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.
Of the methods that are being employed, do we have any indication of which will be the most effective in suppressing votes?
Since 2010, Republicans have changed the voting rules by demanding proof of citizenship to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting days, passing government-issued photo ID laws, disenfranchising ex-felons and purging the voter rolls. All of these steps reduce voter turnout.
It’s tough to pick the most egregious law, because there are so many, but the most disturbing tactic, to me, is disenfranchising ex-felons. Florida and Iowa did this following the 2010 election, essentially telling a specific group of people that after they served their time and paid their debt to society, they still cannot get their voting rights back unless they wait seven years (in Florida) or specifically petition the governor (in Iowa). That’s un-American to me.
The voter purges are also very alarming, because once you’re removed from the voting rolls your only option would be to cast a provisional ballot, which there’s no guarantee will be counted. In Florida in 2000, 12,000 registered voters — 41 percent of them African-American — were wrongly identified as felons and kicked off the voting rolls. That voter purge could have very well cost Al Gore the election.
What do you think of the recent victories for voting rights in federal courts?
It’s a very significant development. Voter ID laws have been blocked in Texas, Wisconsin and Missouri. Restrictions on voter registration drives have been overturned in Florida. Cutbacks to early voting have been repealed and overturned in Ohio. Voter purges have stalled in Florida, Iowa and Colorado. So the courts have reacted negatively in many cases to these new voting restrictions. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that discriminatory voting changes are still on the books in states like Kansas and Tennessee. The courts have blocked some of these laws, but not all of them.
You point out that the GOP carefully looked at Obama’s voters and tried to cut into his coalition with these restrictions. But you also point out that several Southern states passed restrictive voting laws since 2010. What’s going on there?
Eight of eleven states in the old Confederacy have passed restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election, which harkens back to a very dark period in the region’s history. The South, like the rest of the country, is becoming younger and more diverse, and Republicans there are responding to these demographic changes by trying to make it more difficult for the increasingly diverse segments of the electorates to cast a ballot. That’s a nationwide strategy by Republicans, but it’s most concentrated in the South, because that’s the part of the country where the GOP has the most power and the longest history of suppressing the vote. Remember, those Dixiecrats in the segregationist Jim Crow era became Republicans following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Is there any chance these efforts may backfire for Republicans?
It’s certainly not helping the GOP with black, Hispanic or younger voters, who represent the future of the country. It could harm the GOP by alienating key constituencies of the electorate and also motivating the Democratic base to fight these laws and mobilize in greater numbers to vote. The 2012 election will be a good test case.
Even if the laws aren’t particularly effective in stopping voting, could they still affect turnout?
Nate Silver has found that voter ID laws can reduce turnout by two to three percent among registered voters, which is certainly more than enough to swing a close election. He projects that Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, for example, will reduce voter turnout by 2.4 percent and provide a net 1.2 swing to a Republican candidate. That may not be enough to shift the presidential election, given Obama’s 8-point lead in the state, but it could influence the outcome in other races, particularly down-ballot. The scary thing is that we won’t know the impact of these laws until after the election — at which point it will be too late to do anything about it. At the very least, we’re looking at a lot of confusion and possible chaos on Election Day in important battleground states.
Is there any sign these efforts will let up if they fail in 2012?
No chance. Until Republicans recruit candidates who can win over a younger and more diverse electorate, they will continue to pass laws to shape an electorate in their favor. Six Republican Attorneys General are also attempting to challenge the Constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a very important provision that forces parts or all of 16 states with a history of discrimination to clear voting changes with the federal government or a federal court in Washington, before the Supreme Court. If Republicans succeed in overturning or significantly weakening Section 5, it will be a huge setback for voting rights — equivalent, in some ways, to what the Citizens United decision did to campaign-finance reform. Hopefully the Supreme Court won’t let that happen. In lieu of the laws passed since 2010, we should be strengthening the Voting Rights Act, not weakening it.
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