At The Sessions Confirmation Hearing, You Won't Hear As Much As You Should About Voting Rights

Accelerated Hearing Avoids Discussion of Voter Suppression and the Voting Rights Act 

The Congressional confirmation hearing on the nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is scheduled to begin Tuesday.  Those opposed to his nomination have raised many concerns.  A partial list of Sessions’ controversial positions covers immigration laws, LGBT rights, and abortion.  Though we find many of these issues to be of great importance, at Equality Rules we consider voting to be a fundamental right at the foundation of all civil liberties, so we're focused on his shameful history with voting rights and voter suppression.

Even before considering the merits, it’s worth noting that there’s a fight over whether his confirmation is being rushed through unnecessarily.  Generally, Congressional Democrats are arguing that until all of the required ethical and related disclosures are filed, proper hearings can’t be held.  Ironically, this is the same position that Congressional Republicans took in 2009, as was artfully pointed out by Senator Chuck Schumer on Monday.

More specifically, debate over the Sessions nomination itself is being limited by the Judiciary Committee, of which Sessions is a member.  Consider this:  George W. Bush’s nominee for Attorney General, John Ashcroft, had a 4 day hearing with dozens of witnesses.  Sessions will face 2 days of hearings – one of which is for his own testimony – and only 9 witnesses, the majority of which are being called by his Republican colleagues on the committee.  Sessions' own nomination hearing from 1986 had testimony from 19 witnesses, and that was for a federal judgeship, not for Attorney General.

Of all things to rush the process on, this is not it.  The United States holds public hearings for an important reason:  openness and transparency are at the foundation of our democracy.  By default (though not without exception), court hearings are public, government records are public, and those nominated to serve in important federal offices are to be vetted in public. 

To preclude Americans from fully vetting those who will serve in key government positions, there must be a need so compelling that it outweighs the transparency that is expected of a government that works for, rather than rules over, the people.  Certainly no such urgent need exists here.  Sessions was nominated 6 weeks ago.  By contrast, there has been a vacant seat on the Supreme Court for almost 10 months.  Yet the hearings on the Sessions nomination are set to continue, and at a rapid fire pace.  

Why?  There are things about Sessions that a majority of the Judiciary Committee doesn’t want to discuss.

We’ve covered the merits of the Jeff Sessions nomination (or lack thereof) in a previous post.  Thirty years ago, Sessions’ nomination as a US District Court judge was rejected by a Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee due to concerns about racist remarks and actions.  At the time, his was only the second judicial appointment in 50 years to be rejected.  That’s quite a testament to how poorly he was thought of by the Senate, especially considering that at the time President Reagan, who nominated Sessions, was near the height of his popularity.  

Sessions wasn’t good enough to pass muster with the Judiciary Committee 30 years ago. Of course, that was in an era where partisan politics didn’t always rule the day.  Today’s Congress is caught up in such a frenzied power grab that they merely want to sweep these issues under the rug, as if they’re not relevant.  But they are.  

As Attorney General, Sessions will be in charge of enforcement of federal voting laws and related civil liberties. What indications do we have of the job he’ll do?

As Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions focused more on hunting down alleged voting fraud than he did on protecting voter rights, and he did so only along racial and socioeconomic lines.  Sessions engaged in a witch hunt as blacks started to register and vote more in Alabama.  In the 1984 election he engaged in aggressive efforts to find fraud.  FBI agents literally hid in bushes to keep watch over so-called activists who were assisting elderly voters.  Yet of the 1.7 million ballots cast in that election, only 14 were found to be questionable, and none were proven to be fraudulent.  Even granting Sessions the benefit of the doubt on the questionable ballots, that’s only a success rate of 0.0008%.  Of course, this does not come as a surprise to those who look at the underlying facts regarding voter fraud, as this type of voter fraud has never been found at any scale in the United States

As part of his wasted efforts, Sessions prosecuted three individuals for allegedly submitting fraudulent absentee ballots.  His legal theory was found to be without basis, and the defendants were found not guilty.  In the course of the prosecution, however, Sessions essentially abused the court system to intimidate black voters in areas of Alabama where voting had historically been a privilege extended only to whites.   

Clearly Sessions is no fan of the Voting Rights Act, despite the fact that the Voting Rights Act was hallmark legislation considered to be fundamental to the achievement of all other civil rights.  Sessions supported the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby vs. Holder, and he has called the Voting Rights Act “a piece of intrusive legislation.” 

Assuming he is confirmed, Sessions will oversee enforcement (or lack thereof) of federal voting rights legislation, and he will undoubtedly pursue the voter fraud bogeyman, just as he did in Alabama.

But because of the truncated hearing process, we won't get to hear as much about any of this, or the other issues of concern, as we should.  It's a symptom of the power grab that is driving our elected officials to game the system in any way they can.  For those who care about a fair and open democracy, this should be a concern regardless of your politics or your specific views on Jeff Sessions.

This goes far beyond the federal level, as we saw in North Carolina last year.  State and local officials and legislation have a massive impact on voting rights, and officials are abusing those rights as a means to maintain their grip on power.  Right now, many states are considering new laws and ballot initiatives related to voter qualifications, such as voter ID requirements, re-enfranchisement of ex-felons, and more.  State Secretaries of State are considering how aggressively to purge voting rolls.  Local officials are planning how long polls may remain open in the next election, and how resources may be deployed to shorten (or lengthen) lines at the polls.

We’re tired of politicians using and abusing citizens’ voting rights as a tool to gain and maintain power.  That’s not what a democracy should be about.

Equality Rules has a mission to stop voter suppression and ensure equal voting rights for all citizens.  We are working to compel officials across the country to run fair and open elections.  But we need your help to do it.