New Voter Suppression Laws Could Decide Key Races, and Turn Back the Clocks for Years to Come

StoryNovember 04, 2014
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Ben Jealous

chairman of the Southern Election Fund, which he started with Julian Bond. They are working on several reports with the New Georgia Project. Jealous is also a partner at Kapor Capital and senior fellow at Center for American Progress. He is the former president and CEO of the NAACP.

Earlier this year, Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and current chair Southern Election Fund, put out a report showing how a targeted wave of voter registration among people of color voters could shift the balance of power in key Southern states. But these efforts have come up against a series of cumbersome voter ID laws that have made it harder for people to vote, buttressed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act. "The Republicans aren’t doubling down on voter suppression in states they’re trying to acquire," Jealous says. "They’re doubling down on voter suppression in states [where] they’re afraid of losing control … This is what it looks like when the clocks are being turned back."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: As we continue our coverage of the midterm elections, we turn now to the overall picture. The most expensive midterms in history could see one of the lowest turnouts in years. Voting numbers will likely dip below the 40 percent mark of both 2006 and 2010. This despite a record estimate of $4 billion in spending. One quarter of that money, $1 billion, will come from anonymous, so-called "dark money" groups. That money has gone into creating some two million television ads, most of them negative attack ads, like this one by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.

KENTUCKY OPPORTUNITY COALITION AD: The reviews are in on Alison Grimes and her campaign: "desperate," "phony," "blatantly untrue," "doubling down on false attacks." Grimes should be ashamed of herself, her ads funded by the president’s moneymen. Obama needs Grimes. And she’ll say anything to hide it. How could Alison Grimes change Washington? She’s already everything that’s wrong with it. Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is responsible for the content of this advertising.

AARON MATÉ: Each House seat is up for grabs, but only a few dozen races are competitive enough to be in play. It’s control of the Senate that hangs in the balance, coming down to around 10 key races. Republicans need to gain six seats to recapture Senate control, with a slight edge over Democrats in the advance polls. A few races are so close, they could go to a runoff. That potentially means we end Tuesday night with the Senate still undecided. Senate control is crucial, with Republicans vowing an agenda that includes more cuts to public spending, and repealing environmental regulations, such as the EPA’s limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

AMY GOODMAN: No matter how the Senate goes, we can expect mixed results at the state level, as incumbent governors from both main parties face a voter backlash. The midterms will also see votes on 147 ballot measures, covering a number of key issues. Four states will vote on raising the minimum wage: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Polls show the measures will likely pass despite them all coming in Republican states. Today is also a big day for drug policy reform, from decriminalizing marijuana to reduced sentencing for drug offenses. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, "there are more drug policy reform questions on the ballot this November than ever in American history." Abortion rights are also on the ballot, with votes on so-called "personhood" amendments in Colorado and North Dakota and another anti-choice amendment in Tennessee. Washington state will vote on the midterms’ only major gun-control measure, Initiative 594, which would require background checks on all gun sales.

Well, we’re joined right now by a number of guests. John Nichols, political writer for The Nation, his latest book, with Bob McChesney, is Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America. He’s joining us from Madison, Wisconsin.

From San Francisco, we’re joined by Lee Fang, who is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, blogs about money and politics at the Republic Report.

And still with us here in New York, Ben Jealous, chair of the Southern Election Fund, which he started with Julian Bond. He is former president and CEO of the NAACP.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Well, let’s continue in the South—

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: —as we were just talking about Georgia. Ben, give us a lay of the land.

BEN JEALOUS: Look, you know, right now you have four states in the South where there are new voter suppression laws that are going to go into effect with this race. You have Texas, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. In the first three, we’re talking about new voter ID laws that will have a huge impact. Texas, the margin of victory is typically about 600,000 votes. Their law will impact about 600,000 voters. In Virginia, the margin is about 60,000 votes. Their law will impact about 200,000 voters.

And what you see across these states is that the Republicans aren’t doubling down on voter suppression in states they’re trying to acquire; they’re doubling down on voter suppression in states that they already control, because they’re afraid of losing control, because they’ve actually looked at what’s happening in those states, and demographically they’re changing so rapidly that unless they engage in massive voter suppression—or, God forbid, they change their politics to actually appeal—you know, they will lose control.

And so, what we’re saying to people across the South and across the country is, the only way that you can actually turn the tide of massive voter suppression, the only way to respond when they’re trying to suppress your vote, is to vote, is massive voter registration and, today of all days, massive voter turnout. So, if you weren’t planning on voting today, if you weren’t planning on calling 10 of your friends, this is the day to do it, because if we can’t turn out, if we can’t begin to take back the House and the Senate in these states and take back the governor’s office, which you’re seeing all in play in Georgia right now, then this voter suppression will be with us for a very long time.

AARON MATÉ: Well, the Justice Department says it will conduct in-person monitoring today at polling places in 18 states and 28 targeted locations, including four counties in Florida, two in Georgia, two in Texas and one in North Carolina. The plans were announced Monday in a video message by Attorney General Eric Holder.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: These officials will gather information on numerous aspects of local election procedures, including whether voters are treated differently depending on their race or color, whether jurisdictions are adequately serving individuals with disabilities, whether jurisdictions are complying with the provisional ballot requirements of the Help America Vote Act, and whether jurisdictions are complying with the Voting Rights Act’s requirement to provide bilingual election materials and assistance in areas of need.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Ben Jealous, I just want to read to you from a report in The Huffington Post in Texas. "A disabled woman in Travis County was turned away from voting because she couldn’t afford to pay her parking tickets. ... [A] dishwasher from Mercedes can’t afford the cost of getting a new birth certificate, which he would need to obtain the special photo ID card required for voting." Can a federal monitoring here help any of these local struggles?

BEN JEALOUS: Look, it’s important to have the federal monitors in place. But what you’re actually describing in Texas, what has been put in place since the Shelby decision, is an actual poll tax. And the reality is that the only way to overcome that is to pay it, and a lot of folks can’t. I mean, we’ve heard from people in some of these—

AMY GOODMAN: They don’t accept student IDs, but they do accept gun licenses.

BEN JEALOUS: Well, that’s right. And oftentimes what people actually need to get signed up is their birth certificate. And the birth—you know, many times, they’re born in a different state, and it could cost, you know, $38, $42, for that birth certificate. And we heard from voter after voter in many of these court cases, including one coming out of Texas, "Look, I had to choose between feeding my family and getting a birth certificate. And my family can’t eat my birth certificate, so I couldn’t afford $38." That’s what we’re dealing with here. And that’s why it’s so critical that folks decide, "We will take back our state." I mean, I think in the state of Texas there’s something like three million voters of color who are currently registered who tend not to vote. Folks just need to turn out and take back their state.

This is—I can’t stress just how important it is for us to understand that it’s been more than a century since we’ve seen states pass new laws to suppress the vote. This is a very big deal. Yes, we’ve dealt with voter suppression for a long time, and 50 years ago Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed trying to fight voter suppression laws, but they were fighting laws that were put in place a half-century before that. We weren’t putting these laws in place in the '40s and the ’50s. This is an old playbook we've dragged off the shelf, the far-right wing has dragged off the shelf, because they understand that this is the century when they lose control of the country demographically. And we, quite frankly, all of us who really care about voting and democracy and inclusion, have to speed up that process. And the way to do that is to turn out and vote.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just in Oslo, Norway, this weekend. It’s where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his Nobel address 50 years ago.


AMY GOODMAN: And in that Nobel address, re-reading it, you know, he is talking about people having their heads bashed in because they’re simply trying to register to vote. Do you think we have made progress in these 50 years?

BEN JEALOUS: We have made progress, certainly. But we have also seen the clocks turn back rapidly just in the past few years. When you’ve seen what’s happened in the Supreme Court as far as Shelby and the eviscerating of the Voting Rights Act in its actual enforcement powers; when you look and you see what’s now happening across these states; when you see states putting in de facto poll taxes, such as this strict voter ID law in Texas; when you look at states actually—their secretaries of states becoming highly partisan, whether it’s Kobach in Kansas or it’s Kemp now in Georgia—this is what it looks like when the clocks are being turned back.

And we have to understand that the clocks are being turned back, not simply—you know, we’re not saying, "Well, these folks are racist. They don’t want black folks to vote." No, these people are invested in dirty coal. These folks are invested in low-road employment. And they want to hold onto their ability to continue to destroy our environment or exploit workers. And they know that what threatens that is those very communities that they’re exploiting and endangering increasingly making up the majority of the voters in their state, and so they’re trying to suppress them, so the Koch brothers can keep on, you know, rolling out and building dirty coal plants, and so people like Art Pope in North Carolina can continue to exploit workers.

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