Will Every Eligible Voter Be Able to Cast a Ballot?

Janine Jackson: It’s hard to pick the most ominous or disturbing thing Donald Trump has said, but his call for supporters to “go and watch” polling places in “certain areas” because “you know what I’m talking about” is up there. But Trump’s claim that the election is rigged — unless he wins, in which case it isn’t — didn’t spring full-blown from his head. Republicans have claimed voter fraud benefiting their opponents for a long time. And for a long time, corporate media have set those claims alongside concerns about voter suppression, of African-Americans and immigrants in particular, as though they were equally grounded, or just analogous partisan gripes.

Now, as we look toward the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, where and what are the real concerns? Ari Berman is a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine, and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Ari Berman.

Ari Berman: Thanks for having me back, Janine.

Well, we can’t get pulled into saying, obviously it’s nutsy for anyone to have any concerns about impropriety in the voting system. Nobody who remembers Florida in 2000 wants to say that, exactly. It’s a matter of defining what the problems are that we’re talking about. And you have written about the connection, actually, about how we got from Florida in 2000 to where we’re at today. I wonder if you could talk about what happened there.

I think you’re right that people are confusing a number of different issues. They’re confusing problems in our election system that are resulting from disenfranchisement, and they’re saying that’s the same thing as voter fraud, attempts to illegally vote. What we saw in Florida 2000 was there was a lot of different problems. Obviously, people know about hanging chads and butterfly ballots and Katherine Harris, etc., etc., but there was another part of the election that didn’t get a lot of coverage, which is that the state of Florida did a massive voter purge.

They claimed that all of these ex-felons were on the voting rolls and needed to be purged. Florida was one of only a few states that didn’t allow ex-felons to be able to vote. And the problem was this purge was done in both an inaccurate and a discriminatory way, and after the election we learned, because the NAACP sued the state, that 12,000 registered voters were wrongly labeled as felons and prevented from voting. And that was 22 times George W. Bush’s margin of victory. And I think that was a clear example of voter disenfranchisement.

However, it was spun by the Bush administration, by conservatives, as they realized that manipulating the country’s voting laws could give them a partisan advantage, and that talking about voter fraud, whether or not the fraud actually existed, was the way to build support for those restrictions. So, ironically, instead of saying, we can never allow this disenfranchisement to happen again after the 2000 election in Florida, it became more likely that this would occur, because Republicans saw it as a way to benefit them politically.

And we saw in the wake of that, a number of actual policy moves, in terms of new laws introduced, and we’re still dealing with that today.

Yeah. Well, we’ve seen really an explosion of these laws following the election of Barack Obama as president. And when Republicans gained control of many states in the 2010 election, they began to introduce a whole variety of new voting restrictions, whether it was strict voter ID laws or cutting back early voting or eliminating same-day voter registration or purging the voting rolls, all of these things. And really they gave us a one-size-fits-all description for it, which was that they were trying to combat voter fraud, even though voter fraud is a very, very small problem in American elections.

And voter impersonation, which is the kind of thing a voter ID law would stop, is exceedingly rare, as we’ve heard a lot about recently, the fact that there’s only 31 cases of voter impersonation out of a billion votes cast. So by any objective measure, voter fraud is not a big problem in American elections, but it’s been a manufactured controversy that’s been used to pass all of these new laws making it harder to vote.

Where do you see actual problems or concerns?

Well, I just got back from Wisconsin, which is one state that has a strict voter ID law, and I’m seeing a tremendous amount of problems here. Basically, the main issue is that people are being required to be able to get strict forms of ID. They’re being required to get underlying documents, like birth certificates, for example. That can be extremely burdensome to people who don’t have them.

And the courts in Wisconsin have repeatedly said to the state that you have to make it easy for people to get IDs. But when I went to Wisconsin, I both talked to voters who made multiple trips to the DMV and weren’t given voter IDs, and I also got recordings from the DMV that show that they were just giving out wrong information, over and over, on a very systematic basis to voters. And even after the federal courts ordered them to make this ID accessible, the DMV and Scott Walker’s administration in Wisconsin admitted that they basically did nothing.

So we’re in a situation where new restrictions are either in effect, or even in places where they are no longer in effect or where they have been softened, Republican states are just ignoring these court orders. So I’m concerned about the fact that in places like Wisconsin, people are not being issued the IDs they need to vote. In states like Ohio, people have been purged from the voting rolls. They’ve supposedly been reinstated by the courts, but we’ll see what happens when they show up. In Texas, the courts relaxed that state’s voter ID law, but Texas is still claiming, falsely, that people need strict ID to be able to vote.

So I think there’s a bunch of different states that could be problematic, and these are just the states that we know about. It’s very possible that there will be issues, long lines, not enough polling machines, polling places changing, in states that we’re not even aware of come Election Day.

Yeah, I was looking at Texas, where they had this strict photo ID rule, and then there was a victory: there was an alternative to that. They had to institute a way that you didn’t need to follow this strict voter ID and that you would still be allowed to vote. And yet that nominal victory, on the ground, it seems like it’s not playing out that way.

Well, the state has just been extremely resistant to every single court order. And it’s important to know that in Texas, their voter ID law would have been blocked and was blocked under the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act. So, really, this law really should have never seen the light of the day to begin with, and instead we’ve now seen five years of litigation.

There’s a few different problems. One, Texas is basically emphasizing that you need strict ID, and a poll just came out that said that 44 percent of people think it’s required. So that’s problematic, because if people don’t have these forms of ID, or don’t believe they have them, they might not show up in the first place. And other people who can legally vote may not have their votes counted. Then you have officials in the state of Texas saying they’re going to prosecute or investigate anyone who signs an affidavit, which is kind of the fallback mechanism if you don’t have strict ID. So what the courts thought of as a remedy, as a safety net, is being turned into a mechanism for Texas to prosecute people, which I just find so incredibly disturbing.

Let me just ask you, finally, I don’t really personally feel that mainstream media, anyway, have done a great job of separating false concerns from real concerns. It seems kind of a muddle when you look at it. But if you’re talking to journalists between now and the election about not who’s more presidential, but about the voting process itself, what would you like them to be pursuing or pointing out?

I think the media have done a pretty good job of debunking Trump’s rigged election statements. But I don’t think they’ve gone to the second part of it, which we’ve been discussing, which is, there actually is an attempt to undermine the integrity of the election. It’s just not being done by Democrats, it’s being done by Trump’s people, by Republicans. And so I think they need to be a lot more aggressive.

For example, the Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted was all over cable news after he said the election wouldn’t be rigged in Ohio. Well, nobody asked him, what about the fact that you purged illegally one million voters from the rolls? I think it’s great that there has been some pushback about the myth of voter fraud, but I think it’s very unfortunate that the media haven’t been diving deeper into the legitimate disenfranchisement efforts, and asking people, will every eligible voter be able to cast a ballot? Because I’m still very concerned that’s not going to be the case.

Ari Berman is a senior contributing writer for The Nation and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Thank you very much, Ari Berman, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks a lot, Janine.