SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Every U.S. citizen older than 18 can vote. Right? Well, it's not that simple. In fact, a new documentary demonstrates that it's increasingly hard for many Americans two generations after President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY")
LYNDON B JOHNSON: Because it's not just Negroes but, really, it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice - and we shall overcome.
SIMON: Stacey Abrams bears personal witness about the struggle to vote from the experience of her own family in Mississippi to her 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia in the new Amazon Prime documentary "All In: The Fight For Democracy." It's directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes.
Stacey Abrams joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
STACEY ABRAMS: It is my honor. Thank you.
SIMON: You had some trouble even voting for yourself for governor, didn't you?
ABRAMS: I did, indeed. I got to the polling place, and they told me I'd already voted. And I told them I would have recalled that. And (laughter) we were luckily able to solve the problem. But I know I'm not the only person who faced that challenge.
SIMON: Yeah. And it may have made you wonder what - I mean, what if you didn't have camera crews along and weren't as well-known as you were?
ABRAMS: Exactly. And part of the challenge is, we should not live in a nation where your access to democracy depends on your celebrity, your wealth or your ZIP code.
SIMON: Your opponent in that election was Brian Kemp. He was then Georgia's secretary of state, now, of course, the governor. I must say, we covered the story at the time, but I was flabbergasted at the number of people who'd been purged from the voting rolls.
ABRAMS: Under his tenure, for almost a decade, he purged 1.4 million people. And we have to understand that purging does not simply occur because someone has died or has moved out of the state. He removed hundreds of thousands of people who were legally eligible to vote. They simply had chosen not to exercise that right. And the use of this purging led to a disproportionate number of communities of color being disenfranchised. And many didn't know they were purged until they showed up to vote.
SIMON: Yeah. So you you've recognized that he's the governor but not ever really quite conceded the election.
ABRAMS: So what I have always said and what I said that night is I acknowledge the legal sufficiency of that election. But I challenge the laws themselves. Any system that permits hundreds of thousands of people to have their voices silenced and their right to vote stolen cannot be a legitimate system. And I will not concede that that system is right, true or proper.
SIMON: As the film notes, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 passed with bipartisan support. And a succession of Republican presidents in addition to Democrats signed extensions. It takes us to this memorable night - 2008, Chicago's Grant Park.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY")
BARACK OBAMA: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still question the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
SIMON: Did Barack Obama's election to the highest office in this democracy demonstrate that the Voting Rights Act had worked, that people of all backgrounds and stations could vote - the South and other places have changed and maybe didn't need direct federal involvement anymore?
ABRAMS: I will paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said that just because the umbrella's keeping you from getting wet doesn't mean you don't need the umbrella anymore. We know that with the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, within hours, Texas imposed the strictest voter ID laws in the nation, not based on any fears of voter fraud but purely predicated on blocking access to the right to vote as evidenced by the fact that if you were a student, you could not use your ID, but you could vote if you had a gun license.
SIMON: And as you see it, what's the drawback to judging the veracity of a ballot by matching signatures between registration and voting?
ABRAMS: According to most scientists, it is junk science. Let's be clear. We do not have a voter fraud problem in America. Using the most aggressive standards issued by the Heritage Foundation, they found 1,300 putative cases out of 625 million votes cast. Basically, we're trying to solve the issue of a hangnail with chemotherapy. That is the problem with how we're approaching who has access to the right to vote, whether it's signature mismatch laws or voter ID laws or any of the failings, the challenges we have seen imposed upon communities that have been told your vote should not matter.
SIMON: I have to ask you this as a loyal Chicagoan because this documentary accuses Republicans of a lot. It doesn't mention that the Jim Crow laws to suppress Black voters were passed by Democrats - Southern Democrats. It doesn't mention the vote fraud, most of - much of which we joke about now, by big-city Democratic machines in Chicago, Boston, New York that, in fact, many suspect aided John F. Kennedy's election in 1960. Why?
ABRAMS: Yes. Democrats were responsible for Jim Crow. The Whigs participated in voter suppression by eliminating who could vote. Voter suppression has been the purview of almost every political party that has ever had power and not wanted to lose it. And in the 21st century, it is purely the province of the Republican Party. The reality, though, is, if we don't fix it now, a new party may emerge to try to do the same. And my mission isn't simply to cast aspersions on Republicans; it's to acknowledge who's doing it now so we can stop it now and we can understand why.
SIMON: What do you make of the president's seeming invitation for people to vote twice?
ABRAMS: I find it very ironic that this is the same man who has been railing against voter fraud. And what he has said out loud to voters who may be first-time voters, to young people who are worried about what should happen, they're going to take the word of the president of the United States and potentially face felony charges. And I worry that we will lose another group of people from participation, not through any fault of their own but through someone in power using the right to vote against their people.
SIMON: Stacey Abrams - she's featured in the Amazon Prime documentary "All In: The Fight For Democracy." Thank you so much for being with us.
ABRAMS: It has been wonderful. Thank you, sir.
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