Republicans Make Pilgrimage to Selma — But Will GOP Pass Bill to Restore Voting Rights Act?

March 10, 2015


Jeff Sessions

Republican senator from Alabama.

Ari Berman

covers voting rights for The Nation. His latest article is headlined "Fifty Years After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Everything and Nothing Has Changed." His forthcoming book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, will be out in August.

Susan Collins

Republican senator from Maine.

Over the weekend, more than 100 members of Congress traveled to Selma for the commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights. Amy Goodman had a chance to speak with Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who supports the 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. We get reaction to Sessions’ remarks from Ari Berman, who reports on voting rights policy for The Nation. He traveled to Selma this weekend with the congressional delegation. His latest article is "Fifty Years After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Everything and Nothing Has Changed." His forthcoming book, "Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America," will be out in August on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


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

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, over a hundred members of Congress traveled to Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. A vast majority of them were Democrat, but there were a few Republicans. I had a chance to speak with the Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, it’s a big day. Fifty years ago, this was a—became a pivotal moment, some might say the biggest part of the civil rights movement, and it led to the Voting Rights Act. And people were systematically denied the right to vote around here, throughout the South. And that was a historic change. There’s no doubt about it. And people risked their lives on this day. People lost their lives in that effort. And it’s important to remember that. A lot of it’s not pretty. A lot of it’s painful to see and remember. But we need to remember.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts about voting rights today, where they stand and what you think needs to be done to protect voting rights for everyone?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I have to say that the South has improved tremendously. And I don’t think its commitment on voting rights is any less than any other area of the country, which is what the Supreme Court found in the Section 5 case. So they knocked out part of the Voting Rights Act, but not the heart of it. The federal government still has the power to prosecute, investigate anyone that violates the Voting Rights Act. So, as we go—voting rights. And as we go forward, maybe there are some other things that need to be done, but it doesn’t have—I think, fundamentally, the Supreme Court was correct in its ruling.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you increase African-American voting?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, it’s pretty good. I mean, all of us need to vote better. But I think in this area, you’ll see African-American vote to be pretty strong, election after election.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions speaking at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Saturday, the day that President Obama stood there, as well, and gave a major address.

To talk more about the state of voting rights and Congress, we’re joined by Ari Berman of The Nation. He traveled to Selma this weekend with the congressional delegation of 100 congressmembers and senators. His latest article is headlined "Fifty Years After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Everything and Nothing Has Changed." His forthcoming book, titled Give Us the Ballot, it will be out in August.

Welcome back from Selma to Democracy Now!, Ari.

ARI BERMAN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: First, if you can address what Jeff Sessions said?

ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, the first thing to remember is Jeff Sessions has a long and very troubling record on voting rights. When he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama, he prosecuted black voters for voter fraud in Selma. They were later acquitted, but it was a very, very controversial trial there. He was nominated for a federal judgeship by the Reagan administration, and he was blocked by the Congress partially because he had wrongfully prosecuted these black voter fraud activists. So I think his position on the Supreme Court’s ruling, the fact that he agreed with the Shelby County decision, is not surprising in light of his long opposition to voting rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, Shelby is, in a nutshell?

ARI BERMAN: Shelby County, what it did is it invalidated the formula that said that those states with the worst histories of voting discrimination had to clear their voting changes with the federal government. So states like Alabama, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, they had such a long record of voting discrimination, they had to clear their voting changes with the federal government to prevent discrimination in the future. Now that the Supreme Court has invalidated that formula, they don’t have to clear their voting changes anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, again, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Sessions, one last question: the question of why not make voting easier for people in this country; let people vote early, longer days; the whole issue of opening up the voting process so that people can feel welcomed into the process?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I’m uneasy about this law on pre-voting. Things happen between two weeks or more to the Election Day, and oftentimes people are—are, you know, urged to go to vote and vote before they’re ready to vote. And so I think there’s nothing wrong with voting on Election Day. That’s the way we’ve had since the founding of the republic. I just told you—

AMY GOODMAN: But especially for—

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: That’s what we’ve done—

AMY GOODMAN: —for poorer people, when it’s hard to, in a working day, be able to get out and vote.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, you can vote absentee, and if you’re employed and can’t go to work, you can vote absentee, and you can vote absentee if you’re ill or have a number of other reasons. So, I’m just not for extending the time. That’s an unusual thing that—

AMY GOODMAN: Same-day registration? More places?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: No, I think same-day registration is very dangerous.


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, because it can allow fraud to occur, and people can vote more than once.

AMY GOODMAN: What about felons, people who have been in prison, served their time? In some states, they’re allowed to vote. In some states, they’re allowed to vote from prison. But in many states, they lose that right forever.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, it depends on the conviction and depends on the state, but that’s historically been the rule. You’ve been convicted of a serious offense; most states, at one time or another, have denied people the right to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Alabama’s policy?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Alabama, you can get citizenship restored, I think, after you complete your time in jail for some crimes, but I don’t really know the details of it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions. Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: Well, I think his comments are indicative of many Republicans on voting rights now, which is they don’t want to support policies that make it easier to vote, for one reason or another, largely claiming voter fraud, even though there’s no evidence that things like early voting lead to voter fraud. And just to give you a little bit big picture here of what’s happening nationally, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states from 2011 to 2015. Nearly half the states in the country—actually, half the states in the country have passed laws making it harder to vote since 2011. That’s a really dramatic effort to limit access to the ballot. That’s the greatest attack on voting rights since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

AMY GOODMAN: There were many Democratic senators and congressmembers, and we talked with a number of them and played it yesterday. But a Maine Republican senator, Susan Collins, was also there.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Actually, there are a number of Republicans who are here, including Senator Tim Scott, who’s the only African-American senator, from South Carolina. He was someone who invited me on to this trip. And I have to tell you, it has been so moving. I feel like all of us have learned so much. And this truly has been a pilgrimage.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on voting rights today and what can be done to ensure voting rights for all?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Well, it’s absolutely critical. One of the facts that I learned on this journey was that in one county in Alabama in 1965, the population was 80 percent African-American, and yet not one African American was able to register to vote, because of the many barriers. We never want to go back to those days. The right to vote is certainly absolutely fundamental to our democracy and must be protected.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you critical of the Shelby decision of the Supreme Court?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: You know, this trip is going to cause me to take more of a look at that decision. It’s one that doesn’t affect my part of the country, just certain Southern states. And I think it’s important to recognize those states have changed a lot over time. But I have to look exactly at what the impact is. But we certainly don’t want to in any way weaken the protections that ensure that every American, regardless of race or gender or creed, has the opportunity to register to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins. Ari Berman, the significance of what she’s saying, that this trip may force her to look a little differently at voting rights? How important is this?

ARI BERMAN: I think it’s significant. One of the things I realized in traveling with the members of Congress, a lot of them had never been to Selma before, on both sides of the aisle. A lot of them hadn’t really thought that much about the Supreme Court’s decision.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were an embedded reporter with the Faith and Politics Institute, which is what?

ARI BERMAN: It’s an organization that supports this congressional pilgrimage every year to Alabama and also related congressional pilgrimages around the issue of faith, and they’re trying to get bipartisan delegations to places that are historically significant. And so, Susan Collins is basically saying, "I hadn’t thought about this much before. I’m going to think about it now." She told me that she was more sensitive now that barriers can prevent people from voting. That’s what people have been arguing for years that these new voting restrictions do. The message didn’t seem to have gotten across to many Republicans. None are sponsoring legislation, for example, that would restore the Voting Rights Act in Congress. It has zero Republican sponsors in the Senate. Maybe as a result of this trip, people like Susan Collins will sponsor that legislation, and they’ll take this issue more seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the legislation? You know, many people on the bridge were saying what counts is not so much today, remembering what happened 50 years ago, but what happens when these congressmembers go back.

ARI BERMAN: There’s a bill called the Voting Rights Amendment Act. It has bipartisan support. It’s sponsored by Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and John Conyers of Michigan in the House, and by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in the Senate. It restores Section 4 of Voting Rights Act, so it creates a new formula of which states have to approve their voting changes with the federal government based on recent voting rights violations. So if a state has five violations, it has to clear their voting changes with the federal government. That formula is current, which the Supreme Court said the old formula was not. And it’s not regionally specific. If any state, no matter where it is—California, New York, Vermont or Alabama—has five violations, they have to approve their voting changes. So it’s a modern formula. It’s not as all-encompassing as the previous formula. The legislation has serious flaws. But it is an attempt to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, and also to act as a deterrent to states that are passing new violations, knowing that if they do restrict voting rights, they could be covered under the new Voting Rights Act.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the U.S. compare to other countries in the world when it comes to voting?

ARI BERMAN: Oh, we’re horrible. I mean, first thing, voting rights is an issue in the U.S. in a way that it isn’t in other countries. Other countries have much higher participation. They make it much easier to vote. It’s far less politicized. There’s far less money in the political process. So, for such an advanced democracy, that’s exported democracy, supposedly, all around the world, we have one of the worst records of democracy at home.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lewis headed the delegation, John Lewis who 50 years ago had his head bashed in March 7, 1965, by Alabama state troopers?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, he’s led the delegation for 15 years. The first time he led the trip, there was about six or seven members of Congress with him. Now there was a hundred. And when you see that photo of John Lewis introducing the president and hugging him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you see how far we’ve come. But when you see the Supreme Court ruling striking down the Voting Rights Act, you realize how far we still have to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, thanks so much for being with us. We’ll link to your article, "Fifty Years After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Everything and Nothing Has Changed." We will also look forward to your book that is coming out in—called Give Us the Ballot.

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