Suffragists fought hard for the vote. They also knew that gaining access to the ballot was not the end of the struggle for political representation. This week Amended host Laura Free introduces a special episode from Civics 101, a podcast about how democracy works, to help us understand what a vote really means. The United States is a representative democracy. The idea is that we’re a government by the people (we vote officials into office) and for the people (the officials in office are supposed to represent our interests). But Civics 101 hosts Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice learn that it’s not so straightforward around here. Our guides to American voting are Nazita Lajevardi, author of Outsides at Home, Kim Wehle, author of What You Need to Know About Voting and Why, and Andrea Hailey, CEO of vote.org.
Laura Free: A common misconception that we tackle on Amended is the idea that every American has the inherent right to vote. That all citizens can easily and fully participate in elections and that when they do, they can elect a government that represents them. Of course, that wasn’t true in the 19th century, where most of our stories so far have been set. And it’s still not true today.[Music]
Laura: You’re listening to Amended, a podcast from Humanities New York. I’m Laura Free. We’re traveling from the 1800’s to the present to show you a quest for women’s full equality that has always been as diverse, complex, and unfinished as the nation itself.
While we work on some more Amended stories, we’re bringing you a selection of episodes from other podcasts that dig into the history of the American democracy to help explain where we are right now.
Civics 101 is a favorite of the whole Amended team. They’ve had me on the show, and talking with hosts Nick Capodice and Hanna McCarthy is so much fun. Civics 101 gets back to basics and looks at how our democracy works. They recently did shows about the founding documents, presidential elections, and the history of Democrats and Republicans.
They also have resources for teachers (including me!) who use the show to explain key ideas about the American system. I recently assigned the episode you’re about to hear to my seminar on suffrage history. You can learn more at civics101.org/info.[Music]
The episode you’re about to hear is called: “Civic Action: Voting, Part 1.” You’ll hear about some of the limits the U.S. has historically placed on who can cast a ballot, the barriers that keep eligible voters from being counted, and the laws that make voting and representation less direct than we might think.
Here’s Hannah and Nick.
Archival: The ballot is right at the voter’s eye level, easily read.
Hannah McCarthy: I found this old promotional video for one of the automatic voting machines that was rolled out in the 50’s.
Archival: And all offices and all candidates are at the same eye level. No candidate suffers by being placed in an unfavorable position.
Hannah McCarthy: The machine itself is kind of bizarre looking and frankly does not look all that simple. But in order to sell it. . .
Archival: A large number of voters who are disenfranchised every year at the paper ballot type polls by making mistakes. . .
Hannah McCarthy: They compare it to paper ballots.
Archival: Busy people, often by habit, make check marks on the ballot in states where Xes are required.
Hannah McCarthy: And it is just voter after voter.
Archival: They might as well have stayed home. That vote is a no vote. Doesn’t count. Illegal.
Hannah McCarthy: And I’m watching this thing and thinking. . .
Archival: Don’t lady! Uh-uh. It doesn’t count.
Hannah McCarthy: Well, that just sounds an awful lot like voting in America today.
Archival: Good try sir. But this ballot will be thrown out.
News Clip: For the first time in a presidential election. Nine more states are enforcing new laws requiring eligible voters to present a government issued photo I.D. at the polls.
News Clip: Critics point out that there have been few instances of voter fraud in the U.S. and that in Texas, where the state once blocked African-Americans and Hispanics from voting, it’s more important to encourage voter participation.
News Clip: As we’ve already seen in the primary season, the right of the black man and woman to vote is still not a guarantee.
New Clip: Laws across the U.S. are being passed to make it harder, not easier, to vote.
Barack Obama: This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes, goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote.
Nazita Lejevardi: I was at a few BLM protests and, you know, at these protests I got really curious. I asked people, you know, you’re really upset. Are you going to vote?
Hannah McCarthy: This is Nazita Lejevardi.
Nazita Lejevardi: I am a lawyer and also a political scientist. I teach at Michigan State University. I teach political science, mostly focusing on American politics, studying how racial and ethnic groups fare in American democracy, whether or not they’re facing discrimination, the extent to which they’re represented, and also how they perceive their inclusion in American democracy.
Crowd: Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!
Hannah McCarthy: So Nazita’s at a Black Lives Matter protest, and she goes up to some of the protesters who are obviously interested in making a difference in society. Right. And she asks them. . .
Nazita Lejevardi: What are you gonna do? Like, tell me what you’re gonna do. And they’re like, you know, we’re not going to vote. And I ask them, you know, why? You’re here. You’re spending your time on a Tuesday morning, you know. What are you doing here? And they say, you know, Bernie isn’t running. If Bernie comes back, then we’ll vote.
Nick Capodice: I have been hearing this a lot. You’ve got people who just don’t see what they want in the candidate pool, so they’re just not going to vote. And it has nothing to do with them not caring. It’s just they don’t feel like they have good choices.
Nazita Lejevardi: And so then you have to understand, like, you know, you may not agree with the politics, but what they want is a different vision of America. They want a different vision of this world. Whatever game we’re playing is not representative of their interests, or at least what they think their interests are. And so maybe there just aren’t enough candidates out there who, who represent them.
Hannah McCarthy: When we talk about voting in America, the most basic democratic exercise that we’ve got, we’re not just talking about showing up to the polls. We’re talking about representation. We’re talking about access. It’s voting that facilitates our representative democracy. So what does it mean when people feel underrepresented by their options at the polls, or when getting to the polls is a hurdle in and of itself?
Hannah McCarthy: I’m Hannah McCarthy.
Nick Capodice: I’m Nick Capodice.
Hannah McCarthy: And this is Civics 101, a podcast about the basics of how our democracy works. And today we are talking about the right that isn’t a right. The thing that makes this democracy work, even though a lot of people call it broken. We’re talking about voting.
Nick Capodice: Hold it. What do you mean the right that isn’t a right?
Hannah McCarthy: Oh, yeah. First thing that you got to know about voting: nowhere is it written that you have a right to vote. The Constitution left it to the states to set voting requirements. The federal government only says that you can’t be prevented from voting due to your sex or the color of your skin. Speaking of preventing people from voting, by the way, let’s start there, shall we?
Nazita Lejevardi: Voting rights were restricted to free white people. And so, like going back and thinking about who could vote and how different immigrant groups, especially, like tried to gain whiteness under the law.
Hannah McCarthy: There are exceptions, but for the most part, and until fairly recently, voting was restricted to white people, specifically free white men. Now property and religion factored in here and there, depending on the state. But free, white and male was the golden ticket.
Nick Capodice: When I think about the various demographics fighting for the vote, historically, I think of it as them fighting against discrimination, not fighting to be considered white. What is Nazita talking about in terms of gaining whiteness under the law?
Hannah McCarthy: Ok. Yeah, a major factor in all of this is the Naturalization Act of 1790. It was our first one that was codified, which in effect made it so that only white, free men could become citizens and vote in the U.S..
Nazita Lejevardi: So I think it’s important to think about historically who had access under the law, and how did groups make arguments that they were white, especially these immigrant groups who came to the United States. Of course, African-Americans were excluded from the franchise and continue to be so. But I think it’s important to think about when we talk about Asian-Americans, we talk about Latinos, we talk about Middle Easterners, we talk about these other, Natives, you know, I think it’s very important to think that, you know, there’s been a number of efforts at trying to be classified as white.
Hannah McCarthy: The framers had this notion of a representative democracy, right. When we say that our government is of, by, for the people, voting is at the core of that. But the history of voting in the U.S. reveals, of course, that many of the people were and continue to be ineligible for that representation. For a long, long time in American history, citizenship and the vote meant proving your whiteness. Black Americans fought this, of course, and argued for their citizenship, civil rights and enfranchisement as Black Americans. But there were so many other groups who felt forced to argue that they could be American citizens because they were free whites.
Nazita Lejevardi: Which is why you see like Middle Eastern and North Africans classified as white under the census right now.
Nick Capodice: These days, though, we do talk specifically about the Asian-American vote, the LatinX vote, for example.
Hannah McCarthy: Right. Nazita says that the civil rights movement, that fight on the part of black groups to have their civil rights observed and preserved in the 1950’s and 1960’s, resulted in a reinforcement of anti-discrimination laws. And the need to prove your whiteness in order to be enfranchised began to dissolve.
Nazita Lejevardi: Certainly after the civil rights movement and the three major pieces of legislation that came out of the 1965 Civil Rights Acts–the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act–So certainly after that period of time, and especially with like the 1970’s and seeing like this mobilization of a Latino vote, of the Asian-American vote in the 1980s, you do see, right, groups starting to find a positionality in American politics. And no longer trying to identify with this whiteness because it’s no longer the governing law, right, to be part of the franchise.
Hannah McCarthy: And it’s not just that whiteness ceases to be the governing law. Right. Nazita says there’s something else going on.
Nazita Lejevardi: Also, I think it’s important because these groups were finding a voice and were making demands on the democracy, right. They were making demands for representation. And so certainly there was a shift. And it certainly happened after the civil rights movements for four non-black groups, for sure.
Nick Capodice: Demands for representation. OK. So this is the sticking point again, right? People demand to be properly represented by the people making their laws and governing their worlds. So if these disparate groups have achieved the right to vote, and they exercise that right, they should see themselves represented, correct?
Hannah McCarthy: Maybe. Maybe if you’re in a perfectly balanced electoral system, that might be the case. But a perfectly balanced electoral system we do not have.
Kim Wehle: The framers left a lot of electoral politics to the states.
Hannah McCarthy: This is Kim Wehle.
Kim Wehle: I am Kim Wehle. I’m a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and author of my second book, What You Need to Know About Voting and Why.
Nick Capodice: Oh, Kim Wehle. She talked us through the Constitution back in the day.
Hannah McCarthy: She did indeed. And this time she schooled me on how voting actually works in the U.S. and what that means for representation. I’m going to go over the major ones here. I think you can probably guess the big one, Nick, a little something called Congressional redistricting.
Nick Capodice: Or to friends of old Elbridge Gerry, gerrymandering. That’s called a portmanteau word, did you know that?
Hannah McCarthy: Is that what a portmanteau is?
Nick Capodice: Yeah, a portmanteau is when you, like, mash together two words and make a new word. Yeah. So it comes from a mixture of Gerry and Salamander. Gerry was governor of Massachusetts during some sneaky district redrawing and the salamander part because of the wiggly shape the district ends up having when you bend them around party lines.
Kim Wehle: And one of the things states get to do is decide how to carve up the districts that go to the United States Congress, that represent the Congress. So if you did it logically, you might take a state like Maryland where I live and you might put a big plus sign in the middle of it, make, you know, for congressional districts and just assume there’s four congressional members of Congress and each quarter gets, the population of each quarter, gets one person.
Nick Capodice: And I think we know that is how things did not go.
Kim Wehle: Well, we don’t have to carve it up in logical ways like a map maker might do. Let’s figure out where all Republicans are, where Democrats are, and we’ll make these salamander-like, distorted, tortured districts that kind of cluster or, either cluster or break up, people from one party. So if you imagine instead of a plus in Maryland, we put circles around all the Democrats and they don’t have to be necessarily equal in size. You do have to be equal representation in terms of the numbers of people. But we’ll send, we’ll carve it up in a way that we just know it’s always going to be Democrats living in that city.
Hannah McCarthy: See, in a lot of states, it’s the state legislature that’s in charge of drawing the district lines, which means the majority party can draw those lines in favor of their party.
Kim Wehle: And so even if the whole state has more Republicans in one day, they’ll never get a completely Republican representation in Congress because of this gerrymandering. So people criticize it legitimately because it’s the state lawmakers from a particular party that carve up the districts. And so the politicians are picking their voters, instead of the voters picking the politicians.
Hannah McCarthy: The drawing of districts is not necessarily political. It’s just that the way things go is that the people in power are on the right or the left, and that is how the districts end up being drawn. And another thing that draws a big fat line between the voter and getting represented by the person who really represents you, as a person: money. One recent Supreme Court case in particular called Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, ruled that corporations have a right to political speech, which means they can spend big, big money on things like ads for their preferred candidate.
Kim Wehle: So now politicians care more about raising money from not individual constituents, but from big corporations and, you know, anonymous donors that can put as much money as possible on the airwaves in support of an issue that the candidate cares about.
Hannah McCarthy: And what you really need to know here is despite campaign finance reform that has limited the amount of money individuals can give to a campaign, money has found a way to be very much involved in getting people elected. Why is that a problem for you, as an individual?
Kim Wehle: So this is where billionaires have big impacts. They still have their First Amendment rights. They want to hire some fancy firm from New York City to spend tons of money flooding the airways, waves. They can still do that as individuals. But when it comes to regular people that have bread and butter issues and budgets, we’re stuck at twenty seven hundred dollars. And that’s a problem in our campaign finance system. But because the Supreme Court has treated corporate speech as a First Amendment right, without a Constitutional amendment that can’t really change. Congress can’t fix that.
Hannah McCarthy: And there’s that one last thing that I’m going to mention here when it comes to unevenness in representation.
Kim Wehle: When you go to the polls, you’re voting for your delegate, the Elector, the delegate to the Electoral College. You’re not actually voting for the president.
Nick Capodice: Saw this one coming.
Hannah McCarthy: It always seems to boil down to the Electoral College.
Kim Wehle: So most states, say, a state again has 10 delegates, and say 51 percent of the voters in that state voted for Donald Trump, 49 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. All 10 delegates will go to Donald Trump. So that’s a winner-take-all system.
Hannah McCarthy: The winner-take-all Electoral College system, which we have mentioned many, many times before on this show, means that someone can win the popular vote but lose the election. It also means that a lot of voters are going to end up feeling unheard and unrepresented.
Nick Capodice: And I hate to add potholes to this rocky road to representation, but, you know, Hanna, we still have not talked about the barriers to getting to the polls and to actually being able to cast your vote once you’re there.
Nazita Lejevardi: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think what people don’t realize is how much, how much planning goes into you and strategy goes into mobilizing and demobilizing folks to vote.
Hannah McCarthy: Here’s Nazita again.
Nazita Lejevardi: So oftentimes we say to ourselves, like, oh, you know, by 2040, you know, America is going to be majority minority, and so it really won’t matter. But that’s actually not true because, you know, there are, there are factions, there are groups. There are interest groups that are being mobilized to keep people away from the polls. Right. Even, for instance, like with absentee ballots, the number of ballots that are thrown away because the signatures, quote unquote, don’t match. Right. Is so incredibly disproportionate in certain areas that, you know, are larger percentage of minorities. Right. And, you know, we can’t say, we can’t draw so many causal arguments as we would like. All we can say is there seems to be an association. But, you know, it does seem like there is a there there when you take the totality of the picture together.
Nick Capodice: So even after disenfranchised minorities clawed their way into recognition and a right to vote, there’s still a massive effort to stifle their votes.
Andrea Hailey: There have been a series of rules and laws put in place to keep people. Politicians are at the point where they’re picking their voters rather than voters picking politicians.
Hannah McCarthy: This is Andrea Hailey.
Andrea Hailey: CEO of Vote.org. We’re a tech platform that simplifies the process of registering to vote or requesting your absentee ballot.
Hannah McCarthy: I called up Andrea because things were feeling a little dodgy, Nick. You know, I was looking at this screwy electoral process, efforts at voter suppression. And I’m thinking of those protesters that Nazita mentioned at the beginning of this episode who were like, now we’re not going to bother voting. And I hate to say it, but I started to think. What if they are right?
Nick Capodice: No.
Hannah McCarthy: Well, no.
Nick Capodice: No.
Hannah McCarthy: They’re not. But I’m going to get to that in a minute. The point is, Andrea runs a site devoted to making it as clear and simple as possible for people across the spectrum to vote. And she was in full acknowledgement: disenfranchisement is real and it’s multifaceted. It’s voter suppression, but it’s also a lack of options.
Andrea Hailey: You see people working really hard to overcome odds, those odds, and jumped through all of those hoops to make sure their voice is still heard and they can elect leaders who reflect their own value systems. And so I think that, you know, we know that young people and people of color have been historically disenfranchised in the voting process and have extra barriers to overcome. And there’s several of those barriers. There’s, you know, the fact that Election Day is not a holiday. There’s all the voter I.D. laws that were brought in, the closing of polling locations that are convenient for people, misinformation about voting. There’s, there’s a whole series and host of things that keep people separated from the right to vote.
Nick Capodice: Is this about when you started to agree with the vote abstainers? Because I’m starting to feel a little down about it myself.
Hannah McCarthy: Here is what I hadn’t factored in, though, for every person too disillusioned, and sometimes rightfully, to vote, there’s a voter waiting in an hours-long line in the stifling heat or rain just to be heard.
News Clip: The amount of people in line shocking to see in the middle of a pandemic.
New Clip: When we first put up crosses on both sides of the rows. . .
News Clip: That high turnout turned into long lines in DeKalb and Fulton County because of problems with the state’s new touchscreen voting equipment. . .
Andrea Hailey: One of the things that I’m really excited about, though, if you just looked at the Georgia primary, is the resilience of the American voter, because despite long lines, despite people, the last voters voting at 12:30 in the morning, a lot of people jumped through all those hoops and overcame those barriers. And I think that moving forward one of the things that the American public can start to demand is a voting process that makes it easy and convenient for them to have their voice heard. And if their elected officials who, who make it more difficult, they can work to fire those people.
Nick Capodice: In other words, think small, think state and local government, the ones who make the voting laws in your state.
Hannah McCarthy: Right. Who is in charge of making it easier or harder for you to vote? Are they someone who you get to vote for? And before Election Day even comes, Andrea says, what can you do to make sure those officials help you out?
Andrea Hailey: I think that there needs to be pressure on officials to announce their plan early so that voters can do their job, you know, and show up. And I think that it’s now on election officials to say how they’re going to administer this election in a way that imagines enfranchising the highest number of people possible, like that’s literally their whole job is to, is to administer safe and free and fair elections. So it’s it’s time for them to do that and to let us know what the plan is for Election Day so that we don’t see repeats of Georgia anywhere else across the country. And I think that that’s something that voters can absolutely demand from their county officials, from their secretaries of states, you know, demand that that people make it easy.
Hannah McCarthy: Andrea’s thing is basically OK. Yes, there are loads of systems in place to disenfranchise you, especially those of you who have worked so hard over centuries to be granted enfranchisement. Chances are, the harder your demographic has worked for the vote, the harder it is going to be for you to exercise your vote. But starting at the state level, showing up and refusing to go away without a ballot or asking for that mail-in ballot early, these are the small steps you can take to push the system to work for you.
Andrea Hailey: We always say this: make a plan, make it early, but this year in particular, truly make a plan and make it early. Request absentee ballots early, because what happens is that a whole bunch of people start requesting their absentee leading up to the deadline, which causes a run on states and will cause issues in states that are not used to handling a high volume of those requests. So go ahead, get your request in early. That is one part of the plan. And then secondly, block out time on Election Day, if you can. And if you can’t ask your employer for that time on Election Day, because if the system does get overrun or if your ballot doesn’t come to you or something like that, then you’ll have to go and vote in person. And voting in person this year may mean long lines.
Hannah McCarthy: Andrea says things like demanding that polling places stay open, demanding that your polling place provides personal protective equipment, even being willing, if you’re a young person, to volunteer as a poll person. All of this can mean the difference between disenfranchised individuals getting a chance to vote or not.
Nick Capodice: All right, so I’m hearing that if you want a clear, demonstrably effective way to make sure voting means real representation, an open polling place with a knowledgeable volunteer, AKA you, is one answer. I do think, though, that given all of these barriers, another obvious step is just know how to vote. Right?
Right. But you know what? I decided we need a whole other episode to lay that one out. That’s in part two of our voting episode: How to Vote, here on Civics 101.
Laura: Thanks again to our friends at Civics 101. I’m Laura Free, your Amended host.
Learning about the limitations of how voting works can be discouraging for those of us who are eager to participate. But one thing I take away from the activists we feature on our show is that they knew the American democracy wasn’t perfect. But still, they believed in its potential, and they fought to expand and improve the system.
Our democracy still needs so much work, but it is dynamic. Laws are interpreted, re-interpreted and, occasionally, they’re amended. And voting rights are continuously debated and renegotiated. That’s why it’s so important that we engage. Our voices and our votes matter.
We’ll be back again with more Amended episodes soon, but meanwhile, you can visit amendedpodcast.com for more information about the show, and to connect with us and with Humanities New York.
Just a reminder that what you heard today was a special bonus episode of Civics 101 from NHPR, New Hampshire Public Radio. Don’t miss “Civic Action: Voting, Part 2.” You can find it, along with all the episodes of Civics 101, wherever you get your podcasts.
Would you like to host a conversation (virtual or in-person) about democracy with others in your community? Go here to request a free conversation toolkit from Humanities New York about this and other themes.
Watch Humanities New York’s program, Beyond the Ballot: From Suffrage to the Women’s March, for a conversation about women’s social movements, past and present.
Civics 101 Credits:
This episode of Civics 101 was produced by Hannah McCarthy with Nick Capodice. The staff includes Jackie Fulton and Felix Poon. Erica Janik is the Executive Producer. Maureen McMurray is the Head of Content Development. Music in this episode by Silicon Transmitter, Patrick Patrikios, Jesse Gallagher, Astron and The Mini Vandals. Voting and educational resources available at civics101podcast.org. Civics 101 is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is a production of NHPR, New Hampshire Public Radio.
The Amended Team:
Production Company: Humanities New York
Laura Free, Host & Writer
Reva Goldberg, Producer, Editor & Co-Writer
Scarlett Rebman, Project Director
Kordell K. Hammond
Art by Simonair Yoho
For this bonus episode of Amended:
Audio Editor and Mixer: Logan Romjue
Music: Michael-John Hancock, Live Footage and Emily Sprague
Amended is produced with major funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and with support from Baird Foundation, Susan Strauss, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Phil Lewis & Catherine Porter, and C. Evan Stewart.
Copyright Humanities New York 2020