During his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama announced the formation of a new bipartisan commission to fix the nation’s broken voting system. In the audience was 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who waited for hours to cast her ballot in the last election. Victor lives in Florida, where an estimated 200,000 voters failed to vote after becoming frustrated by the long lines. We speak to NAACP President Benjamin Jealous about how long lines is just one of many forms of voter suppression that the commission needs to address. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to voting rights. On Tuesday evening, Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Miami voter who waited for hours to cast her ballot in the last election, got a standing ovation during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Victor attended the event as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama and was singled out for praise by President Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her, because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read "I voted." There’s Desiline.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Later in his speech, President Obama proposed a solution to the problems Victor and others faced. He introduced a commission to improve the voting experience in America.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Defending our freedom, though, is not just the job of our military alone. We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy: the right to vote. Now, when—when any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. So—so tonight I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement. I’m asking two longtime experts in the field, who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this. And we will. The American people demand it, and so does our democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the state of voting rights, we’re joined by Ben Jealous, president and CEO of NAACP.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ben.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Thank you. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Desiline Victor, 102 years old, it turns out now more than 200,000 people, just Florida residents alone—
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —got out of line because they just couldn’t wait any more on Election Day.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: This has been a strategy to suppress the participation of working-class people, of senior citizens, of students, who tend to vote for the Democrats, by making it unbearable. And, you know, you can travel around as I do in different cities, and on the wealthy side of town the lines are moving, and near the universities and the poor parts of town, they’re stuck. And this is the, if you will, the most basic, most rudimentary form of voter suppression. It’s—what we’ve seen since 2000 is, whether it’s secretaries of state or whether it’s county clerks, you know, the folks who are running it in their county, it’s become very politicized, and folks really making, in many cases, explicitly political decisions about where they even put these machines, who gets a few machines and long lines, who gets a lot of machines and no lines, trying to skew the outcome.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Ben, this whole idea that a commission will resolve these problems—after 2000, we had all of this legislation, Help America Vote Act, and things did not improve. Isn’t part of the problem that in state after state the electoral process is still controlled by the—I mean, supposedly in a bipartisan way, but by the parties rather than independent commissions that run our elections, as in many other countries?
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, you know, look, we have seen, again, the hyperpartisanization, if that’s a word, of the secretary of states’ offices, for instance, right? And very clear, people coming in with a real, you know, partisan purpose in what should be a very kind of democratic—small-d—mission. What we need—I mean, if the president’s call does anything, what I would hope is it would inspire progressives across this country to think deeply and strategically about how they make an impact in improving the situation in their county, in their state. We tend to come on in the even years or turn folks off, and then go to sleep in the odd years. And that’s when the other side goes to work, and they actually start changing the rules, changing the laws. Right now we have voter repression legislation in several states. It increases—the number increases basically every day on us right now. And we’ve got to get back to understanding that we have to invest in making our process more fair every year, year in, year out.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a group called Project 21, comprised of prominent African-American conservatives trying to help scrap a key part of the Voting Rights Act, part—that’s Section 5, which mandates specific areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination when it comes to voting rights need to get federal approval before changing any of their voting procedures. Cherylyn Harley LeBon, co-founder of Project 21, told The Guardian, quote, "Now we are in 2013, and the Voting Rights Act was something that came from a historical context. We need to update the law, and this part of it is no longer needed." Cherylyn Harley LeBon is also a defender of voter ID laws. I want to go to a clip of that.
CHERYLYN HARLEY LEBON: When Indiana passed its ID law, its voter ID law, Justice John Paul Stevens—and we would not, by any stretch, call him conservative—
ERIC WALLACE: Right.
CHERYLYN HARLEY LEBON: He said, in a Supreme Court decision, that the plaintiffs have failed to make the case that this voter ID law is going to be a hindrance or an impediment to anyone voting. And, I might add, when the state of Georgia passed their voter ID law, we saw, in effect, the opposite of what the liberals and civil rights organizations allege. In the state of Georgia, we saw black voter participation increase—
ERIC WALLACE: Yeah, I heard it increased instead of decreasing, right.
CHERYLYN HARLEY LEBON: —after the state of Georgia passed their voter ID law. These two examples are in direct conflict with what people like Hilary Shelton of the NAACP argue, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, ACLU, League of Voters. All of these groups allege that voter ID is going to be an impediment for people to go out and vote, minorities in particular, elderly. And that has just not been the case.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Cherylyn Harley LeBon of Project 21 and Freedom’s Journal Magazine TV.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, your response?
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: It’s kind of hard to take it seriously. This is the situation. She needs to actually get down in the weeds if she’s going to talk about these issues. She was talking about Georgia, for instance. Georgia, because of our efforts, had to take, I think, two or three years to implement the law. What we were dealing with last year is they were trying to put in place in a matter of months, some places weeks. And then, of course, the first race after was the 2008 elections, where black voter participation went up everywhere.
In Shelby County, it’s important that you know your history. As you said, they say, "Oh, well, this was a historical problem." Actually, the state of Alabama’s resistance to democracy has continued every decade, through the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s to today. For decades into the ’80s, they resisted actually having districts that would let blacks be voted into local office in places across the state. They were forced, through a series of lawsuits, to ultimately open up their democracy to full participation. They then changed the boundaries of a number of cities through these annexations, 200 places, throughout the state and redistricted on that basis.
So you’d come to Shelby County, and this place of cholera, where Mr. Montgomery, who’s the lead plaintiff in Shelby v. Holder, this case that’s headed to the Supreme Court, one of only two blacks ever to serve on that city council, the only one at the time—prior to the annexation, 79 percent black voter participation in his district; after the annexation, 29 percent. The federal government said to Alabama, "Don’t hold these—don’t hold races in these jurisdictions until you get back to a district that’s fair—a process that’s fair." They held it anyway, in violation of the federal order, and went ahead and put people in office based on rules and on lines that the federal government said were not constitutional. And so, we’ve got to remember, we’re dealing with Alabama. Alabama has been committed to resisting, if you will, federal direction in a way that empowers black people since Alabama has existed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And talk about the importance of this. This case will be heard on February 27th in the Supreme Court on the ability of the government to continue to pre-clear these redistricting by localities that have a history of racial discrimination against minority voters.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: So the issue here is whether or not the federal government will continue basically in the former Confederacy, and in some places like the Bronx, in Monterey County, California, where Latinos have been sort of similarly oppressed, to stop harm before it happens. This year, what that meant was that states like South Carolina weren’t able to switch up their voting rules very quickly in order to cause mass confusion and exclude basically poor people, who are disproportionately black and young, from the ballot box. And what will happen if things go the wrong way is we will see the clocks turn back on our country very quickly. We’ll see states like Alabama—we’ll see states like Mississippi and Georgia and Texas able to very quickly exclude blacks, exclude Latinos, from the voting process by, whether it’s, you know, going to citywide, whether it’s changing the boundaries, whether it’s packing people into districts so you could have three black representatives, but you get one, what have you. That’s the concern here, is that this has been—you know, we have states like Alabama that have consistently resisted democracy, consistently resisted the implications of the U.S. Constitution, who simply want to be empowered to have full control and be able to exclude blacks systematically from their democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Fox for a minute, host Brian Kilmeade and Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer belittling the difficulties of Desiline Victor, 102 years old, who endured hours to be able to vote in November. Let’s go to that clip.
BILL HEMMER: Voting reform, I mean, who’s—
MARTHA MacCALLUM: Who would [unintelligible] wait on long line. That’s huge.
BILL HEMMER: Well, you know, [unintelligible]—
BRIAN KILMEADE I could see them coming. Well, it’s true.
BILL HEMMER: All it takes is manpower, if that’s the case.
MARTHA MacCALLUM: Seems like something you could change at the municipal level. Get the town council on that one.
BILL HEMMER: Well, listen, I wanted to come to the table with three—with something. But, I mean—
BRIAN KILMEADE: Low-hanging fruit, Bill.
BILL HEMMER: Well, listen, that 102-year-old woman should not be on line, but—
BRIAN KILMEADE: Well, I agree with you, but, I mean, how long was she on line?
MARTHA MacCALLUM: Why not? What’s the big deal?
BRIAN KILMEADE: Look, you know, I mean—
BILL HEMMER: What’s the rush? What else is she doing?
MARTHA MacCALLUM: What’s the big—what’s the big deal? She was happy. She waited on line. She voted.
BILL HEMMER: She sure was.
MARTHA MacCALLUM: She was happy that she was there to vote. I mean, this is such a nonissue.
BILL HEMMER: I mean, they held her up as a victim.
MARTHA MacCALLUM: It’s so ridiculous.
BILL HEMMER: What was she a victim of? Staying alive? Rashes on the bottom of her feet?
AMY GOODMAN: Fox News Radio. Your response, Ben?
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Let’s be clear, Ms. Victor is a hero. But it shouldn’t have to be a heroic act to cast a ballot in the world’s greatest democracy. I mean, that’s the problem. And they’re right. The city—you know, the town councils, the state governments, the federal government should be on this, should be fixing this.
AMY GOODMAN: But what is President Obama doing about it? This commission released a press release that said they’ll come up with best practices. Is Rick Scott, governor of Florida, going to respect best practices?
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: The problem here—
AMY GOODMAN: These are recommendations; they’re not mandatory.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: The problem here is that our federal government right now has given itself far too little power to actually maintain our democracy in the way that France, England and so many other Western democracies do it. We should have more centralized power, but we don’t. We have a very federalist system. The biggest power the president has right now is the power of the bully pulpit. The hope is that by calling—if nothing else, by calling for this commission, he inspires the country to admit that we have a problem and begin solving it. The recommendations will be helpful. I think the visual of two men who are very partisan in their respective parties and seen as real opponents by the other party coming together to figure out what we can do together is important. We’ve started to see some conservatives come to the—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: —to the defense of voting rights. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Rick Snyder in Michigan have both taken big steps. This hopefully will help us move in that direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP. And go to our website to check our report on One Billion Rising.