Election Day has become election days as voters trek to mailboxes or ballot boxes in record numbers. These earnest early voters may be motivated by several factors: COVID, convenience and consequence, considering that many believe this is indeed the most important election of their lifetimes.
But will their vote be counted?
That’s the unsettling question in “Whose Vote Counts,” a documentary from PBS’ “Frontline.” Now available online after this week’s on-air premiere, it follows journalist Jelani Cobb (backed by research and reporting from “Frontline,” USA Today, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel colleagues) in an examination of voting issues.
The state that’s documented isn’t in the deep South, as might be expected, but Wisconsin, where last April’s primary was marked, and marred, by partisanship resulting in legal maneuvering, Milwaukee voting sites evaporating from 180 to five, and the ensuing endless lines of stoic voters literally risking their lives to vote (a scene repeated today, as documented by a full-page photo story in Friday’s New York Times showing voters and the number of hours they had already waited in the cold).
“These people wanted to vote this past April in the battleground of Wisconsin, a primary that would turn out to be a telling dress rehearsal for the election chaos the rest of the country is now engulfed in,” Cobb says in the documentary’s opening moments, in which he refers to Wisconsin as “a microcosm of America these days.”
Cobb, a New Yorker writer and Columbia University history and journalism professor, says he’s “never seen anything like this moment: the threat of a constitutional crisis over an election where the votes of many Americans, especially people of color, may not count.”
There’s no flinching on race from “Frontline” and those on the front lines of this simmering issue. “People were going to get sick and those people were probably going to be Black and brown people who are disproportionally impacted by the virus,” Angela Lang, the executive director of the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, says in “Whose Vote Counts.”
“And also that’s the same group of people that can make or break an election. And we’re seeing those things collide.”
This collision could be a life-or-death matter. Which is why so many have urged mail-in voting, an effective method in multiple states for years — including ones won by Republicans, like Utah — in order to avoid the scenario seen in Wisconsin.
“I’m not going to feed into what they want us to do, which is not vote,” Wisconsin resident Melody McCurtis says in the documentary. “I just felt like we’re in 2020, but it felt like 1867.”
“1867,” Cobb muses. “When I heard Melody McCurtis say that, the drama in Wisconsin came into sharp focus. I heard the expression of a present-day reality and a historical sentiment. She was drawing a line starting back to the post-Civil War era, when African Americans risked their lives for the right to vote.”
Many others will draw the line to the civil-rights era, which resulted in landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act. But the enforcement of that act was watered down by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that removed some southern states from federal oversight.
But as Wisconsin and so many other examples show, the threat to voting, the DNA of our democracy, knows no boundaries. Recent headlines reflect the problem’s proliferation: “Fake political news aimed at Latinos to suppress vote,” read the print headline on a Times’ story. “Calls for armed guards, ‘Army for Trump’ volunteers vex Minnesota election officials” read a Star Tribune story. “How the Trump campaign used big data to deter Miami-Dade’s Black communities from voting,” read the headline from a Miami Herald story about the 2016 campaign. And from the AP, “In Mississippi, Black voters face many hurdles.” (All these are just from this week.)
An analysis from the Times shows what’s at stake: In the 2018 midterm election, minority voters made up about 27% of voters, compared to 11% in 1976. Demographic data shows this share will only grow in future elections. And yet, according to a separate Times story this week, mail-in ballots from Black voters were much more likely to be flagged for problems compared with white voters — about four times more likely in another swing state, North Carolina, according to that state’s Board of Elections.
Examples abound from other states — and other nations: U.S. intelligence officials revealed this week stepped-up attacks from Russia and Iran, just two of the foreign actors trying to discredit our democracy.
Of course, some dispute that voter suppression occurs — or that it’s even real. It’s a “made-up term,” Hans Von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department attorney and a key driver behind enhanced voting restrictions like the ones that have been enacted in Wisconsin, told Cobb in comments reflecting the increasing polarization of voting rights.
The reaction to this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a Pennsylvania case that allowed an extra three days for ballots to arrive, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day, typifies the trend. The court split 4-4, letting a state ruling stand. Analysts viewed it as a victory for Democrats and a defeat for Republicans. But shouldn’t it really have been a victory for voters — and by extension, the country?
Indeed, voting shouldn’t be so, well, political. It should be encouraged and made easier by a bipartisan consensus. But it may take a Democratic sweep to pass a renewed commitment to voting rights, in a bill appropriately renamed for the late John Lewis, the civil-rights icon who said that, “the right to vote is precious, almost sacred.”
Suppressing this sacred right may have the opposite effect.
“Wisconsin was ironically inspiring,” Cobb said via Zoom in a documentary discussion hosted by “Frontline.”
“You can implement policies that make it harder to vote, you can do things that strike people from the voting register, from the rolls, you can do lots of things. But the other part of it is, that’s offset by the number of people you piss off. And while it was horrifying, it was also inspiring to see those lines of people in cold, sleet, inclement weather and then fully prepared to risk their lives to cast a ballot on April 7th. Because I guarantee you those people were thinking about their grandmother, their grandfather, their great uncle who would have been lynched had they tried to vote.”
These turbulent times mean a contentious election. Voting, however, shouldn’t be contentious, but convenient. Everyone, after all, has a stake in our democracy, and thus a right to take part in it.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.