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November’s upcoming election has already become one of the most contested elections in US history, with the president questioning the validity of mail-in ballots, “unofficial” ballot drop off boxes popping up in California, and the threat of armed militias patrolling the polls. But, voter suppression and its target’s aren’t new phenomena. People of color and the poor have always been dissuaded from voting. We take a look at how race and voter suppression might play a role in the 2020 election, and we talk to organizers from the South who are fighting it, and ensuring that everyone has the right to vote not just in this election, but in every single election.
Image Credit: Library of Congress photo by Marion S. Trikosko
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Featuring: Credits: Host: Salima Hamirani Making Contact Staff:
Host: Salima Hamirani
Making Contact Staff:
- Jahzzar – Railroad’s Whiskey Co – Home (Excerpt) – 2012
- Blue Dot Sessions -Li Fonte– Architect – 2019
- Blue Dot Sessions – Derailed – The Depot – 2016
- Blue Dot Sessions – Kirkus – Architect – 2019
- Broke For Free -Wash Out -Petal – 2014
SALIMA HAMIRANI – I’m Salima Hamirani, and on today’s Making Contact.
ECATERINA BURTON – Wait that one doesn’t look right; did she say yes to this one? I don’t think she chose the right one….
SALIMA – I’m in Oakland, California sitting with Ecaterina Burton in her living room as she fills out her ballot for the 2020 election this November. It’s after work for her, but she seems energized.
ECATERINA BURTON – Oh I’m really excited to let 17-year-olds vote, as well as people on parole get to vote because they’ve already don’t their time.
SALIMA – Ecaterina has been active in most elections, but this particular election is very different for her.
ECATERINA BURTON – This is actually my first time doing “vote by mail.”
SALIMA – You’ve never done it before?
ECATERINA BURTON – No, nope. I’ve always liked to go in person just cause it’s that really immediate gratification.
SALIMA – This election also stands out for another reason.
ECATERINA BURTON – I feel this election is an election that will definitely put our country’s trajectory either towards a road where we can repair a lot of the harm we’ve done to ourselves, our community and our planet, or it’s going to be very, very difficult
SALIMA Are you nervous about this election?
ECATERINA BURTON – Oh, (bleep), yeah. Yes, I am very nervous about this. I’m so nervous about this election.
SALIMA – And here’s what she tells me when I ask her what’s she’s specifically worried about.
ECATERINA BURTON – I think voter suppression is one of the biggest threats right now to the whole election process. It may not necessarily be happening here in California, but it’s certainly happening in other parts of the country.
SALIMA – In fact, voter suppression is happening even in California.
Just this month in October the California republican party admitted to setting up unofficial ballot drop off boxes in four separate counties, and they refused to comply with a cease and desist order issued by the state. It’s yet another hurdle to voters, in an election already plagued by covid, white supremacist violence, and the possibility of Trump refusing to leave office even if he’s voted out.
REPORTER – Will you commit to a peaceful transference of power after the election
TRUMP – There won’t be a transfer frankly, there’ll be a continuation
SALIMA – we understand that this is an election unlike any other in our history. So today we want to talk honestly about what kinds of voter suppression we’ve already seen or are expecting to see during the election. But we also want to talk about solutions, and about how we can ensure everyone’s voice – and ballot – counts.
ECATERINA BURTON – I’m just double checking that I have filled out all the propositions. And all the sides of the ballots. Awesome ok.
LATOSHA BROWN – You know, it’s interesting, I think that in recent years, we’ve made elections to be about, too much about candidates and political parties, really what this election, about this election is really about democracy. This election is literally around – Will American democracy thrive and live or will it be destroyed and unraveled?
SALIMA -That’s LaTosha Brown.
LATOSHA BROWN – I am co-founder of Black Lives Matter Fund and Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute. We are a power building organization that’s based in the South with the explicit purpose to help build capacity of black led grassroot groups that are doing power building work.
SALIMA – In order to really understand voter suppression we decided to talk to organizers like LaTosha in the south who fight it, almost every single day.
LATOSHA BROWN -Voter suppression is a spectrum. It’s not just what happens on Election Day.
SALIMA – LaTosha calls voter suppression “a death by a thousand cuts.”
LATOSHA BROWN – Well, you shave off a couple of thousand voters here, shave off a couple of thousand voters there, and then what you have is cumulatively you have mass voter suppression.
LATOSHA BROWN – A couple of examples have been just even being able to access your right to vote. What we do know is that in the state of Georgia, ACLU just had a report that come out that shows that in the 2018 election were over two hundred thousand Georgia voters that were unrighteously taken from the voting rolls, that they literally should have never been taken from the voter rolls, that, in fact, that they were qualified to vote.
A report that the Brennan Center came out with is between 2016 and 2018, just two years, there were over 17 million voters that were dropped from the voting rolls.
SALIMA – We also want to mention something called “an exact match.” The exact match criteria is really important in this election, because so many people are voting by mail to avoid covid exposure. Here’s Ecaterina Burton again.
SALIMA – So did they ask you for ID or anything when you do this, so they just – how does this work? How does the ID part work?
ECATERINA BURTON – They based it off your signature. if your signature. There’s like a certain amount that the signature has to match what’s the signature on your driver’s license. And if it doesn’t match, they’re actually required to notify you. How’s it look? Pretty close to my signature?
LATOSHA BROWN – I mean, I’ve signed my name three different ways. Sometimes I use my initials, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I get fancy with my T’s, sometimes I don’t. And so the bottom line is 80% of those that were dropped from the voting rolls because of exact match were people of color. I mean, that’s enormous. When you think about the number of voters, that’s enormous.
SALIMA – And LaTosha’s point brings us to the heart of the matter – voter suppression first and foremost targets people of color and the poor. And there’s just so many ways people of color struggle to have their vote counted.
LATOSHA BROWN – Like in Louisville, Kentucky, where in Jefferson County, 50% of the African-American population for the entire state live in that one county, and that county that normally had three hundred and seven polling sites, they reduce their polling sites to one. That’s right. One polling site for six hundred twelve thousand people
NSE UFOT – And I don’t know why that shocks anyone
SALIMA – That’s Nse Ufot, the CEO of the new Georgia project, and another organizer from the south who’s been helping to educate and register particularly black voters, voters of color and young voters.
NSE UFOT- The defenders of the status quo, the incumbents, particularly in a place like Georgia, but also in the White House, are intentionally muddying the waters, putting out misinformation and disinformation that’s designed to confuse people. But also like direct attacks on our electoral system. And quite frankly, it’s not being covered as what it is. So it’s not being covered as an attack on democracy. It’s not being covered as an attack on black people.
SALIMA – So, we wanted to give you just a few examples of the kinds of voter suppression we expect to see . We also wanted to know why voter suppression is always such a problem in elections. After all, we’re supposed to have a democracy, which by definition, only works when the public is able to voice their opinions. So why would we prevent massive portions of the public from voting? Here’s Nse –
NSE UFOT – First of all, thank you for that question. I don’t think that I get asked that question enough. I would argue that America and leaders in power who sort of have benefited from white supremacy have a hard time acknowledging, accepting and acting as if black Americans are full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities that are attendant to citizenship.
And so thinking about how powerful of a tool the vote is, if your sort of underlying ideology involves dehumanizing people and not acknowledging not only their full humanity, but their full citizenship and they’re equal, and that their voice matters and that their opinions about how we spend our collective tax dollars and how we spend our collective resources, like free and fair elections where everyone participates, are direct threats to those.
NSE UFOT – And what is often said, and I’m going to say the quiet part out loud, is that those people that they don’t want to vote are often new Americans, young people who’ve recently turned 18. Black folks, Latinos, queer people, and again, people who threaten the status quo.
SALIMA – LaTosha agrees, she says that the demographics in this country are shifting, and that means that people of color are a challenge to the very concept of what a democracy really means.
LATOSHA BROWN – You know, democracy works when you think that the numbers are on your side. You know, as America becomes browner and more diverse, what we have seen as we’ve seen an active move away from what we know as democracy in this country, you know, and so I think because of that, you’ve seen a resurgence in voter suppression as a strategy and a tactic for those who know that the numbers are not on their side.
That those that know that there are more Americans who are in alignment around developing and building a country that is inclusive and fair and just and rooted in love than those that want to dismantle democracy and literally create a culture of fear and hate.
SALIMA – That fear is a huge issue in this election, and it’s has been difficult for the country to reckon with, even though none of it is new.
LATOSHA BROWN – Part of what we do know is that right after reconstruction in the Deep South, when you had massive numbers of black voters who were registering, who were voting, there used to be white mobs, terror mobs that would literally ride around in communities. That terror has always been also another vehicle that has been used in our community to really be able to marginalize and create a culture of fear.
SALIMA – It’s hard to imagine that we’re living in an era when the specter of armed white militia patrolling the polls, could be a possibility. To LaTosha, all of these tactics are the same and they have the same outcome.
LATOSHA BROWN – You know what we’re seeing in these attacks currently on the post office? That’s not without consequences, that if you start getting people to not believe in the process, not to trust the postal service. It is to create so much confusion, so much chaos, so much divisiveness that you have people constantly on the defense.
SALIMA – We’re going to come back to hear more from LaTosha and Nse, but since LaTosha mentioned it, we actually want to take a more in depth look at what’s happening to the postal service. Because that’s a very specific unique kind of voter suppression that’s happening in this election, which we’ve never seen before. And it could have major repercussions for the outcome of the election. Here’s Trump talking about the post office.
TRUMP – But now the Democrats, they want three point five billion dollars think of it. Of course, we would never approve an amount like that. And they also want twenty five billion dollars additional for the post office, Steve. Twenty five billion for the post office or the post office can handle this vast amount of ballots that are being sent at random all over the place. They have no IDea where they’re going. And the bill’s not going to happen because they don’t even want to talk about it, because we can’t give them the kind of rIDiculous things that they want that have nothing to do with the China virus, (sic) it has nothing at all to do with China virus (sic) much of what they’re asking for. So therefore, they don’t have the money to do the universal mail in voting. So therefore, they can’t do it. I guess. Right. Are they going to do it even though they don’t have the money? They’re asking for the three point five billion they don’t have it… This will be one of the greatest frauds in history.
SALIMA – Here’s Shirley Taylor, the national business agent for the American postal workers union. We sat down at the union headquarters in Oakland, back in early September, to discuss what’s going on.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR- One of the reasons that we are in the red is because around 2006, Congress gave us some money. I think it was during the time when gasoline went very high. And so the Postal Service made (took out) a loan, but as a condition of that loan, they required us to pay our health benefits for people that are not born yet.
Seventy five years in the future. And so every fiscal year, we’re already in the hole. What is now happening is that our volume has went down because of covid. And so the Board of Governors are the ones that hired DeJoy who has never had any postal experience at all. He fired or relocated the twenty three top people in the Postal Service who knew how to do the mail. He said no overtime. He determined when the carriers were supposed to come back in.
SALIMA – This is unusual for the postal service, because the carriers used to work until all the mail was delivered.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR- and they’re out there delivering late at night. Couple years ago, they were living at midnight in Berkeley.
SALIMA – Postmaster Louis DeJoy also ordered “high volume mail sorting machines” dismantled, which he said he had done in order to save money. In fact, even some of the US postal service employees were unaware the machines were being taken apart. The machines help make delivery easier.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR – They actually run the mail. We used to, when I was on the work room floor, we had to memorize where the mail went. And it was called schemes. We had to do schemes because you picked up the letter and you had to know in your mind that this went to carrier 23.OK. The new machines that they have now are just….Awesome. They run thousands of pieces of mail per hour.
SALIMA – These high volume mail sorting machines are critical for the election.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR -Yes, that is where the ballots go through. And of course, they say, well, the machines are not needed. Well, you don’t take machines down apart right before an election.
SALIMA – And by the way we should mentioned that we did try to reach to Postmaster DeJoy but we didn’t hear back. Officially the US Postal Service won’t let its workers talk to press about the election because they want to remain fair and impartial. But off the record, I spoke to my local mailmen and mailwomen and they all seemed extremely frustrated with the situation.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR- It’s very, very depressing because it’s in our DNA to deliver the mail and get the mail out. I did it when I was on the work room floor. You push, you push, you push and you get the mail out. And we enjoy our job. We like working for the American public. It’s, it’s their postal service. It’s in the Constitution.
SALIMA – Postal workers are generally proud of the services that they offer.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR- We go to the inner cities; we go to the mountains. We go to, you know, to be one person on a block where we’re going to deliver your mail. We would deliver the mail after the fires. We deliver the mail after floods, tornadoes.
SALIMA – And given that history, of delivering to anybody, anywhere, Shirley does believe that you can trust the postal service to deliver your ballot.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR -If you get your ballots in early, I believe that we can get all of the ballots to the places where they’re supposed to be on time. But I have to say this, if they get out of our way, we can deliver that mail. I mean, if DeJoy gets out of our way, we can do the work.
SALIMA -That was Shirley Taylor from the US postal service, and we’re talking voter suppression during the 2020 election and how to fight it. you’re listening to Making Contact. We have more shows on voting on our website and we’re covering the night of the election, and anything that happens afterwards, along with our usual movement-focused investigative work. To keep up to date, visit www.radioproject.org.
Now back to the show.
SALIMA – Welcome back to Making Contact; in the first half of the show we talked about the many forms of voter suppression we’re likely to encounter during this November’s election. So what do we do? Here’s house speaker Nancy Pelosi, responding to trump’s comments about the postal service.
NANCY PELOSI – Ignore them. Make a plan to vote. Do so early so that we will have an outcome that is clear, don’t pay any attention to what the president is saying because it is all designed to suppress the vote. It’s just suppress the vote tactic, as is suppressing of the ability of the postal system to deliver on its responsibility.
SALIMA – And she’s right in some ways. A lot of what’s happening is meant to scare people away from the polls. But just ignoring voter suppression isn’t enough. And just listing all the ways we’re being dissuaded from voting, also isn’t that helpful.
NSE UFOT – We were told not to talk about voter suppression in this particular way because it tends to have a demotivating effect or a demotivating impact. Like if you talk all the time about how your vote will be stolen and the ways in which they steal votes. There’s some research that supports the idea that it can be discouraging.
SALIMA – That was Nse Ofah again, CEO of the new Georgia Project. And we stand guilty as charged. Because the truth is, there are countless organizations all over the country, working nonstop to ensure people’s access to the ballot, and fighting voter suppression however it emerges. And it is having an effect. Here’s Shirley again, from the American Postal Workers Union.
SHIRLEY TAYLOR- It just makes no sense. What the president is doing, it makes no sense what the Postmaster General is doing. But we need the public behind us to make the Congress do something. You just have to let your Congress people know that you’re not going to stand for it because that’s the reason they stopped dismantling the machines – because of the public. It’s the public that has to put pressure on their Congress people and the Congress people will then put pressure on the Postal Service, in particular, DeJoy. We need this 25 billion to cover our costs.
SALIMA – And Shirley’s right, in the end it was the public’s response that forced DeJoy to reverse course.
His changes to the postal service have been suspended, at least until after the election. And Nse, says, when it comes to voting, the situation is similar. People make a difference. And instead of just focusing on everything that’s wrong, you have to give people hope.
NSE UFOT – We talk about solutions. We talk about how we’ve won in the past and how we can continue to win. We give people the game, right. The jig is up, yes, they’re trying to steal the elections. Yes, they’re trying to rig it. And here’s what you can do to stop it.
SALIMA – So, here’s all the ways Nse’s organization, The New Georgia project, which is just one organization is fighting voter suppression.
NSE UFOT – We lean into it, we do tons of education, we have a bold, sort of robust, aggressive research agenda. So we’re constantly trying to refine our message, trying to understand what it is that people of color, what it is that young people, women and femmes, queer folks in Georgia. What are their priorities? What are their hopes? What are their fears for themselves? For their families? For their communities?
SALIMA – Some of their work is of course focused on voter registration, but they’re not just registering voters. The new Georgia project is also trying to understand what the mainstream political platforms are missing that would help draw voters of colors to the polls
NSE UFOT – We’ve registered almost thirty thousand Georgians of color who’ve identified climate change as one of the top two things that bring them to the polls that they’re concerned about. And we have the black and green agenda, which is designed to hold the intersections of our racial justice organizing and our climate justice organizing.
SALIMA – And on top of outreach and education, a lot of organizations have discovered that they need to litigate.
NSE UFOT – Listen, we had to sue in the state of Georgia in an era of covid, where we’ve seen a dramatic increase in people adopting absentee balloting, absentee voting vote by mail as an option. So when we go to the secretary of state and say, because so many Georgians are going to be voting by mail this year, we should extend the standard “to postmarked by.” So if your ballot is postmarked by Election Day, then your vote should count. So we had to sue and we won. A federal court judge agreed with us and now they’re appealing.
SALIMA – This work is long term work that organizations throughout the south have been doing, not just in support of this single election, but in support of every election.
NSE UFOT – So ultimately, our goal is to build super voters. Right. And we define super voters as voters who vote in every election at which they’re eligible. And so what that means is leveraging our technology culture, because we really want to change the culture of voting. There are lots of people who think that because they vote every four years in a presidential election, that they’re super voters. And in a place like Georgia, there are elections every year. We think about special elections, municipal elections, school levies, etc.
SALIMA – Individually these organizations are able to register tens of thousands of voters, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions who are routinely purged from the voting rolls, or turned away the day of the election. But together they are making a difference and that’s because oftentimes, elections are a lot closer than they appear. Especially in local elections.
SYLVESTER JOHNSON III – These elections were very, very close, for example, in Florida. The election was decided by the league or the gubernatorial election was decided by around thirty five thousand votes or so.
SALIMA – That’s Sylvester.
SYLVESTER JOHNSON III – my name is Sylvester Johnson the third, I’m the national volunteer manager at Vote Riders.
SALIMA – His organization is unique in that it doesn’t focus on voter registration; they actually focus on something called “voter ID laws. “
SYLVESTER JOHNSON III -there’s 35 states that have them. And we break them down into strict or just voter ID states. But what that is, is those states have some rule in place where if you’re a citizen voting in that state, you have to show some form of ID when you go to the polls.
I’m from Georgia. And so Georgia is deemed a strict voter ID state. So once you go to the polls in Georgia, you have to show some form of photo ID and the forms of acceptable ID vary state by state. So some states may accept student ID, they may accept out-of-state ID They may even accept expired ID
SYLVESTER JOHNSON III – The reason why we focus on that is because there’s a lot of organizations that focus on the voter registration part. But we want to make sure that we are seeing folks through the finish line because it goes hand in hand, especially if you live in one of these 35 states. Because the worst thing is you don’t want somebody say, hey, I’m registered. I got it in before the deadline. But then they go to the polls on Election Day and they don’t have the acceptable ID they need.
SALIMA – And once again, the people most affected by voter ID laws are the poor, the disabled and people of color.
SYLVESTER JOHNSON III – When we talk about the African-American community, for example, one in four. Yes, one in four. Twenty five percent of voting age African-Americans do not have a government issued photo ID That’s a really, really high number. And we also see high numbers like that when we start talking about other communities, when we are talking about younger voters, so that 18 to 24 year old range of college students, that number hovers in between 18 and 20 percent of folks that do not have that government issued ID or acceptable forms of voter ID
When you talk about women, they’re disproportionately impacted because if they ever change your name due to marriage or divorce, if their supporting documents or their registration doesn’t match what’s on their ID now, they can just throw a hurdle or throw a wrench in the process. And then lastly, I’ll take a note talking about folks with disability just because in every state, the most common form of ID is that state’s driver’s license or state ID So if you are if you do have a disability, you may have never needed or had a driver’s license, so.
SALIMA – His organization educates people about the voter ID laws in their state, and they even provide financial assistance for poor people struggling to access the paperwork they need to get an official ID.
Taken together, all of these efforts, often led by small people of color led organizations are ensuring that more and more people have access to ballot every year. And as the demographics of the country shift, that immense growing voting power will come with some pushback. Which is something we’ve seen in this election.
NSE UFOT – There certainly will be pushback in that democracy is. I mean, we’re thinking about it as a marketplace of ideas. What are you selling? And are the people buying what you’re selling? And I am all for it. You know, I see the Constitution as a living, breathing document. And I see democracy as an important experiment in self-government. I welcome an opportunity to zealously argue about the future of our community and the kind of country, the kind of schools that I want our children to be educated in.
SALIMA – LaTosha Brown also argues that voting is the best tool we have at the moment, even if we don’t agree with the electoral process itself.
LaTosha Brown – If I want to build a new house, I still have to maintain the house I’m in while I’m building my new house. And so I think we have to approach politics in this country, and democracy in this country, in the same way. The truth of the matter is a system that we’ve inherited is the system that we have right now. But while we’re doing that, while we are literally making the best we can at this house, we also have to build a new house. And so I often ask people this question. What is your radical reimagining of America and all of her systems? There were folks who were so critical and continue to remain critical of “defund the police” and even say all that’s so out there, that will never happen. Well it did! Well, it did! My point is we also have to do that in every sector of this country.
ECATERINA BURTON – Just reading to see if there’s any indication to when they’ll uh….
SALIMA – At the end of the night, I drive with Ecaterina Burton as she drops of her ballot, in a surprisingly busy late night intersection of downtown Oakland.
ECATERINA BURTON – I honestly feel really happy to not no longer have to be thinking about voting now, and I can just start thinking about getting other people to vote.
SALIMA – The ease with which she votes today seems like it could become the norm across the country if organizations like Black Voters Matter, Vote Riders, and the New Georgia Project, continue to fight for equal access to the ballot.
SALIMA – You were just listening to Ecaterina Burton, LaTosha Brown, Shirley Taylor, and Sylvester Johnson talking about voter suppression in the 2020 election and how to fight it. And that does it for today’s show.
The Making Contact Team includes:
Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Lisa Rudman, Sonya Green. and I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!