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11/04/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

NPR's Michel Martin On America's Voting Rights Conversation

Stephen Voss / NPR

It’s no secret that a lot of citizens are concerned that voting rights are being determined by the people they are designed to elect. Like Lewis Black, some people worry that "Elected officials shouldn't get to choose who gets to choose elected officials."

And Michel Martin, a 25-year veteran of the political journalism world, is bringing the public conversation back to the people, literally.

Martin's newest project, NPR Presents Michel Martin, is a program dedicated to sharing in-depth discussions on a variety of topics as a 10-city tour of at live events across the country. Her October event centered around a topic she has proved herself passionate about: voting rights.

Trusted for her thorough coverage of racial justice issues, from her time as a local reporter for The Washington Post, her stint as White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and her seven years as host of NPR’s "Tell Me More," Martin hopes to hand over her microphone to the people and help blow the voting rights debate wide open.

Martin sat down with HuffPost to discuss the world of voting rights and what she’s learned so far on the trail of electoral stories.

Why do you vote?

My parents always took us [kids] to vote. One of my earliest memories is going into some community room at one of the apartment houses near ours. I remember it being really fun at the time; being with your parents, especially both parents at the same time, was a big treat because my dad was a firefighter. He worked crazy hours, so having both of them together at the same time was a big occasion.

I am of an age where I have very vivid memories of watching the civil rights demonstrations on television. I grew up in New York, and it’s not like there’s no racism or any issues in New York, but I distinctly remember watching the image of kids. Obviously I was very little, but I remember watching the dogs attacking the demonstrators. I remember kids who were not much older than myself and my siblings being part of this, and I remember my parents talking to us about that. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I do remember that they made it really clear that people were putting a lot on the line and sacrificing a very great deal so that we could participate without having to go through all that. That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you.

Do you think we’ve lost steam since that time, from Freedom Summer to 2014? Are we picking up speed in the fight for voting rights?

Every era is different. I know a lot of people feel that there is not the same level of commitment to organize, but I think that people don’t account for the fact that there’s a lot of organizing on social media -- a lot of campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls or #HandsUp. Whatever your politics are, people are using different mechanisms to connect and organize and get their ideas in front of other people. I don’t know how I would evaluate this [comparison of eras], how I would measure this.

I think that in any era, once success in any realm is achieved people have amnesia about how few people were involved and what sacrifices really were made. I just think a lot of times, once an issue gets on a calendar -- on the Black History Month calendar, or anybody’s calendar -- a lot of times people romanticize what it was like and exactly how many people were involved. That’s true with movements across the board. I bet you if you go to France everybody was involved in the resistance against the Nazis and nobody was a collaborator, but we all know that that was not the case. We all have a tendency to romanticize the past and act like everybody was involved and everybody was active, and that obviously could not have been true and wasn’t true. There were always people on the sidelines. The same is true now.

One thing I find really interesting, though, is that initiatives in the past two years to change mechanisms around voting have really started people thinking about it again in a way that they probably had not been. Who thinks about process unless they have to? When I was covering local politics, working my way up through the ladder of covering politics, the mechanisms of voting were just not things that we talked about very often because people took it for granted. And now they aren’t anymore.

I’m not going to make a judgment whether it’s a good thing or not a good thing -- that’s just not my role -- but I will say I do see a lot of interest and energy around the processes because people have to pay attention to it now. They’re talking about it in a way they weren’t talking about it 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, or 20 years ago.

Do you think the passing of voter ID legislation proves more encouraging or discouraging for voter rights advocates?

I have to be an honest broker here; I’ve been covering this stuff since 2000. The 2000 election is really my first understanding of how significant battles over process are. I actually did a lot of coverage around the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State and former Secretary of Treasury James Baker, to address the lingering questions a lot of people had around the 2000 election. To this day, there are people who don’t view those election results as legitimate. To this day, there are a lot of people who feel that the election was stolen and that the Supreme Court basically made a political decision, and not one of fairness. Anytime you have a court deciding an election, it’s gonna leave that bad kind of taste in its mouth. But a lot of people when they became acquainted with the mechanisms of how it all worked ... it really made people think again about it. Not just the mechanics of it, the whole question of how it’s decided.

When elections are close, every vote counts and there’s a lot more scrutiny of this. But other people feel that really what this is about is the fact that the demographics of the country are changing. You had waves of immigration in recent years, and there are a lot of people who are suspicious that a lot of these newcomers are somehow changing the outcome of elections or are using the mechanisms of voting as a way to get access to other benefits of citizenship.

Obviously there are a lot of people who really believe that this [voter ID legislation] is motivated by racial hostility and a desire to hold onto power illegitimately. That’s why it’s an important story. People have different opinions about it, and I‘ve got to leave it up to the readers and the listeners to decide what they think is true for them. I think my role in it is to make the ideas available and also the facts as we understand them.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform has found that Republicans tend to be very concerned about voter integrity and fraud, whereas Democrats tend to be very concerned about voter access and voter intimidation. But the commission also found that both claims are exaggerated and that there was very little evidence that there was a lot of either thing going on. But they also said was that if people believe those things are true, then you have to do something about it because it ruins our confidence in our elections and that that’s ultimately not good for anybody.

What, then, are the most legitimate voter concerns?

One of the things about being a voter in this country is that it doesn’t come with a list of instructions. As a citizen, nobody has a right to tell you what you’re allowed to be concerned about or not allowed to be concerned about. I do think it is interesting that this is a country where racial issues do play a role in people’s thinking.

I would direct you to a really interesting study published by the University of Delaware’s Center For Political Communication that revealed merely seeing a photograph of African Americans using voting machines affected how white respondents answered a survey about voter ID laws. White survey respondents who saw this image expressed stronger support for voter ID laws than people who saw no image or people who saw an image of white people using a voting machine.

It’s just like the field of journalism; you’re a journalist in this country because you say you are. There’s no test, there’s no license, nobody can tell you “you’re not a journalist because I don’t think you are.” Similarly with voting in this country, we can encourage people to be educated about candidates, we can encourage them to vote according to a certain set of ideas or ideals, but at the end of the day they can use that franchise however they want. We can like it or not like it but that’s our system.

Let’s talk demographics. Where do pockets of population, such as convicted criminals, find themselves in (or out) of the voting rights conversation?

One of the interesting things about the era that we are now in is how many states have moved to change the mechanisms of voting in a way that many criticize as making it harder for people to vote. I think it’s important to note that at the same time, we are also talking about restoring people’s access to the vote in a way that we were not talking about 15 or 20 years ago. That just has to be said.

In Washington, D.C., where I live, the former mayor and now city council member Marion Barry was a former organizer and civil rights activist. He was the first president of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is something that a lot of people have forgotten. When he first got into elected politics, he was famous for going out and trying to get people to vote who were otherwise marginalized, people who were homeless. He was met with criticisms like, “If you’re homeless how can you vote, how can you demonstrate that you have the right to vote here?”

At the time time, these efforts were considered kind of crazy, but now we’re talking about them in a way that we weren’t before. Similarly, the move to restore the voting rights of convicted felons -- to make it easier to do and the process more transparent -- is also part of the conversation. Obviously this all takes place against the backdrop of history.

We were just in North Carolina, among those 30 states that have brought in new measures around voting rights and voting laws. It is true that some of these new mechanisms do affect different people differently. It is true that certain populations are more likely to vote, that people of certain backgrounds are more likely to do early voting or use same-day registration. Also true is that even if some restrictions have come into play, African Americans -- particularly young African Americans -- have been voting in record numbers. You can look at that and interpret that in any way you choose to, but you have to look at both pieces of evidence.

Some people say it’s kind of unfair that some people are motivated by the fact that they think other people don’t want them to vote -- it’s one of those interesting paradoxes of the moment that we are in. It’s hard to prove that a harm has been done if more people are voting, but then other people say, “I should not have to prove that I am worthy because of your obstacles which are only directed at me.” We have the acknowledge the fact that for some people these kinds of changes are just common sense and other people don’t understand why so many people are upset about it. They just don’t.

You can say people’s histories are different, you can say maybe it’s a failure of communication but it’s one of those other sort of points in our society right now where people just don’t hear each other. They just aren’t hearing each other. i don’t know why that is. Sometimes we’re all on the same page about something, but this is one of those issues where people are not seeing each others’ realities in the same way.

Follow Michel Martin on Twitter, and follow her NPR voting conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article characterized "NPR Presents Michel Martin" as a program exclusively focused on voting rights; in fact, it covers a variety of topics, and its October event centered on voting rights.

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Politicians React To Voting Rights Act Ruling
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