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Oct 1, 2016

Voting rights – and wrongs

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This presidential election is the first since the Supreme Court struck down voter rights protections that had been in place since the Civil Rights Era. Since that 2013 decision, states across the country have rushed to pass new laws that make it harder to vote. Reveal examines whether these laws are fighting fraud or simply keeping people of color from voting.

First, we meet Alberta Currie, an 82-year-old African American woman. Born at home in North Carolina, she never had a birth certificate but nonetheless never had trouble voting – that is, until a new state law kicked in for this year’s presidential primary.

Next, we head to the Lone Star State, where Texas passed the strictest voter ID law in the country. The governor there says the law is urgently needed to address rampant voter fraud. Reveal’s Laura Starecheski looks into that claim and finds a 100-year legacy of laws that has kept black and Latino voters away from the polls.

With the help of the Houston Chronicle, Starecheski also tells the story of Pasadena, Texas, a suburb where the Hispanic majority remains on the political sidelines. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, the city’s white mayor has been able to redraw its City Council districts in the white minority’s favor.

And finally, we meet up with Ari Berman of The Nation, who visits a state where the government is actually tearing down barriers to voting: Oregon. Berman investigates a new way of registering voters there that makes it practically automatic.

DIG DEEPER

  • Explore: Houston Chronicle’s coverage of voting rights fights in Texas
  • Read: Ari Berman’s latest story on how one state is disenfranchising black voters

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Thanks to WHYY for production help on this week's show.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Actress, “Ivy May Gilpin” from “Hazyville” (Ninja Tune)
  • Chris Bathgate, “Nicosia (instrumental)” from “Nicosia” (Quiet Scientific)
  • Chris Bathgate, “Nicosia (instrumental)” from “Nicosia” (Quiet Scientific)
  • Nick Jaina, “I'll Become Everything” from “Primary Perception Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Loch Lomond, “Soft River (Instrumental)” from “Pens from Spain Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Ryan Cross, “White Chocolate” from “Dah Gunk” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Anitek, “Honey Creeper” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Nick Jaina, “True Hearts” from “Primary Perception Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Nick Jaina, “I'll Become Everything” from “Primary Perception Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • American Football, “For Sure” from “American Football” (Polyvinyl)
  • Kris Keogh, “As meteor showers melted your heart” from “Processed Harp Works, Volume 1” (New Weird Australia)
  • Nick Jaina, “Man Without A Head” from “Primary Perception Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Nick Jaina, “True Hearts” from “Primary Perception Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • American Football, “The One With the Wurlitzer” from “American Football” (Polyvinyl)
  • Steve Combs, “Useless Love” from “Suburban Ghosts”
  • Anitek, “The 3rd” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Anitek, “Fusiform” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Anitek, “Plethora” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Anitek, “The 3rd” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Anitek, “Strange Sensations” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Anitek, “Plethora” from “Lily” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Hollow & Akimbo, “Singularity (Osborne Remix)” from “Singularity” (Ghostly International)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Many of us have id's, drivers licenses and the like, in our wallets and purses. Pretty common. We tend to take that for granted, but for some people, it's not that simple. Take for example, Alberta Currie.
Linda: My mother was born and raised in North Carolina and she's 82 years old.
Al: That's Alberta's daughter, Linda Blue.
Linda: When she was born and midwife at her birth, she did not record her. Only thing the midwife did was write her name in a Bible.
Al: She wrote the baby's name in a Bible. This was routine for Americans born at home, back in the 1930's, but when Alberta's house caught on fire later, that family Bible burned.
Linda: Therefore she had no record of her birth on nothing else.
Al: No birth record, no matter. Alberta was alive. She grew up, graduated high school, married, had seven children, moved to Virginia for nearly three decade. Then by the time Alberta returned home to North Carolina, the identification card she had gotten in Virginia had expired. Linda says her mom couldn't get a new ID in North Carolina.
Linda: When she moved from Virginia, and moved back to North Carolina, North Carolina refused to give her a ID, because she didn't have no birth certificate, so she had no evidence of any paperwork of her ID.
Al: This, maybe surprisingly, didn't really cause Alberta problems. She had a social security number and various personal documents. Not having a State issued ID, did not affect Alberta until three years ago, when North Carolina passed a law saying voters had to show ID to vote. A passport, tribal or military ID was acceptable, but Alberta didn't have any of those, and she couldn't get what she needed from North Carolina.
Linda: It's been heartbroken for her.
Al: For the great granddaughter of slaves, who, as a child, lined up with her mother on election day. This hurt.
Linda: She all but cried, because as Mamma told us the story, they used to stand in line when she was 15 years old. Stand in line with her mother and stand in line all day, and they used sticks to keep them in line. What would happen, is the white man will come up, my mamma and grand mamma had to back up and let the white in first. She say now she cleaned their houses for years and cook for them and now this is thrown back in her face.
Al: In 1965 congress passed the voting rights act. One big part of the law said that the justice department or a federal court in Washington had to sign off on any voting changes in North Carolina and in other States with a history of discriminating against voters of color. This was to make sure the new rules didn't discriminate. It has this swanky name, pre clearance. The law was suppose to last just five years, but congress ended up extending it four times. Most recently in 2006, with overwhelming house support and a senate vote of 98 to nothing, but just seven years later the Supreme Court decided the law was out of date with the times and cast one of its key protections aside. Here's chief Justice John Roberts reading from his decision.
John Roberts: Any racial discrimination in voting is too much, but our country has changed in the past 50 years.
Al: After all, America has elected a black president, and lots of black lawmakers, like Congressman John Lewis. He was beaten badly on bloody Sunday, the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The voting rights act was introduced just 10 days later. When the Supreme Court gutted it, Lewis testified in congress that the court took away the laws' heart and soul.
John Lewis: We have made progress, we have come a great distance, but the deliberate systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for may people to participate in a democratic process still exists to this very day.
Al: North Carolina passed its voter ID law soon after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling. Linda says, that's when her mom and other people her age, started to worry about whether they would be able to vote.
Linda: Yes sir, there's a lot of senior citizens, especially in North Carolina. It's a lot of people that we have taught with, that has no ID and they're old people. They are really really really, here in North Carolina, and especially in the rural areas, without any ID and they cannot vote.
Al: Alberta became a lead plaintiff in one of several suits trying to overturn the law. Those lawsuits put so much pressure on the State that lawmakers changed the rules last year. People were still suppose to bring an ID to vote, but if they didn't have one, they could sign an affidavit explaining why not, and then vote. The first test came in March, during the State's presidential primaries, and here's what Linda says happened when she took her mom to vote.
Linda: No ma'am, your mamma cannot vote. I said; Can I speak to your supervisor? The supervisor came out there and they say no, no she can't vote. I'm sorry, she can't vote. She can't vote. One lady said; what she need to do, she need to go home and get an address with her name on it and get her checking account with her name on it, that prove that who she is. I said; I don't have to go send my mamma back home to get no address, and no letter and no nothing. I said; The law said that she can vote with any ID. The supervisor said; No ma'am, this ain't going to work. I said; Somebody is telling a lie.
Al: Linda called the lawyers on her mother's case. They sent a voting advocate to personally take Alberta back to the polling place and explain the law to election workers. Alberta cast her ballot, it was counted, but according to a voter rights group, over 1,400 votes cast by people without ID, were not. After talking to her daughter, I got Alberta on the phone.
Alberta: Hello?
Al: Yes ma'am.
Alberta: Okay, it's clear now.
Al: Okay. Miss Alberta, what I wanted to ask you is, why do you think it's important to vote? Why is it a big deal to you?
Alberta: I want to have a voice to be heard. I have grandchildren that's in college and I have a right. I have a right. If you don't let your voice be heard now, who gonna hear it for you?
Al: Would you mind telling me who you gonna vote for?
Alberta: Yes.
Al: Who's that?
Alberta: Hillary Clinton. She's a do right woman.
Al: After the March primary, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina's law. The judge writing the opinion said the restrictions had targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision. The Supreme Court may weigh in later, but for now, the appeals decision means in November, North Carolina voters will not be required to show any ID to cast a ballot, and they won't have to sign an affidavit. Voters like Alberta should have no trouble voting, but remembering how little poll workers knew about the law in the March primary, Linda Blue is cautious.
Linda: I said; What you gonna do when the other polls come? When it's time to vote for the real vote? Election season. What's gonna happen?
Al: I think right now, the quintessential question is; What's gonna happen? People all over the country are asking that question. Not just about who will become the next president, but what will happen when people show up at the polling place on election day? That's what today's show is about. We're gonna look at what's happened since the Supreme Court cast aside voting rights protections that have been in place for 50 years, because North Carolina isn't alone in passing restrictive voting laws. It's happened in 14 States and the strictest voter ID law can be found in Texas. The governor there says the law is urgently needed to address rampant voter fraud across the State. We asked Reveal's Laura Starecheskiki to look into that claim. She unraveled a whopper of a tale that goes back 100 years.
Laura: Let's start this story in Austen Texas, June 2010. Republican lawmakers have just proposed a very strict voter ID law, and they're making their case. The elections committee of the Texas house of representatives calls a hearing.
Speaker 4: All right, good morning. Fresh from the season of political party interventions where we are in the habit of saying really nice things about each other. We decided to have a hearing on voter ID, to give us the opportunity to continue that trend.
Laura: These state representatives who all seemed a little tired, are about to get an update on the scope of elections fraud in Texas. The Texas attorney general's office scoured the state for cases and they've brought a detailed report to present. Every case they've seen in the previous eight years. State representative Raphael Enchilla is going over those findings.
Raphael: There was one case, and we might want to talk about this, of one time of a legal voting, voter impersonation at a poling place that was in Harris County and it's the case of Jack Carol Crowder.
Laura: Jack Carol Crowder, the attorney general's report said, had cast a vote in his father's name in the 2008 democratic presidential primary.
Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: ... father's name in the 2008 democratic presidential primary.
Male: He bled to the fact that he was not eligible to vote, and he voted.
Speaker 1: The committee spent almost 20 minutes talking about Crowder's case, but they never got to the big question I had which was, "Why would somebody vote in his father's place?" Maybe he was just super enthusiastic about a candidate and wanted to vote twice. Maybe somebody paid him to do it. I figured I'd call and ask. I found a phone number for Jack Carol Crowder.
  A woman named Kathy answered the phone.
Kathy: This is his mother.
Speaker 1: Oh, hi. I was hoping to reach him just to ask him if I could hear a little bit more about the voter impersonation that he was charged with.
Kathy: It was a total misunderstanding. He went down there to vote and on the ledger was my deceased husband's name which shouldn't even have been on there and he showed his ID and the little elderly lady told him, "Sign right there."
Speaker 1: Why did that little old lady tell him to sign right there?
Kathy: Him and his dad have the same exact name.
Speaker 1: Jack Carol Crowder Jr. And Jack Carol Crowder III. His father had died and shouldn't have been on the voting roles in the first place. The whole thing was a mistake, his mom says, that the poll worker should have caught, but Jack paid a high price. He was charged with a felony and spent thousands on legal fees. Jack Carol Crowder didn't want to talk for this story. He really wants to put all this behind him, but his mom refuses to do that.
  Do you follow any of the voter ID?
Kathy: I haven't voted since and won't.
Speaker 1: Really?
Kathy: I hate to be rude like that, but what they did to my family, no ma'am I will not vote.
Speaker 1: This case was the only prosecuted case of voter impersonation the Texas attorney general's office could find in 8 years of voting. That's more than 46,000,000 million votes cast in statewide elections. Let me say that again.  46,000,000 million votes cast. 1 person prosecuted for voter impersonation.
  Despite this striking lack of evidence, the republican legislature pushed the law through. They even called an emergency session to do it. There was an underlying reason for all this urgency, says Vernon Burton an historian at Clemson University who testified in court against the law.
Vernon: Right before this there's all this concern that Texas will be a minority majority state that the Latino and black population increased so that white would be in a minority.
Speaker 1: In fact, in Texas, white people already were the minority and the republican base was shrinking. This new majority of black and Hispanic folks would tend to vote democrat and the voter ID law affected them more then anyone else.
Vernon: Latinos and African Americans are the people who are most likely not to have the documents to have to get off work, how hard it is to travel, less likely to have cars.
Speaker 1: Burton says the voter ID law is just the latest in a long tradition of discriminatory laws in Texas.
Vernon: In 1895 really, you get the all white primary.
Speaker 1: About 30 years after African Americans got the right to vote in the first place, just as they started to gain some political power in Texas, the white conservative democratic party that ruled the south back then, passed a new law.
Vernon: Here's what they said. I've actually got the exact quote. "Ballots cast by negros are void." It went on it said that when you voted in a white primary, you had to affirm that is you had to say, quote, "I am a white and I am a democrat."
Speaker 1: You had to go stand in front of the person who take your ballot and say out loud, "I am a white and I am a democrat." Now, lawmakers did come up with a pretext for the law.
Vernon: Well, they stated rational was in fact to prevent voter fraud.
Speaker 1: Sound familiar? The new law would supposedly prevent illegal voting by black and Mexican American people. The all white primary was around for 50 years until it was finally eradicated in 1944, but Texas already had another law in place. A poll tax. One of the most common ways states across the south kept black people from voting back then. To register to vote, you had to pay a fee.
Vernon: You had to pay and then they made it accumulative in some states so that if you missed one year, it'd be the next year you'd have to pay it all back.
Speaker 1: Guess what this law was for?
Vernon: Again, the stated rationale was to prevent voter fraud.
Speaker 1: When the poll tax was struck down in 1966, the Texas governor called an emergency session of the legislature. He pushed a law through that required voters to re-register every year.
Vernon: Again, it was stated to prevent voter fraud.
Speaker 1: When Texas was finally added to the voting rights act, it was a response to this long ugly history in the state. Starting in 1975 every single voting rule changed in Texas had to be sent up for approval. It had to be pre-cleared with the federal government says Vernon Burton to make sure it wasn't discriminatory.
Vernon: Then after that, Texas has more challenges in pre-clearance than any other state.
Speaker 1: Here's how it works. The Texas legislature would pass a law and send it to the federal government. Federal government would say, "No way. This is discriminatory and block it." The legislature would send another law. It would get blocked. This happened over and over, more than 200 times including with Texas voter ID law. There was this window of time because of the voting rights act almost 40 years when Texas couldn't push through any discriminatory voting changes, but then on June 25, 2013, the supreme court weakened the voting rights act allowing Texas to make whatever laws it liked with no federal oversight.
Vernon: Within the minute that the supreme court ruled within the minute already having taken this to court and lost, Texas attorney general and governor immediately announced that they were going ahead with the photo ID law, even thought the court had already found that the effect was discriminatory.
Speaker 1: It actually took about 2 hours for Texas to make the announcement. The new law meant that 600,000 Texans would have to get a new ID in order to vote. Advocacy groups sued Texas, blocked the law and this summer a federal court finally ruled on the case. They found that the law is discriminatory and that law makers knew it, but voter ID still hasn't been struck down because Texas keeps appealing. They've spent more than 3 million dollars defending the law so far. The case is going all the way to the supreme court. The big question now is what will happen on election day?
  Nina Purelese is a lawyer who helped sue the state. She says she's not just worried about people being turned away at the polls.
Nina: The biggest effect, I think a voter ID is that it's created a lot of confusion about what you do need to vote.
Speaker 1: That's because if you're like me and most of the friends and colleagues I've talked to while reporting this story, you just don't think about what to bring to the polls ahead of time.
Nina: Most people are not thinking about voter ID until they're standing in the polling place opening their wallet and trying to figure out if they have what they need or they're driving past the polling place and not voting because they assume they don't have what they need.
Speaker 1: People really do stay home if they're not sure. That's what one study from Rice University found at least. In 2014, researchers found that about 1 in 10 eligible voters in one congressional district in Texas stayed home because they didn't think they had the right ID, but most of them actually did. The study's author believe this may have been enough to sway the election results, allowing a black republican candidate to narrowly defeat a Hispanic democrat.
  As if that wasn't enough, this November, there will be an added layer of confusion. I know, one more thing, just stay with me. Since the law hasn't been totally struck down yet because Texas keeps appealing. A federal court ordered a compromise so Texas can just get through the November elections.
  I went to see Stan Stanart, the county clerk who runs elections in Houston in a high-rise building downtown. Stanart's thick white hair is swept back almost into a pompadour. He's a jovial guy who seems really excited about November. He called it the Super Bowl of elections. To show how simple the voter ID law is, he pulled out from his own wallet, two of the acceptable forms of ID.
Stan: This is my driver's license and this is my Texas conceal carry. There's not much difference. It's issued by the state.
Speaker 1: Are you carrying your handgun right now?
Stan: No, I'm not.
Speaker 1: You have your conceal carry?
Stan: I do have the right to do this, yes.
Speaker 1: Then when Stanart explained the compromise for November, he got serious.
Stan: If a voter has not been issued or does not possess an approved form of photo ID, the voter must swear or affirm and sign a declaration of impediment under penalty of purjury.
Speaker 1: Did you catch that? If you can't reasonably get one of the 7 acceptable ID's you can sign an affidavits swearing that and then you can cast a ballot. I wondered was Stanart worried some voters might be intimidated and stay home?
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
L Starecheskiki: Was Stanart worried some voters might be intimidated and stay home? After all, the court had already found the law would have a discriminatory effect.
Stanart: I have a hard time seeing where there is a discriminatory effect. When you get down to it, I don't think it exists.
L Starecheskiki: Yet, Stanart plans to treat people who vote with an affidavit differently this November. He recently told the Houston press that his office will investigate every voter who signs and affidavit. Here's what the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, said on Fox News this August.
Ken Paxton: If you sign that affidavit, and you lie about not being able to get a photo ID, you can be prosecuted for perjury. It's still the strongest voter ID law in the country, and so I feel comfortable going forward with this, at least for the November elections.
L Starecheskiki: What Stanart and Paxton are saying here is that people who sign that affidavit are risking criminal prosecution when they vote. Civil rights lawyers are taking those threats seriously. They've set up a new court filing. It says Stanart and Paxton are singling out the same African American and Hispanic voters who were discriminated against by the original voter ID law. A federal judge has yet to rule on that.
  Meanwhile, Texas has just about five weeks to prepare voters for election day.
Al Letson: Thanks to Reveal's Laura Starecheskiki for that story. We had reporting help from Mihir Zaveri at the Houston Chronicle.
  The new laws in Texas aren't just affecting the vote for state and national office. They're hitting much closer to home. When we come back, a city where most of the town is being cut out of local politics. That's next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX.
Julia B Chan: Hey there Reveal listeners. Julia B. Chan here, with a reminder to make sure you're ready to hit the polls this November. As Al said, this presidential election is the first to happen since the supreme court struck down voter rights protections that have been in place since the civil rights era. If you're not already registered to vote, make sure you do register, and soon. Because the very first voting registration deadline is October 8th, for those of you in Mississippi or South Carolina. Go to revealnews.org/vote to see when the voter registration deadline is for your state. You'll be taken to the Rock the Vote site, that has all the information you'll need to make sure you're ready for election day. Again, that's revealnews.org/vote.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson, and super producer Laura Starecheskiki is here to reveal, get it, something that you may not know. Hey Laura.
L Starecheskiki: Hey Al. Here it is. The state of Texas has a secret political identity.
Al Letson: And if this secret identity truly came to light, the politics of our whole country would look very different.
L Starecheskiki: Totally different. This all started with Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. He knows Texas like the back of his hand.
L Starecheskiki: What is Texas, in terms of the red, purple, blue?
Bob Stein: It's solidly red if what you ask, the answer to the question, "Who gets elected in Texas?". Republicans. With a vengeance.
L Starecheskiki: But I knew Texas is one of those majority-minority states, which means there are more Black and Hispanic people than white.
Al Letson: And we know Black and Hispanic folks tend to vote Democrat. So the politicians and the people, they're not quite lining up.
L Starecheskiki: Yeah, and here's one reason why. Voter turnout in Texas is low. It's especially low among Hispanic voters. On the whole, only about one in five eligible voters in Texas actually cast a ballot. So I started thinking, what about those other four eligible voters? What if they all voted? I asked Bob Stein that.
L Starecheskiki: What would that outcome look like?
Bob Stein: It would be less ... I still think Trump would win, but probably not.
L Starecheskiki: Can't you just hear Bob thinking about this question while he answers it?
Al Letson: Yeah. He doesn't sound like he really knows the answer.
L Starecheskiki: That's because he doesn't. But he didn't want to stay in my fantasy world of 100 percent voter turnout. Because that's absurd. It would never happen. Bob kept steering things back to the real world, so I kept asking him the exact same question.
L Starecheskiki: Just in this fantasy world, where 100 percent of eligible voters vote, what happens in the presidential election?
Bob Stein: I think there is a reasonable chance that Hillary Clinton could win the state of Texas.
L Starecheskiki: There's a good chance that Hillary wins? Or Hillary win Texas?
Bob Stein: I think a good chance.
L Starecheskiki: Bob actually got so obsessed with this question that, after our interview, he crunched more numbers, and he sent me an email with a new answer. He said he had underestimated the power of these Democratic voters. He wrote that, if every registered voter voted, not just eligible voters, people who have already registered, Hillary wins Texas by a longshot. Somewhere between 81 thousand and 500 thousand votes.
Al Letson: So Texas isn't really red, it's an undercover blue state.
L Starecheskiki: Which is crazy to think about. It's true on a large scale, and also right down to the town.
Al Letson: You found a place like that. Pasadena, Texas.
L Starecheskiki: Yeah. It's a small city, about 150 thousand people, it's right next to Houston. It's majority Hispanic, but it's run by white people. Changes to the Voting Rights Act might be keeping the politics of this potentially blue town red.
L Starecheskiki: Pasadena city hall is a one story building with a lush shaded lawn out front. Everybody's gone home for the day, but I'm here to meet city council member Cody Ray Wheeler. He brings me inside, and waves me over to a closed office door with a window in it.
Cody Wheeler: Some of the other, you look at these council members over here, we'll just peak in.
L Starecheskiki: We peak into the city council member's office across the hall from his. It looks stately. Leather, old books.
Cody Wheeler: They bling out their offices with wall art and stuff. Give me a desk and I don't care.
L Starecheskiki: Cody's office is bare. A couple of boring ties are draped over a hanger, for him to throw on before city council meetings. He's still pretty new here. He just got elected in 2013.
Cody Wheeler: I was the second Hispanic elected, and that was the first time in the history of Pasadena that there were two Hispanics on council.
L Starecheskiki: Just to clear up any confusion in your mind, Cody Ray Wheeler's name might not sound Hispanic, but he is a Hispanic guy. When he won his seat, Cody says mayor Johnny Isbell rolled out an unusual welcome.
Cody Wheeler: The first time that I actually sat down and met the mayor, he called me into his office, and he had HR, legal, some other department heads there. He opened up the city charter, and he opened up some state law, and said, "This is where I can have you removed from a council meeting".
L Starecheskiki: Mayor Isbell has a habit of removing city council members from meetings. He actually has them physically removed by a police officer. He eventually did it to Cody, and I talked to another city council member who was removed for speaking over time.
  Cody was the new guy walking into an old order.
  This is a state of the city address by mayor Johnny Isbell, the winter after Cody Ray Wheeler was elected.
Johnny Isbell: 2013 was a big year for us here in Pasadena. Nearly every city department is represented at that table.
L Starecheskiki: The speech is about jobs, improvements, the future of Pasadena. The mayor reminisces a little about his start in Pasadena politics back in 1969, when the town was almost completely white.
Johnny Isbell: Good god, what I've learned is that the future slips up on you. One year, you're a young council member, and the next thing you know, you're the mayor of this great city. The future is bright in Pasadena.
L Starecheskiki: But one side of town is being left out of that bright future, the Hispanic north side. Cody grew up here, but he didn't notice that gap until he was in his mid twenties, coming back as a Marine veteran, after two tours in Iraq.
Cody Wheeler: I came back, and really viewed Pasadena differently. Like, "Whoa, there's two Pasadenas". Something I never noticed growing up. There's a north side, and a south side. The north side being predominantly Hispanic, the south side being predominantly Anglo.
L Starecheskiki: Anglo. In other words, white. Cody made a list of city funded amenities the white side of town enjoys, that are practically non-existent on the Hispanic side.
Cody Wheeler: Neighborhood associations, curb side recycling, medians, Christmas lights during Christmas time. The condition of the streets is unreal. North side is very bumpy, very torn up. You go to the south side, it's not like that at all. Just on and on.
L Starecheskiki: But without representation at city hall, those problems on the north side don't get much attention from the city. Pasadena is now 65 percent Hispanic. Since mayor Isbell first took office, there has been at most one Hispanic person at a time on the eight seat city council. Cody wanted to change that. But first, he had to convince people in his district there was a point to voting in the first place.
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Laura Starecheski: ... Convince people in his district there was a point to voting in the first place.
Cody Wheeler: I told people, "Listen, your vote makes a difference and if we start to vote we can get people from our part of town elected and people understand where we come from and what our needs are on this part of the city."
Laura Starecheski: He was up against a candidate that the mayor was backing and funding generously, but Cody won by just 33 votes. The close race actually quadrupled turn out in is district.
Cody Wheeler: We were able to get a lot more people to the polls and a lot more Hispanics to the polls. That's, I think, what really worried them.
Laura Starecheski: Just a month after Cody took his seat, Mayor Isbell proposed a new redistricting plan for Pasadena. His plan would switch 2 of the city council seats to at large, meaning that to win them, a candidate would have to win the vote across the entire city, not just in one small district. The plan would make it much more difficult for Hispanic folks to win seats. At large districts have been phased out in cities across the US since the voting rights act was first passed to give black and Hispanic neighborhoods more of a political voice, but Mayor Isbell seemed to want to go back in time. He didn't respond to my interview request but here's what he told an online news site about why he wanted at large districts:
Mayor Isbell: I hate it when I hear the north side of Pasadena and the south side of Pasadena. We're one Pasadena.
Laura Starecheski: But Isbell new he couldn't change the districts back to at large because the justice department never would have let it happen. Then everything changed in 2013. The supreme court weakened the voting rights act. That's when Isbell made his move.
Mayor Isbell: Because the justice department can no longer tell us what to do.
Laura Starecheski: The mayor's plan went into effect about a year after Cody Wheeler was elected. When it did, Cody couldn't stop thinking about all those people he'd convinced to vote.
Cody Wheeler: It felt like it confirmed their biggest fear and their biggest criticism, because what I heard all the time was, "My vote doesn't matter, they're going to do what they want anyway." The was like a dagger to the heart because it was like this was what they feel and this is what they see happening again.
Laura Starecheski: Last year the city held its firsts elections under the new plan. There were victories for the Hispanic community. Cody was reelected and another Hispanic candidate won one of the small district seats bringing the grand total to 3 seats out of 8, but there were also losses. A guy named Oscar Del Toro too on one of the mayor's allies for an at large seat. An irrational, hopeful move from a newcomer. Oscar had no chance of winning over the white side of town.
Oscar Del Toro: I like challenge and I say that's a challenge, I will take that challenge, even though I am the new guy, even though I don't know, I will do it, and I did it. I don't regret it.
Laura Starecheski: In fact, he's planning to run again in 2017. Oscar's already prepping and he takes me along door knocking on the Hispanic north side.
Oscar Del Toro: [foreign language 00:33:18].
Laura Starecheski: Oscar immigrated to Pasadena with his family from Monterrey, Mexico in 2000. Now he's determined to entice Hispanic folks here into local politics, but at most houses we go to, nobody answers the door. A lot of the people who do answer say they don't vote.
Female: I'm a registered voter, I don't vote.
Laura Starecheski: How come?
Female: A reason why is there's a lot of work that needs to get done and it don't get done no matter how many people go vote. Still don't get done.
Laura Starecheski: No matter how many times Oscar hears this, he doesn't see Pasadena as a down trodden place. He sees a town full of Hispanic voters that looks like the future of Texas.
Oscar Del Toro: I think we have a lot of potential with a lot of Hispanics, but they don't know yet. If we can help them to develop their full potential that would be good for United States as a country.
Laura Starecheski: But that potential is still limited in Pasadena. At least for now. Five Hispanic voters here have sued the city. They say the new at large districts are discriminatory. That law suit has dragged on for almost 2 years already. The city's racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees but the mayor won't budge say Nina Perales, one of the lawyers from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We heard from her in the last story too. She helped bring the lawsuit here in Pasadena.
Nina Perales: Pasadena is not interested in settling this case. We are going to trial.
Laura Starecheski: She says Pasadena is a test case.
Nina Perales: There's been talk by other jurisdictions about changing their election system in the wake of the supreme court's decision. In that way, Pasadena is a bit of a marker for folks. It's being watched and if we're successful in proving that this change was discriminatory to Latino voters and it has to be undone, then we believe that message will be heard around Texas and elsewhere.
Laura Starecheski: But if Mayor Isbell wins it'll send a different message. It'll show that cities across Texas and the country are free to put new voting rules in place. New rules that work a lot like the old ones the justice department has blocked for the past half century as discriminatory.
Al Letson: Reveal's Laura Starecheski brought us that story. The Pasadena redistricting case is expected to go to trial this November after the presidential election. Even when courts end up striking down laws like these that can take years. They stay in place for an election or two or three, keeping people from the polls, maybe even changing who gets elected. That's why the justice department was given the power to knock down those laws in the first place under the voting rights act. Now congress could put teeth back into the act by rewriting the section that the supreme court dismantled, but Capitol Hill is so divided that's not likely to happen.
  Next, we're going to head to a state that's going I the opposite direction of Texas, trying to make it as easy as possible to vote.
Speaker 8: Your vote is your voice and every single voice matters. Under this proposal, more voices will be heard.
Al Letson: That's next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Lindsay Green-B: Hi there. I'm Lindsay Green-Barber, Director of Strategic Research. Thanks for listening to Reveal. We love to hear more about how we can make this show even better for you. To help us out, text the word Reveal to 510-284-2862 and we'll follow up with a few quick questions. Again, text Reveal to 510-284-2862. Thanks.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This hour, you've heard a lot about barriers to voting going up in places like Texas, but that's not the only voting rights story this election year. One state's been going in the opposite direction. Oregon is tearing down barriers to voting. For more than 15 years voters polling place has been in their living rooms. Everybody in Oregon votes by mail, but if you're not registered you can't vote. Now they're taking the next step, making it really easy to register to vote, so easy there's not form to fill out and no box to check. It's almost automatic. The goal, to put a ballot in the hand of every eligible voter in the state, and so far it seems to be working. "The Nation" magazine's Ari Berman heads to Portland, Oregon to find out why.
Ari Berman: One of the biggest cheerleaders of Oregon's new voter registration system is Henry Kramer. I find him in an industrial neighborhood in Portland on the east side of the Willamette River.
Henry Kramer: Hey, Ari.
Ari Berman: Hey, what's up man?
Henry Kramer: How's it going?
Ari Berman: Good to see you.
Henry Kramer: Nice to see you too.
Ari Berman: Henry's 29 years old and he's wearing red shoes, striped socks, and a very patriotic tie.
Henry Kramer: I figured I should dress for the occasion.
Ari Berman: You've got an eagle ...
Henry Kramer: And a bunch of American flags.
Ari Berman: That's your usual attire?
Henry Kramer: That's my standard tie.
Ari Berman: Yeah, very Portland.
  Henry shows me around an open office that has the word "Democracy" painted in giant yellow letter on the wall. He works for a non-profit called the Bus Federation. Henry's job title here is Secretary of States. He's trying to make politics cool for his generation.
Henry Kramer: We have a Foosball table, here is our cardboard cut out of young Han Solo ...
Ari Berman: Here I Oregon the Bus Project, as a local group is known, does voter registration and voting rights advocacy. They even barnstorm around the state in a bus.
Henry Kramer: We're infected with the ... What's the right word? With the quirk of Oregon pretty intensely.
Ari Berman: It's so cute in here it's making me a little nauseous.
Henry Kramer: It's not an uncommon feeling.
Ari Berman: We settle down in a conference room that has a kegerator in it. Henry assures me it is in fact empty. He tells me how this idea got started.
Henry Kramer: It's 2008 and I'm an organizer at the Oregon Bus Project and we've just gotten done registering 25 thousand people to vote in the field.
Ari Berman: This is the year that Barack Obama is generating a lot of enthusiasm among new voters, but these organizers can't stop thinking about all the people they don't reach.
Henry Kramer: As organizers-
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Ari: Thinking about all the people they don't reach.
Henry: As organizers even when you're doing tremendous work bringing people into democracy you're noticing that nothing you can do can get to everybody.
Ari: Nationally, more than 50 million people who are eligible to vote aren't registered, so Henry starts to wonder what if eligible voters were just registered by default?
Henry: Voter registration while it's incredibly powerful really we shouldn't need to do it.
Ari: Henry has a point. In fact, registration laws have historically been used in the US to prevent people from voting. People like African-Americans in the Jim Crow south or new immigrants in places like New York and California in the early 1900s.
  After 2008 Henry says he and his colleagues sat down and looked for ways to get rid of voter registration.
Henry: We learned from our Google results that a bunch of countries use the information that voters are giving to the government already to register them. Almost every industrialized western country. When we set up a new democracy in Iraq they put an automatic voter registration system.
  It seems like we do a lot of things better than the rest of the world, so why don't we do voter registration at least as well as the rest of the world?
Ari: All fired up to try to bring voter registration in Oregon into the modern age Henry goes to a second hand store.
Henry: I had been tasked by the organization to be our lobbyist. I was 21 and so I went to the Goodwill and I bought an ill-fitting tan suit, which is still hanging in my closet my girlfriend would like me to get rid of.
Ari: In 2009 one of his first meetings is with newly elected Secretary of State Kate Brown. She previously represented Portland in the state legislature. She'd won her very first race by just seven votes and shared Henry's passion for voting rights.
Kate: Oregon was really great in terms of voter turnout because we were putting a ballot in people's hands.
Ari: In other words people who were registered voted in high numbers. After all they received ballots right in their mailboxes.
Kate: But we were only slightly above average in terms of voter registration and we wanted to make it as convenient and accessible as possible.
Ari: Brown loved the idea of making registration effortless. She wanted to use the information that government agencies already had to register people to vote. It was a really new concept. No other state had done this. She eventually drew up a bill that many Republicans didn't like.
Al Letson: I really try to avoid yes votes on anything that takes away the choice from a citizen and this bill does that. Thank you.
Ari: They said the new system could compromise people's privacy, lead to more voter fraud, and cost too much money. In general it tends to be good for Democrats when more people are registered to vote and not as great for the GOP. Republicans fought it.
Henry: And it dies by one vote on the floor and it was heartbreaking.
Ari: That's Henry Kramer from the Bus federation again.
Henry: What started for a lot of us at the beginning of that legislative session is kind of like our big fun crazy idea was all of a sudden this thing that we HAVE to do next legislative session. We had gotten so close.
Ari: They got another chance when the bill was re-introduced in 2015. Once again Republicans resisted.
Bill Post: This is hastily and poorly planned and I fear we will pay not only with dollars but with headaches. We have a great system in Oregon and I'm grateful for it. It's a fantastic system but it's not broke and as I'm famous for saying If it ain't broke, why fix it? It ain't broke.
Ari: That's Representative Bill Post a Republican from a largely rural district southwest of Portland. He argued some people just aren't interested in voting, if so why go to such lengths to register them.
Bill Post: Look if somebody is not registering to vote it's not because of an impediment, it's because they don't want to. There's people in this world that just don't want to be involved.
Ari: He says automatic registration would just cost counties thousands of dollars they don't have to send ballots to people who have no use for them. This time, though, when the bill came to a vote the Democrats had expanded their majorities and it passed.
  That made Oregon the first state in the country to automatically register voters. Kate Brown who was now governor of Oregon was jubilant at the press conference where she signed her own bill.
Kate: As I have said many times, your vote is your voice and every single voice matters. Under this proposal more voices will be heard.
Ari: The Department of Motor Vehicles is at the center of the new law. When people go to get a driver's license or a state ID card they're are now automatically registered to vote. To find out how it's working I head to the DMV.
Natalie: We're at the DMV in southwest Portland and it's only been opened for about 15 minutes and it's already full.
Ari: That's Natalie [Howa 00:44:55] who moved to Portland a couple of months ago from Washington DC.
Natalie: I'm finally down on my to-do list for my Oregon driver's license.
Ari: Across the US you can register to vote at the DMV, but this is different because you don't have to check any extra boxes or fill out any extra forms. It just happens. Right now voting is not the top thing on Natalie's mind. She's focused on the driver's test she's about to take. She stayed up late last night studying.
Natalie: Yeah, all night last night. I know all the signs and laws. Right, I passed that driving test, I hope.
Ari: I leave her to take her test.
  Oregon's new voter registration system relies on the DMV because it already has all the information that's necessary. Your name, address, citizenship, and signature.
  Two hours later I meet back up with Natalie. Hi Natalie.
Natalie: Hey guys. I passed! I got my Oregon license and I am now registered to vote. I should be expecting something in the mail but all's good.
Ari: In fact, it was so easy to register she's a little unsure if it actually happened.
Natalie: Yeah, it was the easiest thing, I mean we'll see if I get anything in the mail.
Ari: In a few weeks Natalie should get a letter informing her she's being registered. That's also when she can chose a party affiliation or opt-out of voting altogether. If she does nothing, she'll be registered but unaffiliated with any political party.
  How do the people who actually run the elections feel about all of this? I leave Portland to visit one of them, Steve [Druckenmiller 00:46:34]. He's the clerk for Linn County in the heart of the Willamette Valley where there's agriculture, mining, and lumber. Firmly Republican territory.
Steve: This is my happiest place in the world. After I die wish I could find a way of keeping me in this office in an urn or something.
Ari: His office is a shrine to elections past with a montage of political buttons covering one wall. Some of them are spoofs.
Steve: I like this one: Agnew/Engelton in '76 Nobody's perfect. It kind of speaks for today too doesn't it? That sounds like this election.
Ari: Steve's not affiliated with any political party but he describes himself as a conservative. There's a smiling portrait of Ronald Regan on one wall. Steve sees automatic voter registration as removing unnecessary red tape from the voting process.
Steve: We have a fundamental right to vote. Assembly, speech, voting those are fundamental rights. Being a fundamental right government should not insert itself between the citizen and that right unless there's a compelling reason for them to do that.
Ari: Across the country Republicans have raised concerns about voter fraud to oppose efforts to make voting easier. This despite the fact that there's little evidence of fraud. One national survey found only 31 credible cases of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014. That's 31 cases out of one billion votes cast. But Steve says if you're worried about fraud you should be in favor of automatic registration. It's more secure than the voter registration he does at his own counter.
Steve: If you come into a county clerk's office and you register to vote. We give you a card and you fill it out and that's it, but through the DMV what's filtered out are the people who are not citizens.
Ari: Only people who provide proof of citizenship at the DMV like a birth certificate or a passport are automatically registered.
Steve: I never understood why people who were so concerned about alleged fraud would not support a system that makes it that much more secure.
Ari: So far the results of Oregon's automatic registration have been impressive. Since January more than 230,000 voters have been registered this way. Many of them under age 35. This was Governor Kate Brown's vision when she wrote the bill.
Kate: It is meeting and probably exceeding my expectations. What I'm excited about is I see other states moving in this direction and I think it will start a trend for the country.
Ari: California, West Virginia, Vermont, and Connecticut are in the process of implementing similar laws. Many other states are considering it.
  The law was a big victory for the Bus Project and Henry Kramer, who we met earlier. He's excited that this idea has caught on so quickly in other states, but even more important for him Oregon is re-framing the national debate over voting treating the vote as a fundamental right rather than a privilege.
Henry: Suddenly people are thinking about voter registration really differently. We are seeing a sea change in terms of automatic voter registration becoming how people see that voter registration is supposed to work.
Ari: One big unanswered question: Will these new registered voters actually cast ballots in November? In Oregon's May primary three-fourths of them hadn't chosen a political party which means they couldn't pick a presidential candidate. In the end, only 19% of them voted in that election. Governor Brown says that doesn't trouble her.
Kate: We don't have a sense of what the turn out is going to be in this particular population. That's not the point. We want them to be able to exercise their right as easily and accessibly as possible.
Ari: For one voter at least the new system is working. A couple weeks after I met up with Natalie at the DMV she called me.
Natalie: Hey, Ari.
Ari: Hey, Natalie. How's it going?
Natalie: Good. I wanted to call and let you know that as promised I received in the mail my registration to vote.
Ari: And she plans on voting in November.
Natalie: Everything's in on time and I essentially did nothing but go and get my driver's license which I needed anyway, so it's been pretty awesome.
Ari: Ari Berman is the author of Give Us The Ballot. The modern struggle for voting rights in America. Our story was produced by Katharine Mieszkowski.
Al Letson: For more on what you just heard, plus our latest stories go to RevelNews.org. Join our conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks this week to the Houston Chronicle for their work on the Texas stories and to the Nation Magazine.
  Our show was edited by Andrew Donohue and Taki Telonidis. Laura Starecheski, Katharine Mieszkowski, and Emily Harris produced our show.
  We want to thank WHYY in Philadelphia for letting Laura set up shop there and for providing production support for this week's show. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man JBreezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire C-note Mullen. We had engineering help this week from Paul [Vicus 00:51:35].
  Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado 00:51:47] Lighting.
  Support for Reveal's provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
  Revel is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
  I'm Al Letson and remember there's always more to the story.
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