This interview originally appeared on The New School for Writing's website
Kirsten Chen: Give Us the Ballot was tremendously rich in history and detailed facts. How did you manage the volume of research needed to complete this?
Ari Berman: Considering the history of voting rights, I had a sprawling amount of time to cover. So, I tried to focus the narrative prior to starting the research. This meant figuring out major themes and “connective tissue”—e.g. characters that could be pulled through the entire narrative, or characters that fully embodied the story we wanted to tell.
And really, I was telling two intertwining narratives: the narrative of revolution and all the good things that have happened since the VRA, and the resulting counterrevolution to that progress. So I focused on finding the through-points that propelled both sides.
I always outline—that’s how I work. As I did the research, the outline would adjust, but I always knew where I was headed.
KC: Did you conduct many interviews? Who was the most interesting to learn more about?
AB: I did conduct a lot of interviews, partly because I’m a journalist so that’s just how I’m used to reporting, but also because there were a lot of things that took place before I was born or before there were good records. While there may have been a newspaper article or some old archives for something that had happened, say, in the sixties in Mississippi, there wasn’t likely to be much TV footage. So, I relied on people’s memory to make me feel like I was there and help bring the story to life. I would look into a case and ask myself: where is the human story behind this? Then I’d talk with whomever I could find: the lawyers involved, the plaintiffs, or family members of them if the plaintiff was deceased.
One of the highlights for me was just being able to spend time with Congressman John Lewis. He’s such a well-known historical figure, but usually everyone asks him the same questions—about Selma, the Bloody Sunday march in ‘65. And I talked about that with him, too, but then I talked with him about everything that happened after. I felt like he really opened up with me then. I was also with him on civil rights pilgrimages in 2013 and 2015 so I had an up-close look traveling with him, too. It was a surreal experience; he’s a legitimate American icon. There were a lot of interesting interviews, but he was kind of the one that had the most moral force.
KC: In Give Us the Ballot, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is positioned as not only a foundational element to the Civil Rights movement, but the absolute key to enforcing the Civil Rights Act. This was also portrayed in the film Selma and more recently on John Oliver, which is when you know something is starting to gain attention. As a political writer and commentator whose finger is on the metaphorical pulse of American society, how much do you feel this “connection” is wholly understood by most citizens and lawmakers?
AB: I don’t think most people know this history. I think they know there was a VRA, but I don’t think they know what it did or what came after its passage. One thing that struck me about the movie Selma was how many people I knew that weren’t aware of the history of Bloody Sunday. That’s really why I wanted to write this book. I pitched the book right after the Supreme Court had heard the Shelby County case challenging the VRA but hadn’t yet come to a decision. But I kind of saw what was coming and knew voting rights would be a big topic. Ultimately, I felt like people didn’t truly know or understand this history, and not only Selma but the 50 years since. So it was really, really important to show that the fight didn’t end in 1965.
KC: The book delves into the many forms of voter oppression – most recently: the myth of voter fraud and the subsequently-produced voter ID laws. Are these measurements any less blatantly discriminatory now than they were 60 years ago during Jim Crow?
AB: They’re more subtle, but Voter ID laws are just another iteration of poll taxes and literacy tests because they’re an attempt to determine who can and cannot participate in the political process. Technically a voter ID card needs to be made free, but the underlying documents that you need to get the card are not free and not required to be free (e.g. birth certificate). Not only that, but there are people who were born at home in the segregated south who don’t have a birth certificate—and obtaining one can be an expensive and time-consuming process. One woman in the book even had to obtain a lawyer to track down her birth certificate in Louisiana.
KC: Related, you discuss how legislators “fail to protect voting rights by invoking state’s rights.” How much do you think well-crafted vernacular and ideology like “states’ rights” and “voter fraud” plays a part in baiting otherwise-innocent citizens to the wrong side of history?
AB: If you say “voter fraud” enough times, people will just start to believe it. That’s what has happened recently. People see the headline but not the fine print and so the facts (that voter fraud is very rare) are lost. Similarly, in the 1960s “states’ rights” became a big buzzword because who wouldn’t want to be for the right of their states? People started wisening up and realizing they couldn’t use blatantly racist rhetoric anymore, so they started using codewords and it’s been very effective. Plus, when the code words are exposed, they just come up with new code words.