This week, Bill talks to Keesha Gaskins and Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice about new voter ID and other election laws that keep the young, elderly, minorities and the poor from exercising one of the most fundamental American rights.
“When these votes come under attack by this level of partisan gamesmanship, it’s completely inappropriate and antithetical to our history,” Gaskins tells Bill. “This is a very real political issue, but beyond that, this is a real issue of real Americans being able to access and be self-determinative in how we’re governed.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Later in this broadcast we’ll take a look at the face of global capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Yes, I’m talking about America’s number one self-promoter, Donald Trump, who, when he hasn’t been firing fading TV stars on “The Celebrity Apprentice” or speaking for the anti-Obama birther cult, or providing red meat for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, has been digging up the ancient beaches of Scotland to build a luxury golf course for his pals, the idle rich. More on that coming up.
But first, a threat to democracy even more dangerous than the Donald. Across the country one state legislature after another has been making it harder for certain people to vote, especially by requiring them to show a government-issued photo id before they can cast their ballot. Ask what’s going on, and they solemnly respond, “We’re just trying to prevent voter fraud.” Ask them for evidence of that fraud, and they shamelessly shrug the shoulders and excuse themselves to go answer the door bell that’s not ringing because there’s no one there.
Last week, for example, in Pennsylvania’s state capital, Harrisburg, a thousand people gathered to protest a new photo ID law that could disenfranchise one in ten voters, including as much as 18 percent of the voters in Philadelphia -- even though state officials have said they have no reason to believe that fraud has occurred in the past or will in the future.
No one’s following the issue more keenly than the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Its new report, "The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification," finds that new voter ID rules already are in place in nine states, some of them swing states, with more than 57 million eligible voters who could determine which candidates get 127 electoral votes, nearly half the 270 needed to win the White House.
Keesha Gaskins is the co-author of that report. She’s a long-time organizer, lobbyist, trial attorney, and Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
Michael Waldman has been the president of the Brennan Center for Justice since 2005. During the Clinton administration, he was a Special Assistant to the President and a top White House policy aide on campaign finance reform.
Welcome to you both.
KEESHA GASKINS: Thank you.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Nice to be here.
BILL MOYERS: So, Michael, if there is so little fraud in federal elections, why is there such a fuss over voter ID?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: It’s a great question. In a way, this debate over who can vote and how we vote, it goes to the heart of American history. We've been fighting over this question of how we run our democracy since the beginning. And the country was premised on this vision in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And we’ve been trying to live up to that notion of political equality ever since. But all of a sudden, starting in January of 2011, you saw states across the country, about 20 states now passed a variety of laws making it harder for people to vote.
You saw them repeal election day registration in Maine, which people love. They can show up and vote. You saw in Florida the legislature and the governor signed a law making it very hard for nonprofit groups to register voters.
BILL MOYERS: Nonprofit groups such as…
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, the League of Women Voters of Florida, who the Brennan Center represented in court -- a well-known, radical sect, you know, the League of Women Voters. They were suddenly having to shut down their voter registration operation in Florida. Also, they ended early voting on one day, which was the Sunday before Election Day, which happened to be the day that African American churches voted in large numbers.
You saw laws like this all across the country. And it was sudden. There was no wave of voter fraud. There was no crisis being dealt with. It was just, unfortunately, a shift in who controlled these state legislatures. That's what happened starting in 2011.
BILL MOYERS: So, this was the big shift in the midterm elections of 2010. And you're saying this started soon after the Republicans gained the ascendancy in those state legislatures?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Minutes after they gained ascendancy. It wouldn’t be the first time in American history for politicians to manipulate the system for their own benefit.
BILL MOYERS: Earlier this summer, the Republican majority leader of the state House of Representatives in Pennsylvania, Mike Turzai, when he was boasting about the accomplishments of the legislature under Republican control, listed as one of their major accomplishments, quote, voter ID.
MIKE TURZAI: Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win: done!
BILL MOYERS: That seems to be confirming that voter ID is all about politics.
KEESHA GASKINS: Of course it's about politics. This is all about politics. I think our point is there's inappropriate partisan gamesmanship here, that when we talk about access to the polls, and we talk about the ability of individual Americans to cast their vote, in light of all the changes that we've seen since Citizens United and really seeing the real push of dollars into the election, and understanding that the only ability to put a thumb on the other side of the scale is that someone might be able to write a big check, but they still only have one vote.
And every citizen has that vote. And so, when these votes come under attack by this level of partisan gamesmanship, it's completely inappropriate and antithetical to our history. So, certainly, when we look at Pennsylvania, I mean, the statistics bear it out, certainly, right? We saw what happened, 750,000 people that appeared on the voter registration list that do not have a state issued photo ID in Pennsylvania.
We know Obama's margin of victory in that state, 600,000. So, I mean, obviously, this is a very real political issue, but beyond that, this is a real issue of real Americans, and really being able to access and be self-determinative in how we're governed.
BILL MOYERS: When I left the building this morning, one of the workers asked me what we were doing, and I told him and he said to me, "But listen, I have to show a photo ID when I get on an airplane and fly, why shouldn't I be asked to provide a voter ID when I go to vote?"
KEESHA GASKINS: What we see when we look at these highly restrictive voter ID laws is they actually end up cherry picking voters, allowing politicians to choose who votes rather than letting the voters choose their politicians. That the laws are overly restrictive.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean when you say these laws are overly restrictive?
KEESHA GASKINS: They're the types of IDs that we know that one in ten Americans don't have, that our studies have shown us that there are-- that 18 percent of senior citizens over 65, that 25 percent of African Americans, that a high percentage of young people all lack these strict kinds of government issued photo IDs.
For example, there's Dorothy Cooper, right, she's 96 years old. She tried to get photo ID recently in Tennessee and was unable to do so. She had her birth certificate. She had her voter registration card. She had her rent statement. She had her lease. And she appeared on the polls and had the ability to match her signature. When these laws are barring someone like that -- an American citizen who has plenty of identification, the ability to show who they are, that anyone with any common sense would say this is Dorothy Cooper, and she should be allowed to get photo ID.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: It’s really hard for so many people to understand how many people are affected by these restrictions. I have a driver's license. I suspect we all have driver's licenses. Probably most of the viewers watching say, "Well, of course, everybody's got a government photo ID like that." But it turns out that one in ten eligible voters in this country just don't. They're old or they don't have a car, or they're poor. There are a lot of reasons why not, but they just don't.
BILL MOYERS: So describe for us the real world challenges that face somebody who doesn't have a photo ID and needs to get one. What's the real world for them?
KEESHA GASKINS: What we've found in our most recent study was that there are very serious transportation problems in terms of access. We have ten million American voters live more than ten miles away from any ID issuing office. A half a million of those voters do not have access to a vehicle in their households.
BILL MOYERS: No car? What about bus, public transportation?
KEESHA GASKINS: Well, public transportation's also a problem, particularly in rural communities. We see decreased investment in public transportation, and simply, there's no access and limited times of day. And even when you can get there, there are challenges, of course, with whether or not the offices are open.
And if you're working a nine to five job, a low-income job, you can't afford to take time off. You cannot decide, “I'm going to not pay rent this month so I can spend two days obtaining an ID.” Like, these are real barriers, these are real obstacles for real people.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: When a state passes one of these voting laws, a voter ID law, there's a Constitutional requirement that says you have to make free ID available to voters.
And so, those folks who pass these laws say hey, no problem, you know, you can go get your free ID. What Keesha's excellent report just showed is that in the real world, that promise of a free ID is basically a mirage.
The underlying documents that you need to get your free ID cost money. And they actually cost more in current dollars than the poll tax did when it was declared unconstitutional in the 1960s.
KEESHA GASKINS: Again, our research shows us that African American voters, Latino voters, voters over 65, young people 18 to 24 are all in populations that lack this type of ID at rates well beyond the 11 percent of the general population.
BILL MOYERS: You have some startling statistics on your website. Of the states with the highest Hispanic population growth, seven have passed restrictive voting laws. Of the ten states with the highest black turnout, five have passed restrictive voting laws. Of the nine states covered by the Voting Rights Act, six passed restrictive voting laws.
You call it in your report the first rollback in voting rights since the Jim Crow era.
KEESHA GASKINS: Yes, and it is. I mean, when you look at the laws that were passed between 1865 and 1967, the laws that could be ascribed to, sort of, voting and voting rights, depending on how you count, were about 29 laws. In the last 18 months, 23 laws have passed in this country, in comparison between 18 months and that entire period. There has been a concerted effort to limit access to the polls during this period. And this is unprecedented since that time.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that these efforts to select out certain voters, to discriminate against certain voters that one party or another might not like anything to do with race?
KEESHA GASKINS: It has to do with race because it's clearly affecting voters of color in this country. The Department of Justice identified that, and pursuant to the Voting Rights Act said the laws in Texas, the laws in South Carolina were unfairly discriminatory. And so, whether or not it was the intention of those legislators to do so, the fact is these laws disproportionately impact voters based on race.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: These laws are so partisan and so particular in slicing away certain segments of the electorate. You know, in Texas, the new law signed by the governor there says that you cannot– you have to have a government-issued photo ID. You cannot use your University of Texas student ID but you can use your concealed carry gun permit. And so in Texas, they've got their voter ID law. The Justice Department looked at it and said, you know, this affects the voting rights of minorities. This is making it harder for minorities to vote. And not only that, it's disproportionately harder for Latinos and African Americans to vote.
So, the Justice Department is able to block that under the Voting Rights Act. Texas's response is to say, well, the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. And we can expect that these cases may very well make it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of these southern states, especially, which are covered under the Voting Rights Act, and their actions on voting have to be cleared in advance by the Justice Department's Civil Rights division. They say that it's wrong to single them out this many years later. My answer is, well, you know, it's harder for them to make that argument when they keep passing these laws that disproportionately affect minority voters.
BILL MOYERS: How can it be that almost 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, we're still fighting that battle in Texas and elsewhere.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: You know the right to vote is at the heart of who we are as Americans, but we've always had to fight for it. It's never been easy. There's always been people who want to block it or make it harder. And so, this is the next round in that long, long fight.
BILL MOYERS: The Pew Center recently issued a report saying our election system is in a mess. It's, inaccurate, costly and inefficient. Those are not my words, those are Pew's words. Some 24 million voter registrations are no longer valid or have significant inaccuracies. Almost two million deceased people are listed as voters, not all of them in Texas. Almost three million have registered in more than one state. About 12 million records have incorrect addresses. How do we clean this up?
KEESHA GASKINS: I mean, there’s one way we clean this up and that's modernization of our voter registration systems.
BILL MOYERS: Modernization, meaning computerizing.
KEESHA GASKINS: Certainly. And looking at the lists that already exist, looking at who has Social Security cards, and making sure that all these various databases are talking to each other so then it's much simpler to administer our elections. And everyone then has greater and freer access, you know. And to clarify, when Pew was speaking about inaccuracies, Pew was talking inaccuracies in the voter rolls, not in the outcomes of elections, that what we're really-- what the real concern is, is are we using, you know, our 21st century capabilities to create a 21st century election system. And we contend we're not. We agree with Pew. And there are some proposals out there.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: We’ve got a voter registration system that relies on paper, and where local counties and local officials are trying to make it all work and it's a mess. And it was a system that hasn't changed a whole lot since a hundred years ago when we created voter registration, when we had a wave of immigrants and former slaves who were suddenly voting, and suddenly, we put in a voter registration system.
If you moved in this country toward a system of modernized voter registration, where the government, the state governments, said we have a computerized list, and if you're eligible to vote, you're 18, you're a citizen, you're eligible, you're on that roll permanently. That's how they do it in Canada and Britain and other countries. Would add up to 65 million people to the rolls. It would cost less. And for people who are really worried about fraud, it addresses that potential as well. Mickey Mouse does not have a Social Security number.
BILL MOYERS: We're not there yet, Michael Waldman.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: No, we're not.
BILL MOYERS: We’re still in this real world of partisan politics. So, Keesha, why do you keep at this? I mean, it does seem to be very frustrating.
KEESHA GASKINS: I keep at this because of my core belief that it can get better, and that we as Americans have these rights, and we've got to keep striving for that. When I was a little girl, my father used to take me to community meetings. And he'd be out and active and making sure that the stop signs got up where they were supposed to be, and that nobody was being unfairly treated.
And I would be in there playing with my dolls, and it stuck. And I can't stop fighting. It is what is important and I'm proud to be working with the Brennan Center to be able to do this work. But at the end of the day, you know, this is about people. I'm thrilled to have co-authored the report with my colleague so people can really see the magnitude of the problem.
But to be fair, no one ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. This is about people. This is about people. This is about individuals who are struggling to be heard in our democracy, and fighting against great odds and even greater with some of the recent Supreme Court decisions. And so, we have to keep struggling.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: And you know, that’s the silver lining in a sense in all of this, which is there’s a rising level of public understanding of these issues, of public unhappiness, and a hope of public engagement on voting, on Citizens United. People are understanding, once again, that the rules of democracy are pretty important. And that if we don’t fix the systems in this country, we’re not going to solve the problems. And whatever issues people care about, whether it’s the environment, whether it’s the economy, whatever they may be, they’re realizing that unless we fix the systems and make it so their voices, the voices of ordinary citizens, can be heard, whoever they vote for, whatever causes they succeed in, we’re not going to actually achieve those goals. And that’s the first step toward actually making some of these changes.
BILL MOYERS: This is a very key point for people listening because they write me on our email, they stop me on the street and they say, you know, I really appreciate the forthrightness with which the guests who come to this table discuss these big issues, but it's depressing because I don't know what to do about it. What can I do as one individual?
KEESHA GASKINS: What you can do-- individuals can engage. There are organizations out there, and we'll use the name League of Women Voters one more time. The NAACP, Rock the Vote, all these organizations, State Voices, they're all out there working to help identify voters who need ID. Again, our report will help identify people who are in these areas that need more help than others. There are ways to fight back, as we saw citizens in Maine, citizens in Ohio really, really push back--
BILL MOYERS: What happened in Ohio?
KEESHA GASKINS: In Ohio, it was a citizen petition. They gathered enough signatures to actually block the implementation of a massive suppressive voter bill, which then got thrown to the ballot, and then, the legislature withdrew the bill.
BILL MOYERS: Who led that effort?
KEESHA GASKINS: It was a citizen-led effort, right. I mean, this was--
BILL MOYERS: Regular citizens, folks at the grass roots level?
KEESHA GASKINS: Folks at the grass roots level led that effort, went out, got the signatures and got it to the point where it had to be on the ballot where the legislature had to push back and actually withdraw the legislation. That-- it can be done. And the fact is, look at the mechanisms in the individual states. Look at how people can help, and there are real and meaningful ways to help people overcome these issues as the laws are implemented, and to also fight the laws in places where you can.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: In Maine, the state legislature had ended same day registration, and the voters went to the polls and actually repealed the repeal and put back same-day registration.
BILL MOYERS: They vetoed the state legislature.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: The people vetoed the politicians. But what’s heartening, which is that the wave began in 2011, but this year, especially those same laws have hit a wall of resistance from the courts, from the public, and from the Justice Department enforcing the civil rights laws that actually have blocked a lot of the worst laws. And that means a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to vote otherwise this election will be able to vote.
BILL MOYERS: Michael Waldman, Keesha Gaskins, thank you very much for being with us.
KEESHA GASKINS: Thank you.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Thank you.