The contributing writer for The Nation magazine talks about his new book about the current struggle for voting rights, titled Give Us the Ballot.
Author Ari Berman
Tavis: Before we get to Ari Berman and his new book, “Give Us the Ballot”, a quick programming note. Tomorrow night and Wednesday night, Tuesday and Wednesday, James Taylor is here to talk about his new project, “Before This World”. A great conversation with J.T. for two nights.
And then on Thursday and Friday for the first time ever on this program, Ringo Starr. Ringo has a new book out called “Photograph” that gives us his life and legacy in words and pictures. So Tuesday and Wednesday, James Taylor. Thursday and Friday, Ringo Starr.
But tonight the leadoff man is Ari Berman. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the seminal achievements of the civil rights movement. But in recent years, it’s come under fire with efforts in state legislatures and the courts to roll back its reforms.
Joining us now to explain why voting rights are once again cause for concern in this country, Ari Berman, political correspondent for The Nation magazine, and author of the new text, “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America”. Ari, as always, good to have you on this program.
Ari Berman: Good to see you, Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: Before I jump to the book, two things I want to ask your take on. The John Boehner story and the visit of the Pope. I put them together because it may have been that John Boehner had a “come to Jesus” moment with the Pope to lead him to this decision. But first Mr. Boehner. What do you make of his announcement and what do you expect in the coming days?
Berman: Well, I think it’s sad that he felt like he had to step down because otherwise Republicans were going to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood. I mean, that’s how bad things were getting. He couldn’t even keep the trains running, so he figured I’m done with this.
So what I think it will mean is that a lot of things are going to get done in a very short period of time and then nothing is going to get done for a very long period of time because this is a structural problem.
You have a Republican caucus that basically is unwilling to govern and believes that they can magically force the president to do things even though there is separation of powers here and two very different views about how to govern things.
So I don’t see how anyone else can step in and do a different kind of job or a better kind of job than John Boehner did. The House was very dysfunctional under John Boehner, remember, and it’s only going to get worse now.
Tavis: And your thoughts on the Pope’s visit?
Berman: Well, it was a great visit for the Pope. I think it was definitely a PR coup for the Catholic church and he also said some very, very interesting things. A lot of the things he said were quite radical about climate change and immigration and economic justice.
I know everyone said that he was a uniting figure, but if you listen to what he said, there were a lot of very progressive messages there. So it was really a major reorientation of the Catholic church in terms of what he was talking about.
Tavis: There are those who look at the coverage, though, and think the coverage was so biased, such a love fest for the Pope, that the other critical issues that the Catholic church ought to be confronted on just kind of get washed away because the media is just in overdrive with adulation of the Pope.
Berman: I think that’s right. The coverage should have been more critical and it should have looked at not just the other side of the Catholic church, but also how successful the Pope has been in trying to push the church.
Is he really trying to push them on these issues or is he just trying to rebrand what the church stands for. Is there substance behind this or is it just style? I think there is some substance behind it. I think it’s just style, but certainly has a long way to go in pushing what remains a very status quo conservative institution.
Tavis: To your text now, “Give Us the Ballot”, why all these years later are voting rights under attack again? What’s that Yogi Berra line, God rest his soul, “Déjà vu all over again”?
Berman: Well, there’s a picture of Barack Obama when he’s a young organizer in Chicago and he’s doing a voter registration drive in 1992 and he’s standing next to a poster that says, “It’s a power thing” and that’s what voting is. It’s about power and that’s why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was so important because it gave power to so many people that didn’t have power for such a long time.
And then as the country shifts in power as the demographics change as you have the first Black president, there are new people with new power and there are other people that feel very threatened about that power. So changing voting rights has always been something that follows great periods of progress.
You look at the Civil War and Reconstruction, these amazing things happen and then all the literacy tests and poll taxes are passed to try to roll that back. Then you take the election of President Obama, this new majority taking power, and there are similar attempts to try to roll back that progress.
Tavis: How complicit—for those who’ve not been following this—how complicit has this Supreme Court been in the attack on voting rights?
Berman: They’ve been driving the attack on voting rights. It was the Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 decision of Shelby County versus Holder that took away the most important part of the Voting Rights Act which was the requirement that those states with the worst histories of voting discrimination, places like Alabama, Mississippi, George, South Carolina, that they had to approve their voting changes with the federal government to make sure they didn’t discriminate in the future.
What the Supreme Court said is, “Those states no longer have to approve their voting changes” and we’ve seen major new restrictions be passed after that in places like North Carolina as a result.
Tavis: Your book sort of gets at this, but the real debate as I see it, and I think as you see it, is the conservative argument that voting rights ought to just protect access to the ballot versus the other side of the coin, the other argument, which is that voting rights ought to protect the entire electoral process. Give me some understanding of that debate.
Berman: So initially, the Voting Rights Act struck down things like literacy tests and poll taxes that had been used to disenfranchise Black voters in places like Selma, Alabama for decades. And originally, conservatives that opposed the Voting Rights Act said it’s unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court quickly said that it was constitutional.
So what happened is states like Mississippi began changing their election laws to make it harder for these newly-registered Black voters to have real political power, to be able to run for office, to be able to be elected to office, to have real representation in their lives. And that case then came before the Supreme Court as well, all these new election changes.
And the Supreme Court said that the voting rights that govern everything relating to making a vote effective, for the vote to have real power, it had to go beyond representation to this idea that people had to be able to elect their candidates of choice, that you had to have people like John Lewis in Congress, like Barack Obama as president, for the Voting Rights Act to mean something.
Tavis: Is this attack on voting rights–if I can borrow from Ashford & Simpson–like a snowball rolling down the hill, or is there something that can be done to arrest this slippery slope?
Berman: I think there’s lots of good ideas out there for how to bring more people into the political process. We’re not lacking for ideas. We’re lacking for political will to implement them. There are lots of things we could do right now to make voting easier, whether that’s early voting or same-day voter registration or automatic voter registration, which is being considered in California.
The problem is, many states are moving in the opposite directions. You have places like Texas that, instead, are trying to require new forms of identification to vote, where you can vote with a handgun permit, but not a student ID, for example.
Or you have other places like North Carolina. They’re cutting early voting. They’re eliminating same-day voter registration. They’re purging the voting rolls. So we could be moving in a direction where we say it’s better as a democracy for more people to participate. Unfortunately, a lot of states, particularly those controlled by Republicans, are not doing that.
Tavis: To your earlier point, this is clearly about power. To what extent is it also about class and race?
Berman: It’s about all of those things. If you look at the people that were empowered by the Voting Rights Act, they were shut out of the political process for so many years because of their race, but also at times because of their class as well.
So when there was a whole new bunch of voters enfranchise, they wanted policy proposals passed that reflected that diversity, that economic diversity, that racial diversity. And you look at who was affected by cutting early voting or eliminating same-day voter registration or requiring strict forms of government-issued ID to cast a ballot.
They’re all people that have either been historically disenfranchised or at the lower end of the economic ladder, and they need something of a push sometimes to get involved in the political process. And when you start making it harder to vote, they’re disproportionately affected by it.
Tavis: Why should this attack on voting rights matter to those persons who may not even be disenfranchised by the attack? Does that make sense?
Berman: Yeah. Well, when Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before Congress in March 1965, he said, “It’s wrong, deadly wrong, to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote”, meaning we can’t live in a democracy where people are disenfranchised. In 1965, we had an entire segment of the population and an entire region of the country that couldn’t vote.
Now we’ve come a long way, but in the year 2014, for someone to be disenfranchised in Texas or North Carolina for no good reason, that should alarm all of us. So we can’t say we’re a democracy if we’re still trying to limit the most fundamental right in the democracy for far too many citizens.
Tavis: Ari Berman is a brilliant and courageous writer at The Nation magazine most often, but now with a new text called “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America”. You might want to grab this. Ari, good to have you on the program. Congrats on the book, my friend.
Berman: Great to see you, Tavis. Thank you.
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