Ari Berman, contributing writer for The Nation magazine and author of the book Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. His latest article for Rolling Stone magazine is called "The GOP War on Voting."
Lois Beckett, reporter for ProPublica. She co-wrote The Hidden Hands in Redistricting: Corporations and Other Powerful Interests.
A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice warns changes to voting laws could strip the voting rights of more than five million people—a higher number than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections. Its findings reveal some 3.2 million people in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin do not have the state identification they will now need to vote. Others will be kept from the voting booth by tougher restrictions for convicted prisoners and laws requiring proof of U.S. citizenship. In 2012, states that have cracked down on voting rights will account for 63 percent of the 270 Electoral College votes needed for a presidential victory. We speak with Ari Berman, author of the new article in Rolling Stone magazine, "The GOP War on Voting," and with ProPublica reporter Lois Beckett, who co-wrote "The Hidden Hands in Redistricting: Corporations and Other Powerful Interests," about how money is helping reshape congressional districts along partisan lines, a practice known as gerrymandering. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: With election season on the horizon, a new report is warning the disenfranchisement of voters threatens to play a decisive role in next year’s vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy institute, changes to voting laws could strip the voting rights of more than five million people, a higher number than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections. Its findings show some 3.2 million people in Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin do not have the state identification they’ll now need to vote. Others will be kept from the voting booth by tougher restrictions for convicted prisoners and laws requiring proof of U.S. citizenship. The Brennan Center predicts the new curbs will have a major impact on those inclined to vote for Democratic candidates, saying, quote, "These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities." In 2012, states that have cracked down on voting rights will account for 63 percent of 270 Electoral College votes needed for a presidential victory.
For more, I’m joined now by two journalists who have been closely following issues of voting rights in the United States ahead of the 2012 elections.
We’re joined by Ari Berman, who wrote about the Republican-backed laws that stand to disenfranchise voters in a recent piece for Rolling Stone magazine_ called "The GOP War on Voting." He is the contributing editor also for The Nation magazine and author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
We’re also joined by Lois Beckett, a reporter for ProPublica. Her most recent piece, "The Hidden Hands of Redistricting: Corporations and Other Powerful Interests," which she co-wrote. The article investigates how money is helping reshape congressional districts along partisan lines, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Ari Berman, lay out your piece and what you found.
ARI BERMAN: Sure, Amy. So, since the 2010 election, 34 states introduced legislation, and 12 states passed legislation, implemented legislation, that’s basically designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process, pushed overwhelmingly by Republicans. So what we’re seeing across the country, it’s now harder to register to vote. You have states like Alabama, Tennessee and Kansas requiring proof of citizenship. It’s harder for outside groups to register new voters in states like Florida and Texas. Groups like the League of Women Voters have had to suspend their voter registration drives. Maine repealed, for example, same-day Election Day voter registration.
Then we’re seeing a scaling back of early voting. So, states like Florida and Ohio, critical battleground states, have shrunk their early voting periods and actually eliminated voting on Sunday before the election, when black churches historically mobilize their constituents.
Then we have six states requiring government- or state-issued photo IDs. What people don’t realize about these photo IDs is that 10 percent of American citizens don’t have them, including 18 percent of young people and 25 percent of African Americans. So it’s a very high percentage.
And then, finally, two states, Iowa and Florida, are disenfranchising ex-felons who have served their time and would have been able to vote previously.
So those four steps are really the pillars of what I termed "the GOP war on voting."
AMY GOODMAN: Who is behind all of this, Ari Berman?
ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, a few different people. I mean, number one, Republican officials all across the country are behind it. And then you have certain corporate groups that have been pushing it. One of the main players in the photo ID component has been the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC, who, as you know, is funded in part by the Koch brothers, the billionaire brothers from Kansas. And what ALEC did is, after the 2008 election, they drafted mock legislation for states to then pass. And what happened is, in five of these states that passed photo ID laws, the legislation was co-sponsored by members of ALEC, and in three states—Texas—it’s Texas—I’m trying to think—Texas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—the draft legislation that ALEC gave them was basically almost identical to the legislation that was introduced. So that’s—and we see ALEC playing a major role.
The founder of ALEC, Paul Weyrich, back in 1980, told a group of Christian right ministers, he said, "I don’t want everyone to vote." He said, "Quite frankly, our leverage in the election goes up as the voting populace goes down." And I believe those words are really the mantra for all this legislation we’ve seen introduced this year.
AMY GOODMAN: If you, Lois Beckett, could talk more about the corporate money behind what we’re seeing taking place?
LOIS BECKETT: I think it’s so interesting, when you talk to these redistricting groups, they’ll tell you that, dollar for dollar, campaign contributions are not as effective as redistricting, because redistricting shapes who can win an election in a state for 10 years, for a full decade. And so, what we’ve seen in states across the nation is companies like CSX Railways, like Honeywell, others like ExxonMobil in California, really paying to sort of nonprofit advocacy groups, with innocent names like Protect Your Vote, to shape elections in ways that are partisan and ways that are often often personal, paying for particular legislators that have supported them in the past, the least democratic process you can imagine.
AMY GOODMAN: Name some names of who is behind the money.
LOIS BECKETT: So, in Florida what we found was that a particular African-American congresswoman, Corrine Brown, ended up opposing two amendments that would make redistricting more fair in Florida, and she was backed by—her two big donors were CSX Railways and Honeywell International. Both donated to this Protect Your Vote campaign, which said that it was protecting minority rights but was in fact just trying to protect Corrine Brown’s district.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the power of the Koch brothers and what you found and who exactly they are, their significance?
LOIS BECKETT: Yeah, I think the real challenge is that what we found is that redistricting groups aren’t required to disclose their donors, by campaign laws, even though they’re so essential to the election process, and so that in most cases we know that there are these groups, we know that they’re having a big impact, and we don’t know for sure who their donors are. So in Minnesota, for instance, the Republican redistricting strategy and their lawsuits are being financed by Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting. As a redistricting group, they don’t have to disclose who their donors are. We know that they share a lot of leadership with the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. We know the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota has ties to the Koch brothers. But because they don’t have to disclose where they get their money from, we don’t know what they’re getting, we don’t know how much they’re getting, we don’t know who is giving to them. It’s just—there’s no way for citizens to tell, you know, who is really influencing this.
AMY GOODMAN: Sometimes, though, as you point out, you can look at addresses of where organizations are—you know, when they have to show where they’re based.
LOIS BECKETT: Yeah, and exactly that’s what we did in Minnesota, is merely say that Annette Meeks, who’s associated with Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting, and her husband are both associated with the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. They share—the organizations are registered at the same address, but Annette Meeks merely said that there was no association and said that they comply with all legal requirements in terms of disclosure. But the legal requirements are very minimal. They don’t have to disclose almost anything.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effects of the midterm elections and the shift to Republicans in Congress, how they have affected all of this?
LOIS BECKETT: I think one thing that is really interesting is that when we looked in Florida, what we saw that even the strongly Republican electorate, really, they believed in making voting more fair, the voters themselves. In Florida, that strong Republican turnout, 63 percent of voters pushed for a fairer voting law. So I think what we have to remember is that people on the ground, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, often want a fairer redistricting process, and it’s the people in the back rooms and it’s corporations who have their own interests in minds and don’t have the interests of the voters, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari, can you elaborate on that?
ARI BERMAN: Sure, well, Republicans in Florida definitely weren’t interested in making voting easier, because Governor Rick Scott and the Republican legislature down there, they did three major things that are going to affect the 2012 election. Remember, this is Florida, the state that had the 2000 election fiasco. So, number one, now it’s harder to register to vote in Florida, as I mentioned earlier. Groups like the League of Women Voters, nonpartisan groups, have had to shut down because of all these bureaucratic requirements and fines they’re going to face.
Number two, early voting in Florida—
AMY GOODMAN: Fines they’re going to face?
ARI BERMAN: Up to $1000 fines, and for a volunteer group that’s registering voters, that’s just way too much for them to deal with.
Number two, cutting back on early voting. As I said, it was two weeks. Now it’s eight days, no voting on Sunday before the election, when black voters historically mobilize their constituents.
Number three, ex-felons who were going to have the right to vote under a previous Republican governor, Charlie Crist, now do not have the right to vote under the current Republican governor. That’s 100,000 ex-felons, nonviolent ex-felons, who served their time and are now permanently disenfranchised from the electoral process.
So we’re facing a situation in Florida right now where, instead of one problem like we faced in 2000, we could be facing three different issues heading to the polls in that one state.
AMY GOODMAN: The Brennan Center says these new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to vote in 2012.
ARI BERMAN: It’s a staggering number, and it’s the first time we actually have a number that can quantify just how big a deal that is. And you take these states, you look at a state like Florida, you look at a state like Ohio, you look at a state like Wisconsin, these are pivotal battlegrounds, not only on the presidential level but on the state level. We’ve seen all these state-level upheavals in places like Ohio, in places like Wisconsin. And the most disturbing thing to me is that basically what’s happening is Republicans are trying to shape an electorate in their own favor and basically say to people, "Even if you disagree with us, now you can’t exercise your democratic right to vote us out of office," because you won’t have the right ID to vote. You won’t be able to register to vote. You won’t be able to exercise what should be, in my opinion, the most basic of democratic rights. And that’s a very chilling prospect, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about the Koch brothers.
ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, the Koch brothers, as you know, their money is all over the place here. It’s in redistricting. It’s in voting. It’s in a larger campaign, basically, to make Republicans the dominant party. And so, what we saw is, the Koch Brothers bank-rolled so much of the victories of Republicans in the 2010 election. And now what’s happening is, now that the Republicans have power, they’re trying to keep it, and they’re trying to keep it by, for example, writing congressional maps to their favor and also writing election laws to their favor. And so, these are two ways, two, I think, huge sleeper issues in which the Koch brothers and other allied groups are basically undermining the very fabric of our democratic process.
AMY GOODMAN: Lois Beckett, explain exactly how this redistricting works, in terms of rewriting the map. How do you even figure out what would be in your favor or what wouldn’t be?
LOIS BECKETT: So what’s really interesting right now is that there’s very sophisticated technology that allows you to look at maps down to the single census block and understand not only registered Democrats and Republicans, but also voting history for those individual people. So it’s possible with this technology for you to draw very particular maps. And you have to understand, with redistricting, there’s no fixed priority for how you draw the lines on the map. There are a lot of different conflicting priorities. You want to represent communities of interest. You want districts to be pretty compact and not spread out all over the map. And so, often state legislatures, which have the power over this in 37 of the states, have a lot of discretion in how they draw the lines, and do it very cynically just based on who they can elect and often on protecting incumbents. So what we see is not only partisan politics, but really people in power drawing lines that will keep them in power, drawing people out of their districts and drawing voters in that will vote for them.
AMY GOODMAN: And why is money so important here?
LOIS BECKETT: Money is important for two reasons: one, because this redistricting software is pretty expensive, and hiring the people to do the research to find those perfect lines that work for you isn’t cheap; but the second thing is that redistricting is often decided then through lawsuits after the maps are drawn. And it’s these lawsuits, that happen in almost every state, that really cost a lot of money, and that’s what these corporate donors are often paying for.
AMY GOODMAN: The Justice Department said late Friday that based on their preliminary investigation, a congressional redistricting map signed into law by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry appears to have been "adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice" to Congress. That language is from Talking Points Memo. It came out a couple weeks ago, Ari Berman?
ARI BERMAN: Yeah. So what happened in Texas is the population growth was attributable to Hispanic growth, but Hispanics didn’t gain any congressional districts under the map. It was all going to go to white, Anglo Republicans. And the problem there is that the Justice Department has the authority under the Voting Rights Act to look at all of those states under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act, which is basically every state in the South, through redistricting and through these new voting laws. And so, they have the power whether to say that these maps and these voting laws are illegal or they violate the Voting Rights Act. Based on what they saw in Texas, they found that at least for the—I believe it’s the State House and also for Congress, that those maps violated the Voting Rights Act.
On the voting piece, a lot of groups are asking the Justice Department to look at all these different states and see whether they violate the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department has already sent pointed letters to both Texas and South Carolina, asking about how these new voting laws will affect minority citizens. So they are looking at this right now. It’s a good first step, based on what we’ve seen in Texas, but groups are asking them to stay aggressive and use the enforcement power they have. They really are the last check, in some cases, on these states.
AMY GOODMAN: Could either of you comment on the changing caucuses and primaries of states, and does this play in at all?
ARI BERMAN: Lois?
LOIS BECKETT: I mean, I think the biggest change that we’re looking at in terms of redistricting is that many states are pushing for fairer and more transparent redistricting processes. California, for instance, now has an independent commission that’s going to be drawing the district lines. And what our investigation is about, continuing this year, is looking to see how much making the commissions more independent really gets money out of politics. And what we’ve seen initially in California is that even when you make a commission independent, corporate money will go underground, again coming up as these advocacy groups with these innocent names, and will find new ways to push their money to influence this process.
AMY GOODMAN: Your next piece?
LOIS BECKETT: We’ll be looking at California in more depth.
AMY GOODMAN: Any last comments, Ari Berman?
ARI BERMAN: Well, I just think, in this discussion of voting, it shouldn’t be a left or right issue. It really should be a core issue that both parties work to uphold. On redistricting, both parties are complicit. On the voting that I’m talking about, all these voting laws, they are passed overwhelmingly by Republicans, and so I find it very disturbing that one party is going out of their way to make it so difficult for so many people, five million voters, to exercise what I said should be a basic constitutional right.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Lois Beckett is a reporter for ProPublica, and Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine. His latest piece is in Rolling Stone magazine; it’s called "The GOP War on Voting: In a Campaign Supported by the Koch Brothers, Republicans are Working to Prevent Millions of Democrats from Voting Next Year." We’ll link to both at our website at democracynow.org.
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