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Texas, Justice Dept. Square Off over Voter ID Law as Part of Dispute That Could Decide 2012 Election

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The Justice Department and the Texas legislature are squaring off in court today over the state’s controversial voter ID law. The law requires voters to show photo identification at the polls, and Texas hopes to implement it before the November election. The DOJ blocked Texas’ voter ID law in March, saying it will disenfranchise at least 600,000 voters — a disproportionate number of which are Latinos and other minority groups. Currently, 16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election, including vital swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. We speak with Robert Notzon, the legal redress chair for the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging Texas’ voter ID law; and Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation and Rolling Stone magazines. “Not only is Texas such a large state, but it has probably the strictest voter ID law on the books right now,” Berman says. “You can vote with a handgun permit but not a student ID. Hispanics are anywhere from 46 to 120 percent more likely to not have IDs than white voters. … In some ways, it really is 'as goes Texas, so goes the nation,' in terms of demographic change and the Republican response.” [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryDec 24, 2012Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, on the Struggle to Win, and Now Protect, Voting Rights in U.S.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In our next segment, we’ll be looking at holding Goldman Sachs to account, at least in Oakland, California. But right now we turn to voting rights. Today, the Department of Justice and the Texas legislature head to court over Texas’s voter ID law. The law requires voters to show their photo ID at the polls, and Texas hopes to implement it before the November election. A three-judge panel will hear the groundbreaking case, which could challenge the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, a cherished safeguard for voters of color around the country.

In March, the Department of Justice blocked Texas’s voter ID law, saying it will disenfranchise at least 600,000 voters, a disproportionate number of which are Latinos and other minorities. This is U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaking in April at the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network 14th annual convention.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: We will continue to oppose discriminatory practices while also vigorously defending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act against challenges to its constitutionality. Now, let me be very clear. This administration will do whatever is necessary to ensure the continued viability of the Voting Rights Act, our nation’s most important civil rights statute.

AMY GOODMAN: However, supporters of voter ID laws claim such measures are crucial for preventing voter fraud. This is Republican Governor Rick Perry of Texas defending 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Perry. Texas is one of nine states that must get any changes to their election law cleared by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act due to a history of discrimination.

Currently, 16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election. These include vital swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania. All together, these states account for 214 electoral votes, or nearly 79 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.

For more, we’re going to Houston, Texas, to speak with Robert Notzon, the legal redress chair for the Texas State Conference of the NAACP. He’s co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging Texas’s voter ID law, in Houston for the NAACP national convention, which is focusing this year on voter participation in the wake of restrictive voting laws. The theme of the conference: ”NAACP: Your Power, Your Decision — Vote.”

Can you explain, Robert Notzon, about the lawsuit that the NAACP has brought?

ROBERT NOTZON: Well, actually, the state of Texas has brought it, because they’re seeking pre-clearance for the Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to get the voter ID law to become law under federal law, under the Voting Rights Act. So, they have asked the district court in the District of Columbia for pre-clearance, and that is a trial which starts today. They need to prove that the—their law has no discriminatory intent or no discriminatory effect in the way it’s operated.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of this hearing that is taking place this week.

ROBERT NOTZON: Well, it’s critical, because, as you said, there’s several states that have attempted to or that have passed voter ID laws. But in Texas, we always do things different. And they seem to be—I won’t say unapologetic, because they don’t wear race on their sleeves when they do it, but the way they go about passing their voting laws in the state of Texas, historically, for decades, regardless of party, is to be—take advantage of race and use it as a tool to stay in power and to keep the minority vote down. So, in Texas, when they pass a law like this voter ID law, it’s different than other states. They restrict the number of IDs that are available to be used. And the impact on that is disproportionately on the minority community.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain more why it impacts the minority community—in Texas, we’re talking particularly Latinos, though African Americans, as well—why presenting a photo ID does this.

ROBERT NOTZON: Right. Well, on all the—I like to call them the “pursuit of happiness” indexes on the census, the minority populations in Texas, historically and currently, are on the lower end of the economic scale. So the effects of having to get voter IDs, having to have the documentation necessary to get those voter IDs, having to get to the place where you need to get the ID, having to take off work, having to get transportation, having to—I guess, if you move often, the minority populations are going to have more trouble keeping a current voter ID. And also, the voter ID—

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Notzon—

ROBERT NOTZON: No, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what can be used as an ID. What are they requiring in this law? What photo ID?

ROBERT NOTZON: There’s a—the driver’s license. There’s a passport. There’s a fishing and hunting licenses. There’s a state ID. Some of these, you need to actually have a birth certificate before you can get it. So, I think there’s been some argument that these voter IDs are free, some of them are free, but you need to have these documents with you, and you need to be able to get there and get the IDs.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Robert Notzon, we’re also joined by Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation magazine and Rolling Stone, as well. Ari, put Texas, this law and the hearing that’s taking place this week, in the national context.

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s very important, because not only is Texas such a large state, but it has probably the strictest voter ID law on the books right now, because, as Robert mentioned, you can vote with a handgun permit but not a student ID. Hispanics are anywhere from 46 to 120 percent more likely to not have IDs than white voters. It’s also much more difficult for them to get IDs, because they’re more likely to live in counties without DMV offices. They’re less likely to have a car to get to a DMV. They may have to travel a very far distance, up to 170 miles round trip. So, Texas has had such a strict law. They’re so brazen in terms of what they’re doing, and the minority growth in Texas is so rapid, it’s an indicator of where the country is moving as a whole—that, in some ways, it really is “as goes Texas, so goes the nation,” in terms of demographic change and the Republican response to that change.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to this issue of not a student I.D., but you can have a gun license. Talk further about that.

ARI BERMAN: Well, look at who is going to own guns in Texas and look at who students are in Texas, and which parties they are going to support. It’s very likely that gun owners in Texas are going to be overwhelmingly Republican, while young voters are going to be more Democratic. Similar with Hispanics, with African Americans, with people of color in the state: they are going to be more Democratic than Republican-leaning. And this is the theme of voter ID laws, in general, and restrictive voting laws, is this is an attempt by Republicans to shape the electorate in their own favor and to make it harder for Democratic and progressive-leaning voters to have access to the electoral process at every level—harder to register to vote, harder to cast a ballot, harder to participate in the political process itself. And so, that’s the grand scheme of the Republican Party, in Texas and elsewhere, passing all these restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election.

AMY GOODMAN: And what it means for the 2012 election? Are you saying that this could–it could definitely throw the election?

ARI BERMAN: It could throw the election. As you mentioned earlier in your introduction, the states that have passed restrictive voting laws account for 214 electoral votes, nearly 80 percent of what is needed. We’re talking about very, very significant swing votes—swing states, like Pennsylvania, like Florida, like Wisconsin. These are going to be very close states in November. And so, what is going on in these states could swing the election in terms of who makes it to the ballot box and then in terms of whether their votes are counted. So I’ve always said, since the 2010 election, this has been one of the biggest sleeper issues there is out there, where people weren’t paying enough attention, but it clearly had a major impact. Now people are starting to pay a lot more attention, but the problem is, a lot of these laws are already on the books, or they’re in court, but we don’t know what the outcome will be.

AMY GOODMAN: Pennsylvania?

ARI BERMAN: Pennsylvania is huge. As you mentioned, it’s going to be a very major swing state. There was just a study released last week that said that 758,000 Pennsylvanians may lack the ID needed to vote. That’s 10 percent of statewide voters, but what’s most interesting, 18 percent of people in Philadelphia don’t have that ID. Philadelphia is the Democratic and progressive hub of the state. It’s 44 percent African American. So you’re looking again at a case where voter ID is carried out in such a way that’s disproportionately going to impact Democratic and progressive-leaning voters, and it’s going to make it a lot harder to vote in the next election. The number of people in Pennsylvania without ID is larger than the margin of victory for Barack Obama in 2008 in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Say that one more time.

ARI BERMAN: The number of people without ID is larger than the margin of victory for Barack Obama in the state in 2008. Barack Obama won by about 600,000 votes in 2008 in Pennsylvania; 758,000 Pennsylvanians don’t have ID.

AMY GOODMAN: The Justice Department has ordered Florida, a likely key swing state in the 2012 election, to end a controversial voter purge that’s primarily targeted Latino, Democratic, independent-minded voters. I want to turn to a clip of the Florida Republican governor, Rick Scott, who was on Fox News defending the voter purge.

GOV. RICK SCOTT: I want fair, honest elections. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t.

GREGG JARRETT: Holder says you’re suppressing votes.

GOV. RICK SCOTT: No. I mean, I want people to vote, register to vote, but U.S. citizens.

GREGG JARRETT: Yeah, but he says you’re suppressing Democrat votes.

GOV. RICK SCOTT: No, I want everybody to vote that wants to vote, but only U.S. citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Robert Notzon back into this conversation. As the NAACP meets where you are in Houston, taking on these voter rights and voter ID laws around the country, the significance of what’s happening right now, the showdown between the Justice Department and Florida?

ROBERT NOTZON: Oh, that’s really what is happening in Texas. They’re trying to link the immigration issue with the voting—or the alleged voter fraud issue. It’s their—have a solution searching a problem. There really is no voter fraud problem. The clip that you played from Governor Perry, that’s just inaccurate. I think between 2002 and 2009, there were zero prosecutions for voter fraud during that time. And even the kind of voter fraud that has been prosecuted is not addressed by the voter ID law. It’s about—you know, the voter ID law is about protecting against voter impersonation. And there’s already voter ID laws in the—on the books. But in Texas, when you link the immigration issue with voter fraud, which just isn’t there, it creates this fear, and it’s driving the public opinion. So it’s the politicians driving the public opinion and not vice versa, because there is no voter fraud in any degree in Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s true. If you look at Texas between 2008 and 2010, there was five cases of possible in-person voter impersonation, which a voter ID would theoretically stop, out of 13 million votes. So, clearly this is not a significant problem in Texas.

But there is an accurate point that this idea that illegal immigrants are somehow voting and influencing American elections has been peddled not only in Texas but in Florida. And so, Rick Scott in Florida had this huge voter purge list of so-called non-citizens. When people took a closer look at it, the state’s data was not only discriminatory, but it was totally inaccurate. Right now, 98 percent of the people on that so-called non-citizen list remain on the voter rolls because the county election supervisors couldn’t confirm that they were actually non-citizens. And so, what Florida did is they essentially put out a list of people of color, because the purge list was 80 percent people of color, even though minorities in Florida are only 30 percent of the electorate. They put out this very inaccurate list of people of color. It started to be scrutinized, and Florida had to backtrack there. But the larger message that illegals are voting in U.S. elections, which is totally unproven, is still something that Republicans are saying every single day on Fox News and similar outlets.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell have a new video arguing that voter ID laws are actually on the side of civil rights. Let’s go to that clip.

KEN BLACKWELL: Why is Eric Holder demanding that Florida stop removing illegal voters from their rolls.

HERMAN CAIN: Elections should never be about color.

KEN BLACKWELL: Unless it’s purple.

HERMAN CAIN: Now, purple is a very nice color.

KEN BLACKWELL: Yes, it is.

HERMAN CAIN: And states should not have to sue the federal government to be able to protect their citizens’ sacred right to vote.

KEN BLACKWELL: Help us keep America free.

HERMAN CAIN: Help us protect your vote.

KEN BLACKWELL: Tell Eric Holder to do his job.

HERMAN CAIN: Which is to keep politics out of the Justice Department.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, both, of course, African American. Ari Berman, your response to their point that passing these voter ID laws is actually a civil rights issue?

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s incredibly ironic, what Herman Cain and Ken Blackwell are saying, because if you look at who’s affected by voter ID laws, it’s disproportionately people of color. Ten percent of U.S. citizens don’t have this ID, but it’s 18 percent of Hispanics and 25 percent of African Americans. And you look at what the GOP is doing, they’re not only passing these restrictive voting laws, they’re challenging the Voting Rights Act, which is the most important civil rights accomplishment, in many respects, of the 20th century. And so, when these people say that the GOP is trying to fight for civil rights, you have to question, well, why are they doing it in such a way that discriminates against minority voters and undercuts the most important minority voting achievement of the 20th century?

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Notzon, what do you expect to come out of the hearing today in Washington, D.C.?

ROBERT NOTZON: Well, it’s actually a trial, and it’s going to go on this whole week. Texas gets to go first, because they’re the plaintiff, so they’re going to put on their evidence. And I think what’s going to happen is, Texas is going to show that their—they have woefully little evidence to support their claims about what the voter ID does and the fact that it doesn’t have a discriminatory purpose or that there is no discriminatory effect. So, we feel very confident that the experts and the evidence will bear out that this law should not be pre-cleared. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is very important to Texas. We are a covered jurisdiction, so they have to get everything pre-cleared. And in Texas, there hasn’t been an election cycle where there’s been an issue that hasn’t been objected to by the DOJ or that has failed to gain pre-clearance, because they’re always trying new and different ways to harm minorities’ opportunity to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, Michigan, Mississippi?

ARI BERMAN: Well, Michigan was significant because it’s the first place where a GOP governor actually vetoed a restrictive voting law since 2010. These laws had been passed in concert with Republican legislators and Republican governors. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan said, “No, I don’t want to get my state involved with this so close to the election.” So, to me, that was a sign that the public pushback against these restrictive voting laws is having some impact, even among some Republicans.

Mississippi is a situation where, to actually get the free voter ID now required by the state, you have to have a birth certificate or some sort of ID to obtain a birth certificate, so it really is a catch-22, where you need an ID to get the ID. The same sort of situation is playing out in other states, like South Carolina. And that’s why these laws are being referred to as a 21st century poll tax or a new Jim Crow law, because their effect is essentially to exclude certain people from the political process who either don’t have the money to pay for this documentation or don’t have access to obtain the documentation needed to vote in the next election.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Robert Notzon, as you’re at the NAACP national meeting there in Houston, talk about the grassroots organizing that’s going on to challenge these laws around the country.

ROBERT NOTZON: Well, we are just having people stay vigilant, keep records of what’s happening, why people are being affected this way, the fact that they’re being affected. We don’t just come at these laws when they happen; we’re always protecting against them, because every election cycle it happens. So we know it, so we keep records. We keep communications open. We document when these voter intimidation and voter fraud cases—alleged voter fraud cases are put forward and are—the minority votes are impacted. So that’s what we do. And I’m in the middle of the CLE program, the continuing legal education, and we had a presentation on the redistricting cases in Texas, which are still ongoing. The Section 5 in D.C. and the Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act trial in San Antonio, we’re still waiting for resolutions from those trials, as well. So Texas does not stop. They don’t sleep. They continue to come after the minority vote, doggedly.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Notzon, I want to thank you for being with us, with the Texas NAACP, at the national meeting in Houston of the National organization. Ari Berman, here, covering voting rights for The Nation and Rolling Stone magazines, thank you.

ARI BERMAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Goldman Sachs on notice. An interesting law that’s been passed by the Oakland City Council challenging a contract Goldman Sachs has with the city. We’ll go to Berkeley, California. Stay with us.

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