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Congressional Black Caucus Pushes Forward With Election Reform

Yesterday, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) held its 2nd hearing on election reform, this year. The hearing, which focused on the Florida elections, the Supreme Court Case Bush vs. Gore, as well as proposed legislation, signaled that the CBC intends to fulfill its promise of making election reform its most important legislative priority.

The hearings were attended, at various times, by a majority of CBC members, underscoring the importance of the event. The attendance of a majority of CBC members also signaled the unified approach the Caucus intends to take juxtaposed to the issue in the 107th Congress.

There were several noteworthy moments during yesterday's hearing - both from its hosts, the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as from the panel, which featured government officials, political scientists and historians.

The testimony of Professor Ronald Walters, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland was of interest to many, as Professor Walters questioned the effectiveness of election-reform legislation currently being discussed in Congress, explaining that the problems in last year's presidential election raised questions that centered around the " institutional responsibility of the system to provide equity…from the top down, from Secretaries of State, all the way down to polling place management"

Professor Walters wondered aloud how legislation, alone, could answer these questions. His testimony argued that what happened in Florida revolved around civil rights laws, and demonstrated the need for their enforcement. Professor Walters' assessment runs counter to the belief held by many in the federal and state legislatures across the country, that the problems of Florida were indicative of a need for new laws which aim to make voting more popular, more efficient and less confusing. The University of Maryland professor, however, sees potential solutions to the problems of Florida as more basic in nature.

Professor Walters, in his testimony, stated:

"My conclusion then, is that the reforms tended in the proposed legislation, that so far has been promulgated in some 25 bills in the Congress and some 800 bills at state levels, is that to the extent that the legislation weighs heavily on the side of addressing the mechanical aspects of the voting systems, such as same-day registration, the proposal by President Bush to curtail the release of polling results, the timing of the primary season, the nature of the ballot, the modernization of the voting machines and such, they do not adequately deal with the gross violations of the Civil Rights of blacks in attempting to exercise their right to vote. The issue in so many cases, appears to be with human error or outright racial prejudice where polling station officials are allowed to exercise considerable discretion in the management of the process. The open question is the extent to which such discriminatory behavior by local polling station managers and officials stems from tradition, inferences or specific instructions given to them by higher authorities to affect black voter suppression. It is not an ambiguous issue when leading election officials in a state mishandles voter registration lists, but it is ambiguous whether the motive was the depression of the black vote or simple error. In any case, the impact upon voters has been disastrous."

Professor Walters generated a sympathetic response from members of the Black Caucus when he argued, in his testimony, that the Attorney General, despite claims to the contrary, could have stepped into the Florida controversy in response to complaints and evidence of voting rights violations by Black voters. Many Black Democrats believe that former Attorney General Janet Reno did not lift a finger to help Blacks who say they were disenfranchised in Florida. Professor Walters argued that the Attorney General did in fact have the authority to do more than she did, especially in light of the fact that the NAACP had gathered evidence of voting rights violations as early as November 4, 2000, and passed that evidence along to the Justice Department. Professor Walters feels that something must be done to compel the Attorney General to respond to such complaints and evidence. He proposed that "something be put in the law to effect a trigger for the Justice Department to act", from now on.

In the opinion of many in attendance, the most interesting testimony was provided by Dr. Alex Keyssar, Professor of History at Duke University. Professor Keyssar offered an opinion held by many that the "original sin" of the US Constitution is that "citizenship was to be defined by the federal government while suffrage was left to the states." Professor Keyssar continued, " as a result, state requirements have varied immensely and the federal government has been playing catch up…The federal government does not confer suffrage but it prohibits the states from denying suffrage on particular grounds. Our constitution did not and still does not contain an affirmative guarantee of the right to vote."

Professor Keyssar urged the Congressional Black Caucus to consider advocating passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote in Federal elections to all United States citizens, ages 18 or older.

Professor Keyssar also focused his attention on convicted felons who, after serving their time, are still denied the right to vote.

Professor Keyssar explained:

"There has never really been a good, coherent argument for taking away the political rights of people who have committed criminal offenses. That was recognized in the United States in the 19th century. The rationale for such laws changed dramatically in the late 19th century. They (supporters of such prohibitions) began invoking the notion of the 'purity of the ballot box', with some speculation that people convicted of crimes would ban together and elect representatives who would re-write the criminal laws. That was very unlikely to happen but what did happen was the disenfranchisement of a lot of poor people… And the rationale for these laws was challenged in the 1960s and 1970s and those challenges were only rebuffed by a Supreme Court decision that is based on a very strangely 'ahistorical' reading of a phrase in the 14th Amendment. As a historian, I do not believe that the reference to 'other crimes' in the 14th amendment is a reference to people dealing drugs, as opposed to (people committing) civil war crimes. A strong case can be made for rescinding those laws (relating to felony disenfranchisement) as well."

Professor Keyssar's remarks caught the attention of Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland who told Mr. Keyssar, during the follow-up question period, that he was impressed with the presentation offered by the Duke professor because the Congressman has as many as 4 out of 10 Black men, in his district, that have either been convicted of crimes, are currently in jail, or who are under some sort of supervision by the criminal justice system.

On the legislative front, during the hearing, Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) took the opportunity to promote a bill, HR 1170, that he has introduced which would provide minimum standards for voting practices across the United States. The bill, entitled, "Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act" is expected to receive the support of the entire Congressional Black Caucus and a majority of Democrats. Many CBC members are skeptical as to whether President Bush would sign the Conyers' bill, were it to gain passage in the US Congress.

But whether or not HR 1170 becomes law, it is obvious from yesterday's hearing, that Black members of Congress will not rest until something is done in response to last year's election. The Caucus intends to continue to periodically address the issue in public forums.

CBC Chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas said, " It is important for the Congressional Black Caucus to continue to hold these hearings. Election reform is our number one legislative priority and we will continue to keep the spotlight on this issue until we come up with common-sense solutions to prevent another election debacle."

However, many Blacks believe that last year's "debacle" cannot possibly be addressed through legislation or by public forums or hearings, however informative they may be. Anything short of President Bush being voted out of office will do little to help many get over the pain they still feel over last year's Presidential election.

Indeed, for many in the Black electorate, true election reform can only occur in 2004 - ironically, in the voting booth.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, April 4, 2001

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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