Mary Frances Berry is one of America's most prominent civil rights and social justice activists, as well as a distinguished historian, author and academic administrator. Although she has played many roles and written many books, her longest, most prominent tenure was at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where she served from 1980 to 2004, presiding as chairwoman for her last 11 years.
Perhaps no one else has could pull off what she has done with her latest book, "Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy." She takes on a long-neglected, yet deeply corrosive problem of American democracy at its most intimate, local democracy — vote-buying — which superficially might seem to support decades-long GOP accusations of voter fraud in national elections, and clearly establishes it as a major problem in its own right. What's more, she does so based almost entirely on the struggles of local activists, and the diligent efforts of a single Louisiana lawman.
It's a genuine David-vs-Goliath story, as well as an urgent wake-up call. Salon spoke with Professor Berry about her book on the eve of its publication. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Your book engages with an issue that's drawn far less attention than the battles over alleged voter fraud waged by the GOP and the fight against voter suppression that Democrats and progressives have waged in response. Given your long history of involvement in voting rights issues, and your involvement in such battles in the past, I wanted to begin by asking what brought you to write about this issue at this time?
I was in New Orleans and I happened to be spending some time down there doing some research on another topic. I was trying to get a parking sticker for my car, so I could park in the neighborhood where I was staying, and I went down to City Hall, and I was having all kinds of trouble figuring out how to do it, and a young man walked up to me and said oh Dr. Berry, I remember all your work on the Civil Rights Commission and introduced himself. He worked for a council member, and he said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Oh I can help you.” So he helped me figure out how to get the parking sticker.
Then, after he did that, he said, “I have big boxes of material that I'd like you to read, because I collected it when I was in the state fraud division, on voting, and I had found all these cases where people were engaged in vote buying and vote selling in state and local elections.” And I had never thought about any such thing, to tell you the truth. My whole emphasis had been on denouncing people who talked about voter fraud, because most of them, when I was on the [Civil Rights] Commission and afterwards they were just Republicans trying to do a huge smokescreen over the issue of voter suppression.
So I said, “Well, I'll look at it,” and I thought it was one box, but indeed it turned out to be many, many boxes. And they contained things like wiretaps and wires of people who had volunteered to go talk to other people, and affidavits, and all kinds of evidence in these little towns, and in these urban areas where poor people live, in housing projects where there were old people, or whatever. And then I got interested; I said, “Well, what are these politicians doing for these poor people who they get to vote for them, and how do they do it?”
An old lady had told him, and he related it to me, that the way they do it is they take you somewhere to vote, and they give you some numbers, and tell you to vote for those people, and the clerk tells them that you did it, and then they haul you down to the daiquiri shop — which is drive-in daiquiri shops here in Louisiana — where you get a drink and get five dollars and a pork chop sandwich, and then you go home. And I said, “Well, I'll be doggone! I never heard of such a thing in my entire life!”
So I got really interested. At first I was going to write about how these poor people shouldn't be selling their votes. You know, I took great umbrage at that. And then I decided that that didn't make any sense; the poor people didn't have anything anyway. What they were doing was being victimized. I discovered it didn't matter whether people were Democrats or Republicans, and these were all local and state elections. We're not talking about presidential elections, none of this covers presidential elections. I found out that these poor communities were the places where their representatives were less likely to support issues that would help the people who are living there, who they had gotten to vote for them, whether it was Medicaid expansion, whether it was fixing the roads or houses, or making sure the water didn't have lead in it, or whatever it was. They couldn't get anybody to do anything, because every time they asked somebody to do something, they said, “Why, I gave you five dollars and a pork chop sandwich, so why are you complaining?”
Why is it difficult to even begin uprooting it?
I got interested in looking at the campaigns that engaged in this kind of activity, and trying to figure out why we couldn't get them prosecuted. I talked to this young man, his name is Greg Malveaux, and he said he discovered, he got all this evidence, you couldn't get prosecutors to prosecute anybody, and that was because they [prosecutors] were getting elected in the same way by the same people. I hadn't thought about that. I checked with the national organization of prosecutors, whatever they're called, and they told me that state and local prosecutors are generally elected. So I knew that by the time that Ferguson happened.
So then I decided that campaigns, maybe just in Louisiana they were doing this. So I wrote the stuff about what was happening in Louisiana, and then I decided to look across the country, and see if it was happening elsewhere. I went to Chicago, and I talked to some campaign people there that I know, and they told me, yeah, we call it, I think, street money or walking-around money, and we go to the nursing home where the old people are, and we get absentee ballots and we haul them — mainly it's absentee ballots in Chicago. In Baltimore, even the state courts found that having walk-around money was legal.
How did your understanding of the problem change?
I decided that the real problem is not that the votes are bought; it's just a way of voter suppression I call it — that's to get people to vote for you, okay, so you can get elected, and it's voter suppression on the cheap, and then you don't do a doggone thing for them. They're still poor, they still got problems, and that in fact if you had candidates who did something for people, and if people were organized, by the organizations are supposed to be activist organizations to understand all this, they might join together and get something done for themselves. So that's how it happened.
Part of the problem people may not realize, which is the difficulty of distinguishing illegitimate activity from what's a legitimate way of simply getting people out to vote, particularly when it comes to just transporting people. Could you clarify that?
Oh, let me talk about that. It is clearly legal. When I looked into this I started studying it and talking to people that I know actually working campaigns, around the country, people I've known a long time. There's nothing wrong with walking-around money or street money, if it's used to carry people to the polls, or to encourage people to go to the polls. There's nothing wrong with that. That's fine. What's wrong is when you tell people to vote for certain people and then you give them money based on whether or not they vote for those people. That's the part that goes over the line. So I'm not trying to root out campaigns having walking-around money, or street money to validly transport voters, put out their material and do all those things.
What I'm saying is to exchange for a vote — an actual vote for an actual person for office — and then to collude, sometimes work with the clerks, to get the clerk to tell them whether you actually voted for those people, or take the absentee ballots and check them off and then to give people what I call chump change -- whether it's people getting sandwiches in a nursing home, or whether it's like the one woman down in Louisiana getting her five dollars and a pork chop sandwich and a daiquiri — and then doing nothing for them, that's the part that really galls me. You don't do anything else for them.
So I'm not trying to interfere with campaigns. My good Democratic Party friends, when I told them I was going to write this book, they first said don't write it, because people will think you agree with Republicans that there's massive voter fraud going on the country, in every kind of election. And I said no, that's not what I'm going to write. What I'm going to write is that vote buying, what they're doing, is undermining democracy.
You wrote about a number of parishes in Louisiana where this was rampant. In Vermilion Parish you quoted a trial judge saying, “Vote buying, for the most part, has been readily accepted in our society for many years.” So obviously the evidence presented in that case was not new to him. How typical was that of the political culture throughout parishes in Louisiana?
It was typical, and most of the judges, the local judges, are also elected. One of the principal problems is that no matter how much evidence you ever collect, if you have judges, as well as prosecutors, who are elected, if you keep ever get anybody to prosecute, the judge, as you might notice -- over in St. Martinsville Parish, one judge said, “You don't understand how we do things here. You know, people are always, they don't know where they live, or they all be living in one house. Who are you people coming over here trying to tell us what to do?” And the old woman who told us she was up in her 90s then, she said, “I've been doing this since I was a girl. They do this all the time.” So it's a way of life.
In Chicago, the alderman that I talk about, those aldermanic districts and the people who were involved, they say they do that all the time. If you want to get the snow removed from your streets when the storm happens, and not be last on the list, you'd better be some of the people who've been known to go down and vote right. So I just think it's widespread, in West Virginia, those other places -- Texas, it happens in Texas, with the politiqueras, but I spent a lot of time in Louisiana because I had primary sources.
You spoke about family fiefdoms controlling politics there in Louisiana, in many instances, and St. Martinsville I guess was exceptional because it actually rose to the level of federal prosecution. What happened there to set it apart, and why was it still not able to be really fixed?
There were family fiefdoms all over Louisiana, there were also family fiefdoms elsewhere. We've got one in Chicago, it's called the Daley machine. We have one in Florida called the Shulers, who forever controlled one county. But in Louisiana, there are quite a few, and over in Cajun country there was this fiefdom which controlled this one seat on the [St. Martinsville] council forever: daddy, granddaddy, all the way down. And then finally when the latest daddy died, the mayor, who appoints people, appointed his daughter to the seat. There were a whole bunch of people voting who all lived in the house with the mayor's father, who had been the police chief, and was related to the woman in the council seat, and had been voting, even though they didn't live in the parish.
So what Greg did was he collected all this evidence of what was going on, at that behest of a black woman there who was rather courageous, who came to him, and complaints they got over the hotline. And when he got ready to prosecute, the local prosecutor wouldn't prosecute, even though he [Greg] handed over all this information to them. It so disgusted Greg, after his efforts in all the other parishes, and the thing was so clear, you could see it, that he was going to get the federal government to come in. There must be something he could do.
And so we went to the federal DA. It just happened that it was at the time after I had done the hearings on Bush v. Gore, in Florida, and there were a lot of complaints about the administration not doing anything about voting issues, and so the U.S. attorney did get involved. He went over the evidence himself, and went down to the city council clerk, and went over the records again, and found out that Greg, of course, had done a good job, and the information was all there, and they prosecuted the [council]woman, and she was ordered not to sit, and she resigned.
You would think that the locals, then, who are trying to do the right thing, got justice, but they didn't. And the reason why they didn't was because the mayor -- who was related to the woman who had had this office forever -- he decided, he said the black people want to have a black person in that office so they can have majority on the council — that's why they didn't do anything, because they didn't want blacks to have a majority in the council — said, I'm going to put somebody black on the council.
So he named a guy who is a most unlikely person to be put on the council, which everybody in town said he's a nice fella, we don't know why he should be a council member, and the mayor even described him, and I have a quote there as “standing on the street, sweeping the street, waving to everybody, talking to everybody, what a nice gentle fellow he was.” He's actually an artist, but he has no sense of political anything, and since he's been on [the council], he's just followed the lead of the people who are the majority on there, so while winning eventually, the folks there who are trying to do the right thing lost.
Turning toward what can be done about this, what about your idea of removing prosecutors from this electoral system, or setting aside professional special prosecutors?
Congress could pass a law setting up special federal prosecutors in case of vote-buying, voter fraud, or states could appoint special prosecutors in cases where there are instances of alleged vote buying. For example when all those calls came to the hotline that Greg investigated, he found evidence, instead of them having to take it to the local prosecutor, since that person was elected — maybe some of them are honest, maybe some are not — but without having to make that judgment, you can have an independent prosecutor whose sole brief is to prosecute cases involving voting, with the understanding that everybody up and down the line is elected to the same system, see, you don't want to have bias in the system. So that will be good for states to do, and at the municipal level, cities and counties could do the same thing, have an independent prosecutor for cases like this.
It sounded to me like there was a need to shake up the entire culture, and you do talk some about broader approaches to what could be done, or has been done in Alaska, for instance, regarding transportation, taking it on as a state responsibility. Or Obama's proposal that voting be made mandatory, which he only made very briefly, and the example of what's done in other nations. So could you talk about some of these approaches?
Mandatory voting at first sounds like a good idea. But all it would do it get those people that I'm talking about here — the poor people, the minorities and so forth — make them have to go out and vote for people they don't want to vote for, without regard to whether the people were doing anything for them. So I'm not sure that mandatory voting would do it. I did say that if you really were concerned about turnout, there are several ways to get turnout. One is to have politicians actually stand for something, and then do what they say they're going to do, and not promise to do things they know they can't do. And then you would have more confidence that something would get done, and might be worth your going to vote.
The other is to do like they do in Australia, is to have treats. At the beginning of our Republic, back in George Washington's day, and all the way up through the early 19th century, there were treats at the polls; people handed out ginger cookies, or drinks, after people voted. Now we get a little sticker saying I Voted, or least they do in my precinct. Maybe what you could do is have not only I Voted stickers, but you can also have a lottery, or you could like participate, anybody who voted, after they voted — not trying to get them to vote for any particular person — a lottery where they might get a prize, or go down to get a free coffee — some businesses did that, for while, giving free coffee — or a lottery for more than that. Or we could just have a social hour at the precinct, where all the neighborhood came together, after they voted, serve some drinks, and let people get together, and not make voting such a chore that people have to do. There are ways to do that if you are willing to do it.
The other thing is that there are some people who proposed a constitutional amendment to make the right to vote a federal responsibility. Amending the Constitution is, as we all know, pretty hard. The likelihood of that happening is not that great.
I think the idea of candidates, don't promise what you can't deliver, deliver what you promise, so people know that, do what you say you're going to do, and then you might get people to turn out, and all you need to do is legal things, like transporting them and putting out your literature and all the rest of it.
Of course that sounds like a good thing, but how do you get candidates to do that? And your other suggestion, what do you think that activists might be able to focus on first, in order to drive forward the kind of changes that obviously need to be done?
State and local governments, local governments especially, could in fact enact provisions, or encourage the kind of treating, and kind of lotteries, and the kind of socializing at the polls I've been talking about. They could do that at the local level, the mayors in the city councils, etc. should do that to try that to see if that works. That's a relatively benign sort of thing. Encourage it. Encourage businesses to give little treats to people who have an I Voted sticker. That should be done right away.
Another thing to do is for people to continue not to turn out and don't even sell your vote, even if you're poor, and you don't have the resources, if [the candidates] don't stand for something and do what they say. Just let turnout continue to dribble down. That's the opposite effect, so that it becomes totally embarrassing as to how many people turn out for any kind of election.
The other thing that could be done which is positive, just like the municipalities doing something, is for local organizations like the churches, the NAACP, the activist groups, the ACLU, all the rest of them, at the local level, to organize voters — poor people especially, and the old people, the people they are taking advantage of — to understand that selling your vote won't get you as much as if you organize to promote your own candidates, and vote for them, or to pick and choose among candidates based on how much they do for you in practical terms, not whether they gave you five dollars. What makes you despair more than anything else is that social organizations and rights groups spend a lot of time on getting people to vote, turn out for specific candidates; they spend very little time organizing people to understand how to run their own candidates, and how to make the candidates they are supporting accountable. Just turning out voters for somebody isn't going to get done what you want done.
Do you have any final thoughts in terms of what you hope that people will get out of this book?
What I hope people will get out of the book is the stories I have tried to make totally accessible, that anybody can read and understand them; I'm not trying to write some scholarly tome. I want people to read this book and understand what's going on. And the stories I think will help them understand the imbalance between the emphasis on getting people to turn out to vote, and actually doing something for the people. That's what democracy is supposed to be about, participation in order to achieve goals. That's what democracy is. That's what I mean by the corruption; it's just as much corruption of democracy to do what's happening with the stories as it is to have voter ID laws, and make it hard for people to vote, or any of these other things that we work so hard against. They're all corruptions of American democracy.
I want to reiterate, it is consistent with my belief that the marginalized should not be taken advantage of. And so when this old woman talked about how they couldn't get anybody to fix the streets, couldn't get anybody to do anything, and all they would tell her was we gave you five dollars and a pork chop sandwich, so shut up, it seemed to me that that described whole problem, right? So for me, it was like, here these were people being exploited, and somebody needs to organize them, and do something about it. It's a story that needs to be told.