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Journalist Ari Berman examines resurgence of voter suppression for Oakland lecture series

on October 2, 2019

On Saturday night, around 200 Bay Area residents streamed into the banquet hall at the Marriott City Center in downtown Oakland to hear award-winning Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman talk about the state of U.S. democracy in light of what he sees as a resurgence of voter suppression since the election of former President Barack Obama.

“What kind of democracy are we going to have?” Berman asked, eliciting pensive nods from the crowd. 

His speech was the 21st lecture in the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series, a program that promotes the vision of the congresswoman and former Oakland mayor and responds to a question posed by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” The Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, a civic engagement organization founded by Lee, Harris and other Oakland organizers, along with the Peralta Community College District produced the event.

Berman ascended to the podium and delivered his speech in a measured tone peppered by the occasional quip. “My come-to-Jesus moment, even though I’m Jewish,” he said at one point, breaking into a smile and prompting appreciative chuckles throughout the crowd, “was after the 2010 election.”

The thrust of Berman’s talk focused on the history of voter suppression in the U.S. and the reappearance of it in modern times as a tactic to influence state and national elections. “So many people in this room would not have been able to vote at the time of our founding,” Berman told the audience, discussing how at the country’s founding, voting was a right reserved exclusively for white male property owners. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and—100 years later—the Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck laws that once prevented African-Americans and others from voting. 

But, Berman said, after the 2010 midterm election a tide of voter restriction laws swept the country in direct response to Obama’s presidency and the millions of new voters who elected him. “It wasn’t one tactic, it wasn’t one state,” Berman said. He noted that between 2011 and 2012, half of all the states changed voting laws to make it harder to vote. These laws required voters to produce strict forms of identification like photo IDs, eliminated early voting poll stations and erroneously purged voter registration lists of people who are eligible to vote.

Berman shared a story he wrote about Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., a 58-year-old African American man who attempted to vote in Wisconsin in 2016. Holloway made seven trips to various government agencies and spent nearly $200, yet could not acquire his photo ID in time to vote. “This sounds like a crazy story, and it is, but I have dozens and dozens of stories like this,” Berman said. 

When Wisconsin’s voter ID law took effect, a federal court estimated that 300,000 registered voters lacked the required form of ID. Berman said that in the state’s two most democratic counties, Dane and Milwaukee, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to be blocked or deterred from voting as a consequence of the voter ID law. In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by 22,000 votes.

“People ask me all the time,” Berman said, “did voter suppression impact the election? The answer is obviously yes.”

Berman also discussed Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case that he said “gutted the heart” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by allowing states with histories of discrimination to change voting policy without federal oversight, and Rucho v. Common Cause, a 2019 Supreme Court case that ruled federal judges can’t stop politicians from drawing electoral districts to preserve or expand their party’s power. 

He tackled the issue of gerrymandering, meaning drawing the boundaries of voting districts to benefit a political party. Today, he said, gerrymandering has resulted in six states having legislatures elected by a minority of voters. “We think that the person that gets the most votes should be the one that holds office, but that’s not how it worked in our presidential election, and that’s not how it’s working in state elections either,” Berman said. 

Berman also spoke about President Donald Trump’s lack of alarm about Russian interference in U.S. elections and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to address election security. “This is an urgent threat to our democracy,” said Berman. “We are running out of time to secure our elections.”

The silver lining for Berman is that some states, like California, are expanding access to the ballot. In a conversation prior to his speech, Berman said that these initiatives encourage voter registration by allowing people to register at the polls or the DMV and voting itself by holding early voting and voting by mail. California also has an independent redistricting commission to address gerrymandering and plans to spend $150 million to ensure that residents are properly counted in the 2020 U.S. Census and represented in government. 

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) next took the stage to deliver closing remarks. The audience quickly became electrified, applauding easily and enthusiastically as people shouted comments. Lee shifted away from the topic of voting. President Trump, she said, “at every turn tries to undermine the rule of law” and “threatens our democracy on all fronts.” 

“Impeach Trump!” someone yelled from the crowd. 

“I voted for impeachment three times. I’m very proud of those three votes,” Lee responded as the audience eagerly clapped. 

“We knew that this man has obstructed justice and has abused power and has profited from being in the White House, violated the emoluments clause,” she continued. “The people need to rise up now and understand and say very loudly that this is a democracy, not a dictatorship.” The audience applauded again.   

“Let me just say, the next couple of months are going to be”—Lee paused—“very dividing,” she said. “We have to speak very loudly from my district and very clearly about what the steps should be.”  

“President Pelosi!” a crowd member exclaimed, in reference to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. 

“Now we have the votes,” Lee replied, “to impeach in the House.” The crowd cheered. “We have the votes!” she said with a bit more enthusiasm.  

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