Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Jon Ossoff: Georgia sent Donald Trump packing. For the first time in four years, we have the opportunity to define the next chapter in American history.
Ed O’Keefe: Early voting started this week and Democrats need both wins to gain control of the Senate.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: We all need to get on the midnight train to Georgia so we can get a triangular alignment of values between the House, the Senate, and the presidency to get things passed Like the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Emma Hurt: Republicans have advantages going into these elections. Historically, they've always won runoffs in Georgia.
Toni Watkins: People work really, really hard to keep us from voting and we keep showing up.
Stacey Abrams: We have a mission and that is to serve Georgians.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: In the words of Andre 3000, “The South got something to say, and that's all I'm going to say.”
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Here's one of my pet peeves. It's when people say to me, "Why can't you just let go of the past. Quit bringing up old stuff. Move on, look ahead." The sentiment just drives me nuts, which is no surprise given that this show is all about how our history haunts us, but still, and there is perhaps no better example of why that sentiment feels so misguided than the runoff election happening in Georgia right now. In-person early voting started a week ago.
I'm getting texts from my people down there with their just voted stickers so shouts out to them. To state the obvious, so much about all of our lives over the next, who knows how many years hangs in the balance of this election. That's a partisan story, certainly, whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate and that's whether Joe Biden will have any chance to do anything of consequence with his presidency, but there is a whole other story playing out here too, one that is arguably even more consequential.
It's about a 57-year old tug of war over Black political power in the state of Georgia. In some ways, this runoff election is a test of whether Black political organizers have finally slipped the nut the Jim Crow tied around democracy decades ago. That's how journalists Ari Berman has been telling the story of this runoff and he's going to join me now to tell us that story among other gyms of knowledge, that I'm certain he's going to drop. Hey Ari.
Ari Berman: Hey Kai. Good to talk to you. Thank you.
Kai: You as well. Ari is the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. He's been one of the most dedicated reporters on the voting rights beat for many, many years. He now writes about voting for Mother Jones Magazine and as a fellow of Type Media, which full disclosure, I'm a proud board member of Type as well as a former fellow myself.
Ari, I have to start by asking your state of mind because for a long time now, and just about every election season, we do this thing where there's tons and tons of public concern about voting rights and about our failing democratic systems, and then just as soon as the election ends, that's basically the last time we talk about it until the next crisis and so is that as maddening to you as I imagine it is and are you feeling some trepidation about it now?
Ari: In some ways, it's even worse, Kai, because instead of not talking about it, we had to spend a month talking about whether or not the election was stolen, which was just about the worst possible outcome for voting rights. We actually had record participation in the 2020 election on both sides of the aisle. There could have been bipartisan agreement that what you know what?
Male voting worked for both sides, early voting worked for both sides, but instead of that conversation, we had Donald Trump saying for over a month and still saying, quite frankly, that the election was stolen, the election was rigged and basically, the entire Republican Party, either repeating that, encouraging it or saying nothing. I would almost have been happier if we had no conversations about voting after the election and the conversation that we actually had.
Kai: Wow. Then, and we're going to get into the facts of what's been happening and what's going to be happening, but just is there anything then in the Zeitgeist, I'm reaching here, but is there anything that feels different about our outrage this time, maybe because of the conversation we've been having about Donald Trump? Is there anything that suggests we might hold on to this long enough to actually change something?
Ari: I hope so. First off, there was so much attention about the voting process in the run-up to the election, much more attention than usual because of the pandemic because people were so curious and so concerned about how to vote, but there was a lot more conversation about the mechanics of voting and a lot more attention on making sure that votes were actually counted this election than in the past elections.
I think that was a really good thing. I think the fact that so many people did make a plan to vote is one of the reasons why we had record voter turnout. I do think there's a lot of good things to take away from the election in terms of a lot of people used mail voting for the first time and liked it. A lot of people voted early for the first time and liked it.
A lot of new people participated in the political process and hopefully, they'll keep participating. All of those are things that we can take away that are good things in terms of how to make our democracy work better, but that's going to have to be pushed against this ridiculous, crazy, never-ending narrative that says not only is the election stolen, but we have to make it a lot harder to vote in the next election.
That's what I'm really concerned about. That all the lies about voter fraud that we're hearing are really laying the groundwork to make it much harder to vote in 2022 or 2024 and in future elections because some Republicans still believe that higher turnout is a risk to their party and they're going to do everything they can to try to prevent that from happening again.
Kai: Let's spend some time in the history first before we look at in the future. I began to show by saying there's a story playing out in Georgia that's distinct from the partisan battle, obviously related, and that this is a story about the history of Black political power in the state and the effort to contain that power. Let's walk through that history for just a little bit. You've written about it. It starts in the early 1960s, just before the Voting Rights Act passes with a guy named Denmark Grover, who was Denmark Grover?
Ari: He was a very interestingly named state representative from, Macon, Georgia. He was a segregationist, a state rep and basically, Georgia had this very unique system that was essentially an electoral college system for statewide primaries. The Democratic Party ran the state of Georgia and in the early 1900s, they instituted this system called the county unit system, that essentially gave rural more conservative areas far more power to select candidates in primaries, which was the only election that mattered than more moderate urban counties.
What that meant was that one way that Georgia reinforced segregation was through this County unit system. The Supreme Court struck that down in a very famous case called Gray v. Sanders for violating one person, one vote. There are all these cases called one person, one vote that basically tried to make districting and electoral systems more fair and Georgia was one of those states in which it was struck down. Denmark Grover created this system where if you didn't get a majority of the vote, you went to a runoff election.
Now, the reason this was important was because Georgia was a state in which white conservatives were the majority, so any time there would be a majority vote election, they would be able to win that, but they were concerned that you'd have a situation after the county unit system was struck down where a Black candidate or more likely a white candidate was supported by Black voters could win with a plurality of the vote.
Meaning they could win with 40% of the vote or 45% of the vote and white conservatives wouldn't be able to band together to stop it so he basically said, "We need to create this system that doesn't allow for a plurality winner so that we can prevent any Black candidates or any candidate supported by Black voters from actually winning the election."
Kai: This happened to him as part of his anger about it. I was shocked to learn when I read further on it, that he had lost his seat in the state legislature after winning the white vote, but losing the Black vote by huge margins and so he became obsessed with this Negro block as he called it. It's just interesting to think about the fact that before the Voting Rights Act even they were actually doing the math of, "Oh, white supremacists may become the political minority."
Ari: That's what's so fascinating here is that this is all taking place before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Black voters are still marginalized in many parts of Georgia and are nowhere near as enfranchised as they are after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but the writing is on the wall and the segregationist legislators that have basically run Georgia for almost a century for at least from the 1900s to the 1960s, they know that Black voters are going to become far more influential in this state.
That moderate whites and African-Americans are going to be able to join together to elect more moderate leadership in the state. They're very, very concerned about that happening. They're trying to figure out what they can do to protect what is going to become eventually a segregationist minority in the state and that's why they think let's create this runoff system, which has two benefits. Number one, it allows white voters to band together to defeat anyone that's supported by Black voters.
Number two, they're also holding these runoff elections at very strange times. Remember, they are having them after the general elections and they're holding them in late November, early December, or January 5th, in the case of this runoff election, which is not a time when people usually think about voting. They can try to turn out an electorate that ends up being older, whiter, more conservative as opposed to a younger, more diverse electorate that might support less segregationist candidates.
Kai: There's this great quote from Denmark Grover. I think this is from Denmark Grover and it seems like it was in a deposition for a lawsuit, I guess against challenging the system, but he says, "We have to go to the majority vote because all we have to have is a plurality and the Negroes and the pressure groups and the special interests are going to manipulate this state and take charge." It wasn't like, this is not subtle. This is the explicit purpose of this runoff system as stated at the time.
Ari: As stated at the time that the point of runoff elections in Georgia was to prevent Black voters from heading any influence in terms of who was elected. They were concerned about the very situation we are facing now, which is that someone like Raphael Warnock or someone like John Ossoff, who's supported by Black voters could be elected a Senator from Georgia.
They wanted to create this runoff system to allow whites to be able to block Black candidates or to be able to block candidates that were supported by Black voters from being elected. It has worked, I'm afraid to say shockingly well in the state because runoff elections over and over and over seemed to be electing conservative white Republicans as opposed to Democrats or candidates supported by voters of color.
Kai: How unique was this to Georgia? Did voting systems change in similar or other ways around the South as Black voters started winning more rights in the '60s? We talk a lot about the tactics of voter suppression, one voter at a time, but not so much about these whole system ideas that try to facilitate minority rule. Are there other examples of this thing at the time?
Ari: There are other states that move to run-off elections. There also was widespread gerrymandering and all of these states. In the same way that Georgia and statewide races gave rural counties more power, they did the same thing in the state legislature. You would have the rural parts of the state that were far more conservative than the more moderate urban parts of the state, they dominated the state legislatures which were very, very powerful in a lot of these states, in many ways more powerful than the governor oftentimes.
There were a whole series of tactics, but the thing that I find interesting is that runoff elections are more subtle than a literacy test or a poll tax. Like you don't immediately put it together. This is designed to prevent Blacks from voting or having influence and I think that's what they were hoping for that it was something that you wouldn't be able to get rid of easily as a poll tax or a literacy test. Indeed, we still have them today.
Kai: Let's take a break and when we come back, we'll talk about how the 2020 election may be the moment where Black political organizers have finally figured out how to overcome this decades-old effort to limit Black voting power in Georgia. I'm Kai Wright, this is the United States of Anxiety and we'll be back with more from voting rights reporter, Ari Berman.
Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. This week we're talking about the history of containing Black political power in Georgia and throughout the South. I'm joined by voting rights, journalist Ari Berman. He's the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America and has been covering this year's election through the lens of voting rights as a senior reporter for Mother Jones magazine.
Ari, am I correct to say that you've been writing about the Georgia runoff and really the 2020 election there, in general, as a pivotal moment in the history of Southern democracy? I get the sense from reading your work that this runoff is just a test of whether Black political organizers, in particular, have figured out how to overcome a system that you've been describing that was explicitly designed to keep them from having power.
Ari: I think that's right. In Georgia, in 2020 and now heading into 2021 Black voters have to overcome not just a system that was designed to prevent them from participating, but our current regime in Georgia that has been dedicated to trying to keep them from participating. There's both the history of Georgia. Then, there's also the present day of Georgia that a lot of people believe the 2018 governor's race was stolen from Stacey Abrams, preventing her from becoming the first Black woman governor in US history. The architect of voter suppression then is now the governor of the state.
Despite what Donald Trump says about Brian Kemp and the current secretary of state of Georgia being rhinos, they are, in fact, the people that put in place this system to try to keep Blacks from participating. If Georgia were to go for Joe Biden and then two months later to elect one or more Democrats to the US Senate and including the first Black Senator in us history from Georgia, that would be extremely significant. It would have ripple effects well beyond the state.
Kai: We wanted to hear from somebody actually doing this work right now in Georgia. We asked Nsé Ufot to call us up and say, is the CEO of The New Georgia Project. By now, most of you are surely familiar with this organization, they've registered hundreds of thousands of new voters in Georgia in recent years, in part as a response to the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act, we'll talk about that in a bit. The answer for organizers in Georgia was to build a whole new electorate that reflects Georgia's population. Nsé, thanks for calling in.
Nsé Ufot: Hi, Kai?
Kai: It's really great to hear from you. I'm sure that you guys are running crazy down there. I'm glad you made some time, I don't know how much you were able to hear of the show, but Ari has been telling us about the history of Georgia's runoff system that it was conceived literally as a way to limit Black political power. I just wanted to start by asking you, I wonder about your own relationship to that history as you do this work of registering voters as a Black woman, who's working to get Black voters registered, in particular, how do you think about this election in that historic arc?
Nsé: I think that as we're thinking about building up a new Georgia Project and building out Georgia's new electorate, tt was very clear from the beginning that Georgia has a long and a recent history of voter suppression and that it has clearly been designed to mute the impact of minority voting Blacks and specifically, a Black voting block. While I have learned much more about our history, in particular, the runoff and its racist roots in Georgia elections from reading Ari's work and others as an organizer, I see it happening in real-time as we work to register voters.
Then to find out that the state has a massive scheme to purge voters to shut their polling locations, to add signature match to make it more difficult for people to vote by mail, et cetera. Some of the tactics that we organize against are the tried and true racist intimidation tactics that people are aware of or that comes to mind when you think about voter suppression. Intimidating Black voters at the polls, et cetera, but a lot of the voter suppression that we work to overcome in today's elections are much more sophisticated, and some instances, appear to be race-neutral on their face, like the voter purges.
Kai: On that score, the Georgia secretary of state has received a great deal of positive national press about standing up to Donald Trump's campaign to overturn the election, but at the same time he has been doing things in Georgia that have caused this question. There's been poll closures and your organization has been accused of voter fraud. I just wanted to get you to react to that and tell us how you see the secretary of state there now.
Nsé: It's funny because over the past couple of weeks I've certainly gotten a lot of inquiries, like, do I want to offer a congratulations or a thank you to our governor and our secretary of state for refusing to participate in a criminal conspiracy to steal an election. I have not taken that opportunity as of yet because they are doing their jobs. I'll be honest. I thought that as someone that has been subject to their baseless investigations and accusations and partisan attacks on our civil rights and voting rights work.
I understand how awful it feels to be accused of doing something nefarious when you are just trying to make sure that people are able to vote. I would say that that sucks for them and I know what it feels like. It also speaks to a larger issue. The fact that the national Republican leaders are disappointed in our governor and disappointed in the secretary of state because they don't want to participate in their coup or just coup attempt is a larger indictment on the Republican party and how they're continuing to lose credibility with their constant attacks on our democracy and on our elections infrastructure and it needs to be addressed.
Kai: Roughly, five million people voted despite all of the hurdles in Georgia during the general election. We've heard that early voting is once again happening in huge numbers almost on par with the general election. If the history of runoffs is that it depresses the Black vote and that it was designed for that purpose, what's different now? Why is that appear to not be happening in this runoff?
Nsé: I think there are a couple of things at play. One, it has been a central tenant of our strategy that while we wait to get chief elections officials on the county and state level, who will follow the rule of law and who see their job as to remove barriers to participation in our elections, that the way that we can mute the impact of these voter suppression schemes is to have overwhelming participation in our elections, so that regardless of the purges and the poll closings, et cetera, that we can know what the will of the people is that we can trust that the will of the people is reflected in the results of our elections.
That it's a lot easier for them to steal an election with 10 votes here, 100 votes here et cetera, but with overwhelming participation, we can overcome some of this voter suppression. That's one thing. The second thing is that we're in the middle of a pandemic and over 300,000 Americans have died. In Georgia, the COVID cases are continuing to rise. We have nearly a dozen hospitals in rural parts of the state that are preparing to close or have already closed.
There was one down in Randolph County in Southeast Georgia that closed a few days before the November general election. People understand what is at stake here. Our messaging, the direct voter contact that we've been doing is making sure that Georgians know and understand that with the power of their vote, they have the ability to save their own lives and that we have the ability to elect senators and a president who will co-govern with the people. That message has been working, that voter education has been working and we've been at it since March.
Kai: Before I let you go. I'm wondering if you buy my theory about this being a historic pivotal moment in Georgia's history of democracy, I know you're in the heat of the battle, you're still trying to get people to vote in this current election so it's hard to reflect on it yet, but how does this moment feel to you in the sweep of your state's history?
Nsé: It feels watershed-y, what we have seen there's a lot of hand-wringing. On election night as we are digging into the data, looking at the numbers it appeared as if President Trump was ahead on election night. What we knew is that there were more votes to be counted in counties where we have been doing deep community organizing and electoral organizing. If those ballots were counted that we would have a ball game and we would be able to demonstrate that Georgia was America's newest battleground state. We've been bullish on Georgia and Black voters for quite some time and 2018 felt like an opportunity to show that to the world.
We saw what happens when the secretary of state is on the top of the ticket and refuses to relinquish his role and as the chief elections officer and what had happened 2020 feels like it has given us another opportunity to prove what we've known for a long time that the former slave state, this former Confederate state is America's newest battleground state, voters of color, in addition, Black voters, in particular, but Asian American voters and Latino voters make up this multiracial, multiethnic progressive majority in the deep South.
That if we can hold them together, that we can one make sure they vote and two make sure their votes count. Then we have a ball game. So I'm looking forward to adding an additional proof point with these runoff elections.
Kai: Nsé Ufot is the CEO of The New Georgia Project which has spent in recent years registering hundreds of thousands of new voters in Georgia, trying to make the electorate reflect the state's diverse population. Nsé, thanks so much for taking time to call us tonight.
Nsé: Thank you so much, Kai. Take care.
Kai: Ari, speaking of 2018, and Stacey Abrams gubernatorial campaign, both you and Nsé have mentioned it. A lot of people feel like it set the stage for the moment we're in right now. Stacy Adams's history in the state is, of course, much longer than that, but we covered the 2018 race on this show and I spent a morning with her as she campaigned during that race. I want to play for you something she said to me then.
Stacy Adams: We're going to transform the electorate. We're going to bring new voices and add new voters. It's hard for people to see that because they're so used to looking at the same narrative and the same composition of the electorate or worse, they're used to dreaming that something new will happen, but not putting the work in to make it. That's really what's different about our campaign. I don't believe that demography is destiny. I think demography is a pathway, but it takes work and we are the first campaign in the deep South to put in the work.
Kai: Abrams lost that election, of course, and you and others have written that 2020 may be really the completion of the work she's describing there. I also have to say, she's implicating the Democratic party in that remark, isn't she? The party is now happy to celebrate Stacey Abrams, but didn't she have to fight them to get this far?
Ari: Absolutely. In the mid-2010s, around 2013, 2014, Stacey had this vision that there could be this majority in Georgia where voters of color joined with moderate whites to turn this state blue and a lot of people were skeptical of that because Georgia Democrats, every election they did the same thing. They found a presentable white person that was fairly conservative and centrist that they thought could appeal to those suburban white swing voters, but they forgot about the whole other part of the strategy, which is you have to not just get those suburban swing voters.
You have to motivate new voters and voters of color as well to show up. That part of the equation was missing and Stacy realized it wasn't an either or strategy, you had to do both, but you had to have an actual strategy to be able to do it. That started with building the organizations on the ground. I think a lot of people felt like 2018 was going to be the time when this new coalition in Georgia emerged and it didn't emerge.
I think a large reason why it didn't emerge was voter suppression, but that laid the groundwork for what happened in 2020 and the fact that Stacey and so many others didn't give up after 2018, but they channeled their anger into organizing, I think made a big difference because even going into 2020, there were a lot of people, I have to admit myself included that were very skeptical that Georgia would be a battleground state. They were very skeptical--
Kai: They had all these claims, but there just wasn't a lot of data suggesting it was true.
Ari: There wasn't a lot of data suggesting it was true. There was a lot of data suggesting that Democrats were going to get their hopes up again. Then on election night when you saw this huge lead for Donald Trump, you felt like, "Oh, okay. Georgia's just like Florida, it's a state that's just going to continually disappoint Democrats," but Stacey and others they didn't just see the coalition, but they put the work in to actually create it. I think that's what laid the groundwork for Joe Biden's victory. That is also, I think what is making the runoffs by all indication very, very close again.
Kai: What was it for the Democratic party that made it not be able to listen to Stacy Abrams a decade ago? When she said, "Hey, there is a majority here. If you actually engage more voters than suburban white voters." I can speculate about some of the answers, but what do you feel like that got in the way, why they couldn't hear that?
Ari: I think they were just reaching back to the past and they thought who are the Democrats that got elected in Georgia? They were people like Zell Miller, they were these conservative white southerners and I think that's the only thing that people could imagine. They looked at the numbers and they said, "African-Americans are 30% of the electorate, but that's only 30% of the electorate. Where's the other 70%." It wasn't just that Stacy had a vision. It was that the demographics of Georgia have actually changed pretty significantly.
There has been a reverse migration back to the South. Northerners are leaving places like Chicago and they're going back to places like Atlanta where their grandparents might've come from. That's changing so the Black population is growing in Georgia, but also the Latino population is growing. The Asian American population is growing. There are more moderate whites than before.
There's more younger whites who have moved to the state who are more progressive in orientation. The Georgia coalition of today does not look like the Georgia coalition of 1980 or 1990 or 2000 even. I think that's one reason why Stacy's vision and other people's visions were able to be translated into reality because there actually is a coalition here to be motivated.
I think someone had to actually show that it could happen. The first step was Stacy's race for governor and coming so close in spite of all of these barriers. Then obviously Joe Biden winning the state showing that it can actually happen. Now nobody doubts that Democrats can win these two runoff elections for the Senate. Ten years ago I think there would have been a lot of skepticism that Democrats would even had a chance to win these races. Let alone have a pretty good chance to at least win one if not both.
Kai: The secretary of state of Georgia we talked about a little bit with Nsé, as I said, gotten a lot of press for standing up to Donald Trump's claims of voter fraud. At the same time, he's closed a bunch of polling sites and has launched voter fraud allegations against The New Georgia Project. I think amongst others. Can you just quickly explain what they are facing now in the course of this election in terms of what the secretary of state has been doing?
Ari: The New Georgia project and other groups that register Black voters have been accused of trying to register voters out of state illegally. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of proof about this, at least pertaining to The New Georgia Project. Basically, what they did was they sent postcards to people so that people in New York, for example, could write letters to people in Georgia encouraging them to register and vote in the runoffs. People in New York weren't actually trying to register to vote in the Georgia election. It seems like this could be cleared up pretty quickly.
Also, the secretary of state was angry because I guess he's had a young son that passed away and there was a postcard sent to his young son from The New Georgia Project encouraging them to register to vote. That's an example of that data that The New Georgia Project was using lists either from the secretary of state or from other publicly available data to try to find young voters and there clearly were some voters on there that shouldn't have been on there. If someone is deceased or moved or whatever they're not of course going to receive that postcard.
Kai: You're not going to substantively register from the grave.
Ari: That's the whole thing about dead people voting. If they're dead they're not actually going to be able to vote. This could be maybe some sloppy bookkeeping in certain places, but I don't think it's been any voter fraud. I think what the secretary of state is doing he's fighting two battles. He's fighting the battle against Trump because he doesn't want to seem like a stolen election took place on his watch. At the same time, he's trying to mollify Republicans in Georgia that are doing everything they can to try to kick up voter suppression, not just for this runoff election, but also for the next decade as well.
Georgia Republicans when they convene in the legislative session in early 2021, I can guarantee you they are going to do everything they can to prevent Joe Biden or whoever is running in 2024 from carrying the state of Georgia again. They are not going to want to make it easy to vote. They're going to want to make it as hard as possible to vote. They're going to use this stolen election rhetoric to give them some credibility to try to lay the groundwork for further attacking voting rights.
Kai: Up next we'll talk about all the ways our democracy continues to encourage minority rule and how the Republican party is already reacting to the huge voter turnout in 2020. Also if you have questions for Ari about voting rights or the design of our democracy or anything call us up at 646-435-7280 that's 646-435-7280. We'll try to slip in a couple of your questions. This is the United States of Anxiety, we'll be right back.
Kai: Hey everybody heads up that if you're enjoying this episode, I'd urge you to check out a couple of others in our feed that I think you'll like also. One is an episode we did just before the election where we talked to historian Carol Anderson about the modern history of the fight over voting rights. Another is a conversation I had with historian Eric Foner about our constitutional history including why we don't actually have an affirmative right to vote in this country.
There are links to both of these episodes in the show notes for this episode. Just go to your podcast app or wnyc.org, wherever you're listening, and look at this episodes description you'll find the links there. You should always by the way start doing that. We're now putting links to companion episodes and all of our show notes. Always be sure to check it out for more listening. Thanks.
Ari, let's start with what you talked about before the break that you expect in Georgia and you have written in state legislatures around the country, that state-level Republicans are going to be making it much harder to vote in the next election because of the turnout in 2020. What are you seeing that you want to point out?
Ari: That's going to be, I think, a very disturbing trend for the next decade, that Republicans are going to try to do everything they can to prevent another Joe Biden and to prevent these states from staying blue or states that haven't gotten blue yet from turning blue. I think we're already seeing legislation introduced to try to make it harder to vote by mail, which is a form of voting the Democrats used very effectively. We are already seeing legislation introduced to cut back on early voting because so many people voted early in the 2020 election.
We are already seeing proposals to try to give state officials a lot more power to go after voter fraud, even though there haven't been any documented cases of voter fraud in this election. I think the fact that so many Republicans believe that the election was stolen because that's what Donald Trump keeps telling them, has really created momentum for these kinds of efforts to succeed in states that Republicans can control.
That, In fact, you now have Republican activists, Trump activists demanding that Republicans do something about what they believe was a stolen election. Then, that something is going to be legislation that then makes it harder for Democrats to vote and targets the methods that Democrats used to create record turnout.
Kai: I feel like another overlooked part of this story is the statehouses, in general. You talked about in 2010 the election and the way the tea party wing of the Republican party took over a huge number of statehouses and have held a comfortable majority in the states ever since. That 2010 election had huge lasting consequences. Can you explain why and what happened in terms of democracy?
Ari: What happened was Republicans took control of all of these key states in 2010 like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and North Carolina. The first thing they did was pass these incredibly gerrymandered maps that made it possible for them to actually get fewer votes than Democrats, but win a huge majority of seats and to stay in power for the entire decade. If you look at these Republican state legislatures in almost every single state where they drew the maps, they remain in power to this day. They were not dislodged from power in 2020.
Whether it's Georgia, or whether it's Wisconsin, or whether it's North Carolina, the maps are once again going to be drawn by Republicans in 2021 which is when the next cycle of redistricting happens. In states where they have one-party control like in Georgia, like in Texas, like in Florida they are going to do very aggressive gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has basically said you have nothing to worry about because the Supreme Court handed down a ruling last year, this is that the federal courts aren't going to even review gerrymandering cases anymore.
State legislators basically have nothing to fear. Maybe in some states these maps will be struck down in state courts and states where there's maybe a progressive majority on state courts like in Pennsylvania, but in Georgia, the courts are very conservative. They're not going to strike these maps down. I think Republicans are going to try to lock in their power for the next decade by virtue of controlling the drawing of the maps.
Kai: This is one of the things where we've talked about what the down-ballot races this time, where there was all this enthusiasm amongst Democrats that they would flip statehouses. I saw a stat from the National Conference of State Legislatures, that fewer flipped than any time since 1946, in this election which is really striking given the stakes that you're describing.
Ari: It turns out that people gerrymandered districts for a reason. Which is that it's really hard to undo a gerrymander once it exists. I think Democrats had two problems with trying to win back these state legislatures. The first was that the elections took place under these gerrymandered districts. They're trying to win races and in places that were designed for Republicans to win no matter what happened in the national environment. The second was that Donald Trump brought out a lot of voters himself. While that wasn't enough for Trump to win Wisconsin or to win Georgia or to win Pennsylvania, it was enough for them to keep these key seats.
It's not enough to win races in Madison and Milwaukee if you're in Wisconsin. You have to be able to win more conservative, more rural areas as well if you're going to try to take back the state legislature. That's where Democrats have really underperformed across the map. If Democrats are going to be a party that does very well in statewide races and very well in urban areas and in cities, but doesn't compete very well in more rural areas and doesn't really have any strategy to compete on more Republican turf, it's going to be very hard to take back these state legislatures particularly because they were gerrymandered to try to prevent any swing in the national food.
Kai: It worked, but let's go to Alana in Inwood, Alana welcome to the show.
Alana: Hi, thank you for taking my call and I love this particular show, amazing. I have a crazy question maybe. John Ossoff is white, but he's also Jewish. I'm just wondering whether you and your guests have anything to say about how that might or might not be significant given the antagonisms of the white supremacists towards Jews as well as blacks?
Kai: Thank you for that. Ari, have you heard anything in Georgia that is about targeting his Judaism or dog whistles to that effect or anything that would suggest this?
Ari: I remember in the runoff to the 2020 election, that there was some dog-whistling around this that I think there were things where his nose may have been exaggerated in one ad that his opponent David Perdue ran. I think there were stuff about connections to George Soros and things like that. It hasn't been as explicit as the racial attacks on Raphael Warnock.
I think it is an undercurrent here. It's also interesting to me that you have a black candidate and a Jewish candidate because that's like the old civil rights coalition, where you see those pictures of Selma, Alabama and it's Martin Luther King marching next to a bunch of rabbis and a bunch of preachers. That really was a lot of ways the civil rights movement. Was a movement that was led, of course, by African-Americans, but also a lot of Jewish Americans and a lot of Americans of all faiths that helped support it.
I think in Georgia is interesting. It seems like they're trying in some ways recreate that. There's a sense of history here both in terms of Warnock obviously trying to be the first black US Senator from Georgia, but also all soft trying to create a sense of history for himself too that he represents this younger more tolerant, more moderate Georgia that it's not the Georgia of the past either.
Kai: It's going to Gus in Richfield, Connecticut. Gus, welcome to the show.
Gus: Thank you. Given that the Republicans have a majority in most states here in the country, what can be done? You seem to be somewhat not very optimistic about it, but what can be done to obstruct or to block gerrymandering of election districts? Thank you.
Kai: Thank you, Gus. That's a great question. Ari, what can be done?
Ari: That is a good question. I think one thing that has to happen in 2021 that didn't happen in 2011 when the last maps are drawn is to try to make it as public of an affair as possible and not allow it to be something that's done in backrooms that nobody knows about. I think the more publicity that comes out about what's actually going on here, that politicians are trying to manipulate democracy for the next decade and essentially nullify the wishes of the voters.
I think the more that we can create and make that an outrageous thing that people should actually mobilize and organize against-- I'm not saying we're going to be able to defeat all of it, but you might be able to smooth off some of the edges of it. There's still a possibility of winning these cases in state courts. In a bunch of states, judges are elected to state courts like in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Those state Supreme court elections which often go very much under the radar are very very important.
Then I think just the fact that gerrymandering, Gus, it is meant to withstand shifts in the public mood, but that said, state legislative races are still often decided by a very small number of votes. You're talking about sometimes it could be 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 votes in some of these districts. I think if voters are mobilized in these areas, they can still overcome the power of gerrymandering.
Kai: What about the census? We just have a couple of minutes here, but I do want to get to this. We know that the count has been contaminated, I guess, I can't think of the right word by the Trump administration's effort to disclude undocumented residents, the Supreme court has chosen not to stop that. What can the Biden administration do at this point? Or anyone what can be done about the state of the census right now?
Ari: The Trump administration is going to try to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count that's then used for house apportionment, deciding how many seats each state gets for the US House of Representatives and by extension the electoral college. I'm not sure they're actually going to be able to do this because they're running out of time. The Census Bureau actually has to be able to send this information to Donald Trump theoretically by the end of the year, which I don't think they're going to be able to do.
Then, they also just might not be able to do it in any case because they actually don't know how many undocumented people are in the country and where they live. These are people that are in many cases under the radar for a reason. I'm not sure that Trump's going to be able to pull off this scheme, but Joe Biden can reverse it. He can also say to the Census Bureau, "I want to make sure that you take as much time as you need to clear up any anomalies that are in the data." As you say a lot of people are really concerned that the Trump administration tried to deliberately sabotage the census to suppress the voices of immigrants and people of color--
Kai: Can he do that? I thought the constitution made it or I thought he had to take it. How can he give it more time?
Ari: There's a lot of legal questions about what he can do. He can ask Congress to extend the timeline for them to at least review their own data so that census bureau isn't rushed into releasing inaccurate data. Then if it turns out that the data is just really, really off, the house of representatives can reject it. I don't think we're going to redo the census all over again because it's a 10-year project that goes into it.
I do hope that Biden can take something that's imperfect and make it a little bit more perfect in terms of what the actual count is because these are results that we're going to live with for the next decade. That's going to determine both political and economic power in America.
Kai: Ari Berman, is the author of Give us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. He has been covering the election through the lens of voting rights as a senior reporter for Mother Jones. He's one of the journalists who have really just been most dedicated to this beat over the many, many years. Ari, thanks for your work. Thanks for joining us.
Ari: Thanks so much, Kai. It was great to talk to you.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Jared Paul makes the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer-Borough Brass Band.
Karen Frillmann is our Executive Producer and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright. My email inbox is open as well. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org to say whatever you want. As always I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern you can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker, "Play WNYC." Until then thanks for listening. Take care of yourself.
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