Rep. John Lewis fought to end racial discrimination as a noted civil-rights activist in the 1960s before he began his career in public service. In an interview with National Journal, the Georgia Democrat reflected on the upcoming election and the strict new voter-ID measures being challenged across the country. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Why is the issue of voting rights and voter suppression so important to you?
LEWIS The vote is powerful. It is the most powerful, nonviolent instrument that we have in a democratic society, and we have to use it. That is precious, that is almost sacred. If it wasn’t so powerful, why did people try to keep it from us for so long? In my office, I used to have a framed receipt from a person who had paid a dollar and a half or two dollars as a poll tax. To a person receiving four or five dollars a week for picking cotton, that’s a lot of money.
NJ What parallels do you see between discrimination in the 1960s and these voter-ID laws and other voter-restriction measures now?
LEWIS In a great deal of my early involvement in the civil-rights movement, I saw people denied the right to participate, denied the right to just get registered. And even after some people registered, they were denied the right to vote. I remember they had segregated voting lines in a little town in Georgia where blacks stood in one line and whites stood in the other line. There were individuals who I knew that were helping people to get registered, and they would be beaten. They were arrested. I was arrested. My own father, my own mother, my own grandparents couldn’t even register to vote until after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. There were hundreds and thousands of people of color, there was tenant farmers and sharecroppers who attempted to get registered, and they were evicted from their farms, evicted from their plantations.
As I was working on the Democratic convention speech and as I delivered it, I thought about all that had happened, and it seemed that there’s an attempt to take us back to the dark past. And I thought: We don’t want to go back. We’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress, too many people suffered and struggled and died for the right to vote, the right to participate in the democratic process.
NJ In your mind, is this a concerted effort to keep Democratic-leaning groups away from the polls? What about the argument that these measures help combat voter fraud?
LEWIS All types of studies show that there’s no voter fraud, but in almost every state where you have a Republican governor, a Republican-controlled state legislature, there’s been this movement toward making it harder or more difficult for people to cast their vote. The leader of the Pennsylvania House said, in effect, “We have to pass voter ID so we can turn Pennsylvania toward Governor Romney, and he would carry the state.” When I look at it, it is a deliberate, systematic attempt to steal and win an election before the election takes place.
NJ What kind of an impact do you think these laws will have on Election Day?
LEWIS It is my hope that they would not be in effect and that the people who show up at the polls—if they have an ID or not—they can [at least] cast a provisional ballot and eventually the ballot will be counted. If not, I think in some states, the election may be very, very close. In some congressional districts, they could be in court for days and weeks and maybe months to come.
NJ What do you make of Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax?
LEWIS It was shocking to have a presidential candidate saying something like that. I’ve run for office. And all of us who have run for office, we want the votes of everybody, and we want to represent everybody, whether people vote for you or not. I’ve followed a lot of elections, and I’ve attended every Democratic convention since 1964, and I have never seen anything like this—never, ever—where a national candidate is so removed from the problems and issues of everyday people. It’s an insult, it’s an affront for a national candidate to say this to almost half of the population. We should be about bringing our country together. I say all the time, we are one America, we’re one house, we’re the American house.
NJ You talked also in your convention speech about the pride you felt when the nation elected its first African-American president. If President Obama loses reelection, does it take away from that?
LEWIS I don’t think anything can take away from the victory that Obama won and the American people won four years ago. It was a major step toward the creation of a more peaceful America and a more perfect union. We are celebrating and commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and next year it’ll be the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It says something of our path, as a nation and as a people, that we have taken. Whatever happens in November, we’re on a path. There may be some setbacks, there may be some interruptions, but we are on a path to create a truly multiracial, democratic society.
This article appears in the Sep. 22, 2012, edition of National Journal.