Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Seth Pinsky: This is the top job in a city that is right now is dealing with multiple crises.
John Green: It's one of America's greatest inventions: the urban political machine.
Roslin Spigner: You've heard of the term "kingmaker, queenmaker".
Larry Lessig: This is a system where the politicians are picking the voters, the voters aren't picking the politicians. If Democrats and Republicans both play this game--
Lesley Stahl: Can you quantify how much it costs to corrupt a congressman?
Kay C. James: Some on the left sheepishly have asked if the conservative movement is dead. To them I say, absolutely not.
Shaniyat Chowdhury: We know this system is dying out, this machine is dying out. They're on the last legs.
Stacey Abrams: This is no longer a question of partisanship. It's not a question of which party is electing their leaders, it's a question of citizenship. Who has the right to be heard in our nation?
Arun Venugopal: Welcome to the show. I'm Arun Venugopal. Kai's out this week. After over a year of suffering through lockdowns, job losses, and the deaths of thousands of our friends, our neighbors, and our loved ones, New Yorkers finally seem to be emerging from the pandemic. It's a little strange, a little surreal, but having been to an actual movie in an actual movie theater, an actual live play, and a panel discussion on a rooftop downtown, not to mention a few restaurants, I have personally felt the hot, unmasked breath of the city upon my face and I like it.
The real action this week, however, is in the political realm. New Yorkers are in the process of deciding who will succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio, arguably the tallest mayor we've had. They'll also be voting on dozens of candidates for city council, Borough President, comptroller, public advocate. It's a highly consequential few days. Joining me to discuss is Brigid Bergen, our colleague in the WNYC newsroom who reports on city hall and politics across the city. Hi, Brigid.
Brigid Bergen: Hey, Arun.
Arun: Brigid, every election cycle there is all this overheated rhetoric about it being the most consequential, the most important election in the history of the city and the history of all cities and suburbs and subdivisions and municipalities ever and so on. Tell us what is really at stake here this time around?
Brigid: Okay, Arun. It is hugely consequential.
Arun: Okay. All right. All right.
Brigid: You know the previous three served multiple terms. So barring some monumental change in the electorate, it is very likely that whoever wins will be in place, not just for four years, but likely for eight years. That's two terms, not just one. We're at a point when the city has real fiscal troubles. Yes, we received a massive federal bailout that's supposed to help us get back on our feet, but some of those funds are being used to pay for programs that people are going to have expectations around. They're going to expect they will last after those funds dry up. The next mayor's going to need to decide what they're going to pay for.
As a nation, we continue to face really existential threats, whether we're talking climate change or the reform movement around police and the reckoning over race, those are very real issues here in New York City. We also have local issues, affordable housing crisis, a real spike in shootings, questions about the sustainability of our infrastructure. A new mayor inherits all of that. The decisions that voters are making in the coming days and have been making over the past nine days, we've just wrapped up early voting a few minutes ago, just about an hour ago, they're hugely consequential.
Arun: Brigid, one thing we do know about voter turnout in these local elections in the city is that it's historically really low. I am wondering, is it the slate of candidates we have on the ballot? There's a lot of ambivalence, I think about this group of candidates, or is it the way we do elections?
Brigid: I think it's a combination of things, Arun. First of all, as you said, we do tend to see a real significant drop-off in our local elections, particularly because they are timed to be separate from our presidential election where we have the highest turnout. Some of this, in part, is arguably by design. The scheduling of these elections are at a time when people are paying less attention to what is happening. In these last few days, voters may feel like they're being bombarded with coverage, whether it's in media or if their mailbox is overflowing or their phone is blowing up with text messages, that hasn't been happening in the same way as what we saw during the 2020 presidential election cycle. That's one piece of it.
The other part of it is we have a closed primary system in New York State, which means that if you're a registered voter, you can only participate in this big event if you are a registered voter of a party that has a primary. We spend a lot of time right now talking about the Democratic party and the Democratic primary because it is the most crowded and Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by about seven to one. The largest share of new voters, new registered voters, are actually what we define as blanks in New York state, unaffiliated voters.
Those voters, whether they were people who were inspired by Bernie Sanders and became registered voters and then found out, either in 2016, that they couldn't vote in the Democratic primary or in subsequent elections. People who have been activated and wanted to join the process, but maybe had questions about the party's system, those people will not be able to participate in this election, the official primary is Tuesday.
Arun: Early voting wrapped up what in the last hour or so I think.
Brigid: Yes. The polls just closed. It's so exciting.
Arun: It is pretty exciting, isn't it? Do we have any idea of what that looks like, if it's been robust or who's been showing up, or is it too early?
Brigid: Well, this is the thing, we have never had early voting for a municipal primary of this scale. We've only had early voting since 2019. It was passed when the Democrats took control of the state Senate. It's something that was routinely passed in the assembly, but it was not made into law until the Senate Democrats took control, and then it was enacted. The first election with early voting was actually the general election in 2019, where voters passed ranked-choice voting as one of the ballot referendums. It was a relatively low turnout election.
Then since then, obviously in 2020, we had a primary election and a general election, but those were also very strange elections because they were elections going on during a pandemic. During the early voting period in the spring of 2020, we had very low turnout during early voting because we had massive turnout from absentee ballots because people were staying in their homes and they were voting by mail. Then, we had larger turnout during early voting in November, we saw those huge lines. That in part is also because that was an election that was open to anyone who was registered.
That was not confined to just people who are voting in a primary. What we do know so far is that about 191,000 New Yorkers turned out for early voting at this point. Now that's out of about 3.7 Democrats and another half million or so Republicans. We're talking about less than 5% of the eligible electorate turning out for early voting at this point, but even in the times that we've had early voting in place, the highest turnout has still been on election day. What we hope to know more about, and what some campaigns seem to know more about is who these people are that actually voted. The board of elections says that they will make that data available to people who request it.
Some campaigns have requested it. Certainly, we at WNYC and Gothamist have requested it. Hopefully, before Tuesday, we'll be able to talk a little bit more about who these actual voters are, where they are in the city. At this point, we just have very raw numbers that the board of elections has made available on their website by borough. Turnout has been larger in Manhattan and Brooklyn, that's not hugely surprising. What could be really interesting is to know where in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the turnout has been very high. Hopefully, we'll have more to say about that very soon.
Arun: Brigid, you mentioned the challenge of people who are going to participate who are not Democrats or Republicans, there is a growing contingent of voters who are unaffiliated with any party. Am I right?
Brigid: Absolutely. It's one of the largest growing shares of the electorate.
Arun: Do we understand why that's the case?
Brigid: I think that when new voters are registered, the idea of having to make a choice about joining a party is a very personal one. In New York, we add another layer of complication because it becomes difficult for voters to decide if they want to align themselves with a party. If you don't, you are left out of the ability of making some of the most consequential decisions, because there is a fair assumption coming out of this primary that the Democratic nominees will in most districts across the city and certainly city-wide have a huge leg up when it comes to the general election.
Arun: We have a caller, we're going to go to now. This is Derek in Brooklyn. Derek, are you there?
Derek: Hi. Yes, I'm here. Hi, how are you?
Arun: Tell us how do you feel about the process of the candidates and this whole thing that we're going through.
Derek: Well, right now I have to tell you I feel completely overwhelmed. I've talked to other people myself and in my community. I live in Bed-Stuy and other people have told me the same thing. It's not you're just one person. You have to vote for mayor. You've got mayor. You've got comptroller. You've got people running for city council, and it is very overwhelming. You hope that you're going to make a decision that is on point and it's consequential, but it's just completely overwhelming at this point.
Arun: I hear you. Thank you, Derek. Brigid, this is something that was echoed by a close friend of mine today who's actually-- Works for the city. They live in Sunnyside, and they said they were overwhelmed by the choice. They don't even know what to pick for council members, something which is fairly high profile. Is this something you're picking up on?
Brigid: Yes. We have a new voting system that we are using in this city for this election, ranked-choice voting, and it gives voters the opportunity or depending on how they're feeling the burden of potentially not just choosing one, but they have the opportunity, they're not required to select up to five candidates in order of preference. It's filling out the ballot itself, the actual process of filling out is not overly complicated. Voters who really take their civic duty seriously and really want to research their candidates and make sure that they understand who they're choosing and why which presumably everyone does, but realistically, that's probably not always the case. It's more work potentially.
Particularly in these races that maybe don't get the same amount of attention and coverage as something like the mayor's race, which has gotten the lion's share of coverage during this cycle. People can use ranked-choice voting at the top of their ticket for the mayor's race, the comptroller's race, public advocate, city council, borough president. If you're choosing five candidates for those five races, and you've come up with five ranks for all of them 25 candidates that you're thinking about going in to vote.
A lot of people that I've spoken to, I've talked to a lot of voters coming out of voting. They brought in a copy of their voter guide because you can bring something in with you to assist. Some people made lists, like a little note card that they could refer to because it's a big ballot to fill out. If there's a way to make it a little easier on yourself, you're entitled to do that. If that helps, then great.
Arun: Done their homework, yes. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll be taking more of your calls. Again, call us at 646-435-7280. I'll be asking Brigid more about the history of our election system and how that history continues to reverberate today.
Arun: Welcome back. This is the United States of anxiety. I'm Arun Venugopal and this week, we're talking about the state of democracy in the US, and in particular, in New York. I'm here with Brigid Bergin, the City Hall and Politics Reporter here at WNYC and Gothamist. We're talking about the elections in New York and in the segment, we're specifically turning to the history of how we got the election system we have today. How does that history reverberate today? Brigid, let's turn to the history and talk a little more about how we got the election system that we have today. We're going back to the 19th century, really. That's when we saw this system that we inherited, took shape, correct?
Brigid: Yes. Our election law really guides the elections that we administer to the state. It really goes back to the 1890s. It was at a time when the two-party system really became written into the fabric of our election law. It's part of why we see a board of elections that is this agency that acts in a way that is funded by the city, has some oversight by the state, but is really in large part controlled by the parties and it is built into the administration of our elections that everything must be done with one Democrat, one Republican, a bipartisan system, but that can raise some other challenges and some real questions for people who are not part of those parties.
Arun: Now, one legacy of the system is that some voters can be left out of the process. In your reporting on early voting, you say you ran into voters who'd always participate in local elections, but because they weren't registered with the Democratic Party this year they weren't able to cast a ballot. Tell us a little about those voters and what you heard from them?
Brigid: It's interesting. I went out on the first morning of early voting, we wanted to see who was there, what were the issues that were bringing them out? What did they care about in this election? I talked to a man named Cornelius Jacobs in Far Rockaway. He had hoped to vote at the Rockaway YMCA and he was really frustrated. He wanted to support Maya Wiley, he believed in her platform. He had spent the better part of the morning, going to different early voting sites trying to find his site and when he ended up at the YMCA in Far Rockaway, he ultimately wasn't able to vote.
Arun: Why don't we listen to Cornelius Jacobs from Far Rockaway now.
Cornelius: I came here to vote and I found out that I'm with the Green Party, I'm not entitled to vote today, I have to wait for the general election.
Brigid: You said to me before you never missed an election?
Cornelius: I have never missed an election. I voted when I was in Vietnam in 1968.
Arun: So what's changed, Brigid? Like why can't he vote anymore?
Brigid: Well, I think that's one of the confusing things about some of our elections, whether he has voted in every primary since 1968. I didn't look up Mr. Jacobs's voting record. I think that is one of the things that with our closed primary system, there is no primary for the Green Party and so he is not eligible to vote in this particular primary. Obviously, that can be a frustration. That's something that here you have someone who's really engaged and not only do we have a closed primary system in New York, but we also have one of the earliest dates for-- If he were to want to change his party affiliation, so he could have participated in this primary, he would have needed to have done it in February.
That, Arun, is an improvement on what it used to be because it used to be that you had to do it back in October before the last general election. It used to be even worse than that. The legislature has improved it slightly, but still, there's some places where you could change your party affiliation closer to the primary. Given how much attention the fact that voters don't start tuning in until later, there could be a real question about maybe it should be even closer to the primary date.
Arun: Here's a question from a listener who benefits from low voter turnout.
Brigid: Well, I think most people would say the people who benefit are the people who are driving that turnout. Usually, the people driving that turnout are the people who are already in power. The harder you make it to vote-- We know that people are more likely to vote if they have been spoken to directly. If you are only speaking to a certain base, then potentially you have more control over the outcome of that election if only it's your voters who are turning out.
Arun: Brigid, you mentioned earlier on just how overwhelming a lock, I guess, the Democratic Party has on New York City voters. I think you said seven to one ratio versus Republicans in the city. What about other parties like the Working Families Party, which we've seen emerge to some extent in recent years, correct?
Brigid: Sure. the Working Families Party plays a really important role in terms of I think defining the agenda and oftentimes pushing the Democratic Party. The Working Families Party has to fight for its survival on a routine basis. Most recently there was a change made. Governor Cuomo has been an adversary with the Working Families Party, even though they have endorsed him in the past. That relationship is extremely fraught, and the power dynamic there is part of the reason they, at one point, had threatened to withhold an endorsement.
Ultimately, a budget cycle in I think it was 2020, I don't have the date right in front of me. There was language put into the budget that increased the number of votes that the Working Families Party needed to secure to maintain its ballot line. It used to be about 50,000 votes, and then it bumped up about three times that. That became a real -- It was an existential threat because by having a ballot line that gives the party some power, if they were to want to challenge say if they didn't agree with the Democratic nominee in a certain office, then they theoretically could put up an opposing candidate on the Working Families Party line.
Some candidates have run initially and exclusively on the Working Families Party line, it's where current Attorney General Letitia James got her start. She ran initially as a city council candidate on the Working Families Party line. It can be a real tool, but it is something that would have been diminished had they lost their ballot line, they had to fight for it, and they fought successfully. They beat back that challenge. What they needed people to do is to vote for the presidential candidates, in this case, the Democratic presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the Working Families Party line to maintain that line, and they were able to do that successfully and secure enough votes, and maintain that line.
It is one of those as an organizing tool and as a way to push a progressive agenda. The party tends to not to want to introduce candidates as spoilers, they tend to really want to just push the agenda. They played a role in this mayor's race as well. They were out in front initially making a ranked-choice endorsement, but this has been a very strange and chaotic mayoral primary, and their initial endorsement has changed. They had initially endorsed Scott Stringer, Diane Morales, and Maya Wiley. Now really, Maya Wiley is the only candidate that they are standing behind.
Arun: We have another caller on the line here. David from Howard Beachy, are you there?
David: Yes, I'm here, thank you for taking my call. I'll try to coherent and clear. Filling out and trying to research my mail-in ballot felt like doing not just a term paper, but a master's degree, and listening to your conversation, I got the same feelings that I had once I found out what school decentralization was about. In the name of community control and community input, they changed the entire way the city system was worked, and in the name of giving power to the people who actually use the public schools, what happened was they politicized the entire school system.
As you just said before, those groups that were already politically well organized, came in like vultures and took over the school system. It's taken us years to even begin to recover from that. This ranked-choice voting, if you're going to do it right, you ask each candidate 10 questions, they write their answers, you publish that in a document, and then I can compare and see what they're doing. But the way this is done, it's just made to confuse and made for the people who already have power to have an even stronger grasp on power. That's my statement.
Arun: Thanks so much, David. Brigid a disillusioned voter responding to these changes. Any thoughts to add there?
Brigid: Well, I would say, David, let's give it a shot. We haven't had a whole city-wide primary with ranked-choice voting yet, so let's maybe see how it turns out. I do think he is also giving voice to some of the concerns certainly that I have heard from voters and from other elected officials and advocates around rank choice voting. It is a new system. It required voter education, which depending on who you ask, it's either you can't go anywhere or go to any media without seeing something about ranked-choice voting, or you still don't understand what it is.
To his larger point about, can a system be manipulated by people with power to maintain their power? I think that is always a concern with elections, particularly if there is unequal access to information about how that system is operating. That's one of the things that we will be watching closely in the coming days. We know that because not just of ranked-choice voting, but because of some of the changes that have been made to our election laws to prevent voter disenfranchisement, that it's going to take longer to get the final results of this election, and that's going to be different for everyone, that's going to be different for candidates, for voters, for the media.
I think it's going to be hard. What we know at this point is that on Tuesday night, when the polls close at 9:00 PM, shortly thereafter, we will get the first batch of unofficial election night returns that they will not be put through the ranked-choice tally system. We know that after that point, according to the Board of Elections, they will not do their first official tally of ranked-choice votes until a week later. How people will respond to that, what people do with that information, knowing that it's incomplete, knowing that it will not yet include absentee ballots and affidavit ballots, that those ballots could still be coming in and still be completely eligible and worthy of being counted, is an open question.
Ultimately, the Board of Elections has said that their final result could take until the week of July 12 because that's when all the eligible ballots should be in. That's a long time, and that's not because of ranked-choice voting, but I think there are a lot of people who it will be hard to separate this new system from everything that comes afterwards.
Arun: Brigid, we only have a couple of minutes left, but I want to turn to something that you have followed closely for the last few years and perhaps the most spectacular example of a challenge to machine politics, which would be the events of 2018 when then-Congressman, Joseph Crowley, the fourth most powerful Democrat in the US Congress, lost to this underdog Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, someone you'd followed even before this spectacular win. What are the turn of events, I guess, tell us about machine politics in Queens? Has it changed significantly? Can you really say with two or three years, I guess, of hindsight that something has shifted, or is it just a new face to the machine?
Brigid: There certainly is a new face of the machine, there's a new leader, Congressman Greg Meeks is now the head of the Queens County Democrats. That is significant in its own right, he is a representative of Southeast Queens, which is a largely Black middle-class part of the borough. The organization has changed in some ways, but some of those same players who were eating the organization then, some of the lawyers who worked on ballots and helped run the party are still very much involved. I think one of the things that's interesting when we talk about party machines, there's the traditional idea of the machine, which is the actual structure of the organization and what it's able to do.
If you think really in a more redefined way, it's the insiders, the people who have power and understand how the levers of power work, and those who are outside of the machine. While the county party leaders, the party bosses, are not necessarily playing a strong role in this current mayoral cycle. There are people who are close to them, oftentimes lawyers, who have very significant roles, who still are able to get more information than other people who know what it takes to get on a ballot or to kick someone else off a ballot or to kick someone out of a poll site. That knowledge of the inner workings of the system I think that is the new machine. It's the insider versus the outsider.
Arun: Yes. We will have to leave it there. Brigid, thanks so much for joining us.
Brigid: Thanks, Arun.
Arun: Coming up, we're going to zoom out from the local to the national. Voting rights reporter for Mother Jones Magazine, Ari Berman will join me to talk about all those voting rights restrictions bills that have been passed all across the country since the 2020 election. We'll be right back.
Carolyn Adams: Hi. This is Carolyn Adams, a producer for the United States of Anxiety. You may have become familiar with Juneteenth over this past year as conversations about systemic racism and police brutality exploded across the country. The now federal holiday marks the day when news of freedom reached the last known enslaved people in the United States in 1865. That's two years after President Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation. Juneteenth is about the resilience and legacy of a people.
In this week's show notes, we invite you to celebrate with us by listening to our special holiday episode, “Juneteenth, an Unfinished Business.” You'll learn about the history of the holiday, hear some family stories, and listen to the sounds of freedom with WQXR's Terrance McKnight. Whether you're new to the holiday, or it's been a long-held family tradition for you, there's something in it for everyone. Take a listen and let us know what you think on Twitter using the #USofAnxiety or by emailing us at email@example.com.
Arun: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Arun Venugopal. We've been diving into the state of democracy in New York. Now we're going to examine the situation nationally, where there is a widespread assault on voting rights by Republicans. I'm joined by Ari Berman who covers voting rights as a senior reporter for Mother Jones. He's also the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Hi, Ari.
Ari Berman: Hey everyone. Thank you for having me.
Arun: Your book was published in 2015, just a year before Trump came into office. How has the voting rights landscape changed since that book was published? This is well before the so-called big lie that Trump and his followers are pushing.
Ari: It was, and things have changed quite a bit since then. My book Give Us the Ballot was published in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This was two years after the Supreme court had gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act, which really began to open the flood gates to new voter suppression efforts in places like Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, with a history of discrimination.
Voter suppression was ongoing when I started writing my book, but it obviously intensified significantly in 2020 with Donald Trump's attempt to try to overturn an election. Then, all of these Republican-controlled states trying to restrict voting access in response to that big lie. Voter suppression is not a new thing, but I would say it's significantly accelerated because of Donald Trump and his grip on the Republican party.
Arun: You mentioned the states that have historically had voter suppression enacted. Has it also left into states that have not had these problems, but are now taking to it?
Ari: Yes. What I would say is that traditionally southern methods of voter suppression have spread to the north. It's still true that places like Georgia and Texas, they have been repeat violators of voting rights in the past and they're violators of voting rights today. It's also true that places like Wisconsin and Michigan, which don't have the same history as a place like Georgia, they're also trying to restrict voting rights and have enacted new restrictions on voting in the past decade. It used to be that voter suppression was more of a regional issue. Now I would say it's more of a national issue and more of a partisan issue than it used to be in the past.
Arun: Much of the work of crafting voter suppression laws comes from a group called Heritage Action. What is Heritage Action?
Ari: Heritage Action is the sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, which is one of the top think tanks in Washington supplied much of the policies for Republican administrations like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Heritage Action is basically the political arm of the Heritage Foundation.
Arun: Tell us how voting restrictions work. Is it different depending on state?
Ari: Yes. We reported it in Mother Jones on this video, this leaked video that we obtained from Heritage Action, where they talked about how they were leading this effort to restrict voting rights across the country and how they had written what they called model legislation, making it harder to vote in places like Georgia and Texas and Iowa. Basically, what they said is that they were working with state legislators and all of these states to pass very similar pieces of legislation. That was a question I had.
When all of these states began rushing to restrict voting at the beginning of this year, I was thinking there must be someone behind this because there's no way that all of these states are passing new restrictions on voting in such a short period of time and passing such similar pieces of legislation. Basically, what heritage did is they had what they call these lists of best practices to restrict voting, making it harder to vote by mail, cutting back on the amount of time that people have to vote, adding new ID requirements, expanding access for partisan poll watchers. This lined up almost perfectly with Donald Trump's grievances about the election.
They basically went state by state by state and sold these conservative legislators on legislation to restrict voting rights. It was portrayed as this organic from the bottom of thing that was happening in the states, when in fact it was this big influential conservative organization in Washington that was essentially exporting a voter suppression agenda to the states, not the other way around.
Arun: Jessica Anderson is Heritage Action's executive director. She laid out the group's approach in that leaked video that you mentioned, which was obtained by documented and shared with Mother Jones. Let's listen to a clip of her for a second.
Jessica Anderson: I was the first state that we got to work in and we did it quickly and we did it quietly. Honestly, nobody noticed.
We worked quietly with the Iowa State Legislature. We got the best practices to them, we helped draft the bills, we made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony. We were able to get three provisions in the larger election integrity bill that were directly written by the heritage recommendation.
Arun: Ari when I hear this and I think she doesn't really sound like she cares if this video is leaked or not. There's a good deal of confidence in how she's addressing this crowd, isn't there?
Ari: There is, but of course, we wouldn't have known this if the video hadn't been leaked because this was behind a closed doors effort. They were talking to their largest donors. One of the problems here is that they are a dark money group. Their donors are secret. We know they were talking to these secret donors, but we don't actually know who the donors are. They have disclosed very little of their funding. This group Heritage Action raised $11 million in their last inner report. They disclose very little of that. The Heritage Foundation, which was much bigger they raised almost $123 million in their last annual report, which is a lot of money and disclosed very few of their donors.
You basically have a group that is very well-funded, but it doesn't have to disclose its donors essentially bragging behind closed doors about how easy it was for them to persuade Republicans to make it harder to vote. I just think that's really disturbing to a lot of people that you have these essentially twin threats democracy, too much money in the system, and efforts to restrict voting rights. They're essentially working hand in hand to limit the power of everyday citizens over their democracy.
Arun: You mentioned how easy they found it. We actually do have a clip. Why don't we go ahead and play her again? This is Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action speaking.
Jessica: My team looked at each other and were like, "It can't be that easy. It can't be that easy."
Arun: They're really having fun, aren't they, Ari? I guess the question really is why is it so easy?
Ari: Well, they have the power. Republicans have majorities in places like Iowa, in places like Georgia, in places like Texas, they have done very well at the state level in the last decade. They have also been in charge of drawing the redistricting maps in those states, which has allowed them to entrench their power. What is different this year than in years past is in years past we saw efforts to make it harder to vote, but they're so much more coordinated now. There's so much more sweeping than they were before that it may have been that a state passed, for example, a new voter ID law or a state cut back on early voting or a state made it easier to remove voters from the rolls.
Now it's happening all in one bill, that instead of having one provision that makes it harder to vote, there's 17, 18, 19 provisions in these bills making it harder to vote. Heritage is bragging-- they wrote three provisions of the Iowa law, eight provisions of the Georgia line, 19 provisions of the Texas law. That's a dramatic escalation of efforts to make it harder to vote coming on the heels of an attempt to try to overturn the election and they seem gleeful about it. We're talking about undermining the most fundamental right in democracy. I don't think that's something that you should brag about or be gleeful about it. I think when we released the story, obviously, the coordinated effort of it disrupt a lot of people, but just the way they were speaking about restricting voting rights, also disturbed a lot of people because they're thinking, "Why would that be something that you would actually be proud of?"
Aaron: A few days after you first published this story you wrote that Heritage faced an ethics investigation, correct? What became of that?
Ari: They're actually under an ethics investigation in Iowa and another ethics investigation has been filed in Texas. The interesting thing is that Iowa Republicans were actually very mad at Heritage for taking credit for writing parts of their voter suppression bill and Iowa Republicans basically said, "Heritage, didn't write this bill. If they did lobby for it, they didn't register as lobbyists, which is against the law."
The top Democrat in the Iowa House filed an ethics complaints against Heritage Action and Heritage Foundation and an official watchdog group in Iowa that's affiliated with the state, they have begun their own investigation. They either did this behind closed doors in a way that didn't comply with the law, or they may, in fact, in some cases be overstating their role, but either way, the fact that they were so open about bragging, about writing these laws has angered a lot of people, including it turns out quite a few Republicans.
Aaron: Certainly, these laws-- or going to court. Do you have any sense of definitely different states, but how they'll stand up to scrutiny in the court?
Ari: We have a judiciary that is dominated by conservative judges. Donald Trump made 234 appointments to the federal judiciary, including three Supreme Court judges. I am expecting the courts to be largely sympathetic to these efforts, which is why there's been such a push to pass federal legislation protecting the right to vote because even a lot of Democrats and progressives are not very optimistic about how the courts might deal with these laws.
They think they're going to be largely if not entirely supportive of these efforts because they don't really think there's anything wrong with restricting voting rights. The courts didn't go along with Trump's attempts to try to overturn the election, but they have in the past decade been largely supportive of Republican efforts to make it more difficult to vote.
Aaron: Do you sense that Republicans are still maintaining the veneer or this pretense the myth of voter fraud or is it becoming increasingly explicit that this is a highly racialized I guess campaign to disenfranchise Black voters?
Ari: I think come more explicit about it. There's no doubt about it. When Donald Trump talked during 2020 about trying to throw out votes from cities like Detroit and Milwaukee and Atlanta, it was very clear that he was talking about Black voters and communities of color in these kinds of places. Those were the votes they were trying to throw out. It's interesting because the issue of voter fraud was litigated so extensively in 2020, we had 60 courts, both Republican and Democratic appointed judges that looked at this issue and concluded there was no fraud. They've really shifted from this argument about voter fraud to this argument about election integrity.
They're basically saying, "Well, even if there was no fraud, people have concerns about the system. Therefore we need to change the laws," without acknowledging that people have concerns about the system because their own politicians lied to them about what happened in 2020. If Republicans had been honest with their own voters about what happened in 2020, there would not have been as clamor to pass these kinds of laws so that they manufactured a crisis. In response to the crisis, they've manufactured, they've put forward solutions to solve a problem that doesn't really exist.
Aaron: Has Heritage taken a public stand on HR1, otherwise known as the For the People Act?
Ari: Heritage has been leading the effort to block HR1, the For the People Act, they've spent a lot of money against it. They've distributed talking points to Republicans in on Capitol Hill about it. They even held a rally in West Virginia to pressure Joe Manchin not to support the bill and to keep the filibuster. Basically, what the group's executive director Jessica Anderson says was that, "If we pass this, we lose our democracy."
They've talked about this bill in very, very explicit terms and they really have a two-tiered strategy. One is to implement all of these new voting restrictions on the state level and the second part of it is to block federal legislation, the For the People Act that would preempt many of these state efforts to make it harder to vote.
Aaron: Both Democrats and Republicans, or at least groups like Heritage, conservative group like Heritage argue that basically, democracy is on the line here. When we're talking about groups like Heritage, what is their idea of democracy that they see as being threatened by things like this? Is it that this specter of voting fraud, which is not been corroborated, or is it something more, I guess, built out than that?
Ari: Heritage has been pushing the lie that there's widespread voter fraud in the system well before Donald Trump was so in many ways they originated the big lie before Donald Trump. They were talking about these issues for decades. I do think they have this belief that if you make voting easier, people will cheat and corrupt the system, which is just not true. I think there's this on this deeper level, there's this notion that elections are only legitimate when Republicans win them.
I think that's a very, very dangerous thing in a democracy because one of the core tenants of a democracy is that you respect the integrity of the election no matter who wins. That's what free and fair elections are all about. When you start saying the election is only legitimate when our side wins the election, you start creeping from democracy into authoritarianism. That's what's so dangerous about what Donald Trump did in 2020 and that's what's so dangerous about the fact that so many Republicans seemed to go along with that and are now trying to change election laws to achieve that outcome.
Aaron: It's not just Republicans who are opposed to HR1 or the For of the People Act. It's also the Democrat that I guess all eyes have been on, Joe Manchin, correct?
Ari: Correct. He opposes the For the People Act as written, he has introduced a compromise proposal that would preserve large chunks of For the People Act, things like automatic voter registration, and two weeks of early voting, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. Then, he has also endorsed some restrictions that Republicans like, like new voter ID laws, they're not quite as strict as the ones that Republicans want. Democrats are largely okay with a Manchin proposal. They're not thrilled with it, but they'd be a lot happier with passing the Manchin proposal than passing no voting rights legislation. Of course, that's not going to get 60 votes either.
No bill introduced by Joe Manchin is going to get their votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster and achieve 60 votes. Then the question is this week when Republicans block the For the People Act, what is Joe Manchin's fallback plan because he has said that he will not support ending the filibuster, but none of the voting rights bills that he supports, whether it's his own compromised the For the People Act, whether it's another bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that would restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act. None of them have a chance of passing without getting rid of the filibuster, without lowering the threshold of the filibuster. That's the next debate to come once the For the People Act is blocked this week.
Aaron: What kind of alarm are you sensing amongst voting rights groups? Is it pretty much apocalyptic? Because at least on the ground a lot of people don't see where things go go forward from here, there seems to be a complete, I guess, standstill.
Ari: The alarm is basically a code red right now because the feeling is if Congress doesn't pass federal legislation protecting voting rights, there's going to be no other way to stop it. The courts are going to be largely supportive of these efforts and that in two years there might be very different majorities in Congress. Republicans might have taken back the House or the Senate and Democrats will lose their best chance in a generation to try to protect the right to vote. That's why people are so alarmed right now. This is why it's such an important moment in history.
Arun: Thank you. Ari Berman voting rights reporter for Mother Jones Magazine, you can read Ari's coverage of what's happening across the US at motherjones.com. This is the United States of Anxiety. You can keep in touch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can catch up on all of our shows and here's some stuff that doesn't make it into the Sunday show by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts, or you can simply go to wnyc.org/anxiety. I'm Arun Venugopal, and it was my pleasure to guest host this week. Next week my colleague Veralyn Williams will be in the host seat. Thanks for spending time with us.
The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Hannis Brown makes the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Carl Boisrond, Emily Botein, Karen Frillmann, and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer and I'm Arun Venugopal. 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 to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
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