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To Be Equal

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The Rise And Fall Of Voter ID Laws

“The Court holds that SB 14 creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose. The Court further holds that SB 14 constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.” — U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in striking down the Texas voter ID law

BY MARC H. MORIAL

Two weeks ago, voter ID laws that could have disenfranchised nearly a million voters in the November 4 midterm elections in two states—Texas and Wisconsin—were ruled unconstitutional. These voting rights victories were critical because of the traditional challenges and unprecedented high stakes associated with this year’s midterms.

Then, on Tuesday, in a low blow to voting rights across the nation, a federal appeals court blocked the lower court’s decision and cleared the way for Texas to enforce its suppressive voter ID requirements in the upcoming November elections. This Texas law changes existing procedures and requires all voters to present a photo ID before being allowed into the voting booth. In the past, voters could demonstrate their identities in various ways. Now, only a small number of documents are permissible—shockingly, gun permits, but not student IDs, will be acceptable.

Voter participation typically drops off in non-presidential election years, with many analysts noting that recent midterm turnout has been about 40 percent compared to 56 percent in presidential years. The non-partisan Voter Participation Center (VPC) predicts an even steeper decline in 2014 among what they have termed “The Rising American Electorate or RAE” (people of color, unmarried women and youth voters ages 18-29).

They predict that “more than one-in-three RAE voters who turned out in 2012 will not turn out in 2014 (34.5% of those who voted in 2012, or 21.8 million RAE voters, will stay home). The predicted drop-off among all other voters is only 17.5% or 12.2 million voters.” With so much at stake—everything from police shootings of unarmed Black men to equitable implementation of Common Core State Standards to rising income inequality—we simply cannot afford to sit this one out.

Despite many attempts to keep certain groups from the polls, champions for democracy and civil rights—such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, led by Sherrilyn Ifill, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, led by Barbara Arnwine—continue to fight to protect our voting rights. We must also continue to build on the momentum of 2012 when, for the first time in history, African Americans voted at a higher rate than Whites. The repeal of the Texas voter ID law, considered to be the most restrictive in the nation, could have added to that momentum—if it had been upheld.

In striking down the law, U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos ruled that the difficult and expensive effort to obtain photo IDs from more than 600,000 Texas citizens, many of whom are poor, amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax. She also debunked the law’s bogus claim of preventing voter fraud by pointing out that “In the 10 years preceding passage of SB 14 in Texas, only two cases of in-person voter impersonation fraud were prosecuted to conviction—a period of time in which 20 million votes were cast.”

Also, recently, over the objections of Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the United States Supreme Court blocked implementation of Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Previously ruled unconstitutional because of its disproportionate impact on African American and Hispanic voters, the Wisconsin law could have disenfranchised 300,000 residents who do not have acceptable photo IDs, including a high number of people of color.

Commenting on both initial rulings, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “We are extremely heartened by the court’s decision, which affirms our position that the Texas voter identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise…We are also pleased that the Supreme Court has refused to allow Wisconsin to implement its own restrictive voter identification law.”

Unfortunately, the latest Texas ruling could not be more disheartening. The three-judge panel in the federal appeals court did not find the lower court’s ruling wrong or unlawful. Instead, they chose to delay consideration of whether the ruling should permanently stand. In a concurring opinion on the appeal, citing concerns about potential confusion from last-minute changes in the voting rules as reason enough to allow Texas to enforce its restrictive voting laws, Judge Gregg Costa also admitted that “we should be extremely reluctant to have an election take place under a law that a district court has found, and that our court may find, is discriminatory.” We agree.

In 1964, the Supreme Court said, “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” That basic principle stands today. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement far outweigh any trumped up and spurious claims of election day confusion. The first step in ensuring our voices are heard is ensuring our votes are cast. Don’t let anything keep you from the polls on November 4 – even in Texas.

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.


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Building A Recovery: Americans Vote For Transportation Investment

BY PETER VARGA

Members of Congress have little time left to convince their constituents to send them back for another term. If they're looking to curry voters' favor, they should heed the results of a new poll conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute.

More than two-thirds of Americans tell Mineta that they'd like the federal government to increase investment in public transportation.

Despite this support, lawmakers have not increased revenues for our surface transportation needs since 1993. Lawmakers passed a stopgap measure that restored $10.8 billion to the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Account in July. This will only keep the fund afloat through May of next year.

It's time for Congress to respond to the public's support by committing to long-term funding for infrastructure improvements. Such investment is sorely needed not just to guarantee the safety of our nation's aging roads, bridges, and public transportation but to catalyze economic growth and create jobs.

The American economy relies on safe, efficient infrastructure to get workers to and from their jobs.

In its 2012 "Urban Mobility Report," the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that in 2011, traffic congestion cost $121 billion in delay and fuel costs. Without public transit, this figure would've increased an additional $20.8 billion.

Now, if the proper public transit investments aren't made, congestion costs could reach nearly $200 billion by the end of the decade.

A nationwide effort to rebuild our infrastructure wouldn't just make America safer—it would also benefit the economy.

Investments in infrastructure would create precisely the kinds of good-paying middle-class jobs the economy needs. One study from the Brookings Institution found that, compared to all other occupations, infrastructure-related jobs pay Americans who are at the lower end of the income scale over 30 percent more.

America's public transportation system stands out as a perfect example of how infrastructure investment fuels job growth. This $57-billion industry employs about 400,000 people. Every billion dollars that federal, state, and local governments spend on public transit creates more than 50,700 jobs—22,000 directly and an additional 28,900 indirectly—by enhancing productivity across the rest of the economy.

A strong public transportation infrastructure also helps drive economic growth in our communities. Every dollar invested in a public transit project generates four times that amount in local economic activity.

Public transportation investment provides increased productivity in two areas. First, the savings that accrue to households, from reduced congestion and less reliance on automobile use. Second, the savings to businesses, by improving employers' access to the labor market with more efficient commutes for its current and potential employees, along with reducing congestion costs and logistics, contribute an additional $10.1 billion to the U.S. economy.

Infrastructure investments would also strengthen the economy by making our transportation system more efficient. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimates that 2.9 billion gallons of fuel are wasted each year because of congested roads. All the time and fuel wasted sitting in traffic costs the country $101 billion a year. In 2010, lack of investment in public transit systems deprived the economy of another $90 billion.

The American public wants Congress to invest in our public transportation system. Our aging system needs to be maintained and expanded if it is to serve our fast growing population. Rebuilding our nation's infrastructure will make us safer, grow the economy, and create jobs.

Peter Varga is CEO of The Rapid and former Chair of the American Public Transportation Association.


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Democrats Bash Obama Yet Want Black Vote

BY LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE

Here are a few election-time questions to think over: Why in the world do Democrats think they can bash President Obama and his policies and still win Black votes? Why should Black voters be motivated to turn out after months of watching Democrats bash the president? What exactly is the strategy for Democrats to get Black voters out?

Many Democrats running this cycle, even in states and districts with large Black voting populations—including North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana—have made the deduction that annoying and ignoring Black voters is less important than winning White ones. The White swing voter is supposedly a more vital target than the Black voter who is a 95 percent sure bet to vote for a Democrat. It’s a fascinating strategy featuring Democrats running in fear of their own record while ignoring what’s happened over the last six years.

Thanks to the president, Osama Bin Laden is dead. The unemployment rate is now 5.9 percent. Even the Black unemployment rate dropped from 16.5 percent in 2011 to its current 11.4 percent. More than 8 million Americans have signed up for health care. The Republican contribution? Gridlock, more than 50 votes on Obamacare repeals and shutting down the government. The approval numbers for Republicans in Congress is lower than the president’s yet Democrats shun his policies?

Yes, Obama has a 40 percent approval rating. But Congress’ approval sits at 14 percent—the lowest since 1974. You wonder what the numbers would be if Democrats actually stopped apologizing for their record and instead put the GOP on defensive. Who among the GOP leadership in Washington can claim legislative achievement in a party whose number one ideology is gridlock? This is the least productive Congress in history.

If Democrats lose the Senate, it will be because of self-inflicted wounds.

When asked what the Democrats’ strategy was for getting out the Black vote, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel referenced a voter turnout strategy focused on getting voters out based on “what’s at stake for the African American community.”

Apparently Democrats have forgotten—or don’t care—that Black voters are the party’s most loyal voting bloc. In 2012, Black voters turned out at a higher percentage than Whites. Black women are the highest turnout group among all women. But this enthusiasm will likely lessen, not just because the first Black president will no longer be on the ballot, but because Democrats fail to support the policies enacted while he was there.

In a midterm election it will take more than a pre-election day Sunday swing-by to get Black voters and others out. Yet many Democrats make no specific references or pledges on specific policy that might motivate that turnout. Few Democrats dare discuss racial profiling, mandatory minimums or justice reform or—God forbid—health care reform.

Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat running for Senate in Kentucky against gridlock king, Sen. Mitch McConnell, won’t even admit she voted for President Obama. Instead of running a campaign that puts McConnell on the defensive by bringing up how little he’s done for Kentucky, Grimes is frantically telling voters how much she disagrees with President Obama.

Likewise, in Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor’s race has become about Pryor dodging questions on whether he agrees with President Obama—exactly what the GOP wants. In Colorado, Democrat Mark Udall was asked “which of the president’s proposed policies are you prepared to vote against” by a moderator. Even some journalists have bought in to the GOP’s narrative.

If a voter’s big concern is whether a candidate agreed with the president in their party, you can pretty much bet that’s a Republican voter. For some reason, Democrats are trying to win the voter who hates the president and get out the base simultaneously. Good luck with that one.

Even after 8 million Americans have signed up, Democrats run from the idea of bringing up the Affordable Care Act as a success. The number of Americans without health care has dropped to the lowest rate since the 1990s—from 18 percent to 13 percent. The uninsured rate for African-Americans is now 15.1 percent, from 18.9 percent. But Democrats fail to mention how dead wrong Republicans were in 2010 and beyond after health care reform was signed into law. Instead they continue to run from their own shadow.

It seems Democrats are on the brink of getting the result they deserve. Does running away from your own record work? The Democratic party is likely to find out the answer to that question the hard way on November 4.

Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.