Ari Berman addresses issues of voting rights

On February 29, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement’s Colby Election Center brought Ari Berman to campus to discuss his critically narrative history “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.” Berman, a contributing writer to The Nation, addressed how the political climate regarding voting rights has changed since the passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Berman began his lecture with the opening passage from his book, which describes his experience at the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama. One of the legacies of this historic march was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Johnson shortly thereafter.
The VRA has been protecting and expanding the rights of Americans voting since 1965 and has struck down over 3,000 discriminatory laws regarding voting. However, the Supreme Court case in 2013 gutted significant parts of the VRA and enabled voting restrictions to be legally passed in several states.
Because of this case, legislation that has disenfranchised ex-felons, prevented early voting, eliminated same-day voter registration and pre-registration, and enforced strict identification policies that have made it more difficult for Americans to vote are completely legal.
Berman stated: “the number of voters potentially affected by new barriers to the ballot box exceeded the margin of victory in close races for Senate and Governor in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.”
In the 2014 Texas midterm elections, 600,000 voters were barred because of new voting legislation that limited what forms of identification could be used to vote. Legal forms of identification covered in this legislation include a Texas gun permit but do not include IDs like school IDs.
Because of new legislation that bars ex-felons from voting, five million Americans are ineligible. This number targets 1/13 African Americans, which is obviously a wildly disproportionate number.
Though limits on voting rights have just recently become legal, discriminatory voting practices occurred even when the VRA was in full power. In the 2000 presidential election, a voter purge in Florida prevented ex-felons from voting and 12,000 voters, who were incorrectly labeled as ex-felons and who were disproportionately African American, had their votes discounted in that election.
Berman asserted that this attack on voting rights is not new. When political parties are confronted by growing voting populations that are unsympathetic to their cause, they either reach out to those growing populations or make it harder for them to vote.

Berman explained that after the 2008 election, Republicans have typically struggled to connect with growing minority populations and younger voters, so they began to pass legislation to try and restrict their ability to vote.
Although it may seem as if limiting voting rights is a partisan issue, Berman explained that this is indeed a bipartisan issue that has often been drawn along state lines, not party lines.
Additionally, Berman pointed to the influence of the Supreme Court in protecting voting rights. With the death of Justice Scalia, the “court has the potential to lean differently – from a 5-4 right leaning court to a 5-4 center-left leaning court.” With a center-left leaning court, the VRA would likely be restored to its full power.
Berman left the audience with three important considerations. First, he encouraged individuals to think of voting as a right, not a privilege. Then, he stipulated that the government is better off when more people participate, though not every candidate may want you to participate. Finally, he asserted that it is immoral to win an election by preventing people from voting.
Berman’s newest book is now available for purchase from the College’s Bookstore.

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