What we learned from Sherrilyn Ifill on Tuesday!

FRIDAY, MARCH 8, 2013

Concerning the Voting Rights Act: In this morning’s New York Times, Nate Silver writes about the Voting Rights Act. More specifically, he discusses turn-out rates among black voters in northern and southern states.

(For a longer version of his hard-copy piece, click here.)

In this post, Kevin Drum comments on Silver’s post. We thought we’d mention the things we learned from Sherrilyn Ifill concerning this under-reported topic.

Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland law school. In January, she became President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Here in Baltimore, she has been a regular on the Marc Steiner Show, where we’ve been lucky enough to guest with her a few times.

Sherrilyn Ifill is very sharp. On Tuesday evening, she did a 16-minute phone interview with Steiner right after our own segment on the program. We stayed in the studio to listen. To hear what we heard, just click here.

In the first ninety seconds of Ifill’s discussion, she presented more information than we had been found in all recent reporting on the Voting Rights Act—and we had searched the reporting in the Post and the Times. This included their reporting in 2006, when the VRA was reauthorized.

The Post and the Times have done lazy reporting. Ifill was loaded with facts.

In his piece in the Times, Silver discusses turn-out rates among black voters in Mississippi and other southern states covered by the act. Obviously, turn-out rates in those states are much higher than they were in the 1950s and the 1960s.

According to Silver, the black turn-out rate in these southern states was virtually identical to black turnout rates in the north as of 2004. Silver wonders if things would stay that way if the VRA was dumped.

That’s a perfectly valid question. But as we learned from listening to Ifill, there is more at issue than turnout rates in assessing the VRA. The following passage is drawn from the first ninety seconds of her discussion with Steiner. She lists several types of voting discrimination which don’t involve attempts to reduce black turnout or registration:
IFILL (3/5/13): Voting discrimination is not made up solely of registration and turn-out figures. Registration and turn-out is important, of course. It was more important in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was enacted and those were the two markers that one could use to make it quite clear what was happening with voting discrimination. But you know, when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, they engaged in hearings over the course of a year and they found that in the jurisdictions covered by Section 5, most of which happened to be in the South, those areas were replete with voting discrimination of all kinds:

Polling place changes. One community in Mississippi deciding not to hold an election once the blacks became a majority of the population. Annexing white communities in order to maintain white numerical supremacy. De-annexing black communities in order to try to maintain a certain kind of racial balance. Redistricting districts to reduce the black population to eliminate black representatives. I mean, that’s the range and array of examples of voting discrimination that Congress was looking at when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act. So simply resorting to describing the disparity in turnout between Massachusetts and Mississippi really doesn’t prove anything, frankly.
We can’t really say that it “doesn’t prove anything” to look at black turnout rates in the various states. But in that opening ninety seconds, Ifill presented more information than we had seen in all our previous searches in our big national papers.

The information continued all through her segment, although we don’t necessarily agree with everything she said. One point where we would tend to disagree:

Ifill noted that the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006 by a 98-0 senate vote. Like other progressives and liberals, she took that to mean that 98 senators had decided, on the merits, that the VRA was still needed.

We thought that notion made little sense long before we heard Ifill advance it. Last week, we reread the reporting from 2006, wondering why every Republican senator, including those from the covered states, voted to reauthorize.

Did all those senators vote on the merits? Or was this somehow a political vote? This is what the New York Times reported in real time:
HULSE (7/21/06): The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to extend the landmark Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, as lawmakers of both parties said federal supervision was still required to protect the ability of minorities and the disadvantaged to cast ballots in some regions of the country.

''Despite the progress these states have made in upholding the right to vote, it is clear the problems still exist,'' said Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois.

Approval of the measure, on a 98-to-0 vote, came on the day that President Bush made his first presidential visit to a convention of the N.A.A.C.P., where he promised to sign the bill.

The House passed the measure last week after a flurry of rebellion from several Southern lawmakers.

Republicans had made renewal of the law a cornerstone of party efforts to reach out to minority groups, particularly blacks, and leaders of both parties promised its passage in a rare joint event on the steps of the Capitol this year.

But progress was slowed by objections from some Republicans in the House that the law unfairly singled out Southern states for special federal oversight when they have eradicated the rampant discrimination that spurred enactment of the law in 1965.

Some Senate Republicans expressed similar sentiments Thursday but none opposed the measure. ''Other states with much less impressive minority progress and less impressive minority participation are not covered, while Georgia still is,'' said Senator Saxby Chambliss. ''This seems both unfair as well as unwise.''
We hate to be the ones to say it, but this reporting tends to support the general drift of Justice Scalia's most widely-discussed remark from last week—his suggestion that these overwhelming reauthorization votes may represent political thinking more than a sincere assessment of the VRA's continuing merit. You may not think it’s constitutionally relevant, although we wouldn’t say that’s obvious. But in part, this seems to have been a political vote—part of the Bush Administration’s sensible and desirable attempt to reach out to black voters.

We note that because we think it’s silly—and Fox-like—when we tune to MSNBC and see Fox-like people telling us that every senator voted that way because they all reviewed the facts and decided the Act was still needed. Needless to say, Rachel Maddow assured us of that feel-good notion last week. We wish the dear child would get off her ass and present a fuller version of the world to us, her willing rubes.

Is the Voting Rights Act still needed? We can’t pose as an expert on that. We will offer several general reactions.

First, regarding the facts:

The New York Times and the Washington Post have failed to present a full range of facts about the Voting Rights Act. Ifill spoke with Steiner for 16 minutes; she imparted more information in her first 90 seconds than we had been able to find in searches of our major newspapers going back to 2006. If you listen to her full discussion, you will probably acquire new information.

(Why are Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan covered by the Voting Rights Act? We had no earthly idea—until Ifill explained it in passing.)

Next, regarding tribal imperatives:

We have been struck by the super-partisan reactions in liberal quarters to discussion of this topic. We don’t think progressive interests are served when we liberals strive to become full-blown ditto-heads. We’d have to say that Silver’s report reflects this reflexive tribal alignment. Consider this passage, where he discusses turn-out rate among black voters:
SILVER (3/7/13): In fact, it would be dangerous to infer very much from [turnout rates in] Massachusetts and Mississippi. In 2004, for instance, while Mississippi was reported to have strong black turnout, black turnout was poor in Arizona and Virginia, which are also covered by Section 5.
Silver’s discussion never moves beyond turn-out rates; he never considers the various types of violation Ifill listed for Steiner. (Neither has the New York Times in its lazy reporting.) In the passage we have quoted, Silver says it would “be dangerous to infer very much” from Mississippi’s strong black turnout, because several other covered states have displayed lower black turnout.

If we’re just going by turnout rates, why wouldn’t Mississippi’s high turnout provide a reason “to infer” that Mississippi might be able to move out from under Section 5? Ifill listed a much wider set of considerations, but Silver never mentioned them. He did do the following: Behaving like a reflexive liberal, he said Mississippi should still be restricted because Arizona hasn’t improved enough!

Where is the logic in that? The logic is AWOL, unless we have pre-selected our outcome.

Later, Silver raises a better question: If Mississippi has strong black turnout, is that because of the VRA? Would the state revert to earlier practices if it were released from Section 5 coverage? That is a perfectly valid question, but he had already reached the Preferred Liberal Judgment before considering this point. If Arizona hasn’t improved, Mississippi must still be restricted! This doesn’t make any sense, but it does make us liberals feel good.

In our view, liberal discussion of this topic has been heavily scripted. George Will has said it, but we have to agree: We liberals really do like to act like it’s still 1965. We don’t work very hard to learn about important topics like this—and we reflexively cling to our cherished notions about what simply must be occurring in those southern states.

On The One True Liberal Channel, the various children have showcased their greatness by telling us that everyone voted to reauthorize the VRA because they agreed on the merits. In this way, we white liberals prove to ourselves that we are racially great. But the same ratty people on that same clownish channel wouldn’t discuss low-income schools if their very lives were at stake, and they seem to think that black voters in Chicago care about Newtown only. To our eye and ear, they don’t give a fig about black kids, except as a means to assert their own racial greatness.

We aren’t especially high on that type of liberal leadership.

We didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, but Sherrilyn Ifill is very sharp. It's a great thing that the NAACP has selected her for this high post.

We only wish the big newspapers would do some reporting on this topic. We also wish that we self-impressed liberals would stop behaving like it’s 1965 and we are so plainly the very good people.

Manifestly, it isn’t—and manifestly, we aren’t.

The Washington Post reports on Ifill: To fill yourself in, just click here.

12 comments:

  1. I predict that the Voting Rights Act will be retained indefinitely. Proponents will argue that if black voting is low, the VRA is needed. And, if black voting is high, that shows that the VRA is working, so it should be continued.

    Also, any Senator or Congressman who votes to end the VRA risks being called a racist.

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  2. David,

    I've defended you in the past, but now I've got to ask myself if you are a paid shill. Somerby presented a very nuanced argument (did you read it?) and you respond with the typical right-wing cant. I'm starting to wonder if you are some kind of bizarre internet bot. So I'm calling you out. The post above argues that turnout doesn't tell the whole story, yet you respond with this bullsh*t comment that only deals with voter turnout. Are you being willfully obtuse? If so, I invite you to stop posting here. It's very tiresome.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, cacambo. I didn't mean to dispute Bob's nuanced argument. I was trying to make a different point.

      Delete
    2. Nuanced? Somerby gets to the point at the tail end:

      "But the same ratty people on that same clownish channel wouldn’t discuss low-income schools if their very lives were at stake, and they seem to think that black voters in Chicago care about Newtown only. To our eye and ear, they don’t give a fig about black kids, except as a means to assert their own racial greatness."

      That's about as nuanced as a sledgehammer.

      And once again, it calls the question how much Somerby really cares about the Voting Rights Act, the children in Newtown, the Chicago election, and even black kids in schools if he couldn't use them as a club for his obsession about MSNBC.

      I want to issue a challenge: Bob, there is a whole world out there filled with issues that are begging for discussion. See if you can go an entire week without mentioning MSNBC or anyone who has ever hosted a show there, even as a guest host.

      Delete
    3. cacambo, Let me answer your questions in reverse order. First, is DaInCa an internet bot? There is no way to tell. Right-wingers form a set of people for which computers can pass the Turing test. There is no argument so specious, no attempt at logic so faulty, and no evidence so flawed, that a 'winger somewhere hasn't employed worse, and in all seriousness. This means they aren't hard to simulate.

      Your second question -- Is DaInCa a paid shill? -- assumes that you have decided against the bot hypothesis. The answer here is almost assuredly no, which I may demonstrate by a simple counting argument. There are two possibilities. One, DaInCa is very wealthy and supports those arguments that benefit him. It seems unlikely to me that millionaires hang around this blog. Two, DaInCa, is, like most people, on the losing end of right-wing, Republican positions. If that's the case, then it's likely that DaInCa is not paid. DaInCa and kindred spirits generally adopt their positions enthusiastically and voluntarily. Some form of Stockholm Syndrome, I imagine, whereby one's cognitive faculties are held hostage.

      I hope that helps.

      Delete
  3. Quaker in a BasementMarch 8, 2013 at 11:23 PM

    iWe hate to be the ones to say it, but this reporting tends to support the general drift of Justice Scalia's most widely-discussed remark from last week—his suggestion that these overwhelming reauthorization votes may represent political thinking more than a sincere assessment of the VRA's continuing merit. You may not think it’s constitutionally relevant, although we wouldn’t say that’s obvious. But in part, this seems to have been a political vote—part of the Bush Administration’s sensible and desirable attempt to reach out to black voters.i

    I would say it's plainly obvious that Scalia's observation isn't constitutionally relevant. Nowhere does the constitution address the motives required of legislators when they consider their votes. A senator might vote for (or against) a bill because he likes the color of the paper it's printed on or because he hears the voices of aliens instructing him to do so. The reason for a vote, no matter how misguided, does not offend the constitution.

    Scalia's speculations about the political calculus behind the vote have no constitutional bearing at all. He's going to have to find a better reason than that to vote to strike down the law.

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    Replies
    1. Precisely, Quaker. And heaven help us if the Supreme Court starts striking down laws on grounds no better than a majority of the court imagine that some (at best) members of the legislature voted for it out of political expediency.

      Somerby: "That is a perfectly valid question, but he had already reached the Preferred Liberal Judgment before considering this point. If Arizona hasn’t improved, Mississippi must still be restricted! This doesn’t make any sense, but it does make us liberals feel good."

      It makes perfect sense to a statistician of Silver's caliber. What he is pointing out is the folly of cherry-picking data and saying that the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed AT ALL! Let alone, as Quaker points out that data from one state would be an argument for overturning a law passed overwhelmingly in Congress while ignoring Constitutional grounds.

      I would also like Somerby to explain how the VRA "restricts" Mississippi. Oh, I see. That's just me thinking it's still 1965. Or could it be that I remember 1965 and that it took an act of Congress to give all citizens of the United States living in Mississippi (and other states) the right to even REGISTER to vote, let alone vote, and the blood that was shed to attain that right.

      And if you think the original vote was politically expedient, go as Al Gore Jr. about his Daddy.




      Delete
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  5. Sherrilyn Ifill was on Newshour on PBS a few days ago with Hans Von Spakovsky. She EVISCERATED him with her knowledge. I'm not sure I ever felt sorry for a conservative mouthpiece before, but if this was a boxing match, the ref would have stopped this one in the first round.

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  7. I have no doubt that Scalia's political musings generally have a lot of validity, as some elected officials no doubt have voted for the Act simply to avoid being accused of racism. Since the 15th Amendment itself specifically says that Congress shall enforce it with "appropriate legislation" I'd say the Constitution itself has designated Congress as the body to make political judgments. Accordingly, Scalia's musings are Constitutionally irrelevant and a good "conservative" jurist shouldn't even indulge himself by giving voice to his irrelevant personal opinions. I also think it's ironic to the point of amusing that a Republican would observe that the Voting Rights Act is such a name that no politician would ever vote against it. Scalia's Republican. uddies patented the Orwellian practice of giving a name to a bill just to pressure people to vote for it even though the name conveys the exact oppositemeaning from what's actually in the bill. For instance, a bill to permit manufacturers to pump toxins into the atmosphere might be named the "Blue Skies Act." At least the VRA actually safeguards voting rights.

    ReplyDelete