author of the new book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. He covers voting rights for The Nation.
As the Republicans prepare for their first debate of the 2016 race, we look at the candidates’ records on voting rights. In 2000, Jeb Bush was governor of Florida during the infamous recount that helped his brother, George W. Bush, take the White House. As governor of Ohio, John Kasich has signed a number of voting restrictions. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry is known for signing a controversial voter ID law. We speak to Ari Berman, author of the new book, "Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the importance of what happened in Florida in 2000 and in relationship to all these efforts now of disenfranchisement?
ARI BERMAN: So, in Florida, they had a felon voter purge. Basically, what happened is the state sent a huge list of people that they said were felons who were on the voting rolls, and told the county supervisors in Florida to purge them in advance of the 2000 election. It turned out that that list was littered with errors, and it was disproportionately African-American. African Americans were 11 percent of Florida’s electorate but 44 percent of those who were wrongly labeled felons. And so what happened was, thousands of people showed up on Election Day, were told that they were felons—wrongly—and weren’t able to vote. After the election, the state ran the numbers again and found that 12,000 people were wrongly labeled as felons and potentially purged from the rolls. That was 500—that was 22 times Bush’s 537-vote margin of victory. So, this purge could have very well decided the Florida election.
And it was significant for a few different reasons. Number one, it led to a new wave of disenfranchisement efforts. Republicans realized after Florida that small manipulations in the electoral process, like this voter purge, could swing close elections. The second thing it did is the Bush administration empowered a new generation of counterrevolutionaries who sought to gut the Voting Rights Act, to hype the threat of voter fraud, to restrict voting rights more broadly. That laid the groundwork for the assault on voting rights in the Obama era. And it also led to two justices being put on the court, John Roberts and Sam Alito—Roberts who, I might add, went to Florida during the 2000 recount to help the Bush team, on the invite of Ted Cruz, who was running Bush’s legal team at the time. So, a lot of people who are present today—Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Roberts—were active in Florida 2000. But the Bush administration led to this Supreme Court, this remaking of the Supreme Court, that then gutted the Voting Rights Act. So I think Florida was a pivotal turning point in the weakening and assault on voting rights.
AMY GOODMAN: In a 2001 report by the Civil Rights Commission on the 2000 election debacle in Florida, it accused then-Governor Jeb Bush and his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, of "gross dereliction" of duty, saying they chose to ignore mounting evidence of problems. It read, quote, "despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement and not the dead-heat contest that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election. ... After carefully and fully examining all the evidence, the Commission found a strong basis for concluding that violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act occurred in Florida." Now, this, you know, obviously led to who would be president of the United States, President George W. Bush, but right now Jeb Bush is running for president, the former governor of Florida, who this commission is criticizing.
ARI BERMAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about Jeb Bush’s role, which is so significant this year.
ARI BERMAN: I think that Jeb Bush has a lot of questions to answer about his role during the 2000 election in Florida. By all accounts, he was a very hands-on governor. He was involved in every aspect of the state. But when he was asked, "What role did you play in supervising Florida’s elections?" he said, "I didn’t play any role. It was all Katherine Harris’s fault," which is totally at odds with his profile as governor. And the problems on this voter purge list emerged well before the election. In May 2000, elections supervisors themselves found themselves wrongly labeled as felons. So it was clear that this purge list was gravely flawed, and elections supervisors went to the state and said, "You have to disregard this." And the state refused to. So, Jeb Bush should have known well in advance of the election that this was going to be a problem, that it could lead to chaos. Instead, he did nothing. And afterwards, he took no responsibility.
And it’s unfortunate that we then had a new administration, the Bush administration, which instead of investigating these violations under the Voting Rights Act, instead sought to gut the Voting Rights Act and politicize the Justice Department and hype the nonexistent problem of voter fraud, instead of the very real problem of voter disenfranchisement that we saw in the 2000 election in Florida, that we saw in Ohio in 2004, and moving forward.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about one aspect of the Voting Rights Act that, to my view, actually did not help advance equal treatment of racial minorities, which is the effort to insist that you could not gerrymander districts to dilute minority voting power.
ARI BERMAN: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what actually happened, at least throughout the early ’90s, is that minority officials sought to create supermajorities in their districts to prevent, I guess, challenges to them. But the result was that you had this enormous concentration of African-American and Latino votes in certain districts—
ARI BERMAN: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and therefore, it allowed more conservative candidates to gain power in other congressional districts and create, in places like Texas or other areas, a situation where really there’s a disproportionate conservative and white vote in Congress compared to the actual populations in those states.
ARI BERMAN: Yeah, well, this is a good point. It’s a complicated issue and one that—I deal with it with quite a bit of nuance in the book, because what you had at the time, in the '80s and ’90s, was an incredible underrepresentation of African-American and Latino candidates in Congress and at the state level. Before John Lewis was elected to Congress in 1987, for example, there were only two African Americans elected from the South in Congress, which is absolutely shocking. They were 25 percent of the population in the South and only two black members of Congress. So there was a big push to create these districts to get more representation, so that's why people wanted them to be drawn. At the same time, there were a lot of Democrats, black Democrats and white Democrats, who were wary of the point you just made, of drawing these districts, because they knew that Republicans, if black voters or Hispanic voters were packed in certain districts, would win these other seats. What happened was that there was this flourishing of minority political power, and there was also a flourishing of Republican political power, as well.
And what happened as a result of the 2010 redistricting cycle, when Republicans had even larger majorities in these states, is they further packed these districts. So they took a district that was already 60 percent African-American, and they made it 65 percent African-American to further weaken minority voting strength. And there’s now been a backlash against this. And what you’re seeing in the South is black candidates are actually saying, "We don’t want to have these packed districts anymore. We’re OK with a 45 percent district, a 50 percent district. We don’t need a 70 percent black district anymore." So I think, in some ways, it was a response to underrepresentation, but I also think that Republicans, in many ways, have turned the Voting Rights Act on its head.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go back to some of these presidential candidates, like one who just made the cut. This is from ThinkProgress: "Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who barely made the cut for the debate,"—he was like number 10, with a margin of error that made him really equal to Rick Perry—"has worked to restrict where and when state residents can register to vote, vote early, and vote absentee—policies that have brought lawsuits from students and people of color who say they’ve been disenfranchised. Kasich has also approved several bills to change election dates, while his secretary of state has been accused of intimidating voters and throwing out eligible provisional ballots." Now, Ohio is another key battleground state. So he was fighting to be heard in this presidential debate Thursday night. But will his—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it’s going to be the site of the Republican convention.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. But will his voters be heard?
ARI BERMAN: Well, and there’s just been a relentless attack on voting rights in Ohio. We saw seven-hour lines in 2004, because there wasn’t enough polling machines at predominantly Democratic and predominantly minority voting locations. We saw thousands of voters turned away in that election. Ohio then expanded early voting and gave more voting opportunities in 2008 to voters. It worked very well. So then, after that, Republicans cut early voting both in 2012 and in 2014 in Ohio. Some of this was done under John Kasich’s watch.
Not just John Kasich, but remember, Rick Perry, who is not in this debate but is very prominent, has been a strong supporter of voter ID laws. Ted Cruz, who is in the debate, very strong supporter of voter ID laws. Marco Rubio, strong proponent of Florida cutting early voting and doing other things like that, shutting down voter registration drives. Chris Christie has opposed early voting and automatic voter registration in New Jersey. So virtually all of these candidates in the Republican debate have been on the wrong side of the voting rights issue. None of them, to my mind, are supporting restoring the Voting Rights Act. Only—Rand Paul is the only one who has talked about the need, for example, for felons—nonviolent felons to get their voting rights back. He’s the only one who’s said some stuff that’s positive on the voting rights front. But these candidates have been united in opposing strong protections for the Voting Rights Act. And ironically, their debate is going to be on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. I hope Fox—I’m not holding my breath, but I would hope Fox would ask them about this.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s turn to one of those you mentioned, former Texas Governor Rick Perry. In 2012, he defended his state’s voter ID law on Fox News.
GOV. RICK PERRY: We had multiple cases where voter fraud was in various places across the state. And this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. I think any person who does not want to see fraud believes in having good, open, honest elections, transparent. And one of the ways to do that, one of the best ways to do that, is to have a identification, photo identification, so that you prove you are who you are, and you keep those elections fraud-free.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was former Texas Governor Rick Perry.
ARI BERMAN: Well, there’s been two trials over Texas’s voter ID law, so there’s a long record in this case of facts. We know that 5 percent of Texas’s electorate doesn’t have a government-issued ID. We know that they have to pay for the underlying documents to get this ID, like a birth certificate, which is why it’s been called a poll tax. We know that people have difficulty obtaining an ID because a third of counties in Texas don’t even have a DMV office. So, if you live in rural Texas, you don’t have a driver’s license, you don’t have a DMV office, how are you supposed to get to an adjoining county with no public transportation in a state like Texas? We also know that thousands of voters are now being turned away in Texas as a result of this law. We saw story after story after story in the 2014 election of people who had been voting all their lives, who couldn’t vote for this ID law, based on no record of voter fraud. The state presented no evidence of voter impersonation in court to justify its law. And so, I think, on the surface of it, things that Perry says makes a lot of sense. Doesn’t everyone have an ID? But the record in Texas shows that not everyone has an ID, that it is very burdensome, that it is turning voters away from the polls.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the critical voter battlegrounds, the issues of voting laws that will be battled, as we move into this critical 2016 election?
ARI BERMAN: So, the 2016 election is going to be—in 15 states, they have new voting restrictions in place for the first presidential cycle. So a lot of states are going to have this battle for the first time in a presidential year. These are crucial swing states, like North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin. And without the full protections of the VRA and without—and amongst the backdrop of this broader attack on voting rights, I think voting rights is going to be a big issue in this election.
And the 50th anniversary of the VRA should be an opportunity for people to recognize the importance of this law. And so, I wanted to write the book so people could understand the history of the act, what it did, understand the backlash to the act, as well, and realize this is not just something that’s in the history books, this is a fight that’s ongoing today, including in the 2016 election.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, very quickly, felons, prisoners, ex-prisoners, like what California has done?
ARI BERMAN: It’s very significant, and California is one of those big blue states that’s moving, I think, very rapidly to expand voting rights. And I think that’s a good thing that states now, in response to the backlash, are trying to expand voting rights. I do worry we’re headed to a two-tiered election system, where blue states expand voting rights and red states restrict voting rights. I don’t think that’s a very good thing for our democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, we want to thank you so much for being with us. His new book is called Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Thanks so much.
ARI BERMAN: Thank you so much, Amy, Juan.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Stay with us.