Amy Walter: It's Politics with Amy Walter on the Takeaway. A couple of weeks ago when I announced this show would be coming to an end, I told you we'd spend the last few shows looking at the political challenges ahead to understand their root causes and to understand how they're being addressed or ignored. Today we'll hear from a few of the heroes of the 2020 election, the officials and volunteers who worked tirelessly to protect the integrity of our elections. They worked through a global health crisis that dramatically altered the way we cast votes in this country and the plague of disinformation that sought to undermine American confidence in democracy itself.
We begin with the conversation about diversity and political journalism. When I first started reporting on politics and well, sometimes I feel super, super old. It wasn't that long ago, I was often the lone woman in the room. There was sometimes a boys club feel to political coverage. Girls were allowed, but they had to be willing to adapt to the already established culture, but the lack of reporters of color was even more striking. Look through those press scrums from the 1980s and '90s, even the early 2000s and you see very few brown and Black faces. Of course, a lot has changed in recent years and newsrooms have had to adapt.
This year we saw a lot of reporters of color on our TV. We listened to them in podcasts, on radio shows, and read their by-lines in the nation's top newspapers. Ignoring issues of systemic racism is no longer possible, 2020 taught us that. In fact, race and racism international reckoning are rightly centered in the national conversation. What does all of this mean for how we discuss politics and policy. For that, I turned to Errin Haines co-founder and editor at large for The 19th, Toluse Olorunnipa national political reporter for the Washington Post, and Maya King political reporter at Politico.
Maya King: Over the last, particularly the last few years, we've really been able to see and learn the value and the huge platform that Black voters have, not just as a political force, but an organizing force. Every campaign that I spoke to on the primary-- on the campaign trail and I'm sure I'm Toluse with Errin can attest to this really underlined the value of Black voters, especially in 2018 and in 2019, when things were really starting to kick up on the campaign.
Then, we had this thing called the Coronavirus step into the scene and that totally changed the direction of the political campaign, but it didn't necessarily change, at least for me, in my reporting on race and demographics, the direction of my reporting in that I was still focusing on the impact and disproportionate impact of these policies and of these major events on Black communities. Taking it even further, we had the George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, killings at the hands of police, that spurned international protests against racial inequities and against police violence.
It was just made very clear to me, time and time again, of just the giant value and platform that Black communities have specifically as it relates to American politics. Covering all of that also, as a Black woman was truly-- It required me to really challenge my own understandings of the community that I also belong to, which was great for me as a journalist to be able to still learn a lot of new things and be able to tell stories that hadn't been told before but was also equally very difficult to be able to not only understand these and see these things happening in real-time but also see how they were impacting those closest to me in my community and in my family.
That in itself was also informing my reporting. I say all that to say it really has been a truly remarkable 18 months and as it relates to politics and political reporting, I mean, covering this as a Black person, again, has truly been very much as equally fulfilling as it has been challenging.
Amy: Toluse, how would you describe your experience?
Toluse Olorunnipa: Yes, I think Maya covered it actually really, really well. We all as reporters try to figure out how to tell the story of what's happening in the country and even globally, and there's such a diverse experience based on where you're from, based on what kinds of community you live in, and it's important as reporters to tell the full story, especially here in America to make sure that everyone's story gets told and gets told with the appropriate context and gets the appropriate weight and attention that's needed.
For a large part of our history, certain communities were overlooked, their stories were not told, or that their stories were told in stereotypical ways or ways that did not appreciate the fullness of those cultures and communities. I think having a more diverse press corps is a big part of trying to tell those stories in the appropriate way, with the appropriate amount of cultural recognition of what those communities are going through.
As Maya said, as we've faced the past couple of years of turbulence, especially when it comes to racial issues in the country, it's important to have voices that understand what a lot of these communities have been going through that just has not been getting the coverage, or have not been getting the focus that it's appropriate over the past several decades. Now that the country is turning its attention to these issues, it's important that these voices are elevated. It's important that people who are now ready to tell their stories to a broader audience get to do so without having them filtered through a negative lens that we've seen so often in the past.
I do feel some level of responsibility to make sure that I'm telling those broad stories in an appropriate way, that I'm giving voice to people in communities that have been overlooked for far too long. It's a weighty responsibility. It's difficult in addition to the difficulties of just being a reporter, generally, it's an added responsibility that I think we have to make sure that we are representing people who may have skepticism towards the media may feel like in the past their stories were misinterpreted or not given the right amount of attention. Now that people are starting to focus on these issues, whether it's incoming inequality, police brutality, police harassment, those stories are told with the right level of nuance.
There's definitely some high level of responsibility to make sure we're doing that well, make sure that we are reporting for the broad community, but that we're doing it in a nuanced way. It's all of our responsibilities, but I think there's a special responsibility on people who have experience with these communities who have maybe grown up in these communities who may understand some of the nuance better than other reporters to make sure that we're doing our part to provide that level of context and nuance so that those stories are told in a way that enlightens us all.
Amy: Errin, you have the unique position that you also started a news organization in this moment. One that focused specifically on reflecting racial, ideological, socioeconomic gender diversity of American voters. Talk about that experience and compare it to you're experiences that you had in traditional newsrooms, you came most immediately from the AP.
Errin: Sure. Let me also just say though how great it is to be in conversation with my colleagues who are growing in number, especially in terms of visibility and representation because that absolutely matters but look, yes, I was one of the five women who helped to start The 19th, which is a nonprofit independent newsroom that is at the intersection of gender policy and politics because we wanted to change the narrative around the majority of the US electorate, namely women, but also marginalized folks in this country.
I'm somebody who spent much of my career covering issues of race. I would say, by default gender because I do tend to see a lot of my work through my own lived experience as a Black woman, but probably focused a lot more on my Blackness than my womanhood honestly, before I came to The 19th. I think early on in my career, I thought I was going to be covering the vestiges of racism and the progress that the gains that had been made kind of since the civil rights movement, but I now find myself really focused on some of the losses and the retrenchment of racism in this country.
In addition to some of the continued progress that Black Americans have made. Yes, I mean, starting this newsroom really was about changing the conversation around gender, yes, but also frankly, around race in this country, especially as it pertains to our politics. Last year we certainly did not envision starting a newsroom in the middle of a pandemic, but we absolutely sat at the intersection of everything.
I think in 2020 the country and in our industry saw what a lot of Black journalists and Black America have long known which is that race is the unfinished business of our democracy and the story of our time. As a Black journalist, as Toluse and I have said, we get to chronicle the highs and the lows of the Black experience in this country. Those were certainly on display last year. Black people continuing to be disproportionately affected in yet another facet of American life with the pandemic from both the public health and economic perspective.
A national reckoning on race that came even in the midst of a global public health crisis and yet an election in which Black voters would not be denied even in the midst of a pandemic to vote in record numbers and to help elect a Black woman as the second most powerful person in the country for the first time in our history. For me, others have talked about bringing our lived experience to the work.
I'm somebody who has always believed that that is an asset the Black journalists have, not a bias. It's not a superpower, frankly, because we see stories that other folks don't necessarily see. We're in conversation with our family members, our friends, people from college, you name it, talking about what it means to be Black in America in this moment. As journalists, more broadly, our mission is to leave behind the most honest and accurate record of who and where we are as a country. If we're not telling the truth about race in public, I know that we're not doing that, we're not doing our job as journalists, period. Much less as Black journalists, more specifically.
Amy: We'll talk about that for a minute too about bringing the lived experience and then the pressure on being a "objective journalist." You're supposed to be dispassionate, you're supposed to be able to detach yourself from what you're covering which also seems very unrealistic, number one. Number two, something that people who are white and covering politics. Of course, that is a much easier experience for them than it is for others.
Errin: I don't know. I would actually push back on that. Objectively speaking, race is a matter of fact in terms of life in the United States. If we can agree upon that fact of life in America, then I think we can begin to have a conversation about exactly what objectivity means. Like I said, the goal here is honesty and accuracy. I think that because race has been so polarizing in this country because of the original sin of slavery, the default setting of some people is that to talk about race is to invite bias into [crosstalk]
Amy: Exactly. Doesn't it seem like we're still there? Do you feel like we've actually gotten past that? I don't. I still feel like it's like, "Oh, that's not okay to talk about. That's polarizing. That's divisive. Let's not talk about that in--
Errin: I would say when I am met with that reaction, that tells me more about the journalist than it does about whatever the story is and I think too what we've come to learn certainly in the last four years, if not before that, is that more folks, white Americans, and that includes white Americans in newsrooms are starting to really think about what it means to be a white person in America.
The idea of whiteness is part of our identity politics. That's real. That's a thing and that is a journalistic aspect of our job that is worth being explored, but because white Americans and, by default, white journalists are not thinking about theses issues honestly nearly as much as Black people and Black journalists think about race. They're not as comfortable talking about it. They are not as used to using that muscle. It is a muscle, honestly. The more you use it, the more comfortable you get with it, the better you get at it.
I would just encourage white journalists who are coming to realize the roles that race plays, not only in our politics but in our society more broadly, to get rid of these kinds of traditional notions of objectivity which were developed and defined largely by white male gatekeepers. Being dispassionate about it means taking these feelings out of writing about race and really focusing on the facts of writing about race and journalism that focuses on those facts. If we do that, then I think that we're living up to our journalistic mission.
Amy: Toluse, I want to get to that issue too of facts. You covered the White House, you covered the Trump campaign. Back in 2016, journalists were very uncomfortable calling what Donald Trump was doing or saying, "Racist." By the time when he was sworn in as president, and then as we went into the campaign, newspapers including yours, I'm just going to read a Washington Post headline from the summer of 2020, was, "Trump's push to amplify racism unnerves Republicans who have long enabled him."
Can you talk about what happened, where that changed, where that switch seemed to be flipped from being uncomfortable as Errin was discussing with talking about race in a "dispassionate way" versus calling out what was right in front of us all along?
Toluse: Yes. I think it was an industry-wide and a paper-wide reckoning with what Errin was talking about, the importance of covering this issue, covering the issue of race without kid gloves. Covering it in a fact-based manner. The fact is that many other things that the president was saying, the things he was doing, the political strategy that he was employing were racist. They were racially offensive, they were racially insensitive and they were racist.
They were essentially pushes and efforts to denigrate specific communities, pushes to identify with his own whiteness and to get his supporters to see their whiteness as a form of privilege that they didn't want to let go, and to rile up his "base" with sometimes racist dog whistles, and sometimes racist bullhorns. There were so many examples. One that comes to mind is when the president told four congresswomen of color to go back to their countries, even though they were American citizens and the vast majority of them were actually born in this country and had no other country to go back to. It was really clear when the president started doing things like that.
The examples piled up in the newspaper and the top leaders at the newspaper started to realize that we cannot beat around the bush. We have to do a service to our readers by calling things as they are even though it may be uncomfortable for our readers, it may be uncomfortable for the broader public to think of the president of the United States as someone who traffics in racist language and politics, but that was what was happening and it was important for us to be true to the moment, to be fact-based and to be unsparing in our coverage of the way the president was behaving.
I think that was something that ended up becoming a service to our readers because it was important for them to know that this is what was happening in the country. The country is, as Errin said, still trying to work on this unfinished business of racial inequality and racial sensitivity. It is something that is difficult to talk about, it is difficult to process. It is a challenge that this country has faced for the better part of two centuries. It continues to be a challenge that we're facing.
It's important for us in the media to focus on the issues that are continuing to face the country without peppering over them or making it seem like all of those issues have been solved, or that all the problems that marred the history of this country no longer affect a large portion of the people in the country. In fact almost everyone in the country is touched by race in one way or the other. I think it was important for us to call this for what it was and to level with our readers, level with our audience about what was happening in the country. Sometimes it required us to use language that may be difficult to read or difficult to process, but language that reflected the reality of what we're living in which is a difficult time.
Errin: Amy, I just want to echo and just put a pin in something that Toluse was saying just now. The idea that we saw racism re-emerging in the last four years, Black journalists saw this, they said this and sometimes they were criticized for trying to point this out in newsrooms. We can't lose sight of that because I think it's important for our political journalism coverage going forward, and our coverage of our country going forward. I could think back to the 2016 campaign when we saw that there was racism happening at some of these Make America Great Again rallies.
That was in the atmosphere of some of these rallies. That is not to suggest that everyone that voted for former President Trump was a racist, but racism was certainly a part of the equation. That was something that was emboldened and enabled. It is a fact. Our federal government has found white nationalism, white power, is a national domestic terrorism threat. That's not a Black journalist saying that in a newsroom. That is something that our own government has found to be true.
Saying those things, even though, to Toluse's point, they may make some people uncomfortable because they may see some of these folks, some of these stories, and maybe their lived experience is similar to-- They know somebody who maybe has reflected some of these views, or they want to maybe try to empathize with folks that-- Or try to understand better, but it really is important to understand the dynamics of race and politics.
I think that is something that journalists of color who are covering politics are definitely uniquely positioned to do. I hope that it is something that more white journalists who cover politics get more comfortable doing. Just because former President Trump is no longer in office, that does not mean that the intersection of race and politics is no longer with us. Just as when the first Black president Barack Obama left office, we certainly were very far from being post-racial. If anything, we are in a hyper-racial America. That means that we have an obligation to cover that.
Amy: That's a great segue, then Maya to you to ask about where do we go from here and what your expectations are going forward. As Errin pointed out, Donald Trump's not there fanning the flames every single day, like we saw for the last four years, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't cover with the same intentionality these issues of race. What do you think the commitment is as you're seeing in your newsroom and others evolve at this time to doing so?
Maya: Well, first, I would argue that now, especially this year, if not the next four years, make the story of race and politics as important as they've almost ever been. We've got a bill on reparations on the hill within the first 100 days of a presidential administration. I'm not sure if that's ever happened before. Even on top of that, communities of color that showed up to the polls in mass in the midst of a public health crisis, and an international reckoning on race, are looking to this particular White House and saying, "We need you to deliver for us."
Even more specifically, Black communities are looking to this White House with a Black and South Asian Vice President, a historically diverse presidential cabinet, historically diverse Congress waiting for policies that will specifically positively impact their communities saying, "We've delivered for you. Please deliver for us." I know for the next 12 months to the next four years, that's exactly what I'm looking at. That's all that I'm following is what are the limits of representation now? How does having historic diversity in the top levers of power impact politics and policy for communities of color?
I would agree with everything that my colleagues have said, which is, yes, this is absolutely a critical time for coverage of race and coverage of demographics. I would take it even further and say that if newsrooms charge and journalism's creed is to tell the truth and to state the facts, then reporting about race and the impacts of these policies is part of that. We don't necessarily have to think too hard about this if we're still holding ourselves to the same journalistic standards that we've been saying that we would like to see.
That means, of course, for our white colleagues who are on the White House beat, who are on the Congress beat, not just relegating the stories about race and policy to your colleagues of color because this is your beat too, this is part of the story that everyone is telling. If there is some discomfort, give the people who are telling these stories, who have made this their life's work, the support that they need within newsrooms to be able to do that as effectively as possible. That's the biggest takeaway that I would have here is just that, I think that more newsrooms now understand the value and importance of covering race in politics.
Now, the challenge, of course, is figuring out how to do that the right way. That's what we'll be seeing too as we continue to follow this story of race and politics from a political standpoint, how are newsrooms going to evolve to make sure that this is also done correctly?
Amy: This has been fantastic. Thank you guys so much for coming on and talking through this with me.
Errin: Well, thank you for allowing us to gather together because we don't get to do this nearly enough in a pandemic.
Amy: I know. Someday soon, we will be in person. Bye guys.
Toluse: Bye, Amy.
Amy: Errin Haynes, co-founder and editor at large for The 19th, Toluse Olorunnipa, national political reporter for The Washington Post, and Maya King, political reporter at Politico.
Over the course of the 2020 campaign, we talked to a lot of big name elected and appointed officials.
Audio Recording: Eric Holder, Scott Walker, Chuck Hagel, Susan Rice, Andy Card. This Is John Kerry, Leon Castro, Rowe Connor, Senator Bernie Sanders, Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan.
Amy: To me the most consequential figures of 2020 were people most of the country had never heard of before.
Damon Circosta: My name is Damon Circosta. I'm chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Katie Hobbs: Katie Hobbs, Arizona Secretary of State.
Amy: As well as some of the regular folks who volunteered their time to make a difference.
Evan Malbrough: My name is Evan Malbrough. I am the founder and executive director of the Georgia youth poll worker project.
Amy: I interviewed Chairman Circosta, Evan Malbrough, and Secretary Hobbs back in the fall. Between the pandemic and President Trump's attacks on vote by mail, it was clear that the one sleepy domain of election administration was going to be critical. Even then, we didn't appreciate the kind of pressure many of these election officials would face in the days after the election had ended.
President Trump: Look, all I want to do is this, I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state. Have they moved the inner parts of the machines and replaced them with other parts?
Brad Raffensperger: No.
Amy: In the span of a few months, their jobs went from relative obscurity to front and center.
Damon: We take pride in not being part of the story but with the pandemic, the misinformation, the uncertainty that exists in society, we became part of the story. It was hard on a personal level, it was challenging for all of our staff.
Katie: Elections are very complicated. It takes a lot to ensure that we're upholding democracy, and it takes partnership. We really worked to invest in that partnership early, which paid off as we were facing three elections in 2020 during a global pandemic.
Evan: The election, it was a lot because the election required the United States in general, not just Georgia to create new systems to adjust to the virus when new system change isn't really the norm in our government and in our election system. We had to train thousands of new poll workers to work the polls and rely on our training rather than the 30-year experience that we were relying on.
Amy: As voting officials attempted to run smooth and fair elections. They also had to combat the nonstop spread of misinformation, much of which was instigated by former President Trump.
Damon: There's no doubt that all of the misinformation made our jobs harder but it gave us all more resolve. I think the one thing you'd see in the election administration community throughout the state of North Carolina and throughout the country is our job doubled. It used to be we had to conduct a flawless election and we were able to do that. Now we have to conduct a flawless election and make sure our fellow citizens understand how we went about doing that.
Katie: It was frustrating to say the least. I think that how I operated throughout that was really just focusing on the fact that we're doing our jobs in spite of all of this and in spite of all of this misinformation, we had unprecedented voter turnout in this election and participation and that's something to celebrate. I am 100% confident in the election that we conducted. The former president can say whatever he wants to, he's not right.
Evan: During the 2020 election, there were moments when I was scared. There were some situations. I remember one precinct calling me saying that there were people taking pictures of the poll workers' license plates, at their precinct on election day.
Amy: Even after a year, like 2020, these individuals remain dedicated to administering future elections, and safeguarding our democracy.
Damon: There were concerns about the physical safety of our employees, there was concerns about the threats to our buildings, there was concern that we would see direct physical attacks on the very people whose job it is to make sure that everyone has a voice. It was scary. It was surreal at some points, but again it made us feel all the more resolved to make sure we get this right, but if anything, 2020 taught us that we are very necessary. Our work is very important and that we're not going to let anybody stop us from doing it. The things that I'm most concerned about moving forward is that political actors will use this as a means to try and thwart various methods of voting.
Katie: My office introduced a bill that's pretty comprehensive in terms of what we see as an agenda to improve elections in the state and we've been working on this piece of legislation for the past year really as we move through the process of administering the election and all of the things that need to streamline election administration to increase access to voting and to enhance election security.
Evan: I'm very concerned about the backlash. I forgot who said it, but they said all elections have consequences and in Georgia, we're starting to see that. Currently, the Georgia state legislator, which is a trifecta legislator, is seeking to pass seven bills that would severely hurt voting rights in the state of Georgia. We have bills that would ban no-excuse absentee voting bills proposed that will ban non-profits from distributing absentee ballot applications to voters. What we're starting to see is a surgical backlash against the high voter turnout we had because some did not like the results.
Amy: It seems like Georgia will stay the center of the political universe. In November the state flip from red to blue for the first time in almost 30 years and earlier this year, Democrats won both Senate seats. Last year, of course, then President Trump spent a considerable amount of time trying to overturn the state's election results and on a phone call, even pressured the Republican secretary of state to, "Find votes that would reverse his loss."
Gabriel Sterling is a Republican and the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer for the office of the Georgia secretary of state. Like the other election officials around the country, Sterling did not expect to become a household name, but on December 1st, his press conference, were budding many of the false accusations made by president Trump went viral.
Gabriel Sterling: It had all gone too far. All of it. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up and if you're going to take a position of leadership, show something. Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence so much didn't get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone's going to get killed and it's not right.
Amy: I decided to check in with Gabriel Sterling this week to see how he's processing the election and his role in it.
Gabriel: It was the biggest rollout of a voting system in the United States history in a single location. We have 159 counties that range in size from 1,500 voters to a million people, very differently resourced. We have a centralized system, which is different from most days where counties in a purchasing systems that are just approved by the state.
The state actually bought everything. We had $150 million bond package to get this rolled out and we had to do it all in really less than a year. With 33,000 ballot marking devices up to 3,000 big scanners, 8,000 poll pads for check-in and train and help recruit thousands of poll workers around the state, and then a pandemic hit. We didn't have to rejigger some of our resources and focus on what could we do to keep people safe and run a good election at the same time.
In June, we had some hiccups, but really only in one county, most of the state executed really well. We rolled out an absentee ballot program that was based on the fact that Georgia has a no-excuse absentee ballot request system that was passed and signed by Republicans in 2005. We leverage that as best we could and got over a million people to vote that way in the primary. Fulton County was still up-- The state's largest County, had some real challenges and some issues, and they did not a great job of recruiting and training.
Now, in all fairness, they lost a lot of locations. They lost a lot of people and the average age of a poll worker in Georgia was about 70 or 70 plus. We lost a lot of institutional knowledge because they were obviously the most at risk for COVID. It's not always about the technology. It's about what do you do when something weird happens. Most of these people who have been doing it for two and three and four and 10 cycles.
They knew what to do. Somebody walks in without an ID, you give them a provisional ballot. This is how you handle that. Someone wants to cancel an absentee ballot, you got to call the headquarters, but when you have a bunch of new people who literally Fulton County recruited on the Friday before the election, they put out a call for 250 workers and there was no time to train and they hit the wall pretty hard.
Amy: Yet, after all of that, on November 3rd, things went really well.
Gabriel: Oh, this was a historically well-functioning election.
Amy: I think a lot of people expected some of those same hiccups. We're going to see long lines. We're going to see complaints. We're going to hear from local officials. Oh my gosh, we lost all these poll workers or the system has crashed. None of that happened. At what point did you realize that the election system was going to be the center of Donald Trump's universe?
Gabriel: On the evening of November 3rd, I was in victory lap mode because we slayed the dragon and long lines, like you said, we didn't have all those complaints. We didn't have those issues. The results were coming in relatively quickly and we told everybody for days, "It's going to be a couple of days because this could be a close race." On the afternoon of November 4th, since I had grown up in Georgia politics and I knew where things were and where votes were.
I called everybody together. I said, "Look, we're about to have some issues." They're like, "What do you mean?" I said, "Trump's going to lose by about 10,000 votes." I was off by 2,000 because I just saw what was out still. I said, "We got to get prepared for this." I said, "I don't have any idea what that's going to look like," but the funny part was ballots kept coming in and we did more things.
We did the hand tally and both the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign for the first seven, eight days really didn't know what to say because there was a possibility either one of them could have pulled off winning and they couldn't attack the system if they were going to win. Once it was obvious that the president had lost, then the bottom fell out, and then we were all shocked and surprised, including the two Senate candidates, two senators’ own staffs when they called for the secretary's resignation. When they did that, that was the day the death threats started.
Amy: The death threats against you.
Gabriel: Probably, the day after that, but they were definitely against the secretary and his wife. That very evening, they began.
Amy: I have to assume that this is nothing that you were prepared for or that you had seen even after spending all these years in politics.
Gabriel: No, you don't expect that, but once it started, again, I've said this on other interviews, the secretary ran, his wife knew he ran. I put myself in the public way out there on television. It is terrible to say, you can't really whine about it, this is the nature of the discourse, which is terrible, but it's there. You kind of expected that at some level this happens in the social media, crazy, mixed-up world, but what happened when I lost it on December 1st, was that a young man who had simply taken an IT job, a contractor for our Dominion voting system contractor when they got his name and it was a unique name.
I think he was a first-generation American and they started harassing him and his family giving him death threats and I saw on Twitter, they have the young man's name and it said, "You've committed treason may God have mercy on your soul." It had a slowly moving gift of a noose. I was like, "That's it, I'm done," and that's when I went out and I talked to my boss directly, the deputy secretary, Jordan Fuchs who then talked to the secretary Raffensperger and basically said, "He needs to say something." The secretary was like, "Well, let him do what he does." So that's what I did, not knowing exactly what I was going to say, but I was more eloquent when I was angry I think that if I've sat down and thought about it.
Amy: I want to get us back to then solving this challenge. You've been very good at pointing out the frustration that you have when nobody believes in this system and so we now are-- Georgia legislature is back in session and there are a lot of bills out there that may or may not actually come to be law to make changes to the voting system. From your perspective, as somebody who was closer to this than almost anybody else, what do you think needs to be changed? And as you're seeing these laws get introduced, what do you think--? We don't really need to go there.
Gabriel: Some of them are red meat for their base and some of these men and women introducing them know they will never go anywhere, but they can always go back to their Republican County breakfast and say, "Hey, I introduced this bill to do this great thing we need to do to protect our system." It didn't go anywhere, but we did to get this final bill. There's lots of things in election administration to get done to make things better and help counties and restore confidence because the real problem we have now, and again, Georgia is a little unique because we've had confidence undermined from the left saying there's voter suppression, from the right saying there's voter fraud.
Both of them are false. What do you do to try to make it better? A lot of election administration, things that are just like-- That may feel ticky-tacky but really help. As an example, we don't have an absentee ballot application deadline in this state, this doesn't exist. There's a de facto one, but it doesn't work. What we want to do is make about 10 days out or 11 days out because it was a Friday before the Tuesday election and our own review of the absentee ballot says if you requested it before that 11 days, 91% of those people actually cast their ballot one way or another, they're defined. If you requested it, after that it dropped down to 54%.
If you really want to make election administration easier for the counties and make sure those people retain the franchise, putting absentee ballot application deadline is a great thing to do because then you don't have people saying, "I never got my absentee ballot. I didn't get there," because at that point you still have a full other week of early voting because it's in Georgia, we have three weeks plus a mandated Saturday of early voting.
Amy: The one thing that even the secretary of state has said to endorse is to limit no-excuse absentee voting to just those who are 75 and older, or have a real valid medical excuse. As you pointed out, this has been in place since 2005, this no-excuse absentee voting. Do you think literally rolling that back to just-- You have to be an older person or disabled person in some way, do you think that's the answer?
Gabriel: I don't know that that's the answer in and of itself. What you have to do is understand there's a lot of people who have a lot of lack of faith, because even the Carter Center has said absentee ballots are the one area where we have the least amount of security. The other thing that we see with that as an example, and it's not apocryphal, this is real things that happen. We all know they've happened over the years. When you go to vote in-person, you're showing your ID, yes, this is you.
You go into a booth; people can make sure there's nobody intimidating you. In absentee ballot, we've all heard stories where the sheriff comes to work, "Hey, I saw you got that big, bright, yellow absentee ballot, maybe we can help you fill that out." The way we have historically voted in Georgia, absentee ballot is about 5% and in-person is about 95%. I think we're going to fall back to a 10% or 15% level of absentee voting just because of some changes due to the pandemic and people seeing how easy it is. I don't know what will happen at the end of the day when it comes to what the legislature does on no-excuse--
Amy: You guys spent so much time-- You did, the secretary did, on pushing back on the president and others who were spreading these stories about signature match and you guys kept saying, "Look, we've done the work. We have all of the receipts here." Nothing happened [crosstalk] literally and figuratively. You had to talk about that all the time. It seems like you have already proven that it actually works and you can understand why not-- [crosstalk]
Gabriel: Another thing we can do that undermines people's confidence is signature match because it is subjective. They believe that people who have different political beliefs than them, will all have signatures to go through because of where they are. One of the things I think we absolutely need to do is moved to a voter ID, but based not on a picture that you mail to somebody, but fill in your driver's license number.
We have a driver's license number attached to 97% of our voting records. Driver's license number and birthday, those are unique identifiers. That's the way other states do it and that's the way our absentee ballot portal worked. That's how we identified you securely. I knew it was there so it's more secure and more objective. You either got the number or you don't.
For those who don't have a driver's license or state ID, we have 99.9% of people with a social security numbers in our voting records, which means that we can use last four and their date of birth as a unique identifier to give them those things. Then we're covering 99.9%. Now that last 0.1% there's HAVA ID. They would have to make a copy of that and send it in, but that takes care of 99.9% of our stuff takes away the subjective questions about signature match. It makes everybody's confidence increase.
Amy: One final question for you going forward as somebody who's been involved in this for so long in politics in this state and after what you had to go through, are you going to stay involved or are you sticking around with the secretary of state's office? Are you optimistic at all about what the next few years holds?
Gabriel: I'm a Republican who grew up in the '80s. I'm always optimistic Amy. Yes, I'm going to stick around the secretary of state office for at least a while. In fact, right now I'm sitting in Macon, Georgia trying to work on fixing licensing in the state to make sure people who want to follow a career path have the ability to do it as quickly and cleanly as possible while protecting the health and safety of Georgians. It's boring.
My work is supposed to be a function to make government work, but I'm never going to walk away from my party. I will continue to fight for the sanity and sanctity of this party with my dying breath, probably because I grew up in this and I think this is the center-right party that can lead to prosperity and a better life for more Americans than any other vehicle. Is there problems right now? Oh, hell yes. Is there a problem with some of the policies that Trump did?
I'm sure, but a lot of stuff he did, I liked as a Republican, but I never was a huge fan of how he did it and now this level of disinformation and conspiracy theories from people like Marjorie Taylor Greene in my state, but you don't change a party by walking away from it. The idea of the split and have another party, one of the issues you have in a country where you are first across the post, you're designed to have a center-left and a center-right party.
There has never been-- Since the Whigs went away, the Republicans showed up there hasn't been a successful third-party movement and there never will be because of the way the system is built. It's just not going to happen. If people will have those dreams in their head of doing that. You need to wake up and realize if you want the Republican party to be that center-right party and grab more people and help drive those values forward. You have to fight within that Republican Party. If you want to do that for the Democratic Party, same thing.
Amy: Gabriel Sterling is the chief operating officer and chief financial officer for the office of the Georgia secretary of state.
Insulating our democracy and our elections in particular from the threat of misinformation is not a new phenomenon. In 2016, we learned how easily social media could be manipulated by foreign actors. In 2020 things shifted. I'm sure there were still attempts by foreign actors to undermine democracy, but the most insidious three lies were coming from the White House where Donald Trump continued to stoke the false narrative that the election was stolen from him.
We watched as the social media platforms struggled to meet this moment with appropriate action. This week, I caught up with Suzanne Spaulding, senior advisor at the center for strategic and international studies. We talked about how prepared the social media networks and other institutions were to combat misinformation related to the election in 2020 and how that compared to 2016.
Suzanne Spaulding: We are all susceptible to that inclination to fight the last war. The work that the platforms did on identifying inauthentic accounts and identifying foreign users pretending to be Americans. As you say, that foreign threat really did not prepare them for what we ultimately confronted, which is you say, it's not just domestic voices throughout the country, but really the loudest megaphone coming from the president himself in the White House and that is a really tough issue.
I am sympathetic with the agonizing decision-making that the platforms had to go through in determining how to address this, but again, I think we needed to see more alacrity and I certainly hope that going forward they are, again, not just institutionalizing the lessons learned from this most recent election, but doing a better job of trying to anticipate where things will go next.
Amy: One thing we heard a lot about even after the horrific attack on the Capitol on January 6th, was that our constitutional guardrails ended up holding. Do you feel confident on this, the guard rails held argument?
Suzanne: I think the bottom line is yes. I often said it was my fervor daily prayer over the last four years that when this was over that would be able to say that the system ultimately held and worked and I think that's true. I don't think it's over yet. I think it's maybe premature to go-- certainly, we should not go toward complacency about the strength of our institutions.
I think they held, but I would say barely and I say that because while the courts held to the rule of law the legitimacy of those decisions was clearly not accepted at least by the mob that stormed at the Capitol. There were over 60 cases that had rejected challenges to the election and those folks who engage in that insurrection clearly did not accord that legitimacy. I think, again, we still have to be on our guard. We need to understand that, well, democracy is resilient it's not invincible and all of us continue to have a responsibility to do what we can to strengthen those institutions in our democracy.
Amy: I'm glad you brought up the courts because I was going to go right to that and I know you've done a lot of work on this, on stopping the spread of this disinformation that targets the public trust in our courts. So much of the venom both the president and of his supporters was focused on elected officials, the Secretary of State of Georgia, Mike Pence, rather than saying these judges are the problem, our courts are complicit. Does this help you feel any better that maybe the integrity of the courts or the trust in the courts wasn't damaged as strongly as some of our other institutions?
Suzanne: Well, it certainly could have been, the damage certainly could have been much worse, had the president thought to go after individual judges or the courts. We certainly saw and heard from some of those, again, engaged in the January 6th efforts and then others online, over the last several weeks. Attacks, for example, on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, verbal attacks on his credibility and legitimacy. I think it continues to be a concern.
As I say, there was not a recognition that these judges in these courts had made these rulings and they needed to be abided by and respected. I think again implicit in the insurrection was a disregard of the legitimacy of the courts. President Trump may have felt somewhat constrained once he learned that some of those judges were judges he himself had appointed.
Amy: Though he had no problem trashing legislators who he at one point had endorsed too. I take your point which is if you don't trust the legislative process, and you don't trust the electoral college process, and the institution of voting, then you're also not trusting that the courts are there to help keep this process from being completely undermined.
Suzanne: One of the most pernicious effects of delegitimizing the courts, it's akin to delegitimizing the media. Those are two sources of information sources of facts, if you will, the courts are kind of arbiters of the truth. If we no longer trust the courts and the legitimacy of what they find, it hastens our slide toward that post-truth world.
Amy: How long and how permanent do you think the damage that Trump did about spreading misinformation about election integrity lasts?
Suzanne: I worry that it will be quite long-lasting. Tearing down trust is certainly much easier than rebuilding trust. That's what we now have to do is we've got to strengthen the trust in our institutions, and that's going to be a challenge, the institutions are going to have to work hard at it, they're going to have to increase their transparency, they're going to have to explain and strengthen the mechanisms for accountability that we have in place. Then we need to help educate Americans about the role that they play in holding these institutions accountable for living up to our aspirations.
That too can help to rebuild trust. I think we need to reinvigorate civics education in this country. I think we need a year of civic renewal, where all across the country communities are engaged in efforts, as we hopefully come out of the isolation of COVID and in the aftermath of this incredibly divisive time to rebuild a sense of community identity, of civic identity, of shared values, that can be a starting point for regaining some ability to mobilize to meet the challenges that we face.
Amy: Well, Suzanne Spaulding this has been a real pleasure to speak with you again. Thank you for your insight and also for your hope.
Suzanne: Well, Amy, thank you for all that you have done to help inform and engage the discourse in this country. I wish you all the best going forward.
Amy: Suzanne Spaulding is a senior advisor for Homeland Security and Director of the Defending Democratic Institutions Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. One more thing for me today. In the midst of all the crazy and the chaos, all the ways in which the loudest voices try to take up all the political oxygen, there were those who stood out this last year, precisely because they weren't any of those things. They were steady and calm, and they sought to illuminate not gaslight.
The local election officials who stood up to the most powerful person on the planet. The Black reporters many of them just starting out their journalism careers who called out the truth about race that's been conveniently buried for too many years. Look, it's easy to get disappointed and dispirited about this moment in American history. Instead, let's give a toast to those who are doing the right things, those who are doing the work without clamoring for the limelight. Thank you. Thank you to all of those who stood up, even when it wasn't easy or celebrated or even noticed. A bittersweet reminder, this is my penultimate show.
You don't get to use that word "penultimate" very often so it's kind of fun to be able to use it. Next week will be the grand finale of Politics with Amy Walter. We've enjoyed making the show for you every week, and we'll miss it immensely. We got a good one to go out on so make sure you come back for that. Tanzina Vega will be taking you into the weekend going forward after next week.
Our senior producer is Amber Hall, Patricia Yacob is our associate producer, Polly Irungu is our digital editor, David Gebel is our executive assistant, Sham Sandra was our board op this week, Vince Fairchild is our engineer, Jay Cowit our fearless director and sound designer, our executive producer is Lee Hill. Thanks so much for listening. It's Politics with Amy Walter on the Takeaway.
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