Hosts Nikki Rojas and Maria Elena Perez dig into the laws and tactics being used to suppress voters’ rights as Americans prepare to elect their next president.
[CAROL ANDERSON]: We have had millions of people blocked from voting. We have had millions purged from the rolls who had been on the voter rolls. The purging and the voter suppression has been so intense that we have Donald Trump in the White House right now. That’s the power of voter suppression.
[PULL QUOTE INTRO]
[NIKKI]: Dr. Carol Anderson, who spoke to us for Episode 3, knows just how detrimental voter suppression is to our democracy. During her book tour, Dr. Anderson described how millions of Americans have been prevented from voting. In this episode, we talk about how voter suppression continues to be at play today.
[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 heard during the voting process.
[NARRATION & INTERVIEW]
[MARIA]: Voter roll purges, voter ID laws, literacy tests...these are hallmarks of voter suppression in America. But the government has found new ways to impede millions of voters–typically voters of color–from exercising their constitutional voting rights.
[NIKKI]: While those tactics remain at play today, we’re now seeing misinformation campaigns, vote dilution, language barriers and even voter intimidation play a bigger role in actively suppressing people’s right to vote.
[MARIA]: We’ve talked about America’s long history of voter suppression, but it is far from being a part of this country’s past. In this episode, we spoke to Krishnan Guru-Murthy, a British journalist at the center of a new report that uncovers how President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign actively worked to spread misinformation as a way to dissuade Black voters from casting their ballots.
[NIKKI]: Krishnan works for the UK’s Channel 4, which released a damning report last week about the Trump campaign’s work with Cambridge Analytica to target millions of voters throughout the country. Krishnan explained how the Trump campaign used Facebook to spread misinformation to Black voters in particular in order to get them to not vote in the 2016 election.
[KRISHNAN]: Well, precisely why people take decisions to vote or not is an almost immeasurable thing. But what we found was that through this leak of the Trump campaign database in 2016, we could see how they classified nearly 200 million voters. And in 16 key battleground States, what we found was that they heard put people into different categories. And one of the most significant ones was this category called deterrence in which Black people were disproportionately represented. And you had more than three and a half million black voters in this category. And the aim of that category was to deter people from voting. Now we know what then happened because people involved in the campaign, people like Brad Parscale have boasted openly about how they use this data to target people with specific messages. And we also know that the messages that were around in 2016 regarding Hillary Clinton and black voters were all to do with her use of the word super predecessor, which is back in the news because Donald Trump accused Joe Biden of using that word in the first presidential debate of claims that Michelle Obama didn't think Hillary Clinton would be any good that, you know, there were adverts using young black actresses that were supposedly pro-Clinton adverts that they would then walk out of the recording and say, I'm not that good, a liar. All of those sorts of messages were being targeted at black voters. Exactly how effective they were is something we'll never know because, you know, how can we ever tell whether we've been affected by advertising or not? What we can say is if advertising didn't work, people wouldn't spend millions of dollars on it.
[MARIA]: Krishnan was tentative about definitively saying whether or not these tactics worked in 2016. But information from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that Black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years during the last presidential election. From 2012 to 2016, Black voter turnout fell from a record high of 66.6% down to 59.6%.
[NIKKI]: The organizations Krishnan and his team spoke to had no qualms calling the Trump campaign’s actions for what they were: voter suppression.
[KRISHNAN]: It's not about my opinion, but what I can tell you is that I've spoken to a lot of campaigners, people like the NAACP, people like Cornell West, the famous academic, I've just spoken to Congressman Clyburn from the Democratic party. They are all emphatic that this is in the tradition of voter suppression. This is just the modern day equivalent of trying to deny Black people, their votes, which in the past was done through literacy tests, knowledge of the constitution, just point blank, denying people, the place on the voter roll, bringing in voter ID rules that would target people who don't have UpToDate ID, um, all of these sorts of things, which were used traditionally to deny minorities of their democratic place in this constitution. These campaign groups are emphatic. That's this kind of campaigning in which you are trying to encourage people not to take part in democracy is in that tradition.
[MARIA]: While all social media platforms are used to spread political misinformation, Channel 4’s investigation focused on the Trump campaign’s usage of Facebook to target voters. We asked Krishnan if he believed Facebook still poses a threat to our democracy. He wouldn’t say what he believed, but noted that the civil rights groups he spoke to feel that Facebook has not changed enough in the last four years to be considered a safe space for politics.
[KRISHNAN]: The bottom line is Facebook is still a huge platform in which people share content. A lot of which are political messages. And if you saw the political messages that were on Facebook throughout the debates, you can see that these messages are being used and weaponized in the election by both sides. And so it's down to whether those messages are accurate and fair and in the spirit of democracy.
[NIKKI]: It’s unclear if Trump’s re-election campaign is using Facebook in the same way as in 2016. Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm that helped the Trump campaign in 2016 collapsed in 2018 after reports emerged of its use of Facebook data to analyze voters. But Cambridge Analytica or not, Trump has shown he won’t stop spreading misinformation if it means benefiting his campaign.
[MARIA]: During the first presidential debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the president repeatedly shared false information about voters and the voting process. He also not-so-subtly called on his supporters to go to polling locations to “watch very carefully” for voter fraud.
[00:47-01:09]: I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know today, there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They were called poll watchers. They’re very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? ‘Cause bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.
[NIKKI]: Sounds to me, like he just wants his supporters to intimidate voters at the polls.
[MARIA]: Exactly! Not only that, but Trump is just downright lying here. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Trump campaign has no poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia right now, and there aren’t even polling places open in the city.
[NIKKI]: It would be one thing if we were just dealing with misinformation campaigns and voter intimidation by Republicans, but there are several voter suppression tactics at play this election season that are affecting a wide range of voters.
[MARIA]: Absolutely. We also spoke to Umer Rupani, from the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, and Jerry Vattamala and Judy Lei from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Umer, Jerry and Judy broke down how their communities are being affected by voter suppression.
[NIKKI]: Umer, Jerry and Judy noted that one way that Muslim American and Asian Americans arre affected by voter suppression is language access. Most polling locations lack voter information in the myriad of languages spoken by Muslim Americans and Asian Americans. There is also a lack of poll workers that can help voters translate their ballots to make sure they’re completing them correctly.
[UMER]: So I think, um, one of the subtle ways that voter suppression is prevalent in the Muslim community is, um, something that actually does impact a lot of immigrant populations, which is language access.
[JERRY]: One of the biggest barriers there's language assistance. So many Asian Americans need some type of language assistance. Now, again, these are American citizens that are eligible to vote, but English is not their native language. Um, and in those situations, some jurisdictions around the country are required to provide Asian language assistance. Um, and you know, most of the other jurisdictions are not for the ones that are required to provide language assistance. Many times they do not, or the translations are incorrect, um, or they just, they don't have interpreters or any type of, uh, effective language assistance.
[MARIA]: Jerry noted that poll workers often don't understand that Asian American voters who need assistance or translations can bring someone with them, such as their children or grandchildren. This lack of knowledge usually means that poll workers will deny Asian Americans this assistance.
[NIKKI]: That’s why voting rights groups emphasize the need for language access at the polls. Umer explained that when there’s more language access at the polls, it minimizes the chance that voters’ ballots will be rejected. He mentioned that a lack of language access sometimes means voters with limited English proficiency are given provisional ballots, which are ballots given to voters whose eligibility to vote cannot be proven at the polls on Election Day. Election officials are then given full discretion as to whether these ballots are counted.
[UMER]: We feel like the more language access there is for our populations, the better engagement we would be able to see along with that, um, something that you see not only in our community, but across all communities is, uh, people being handed provisional ballots when they should not have been receiving them. And a provisional ballot is given to people if their registration can be located, if they are at the wrong voting place, um, or some other, um, superficial reasons and a provisional ballot essentially is saying that your vote doesn't count until we need it to count. And most people from within our community who aren't as engaged as other communities, don't understand the nuances of these voting practices. And so don't understand that their vote has just been suppressed by being handed a provisional ballot by a government worker. Um, and so they see that as, Oh, this is just something that I'm supposed to do, and don't know how to question it now, let alone the fact that they are supposed to.
[MARIA]: Language issues not only affect voters when they’re trying to understand their ballots, but can also cause issues when poll workers are trying to confirm the identity of each voter. Jerry explained that naming conventions among Asian Americans can confuse poll workers who may not know about these naming conventions.
[JERRY]: Then there's the issue of Asian American voters, their names, uh, uh, not appearing in the voter roll. And there's a few reasons for this one. You have Asian American voters, especially East Asian voters. They're naming conventions. There's three names, many times that, uh, naming convention, it, uh, causes problems when it's inputted into the voter roll. The last name will appear as the first name, the first name as the last. So it's inverted. Uh, so they have a problem there, uh, Asian American voters that have Anglo nicknames, the Anglo nickname may be on the driver's license, but not on their voter roll. Uh, so that causes a problem. And then there's just the issue of having a space where they shouldn't be a space, a hyphen where they shouldn't be, or one or two letters that are incorrectly entered all of these things cause problems for Asian American voters.
[NIKKI]: The identity confirmation problems faced by Asian American voters seems to be a part of a larger issue regarding their acceptance as American citizens.
[JERRY]: Asian Americans face a lot of discrimination of being perceived as foreigners and many times are asked to prove their citizenship, not just ID, but prove their citizenship at the poll site.
[MARIA]: Like Native Americans, Asian Americans faced a long struggle to gain citizenship in the United States. It wasn’t until 1943 that Chinese Americans were allowed to become naturalized citizens. Indian Americans were forced to wait until 1946 for that right and other Asian Americans didn’t get citizenship until 1952. Nikki asked Jerry how that delay affects Asian American voters today.
[NIKKI]: Do you both think that this legacy of a delayed citizenship for Asian Americans has influenced the political participation of Asian American voters today?
[JERRY]: I think it's, it's, it definitely has factored in to, um, the participation of Asian Americans. Um, you know, they weren't allowed into this country first and then we're not allowed to naturalize and have been excluded from the process. So that's had, I think cascading a sort of ripple effect in the entire community.
[NIKKI]: Those ripple effects include a lack of voter knowledge. Judy explained one subtle way some Asian Americans experience voter suppression due to a lack of election knowledge.
[JUDY]: Another problem is that voters would often get redirected to the wrong poll site. And it's because some folks, they register where they work and they can't do that. And there's not enough voter education for voters to even know the voting process.
[NIKKI]: Asian American and Muslim American groups are actively working to educate their communities so they can use their voices come election season. Umer stressed that voters in these communities should know that the work to use their voices doesn’t end when they register to vote or even cast their ballot.
[UMER]: What we're seeing right now is that, um, a lot of Muslims, um, a majority of a vast majority of Muslims here in Georgia, or more motivated to vote in this election than in any previous election, um, however motivation doesn't translate to activation. And that's what we really need to be focusing on. If you're already registered to vote, um, that, that meet, that doesn't mean that your job is done, then your job is to make sure that other people are registered to vote and make sure that you request your absentee ballot, or you go and vote. Um, if I have already, um, submitted my absentee again, my job isn't done, I need to make sure that every single member within my family and all my friends has also requested their absentee ballot, uh, or it has made a plan to be able to vote.
[MARIA]: Jerry and Judy, as well as Umer, explained just how other voters can make sure that Asian and Muslim Americans don’t face voter suppression at the polls. All three encouraged voters to speak up when they see voter suppression at play when they cast their ballots.
[UMER]: Now, what everybody else can really do is if you see somebody, um, you know, being handed a provisional ballot, or if you see somebody being told to get out of the line or being told that they can't vote today, if, if the purpose of a community is so that we all step up for one another and be there when any one of us is being treated unfairly, that's what a community is supposed to be. Um, and so if members from outside of the Muslim community are seeing this happen to specific, uh, specific people, um, then they should step up and say, Hey, I'm here as an advocate for you. If you can't advocate for yourself and nobody else is advocating for you, and I will help you make sure that your vote is counted and, you know, standing in line with you fight back against the poll workers to, you know, make sure that all of the proper information is being given.
[JERRY]: If there is a language barrier, you know, have some understanding and compassion to the voter and, uh, stand up for the voter. You know, if you see a poll worker being rude to somebody, because English is not their first language, Hey, you know, you can support them and speak up for them, you know, and, and support them, um, when they're in line or when they're having a problem with a poll worker.
[NIKKI]: Our three guests also wanted to encourage listeners to volunteer as poll workers. Umer told us that when voters see volunteers that represent their communities, they feel more comfortable voting.
[MARIA]: There are other ways to volunteer as well. Jerry and Judy spoke to us about the exit surveys their organization conducts after every major election. AALDEF is hoping to recruit volunteers to conduct their exit surveys and be part of its poll monitoring program to catch voter suppression issues in real time.
[JERRY]: It's really a great program. You get to be outside and be interacting with, with voters and protecting voters in real time. And that's one of the great things about the program. If there is a problem on election day, we usually are able to remedy that problem for the voter in real time, because usually if you don't, um, you know, if your right to vote is obstructed on election day and you're not able to vote, but let's go on forever, you know, we're not going to redo the election. So it's, it's, it's important to be there in real time to protect voters.
[NIKKI]: Also important to help curb these voter suppression tactics? Filling out the Census. The official population count is conducted every 10 years and its results shape the way congressional districting maps are drawn. This means that undercounts of minority groups affect the way they are represented in Congress. It could also lead to vote dilution.
[MARIA]: Jerry explained that communities of color face undercounting or they get split up into various districts during the redistricting process. When the communities are divided in this way, their voting power decreases.
[JERRY]: What happens in those situations is that no matter what the community does, they naturalized, they registered to vote. They get out the vote groups like ALDEF protect the vote on election day. Even if you do all those things, if your community is divided to numerous different districts, well that community can never, never elect a candidate of its choice. And once a community knows that, well, then that really depresses the turnout. When, you know, you have no chance of electing a candidate of the community's choice. The flip side is true also though, if you do keep that community whole, and it's not divided into numerous different districts, well, then the community can realize, well, if we all get out and vote, we can allocate somebody from the community and that drives the turnout up. And that's what we're looking for. We want fairness in the redistricting process.
[NIKKI]: Along with speaking up for Asian American and Muslim American voters and completing your census, Umer, Jerry and Judy stressed the importance of compassion for these voters.
[UMER]: You have such a diverse community within the Muslim population that it's very hard to generalize it in any type of way. What we do see is that, you know, um, that the, that the Muslim community is one of the communities that steps up for, um, for black Americans and other minority communities, more than other, uh, more, more than other faith groups.
[JUDY]: Just being kind and patient with whatever voter you encounter during election day. I think that goes a long way. Um, in terms of having poll workers, being nice, kind to everyone who comes through the poll, because everyone is trying to exercise their democracy. And like Jerry mentioned, if you mess it up once no matter the color of your skin, if you had a bad experience, you probably never want to vote again.
[MARIA]: Thank you for joining us for this episode of America the Voiceless. Join us next week as we take a look at the lack of voting rights for U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories.
[MARIA]: A special thank you to our podcast producer Willis Polk, audio engineer Phil Williams and the rest of The North Star staff.
[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, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.