Democracy Decoded: Season 2, Episode 1 Transcript

Make Every Vote Count

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Simone Leeper: Growing up, my parents talked a lot about civic engagement. We listened to NPR every day on the way to school, and watched TV news during dinner. We watched the State of the Union and presidential debates as a family. I remember debating my social studies teacher in class after one of the State of the Unions. We were going back and forth about the policies brought up the night before. We talked about immigration, which I had strong feelings about since my mom and her family immigrated to the US from Colombia when she was a child, and climate change policies, which I was passionate about because I saw how relevant they would be to my generation. I was in sixth grade.

In every election. My parents made voting a family affair too. We'd all walk to the church in our neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, the same church where I learned to ride a bike in the parking lot, and I'd watch them cast their ballot. When I was finally old enough to vote, I wanted to cast my first ballot at that church. My college gave us a few days off around election day, so I flew home to Florida and made that familiar walk to the church to vote for the first time. It felt amazing. Finally being able to walk into that polling place and do my part felt so fulfilling.

I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. In this series we ask, why does American democracy look the way it does today, and how can we make it more responsive to the people it was formed to serve? In Season Two we're talking about voting rights and what voting looks like and doesn't look like for many Americans. We'll hear from people who lost the right to vote and how they tried to get that right back.

We'll also examine how we vote, whether in person or by mail, and what these mean for getting more people's voices heard. In this first episode, we're talking about voting access. As you heard, my personal experience with voting has tended to be easy. I had a polling place in my neighborhood. I got time off from school to vote. I had my parents modeling what voting looked like. I was able to focus on the thrill of making my voice heard, of participating in this democratic experiment that I'd heard so much about my whole life. But that's not the case for millions of people across the country.

Danielle Lang: Today the freedom to vote is at a crossroads.

Leeper: That's Danielle Lang, the Senior Director of Voting Rights here at the Campaign Legal Center.

Lang: In recent years, legislators who would prefer not to see robust civic participation, who are content with lower turnout and less accountability, are moving our democracy backwards.

Leeper: In many instances your access to voting depends on what part of the country you live in. Some states are removing barriers and making voting easier for citizens. Others are passing more restrictions to the voting process, deterring citizens from voting. Sadly, this isn't a new phenomenon. Access to voting has always been uneven since the founding of our democracy. Enslaved people and women weren't granted the right to vote in the Constitution ratified in 1788. Only white men who owned property could vote, which wasn't very representative of the population.

Only 6% of people in the US were eligible to vote in that first presidential election. For everyone else living in the United States, it would take a fight to get the right to vote. Almost 100 years after the Constitution was ratified and after a civil war, the 15th Amendment was ratified, which said that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race. 50 years after that, in 1920, women gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Here's Paul Smith, Senior Vice President at Campaign Legal Center.

Paul Smith: We have a long complicated history in this country of attacks on the freedom to vote.

Leeper: Black Americans were still denied the freedom to vote well after the 15th Amendment was ratified. For decades, Black Americans faced deliberate barriers to voting like intimidation, violence, and state laws that sought to restrict their access to the ballot box. But it didn't end there. Paul says there was a specific point in our history during which voting rates were denied to a large swath of the US population.

Smith: The really terrible period was the period of what we call Jim Crow, roughly from 1890s to the 1960s. During that period, in the South especially, African Americans were essentially prevented from voting at all because of their race.

Leeper: In this period of 70 years, technically, Black Americans had the right to vote. When Congress ratified the 15th Amendment after the Civil War it said citizens should not be prevented from voting just because of their race. But many states found loopholes around this.

Brittany Carter: I'm Brittany Carter, and I'm the Political Participation Fellow at LDF.

Leeper: Brittany is a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and her job at LDF focuses on voting rights litigation and voter protection efforts. She's on the legal team for a voting rights case that went before the Supreme Court in 2022. All this is to say she's very well versed in the history of deliberate barriers to voting, including what it looked like during the Jim Crow era and how states implemented new restrictions that mainly impacted Black voters.

Carter: Some of those examples are literacy tests, which were supposedly administered to test a voter's ability to read and write, but which white people were generally exempted from. Poll taxes, which required the payment of a tax as a prerequisite to voter registration. Grandfather clauses which were provisions restricting the right to vote to those whose ancestors had the right to vote before the Civil War or some other designated date.

Leeper: In addition to these official tactics, there was also social pressure to keep Black people away from the polls. When they tried to register or cast a ballot, they were often met with violence or harassment. Trying to vote, though legal, meant they were often risking their safety and even their lives. These tactics were most severe in the South and kept hundreds of thousands of Black citizens from voting. The Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed 94 year old Dorothy Guilford back in 2014 about her experience voting as a Black woman in Alabama throughout her life.

Dorothy Guilfor...: I was probably 19 years old when I first voted, and I paid my poll tax that year and I voted. I was nervous though. I paid the poll tax for several years, and then they abolished the poll tax.

Leeper: The poll tax Dorothy paid would be equivalent to $25 today, and Brittany says it was strategic that these tactics, which were written into law, never explicitly mentioned Black people.

Carter: Those were all technically colorblind restrictions on voting rights. These were not explicitly racist policies. But the implementation and enforcement were explicitly racist because even though restricting access to the vote based on race wasn't legally acceptable, it was socially acceptable.

Leeper: And yet it required legal intervention to confront these racist policies.

Smith: That problem finally begins to get solved with the passage in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act.

Leeper: But this only happened because of the years of organizing, activism, and peaceful protests from Black people and their allies. Many of them put their lives on the line to demand their civil rights and were met with violence. The Voting Rights Act enshrined the right to vote promised to Black Americans by the 15th Amendment into federal law. It made some of those racist policies Brittany talked about explicitly illegal. For example, by outlawing literacy tests. Here's Paul Smith from the Campaign Legal Center again.

Smith: And so for a period from the '70s and '80s, and into the '90s we had finally an approximation of a successful multiracial democracy for the only time in the history of this country. Since then, unfortunately what we've seen is efforts to find ways to move the law, to skew the outcome, to selectively keep just enough people from voting that it will keep people in power.

Leeper: Put plainly, politicians are still restricting voting access to US citizens. And while it looks different from Jim Crow laws, like Paul said, these restrictions are still disproportionately affecting Black people and other historically disenfranchised groups, including low-income people, Native Americans, and voters with disabilities, among others. Much of the rhetoric around elections these days still focuses on voting access. For example, there's been political criticism of voting by mail and ballot drop boxes, both of which allow more people to vote. Here's Brittany from LDF again.

Carter: After seeming like a settled issue in the public consciousness from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, through the '70s, '80s, '90s, and early 2000s, voting rights has really once again emerged as an indispensable battleground in the fight for racial justice.

Leeper: So when we talk about voting restrictions today, we aren't talking about literacy tests or poll taxes. The new generation of voter suppression tactics are subtle but impactful.

Carter: So across the country, state legislatures are drafting and passing laws that literally deny access to the vote by shrinking the number of early voting days, imposing strict voter identification requirements, cutting voting times, limiting ballot drop boxes, and purging voter rolls.

Leeper: In the rest of this episode, we'll dig deeper into what these voter restrictions look like in our modern elections. One of the biggest barriers to helping eligible voters cast their ballot is strictly requiring that people vote in person. Here's campaign Legal Center's Danielle Lang again.

Lang: Getting to the polls will be very difficult for working moms who have trouble balancing schedules and childcare. It's also true for a lot of people with disabilities.

Leeper: Many people don't have flexible work hours, which makes voting during business hours on a Tuesday extremely difficult. Many voters would have to take time off to go to a polling place, which could mean a missed paycheck. Danielle mentioned transportation. For working-class citizens who might not have access to a car or live in a city with poor public transportation, it can be even more time consuming and difficult to get to a polling place. Danielle says some states and cities have more polling places in some parts of town versus others, and there can often be polling place deserts in communities of color and low income communities.

Lang: Some folks will show up to the polls during early voting period and breeze through a well-resourced polling place. Other folks will be forced to vote on election day only, which is a Tuesday. They have to travel miles to get to their polling place, and when they get there, it will be under-resourced and lines could be four, five, six hours long.

Leeper: We saw this in Georgia in 2020, both in the presidential primary and the November election. Here's a clip from NBC News from October 2020 about an early voting site in the state's capital.

NBC News: One Metro Atlanta polling site reported waits of up to seven hours. Some of the biggest problems in areas with higher Black populations.

Leeper: And it's not just Georgia where Black voters are dealing with complicated voting processes. This is a pattern across the country, and the voting restrictions in place impact specific communities.

Lang: Our polling places are under-resourced in communities of color. If you live in a majority Black neighborhood, your likelihood of waiting in line to vote is way higher. That is a problem we can solve and is unacceptable. It was unacceptable in 1965 and it's unacceptable today.

Leeper: Another common barrier to voting is the voter registration process. This is a uniquely American problem. In many developed countries around the world like Canada, Australia, Germany, the government takes the responsibility of maintaining its voter rolls. In the US you have to put your name on those rolls yourself. Half of our states don't allow same-day registration or registering the day you show up to vote, so voters have to make sure they're registered weeks before an election.

Also, some communities will delete a person's name from their voter rolls if you haven't voted in the last few elections. This is a practice that many people call voter purging. We heard Brittany mention this earlier. Danielle thinks that registering to vote should be automatic and never expire as long as a voter has the same address and is eligible to vote.

Lang: We're making voter registration way too hard. We have the technology, and the innovation, and the knowledge to enable voters to register really easily through systems like automatic voter registration at the DMV, same day voter registration, and online voter registration. Most states have online voter registration, thank goodness, but some states are still holdouts.

Leeper: There is one more group of US citizens who have to navigate this very complicated voting system made all the more complicated by their situation.

Lang: Many people with past convictions just assume they can't vote and don't even try.

Leeper: If you've been convicted of a felony, whether or not you can vote after serving your sentence will depend on where you live. For example, someone in Maine never loses the right to vote even when they're in prison. And 23 states have laws or policies that automatically restore voting rights when a person has completed prison time. 14 states restore voting rights once a person finishes probation or parole.

But the rest are much more complicated, requiring payment of fines, fees, restitution, and so on. And in Mississippi, you have to actually get the legislature to pass a bill that individually restores your right to vote. All these obstacles to voting build on each other, including the fact that many people don't even know that they are or can become eligible to vote again.

Lang: We're doing a really poor job of educating folks on their rights and empowering them. Instead, when folks with past convictions try to access the ballot, they often find themselves wrongfully denied by local registrars who are not well versed in the law. They find themselves being asked to provide decades old documentation about their conviction.

Leeper: Danielle says there are more than five million people in the US who can't vote because of past convictions. On top of that, up to 18 million Americans with past convictions actually are eligible to vote but don't know it because rights restoration laws can be very confusing and public education about the process is limited.

Lang: We're seeing the de facto disenfranchisement of potentially tens of millions of Americans with past convictions.

Leeper: We'll have the chance to dive deeper into this topic of felony disenfranchisement, including the history behind it and what we can do about it, in the next episode. Voting rights advocates at Campaign Legal Center know there are easy solutions to knocking down the barriers to voting and making sure our voting system is fair and accessible. These include equitable access to in-person voting, rights restoration for the community we just talked about, and access to mail-in voting.

Lang: Democracy works best when every voter can participate, and we know that while some voters really value voting in person, for other voters voting in person is not accessible.

Leeper: Danielle says one way to make sure every voter can participate is by allowing all voters across all the states to cast their ballot by mail or place their ballot in a drop box on or before election day. Some states, like Colorado, allow every registered voter to vote by mail. But in more restrictive states like Texas, this option is only available to people who meet certain criteria like being an older adult or having a disability. Paul Smith says allowing universal vote-by-mail would make our elections much more accessible.

Smith: Voting by mail has given more people, working parents, disabled voters, seniors, college students, the opportunity to cast a ballot in a secure and convenient way.

Leeper: And it increases access to the ballot box for voters from both sides of the aisle.

Smith: Vote-by-mail doesn't benefit one party over the other. States as diverse as California, Utah, and Florida have been using all or nearly all absentee and mail ballots for years. Those votes are accurately and securely counted and have resulted in both Republicans and Democrats being elected. It simply isn't a partisan issue.

Leeper: And yet some politicians in the last few years have been critical of mail-in ballots. This rhetoric became popular during the pandemic when mail-in and absentee voting was in high demand in order to keep people safe from contracting COVID-19. Mail-in voting preserved people's freedom to vote without requiring them to risk their lives by voting in person during the pandemic. So a lot of people voted by mail, many for the first time. Paul says the data doesn't support the claim that mail-in voting leads to fraud. He says there are fail-safes built in specifically to prevent fraud.

Smith: There are mechanisms in the way that mail-in ballots are designed, so use signature matching, or some portion of an ID number that you have, and the like.

Leeper: And poll workers are trained to handle ballots just like someone at a bank is trained to handle cash, with a chain of custody, a paper trail. We'll also talk more about vote-by-mail and absentee voting later this season, and all the different ways to make voting by mail and in person more equitable and accessible to all citizens. Here's Danielle Lang.

Lang: Today the freedom to vote is at a crossroads. There are so many innovations in election administration that can make voting more accessible to more people.

Leeper: When the United States was founded, democracy, government by the people, was at the center of the new government the founders established. They wanted to give citizens a voice in how our country would be run. Over time, we've been able to expand how many Americans that word citizen covers, and we've continued to work on evolving our definition of democracy. Here's Paul Smith again.

Smith: When we work to protect voting rights, we're trying to keep America true to itself and to help it achieve the kind of democratic values that it says it's committed to, but hasn't always lived up to.

Leeper: Democratic elections make the US stand apart from so many other countries, but our democratic elections are still not inclusive of all citizens. Our goal for this season on Democracy Decoded is to learn about the people who are still prevented from exercising this right, and to explore ways to get them to the voting booth. Special thanks to Paul Smith, Danielle Lang, and Brittany Carter for appearing in this episode.

You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes along with a full transcript of the show. Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan non-profit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process.

You can visit us on the web at I'm Simone Leeper, Legal Counsel on the redistricting team. Casey Atkins is our Multimedia Strategist. Mannal Haddad is Senior Communications Manager for voting rights and redistricting. This podcast episode was produced by Claire McInerny, edited by Paulina Velasco, and mixed by Florence Barrau-Adams. Democracy Decoded is a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at