09/11/2015 03:51 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

Why The Historic Bipartisan Consensus On Voting Rights Has Disappeared

Ari Berman discusses his must-read new book.
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Ari Berman's Give Us the Ballot documents the decades-long struggle to secure voting rights for minority voters. Berman, who is a correspondent for The Nation, uses the 1965 passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act as an entry point into the story of the advocates who pushed for the legislation and the lawmakers who have fought ever since to weaken its impact.

Voting rights supporters celebrated the legislation's 50th anniversary on Aug. 6. But because the Supreme Court invalidated one of its key provisions in 2013, the law's power to prevent discriminatory election practices is in doubt. Berman's book provides a strikingly methodical and provocative look at how and why historically bipartisan support for the act has disappeared.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Berman discussed how the Republican Party has evolved on voting rights, why legislators want to make it harder for some people to vote, and how the fight for the VRA is still not over. 

Ari Berman

HuffPost: Your book is the first to look at this history in a comprehensive way. Why do you think it took a long time for this issue to attract a higher level of scrutiny or attention?

AB: For many years we took the VRA for granted. It was only when there were new efforts to undermine voting rights, and the VRA itself was gutted, that people really understood the importance of the VRA and of this history.

People hoped that Obama’s election had settled this debate over voting rights, and civil rights more broadly. But far from settling this debate, it’s led to a whole new debate and an intensification of efforts to roll back civil rights. I started covering voting rights because of that, because I saw new efforts after the 2010 election to make it harder to vote. That’s when I got interested in the VRA’s history, and I wanted to tell that story about what happened after 1965, both because it was the 50th anniversary of the VRA but also because I knew there was a whole new debate about voting rights. It’s critically important to tie the past to the present because there are so many parallels between the kind of things that were happening in 1965 and the kind of things that are happening today. We’ve made a ton of progress since 1965, but the efforts to make it harder to vote echo a much darker period in our country’s history.

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HuffPost: You chart this evolution in your book of how the Republican Party addresses voting rights. It goes from caring about how minority voters perceive them -- one reason President George W. Bush signed the VRA reauthorization in 2006 was because of sensitivity to criticisms of how he handled Hurricane Katrina -- to there being almost no effort from Republicans to restore the act. 

AB: This is a really striking change, because for many years Republicans either believed they could win the votes of minority voters, or they at least had to try. They voted in large numbers to pass and reauthorize the VRA in 1965, 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006, partly because they believed in the VRA but also they believed that if they didn't support the VRA, the politics will hurt them. There was actually a political cost to not supporting voting rights.

That shifted, particularly after the election of Barack Obama, where many Republicans believed they wouldn’t be able to win the votes of African-American voters, Latinos or young people. Instead of reaching out to that new electorate, they decided to make it harder for that new electorate to participate in the political process. The moderates who support the VRA in the party are shrinking or are non-existent. You don’t have people like Bob Dole from Kansas or Everett Dirksen from Illinois standing up and saying the Republicans need to support the VRA and need to be the party of Lincoln. You still have some people like that, like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), but they’re a minority within the party today.

HuffPost: Paul Weyrich, who was one of the founders of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the first director of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in 1980 that “I don’t want everybody to vote. ... As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.“ ALEC wrote the model legislation for a lot of the voter identification laws that passed out of state legislatures in the last 10 years or so -- why did it take so long for them to get around to doing those?

AB: When he said it, he wasn’t giving any policy prescription, he was just broadly saying that Republicans should think about the electorate in a different way, that it had been conventional wisdom for a many years that the more people that voted in a democracy, the better. He was saying, actually for our candidates it’s better if fewer people vote, we have more leverage in the electorate.

Why it took so long is that, first off, you start to see new voter ID laws being introduced in the middle of the Bush administration, when there was a lot of rhetoric about voter fraud. And that was building support for new voting restrictions in places like Georgia and Indiana. ALEC drafted this model voter ID legislation after the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law, so they had a reason to do it then. Bbut they really started distributing this legislation after Obama’s election and after 2010, when all these state legislatures were controlled by Republicans and more amenable to their interests. This legislation was introduced, with virtually identical language, in states like Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

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HuffPost: The NAACP's chief lobbyist, Clarence Mitchell, was opposed to the broadening of the VRA in 1975 because he was worried it wouldn’t get reauthorized in Congress. He said, “If you’ve got something that is working, you want to be very sure you don’t improve it out of existence.” Do you think advocates regret this in retrospect?

AB: There was a big push to expand the VRA to cover language minority groups -- Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans. That was really important, it’s probably one of the most overlooked parts of the VRA. Some old-school civil rights activists, they didn’t oppose broadening it, but they were worried that if you broadened it, it would be more difficult to pass the Congress. But you had people who were also considered champions of the voting rights movement like John Lewis from Georgia, Barbara Jordan from Texas, Andrew Young -- who were all pushing very hard to broaden the act. Lewis said it would make a mockery of the VRA if we didn’t expand it to other historically disenfranchised groups. And the evidence in places like Texas was overwhelming, that in fact there was widespread discrimination against Latino voters and other language minorities and that led Congress to broaden the VRA in 1975.  

HuffPost: You cite cases of Republican lawmakers going through these conversations where they go from being resistant to the VRA to being fans, because they hear personally from minority voters about the challenges they faced registering to vote. For instance, in 1981, former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) said "You’re being dishonest if you don’t change your mind after hearing the facts … I was wrong and now I want to be right." Are we too removed from those challenges for those conversions to still happen?

AB: Very conservative members of Congress who originally held quite negative views of the VRA, like Hyde, became supporters of the VRA after going to places like Alabama and hearing firsthand stories of discrimination and realizing that, decades after, this stuff hadn’t gone away. But there’s still evidence of this today. We saw people in Texas and in North Carolina in 2014 turned away at the polls by new voting restrictions. Those stories need to get more attention, they need to be brought to the Congress and they need to get taken out of a partisan context.

The right to vote has become so politicized; everything is viewed through the lens of, ‘Which party is benefiting? Are Democratic voters being turned away from the polls?’ as if somehow that makes it OK. We need to get back to a consensus that if anyone is turned away from the polls, it’s wrong, and that it’s unacceptable in a democracy if people are prevented from voting.

HuffPost: You mention a few different examples of so-called "smoking guns" that suggest an effort to disenfranchise voters, and you talk about how hard it is to prove intentional discrimination in voting rights cases. Do you think that lawmakers have gotten smarter about not revealing why they are passing these kinds of restrictions?

AB: In North Carolina, for example, Republicans were very cagey about the justifications for their voter ID law, and tried as hard as they could to not mention anything in racial terms. ... At this point in time, people are more careful, so they’re giving other rationalizations for these voting changes -- they’re talking about voter fraud, or the integrity of elections. They’re not saying, "We’re passing these laws to make it harder for blacks, or Hispanics, or younger people to vote."

It was really interesting to hear this one Republican legislator in Texas say that they knew that the voter ID law would hurt minority voters, but if they didn’t pass it, they all would have been lynched. That’s how intense the political environment in Texas was for voter ID. There had been such a steady drumbeat in Republican circles about voter fraud, even though there was no real evidence of voter fraud, let alone voter impersonation. It had just reached a fever pitch. It was a classic example of a manufactured crisis. A lot of people are worried the Supreme Court, if it narrowly interprets [a remaining section of the VRA] and requires a showing of intentional discrimination, will make the VRA a lot weaker than it already is.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.