CounterSpin interview with Ari Berman on Voting Rights
Janine Jackson interviewed Ari Berman about the current assault on voting rights for the November 6 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
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Janine Jackson: Whether Donald Trump will be permitted to determine the format, content and room temperature of future GOP debates is a worthy topic for media discussion. But there are other, more baseline electoral issues that call for media attention–like whether everyone eligible to vote will be able to.
The 2016 election will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. Joining us now to discuss the significance of that is Ari Berman. He’s a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an investigative fellow at the Nation Institute. He’s author of, most recently, Give Us the Ballot: the Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ari Berman.
Ari Berman: Thanks, Janine.
JJ: Listeners will have heard about Alabama, which passed a law saying you needed photo ID to vote and then closed 31 Departments of Motor Vehicles, where many get such ID. The
DMVs were closed in 8 of the 10 counties with the highest concentrations of black voters. It certainly sounds like a disproportionate impact and it suggests why you can title your book The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. What’s the lesson from Alabama, in particular, and isn’t some law being contravened there?
AB: I think the lesson in Alabama is that the struggle over voting rights was not settled in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And my book, Give Us the Ballot, looks at the 50 years that came after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, because many people know that there was this triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery, they know that there was incredible violence inflicted on people like Congressman John Lewis, but they don’t really know what occurred after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. I think it’s critically important to emphasize the struggle for voting rights did not end in 1965.
And in fact, I started covering voting rights far more recently, after the 2010 elections, when so many states passed new voting restrictions, and doing things like shutting down voter registration drives, cutting back early voting, requiring strict voter ID to cast a ballot, purging the voting rolls, disenfranchising ex-felons. Half the states in the country passed new laws restricting the right to vote after the 2010 election, and it wasn’t just occurring in Alabama and Georgia, it was also occurring in Northern states, places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. We’re in a whole new struggle over the right to vote now.
JJ: And yet it seemed that the Voting Rights Act being outdated, or no longer necessary: Wasn’t that part of the rationale for the Supreme Court’s 2013–you call it a “gutting” of the VRA–that was part of what they were claiming, was it not?
AB: It was. So what the Supreme Court did in the 2013 decision Shelby County vs. Holder is they said that those states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government. The formula under which those states were covered was unconstitutional. And that Congress would have to derive a new formula to update the law, or else you no longer had to approve your voting changes if you were a state like Alabama.
The problem with that opinion is that it missed that voter suppression did not end in 1965, that this particular part of the law blocked 3,000 discriminatory voting changes from 1965 to 2013, and it blocked voting changes as recently as the 2012 election, when restrictive laws like Texas’ voter ID law, where you can vote with a handgun permit but not a student ID, were blocked under the Voting Rights Act. So I think the Supreme Court only wanted to talk about the progress that had been made since 1965, the election of the first black president, the election of black congressmen and mayors and all down the line, and they ignored all the barriers that have still been erected in the decades since.
JJ: To be clear, would that Alabama move of shutting down those DMVs, would that have been something that they would have had to get approval for?
AB: Yes, I think so. They either would have had to submit it for approval–and it certainly would have been blocked, because as you mention 8 of 10 majority black counties had their DMV offices shut down, so there was clearly a disproportionate impact on African-Americans–or if they didn’t approve it, they would have been sued by a civil rights group, and then they would have had to approve it anyway. Either way, this is the very type of change affecting voting that the Department of Justice or the federal courts would have liked to look at.
And what I show in my book is that there were decades of struggles in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and the 2000s to get states like Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana to comply with the Voting Rights Act. These states kept thinking of new and ingenious ways to try to thwart the power of the Act, and that’s why the Voting Rights Act was so important.
JJ: You suggest that while those interested, openly or not, in restricting the franchise have been very busy indeed, those interested in expanding it, in allowing more people to vote, haven’t really matched that energy, but we do have the example of California to hold up alongside that of Alabama.
AB: I do think that states are becoming more aggressive about trying to expand voting rights in response to other states that are trying to restrict voting rights, and the most ambitious reforms have occurred first in Oregon and then in California. They are going to automatically register people who request a driver’s license or an ID from the DMV, and then those voters can opt out if they don’t want to register.
And that is going to add a lot of people to the voting rolls. In Oregon, the expectation is that it will add 300,000 people to the voting rolls, and in California, it could add 6 million new voters to the voting rolls, which is an absolutely huge number, larger than you would ever register during a voter registration drive.
But beyond the fact that all these people are registering, I think it’s important because it’s a way of thinking about the vote as a right and not a privilege, which we’ve done for so many years, and saying that in a democracy, we are better off when more people participate and it’s the responsibility of the state, of the government, to get more people involved. And so what California and Oregon are doing is in very stark contrast to what places like Texas and Alabama are doing.
JJ: What about on the federal level? There are moves, are there not, to restore those provisions?
AB: There’s legislation in Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act: the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015. There’s also bills for automatic voter registration on a national level that have been introduced, and bills that would make it so you wouldn’t have to wait a long time in line to vote. Unfortunately, none of these efforts are moving legislatively, because Republicans in Congress just aren’t very interested in it. And I think that basically, if your party has decided that you are going to make it harder for people to vote, you are not going to be in favor of things like the Voting Rights Act.
JJ: One person who said there is no role for the federal government here is Jeb Bush. I’ll refer folks to your writing in The Nation, but briefly, he would have particular reasons for that stance, wouldn’t he?
AB: It’s sort of interesting to hear Jeb Bush say that certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary when it was his very brother that signed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, a law that passed by a vote of 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate. And I’m fairly certain Jeb Bush would have been for that effort in 2006, and that was only nine years ago, so I have a hard time believing that the country has changed so dramatically in the last nine years that a reauthorization that was warranted in 2006 is no longer needed in 2015.
Also, when he was governor, there was a massive voter purge in Florida in the 2000 election. Thousands of people were wrongly labeled as felons, they were purged from the voting rolls, they were unable to vote in the 2000 election in Florida. The NAACP sued Florida, and they found that 12,000 people were wrongly labeled as felons and potentially prevented from voting. That was 22 times George W. Bush’s margin of victory in the state, so this voter purge definitely played a role in the outcome of the 2000 election, and this all happened on Jeb Bush’s watch in Florida. I think if anyone should be protecting an expansion of voting rights it is Jeb Bush, given what happened on his watch.
JJ: Finally, it seems fair to say that you think that voting access is an issue that media ought to be asking candidates about as we go forward into this election.
AB: It really should, and I think it’s unfortunate that the media are not asking about these issues. Because they’re focusing so much on personalities and poll numbers, but they’re not focusing on the fundamental reality, which is that if people can’t vote, then there’s not a whole lot of point in having an election. And so the first presidential debate, which occurred on Fox News, was on the actual 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act–August 6, 2015, was the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson signing the VRA–and the subject of voting rights never came up.
And it hasn’t come up in the subsequent three debates. I’m hopeful that it will come up in the future, but I think candidates really need to talk about these underlying issues that shape so much of the election: Whether people can vote, how much money there is in the political system, who is restricting their right to vote, who is trying to buy these candidates? These are ultimately the issues that are going to decide the election far more than Hillary Clinton’s emails or Donald Trump’s hair.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ari Berman. The book is Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Thank you very much, Ari Berman, for joining us on CounterSpin.
AB: Thanks so much, Janine.