Greg Palast: Congress should extend Voting Rights Act to all states before Supreme Court overturns it
Bio: Greg Palast is a BBC investigative reporter and author of Vultures’ Picnic. Palast turned his skills to journalism after two decades as a top investigator of corporate fraud. Palast directed the U.S. governmentʼs largest racketeering case in history– winning a $4.3 billion jury award. He also conducted the investigation of fraud charges in the Exxon Valdez grounding.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of The Palast Report with investigative journalist Greg Palast, who joins us from New York. He’s a, as I said, investigative journalist who does a lot of work for BBC Television. He writes for The Nation and Rolling Stone. And his new book is Billionaires & Ballot Bandits.
Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.
GREG PALAST, BBC INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Paul, a pleasure again.
Jay: So you’ve been working on the Supreme Court review of the Voting Rights Act.
Palast: Oh, yeah. Well, the Supreme Court’s been kind of working on us. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is what I call the Martin Luther King dream act. It was 50 years ago this year that King, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, said he had a dream. And the dream included that any person, any American citizen can vote, no matter their color—what a radical idea. And the Voting Rights Act was the enactment of that dream.
Now we have a nightmare Supreme Court—or the Klu Klux Court, as some people might want to call it after hearing the arguments and hearing them yesterday. What the court has decided to do under the push of Chief Justice Roberts is to hollow out the Voting Rights Act—leave the title up there, but take out the mechanism for enforcing the Voting Rights Act. And what that mechanism is is called section five pre-clearance.
Pre-clearance has nothing to do with acne medicine that clears up your skin. It’s about—it’s a kind of democracy medicine that prevents old Jim Crow states from changing their rules to shaft, purge, eliminate, block, intimidate voters of color. For example, it says you cannot change a rule unless the Justice Department reviews the rule and says, okay, that doesn’t knock out too many black voters.
Jay: So, Greg, give us an example of some of the rules you’re talking about.
Palast: Okay, let me give you an example. In the year 2000, a lady named Katherine Harris, secretary of state of Florida, at the goading of Jeb Bush, governor, purged over 58,000 people from the voter roles of Florida. Most of them were African Americans. The grounds were that they were criminals, felons, not allowed to vote in Florida, 58,000. Well, of those 58,000, exactly—and here’s the interesting point, Paul—exactly none, none, zero were illegal voters.
I met a Gulf War veteran, Willy Stein, who, you know, showed up at the polls with his son and said—and to vote, wanted to show his five-year-old son what Martin Luther King had done for them. He was told, you’re a felon; you can’t vote.
So now if Florida tries to purge its voter roles, it has to clear it with the U.S. Department of Justice. And they did try it again. The current governor of Florida just this past year, Rick Scott, said he had 180,000 names of illegal alien voters, 180,000. Now, remember, voting if you’re an alien is a crime in the United States. It’s a go to jail then get deported crime.
So did they arrest anyone, the tough Mr. Governor, Scott? Yes. Out of a hundred—and here’s the interesting thing: they were blocked by the U.S. Justice Department from removing the names of 180,000 voters from the voter roles of Florida, 180,000—mostly Hispanics, of course, mostly Democrats, of course. Out of the 180,000, they had evidence to arrest one, who is a Republican from Austria. Okay? That’s it. In other words, these purges are purely—basically, it’s a changing of white sheets to spread sheets and using that to wipe out voters of color.
Jay: So go back to the case the Supreme Court is reviewing, some of the specifics involved.
Palast: What’s being reviewed is the right of the Justice Department to say no, you can’t wipe out 180,000 Hispanic Democratic voters on some weird suspicion based on some strange computer algorithm that basically is some type of Jim Crow—you know, cybernetic Jim Crow—.
Jay: So go back to what happened in the court room when the lawyers were presenting their briefs, ’cause the reaction of some of the judges was interesting.
Palast: Yeah. Well, I think that a former civil rights attorney in the Justice Department said that Scalia’s comments were so racist that the crosses burned themselves. What Judge Scalia, I should say, Scalia had said was that the Voting Rights Act—oh, what a nice name; Congress will never do anything to stop this thing, but, you know, it’s just another case of special privilege for some racial group, special—. Yeah.
You know, in fact, that special privilege, sir, the Voting Rights Act, did not grant black people the right to vote. That was granted by something called the Civil War—a lot of dead bodies. In fact, you may have seen the movie recently, Mr. Justice Scalia. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment gave black people in America and Hispanic people and Jewish people and Mormons the right to vote, ’cause they didn’t have it. Okay? That was 1870, Fifteenth Amendment.
It took nearly 100 years, till ’65, to get a law that would allow Congress to enforce it. And the only way to enforce it is to say: before you come up with cockamamie voting rules like poll taxes, like felon purges, like illegal alien purges, gerrymandering of districts, you know, all kinds of tricks that are used to knock out voters of colors, we have to have this pre-clearance. And it’s only the pre-clearance which was before the Court.
Justice Roberts—and I use the name Justice only because that’s how it’s printed—Justice Roberts, who is the chief justice, has said that the Voting Rights Act was a wonderful thing, it served its purpose, but now we have—hey, look it, we’ve got a black president, we’ve got a lot of black officials. Does that mean Jim Crow is dead? No. It means it’s gotten very, very, very sophisticated. It doesn’t mean it’s gone, just because we have black officials.
So he is stepping in the way of the United States Congress, which has always—already and always chosen to reenact this law, because it expires every 20 years. And I have to say that he’s right about one thing, Justice Roberts, that there is no reason to pick on the South, because the South—because in the pre-clearance section, only 16 states are subject to that pre-clearance rule.
Jay: So the pre-clearance we’re talking about is that the 16 states have to run any rule changes by the Justice Department before they can implement them.
Palast: That’s the game. They can’t play any elections games. They can’t change the ballots. No butterfly ballots, no tricks, no games.
Jay: So the issue you’re raising is it just shouldn’t be those 16 states, ’cause it’s not just those states that are playing games.
Palast: Well, in fact, I’m sitting in a pre-clearance state called New York. Why is New York suddenly part of the Confederacy that needs special scrutiny? The answer is: the Puerto Rican vote in New York. People come from Puerto Rico are Americans. They serve more—it’s a state, not part of the union yet, but it is an American state which provides more people per capita to the military than any other state, and that’s where our Marines come from. And then when they leave the Marine Corps and stay in New York, they can vote, but the State of New York did a very good job in knocking out Hispanic voters, so we got on the Jose Crow list of the Justice Department.
And then there was a guy named Ronald Reagan, a great civil rights leader who extended the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance provisions to his own state of California. That was, by the way, after he did his “I have a nap” speech. And so even Reagan understood that Voting Rights are American rights. It’s part of the Constitution. And Reagan expanded the Voting Rights Act to California and Arizona.
Alaska, by the way, where native—Alaskan natives faced all kinds of discrimination votes, including, again, ballots that are printed only in English when they speak several other native languages. Very few at the time, in the ’70s, spoke English or could read it. It wasn’t their language. But they’re still Americans, and they pay more taxes than most of us.
Jay: When do you expect the Supreme Court to render a decision on this?
Palast: By June we expect the Court to issue its decisions. They have agreed, though—they’ve already taken a vote that they will not wear their white hoods, only their black robes. And we do expect a decision, I would say, in which pre-clearance will be dropped by the Supreme Court, which will basically destroy the King dream act.
But there is a solution, the Ronald Reagan solution, of all things, which is to expand pre-clearance. Reagan expanded it from six states to seven states to 16 states. It is now time to give everyone in America the protection of Justice Department review.
I was in Ohio, Paul, on election day and the election weekend for the souls to the polls voting by black folk. You’ll see me in lines, walking the lines of black voters in Ohio, where they were waiting three, four, and five hours in freezing parking lots to vote. I then drove up to a suburb of Toledo to check out the lines there, and I couldn’t because there were no lines. You’ll see me standing in front of an empty polling station, except for the couple of people inside. There are fewer voters than there are voting machines.
That’s the type of Jim Crow stuff that’s just got to end. And when our president says, gee, someone ought to do something about that, yeah, you should, Mr. President, you should, Congress, we should. And so one way to overcome a Klu Klux court is to take the pre-clearance provision and make it nationwide, provide it to old Dixie in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida into new Dixie in Ohio and Pennsylvania, New York, and California.
Jay: Thank you for joining us.
Palast: You’re welcome.
Jay: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.