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September 1, 2006
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Transcript - September 1, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW...

Are you voting this fall? Sure about that?

It hasn't been getting much attention, but some states are putting new restrictions on your right to vote, all in the name of preventing voter fraud. Critics say these new state laws on voter registration and voter identification threaten to -here's the word of the day—threaten to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, among them the elderly, poor and minorities. And what's the Justice Department doing about it? Well, not much, insiders say.

Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Peter Meryash have our report.

HINOJOSA: In St. Petersburg, Florida, volunteers with the League of Women Voters are gearing up for another election. Usually, the league here would do what they do all over the country ... register new voters. But so far, not this year. The reason? A new Florida law.

WHEATLEY-GILIOTTI: The law has done harm because the League of Women Voters, as well as other— other organizations— were not able to register voters before the primary.

HINOJOSA: That's right ... for the first time in sixty-seven years ... this mainstay of American civic life decided it had to stop registering new voters in Florida because of that new law.

And Florida is only one of several politically important states where battles have been erupting recently ... over who's going to be able to vote ... or not ... in this year's elections.

The battles shape up this way: on the one side, mostly Republican state legislatures ... passing laws, they say, intended to prevent voter fraud and the chaos of recent elections.

STATON: "We want to make sure that the voting process has integrity at every point ..."

HINOJOSA: On the other side, many Democrats and civil rights groups ... who believe these laws could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of often elderly, poor or minority voters across the country.

FORT: "... it's passing the most restrictive requirements for voting since the Jim Crow era."

HINOJOSA: And what's more, civil rights advocates say ... the Bush administration is part of the problem. The U.S. department of justice, which is responsible for enforcing the voting rights act, has signed off on some of these restrictive laws.

David Becker knows about some of the inner working of the Justice Department. He was a senior attorney in the department for seven years under Presidents Clinton and Bush.

BECKER: Everyone in America, regardless of their political ideologies should be very concerned about these restrictive, disenfranchising, suppressive laws that are being enacted in many states all over the country.

HINOJOSA: For example, three states have recently passed strict laws that require voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls. Two states require proof of citizenship to register or in some cases even vote.

In six states, laws set tight restrictions on voter registration drives. And in a majority of states, similar kinds of restrictions are being considered.

Which brings us back to Florida. Voter registration there, like in other swing states, surged in recent years.

Republican state representative Ron Reagan, no relation to the former president, says that caused problems, forms were turned in last minute, or not at all. He admits those cases weren't widespread, but even so, he thought something needed to be done.

REAGAN: I don't think it's asking too much to simply say if you go out to register somebody to vote, turn their registration card in promptly so that we can get them on the rolls so when the time comes they can vote. And that's it. Pure and simple, that's all I strove for with this law, and I think that's all we're really after.

HINOJOSA: The law threatens volunteers and their organizations with substantial fines. Two hundred and fifty dollars for each individual voter registration form turned in more than 10 days after it's signed ... or $5,000 if the form is lost, or never turned in.

These fines pose an enormous risk for volunteer groups like the league of women voters.

WHEATLEY-GILIOTTI: My budget for this year is $70,000. Okay? So 14 forms, times $5,000? My whole budget is wiped out for the year.

HINOJOSA: Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti is the league's state president.

WHEATLEY-GILIOTTI: They're volunteers. What happens if there's an automobile accident? What happens if there's a hurricane? What happens if there's a fire? What happens if there's a family emergency? These well-intentioned persons might just inadvertently forget to turn in these forms. In which case, that individual would be individually subject to this fine, and the League of Women Voters.

REAGAN: I understand the fines may be a little— excessive in some people's minds. However, it's to encourage people turn 'em in on time. And if a particular group feels that they don't have control over their own members and can't expect their own members to follow the rules— I'm sorry for that.

HINOJOSA: But the League of Women Voters and other groups say the law unfairly punishes them because political parties and their voter registration efforts are exempt from these same fines.

The voter groups have challenged the law in court, and just this week a judge issued an order temporarily blocking it. But damage has already been done.

Normally by this time, the League and other groups would have already registered thousands of new Florida voters, particularly the elderly, the poor and people of color. Now, says the League, several thousand might not be able to vote in the upcoming primary.

And that could have a significant impact. Remember, the 2000 election came down to just 537 votes in Florida.

Of course, getting people registered is only half of the equation ... they still need access to the ballot box. Now, even that has become a political and legal battle in several states.

Indiana, Missouri, and Georgia have all passed strict laws requiring people to show photo identification in order to vote.

FRENCHER: I know that I'm not going to be able to get an updated Missouri State ID due to the fact that I don't have a birth certificate

HINOJOSA: Maria Frencher is politically active in her Kansas City, Missouri community. She can often be found these days registering new voters. Ironically, a new Missouri voter ID law which took effect on Monday will actually keep her from the polls this, she says, because she doesn't have the right documents to prove who she is.

FRENCHER: I have a social security card, I have a Kansas state ID. It says who I am...not enough.

HINOJOSA: Missouri state election officials say more than two hundred thousand registered voters don't currently have a correct picture ID.

But perhaps nowhere has the battle over photo ID been more acrimonious than in Georgia.

SENTATOR: You can laugh about this if you want, but I'm telling you, you are stabbing race relations in the heart with this piece of legislation.

HINOJOSA: Democrats there howled when Republicans, who now control the legislature for the first time since reconstruction, passed the law requiring voters to show a photo-ID at the polls.

STATON: The yays are 31 and the nays are 22, this bill having received the Constitution majority is therefore passed...

HINOJOSA: State senator Cecil Staton, a Republican, says he wrote the law to prevent voter impersonation.

STATON: It just seemed common sense to me that when you come to vote, you ought to be able to show that you are who you say you are.

HINOJOSA: Senator Staton says only a few thousand voters in Georgia don't have a government-issued photo-ID. But Democrats in the state say the real number is closer to seven hundred thousand.

MORGAN: And I realize that when people hear that you have to show a photo ID, most people who live in a metro area would say: What's the big deal with that?

State Representative Alicia Thomas Morgan is a Democrat ... And the first African American to represent her county.

HINOJOSA: But what's the problem with saying: Well, you know, it's gonna— you're gonna have to get this ID. And it may take you a little bit of time, but if voting is so important to you then it shouldn't be that big of a deal.

MORGAN: Well, I think that sounds good— except that when you put barriers in the place of people voting then you are asking people to jump through several hoops to exercise their Constitutional right to vote.

HINOJOSA: People like 87-year old Rosa Laster who lives by herself in Plains, Georgia.

LASTER: No, I don't have a photo ID.

HINOJOSA: Laster, a retired nurse, has lived in Plains all her life and for years, she's been able to vote close to home without a photo-ID. But now, in order to get an ID, she'd have to go 11 miles away to Americus, the county seat.

And that, she says, could be really tough . The closest relative who could drive her lives four hours away.

LASTER: I would have to get somebody to take me over there, bring me back. And then I'd have to pay them. And sometimes, you don't have the money.

HINOJOSA: Voting, she says, is very important to her. She remembers what it was like for African Americans where she lives. They were turned away at the polls or beaten up trying to get there.

Senator Staton denies his law has anything to do with race.

STATON: I think there is a bigotry of low expectations among those who would say that African-Americans don't do the very same things that all other Americans do. Use a ID to go cash a check at a bank or to rent that video or to get on an airplane.

I would argue that the slight inconvenience it may be for some people to have to get that ID, it's worth it in order to guarantee the integrity of the process.

HINOJOSA: But, in fact, what are the numbers in terms of people impersonating voters in Georgia?

STATON: Well, that's a very good question.

HINOJOSA: In fact, there's no hard evidence to indicate how big a problem voter fraud at the polls might be.

Senator Staton cites a story from 2000 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that reported more than five thousand dead people voted in the twenty years between 1980 and 2000. But it's uncertain how many of those were fraudulent and how many were simple clerical errors.

Georgia's Secretary of State, a Democrat, says there hasn't been one documented case of voter impersonation fraud at the polls in the past 10 years. And if this new law is really aimed at curbing voter fraud, then why has Georgia now made it easier to vote absentee?

According to state election officials, absentee voting is the most common form of election fraud in the state of Georgia. It also happens to be a way of voting used disproportionately by white Americans.

HINOJOSA: So, what do you think is the real reason why this legislation has passed then?

MORGAN: I believe that there is an effort in this country to disenfranchise several groups of people. That includes people of color. That includes the elderly. That includes young people, and students in particular. That includes people who would generally vote for progressives or Democrats , however you'd like to call it. And I believe that there is a concerted effort to keep those people at home.

And when I know that people have died for me to have the right to vote, it hurts and it bothers me.

HINOJOSA: Civil rights groups challenge Georgia voter ID requirement in court. A Federal and a State judge have repeatedly found the law likely to be unconstitutional. And so they've temporarily blocked it. But in Indiana a federal judge upheld a very similar photo-ID requirement. And meanwhile, many challenges to other election reforms are pending in states across the country.

So where in all of this is the U.S. Department of Justice?

Ever since President Johnson signed the voting rights act in 1965, the Justice Department's civil rights division has historically taken the lead in protecting voters from just these kinds of restrictive state election laws.

But some former Justice Department officials charge ... under the Bush administration ... all that's changed. David Becker says that's why he left the Justice Department a year and a half ago ... Part of an exodus of attorneys from the civil rights division.

He's now with People for the American Way Foundation.

BECKER: It's not just that it's turning a blind eye to discrimination. It's actively validating discrimination in some places. It's actively validating policies that are harmful to racial minorities in terms of their access to the polls, in terms of the poor and the elderly, being able to achieve full access to the polls.

HINOJOSA: Becker and other former insiders say a series of decisions by the Justice Department have resulted in Americans being restricted from voting ... even denied the right to vote.

They point to approval of the Georgia voter identification requirement and the Florida voter registration fines. Remember, the Justice Department has the final word, because under the voting rights act, it has to sign off on changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.

Just look what happened, these critics say, in the Justice Department's review of the Georgia voter ID law.

It all came out in this revealing internal memo that was leaked. A team of the department lawyers and analysts found the Georgia voter ID law was likely to discriminate against African Americans, and so, recommended four to one to reject it.

But the department's leadership over-ruled that recommendation ... and just a day after receiving the 51-page, detailed analysis ... gave the Georgia law the "ok."

GONZALES: There have been stories which have troubled me about the politicization of the Civil Rights Division. This is something that troubles me as a Hispanic in particular.

HINOJOSA: The Justice Department turned down a request for an interview ... but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress in April that the department is committed to protecting voting rights.

GONZALES: ... the guidelines that we follow is the law. Those are the guidelines that we follow.

HINOJOSA: The Justice Department says it's filed a record number of cases on behalf of Latino and other minority language voters.

But something's changed ... over the past 5 years, the Justice Department has brought only one voter discrimination case based on race on behalf of African Americans, none on behalf of Native Americans ... and the first case ever on behalf of white voters.

DRISCOLL: And those kinds of things, I think, reflect that the country is changing, and priorities have to change to go along with that.

HINOJOSA: Bob Driscoll was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Bush administration ... and he says people have to understand that elections have consequences.

DRISCOLL: Everyone that works for the Department knows that the policy decisions are made by political appointees. And that is the reality. And the day-to-day work of the division is carried out by the career staff. But the policy priorities and— and the chain of command is that those folks make the decision.

HINOJOSA: And as decisions about election reforms are being made all across the country, civil rights advocates say ... they will have a real impact on American voters.

BECKER: There are individuals who are eligible voters who have voted for years— in some cases, voted for decades, who are gonna find themselves without a way to express themselves in this democracy.

And that's— that's not just sad, that's a tragedy.

BRANCACCIO: For more on those new voter restrictions and the voting rights act, visit our website at PBS-dot-org.

Ever had one of those weeks...you try to follow the news moment to moment yet you're still missing something essential? Eric Boehlert got some things he wants to bring to table in this regard, and so do I. Mr. Boehlert's a regular blogger on the Huffington Post. Eric what's on your mind?

BRANCACCIO: Hi Eric.

BOEHLERT: Hi.

BRANCACCIO: So, what's on the radar?

BOEHLERT: Well, I think this week, particularly from Washington, had to be— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's rather remarkable speech about the war in Iraq. It's part of a clear offensive the White House is taking yet again trying to, you know, get the upper hand in this war. And what Rumsfeld was talking about was— was— comparing any war critics and indirectly Democrats to Nazi appeasers, saying anyone who really opposes this war is going to re— be remembered on the wrong side of history which is remarkable for any, you know, Secretary to say. But given the facts on the ground and given the facts that this is sort of a universal agreement the war has been a fiasco, it's pretty— remarkable for him three years later to say anyone who disagrees is wrong.

But again, it's part of the White House offensive. You know, this is about the third or fourth one they've launched in the last year. They seem to think if they can just give the right speeches and— and come up with the right phrases they could turn the tide. But if you look at the polls, I think most Americans really stopped really thinking about the war as win-lose about a year ago. I don't think anyone thinks they're going to win this war anymore.

BRANCACCIO: The phrase of choice right now for the— what was once the evildoers are the fascist, Islamo-fascists. Now, I think fascist, I think the Axis power monster in Italy, Benito Mussolini. But when you say fascist, does it actually work out in the heartland of America as— as a resonant term?

BOEHLERT: I don't think it does. I mean, I think this is a phrase the White House picked up from the right wing bloggers who have been using this Islamo-fascist term for about a year now. And I'm sure they're very excited. And the—

BRANCACCIO: The right wing bloggers love this?

BOEHLERT: Oh, they love it. And they see, you know, the war in Iraq as really a— you know, a— a battle of good versus evil, which it is. But they see it in a larger context. And— and the White House has sort of adopted that sort of over the top rhetoric.

I— I don't think that that's going to turn the tide. I don't think most Americans what— what is Islamo-fascist. Bush hasn't really described it. But honestly, I mean— they're sort of desperate at this point, I think.

BRANCACCIO: Something I wanted to bring to the table was this, you see, there's a new government contract up for grabs. The deadline, by the way, is next week. You have until September 6th on this. $20 million from Uncle Sam over two years to help the U.S. military command in Iraq manage its PR efforts. Apparently, among the terms of the contract, a big database of news stories about the U.S. war effort, labeling these new stories drawn from the international press, the Arab language media, the U.S. media, labeling the coverage positive, neutral, negative.

BOEHLERT: Right, right, well again, we've seen this ever since 9-11 and particularly since the war. The Pentagon and, and I think, Secretary Rumsfeld has been sort of obsessed with the media coverage. There's this argument, there's this subtext from the White House that if only the media were telling a better story, if only they were being more positive about the war in Iraq they wouldn't— then we'd— I guess, we'd not only be winning but Americans would be supportive.

BRANCACCIO: Something else that seems to fall out of the media landscape kind of quickly. Did you see the story about this guy from Staten Island, New York. He's out selling, apparently, cable TV channels including the Hezbollah channel or at least the channel linked to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And there was like a little sting operation. They busted him. He's currently out on quarter of a million dollars bail. But that's a step in the war on terror, stopping a cable TV channel.

BOEHLERT: Well, they've— you know, the— the— the prosecutors, the federal authorities, have used sort of this umbrella catchphrase that they do with a lot of these terror cases which is material support. He was supposedly helping Hezbollah by broadcasting the— the— the news channel. You know, some experts have said, "This is the first time they've ever had the statute used this way in terms of banning a news program." And, you know, what's the government— you know, back in '96, I think it was, they labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, it's officially a terrorist organization as far as the U.S. government is concerned.

BOEHLERT: But the idea, I don't think anyone back in the '90s thought anyone would ever be prosecuted by beaming the satellite to people who wanted to follow the news from the region. But, you know, that's— that's one of the peculiarities of this war on terror. It would be interesting to see, you know, how that case plays out.

BRANCACCIO: So, we got a barbeques to go here before the summer is over in people's minds. But then you know what happens, right? It's the political season.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, that all ties again to this— this new— offensive from the White House on Iraq. I mean, they think this is what's going to sort of help them put them over in the fall. I mean, Republicans are very nervous. I mean, it's the conventional wisdom in Washington unless something dramatic happens between now and November, the Republicans will lose control of the House.

And now the question is whether they're going to lose control of the Senate. And— and again, I don't think Republicans want to be talking about the war in Iraq and— and want to be talking about even the war on terrorism. They want to be talking, I think, about domestic issues, things that they have more control over.

But this White House almost seems like an ego-driven thing. Like, "We're just going to keep talking about the war. We're just going to keep criticizing anyone who's opposed to it." And so I— I can't imagine there's a lot of moderate Republicans or Republicans in close races that are happy with the landscape right now and where it's heading in early September.

BRANCACCIO: But don't despair. Take heart. If the Republicans lose the House they still probably will have the Senate, the White House, if you haven't noticed and—

BOEHLERT: The courts.

BRANCACCIO: —the U.S. Supreme Court that is ideologically in tune. So, all is not lost.

BOEHLERT: Right, they'll— they'll still run the town. But it will be interesting. I mean, if the— if Democrats do finally get a platform in the House of Representatives it will— it will make for a much more difficult— last two years of the Bush Administration, no doubt.

BRANCACCIO: Well Eric Boehlert, blogger for Huffington Post, and soon to be over at Media Matters for America, and your book "LapDogs," Thank you very much.

BOEHLERT: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. Enjoy your Labor Day weekend.



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