The Politics of Voter Suppression
ED GORDON, host:
Voting machines aren't the only problem voters may face when they head to the polls this November. Farai also spoke with Spencer Overton, Professor of Law at George Washington University and the author of Stealing Democracy: The Politics of Voter Suppression.
Professor Overton says our political system works much like the movie the Matrix, nothing is as it seems.
Mr. SPENCER OVERTON, (Professor of Law, George Washington University and Author): By analogy, most Americans think that people control our nation through votes. In reality however, politicians control our nation through a matrix of technical election rules that determine political outcomes and shape government policies. As you know in California with Michael Berman, he redistricts lines. He designs lines, and his brother is actually in Congress, Howard Berman. So with Howard's district, Michael reduced the Latino population in that district, from 45 percent down to 31 percent, to ensure that a Latino challenger couldn't unseat Howard.
This is a real problem that occurs across the United States. In 36 States, basically, politicians draw the electoral districts for themselves. And as a result, that's a literal example of how the voters aren't choosing the politicians, but the politicians are choosing the voters by manipulating these election rules.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting: In what other ways do you see voters being disenfranchised?
Mr. OVERTON: Well, there are a variety of tools that politicians use. We talk a good game about exporting democracy in this country, but in fact that people aren't in control. Politicians use redistricting, as we talked about, English only ballots, antiquated voting machines, felon disenfranchisement rules, photo ID rules, a variety of techniques to determine who votes and whose vote counts.
CHIDEYA: In your chapter, How to Rig Elections, again, you were talking about this example of someone who was able to decrease the Latino population in a specific district. Then you have another whole chapter called La Sociedad Abierta, Open Society, about bilingual ballots. Now, would seem to be the worst time politically to advocate bilingual ballots because of all of then tension over immigration.
Mr. OVERTON: That's right. And unfortunately, some people say that bilingual ballots divide America, but in fact they reunite America. If you just look at Lawrence, Massachusetts, before bilingual ballots, the schools were 70 percent Latino, but there were no Latinos on the school board. Back then the mayor scapegoated Latinos and blamed the community's problems all on Latinos - and there were riots. But after bilingual ballots, the school board, the city council became integrated, there were real coalitions between Latinos and Anglos. And the mayor really started to listen to everyone and started to lead the entire community, as opposed to isolating and ignoring the Latino community.
And also, we shouldn't get this confused with immigration. This isn't an immigration issue. Some people say, well, people should learn English when they come to this country, but in fact, 70 percent of the people who use translated election materials are born in the United States. We're talking about people like American Indians, or people who learned Spanish in segregated Texas schools that didn't provide instruction in English. So we really do need these materials for millions of Americans to vote.
CHIDEYA: The Supreme Court recently ruled on the 2003 Texas Redistricting Plan that cost four Democrats their seats in Congress. Now, the Supreme Court held up most of the plan but struck down some of [unintelligible] saying that it failed to protect Hispanic or Latino voters, in particular.
Do you see a mixed message in that ruling or what affect do you think it's going to have in the future?
Mr. OVERTON: Well, the problem with the ruling is it puts a stamp of approval on the manipulation by politicians. No longer can voters hold politicians accountable when politicians are splitting communities and undermining representation and eliminating competition by manipulating these election rules. It also opens the floodgates to more political manipulation. We could see political payback by Democrats in Illinois, New Mexico and other states controlled by Democrats, as they redraw lines to entrench themselves.
If there's a new party, for example, that takes over the legislature, the first thing you do is redraw the lines to make yourself more powerful. It really is a, a problem in that the Supreme Court had an opportunity to protect all voters. I'm glad that they protected us and Latino voters. There were about 100,000 Latino voters who were moved from a district to ensure that they wouldn't challenge an incumbent who is there, a Republican incumbent. So I'm glad that the Court protected those Latino voters, but it really needed to protect all the voters in Texas.
CHIDEYA: Now when you look at the 2006 midterm elections, how difficult is it to swing close races using some of the rigging techniques that you talk about?
Mr. OVERTON: Well it's very easy to swing a close race. If you look, for example, just in Florida in 2000, there was an obscure rule that prevented former felons who'd committed their time, served their sentence, from voting. As a result of that rule, Al Gore lost by 537 votes. Political scientists suggested he would have won by 30,000 votes, but for that rule. Just to give you an example of how anti-democratic that rule is, it exists only in Florida, Kentucky, Virginia and Armenia.
CHIDEYA: Let's flash forward four years from that, uh, presidential returns in Ohio in 2004. What happened there, in your opinion?
Mr. OVERTON: Well, there were a variety of problems, uh, improper machines, a lot of registration barriers, long lines. If you look in Columbus, Ohio, for example, election officials knew they needed 5,000 election machines, but they decided to make do with only 3,000. They moved machines from urban areas out into suburban areas. As a result, Tonya Thivner(ph), she waited four hours to vote in line in Columbus, Ohio. Her mother, who lived in a suburb, waited only 15 minutes. And, and voters are treated like cattle.
Dorothy Turner also voted in Ohio. She's 80 years old. She stood in line for two and a-half hours. McDonald's, Starbucks, they move people through. They don't have four-hour lines at McDonald's and Starbucks. Voting is at least as important as a cup of coffee, as a quarter-pounder, and we need to do better in terms of fixing these problems.
CHIDEYA: Well, looping back around to your introduction about the matrix, we probably aren't going to solve the problem with guns and computers and, uh, latex outfits and kung fu. So, what tools do we actually have, unlike the movies, to make a difference in this problem?
Mr. OVERTON: Right. Well, number one, we've got to find this 100,000,000 missing voter group. People need to vote. They need to go out and cast a ballot. They shouldn't get discouraged. They should stay engaged here. What politicians want is for people to stay home, so people need to get out and vote. The second thing we need to do is we need to reach out and support the Voting Rights Act, which is up for renewal. We need to write our members of Congress and our, uh, US Senator. Right now, the act is being stalled by some people who are on the extremes. You can actually write an e-mail to your congressman in support of the Voting Rights Act - uh, your congressperson should I say - in support of the Voting Rights Act by going to stealingdemocracy.com.
Something else we need to do, is work the polls and work in watchdog groups like the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, Common Cause, Election Protection groups. The objective here has to be preserving democracy in our own neighborhoods. Certainly there are some large global structural changes we need to make, but people need to work on the local level as well.
CHIDEYA: Spencer, thank you so much.
Mr. OVERTON: Thank you.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with Spencer Overton, professor of law at George Washington University and author of Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.
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