‘Republicans Just Don’t Want All the Votes to Count’ Janine Jackson Interviews Ari Berman

Janine Jackson interviewed Ari Berman about 2018 voter suppression for the November 16, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

By Janine Jackson  FAIR  November 28, 2018

Give Us the Ballot

     (Picador, 2016)

Janine Jackson: You can read analysis all day long about the effect of the 2018 midterm elections on Republicans, on Democrats, on Congress and on Donald Trump, but in an election that saw broken voting machines, overheated machines, missing machines, confusionover absentee ballots, over provisional ballots, long lines—someone needs to be looking out for what the midterms meant and mean for people.

We are joined now by Ari Berman. He’s a senior reporter at Mother Jones and author of, most recently, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, out now in paperback. Ari Berman, welcome back to CounterSpin.

Ari Berman: Hey, Janine, thanks for having me back.

JJ: So we’re recording this on November 15. Not even everything from the midterms is absolutely settled. There are lots of things we could talk about, but let’s start, I guess, with Florida and Georgia, places where the races have been very, very tight, and have gone to recount. From the perspective of somebody who’s focused on voting, and on every vote counting, are there particular lessons or questions or concerns coming out of those two states for you right now?

AB: Well, I think there’s a lot of questions and concerns about both states. And the issues are a little bit different in the two places, but there’s a lot of similarity, too.

I mean, in Georgia, you had a secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who was also running for governor—essentially overseeing his election—who put in place a number of restrictive policies, from aggressively purging the voter rolls to putting thousands of people on pending registration lists, to counties aggressively rejecting absentee ballots, to closing polling places, to very, very long lines, four-hour lines in Atlanta—all of which created a lot of confusion, and a lot of people not being able to vote, or counting disputed ballots, and now that’s a very, very close election that may or may not go to a runoff.

But you’re looking at, you know, Kemp is up by about 55,000 votes. He’s about 17,000 votes away from going to a runoff, and you’re wondering if there are thousands of people who are disenfranchised or potentially disenfranchised. That seems to have had at least some impact on the election.

In Florida, what happened is basically the governor’s race and senate race were very close, and Republicans started making totally outlandish claims about voter fraud—even though there was no evidence of fraud—because they didn’t want to count every vote, and now we’re learning there was a lot of problems with the election there, too. There were over 20,000 absentee ballots that were rejected.

And so it looks like—in Georgia, the question is, “Is the count in the first place an accurate count, because of people disenfranchised?”  In Florida, it’s a question of, “Are we even going to count all the votes, because Republicans keep trying to stop the count before we even get to a recount.” And so I think in both states, there are just a lot of questions about the fairness and validity of the elections.

JJ: And in terms of coverage, and I’ll just stick with Florida for a second, the idea of, “Well, Republicans are saying there might be fraud, and charges and counter-charges,” and then I’m reading a kind of story that basically says, “Well, yeah, here’s why it would be the GOP strategy to do this. They are basically trying to work the recount. They see it as another campaign.”

All of it seems to kind of devolve voting down to very small-p politics. And I’m just wondering, because you might come away with is, “A pox on both their houses.” And that’s not really an appropriate takeaway, is it?

AB: No, it isn’t. I mean, this has been a strategy entirely driven by Republicans. In Georgia, they drove a strategy to make it harder for people to vote, particularly for people that might have supported Stacey Abrams and her bid to become the first black woman governor. Pretty much every restrictive voting law that Brian Kemp put in place disproportionately affected African-American, Latino, Asian-American voters, who are far more likely to support Stacey Abrams.

And in Florida, what they’ve done, is they’ve just had a strategy all along to raise doubts about the count, so that there is no recount. Essentially, they have said that they don’t want every vote to count.

And so the strategy is a little bit different in both states, because right now, Brian Kemp is a little bit further removed from the process, so that he has finally resigned as secretary of state; whereas Rick Scott is both governor of Florida and a Senate candidate, so he remains very enmeshed in these two things.

But I think overall in both places, there’s a thought that really, the Republicans there just don’t want all the votes to count. That Republicans in Georgia don’t want disputed absentee ballots, disputed provisional ballots, to count. And same thing in Florida; they don’t want disputed absentee ballots to count. They don’t want this to go to a recount.

But you can’t just view this as a technical political dispute. You have to view this in the context of, the Republican Party has committed to making it harder to vote, and  they’ve put in place very restrictive policies in places like Georgia and Florida that it’s made it harder to do so.

JJ: I was just going to say, this isn’t coming out of nowhere. We have talked in the past about suppressive measures that tend to restrict people’s ability to vote: exact match signatures, and things like that. But it’s part of a history, and that history has always been lopsided, in terms of who is trying to cut people out.

AB: It is. There is a very long history in this country. You can go back a long way, and look at voter disenfranchisement. But just more recently, if you look, 24 states had new voting restrictions in effect for the 2018 election. That means nearly half the states in the country had one law or another that made it harder to vote.

You also had the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act in 2013,  ruling that states with a long history of discrimination no longer needed to approve their voting changes with the federal government. That allowed Georgia, for example, to put in place a lot of suppressive voting laws that would have otherwise been blocked. And so I think between the restrictions passed by Republicans and then the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, so like states like Georgia felt like they had a free hand to just discriminate against people. And then you had the added dimension of  candidates that had put in place suppressive voting laws overseeing their own elections. It’s just a fundamental conflict of interest that certainly swayed votes towards one candidate in Georgia at the expense of another.

JJ: Another kind of bigger-picture issue: Amendment 4 in Florida about returning the vote to those who’ve served time on felony convictions. Long term, that sounds like something that’s significant.

AB: Yeah, there was some good news amidst all the suppression. A half-dozen states passed ballot initiatives that will make it easier to vote. Florida passed a ballot initiative that could restore voting rights for up to 1.4 million ex-felons, which is a huge number of people. Michigan and Nevada and Maryland passed reforms, like automatic registration and Election Day registration, that will make it easier to register to vote. Three different states, Colorado, Michigan and Missouri, passedindependent redistricting commissions.

So you had, both in purple and red states, voters coming out and supporting initiatives making it easier to vote, which led me to believe that there’s actually a lot of support in this country for making voting more convenient, for expanding voting access. And that, whereas the politicians, the Brian Kemps and the Rick Scotts of the world, want to restrict voting rights, I think among the public—even among many Republicans—there is support for a broad, pro-democracy agenda. That people think if you’ve made a mistake, you should get a second chance to vote. They think that people should have opportunities to register to vote, to make it easy and convenient. They think that you should have more time to vote, in terms of early voting. They don’t think that politicians should be drawing their own districts.

I mean, there’s a lot of support for a pro-democracy agenda. And that gets missed, a lot of times, in all the coverage of the suppression that Republicans are doing, because those are Republican officials, but there is something of a disconnect between the electorate more broadly and what the politicians in charge are doing.

JJ: Absolutely, and if we do have the GOP playing a very long game and a very multi-front game, another front of that, that I know that you’ve talked about, is the census. And I would just pick up on the fact that, as you’re saying, folks are on to them. There is an awareness of the coherence of these various measures that vote suppressors are taking, and there’s a fightback to it. But could you talk a little bit about the relationship that the census plays here? Because it fits right in.

AB: This is a really critical fight right now, because the Trump administration added a question about US citizenship to the census for the first time since 1950. There’s a lot of fear that that will depress response rates from immigrant communities and from non-citizens. If that happens, that means that areas with lots of immigrants and lots of non-citizens, diverse areas like California and New York and Texas, will receive fewer resources. They’ll receive less political representation. They won’t potentially count for redistricting purposes after the 2020 redistricting process.

So the census is kind of the GOP’s long game for rigging democracy, because the census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is spent, it determines how legislative districts are drawn. It determines how many electoral votes states get. And if you start manipulating the census to try to make certain areas, certain communities, have less power, then American democracy itself gets fundamentally skewed.

And so this is really their strategy, post-2020, and I think their strategy for trying to keep power in the face of massive demographic changes. Because if you just don’t count people, if you just say, “These people don’t exist,” even though they are here, you can deny them really significant economic and political resources. And I think that’s really what they’re trying to do with adding this question to the census, which is now being litigated. There was just a trial in New York, and there’s going to be other trials challenging this. So it’s a little under the radar at the moment, given all of the other election stuff, but I think the census is a really critical, long-term fight for our democracy.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, I do feel that there’s been a spotlight on the process of voting. At FAIR we’ve seen, for example, media doing that same thing of saying, “Long lines of people waiting to vote,” but then other people saying “Wait a minute, long lines are not a sign of a healthy democracy, that’s actually a problem.” I do see more focus on the process itself, but what would you like to see journalists following up on? We know that they’re very race-focused, they’re very outcome-focused, but there’s a lot left on the ground here, in terms of democracy itself, that they could be reporting out right now.

Ari Berman (cc photo: Shawn)

Ari Berman: “We have to be very clear here with what’s happening…. Republicans deliberately implemented a strategy to make it harder to vote.” (cc photo: Shawn)

AB: I do. I mean, I think the coverage in 2018 was better than 2016. I think a lot of people just got sidetracked by the Trump reality show in 2016, and didn’t focus on the voter suppression we were seeing in Wisconsin and North Carolina and Texas and other states. I think when you removed Trump from the equation a little bit, then when you had just such blatant suppression efforts in states like Georgia, for example, people began to cover it more closely.

But I do worry about false equivalency. I do worry about media saying, “Well, you know, Democrats are alleging voter suppression and Republicans are alleging voter fraud,” and treating this a “both sides” issue, when in fact we know definitively there was voter suppression in the election, and there was no voter fraud. So I think if this is covered as a “he said, she said” partisan issue, that is very problematic.

I think we have to be very clear here with what’s happening, which is that Republicans deliberately implemented a strategy to make it harder to vote in states like Georgia. That may have allowed them to win the election. And I think it needs to be covered like that.

And then I think, when there’s all of this crazy rhetoric about voter fraud,  you have to clearly say, “This is false, there’s no evidence of this, this is a political strategy.”  You can’t just say, “Trump alleges mass voter fraud” and put that in a tweet, when people aren’t going to read in the fifth paragraph saying this isn’t true.

And so I think the narrative has to be very clearly, “This isn’t true, this is a lie,” and that Republicans are manufacturing this lie to try to build support for even more restrictive voting efforts to help them win in future elections. So I think the media’s getting better at covering this, but I don’t think they’re there yet.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ari Berman. He’s a senior reporter at Mother Jones, and he’s author of, most recently, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, which is out now in paperback. Ari Berman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AB: Thanks so much, Janine, I appreciate it.

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