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Ari Berman: Dems Introduce Sweeping Voting Rights Bill to Combat Rampant Voter Suppression

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Voting rights activists are hailing a new House bill that aims to restore voting rights to millions, crack down on the influence of dark money in politics, restore the landmark Voting Rights Act, establish automatic and same-day voter registration and other measures. The bill has been dubbed the For the People Act. It is the first piece of legislation introduced by the new Democratic majority in the House. We speak with Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.” His latest piece is titled “Democrats’ First Order of Business: Making It Easier to Vote and Harder to Buy Elections.”

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AMY GOODMAN: Voting rights advocates are hailing a new House bill that aims to restore voting rights to millions, crack down on the influence of dark money in politics, restore the landmark Voting Rights Act, establish automatic and same-day voter registration, and other measures. On Friday, Democratic Congressmember John Sarbanes of Maryland introduced the bill.

REP. JOHN SARBANES: We heard loud and clear from the American people that they feel left out and locked out too often from their own democracy, that they want us to fight the culture of corruption. They want us to clean up Washington, fix the system and give them their voice back. They want to be able to get to the ballot box without having to run an obstacle course. They want it to be easy, not hard, to register and vote in America. And HR 1 will address that concern.

AMY GOODMAN: The bill has been dubbed the For the People Act. It’s the first act of legislation introduced by the new Democratic majority in the House. Longtime civil rights and Congressman John Lewis praised the legislation.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I’ve said on many occasions that the vote is the most powerful nonviolent instrument of transformation we have in our democracy, we have in a democratic society. And at the foundation of our system, it must be strengthened and preserved. There are forces trying to make it harder and more difficult for people to participate. And we must drown out these forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in other voting rights news, the Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear two cases involving partisan gerrymandering in the states of North Carolina and Maryland. Voting rights activists fear the court may uphold partisan gerrymandering, could even bar states from forming independent commissions to draw congressional districts.

We’re joined now by Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His latest piece, “Democrats’ First Order of Business: Making It Easier to Vote and Harder to Buy Elections.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

ARI BERMAN: Good to see you again, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this first act in the Democratic House.

ARI BERMAN: It’s a huge bill. It basically includes so many things that democracy reform advocates have been arguing for decades are necessary. It really is the most important democracy reform bill introduced since the Watergate era.

On voting rights, it would include things like automatic voter registration, Election Day registration, restoring voting rights to ex-felons, making Election Day a federal holiday. This is the most significant voting rights bill, probably, since the introduction of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

On money in politics, it would include public financing of congressional elections, which would be huge, to try to counteract the amount of dark money that we see in the system right now, the huge amount of corporate money that we see in the system right now.

And on ethics and lobbying reform, one of the things it does is say that any sitting president and vice president has to release their tax returns, which, of course, is so important, because Donald Trump was the first candidate and the first president in 40 years not to release his taxes.

So, taken together—massive expansion of voting rights, a crackdown on dark money, huge lobbying and ethics reform—it’s incredibly significant this was the first thing that House Democrats said they wanted to do out of the gate.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are its chances of not just passing in the House, but, of course, being enacted, because it’s President Trump who has to sign off on it?

ARI BERMAN: Well, it has no chance right now. I mean, all the things I just talked about are anathema to President Trump and to Mitch McConnell, who controls the Senate. I think it has a very good chance of passing in the House. But when it comes to the Senate, when it comes to President Trump, this is as much a political document as a legislative document.

What House Democrats want to do is they want to say, “This is what we stand for. This is what we believe in. And this is what our democracy needs.” And by discussing the legislation and also holding hearings on these things—because, remember, Amy, they’re going to hold hearings on voter suppression. They’re going to hold hearings on dark money. They’re going to hold hearings on President Trump’s taxes. All of that stuff is going to get attention to things that have been often dismissed as, quote-unquote, “good government issues.” These aren’t just good government issues; these are issues that get to the core of our democracy, the core of our politics.

AMY GOODMAN: So, on Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to revisit this question of whether the Constitution prohibits extreme partisan gerrymandering. Talk about the significance of this.

ARI BERMAN: Well, gerrymandering has completely warped our democracy. We’re seeing, in state after state after state, Republicans are getting a minority of votes but a majority of seats. And that’s not how we think about politics. We think of politics as the person who gets the most votes wins the election. That’s not happening. You look at the last election. In Wisconsin, Republicans got 46 percent of the vote in the state Assembly and 64 percent of the seats. And that’s because of gerrymandering.

And the Democrats do it, too. So, what we’re seeing is, the Supreme Court is going to hear these gerrymandering cases from North Carolina, where the Republicans gerrymandered, and from Maryland, where the Democrats gerrymandered. Now, a reasonable person would look at this, and they’d say, “OK, you have Republicans gerrymandering in North Carolina. You have Democrats gerrymandering in Maryland. This must be a problem that we have to deal with.”

The Supreme Court, however, looks to be taking the opposite approach. They seem to be saying that “We don’t believe partisan gerrymandering is a problem.” Despite all of the factors that we see, despite all of the evidence we see of gerrymandering, the Supreme Court has basically said, “We don’t care.” They took these cases in 2016, and they punted. They basically sent them back to the lower courts. The lower courts struck down these gerrymandered maps in North Carolina, in Wisconsin, in Maryland. Now it’s going back to the Supreme Court. And the worry here is that the five-member conservative majority is going to tell states partisan gerrymandering is OK, which is going to open the door to rampant gerrymandering, even more rampant gerrymandering following the 2020 election, when the next census comes out.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned North Carolina. What’s happening in the 9th Congressional District?

ARI BERMAN: Well, what happened in the 9th Congressional District—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain where it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Sure. The 9th Congressional District basically goes from Charlotte all the way down to eastern North Carolina. And what we saw there was essentially massive election fraud committed by the Republican candidate, Mark Harris, and his allies in that race to try to win a congressional race. And it’s very ironic that you had Republicans all across the country screaming “Voter fraud! Voter fraud! Voter fraud!” during the last election, but it was their party and their candidate that committed massive election fraud to try to win a congressional race.

So, what’s happening now is the State Board of Election in North Carolina has not certified that race, so Mark Harris, the Republican, was not seated in the new Congress. The State Board of Election there is going to hold a hearing, and we’re going to see what’s going to happen. My guess is there’s almost certainly going to be a new election in North Carolina at some point this year.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening in Florida. Tomorrow is a major deadline.

ARI BERMAN: Huge day. So, in the last election, Florida voters restored voting rights to ex-felons. There was an amendment called Amendment 4; 64.5 percent of the public approved it, which was a huge number, basically saying that people that have paid their debt to society should get their voting rights back. That could lead to up to 1.4 million people getting their right to vote back. And tomorrow is the day in which ex-felons in Florida can register to vote for the first time. This is a huge day for democracy in Florida.

However, there is a lot of confusion surrounding this, because the new Republican governor, the new Republican Legislature, they have not said whether people should be able to register tomorrow. The amendment is very clear. Starting on January 8th, ex-felons who have paid their debt to society, who have a clean record now, should be able to register to vote. However, the governor has basically said the Legislature needs to pass a bill implementing the law. What voting rights supporters say in Florida is, “This is very clear: If you have paid your debt to society, if you have a clean record, you should be able to register to vote tomorrow.”

So, the people that led the effort to try to pass this law, the ex-felons themselves, who weren’t able to register, they are going to go to their local board of elections tomorrow. They are going to try to register to vote for the first time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. I spoke to him in November, after Amendment 4 passed.

DESMOND MEADE: What we’ve seen in Florida was love prevailing. Just that simple. Love prevailed. We had over 5 million votes for Amendment 4. And those were votes of love, people voting for their loved ones and friends who made mistakes and paid their debt and wanted to move on with their lives. And so, we’re very excited, and we think that this victory can serve as a bright spot for this country and can serve as a launching pad for how we conduct business and how we can move issues along the lines of humanity and transcend above the partisan politics, transcend above the racial anxieties.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Desmond Meade, who is really the major force, the engine, behind this amendment, this referendum that they voted on, that would set an example for states around the country. Interestingly, the deadline tomorrow, people can—not deadline exactly, because people can start to register, which means they can register for 2020. And we’re talking about over a million people. It begins tomorrow, the day that the man who’s trying to stop this from happening, the new governor, Ron DeSantis, will be sworn in.

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s really important to note that Florida had the worst felon disenfranchisement law in the country. One in 10 Floridians, including one in five African Americans in Florida, couldn’t vote, under this law, which is absolutely astonishing. Voters across the ideological spectrum repealed this in the last election. Every single congressional district in Florida voted to repeal the state’s felon disenfranchisement law. This was not a Democratic-versus-Republican issue. This was voters across the spectrum, many of them conservative law-and-order Republicans, who said, “If you’ve paid your debt to society, you should have a second chance.” And so, I hope this doesn’t become Republican versus Democrat, left versus right, like so often happens in our society. This is about giving people who have paid their debt to society their rights to vote back.

And I would hope that every politician in Florida would encourage people to register to vote. Because you know what? You’re going to see a lot of white Republicans, Amy, show up tomorrow and want to register to vote, just like you’re going to see black Democrats or Latino independents. This is across the political spectrum. We have had such a problem with mass incarceration in Florida. So many people have lost their voting rights. And for the most important swing state in the country to potentially restore voting rights to over a million people, that could have a transformative impact on our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issues you’re looking at around voting rights that you think are the most important leading into the 2020 election, Ari?

ARI BERMAN: Well, I think it’s really important to note that we saw rampant voter suppression in the last election. We saw thousands of people turned away from the polls in places like Georgia and Florida and North Dakota. We haven’t dealt with that yet. We haven’t investigated that yet. And that’s why this bill that we were talking about earlier, HR 1, is so important, because we have to say as a society, voter suppression is wrong, voter suppression is illegal, voter suppression is immoral. And we have to commit to everyone having a chance to vote in 2020. That didn’t happen in 2018. There were way too many stories of people that couldn’t vote for one reason or another. And I’m concerned that unless we deal with this, both in terms of bringing attention to it, but also passing new laws to make it easier to vote, that history is going to repeat itself in 2020, and we’re going to see far too many barriers to the ballot box erected in advance of the next presidential election.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

When we come back, why are some advocates of a Green New Deal critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new committee on climate change? Stay with us.

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