The Supreme Court vs. Eric Holder: Why they're so wrong and he's so right about voter ID

The outgoing attorney general's attack on another terrible decision shows he understands the extraordinary stakes

Published October 6, 2014 8:01PM (EDT)

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy                              (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As my colleague Joan Walsh wrote when news of his pending resignation first hit the wires, Eric Holder's legacy as U.S. attorney general is complicated. There's a lot for a liberal to be unhappy about — too big to jail, the war on whistleblowers, continued acquiescence to the NSA — but there's good stuff in there, too.

I was reminded of that when I watched a video of the attorney general that was released Monday morning, a short clip in which Holder blasts the Supreme Court's decision last week to allow Ohio Republicans to reduce the amount of time allotted to Ohioans for early voting. The conservative movement's recent embrace of policies that suppress the vote is one of the issues where Holder's at his best. And as he argued in his new video, the extraordinary practical and symbolic meaning of the right to vote is the reason why.

"It is a major step backward to allow these reductions to early voting to go into effect," Holder says in the video. "Early voting is about much more than making it more convenient for people to exercise their civic responsibilities," he continues. "It's about preserving access and openness for every eligible voter," Holder argues, "not just those who can afford to miss work or who can afford to pay for child care."

He's absolutely right. While the orthodox Republican's views on affirmative action or, say, criminal justice leave much to be desired, the campaign for voter ID laws being waged by the conservative movement — which was buoyed by the Supreme Court right-wing majority's recent decision — strikes at something far more precious and fundamental. This, in other words, is not politics as usual.

To explain what I mean, I'm going to draw upon an analogy Jonathan Chait used a few months back, during his long debate with Ta-Nehisi Coates and others over the role culture and racism play in most African-Americans' daily lives. I'm not going to get into that debate here (I think this piece makes plain where I land), but I want to adapt Chait's analogy of life as a basketball game with crooked referees to the fight over voter suppression, where I think it'll be considerably less problematic.

While it's probably a mistake to think of the president and attorney general as mere coaches (i.e., players) in the context of fighting black poverty, when it comes to voter rights, it really is the courts — not the White House — we expect to play the role of fair-minded referee. And to give the judicial branch credit, it was initially doing an OK job of it in the Ohio case, twice shooting down Republicans' attempt to disenfranchise Democrats in the state.

Indeed, in two separate rulings, judges saw the move for what it was: the political equivalent of a losing basketball team declaring to its sharpshooting competitor that shots made from behind the arc were now worth zero points instead of three. But that's when Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas stepped in, giving Ohio the go-ahead in a 5-4 decision that, for whatever reason, no member of the majority felt inclined to defend individually.

If you keep in mind that, Roberts excluded, this is the exact same group of men who just a few years ago were willing to destroy health care reform out of fear of government-mandated broccoli, you should have a sense of how patently weak the argument in favor of voter ID laws. Not only because the evidence that voter fraud is a real problem is essentially zilch, but because the attempt to deny millions of Americans their only real tool of self-government, their right to vote, is contrary to what most people think is so special about U.S. democracy.

On the most basic, essential level, our right to vote is about our right to be recognized as full and legitimate members of the community. It's the way our democracy turns our God-given (or Universe-given, if you prefer) right to control ourselves into a contract we sign allowing other people — not only the government but civil society, too — to hold over us an enormous amount of authority. It's how we say that even if we don't like everything about this game, we're still willing to play.

At the risk of oversimplification: Rousseau famously claimed society was nothing less than a system of control, a network of chains keeping us locked to the status quo. What makes Attorney General Holder's Monday address so great, and his legacy on voting rights so commendable, is his understanding that by ruling in favor of Ohio conservatives, the Supreme Court is helping them throw away the key.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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