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“A Fire That Has Spread Across the Country”: Jelani Cobb on Voter Suppression in the 2020 Election

StoryOctober 20, 2020
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As tens of millions of people across the U.S. cast their ballots in early voting ahead of the November 3 election, we look at voter suppression efforts with journalist and academic Jelani Cobb. His new “Frontline” documentary “Whose Vote Counts” examines the long lines, record number of mail-in ballots and the legal fights that have marked voting during the pandemic, with a focus on Wisconsin. “This is a state where the presidency was essentially decided in the last election,” says Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a contributor to The New Yorker. He describes voter suppression as “a fire that has spread across the country.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Today marks two weeks from November 3rd, official Election Day. Amidst the pandemic, more than 30 million people nationwide have already voted through mail-in ballots or early voting — about a fifth of the total number of votes cast in 2016. It’s shattering all records for voting. Early voting begins today in Wisconsin and Utah.

As voters in the United States choose their next president, we spend the rest of the hour with journalist and professor Jelani Cobb. In the new Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts, Cobb collaborates with Columbia Journalism School, Columbia Journalism Investigations and reporters from USA Today Network to examine one of the first elections held during the pandemic: Wisconsin’s April 2020 primary. This is an excerpt of the film, which he narrates.

REPORTER 1: Long lines as folks wait for their polling place.

WISCONSIN VOTER 1: They’ve made it so difficult for people to vote here, just asking too much of people to come out with this virus going on.

JELANI COBB: It was a major election in the middle of a pandemic.

WISCONSIN VOTER 2: There’s been confusion around what actually is allowed.

WISCONSIN VOTER 3: It was difficult to request an absentee ballot.

WISCONSIN VOTER 4: I didn’t even know how to do it.

WISCONSIN VOTER 5: I didn’t know about that option to vote through the absentee voting.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mail ballots, they cheat, OK? People cheat. Mail ballots are fraudulent in many cases.

JELANI COBB: Absentee ballots delayed in the mail.

WISCONSIN VOTER 6: I requested an absentee ballot.

WISCONSIN VOTER 7: But it didn’t come in time.

WISCONSIN VOTER 8: It never came.

WISCONSIN VOTER 9: So I was forced to go and vote.

WISCONSIN VOTER 10: At one of the five polling stations.

JELANI COBB: Voters forced to choose between their health and their civic duty.

REPORTER 2: Those lines are long in Wisconsin, despite the state’s safer-at-home order.

WISCONSIN VOTER 11: It is unethical.

WISCONSIN VOTER 1: It was such a putrid decision.

WISCONSIN VOTER 12: People are going to die because of this.

JELANI COBB: Claims of voter suppression.

REPORTER 3: Any ballots received after April 13th will be rejected.

REPORTER 4: Seven hundred fifty ballots so far have been rejected.

WISCONSIN VOTER 13: I am really frustrated because my vote won’t count.

WISCONSIN VOTER 14: It was the most blatant form of voter suppression.

JELANI COBB: Was this all a view of things to come —

WISCONSIN VOTER 15: I just can’t imagine that somebody would do that in this country.

JELANI COBB: — in the impending presidential election?

I’m a journalist and historian. I’ve been studying American elections for years, but I’ve never seen anything like this moment, the threat of a constitutional crisis over an election where the votes of many Americans, especially people of color, may not count.

First of all, were you able to vote?

WISCONSIN VOTER 1: You know, I was not. But I had a absentee ballot.

JELANI COBB: These people wanted to vote this past April in the battleground state of Wisconsin, a primary that would turn out to be a telling dress rehearsal for the election chaos the rest of the country is now engulfed in.

WISCONSIN VOTER 16: I think we’re seeing elected officials, specifically on the Republican side, that are playing politics with people’s lives.

JELANI COBB: I started focusing on the state because of its pivotal and deeply partisan nature. It’s split down the middle between Republicans and Democrats, and it gave Donald Trump the presidency in 2016 by the exceedingly thin margin of 22,000 votes. It’s a microcosm of America these days.

WISCONSIN VOTER 12: I do believe that there is an attack on our democracy right now.

JELANI COBB: Along with colleagues at the Columbia Journalism School, I began doing remote interviews there when the pandemic was just taking hold.

WISCONSIN VOTER 11: We don’t need to be trying to have an election in the middle of a pandemic.

JELANI COBB: With reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA Today, we examined the voting, especially the absentee ballots, how they were used and counted, and the political and legal fights around them.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts, premiering tonight, Tuesday night, on PBS. In 30 seconds, we’ll be joined by Jelani Cobb, the documentary’s producer [sic]. We’ll be back with him in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “Song of the Count” by the Count. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re joined by Jelani Cobb, the producer [sic] and narrator of the — and reporter of the Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts, that premieres tonight on PBS. He’s a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

Jelani, it’s great to have you back with us. You talk about Wisconsin, which begins early voting today, as a kind of microcosm of America. Why? Why did you focus there? And what are you most concerned about?

JELANI COBB: Well, I mean, there were so many things in Wisconsin. You know, we were looking at all of the potential obstacles. So, we started this project before the coronavirus hit, and we were looking at all the potential dynamics that could impede people’s ability to cast a ballot. And when we were looking around, we saw Wisconsin — just so many of them were happening in Wisconsin. And it was also important for us to look at Wisconsin not only because of what’s happened there in the last decade under Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature and the extreme gerrymandering that’s there, the really strict voter ID law, one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country — you know, all of those things that we thought were significant, but also they were — this is a state where the presidency was essentially decided in the last election. You know, just that sliver of 22,000 votes, and things would turn out a different way. And so, that was all looking around and saying that this was important.

And then, one other additional factor is that it’s a state in the North, where we wanted people to be aware that this is not just the familiar John Lewis story of Selma and Mississippi and Georgia and South Carolina, the places that we know to be the kind of usual suspects as it relates to voter suppression. We’re now looking at a fire that has spread across the country. And we’re dealing with voter suppression concerns in safe states that were in the Union, and Wisconsin, which is where the Republican Party was founded by people who were outraged by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Compromise that might have allowed the spread of — the further spread of slavery. And so you have this bastion of progressivism, this place that is a cornerstone of American progressive politics, and now we’re mired in a situation wondering about whether or not people will have access to the vote.

And one last thing I do want to say before I kind of go to the further conversation is that I’m the correspondent and narrator for the film, but my colleagues June Cross and Tom Jennings were the producers for it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jelani, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned the history of progressivism. Wisconsin is known not only as the birthplace of the Republican Party, but deep into the 20th century was also a hotbed of Republican progressivism —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — of Bob La Follette and also of —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — the very extensive socialist movement. There were even —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — socialist mayors in Milwaukee up until the mid-20th century.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, could you — were you able to get at what has happened to have this dramatic shift now into this sort of leading edge of voter suppression?

JELANI COBB: Sure. And I’ll just say really quick an aside, Juan, it’s really great to talk to you. I use your book in my class. And so, I’m glad to be able to have this conversation with you.

Well, you know, with Wisconsin, there’s a really good book on this, Dan Kaufman’s book, The Fall of Wisconsin, where he traces this. And one of the real key factors here was the involvement of the Bradley Foundation, which is a foundation that was spun off from an industrial magnate, a set of two brothers, who, initially, in the first part of the 20th century, when they began getting into philanthropy, they were doing things that were pretty mundane, you know, supporting local causes and being a boon to community concerns. And then they kind of veered seriously to the right in the 1970s, 1980s, and began funding efforts, especially around anti-labor union activism.

And so, Scott Walker was, by and large, a product of the Bradley Foundation’s largesse. And it was really a kind of idea that they wanted to make Wisconsin — after 2008, in full steam, to make Wisconsin a laboratory for what they wanted to do in the rest of the country. And so, it almost seems too perfect. When we look at the issues that are there, it’s a kind of checklist of the things that we think about with the right wing and the assault on labor unions, the assault on voter protections, the assault on all the aspects of the social safety net. And from my lifetime growing up, we’re not talking about Wisconsin as a purple state or a battleground state, but for most of my life we’ve thought about Wisconsin as a fairly progressive and safely Democratic state. And this has been a product of very much a concerted effort over the past decade — well, the past several decades by private philanthropy there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your documentary focuses a lot on the battle especially over the legal fights over absentee ballots. Now, I know President Trump is constantly talking about that mail ballots are fraudulent. Obviously, there’s not a whole lot of — or, very little to buttress that argument. But there are concerns that, and anyone who has done a mail-in ballot knows that, it’s a lot more complicated to fill it out properly.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it’s a lot easier for ballots to be rejected at the time of the count. I’m wondering if you could talk about the potential for significant numbers of people who do vote to — because they are doing a mail-in ballot, that they don’t fill it out correctly and that it then gets rejected at the count time.

JELANI COBB: Well, so, I think, if anything, the last four years have taught us to fairly reliably look at what Donald Trump accuses other people of, and that’s a pretty good indicator of what it is he’s actually doing. And so, the allegations that mail-in voting is rife with fraud and, you know, people cheat, and they do all these — that doesn’t hold up, you know, including states like Oregon, where they conduct their elections entirely by mail. And not only do they have successful elections with no significant hint of there being ballots that are improperly cast or people cheating, but they consistently have one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country — and sometimes the highest voter turnout rate in the country. And I’ll come back to that and the relevance of that for 2020 in a minute.

But the opposite side of this is that we do see there being a disparity in the number of absentee ballots that are rejected, particularly as they come from communities of color. And that was one of the things that the Columbia Journalism Investigations team found when they delved into the rejected voter rolls in Wisconsin and then traced those down to particular communities. Communities that were heavily Black and Brown were more likely to have their ballots rejected. This shouldn’t be entirely a shock, if we remember back to just 2018, when we saw the battles around exact-match signature ballots in Georgia and what Brian Kemp was attempting to do in terms of using the exact match between the absentee ballot and the signature that they have on file for you, and if there was any disparity between those two things, they would toss the ballot, or if there was any disparity between how your name was spelled, including having a hyphen in your name that may or may not appear on your driver’s license and so on, then your ballot would be tossed. And so, those same sort of dynamics appear to have been the case on April 7th and could potentially — the real kind of foreboding thing is that they could potentially have the same sort of impact or the same sort of dynamic in the ballots that are being cast ahead of November 3rd.

AMY GOODMAN: Jelani, I wanted to turn to a clip of your documentary Whose Vote Counts, where you interview the Democratic National Committee’s top lawyer, Marc Elias, as well as others.

JELANI COBB: The national parties joined the fight. What they would do here would be a harbinger for the coming presidential election. The Democratic National Committee filed one of several lawsuits to make absentee voting easier, seeking to loosen requirements like voter ID and witness signatures, things that historically have been obstacles, especially for people of color.

MARC ELIAS: The DNC filed the initial lawsuit when it became clear that there were going to be serious problems with availability for voting.

JELANI COBB: Marc Elias is the DNC’s top lawyer.

What exactly is at stake? And I mean this on the granular level. There are multiple and dozens of lawsuits. What’s being fought over?

MARC ELIAS: Most of what’s being fought over is the ability for voters to have access to the polls and for their votes to count. A lot of the litigation we’re seeing in 2020 is: Are mail-in ballots going to be rejected for technical reasons, or are we going to enfranchise voters?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the Democratic National Committee’s top lawyer, Marc Elias. You spend some amount of time in this documentary, Jelani, speaking to him. There are hundreds of these challenges all over the country.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his significance and these lawsuits, and whether you see, on Election Day, the whole election being thrown into court, of course, which could ultimately lead to the Supreme Court, which might have a new justice on that Supreme Court named Amy Coney Barrett?

JELANI COBB: Right. And so, I think the comparison you might make is if you are preparing to watch a baseball game, and then the coaches of the respective teams come out and they start arguing over who’s going to bat first, and then they’re arguing about how many innings there are going to be, and then there’s a dispute about how many pitches it will take to strike out and how many balls it will take to walk, and every single aspect of how the game is played is up for dispute. So, really, the winner will wind up being the team that fares best with only two outs instead of three, or fares best in seven innings instead of nine.

And that’s really what we’re seeing now. These lawsuits across the country are fighting about how much early voting there will be, about how long after the election a vote that is cast by mail can come in and still be counted, when they have to be postmarked by. But every kind of particular particularity that you can imagine as it relates to this election is being fought over. And there are — I think the last count, there were 241 lawsuits between the Democrats, Republicans, outside interested parties. And they’re going through dozens of states. And so, when we get to the tallies on November 3rd, and however long after that it takes for us to understand who has actually won, some part of that will reflect what was won and what was lost in these lawsuits that have been kind of working their way through the system for the past several months.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jelani, you mentioned these battles. I recall back in the 2000 election, when they were counting ballots in Florida, that the Republican Party fought very hard to assure that military ballots, absentee ballots that had come in from overseas after the deadline would still be counted, and raised the issue: How can you disenfranchise servicemen overseas? And they successfully got an extension for the military ballots that were coming in late. Now we’re seeing Republican Party doing the opposite, trying to prevent —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — any ballots that come in after the Election Day from being counted. But I wanted to ask you about Hans von Spakovsky, who you deal with, and the role he’s played in shaping the narrative for the Republican Party around absentee ballots and how they’re subject to fraud.

JELANI COBB: Sure. Just as a quick point about your first point relating to people fighting to have absentee ballots from military, military people serving in the Armed Forces, still be counted, you know, the entire Republican Party is not a monolith on this, you know, so what Donald Trump says and what other people in the party will tell you, if you kind of talk to them, are not necessarily the same thing, because a lot of older people prefer to cast their ballots by mail, and a disproportionate share of the Republican electorate is older. And so, when you start hearing the tirades about don’t trust mail-in votes, the absentee votes are all riddled with fraud and cheating and so on, there’s a quiet panic among a number of people who are Republicans, who are saying, “Listen, we could really, like, mess around and disenfranchise part of our own electorate here.” And so, I think that’s been a concern, a very obvious concern.

Now, about Hans von Spakovsky, he is an interesting figure. I would say, arguably, more than anyone else, von Spakovsky is responsible for the promulgation and proliferation of the concern about voter fraud. You know, this has been his issue. He has been their guy on this thing. He created a database with the Heritage Foundation that logs instances of alleged voter fraud. Our investigation pointed to something else, that many of the cases that were there were simply people who had made —

AMY GOODMAN: Jelani, we have 20 seconds.

JELANI COBB: — people who made mistakes in casting their ballot and so on. And so, he’s really been more responsible than anyone else for promulgating the myth of voter fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to do Part 2 of our interview at democracynow.org. Check it out, with Jelani Cobb, correspondent and writer for the new PBS Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts, that premieres tonight, Tuesday night, directed by June Cross, produced by Tom Jennings. Cobb is also professor of journalism at Columbia University and contributor to The New Yorker magazine. We will speak to him about Biden’s moral imperative to safeguard civil rights, and Election Day violence, a history. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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