Transcript

Whose Vote Counts

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JELANI COBB, Correspondent:

I’m a journalist and historian.

JELANI COBB:

I’ve been studying American elections for years, but I’ve 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.

JELANI COBB:

First off, were you able to vote?

REV. GREG LEWIS:

You know, I was not, but I had a absentee ballot.

JELANI COBB:

These people wanted to vote this past April in the battleground state 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.

ANGELA LANG:

I think we’re seeing elected officials, specifically on the Republican side, that are playing politics with people’s lives.

JELANI COBB:

I started focussing on the state because of its pivotal and deeply partisan nature—it’s split down the middle between Republicans and Democrats, and it gave Donald Trump the presidency in 2016 by the exceedingly thin margin of 22,000 votes.

It’s a microcosm of America these days.

LISA SCHNELL:

I do believe that there is an attack on our democracy right now.

JELANI COBB:

Along with colleagues at Columbia Journalism Investigations, we began doing remote interviews there when the pandemic was just taking hold.

SHAVONDA SISSON:

We don’t need to be trying to have an election in the middle of a pandemic.

JELANI COBB:

With reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA Today, we examined the voting, especially the absentee ballots, how they were used and counted, and the political and legal fights around them.

We sent a crew to Wisconsin to understand what had been happening on the ground.

MALE SPEAKER:

Is someone on your end recording the Zoom call?

MALE SPEAKER 2:

I don’t think so.

JELANI COBB:

Our starting point: March 17, the day Wisconsin said the coronavirus pandemic would not affect its upcoming primary election, scheduled for just three weeks away.

Can you hear me OK?

MALE SPEAKER:

Your audio is fine, Jelani, on this side.

JELANI COBB:

The job of making that happen fell to numerous appointed officials like Neil Albrecht.

On March 17, when the governor announced that the election would proceed as scheduled, what was your immediate reaction?

NEIL ALBRECHT, Exec. Dir., Milwaukee Election Comm., 2012-20:

I would say profound disappointment. We were hearing advisements from health officials that any sort of community gathering was risky to the public. Most government closed, most businesses closed, but we in the election commission continued to come into work each day. We continued to invest 14-, 16-, 18-hour workdays, all with the hope that that election ultimately would be postponed.

JELANI COBB:

As we traveled the state, we met other local officials who had similar concerns about going through with voting.

TIM McCUMBER, Town Clerk, Merrimac, WI:

We had real conversations in my house. What does this look like?

So there we go. One COVID-free safety zone.

And then what if somebody did get COVID, what does that look like? We were fully prepared for me to potentially have to sleep down here if I had to, because I can't afford to get sick.

JELANI COBB:

Ninety minutes away, in suburban Oconomowoc, municipal clerk Diane Coenen explained what she tried to do to prepare her town’s polling station.

DIANE COENEN:

I thought, "I’m going to have some problems, how am I going to solve them?" early on. So I started calling different companies and asking them if they could supply me with a thousand masks or a thousand sets of gloves. Everything I could think of, and I started ordering it.

JELANI COBB:

Every state runs its own election process, and as Wisconsin was moving forward, others were pulling back.

MALE NEWSREADER:

States across the country have postponed their primary elections because of the coronavirus pandemic, but not Wisconsin.

JELANI COBB:

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who’d been elected on a razor-thin margin, had wanted to delay. But he ran into a roadblock with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

GOV. TONY EVERS:

I tried for a couple of weeks to convince the Legislature to changing around, make it an all-mail ballot or at least push it out to a different date.

JELANI COBB:

What did they say? What specifically did they say in response to those proposals?

TONY EVERS:

Well, basically they felt it was important to have the election. There was basically no interest. And they certainly weren't interested in a mail ballot.

JELANI COBB:

I asked the Republican Party chair in Wisconsin to explain his thinking at the time, why they were so intent on in-person voting.

ANDREW HITT, Chmn., Republican Party of WI:

We believed that with the right amount of preparation, we could hold a safe election. It was really my job as chairman of the party to make sure that all the rules were followed, that we preserved the integrity of our vote, because changing things at the last minute, changing the laws on the fly, can lead to so many problems.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Wisconsin is the only state stupid enough to have an election April 7.

JELANI COBB:

Over the coming days, Wisconsin would be skewered in the national media. A Democratic governor and a Republican legislature were forcing people out in a pandemic, endangering public health.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

I don’t know that I’ve seen anything as reckless and irresponsible with the public health—

MALE NEWSREADER:

Bernie Sanders saying holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is dangerous—

JELANI COBB:

We went to places in the state that were being hardest hit by the virus—densely populated urban areas: Madison, Green Bay and especially Milwaukee. All lean Democratic, with large communities of color.

ANGELA LANG, Exec. Dir., Black Leaders Organizing for Communities:

Milwaukee is incredibly segregated. And so when people say "the north side," that's really code for "Black folks." When people say "the south side," that's code for "Latinx folks."

JELANI COBB:

I looked up Angela Lang, a source of mine who is a voting rights activist in Milwaukee.

ANGELA LANG:

People were going to get sick and those people were probably going to be Black and brown people who are disproportionately impacted by the virus. And also that's the same group of people that can make and break an election. And we're seeing those things collide.

BEN WIKLER, Chair, Democratic Party of WI:

Hi, this is Ben Wikler with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin calling for David. Is this David?

JELANI COBB:

With their constituents at risk from in-person voting, Democrats began pushing for something that would ignite a political firestorm: an absentee ballot drive.

BEN WIKLER:

Can we count on you to remind three friends to return their absentee ballots before Election Day?

We decided to go 100% virtual and to focus 100% on helping people cast absentee ballots.

DNC video

BEN WIKLER:

Our volunteers reached out millions of times with text messages, with phone calls, with posts on social media, reaching out to people that they knew in their own lives. And those contacts help people to navigate a system that was designed to shut them out and help people to cast absentee votes. It was a giant risk because so few people had ever voted absentee in our state.

JELANI COBB:

Claire Woodall-Vogg was second in command at the Milwaukee Election Commission when the absentee ballot requests started coming in.

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG, Exec. Dir., Milwaukee Election Comm.:

I started to notice our inbox was really filling up. I texted our election services coordinator, Mike, and said, "Hey, dude, where are you? It's not slowing down. There's no end in sight." I just couldn't sleep thinking about how fast the requests were coming in, and ever since then, nothing has been normal.

NEIL ALBRECHT:

It started off as several hundred a day, quickly transitioned to several thousand, and then got up to as many as 10,000 in a single day in a system that had really previously been designed to accommodate maybe several hundred requests in a day.

JELANI COBB:

The crush of absentee ballot applications added chaos to an election that included not just the presidential primary but thousands of local races as well.

JILL KAROFSKY, Candidate for WI Supreme Court:

I’m Jill Karofsky. I’m running for the Supreme Court to stop—

JELANI COBB:

One of them was a closely watched contest for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

DAN KELLY ADVERTISEMENT:

My dad, Dan Kelly, is a great judge.

PROF. BARRY C. BURDEN, Political science, UW-Madison:

There was a tremendous amount of advertising, a record amount of campaign spending happening in that race to try to control the ideological balance of the court.

JELANI COBB:

With the election underway, I interviewed both candidates.

DANIEL KELLY:

Wisconsin has been considered one of the key pivotal states for the election in November. So I think that there has been a whole lot of attention paid to the state because of that.

JILL KAROFSKY ADVERTISEMENT:

Meet Jill Karofsky, trial court judge.

JILL KAROFSKY:

Wisconsin is very, very likely to be the tipping point of the presidential election in November. And if there is litigation about the election in November, that litigation is going to end up at the steps of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court.

JELANI COBB:

With so much at stake in Wisconsin, the national parties joined the fight. What they would do here would be a harbinger for the coming presidential election.

The Democratic National Committee filed one of several lawsuits to make absentee voting easier, seeking to loosen requirements like voter ID and witness signatures, things that historically have been obstacles, especially for people of color.

MARC E. ELIAS, Attorney, Democratic Party:

The DNC filed the initial lawsuit when it became clear that there were going to be serious problems with availability for voting.

JELANI COBB:

Marc Elias is the DNC’s top lawyer.

What exactly is at stake? I mean, this, on the granular level—there are multiple, dozens of lawsuits. What's being fought over?

MARC E. ELIAS:

Most of what's being fought over is the ability for voters to have access to the polls and for their votes to count. A lot of the litigation we're seeing in 2020 is are mail-in ballots going to be rejected for technical reasons or are we going to enfranchise voters?

WISCONSIN VOTER ASSISTANCE AD:

We’ll guide you through requesting an absentee ballot online.

JELANI COBB:

For Republicans, though, this all spelled trouble. It tapped into a fear that the push for absentee ballots would favor Democratic turnout, and Wisconsin became their early battleground to resist it.

Justin Clark, the Trump campaign’s senior counsel, led the Republican strategy in Wisconsin.

JUSTIN CLARK, Dep. Campaign Manager, Trump campaign:

When you radically change the way people vote, what ends up happening is you create confusion, you create chaos and you disenfranchise voters because you're not allowing them to vote in the way they traditionally would.

JELANI COBB:

So when we talk with people in Milwaukee and thereabouts, what we got was a lot of the opposite. That people felt that their vote was being suppressed by having to go out and potentially contract the illness by going to a polling place.

JUSTIN CLARK:

I think people's concerns about contracting illnesses are definitely valid. But here's the problem: When you try to fundamentally alter a system by which people vote right before an election like Gov. Evers did, you run into a real problem because what you're doing is going to—you're necessarily going to lessen the number of people that vote because of that chaos, because of that confusion.

JELANI COBB:

As the legal battles worked their way through the courts, judges ruled against the Democrats' position one decision after another. And on the ground, local election officials struggled to keep up

TIM McCUMBER:

Every day we're getting alerts this changed or this changed. The judge said we can't do this, now the judge says we can do that. And so the challenge really is making sure that all the clerks are aware.

So you have polling locations across the state, and they're all local, so in these smaller communities, we know who the locals are. At the end of the day, when you look at the problems, they're in the large, urban areas.

JELANI COBB:

Areas like Milwaukee, where we'd been talking to anxious voters.

BRIN:

I kind of debated back and forth between going to the polls, not going to the polls.

ALEXANDRA SALAZAR:

I was too afraid that what if I got sick? What would that look like for me?

AHMEE VANG:

That decision to me felt like voter suppression. That they wanted to scare people. They didn't want people to go out and vote, but I know I needed to.

MELODY McCURTIS:

I'm not going to feed into what they want us to do, which is not vote. I just felt like we're in 2020, but it felt like 1867.

JELANI COBB:

“1867.” 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 straight back to the post-Civil War era, when African Americans risked their lives for the right to vote.

In places like Montgomery, Alabama, home of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

BRYAN STEVENSON, Exec. Dir., Equal Justice Initiative:

The first lesson that Black people had to navigate in this country was that voting is dangerous. Voting is going to be met with violent resistance, particularly in regions where there are enough Black people to actually have impacts on outcomes.

JELANI COBB:

Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the National Memorial.

BRYAN STEVENSON:

Throughout that hundred-year history between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement, the inability to vote is what shaped Black life.

JELANI COBB:

The memorial is informally known as the “national lynching museum,” and it's filled with thousands of names of Black Americans, many of them killed amid the push for voting rights.

BRYAN STEVENSON:

The violence that takes place, the trauma that takes place, the lynching that takes place, the mass migration of Black people from the Deep South to the North and the West that takes place, which will also have political implications, it's all a result of this violent opposition to allowing Black people to vote.

JELANI COBB:

The violence was combined with other things—poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses—to prevent Black people from voting in the Jim Crow South.

The long struggle came to a head in 1965 with the march from Selma to Montgomery, which the future Congressman John Lewis helped organize.

JOHN LEWIS:

We are marching today to dramatize to the nation and dramatize to the world that hundreds and thousands of Negro citizens are denied the right to vote.

MAJ. JOHN CLOUD, Alabama State Trooper:

You are ordered to disperse. This march will not continue.

JELANI COBB:

It became known as Bloody Sunday.

The violence was broadcast into living rooms across the country, arousing the national conscience in the same way that images of George Floyd’s death would 55 years later.

Within months, it led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The law barred voting discrimination and originally targeted seven Southern states that had a pattern of disenfranchisement. It required them to get federal approval for any voting law changes. That provision was called Section 5.

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS, (D) Alabama state senator, 1982-2018:

It says that any time the laws were changed dealing with voting, they had to first be submitted to the attorney general of the United States or submitted to a three-judge district court in Washington, D.C. So Section 5 was a very powerful tool to keep those in power from suppressing the right to vote.

JELANI COBB:

Hank Sanders was elected state senator in Alabama thanks to the Voting Rights Act.

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS:

All of a sudden the possibility of inclusion began to just grow. And it took many years, though, before you had a substantial amount of African Americans elected to office.

JELANI COBB:

Within a year of its passage, a quarter of a million African Americans had registered to vote. By 1968, 385 Black people had been elected to office across the South. By 1985, that number would grow to nearly 4,000. But by then, there was also a growing backlash that would give rise to new challenges and place new obstacles in front of Black voters.

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS:

When you don't want somebody to vote, you create various kinds of things. Now we'd come with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they couldn't deny it outright, so you find ways to try to suppress it.

JELANI COBB:

One of these ways would be through challenging Black voters’ absentee ballots through accusations of fraud.

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS:

It’s one thing to be attacked by the local power structure—

JELANI COBB:

Hank Sanders represented the defendants in one such case brought by the U.S. attorney in Alabama at the time, Jeff Sessions.

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS:

The U.S. attorney and others refer to these as the "voter fraud cases." We decided that they were "voter persecution cases."

JELANI COBB:

Sanders' clients were voting rights activists—Albert Turner, who had marched with John Lewis in Selma—

EVELYN TURNER:

This is Bloody Sunday. Albert, you can see that’s him right there.

JELANI COBB:

—and his wife, Evelyn. They had been helping Black residents fill out their ballots and mailing them.

ALBERT TURNER:

Both of us was indicted, myself and my wife, and another friend, Spencer Hogue, were indicted on 29 counts of what is called vote fraud.

JELANI COBB:

The Turners were facing decades in prison.

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS:

It was my impression that Jeff Sessions thought that those legal cases would stop Black folks from not only using absentee vote, but would stop Black folks from voting in the numbers that Black people were voting. At every chance he got, he was talking about voter fraud, voter fraud.

JELANI COBB:

Sessions denied that the case was racially motivated and insisted what the Turners did was illegal.

In the end, the jury found nothing they did had broken the law. But the idea that absentee ballots were susceptible to widespread fraud would live on.

I talked about it with author Ari Berman, who’s written extensively on voting rights.

ARI BERMAN, Author, Give Us the Ballot:

So this is a very old argument, voter fraud. There are cases of voter fraud here and there, but it doesn't happen in the numbers necessary to show that there's some sort of great conspiracy out there to steal elections through voter fraud.

JELANI COBB:

He pointed to a critical time in the early 2000s when the idea began to take off inside the George W. Bush administration.

ARI BERMAN:

Up to that point, the Department of Justice, particularly the voting section of the Department of Justice, was focused on enforcing the Voting Rights Act. And when people in the Bush administration got in there, very ideological, very right-wing people, they began to change the mandate of the Department of Justice from instead of protecting voters who were facing disenfranchisement, they started talking about voter fraud. And they started bringing all these cases to try to find these cases of voter fraud. The seeds of all of that were laid by Hans von Spakovsky and other conservative activists dating all the way back to the 2000s and the George W. Bush Justice Department.

JELANI COBB:

Hans von Spakovsky. He’s a former Justice Department lawyer and an architect of the Republican position on voter fraud—and a frequent speaker at events like CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, where I met him last winter.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY, Heritage Foundation:

Well, I can’t do an interview right now because I’ve got another one I’ve got to go to.

JELANI COBB:

All right, thank you.

We sat down in September for an at-times tense interview.

Can you talk a little bit about your ideas around voter fraud and election integrity?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

Well, I got interested in this topic in the 1990s, when I was first a poll watcher. But when I was at the Justice Department, I worked in the Civil Rights Division, and my job there was enforcing federal voting rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act.

JELANI COBB:

So we have this concern about voter fraud. People on the other side of this equation have frequently said, we have an issue with voter suppression in the United States, not an issue with voter fraud.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

Well, voter suppression is a made-up term that's used by those who oppose very common sense measures to make sure that, one, everybody who's eligible is able to vote. But second, that their vote isn't diluted or stolen through administrative error or fraud.

JELANI COBB:

So to make sure I understand this clearly, you're saying that voter suppression does not happen in the United States?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

What I'm saying is that's a made-up term, OK? We do have discriminatory conduct that sometimes happens still in the voting context, and that's what the Voting Rights Act—

JELANI COBB:

But isn't that the same thing?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

—that's what the Voting Rights Act was intended to stop, and it does.

JELANI COBB:

Under the banner of combating voter fraud, von Spakovsky had spent years advocating for restrictions on voting, such as laws requiring photo ID in order to register or cast a ballot, outraging many Democrats.

MARC E. ELIAS:

There has been for some number of years a virus in the Republican Party about wild claims of voter fraud and the need for suppressive laws. People like Mr. Spakovsky, he played a role in advocating within the conservative movement or the Republican Party. That virus has now mutated and has become much, much more concerning because it is now orthodoxy within the Republican Party.

JELANI COBB:

How did that happen?

MARC E. ELIAS:

So I think you can look at various moments in history, but to me the critical moment was the election of President Obama and the ensuing internal civil war within the Republican Party about what to do about it.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear—

JELANI COBB:

On the one hand, Obama’s election was the fulfillment of the dreams of those who marched in Selma. But like the Voting Rights Act itself, a backlash followed.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS:

So help you God?

BARACK OBAMA:

So help me God.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS:

Congratulations, Mr. President.

JELANI COBB:

In 2010, Republicans swept the midterm elections.

MALE NEWSREADER:

We're talking about uncharted territory tonight, gone from the Democrats to the Republicans.

JELANI COBB:

In Wisconsin, for decades considered a bastion of progressive politics, Republicans won both houses of the Legislature and a conservative Republican governor was elected.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER:

You’ve given us a mandate for true reform and I appreciate that. I will not let you down.

JELANI COBB:

Scott Walker led an onslaught of voting changes in the state.

WISCONSIN VOTER ID ADVERTISEMENT:

You can use your certified birth certificate, a pay stub and your Social Security—

JELANI COBB:

One of the first was a law requiring identification to vote.

Kathy Bernier was elected to the State Assembly the year Gov. Walker took office. She was a leading proponent of the voter ID legislation.

KATHY BERNIER, (R) WI state senator:

I signed on as a co-sponsor of photo ID to help with the election administration and to make sure people are who they say they are. We didn't really have very good checks and balances in place. We didn't really have a verification of, is this the person? My dad, who's a Democrat, he said, "Well, what's wrong with that? You should be able to prove who you are when you go to vote." Actually, in my district, it is not a partisan issue. A lot of Democrats believe you, too, should provide identification that you are who you say you are.

PROF. BARRY C. BURDEN, Dir., Elections Research Ctr., UW-Madison:

That law required a voter to have one of about six or seven forms of approved photo ID. Legislators knew at the time the law was passed that some Wisconsinites didn't have those forms of ID, they knew it was on the order of several hundred thousand people and they knew that people of color were even less likely to have those kinds of ID. Most estimates were that Black and Hispanic voters in Wisconsin were twice as likely as white voters not to have one of the approved forms of identification.

JELANI COBB:

Civil rights groups went to court to challenge the law, which was one of the most restrictive in the nation and was endorsed by Hans von Spakovsky.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

—like Indiana, which have had photo ID laws in place now for more than six years.

JELANI COBB:

How did it come to be that so many people who have the historic experience of being denied access to the ballot believe that they're being discriminated against, contrary to your opinion?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

Well, actually that's not true of the majority of African Americans. If you look at the polling, they agree with other Americans that voter ID is a common sense reform. Yes, it's true that the leaders of some civil rights organizations and others disagree with that, but the evidence, the facts, the turnout in elections in states that have put in ID laws show that it does not keep people out of the polls.

JELANI COBB:

In all these states that we've looked at, studies have shown—

We clashed over the competing studies and arguments around all of this.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

Almost every—with a few—no—

JELANI COBB:

In the 2018 decision—

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

—with a few exceptions, almost every lawsuit that's been filed have been unable to show that in fact it keeps people out of the polls.

JELANI COBB:

And I pushed him on the implications of what he was saying.

One, I'll ask you, do you think that Congressman John Lewis, who was bludgeoned in the attempt to secure the right to vote, was wrong?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

On this particular issue with voter ID, yes, he was wrong.

REP. JOHN LEWIS:

Each and every voter ID law is a real threat to voting rights in America. Make no mistake, these voter ID laws are a poll tax. I know what I saw during the '60s—

JELANI COBB:

John Lewis spoke with such passion about voter ID laws not just because he thought they were wrong, but because his life's work was under attack.

JOHN LEWIS:

The right to vote is precious, almost sacred.

JELANI COBB:

Other states would follow Wisconsin with their own voter ID laws And then came efforts to dismantle the fundamental provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

It came to a head right where it started—in Alabama, where commissioners in Shelby County had sued the Justice Department, saying that discrimination was no longer the problem it had been in the 1960s and the law had outlived its purpose. Butch Ellis was the county attorney.

FRANK C. "BUTCH" ELLIS JR., Shelby County Attorney:

I think the Voting Rights Act made a tremendous change. I think that you've got to give the Voting Rights Act credit for some of the change that's occurred through the South. There's also been a social evolution that independently of voting issues has led to better dialogue between the races and more compatibility between the races. It's just, the conditions that we were faced with in 1965 no longer exist. They absolutely do not exist.

JELANI COBB:

On top of that, Ellis said, even making small changes like the location of a polling place required time-consuming paperwork and costly legal fees, a hardship for the county.

FRANK C. "BUTCH" ELLIS JR.:

It was not just a bureaucratic burden. It was a financial burden, it was a practical burden and it was an unnecessary burden. And it was just not justified by the facts.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

It's considered one of the most important pieces of Civil Rights legislation ever passed, but by 5 to 4, the U.S. Supreme Court today took the teeth out of a law enacted nearly 50 years ago.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Today's decision effectively puts it on hold.

JELANI COBB:

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shelby County.

FEMALE REPORTER:

Today's ruling means those covered states are now free from federal oversight. They can immediately change their voting laws and their procedures without having to come here to Washington to get approval first. Unless Congress can rework that formula—

HENRY "HANK" SANDERS:

I always thought that since the voting rights struggle came to a head in Alabama, in Selma, Alabama, that they wanted a case from Alabama for symbolic purposes, for symbolism, to gut the Voting Rights Act.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Today's decision apparently clears the way for several high-profile laws to take effect, including stricter voter ID requirements, in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

JELANI COBB:

The Shelby decision did send a powerful signal, and soon changes to voting laws began taking place all over the country—in Southern states and beyond.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker and the Republicans began passing a flurry of new voting laws.

KATHY BERNIER:

Most of the bills that I've worked on have been making sure that dates and times and processes and procedures are in place. I've also worked with the election commission on a number of issues that we bring forward with election fraud. The important part is that we have the safeguards in place to make sure that people have confidence in the electoral process and that our electoral process has integrity.

JELANI COBB:

What the Republicans began in 2011 with voter ID grew and grew.

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG:

We have seen a lot of changes to election law over the past 10 years. Always having to provide proof of residence when you register to vote. If you want to register by mail, a required copy of your ID or a copy of your energy bill or a copy of your bank statement.

JELANI COBB:

Half a dozen changes after the Shelby decision—

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG:

Not allowing someone to vouch for another voter.

JELANI COBB:

—that critics say have made voting harder—

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG:

Or requiring a witness address for an absentee ballot.

JELANI COBB:

—especially for communities of color.

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG:

The elimination of late-arriving absentee ballots. Or a change in the deadline to request an absentee ballot. A change in the number of hours we could have for early voting.

You almost have to be an attorney in order to understand how to register and vote successfully in Wisconsin.

JELANI COBB:

That was the landscape in the days leading up to the April 7 election as more than 1.3 million voters in Wisconsin were requesting absentee ballots. In Milwaukee, home to the state's heaviest concentration of Black voters, the pandemic was steadily shutting down the election system itself.

NEIL ALBRECHT:

The really significant shifts that we began to see were a closure of many of the sites that we used for voting and a mass exodus of our election workers due to concern about the pandemic. At one time, we talked about reducing sites to maybe from 180 to 120. Then we talked about reducing those to 45. And then it finally came down to five voting centers for in-person voting on Election Day.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Good morning, folks, and thanks for joining us on this Monday, April 6.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—COVID-19 cases across the state continues to climb.

JELANI COBB:

On the morning of April 6, less than 24 hours before the polls opened, Gov. Evers made a last-ditch attempt to postpone the election.

TONY EVERS:

Earlier today, I signed Executive Order 74 to suspend in-person voting for the spring election until June 9.

There has been some that said, "Well, why did you wait until the last minute?" The response was, "If I would have done it three weeks before it would have been the same result." I felt it was important to work with the Legislature, I thought that was our best chance, and it just didn't happen politically.

MALE NEWSREADER:

There’s election confusion—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

It’s been a roller coaster in the last few hours.

PATRICK MARLEY, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

That day before the election was the most momentous preelection day that I've ever covered.

JELANI COBB:

Patrick Marley is one of the state’s preeminent political reporters, and we talked to him a lot as things were playing out.

PATRICK MARLEY:

Here you have the governor, in the morning, to issue an order to delay the election. Republican lawmakers almost immediately sue. And then at the end of the day the state Supreme Court says, "This election will continue."

MALE NEWSREADER:

The presidential primary here is a go tomorrow.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The polls will be open at 7 a.m.

JELANI COBB:

Just hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another blow to the Democrats—they would not intercede to extend the deadline for absentee ballots.

PATRICK MARLEY:

The U.S. Supreme Court comes in and says, "We have to have a postmark requirement. The ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, otherwise somebody could cast their ballot on the day after the election."

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The U.S. Supreme Court weighing in late, a 5-4 ruling.

JILL KAROFSKY:

I was making dinner for my two kids when I learned about the United States Supreme Court case, and it was just a little while after learning about the Wisconsin state Supreme Court case. And I said to them, "I don't know that we have a path to win this election. I'm not seeing it right now.”

JELANI COBB:

That closely watched contest between Jill Karofsky and Daniel Kelly was hanging in the balance.

JILL KAROFSKY:

And we woke up the next day and I saw a sight I didn't ever imagine seeing.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Wisconsin is moving forward with its election this morning.

JILL KAROFSKY:

These brave, brave people who went to the polls in Milwaukee despite the pandemic.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Take a look at how long the lines already are in Milwaukee of voters waiting to cast their ballots.

JELANI COBB:

It would take a week for election officials to tally the ballots.

CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG:

I don't think there is a clerk in the state of Wisconsin that didn't see an entire shift in how we conduct elections on April 7. For us, 80% of our voters voted by mail, 20% voted in person. Normally it would be the exact opposite.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The big state race everyone was keeping an eye on—

JELANI COBB:

Then, on April 13, surprising news.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Judge Jill Karofsky has won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

JELANI COBB:

The Democrats’ favorite, Jill Karofsky, had won, the unexpected result of the wave of absentee ballots.

JILL KAROFSKY:

My campaign manager called and he said, "If you're in fleece and jeans," which is what I was in, "You need to put something nicer on because you're about to go on TV, and you're going to be the next justice on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court."

I’m celebrating social distance-wise [cheering] with my friends and my colleagues.

The final margin was over 10 points, and if someone had told me before the election that we were going to win by more than 10 points, I would have told them they were absolutely crazy.

JELANI COBB:

But the victory belied an unsettling fact. With our colleagues at Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA Today, we examined the results. We found that over 23,000 Wisconsin voters had their ballots rejected.

Can you talk about the role the safeguards may play in confusion about how to vote by mail?

STEPHEN STIRLING, Columbia Journalism Investigations:

Sure. Every safeguard that's put in place, well-intentioned it may be, is another thing that a voter has to deal with or another thing that an election official has to deal with. Those are real hurdles for people, particularly in a pandemic.

JELANI COBB:

More than 10% of those rejected ballots were from Milwaukee.

Neil Albrecht took us to the room where they’re kept.

NEIL ALBRECHT:

We would normally see only a small handful of these for any election because of how bolded the requirement is. They have to sign, date it. And then the witness signs, provides their address as well. And then that's what's required for the ballot to be counted on Election Day.

In this box, these are all ballots that were received by the election commission on April 10 but were postmarked after the April 7 election date. Because it wasn't postmarked by April 7, it wasn't counted in the election.

JELANI COBB:

Some of the rejected ballots were from one neighborhood: Metcalfe Park.

MELODY McCURTIS, Dep. Dir., Metcalfe Park Community Bridges:

Metcalfe Park is a neighborhood in the center of Milwaukee, right in the heart. It's an African American community. In Metcalfe Park our medium income is $24,000. We are a severely poor community.

JELANI COBB:

Melody McCurtis and her mother, Danell Cross, founded a community organization called Metcalfe Park Bridges. We found the names of residents who had their ballots rejected and showed them to Melody and Danell.

MALE SPEAKER:

So why don't you guys look at that and see what you make of it.

MELODY McCURTIS:

Look who got rejected. Look who, right there.

DANELL CROSS, Exec. Dir., Metcalfe Park Community Bridges:

OK.

I hate the thought of telling them that they didn't get counted.

MELODY McCURTIS:

It's a lot of names on here that are pretty active in the community that we're in a relationship with. Like a lady on here that's a senior. She's so vibrant. She's one of the fanciest ladies in the neighborhood and all of this.

DANELL CROSS:

Wait a minute, wait a minute. I know she's not on here.

MELODY McCURTIS:

Yeah, she is.

DANELL CROSS:

Oh, my goodness.

MELODY McCURTIS:

There's another young man that won a basketball tournament last year. He said that he felt like his vote didn't matter. And for him not to be counted, it just—it's doing something to me.

DANELL CROSS:

The April election brought it all out. It snatched the covers off of it. Now we actually understand how much work goes into disenfranchising people.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Many people spent their entire evening at a voting location wondering why it was taking so long.

JELANI COBB:

Many of the same kinds of problems showed up in other states that held elections in the months that followed.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Just 170 of Kentucky’s 3,700 locations will be up and running today.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Voters who started lining up to vote before 7 a.m. were still lining up at midnight Tuesday.

JELANI COBB:

People waited in line for hours.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—with some people waiting five to six hours to cast their votes.

JELANI COBB:

Machines that wouldn’t accept ballots.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

As many as 75% of the ballots did not go through the first time.

JELANI COBB:

Voters who were locked out of the polls pounded on doors.

CROWD [chanting]:

Open that door! Open that door! Open that door! Open that door!

WOMAN:

Our votes matter! Our votes matter!

JELANI COBB:

In our months of reporting, elections officials told us they were underfunded and overworked and increasingly fearful of what would happen in November.

And their fears are well-founded: Based on our review of years of voting records, more than a million votes might go uncounted in the upcoming election.

STEPHEN STIRLING:

As we look at this, the projected numbers of absentee ballots that are rejected are higher than the margin of victory for the president in Michigan and in 2016. Maybe 50,000 votes in a state doesn't mean much to the presidential election, maybe it's an all-blue or an all-red state. But somebody that's running for mayor in that state, losing 10, 15 votes can make the difference for them. So the potential for this to alter races around the country is absolutely on the table.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

It's a very bad system. It's going to lead to a tremendous fraud, and we're trying to stop it.

JELANI COBB:

Against this backdrop, Republicans, led by President Trump, have been relentlessly attacking absentee ballots.

DONALD TRUMP:

Voting by mail is wrought with fraud and abuse and people don't get their ballots.

People steal them out of mailboxes. People print them and then they sign them and they give them in.

JELANI COBB:

Hearing the constant refrain of fraud led me back to Hans von Spakovsky.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

We've talked about that at great length—

JELANI COBB:

He keeps of a database of alleged voter fraud cases that fuel the Republicans' claims.

But when our reporting team examined it, we found it included misleading and overstated information, charges that von Spakovsky said are false. And he insisted that the database shows a wide variety of election fraud cases.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

Well, the most important thing for you to understand is it's just a sampling of cases, OK? It is not a comprehensive list. I don't have the time, the resources to do any kind of comprehensive list. And in fact, it wouldn't be possible.

JELANI COBB:

Sure. But how do you find these cases?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

We find them through newspaper accounts of people getting convicted. We find them through press releases from law enforcement officials, state attorney generals and others. Sometimes people send us court judgments, convictions and other information like that.

Folks on one side of this are constantly saying, "Oh, there's no massive voter fraud in the United States." And I don't claim that there is massive voter fraud in the United States. In fact, I think the correct assessment of this is going back to the Jimmy Carter-James Baker commission. What they said was that voter fraud does occur in the U.S. and it could make a difference in a close election.

JELANI COBB:

A few days before we interviewed von Spakovsky, one of the most prominent Republican lawyers, Ben Ginsberg, who oversaw the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, publicly criticized the database and rejected the notion that fraud was a big problem.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY:

He has no idea what he's talking about. I mean, he even made the most basic error of referring to our database, which is just a sampling of cases.

JELANI COBB:

We talked to Hans von Spakovsky about this, and he said, "He has no idea what he's talking about. He's never had any actions, never done anything in the area of trying to investigate or go after election fraud." And what's your response to that?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG, Fmr. RNC attorney:

I've—[laughs] I think that's not a fair statement. I've been involved in recounts and contests, which all involve kicking open the hood of the American engine to look at what happens in polling places. I can tell you from that experience and being the co-chairman of a presidential commission on election administration in 2013 and 2014, where we looked for this, that the widespread fraud that would allow a conclusion of "elections are rigged" is not there. The evidence does not show that.

JELANI COBB:

How did this come to be so prominent a part of the conversation, if as you say there's been scant evidence?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG:

As the country has become more divided, fraud and voter suppression have become part of each party's get-out-the-vote mechanism and inspiration and motivation to get its voters out.

JELANI COBB:

With COVID-19 cases rising throughout Wisconsin, that’s exactly what Melody McCurtis and her mother have been doing.

MELODY McCURTIS:

For April 7, a lot of people was not able to vote, so that’s why we're trying to avoid this and we're not trying to have April 7 happen again.

DANELL CROSS:

I was born on Bloody Sunday. My auntie marched with Martin Luther King. Our family was always about activism.

FEMALE ORGANIZER:

Our goal for today is going to be getting people registered to vote, and then also having people request their absentee ballots for—

MELODY McCURTIS:

Voting is really on the bottom when you're dealing with life and trying to provide for you and your children.

Hey, how you doing? We're with Metcalfe Park Community Bridges. We're here to see if you need help with registering to vote.

We're going door to door. We're providing printed literature in there with phone numbers for folks to call us if they need help registering to vote, so that they feel empowered to vote.

Voting is the direct reflection of our neighborhood's ability to thrive. When you vote folks in office, you have a say-so on what you want your community to be.

JELANI COBB:

Melody was expressing a fundamental principle about democracy: one person, one vote.

I thought a lot about this idea when I paid a visit to Black Lives Matter Plaza earlier this fall. Seeing the White House behind a chain-link fence, the fence itself a memorial to African Americans killed by police, made me think about the connections between Wisconsin, the country’s history of disenfranchisement and the coronavirus.

It’s tempting to see them as three distinct concerns, but they're inextricably linked to a legacy of inequality and an ongoing struggle.

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President Biden
The story of how crisis and tragedy prepared Joe Biden to become America’s next president.
January 19, 2021