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Opinion: Trump Policies on Voting and Criminal Justice Quietly Move Country Backward

Plans proceed despite chaos in the White House

President Donald Trump continued to claim the investigation into Russia and the circumstances of his firing James B. Comey are a witch hunt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
President Donald Trump continued to claim the investigation into Russia and the circumstances of his firing James B. Comey are a witch hunt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

While the Trump administration is in a state of perpetual turmoil, some of its promised policies are proceeding as planned. Support from a Republican Congress is softening with each cringe-worthy headline about slips, leaks and feuds; still, its members, mindful of the president’s loyal base, are proceeding with caution.

And when you step back from the chaos, don’t expect to see any progress on other issues — such as voting rights and criminal justice reform — that once promised a bit of bipartisan cooperation. 

Amid the James Comey firing and memo, and secrets shared with Russians, these are issues that might not seem set-your-hair-on-fire sexy, but they mean a lot to those Americans who fear rather than long for a “Make America Great Again” return to the past.

After the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states, mostly those with Republican legislative majorities, rushed to pass laws tightening ID requirements and establishing other barriers — same-day registration, early voting and more — that disproportionately affected minorities, students, the elderly and the poor.

In other words, the Democratic base.

Voting rights derailed

Success in the effort to craft a new voting bill always seemed slim. But even amid the partisan jockeying that ensued once states with a history of discrimination no longer had to “preclear” any changes to the electoral process, there was a glimmer of hope that Congress would tweak the law so an updated version would pass muster with the high court and encourage all eligible citizens to vote without obstacles.

Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, along with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, which failed to get anywhere, despite having more than 100 co-sponsors.

Sensenbrenner wrote in The Washington Post last year: “The right to vote is fundamental to a successful, prosperous nation. It is imperative that the process is fair, accessible and protected from discrimination, doubt and partisan gamesmanship.”

In June 2015, congressional Democrats filed their own legislative solution. One of the sponsors, civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, said, “It’s important to fix a decision of the United States Supreme Court and make it easier, make it simple, for all of our people to participate in a democratic process.” That went nowhere, as well.

It was hard to believe that in 2006, when President George W. Bush signed the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act, the bill passed the Senate by a 98-0 vote, and the House 390-33.

The actions of the Trump administration, taken when everyone else was taken with Comey and Russia, show movement — backward. Obsessed with his loss to Hillary Clinton in the popular vote total, the president has imagined millions of illegal and illegitimate voters, despite no proof and the statements and evidence of Democratic and Republican election officials across the country.

As president, Trump can do something about what otherwise would be dismissed as ravings from the guy shouting through a megaphone on a busy street corner.

Chasing phantoms

The consequences of Trump’s vanity project, the Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, are real. Chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, the commission vice chair is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who is one of the few sentient beings who has backed up Trump’s voter fraud claims.

Kobach, in fact, has made a career of chasing fraudulent voters where none exist and initiating faulty voting roll purges.

He is the architect of a law in his home state requiring new voters to provide proof of citizenship with a passport, a birth certificate or naturalization papers, and the inspiration for similar laws and regulations in Arizona, Alabama and across the country.

Though his work has been successfully challenged in court, Kobach’s new perch and Trump’s blessing legitimizes it.

While the Supreme Court this week declined to intervene in a voting rights case out of North Carolina, letting stand a federal appeals court ruling that struck down the state’s voting ID requirement and other changes as motivated by “racially discriminatory intent,” the words of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. indicated that the decision wasn’t based on the substance of the bill.

With the administration’s newly appointed commission to look into “voter fraud,” what once was fledgling bipartisan support on laws opening voting to all seems totally lost. Expect additional state bills to be drafted and passed now that the White House has doubled-down, especially since the partisan forces behind them have an ally in Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who has his own history of prosecuting voting rights activists.

Sessions’ recent actions have also halted what not so long ago looked to be one issue on which Democrats and Republicans had found common ground.

Last week, when Sessions said the Justice Department would reverse Obama administration policies and instruct prosecutors to seek the toughest penalties for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, it contradicted the work of Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“We should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a lock ’em up and throw away the key problem,” Paul said said in a statement following the move.

In an interview in 2014, Paul told me he was working with Democrats on sentencing reform.

“Three out of four people are black and brown in prison but white kids are using drugs, too. They’re just not getting caught,” Paul said. “I’m a Christian; I believe in redemption. I believe in a second chance, and I think you’ll talk to a lot of conservative evangelical Christians and they’ll tell you the same.”

Moves that could weaken voting rights or return the country to an era of mass incarceration that devastated communities and destabilized families may only rate a day of headlines. But to those without power and privilege, they are a lot scarier than the latest Donald Trump tweet.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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