, we should be clear on what large swaths of the GOP are really supporting.

The Texas lawsuit asks the court to invalidate the outcomes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia on the grounds that the voting in them was administered illegally, a claim that largely revolves around the dramatic expansion of vote-by-mail in them. That could clear the way for GOP-controlled state legislatures in all four to appoint pro-Txxxx electors.

The Pennsylvania brief attacks the core of Texas’s case . . . . Pennsylvania points out that numerous courts have already shot down the same irregularities alleged by Texas, including the falsehoods that verification standards weren’t followed and that poll-watchers weren’t allowed to witness counting. . . .

It’s in debunking the merit of Texas’s other claim — of harm done to it — that the bigger point is made.

As the Pennsylvania brief notes, intrastate disputes that the Supreme Court has heard generally involve alleged damage done by one state to another state’s “core sovereign interests.” This might involve, say, a dispute over a boundary or a body of water.

In this case, though, Texas is instead claiming that its voters have been harmed by the supposedly illegitimate pro-Biden outcome in the four other states.

Which Texas voters were harmed by this? Why, those who voted for Txxxx, of course, or at least didn’t vote for Biden. . . .

[The Pennsylvania] brief notes, what Texas is really demanding is this:

Far from trying to vindicate its own sovereign or quasi-sovereign interests, Texas is ultimately seeking redress for the political preferences of those of its citizens who voted for President Txxxx.

It adds:

Let us be clear. Texas invites this Court to overthrow the votes of the American people and choose the next President of the United States. That Faustian invitation must be firmly rejected.

. . . Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, emails me this:

Texas is basically asking the Supreme Court to overturn the election for no other reason than because it has suspicions no one has been able to prove about mischief in other states. It’s not just a borderline frivolous legal suit; it’s an invitation to the Justices to simply substitute the preferences of a minority of voters for those of the clear majority.

We spend a great deal of time debating whether Republican elected officials endorsing this effort genuinely support its goals or instead are trying to realize other instrumental purposes, such as energizing the base or keeping Txxxx happy so he will endorse GOP candidates.

But even if those are also operative motivations, . . . would these elected Republicans be fine with this effort actually succeeding? There is just no evident reason to give them the benefit of the doubt . . . 

Ridiculous, But Still Seditious

The attorneys general of Texas and 17 other states run by Republicans are asking the Supreme Court to change the winner of the presidential election in four states Joe Biden won: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If the Supreme Court agreed, the Democratic electors in those four states wouldn’t get to vote for Biden. Instead, the Republican-led legislatures in George, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would appoint electors who would then presumably vote for Biden’s opponent. Since those four states have 62 electoral votes between them, the Orange Menace would receive 294 electoral votes, enough for him to stay in office another four years. Voila!

The president and his cult have already lost more than 50 lawsuits before both Democratic and Republican judges aimed at changing the results of the election. But, according to the president, this latest lawsuit is “the big one”. It’s always been his hope that the Supreme Court, now overflowing with Republicans (three chosen by him), would come to his rescue if the election didn’t go his way.

In lawyer-speak, there is “no factual or legal basis” for the Supreme Court to intervene in the election. Giving Texas what it’s asking for would amount to a judicial coup d’état. Pennsylvania’s response to the lawsuit says “the Court should not abide this seditious abuse of the judicial process, and should send a clear and unmistakable signal that such abuse must never be replicated”. It’s not a close call.

In fact, it’s unlikely that the attorneys general of Texas and the other states think they can win. The president may be an ignoramus who lives in a world of his own imagination (he is), so he might think there’s hope. No doubt millions of his supporters believe the Supreme Court will step in and save their hero. But the attorneys general all made it through law school. They’re simply using the Supreme Court to publicly demonstrate they’ll do anything, no matter how preposterous, to back this president and Keep America Great Again.

As an indication of the seriousness of the Texas lawsuit, look at the statistical “evidence” the lawsuit presents (pages 6 and 7 here). They got one of the president’s supporters, who is roughly 80 years old and claims to have a Ph.D.in economics, to state that there was less than a 1 in 1 quadrillion chance (that’s less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000) that Biden won even one of the four states, given (1) how far ahead Txxxx was at 3 a.m. on the night of the election and (2) how much better Biden did than Hillary Clinton four years ago. These calculations were based on two absurd assumptions:

(1) Votes counted before 3 a.m. on the night of the election and those counted after 3 a.m. (including on subsequent days) were from identical samples of voters. But, as expected, Democrats tended to vote by mail, which meant their ballots were counted more slowly; and, of course, some jurisdictions count votes and report results more slowly than others. The assumption that “votes are evenly and randomly distributed among geographic regions, demographics, and voting method, so that any two large groups of voters should generate similar results [has been] described as “ludicrous” and “statistical incompetence” by several academics. Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said “This is going to be used in undergraduate statistics classes as a canonical example of how not to do statistics” [Wikipedia].

(2) Since they were both Democrats running for president, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton should have received roughly the same percentage of votes in the four states. Is it necessary to mention that Biden and Clinton were different candidates running in elections four years apart, and that Clinton ran against a political newcomer, while Biden ran against an incumbent with a disastrous four-year record? Or that the differences between Biden’s percentages and Clinton’s were relatively small — the only significant difference being that he won and she lost?

So, the Supreme Court will either refuse to consider Texas’s lawsuit or dismiss it. This doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Millions of Republican voters, more than a few of whom are either violent or crazy, are counting on the Supreme Court. How will they react when they’re disappointed? (Gosh, I hope they refuse to vote in the Senate election in Georgia — that will show the politicians who’s boss!)

Secondly, hundreds of Republican politicians from around the country have signed on to this lawsuit, all repeating the same stupid arguments in favor of ignoring the votes of millions of their fellow citizens. As Paul Krugman wrote today:

The [Republican Party] has no commitment to democracy, and hasn’t for years. Given the chance to turn America into Hungary, the GOP wouldn’t hesitate for a second.

Some Republicans might hesitate, but it’s clear that one of our major political parties no longer plays by the rules. Their goal is power, and we have no idea how far they’ll go to get it or keep it. 

Note: Now that all the states have certified their election results, the Electoral College will meet on Monday and declare Joe Biden the winner. Thirty-seven days later, he’ll be sworn in. If you’d like to look at the legal documents filed for and against Texas’s suit, they’re available on the Supreme Court site.

Democrats Have To Expand the Supreme Court

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

Keep this image in your mind: Justice Amy Coney Barrett, standing with President Txxxx on a balcony at the White House, smiling in satisfaction as the crowd below them whoops and hollers with joy after Barrett was sworn in to the Supreme Court.

Barrett no longer needs to pretend that she’s anything other than what she is: a far-right judge, installed on the Supreme Court by a president who got fewer votes than his opponent and confirmed by a Republican majority that represents fewer voters than their Democratic colleagues, whose job it will be to do everything in her power to maintain minority GOP rule while carrying out a conservative judicial revolution.

That picture of Barrett and Txxxx reveling in their mutual triumph was so vivid that the Txxxx campaign literally turned it into an ad for the president’s reelection. A different person [Note: he means someone more like a judge] might have said, “Mr. President, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to participate in such a nakedly political event.” But Barrett wasn’t concerned. She didn’t shout “MAGA 2020!” but she might as well have.

So now it is up to Democrats to recalibrate their understanding of just what is and isn’t appropriate — starting with expanding the Supreme Court as soon as they have the opportunity, which could come in January 2021.

This may be the single most important thing they have to remember: Their actions must not be determined by whether Republicans will complain.

Unfortunately, that’s how Democrats usually see things. If Republicans raise a stink — or even if they just assume Republicans might raise a stink — then Democrats shrink back in fear, lest the action they’re contemplating be considered inappropriate.

But by now they should understand that Republicans will say that everything they do, no matter how by-the-book it might be, is an egregious violation of propriety and good conduct. That’s how Republicans operate, precisely because they know Democrats are deeply concerned with whether processes are conducted in fair and reasonable ways.

But Democrats should listen to Sen. Mitch McConnell. Here’s part of what the Senate Majority Leader said Monday during the floor debate on Barrett’s nomination:

Our colleagues cannot point to a single Senate rule that’s been broken. They made one false claim about committee procedure which the parliamentarian dismissed.

The process comports entirely with the Constitution.

We don’t have any doubt, do we, that if the shoe was on the other foot, they would be confirming this nominee. And have no doubt if the shoe was on the other foot in 2016, they would have done the same thing. Why? Because they had the elections that made those decisions possible. The reason we were able to make the decision we did in 2016 is because we had become the majority in 2014.

The reason we were able to do what we did in 2016, 2018, and 2020 is because we had the majority. No rules were broken whatsoever.

To clarify, the dates McConnell refers to are when he and Republicans refused to hear President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland (2016), changing the size of the court from nine to eight justices and then back again; the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh (2018); and Barrett’s nomination (2020). [Note: There is no way Democrats would have refused a vote on a Republican nominee in 2016, but that’s the kind of bullshit McConnell says when he wants to sound reasonable.]

“The reason we were able to do what we did … is because we had the majority.” It’s the rule McConnell has lived by: Whatever Republicans can do, they will do, if it gives them an advantage.

And he’s right that neither the Constitution nor the rules of the Senate were violated in any of those cases. Nor would it violate the Constitution for Democrats to say that just as Republicans changed the size of the court in 2016 (and as happened many times in the country’s early years), Democrats will now change the size of the court again.

They should do this not only to restore balance after the extraordinary actions McConnell and Republicans undertook, but also as part of a desperately needed effort to stop America’s slide into minority rule and restore something resembling democratic responsiveness to the entire system.

That goes along with eliminating the filibuster so the majority of senators can pass the agenda voters elected them to enact; granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico so the millions of Americans who live in those places can have representation in Congress; and passing a new Voting Rights Act that prevents GOP efforts to disenfranchise voters.

Whenever Democrats waver in their willingness to do what needs to be done to safeguard democracy, they should remember that McConnell is almost daring them to do it, precisely because he thinks they don’t have the guts.

“A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone, sooner or later, by the next election,” he said Sunday about Barrett’s nomination. “But they won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”

But they can, and they should, no matter how much Republicans whine about it. If voters give them the White House and the Senate, they’ll have the legal right and the moral obligation to do so. Without it we won’t have a real democracy.

Unquote.

I still think adding three justices to balance the Court between Republicans and Democrats is a good idea. If President Biden creates a commission to study the matter, I’ll send them a postcard.

Five days.

Making the Supreme Court More (Small “d”) Democratic

The fundamental objection to the Supreme Court’s powers . . . is that no one concerned to establish a democratic state would bestow on nine judges, appointed for life at the whim of the pre­sident, powers to determine society’s governing norms.

That’s from an Oxford fellow’s London Review of Books article about America’s Supreme Court, which now includes six Republicans (five of whom are Catholics) and three Democrats (one of whom is). The article continues:

Some progressives have begun to argue that the court’s problems can be fixed only if its powers are reduced. One possibility would be to introduce term limits for judges. This, though, wouldn’t limit their powers.

But the Constitution says federal judges “shall hold their offices during good behaviour”. That seems to mean term limits would require a constitutional amendment, which would be unlikely to pass when the Court is so unbalanced. Republicans wouldn’t agree to give up their big advantage.

Another suggestion is to change the voting rules on the court. Continental legal systems often require unanimity among the judges in all decisions. In the US, if the justices were unable to reach unanimous agreement, the lower court’s decision would be upheld. This already happens when an equal number of justices are in favour of and opposed to a ruling: the court can divide equally when . . . there are only eight members on the court, or when a justice recuses him or herself. A unanimity rule would not deprive the court of all its powers: between 1946 and 2009, 41 per cent of decisions were unanimous.

There is nothing in the Constitution that says how many votes are required for the Supreme Court to make a decision, so requiring a unanimous vote would merely require a new law, not a constitutional amendment. A Democratic president and Democratic Congress could easily make that happen, assuming a Democratic Senate got rid of the filibuster.

But it would mean that a single ideologue could exercise an outsized effect on individual decisions.

Some scholars propose a super-majority requirement, permitting one or two dissenters. That deprives the lone ideologue of ransom power, but it is also a conservative measure, entrenching the court’s existing decisions; the more controversial may never be overturned.

The proposal often mentioned is to enlarge the Court (so-called “court packing”). Congress and the President could add three Democrats, for example, creating a 12-member Court split evenly between the parties.

. . . When Franklin Roosevelt sought to pass progressive legislation during the Great Depression, the Supreme Court stymied his efforts by striking down key parts of the New Deal. In response, he resolved to appoint as many as six new justices. Roosevelt, for all his skills, was unable to get the measure through the Senate (though the court was chastened by his efforts). Pete Buttigieg revived the idea in his run for president, proposing an expansion from nine to 15 judges. There is no principled reason to settle on nine as the appropriate number of justices; the court initially had six, once had ten, and other Supreme Courts around the world often have more.

The author of the Guardian article thinks adding justices would be inadequate:

But ‘packing’ the court, even if it were politically feasible, still doesn’t address the problem of how to limit its powers. That said, the political confrontation it would generate might cause the justices to reconsider their attitudes to those powers. That would be no bad thing.

Chief Justice Roberts is apparently concerned that the Court’s right-wing activism may sometimes go too far. But depending on him or other justices to refrain from using all their power to carry out the Republican agenda is wishful thinking. Rather than waiting for the Republican majority to restrain itself, Congress should limit the Court’s powers. A University of Chicago law professor explained how last month in The Washington Post:

A new Democratic Congress could, for example, impose by ordinary statute a limit on the Supreme Court’s authority to declare federal legislation unconstitutional, permitting it to do so only by supermajority (say, 7-2) rather than the usual 5-4. In so doing, Congress would be using the same power it does to dictate how many justices constitute a quorum. This reform would implement, via voting rule, the sort of “clear error” approach to judicial review imagined by Harvard professor James Bradley Thayer in the late 1800s. Such a rule would permit a judicial veto in cases of uncontroversial constitutional violation (for example, an effort to reintroduce de jure segregation of schools or criminalizing the speech of political opponents) but otherwise require the court to stay its hand.

Alternatively, Congress and the president might (again by ordinary statute) “strip” the court of jurisdiction over constitutional challenges to specific legislation — the Green New Deal, for example, or HR1, the sweeping set of reforms first approved by the Democratic House in 2019 that includes establishing automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering. (It could also strip its jurisdiction over whole areas of law, such as climate legislation). Here, Congress would be making use of its Article III power to decide what kinds of cases the Supreme Court may hear on appeal — the court has constitutionally mandated jurisdiction only over disputes between states and the like — as well as its authority to decide whether lower federal courts exist at all, and so what cases they are permitted to hear.

. . . The exact scope of Congress’s ability to strip jurisdiction remains controversial, and a recalcitrant court might resist. This is a situation in which additional sympathetic justices recently added to the court might be helpful; court packing, in other words, might pave the way for additional reforms. Whatever stance the court takes, the limits Congress may impose is a question that careful attention to the Constitution is unlikely to answer; rather, as with most of these disputes, the resolution would ultimately be political, as opposed to legal, with the political and judicial branches left to hash out a new status quo. As former dean of Stanford Law School Larry Kramer has observed: “The Constitution leaves room for countless political responses to an overreaching court” — including judicial impeachment, slashing the court’s budget, giving the justices onerous responsibilities or simply ignoring the court, as did Lincoln, after the Dred Scott case.

Conservatives made similar efforts at limiting the court’s authority in the 1970s and 1980s (backed by legal arguments from a young [John] Roberts, working as an attorney at the Department of Justice) — repeatedly introducing legislation to limit federal courts’ ability to adjudicate contentious cultural issues such as abortion and school prayer — and have made similar efforts since. Those efforts failed, in part because of a lack of support in the Senate, but one can imagine that a Democratic-controlled Senate might be exceptionally motivated to protect its potential legislative accomplishments from a hostile judiciary.

Given Republican rhetoric about unduly powerful courts, there’s a chance that at least some conservatives may embrace the cause of judicial disarmament (especially if liberal court-packing is the alternative). For both parties, of course, going down such a path would increase the stakes for who controls the political branches. Both sides would have to ratchet down the expectation that the Supreme Court would annul popular laws that they find distasteful — whether that means (on the right) a statute phasing out fossil fuel production or (on the left) a federal ban on affirmative action in higher education. In a democracy, however, that is exactly how things should be.

Unquote.

Seven days.