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Wave of Restrictive Voting Laws Prompts Federal Probes, Grassroots Activism Ahead of 2012 Elections

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is vowing to ensure the protection of voting rights in more than a dozen states that have recently enacted controversial laws. Supporters of the laws, backed largely by Republicans, say they are meant to stamp out voter fraud. “When people move on their fears, they make bad law,” says NAACP CEO Ben Jealous, co-author of a new report that argues the new laws amount to a coordinated and comprehensive assault on minorities’ voting rights at a time when their numbers in the population and at the ballot box have increased. Students, former felons and elderly voters may also be impacted. On Saturday, the NAACP helped organize a voting rights march in New York, starting at the offices of Koch Industries in order to highlight how billionaire conservative financiers David and Charles Koch have financed the push for voter ID laws. We also speak with Bob Edgar, a former Pennsylvania congressman and the president and CEO of Common Cause. He supports pending legislation, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, as a way to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to voting rights and free and open elections. “We’re the only nation in the world that has federal elections without federal rules for election,” Edgar says. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is vowing to ensure the protection of voting rights in more than a dozen states that have recently enacted controversial laws that critics say target African Americans, Latinos, students and the elderly. Some of the laws passed include requiring photo IDs at the ballot box and restricting voting by ex-felons. In a speech Tuesday, the Attorney General said the Justice Department will aggressively review the laws, most enacted by Republicans in the name of fighting voter fraud.

In his remarks, Holder cited the concerns of the Georgia Congress member and civil rights leader John Lewis.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from many Americans who, often for the first time in their lives, now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble and essential ideals. As Congressman John Lewis described it in a speech on the House floor this summer, the voting rights that he worked throughout his life—and nearly gave his life—to ensure are, and I quote, “under attack … [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process,” unquote.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Well, in a new report released this month, the NAACP argues that the new laws amount to a coordinated and comprehensive assault on minorities’ voting rights at a time when their numbers in the population and at the ballot box have increased.

On Saturday, thousands of civil rights activists marched in New York City, starting at the offices of Koch Industries, in order to highlight how billionaire conservative financiers David and Charles Koch have financed the push for voter ID laws. The march ended at the United Nations. These are some of the voices of the people who participated.

PROTESTERS: Young, old, black or white! Voting is a civil right!

BRANDON JONES: Honestly, between the redistricting, the cutting down on early voting and Sunday voting, you know, the new regulations where people need to bring in state-issued ID, it’s just a bunch of unnecessary changes. It’s like they’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

JOSE CALDERON: We’ve seen in many states, like Georgia, you know, a lot of states in the South, you know, Nevada, you know, Florida, where they’re really—Mississippi, where they’re trying to, you know, suppress the minority vote. And that’s what it ultimately is about. It’s about Latinos and African Americans and Asian Americans and people who, you know, the power structure sees voting one way. And they can’t prevent them from exercising that right, so they want to take it away from them.

BRENDA WILLIAMS: I come from the state of South Carolina. We are currently fighting the voter ID bill at the level of the Justice Department, mainly because over a quarter of a million people in our state alone will be disenfranchised based on the fact that South Carolina is demanding that all citizens have a government-issued photo identification card before they vote.

LEROY GADSON: People like Medgar Evers, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, those persons died for the right to vote. They gave their life. And so, right now, we are trampling on their death. Their death is in vain if we sit back and sit still and we allow these rich folks, these Koch brothers, to finance a campaign of hate to turn back the right to vote. We are the one as a people—we are the only people in America that we had our ancestors were killed for the right to vote. We had our life taken. We had our property taken. So we’re not going to sit back and be silent and watch the Koch brothers and other like-minded-thinking people come back and take our right to vote.

PROTESTERS: Won’t take it no more! Won’t take it no more! Won’t take it no more!

LUCY: I lived through it one time in Virginia. I won’t live through it again. That we weren’t allowed to walk on the same side of the street as white folks. We weren’t allowed to vote. We weren’t allowed to shop in the nicest shops. And they’re going to try to bring this mess back again? I’ll say like Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I won’t do it again. We will vote. All of us, we will stand together—black and white and poor people. The rich people don’t like it, but I don’t care.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the voices of thousands of people marching in New York this past weekend. Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor, who produced that piece for Free Speech Radio News and The Real News.

Well, for more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by NAACP president Benjamin Jealous. He helped organize Saturday’s protest. We’re also joined by Bob Edgar, who spoke at the protest. Edgar is the president and CEO of Common Cause and a former Pennsylvania congress member. The group is pushing Congress to reaffirm voting rights and ensure free and open elections.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Ben Jealous. Talk about the results of your report, why you feel that voting rights are being threatened now.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Look, we’ve seen, in the past year, the greatest state-by-state attack on voting rights in more than 100 years. We’ve seen them come after Sunday voting, early voting, same-day registration. We’ve seen them put back in place ex-felon voting bans in states like Florida. These are bans that, when you go back into the actual history of debate and you look at what was said at the time—they were first imposed more than a hundred years ago in most cases—they said, quite plainly, the purpose of an ex-felon voting ban is to suppress the black vote. So they’ve actually kind of pulled it out of the vault, if you will, and put it back in place, pushing more than a half-million people off the rolls in Florida by itself, over half of those black and all of them poor.

And then, we’ve seen—you know, and then here comes voter ID. Now, this truly is a solution without a problem. You know, they—last year, DOJ found nine cases of voter impersonation. George Bush spent five years going through millions of votes, found 86 cases—or 82 cases over a five-year period. The state of New Mexico did a similar investigation, spent over $1 million, found two people. Well, you know, if it’s 86 over five years or nine in a year or two in a state, we have prosecutors who can handle that. What you really have to ask is, what is the impact of these laws going to be? It’s not going to make the vote more secure. What it is going to do is put the first financial barrier between people and their ballot box since we got rid of the poll tax.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ben Jealous, where this springs from? Obviously, in 2000 and—in the 2008 election, there was a huge increase in the African-American vote and in the Hispanic vote. Two million more voted in each of those communities than had voted in the prior presidential election. And after that, we saw first this enormous attack that occurred against ACORN and the voter registration drives that ACORN had conducted throughout the country, and now, after 2010, all of the state laws that were passed. Your sense of what’s at work here?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, look, in 2008, you saw a huge surge in voting amongst young people, amongst people of color. In 2010, you saw the census confirm that there had basically been no increase in the ranks of white voters in this country, but there had been more than a 10 percent increase demographically in the black and Latino populations that can vote, people over 18. And then in 2011, you see this massive rash of voter suppression laws pushed in more than two-thirds of the states in this country. And while we’ve beaten them back in about half of those states, they’ve gotten through in others. And they all have the same impact. And the impact is to suppress the—to suppress turnout, you know, to actually put obstacles, to block the vote, if you will, for people of color, for students, for the poor.

AMY GOODMAN: Politico had an interesting piece, with the Republican legislators, Ben, fighting back, criticizing the report. They said, “Florida Republican State Rep. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored an election bill that was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May, said he was 'offended' that 'accusations are being hurled' by the NAACP.” He told Politico, quote, “This is the only legislature that can protect the election process from mischief, and there’s nothing in this election law that’s going to limit anybody’s participation. All I’m trying to do is make sure that our election process is protected from abuse and that the results are credible—what in this bill applies differently to anyone of a difference race?” he said.

And then there was a quoting of a Maine Republican legislator, who was saying, We have very few minorities here; this doesn’t have to do with race. That was Maine State Representative Richard Cebra, who introduced a photo ID bill last year that he hopes will become law. And he says that the NAACP’s claim of disenfranchisement is way off base. Your response?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Sure. You know, Maine has some of the most—you know, again, this is about suppressing the vote, and it will disproportionately impact people of color, even in a state like Maine, where there are very few, because people are disproportion—people of color are disproportionately poor. This will universally impact poor voters. It will universally impact young voters. It will universally impact certain parts of the—of very old voters, basically older poor voters. And the question is, why do they have an interest in suppressing that?

You know, if the guy in Florida is so scared, he probably should be, you know, spending more of his time dealing with, for instance, possible UFO issues, because last year we had nine complaints of voter impersonation in the entire country, we had 350 complaints that somebody saw a UFO. You know, the reality here is that we’ve got to base it on the facts. And when people move on their fears, they make bad law. We see this happen in this country all the time. You know, the crime rate can go down and down and down several years in a row, and then you’ll still see the incarceration rate go up and up and up, and bad law made, pushing more people into prison. And that’s what’s going on here. You have a few folks who seem to be kind of generating these fears about something that truly does not exist.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring Bob Edgar into the discussion, president and CEO of Common Cause and a former Pennsylvania congressman. Bob Edgar, you’ve also focused not on—not merely on these laws that are being passed, but also other efforts to intimidate the vote, a variety of efforts that have occurred across the country in recent years of deceptive practices, efforts to intimidate people from actually exercising their right to vote. Could you talk about some of those instances and how big of a problem that is?

BOB EDGAR: Yes. Before I answer your question, let me congratulate Ben and the folks that gathered in New York this past Saturday. They were persons of color. They were labor unions. And they were environmentalists and peace activists and just average, ordinary citizens who recognize the fraud is not registration, it’s not voting fraud or mischief. The fraud and the mischief is really that all Americans automatically aren’t registered to vote and that all Americans aren’t encouraged to vote, and that we can get the voting up to 80 and 90 percent, rather than down at 50 percent. And the NAACP and Common Cause and other partner organizations are doing the right thing.

Let me just give your audience some specifics from the 2008 election. We found that robocalls were happening in Philadelphia, where they were telling voters that if they had a traffic ticket and had not paid their child support, they were going to be arrested at the polls. In Virginia, we found a person handing out fliers that said Republicans vote on Tuesday, Democrats vote on Wednesday, because of the pressure of voting. We also found people telling students that if their driver’s license address and their voting registration address didn’t match, they were not permitted to vote. All of this, as Ben has said, is simply to hold down the vote of persons of color and poor people. The conservatives who are pushing those bills and some of the business and wealthy people who are putting money behind these ID laws and other restrictive pieces of legislation should be ashamed of themselves.

We ought to challenge every American to put pressure on our elected officials to open up the process. Why shouldn’t every baby born in the United States who’s an American citizen be automatically registered to vote? And at age 18, why don’t we celebrate that and give them the same ceremony we give to new immigrants when they come into the United States? Also, immigrants, when they are given U.S. citizenship, they’re not automatically given a right to vote. They have to go out and fill out forms to vote. That’s outrageous. So Common Cause is happy to join with the NAACP and Ben and others to say it’s time to stand up. The 2012 election is going to be one of the closest elections in the history of the United States. There is a plague on both the Democrats and the Republicans. We need the people of the United States to come out and vote.


BOB EDGAR: I’m concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act at the federal level and how, overall, voter access in the United States compares to other countries?

BOB EDGAR: Yes. Senator Schumer from New York and Senator Cardin and others have just introduced legislation to protect voter rights, and I hope that the House and Senate will review that legislation quickly and pass it quickly. It ought to be passed on a bipartisan basis. In 1965, after a lot of pain, where people had given their lives to give the right to vote, we finally passed a Voting Rights Act. We’ve renewed that Voting Rights Act. We’re coming up in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Now we need a new initiative, a new effort to protect the right of voters and to change the dialogue across the country. We should not be suppressing votes. We should be calling on all people across the country to vote, to come to the polls, and to make their choice. We ought to have one vote for one person, and we ought not to allow money to corrode the voting system.

You asked the question. We’re the only nation in the world that has federal elections without federal rules for election. For example, in many states, deceptive practices are not illegal. Persons can be arrested for trying to prevent voting. The police bring them into the police stations. They look at the laws. There’s no law on the books that says that this is illegal. That’s outrageous.

Also, we have 10,000 or more different voting systems and different kinds of voting machines out across the country. In all other Western countries that have a democracy, their national elections are done nationally.

And I believe it’s time for us to support the senators who have introduced this legislation. It’s time for average citizens to recognize that trying to stop people from voting, putting ID laws in place, taking away same-day registration, taking away early voting, are all attempts to hold down the vote of poor people and persons of color. It’s outrageous, it’s un-American, and it’s got to be stopped.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bob Edgar, for many years, here in New York City and in New Jersey, other Eastern states, there’s been the fact of off-duty police officers being used for ballot security efforts in some elections, that really are a form of intimidation, especially in minority communities. But I’d like to ask about a particular mention in one of your reports, back in 2004, that over 4,000 potential voters from several Florida universities suddenly discovered that their party registrations had been switched and their addresses changed. And obviously, Florida being a battleground state, such a large number as 4,000 is a huge number. Has anyone ever been held responsible for some of these what appear to be almost systemic efforts at keeping down the vote?

BOB EDGAR: Very, very rarely. We were pleased, about a week ago, that an individual in the state of Maryland was in fact convicted and is going to serve time for putting out deceptive robocalls in the state of Maryland, where they were telling voters that the person that they were not supporting had already won, so that persons of color didn’t have to come out to vote. It was outrageous. In the state of Florida, I know of no record where those persons were in fact prosecuted for that deceptive practice. Also, we’ve discovered in certain places, getting back to your earlier comment, that sometimes cars that look official, with seals on the side, with men in suits, come with clipboards. All of that was intimidation of voters, going up to polling booths and saying, “Show me your identification. Talk to me about who you are,” before they go in to vote. All of that needs to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Edgar, we want to thank you for being with us.

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