Election Misdirection

"So many of our Christians," the late right-wing activist Paul Weyrich intoned in 1980, "have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, [the right's] leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

Since Weyrich declared war on voting thirty-six years ago, the effort to manipulate elections to protect entrenched interests has proceeded apace, aided by a Supreme Court that wrongfully decided the 2000 presidential election and gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. In a stirring new book, Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights Mary Frances Berry chronicles the multiple abuses inflicted upon voting rights in recent years--and the threats those abuses pose to our future.

In an interview days before her March 2 appearance at Politics & Prose at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., Berry noted that she wanted to cast a spotlight on how the manipulation of the vote through such procedures as vote buying affects the poor. Vote buying, Berry notes, "is voter suppression on the cheap. Poor people don't vote their choices and they get no real return; democracy is corrupted by the process. The politicians buy them and then vote against what they need in state legislatures -- against Medicaid expansion, for example."

Vote buying is obviously illegal in the United States, but as Berry observes, "Prosecutors don't prosecute; they are elected by the same system, and even if they did, local judges are elected by the same system."

Vote buying is just one way to suppress and manipulate votes; another way to control the outcome of democracy is through unnecessary and discriminatory voter ID laws. "The voter ID problems," Berry says, "are among the most aggressive efforts" to affect the outcome of elections.

These voter ID laws are favored by Republicans across the country; you might recall the Pennsylvania Republicans who acknowledged that voter ID laws reduced Democratic votes in the 2012 presidential election. Berry notes that Republicans are fixated on voter ID laws and other efforts to make it harder for specific constituencies to cast ballots because "Republicans know that blacks and Latinos and poor people in general are unlikely to vote for them, so naturally they don't want them to vote."

As noted earlier, the Supreme Court diminished democracy with its shameful decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively nullified key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Berry notes that the decision "permitted states to pass voter ID, ending early voting and other measures that suppress the vote of those more likely to vote for Democrats. It also makes it harder for the Justice department to prosecute" voting-rights abuses.

One of the justices in the majority on that horrendous decision was the late Antonin Scalia, who made no secret of his contempt for voting-rights jurisprudence. Berry observes: "Justice Scalia, like his colleagues Justice Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy, was very skeptical especially of the whole fabric of civil rights laws and the Fourteenth Amendment as means of preventing or remedying discrimination against African Americans; Voting Rights was just one area."

Berry notes that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are raising awareness about the importance of voting rights, especially "when it comes to ID laws." However, "no one, Democrats or Republicans, is focusing on vote buying -- suppression on the cheap in state and local elections, which is regarded as essential to ensuring turnout in some places."

Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy is a necessary book this election year. After reading it, you'll want to cast your vote for change.