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Courts Strike Down Voter Restriction Laws That Target African Americans with “Surgical Precision”

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Voting rights advocates have won a number of major victories that could reshape the November election. Over the past 10 days, a series of court rulings have struck down new voting restrictions in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas and Texas. In North Carolina, judge Diana Motz wrote, “We cannot ignore the recent evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.” Meanwhile in Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge James Peterson also struck down a voting rights law, writing that the objective of the law was to “suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.” A week earlier, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down a Texas law which has been described as the nation’s most restrictive voter ID law. For more, we speak with Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. Berman’s recent piece for The Nation is called “The Country’s Worst Anti-Voting Law Was Just Struck Down in North Carolina.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Voting rights advocates have won a number of major victories that could reshape the November election. Over the past 10 days, a series of court rulings have struck down new voting restrictions in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas and Texas. On Friday, a U.S. appeals court struck down a North Carolina law that required voters to show photo identification, scaled back early voting, ended out-of-precinct voting and prevented residents from registering to vote on Election Day. In a remarkable judgment, the three-judge panel found North Carolina’s law targeted African Americans, quote, “with almost surgical precision,” unquote. The judges found the legislators wrote the law after requesting data that showed African Americans disproportionately used early voting in both 2008 and 2012. Judge Diana Motz wrote, quote, “We cannot ignore the recent evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, a federal judge has struck down a string of Wisconsin voting restrictions passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Governor Scott Walker. U.S. District Judge James Peterson wrote that the objective of the law was to, quote, “suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.” A week earlier, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down a Texas law which has been described as the nation’s most restrictive voter ID law. In a 9-to-6 ruling, the court found the law has, quote, “a discriminatory effect on minorities’ voting rights,” unquote.

Joining us now is Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. His book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, will be out in paperback tomorrow. Berman’s recent piece for The Nation is called “The Country’s Worst Anti-Voting Law Was Just Struck Down in North Carolina.”

Ari, welcome back to Democracy Now!

ARI BERMAN: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened there first.

ARI BERMAN: So, the decision in North Carolina, in my opinion, was the biggest victory for voting rights since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. And it was so significant because North Carolina passed the country’s worst voting restrictions. As you mentioned, they didn’t just require strict voter ID. They cut back on early voting. They eliminated same-day voter registration. They eliminated out-of-precinct voting. They eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. And they did so just a month after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and John Roberts said that voting discrimination was largely a thing of the past. So both what North Carolina did and when they did it made this ruling so significant. And it was really remarkable to see the Fourth Circuit use such blunt language in describing what North Carolina did, that they did target black voters with almost surgical precision. This wasn’t about stopping voter fraud. This was about voter suppression. It was about suppressing black votes.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly how it worked.

ARI BERMAN: So—how the decision worked or how the law worked?

AMY GOODMAN: How the law worked.

ARI BERMAN: So, the law worked in a bunch of different ways. First off, the law said that you had to show strict forms of government-issued ID to cast a ballot. They excluded IDs like student IDs. They excluded municipal government IDs that African Americans were most likely to have. Then they cut back on same-day voter registration, the ability to show up and register to vote before the election, which is critically important in a state like North Carolina, which has a very diverse demographics. They eliminated the ability to vote anywhere in your county. So, people, for example, who work a long shift, they can go and vote after their job as opposed to having to go back to their home area. They eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, which was taught in high school civics classes to encourage young people to register to vote. So, all of these reforms that North Carolina implemented, the state got rid of.

And what was fascinating is the court laid out a very coherent narrative. They said that, beginning in 2000, North Carolina adopted these reforms, like early voting and same-day registration. As a result, voter participation increased dramatically. North Carolina went from 37th in voter turnout in 2000 to 12th in voter turnout by 2012. And most importantly, the disparities between black and white voters were eliminated, that black registration, it turned out, actually increased over white registration and turnout in 2008 and in 2012. And it was at that very moment that the North Carolina Legislature decided to go after all of the different voting methods that were used by African Americans. And the Fourth Circuit basically said this was not a coincidence: The Legislature knew what had increased political participation, they knew what had increased black turnout, and those were the very voting methods that the Legislature decided to eliminate.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain more about Sunday voting?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah. So, Sunday voting is historically called “souls to the polls,” when African-American churches tell their constituents to go vote. And it’s a very important day in the African-American community. And North Carolina eliminated one of two days of Sunday voting. And the Legislature said that the North Carolina—the Fourth Circuit said that the Legislature had data showing that Sunday voting was used more in African-American communities by Democratic voters, and that’s why they eliminated this. And the Fourth Circuit said that the elimination of Sunday voting was the closest thing to a smoking gun that you will ever find in modern times. This is amazing language for a court to use. This is not language that’s from 1865. This is not language that’s from 1965. This is the fact that voter suppression is going on right now in the United States in the year 2016.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you move from North Carolina to Wisconsin?

ARI BERMAN: Well, it was remarkable to see the fact that there were two decisions striking down voter suppression laws within hours of each other, describing very similar things. Wisconsin, like North Carolina, didn’t just past a voter ID law, they passed a bunch of other under-the-radar voting restrictions. For example, they eliminated early voting on nights and weekends, when it’s most convenient to be able to vote. They made it harder to register to vote. They made it harder to cast an absentee ballot. And the court in Wisconsin struck down these restrictions, as well, and they said, like in North Carolina, that these restrictions were not about stopping, quote, “phantom instances of voter fraud,” they were about trying to suppress the African-American vote in heavily Democratic cities like Milwaukee. So, the fact that we saw decisions in North Carolina and Wisconsin just hours apart striking down very similar laws and decisions, using very similar language, was a huge victory for voting rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the next decision. We’ve got Wisconsin. We’ve got North Carolina. What about Texas?

ARI BERMAN: So, in Texas, they struck down that state’s voter ID law, the strictest voter ID law in the country, because in Texas you can vote with a gun permit, but not a student ID, under their voter ID law. And the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said this discriminated against black and Hispanic voters. Now, unlike North Carolina, even though they ruled that the law was discriminatory, they left the law in place, but said that those people without IDs still need to be able to vote, which is about 5 percent of Texas’s electorate. And that means that they either will be able to show their voter registration card or they’ll be able to vote with an affidavit if they don’t have these strict forms of ID. So, this is a major victory. But at the same time, people have to know that they still have the ability to vote in Texas. The word needs to get out to these voters that can’t comply with the law that they’re able to vote in November. And that’s going to require a major education campaign, because Texas has done nothing to make it easier for people to vote in that state.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari, talk about Elizabeth Gholar.

ARI BERMAN: So, Elizabeth Gholar is someone I wrote about. She’s an elderly woman who was born in Jim Crow North Carolina, and then she moved to Texas. She had a Louisiana driver’s license, which was not accepted as valid voter ID in Texas. And her birth certificate was not accepted as a valid form of ID to be able to get a government-issued ID in Texas. And because she was born at home to a midwife, she basically had to retain a lawyer to be able to get all her documentation in Louisiana. And this was incredibly emotional. She testified in federal court and basically said, “I was born in Jim Crow before African Americans were able to vote in Louisiana, and now I can’t vote again. For the first time in 60 years, I am not able to vote in the state of Texas, and this breaks my heart.”

And so, to be able to see people like Elizabeth Gholar have the right to vote again, to be able to see people in North Carolina who battled Jim Crow laws be able to vote, this is remarkable. And I think this transcends partisanship. A lot of times we’ve been talking about these restrictions hurting Democratic constituencies, being passed by Republicans, but we have to step back and think that this is not just about party. This is about the fact that people who had been voting all their lives lost their right to vote, and now they’re able to get their right to vote back.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a comment of Donald Trump. Speaking at a rally earlier this year in New Hampshire, Donald Trump said the voting system is out of control.

DONALD TRUMP: Look, you’ve got to have real security with the voting system. This voting system is out of control. You have people, in my opinion, that are voting many, many times. They don’t want security. They don’t want cards.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Trump.

ARI BERMAN: Well, like with many Donald Trump statements, it’s not exactly clear that he knew what he was talking about. But I think what he was trying to suggest was that there is lots of fraud in American elections, and there needs to be more security in terms of how elections are run. I should say that the type of voter fraud that people say is most prevalent, voter impersonation, is incredibly rare. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to impersonate another voter. Since 2000, there have been a billion votes cast and only 31 cases of voter impersonation. So this is incredibly rare.

But I already see Donald Trump now fanning the flames of voter fraud. He retweeted something from the actor James Woods, a very conservative actor, saying if Hillary wins, it’ll be because of voter fraud. So, it’s not surprising that the country’s leading birther, who questioned President Obama’s citizenship, is now crying wolf about voter fraud and already trying to say that if he loses in November, it will be because of nefarious behavior, even though this kind of fraud is incredibly rare and even though states in—courts in North Carolina and Wisconsin recently have basically said voter fraud is not a problem. This has been a pretext that Republicans have used to try to disenfranchise Democratic voters.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ari, go to the overall picture right now. Talk about who is going to be able to vote in this election. Are there other judgments that we are waiting for in courts around the country?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, it’s still a very uncertain situation. We’re less than 100 days from the election now, and this is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Seventeen states have new restrictions in place for the first time. In some states, these restrictions have been struck down, like in North Carolina, but they’re on appeal. In other states, the laws have been softened, like in Texas and Wisconsin, but they’re still in effect. There are new restrictions that are being challenged in court in places like Ohio and Virginia.

So, there’s a lot of activity still going on in the courts. This is by no means settled. And even once the court decisions happen, people need to know what the laws are in these states. So, we still have millions of voters that are impacted by new voting restrictions, that need to be helped. People need to be registered to vote. They need to know what the law is. They need to be ready to vote in November. And so, this is still a very unsettled issue that needs a lot more national attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, I want to thank you for being with us. Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights. His book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, the paperback is out this week. And we’ll link to your article in The Nation, “The Country’s Worst Anti-Voting Law Was Just Struck Down in North Carolina.”

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Last week at the Democratic convention, there were a number of firsts, among them, the first person to stand up and describe having an abortion herself. We’re going to speak with a nun about that statement. Stay with us.

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