If you’re aware of the GOP’s unprecedented effort to stop eligible voters from casting a ballot this November, you should probably thank Ari Berman, contributing writer at The Nation and the author of Herding Donkeys:The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
For more than a year, Berman has been waging a one-man war on the GOP’s voter suppression efforts. In this Q and A with The National Memo, he explains how this coordinated effort to deny the vote to core members of Obama’s winning coalition from 2008 could still swing the 2012 election, despite some recent victories in federal court.
When were you first alerted to what you’ve called “The GOP War on Voting”?
Following the 2010 election, 38 state legislatures introduced bills to restrict the right to vote and more than a dozen states passed new voting restrictions. I began to see snippets of news coverage in early 2011 on these laws, but no one had done a big piece showing how this was a coordinated push by Republicans in state after state to restrict the right to vote at every level of the electoral process. That’s what inspired me to write the article “The GOP War on Voting,” in the September 15, 2011, issue of Rolling Stone. The feedback since then has been extraordinary. I’ve been on the voter suppression beat ever since.
There have only been a handful of successful voting impersonation prosecutions in America. And the evidence that this kind of fraud has ever swung an election just doesn’t exist. Is there any real proof proponents have offered?
There’s no proof of rampant or significant voter fraud deciding American elections. The Bush administration did a major investigation of “voter fraud” between 2002-2007 and didn’t prosecute a single person for voter impersonation. The state of Pennsylvania, which passed a voter ID law in 2012 that was purportedly designed to stop in-person voter fraud, admitted in a recent court filing: “there have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states.” So this is really a phantom menace. Republicans are hyping voter fraud in order to mask the real purpose of these laws, which is to reduce turnout among Democratic-affiliated constituencies — namely low-income, student and minority voters — who are most negatively impacted by these new voting restrictions.
What do you think about the comparisons to Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and literacy tests?
The comparisons are sadly accurate. There are a number of costs associated with voter ID laws. In states like Texas, which offered a “free” ID for voting, you need to pay for underlying documents, like a birth certificate, in order to get that ID. You also need to pay to get to a DMV office, which can be very difficult if you don’t have a car. Only 81 of 254 counties in Texas have a DMV office. A federal court in Washington found that Texas’s law violated the Voting Rights Act precisely because it discriminated against low-income voters, who are disproportionately black or Hispanic in the state. “A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote,” the court wrote.
One of the most disappointing things that supporters of these voting restrictions can point to is the fact that voter ID restrictions poll extremely well. Are there any arguments you’re hearing that make the case against voting restrictions in a way the public grasps?
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 10 percent of eligible voters don’t have government-issued IDs. That’s a lot of people, but it also means that most Americans do have ID, so I’m not surprised that voter ID laws poll well. I think more Americans need to understand a few basic facts: a) there is no evidence of voter fraud that a voter ID law would stop; b) a significant percentage of Americans don’t have these IDs and don’t have access to the underlying documents needed to get the IDs; c) these laws are a politically motivated attempt by Republicans to shape an electorate in their own favor before anyone has even cast a ballot; d) these laws are expensive to implement, costing millions of dollars, and that money would be better spent elsewhere; e) these laws will create confusion and long lines at polling places, which will negatively impact a large number of voters who have valid ID; f) voting, unlike buying Sudafed or flying on a plane, is a constitutionally protected right that people have died for in this country and is something we shouldn’t restrict without a significant and compelling reason to do so; g) we should be making it easier, not harder, for all eligible voters in this country to cast a ballot.