Every election cycle brings with it one state that comes to represent the zeitgeist of that election. We all remember Florida during the 2000 election. In years past, as Nixon used to say, it was all about Ohio. In 2016, Pennsylvania was the tipping point.
This midterm, all eyes were on the Peach state, as Georgia came to define not only Democratic energy but the issues of election integrity and voter suppression that were infused with so much political concern in 2018.
This is, in part, why WhoWhatWhy made election integrity and Georgia the centerpiece of its coverage of this election. With reporters and videographers on the ground — with more resources deployed than many news organizations two and three times its size — WhoWhatWhy “owned” this issue.
But as Russ Baker and Klaus Marre point out in this week’s podcast, it was about more than the candidates and the partisan politics. The focus was on how voter suppression impacted real people: citizens who wanted to vote, who took their obligation seriously, who cared and thought deeply about the issues, but were thwarted or unconscionably delayed in the exercise of their franchise.
Unlike Russia or Facebook or hacking, these problems were homegrown in Georgia, and only by being there — on the front lines — could WhoWhatWhy do the kind of reporting that our readers and listeners have come to expect.
Listen to WhoWhatWhy founder and editor-in-chief Russ Baker and senior editor Klaus Marre talk about what this all means, why voter suppression anywhere matters to all of us, and what WhoWhatWhy’s ongoing coverage will look like.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Thanks for joining us here at WhoWhatWhy. It seems like every election cycle brings one state that comes to represent or define the zeitgeist of any particular election. We all remember 2000 in Florida. In years past, Nixon used to say, “It all comes down to Ohio.” In 2016, Pennsylvania was a tipping point. In this midterm, all eyes were on the Peach Tree State as Georgia came to define not only Democratic energy but the issues of election integrity and voter suppression that seemed to permeate so much of this election cycle.|
|That’s why WhoWhatWhy decided to make Georgia its centerpiece and its ground zero in its coverage of the 2018 election. Many have asked why so much coverage, so much focus on Georgia and election integrity. We’re going to talk about that today, as I’m joined by Russ Baker and Klaus Marre of WhoWhatWhy, and we’re going to talk about this past election, what we’ve learned about election integrity, what Georgia came to represent, and really where we go from here.|
|Russ, Klaus, thanks so much for being here.|
|Klaus Marre:||Glad to be here.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Russ, I want to begin with you. You’re the boss. Talk a little bit about why the decision to focus like a laser on Georgia, the election there, election integrity as the broader issue, and Georgia as the place where it was happening in maximum amount.|
|Russ Baker:||I’m going to let Klaus answer that, as I think he gets credit for making that call. But I will just say generally that, at WhoWhatWhy, for a number of years now, we’ve been very, very concerned about the whole election integrity issue, about whether elections function properly. We focused initially for a long time on the electronic voting and the lack of any kind of a paper trail or transparency on how that works, how the machines work, whether votes are actually being recorded and counted fairly. And then we looked at other issues, and as we got closer to the election, we began focusing on the issue of targeted voter suppression. And that is really about a deliberate effort to prevent some sectors of the electorate from being able to vote. And I think that Georgia is sort of emblematic of this, in part because it’s … I’m sorry, are you getting feedback issues there? I’m hearing something.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||No. All’s good.|
|Russ Baker:||Okay. We focused on Georgia in part because of its long history with civil rights problems, long history of disenfranchisement of African Americans, and also because Georgia is an interesting place that’s changing. And we had this very interesting matchup between polar opposites, a very liberal African American woman who, if elected governor, would have been the first African American female governor in US history, and the Republican nominee, a very, very conservative person who is very much in the Trump camp and who also was, besides being a candidate for governor, was and is the secretary of state, which puts him squarely in charge of the entire voting apparatus. So when you put all those factors together, you’ve got quite a combustible mix.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Klaus, talk a little bit about why you thought this was going to be ground zero, why you thought this was going to be so important?|
|Klaus Marre:||Well, as Russ was saying, it’s a really interesting race. And one thing that’s important to point out is while Russ accurately described the candidates as polar opposites, our coverage wasn’t at all about platforms or what these candidates wanted to achieve. We really just wanted to see what’s the status of voting rights in Georgia and some other places in the South, and whether or not, if there are problems, this could be the deciding factor in a close race. As they would have said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we have chosen wisely because that’s exactly what happened.|
|It is a very close race, and I can guarantee you that voter suppression and other problems made the… if there is no run-off and Kemp prevails, made the decisive difference that allowed him to quote-unquote “win.” And so, I think it’s great that we focused on this, that we were there weeks ago. It’s not like we just started last week, and we’re like, “Oh, this might be important.” We had a team on the ground more than a month before the election, starting to cover this, because we knew this was going to happen, because election integrity has been [one of] our main focuses since the last election. And so we could predict that this was going to happen, and then it turned out exactly the way we thought.|
|Russ Baker:||Yeah, also I just want to add or underline that even folks may say, “Well, why do I care about Georgia and the governor’s race? It’s not even House or Senate. Doesn’t affect me.” But actually it does, because the re-districting, the re-apportionment that determines the outlines and the makeup of those House districts are controlled on the state level. And so the governor and the legislature in each of these states end up influencing and affecting all the rest of us anywhere in the United States.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||You also made a decision, Russ, that this was worth a great deal of resources being put into Georgia by WhoWhatWhy in order to make sure this was really covered.|
|Russ Baker:||We did. We took a big risk. WhoWhatWhy is a nonprofit, very proud of the fact that we don’t accept any advertising, and we don’t have any billionaires in the mix. We’re one of the few organizations that can say both of those things. And that means that our support comes entirely from ordinary people, members of the public, and that, of course, limits us financially in terms of what we can do. And yet, we took a big risk, and we did commit to hire a whole bunch of people full time and put them in the region there. The reporters and also videographer and, as well, we’ve had some podcasts on that. So we were really the dominant presence in Georgia, and we also had a presence in Florida and Texas and elsewhere. We really outran news organizations that are maybe 10 to 100 times larger than we.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And, in fact, it really had an impact on the coverage overall. WhoWhatWhy was quoted in numerous other publications for its work that it was doing in Georgia.|
|Russ Baker:||Well, that’s right. As you probably know, Jeff, most news organizations are somewhat parsimonious in their crediting of competitors, but in fact, a story that our team broke just several days before the election was so significant, and it was proprietary to us, and that meant that the media did have to acknowledge us as breaking that. And so we are very pleased with the fact that everyone from the Associated Press to the Washington Post to the Guardian did pick up our story and did credit WhoWhatWhy. And I think this is going to be very, very helpful for us as we go forward as a relatively new and not all that well-known brand, to really get on people’s radar.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And we’re going to put some resources toward getting Klaus dressed up for the next podcast we do.|
|Klaus Marre:||Sadly, I don’t have a dress shirt anymore. So this is the best I can do.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||That’s okay. Klaus, you had a lot of ideas about this going in, as you’ve talked about. What do you think was the most important part of this story as it unfolded over the course of the past couple of months?|
|Klaus Marre:||Let me get to that in a second. Let me also just quickly add to what Russ was saying, which is that we weren’t just quoted elsewhere, but also that our coverage was referenced in two lawsuits, which didn’t happen for many of the larger outlets. So we were mentioned in one lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against Brian Kemp so that he wouldn’t be allowed to declare himself winner or be in charge of any recount or runoff. And we were also cited as evidence in a lawsuit seeking to allow people whose absentee ballots were rejected in places like Gwinnett County in Georgia, that they would have to be counted. So that is another impact.|
|With regard to your question, I think for us, what’s important to us is … because this is… our coverage was nonpartisan. We just said, “Well, here are the problems.” So what’s important, and what has always been our mission, is to advocate that eligible American voters who want to cast a ballot are able to do so with minimum obstacles placed in their way. Basically, the most important thing that we have shown is that’s just not the case, and Russ was mentioning our videographer, Kate Walker, who did an amazing job. So one of the things that we wanted to do with our coverage was to put a human face on these problems, because it’s not always easy for people to understand who don’t encounter these barriers to know what it’s like. If you hear, “Well, of course I have a driver’s license, so what’s the big deal about showing my driver’s license to vote? I need a driver’s license to fly. I have a birth certificate. What’s the problem?|
|But that actually is a problem for millions of Americans, and people who are better off don’t have these problems, but they exist and they are very real. So it was important that we also showed the personal stories of people who couldn’t get ID for whatever reasons. One gentleman had been told that he was born in Louisiana when he was actually born in Tennessee. So it took him years to find a birth certificate. He just voted for the first time. He’s 54 years old. One woman we profiled was a victim of sex trafficking. So she didn’t have a birth certificate. And then also individual disenfranchisement on the local level in Randolph County in Georgia, and I really encourage people to watch these videos and see the stories, because we often don’t understand what these problems are that we’re describing.|
|For example, if you are somebody who votes in your 95% white county in Nebraska and you’re voting at the high school you go to and the precinct captain is a guy who went to school with you. So even if you forget your ID, you’re just Earl from the farm, and it’s no big deal. And you’re in and out in like five seconds, because you already know everybody. It’s no big whoop. But in Georgia, you have people standing in line for four hours for no good reason, in the rain and everything. And people just don’t understand what these problems are, and that’s why it was so important to have a team on the ground and show that it’s at every level. It starts with people who were registered and were then kicked off the rolls through the exact match program, which we wrote about. Other people were purged. Then the people who did send in an absentee ballot had their ballots not counted. And then you have all these problems on Election Day itself.|
|So every level, some people will face obstacles, and that’s just not how it should be, and it’s important that somebody points that out, because nobody seems to care.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Russ, talk about what you hope comes from this commitment of resources and this coverage that WhoWhatWhy did? What do you hope people take away from this?|
|Russ Baker:||Well, I think a big part of why we exist, WhoWhatWhy, is to try to solve problems on behalf of the public, and that means that it’s not enough to just cover things when there’s inherent drama, conflict, the kinds of things that tend to drive much of the news business. We look to address long-term, systemic issues. Some of them are not that glamorous. They can be a little bit technical. And we hope that our coverage, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and of these kinds of problems, raise awareness and foster some sort of desire and energy toward actually remedying these things.|
|I want to emphasize that, typically, the media gets interested in these sorts of things right when the problem is most apparent, which is right when people are voting, which is when it’s too late to fix it. And they immediately lose interest after that, which is exactly the moment, right after the election when we as a society can begin studying these problems and taking the measures to correct them, so that the next time around, everyone’s vote does count.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Which really raises the question, then, what’s next for WhoWhatWhy? Where do you want to take this coverage from here?|
|Russ Baker:||I think what we want to do is continue to cover voter suppression, dig in in a more leisurely way to all the aspects of it, and also link this up to other related issues, re-apportionment, gerrymandering, the creation of districts where large numbers of people are packed into certain districts and others spread out over more to create a fundamental inequity, create a Congress that doesn’t actually represent the American people. These are important issues, too. And of course, other problems, issues like winner-take-all versus rank-choice, or rather where you have the nominee of either party is the final choice of rank-choice voting, whereas we saw recently in California where it’s mostly a Democratic situation you ended up with two Democrats running against each other for the US Senate, because that’s what people wanted, and that gave them that kind of opportunity.|
|So there are many, many different facets. We’re just beginning to think about where we want this to go. We’d love to hear from anyone who has ideas on what are the issues, what are the hotspots where the problems are, and where are the solutions. That’s very, very important. We try to trumpet solutions and to give a platform to those who are working to fix these things and who have some pretty interesting ideas.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And Klaus, what are the stories that you still want to see covered as part of the ongoing post-election coverage of this in Georgia?|
|Klaus Marre:||Well, certainly in … we need to make an effort to quantify all these different problems and what they would’ve meant. I was talking about earlier about these long lines. Some people have the luxury of being in line or coming back later. Other people, they show up and they talk to the last person in line and say, “Well, I’ve been here for an hour, and this line hasn’t moved.” And then the person says, “Okay well I have to go to my second job.” Or, “I could only afford a sitter for one hour.” So that person is a voter who is eligible and who wanted to vote and didn’t get to.|
|What I was saying earlier, all of this, you add all of it up, people who never got to vote, whose absentee ballot wasn’t counted, who were purged, who were turned away. That’s another thing. One of our videos has two students from Spellman College who were voting for the first time, and we interviewed them before they went to the polls, and they were so excited. And then they came back out and we interviewed them again, and they were like, “Oh, yeah, they told us we weren’t allowed to vote because we had out-of-state ID.” But they then read the rules, and the ID, your out-of-state ID is just to establish identification and not residence. So it doesn’t really matter if it’s an out-of-state ID.|
|So they went back and said, “Oh, we’re actually allowed to vote.” And then they got to vote. So that just random, this wasn’t planned on our part. So how many people took no for an answer and then left, even though they should’ve been allowed to vote? So in some way, we need to quantify it. And if we do, I think it’s going to be very, very apparent that what looks to be the outcome right now is not the outcome. It does not reflect the will of the people. It does not reflect the number of eligible voters who wanted to vote and got out of bed and said, “I’m either going to vote for Brian Kemp, or I’m going to vote for Stacey Abrams,” and it does not accurately reflect that, the result does, because so many Abrams voters were disenfranchised, because obviously as always, this happens in majority-minority counties and places and not where only white people vote.|
|So we need to try to quantify that in some way and show people that this is not how democracy’s supposed to work. It’s not supposed to work like this in Georgia. It’s not supposed to work like this in Florida or in Texas. It’s not supposed to work like this in North Dakota, where Native Americans were disenfranchised, or anywhere across the country. We need to try to get people to care, and that’s going to be a challenge, because so far, they just don’t.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Russ, is this representative? These are the extreme examples. But in your view, is this representative of a broader, systemic problem with respect to elections and democracy in this country, even here in California, where there certainly wasn’t the kind of voter suppression or anything that Klaus has been talking about? People were standing in line for hours. Machines broke down at polling places. In an age where we can pick up this little device and order cars and have food delivered and basically do almost anything, have dry cleaning delivered, you name it. And we can do it, that we have to have people stand out in the hot sun or stand in the rain for an hour or two or three hours just for the right to vote.|
|Russ Baker:||Well, you bring up a very important point. We obviously have the ability to fix all of this, because it isn’t rocket science. And if there was anyone … this just reminds me a little bit about public education. We could fix it. There has to be a will, and the resources have to be put in, and there are so many resources, and this is such a rich country. So I think that the failure to address this is a combination of a deliberate effort on the part of those who don’t want everyone to vote, and those who do want everyone to vote but maybe don’t have the priorities straight, and they focus on other areas. And we hope that as a consequence of the work we’ve done and the work we’re going to do, and I might add that we’re not giving up and we’re not leaving. We’re not pulling up the stakes. We’re continuing to have people in Georgia and other places looking at these situations and the aftermath.|
|And so we are very hopeful that this extra exposure of the problems here will, as Klaus says, make people care, and that those in power will be pressured and will, themselves, want to do the right thing. We need commissions, but not too many commissions because we need action, to address these things. A lot of it is not that complicated. There are lots of interesting solutions. For example, all of these companies that have so much in the way of resources could be called upon to help fund an effort to get better machines in place, to train better people to work in these facilities who really understand how to operate efficiently, have the right information, to inform the voters better how things are supposed to work, to have people on call, emergency-type personnel, technicians and so forth who know what to do and can get in and fix things when problems do develop.|
|All of this is entirely doable. Again, for a country that a century ago could put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to do something as simple as this.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And finally, Russ, talk about all the other subjects that WhoWhatWhy has been covering before this election came about? Russia, so many other things that
WhoWhatWhy was doing cutting-edge stories on. And when, and I know a lot of people have been asking that, when will you be getting back to that? And will we start to see some of those subjects re-emerging every day on WhoWhatWhy?
|Russ Baker:||Yeah, it’s a great question. Of course, our desire was to be able to cover all of these things. We want to cover everything, but because of our limited resources and limited size of the team, and we’re working on all those things, trying to grow our budget, trying to grow our team. We did have to focus largely on this, but we will be returning to some of those other subjects. Certainly, we think there’s some investigative reporting to be done around Russia-gate. We’re obviously very concerned about climate change. We’re looking for new ways to cover that. We’re looking at gun violence, the report now of 12 people dead in Thousand Oaks, California. This is another crisis, another epidemic that this country faces.|
|So we’re looking at ongoing, systemic crises, and there are more of them, of course. How we communicate in this country, the level of disinformation that’s out there. All of these things are fodder for WhoWhatWhy, and I think that in the days, weeks, and months to come, you’ll see a lot of expansion into these areas. As always, we love to hear from the public. We love to hear your ideas. Love to hear your tips, your thoughts, because we don’t claim to be experts. We are diggers, and we’re storytellers, and we’re contextualizers and informers, but what we do, we can only do as a collaborative effort between WhoWhatWhy and everybody else.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Russ Baker, Klaus Marre, thank you so much for participating in this conversation.|
|Klaus Marre:||Thank you.|
|Russ Baker:||Thank you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others finding by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|