[BARACK OBAMA]: We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting – by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.
[NIKKI]: In a powerful and moving eulogy for Congressman John Lewis, former President Barack Obama provided perhaps his most pointed attack against President Donald Trump and the Republican Party as they actively work to suppress the vote of millions of Americans. We talk about this and more in this week’s episode.
[NIKKI]: I’m Nikki Rojas.
[MARIA]: And I’m Maria Elena Perez. We’re the hosts of America the Voiceless.
[NIKKI]: 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 & INTERVIEWS]
[MARIA]: This week, Republicans from around the country were supposed to formally announce their support for President Donald Trump’s re-election bid at the Republican National Convention. It was originally supposed to be held in North Carolina, but was later split into two events, including a higher profile portion in good ‘ol Florida. However, a new surge of COVID-19 infections put an end to that at the end in July, forcing Trump to announce that the party would have to reimagine how the convention would go on. Regardless of the convention, the GOP has remained steadfast of its support of the president.
[NIKKI]: Trump has had four years to “Make America Great Again,” but instead he and Republicans have used those four years to wreak havoc on this country. From purging voter rolls, to targeted disinformation campaigns, to various voter suppression tactics, Republicans have used every weapon in their arsenal to suppress voters who traditionally don’t vote for them at the ballot box.
[MARIA]: In this second episode, we’ll hear again from Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, and Thomas Patterson, Harvard Kennedy School professor and the author of “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” as we discuss the GOP’s long history of voter suppression and its latest attempts to maintain power by stifling voters’ rights in local, state and national elections.
[NSE UFOT]: So I definitely can point to, uh, legislators, um, elected officials, party leaders who see this issue, who are taking it seriously and who are doing what they can to make sure that people are allowed to vote, but I want to be clear, um, that it is for the most part Republicans, um, particularly in the state of Georgia, but elsewhere that are racing to make it more difficult for people of color to vote and participate in our elections.
[NIKKI]: There is no better example of Republicans’ insistence of suppressing the vote than their refusal to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Activists in the civil rights movement poured their blood, sweat and tears into making sure the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. But in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key aspects of the law and allowed states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without prior federal approval.
[MARIA]: In July, we mourned the loss of an icon of the civil rights movement, Congressman John Lewis, who was brutally beaten in Selma, Alabama, as he fought for voting rights in 1965. Democrats called for Congress to honor his memory by restoring voting rights, but Republicans refused to do it.
[NIKKI]: In fact, Republicans have refused to do it for quite some time. Lewis presided over a historic vote in December 2019 to fully restore the Voting Rights Act. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has blocked that legislation from ever getting the chance of a vote on the Senate floor.
[MARIA]: And what’s even more disgusting, and despite actual, visible evidence of it, McConnell had the audacity to say in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “There’s little tangible evidence of this voter suppression nonsense.”
[CBS]: Today voters in Georgia were met with long lines and confusion at polling places as they tried to cast ballots in the state’s primary elections. There are already calls for an investigation. While the mayor of Atlanta is warning this could be a preview of the general election in November.
[MARIA]: Thomas explained just how little Republicans have done to expand the electorate over the past several decades, while Democrats have done the exact opposite.
[THOMAS PATTERSON]: Nearly every effort to kind of expand the electorate, uh, has come from Democrats. Uh, an example of that is the voting rights act of 1965, the motor voter act of, uh, of 1993. These were both attempts to expand the electorate, to make it easier for people to register and vote. Uh, if you look at the Republican record over the last 60 or 70 years, there's not a single example of this comparable to either of those.
[MARIA]: So would you say that the Republican party isn't really getting anything right when it comes to expanding voting rights at all?
[THOMAS PATTERSON]: Well, I think at the moment, uh, what the Republican party has done is sort of, it's a double down on its turnoff strategy. If you look at the Republican coalition, uh, it's 90% non Hispanic, white, uh, so it doesn't draw very much from the groups in America that are growing in size and those groups are the minority groups. And every one of those is increasing in number, the white population is diminishing. Uh, and if you're a party that is heavily dependent as the GOP is on a particular block and it's shrinking a number or those who vote primarily for the other party increasing in number, you have one of two strategies. Uh, one, you can begin to reach out to the people who are not voting for you. Uh, the other thing is you can try to make it hard for those people to vote, uh, at all. And, uh, that's been the Republican strategy.
[NIKKI]: Now, not only is voter suppression a tactic used by Republicans at the national level, but we’re seeing it being used very clearly on the state level. We’re seeing blatant examples of voter suppression in a number of states, including Georgia, Kentucky and Wisconsin, just to name a few.
[MARIA IN NSE INTERVIEW]: How do you think voter suppression is currently at play in Georgia?
[NSE UFOT]: Um, I think that voter suppression is perhaps the key tactic that our current crop of leaders, um, are employing to extend their tenure and leadership and to prevent progress from happening. Um, it is by design, it is aggressive, it is intentional. Um, and, um, and it must be stopped. We, uh, are looking at, you know, Georgia becoming the first state in the deep South with a white minority, um, where people of color will make up the majority of Georgians, um, in about four or five years tops. Um, and people of color will make up the majority of Georgia voters soon after that. Um, and we, aren't the only ones with access to that information. Um, conservative Republicans also have access to it. Our governor and secretary of state also has access to it. And instead of embracing the changes that we are living through, uh, they are doing everything in their power to stop it, including voter suppression, purging people from voter rolls.
[NIKKI]: Maria, when we spoke to Democrats in our last episode, they were really supportive of mail-in voting. [Right] They reasoned that it would increase voter turnout, particularly during the pandemic. But Republicans seem hellbent on pushing the idea that mail-in voting will equate to massive voter fraud.
[MARIA]: (Laughs) I mean, honestly, it’s not surprising they’re against mail-in voting and it has nothing to do with voter fraud. Trump, McConnell and the rest of the GOP are determined to shut down anything that could increase voter turnout because a higher turnout almost always means trouble for Republicans.
[NIKKI]: It feels like Republicans aren’t even trying to be subtle about their intentions anymore. In July, the post office suddenly announced that it would pilot a new program that would take its already delayed first-class mail and delay it even more by not allowing carriers to sort and box newly arrived mail in the morning and deliver it and instead wait until after their daily routes.
[MARIA]: But wouldn’t that mean trouble for voters who are sending in their ballots to be counted?
[THOMAS PATTERSON]: Donald Trump has signaled that he would like to make it hard for people to have access to the ballot in November, he's come out very strongly against mail voting, uh, claiming that it is riddled with fraud. Uh, well we have a state Oregon, uh, has been doing all mail voting male and voting for, for some time. And, uh, they have virtually no fraud in their system. These, you know, it's a system that can be run as safely as any other form of voting, as long as you have the proper checks. But, uh, you know, I think Donald Trump is, uh, very much fearful of mail voting because it would increase the democratic vote and, uh, he's been fighting it. And in the Republican States, there's been no inclination to, uh, extend mail voting in any significant way.
[MARIA]: Now, don’t be fooled y’all. The GOP isn’t just trying to shut down mail-in voting. It’s trying to keep voters away from the polls in any way possible. Thomas explained to us just how they go about doing that.
[THOMAS PATTERSON]:I think the clearest example of that is the effort to keep voters away from the polls, uh, and they're pretty precisely targeted. So if you look for example at, uh, voter ID laws and particularly the more strict version of that, which requires you to have a, uh, a government issued ID, uh, most people have that in the form of a passport or more commonly a driver's license, but who doesn't have, uh, one of those forms of ID? Well, they tend to be democratic voters, uh, among, uh, black Americans, 25%. Don't have a government issued ID, uh, among Hispanics it's about, uh, 17, 18%. Uh, and, uh, you know, this was pretty carefully targeted to try to make it difficult for certain groups to, uh, to go to the polls. Uh, I think a more egregious example even, uh, was in North Dakota or the Republican controlled legislature passed a law that to register to vote. Uh, you had to have, uh, a street address and the number on that street address. Well, who did that target? Well, nearly everybody has a street address, uh, but there are some who don't, uh, and in North Dakota that happens to be native Americans living on tribal lands. Uh, many of the tribal lands don't have named and numbered roads, uh, and, uh, they vote about three to one democratic. So it was clearly targeted, uh, at a democratic vote. I'm sure if they had been voted three to one Republican, the Republican legislature of North Dakota would not pass such a law.
[NBC]: Native Americans were being impacted differently in this election. There are tribal IDs that have to be changed, now to have physical addresses and that’s something that all the tribes in North Dakota haven’t had to do before.
[MARIA]: The GOP has continued to use a targeted disinformation campaign and various voter suppression tactics to keep control of not only the White House but of state and local governments around the country. But the last six months have turned the election season on its head.
[NIKKI]: That’s quite the understatement. In January, we began to hear whisperings of a new virus coming from China that soon spread to Europe. The novel coronavirus quickly took hold and spread like wildfire across the world. Of course, with our oh-so-brilliant commander-in-chief, the virus wreaked havoc in our country, killing more than 175,000 Americans and counting. The virus did something else. It destroyed Trump’s precarious polling numbers and his already weak support among the American people.
[MARIA]: But things got worse for Republicans, didn’t it? In May, four Minneapolis police officers brutally killed George Floyd, reigniting the Black Lives Matter protests. Floyd’s death came on the heels of the horrific murder of Breonna Taylor, an inspiring EMT in Louisville who was sleeping at home when Louisville Metro Police officers stormed her apartment on a no-knock warrant and shot her 8 times, killing her. And the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was merely out for a Sunday afternoon jog in Georgia when two men took it upon themselves to hunt him down and kill him in cold blood.
[NIKKI]: Following these painful murders, Black people took to the streets of America to say enough is enough. The Black Lives Matter movement was reignited, prompting demonstrators to protest for weeks against racism and police brutality in this country. They’ve also protested their way right down to the ballot box, making their voices heard in more ways than one.
[WAPO]: No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police. No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police. No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police. Put your fists up. Prosecute the police!
[MARIA]: And that’s something Nse mentioned to us before, in episode one.
[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]: I think Thomas was a bit more cautious about how the energy of the protests would play out in the polls, but ultimately he seemed optimistic.
[THOMAS PATTERSON]: Well, that happens sometimes, sometimes the energy that you see on the streets, um, as the election gets closer, it gets translated into an effort to get people registered, uh, so they can vote, uh, and then on election day getting them to the polls. Uh, and we could see that this time, uh, and there was some of that by the way, in 2018 around the midterms, uh, or the Democrats made an enormous effort to, uh, to boost turnout. And in fact, uh, turn out was the highest, uh, in the midterm election than it had been in nearly a century. So, uh, there's a lot of energy there. You're quite right about that. It doesn't always translate though. And, uh, an example of that, I think is the 1968 election where this was fought, uh, that election was fought out against the backdrop of the Vietnam war protests, uh, the protests that were going on in the cities at the time. And, uh, the, uh, turnout in 1968 actually declined from what it was in, uh, in 1964. And, uh, the same thing happened again, by the way, in 1972, even though the Vietnam war protests were still going on, somehow that didn't translate into getting people to the polls. Uh, and in 1972, the turnout, uh, level dropped from, from 1968. So usually it does, but it doesn't always, uh, this time, uh, it strikes me that it will, um, as long as there aren't barriers to voting, uh, that related to COVID, and it's pretty unclear at this point, how difficult it's going to be for some people to actually cast ballots in November. And it may be that turn out if it's really difficult. Uh, we'll see a turnout decline relative to 2016. Uh, if the polls are pretty easy to get to, if it's fairly easy to cast your ballot, uh, I would place my bet on the side of increased turnout, this go around.
[NIKKI]: You know as journalists, we always strive to get both sides of a story and that’s still the case with this podcast. We reached out to Republican lawmakers, state parties and even right-leaning analysts.
[MARIA]: But not one member of the GOP spoke to us or tried to explain how the accusations of voter suppression thrown at the party are wrong. In fact, when we spoke to our guests, time and again they pointed at Republicans as the biggest perpetrators of voter suppression in this country.
[NSE UFOT] So it is not your imagination. What is happening is real. You cannot fix what you have not faced, and we need to face the fact that we are watching, uh, them take a sledge hammer to our democratic institutions, to our elections infrastructure, and they're trying to steal the election in November.
[MARIA]: Thank you for joining us for this episode of America the Voiceless. Tune in next week as we talk to historian Dr. Carol Anderson about the history of Black voter suppression.
[MARIA]: A special thank you to our podcast producer and engineer Willis Polk and the staff at The North Star.
[NIKKI]: 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.