voter suppression
NAACP voting rights march in Manhattan on December 10, 2011. Photo credit: John Schneider / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Popular author and journalist Sarah Kendzior looks at the many battles ahead to combat voter suppression in 2018.

The Trump administration throws so many things at Americans every day that it is harder and harder to keep up with what’s important. However, according to writer and journalist Sarah Kendzior, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, voter suppression may well be the touchstone issue of 2018.

With irrefutable evidence of Russian efforts to influence US elections and President Donald Trump’s indifference toward the regime of Vladimir Putin, the fears of many seem well founded going into the 2018 elections. Add to this what Kendzior sees as the possibility of officials being threatened with lawsuits, a tactic that Trump has engaged in since the 1980s, and the danger is increased.

To make matters worse, the states have taken few steps to secure their voting systems. Gerrymandering remains rampant. States like Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina are, in the eyes of many, something less than true democracies.

Voter intimidation at the polls is commonplace. Voter ID rules and requirements, especially for minority voters, are on the rise.

All of this takes on even greater significance, Kendzior reminds us, when we realize that the 2018 elections are perhaps the only way to slow the slide toward autocracy.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Sarah Kendzior is one of those people who helps us make sense of the world. Her coverage of the 2016 election helped us to understand it, even if we didn’t like the outcome. She’s a leading authority on authoritarian states, particularly in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in anthropology, an MA in Central Eurasian studies, and her book The View of Flyover Country is a must read for anyone hoping to understand the country today. In fact the book is going to be re-released this April.
One of the other issues that Sarah has been looking at, both as it relates to the behavior of authoritarian states and despotic leaders, are elections and voter suppression. Unfortunately we’re rapidly potentially becoming a textbook case for some of those behaviors. It is my pleasure to be joined once again by Sarah Kendzior. Sarah, thanks so much for being here.
Sarah Kendzior: Thank you for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: You know there are so many issues that you’re talking about. So many things that we’re looking at today with respect to what’s going on in the country. What’s going on with respect to this administration. There’s almost a sense at some point of just throwing up your hands because one is so overwhelmed by it all. Talk a little bit first about how you process this and how you decide what it is on any given day that concerns you and that you want to look at.
Sarah Kendzior: To some degree, it’s not up to me. I sort of have to respond to what comes out there. I think at this point, a year into the Trump administration, you can gain a sense of what stories have kind of a broader structural importance, and what are kind of gossipy reactionary pieces. Oprah running for president or not in 2020 as an example of something I don’t think we need to be prioritizing. Michael Wolff’s book is a kind of in-between thing where it does have actual political ramifications, but is mostly a kind of gossipy thing. I think something like voter suppression, attacks on our electoral system, attacks on the judiciary, the Russia investigation, these are all long-term problems that will set the course for what we’re able to talk about in the future, and what kind of choices and opportunities Americans have.
Jeff Schechtman: With respect to that, certainly the one thing that can arguably move us beyond all this is elections, and this whole issue of voter suppression becomes even more critical. In fact, I think you said somewhere that you think it’s going to be one of the most important issues in 2018.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh yeah, absolutely. With the midterms coming up, it’s the crucial issue because a lot of Trump’s future and the future of the GOP and the future of America hangs on this election. That’s because there’s a chance that the Democrats may be able to retake the senate. Maybe, at least make some inroads on the house, and go forward with the articles of impeachment that have already been filed. There are a bunch of those. On emoluments, on high crimes, misdemeanors. I think the reaction to the Muller probe will be determined somewhat by the make-up of who is in office. I think it’s possible we’ll see results of that probe, and certainly more indictments and more action throughout the year.
This is a big deal because what we’ve seen with the Republican party over the last year, is a complete unwillingness to acknowledge the evidence in front of them. Instead, they’ve gone the path of trying to obstruct the investigation. They’re obsequious lackeys to Trump in a way that is very reminiscent of how people behave in authoritarian states. It goes beyond opportunism. It’s really something that reminds me of when people are being threatened, when they’re being blackmailed. Somebody like Lindsey Graham is a good example of a person who did a real 180.
So I don’t think that the Republicans on the whole can be trusted. It’s not a matter of me disagreeing with their policies, though I often do — in terms of stuff like the tax bill quite strongly. It’s a matter of our sovereignty and our national security and their deference to Trump. Their fear of Trump, and on that note, Trump’s deference to Russia. All that is a big problem, and elections will not completely fix this problem, but they do provide an opportunity to kind of change the political landscape in which the problem is analyzed.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you sense that people are afraid of with respect to Trump? I mean afraid of from somebody with a 38% approval rating.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s very interesting. You would think that would give them some leeway, especially given that Trump has personally attacked a lot of these Republicans in a very vicious way, and also Trump is ignorant of policy. It’s not like he’s some sort of leader who inspires people to think about issues and come forward with great ideas. He really has nothing positive to offer the country or the party.
I think they’re afraid of possible blackmail or threats. I say this because that is how Trump has operated for his entire career going all the way back to the 1980s. He surrounded himself with ruthless people ranging from mobsters to lawyers, like Roy Cohn for example or Michael Cohen in the last election cycle, who would threaten anybody who would expose something dangerous and negative about Trump, or who even opposed him. Roger Stone is another example of somebody who has no shame and who doesn’t play by any kind of normal political rule. We really have a new situation here.
My guess is that that is going on. I think at the same time you find Republicans that see a chaotic situation and they want to take advantage of it and try to pass through policies and initiatives that maybe normally wouldn’t fly because they know that Trump doesn’t understand them. They know that he may not strike them down. The situation worries me because I don’t think this is as simple as just the kind of careerism that we’ve seen.
On that note, we have a record number now of Republicans who are going to resign, retire or not run again in 2018, and I think that’s indicative of a political landscape that’s become so dangerous that they just want to get themselves out.
Jeff Schechtman: As it relates to elections in 2018, what do you make of what’s been going on most recently with respect to the seeming shutdown of the president’s voter fraud commission?
Sarah Kendzior: I was concerned when that commission was formed. I thought it was kind of putting something we suspected into clear view, which is that they want to view the votes of certain groups of Americans as illegitimate, namely immigrants — especially Hispanic immigrants, that may be crucial in a state like Florida or even in Texas. They basically want to disenfranchise people, and that’s what Kobach (?) has done. That’s what others in the Trump administration have rallied for. I’m glad that the commission to do that apparently is gone; but, I kind of wonder: is it really, or are we just going to see a similar initiative emerge under a new name?
It came under quite a bit of criticism, and so I think maybe they realized that they can’t be so upfront about what they’re doing. The old ways of voter suppression, guised as something else, kind of doing it more subtly, might be more effective. For a while it seemed like they really wanted to flaunt their power, and perhaps as Trump’s approval ratings diminish, perhaps as the federal probe tightens, they realize that might not be the best strategy right now.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, we’re also seeing statewide efforts at voter suppression. We saw a lot of this in Alabama in the recent special election. There are states like Wisconsin and others, and North Carolina where there have been substantial efforts at voter suppression.
Sarah Kendzior: North Carolina is now no longer considered a democracy according to groups that measure things like voter rights. Basically since the partial repeal of the VRA in 2013, we’ve seen a number of repressive voter ID laws come into play, and those laws were critical in determining the outcome of the 2016 election. In Wisconsin there were I think 200,000 people that were disenfranchised as a result of that new law, which had never been in play for a previous presidential election, and Trump won Wisconsin by only 20,000 votes.
I think the voter suppression through ID laws played a big role. I think also gerrymandering, which has been a problem for a very long time, played a role. I don’t want to rule out the fact that we know Russia hacked voter databases. There’s been all this insistence that no foreign state or no hackers altered the actual vote totals, but I find it a little bit hard to just take on faith without a forensic investigation, given that we know they tried very hard to swing this election for Donald Trump, and we know that they’ve hacked so many other government entities, including the State Department, the DOD. Obviously the RNC, the DNC, people’s personal emails, Yahoo. I could go on and on and on. We know they hacked the voter databases. We don’t know what they did with that information. They might not have changed the votes afterwards, but that could have potentially contributed to the disenfranchisement to people being turned away at the polls for various reasons.
It hasn’t really been thoroughly investigated. We’re 14 months after the election, and that’s a concern to me. No one’s remedying this problem.
Jeff Schechtman: What is your experience in looking at other authoritarian states tell you about what we still might expect in terms of these behaviors with respect to voter suppression here?
Sarah Kendzior: When you look at other authoritarian states, I think you have to look at the long-term history. There are some states that I have particular expertise in like Uzbekistan, that have never been a democracy, that have never had free elections whether under the Soviet Union or independently, and sort of the existing system and the set of expectations among citizens is very different than what we have.
I think it’s more useful to look at a place like Poland or Hungary that did become democratic once the Soviet Union collapsed, and once they basically re-embraced democracy in the 1990s and has really changed over the last couple years. In Poland, you see the loss of an independent judiciary. In both countries you see attacks on the free press and on other pillars of democracy. The governments are structured differently. Our electoral college is easier to manipulate. It poses its own set of problems. Generally what you’re seeing is a kind of flagrant rejection of democratic norms in all of these cases. You see people behaving less like representatives and more like kings. That’s becoming more and more acceptable and the opposition to it’s getting more and more firmly stamped out and unable to hold leverage or power in order to stop it from getting worse.
That’s what I worry about. So I see the 2018 elections as an opportunity, not necessarily to stop this entirely because I think it’s too big a problem, but to slow it down. To slow our progression towards autocracy, which is where I’ve felt we’ve been going since Trump has been elected.
Jeff Schechtman: What is it that individuals can do or be hyper-aware of with respect to some of these voter suppression issues?
Sarah Kendzior: I think the best course is to look at it state by state, district by district, because each state has different rules. Some states are better about this than others. There’s also the fact that a lot of these laws about voter ID are new. They were passed after 2013, some of them will be enacted for the first time in 2018. You should look up your state. You should find out what the requirements are for voting. I think most states have some kind of group that addresses voter rights issues, whether an organization like Indivisible or Jason Kander who ran for senator in my state in Missouri has Let America Vote, which I think provides information about how to help people get to the polls, how to help people be aware of laws that may prohibit them from voting.
At the same time, I think we need to look out for voter intimidation at the polls. I would imagine that the ACLU and other organizations are going to be looking for that. I think yesterday I saw a tweet, I’m not sure if it was followed up on with an article, basically saying that a law had been struck down that had basically protected people from voter intimidation efforts since 1980 or something like that. I don’t think it was struck down. I think it was allowed to just… it wasn’t renewed. That presents another problem in that it might be harder to contest intimidation efforts, whether legally or in person or what.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course there’s reason to take some hope away from Alabama where there clearly was some effort to voter suppression, closing DMV offices, moving them around, etc., and still Doug Jones was victorious.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, the turnout was massive. We know that people were turned away. There are plenty of complaints about that and a lot of documentation. Yeah, Doug Jones, he managed to win in Alabama, which of course we know is extremely unusual for a Democrat. We’ve also seen similarly large turnout and surprising wins in places like Virginia. I think the Democrats really have a good shot, and a lot of that just has to do with people seeing how out of control the Trump administration is, and even if they’re not super thrilled or excited about the Democrats, they realize that this is the most sensible route to keep Trump from gaining power, and to stop this flow of corruption.
I do think turnout will be high. I think a lot of people became more aware of rights that they had as those rights began to be threatened, as they began to lose them. The electorate is mobilized. It’s unfortunate that that mobilization stems in many ways from fear, but it’s better than being ignorant of our rights and our laws. I think this was a wake-up call for Americans, and I think part of that wake-up call is the realization that they need to vote and also that they should be good citizens and help others vote. Everyone has this right. It’s not applied equally, it never has been, and so it’s important to protect the rights of people who want to vote but who are historically disenfranchised or turned away.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what you’ve seen going on not too far away from you in Ohio with the purging of voter rules there.
Sarah Kendzior: I’ve seen that in Ohio and in other states. I think it speaks to a broader issue of lack of transparency in the government. I think sometimes people think the voter suppression is this sort of simple-to-document phenomenon where you show up and you vote, and then your vote’s not counted. But there are so many different ways of doing it, and purging the rolls. Attacking the database or the rolls itself is one way to go.
Jeff Schechtman: What is your sense, finally, of how this whole discussion about Russia and hacking the election, and how that will roll into, you touched on this a little while ago, how this is going to roll into this whole concern about voter suppression as we go forward in 2018.
Sarah Kendzior: I’m very concerned about it. Right before Obama left office, he signed a piece of legislation that said that elections were part of our critical infrastructure. No different than any other physical, tangible part of infrastructure. Trump recently, or the administration, put out a document about threats to infrastructure. About threats of hacking and so forth, and did not consider elections to fall under that rubric anymore. They’re basically rejecting Obama’s legislation. I think that’s because of course they know that it’s advantageous for them, for Russia to interfere with elections on their behalf. I think they see this as something advantageous, and I find it really appalling that they don’t consider the basic principles of sovereignty and national security and the damage that this can do in our election system. I think we should expect hacks or attempted hacks in 2018 because there’s been no concerted plan to thwart them.
Jeff Schechtman: Sarah Kendzior, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh, thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

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.

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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