Court is chipping away at legitimacy of our elections

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By David Orr
Guest columnist
Posted7/1/2018 1:00 AM

The American experiment with democracy rests on the simple premise that voters have a reasonable chance of having their voice heard and represented in the halls of government. The legitimacy of elected officials is based on the belief of the losing candidates and their voters that the contest was fair and all played by the same rules. Americans seem to be losing faith that the process is fair and that they have a reasonable chance of being heard.

Our institutions, particularly the Supreme Court, have failed to level the playing field, instead permitting powerful politicians to do everything they can to maintain and increase their power. The court's role is to be a check on legislative and executive branch abuses. But this U.S. Supreme Court has simply rubber stamped and accelerated the ongoing assault on a fair playing field.

 

Earlier this month, the court upheld Ohio's uniquely aggressive efforts to purge its voter rolls, ruling that a state may trigger the four-year process of removing voters from the rolls if they fail to vote, fail to respond to a notice from state election officials and otherwise fail to re-register.

Then, on Monday, the same 5-4 majority reversed a lower court's finding that Texas intentionally diluted minority voting power and instead decided to accept all but one of Texas' gerrymandered districts. This ruling came despite vast evidence of impermissible racial bias in how Texas lawmakers drew the districts.

These twin rulings bolster the sense that the political process is rigged against the average American in favor of the entrenched political class. These decisions will inevitably greenlight continued cynical efforts to tilt the playing field away from the majority of voters who simply want the chance to be counted.

The court's recent voting rights decisions have been coupled with campaign finance determinations that allow wealthy individuals and corporations to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money on politics under the guise of free speech, leading to the extraordinary amplification of wealthy voices and the drowning out of ordinary voices.

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Five years ago, the court gutted a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, taking states and localities with histories of abuse out of the watchful eye of officials defending the Constitution and ensuring fair play. The VRA helped transition our country away from racist policies designed to prevent African Americans from voting, to a system that ensured all Americans could have their say, regardless of their background. With the latest election rulings, it is clear that we are seeing a piecemeal dismantling of the Voting Rights Act.

Americans also want fairness in legislative maps.

We know something is wrong when the distribution of political power is significantly disproportionate to voting totals. For example, in Pennsylvania, according to the nonpartisan National Constitution Center, in three elections using gerrymandered district maps, Republicans won about 72 percent of the state's House of Representatives seats while winning only 54 or 55 percent of votes statewide. That's not right, and American's know it. A bipartisan poll conducted last year by Democratic researcher Celinda Lake and Republican analyst Ashlee Rich Stephenson found that 71 percent of all Americans would like the Supreme Court to define a standard that ends partisan gerrymandering.

Fairness isn't a partisan issue. Instead of ruling on the side of the already entrenched politicians and elites by giving them the benefit of determining what is fair, the Supreme Court must side with American voters and rein in partisan gerrymandering.

Voting and fair, representative elections are fundamental virtues of democracy in America. They are being chipped away by this Supreme Court. The failure of this court to limit the excesses of our political branches is undermining the legitimacy of our American experiment.

David Orr, a Chicago Democrat, is Cook County clerk.

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