What a 'critically wounded' Voting Rights Act means in 2016

LBJ signs Voting Rights Act
In this Aug. 6, 1965 photo, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony in the President's Room near the Senate Chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP file

"It is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country."

That was President Lyndon B. Johnson speaking before Congress on March 15, 1965, in an effort to persuade legislators to pass the Voting Rights Act. The groundbreaking act did pass — five months later, Johnson signed it into law.

'Give Us the Ballot' by Ari Berman
'Give Us the Ballot' by Ari Berman
Courtesy of Macmillan

It remained in full effect until the Supreme Court invalidated a key portion of the law in 2013. The act had required specific states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to seek federal approval before changing their election laws. Now, federal approval is no longer needed.

Many states and counties have subsequently rewritten their election laws in ways that may disenfranchise voters.

Ari Berman's book, "Give Us the Ballot," follows the history of the Voting Rights Act from 1965 through to modern conflicts. The upcoming elections, he said — with many new voter restriction laws in place around the country — will demonstrate the new hurdles to democracy.

"It's fairly certain that some people are going to be turned away from the polls, and some people aren't even going to show up in the first place because they don't believe they'll comply with the law," Berman said. He joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about his book and the modern challenges to voting rights.

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On whether the Supreme Court ruling "gutted" the Voting Rights Act

"Gutted does not mean eliminated, but one of the key parts of the law, historically — that requirement that those states with the longest history of voting discrimination had to approve their voting changes with the federal government — that is no longer in place. You can use whatever terminology you want, but it's certainly true that the Voting Rights Act was critically wounded as a result of that decision."


"This part of the law blocked 3,000 potentially discriminatory voting changes from 1965 to 2013. It didn't just do good work in the 1960s. It was used in the 1970s, it was used in the 1980s, it was used in the 1990s and in the 2000s. It was used in the 2012 election in places like Texas and South Carolina and Florida."

On how elections have changed in Wisconsin

"Wisconsin has a new voter ID law in effect. What that means is when voters show up at the polls in Wisconsin, for the first time they will have to present government-issued IDs to cast a ballot," Berman said. "This is a big deal in Wisconsin because about 300,000 voters — almost 10 percent of the electorate — don't have these forms of government-issued ID, and they also have issues getting them."

"This is a law that was upheld, controversially, by the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court refused to block it, and so Wisconsin is one of those key swing states in 2016 that is going to have new voter restrictions in effect."

On the effect of voter ID laws

"The Government Accountability Office did a very exhaustive study of voter ID laws and they looked at two states that had ID laws in effect: Kansas and Tennessee. They compared them to states that did not have voter ID laws in effect, and they found that turnout decreased by 2 to 3 percent," Berman said. "Those voters who were most impacted were younger voters, minority voters and first-time voters."

On the difficulties some voters face in obtaining ID

"Some states have been very committed to making sure that everyone has the ID they need. Other states, like Texas for example, have done a much poorer job of getting everyone the ID they need," Berman said.

"In Texas, between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters don't have a strict voter ID. In that state, you can vote with a gun permit but not a student ID. In a third of counties in Texas, they don't even have a DMV — they don't even have the ability to get people the IDs they need in an easy and accessible way."

On the issue of voter impersonation

"There is no evidence of voter impersonation to justify these new measures. From 200, there have only been 31 cases of voter impersonation, out of over a billion votes cast," Berman said. "So I don't think is the most pressing problem in American elections right now.

On the motives behind voter ID laws

"These laws really began proliferating in large numbers after the 2010 election, when Republicans gained control of so many states. And, of course, following the election of Obama in 2008, when there was record turn-out from young voters, from voters of color — from voters who have been most impacted by the new restrictions," Berman said.

"In some cases, legislators have said what the motivation might be. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Republican leader there said the state's voter ID law would help Mitt Romney win the 2012 election," Berman said. "That did not happen. That law was actually blocked in court before the 2012 election, before it could 'help Mitt Romney' win. It's clear that there's a partisan trend here: Republicans are the ones who are supporting these laws, who are passing these laws and who are saying these laws are necessary. You have to imagine that partisan politics are at play here."

For the full discussion with Ari Berman about his book "Give Us the Ballot," use the audio player above.

Give Us the Ballot Give Us the Ballot