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Ari Berman: Fighting suppression



At 29, Ari Berman has already racked up some impressive credentials: Rolling Stone contributor. Writer for The Nation magazine, called the flagship of the left. Political commentator on MSNBC and NPR.

He's also the author of a 2010 book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, about the grassroots Democratic movement that Barack Obama rode to the White House, how it evolved in key states including Colorado, and what's happened since the 2008 election.

A native of conservative Iowa, Berman says he always saw himself as liberal, like his parents. His worldview was solidified by the war in Iraq, due to the "media's refusal to ask the tough questions of the Bush administration," he says in a telephone interview from New York City.

"I didn't want to be part of the problem," he says. "To the extent that I had a radicalizing moment, that was it."

Berman, whose Rolling Stone article "The GOP War on Voting" came out in August, has become an expert in how the GOP is imposing restrictions on casting ballots, and creating barriers for certain groups that historically have voted Democratic: young people, the elderly, people of color and people with disabilities. Consider, as he reports:

"Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls ... And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots."

During the last state legislative session here, a GOP attempt to require photo IDs failed. Currently, Colorado voters must provide identification, but can use a number of documents to do so, including a Colorado driver's license, passport, pilot's license, utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, Medicare or Medicaid card or military ID.

We talked with Berman in advance of his Oct. 26 fundraising appearance with Peak Dems.

Indy: You've called the GOP's attempt to curtail access to the ballot the "war on voting." Is it really a war?

AB: There's no doubt that it's an extremely aggressive, concerted effort. It is pretty unprecedented to see so many different pieces of legislation introduced in so many states. My whole feeling on these laws is, generally speaking, you can find a way to get past the hurdle, but it just seems like such an unnecessary hurdle. We weren't having any problem that necessitated these laws.

Indy: You've said that these laws target students, the elderly, minorities. Could you explain that?

AB: Let's start with the students, the example in Wisconsin. The laws are written in such a way that they add all these criteria that make school IDs ineligible. So they're clearly picking on students there.

Ten to 11 percent of Americans don't have these IDs. But it's 18 percent of young people, and it's 25 percent of African-Americans. There's 600,000 registered voters in Texas who don't have a government-issued photo ID.

Indy: Should we be worried that people without IDs are trying to vote illegally?

AB: There's simply absolutely no evidence that illegal immigrants have ever tried to vote en masse in U.S. elections. That's another thing that's been bandied about in Colorado and other states.

Why would an illegal immigrant want to risk being deported by voting in an election? It makes absolutely no logical sense.

When I discussed this with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach during a radio interview, he said maybe the smugglers are paying them. This has to be the last thing in the smuggler's mind, getting people to vote for Barack Obama or John McCain. This has become an absurd hypothetical.

The voter fraud argument is like a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Indy: Although it sounds ominous that a voter would have to "prove citizenship," isn't that relatively simple? Social Security card? Birth certificate?

AB: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 7 percent of U.S. citizens don't have proof of citizenship. I think the numbers have to be higher than that. ... How many people know where their Social Security card or birth certificate are?

Indy: And then it's an expense to get one.

AB: It's an expense, which could qualify as a poll tax.

Indy: Why aren't people taking legal action?

AB: The [U.S.] Supreme Court OK'd Indiana's photo ID law in 2008. So groups are trying to figure a way to circumvent that ruling. I think there's persuasive evidence that at least three states — Texas, Wisconsin and South Carolina — decided to go beyond what the Supreme Court OK'd. ...

Basically what the Supreme Court said is, you have to show proof that someone has been discriminated against, prevented from voting, to win one of these cases. It's difficult to prove something that's not in effect yet.

But there have been legal challenges by groups like the ACLU, which has filed suit in Missouri, where there's a ballot initiative in 2012 on voter ID. They filed suit in Florida. There's been a lawsuit in Wisconsin. None has been decided.

Indy: What impact will these laws have?

AB: The Brennan Center for Justice did a study that found that 5 million voters, a conservative estimate, could be significantly impacted by these new laws. They found the people that are going to be affected are likely to be young people, minorities, low-income voters and those with disabilities. ...

The Republicans are very good when they get elected at figuring out how to structurally disarm their opponents. They look at the power and how you undercut their power. ... This is a raw power play at its core.

Indy: Where are Democrats on this?

AB: It's starting to get more attention. Democrats were blindsided by the 2010 election. And they probably weren't paying enough attention to what was happening in the various states. They did raise a stink in some places like Ohio, where the voter ID laws didn't pass, but they were unprepared for [the GOP movement to make voting more difficult].

Indy: Is the damage done?

AB: The damage is done in terms of laws passed in some places. There's still some states where the legislation is pending but hasn't passed. The more of an issue they can make of it, the less likely it will pass in those places. But now you have to pursue a legal strategy and an education strategy. [And] there are some efforts to repeal the laws.

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