Political journalist Ari Berman

The Nation magazine’s political correspondent assesses the impact of Voter ID laws and the new era of politics.

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine, America's oldest political weekly, and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. He's written extensively about U.S. political campaigns, the intersection of money and politics and the changing nature of global politics, and his articles have appeared in numerous and diverse publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He's also lectured on college campuses, at civic forums and at think tanks. Berman's debut text, the critically acclaimed Herding Donkeys, provides fresh insight into a new era in politics.


Tavis: Ari Berman is a political correspondent for “The Nation” and author of the book “Herding Donkeys.” Last year he wrote a must-read feature for “Rolling Stone” about voter suppression called “The GOP War on Voting.” Much of what he wrote about then has come to fruition during this election season. He joins us tonight from New York. Ari, good to have you on this program.

Ari Berman: Thanks, Tavis. I’m a long-time admirer of the show, so thanks for having me on.

Tavis: Honored to have you on. Let me start by talking specifically about this piece you wrote for “Rolling Stone,” again, some time ago, and I want to start with that specifically because I don’t want people to think that we are in any way demonizing or casting aspersion on Republicans or on the GOP, but I want you to lay out the facts here.

It is the case, though, that most of this push, these strict voter ID laws – that is to say government-issued ID to vote in various states – this is being pushed almost exclusively by Republicans, yes or no.

Berman: That is true. There are issues, Tavis, where Democrats and Republicans are at fault, where they’re both to blame. This is not one of these issues. This is an issue where since the 2010 election, laws to restrict the right to vote have been passed overwhelmingly by Republicans in states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors.

That includes efforts to crack down on voter registration drives to make it harder for people to register to vote by demanding proof of citizenship to register to vote. That means cutting back on early voting. That means requiring a government-issued ID that you never needed before to cast a ballot. That means prevented ex-felons from being able to vote after they’ve served their time. That means purging the voter rolls.

These are all laws that have been passed since the 2010 election by Republicans in Republican states, and that’s why the article in “Rolling Stone” was titled “The GOP War on Voting.”

Tavis: So again, I’m not asking this question out of naïveté, but why are the Republicans pushing this issue? What’s the take-away for them?

Berman: So if you ask Republicans why they’re pushing the issue, they’ll give you a two-word response, which is voter fraud. If you ask me why they’re pushing this issue, it’s because they looked at the 2008 election and they saw massive turnout from young voters, Hispanics and African Americans, what was termed “the coalition of the ascendant,” and they said, “This can’t happen again.”

The demographics of the country is changing in such a way that if this coalition of the ascendant turns out in the same numbers in 2012 and going forward, it’s going to result in Democrats and progressives winning election after election.

So they said “We need to do something to change the election rules to forestall some of these demographic changes and to shape an electorate that is whiter, older, wealthier, and more conservative,” and that’s what these laws do.

If you look at the totality of these laws, whether it’s cutting back on voter registration drives, cutting back on early voting, requiring government-issued ID to cast a ballot, these are all things that uniquely impact younger voters, Hispanic voters, African American voters, low-income voters and elderly voters, and most of those populations tend to vote for Democrats and for the Democratic Party, and certainly for President Obama.

That’s why all of these laws were passed after the 2010 election, when Republicans took control of these state legislatures in state after state and were able to do something in response to the Obama election of 2008.

Tavis: Right, so since you mentioned President Obama, the first debate between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney is now behind us. The president’s on his own at this point, but just weeks ago at the Democratic convention he had a nice assist from former President Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton has now weighed in on this issue; so again, it’s one thing for you and me to talk about it.

When Bill Clinton says something, people stop to pay attention to it. So the president himself, Clinton, that is, has weighed in on this, and basically said something I want you to unpack. But he’s argued publicly now that the Republicans want the electorate in 2012 to look more like the 2010 electorate and not like the 2008 electorate. Explain what he meant by that.

Berman: What he meant is that if you look at the 2008 electorate, it was a diverse electorate, it was a younger electorate, and in many ways it signaled the demographic changes that are occurring in this country right now and what the election would look like going forward in 2016 and beyond.

That’s why I call it the coalition of the ascendant. If you look at the 2010 electorate, it was an electorate that was older, whiter, and more conservative, and that’s why Republicans did so well in 2010 and they didn’t do so well in 2008. And Clinton said very simply that this is not rocket science, that what Republicans want to do is they want to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.

Clinton said that he had never seen in his lifetime an effort to restrict a franchise that he has seen today. Clinton grew up in Arkansas. He knows what this kind of politics is about. He was there or knew people who were there during segregation, during the Jim Crow era.

I think for him it’s very, very disturbing to be going back to such a place, to be having the kind of conversations that we’re having now, that you would have before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.

Tavis: So is this a short-term strategy or a long-term strategy? Put another way, is this a strategy to get rid of Barack Obama, the first African American president, or is this a strategy that they think that can win long-term for them, the strategy of voter suppression, that is to say.

Berman: Well, I think they’re playing a short-term game. I think it’s not just about President Obama but holding power at every level of the electoral process. But I think what they’re betting now is that some of these demographic changes are still in their infancy and we don’t know yet what kind of turnout there will be among younger voters, among Hispanic voters, among African American voters.

Not only in 2012 but going forward, and the GOP is betting that they can manipulate the electoral process in such a way that they can reduce turnout on the margins. If you look at these voter ID laws, the political science literature shows that voter ID laws can depress voter turnout by 2 to 3 percentage points.

Well, that’s a lot of number. That’s enough to swing a close election, and they’re betting that at least as some of these demographic changes are in their infancy, that they can figure out how to shape an electorate in their own power and in their own image, and that’s a way that they can retain power going forward.

Now I think it’s a very risky proposition, because what they’re doing is they’re alienating many of the demographic groups that they need going forward, so the GOP is not going to be able to win long-term without getting a sizeable number of younger voters, of Hispanic voters and African American voters to be able to vote for them. I don’t think they can win in 2020 without that support.

But they’re betting that they can keep enough of those people home in 2012 to try to win the White House and to maintain power at the state level.

Tavis: So be as generous and as charitable as you can be in answer to this next question, Ari. Make the best case that you can make, and I know that’s not easy for you, but make the best case you can for the Republican argument that there is voter fraud run rampant in this country.

If that in fact is the argument, what’s the best case that can be made for the notion of these laws going on the books to stop voter fraud in its tracks?

Berman: Well, first off I have to say, Tavis, before I make the Republican argument, that it’s a difficult argument to make because there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud plaguing American elections. The Bush administration did a major investigation from 2002 to 2007, and they didn’t prosecute a single person from going to the polls and impersonating another voter, the type of fraud that a voter ID law would stop.

There’s been research that shows that you’re 39 times more likely to be hit by lightning than you are to impersonate another voter at the polls. That said, the GOP argument would be that there was large-scale voter fraud by groups like ACORN in the 2008 election, that that led to the illegitimate election of Barack Obama.

There are polls that show that 52 percent of Republicans believe that ACORN stole the election for Barack Obama. If you turned on “Fox News” a month before the election or a month after the election, all you heard was ACORN, ACORN, ACORN.

So I think Republicans either convinced themselves sincerely that ACORN stole the election, or they used it opportunistically to push this message that voter fraud exists. There is some evidence that that message has broken through. Forty-eight of the public in one recent poll said that voter fraud was a major issue.

So even though there’s people like me that are saying voter fraud is not really a big problem in U.S. elections, even though there’s no major prosecutions by the Bush administration or in states that have passed voter ID laws, such as Pennsylvania, nonetheless Republicans have repeated the mantra of voter fraud over and over again in such a way that they’ve convinced a lot of Republicans and even probably a number of swing voters that it actually does exist.

Tavis: So voter fraud does not appear to be real at all. This is a solution really chasing a problem, put another way. But what’s wrong with requiring an ID when you go to vote? There’s so many other aspects of American life where we are asked to and we willingly provide information.

We willingly provide ID when we engage in these various activities. So what’s the best case you can make against a simple law that asks people to show ID when they vote? What’s wrong with that, Ari?

Berman: Well, I think the question is do we need an ID that we’ve never needed before in American elections? Is there a compelling case for it, and does everyone have that ID is the second question you have to answer.

The first question is I don’t think that you need this new form of government-issued photo identification. I think the 2008 elections went smoothly enough. There was nothing in 2006 or 2004 or 2002 that necessitated this form of government-issued ID.

The second thing is not everyone has this ID. Twenty-one million Americans don’t have government-issued identification. That’s 11 percent of eligible voters. You look at who doesn’t have it, it’s 18 percent of young voters, it’s 16 percent of Hispanic voters, it’s 25 percent of African American voters.

So if we pass these laws, we have to make sure that everyone has access to this ID, and that’s unfortunately something that hasn’t occurred. You look at Texas, for example, a state that passed a strict voter ID law that has subsequently been blocked by federal courts for violating the Voting Rights Act.

One of the reasons that law was blocked is to get the so-called “free ID” that you need to be able to cast a ballot, you need to have an underlying document like a birth certificate, which costs money to obtain. They cost $22 in Texas, to get a birth certificate.

That is otherwise known as a poll tax during the Jim Crow era – the idea that you have to pay to be able to vote. The other problem is in a state like Texas, only 81 of 254 counties in Texas have a DMV office, so if you don’t have ID and you live in a county without ID, how are you supposed to get to a DMV office in rural Texas to be able to get that ID?

So there’s a lot of problems in terms of just practicalities obtaining this ID, and the problem is you have states that are rushing to implement this law, that are passing them in 2011 and that are implementing them in 2012, and you’ve had a lot of commissions – for example, you had the Carter-Baker commission after the 2000 election that said you need to wait at least two election cycles to be able to implement this ID to make sure that everything happens.

The last thing I would say about it is that the vote is not like getting on an airplane or buying Sudafed. It is a constitutionally protected right. It is a right that people have died for in this country, that people have bled for in this country, and any time that we restrict the right to vote, particularly on the basis of race or class, we should be very, very, very careful about doing it and only do it if there is a pressing need to do so.

My feeling is there’s no reason to have this kind of government-issued ID. People don’t have it, people don’t have access to it, and when you really look at why it’s being done, it’s being done for political purposes, not to ensure the integrity of the election.

Tavis: There is no community where this issue is being discussed more than inside the African American community, for obviously reasons; namely, that you have an African American president who many African Americans believe that the right is coming after for a lot of specious reasons.

More importantly, of course, you have the long history in this country of what African Americans were subjected to when it came time for them to exercise their right to vote, a history that you’ve written about, again, extensively. Should African Americans in particular be concerned about this push by the right?

Berman: Well, I think they’re very concerned about it, Tavis, and rightfully so. I think a lot of African Americans and a lot of supporters of the president, regardless of race, thought that Republicans were going to come after the president.

But I don’t think people expected that they were going to come after their fundamental right to vote. No one saw this coming after the 2010 election. This was the stealth agenda of the Republican Party. They ran on the issue of the economy in 2010, they got in power, and the next thing they did is they turned around and they made it harder for their political opponents and for the top supporters of the president to be able to cast a ballot.

So you have people like Congressman John Lewis, a long-time civil rights leader, who are saying this is the civil rights battle of our time now – the same fights that we had in 1965, the same marches when John Lewis was brutally beaten in Selma, Alabama, this is occurring today.

It’s a different discussion now than it was back then, but nonetheless the urgency to defend the right to vote is there in the Black community. Also, I would argue in the Hispanic community and on college campuses, like it was in some sense during the civil rights era.

It took a long time to get people to pay attention to this issue. This was something, when I first wrote about it in September of 2011, that not a lot of people were covering. You saw snippets of news coverage. I think people are now more aware of this issue. You’ve seen the courts strike down a lot of these laws for either violating the Voting Rights Act or violating the First Amendment or violating other parts of the Constitution, right-to-vote provisions of state constitutions, for example.

But I think it’s a big wake-up call, and I think it’s motivated people in the African community and elsewhere in ways that perhaps could backfire against Republicans, because I think in some states there’s going to be a massive mobilization against these laws, and in some ways, if these laws are unsuccessful, it could lead to a higher turnout, not a lower turnout, because people are motivated to defend their most fundamental right.

Tavis: The flip side of the African American angst about this particular issue of voter suppression, the flip side is Republicans who argue that there has been an activist African American attorney general named Eric Holder who in defense of and in support of his boss, Barack Obama, his president, has been engaged in this issue in a way that is unnecessary, unusual, and maybe even too political for a sitting U.S. attorney general. Your thoughts on that as you’ve covered this issue?

Berman: Well, I think Holder has acted appropriately to defend the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and you look at some of these states that fall under section V of the Voting Rights Act, which is parts or all of 16 states with a history of discrimination, particularly in the South, that have to get their voting laws approved from the federal government, those states have gone to federal court and tried to argue in favor of these laws, and these laws have been blocked by Republican judges in instances like the Texas voter ID case.

So it’s not just Eric Holder, it’s Republican judges who have looked at these laws and have said this violates the Voting Rights Act. You can’t pass laws under section V of the Voting Rights Act that make it harder for minorities to be able to cast a ballot, and that’s what’s happened in states like Texas. That’s why the Department of Justice has opposed these laws, and that’s why federal courts have blocked these laws.

So argue that it’s just Eric Holder versus the Republicans is definitely an oversimplification of where the legal battle is at right now regards to not just voter ID laws but also efforts to restrict voter registration drives, to cut back early voting, to purge the voting rolls, and other things that Republicans are doing to try to restrict the right to vote right now.

Tavis: You mentioned Texas a few times in this conversation, Ari. Texas essentially is one of those states that’s not in play. We expect Mr. Romney’s going to win the state of Texas. Florida is one of those battleground states, one of those swing states.

The polls of late suggest that President Obama is pulling away from Mr. Romney in the state of Florida. Mr. Romney has not conceded that, and so it’s still in that too-close-to-call category at the moment. This is a major issue in the state of Florida.

So take me inside the swing state of Florida and tell me what’s happened of late on this particular issue, because they’re the ones that really, with their aggressive push, put this issue front and center for a lot of Americans on the front pages of papers about this issue.

Tavis: Well, it’s amazing that we’re talking about voting controversies in Florida in 2012 (laughter), given what went on in 2000. It really is staggering to think that Florida could be going back to those days, but what happened is after Republican Governor Rick Scott was elected in the 2010 election, he and the Republican legislature worked to really rewrite Florida’s election laws and they made a few really major changes.

One was to put really severe burdens on voter registration drives and prevent groups like the League of Women Voters from registering voters. That was enacted in 2011 and was blocked by the courts in May of 2012, but nonetheless, for about a year, voter registration drives were essentially shut down in Florida.

He also cut back early voting from 14 days to eight days, including on the Sunday before the election, when African American churches historically mobilized their constituents.

Early voting emerged as a bipartisan reform in Florida after the 2000 election to make it easier for people to vote. It was something that Jeb Bush was in favor of; it was something that Charlie Crist, the Republican governor before Rick Scott, was in favor of.

But Republicans became more negative towards early voting when they saw the Obama campaign use it so successfully. A majority of African American voters, or African Americans were a majority of early voters in the state in 2008, so it was something that was particularly important in the Black community. They cut back on early voting.

Then another thing that Rick Scott did is he prevented ex-felons, after their release, from being able to vote. Now they have to wait seven years and then petition the governor to get their voting rights back. That instantaneously prevented about 200,000 people who would have otherwise had their voting rights from being able to cast a ballot in this election.

Some of those people were mailed voter registration cards under Governor Charlie Crist and are now told they can’t vote. So it’s a very confusing situation there. That’s another change where ex-felons in Florida are more likely to be African American than they are to be white, so you have a situation where it’s another discriminatory voting change.

The last thing that Florida did earlier this year is they attempted to purge the voter rolls of so-called “non-citizen voters,” and if you looked at that list it turned out that 80 percent of the people on that list were people of color. It was later shown to be a very, very inaccurate list. Of 2,600 people, only one so-called “non-citizen” actually voted.

But this hearkened back to a very dark episode in Florida’s election past, because people remember in 2000 the hanging chads. What people don’t remember is that 12,000 voters were wrongly labeled as felons, purged from the voting rolls and prevented from voting. Forty-one percent of those people were African American.

Remember, George W. Bush only won the state by 537 votes, so this idea that 12,000 people were just prevented from voting in 2000 because of a voter purge and that Florida would then try to do something similar in 2012 really shocked a lot of people.

So all those different ways of cutting back on early voting, preventing voter registration drives, disenfranchising ex-felons, and purging the voter rolls, have gone on in Florida in a very short span since 2010.

Tavis: Here’s the exit question. Let me take ideology, political ideology out of this, set Mr. Obama aside, Mr. Romney aside, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party aside.

As you know, the reason why we vote on Tuesdays is because many, many years ago it was decided that Tuesday was the best day for farmers to be able to take off to actually get to the polls to vote. So we’ve been voting on Tuesday for all these years for that very reason.

Why is it that in 2012, again, ideology aside, that we are having a conversation about shrinking the rights of Americans to vote, condensing this process, rather than expanding the process? Why don’t we have more early voting? Why don’t we vote on the weekends as opposed to Tuesday? Why don’t we vote over a 48-hour period?

There’s so many different ways to do this. Other countries around the world do it in different ways. Why are we still stuck on this only on Tuesday sort of approach to voting?

Berman: Well, I think a lot of states have adopted the type of early voting reforms that you mentioned. Thirty-one states, I believe, have some version of in-person early voting.

I believe that early voting was cut back, as I mentioned earlier, because the Obama campaign used it so successfully to mobilize their voters to get them to the polls. It’s a lot easier to get someone to the polls if you have three weeks to convince them to vote, not just one day. Three weeks of voting, not just one election day.

Republicans will argue that early voting was expensive, and I think you can make a case for that, but a lot of those same states that have cut back on early voting have also passed voter ID laws which cost millions of dollars to implement.

So I don’t really think this is about the money. I think this is a political thing that Republicans have done. Democrats are more sporadic voters in many cases than Republicans. Republicans have a more traditional electorate because it is an older, whiter, richer, more conservative electorate for the Republicans.

Democrats sometimes need to contact their voters many, many times to be able to get them to the polls, and so having three weeks of early voting in a state like Ohio makes it a lot easier for the Obama campaign to be able to get a college student out to the polls than if they just have one day to try to get them on Election Day.

So early voting was critically important to the Obama campaign in 2008, it’ll be critically important to them in 2012, and I think that’s the reason that Republicans have cut back early voting hours in states like Florida.

Tavis: Again, the first debate is now over, three more to go. The real issue will be the turnout on Election Day; hence the importance of this issue of voter suppression we discussed tonight with the author of “Herding Donkeys” and writer for “The Nation” magazine Ari Berman. Ari, thanks for your insight. Good to have you on this program.

Berman: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Thanks for tuning in. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 4, 2012 at 11:44 pm