Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

The State of the Obama Coalition in 2012: Live Chat with Van Jones and Ari Berman

Note: To read a replay of the chat, click the CoveritLive box below. You can also access an edited transcript here.

After a campaign that saw an unprecedented level of grassroots activism and young voter engagement, Barack Obama’s supporters have struggled to reconcile the idealism that swept him into the presidency with the more centrist and cautious approach he has taken once in office. As the 2012 election approaches, what role will grassroots activists play in Obama's re-election campaign and in pushing him to stand up for more progressive governance? 

On Friday, June 1st at 2 PM EST, Nation readers are invited to join us for a discussion with Nation writer Ari Berman and Rebuild the Dream president and co-founder Van Jones on the state of the Obama coalition in 2012.

Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation and Investigative Journalism Fellow at the Nation Institute, has reported extensively on American politics, foreign policy and the intersection of money and politics. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, looks at the grassroots organizing that sought to expand the Democratic coalition beginning with the Howard Dean campaign and culminating in the Democratic victories of 2008.


Van Jones is the president and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, an organization that seeks to implement bottom-up solutions to fix the United States economy. In his new book of the same name, he details his experience in the Obama White House and proposes strategies to build movements for progressive change.



Please join us on Friday, June 1st for a lively discussion!

Democrats Counter GOP Voting Restrictions

Since the 2010 election, Republicans have approved laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the right to vote. These laws include requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons and mandating government-issued photo identification to cast a ballot. The Brennan Center estimates that “these new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012,” and notes that “these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities.” States with restrictive voting laws now comprise 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency—including crucial swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The impact of such laws could be one of the sleeper issues that helps decides the 2012 election.

House Democrats responded to the wave of new voting restrictions by introducing a comprehensive new bill yesterday, “The Voter Empowerment Act,” aimed at expanding voting rights for all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. “The ability to vote should be easy, accessible and simple,” said Representative John Lewis, a civil rights hero who cosponsored the legislation with House Democratic whip Steny H. Hoyer, Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, Representative John Conyers and Representative Robert Brady. “Yet there are practices and laws in place that make it harder to vote today than it was even one year ago. The sponsors of this act believe we need to take action or risk losing the liberties we have enjoyed. We should be moving toward a more inclusive democracy, not one that locks people out.” (The Obama campaign also unveiled a new voter-education website today, gottavote.org.)

The Voter Empowerment Act is the first piece of federal legislation that would modernize voter registration and includes a number of important new federal standards. They include:

-Automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government institutions like the DMV, allowing them to register to vote online and easily update their voter registration information when they move and adopting Election Day registration nationwide (states with same-day registration have the highest turnout in the United States)

• Guaranteeing fifteen days of early voting before Election Day

• Granting the right to vote for ex-felons after they’ve served their time

• Banning deceptive ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout

• Preventing election officials like Katherine Harris from working for political campaigns

(The bill does not address new voter ID laws, which nine GOP states have passed since 2010, but Representative Keith Ellison introduced a bill last year that would prohibit election officials from requiring photo identification to cast a vote or register to vote.)

“The Democratic leadership is taking voting reforms very seriously,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “This legislation addresses the real problems in our system of elections, not the fictitious ones.” Indeed, since the 2010 election Republicans have breathlessly hyped the phantom menace of “voter fraud” in order to pass new voting restrictions that will reshape the electorate in the GOP’s favor, needlessly politicizing American elections and ignoring the real deficiencies in our electoral system.

For example, 9 million voters couldn’t vote in 2008, according to MIT, because of problems with their voter registration (13 percent), long lines at the polls (11 percent), uncertainty about the location of their polling place (nine percent) or lack of proper ID (seven percent). An additional 51 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote, notes Demos. “This represents almost one in four citizens, disproportionately low-income voters, people of color, and younger Americans,” writes Liz Kennedy. Of the 146 million Americans registered to vote in 2008, 131 million voted—a turnout rate of 90 percent. So the biggest problem in US elections isn’t that people aren’t voting, but that they aren’t registered to vote.

Unfortunately, this problem is getting worse, not better, as we head closer to the 2012 election. Crucial swing states like Florida have cracked down on voter registration drives, forcing non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote to abandon their voter registration efforts (the Department of Justice has objected to Florida’s law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act). Eighty-one thousand fewer voters have registered in Florida in 2012 compared to the same period four years ago, according to an analysis by the New York Times. Voter registration in Florida's communities of color has grown about half as fast as it has in North Carolina since 2008, notes a new study by Facing South. Nationally, the number of black and Hispanic registered voters has declined by 5 percent since 2008, according to the Washington Post, including 28 percent in New Mexico and 10 percent in Florida, the result of people leaving their homes because of the economic collapse or not being able to register to vote due to new voting restrictions.

Wendy Weiser notes that the main ideas included in the Voter Empowerment Act are common-sense reforms that have been adopted on a bipartisan basis in a number of states. They would make US elections more convenient, more efficient, more participatory, more secure and less expensive—virtues that all sides should be able to agree on. “These are not partisan hot-button issues,” Weiser says. Or at least they shouldn’t be. Non-partisan voting rights groups like the Brennan Center, Common Cause, Demos, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have endorsed the effort. The bill has approximately 100 Democratic supporters in the House, but so far no Republicans have signed on.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

Why Obama Must Hold Wall Street Accountable

Late last week, I heard the news about J.P. Morgan’s staggering $2 billion in losses on the same day I read Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article about the death of financial reform and Nick Confessore’s New York Times Magazine piece about President Obama’s fundraising on Wall Street. After reading these two articles in conjunction with the J.P. Morgan news, I could only come to one conclusion: it’s impossible to “reform” Wall Street if the president is dependent on the financial sector to bankroll his re-election campaign. The banks can be Obama’s friend or his enemy, but right now they can’t be both.

That’s why Obama should follow the lead of Elizabeth Warren and make Wall Street accountability a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. That would mean an end to the lavish fundraisers held by the titans of high finance (like the one last night), toughening and rigorously enforcing financial reform legislation and aggressively prosecuting Wall Street malfeasance. The banks would no doubt protest even louder than usual, but the public would heartily applaud. If the money dries up, so be it.

Obama stands the best shot at getting re-elected by making the election a choice between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, with Mitt Romney as the unabashed defender of the twenty-first-century robber barons. It’s easy to forget that the 1 percent, while overwhelmingly powerful in our political system, are by nature a tiny minority of voters. Thus, Obama’s core message should be about ensuring fairness and expanding opportunity for the 99 percent. But he won’t have the credibility to make such a message stick unless he jettisons what has been the albatross around his administration’s neck—the closeness between Washington and Wall Street.

Yesterday the Obama campaign unveiled a powerful new ad attacking Romney’s vulture capitalism at Bain Capital. Yet on that same night, Obama attended a fundraiser hosted by the president of the world’s largest private equity firm, the Blackstone Group. “Obama Hits Romney on Bain as He Raises Wall Street Money,” read a Bloomberg News headline. Republican gleefully amplified the story, branding Obama as an opportunistic hypocrite. Obama can’t afford another five months of headlines like that. Only by making clear to the public which side he’s on can the president consistently and convincingly paint Romney as Wall Street’s best friend. (Romney’s top five contributors are employees of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse.)

Some Obama supporters will no doubt argue that Obama needs the money from wherever he can get it. Yet forgoing Wall Street cash is less of a risk for Obama than one might think. Though the president raised nearly $16 million from the securities and investment sector in 2008, he has collected less than $3 million from them in 2012. Romney and his Super PAC have outraised the president by ten to one on Wall Street (see here and here). Rather than trying to make up that gap, the Obama campaign should use that disparity to its advantage by asking Obama’s legion of small donors to make up the difference. That’s an ambitious but by no means impossible goal—the president has already collected 53 percent of his campaign cash from those giving under $200 (compared to just 13 percent for Romney). A declaration of independence from Wall Street would encourage many more people to donate to Obama’s campaign.

Obama’s failure to channel the public’s populist anger at the banks in 2010 cost his party dearly at the polls. Much of the electorate saw Washington and Wall Street as the same entity, largely as a result of the bailouts. Republicans are working hard to replay that theme in 2012. “Obama won't admit to supporting Wall Street,” says a new ad from the conservative American Future Fund running in eight swing states. “But Wall Street sure supports President Obama.” The fact that the banks have shifted their support to Romney this time around is a distinction lost on many Americans, who see both parties as wholly reliant on Wall Street cash—and with good reason. As Senator Dick Durbin famously remarked in 2009, “the banks…are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

Obama, even if he wanted to, couldn’t change this dynamic in one election—that’s why we need to repeal the Citizens United decision and institute publicly financed elections. The president, however, is squandering a powerful wedge issue against Romney by not campaigning against the Citizens United decision and staying silent on the corrupting influence of big money in our political system. Demanding accountability from Wall Street would set a powerful precedent by Obama and free him up to pursue an ambitious second-term agenda of justice for Main Street if he’s re-elected. 

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

Romney’s Fuzzy Jobs Math

The Obama campaign today launched a new ad and website attacking Mitt Romney’s record as a “job destroyer” while he ran the private equity firm Bain Capital.

The Romney campaign responded that “Mitt Romney helped create more jobs in his private sector experience and more jobs as Governor of Massachusetts than President Obama has for the entire nation.”

Romney’s jobs claims deserve serious scrutiny. According to the Associated Press, Massachusetts added 24,400 net jobs while Romney was governor. The state ranked forty-seventh out of fifty in job growth during that time.

The number of jobs Romney presided over at Bain has varied widely according to his own estimates. When he ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney said he created 10,000 jobs while at Bain. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Romney’s campaign has claimed he created “over 100,000 new jobs,” “tens of thousands jobs” and “thousands of jobs” at Bain. It’s impossible to know if any of these figures are accurate—every time the Romney campaign is pressed on the details, the number of jobs he created at Bain seems to decrease.

“If he is to continue to make claims about job creation, the Romney campaign needs to provide a real accounting of how many jobs were gained or lost through Bain Capital investments while the firm managed these companies—and while Romney was chief executive,” wrote Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. “Any jobs counted after either of those data points simply do not pass the laugh test.” He gave Romney’s “over 100,000 new jobs” created “three Pinocchio’s,” which represents a “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” In another analysis, Kessler wrote that “[Romney’s] campaign offered no definitive proof that Bain added more jobs than it eliminated while Romney headed the firm.”

Indeed, the jobs Romney supposedly created at Bain came from the growth of three companies Bain helped start—Staples, Sports Authority and Domino’s. But we have no idea how many jobs were lost at companies like GST Steel, which the Obama campaign spotlighted today, that went bust under Bain. Romney is only counting gross, not net, jobs created, which is not how jobs are calculated in the real economy. “It is utterly ridiculous for Romney to cherry-pick three companies where jobs were gained and ignore other companies where there were job losses while he was at Bain,” says Michael Linden, director for tax and budget policy at the Center for American Progress. “If you applied that same standard to Obama, you would have millions—if not tens of millions—of new jobs created during Obama’s term.”

Romney’s criticism of Obama’s jobs record is lacking crucial context. The country lost 4.2 million private sector jobs during Obama’s first term as a result of the economic crisis the president inherited. Since early 2010, the economy has added 4.25 million private sector jobs, resulting in a net gain of private sector jobs for the first time during the Obama administration. (The public sector has lost 607,000 jobs since Obama took office.)

These figures don’t mean that Obama has an ideal record when it comes to jobs. He should’ve been more focused on creating jobs and less concerned with reducing the deficit for the entirety of his administration and could be doing much more to stem the loss of public sector jobs. But Romney’s jobs record, to the extent that we even know what it is, is hard to take seriously, no matter what the candidate says. It’s impossible and misleading for Romney to claim he has created more jobs than Obama.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

Richard Lugar and the End of Moderate Republicanism

UPDATE: As predicted, Lugar lost his primary challenge to Mourdock, 60 percent to 40 percent.

If Indiana Senator Dick Lugar loses his Republican primary race to Tea Party challenger Richard Mourdock tonight, as polls indicate is likely, his defeat will signal the end of moderate Republican internationalism in the US Senate and the GOP more broadly.

Lugar, a two time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee best known for his work on arms control and nonproliferation treaties, used to be one of the GOP’s leading figures on foreign policy. Now he’s an outlier.

The Senate Republican caucus was once filled with the likes of Dick Lugar—sensible realists such as Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel, George Voinovich and Olympia Snowe. Now they’re all gone or going, casualties of a Republican party where diplomacy, multilateralism and bipartisanship are dirty words. (A Mourdock ad called Lugar “Obama’s favorite Republican.”)

The decline of Lugar’s brand of pragmatic internationalism on foreign affairs helps explain why neoconservative veterans of the Bush Administration are now the principal foreign policy advisers to Mitt Romney. As I wrote in the latest issue of The Nation:

Elder statesmen from the George H.W. Bush administration like [Colin] Powell and [Brent] Scowcroft are much closer to Obama than to Romney. “The foreign policy experts who represent old-school, small-c conservatism and internationalism have been pushed out of the party,” says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the center-left National Security Network. “Who in the Republican Party still listens to Brent Scowcroft?” Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Powell, says the likes of Powell and Scowcroft are “very worried about their ability to restore moderation and sobriety to the party’s foreign and domestic policies.”

Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, elaborated in a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria. “I’ve been called a RINO, a Republican in Name Only,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I think the party has moved.”

In March, Hagel was asked, “Do you still consider yourself a Republican?” He responded, “I don’t know what the Republican Party is.”

On the contrary, I’m guessing that the likes of Hagel and Lugar know all too well what the GOP has become.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback.

Why Economic Populism Is a Winning Strategy for Obama

The centrist Democratic group Third Way has a new report out about “Swing Independents,” who they claim are the Soccer Moms/Reagan Democrats/Rockefeller Republicans of 2012. (I prefer to think of them as the fickle souls who can’t make up their minds.)

These Swing Independents, according to Third Way, make up 15 percent of the electorate and currently favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 44 percent to 38 percent. But despite their soft pro-Obama leanings, Third Way argues that Obama’s populist message of economic fairness is turning these voters off. Swing Independents care about “opportunity,” not fairness, prioritize cutting the deficit over reducing income inequality, don’t believe the US economy is skewed to favor the wealthy and “consider themselves to be haves, not part of the have nots,” according to the report. In other words, Obama should cozy up to the banks (as if he hadn’t already), stop campaigning on the “Buffet rule” and make the Bowles-Simpson debt plan the centerpiece of his presidency. (The presidency already tried that strategy for much of 2011, and it didn’t work.)

It’s hard to know who is more out of touch—Third Way or the “Swing Independents” they claim to speak for. At the very moment that prominent Republicans are admitting that Obama’s focus on income inequality has put the GOP on the defensive, Third Way wants the president and Democratic candidates to drop the issue. That would be political suicide, not to mention terrible public policy.

This week a new ABC News/Washington Post poll asked voters: “what do you think is the bigger problem in this country—unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity?” Fifty-two percent answered “unfairness,” while only “37 percent” mentioned “over-regulation.” A December 2011 Pew poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the US economic system “favors the wealthy,” with 36 percent saying it was “generally fair.” In a November 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 61 percent of the public said the federal government should “pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less-well-off Americans,” with 35 percent saying it should not. So much for the canard that income inequality is an issue the public doesn’t care about.

Following the president’s State of the Union address in February, the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner tested a “middle class opportunity” message versus a “‘fair shot’ for the middle class” message on voters. “The two messages produced similar overall results,” GQR found, refuting Third Way’s findings. The middle-class opportunity/economy meme “was the strongest message among independents,” GQR found, while the economic fairness theme “performed best in Congressional districts won by President Obama in 2008 and by a Republican in 2010 and among white seniors.” Pitting opportunity against fairness is a false choice. It makes no sense to discard a populist message that is clearly resonating among a majority of the electorate.

The argument that progressive economic populism repels independent voters is “absolutely wrong,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told me. “If economic populism means championing the middle class and making sure the wealthiest pay their fair share as a way to address our problems, they’re for that.”

In the current economic climate, the president’s advocacy for the Buffet rule and higher taxes for the wealthy is the right approach, Greenberg says. “Talk about fairness and inequality does not turn off voters,” he says. “They agree with the assessment. They want those things in order to solve the main problem, which is what’s happening to the middle class.” Under this narrative, greater fairness leads to expanded opportunity.

The Third Way memo reflects the same kind of bad advice that self-proclaimed centrist Democrats bestowed upon Al Gore in 2000. Third Way is a successor of sorts to the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council, which for many years “waged a scorched-earth campaign against ‘populism’ in the Democratic Party,” wrote John Judis. These corporate Democrats blamed Gore’s “people versus the powerful” speech at the 2000 Democratic convention for his loss, a hypothesis that Judis discredited long ago.

Wrote Judis in 2002:

According to the Newsweek poll, Gore was down 48 percent to 38 percent just before the convention. At the end of August, he was ahead by 49 percent to 38 percent, a 21-point turnaround, the poll showed. Commented Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, "There can be no disputing the polls that showed that Gore's quasi-populist message at the 2000 Democratic convention helped send his numbers soaring past George Bush."

…If you look at Gore's poll ratings before and after his speech at the Democratic convention, his support shoots up among the very voters whom the DLCers believed were cool to such populist appeals. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Gore's support increased 12 percent among voters who make between $50,000 and $75,000 per year (and by 19 percent among independents, according to the Gallup poll). If you look at the final results, Gore did relatively well among upscale voters, particularly those with high levels of education. Where he slipped precipitously from Clinton's margins in 1996 was among white working-class voters.

Gore lost the white working-class vote because of his stance on wedge issues like gun control and his negative association with Bill Clinton. Economic populism had nothing to do with it. Concluded Judis: “Gore's campaign on behalf of the ‘people versus the powerful’ almost lifted him to victory rather than plunging him to defeat.”

Obama could lose the 2012 election for any number of reasons. But focusing on income inequality and fairness for the 99 percent will not be one of them.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

The ‘Voter Fraud’ Fraud

As President Obama spoke about Representative Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday, Fox News broke away from the president’s remarks to cover “a stunning case in South Bend, Indiana.” The story covered an indictment by the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office alleging that local Democratic officials forged signatures to get Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on the Indiana Democratic Primary ballot in 2008. “Indiana State Police investigators identified a total of 22 petitions that appeared to be faked, yet sailed through the Voter Registration Board as legitimate documents,” Fox reported. Eric Shawn, of the Fox News Voter Fraud Unit, said that a local election worker was “ordered to forge presidential petitions for Barack Obama, illegally faking the names and signatures of unsuspecting voters to put the then-Illinois senator on the presidential primary ballot.”

The new report will no doubt underscore the belief among Fox News viewers that Obama was illegitimately elected in 2008. According to a 2009 poll by Public Policy Polling, “52% majority of GOP voters nationally think that ACORN stole the Presidential election for Barack Obama last year, with only 27% granting that he won it legitimately.” Conservative commenters are pointing to the indictment as further proof of rampant voter fraud and more evidence of the need for voter ID laws nationwide.  

There are at least two major problems with this argument.

Number one: there’s no evidence that the alleged forgeries played a decisive role in getting the Democratic candidates on the Indiana ballot in 2008 or determining the outcome of the primary or general election. “No one could seriously argue there wasn’t enough popular support for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to justify their appearance on the primary ballot, or that it had any effect on the primary results, or any vaguely remote effect on the general election,” writes Ed Kilgore of The Washington Monthly. “So maybe this was ‘election fraud’ in the broadest sense of the term, but hardly ‘voter fraud.’” 

Number two: Indiana’s voter ID law, passed in 2008 and the model for the nine states that have adopted similar laws since the 2010 election, did nothing to prevent the alleged signature fraud, nor did it stop Indiana’s Republican Secretary of State, Charlie White, from committing felony voter fraud in the 2010 election. (White was sentenced to a year of home detention on felony fraud convictions.)

Indeed, the Indiana indictment reinforces how thin the conservative case about voter fraud really is and why voter ID laws are a misguided solution to a miniscule problem. As I reported in Rolling Stone last fall:

A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere," joked Stephen Colbert. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading advocate for voting rights at the New York University School of Law, quantified the problem in stark terms. "It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning," the report calculated, "than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."


More recently, Steve Benen of Maddow Blog notes that “Texas recently went looking for examples of voter fraud and found fewer than five incidents of ‘illegal voting’ out of more than 13 million votes cast in the 2008 and 2010 elections.” Concludes Benen, after examining the Indiana indictment: “the takeaway here is that real examples of fraud are incredibly rare.”

Indeed, between 2000 and 2007, there were 32,299 UFO sightings in the United States, 352 deaths caused by lightning, but only nine cases of voter impersonation, according to a great new infographic by Craiglist founder Craig Newmark.

Yet conservatives continue to hype the extremely rare occurrence of election fraud as if it were something that happens every day and is somehow responsible for the election of Obama and Democratic candidates across the map. And there is evidence that they’ve been successful in pushing this fact-free narrative among the broader public. In 2009, Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin of Occidental College studied the media coverage of ACORN during the 2008 election and concluded:

  • 82.8% of the stories failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare

  • 80.3% of the stories failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law

  • 85.1% of the stories about ACORN failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its (mostly temporary) employees when it became aware of these problems

  • 95.8% of the stories failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of "voter fraud" to dampen voting by lowincome and minority Americans, including the firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter-fraud accusations—firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

The real story in 2012 is how the myth of voter fraud has been advanced by Republicans to justify new voting restrictions in more than a dozen states, which could disenfranchise up to 5 million voters on Election Day, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s a whole lot of casualties in response to a few bad actors.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.  

Minnesota’s War on Voting

Last year, Republicans introduced legislation in thirty-four states to mandate government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. Nine GOP states have passed voter ID laws since the 2010 election, including Pennsylvania earlier last month. Minnesota, another important battleground state, could be next.

Last year, Minnesota Democratic Governor Mark Dayton vetoed a bill from the GOP legislature that would have given the state the strictest voter ID law in the nation, prohibiting passports, military IDs and student IDs as valid documentation. Now the legislature is bypassing the governor by approving a constitutional amendment for voter ID that will go on the November ballot. The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the legislation; once agreed upon, the measure will go on the 2012 ballot. If approved by voters, the 2013 legislature will implement the particulars of the law.

Voter ID laws are the latest attempt by conservative groups and corporate interests to shape a GOP-friendly electorate and consolidate the power of the 1 percent within the political system. According to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of US citizens lack government-issued ID, including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans. “While the photo ID constitutional amendment would impede the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans—including active duty service members and other absentee voters—it will disproportionately impact the elderly, students, foreclosure victims, the working poor and minorities, the very citizens who most need to use the democratic process to counter the influence of the superwealthy and the political entities they finance,” says a report from the grassroots progressive group TakeAction Minnesota.

According to an analysis by the Minnesota secretary of state’s office, 215,000 Minnesota voters—7 percent of the state’s electorate—do not have a driver’s license or ID card with a current address on it. The voter ID law could also end the state’s popular system of Election Day voter registration, which 18.5 percent of voters used in 2008. Minnesota has the highest voter turnout in the US and is often held up as a model for the rest of the nation.

Voter ID laws have been a top priority of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafted a model voter ID bill for state legislators in 2009. ALEC members sponsored voter ID legislation in five states that passed such laws in 2011. ALEC’s state chairman in Minnesota, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, also happens to be the lead sponsor of Minnesota’s voter ID legislation in the state house. Fifteen ALEC members of the legislature have co-sponsored the bill. Reported the AP: “ALEC provided a copy of its voter ID model bill to The Associated Press. Kiffmeyer's 2011 bill is not identical, though there are several similar sections about ID requirements, counting provisional ballots and issuing a free ID to those over 18 who don't have a valid driver's license.”

Turns out Kiffmeyer has a rather checkered history when it comes to voting rights. Reports Colorlines:

Rep. Kiffmeyer, the lead sponsor on the vetoed [voter ID] bill, is Minnesota’s former Secretary of State. During that tenure, she attempted a number of actions that might have disenfranchised voters had courts not blocked them. In 2004, Kiffmeyer attempted a rule that would have required voters to have a valid ID that “exactly matched” the information on her registered voter rolls. Two years later, she ruled on Election Day that college students could not use utility bills to prove their residence when voting. Same year, she tried to ban special identification cards used by Native Americans unless the voter could prove they were residents of their tribe’s reservation. In every case, courts overturned Rep. Kiffmeyer’s maneuvers.


After losing her re-election campaign for secretary of state in 2006, Kiffmeyer formed a conservative group called Minnesota Majority, which has hyped unsubstantiated fears of “voter fraud” in order to promote the voter ID law. “Minnesota Leads the Nation in Voter Fraud Convictions,” claimed a report last year. The group alleged that 113 felons were convicted for unlawfully voting in 2008 election, which, even if true, would be the equivalent of .004 percent of the 2.9 million Minnesotans who voted. Still, Minnesota Public Radio labeled that claim “inconclusive.” Noted TakeAction: “No one has ever been convicted of voter impersonation in Minnesota.” Minnesota Majority also created a racially incendiary picture on its website showing a black man in prison stripes and a Latino in a sombrero and mariachi clothes lining up to vote.

Even if the facts are not on their side, Kiffmeyer and her fellow Republicans in the legislature have powerful backers in the state’s business community. According to TakeAction, “executives from Minnesota’s three largest banks—Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and TCF—led and funded a series of inter-related campaign entities that were instrumental in the Republican takeover of the Legislature that put members of ALEC in the House leadership and placed an attack on the voting rights of Minnesotans at the top of the 2012 legislative agenda.” These networks of banker-funded groups spent almost $500,000 to elect 25 new Republican legislators in 2008 and 2010 and more than $375,000 for 21 legislators pushing the voter ID amendments.

Once the constitutional amendment reaches the ballot, these groups are likely to spend lavishly on its behalf. A poll last year of 12,000 Minnesotans at the state fair showed 50 supporting the voter ID law, with 46 percent opposed and 2 percent undecided. “The more Minnesotans know the cost, burden and barriers of voter ID, the less they support it,” says Liz Loeb, TakeAction’s democracy campaign manager.

Should the constitutional amendment pass in November, it will likely face significant legal challenges. Minnesota, like Wisconsin, has an article protecting the right to vote in its state constitution. A Wisconsin circuit court judge recently found his state’s voter ID law unconstitutional. “These disenfranchised citizens would certainly include some of our friends, neighbors and relatives,” wrote Judge Richard Niess.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback. 

DOJ Blocks Discriminatory Texas Voter ID Law

The Justice Department today blocked Texas’s new voter ID law, which is among the toughest in the country, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, noting that “over 600,000 registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by [the Department of Public Safety]—and that a disproportionate share of those registered voters are Hispanic.”

The data provided by the state of Texas on two different occasions shows that Hispanic voters are more likely than white voters to lack the ID now required to cast a ballot. The law was clearly intended to benefit Republicans; for example, a handgun permit is considered an acceptable form of ID but a university ID is not. 

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez summarized the department’s findings: 

“We conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.

The state has provided no data on whether African-American or Asian registered voters are also disproportionately affected by S.B. 14.”

A separate analysis by the Texas secretary of state found that 18 percent of registered voters across Texas lack state government-issued photo IDs to match their voter registration cards, according to the Houston Chronicle. Those numbers were highest in counties with a significant minority population.

For those voters who lack the proper ID, obtaining the correct documentation can be a difficult task. Texas is required to provide a free ID to voters, but an applicant must possess supporting documentation in order to qualify. “If a voter does not possess any of these documents, the least expensive option will be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter’s birth certificate,” DOJ writes. That expenditure can be rightly construed as a poll tax, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited.  

Moreover, getting that ID from the DMV is not as easy as you’d think. Hispanics in Texas are twice as likely as whites to not have a car. There are DMV offices in only eighty-one of the state’s 254 counties. Not surprisingly, counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the right ID. “During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles roundtrip in order to reach a driver’s license office,” wrote DOJ.

In addition, the state has undertaken no voter education effort to make its citizens aware of the new law, nor has it trained poll workers to familiarize them with the election changes.

“Should this legislation ever see the light of day, it would immediately become the strictest voter qualification law since the poll tax,” says State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “Worse yet, photo identification requirements for voters drastically affect the electoral participation of the poor, the elderly, and the transient, which means those who need their government's ear most will be the last to be heard.”

The voter ID law is part of a broader effort by Texas Republicans to suppress the minority vote in a state that is becoming increasingly diverse. The League of Women Voters called the state’s redistricting plan, which favored white Republicans even though Hispanic and African-Americans comprised the bulk of population growth, “by far the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year.”

Texas is the third state where DOJ has blocked a discriminatory voting law this election cycle. In December, DOJ objected to South Carolina’s voter ID law, since “minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised,” Perez wrote.

The department also recently opposed Florida’s restriction of voter registration drives and curtailment of early voting. Minority voters were twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through voter registration drives and to use early voting in 2008.

A three-judge US district court panel in DC will now decide whether the laws should move forward. DOJ’s efforts are but one part of a broader pushback against the GOP’s war on voting rights. A Wisconsin circuit court judge recently issued a temporary injunction against the state’s new voter ID law until a trial next month decides whether the law violates the state constitution.

Yet Republicans are intent with moving forward with new voter restrictions. Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting, and the first in 2012.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback.

Super Tuesday's Big Winner: Obama

Lost amid the post–Super Tuesday analysis is the fact that Barack Obama actually got more votes than Mitt Romney in the crucial battleground state of Ohio last night, 547,588 to 456,205, according to the Ohio secretary of state.

That statistic is largely symbolic, but it is indicative of Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate (and Obama’s rebounding strength), which has become magnified as the GOP primary goes on. Self-identified Republicans made up 69 percent of GOP primary voters in Ohio, but only 65 percent of GOP primary voters said they would “definitely” vote for the GOP nominee in November.

The real story of the GOP primary—and Super Tuesday—is not that Romney won't be the GOP nominee (he will be, eventually), but how bruised he will be entering the general election. The polling on Romney over the past week has been dreadful for the Republican frontrunner.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama leads Romney by six points (50-44) among all voters, seven points among independents (46-39) and eighteen points among women (55-37). Last year Romney led Obama among working-class white voters by 14 points (52-38); now that lead is down to five. Notes Ron Brownstein: “By comparison, in 2008 non-college white voters backed John McCain over Obama by a resounding 58 percent to 40 percent; Republicans won even more of them (63 percent) in the 2010 Congressional election…. No Democratic presidential nominee since 1988 has carried more than 44 percent of non-college white voters.” Romney’s blue-collar problem is one of many he’ll face entering a general election.

According to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, Obama leads Romney by twenty-five points (65-30) among unmarried women—a crucial segment of the Democratic base that dropped off in 2010. And he leads Romney by a staggering fifty-six points among Latino voters (70-14), a twenty-point improvement for Obama over John McCain in 2008. If these numbers hold, Obama will defeat Romney in every Western swing state and almost certainly win re-election.

Indeed, Romney is looking less like Ronald Reagan and more like Bob Dole as the race intensifies. Writes Neil King of the Wall Street Journal:

Not since the 1996 presidential candidacy of Republican Bob Dole has a party's likely nominee been viewed negatively by a plurality of Americans at this point in an election. Yet Mr. Romney's challenge in building a favorable image is steeper than Mr. Dole's was then.

The poll found that nearly 40 percent of Americans view Mr. Romney negatively, compared with 28 percent who view him positively, a gap of close to 12 percentage points.

Pundits have often compared the 2012 GOP presidential primary to the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. But they couldn’t be more different. The Obama/Clinton contest energized Democrats in 2008, while the GOP primary has seemingly depressed Republicans this year. Writes NBC political analyst Mark Murray: “Four in 10 of all adults say the GOP nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, versus just slightly more than one in 10 with a more favorable opinion.” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina noted on a call today that GOP turnout fell in six Super Tuesday states compared to the GOP primary in 2008, continuing an overall trend in the GOP primary so far.

All the while, the Obama campaign is quietly building a strong organizational foundation in the battleground states, while Romney and his Super PAC are spending money at a furious pace on a primary contest that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. “The longer the GOP primary goes, the more we continue to build,” said Messina. For example, Messina said the Obama campaign registered 3,000 voters in North Carolina over the weekend and a “couple of thousand” in Virginia.

That’s not to say that Obama’s election is guaranteed or he will have an easy path to victory. The economy, whose improvement sparked Obama’s comeback, could doom his re-election if the job numbers backslide. A global crisis, such as an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facility, could throw the race for a serious curve. The coming onslaught of GOP Super PAC money—which Messina estimates could total $500 million—will surely increase Obama’s negative ratings. And Romney, despite his rising vulnerability, has retained an aura of competence on the economy, Greg Sargent notes.

Still, given everything the president has been through over the past three years, Team Obama has to like their chances at this stage of the game. “We are encouraged by what we see,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said today. “We’re fortified for a tough race.”

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

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