As 12 states head to the polls on Super Tuesday, we look at how voting rights could become a pivotal issue in the 2016 race. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which has been under attack ever since. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down crucial components of the act in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, when it ruled that states with histories of voting-related racial discrimination no longer had to "pre-clear" changes to their voting laws with the federal government. Immediately following the Shelby ruling, several states passed laws that made it harder for people to vote. The 2016 race is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. "Sixteen states have new voting restrictions in place," notes Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation. His recent piece is "63,756 Reasons Racism is Still Alive in South Carolina." His book is titled Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As we move into Super Tuesday, with 11 states and American Samoa voting, we look at voting rights, which could become the pivotal issue in the 2016 race. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which has been under attack ever since. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down crucial components of the act in a case called Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, when it ruled states with histories of voting-related racial discrimination no longer had to pre-clear changes to their voting laws with the federal government. Immediately following the Shelby ruling, several states passed laws that made it harder for people to vote. The 2016 race is the first presidential election in half a century without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act.
To talk more about the potential impact of voting rights in this election, we're joined by Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation, his recent piece headlined "63,756 Reasons Racism is Still Alive in South Carolina." His new book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!
ARI BERMAN: Good to see you again, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this 63,000-plus reasons racism is still alive in South Carolina.
ARI BERMAN: Well, South Carolina has a new voter ID law, and that number, 63,000, is the number of minority voters without ID, who could not vote, under the law, unless they have an excuse for why they don't possess this ID. And the voter ID law in South Carolina was passed in a very racially charged, anti-Obama atmosphere. Members of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus walked out when this bill was considered. This was passed overwhelmingly by white Republicans. One of the authors of the law received -
AMY GOODMAN: Was one of the people who walked out Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down last June?
ARI BERMAN: Yes, I believe so. And one of the bill's sponsors received an email from a supporter of the voter ID law that said, if African Americans were paid for voter ID, it would be like, quote, "a swarm of bees going after a watermelon" - very racially charged language. And the author of the voter ID law, a South Carolina Republican, said, "Amen. Thank you for your support of voter ID." So that was the atmosphere in which the voter ID law was passed. About 7 percent of registered voters don't have a government-issued ID. Minority voters were 20 percent more likely than whites to not have this. And so, this is the climate heading into 2016.
AMY GOODMAN: So that is South Carolina. Talk about Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, the states that are now going to be voting on Tuesday.
ARI BERMAN: Yeah, well, five of the states that are voting on Super Tuesday have tough new voting restrictions in place. You look at places like Alabama, Texas, Virginia. They have strict voter ID laws in place for the first presidential cycle. Many, many voters could be impacted. You look at Texas, for example, 600,000 registered voters there don't have a government-issued ID. Blacks and Hispanics are twice as likely - two to three times as likely as whites to not have one. In Texas, you can vote with a gun permit, but not a student ID.
So this is a really big issue. Most of the media is not covering this. It hasn't come up. The issue of voting rights has not come up in 16 presidential debates. There has been so much focus on who people are going to vote for, but we haven't been asking another question, which is: Will people be able to vote in the first place? Will every eligible voter be able to cast a ballot?
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you feel needs to happen at this point to guarantee people the right to vote?
ARI BERMAN: Well, I think there's a number of things that have to happen. It's interesting. Last week, the Congress honored the foot soldiers of the Selma movement, people like Congressman John Lewis, who fought and nearly died for voting rights. But that same Congress will not restore the Voting Rights Act. And as you mentioned earlier, we're heading into the first presidential cycle in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. What that means in practice is that 16 states have new voting restrictions in place for the first presidential cycle in 2016. So, it's critically urgent to restore the Voting Rights Act and then make it easier to vote in a whole lot of different ways, things like early voting and same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration, to get a lot more people involved in the political process, because right now a quarter of Americans, 50 million people, are not even registered to vote and won't be participating in any way in the 2016 election.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, since this is the first time a lot of this is going into effect, how do people know what they're being told at the polls is right? Like when they say, "I didn't need an ID before," what are they supposed to do? They just walk away?
ARI BERMAN: Well, this is the problem here. In South Carolina, for example, they said you need photo ID to vote. You need one of five forms of photo ID to vote. But you didn't actually need that, because if you didn't have the ID, for example, you could sign an affidavit, cast a provisional ballot and still vote. But the problem is, the state was not telling voters this, so there was a lot of confusion, and people were staying home. And you look at the fact that 160,000 fewer Democrats voted in 2016 than in 2008 in the Democratic primary. There could be a whole lot of reasons for that, but there are certainly some people that didn't show up because of the voter ID law, that thought their votes wouldn't be counted. Even those people who are voting without ID, they're now casting provisional ballots. That takes a while to be counted. And just think back to 2000, Amy, in the Florida election - 537 votes was the margin of victory for George W. Bush about Al Gore. We're talking about many, many, many, many more people now impacted by these new laws. So I'm very, very concerned that in a close election, these laws can make a difference.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the candidates' positions on voting rights - for example, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
ARI BERMAN: Well, the Democrats have been much, much better than the Republicans on this issue. There's been a huge gap. Rubio is someone, a supposed moderate, establishment candidate in the race. He has supported cutbacks to early voting in Florida. He has supported efforts to purge the voting rolls. He has supported strict voter ID laws. When he was asked by a voter in Iowa about six-hour lines in Miami on Election Day 2012, Rubio responded, "Well, that was only on Election Day," which was a crazy comment, because, yes, the longest lines usually do occur on Election Day, but in Florida, because they cut back on early voting, there were long lines all the way through the process. And President Obama said on election night 2012, "We have to fix that," pointing specifically about - at Florida. So, Rubio clearly has not learned anything from the debacle on voting rights in that state in 2012 and in 2000 and all the things that have happened in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: Texas [Senator] Ted Cruz, his state, of course, in Super Tuesday?
ARI BERMAN: Ted Cruz has been one of the worst Republicans on the issue of voting rights. He supports strict voter ID laws. He supported the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. He wants you to show proof of citizenship to register to vote, so you have to have a birth certificate or a passport when you're registering to vote, which many, many people don't have. And I wrote an article for The Nation recently that basically said Ted Cruz is leading the way when it comes to making it harder to vote.
But all of the candidates themselves have supported tough restrictions. You look at Jeff Sessions, who just endorsed Donald Trump, the first senator, as you mentioned, who endorsed Donald Trump. Jeff Sessions was someone who, as a US attorney in Alabama, falsely targeted black activists for voter fraud. He called the NAACP a communist organization. He called a US attorney in Alabama "boy." This is someone with a very long history of not only racially charged remarks, but of supporting things like gutting the Voting Rights Act. And this is now the face of the Republican Party. Ted Cruz, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump - this is the face of the Republican Party right now.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let's talk Donald Trump. Speaking at a rally in New Hampshire last month, he said that the voting system is out of control.
DONALD TRUMP: Look, you've got to have real security with the voting system. This voting system is out of control. You have people, in my opinion, that are voting many, many times. They don't want security. They don't want cards.
AMY GOODMAN: That's Donald Trump.
ARI BERMAN: Well, there's no evidence that people are voting many, many times, as Trump said. You look at voter impersonation, which is the kind of thing a voter ID law would stop. There have been only 31 cases of voter impersonation since 2000, out of a billion votes cast. So this has been a red herring. This narrative of voter fraud has been drummed up to build consensus for policies that make it harder for certain people to vote. It's been a manufactured controversy. The real fraud is the fact that all of these voters are going to the polls and facing new restrictions for the first time, that are unnecessary, that are burdensome and that are discriminatory.
AMY GOODMAN: Prisoners, the rights of people who have been in prison or on parole or on probation, or who are completely done with the criminal justice system in this country?
ARI BERMAN: It's a huge issue. More than 5 million Americans can't vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws, including one-in13 African Americans. So when you talk about the criminal justice system, you talk about Black Lives Matter, there's a huge piece in terms of voting rights that relates to all of these issues. Voter disenfranchisement is another legacy of Jim Crow that we are still wrestling with today.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Bernie Sanders will be celebrating Super Tuesday in his home state of Vermont, where prisoners in prison can actually vote.
ARI BERMAN: Well, and Vermont has some of the best laws in the country, if you look at - they have same-day voter registration, for example, that increases voter turnout by up to 10 percent. So, there are states with much better election laws that are voting on Super Tuesday, like Minnesota, like Vermont. Unfortunately, places like Texas, Alabama, they are moving in a very different direction.
AMY GOODMAN: How do people who have a record find out are they able to vote?
ARI BERMAN: Well, the laws are different in different places. And some people have their voting rights restored, and they don't even know about it. So they have to - there has to be much better outreach to these communities, for example. Maryland just became a state that allows you to vote if you are on parole. So, that's one of those places where - the word needs to get out now that the law has changed. But most people can't follow the intricacies of voting rights. They don't know. They're not election law experts. They don't know when the law changes, particularly people that just get out of prison and are wrestling with a whole number of issues. So, I think it would be great if we had standardized laws in this country. If, when people serve their time, they were able to vote everywhere, I think that makes a lot of common sense. Unfortunately, that's not the system we have right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, I want to thank you for being with us. Ari Berman covers voting rights for The Nation. His latest book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
When we come back, the Oscars. Stay with us.