Opinion: Second Thoughts From the Man Who Enabled North Carolina's Voter ID Law
It's too late for Edward Blum's regrets
First, some backstory. Bear with me here.
Six weeks ago, a left-leaning Durham County nonprofit called insightus published a report that revealed what the group’s president, William Busa, called “electoral apartheid”—changes to early voting sites in North Carolina under the 2013 voter ID law that placed them much farther away from black voters compared to white ones.
“While the average white voter's distance to his or her nearest Early Voting site increased by just 26 feet in 2014, the average black voter's distance increased by a quarter of a mile,” Busa wrote (italics his). “Summing that up over the members of each race, that's an aggregate increase in distance-to-poll of just 21,000 miles for white voters (71% of the electorate), but more than 350,000 miles for black voters (22% of the electorate). That latter distance is the equivalent of a trip from the Earth to the Moon, and halfway home again.”
Blum cited Mecklenburg County as a place where even seemingly slight changes—black voters now have to travel an average of 0.2 miles farther than before, compared to 0.03 miles for white voters—could swing a close election: “[V]oter suppression, like boiling a live frog, is a game of tiny increments.”
The early voting site changes, of course, were far from the only measures included in the Voter Identification Verification Act, which starting this year also restricts early voting hours, mandates photo ID for voters, and abolishes same-day registration and pre-registration for high school students, among other provisions. (The NAACP and others have sued in federal court, arguing that the changes disproportionately affect minority and young voters, who tend to vote Democratic; a judge will hear arguments in the case Jan. 25.)
But what’s clear is their timing back in 2013. Republican legislators had the bill queued up and ready to go as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required state and local governments with histories of discrimination against minorities to “pre-clear” any changes to voting laws or procedures with the U.S. Justice Department. The Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County vs. Holder on June 25, 2013; Gov. Pat McCrory signed VIVA into law six weeks later.
All of that (thank you for your patience) is preamble to an extraordinary admission this week by the one man who set the entire machine in motion—and not just in North Carolina. His name is Edward Blum.
Blum is the man behind a small, Austin-based nonprofit, Project on Fair Representation, that helped engineer the Shelby County case and another, Fisher vs. University of Texas, that challenges race-based admissions to universities. (The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in that case Dec. 9, when Justice Antonin Scalia made his now-infamous observation that minorities might fare better at “a slower-track school where they do well.”)
“Working largely on his own, with the financial support of a handful of conservative donors, Blum sought out the plaintiffs in the Fisher and Shelby County cases, persuaded them to file suit, matched them with lawyers, and secured funding to appeal the cases all the way to the high court,” according to a Reuters special report in 2012.
This week, in an interview with the British paper The Guardian, he admitted to second thoughts.
“I think about it a lot, I worry about it a lot. I agonise over this,” Blum told the Guardian. “It may be that one or two of the states that used to be covered by Section 5 has gone too far.” …
It is clear … that Blum’s cases rely on the view that America is essentially a post-racial society in which the wounds left over from slavery and segregation have mostly healed and certainly do not require extraordinary intervention by state legislatures or the Justice Department.
It’s a view of history touted by many conservatives, including John Roberts, starting long before he joined the supreme court. Their argument, however, often fails to acknowledge that southern segregationists relied on similarly “race neutral” arguments to exclude blacks (and, often, poor whites) from the political system in the 19th and early 20th centuries through a variety of underhanded means. It also overlooks the abundant evidence of continuing harassment and exclusion of minorities, not just in the south – through restrictive registration laws, overcrowded polling places in minority neighborhoods, dishonestly compiled voter purge lists, the denial of voting rights to ex-felons, police intimidation, and the crippling effect of mass incarceration.
[Steven] Spaulding of Common Cause accused Blum of perpetuating an Alice in Wonderland view of the world in which up is down and down is up. “It’s a really twisted way to read the constitution,” he said. “And he is taking advantage of a court which has shown itself to be very hostile of late to bedrock American landmark laws.”
A little late for regrets, isn’t it? One person can make a difference after all, which might be the final turn in a twisted tale: In trying to realize the bedrock principle of “one person, one vote,” the cases Blum helped midwife have undermined voting rights—in at least two states, one of them ours—more than anything in the last half-century. He’ll have to live with that, as we all will.