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How Voter Suppression & Gerrymandering Cleared the Path for Unprecedented Abortion Bans

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As Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia attempt to outlaw abortions after six weeks, Missouri legislators approve an eight-week ban and Alabama passes a near total ban on abortions, we speak to journalist Ari Berman about how the widespread attack on abortion rights across the country is tied directly to voter suppression. He writes in a recent piece for Mother Jones, “These states have something else in common: a systematic effort to distort the democratic process through voter suppression and gerrymandering. These tactics have greased the way for near-total bans on abortion and for other extreme right-wing policies.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about gerrymandering and abortion.

ARI BERMAN: So, these issues are all connected. And when we saw all of these abortion bans, one thing that I realized is that many of the states passing these abortion bans recently also are very heavily gerrymandered. So, you have, for example, in Ohio, which was one state that passed this abortion ban, Republican candidates in Ohio for the state House got 50% of votes in the last election but control 63% of legislative seats. You look at Missouri, Republican candidates in the Missouri House got 57% of the votes but control 71% of the seats.

So, what’s happening is that these Republican-controlled states, like Ohio and Missouri, they are more extreme because of gerrymandering, they are more red because of gerrymandering, and that leads to more extreme policies like these abortion bans. And it helps explain why Republican politicians are passing laws that even in their own states people don’t want. People don’t want blanket bans on abortion, even in places like Missouri and Ohio, but we’re seeing these laws pass because Republican politicians are insulating themselves from the will of the voters through gerrymandering.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a really important point. I mean, most Americans are pro-choice, and yet more than half the states have passed abortion restrictions. The state legislatures are anti-choice.

ARI BERMAN: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain further how gerrymandering leads to this.

ARI BERMAN: So, what happens is, politicians get elected, and they draw districts to maximize their impact and to try to give them as safe of seats as possible, and so they really feel like they are insulated from the will of the voters. They are in very safe districts. And so, what’s going on here is that they’re not really concerned about the views of the public writ large, because they feel like they only care about the voters in their districts. They’re chiefly worried about a primary challenge, so politics is getting pushed further and further and further to the right.

And so, public opinion really isn’t impacting the discussion of abortion in a lot of these cases. You also have, in many of these states, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male legislators, that are not affected by abortion in the same ways. And many of the constituencies that are most harmed by gerrymandering—constituencies like women, younger people, people of color—they are also going to be most affected by these abortion bans.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Georgia in particular, the state that Stacey Abrams lost, that Brian Kemp won—Brian Kemp who was the secretary of state, so he was in charge of his own election when he ran for governor against Abrams—and how that plays out overall in politics, and particularly around abortion.

ARI BERMAN: So, voter suppression also explains why we have these extreme gerrymandering—these extreme abortion bans, because you look at Georgia, for example, where Brian Kemp was both secretary of state and running for governor at the same time in 2018. He was essentially overseeing his own election. In that election, Georgia purged 2 million people from the voting rolls. They closed 214 polling places. Fifty-three thousand people had their registrations put on hold weeks before the election. All of this helped Brian Kemp and hurt Stacey Abrams and allowed Brian Kemp to eke out a very narrow victory over Stacey Abrams.

And then he signed this abortion ban, that Stacey Abrams was strongly opposed to, which was passed by a Legislature in Georgia that was heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. So you have an extremely gerrymandered Republican Legislature, a governor who was elected in part of voter suppression, signing one of the most extreme abortion laws in the country. Had it not been for gerrymandering, had it not been for voter suppression, you might have had a very different Legislature and a different governor in Georgia, and this would have been blocked or not have been passed in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Hofeller’s hard drives, that his estranged daughter have now released, talk about other affects that you can see coming out of this.

ARI BERMAN: Well, it’s really important because the next election is going to determine redistricting for the next decade. And, in fact, it’s going to—the next census is going to form the basis for that redistricting in the next decade. And so, right now there’s a lawsuit in North Carolina challenging these gerrymandered state maps. The question is: Will the courts strike down these maps before 2020 so there will be a new North Carolina Legislature? If there’s a new North Carolina Legislature, there will be a different election in 2020, and that will lead to different outcomes. And so, we could be seeing Republican gerrymandering efforts unraveling in North Carolina, one of the most important swing states in the country.

But, more importantly, I think this just focuses attention on other issues. There’s been so much focus on Trump, Amy, and everything that Trump is doing, but really when it comes to state-level races, the gerrymandering at the local level and the census that forms the basis for redistricting, this has a huge outcome on politics for the next decade. And if Republicans are able to rig the census for the next decade, they will be able to rig so many important aspects of American politics, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what is happening in Florida? This is a separate issue, but the whole issue of re-enfranchising what is called returning citizens, people who have served time in prison.

ARI BERMAN: Florida passed a really historic ballot initiative in 2018 to restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with previous felony convictions. It was the largest expansion of voting rights in that state since the Voting Rights Act. Now the Florida Legislature has passed the law dramatically scaling that back by saying that you have to pay all fines, fees and restitution before you’re eligible to vote. This is basically akin to a poll tax. People owe thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars. There’s one woman in Florida that owes $59 million for insurance fraud.

And so, if this law is signed by the governor of Florida, what it means is that people that thought they were in line to be able to vote, voters who thought they had passed this ballot initiative to re-enfranchise people, instead now you’re saying that people have to jump through serious financial hoops, even after they had paid their debt to society, to be able to vote. This could affect hundreds of thousands of people—disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people in Florida before the 2020 election.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Ari Berman, for joining us, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. We’ll link to your piece in Mother Jones headlined “Architect of GOP Gerrymandering Was Behind Trump’s Census Citizenship Question.”

When we come back, “Clarence Thomas Knows Nothing of My Work.” Author Adam Cohen says the Supreme Court justice used his book to tie abortion to eugenics, and got it wrong. Stay with us.

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