Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for the Nation, discusses repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the possible two-tiered democracy developing between blue and red states
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. Arizona primary voting results may be old news but what voters experienced that day at polling station is still quite fresh in people’s minds. There were long lines at polling stations with some holding 700 people. many folks ended up waiting more than five hours just to vote. But what caused all of this? If you look at the largest county in Arizona Maricopa County, since the 2012 presidential election, the county significantly cut the number of polling stations from 200 to 60. That translates to 1 polling station for every 21,000. Here’s what a Maricopa County official had to say in response to the outrage. OFFICIAL: We’re required by law to have no more than half of our normal polling places and we tried to reduce that looking at, looking past history. DESVARIEUX: The electoral mayhem in Arizona comes three years after the Supreme Court ruled to strip Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Now joining us to discuss how what happened in Arizona could be a preview for what other state primaries could possibly endure. Joining us is Ari Berman. He is a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine, and he has a book out titled Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights in America. Thanks so much for joining us, Ari. ARI BERMAN: Hey Jessica, Good to talk to you. DESVARIEUX: So Ari, first explain to us what Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act actually did and how the 2013 Supreme Court ruling plays into what we recently saw in Arizona BERMAN: So, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required those states with the longest histories of voting discrimination, largely in the South but not exclusively, to approve their voting changes with the federal government to prevent future discrimination from occurring after 1965. And this part of the law was so important because it blocked 3000 discriminatory voting changes from 1965 to 2013. It was critically important not just in the 1960s but in the decades after as well, as states tried to think of new and more creative ways to get out from under the Voting Rights Act. What the Supreme Court did is they said that the formula under which those states were covered was no longer constitutional. And as a result, those states with such a long history of voting discrimination which includes places like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia and Texas and Arizona, i might add, no longer have to approve their voting changes. DESVARIEUX: All right, so connect the dots for us. How did that affect what happened in Arizona BERMAN: Well, previously if a state like Arizona wanted to make a voting change like reducing the number of polling places, they would have had that approved with the federal gov. And if that largest county, Arizona’s Maricopa County, wanted to eliminate 70% of its polling places, that was something the justice department would have scrutinized very closely, because minority voters are 48% of Maricopa County. There was strong evidence that predominantly Latino areas, for example, had no polling places or only one polling place, and there were very very long lines in diverse parts Maricopa County, like downtown Phoenix. This is precisely the type of voting change the Justice Department would have scrutinized under the Voting Rights Act. DESVARIEUX: But Ari, officials aren’t pointing out that he Voting Rights Act had anything to do with the long waits that people saw. They say this have everything to do with historically high voter turnout and note enough voters taking advantage of early voting. What do you make of that argument? BERMAN: Well, it doesn’t really matter what the intent was. it doesn’t really matter if this was done to discriminate against people or if it was just something that was a mix-up. The fact is that the Voting Rights Act would have reviewed this change. So well in advance of the election Justice Department officials, federal courts, would have asked the county, well, what’s going to happen if you reduce the number of polling places? What if people don’t take advantage of early voting? What if there is another hotly-contested primary? Is there another way to do this that makes more sense? That’s why the review process was so important. It’s not that it just blocked discriminatory changes from occurring, it’s that the review process made elections work better in these states. And I think if there had been more scrutiny over this voting change we would not have seen five hour lines in Arizona. DESVARIEUX: All right, let’s pivot and talk about how the Supreme Court ruling could affect future primaries. We have the Wisconsin primary coming up on April 5. Candidates are already there. They’re campaigning ahead of the vote and the state, it passed their own voter ID law back in 2011 which requires voters to provide photo identification in order to vote. But it’s not one of those states that would have been required under the Voting Rights Act Section 5 to get federal approval to reduce voting stations. So Ari, how does a state like Wisconsin fit into all of this? BERMAN: Well, Wisconsin has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country that’s going to be in effect for the first time in the 2016 primary. We saw a bunch of states that weren’t covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act pass new restrictions, following the 2010 election. Places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Ohio for example. And there was only so much Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act could do, and so Wisconsin’s voter ID law was challenged in the courts under other parts of the Voting Rights Act and also in state court as well. There was a very lengthy legal process. Unfortunately the seven circuit court of appeals upheld the voter ID law. There is some other litigation ongoing, but for now the law is in effect and basically, voters are just trying their best to maneuver around it. But it’s very burdensome because 300,000 registered voters, which is 9% of the electorate in Wisconsin, don’t have a government issued ID. So I am concerned that many voters will be affected. They might be turned away from the polls, other people might not show up in the first place because they don’t believe they’ll be able to cast a ballot. DESVARIEUX: So Ari, what can we expect in the future, in terms of restoring power to the Voting Rights Act, because we know congressional Republicans are refusing to even move forward with the nomination process for a justice. So the fight to restore any rights will certainly be stalled, but is there a way to bypass the Supreme Court? Could we get more voter protections on a local level and is any state actually doing it? BERMAN: I think that’s what has to happen right now because, as you mentioned, Congress is gridlocked. Congress has the power to restore the Voting Rights Act, to modernize it, but they refuse to do so. The Supreme Court’s deadlocked, so they’re not going to probably weigh in on any of these major cases in a significant way, so it has to come from a local level. We are seeing that some states are taking aggressive efforts to expand voting rights. Oregon and California, for example, just became the first two states to have automatic voter registration, which is when you request a driver’s license or an ID from the DMV, you’re automatically registered to vote, which could lead to hundreds of thousands of [inaud.] in Oregon and millions in California being able to register to vote. We’re seeing states adopt things like online registration, early voting, same-day voter registration. This is largely happening in blue states. However, I would like to see more progress in the red states because I’m concerned that we’re headed towards a two-tier democracy where it’s much easier to vote in the blue states and much harder to vote in the red states or in swing states that are controlled by Republicans right now. So I think it has to come at the local level. I also think that people need to elect candidates who support expanding voting rights as opposed to restricting voting rights. DESVARIEUX: Yeah, it’s certainly an issue we’re going to keep tracking here on The Real News. Ari Berman, thank you so much for joining us. BERMAN: Thank you, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.