TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You may remember President Trump's tweet that he won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally. There is no evidence to support his claim that there were millions of fraudulent votes. Last week, President Trump issued an executive order establishing an Election Integrity Commission. One of its goals is to prevent voter fraud. The commission is headed by Vice President Pence, the former governor of Indiana, and Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state.
A New York Times editorial said yesterday, quote, "those two states have put in place voter suppression techniques that may end up being models for the commission," unquote. We're going to talk about this new commission, voter fraud and voter suppression with Ari Berman, a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine and author of the book "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." The title is a reference to Martin Luther King's now famous "Give Us The Ballot" speech.
Today is the 60th anniversary of that speech in which King implored Congress and the president to end what he described as the conniving methods still being used to prevent negroes from becoming registered voters and from voting. Let's start with an excerpt of that speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot and we will no longer plea to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law. We will, by the power of our vote, write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot and we will transform the salient misdeeds of blood-thirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a Southern Manifesto because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. Give us the ballot.
GROSS: That was Martin Luther King recorded 60 years ago today. Here's my interview with Ari Berman about voting rights today.
Ari Berman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ARI BERMAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: What is the stated purpose of President Trump's Election Integrity Commission?
BERMAN: The first is to look at policies and voting rules that either enhance or decrease public confidence in elections. And the second is to look at allegations of improper voting and improper voter registration, which the commission calls fraudulent voting or fraudulent voter registration. And I think that is the real important purpose of why this commission was set up.
GROSS: Do you think it's connected to the tweet that he sent saying, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally?
BERMAN: Absolutely. If President Trump hadn't tweeted repeatedly that millions of people voted illegally, there would be no presidential commission on election integrity. I think this occurred and this occurred when it occurred for three different reasons. The first was that President Trump wanted to distract, in however a small way, from the firing of Jim Comey from the FBI, which happened two days before he announced this Election Integrity Commission.
The second thing was that I think President Trump has a bruised ego because he lost the popular vote. And I think the third reason is that by keeping alive this idea of widespread voter fraud, that millions of people voted illegally or that the election was somehow tainted by illegal voting, Republicans can then build support for putting in place policies that make it harder for certain people to vote. So I think keeping alive this idea of voter fraud in many ways is a pretext for the real agenda, which is putting in place policies that restrict access to the ballot.
GROSS: So President Trump chose Vice President Pence to head this new election integrity commission. And he chose as the vice chair Kris Kobach, who's the secretary of state of Kansas. And Kobach is widely seen as the most aggressive advocate of voting restrictions to limit voter fraud. As secretary of state of Kansas, what has he been responsible for there?
BERMAN: I really think this is Kris Kobach's commission. Even though he's the vice chair of the commission, I think he'll be the driving force behind it. He became secretary of state of Kansas after the 2010 election. And Kansas put in place one of the toughest voting laws, if not the toughest voting law in the country. It not only required strict voter ID, but it required proof of citizenship to register to vote. So if you try to register to vote in Kansas, you need to provide your passport, your birth certificate or your naturalization papers.
Now, about 7 percent of Americans don't have access to those documents, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, but a much larger percentage don't carry their passport or their birth certificate or their naturalization papers around when they're going to register to vote. So what we've seen in Kansas is that 1 in 7 people who tried to register to vote after this law went into effect in 2013 had their registrations held in what was called in suspense by the state of Kansas. They were not able to register to vote.
So that one policy had a very disruptive effect on voter registration in Kansas. And Kobach has been saying that voter fraud, and in particular, voter fraud by what he calls illegal aliens is widespread. And the second thing is that we need to put policies in place like proof of citizenship for voter registration that will counteract the illegal voting that he claims is going on.
GROSS: Well, there's a challenge to this law right now. What is that challenge?
BERMAN: The ACLU has challenged the proof of citizenship law in a number of different ways. And they've actually won four cases against Kobach since 2013. The courts ruled that people who register to vote at the DMV do not have to show proof of citizenship. They also ruled that Kobach cannot prevent people who do not show proof of citizenship from voting in state elections, which is one thing he tried to do.
He tried to set up a two-tier registration system so that if you didn't show proof of citizenship at the DMV, for example, you then couldn't vote in state elections in Kansas, which was very confusing for a lot of people. So he's been repeatedly taken to court by groups, by the ACLU and has not had a whole lot of success in court to date.
GROSS: So does anyone who registers in Kansas have to show proof of citizenship or is it only if you have an accent and are suspected of being somebody who has recently arrived and you have to prove that you have citizenship?
BERMAN: Now, everyone has to show proof of citizenship in Kansas to register to vote, but it only applies to people who try to register or update their registrations after the law went into effect in 2013. So everyone who registered before 2013 is grandfathered in. But everyone who registers after 2013 when the law went into effect has to show proof of citizenship. And that's why the ACLU has actually compared the law to a grandfather clause of the kind that we saw under Jim Crow 'cause it only applies to certain types of voters.
In the same way that grandfather clauses exempted white voters but applied to African-American voters, the ACLU is saying that Kansas's law only applies to new voters or people who try to register after 2013. And if you look at that suspended voter list in Kansas, which at some points in time has had over 35,000 voters on it, over half of the voters are under 35 and nearly all are first-time registrants 'cause, as I said, it only applies to people who are trying to register after 2013. So these are much more likely to be younger people and much more likely to be new registrants.
GROSS: So why do critics of this law perceive it to have a built in political bias?
BERMAN: Well, if you look at what the law is doing is it's basically freezing the existing electorate in place by making it harder for new registrants to be able to register to vote. So freezing the electorate in place in a state like Kansas benefits Republicans 'cause Republicans were already in control there. Younger voters in Kansas who are much more likely to be impacted by this law are more likely to be Democratic voters, they're more likely to be independent-leaning or unaffiliated voters.
They're less likely to be core Republican voters who might cast a ballot for someone like Kris Kobach.
GROSS: So how has this law affected groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote in their ability to register people in Kansas?
BERMAN: The law made it almost impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to register voters in Kansas. After the proof-of-citizenship law went into effect in 2013, almost all the local chapters of the League of Women Voters had to suspend their operation because, as I said earlier, people were not carrying around birth certificates or passports or naturalization papers with them when the League of Women Voters was trying to do registration drives outside a farmer's market.
And moreover, the League of Women Voters didn't want to have to handle this highly sensitive information. So for example, the Wichita chapter of the League of Women Voters registered 4,000 voters in 2012. But after the proof-of-citizenship law went into effect, they only registered 400 voters in 2014. And that was just one example of the kind of impact this law had.
GROSS: So in 2014, Kris Kobach became the only secretary of state in the country with the power to prosecute voter fraud cases. How did he get that power, and how did he use it?
BERMAN: This was really dramatic because no other secretary of state had the power to prosecute voter fraud cases because this is something that usually the attorney general of a state has the authority to do - not the secretary of state, who's supposed to run elections, not file cases. But Kobach told the Legislature in Kansas, which was heavily Republican, that voter fraud, particularly voter fraud by noncitizens, was widespread. And so in 2014, he became the only secretary of state in the country with the power to personally prosecute voter fraud cases.
GROSS: What's his track record?
BERMAN: Well, if you talk to his critics, they will say that his track record has not been good. He's only successfully prosecuted nine people since 2014 out of 1.8 million registered voters in Kansas. Despite saying that voting by noncitizens was widespread, he's only convicted one noncitizen of illegal voting. So the Kansas City Star recently ran a pretty withering editorial where they called Kobach the Javert of voter fraud, comparing him to the villain of "Les Mis." And so these prosecutions have been very controversial, not just in Kansas but nationally as well.
GROSS: So 35,000 people had their registrations suspended. But a total of nine people in Kansas were successfully prosecuted for voter registration fraud of one sort or another.
BERMAN: Well, and the interesting thing is that most of the people who were prosecuted by Kobach for voter fraud were prosecuted for double voting. They were usually elderly voters who owned property, let's say, in Kansas and Colorado, and may have voted for a local election in Colorado and then a local election in Kansas and didn't realize they were ineligible to vote in both places because they owned property in two states.
So most of the people prosecuted by Kobach have been elderly voters, have been Republican voters and have been double voters who have been confused about the law. So it actually had nothing to do with illegal voter registration or voting by noncitizens. But what the federal courts have said repeatedly is that the number of people who could be disenfranchised by Kobach is much, much, much greater than the number of voter fraud cases he's presented.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about voting rights and voting restrictions. My guest is Ari Berman. He's a senior contributing writer for The Nation and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He's the author of the book "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Ari Berman. This is the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Give Us The Ballot" speech, which was his first major speech on voting rights. We're talking about President Trump's new Election Integrity Commission. And the vice chair of that is Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas, who's seen as one of the leading advocates of voting restrictions.
So we're talking about the move toward voting restrictions in the U.S. So we've been talking about Kris Kobach who's the vice chair of President Trump's Election Integrity Commission. Vice President Pence is the chair of the commission. He's the former governor of Indiana. What was his record on voting rights and voting restrictions when he was the governor?
BERMAN: Well, first off, I think it's important to note that Indiana was the first state to pass a strict voter ID law back in 2005. So Indiana, where Pence is from, really led off this whole movement to restrict voting rights in the contemporary era. Secondly, when Pence was both governor of Indiana and Donald Trump's running mate in 2016, the Indiana State Police raided the office of a voter registration group that was focused on registering low-income and African-American voters. There were about 10 voter registration applicants that were viewed as - to be possibly fraudulent.
But the fact that state police raided the office of this group meant that 45,000 people who were registered by this organization could've had their voter registration applications discarded. So we don't totally know the details here. We don't know how many voter registration applications were discarded. And we also don't know if anyone's been charged with fraud. But the fact that state police were used to raid a voter registration group I think was viewed by voting rights advocates in Indiana as having a chilling effect, particularly on black voter participation there.
GROSS: Why would it have a chilling effect on black voter participation?
BERMAN: Because I think it sent the message that if you were trying to register black voters in a state like Indiana, the state police might be showing up at your office. That was at least how it was viewed by voting rights advocates on the ground in Indiana.
GROSS: So what impact do you think the new President Trump Election Integrity Commission might have on voting?
BERMAN: The first thing is to once again keep alive this idea that voter fraud is widespread and rampant and a critical threat to American elections when all the studies show quite the opposite. So first off, it's keeping alive this idea that voter fraud is something that we urgently need to address. The second thing it's going to do is recommend actual policy changes because if you believe that voter fraud is widespread, then you're going to support strict voter ID laws.
You're going to support proof of citizenship for voter registration. You're going to support purging the voting rolls. And let's just say if they recommend to Congress a national voter ID law or a national-proof-of-citizenship law, that could be very, very disruptive to many, many voters if these kind of policy changes were adopted by the Congress.
GROSS: But voting laws are state laws, right? They're not federal laws.
BERMAN: Well, they're both. So Congress could pass a federal voter ID law. Congress could pass a federal proof-of-citizenship law that applies to voting in federal elections. And then states could pass their own versions of these things that apply to state elections. So I believe that the president's Commission on Election Integrity is going to make recommendations both on the federal level and at the state level. And with Republicans in control of the Congress and in control of so many states, this is an opportunity for them to make voting even more restrictive than it already is.
GROSS: Let me step back a second. If the law says that you have to show a photo ID or proof of citizenship or a birth certificate to register or to vote, why is that considered by many people to be an excessive burden?
BERMAN: So first, on the voter ID front, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that about 11 percent of Americans do not have government-issued ID. So that's a lot of people in this country. And not only that, but there is a disproportionate impact on African-American voters, on Latino voters, on younger voters, on poorer voters, on elderly voters. So some people are more impacted by these laws than others.
When it comes to proof of citizenship, the Brennan Center for Justice has found that 7 percent of voters do not have ready access to their citizenship papers. What we saw in Kansas when they implemented this kind proof of citizenship law - over 35,000 voters, 1 in 7 new registrants, ended up on the state's suspended voter lists. These were more likely to be younger voters. They were more likely to be Democratic voters. They were more likely to be independent voters. So both voter ID and proof of citizenship shape an electorate that is more friendly to Republican candidates.
GROSS: You wrote an article last month, and I'll read the headline. It's a catchy headline. The headline was "Iowa's New Voter ID Law Would Have Disenfranchised My Grandmother." And you write about your grandmother, who moved from Brooklyn to Iowa when she was 89 and had trouble voting. Like, what happened to her?
BERMAN: I always think it's important to tell stories of actual voters who could be impacted by these laws because I think it helps move beyond some of the partisanship and rhetoric about the debate over voting in America. And so when Iowa proposed its strict voter ID law, I immediately thought of my grandmother, who was quite a character. She was someone who fled the Holocaust in Poland and moved to Brooklyn.
And then when she was 89 years old, she moved to Iowa, where my family lived, and lived with us for 10 years until she passed away at 99. And my grandmother didn't have a driver's license because she never drove. She took public transportation in New York, and when she moved to Iowa, she walked everywhere. She would walk two miles to Walmart if she wanted to buy something. She didn't have a birth certificate because she escaped the Holocaust in Poland and was not born in the U.S. She did not have a current passport because she'd only been out of the country once, to Israel, and no longer traveled abroad.
And so I asked my mom, what did my grandmother use for her identification? And she used her Medicare card, which is not an acceptable voter ID in the state of Iowa. So even though she was 89 years old when she moved to Iowa, even though she voted for 10 years when she lived in Iowa until she passed away at 99, she did not possess any of the forms of government-issued ID that Iowa is now requiring to vote.
GROSS: My guest is Ari Berman, a senior contributing writer to The Nation magazine and author of the book "Give Us The Ballot." After a break, we'll talk about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' track record on voting issues. And Ken Tucker will review Angaleena Presley's new album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ari Berman, who writes about voting rights for The Nation magazine and is author of the book "Give Us The Ballot." We're talking about voting rights and voting restrictions. Last week, President Trump issued an executive order creating a new election integrity commission. The president has claimed, with no evidence, that millions of fraudulent votes were responsible for him losing the popular vote. The new commission is led by Vice President Pence and Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who is an advocate of strict voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud. Critics of these laws say there are very few fraudulent votes, but these restrictive laws make it more difficult for people of color, older people and young people to vote. When we left off, we were talking about the obstacles these laws present.
You wrote about one person who had to go to, like, I forget how many different agencies and two states after he moved from one state to another, in order to get the documents he needed to vote.
BERMAN: I wrote a story about a man by the name of Eddie Lee Holloway Jr. He was a 58-year-old African-American man who moved from Chicago to Wisconsin. And Wisconsin was one of those states that required strict voter ID to cast a ballot in 2016. So Eddie Lee Holloway went to the DMV in Milwaukee, and he brought his Illinois photo ID, which was not accepted; his birth certificate and his social security card.
But he was not issued ID in Wisconsin for voting because the name on his birth certificate said Eddie Jr. Holloway instead of Eddie Lee Holloway Jr. because of a clerical error when it was issued. So they said he had to go down to Vital Records in Milwaukee and amend his birth certificate. When he went to Vital Records in Milwaukee and said - how much will it cost to amend my birth certificate? - they told him between $400 and $600. They said he had to go back to Illinois where he was from and amend his birth certificate there. So he went back to Illinois. He paid for a bus - went to Springfield, the state capitol. And he said, I want to amend my birth certificate. In Springfield, Ill., Vital Records told him he needed to either bring his high school or his vaccination records.
He went from Springfield to Decatur, his hometown in Illinois; got his high school records; went back to Vital Records in Springfield, Ill.; and said can I now amend my birth certificate? They said, no, we need to see your full Social Security statement. So he went back to Wisconsin, got all his documents in order, emailed vital records in Illinois and said, can I fax or email you my information? And they said, no, you have to come back to Illinois and do it in person.
And at this point, this one voter, Eddie Lee Holloway Jr., gave up. He made seven trips in two different states, spent over $200 of his own money and still wasn't able to get a voter ID in Wisconsin. And he became a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging Wisconsin's voter ID law. And much of this information came from a deposition he gave under oath. And a few days before the election, I called his lawyer from the ACLU. And I said, did Eddie Lee Holloway ever get the ID he needed to vote in Wisconsin? And his lawyer told me, he was so disgusted by the whole process that he moved back to Illinois.
So this is just one story, but I can tell you, Terry, I know dozens of stories and I've reported dozens of stories that are unfortunately just like this.
GROSS: How many people have the time or money to do what he did in order to try and vote? And even he failed at (laughing)...
BERMAN: How many people...
GROSS: ...At living in his new state and being able to vote there.
BERMAN: The question that I ask myself is - how many people, when they're turned away from the polls once, are going to go through all of the effort to do it two, three, four, five, six or, in Eddie Holloway Jr.'s case, seven times? And I think it's really, really tragic that in the year 2016, we're doing this to voters - that people who have voted all of their lives without any sort of problems are now being disenfranchised.
And there's no reason because there's no evidence of voter impersonation in Wisconsin or anywhere else that the kind of voter ID law they passed would stop. In Wisconsin, you had 300,000 registered voters, according to the federal courts, that did not possess strict forms of voter ID. But Wisconsin didn't present a single case of voter impersonation in court that their voter ID law would have stopped.
GROSS: What are some of the ways that we haven't yet discussed that voting rights activists say discriminate against people of color, the young and the elderly?
BERMAN: There are strict voter ID laws because younger people, people of color are less likely to possess these kind of IDs. There are cuts to early voting because African-American voters, for example, are more likely to vote early in states like Florida that have early voting. There are restrictions on voter registration drives which affect first-time voters and younger voters disproportionately. There are purges of the voting rolls, which often purge people of color more likely than white voters. There are laws that disenfranchise ex-offenders in states like Florida where, even after you've served your time, you still can't vote. Nationally, about 6 million Americans can't vote because the felon disenfranchisement laws.
So there's lots of different ways the right to vote is being restricted. It's not just voter ID laws, which get all the attention. But it's all of these other things, too - cutting back early voting, making it harder to register to vote, purging the voting rolls, disenfranchising ex-felons. These are all things that can contribute to restrictions on voting rights and voter participation.
GROSS: So we've been talking about the Voting Integrity Commission. Let's take a look at Jeff Sessions, President Trump's attorney general. What is his reputation when it comes to voting rights and voting restrictions?
BERMAN: Jeff Sessions is someone who was viewed by voting rights advocates as very hostile to voting rights. And this dates all the way back to his time as a U.S. attorney in Alabama. One of the things Jeff Sessions did in the 1980s as U.S. attorney for Alabama is he prosecuted civil rights activists for voter fraud. He prosecuted three people who were very, very influential voting rights advocates in Alabama, people who actually marched on Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, and were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers.
And what Jeff Sessions said was that these civil rights activists in the 1980s were illegally helping African-American voters cast absentee ballots. And these people, three people - two were Albert Turner and his wife Evelyn and another was an activist by the name of Spencer Hogue. Jeff Sessions prosecuted them for voter fraud, and the trial actually took place in Selma, Ala., which was the birthplace, in many ways, of the modern voting rights struggle. And these prosecutions got a lot of attention in the 1980s. The fact that a white U.S. attorney, Jeff Sessions, was prosecuting African-American civil rights activists for voter fraud was very controversial, and these defendants were eventually acquitted.
But this case, which became known as the Marion Three 'cause they were from Marion, Ala., really helped define Jeff Sessions' career when it came to civil rights. And indeed, 30 years later, when he was nominated as attorney general, these voter fraud cases was one of the things that many Democrats asked him about.
GROSS: So what has Jeff Sessions done so far in his role as attorney general that's related to voting laws?
BERMAN: Well, the first thing that I think it's important to understand is that Jeff Sessions was supportive of the Supreme Court's decision that gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act. When the Supreme Court ruled that states with a long history of discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government, Sessions said that it was good news for the South. Now as attorney general, one of the first things that Jeff Sessions did was reverse the Obama administration's position that Texas' voter ID law was intentionally discriminatory.
Texas has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. You can vote, for example, with a gun permit but not a student ID. And the Obama administration took the position which the federal courts also affirmed that Texas' law was intentionally discriminatory, that it was passed precisely to try to disenfranchise democratic and Latino voters. So a federal court actually ruled in April that Texas's law was intentionally discriminatory, which was a defeat both for the state of Texas and for the Trump Justice Department and Jeff Sessions.
GROSS: Why are voting rights and voting restrictions seen as a partisan issue?
BERMAN: I think this is really an unfortunate thing because for many years, voting rights was viewed as more of a regional issue than a partisan issue. Both Southern Democrats and Southern Republicans were viewed as hostile to voting rights. But a lot of Northern Republicans were very, very supportive of voting rights. But I think what's happened more recently is, number one, the fact that broadly it's been true in recent elections that Democrats do better when there's higher voter turnout.
But Republicans are just fine when there's lower voter turnout. So Republicans did very well in the 2010 and the 2014 midterm elections when there was much lower turnout. Democrats did a whole lot better in 2008 and 2012 when there was higher voter turnout. At the same time, the changing demographics of the country are favoring Democratic candidates. So in 2008, for example, there were 5 million new voters that cast a ballot.
And those 5 million new voters voted 75 percent for President Obama. And I think that set off alarm bells within the Republican Party. And I think they saw that if there was high voter turnout and if that high voter turnout translated towards Democratic candidates, they were going to be in trouble for a long time. So they began to think about new ways to try to restrict voting among the country's growing and changing demographics.
GROSS: All right, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more about voting rights and voting restrictions. My guest, Ari Berman, is a senior contributing writer for The Nation and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He's the author of the book "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." Today is the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Give Us The Ballot" speech, which is his first major speech on voting rights. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're talking with Ari Berman. He's a senior contributing writer for The Nation and the author of the book "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." President Trump just set up a new Election Integrity Commission. And the two heads of the commission, Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, are seen as advocates of voting restrictions.
So the issue of voting rights and voting restrictions is very much in the news right now. Do we have any hard evidence of how restrictive voting laws that were passed after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?
BERMAN: Some evidence is emerging. I wrote about a study recently that was done for Priorities USA, which is a progressive advocacy group and Democratic super PAC. So I will just add that caveat. But this study found that 200,000 votes could have been suppressed in Wisconsin because of that state's strict voter ID law. What this study found was that states that did not make voting changes, did not adopt strict voter ID laws in 2016, turnout actually increased by 1.3 percent.
But in Wisconsin, turnout decreased by 3.3 percent. And obviously, turnout can decrease for a lot of different reasons. But this study said that the voter ID law could be one of the reasons why 200,000 fewer people could have been prevented from voting in Wisconsin. And remember, Donald Trump only won the state by about 23,000 votes. So I do want to add the caveat that there are lots of different reasons why turnout could be down. This could have nothing to do with the voter ID law in Wisconsin. But I know both from my own personal experience that there were lots of voters who did have problems casting a ballot in states like Wisconsin.
Also in Milwaukee where turnout was down by 40,000 votes, the head of elections there said that he believes that the voter ID law decreased turnout by at least a few thousand votes in Milwaukee, which is a heavily Democratic, heavily African-American city. And he believes that the voter ID law, in particular, reduced voting among people who are more likely to be African-American voters, more likely to be poorer voters, more likely to be more transient voters and people who would have been more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton.
So I don't think we're ever going to know how many people were prevented from voting or might have voted if these restrictions were not in effect. But I do think there is some evidence emerging that voter ID laws and similar restrictions at least had some suppressive effect on the outcome of the election.
GROSS: So what voting rights cases do you have your eye on now?
BERMAN: So there are cases that are working their way through the courts, like Texas' voter ID law, which has repeatedly been struck down by the federal courts but could make its way to the Supreme Court. So I'm keeping my eye on cases that could make their way to the Supreme Court from Texas or other states. I'm also paying attention to what's happening at the state level, which isn't getting virtually any attention now in the era of Trump.
But in 2017 alone, 87 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 29 states. States like Iowa, Arkansas have adopted strict voter ID laws already this year. So there is stuff happening at the state level, there is stuff happening at the courts. There is now stuff happening at the federal level as well with President Trump's new Election Integrity Commission. So there's a lot going on when it comes to voting rights in America at this moment in time.
GROSS: So today is the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King's first major speech on voting rights. What was the importance of that speech, Ari?
BERMAN: It was an incredibly important speech. Martin Luther King was very young when he gave it. He was only 28 years old when he gave his "Give Us The Ballot" speech. The gathering was called the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. It took place at the Lincoln Memorial. And in many ways, it was the precursor to the March on Washington that took place six years later. And the reason for this speech that King gave called "Give Us The Ballot" was that it was the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which was supposed to desegregate public schools. But three years after the Brown decision, almost no schools in the South had desegregated.
And King was asking the question, why? And what King said was that no schools in the South had desegregated, and no progress had been made on civil rights because the South was still controlled by white segregationists who were not going to give up power or not going to do anything on civil rights as long as so many black voters were disenfranchised. So King titled this speech "Give Us The Ballot" because he believed that the ballot was the key for African-Americans and others to become full citizens, to achieve full rights - that if they wanted to be able to go to an integrated school or eat where they wanted or marry who they wanted and have equal political power and be treated as full citizens, they had to have the right to vote. That was the right from which all other rights flowed.
So I found it to be an incredibly powerful speech, an incredibly prescient speech, and that was one reason why I decided to use it as the title for my book. But I think just in a larger historical context, it's a speech by King that often gets lost. And I would urge many people to listen to it because it is so powerful to reflect on today.
GROSS: Ari Berman, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
BERMAN: Thank you so much, Terry. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Ari Berman is a senior contributing writer to The Nation magazine and author of the book "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new country album by Angaleena Presley. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID")