What Librarians Can Do to Get Out the Vote: An Interview with Ari Berman, Author, Give Us the Ballot
By: Rebecca Hill
In every state, voting requirements are unique. Currently, the trend in many states is moving towards greater restriction of the right to vote. Recently the Brennan Center for Justice announced that 25 states had implemented new voting restrictions since 2010 elections. From strict photo ID requirements to cutting back of early voting and the number of polling places to making voter registration more complicated, these states have installed restrictions that hamper and often suppress the vote of those who live there. Mother Jones senior contributing reporter and author of Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman has a lot to say about what’s happened to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the current state of voting. I talked to him and here is what he had to say.
RH: Is there a failure in this country to fully grasp how critical the right to vote is for our democracy?
AB: I think so. First, there is a failure of people participating at large. If you look at voter turnout for every election, a significant slice of the population is not taking part. In midterm elections, it is usually 40% not participating, and 60% don’t vote in a presidential election. (Author’s Note: See Fair Vote for more information on voter turnout.)
For one reason or another, people are deciding not to vote. Voting has also become much more difficult in certain places. I think that people have the idea that everyone can vote if they want to, but that is just not the situation. People may not be able to vote because they couldn’t register to vote or didn’t have the right documentation or couldn’t find their polling place.
RH: Do you think that the average man or woman on the street understands their right to vote?
AB: I don’t think so. I believe that the average person on the street understands that you must be 18 years old and a US citizen plus be a registered resident in a state. But when voting requirements get more complicated, that’s when people get confused. For instance, they may not know what to bring or how to register. Those things vary according to the states. Some states have online registration, and others don’t. Some states have election-day registration where other states don’t. Some states have early voting, but other states don’t. Is the registration deadline three days, twenty days or on election day? That’s where it starts gets confusing because voting is different in every state.
RH: In a Rolling Stone interview, you said that the current voting situation closely resembled how things were before the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act. Can you elaborate?
AB: My argument is that the voting experience varies dramatically depending on where a person lives, a situation that existed before the 1965 passage of the VRA. For example, for a black person who lived in Alabama, it was challenging to vote. While a black person who lived in New York, voting might’ve been easier. For example, compare Oregon and Texas. Oregon is a state where everyone can vote by mail. They have automatic registration, making voter registration is very easy.
On the other hand, Texas does not have online registration, so registering to vote is more complicated. Texas also requires strict forms of identification to vote, and a voter must often travel a long distance to a polling place. So, in comparing those two places, the voting experience can be dramatically different just depending on the state where the voter lives.
RH: The Brennan Center came out with an article about voting restrictions in American that said that 25 states had put new voting restrictions in place since 2010. Can you talk about the types of voting restrictions that people are facing?
AB: Half the states in the country have changed their voting laws to make it more difficult to vote, a very large number in a concentrated period. Still, to understand what is happening, one must dig deeper. For instance, Ohio says that 235,000 people are slated to be purged, and, in a rarity, Ohio publicizes the list to volunteers to investigate before they purged. Those volunteer voting rights groups found that that only 40,000 people shouldn’t be on the list of 235,000. In most places, if you removed 40,000 legitimate voters that would be a big deal because elections have turned in Ohio with fewer votes than that. So, you often can’t take these numbers at face value and must dig deeper because often numbers are not what they seem.
RH: What is the motivation behind making it more difficult to vote?
AB: I think that motivation has been mostly a political one. I believe that virtually all these restrictions have been devised and supported by Republicans and disproportionately hurt Democratic-leaning communities. I also think that when the GOP assumed control of several key states after the 2010 election, they decided that they would gain a political advantage by trying to suppress turnout of democratic leaning constituents. In my view, that’s the only explanation for this.
RH: What has been the public’s attitude in general about voting restrictions?
AB: I think that it depends on the context. I think that the general public doesn’t think a lot of it until it affects them. For instance, the public doesn’t think about it until they must stand in a seven-hour line to vote in Florida like there were in 2012. Standing in line for that long cuts the amount of time that people had to vote.
So, I think that if the voter is affected personally, they have a different feeling about it. The public is in favor of some restrictions like voter ID laws because most people have the forms of ID required. I oppose them because I think that voter IDs are unnecessary.
On the other hand, I think strong support exists for making it easier to vote such as for early voting, election day registration, or automatic registration. The public, I believe, wants voting to be easy and convenient. But they don’t want voter fraud, and they want the system to be secure.
RH: Is election tampering, for instance, like that done by the Russians, in the same category as voting restrictions because it impacts the right to vote? Or do most people see this as a separate issue?
AB: I think that to the extent it affects the voting machines and casting of ballots; it would be the same issue. The Russians were able to targeted election systems in all 50 states, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report. So clearly it relates to voting rights. If the Russians were able to access registration rolls to change people’s information without changing votes, that eventually could lead to a situation where those votes could be altered. Even still, those actions create uncertainty about the political process and question whether an individual might feel that their vote may no longer count. As a result, people may be less likely to participate in voting.
RH: Does Congress today have a more negative stance towards the Voting Rights Act and how much of that attitude has contributed to what has happened in states imposing significant voting restrictions?
AB: I think that most people in the Republican party and Republican-controlled states would like to get rid of the VRA altogether. They view it as unnecessary and outdated.
Currently, I think that this attitude represents a significant shift in sentiment because many decades after the passage of the VRA, strong bipartisan support remained even though not everyone may have liked it. They did, however, abide by it, realizing that it was too popular. The current change is unfortunate especially since if the VRA becomes another partisan issue; the law becomes more difficult to enforce and stabilize.
RH: Have demographic changes, i.e. changes in our population’s diversity, the increasing political power of African Americans, and a growing number of immigrants in our country, been a reason for the increasing number of voting restrictions in states?
AB: Yes. Demographic changes are driving a lot of the voting restrictions. Republicans who are passing these restrictions tend to be overwhelmingly white and elected by overwhelmingly white voters. Yet, the communities that are affected by the changes tend to be far more diverse. I think that a lot of these changes to voting are impacting African Americans, Latinos, Native and Asian Americans disproportionately. The courts too have found that to be true. In North Carolina, for example, the court found that the voting restrictions of that state targeted African Americans with almost surgically precision. (Author’s Note: See Washington Post article, “The ‘smoking gun’ proving North Carolina Republicans tried to disenfranchise black voters.”)
RH: How can a library and its librarians emphasize voting rights, and what type of information can they provide on voting rights in their states?
AB: I think that libraries are, in many ways, community centers. People should be able to register to vote at libraries, and librarians can help people to register or host people who can help people register to vote. I have seen places like in Wisconsin where libraries are polling places. Libraries, too, can provide information on voting requirements in their state. A lot of people don’t vote because they didn’t register on time. So, libraries can provide that information. They can also encourage patrons to check their registration status for changes and find out where their polling place is. Libraries can also make sure that, if they are in a state that allows registration at election time-fifteen states already allow this, to give patrons this information in the event they haven’t registered in time.
RH: What do you think libraries can do in terms of the census?
AB: I think that libraries can educate people about the importance of the census because most people don’t understand its significance. Libraries can engage people about what the census does. It helps determine economic and political power. It helps determine where a community’s library or school might be or whether the community gets a library or school. Libraries should make people aware that the census is coming, why it matters and why it is confidential, and emphasizing that it is not political venture. The census doesn’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican or a citizen or noncitizen, or any of those things that tend to divide people. If you are in America, you should participate. While it has become more politicized under Trump, libraries can depoliticize the census and emphasize its importance to their patrons.
RH: Has the controversy on the census question suppressed people’s interest in responding to the census?
AB: Yes, it has. I don’t think that everyone knows that the question will not be on the census form now. People have heard that the administration wants their citizenship information, and that’s enough to not complete a census form. The civil rights community says that the controversy has suppressed participation, just by raising the issue of obtaining citizenship data, people don’t want to respond to anything that the federal government is sending out. Though it was an issue before the citizenship question imploded, it remains a big barrier now.
RH: What can librarians do to provide this information to patrons?
AB: They can share the information that the census information given is strictly confidential, a critical factor because a lot of people don’t trust the Census Bureau and the Administration now and failing to respond to the census would be playing right into the Administration’s hands.
Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine. She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.