In a major ruling Thursday, a federal court blocked a controversial Texas law that would require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots. The court said the law could curtail the ability of hundreds of thousands of minorities to vote. It cited evidence that showed the law did the most harm to African Americans and Hispanics, who are more likely to live in poverty. Texas says it plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. At least 16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election. We’re joined by two guests who have been closely following the case: Elise Boddie, director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing college students in Texas who could be disenfranchised under the voter ID law, and journalist Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation magazine. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, “Breaking With Convention,” broadcasting from the PBS station here in Tampa, Florida, WEDU, as we look at “War, Peace, and the Presidency,” Democracy Now!'s special daily two hours of coverage from the Republican National Convention, inside and out. I'm Amy Goodman.
With one convention down and one more to go, when the Democrats meet in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week, we turn now to a major decision that could shape the outcome of the election itself in November. In a ruling on Thursday, a federal court blocked a controversial Texas law that would require voters to show photo ID before casting ballots. The court said the law could curtail the ability of hundreds of thousands of minorities to vote. It cited evidence that showed the law did the most harm to African Americans and Hispanics, who are more likely to live in poverty. Texas says it plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. It’s 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.
At least 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 told, all together, these states account for 214 electoral votes, or nearly 79 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.
Well, for more, we’re joined in New York by two guests who have been closely following the case. Elise Boddie is director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. They’re representing college students in Texas who could be disenfranchised under the voter ID law. And we’re joined by reporter Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation magazine and Rolling Stone.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Elise Boddie, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of the ruling yesterday in Texas.
ELISE BODDIE: Well, this was really a tremendous victory. And, Amy, if I could just set the stage a bit, so that your listeners and viewers have a sense of the broader context. There are two important facts here that we need to put on the table to understand the Texas court ruling. The first is that, in 2008, we saw massive minority turnout in the 2008 presidential election, and that has been coupled with enormous population growth among the minority population. And so, in light of those two—in light of those two facts, there are really two choices that our country can make. One is to lean forward and to embrace the minority voter population and to expand the franchise and give minority voters an opportunity to participate in our democracy. The second choice is unfortunately the path that we have seen many states take, and that is to focus on ways to frustrate minority voter participation, to discourage participation in our democracy.
And that’s what we saw, frankly, in the state of Texas. In the last 10 years, there’s been an increase of, I think, four million Texas state residents. Over 90 percent of those are minority voters. And so, what has the state of Texas done? It passed a restrictive voter ID law, one of the most restrictive in the country, that required voters to show photo ID in order to register. And what the three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., concluded yesterday in its ruling was that that law should be rejected under a very important provision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That ruling ensures that minoritian voters will have the opportunity to vote and will protect our democracy. So it’s a tremendous victory.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, I’d like you to respond, as well, and put it in a national context around the country, where you see voting rights are being eroded and where you see some of these laws are being turned back.
ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, it was a very significant case, Amy, because Texas is the second-largest state in the country. So, it really is the case that as goes Texas, so goes the nation. And in many ways, Texas embodied the conservative response to demographic change, which is, instead of trying to court minority voters, instead make it harder to them—for them to vote. And we’ve seen that all across the country. So the fact that the courts actually said this violates the Voting Rights Act send a message to other states that are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act not to do this kind of stuff.
There has been an incredible regression when it comes to voting rights in this country. We’ve stepped back 50 years to the pre-civil rights era, to the Jim Crow era, when it comes to voting laws in this country. The good news—the only good news that’s come out of that is a lot of these laws have been blocked. By my own count, restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election have been blocked in court in a number of important states: Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Missouri. Very likely it’s going to be blocked in South Carolina, as well. So there has been a very significant pushback from the courts, particularly in states that are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and then also in state courts in places like Wisconsin and Missouri. And so, when courts are taking a look at these laws, they have been very skeptical, and they have been pointing out, as you mentioned earlier, that these restrictive voting laws are most likely to make it harder to vote for minority voters, for low-income voters. It’s not about, quote-unquote, “protecting the integrity of the election.” It’s not about stopping the phantom menace of voter fraud. It is about Republicans trying to shape an electorate in their own favor by making it harder for minority voters and low-income voters to be able to vote in the next election.
AMY GOODMAN: Many Republican leaders have defended the new laws, saying that they’re needed to prevent voter fraud. I wanted to play a comment from a prominent supporter of the new voter ID laws, and he is Ken Blackwell, vice chair of the Republican National Committee’s platform committee and the former Republican secretary of state of Ohio. In 2004, he oversaw the election process for Ohio in the state while serving as co-chair of the committee to re-elect George W. Bush in Ohio. Well, on Monday, Democracy Now! senior producer Mike Burke ran into Blackwell in the halls of the Republican National Convention and asked him about studies that show some of the new voter ID laws will actually disenfranchise voters, predominantly people of color as well as older citizens.
KEN BLACKWELL: That is not backed up by fact. Whether you take Georgia, take Indiana, you take several of the other states that have had voter rights laws, compare voter registrations and voter participation before the voter ID and after, and what you find, particularly in Georgia—I was particularly interested in the study that was done there—Hispanic voting went up 142 percent, and African-American voting went up 43 percent.
MIKE BURKE: Now, but we always hear about these stories of, like, longtime voters who have been voting for decades, who might not have the right type of ID, because they no longer drive, and that they—it seems like they cannot vote.
KEN BLACKWELL: Well, you know, again, the courts have taken a hard look at this, and they’ve basically said that there is no evidence that that is a—that is a problem. The Supreme Court said that in the Indiana case. Now, I think it is incumbent upon all communities to make sure that voter IDs are made available free of charge and that we use a lot of our volunteer efforts to make sure that anybody who doesn’t have a voter ID gets one. IDs are very much a part of our culture, whether you want to take out a library book, you want to buy alcoholic beverages—you have to prove that you’re 21—or to get on an airplane. You know, so voter IDs are not out of the ordinary in terms of expectations in American culture.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell being questioned by Democracy Now!’s Mike Burke. Elise Boddie, can you respond?
ELISE BODDIE: You know, the notion that we have massive voter fraud in this country is just not credible. There are no credible studies that have shown that this is a significant problem or a meaningful problem. I like Ari’s formulation that this is a phantom menace. I mean, by our understanding, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to see any meaningful voter fraud in this country. And so, this really is a solution in search of a problem.
I think it’s important, too, to debunk this notion of free voter IDs. The court saw right through this in the Texas case. You know, the fact of the matter is that these so-called free IDs require underlying documents—birth certificates, passports, certificates that show that you’ve appropriately changed your name. And these are—these actually can be quite costly, particularly for low-income voters. In the state of Texas, a birth certificate can cost $22. That might not sound like a lot to some people, but if you’re someone who is unemployed, who is just trying to make ends meet, trying to feed your family, that’s really significant.
And the other piece that’s really important to understand about the voter ID law in the state of Texas is that over one-third of Texas counties don’t have a Department of Public Safety, which is where you have to go to get a driver’s license or a personal ID. And so, for people who don’t have a car or, obviously, don’t have a driver’s license—because if they did, they could register to vote—that’s a really significant burden. So I think we have to sort of look past these phantom arguments by the other side and see this for what it really is, which is an effort to suppress minority voter participation.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Democracy Now! spoke to Phil Gramm, the American economist, former Texas senator, served as both Democratic congressman and Republican congressman, as well as Republican senator, from Texas. This is how he responded to the recent ruling on the Texas voter ID law.
PHIL GRAMM: In many states, you can’t buy cigarettes without a picture ID. You can’t fly on a plane without a picture ID. I don’t understand why it somehow inconveniences people not to have a picture ID to make decisions about the future of the greatest country in the history of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Elise Boddie of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, your response?
ELISE BODDIE: Well, two things. One is, look, voting is fundamental to our democracy. You know, this notion that we should make it harder for people to vote rather than easier is just counter to our democratic principles. So, I reject this formulation that we should make voting onerous in this country.
The second—the second piece to understand here is that, you know, it’s hard for some folks to appreciate how difficult it is for some people, particularly low-income people, to get voter ID. You know, we like to, you know, think about—in Katrina, when Hurricane Katrina hit some years ago, you know, folks kept asking, “Well, why didn’t people just leave New Orleans? You know, just get on a bus or get on a—you know, drive your car away from the site of the hurricane.” And the fact of the matter is that we have people who live in concentrated poverty, for whom it is very, very difficult to travel. And these are the same populations that lack voter ID. So, again, the question is, are we going to lean forward? Are we going to embrace minority voters? Or are we going to make it harder for people to exercise the franchise and raise their voices in this democracy?
ARI BERMAN: And, Amy, if I could just jump in on the point—
AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman.
ARI BERMAN: —that was made by Ken Blackwell and also Phil Gramm, it’s that voting is a fundamental right. It’s not like checking out a book. It’s not like buying a beer. It’s not like having a cigarette. Those are not fundamental rights that are protected in the Constitution. Actually, the opinion regarding the Texas ID law talked about this. It said that voting is an expressly protected right in the Constitution, and voting free of discrimination is an expressly protected right in the Constitution, and that a law that forces someone to choose between their paycheck and their franchise denies their right to vote. And the fact is, I think Republicans have a hard time grasping that 10 percent of Americans don’t have this new form of government-issued ID that is now required to vote, but 25 percent of African Americans don’t have that ID. Eighteen percent of young people don’t have ID. These are just facts. And I think that Republicans, when they were passing these laws, they had the data in front of them. They knew that this was going to make it harder for young people to be able to vote, for Hispanics to be able to vote, for African Americans to be able to vote, for low-income voters to be able to vote. And then they created this scenario where they said, “Well, everyone has ID,” knowing very well that everyone didn’t have ID; otherwise they wouldn’t have passed these very laws in the first place.
ELISE BODDIE: And, Amy, can I jump—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Ari Berman and Elise Boddie, that’s all we have time for, but of course we’ll continue to cover this. Elise Boddie, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Ari Berman of The Nation.