Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's good to have you with us here on The Takeaway. The midterm elections are just about 200 days away and in many states, the primaries are already in full swing but even as the machinery of American democracy is warming up for the big fall contest, many Americans are expressing doubt rather than enthusiasm about our system.
Earlier this year a poll conducted by ABC News found that only 20% of Americans feel confident in our country's election systems, and it's a concern expressed by voters from both parties. Here's some of what you told us about how you are feeling about the American election system.
Kim: Hi, this is Kim from Tampa. I don't trust either side, Democrat or Republican, to run a fair election. They're both out for the same cause, two faces on the same coin.
Paul: My name is Paul. I'm calling from Omaha, Nebraska. Yes, I do believe that prior to the last few years, the system was working well until the Republicans started messing things up. I am an independent voter. I vote for both parties, but I am highly disappointed with Republican legislators and the leadership that keeps spreading rumors and lies and destroying the system that we have relied upon, and seeding the mistrust.
Esther Kurtnick: Hello. My name is Esther Kurtnick and I am calling from San Francisco, California. I am very worried about the next two national elections 2022 and 2024. Most Republican states have passed draconian laws restricting access to voting and this is likely to affect the outcome of our national elections. Why on earth would it be a crime to give water to someone waiting in a long line to vote?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, what Esther is referring to there is George's SB 202, which was signed into law last March. To be clear the legislation does not criminalize individuals who provide water for those waiting to vote. It does however bar political organizations from offering voters those kinds of relief or comfort items like water or snacks.
Now, there may be plenty of reason to oppose even this restriction and it certainly seems to me it's important to ask why we so readily accept the reality that casting a ballot will likely require standing in long lines. It also matters to refute the idea that individual citizens can no longer offer each other a bottle of water, because the harder it gets to separate fact from fiction, the more difficult it becomes to trust the system, to trust one another, and to trust the outcome of elections.
In 2020, we witnessed the president of the United States sow the seeds of democracy-eroding-mistrust in the fertile ground of Georgia when he made false claims about corruption and voter fraud. President Trump even called Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, and appeared to pressure him to alter Georgia's election results. As election denial claims became increasingly incendiary in January of 2021, the Chief Operating Officer of the Georgia Secretary of State, Gabriel Sterling, issued a stern warning.[
Gabriel Sterling: It all gone too far. This is the elections. This is the backbone of democracy and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rather than stop the election denial culminated in a violent attack on the US Capitol building on January 6th in an attempt to disrupt the formal certification of the 2020 election results.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, as we approach the 2022 midterms, what is the state of our election system, and just how free and fair are our elections in Georgia and beyond?
Melissa Harris-Perry: With me now is Gabriel Sterling, Chief Operating Officer, and Interim Deputy Secretary in the office of the Georgia Secretary of State. Gab, welcome back to the show.
Gabriel Sterling: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just start with the big question. Did what happen in 2020 erode the sense of trust in the electoral process in Georgia?
Gabriel Sterling: I think there's no doubt that that happened in 2020 but in this state, it happened in 2018 as well. We've had a nice long litany of this [unintelligible 00:04:48] United States you see the polling that showed Republicans about 60% think that election was stolen or something wrong in 2020.
A similar poll in 2021 said 61% of Democrats think 2016 the Russians stole the elections for Hillary. Both sides as you mentioned in your intro have grabbed a hold of this for fundraising purposes because let's face it, it's sexy, it's a great thing to fundraise off of to say, "The other sides are evil people and they're stealing your vote."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. I want to walk through this a little bit, I do want to make sure that I understand what you're saying because Hillary Clinton did not win the election in 2016?
Gabriel Sterling: Right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right, okay. [chuckles] [crosstalk]
Gabriel Sterling: Democrats 61% believe Russians stole it for Donald Trump, my fault, [unintelligible 00:05:31]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, I see. I see. The sense that she had in fact won it relative, it hadn't been free and fair.
Gabriel Sterling: Correct.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Got it. I just wanted to be certainly clear about that. I actually see a challenge here, right? I want to walk through this with you because it does seem to me that there are reasonable arguments to be made about whether or not any given procedure makes an election more reasonable, more fair, more accessible, so whether it's voter ID or whether it is the location of polling places, and at the same time, what I hear you saying is that raising those concerns seems to also be part of a general erosion of trust. Am I understanding you correctly?
Gabriel Sterling: Not completely, but that's close enough too. I mean, the reality is in Georgia we've been dealing with lawsuits now on top of lawsuits, on top of lawsuits. We have one that started this week again. It was originally filed in 2018 and we're dealing with another one that was filed in 2017. Here's the reality in Georgia, it is really easy to register and it is really easy to vote no matter who you are in the state. People claiming otherwise are doing it for their own political purposes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are those political purposes? I mean, I have to say for all of the very important critiques I think we bring to the 2020 election cycle and then obviously what happened in January of 2021, tells the truth that on both sides of the aisle we had record turnout in this country.
Gabriel Sterling: That's partially driven by going to the base and the main thing that I think both sides learn from this is it really does drive the base and it really drives money, it goes back to everything. If you ever want to ask a question and get to the base of what's the usual answer, money. I mean, Donald Trump has raised hundreds of millions of dollars on this. Stacey Abrams has raised millions and millions in this state. Raphael Warnock has got a record haul now of 26 million in his accounts based in large part on some of these saying things that just simply aren't true.
For someone like me, yes, I'm a Republican, I get that, but I care about the system working with people having faith in it and watching both sides continue for their own political benefit basically weaponizing election administration is terrible long term because one of my progressive friends has outlined that I still very often is the reason we have ballots is so we can avoid bullets but if you keep on telling people ballots don't count what's the next logical step?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. Okay. I've been a political scientist 25 years and I am with you on this system. Let's have our fights in the political arena, let's have our fights with words and ideas, so ballots over bullets for sure. Let's walk through what the system in Georgia actually looks like. You just said, all right, it's actually pretty easy to register and to vote in this state. Walk us through from your vantage point inside of this system, what are the basic rules? Let's say I'm moving to Georgia, I'm not, but let's say I'm moving to Georgia and I want to become a voter, what do I do?
Gabriel Sterling: Normally when you move anywhere and you're a grown-up you go and get a new driver's license. In the state of Georgia and this is implemented under then-Secretary Kemp, now Governor Kemp, you'll automatically get registered to vote and it's not an opt-in system. You have to say, "No, no, don't register me." If you don't say that, you're going to get registered to vote in the state, which is why we're at over 95% of eligible people are registered in the state.
Also, it updates your voter registration when you move inside the state. Like I said, it's extremely easy to register here. We also have online voter registration that was also input under then-Secretary Kemp, now Governor Kemp. You can go online, use an older driver's license, and you can become a registered voter. It is very simple. Now, one of the things that everybody in the country has to do now with the exception of a couple of states that are still not doing it is homeland security has required all of us to move to the real ID system. If you want to get on a plane you have to have a real ID and when you do that you're showing up with all those pain in the butt documents, your birth certificate, your marriage certificate, all those things to prove you're a citizen and prove you are who you say you are. That is what when we have coordinated with our Department of Driver Services, the DMV as most people would call in most states, we get automatic updates literally every day that goes to county dashboards and the counties look at those and they accept them and they go into the voter rolls or they accept the changes and they go onto the voter rolls. It is like I said wildly easy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It probably would be for me, I'm a driver, I go I get a driver's license, I become part of the system, but what if I bring my elderly parent with me and they don't drive or maybe I'm moving from a state where there's really great public transit and I'm a working adult, but I've never had to have a driver's license. What about all of the other folks who for a variety of reasons, whether it's disability, or age or simply not being a driver don't end up in that system?
Gabriel Sterling: We have a free ID system for anybody who falls into those categories. Right now in our state, 97% of the people on our voter rolls have either the free ID or driver's license. We also allow, as defined under the Help America Vote Act, I believe there's 16 or 17, other forms of ID that you can bring to register to vote on paper, and you can mail it in. Then you have to still prove who you are, we can move to if you haven't had a valid ID and nobody's looked at it, you go to MID status, which means you're missing ID.
When you show up to vote the first time you can take one of those any 16 forms of ID to show who you are and then at that point, you're off of the MID [unintelligible 00:11:08] have to show your ID like anybody else would. It's not just a driver's license, it can be any government-issued ID. It can be an expired driver's license, it can be any of those kinds of things.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, so you're talking about some voter ID laws that have been in place but in response to the new voting law that Georgia Republicans passed and signed last year, the DOJ is suing Georgia and saying that this bill that was adopted has the purpose of denying or bridging Black citizens equal access to the political process. Why is the DOJ suing if as you're saying there aren't issues with your state's new voting law?
Gabriel Sterling: This is not a new law. This has been a law in the state for nearly two decades, and we've won in court several times on it. The DOJ is doing it and I hate to say it for politics because here's the reality, it is much much harder to register and vote in New York than it is in Georgia. In New York, you'd only now have nine days of early voting, we have 17 days of mandatory voting, which was expanded in the Election Integrity Act, SB 202.
We also have no excuse absentee which was passed in 2005 by a Republican legislature and signed by then-Governor and then featured agricultural secretary for Trump, Sonny Perdue and we still have no excuse absentee. In New York, there's like five different reasons if you're going to be out, if you're going to be sick, or if you're incarcerated, and a few other things. It is easier to register and vote in Georgia than it is in the state of New York.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, let me ask this because you got me kind of going on this all right, it's not hard to register and I think we could fight around the margins, or we could argue around the margins of those who might still be left out but let me just ask this. If this has been the law for such a long time, if this has been the system, then why the need for SB 202. Why the need for that Election Integrity Act, if elections had been working pretty well in Georgia?
Gabriel Sterling: There's two reasons for it really but people outside the state didn't really maybe know or understand is, in 2020, we had obviously a perfect storm of things that happened. We had the things-- everybody had to deal with was COVID and you had the loss of poll workers and the rest of those kind of situations because there were mainly elderly. We also for the first time in 20 years had a brand new voting system that was deployed statewide, and it involved paper ballots and no matter what happened, the outcome of the election wouldn't matter if there was going to be a bill in 2021 to address things we learn from the rush and onslaught of absentee ballots and the things we learned from the new system.
Because the reality we were dealing with was, we normally had 5% people vote by absentee and it went up to 50% during that period of time, and we were going to learn from those things. One of the things that people have attacked, which are really good for election administration, it's the same thing in New York and Florida is an absentee ballot request deadline.
Before there wasn't really one in law, and people could request all the way up to the Friday before election. What we discovered was that-- this is just one aspect, I'm telling you some of the rationale [inaudible 00:14:06] Is that if you've requested your ballot, 10 or more days before the election, 92% of those people voted those ballots. If you requested it inside the 10-day window, it went down to like 58%, I believe.
It's really about protecting the franchise of people and another one that has been [unintelligible 00:14:23] thing of consternation was the provisional voting that we had for years. What we were seeing was activists, if you go to the wrong polling place, you're not supposed to vote there and that's on election day. During early voting, the 17 days, you can go anywhere in your county, but on election day, you need to go to your polling place because that's how the system is built.
What's happening is activists were standing outside going, "No, no, even if you weren't in the right place, go back in there and demand your provisional vote," which if they have the rest of the day, they can go to their place, normally. Not everybody can, so that's why we have a two-hour window at the end where you can stay and vote a provisional, but if you vote there, you can only vote in the statewide elections and you're disenfranchised from the ones at the bottom of the City Council, the State House, the State Senate, the county commission.
We think all of those are important. From our point of view, a lot of the things were necessary and good election administration. One of the big ones that was interesting was the absentee ballot drop boxes, which were a bone of contention for many people. There was people in the state that wanted to get rid of them altogether, outlaw them, or keep them outlawed because before the passage of SB 202, drop boxes were never contemplated in law.
They were an emergency thing allowed by the governor's executive powers and the President's powers before a health emergency and following the CDC guidelines. There was a group of Republicans that wanted [unintelligible 00:15:38] absolutely. There's another group of Republicans that wanted to keep them and they did what they do in politics, they compromised. They kept them, but now they're insecure areas and only available during business hours. I didn't write the law, I would have made them more expansive, but-- they didn't exist before, and there was a move to get rid of them altogether.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Gab, when I listen to you, you sound like a good administrator, and I don't mean this in any way bad. I mean, this is a really good way like, you sound like, a good pure bureaucrats. Like here are the rules. Here's how it works. I might disagree with some of them but let me implement these rules.
Let me ask this, should folks who are in charge of elections, people like you, people like other secretaries of state around, people who are in Secretary of State's office and who are elected as Secretary of State, not in fact, the elected officials, but nonpartisan folks who are maybe appointed through other sorts of means, I mean, I guess I'm wondering if part of the skepticism comes from this kind of baked-in skepticism, we have to believe that the other side, the other party is simply always lying to us.
Gabriel Sterling: There is a terrible thing and when it comes to the lying part, it was a great article in The Atlantic this week called why the last 10 years have been the stupidest. I recommend that to everybody if you haven't read it yet, and it goes into some of that. I for one have never been a believer in that non-partisan people, human beings just because we all have our own viewpoints, and no matter how much we try to assuage them. I think being honest about it, I think one of the things that gave me much credibility during a lot of this was I said, "Yes, I'm a Republican, and this all happened this way."
The problem we do have is that these we've now authorized-- I give talks now sometimes, and one of the things that we need to get away from is the Democrat over there, the Republican over there, the opposite of me, is not the enemy. He is my neighbor with a different opinion and if we start trying to make rules to get around that, I think we're ignoring the reality of it.
I mean, look in Ohio, where they've tried to do the nonpartisan board to draw their districts, they're getting sued left and right and because that's what's always going to happen because there's always going to be human beings have their own partisanship. Even if they having not any partisanship is still kind of a partisanship, not making decisions, but making a decision.
It's difficult to do those kinds of things, but I can understand people's underlying fear about that, but I liked elected officials because you can hold them accountable, and I don't like bureaucrats, it is much more difficult to hold them accountable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you did have a magic wand and could implement, maybe it's a limited magic wand, it could only implement maybe two or three things that you believe would help voters to more fully trust the system and to want to participate in the democratic system. What might be those two or three things?
Gabriel Sterling: Wow, probably if I was king for a day, but I'll never get to be. There's three main things. One, if there was a way we could make it mandatory for everybody to serve at least one election cycle as a poll worker, and they would see managing the mechanics, I think that would go a very long way. I think having mandatory audits to prove that the machines counted the way they're supposed to, at the end, not the Arizona stuff, but the stuff we do by law in Georgia, they do in Colorado.
You bring in both parties, [unintelligible 00:19:03] things and you make nearly every process the observable or governed by a bipartisan board and you have to get buy-in from the parties for that to work. The last one is a long term one, which I will never get because it's unconstitutional as heck, which is if you ever run for office for state house or state Senate or Congress or anything higher, you have to have served at least one term in a city council, school board or county commission because there people hold you accountable.
You have to like look people in the eye, they see you at the grocery store, they see you at church, and you can't hide [unintelligible 00:19:34] people. I think it's just important that we have people who are willing to compromise and listen. Listening is the biggest thing and if I could make a lot of people listen, I'd do that in a heartbeat.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Gabriel Sterling, I certainly appreciate that if you were king for a day, you would use your kingship to strengthen democracy. Thank you for joining us today. Gabriel Sterling Chief Operating Officer and interim deputy secretary in the office of the Georgia Secretary of State.
Gabriel Sterling: Thank you, Mellissa. [music]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, let's hear from some of you out there about how you are feeling about our election system.
Leah: Hi, my name's Leah and I'm calling from Manhattan, and I'm wondering if the question is a joke, how are elections in this country free and fair when voting rights are consistently chipped away and access is limited, and when we can make a federal holiday out of the fake birthday of a religious icon, but not voting day.
Sophia: My name is Sophia. I'm calling from Miami. I don't think that we will have free and fair elections because [unintelligible 00:20:40] the election laws that have been [unintelligible 00:20:43] state as legislators there to minimize voting access by eliminating drop off boxes, early voting, easy voter registration requiring excessive documentation or identification, and so on. I say the mid-terms are already stepped and that it's going to affect the presidential election too.
Wayne: Hi, this is Wayne I'm in Fairfield, California. I'm pretty confident in free and fair elections. I don't think that there's been a problem. I think that the fact that the Republican party has tried to throw shade on our election system, damages our democracy. Is it perfect? No, but as the audit in Arizona recently showed, there were nine cases of fraud out of 3.4 million people. It's rare. It doesn't impact the outcome of elections. I think selling people on the fact that elections are a suspect damages our society at its core.
Ingrid: Hi, this is Ingrid from Los Angeles in California, going into the midterm election fills me with dread. I'm very confident that in California, access to election is fair and free. However, I know that especially some of the Southern states have made it much more difficult for people to have access to voting and also have changed certain rules that might allow them to overturn the election results in their states. That leaves me truly with dread because when I moved to the United States, I was in the belief that this is the best democracy in the world, while I do not believe it anymore.
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[00:23:02] [END OF AUDIO]
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