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Voting Rights as Bogus Panaceas

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The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act last June. “Liberals” were horrified and reacted as if the Civil War had been fought in vain. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg denounced the decision for its “hubris,” Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) condemned it as a “dagger” stab at civil rights, and Attorney General Eric Holder warned that he would not let the court’s ruling hinder Justice Department activism to assure “citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.” In reality, statists put the spotlight on voting because it encourages people to view ballots as  a panacea — regardless of how many rampages politicians commit after the polling booths close.

The Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 after the brutal and bloody repression of peaceful black protesters by Alabama and other southern states. In the decades after the act passed, black voter registration soared. The cities of Selma and Montgomery — notorious for civil-rights-era violence — now have black mayors. Nationwide, blacks had a higher turnout in last fall’s presidential election than did whites.

Thanks to the Supreme Court decision, southern states will no longer have to kowtow to the Justice Department when they do something as picayune as move a polling location across the street. But, according to Ginsburg and many pundits, any decrease in federal power over state and local governments practically guarantees a new Jim Crow era.

Ginsburg declared in her dissent, “The grand aim of the Act is to secure to all in our polity equal citizenship stature.” But “equal citizenship stature” does nothing to remedy the great and growing inequality between the citizen and the state. The larger government grows, the more irrelevant the individual voter becomes. The power of government agencies dwarfs the influence of the individual voter; members of Congress become fixated on getting favors from federal agencies rather than protecting citizens from the executive branch. The so-called representatives are far more interested in getting a new Housing and Urban Development grant for their home districts than in protecting homeowners from the violent spillover from a public-housing project.

The Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act is part of a modern catechism that sees voting as practically the alpha and omega of freedom. In a speech delivered when he signed the law, Lyndon Johnson assured the audience, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.” But permitting people to vote provides no assurance that citizens will not be killed after the polling booths close.

Earlier in 1965, in a phone call to Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson declared, “I just don’t see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam but he can’t vote.” The fact that people could vote did nothing to nullify Johnson’s dictatorial power over draftees. Tens of thousands of conscripts died in an unpopular war that occurred largely because the president had unlimited power to commit them to a pointless foreign conflict on false pretenses. As early as 1965, newspaper editorials referred to the “credibility gap” between the Johnson administration’s assertions and the facts on the ground in South Vietnam. Regardless of how many lies Johnson told about the war, young Americans were still obliged to follow his orders to the death in the jungles and rice paddies.

Johnson also proclaimed that the Voting Rights Act “is nothing less than granting every American Negro his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life.” While Johnson loved to portray himself as a savior, this act failed to protect blacks from federal rampages. For most of the last five years of King’s life, he was “the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ‘neutralize’ him as an effective civil rights leader,” according to a 1976 report by the Senate Select Committee on U.S. Government Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee). King’s home and office were wiretapped and, on 16 occasions, the FBI placed wiretaps in King’s motel rooms, seeking information on the “private activities of King and his advisers” that could be used to “completely discredit” them. The FBI sought to block the publication of articles that praised King. The FBI even set up its own Klan organization that savagely attacked civil-rights protesters. Seeking to subvert black civil-rights organizations, the FBI ordered its field offices to “exploit conflicts within and between groups; to use news media contacts to disrupt, ridicule, or discredit groups … and to gather information on the ‘unsavory backgrounds’ — immorality, subversive activity, and criminal activity — of group members,” according to the 1976 Senate report. In San Diego, the FBI instigated violence between the local Black Panthers and a rival black organization, helping spur several killings.

The fact that a far higher percentage of blacks voted after 1965 also failed to prevent Congress from declaring a war on drugs and passing one sweeping law after another that locked legions of people away for possessing politically incorrect substances. Thanks in part to crackdowns on narcotics, the incarceration rate of black high-school dropouts increased almost sevenfold between 1960 and 2000, according to a 2009 study by Harvard professor George Borjas and colleagues. More than 10 percent of black males aged 20 to 34 were behind bars as of 2006, according to a study published in the Journal of American History. The impact of the Voting Rights Act was trimmed by the vast increase in the number of minorities with felony convictions, which automatically barred them from casting a ballot in many states.

But the failure of the Voting Rights Act to restrain government power was ignored after the Supreme Court decision. Obama announced that he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling and promised that his administration will “do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.” He also urged Congress “to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”

Yet the worst violation of “voting rights” is the notion that election winners should have unlimited power. And nothing epitomizes that power more than Obama’s drone-assassination program by which he claims a prerogative to kill anyone in the world whom he labels a threat. If the president can seize as much power as he pleases, then Americans are voting for a master, not for a chief law-enforcement officer. If the president is unconstrained, America is perilously close to what the Founding Fathers dreaded — “slavery by constitutional forms.”

Voting blindly

Another irony is that Obama and his allies believe that vesting more arbitrary power in the Justice Department will automatically result in a triumph for democracy. But this is the same Justice Department that has mercilessly prosecuted whistleblowers since the beginning of Obama’s reign — including Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, and John Kiriakou. Attorney General Holder apparently believes in permitting people to vote but then gagging government employees and blindfolding everyone in the land to prevent people from learning what the government is doing with all the power voters supposedly gave it.

Incumbents withholding information and deceiving voters is as much a violation of voters’ rights as barring them from the polling booth. If Americans had known the full extent of George W. Bush’s torture regime and other civil-liberties violations, he might have failed to win reelection in 2004. If Americans had known that Obama’s National Security Agency was vacuuming up their email and phone data, he might have gotten tossed out by voters last November.

Politicians often talk of elections as the noblest episodes in the life of a people. But because politicians have granted themselves leeway to intervene in people’s lives without end, the reality is far more sordid. H.L. Mencken deftly described an election as an “advance auction sale of stolen goods.” The bigger government becomes, the more votes it can buy. And every bribe or penalty that incumbents can exploit biases election results.

What does a vote mean? Whatever a winning politician says it means. The larger the government, the more those voting levers confer blank checks on rulers. Voting becomes a process by which voters consecrate the loss of their rights and freedoms, rather than actively control the government.

Trumpeting the importance of voting deludes people into believing that they have a leash on the government. More than 300 years ago, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, declared, “Let the people think they govern, and they will be govern’d.” Having a vote does nothing to prevent a person from being molested by the Transportation Security Agency, spied on by the National Security Agency, or harassed by the Internal Revenue Service. While the voting lever the citizen flips can be counteracted by a hundred different sources, from other voters to political deals to judges’ edicts to outright fraud, government employees have such “levers” over the voter as seizing his bank account, destroying his job, or evicting him from his home.

Voting in a democracy nowadays often means trusting one’s life, liberty, and property to one of two candidates, neither of whom seems trustworthy. The more that voting is glorified as a panacea, the more lackadaisical people become about preserving their constitutional rights. The freedom to vote is valuable primarily as a means to safeguard other freedoms. But, at this point, voting is little more than an unreliable Kevlar jacket against political and bureaucratic assaults.

Sen. John Taylor, in his 1822 classic Tyranny Unmasked, wrote that the Revolutionary War had given the American people a “commission to overturn political idolatry.” Taylor and many others early in our nation’s history hoped that subsequent generations of Americans would not be gulled by political forms and empty promises. But their high hopes for humanity have yet to be fulfilled. At a minimum, Americans must recognize that voting is a charade if politicians continue doing as they damn well please regardless of voters’ verdicts.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.