Barbara Arnwine
Barbara Arnwine is the president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition and chair of the Voting Rights Alliance. Photo credit: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition talks about efforts to stop your vote from being counted — and what you can do about it.

Protecting Out Vote 2020

You stand in line for hours to vote, or finally manage to receive a mail-in ballot you can mark at home. You cast it, but wonder if it will be counted accurately. It turns out there’s another question you should be asking: Will your vote be counted at all?

Listen to prominent voting rights leader Barbara Arnwine discuss the “spoilage” of votes, especially in the Black community, and what can be done about it. 

Arnwine talks with WhoWhatWhy’s Scrutineers Series host Emily Levy about why voters who think they are registered might not be, and how they can check. 

She calls on all voters to recognize the new active role each of us must play to ensure fair elections. Voters, she says, must be vigilant against all forms of suppression, including through vote count audits. Volunteers could be key to protecting our election this year. Listen here to learn more.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Emily Levy: Welcome to the Scrutineers Series, a series of election protection podcasts designed to help you understand the risk to our elections, from voter suppression, to lack of security. We’ll be talking about what you can do to protect the voters and protect the votes. I’m Emily Levy, founder and director of, where we’re training a fairness force to help make sure no one stops you from voting and all votes are counted accurately. I’m delighted to be collaborating with to introduce you to real people dedicated to ensuring election results truly determine the consent of the government. Today we’re talking to Barbara Arnwine. The interview you’re about to hear was recorded on May 13th, 2020.

Emily Levy: I’m thrilled today to introduce to you Barbara Arnwine Esquire, who is president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition. Barbara and I met at the national voting rights task force conference last fall, where we were both speakers. And she is internationally renowned for her contributions on critical justice issues, including the passage of the landmark civil rights act of 1991 and the 2006 reauthorization of provisions of the voting rights act. Currently, Barbara also serves as co- chair and facilitator of the National Commission for Voter Justice, the Millennial Votes Matters convenings and the Voting Rights Alliance. She’s president emeritus of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which she headed from 1989 until 2015. She’s a graduate of Scripps College and Duke University school of law. And one of the things that people have lauded her for, is her creation of the legendary voting rights map of shame in 2011, which exposed the new modern wave of voter suppression in the states.

Emily Levy: She works on many different issues, including housing and lending, women’s rights, especially issues affecting intersectionality in African American women and girls, community development, employment, voting, education, policing restructuring, and environmental justice. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today, Barbara, and welcome. I’m honored to have you here.

Barbara Arnwine: Well, thank you for having me and thank you for all the amazing work you do. I love your initiative and your creativity. Thank you for having me.

Emily Levy: Thank you so much for saying that. So I want to just start with, there are groups all over the country and I’m discovering more and more all the time, who are working on different parts of the puzzle of making sure that people get to vote and that their votes are counted accurately. So which specific pieces of this are you focused on and with which of your many hats on, are you doing those things?

Barbara Arnwine: Our biggest challenge is to reverse what we saw, what happened in 2016 elections, where most people aren’t aware but the African American vote decreased significantly during that period. Some estimates say by 7%, others say by as much as 11%. So we’re talking about anywhere from one million to two million less African American ballots counted. Notice I didn’t say turnout.

Emily Levy: I did notice that.

Barbara Arnwine: Yes. And there’s a big difference between turnout and counted. I mean, the rate of spoilage of ballots of from African American voters in 2016 was very high.

Emily Levy: Let’s talk about what that means.

Barbara Arnwine: Yes. Spoilage is when people cast a ballot, but when it’s time to count the ballots, the election officials determine that the ballot is not correctly cast.

Emily Levy: So in some cases that would be like with a provisional ballot?

Barbara Arnwine: Absolutely. A good third of all provisional ballots are not counted, to say the least and in some counties is higher than that. It’s absentee ballots that are received too late, that are either postmarked wrong or too late or received too late. It’s people who cast an absentee ballot and didn’t sign it. It’s people who signed it and the jurisdiction says, “We don’t like your signature. We don’t think it’s the same signature.” In Detroit, there were 77,000 ballots that they were unable to count for the office of president.

Emily Levy: And that’s in the 2016 election?

Barbara Arnwine: Yes. And they said that they couldn’t figure out what happened. And when they were doing the recount, they actually were able to start seeing what some of those marks were, if marks are too faint or whatever it was. And they started saying, “Oh, we can actually decipher it.” But then the recount got stopped, so we never know what that number would have been if they had been able to complete the recount. So spoilage is all of those issues by which a ballot is not counted, even though it’s cast.

Emily Levy: And what do you see that we can do about that?

Barbara Arnwine: One of the things that we can do, obviously in Detroit, they did the right thing, they got new machines to try to correct for that problem in the future. We need to have better rules on accepting ballots. I think that this whole thing about ballots must be received by election day, is a horrible rule. Remember that if you’re an overseas military voter, I mean, you’ve got the same problems, but they will allow a little bit more time for receiving those ballots, they got to be postmarked by the date, but they don’t have these rules that they got to be received by election day. I think received by election day is just a bad rule and it shouldn’t exist. And we should have the same rules that we have for UOCAVA, which is basically, if I’m right, it’s at least a week for receipt.

Emily Levy: I don’t know what UOCAVA is.

Barbara Arnwine: Oh, I’m sorry. It’s the Overseas Uniform Services basically Act, that allows for military voters to vote overseas. Remember they’re not in the United States, they’re living in Germany, they’re living in Guam, wherever we have own station and they want to vote. Thousands literally vote and they vote by mail and the mail is counted, it has to be postmarked by election day, but it doesn’t have to be received by the states by election day. So that law, which is a federal law, overrides state laws.

Emily Levy: Okay. Are there other things that we can do about this ballot spoilage project, a problem that you’re aware of?

Barbara Arnwine: Yes. Allowing voters to have assistance. We got these crazy states that have rules that no one person can assist more than three voters. Think about that. I believe Minnesota has that rule, I believe Florida has that rule and other states have it. And that’s a problem. In my household, there are six registered voters and of course I got to do my own, but that’s telling me I can’t assist the other five without being criminally sanctioned. I mean, come on.

Barbara Arnwine: Those kinds of rules are bad because voters need to be reminded that in certain states, you got to make sure you put your envelope in the correct way, that they got to be reminded that they got to have somebody helping them to check that they actually signed their ballot. And the states that require full voting, that you can’t skip an office, for example, that people have voted every office. I mean, they need that assistance and they need to know, sometimes people are confused about, do I use a check or do I fill in the oval? Seriously, and that knocks out a lot of voters, so that spoils ballots. So it’s all of those issues.

Emily Levy: If a listener was part of a community organization and they wanted to inform their community about some of these really peculiar rules. What’s the best way for them to find out which of those rules apply in the place where they live?

Barbara Arnwine: Yes. You can do a couple things. You can go to The National Conference of State Legislators, they have the best website out there on what the rules are in every state for voting. And they have a really excellent website and I give them credit because it’s updated all the time and they update it within, they must update it daily. It’s very excellent. And what they also do, and so that is N-C-S-L. N for national, C for conference, S for state and L for legislators. So is the website. And it has a search engine, you can put in there, absentee ballots, Alabama, absentee ballots, California. And you can put in there, notarization requirements, you could put in exact match signature requirements, you could put in next election day for the state of Georgia, whatever, it is incredible. It will have all that information.

Emily Levy: Fantastic. What a great resource. Thank you for sharing that. So one thing I’m wondering is how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the focus of your work and whether it’s changed the forms that your work takes.

Barbara Arnwine: Absolutely. I mean, the coronavirus has nationwide, most people aren’t aware of, been destructive of voter registration, especially during the months of March and April. I’ll give an example, in Kentucky where Mitch McConnell is, there’s a big race there, Mr. McConnell versus Amy McGrath. In February, they registered 7,200 new voters. In March, they registered 500. That’s more than a 90% drop. And in some states like Texas, which have no online voter registration, remember there are sadly 13 such states, they have no online voter registration. Three of those States have AVR, Automatic Voter Registration, so that’s great news, but 10 have nothing. So remember that 45% of all voter registration is done at the DMVs, at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Emily Levy: Which are either closed, or you’re discouraged from going there, right?

Barbara Arnwine: Exactly. You got it. And if they’re going online, they’re not talking about voting. So remember that it’s an additional service that’s offered to you when you’re there at the DMV and public assistance agencies, also are the other big source of where people try to register to vote. So you take those two out, so you’re down 50%. Then you have the reality that a lot of voter registration is done by in-person, at religious institutions, civic organizations, and doing voter drives. Remember you would go to the grocery store and there would be somebody there saying, “Are you registered with a table?”

Emily Levy: I remember doing that as a child actually, with my mom, that table and getting people to register.

Barbara Arnwine: That’s how it’s done. Only 20 plus, a little bit over 20 plus percent of voter registration is normally done online. It has been increasing a lot, but still, online has not been a predominant way of registering the vote.

Emily Levy: So we’ve got people who can’t do that either because it’s not allowed in their state or because they don’t have internet access.

Barbara Arnwine: Exactly. And think about the 13 million households that don’t. For example, in Philadelphia, you won’t believe this, 29% of black households have no internet access. 29% of black households in Philadelphia have no internet access. So when you’re telling people to go online, to not only register to vote, but also in the state of Pennsylvania, they’re one of the states that I really regret in this time, they’re one of the States that require you to ask for an … you got to apply for an absentee ballot. So when people are talking about vote by mail, vote by mail, I would say it’s not a panacea because it has serious undertone problems for many communities, especially communities of color.

Barbara Arnwine: The reality is, is that in any kind of vote by mail situation, the white folks is going to go up significant, which is always good to have all voters voting more, but the number of African American and other people colored votes can be decreased and it’s a problem. So we’re seeing in Pennsylvania right now that the application process, because you got to apply by May 26 I believe, the application process for African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans is down significantly, compared to the applications for whites, which is over in the estimates, more people are using that who are white. So this is a real significant racial divide and part of that racial divide might be this internet access issue that we were talking about. So these are the issues at play.

Emily Levy: And so some of the things, one of the things that people can do in their own communities is to find out what the rules are, what the deadlines are, and then figure out how they can help get more people registered, help get more people applications for absentee ballots in the states where you need to apply.

Barbara Arnwine: And I keep saying, Emily, that people need to view their roles differently. Mostly we’ve said to people, be a great voter, vote, be a great voter, register and vote, but we need to also say to people that in this time we need you to also be an advocate, where you help others, where you’re calling up your family members, you’re calling your friends, your colleagues and saying, “Are you registered? Have you checked your voter registration status? Let’s make sure that you are registered. Let’s make sure you haven’t been purged. Let’s make sure you’re not sitting on an inactive list.” And because all of that is injurious to your ability to participate in the election, you cannot vote if you’re not registered. So you got to make sure that you’re registered, you got to make sure that in many states, most people aren’t aware and believe that if you’re on the inactive list, they will not mail you an absentee ballot.

Emily Levy: So let’s clarify what this means. So if you are a registered voter, but you haven’t voted in the last few elections and what a few is defined as maybe different in different places, then when it comes to sending out absentee ballots in this coronavirus pandemic time, even if you’re registered, if you haven’t voted in a few elections, you may not get an absentee ballot or an absentee ballot application if you don’t request it.

Barbara Arnwine: And according to the EAC 2017 report on the 2016 election, out of the 214 million plus registered voters in the United States, 8.7% were on inactive lists. That’s 18 million plus people who will not, in many states, will not get a ballot. Now one thing we can do as advocates and as organizations, is to really go after our states on this and say, “Listen, they’re registered voters. They deserve to get the ballot. You got to change your rules in this respect, or you better do some outreach, mandatory outreach to these voters to let them know that they need to change or correct, whatever the defect is.” You thin,,k they don’t live where they say they live, right? Well, let them prove that they live where they say they live. They need to update their voter registration, let them know they need to do that, but don’t let them sit out there as dying ducks, just waiting for a ballot that they’re not going to get and be confused about.

Barbara Arnwine: So there’s stuff that jurisdictions need to do proactively and that’s one of the most important. They need to reach out to every voter on the inactive list and they need to do that through advertisements, they need to do that through using whatever phone records they have. There’s a lot. And we as community organizations, have to say to everybody we know, “Check your voter registration status. We’ll help you.” You can go to, V-O-T-E.O-R-G, and in two minutes you can check your voter registration status, less than two minutes.

Emily Levy: When we talk about some of these things that we can advocate for with our election officers, I think it’s easy for people to think, oh, there’s not time to change those things for this year, because it takes a long time to change laws. But some of these things are actually not laws, they’re policies and they absolutely can be changed.

Barbara Arnwine: Absolutely, yes. No, absolutely. I mean, Prince George’s County normally, I go and I vote at my polling place, but I got my ballot in the mail this last week and it was pre-postage. And that’s something new that a lot of jurisdictions are being encouraged to do and I encourage every single jurisdiction to do it, get rid of the application process because you’ll knock out a whole lot of voters, reach out to your inactives, But also when you send a, you should mandatorily send the ballot to people and you should pre-postage it so that people aren’t sitting around confused about what’s the correct postage.

Emily Levy: And then we found out in with the Wisconsin primary, that one of the issues as well, is to make sure that the postmarks that the post office is using, if we’ve got prepaid envelopes, sometimes they don’t get postmarked and then there’s no way to prove that they arrived in time. So that’s another thing to look into.

Barbara Arnwine: Absolutely. I mean, when we talk about absentee voting, we got to talk about two things, no excuses, so that people don’t have to say, “I am out of town or that I’m too sick to vote.” Where people can just have access to that value is one of their options and the second thing we got to say, is no barriers, no barriers to absentee voting. So you get rid of these barriers that required people to, like we just said, to have their ballot received by the election date and instead, you allow for it to be postmarked and you got to make sure that the postal service is robust enough, has the money to do this job.

Barbara Arnwine: Because remember, one of the problems in Wisconsin was that we saw those pictures afterwards of those tubs of undelivered absentee ballots. They were never delivered to the voters and that’s why so many voters are scared, especially in the African American community and Latino community, they are distrustful of this absentee balloting process. They’re distrustful, they don’t think that their ballots are going to be counted.

Emily Levy: Understandable, distrust is really understandable.

Barbara Arnwine: Yes.

Emily Levy: And so we’ve talked about a bunch of different things that people can check on and advocate for in their communities. And I know that it can be overwhelming and what I want to say is, in the online community, Scrutineers that I’m the director of and the founder of, we help people sort through that and figure out what’s most relevant in their communities. So we’re happy to help anybody with that, who wants to do this kind of work and isn’t quite sure what to focus on. And do you have ways that you help volunteers with that sort of thing?

Barbara Arnwine: Yes.

Emily Levy: Which of the groups that you work with is looking for volunteers?

Barbara Arnwine: All right. I run what’s called, I run two very popular coalitions in the voting area, one is the Voting Rights Alliance. You can go online right now and look up And when you get there, you’re going to find that there’s a spot where you can sign up to get our information, to volunteer, to be involved. I also run what’s called the Voter Justice Network, and we have been doing webinars, weekly Twitter storms every Friday at three o’clock, when we put out major information about voting issues and give people some real great practical tips about what they can do at home right now to make sure the vote is strong and to assist other voters. And once again, that network is also run off of the website. So there’s a lot of good information.

Barbara Arnwine: The other thing we’ve done that people have been sharing, is that we have produced PSAs that are motivational PSAs about registering the vote, about voting, about stepping into these times of COVID and being the heroes we got to be to vote and make sure our vote is counted. So we have these PSAs that you can also take and share with your friends, your family members, everybody, we got resources there. So there’s a lot of good stuff on the website and it’s an opportunity for people to volunteer and I love volunteers.

Barbara Arnwine: Let me be very clear. I need volunteers, I’ve been working with a whole lot of new volunteers, it’s been a blessing. And if you’re sitting out there and you’re saying, “I’m frustrated, I want to do something.” Come, go to and join us because we meet monthly as the voter justice network and we meet weekly in different committees as part of the work that we’re doing. We are planning a national summit on August the sixth through eighth. We don’t know if it’s going to actually be in person, but we’re certainly working on a very strong virtual component to the conference.

Emily Levy: So if it happens in person, it will be in Charlotte, North Carolina and even if it happens in person, people will be able to participate online?

Barbara Arnwine: That’s correct. That’s a big part of it because we’re realistic about people’s ability to travel, about the expenses of traveling to NOLA, how many of us have been ravished financially in this era and that our money’s down. But that’s the beautiful thing folks, when I’m talking about registering people to vote and I’m talking about checking voter status, all you need is access to the internet. You can do this off your smartphone and should be your best friend. Rock the vote should be your best friend. These are ways that you can go to those portals and check peoples voter registration status. And guess what? I didn’t say it, but you can register people online for only, it tastes less than five minutes. No cost, no cost, it’s free.

Barbara Arnwine: Everything I’m talking about is free and anyone can help. And I check my voter registration all the time because believe it or not folks, legislators who are sitting in state senates, who are state assembly people, have gone to vote and been told that they’re not on the voter registration list or have been told they’re on the inactive list. So you must take some time here and go to and check your voter registration status, just like I do.

Emily Levy: Thank you. So when we met in October, in Berkeley, at the national voting rights taskforce conference, you said something that I was so pleased to hear. I wrote it down. So I don’t know if I have it exactly as a quote, but pretty darn close. You said, we need to drop the dichotomy between voter suppression and election security. We need to build community commonality. In every state, there has to be a strong presence of both working on voter oppression and ballot security. Voter justice community cares more about this than you think. And you are speaking to people who are mostly in the election security movement, they’re not active because they don’t know how to be involved. So I’m wondering if you’d share your perspective on how to address both making sure everyone gets to vote and making sure the votes are counted properly and the role of activism in both of those parts beyond what you’ve already said about that.

Barbara Arnwine: I think that it goes like this. You can’t be a really great activist against voter suppression if you don’t know the election security issues, you can’t be a great election security advocate if you don’t know the voter suppression issues, because they’re integrated, they’re not separate issues, they’re interdependent. Because the jurisdictions that tend to be very suppressive with the vote, that have all these barriers to the vote, also are some of the worst when it comes to election security, where they use bad machines.

Barbara Arnwine: And Emily, the new issue that the community, all our communities should be combined on, is that some of these machines cannot be cleaned between voters. So if you’re talking about on site voting, remember 50 people got sick in Wisconsin, 50 and counting because every I look, the numbers up some, got sick in Wisconsin from voting. And some of that was because they were standing in lines for hours without PPE, but some of it was because they were touching machines and surfaces that were infected. So some of these machines that are being used by counties, have not been appropriately certified that they can be cleaned between voters to not carry contamination.

Emily Levy: Yeah. I’m hearing that there’s at least one vendor, I haven’t had time to research this yet, but who’s saying that in order to clean the machines, they have to be shut down and then restarted and you can’t do that between every voter.

Barbara Arnwine: That’s correct. And not only that, if you clean some of these machines effectively, I mean really do the cleaning that’s required, it mis-calibrates the machine. It makes the vote not register correctly. So when we talk about people, you’re going to see it on June 2nd and you’re going see it on June 9th in these coming elections where people are going to say, “My vote got flipped. I voted for one person and it calculated for another person.” That’s because of miscalibration and we know we’re going to see a lot more of that because a lot of these machines cannot be cleaned and no jurisdiction I’m aware of has done a clean check on their machines.

Emily Levy: We need to stop using touchscreen voting machines anyway, because they’re absolutely not secure.

Barbara Arnwine: And it’s better to use paper ballots.

Emily Levy: Absolutely. And I’m really hoping one good thing that comes out of this pandemic, is getting rid of those touchscreen machines.

Barbara Arnwine: Yes. And I am with you 100% and they’re unsafe right now. They’re dangerous to our public health, they need to be taken off line.

Emily Levy: We used to worry about the viruses inside, now we worry about the viruses on the inside and outside of the machines.

Barbara Arnwine: Right. Right. And I’m very aware for the disabilities community, that you need access because some people cannot leverage a pen and people care about their privacy and we need to make sure that there are available systems that they can use. And so I do understand that there has to be some machinery in some forms, for some people were unable to leverage a pen and I understand that.

Emily Levy: Thank you. So I have so many more questions I wanted to ask you and we’re going long on time and there’s no way we get all the important things you have to say.

Barbara Arnwine: I’ll come back.

Emily Levy: Great, great. And I hope that people will follow you as well. One of the things I would really love for folks to hear more about is the work that you’re doing to bring up the next generation of leaders in the voting rights movement and you’ve doing some great work on that. We’ll talk more about that another time and people can go to your websites and find out about that as well.

Barbara Arnwine: Yes, absolutely. If you go to our major website,, all our voting programs show on it and the millennial votes matters, was actually called the gen Z because we know that a lot of millennials are older folks now and have children, but we’re talking about the gen Z from 18, all the way through 37. We train them and there’s great information about those training events on the website and we are planning on national training coming up.

Emily Levy: Fantastic. Is there anything else you want to add?

Barbara Arnwine: I just want to tell people, never underestimate how powerful you are. Never think that you are disempowered. You have power in this moment to help people become registered voters. You have power in this moment to talk to people about the importance of voting. You have powers in this moment to call your county election official and talk about the need for them to remove some of the barriers we talked about. You have power at this moment to join groups, to form groups. I’ve seen a lot of people create new organizations during this time of COVID-19. You have the power to, if you’re upset about the Ahmaud Arbery slaying, guess what, you get to vote for who the district attorney is and that’s where some of the problems we hear. You get the vote for the county executive or the mayor who appoints the police chiefs.

Barbara Arnwine: All of these issues are within our power and we got to really just rise to our moment that we’re in, even though it’s a difficult moment, but we all are here to bring our individual power and our individual activation to bear. So please don’t be discouraged. Please reach out, join, connect, don’t be isolated and look for ways that you can make a difference. Thank you so much.

Emily Levy: That’s was beautiful. Barbara Arnwine, thank you again so much for being here and for all the work that you do, blessings on you and your family and your health and your work.

Barbara Arnwine: Thank you for all the great work you do. Thank you.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from New Jersey National Guard / Flickr and Scrutineers.


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