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Podcast: It’s getting harder for Black Americans to vote, warns journalist Clarence Page

Podcast: It’s getting harder for Black Americans to vote, warns journalist Clarence Page

TRANSCRIPT: It’s getting harder for Black Americans to vote, warns journalist Clarence Page

Clarence Page:

Now I think we're getting right at the heart of what democracy is all about, when we're at loggerheads over who should be allowed to vote and who shouldn't.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello, and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. This is where you'll find extended versions of my interviews on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today is it getting harder to vote as a black person in America? In the 2012 presidential election, black voting surged to 67%, but by 2020 it had dropped to 63%. Much of that decline was probably due to an enthusiasm gap with Barack Obama no longer on the ticket. But some experts fear that new restrictive voting laws, primarily from Republican state legislatures will only drive that number further down. Are these new laws really about making it harder to vote? Or are they about making it safer to vote? As many Republicans argue, I'm joined today by syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. He wants once won a Pulitzer covering voter fraud. Let's get to it.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. GZERO World would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. How can sports change the world for the better? On the Long Game, a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, hear stories of courage and conviction both on and off the field, directly from athletes themselves. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and Global Change agent, hosts The Long Game, hear new episodes every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ian Bremmer:

Clarence Page, thanks so much for joining us today.

Clarence Page:

Well, thank you for having me.

Ian Bremmer:

So I want to start, of course, with the Voting Rights Act, and I mean I've seen that it's been functionally blocked by all the Republicans and indirectly I guess by both Senators, Sinema and Manchin. You support it, you've said it's very important that we get this done for American democracy and for enfranchisement. Walk us through what it is and why it's so important.

Clarence Page:

Well, the Voting Rights Act is important for one thing, for me personally, I was coming out of high school when that Voting Rights Act was passed a year after the Civil Rights Act. And it changed the lives of black folks and the rest of Americans. Main thing is that was what ended the residue of reconstruction. When the vote had been given to black folks after slavery, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed. And the Voting Rights Act was necessary because the Jim Crow regime had virtually taken away the right to vote for black folks across the South. And it was a very important decision the Supreme Court made a few years ago by taking away the right to pre-clearance from that Act. That's an important word, what it means is that the folks in the affected states, mainly the old Confederate states, were not able to make changes in any of their voting laws and regulations without pre-clearance by the courts.

By lifting that, Justice Roberts' court meant that any future complaints would have to wait until after an election, not before an election. Justice Roberts said that he thought after almost a century, there was enough reform, enough changes had come about in race relations that we didn't need it anymore. And that that's really a big bone of contention that has motivated a lot of folks to push for restoring that pre-clearance provision in the law. And that's what the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, he was instrumental in getting that passed, you know Selma and those protests in the South were all about voting rights. So that's a big reason why his name is on the bill.

Ian Bremmer:

Now is your argument that actually we are a slipping backwards in terms of the ability of black Americans in the country to exercise their right to vote?

Clarence Page:

Unfortunately, that appears to be the case. We certainly see a lot of the old tricks that were put together during the reconstruction period that can affect election outcomes. Now, that is another bone of contention. A number of people say, "Well, research shows that even when these various measures are taken that appear to be racially loaded," for example, not just the voter ID, but also polling places where they're located, the ability to vote by mail. All of these conveniences, if you will, tend to have an impact on the ability of a lot of people to vote. And I think the preponderance of evidence shows that the Republicans tend to benefit from making it harder to vote. That's a general statement.

But in general though, the thrust of what Republicans are after would make it harder for people to vote. Democrats want to make it easier, and now some folks on the other side say that making it that easy opens you up to possibility of fraud and voter fraud is, we've seen, has been greatly exaggerated as far as the actual occurrences of it. At the same time though, we have had a big debate going on as to whether or not every measure should be taken to avoid fraud. And now that the base has been further muddied by the insistence by President Trump's campaign that there was rampant fraud. Now I think we're getting right at the heart of what democracy is all about, when we're at loggerheads over who should be allowed to vote and who shouldn't.

Ian Bremmer:

Well, when you're fighting more about how the election is held and who gets to vote than who you're voting for, that is obviously a pretty flashing warning sign that your democracy has some problems.

Clarence Page:

I would say you're right, and it strikes right at the heart of what we are supposed to be about as Americans. Already we can see as well, this is going beyond the John Lewis Act, but when you've got various lawsuits around the country, and various actions at the state level, going back really to the 90's, there was a concerted effort by Republicans, and this is not a bad thing to go out at the grassroots, organize people, run candidates for county races and school boards. That's a fine thing on paper. What it means though is you can get a strategic advantage insofar as the way electoral votes are counted, maps and the redistricting that will decide the electoral vote. About two-thirds of the legislatures around the country are controlled by Republicans, either House or the Senate side or both. And in those states where there was a really close election this last time where we've seen real concerted efforts being made, for no better word like used than rig, but we certainly have allegations of elections being rigged so that they will tilt in favor of the Republicans.

Ian Bremmer:

So if the John Lewis Act were to pass, and again I know it does not look like it will at this point, how meaningful a change, how meaningful a guardrail would that present in terms of ensuring that American elections going forward would not be subject to effective claims of rigging or all this kind of problems that we have?

Clarence Page:

We're going to have disputes of that sort, regardless of what is done. It fits a master plan without sounding too conspiratorial, but I guess there's no other way to describe it. It fits in with a master plan of making it easier for National Republicans to have an impact on future presidential races. We saw this last time, it was very close and electoral votes that turned up in Georgia turned out to be decisive and that was good. Georgia's current situation is the result of passed reforms that enable more black voters to get to the polls. But at the same time, they're already making some changes or they're debating in Georgia about further changes to the law that will enable the legislature to decide electoral votes if there is a dispute in the count. The sort of thing that President Trump's people were trying to push in this past election, will actually be easier to accomplish.

Ian Bremmer:

So then all that matters is which party is in charge of the legislature really?

Clarence Page:

Well, yeah, somebody, maybe it was Stalin said that "It's not who cast the vote, but who counts them." You ever heard that before?

Ian Bremmer:

Oh, sure. You don't want elections to go the route of impeachment, right? Impeachment has become completely broken. It's purely a political tool because it doesn't matter what the charges are, it only matters whether it's a Democrat or Republican that's being, that the charges are being levied against, and whether they control or not the House and the Senate. And what you're saying is that in state legislatures we increasingly see some trends towards that type of behavior for elections?

Clarence Page:

Well, I can go back to 1876 to the end of reconstruction, when there was a disputed national election where the vote did come to Washington, was heading toward the House of Representatives. It's what the Constitution says that they get to decide in such cases and each state gets one vote regardless of the proportion votes that were cast for each party. And that didn't get that far because they had that grand compromise, which essentially ended reconstruction, that Hayes-Tilden Compromise, the North agreed to pull Union troops out of the South. And believe me as an African American with Alabama roots, that was the end of my family's ability to vote, essentially until I was in high school.

Ian Bremmer:

No, a broken election basically led to Jim Crow, basically prevented blacks in the South from experiencing liberty for generations.

Clarence Page:

That's exactly right. Since we're not speaking in a public school in Virginia and a number of other states that are banning critical race theory, we can talk freely about, this is one bold example of how history, black history and the slavery period and the laws that came out of that period, including the electoral college, this is the legacy of those days. And that's part of the big argument now, are we going to get rid of these last vestiges of discrimination from the Jim Crow era?

Ian Bremmer:

Well, Clarence, I mean with due deference, I mean I don't think we're talking about critical race theory here. I just think we're talking about American history.

Clarence Page:

Well, thank you. But yeah, critical race theory was a bogus issue in my view and a lot of other people, but it was very influential in getting the Republican governor elected there and one of his first promises now is to get critical race theory out of the schools. Which isn't even in the schools, but anything that looks like critical race theory, which means black history or as they put it, anything that makes white children feel bad, which is not accurate either, but that danger is what motivated a lot of voters and seems as it motivated a lot of voters to want to get rid of critical race theory.

Ian Bremmer:

Is that what it feels like to you? Does it feel like they want to just take black history in the United States out of the schools in Virginia?

Clarence Page:

Yeah. And even one of the big motivating factors in that campaign was Tony Morrison's book, Beloved, which one fellow who was out of high school, but talked about how it traumatized him reading this. And Beloved is a prizewinning book by a Nobel-winning author, and it shows the reality of what life was like for the slaves back in those days. But that's a little too much reality for some people. It turned out that the former student who started that whole issue was the son of a Republican Party activist down there and he's working for the Party now himself. So it comes up, again, I'm not anti-Republican. I should point out, in fact, my newspaper, the Chicago Tribune helped to sponsor a young Illinois candidate for president named Abraham Lincoln. And we've been very proud of that tradition and I'm familiar with that history back then and I find it very ironic that I'm reliving part of that history now. It hasn't ended.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah, I mean I was traumatized by Moby Dick in high school, but it doesn't stop me from going to Nantucket. I feel like there are too many knickers in a twist around issues that don't really exist. We need our kids to just learn basic issues of our country's history. How can they be citizens, effective citizens and effective voters if they don't know where our country came from? It just doesn't make any sense to me.

Clarence Page:

Well, that's exactly right. We talk about being a democracy or a democratic republic, whichever you prefer, but what does that really mean? Too many of our young people, history is just something that they have to get a grade in so they can move on. I confess I was like that too a lot as a kid, but over time I learned to appreciate history more and more, and I especially appreciate it right now. And when I think about how can we preserve the good things about this democratic republic that came out and our model to the world as far as democratic rule is concerned, and we're fighting those old battles again.

Ian Bremmer:

I want to ask you a couple quick questions. President Biden now can appoint a Supreme Court justice and he has said it will be a black woman. Now, of course that makes history, but of course that's also very specific and means that nobody else is being considered at that position. What do you think about that?

Clarence Page:

Well, it's not the first time. Ronald Reagan said, back when he was running for president in 1980 and was losing too much of the women's vote, if you will, and he was being picketed for his opposition to ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, which never did pass, but nevertheless, he came out and said that one of his first choices for Supreme Court would be a woman. And it turned out that came true, Sandra Day O'Connor. Joe Biden says right up front, he wants to appoint a black woman, and he's been bashed by the usual sources, Fox News, et cetera. There are some like Jonathan Turley, the law professor who argued against that in the Wall Street Journal, saying that it violates the Bakke decision among others regarding affirmative action, that was an important decision back in the seventies, that now affirmative action is before the court now again. But Turley's point is that this is racial discrimination on the part of Biden's actions here.

And the fact is that the Bakke decision itself said that, "To use race as a criteria alone," I'm not quoting word for word, "But to use race as a criteria is discrimination. That's unconstitutional." And I argued back that Biden isn't saying that just being black is enough or just being a woman is enough, they got to be qualified first. And Turley himself says that the three names that have come forth at the top of Biden's short list are all qualified, but it's too bad that they can be stigmatized now by the thought that they got their job because of their race.

Ian Bremmer:

No, it was clearly just red meat in terms of identity politics. So that was why I raised it to you. One other question I wanted to ask you before we close is about former President Obama. We had massive black turnout when he was running for president when he was president. It's gone down recently, but we also haven't seen much from him. I mean, we've got Trump who can't wait to get back on social media. Meanwhile, Barack Obama seems like he's enjoying being on vacation. And he can do whatever he wants, he's a private citizen, he's lord knows he's earned it. But how do you feel about the fact that we haven't seen so much of the former president at this point?

Clarence Page:

I've got a nuanced view here, Ian. I covered Obama from the time he first began to run for the state Senate and then right through his presidential campaign and his presidency. I too wish he was more involved along with Dave Axelrod, who I used to work with at the Tribune years ago and other folks who were so brilliant at helping to get him elected. But at the same time, we really need some fresh blood. We need some new blood. Look at the age of our president now, Nancy Pelosi and various other leaders, Republican and Democrat. There is a younger generation that's itching to come forth and be more involved, some great talent. I want to see them get out there, get more actively involved in helping to generate the next generation, like the Republicans decided to do back in the nineties, and now it's paying off for them.

Ian Bremmer:

Clarence Page, thanks so much for joining me today.

Clarence Page:

Thank you Ian, appreciate it.

Ian Bremmer:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast, like what you've heard? Come check us out@GZEROmedia.com and sign up for our newsletter Signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. GZERO World would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. How can sports change the world for the better? On the Long Game, a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, hear stories of courage and conviction both on and off the field, directly from athletes themselves. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and Global Change agent hosts the Long Game, hear new episodes every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

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