With the 2016 general election just days away, many believe voter suppression in this country needs to be a bigger part of the current political discussion. Voter suppression “is the real voter fraud,” stated Ari Berman, a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine and author of Give Us the Ballot.
“We are focused on the wrong problem,” Berman has insisted. “All of us should be outraged. Instead of finding new ways to restrict voting rights, we have to think of new ways to expand, to make it easier to vote.”
The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in voting practices by federal, state and local governments, is slowly being dismantled in recent years by many state legislatures. This is evident with new voter ID laws, redistricting, and inaccessible polling places that have disenfranchised millions of voters, many of whom are Black, as well as other people of color, poor people, college students and the elderly.
“I feel that we dropped the ball,” said Southern Poverty Law Center Outreach Director Lecia Brooks. She, Berman, longtime local activist and educational activist Dr. Josie Johnson, and Dameun Strange, executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, spoke on voting rights October 24 as part of Penumbra Theatre’s “Let’s Talk” series.
Strange is an artist and organizer who once worked with ACORN, a former national voter registration group (among other things) whose demise occurred after they lost funding amidst accusations that its members participated in voter fraud in the 2008 elections. He told the mostly White audience, “We had a system in place” to monitor such activity.
“Jimmy Carter in 1976 [during his presidential campaign] said everyone who is 18 years old should [be] automatically registered to vote,” said Berman. He pointed out that Oregon is now automatically registering voters when they apply for a state driver’s license or state ID. Why can’t this be done in every state?
“The only reason why we don’t do that is because some people don’t want everyone to vote,” said Berman. “Voting rights has been a regional issue and a racial issue.” The Republican Party has been the leader in the push for voter suppression, beginning shortly after Barack Obama’s 2008 election, explained Berman.
Berman briefly relayed a story of a 58-year-old Black man “who has voted his entire life” but moved from Illinois to Wisconsin. When he tried to get a photo ID in order to vote in his new state, “They [officials] wouldn’t give him a voter ID because his name on his birth certificate” had a clerical error. “He has the same first name and same last name, but it wasn’t entered properly,” explained Berman.
After at least seven back-and-forth trips between the two states, the man still can’t get an ID and will be ineligible to vote in November. “This is happening in 2016,” affirmed Berman.
Johnson also recalled when she was a youngster growing up in Texas fighting against a poll tax. “I wasn’t able to vote until 1952 in Massachusetts. Here am I a woman of 86 trying to understand what is going on now,” she said.
“The data shows that voter fraud, particularly voter impersonation, is a very small problem in America,” Berman later said to the MSR. “It has been blown…totally out of proportion. Meanwhile, the number of people who are turned away from the polls doesn’t get any coverage.”
Obama’s election as the first Black U.S. president became “a linchpin” that sparked “White racial anxiety…a low-level anxiety” that saw the rise of the Tea Party and other groups that convinced many Whites “to be racist and bigoted in public,” said Brooks. “People started thinking the country didn’t belong to them.”
Currently there is “the proliferation of ‘Trumpism,’ a small group of people controlling the narrative,” said Strange. “We had the ability to stop it, but [instead] we kept feeding it.”
Asked if, with the high dislike ratings for both major presidential candidates, this will directly impact voter turnout, Berman responded, “The U.S. is pretty stable. Even in our best year, the turnout is 60 percent. Regardless of who the candidates are, you can’t ignore the fact that 40 percent of the country is not voting, and we should be addressing that.
“It is going to be very interesting,” continued Berman. “People on one hand dislike both candidates, but on the other hand, a lot of folk are very fired up about it, too. We’ll see what happens.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the top states in voter turnout, said Berman. “Almost 80 percent in Minnesota vote in presidential elections. I don’t think turnout will be that much different” this year.
No matter who wins the 2016 presidential election, “There are going to be a lot of upset people,” said Brooks. “So whoever [is elected] will have to spend their transition time bringing the country together.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.