Trigger warning: indefinite detention, electoral disenfranchisement, racism
The past few weeks have seemed like a bit of a parade of bad news – with Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican primary among other worrisome events. Recently, however, there’s been a few small but significant changes that can give us hope.
Think of the children
After the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the US peaked in 2014, the public’s attention to the issue has steady declined. Even as fewer children have ended up in the overcrowded and dangerous detention facilities scattered across the southwest US, those already here have largely faced a toxic mixture of judicial neglect and increasingly unrealistic orders for them to leave the country.
A new report from Generation Progress touches on the issues that I and others noticed were looming problems just as the crisis began – that very few of these cases have assigned lawyers or even translators. Concerned Senators and Representatives have stepped in with new federal legislation requiring more extensive availability to those services as well as more thorough accountability for the agencies overseeing these detention facilities and court proceedings. Unfortunately, as long as the Senate and House are Republican-controlled, these reforms are unlikely to become law.
The day’s wages
In New York and California a similar tentative step forward, in this case on the minimum wage, has unfolded. In both progressive-leaning states with large labor pools, local activism was sufficient to push for incrementally raising the wage floor. In New York, the main determinant will be regional, with New York City proper seeing its wages move up the most quickly, followed by outlying parts of the urban center, and lastly other parts of the state. To a certain extent, that reflects cost of living, although across the state that will catapult minimum wage workers from $9 an hour into a more manageable economy. In California, the changes will be tailored more to the type of business, with smaller companies given slightly more time to adapt.
(Changes have so far been concentrated in states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, however. Image modified from here.)
Many commentators have viewed this as a reflection of the populist politics fueling Senator Sanders’ presidential run, but the piecemeal approach in both California and New York is more reflective of the gradual and contextual increases advocated by Secretary Clinton. Far from outside of these policy victories, Clinton took part in the celebratory rally put on by New York Governor Cuomo in her adoptive state.
Who counts the voters
Whether at the state level or federally, these different movements aimed at improving the quality of life have relied on elected leadership. In short, they have needed at least the possibility of voters caring about these issues to motivate political action. The capacity for that to happen as evenly as possible with the population of a district was upheld 8-0 by the Supreme Court on Monday in Evenwel v. Abbott.
This case was launched by the Project for Fair Representation, which previously played a role in an unsuccessful challenge to affirmative action and a fruitful dismantling of the electoral pre-clearance system. The racial dimensions of their work are deliberate and striking, and Evenwel was no exception. The Cato Institute (known for its own relationship with racist, colonialist, and antisemitic ideologies) published a rather flowery amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs in Evenwel where they argued-
Once again this Court finds itself at the intersection of the VRA and the Fourteenth Amendment. The parties here are caught in the inevitable trap of (1) maintaining majority-minority districts under complex, overlapping standards and (2) administering electoral schemes that do little to advance racial equality while doing much to violate voter equality— the idea that each eligible voter’s vote should count equally. In the background of this conflict, there lurks a cacophony of precedent and oft-conflicting court administered standards that have arisen from Section 2 cases. Basic constitutional guarantees of equal protection inherent in the Fourteenth Amendment— such as OPOV—are getting lost in this thicket.
Avoiding racial discrimination under these circumstances is particularly difficult in jurisdictions where “total population” and “citizens of voting age population” (CVAP)—standard metrics for evaluating whether a district violates OPOV—diverge due to varied concentration of non-citizens. As with the tensions amicus Cato has described before, jurisdictions navigating between the VRA’s Scylla and the Constitution’s Charybdis are bound to wreck individual rights—here, voter equality—on judicial shoals.
The reality that redefining electoral districts across the country by either eligible or registered voters would cast aside representation for people ineligible to vote or unregistered (who are largely people of color) is only indirectly considered. It’s framed as an unfortunate cost needed to make each vote cast equally contested by candidates – a pipe dream as turnout can easily inflate a given voter’s power or swamp their decision in a sea of others’. These organizations, all too recently comfortable with the legal realities of Apartheid, were pushing for a milder version of the same multi-tiered political system, where there are people represented and people beneath consideration.
Perhaps most tellingly, the case here sought a structural response to the reality that millions of people are disenfranchised – while being incarcerated (and depending on the state, afterwards as well), for being undocumented or otherwise non-citizens, or from the inaccessibility of the voter registration system. Instead of asking why those people are beyond the pale of electoral participation and what could be changed about that, it treated their exclusion as an accepted given to be worked around.
Luckily the Supreme Court saw things differently, and as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund described it:
Upwards of 75 million children—13 million of whom are Black—not yet eligible to vote would have been counted out of the redistricting process had appellants prevailed. Indeed, appellants’ case threatened to take America’s redistricting process back to nefarious periods in our democracy similar to when Black people were counted as 3/5ths of a person for redistricting purposes and expressly excluded from the body politic.
The Court’s decision today vindicates the “one person, one vote” standard, which rightly takes into account Census-derived total population counts when apportioning voting districts. This standard has been applied universally for over 50 years by all 50 states and the thousands of localities within them. Moreover, this clear understanding of “one person, one vote” is already regarded as America’s “de facto national policy” in legislative redistricting, enjoying overwhelming, bipartisan support among state and local governments. Today’s decision reaffirms the guiding logic of this inclusive standard, which fosters access to electoral representation and constituent services for all people, regardless of race, sex, citizenship, economic status, or other characteristics, or whether a person chooses to or is able to vote.
That vision of participatory democracy is the engine that’s helping to drive these modest steps towards a fairer political and economic system. This newly post-Scalia Supreme Court has made clear that they favor that understanding of how this country could organize itself.