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NAACP’s Ben Jealous on the Voting Rights Battles That Could Roll Back Gains and Decide 2012 Election

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NAACP President Ben Jealous joins us to discuss what some are calling the greatest wave of legislative assaults on voting rights in more than half a century. As shifting demographics give more weight to voters in the South, eight of 11 states in the former Confederacy have passed restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election. Republicans have led the effort, saying voter ID laws prevent fraud. But others call it a political ploy to suppress voters who may not have the proper identification, and typically vote Democrat. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.” We’re covering the Democratic convention, inside and out. I’m Amy Goodman.

And in this last segment of this hour of Democracy Now!, we’re joined by Ben Jealous. He is head of the NAACP. I saw folks from the NAACP at the Republican convention, now here at the Democratic convention. Voter rights has been a clear message of the NAACP. What do you mean, Ben?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: What we mean is that this country thinks it should be one person, one vote, that we should be allowed to vote free and fair. And we’ve seen more states pass more laws in the past year, pushing more voters out of the ballot box than at any point in the last hundred years. Our country is moving in the wrong direction. And you know, it’s not simply a Republican thing, because we’ve seen Rick Snyder, Republican governor of Michigan, veto strict photo ID. We’ve seen Bob McDonnell of Virginia actually expand the re-enfranchising of formerly incarcerated people in that state and say to his folks, “Don’t even bring me a strict voter ID bill, or I will veto it.” It’s an extremist thing. It’s a far-right thing. You know, and it’s having a real effect on this race, and it will have a real effect come November.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about what’s happening around the country.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: So, ground zero right now is probably Pennsylvania, where this strict voter ID law, which says that you aren’t going to be able to vote unless you show up with a government-issued ID with your photo on it and so forth, has not been struck down. It’s been struck down in Texas. It’s been struck down, you know, in several other states. But it’s still in effect there. And there’s 800,000 voters in that state who don’t have an up-to-date, current ID. And black voters are 100 percent more likely than white voters in that state not to have their ID, and there’s just no way we’re going to get all 800,000 of them IDs in the next two months.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do people not have IDs? Explain why there is a disparate impact on communities of color and poor people and older people.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Right. So, there’s a whole host of reasons, right? One is that this ID has to have the same address. And so, if you’re a poor person on the margin of this economy or somebody who’s struggling—two, three jobs—you often move at least once a year. And people just don’t tend to go to the DMV once a year. So, you know, you could have an ID, but it just might not have the right address. If you’re too poor to own a car—and there’s a lot of folks these days who are too poor to own a car—you tend not to have a driver’s license. If you’re a student who’s moved—I mean, think about when you went to college, right? Did you really run to the DMV to get, you know, a driver’s license from that state? No, most of us just carried the one from home. So there’s a whole host of reasons. And then, you know, it could also be because—they say that your ID has to have an expiration date. Well, if it’s a veterans’ benefit card, there’s no expiration date, right? because your status as a vet never expires. Many student IDs don’t have expiration dates. And so they put all sorts of technical things in there.

But here’s the real funny part, Amy. In court, they admitted there’s never been a case of voter impersonation in Pennsylvania. Bottom line is this: if the law is not intended to solve a problem, it’s intended to be a problem. And that’s what we’re dealing with in Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the history of voting rights. Here we are in North Carolina, Charlotte, one of the first lunch counter sit-ins after Greensboro, right? The Woolworth sit-in. Explain what—the history of literacy tax, of poll tax.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: So the first thing folks have to understand is—because they’ve heard of the '60s civil rights movement, the ’50s—well, those laws that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, that Medgar Evers and so many others were killed trying to invalidate were actually put in place 50, 60 years before that, at the end of Reconstruction, to really ensure white supremacy in politics in the South. And they put in place a whole raft of laws—the grandfather clause, which just basically said you were grandfathered in if you were registered to vote before the Civil War; tests on whether or not you could read; tests on—you know, a poll tax, right? basically saying that a man who couldn't pay the tax could be bought. And they also put in bans on formerly incarcerated people voting. But all of these had hugely disproportionate racial impact, and they disenfranchised black voters, and they got rid of black representation in the South.

What we’ve seen is that every time that the vote has been significantly expanded for black people, there’s been massive waves of voter suppression. It happened after the Civil War and the enfranchising of blacks with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. It happened after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And here it comes again, after we break the color barrier at the White House for the first time with the largest, most diverse presidential electorate ever. And now, like then, the reforms that they’re passing again don’t solve problems, they create problems, and they create problems for young people of all colors and people of color of all ages, who were exactly where the surge came from in 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Ben Jealous, CEO and president of the NAACP.

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