Who Belongs? EP 14 - Voter Suppression in Georgia, with Robert Greenwald and Carol Anderson

Interview

September 19, 2019

Download an MP3 of this interview.

This episode of Who Belongs? is another installment of our Civic Engagement Narrative Change project series, with project researcher Josh Clark interviewing two guests: The first is Robert Greenwald, an award-winning producer and director who has a new film coming out on September 25 called “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote,” about voter suppression in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia, and Carol Anderson, Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of the book One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy.

Transcript

Carol Anderson: Imagine you're the director of the lottery. You certified the machines. Then you say you pulled the winning lottery ticket for $1 billion. That is what Brian Kemp did in this election.

Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs?, a podcast from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. My name Mark Abizeid, one of the hosts of Who Belongs? This episode will be another installment of our Civic Engagement Narrative Change project series, with project researcher Josh Clark interviewing two guests. The first is Robert Greenwald, an award-winning producer and director who has a new film coming out next week on September 25th, called Suppressed: The Fight to Vote, about voter suppression in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia. And Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, and author of the book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. This was their conversation.

Josh Clark: Today we'll be talking about the film, Suppressed: The Fight to Vote. The film investigates the issues of voter suppression and voting rights, especially in the state of Georgia, and in relation to the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, but also, as we turn to the presidential election season of 2020. The film will premiere in Atlanta on September 24th, with full release on September 25th, and you'll be able to access it at www.fighttovote.org, that's, F-I-G-H-T-T-O-V-O-T-E, .org.

Josh Clark: So, Robert, you founded Brave New Films about 14 years ago, from what I understand. And you've directed documentaries on a wide range of topics. You've taken on Walmart's business and labor practices, the political influence of large media conglomerates, war profiteering in Iraq in the George W. Bush years, and also US drone policy under President Obama. What made Brave New Films decide that you all would devote yourselves to tackling the issue of voter suppression in Georgia?

Robert Greenwald: There were a couple of reasons that came together to lead to the decision to take on voting suppression. One of the first was the absolutely brilliant and essential book that Professor Anderson has written -- One Person, No Vote -- which really served as a guide throughout the whole process, in terms of the research, the explanation of how voting suppression works today. And it opened my eyes, and all of my colleagues eyes, to a fundamentally different idea. It's not one person under cover of night sneaking in and stealing a ballot box, or holding a gun to somebody. It's a whole series of different strategies and tactics -- unfortunately, many of them legal -- and the result is this widespread voter suppression. So, reading Professor Anderson's book, seeing and understanding the variety of the different tactics, and then, the amazing staff at Brave New Films -- Laurie, our associate producer, and, Casey, our producer -- began the months of research, in terms of finding the personal stories.

Robert Greenwald: What we do with Brave New Films and with film is, we put a face on policy, and if we don't have the faces, then many other folks can do the policy. But what we uniquely do is the faces, which are useful and important in film, and allow us to tell a systemic story. Not a story of one corrupt person, not a story of one broken voting booth, but a systemic effort to stop people from voting. So, all of that came together and led to the decision that there was nothing more important that we could do than to take on this issue to the best of our ability.

Josh Clark: Yes, Professor Anderson's book, One Person, No Vote, is really a definitive history of voter suppression in the US, as well as an analysis of some of the contemporary tactics of voter suppression, really an important book. And it's awesome to hear the impact that this book had, that it really drove this film into being, in a way.

Josh Clark: Professor Anderson, you speak in the film, in several parts of the film. And one really evocative statement that you had was that voter suppression today is like termites in the house. And I wanted to give you an opportunity to spell out that metaphor for us, and what you're meaning by that.

Carol Anderson: And I use that metaphor because, in so many ways, it looks like the house is standing, it looks like the house is solid. You walk in, there are walls, there's a floor, there's a roof. And you think, "Ah, I've got a nice solid home." And then, if you want to do some remodeling, you pull off the wall, and all of a sudden you're looking at the studs, and there's just sawdust, and you realize there's nothing really holding up your home. And soon, if you don't stop this massive destruction of the pillars of your home, it's going to collapse.

Carol Anderson: That's how I see where we are with democracy right now, is that it looks like it functions. We see candidates running. We have weekly and monthly polls telling us who's in front and who's behind. On election day, we have cameras there talking about people who are at the polls, and they're voting, and now we have the returns coming in. It all looks like a nice functioning democracy. But when you pull back the drywall, what you see are the ways that the policies of voter suppression are systematically destroying -- eating away -- at the very pillars holding up the house of democracy. That's why that analogy just really spoke to me.

Josh Clark: I wanted to mention, of course, that the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018 was one that many people were watching, that was historic for a number of different reasons, among others that the Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, if she had been victorious, would have been the first African-American woman governor in the country. And also, because Stacey Abrams is someone who has done more than most, and arguably, in Georgia, more than any, to get folks registered, and to really go around and bring more people into the process than have been in the democratic process, and the electoral process, consistently, in the state, in large part through the organization, New Georgia Project, which she directed.

Josh Clark: So, I wanted to give that as background for any of our listeners that might not know that piece of context. But I also wanted to ask -- before we dig in further into some of the questions about particular tactics, and how they functioned in Georgia, and how they function across the country to suppress the vote -- if the two of you could just give a brief overview naming some of the voter suppression tactics that we saw in Georgia in 2018, and that the film, Suppressed, investigates.
Carol Anderson: We saw, for instance, massive voter roll purges. 10.6% of Georgia's voter rolls, registrants on Georgia's voter rolls, were knocked off the list in 2018 alone.

Robert Greenwald: We also saw poll closings. Hundreds of polls were closed, primarily in areas that vote heavily Democratic, and are primarily African-American communities. We have a gentleman who was in the military, and says this was about absentee ballots, and he said it was easier to vote absentee from Iraq than it was to vote absentee in the United States.

Carol Anderson: And we have the Exact Match program. So, what Georgia says is that, "It's easier to vote here than anywhere, because we've got this kind of automatic voter registration." What Georgia doesn't tell you -- it's like the asterisk that's right there -- is that if your voter registration card doesn't match up exactly to what's in the state's database, or the social security office's database, then your voter registration is held in limbo. And you don't quite know why there's a problem. It may be that there's a space between your last name, and it's not on the state's driver's license database. It may be that there is an accent, René, instead of Rene. You don't know. But what you do know, eventually, kind of, sort of, is that you registered to vote, but you're not registered to vote.

Robert Greenwald: Yes. And I think, just to reiterate that, I mean, as someone in the film talks about, this is particularly effective, if you will, because people assume once they're registered that they're registered, and that's not the case. The other tactic that got some attention, but fundamentally, how widespread it was, the long lines. Well, you say, "Long lines, what's the big deal?" So I want to ask everyone listening, "How long would you wait in line to vote?" We have people, again, primarily in African-American districts, where they waited in line an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours, and six hours. Which requires not only extraordinary patience, but also, in many cases, missing work. And now, to vote, it's costing you not just time, but it's costing you money. And as Dr. Anderson says, there's research about the longer the wait, the more people decide not to vote.

Carol Anderson: Yep. And key to that is making sure that there aren't enough voting machines in those minority precincts. And this is part of what led to those multi-hour lines. In fact, over a thousand voting machines were in a warehouse on election day, instead of being distributed as they should have been, to precincts that were in Fulton County, which is Atlanta, in Cobb County, another part of Atlanta, and Gwinnett County, yet another part of Atlanta.

Josh Clark: Yeah. This is really one of those issues that I feel like the media, I mean, not to paint all of the media as one thing, but media generally does us a disservice in their coverage of long lines. I mean, usually their reporting when there are long lines on election days is, "Look, this is a positive sign. High turnout." I feel like I remember, really, even since I was a kid, this media narrative of, "Look, democracy is alive and well. Just look at these lines, people standing in line waiting to vote, everyone's here." But that really is putting a sheen on what's an administrative failure, isn't it Dr. Anderson?

Carol Anderson: Oh, absolutely. What the research is very clear on is that African-Americans in African-American districts, and Hispanics in primarily-Hispanic districts, have to wait the longest to vote. The group that has the shortest wait time at the polls are whites who live in white districts. And so, you get this disparate impact, and it has a horrific effect on voter turnout, not only at the day of the the polls when you're standing in line. Imagine standing in line five to six hours. We don't like to wait 30 minutes at the driver's license bureau.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Right.

Carol Anderson: So imagine ... Right? And so, what happens here is that you're in line for six hours, and for many, those are in working class districts where you have to punch a clock. And if you can't punch that clock because you're standing in line trying to vote because there are three machines there, instead of the 15 or 20 that should be there, or that they forgot to bring the electric cords, or the batteries ran down, all of these excuses, that are massive administrative failures, that are designed to create these long lines, which are therefore designed to discourage voters in those districts from standing in line for five, six hours to cast their ballot. This is, again, the analogy of the termites, right? It looks like it's functioning. It's not.

Josh Clark: Yes. Yeah-

Robert Greenwald: I would also add to that: I look at it, in fact, not as an administrative failure, but, perhaps, sadly, an administrative success, in terms of achieving a goal of voter suppression. Someone in the film talks about resource allocation, which is, you decide where you put your resources. That's not an accident. That's not a mistake. That is working to make sure some get more of a right to vote than others.

Josh Clark: ... Robert, you talked earlier about putting faces on a system, right? And this type of story of voter suppression, and all the stories that are really compelling in the film that you've made, they're not usually well-told, post-election. They're not picked up for a variety of reasons. I assume media move on to covering winners and losers, a lot of profiles of swing voters, and so forth. I wonder if you would say, since you have gone through this process as a filmmaker, is it difficult to find people impacted by suppressive laws and policies? I feel like that's an excuse that you might hear for why journalists don't do a better job of covering this. But, did you find it difficult in the making of this film to get folks in the room to hear their stories?

Robert Greenwald: In this case, with the widespread suppression in Georgia, we did not find it difficult. What it did require was time and effort. And, again, I tend to look at things in terms of the system. Many wonderful journalists who I know, and some, many, who I don't know, I think would love to have the time to be able to spend as we did. Look, we're a very small nonprofit, but Laurie spent probably months and months just reaching out, talking to people, posting on social networks, following up leads. Others could have done it, but they didn't, often because of the nature of their jobs, which are in a for-profit system, they have to turn around quicker what can be a profit. But the number of stories that were out there, I mean, it was really extraordinary. And there are a whole series of lawsuits being pursued now. And then those lawsuits, they have all numbers of people with different statements about how their vote was suppressed.

Josh Clark: Something that struck me about the stories -- the impacted voters that you did find, the ones featured in the film Suppressed -- was that, by and large, they were highly-engaged politically. So, a lot of folks who were informed, committed. And we hear their stories of jumping through every hoop, going over all of the obstacles that are put in their way, and still not getting to vote. And that's a powerful bit of the film, because you get so frustrated hearing these stories, and going along on these journeys with folks. But I think that why most people underestimate the impact of voter suppression is that it's usually more subtle, as Professor Anderson was discussing, and a lot of voters can manage maybe one or two of these kinds of inconveniences, and not five or six. And then, they don't vote, and then, we don't end up being able to hear about it. As a voter suppression expert, would you say that that's generally the case, Professor Anderson?

Carol Anderson: I would say it is. And the reason it is, is ... and as a historian, I'm going to take us back to Mississippi in 1890. When Mississippi developed the Mississippi Plan, which was to figure out, "How do we stop black people from voting, and get around the 15th Amendment, the constitutional amendment on the right to vote. How do we do that?" And they developed an array of policies: poll tax, literacy test, good-character clause, et cetera. What they realized is that if one of those programs doesn't stop, the second one might it. If the second one doesn't, the third one might. If the third one doesn't, the fourth one might. If the fourth one doesn't, the fifth one might. So by 1940, that combination of what was called the Mississippi Plan led to only 3 percent of African-Americans being registered to vote in the South.

Carol Anderson: But the images that we have of that are the images of the violence. So, there are the policies, but then there's that election day terrorism, that kind of terrorism that led to the explosion on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, that led to the Voting Rights Act. That's how we think of voter suppression -- the violence. So, what happens if you strip the violence out, but you maintain and create an array of policies that are so effective in picking off 1,000 here, 20 there, 30 there, 100 there. That's what we have right now. It's quiet, it's subtle, it's methodical, it's bureaucratic, and it's effective. And it's really hard for a nation and a media -- drawn to the bloodshed, drawn to the fire, drawn to the explosions -- to really gather how corrosive and dangerous these policies really are, to be able to explain them legibly. That's why I love the film.

Josh Clark: I couldn't agree with you more. Yeah. I mean, what's so frustrating, I feel like is, I think there is this ... it's partially due to a faith in our electoral system, and in our democracy, that folks who aren't subject to voter suppression tactics, to having all of these different hoops that they have to jump through, when they hear these cases, they deny that this could be widespread. "Those are tiny exceptions," is what they say. And I think that when those stories do get told in the media, or in a film like Suppressed, yeah, those stories that are told are exceptional, but not in the way that people are saying that. They're exceptional because these are folks who did jump through every hoop, and they're really the tip of the iceberg.

Carol Anderson: One of the narratives out there deals with how ... it was one of the reasons I wrote One Person, No Vote, was after the 2016 election, there was the narrative that black people just didn't show up. And so, it was built into that narrative of what I call black pathology. "They don't care about democracy, they just didn't show up." And it doesn't say that that was the first election in 50 years without the protection of the Voting Rights Act. And so, this narrative of, "Well, this vote, voting is out there for everybody. Everybody has an ID. I go vote, and I don't stand in line. I don't understand the problem. If you really cared, you would go vote."

Carol Anderson: And so, residential segregation allows to draw the districts in such a way so that many in the middle class norm, and many whites, don't feel the full impact of having to stand in line for six hours, or having to get an ID where you don't have all of the documentation, so you have to go back multiple times to try to gather up all of the documents to prove you are who you are. So, that is the subtle corrosive way that it shapes our electorate. It shapes our sense of, "Everybody can do this. This is a fair and equal society," when it in fact is not.

Josh Clark: Another example, I feel like, that goes along with the general point you're making of a policy that, on its face, average voter who's not exposed to voter suppression might not think sounds very pernicious, is the Exact Match policy. And I wanted to ask for you to spell out, why is it that this has a disparate impact, undeniably, on communities of color?

Carol Anderson: And the way that it works, so, Exact Match says that everything that you have, particularly like your name, that you put on your voter registration has to be exactly that that's in the state's driver's license database, or the Social Security Administration's database. What a lawsuit proved was that what that does is it privileges Anglicised names. John Smith. If your name is Jose Garcia Marquez, and you write it on your voter registration card with a hyphen between Garcia and Marquez, but there's not a hyphen on your driver's license in the driver's license database, then, boom, kicked out. You're put in electoral limbo.

Carol Anderson: What we know from the ways that names work is that when you don't have an Anglicised name, it's going to be a lot easier to have that name kicked out. If you have an uncommon spelling of the name, that name is going to be kicked out. Those sorts of things happen so that in October of 2018 -- so this is just a month before the election -- Brian Kemp, who was the Republican candidate for governor, who also stayed on as secretary of state at the time to manage this election, he held in abeyance 53,000 voter registrations in October of 2018, because of Exact Match. 70% of those withheld, put in limbo, were African-American. That's how this works.

Josh Clark: In the film, I hope I'm not giving anything away by referencing this one particular incident, but there's a case of this gentleman whose last name is Del Rio. And either on the voter roll record, or on the ID, Del and Rio have a space between them, and on the other one there's no space. And so he gets held up, gets told that he's not in the voter rolls, and has Exact Match explained to him. But something that was so interesting about this case was that he actually ends up getting to vote, and you learn that this is a person ... I'm almost sure he's a professor, definitely highly educated.

Carol Anderson: Yes, he is.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Very educated, confident to speak back to the poll workers, right? And say "No, I have every right to vote," et cetera. And they end up saying, "Okay, we'll let you vote." And this is one of those things that's between the lines in the film, what you're seeing, though, is administrative discretion, and how that functions to privilege some, and and exclude others, as well. Do you feel like that plays a big role, Professor Anderson, administrative discretion, and how the folks who are actually there at the tables with the rolls are making calls in the moment? Or is that one of those exceptional incidents?

Carol Anderson: No, it's not exceptional, and, in many ways, it is traditional. When you look over the history of disfranchisement in America. There was massive authority for administrative discretion for the poll workers. So when it was the poll tax, if it was somebody they wanted to vote, then fine, they could vote. If it was somebody they didn't want to vote, they would stop them. Here what you saw was Professor Del Rio -- actually he is a physician and a professor, at Emory -- able to use his authority in ways that someone who punches a clock may not be able to, to say, "Yes, I will vote."

Carol Anderson: So, you see embedded in voter suppression issues of race and class. And also, with the voter ID, gender. Because women who marry or who divorce are often stopped from getting the the ID because there's a mismatch. So, all of these things are embedded in there, and it's a way, again, to begin to curtail the electorate, to shape it in such a way, to basically give the aura of democracy, to give the aura of one person, one vote, when that is not what is going on, on the ground, at all.

Josh Clark: That point about discriminatory impact on women of Exact Match is so important. And, honestly, it's one that I haven't heard articulated before. Stacey Abrams, who I mentioned earlier, who is the gubernatorial candidate in Georgia is included in the film. There's a clip from an interview with Stacey Abrams. Robert, I wondered if your team approached Brian Kemp, who as Professor Anderson mentioned, well, is now the sitting governor of Georgia, and who presided over his election in his capacity as secretary of state. Did you reach out for the film?

Robert Greenwald: We reached out multiple times to Kemp's office and did not receive an answer. We called, we emailed, we wrote letters, and there was no answer. And, of course, I mean, think about it -- if you were both the referee and the contestant, you would not want a lot of attention called to that fact alone of the dual role. And he played a dual role. And the fact that he did it, that he was able to work voter suppression so that he got the election, I think is both outrageous, infuriating, and we hope, with the film, will be a wake up call to other states all around the country, where efforts are going on. Now, the good news is, in some states, the people who believe, "Hey, if you want to vote, you should be able to vote," are winning.

Robert Greenwald: I mean, hard to imagine we'd have to fight that battle after all these years. But the film is a call, and it's a call, a wake up call, a call to action. And the good news is that it's available for free at fighttovote.org. So anybody can screen it, anybody we have, it's going to be seen in thousands of schools, in houses of worship, in libraries, in bookstores, in any place, at your homes. So that I hope all the work that the team has put into it, that Dr. Anderson's put into this issue, will have a real impact on people around a fundamental issue of democracy, which is voting.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I mean, the film is incredibly powerful, and, really, I felt even if you weren't sure what you thought about the role of voter suppression in Georgia's 2018 election before watching Suppressed, you almost can't walk away from the film thinking that Brian Kemp is anything other than the illegitimate governor of Georgia, that he shouldn't be there.

Carol Anderson: I think one of the things that I'd like to say is to understand Brian Kemp's role, because many people don't get what a secretary of state does, is to imagine you're the director of the lottery. You certified the machines. Then you say you pulled the winning lottery ticket for $1 billion. That is what Brian Kemp did in this election. A lottery director who pulls the winning lottery ticket.

Josh Clark: Who would you say, "It's most important that this group of people sees this film"?

Robert Greenwald: It's a large group of people, and I think maybe the most important will be people whose vote is, in fact, being suppressed. People who've been subjected to harassment, suppression, difficulties, closing polling places, waiting in line, perfect matches, absentee voting, provisional ballots, it goes on and on. It's those people who I hope will see it, and the film will serve to stiffen their resolve, to further activate them. And, as we say at the end of the film, if you're right to vote wasn't so important, they wouldn't try to stop you from using it. So those are the first line, if you will. And then it's everyone else who can do something, whether you screen it at your school, or at your house of worship, or at very own home. Nobody can sit on the sidelines here. And I hope the film will motivate people to say, "Yes, I can do something, and I will do something."

Josh Clark: Well, thank you so much, Robert Greenwald, from Brave New Films, and thank you, Professor Carol Anderson, from Emory University, for speaking with us today. This has been really great. I just want to say, once again, that the release date for Suppressed: The Fight to Vote is September 25th, and you'll be able to access it for free, as Robert mentioned, at www.fighttovote.org. And thank you both very much for your work on this important issue.

Robert Greenwald: Thank you.

Carol Anderson: Thank you so much for having us.

Robert Greenwald: Thank you.

Marc Abizeid: And that concludes this episode of Who Belongs?, with Joshua Clark, a researcher from the Haas Institute Civic Engagement Narrative Change project, interviewing filmmaker Robert Greenwald about his new documentary coming out next week, called, Suppressed: The Fight to Vote, and Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, who is the author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. To access a transcript of this interview, and for more episodes of Who Belongs?, visit us online at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.