[LESLIE HEROD]: I would say that Democrats have led the charge across the country and will continue because it's the right thing to do. Because we know that if we deserve to be elected, the people need to stand behind us and we need to give the people a voice and every act, every opportunity to vote, who they want to vote in...whoever they want to see in office.
[MARIA]: Leslie Herod, a Democratic state representative from Colorado, believes that the Democratic party will continue to give voters their say in the voting process. But can the Democrats do better? Let’s talk about that.
[MARIA]: I’m Maria Elena Perez.
[NIKKI]: And I’m Nikki Rojas. We’re the hosts of America the Voiceless.
[MARIA]: We believe all Americans have a voice, but too many Americans face roadblocks when it comes to casting their vote. America the Voiceless looks into the barriers many Americans have to overcome to make sure their voices are heard during the voting process.
[NARRATION & INTERVIEW]
[NIKKI]: In what has felt like the world’s longest political campaign, we’re a mere two months away from electing the next president of the United States.
[MARIA]: God, doesn’t that make you just as nervous as it makes me?
[NIKKI]: Oh my God. It absolutely does. On the one hand, you’ve got the current Republican administration doing absolutely everything in its power to tear down women’s rights, deport thousands of immigrants...
[NIKKI]: ...absolutely underestimate the fight for racial justice and completely and utterly downplay a global pandemic. And then on the other hand, you have a Democratic Party that’s warring among itself–between a progressive sector that’s determined to push the party ahead to the 21st century and a moderate side that wants to keep the status quo.
[MARIA]: In our first episode of America the Voiceless, we’ll talk about the Democratic Party, which portrays itself as one of the people, a protector of voting rights. But, does it live up to that ideal? Nikki and I spoke to two progressive Democrats for this episode: Colorado state Representative Leslie Herod and Massachusetts state Senator Becca Rausch. They represent a new wave of Democrats that want to shake things up and actually listen to what voters want.
[LESLIE HEROD]: The Democratic Party has led on voting rights and voter participation across the country. Here in Colorado, Democrats led the charge to ensure that we have mail voting throughout Colorado, online voter registration and other things to make the elections more accessible to all.
[NIKKI]: I think Democrats have this really idealized view of themselves and of the electoral process. I mean, one of the party’s core values is “to maximize voter participation for all Americans.”
[BECCA RAUSCH]: Voting is a central pillar of our democracy. It is the very, you know, one of the things that holds up our democracy, the great, great American experiment of, of, you know, broad participatory democracy and representative democracy, your vote is your voice, right? And if you can't vote, then you've lost your voice.
[NIKKI]: There’s certainly a new contingency of the party that is very determined to live up to those values. When we spoke to Representative Herod and Senator Rausch, they made it very clear that they understand that the reality for many voters isn’t ideal right now and there are a lot of changes that need to be made. And they are certainly not the only members of the party who are willing to call out the establishment for its failures to live up to its supposed core beliefs.
[MARIA]: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of the Squad have no issues calling out party leaders to task and demanding change. After all, that’s what they were elected for. Representative Herod made a good point that both parties should be made up of elected officials that stand for the public, which would increase voter turnout.
[LESLIE HEROD]: If our elected officials don't stand with us and don't stand for us and start writing policies that reflect the change that we demand, they don't need to be there either... Democrats or Republicans. And so I would say the way that we ensure that people have a more higher voter participation is to ensure that we're fighting for the issues people actually care about.
[NIKKI]: We also spoke to David Becker, the executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, who had some interesting insight on both major parties and the electoral process as a whole. David was pretty candid about what the two parties ultimately care about: winning elections.
[DAVID BECKER]: What we're seeing in general, not just this year, the parties often put aside the interest of democracy writ large, more than the effort to achieve wins in elections. They're more concerned about the outcome than the process.
[NIKKI]: That was absolutely the case in this election when we saw establishment Democrats slowly narrow down what was a diverse pool of candidates down to former Vice President Joe Biden, a white moderate who enjoys wide support but whose policies are far from popular.
[MARIA]: Right, you had Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Julián Castro as extremely capable and progressive presidential candidates and they were all pushed aside by the establishment in favor of a so-called safe candidate. Those same candidates have all “fallen in line” and endorsed Biden and are even working with him to push his policies further to the left, but will it be enough? Is it even worth it?
[NIKKI]: It’s not just the top of the ticket either. The Democratic Party is notorious for failing to support progressive candidates across the country, including Charles Booker in Kentucky and Jamaal Bowman in New York. Booker came really close to winning the Democratic primary against Amy McGrath for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) seat, but ultimately he fell short. Meanwhile, Bowman faced off against long-term Congressman Eliot Engel and easily defeated him.
[00:05-00:49] With many voters shifting farther to the left, the progressive movement is flexing its muscle this year and spearheading the campaigns of its candidates to replace longtime incumbants, like New York Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel is facing his toughest primary since he was first elected to Congress in 1988. He’s up against a candidate, a political novice, who has the backing of the darling of the progressive movement: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocassio-Cortez. “My name is Jamaal Bowman. I’m a Democrat. And I’m running to be your Congressman in NY 16th Congressional District.” The 44-year-old school principal is being backed by the same political action committee that helped Ocassio-Cortez unseat another powerful long-term Democrat, Joe Crowley two years ago.
[MARIA]: Not only do the parties want to keep the status quo, but Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, made the valid point that neither of the parties are doing a great job of ensuring that all voters are able to participate in this upcoming election.
[NSE UFOT]: No party that I'm aware of is doing a great job at defending democracy.
[NIKKI]: It seemed that Nse, Representative Herod and Senator Rausch all seemed to agree that there was one way to improve voter turnout this November, especially as we navigate this pandemic: voting by mail. In fact, the three seemed to swear by it.
[MARIA]: There are only five states that currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Meanwhile, some states require that you provide an excuse for an absentee ballot. In Massachusetts, Senator Rausch pushed to have universal mail-in ballots but it did not succeed.
[BECCA RAUSCH]: We know that voting by mail works, we have half a dozen States in the nation that already do this. Um, and several others provide some kind of voting by mail, even if it's not truly universal vote by mail.
[NIKKI] Why would you say that's that it's so important that that kind of process is implemented?
[BECCA RAUSCH]: All of the evidence and the data show that getting ballots directly into the hands of voters is the best way to lift up and enfranchise our citizens to cast their votes. This is one of, if not, the most important election cycles in the history of our country, we need people to be able to vote. We need, we meaning our democracy, needs people to be able to vote and the future of our nation necessitates that people be able to vote and we continue, continue to see opt in or buy request systems fail. We've seen them fail in Wisconsin. We've seen them fail in Georgia. We've seen them fail in West Virginia. We see them fail all over the place. When you get the ballots directly into the hands of voters, with the least amount of red tape, the least amount of, um, obstacles in the path to getting the ballot into the hands of the voters. That's when you see mail-in voting, um, be the most successful in terms of both access and engagement.
[MARIA]: A few weeks after we spoke to Senator Rausch, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill that would allow all registered voters in the Commonwealth to vote by mail in the primary and general elections if they choose to. Meanwhile, Representative Herod explained how lawmakers in Colorado are pushing to make voter accessibility, like voting by mail, a priority.
[LESLIE HEROD]: So Colorado, we are actually leading … on the leading edge of voter participation and access to the ballot. So we have quite an open election system. One thing that we are looking to support right now is ensuring that we have ballots in all of the languages that are necessary to ensure full participation, even amongst our immigrant communities. That's something that's really important. We also want to make sure that, uh, mail ballots are free, even that postage could be a barrier for voting. And that is something that we are fighting for and working on at the state and at the local level. Um, and again, across the country though, everyone's not in the same place that we are in Colorado. So it's important that you demand mail ballots. No one should have to stand outside and wait in line for hours upon hours upon hours during a pandemic to vote. We have ways to have safe and secure elections that are verifiable and we need to put them in place across the country.
[MARIA]: What I found interesting is that Representative Herod and Nse both brought up the issue of postage being a barrier to voting by mail. I don’t think that’s something a lot of people think of when they consider mail-in voting.
[NSE UFOT]: So for example, in Georgia, um, ballots are not sent with prepaid postage.So if you are a young person or a working poor person, and you don't own a car, uh, in Atlanta, and you'd have to spend $2 and 50 cents to take the bus to the post office and then purchase a stamp to mail in your ballot and then pay another $2 and 50 cents to get home. And so that's almost $6 that a poor person would have to pay in order to exercise their right to vote because the state refuses to, um, you know, pay for prepaid postage. That's ridiculous, it's avoidable, and it is a small expense to pay in order to make sure that everyone who's eligible can participate in our election.
[NIKKI]: Not at all, Maria. While $6 may not seem a lot of money to some people, that could quite literally mean transportation to work for a couple of days or a few groceries for some folks. It just doesn’t make sense for state governments to not take on that minimal expense when sending out ballots to voters. I mean, that is when they actually do send out ballots.
[00:18-00:43] The majority of folks, I heard, had applied for an absentee ballot and it was never processed. And I don’t really have an answer for why that happened. It’s very disappointing. I’m sorry. I can’t defend it. You can’t blame anyone else on our lack of processing these applications, that’s on us. It’s another black eye for Fulton County.
[NIKKI]: That was Liz Hausmann, the Fulton County commissioner down in Georgia. She was forced to apologize after voters had to stand in lines for hours on end to vote in the Georgia primaries when their absentee ballots weren’t processed. All in the middle of the pandemic.
[NIKKI]: So while many Democrats hail mail-in voting as this grand solution, not everyone is sold on it. David Becker sure wasn’t, right Maria?
[MARIA]: No, David saw it as a useful tool but I think he also saw that it has its flaws. There’s just so much that can go wrong with mail-in voting. We talked about the challenges to mail-in voting and why it’s important to have safe places to vote in November, particularly during the pandemic.
[MARIA IN DAVID INTERVIEW]: You said we need, like, plenty of convenient, safer places to vote on Twitter during the upcoming election and voting by mail doesn't really solve all those problems. What other options out there? Are there any other options out there for safer, convenient places to vote for these voters?
[DAVID BECKER]: Vote by mail is a really great option for many voters, particularly voters who were experienced in voting, but voting by mail is voting without a safety net. Um, there are lots of mistakes voters can make, uh, on their ballot on the ballot, which could cause the ballot not to be counted. Uh, there could be challenges and receiving a ballot on time and returning the ballot on time. And so there are a lot of voters, particularly voters who might not be as experienced with the process who would prefer to vote in person. And there are a lot of people who need to vote in person, people who might need assistance because of a disability, or because they don't speak English, all that well. And so having a lot of in-person voting options is going to be really important.
[NIKKI]: So, David mentioned that we should prepare to have plenty of in-person voting options available in November. But, my first question is, do we think turnout will be high this fall? And secondly, will Democrats make sure that happens? Because Republicans love to close polling locations and they’ve made sure to use the pandemic to shut them down left and right.
[MARIA]: (Laughs) Well, to answer your first question, David said that despite the pandemic, voter turnout has been surprisingly high.
[DAVID BECKER]: I think everyone expected, we were going to see very high turnout, um, definitely eclipsing what we saw as the previous high watermark for turnout, which was the 2008 presidential election where we saw about 61% or so of eligible voters voting in 2008, then the pandemic hit. And a lot of us didn't really know what was going to happen to turn out, um, was the fear of the virus going to, um, have an impact on voters, willingness to participate? I think what we're seeing in the primaries is remarkable. We're seeing voters showing up to vote, um, not just by mail, but also in person at rates that are very high.
[MARIA]: As to your second question, that’s more complicated. But I think we’re seeing a lot more energy among voters fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement.
[BECCA RAUSCH]: Frankly, what we are seeing in terms of the black lives matter movement and global civil rights movement, um, only further emphasizes the need to do everything that we can possibly do to lift up and enfranchise voters throughout the, throughout the nation.
[00:00-00:36]: Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors! Open the doors!
[MARIA]: In Louisville, Kentucky, voters took to literally banging on the doors of the Kentucky Exposition Center during the primaries as the 6 p.m. deadline to vote neared. Thankfully, a court order gave voters more time to cast their ballots. But they were not playing around. They weren’t about to let their votes be suppressed.
[NIKKI]: When we spoke to Nse, she said that Black Lives Matter protesters are motivated this election season. And there isn’t this kind of divide between those that think the only path to change is through protesting and those who believe change happens at the ballot box.
[NSE UFOT]: I think that there was definitely a time where you would hear, there were camps, right? And the camps were very clearly defined. There were people who said like the only path towards liberation is protesting and direct action. And then there are people who would point at protesters and say, 'Get out of the streets, you all need to be going to vote cause that's how we're going to bring about change.' And what the beauty of what we're seeing in this moment is that the young folks who are putting their bodies on the lines. Black people, the women, the femmes, the allies, the co-conspirators that there is a growing understanding that it's not either or, that it's both and, um, and that's not a rhetorical device, right? Like it's not a rhetorical thing. We are seeing people protesting all the way to the polls.
[MARIA]: The Democratic establishment could see a lot of change in November if this momentum keeps up. Progressives are more likely to champion bills that will expand voting rights to disenfranchised communities and to change the status quo. Something that the old guard in the Democratic Party might not want to see.
[NIKKI]: Thank you for joining us for this episode of America the Voiceless. Tune in next week as we delve into the Republican Party’s blatant attempts to suppress American voters in a bid to maintain power.
[NIKKI]: A special thank you to our podcast producer and engineer Willis Polk and the staff at The North Star.[MARIA]: This podcast is brought to you by The North Star, an independent media site fully supported by our members on TheNorthStar.com. If you’re not already a member, we’d love for you to subscribe so you can support our work. You can catch a fresh episode of America the Voiceless every Thursday on Spotify or Apple Music or wherever you listen to podcasts.