Democracy on the Ballot

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Original Air Date: 
October 17, 2020

Americans are getting ready to vote. But this election is different from other years. What's really on the ballot?

Vote mural

Constitutional scholar and law professor Kim Wehle says democracy itself is on the ballot this year. What can you do about it? Vote.

Lady Liberty

Historian Carol Anderson walks us through the timeline of truly free and fair elections in the United States, a period she says lasted from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 until a fateful Supreme Court decision in 2013.

the rollercoaster of democracy

Historian Jeremi Suri places our present moment into a larger context — and uses the ups and downs of history to theorize what might lie ahead of us.

Fun outside on election day

Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, tells us why citizens are more powerful than they think and how he's trying to reinvigorate the culture of voting — by making it more fun.

Show Details 📻
October 17, 2020
Legal Scholar, Author and Professor
Historian, Author and Professor
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. In neighborhoods across the country voting has begun and already one thing is clear about this election: people are paying a lot more attention to where and when and how they vote.

Speaker 3 (00:37):

I just dropped off my absentee ballot here at James Madison Park.

Anne Strainchamps (00:42):

In Madison, Wisconsin, there are poll workers in the parks.

Speaker 4 (00:46):

It's a really cool concept. I can go to any park in the neighborhood and vote, so we popped by on a bike.

Speaker 5 (00:53):

It's something that I need to do because it's important and I wanted to show up for myself and other people.

Speaker 6 (00:59):

This is my first time voting. I've been here for 20 years. I wasn't able to vote and because I became a citizen now I can vote. I want to have a voice so this is my way to say I'm planting my small seed in there.

Anne Strainchamps (01:20):

Even a pandemic can't stop democracy, but this is definitely a whole different kind of election for a lot of reasons and frankly I think a lot of us are ready for it all to be over. I mean, normally I would be feeling pretty nervous about election day. This year it's the day after I'm more worried about, and so is constitutional law scholar Kim Wehle.

Kim Wehle (01:54):

We will probably see a lot of lawsuits. The Republicans will probably challenge mail-in voting.

Donald Trump (02:02):

They want to steal an election. That's all this is all about. They want to steal the election.

Kim Wehle (02:07):

Millions and millions of people are going to be voting by mail because of the pandemic.

Anne Strainchamps (02:11):

But lawsuits can take forever. Is there an end date?

Kim Wehle (02:15):

The key deadlines are December 8 and then December 14.

Anne Strainchamps (02:21):

Marking my calendar.

Kim Wehle (02:23):

December 14 is the date on which the electors are supposed to meet and cast their slates of electors for president.

Speaker 9 (02:31):

As an elector, I can look at the Emoluments Clause and say no.

Kim Wehle (02:36):

But if there isn't a clear winner in the state because there is still some question as to whether ballots are properly counted, they're still in the process, or it's in litigation, federal law allows state legislatures by December 8 to basically change the law and decide, "We are going to give our electors to Donald Trump or to Joe Biden regardless of the popular vote."

Anne Strainchamps (03:01):

Wait, they can do that?

Speaker 10 (03:03):

Votes are, 10 votes Donald J Trump.

Kim Wehle (03:10):

Now, it's possible that a Republican legislature could do that a Democratic governor would say, "No, actually I'm going to wait for the popular vote." Then we would have a contested election. That would go to the United States Congress.

Nancy Pelosi (03:26):

The House will be in order.

Kim Wehle (03:28):

Every state gets one vote and that vote is determined by how many members of the House of Representatives are in one party over another.

Nancy Pelosi (03:35):

Those in favor say aye.

Crowd (03:39):


Nancy Pelosi (03:41):

Those opposed, nay.

Crowd (03:42):


Anne Strainchamps (03:46):

But if the election's contested the House delegates will be in flux, too. What happens if they can't or don't vote?

Kim Wehle (03:55):

In theory, if the House can't decided on a president then it could go to the Senate to choose the vice president.

Mitch McConnell (04:01):

The House's conduct risks deeply damaging...

Kim Wehle (04:04):

And that's a straight up and down vote.

Mitch McConnell (04:07):

The institutions of American government.

Kim Wehle (04:09):

The Senate could decide on a vice president. The vice president would then become president on January 20.

Anne Strainchamps (04:15):

So, hello President Pence or Harris?

Kim Wehle (04:20):

If the Senate can't decide on a vice president the Succession Act would kick into gear on January 20 and under the Succession Act it would be the leader of the House of Representatives, which is Nancy Pelosi, and she would president as of January 20.

Nancy Pelosi (04:35):

The power of the speaker is awesome. Awesome.

Kim Wehle (04:40):

Then of course the question becomes whether he'll leave office and that would come down to whether the Secret Service or potentially even other law enforcement or military would be willing to step in and escort a belligerent president out of the White House pending full resolution of the election.

Anne Strainchamps (04:59):

Wow. Remember back when you could go to bed on election night knowing it was all over? Not this year, I guess.

Anne Strainchamps (05:11):

Kim Wehle is a constitutional scholar and law professor, also a former assistant US attorney and associate counsel in the Whitewater investigation. Plus, she writes for the conservative website The Bulwark. Shannon Henry Kleiber reached out to her feeling alarmed.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:28):

So I have to say I find this whole description terrifying: that it could last this long, that it could be so unclear. Could this really happen?

Kim Wehle (05:38):

Most election experts will say it's a possibility. I think it is surprising that there is no clear tiebreaker if something like this happens. It could go to the United States Supreme Court. That's why this nomination and potential, it looks like, confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett so close to an election is such a contentious issue.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:01):

Kim, some of your work that I like so much is about helping regular people learn more about the voting process and what their rights are. What are the three or so most important things that you would like voters to know and understand right now?

Kim Wehle (06:17):

Number one is that unlike other constitutional rights, like First Amendment, Second Amendment, Fourth Amendment, there is no express right to vote in the original Constitution and as a result it depends on your zip code. Your right to vote in Wisconsin is different in terms of how robust it is from your right to vote in, say, Oregon and that's troubling that depending on where you live your access to the ballot varies. The second is that most democracies have what's called an opt-out system. If you're a member of that country, a citizen, you automatically are registered to vote, voting rates are much higher, and you opt out. In America, the only people who could vote originally were rich white males. We're still having a debate in this country whether the right people should be able to exercise that right.

Kim Wehle (07:12):

The third piece really is that there's a lot of ways to fix this. I happen to believe I'd like to see democracy by we the people, not we the politicians or we the Democrats or we the Republicans. I don't care how you vote, I just really do care about voting because there's so much money in politics taking elected officials out of the business of caring about regular people and Congress can do a lot to fix that. That's the third piece. I think people need to elect members of Congress that are going to fix the electoral process.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:41):

How are you personally planning on voting this year? Are you voting in person? Will you send in a ballot? I know people... I'm sure you do too... who are worried about the mail system. Should we be?

Kim Wehle (07:52):

Actually, I have sitting on my desk in my home office... I live in Maryland. I registered to vote by mail and they sent me by ballot by email. I printed it out, I filled it out, and signed it but I'm going to drop it off personally once the polls in Maryland open early in October. That's what I'm recommending people do. But I think if you do use a mail-in ballot read directions meticulously because over half a million were excluded over the summer just people didn't sign in the right place or didn't sign the envelope, for example. That's number one: read it meticulously. Take your time. Secondly, I would really say drop it off. Drop it off physically if you can.

Kim Wehle (08:32):

You have to have your personal vote plan. I have it on my Instagram, Kim Wehle, as well as on Twitter. It's a five step process. You really have to take this into your own hands the same way you get your flu shot every year. It's that level of, "Okay, I'm going to arm myself and I'm just going to have a plan to make sure my vote counts," because democracy itself is on the ballot. That's what we're voting for. We're voting for democracy versus something else like authoritarianism and there are many people across the political spectrum who agree with me. It's not just hyperbole any more.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (09:06):

Obviously every election is both historically important and relevant to our everyday lives but the stakes seem different this year. How do you see that? How are the stakes different?

Kim Wehle (09:17):

The stakes are different because we're not debating policy. We're not debating what president is better on climate change, what president is better on immigration, what president is better on the economy, what president is better for me on health care: the kitchen table issues. We're debating, "Do we want democracy? Or are we okay with something other than that?" Which is more like, as I said, authoritarianism, whether it's really unlimited power in the White House, potentially staying in power over the eight year maximum under the Constitution. Democracy's not set in stone and we're a pretty young one. This election is not about red versus blue. It's about we the people versus something that's much, much darker that I don't even think Americans can comprehend what it'll look like. That's what keeps me up at night. I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime where we're not debating policy any more. We're debating whether there's unlimited power in one branch of government and that's a monarchy: an unlimited monarchy. That was rejected. That's an originalist or a textualist point of view, that's fact. The sky is blue. We are not an unlimited monarchy, and that's where we're headed.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:30):

Kim, I don't know if you'd talk publicly about your political affiliations but can you describe how you would describe them for me?

Kim Wehle (10:38):

I don't really. I have clerked or worked with the Whitewater investigation, which was an investigation of a Democratic president, and I also write for The Bulwark, which is a solidly conservative, historically Republican, group of people, but we share the same value system which is the rule of law, which is a government by the people, which is... There are tickets for speeding and even if you're in the presidency you get tickets for speeding. I'm a person who has a very strong value system. Students ask me all the time, "Which party should I join? I don't know if I'm Democrat or Republican," and my answer, "That's the wrong question. The question is, what do you believe in?"

Shannon Henry Kleiber (11:14):

The labels are harder right now.

Kim Wehle (11:15):

Yeah. We're very result oriented. We're very conclusion oriented. We're very team oriented. As a law professor and lawyer I look for the questions. I get curious about the issues and then I might support a Republican in one race and a Democrat in another race based on whether they're convincing me that they're in the right place on things for my value system. But that's a different way of thinking and, Shannon, that's my next book actually. I'm underway.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (11:45):

What is the next book?

Kim Wehle (11:46):

It's called Common Sense. I think the byline is, "A lawyer's guide to using legal analysis to make everyday decisions." It's about what we're talking about: what people pay a lot of money to go to law school. How do you break down these things so that they make sense in a common sense way? And you can empower yourself to make your own decisions. I think gives people agency. You can have agency by being angry and hating and joining a team, but you can also have agency by educating yourself how to make your own decisions. That's book number three: to take legal analysis, which is actually a very sophisticated and productive way of making decisions, and reasoning through thorny questions. That's the objective of my next book, which is called Common Sense.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (12:33):

It sounds like something that everybody needs right now.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (12:37):

I wanted to go back to something you said about we the people. Is we the people still us in America? Or is it changing?

Kim Wehle (12:46):

I think it's changed because of money in politics. If we the people want some measured gun reform... and the polling numbers are high even on Second Amendment stalwarts. They want some measure of gun control. It's not happening. People do want health care. We haven't seen anything out of the Republicans on that despite many promises and we might see the end of Obamacare and millions go off the rolls as of the Supreme Court's argument, just a week after the election is scheduled, for November 11. We're seeing for years massive bipartisan support for some thoughtful immigration reform. Not seeing it. So then it's like, "Okay, if it's not happening who are the politicians answering to?"

Kim Wehle (13:28):

I think the answer is you and I can only around 2,700 dollars per person to a candidate. Corporations can't give money directly at all. But then in a case called Citizens United the Supreme Court said, "Well, what about putting ads in newspapers or on television? That's speech." And the Court said, "By the way, corporations have First Amendment rights, too." The different between a corporation and you and me is I don't have a hundred million dollars to run national ads on fracking, for example. They can spend unlimited amounts. But the candidates understand this. People understand who is actually getting them elected when they turn on the TV or they look at Facebook. That's the shift. Politicians get in office with money. You ask anybody who's run for office. It's money, money, money. They think about that the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed. Even after they're elected they think about that. So if the money that's actually funding the campaigns and getting people in office, or the money that flood through the First Amendment onto the airwaves and into our phones, and it's unlimited because of the First Amendment and it's coming from corporations, that's who they're answering to. They're not answering to individual voters.

Kim Wehle (14:46):

I believe the way to change is to get people to vote and not half the eligible voters, which is the number right now, but 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% like that happens in Sweden and Australia and Belgium and these other places that have mandatory automatic registration. I think it's going to be harder for corporations to dominate... and wealthy people, frankly... how our elected officials do things. I mean, just think about it: three trillion dollars in tax cuts under this government but they cannot figure out how to give Americans much needed aid in a pandemic when they've lost their jobs and many cannot even feed their children. That's all you need to know to know the system isn't working and the answer is to get out and vote.

Anne Strainchamps (15:47):

Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with constitutional law scholar Kim Wehle. Her most recent book is called What You Need to Know About Voting and Why. Coming up, how the Voting Rights Act got gutted, plus things people say while standing in line waiting to vote. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (16:29):

Early voting has already begun in my state, and so how are actual voters feeling about the election so far?

Speaker 15 (16:39):

I'm confident in our election process. I'm also confident that a lot of people don't engage with the election process because of the way it's set up.

Speaker 16 (16:47):

I have talked to so many of my friends. They're nervous about voting.

Speaker 17 (16:52):

I've had votes that don't count. I've had attempts at registering that have failed.

Speaker 16 (16:57):

They're nervous about making sure that their ballot gets turned in and nervous about the Postal Service.

Speaker 17 (17:05):

Even last election we had in the state, our absentee ballots came in after the election.

Speaker 18 (17:11):

I feel very concerned about this election given rhetoric that our current president has been sharing.

Anne Strainchamps (17:21):

Early voters in Madison, Wisconsin. So how did we get here? 240 plus years of democracy and Americans are still worried about whether their vote will be counted? Well, maybe you've heard of Carol Anderson, author of White Rage and One Person, No Vote. She told Steve Paulson, "People are right to be worried because when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act it triggered a new wave of voter suppression."

Carol Anderson (17:50):

It came to the fore in that ridicous god-awful 2000 election.

Speaker 21 (18:05):

I move that this board conduct a manual recount of all the ballots for the presidential election for the year 2000.

Carol Anderson (18:14):

Everybody remembers that election.

Speaker 22 (18:16):

The punch hole is called a chad.

Carol Anderson (18:19):

That was the election of the hanging chad.

Speaker 22 (18:21):

The pregnant chad.

Steve Paulson (18:22):

This is the election where George W Bush squeaked it out in Florida over Al Gore.

Carol Anderson (18:27):


Al Gore (18:28):

May god bless our new president.

Carol Anderson (18:29):

And it's still hotly contested, let's face it, because there was just so much that went wrong in Florida.

George W Bush (18:35):

I guess I better go write an inaugural speech.

Carol Anderson (18:42):

But we spend so much time on Florida we miss what happened in Missouri. In St Louis, Missouri, the St Louis Board of Elections illegally purged nearly 50,000 voters off of the rolls shortly before the election and didn't tell them. So these voters show up to vote and find out their names aren't on the rolls. They're looking going, "Wait, what?" And the poll workers are like, "But you're not here. I can't let you vote. You're not here." And they're trying to call down to the board of elections. Nobody's answering the phone. The lines are jammed. It's just bad. So the poll workers just send everybody down to the board of elections to get it worked out. Hours are dripping by on election day, so the polls are getting ready to close at 7:00 PM and the board of elections is still packed and they can't figure it all out.

Carol Anderson (19:35):

So the Democrats sued to get the polls open until 10:00 PM. A judge agreed, saying, "This is not the voters' fault. They were on the rolls. They were purged illegally. They have a right to vote." The Republicans came behind and sued in a higher court and that judge shut down the polls at 7:45 PM. What the Republicans said was that keeping the polls open an additional three hours...

Speaker 25 (20:03):

But especially in Missouri...

Carol Anderson (20:04):

Was an attempt at massive voter fraud.

Speaker 25 (20:07):

Widespread vote fraud.

Carol Anderson (20:08):

That this was an attempt to have dead people voting...

Speaker 25 (20:12):

And I have respect for the dearly departed.

Carol Anderson (20:14):

People using addresses from numerous vacant lots so that they could vote over and over and steal the elections.

Speaker 25 (20:21):

We've been told by professors that vote fraud doesn't really exist.

Carol Anderson (20:24):

Voter fraud.

Speaker 25 (20:25):

Voter fraud.

Carol Anderson (20:26):

Voter fraud.

Speaker 25 (20:26):

Voter fraud.

Carol Anderson (20:27):

Voter fraud.

Speaker 25 (20:27):

Well gang, come down out of your ivory tower. We can explain it to you.

Carol Anderson (20:32):

Well, none of this was true. It's not massive. It's not rampant. Justin [Levitt 00:20:39], a law professor out of California, he did a study. From 2000 to 2014, he counted up all of the votes in the elections in the United States and found one billion votes.

Speaker 26 (20:52):

A billion ballots.

Carol Anderson (20:54):

In those one billion votes he found 31 cases.

Speaker 26 (20:57):

31 known incidents.

Carol Anderson (20:59):

Of voter fraud out of one billion.

Speaker 26 (21:01):

Billion with a B.

Steve Paulson (21:04):

What you're describing is just so blatantly anti-democratic. It's sort of stunning to think that this could happen in the United States, isn't it? Am I just being incredibly naïve here?

Carol Anderson (21:17):


Speaker 27 (21:21):

[inaudible 00:21:21]. You are ordered to disperse.

Carol Anderson (21:26):

Part of this is part of the old playbook out of the rise of old Jim Crow where southern states had somewhere between 35% to over 50% of their populations being African American around about 1890.

Speaker 28 (21:42):

We have a right to be here!

Carol Anderson (21:44):

And they were figuring out, "How do we stop black people from voting? We do not want black people to vote."

Speaker 27 (21:50):

It'd be detrimental to your safety to continue this march.

Carol Anderson (21:53):

"But how do we do that and stay on this side of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote?"

Speaker 27 (21:59):

Go home or go to your church.

Carol Anderson (22:02):

"That the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude?"

Speaker 27 (22:08):

Troopers, advance towards the group.

Carol Anderson (22:11):

They had to sit down and figure out, "How do we look like we're adhering to the Fifteenth Amendment..."

Speaker 27 (22:15):

See that they disperse.

Carol Anderson (22:17):

"When we're absolution, systematically, violating it?" That's democracy in America. America has really only had this growing, vibrant democracy that we think of since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Speaker 29 (22:34):

Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color.

Carol Anderson (22:41):

What the Voting Rights Act did was that any change the states wanted to make to their voting laws now had to be reviewed by the US Department of Justice to ensure that they weren't racially discriminatory.

Speaker 29 (22:52):

This law will ensure them the right to vote.

Carol Anderson (22:55):

If they were racially discriminatory, the US Department of Justice was going to shut it down and it could not be implemented. When the act was reauthorized in 2006 it came out the Department of Justice had blocked over 700 changes because those laws were going to be racially discriminatory. They were creating obstacles, hurdles. US Department of Justice said no. Having over 700 of those changes blocked to me sent a signal that racism may still be a factor in America, but Chief Justice John Roberts and four other justices, including Clarence Thomas, didn't see it that way.

Speaker 30 (23:42):

I have the opinion of the Court this morning in Case 1296, Shelby County v. Holder.

Carol Anderson (23:47):

They gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Speaker 30 (23:49):

We have no choice but to find that it violates the Constitution.

Carol Anderson (23:55):

After Shelby County v. Holder, it just unleashed a wave of voter suppression laws.

Speaker 31 (24:00):

This deal is uncivil.

Carol Anderson (24:03):

Two hours later.

Speaker 31 (24:05):

Unconstitutional. Unnecessary.

Carol Anderson (24:07):

After the decision was read, Texas passed its voter ID law.

Speaker 31 (24:12):

And we will challenge it.

Carol Anderson (24:14):

It was just sitting there waiting in the wings to be unleashed and it was racially discrimatory.

Speaker 32 (24:20):

Things have changed.

Speaker 33 (24:21):

That provision may have been necessary 48 years ago...

Speaker 34 (24:23):

The problem has been solved.

Speaker 35 (24:23):

Of course this is aimed at states.

Voices (24:25):

[crosstalk 00:24:25].

Speaker 37 (24:29):

We will fight every step of the way!

Steve Paulson (24:33):

You know what I find sort of weird, disturbing about all of this? You would think that a country would want to make voting as easy as possible. You would want everyone to vote. In fact, there are a number of countries around the world that have mandatory voting: 22 countries including Australia, Brazil, Belgium, Greece, Egypt, the Congo, Thailand, Mexico. In all those countries, voting is actually compulsory. The US has gone in the opposite direction.

Carol Anderson (25:02):

We have one set of states that are figuring out, "How do we stop as many of our citizens from voting as possible?" Then we have another slew of our states that are figuring out, "How do we open up voting to as many of our citizens as possible?" We have Oregon, for instance, that implemented automatic voter registration so that the moment you have some dealings with the Department of Motor Vehicles you are automatically registered to vote. You have to opt out, say, "No, I don't want to vote." People aren't going to opt out. And what happened in Oregon? Oregon already had one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation and they weren't satisfied. After automatic voter registration their voting turnout rate went up by four percentage points and their electorate became even more diverse. California looked at this and said, "Wow, we want a piece of that," added automatic voter registration and then put a new twist on it, said, "We want young people to vote so we're going to pre-register 16 and 17 year olds to vote so when they turn 18 they are automatically registered to vote."

Carol Anderson (26:17):

So you have this nation moving in two separate, distinct directions and it is wreaking havoc on the nation as a whole. We are going to have a reckoning. I think that this upcoming election is going to be one of those bellwethers for what kind of nation were going to be.

Steve Paulson (26:36):

Okay, let's suppose you were the voting rights czar of the United States, if there were such a thing. What would the voting rules be in this country?

Carol Anderson (26:45):

I would, one, re-institute a new Voting Rights Act. It has been stalled in Congress. I would have automatic voter registration. I would have same-day registration as well. I would ensure that we had multiple ways for people to vote so that if you don't have the mobility to get to the polling station that your voice is not silenced. I would have real civic education so we understand how powerful and meaningful the vote really is.

Steve Paulson (27:27):

We'll see what happens in the coming years.

Carol Anderson (27:28):

Yes. That would be great. What would be great that those who say they believe in democracy act like they believe in democracy and do what it takes in order to have a true vibrant democracy, and that's not where we are.

Anne Strainchamps (27:58):

Historian Carol Anderson. She's the author of White Rage and One Person, No Vote. She talked with Steve Paulson. Listening to that kind of makes me wonder if we have ever achieved true democracy in this country. Historian Jeremi Suri says the bad news is American democracy has always been a work in progress. But don't despair. As he told Charles Monroe-Kane, "That's also the good news."

Jeremi Suri (28:36):

I'm among those historians who see democracy as a rollercoaster. It goes up and down. It's not a straight line. We like to think that every generation gets better at this thing called democracy. It's not true. Some generations, because of their circumstances, do better and some don't. We're at a low point but we're moving to a high point, I think, right now. We're at a low point in participation, we're at a low point in engagement, and we're in a low point in the rotation of power. All those things, the way they operate in our society today, our founders would be astounded and dismayed. But I feel like we're climbing back up again now. The Black Lives Matter Movement was the largest social movement in American history. Almost all the activities were peaceful and they involved more white people than black people, in fact. That's engagement. That's what democracy is about and this is often the case, Charles, that in our low moments it's the marginalized groups that lead us back up the hill of democracy.

Charles Monroe-Kane (29:36):

Okay, I smelled hope. I'm leaning forward. But then I started thinking about Jim Crow, voting under Jim Crow, poll tax and having to read the Constitution or memorize the Bill of Rights before you could vote, which went on for quite a long tie. My cynical hat says, "Have things really gotten better? Aren't we living in times like that right now?"

Jeremi Suri (30:00):

I think they've gotten better and worse at the same time and that's the dynamic of history. Hegel called dialects. At the moment when you see the greatest change you also see the greatest resistance.

Jeremi Suri (30:12):

Let's take the American south that you just talked about. You're absolutely right, and I've written actually a number of things, in fact, that the governor is very angry at me here in Texas because I said that he's actually practicing Jim Crow in his efforts to restrict voting: using the same language, in fact. But why is he doing that? He's doing that because Texas, like many other states, is on the verge of becoming a majority-minority state with more and more voters who are not your traditional Texan voters or your traditional southern voters. They are more active and engaged than they've ever been and they don't support the parties in power, so you're seeing those in power trying wherever they can to hold this inevitable push back, and that's the space we're in now. In some ways, those who are trying to repress the vote... and they definitely are today... they're fighting their Alamo. This is their last stand because they know after we get more voters in, they're out.

Charles Monroe-Kane (31:05):

I'm sitting here, I kind of got the Alamo stuck in my head, and I started to think about some of the details of how long it was and how many people died. Do we really have to go through all this pain to get there?

Jeremi Suri (31:16):

Unfortunately yes. I think if there's one truism about American history it's that peaceful change is a myth. We're a very violent society. We don't teach it that way. We're a very violent society. Even the Congressional Research Service has pointed out that there are very few years in our entire history when we have not been at war. We don't always call it war, but if you define war as the organized use of violence against a group defined as a threat... We have the highest incarceration rate of any peer society. That's a kind of violence. We're a very violent society and people in our society have never given up power peacefully. The process of historical change is always painful and that is precisely what we're living through right now and the 200,000 plus people who have died from COVID are casualties of that war right now that we're fighting.

Charles Monroe-Kane (32:08):

I want to talk about something that's not so practical and that is confidence. Let me give you an example, and I think this example scares me. My wife, who happens in work in government, she and I filled out our absentee ballots weeks ago and I was going to mail them. I actually had them in the mailbox in the front of our house. And my wife said, "No no no, what if they don't get counted?" So she took them to the local clerk and had them stamped and then you get a little number telling you, like a serial number, where it went. She wasn't confident that it would make it through the mail system and get counted. I think that's really scary that she's actually worried that her vote's not going to count in that way.

Jeremi Suri (32:50):

I think first of all this is not a new phenomenon. It's new to us who live through the last 35, 40 years when we had pretty fair elections, but our elections have always been fraught with politics and efforts to count some ballots and not others. Lyndon Johnson, when he was elected to the Senate in 1948, was famously known as Landslide Lyndon because there was a county in Texas where these dead people seemed to vote for him, in alphabetical order in fact. So this is not a new phenomenon but it is a case where we have the opportunity to make progress, and the way to make progress is to do exactly what your wife did: not just take your ballot somewhere where you know it will be received but to actually track our voting. That is how it worked in the 19th century when the elections were small enough. You would vote and you would see that your vote was counted.

Charles Monroe-Kane (33:40):

Right. You know, the majority of voting-age Americans don't vote. What do you do with those people?

Jeremi Suri (33:48):

In the late 19th century we actually had very high voter turnout rates. We had about 80%. Of course, it was a bounded electorate. It was white males for the most part, so it really wasn't 80% of the population. But the things they did to make that possible we could do again today for a larger electorate. In the late 19th century you didn't have to register to vote. You just went and voted and proved that you were who you were or you could register the day off. In that period you were able to leave work to go vote. It was not an official holiday but there was the presumption that actually you went because they wanted you to vote for their guy or whoever the company was or the local union was. If we made, as we're starting to this year... Many companies are doing this. If you make election day a holiday, if you make it easier to register, and we could also say that it's actually a constitutional duty and require one to go to vote. Australia does that.

Charles Monroe-Kane (34:37):

Yeah. That would be interesting.

Jeremi Suri (34:39):

And you could still then go to vote and vote none of the above. You would not be forced to make a choice you don't want to make. I think people should have the right to vote none of the above but you would still have to actually go and vote. Maybe that's the route we want to go.

Charles Monroe-Kane (34:50):

I have two questions for you that I've been thinking about a lot. The first one is Donald Trump wins the election. It's the 20th of January. There's no transition of power. What does it look like in America if there's no longer a democracy?

Jeremi Suri (35:07):

Well, I don't think the election of Donald Trump would be the end of democracy but it would sink us very deeply into a violent conflictual moment because many of his efforts are an attack upon what people believe are democratic rights: the right to speak, their right to have honest news and information, the right to have some access to health insurance, their right for their state not to be mistreated because the president doesn't like the governor. I think we're on the edge of people then massively responding through disobedience and through possible violence. It wouldn't be the end of democracy but it would become a very violent moment in our democracy. We're on the edge of that now, in fact.

Charles Monroe-Kane (35:57):

Wow. I can't believe we're having this conversation. I think I know how you're going to answer this but I want to ask you. I find it hard to believe America, arguably the most powerful country in the history of the world... It makes me feel like our democracy's weak if it can't handle fill-in-the-blank. How come we can't handle this?

Jeremi Suri (36:19):

I don't think it is because of Trump. He's definitely the most anti-democratic president we have ever had. But we have come to this point because of all the people who have enabled him: the Republicans in the Senate who have not been willing to hold him accountable. One can have one's own opinion on impeachment and conviction. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about requiring that the executive agencies that work for the president don't do his political bidding but instead do their jobs. The Justice Department has been manipulated by the attorney general. Every single director of the Department of Homeland Security since this one... and this one was not even legally appointed... every one of them including Republican Tom Ridge, who was very close to George W Bush, have said, "The Department of Homeland Security is not doing its job. It's acting as the goons for the president." We could go on and on with a long list of that.

Jeremi Suri (37:14):

All of these agencies, they get every dollar from Congress and the Republicans have been unwilling to hold them accountable. They are the ones to blame. You want to project our democracy, get people in the Senate who actually care about democracy and are not stooges to a party.

Charles Monroe-Kane (37:30):

It's so interesting to think about. I had a friend who was like, "You know what Trump's done for us is a favor. He's exposed all the holes in the dike we need to fix." Do you feel like maybe that's the silver lining as well? We're like, "Okay, this doesn't work."

Jeremi Suri (37:43):

Absolutely. That's why I think we can do better. The horrible moment exposes, as you said, the rot and it mobilizes us to do something about it. That's why George Floyd mattered. That's why Bull Connor mattered in the 1960s. That's why the Selma March was so important. When they beat John Lewis and those peaceful civil rights activists walking across Edmund Pettus Bridge, it showed the world how horrible this was. You couldn't pretend it wasn't there any more. When George Floyd was lynched in front of us all you could no longer deny that there's a problem of police brutality, and so we have to act now. We can't pretend it's not there. Trump has done that for us and that is the engine of change. We can pretend things are fine until it's pushed in our face. This is what Martin Luther King understood, that you have to expose in order to motivate.

Charles Monroe-Kane (38:36):

It's funny. I didn't think you were going to be this optimistic in the interview. But then I started thinking while you were talking, "You're a historian." You're basing things on the history of America. Most people are looking to the future, right? "Oh my god, this could happen, this could happen." Is that... you find the history is... makes one optimistic, because things tend to work themselves out?

Jeremi Suri (38:58):

I became a historian because I think what history shows us is that every moment that we're in is filled with all different kinds of potential and that potential comes from a long past that we don't see. One of the problems of not seeing history is you underrate the options that you have. You think all you can do is what's in front of you. By looking back it's not that you will replay the past, but it's that the past widens the range of possibility for the present because you can learn from what others have been through and see possibilities in your own world. I think when we look into the American past we can see that our democracy has been a rollercoaster. We've had some terrible moments. Not just the Civil War but Jim Crow, the Great Depression, and we have made it through not with Pollyannish thinking; we've made it through because those moments have mobilized people, often non-traditional actors, often young people, to get involved and force change into the future. That's where we are today and if we can get through this moment we can start to do that good work.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:06):

Wow. I was ready for a different interview. I was ready for something more dark and more negative and I find your optimism refreshing. Thank you very much.

Jeremi Suri (40:17):

My pleasure. I do think we're on the cusp of a positive turning point and we just have to get ourselves through it, and if we don't it'll be disastrous.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:26):

So there you go. The stakes are low.

Jeremi Suri (40:28):


Charles Monroe-Kane (40:31):

All right, thank you very much.

Jeremi Suri (40:33):

Thank you, Charles.

Anne Strainchamps (40:45):

Jeremi Suri is a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Impossible Presidency and he was talking with Charles Monroe-Kane. Coming up, how to put the fun back in elections, and if you don't think it's possible sick around. I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (41:19):

I'm probably not the only one who feels worn out by this election season and more than ready to have it all over. What if elections weren't such a grind though? What if voting was fun? I know. I can't really imagine it either, but political strategist Eric Liu can.

Eric Liu (41:37):

Actually, for most of American history until pretty much the advent of television there was deep, robust, raucous participatory culture of voting that was about street theater and parties and open air debates and festivals and competing parades and theatricality and spectacle. If you think back to some of the signal moments in American political history, the pre-revolutionary era, and you think about this very fertile, fervent culture of pamphleteering and outdoor orations and then you fast forward to something like the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and that was the entertainment of its day.

Anne Strainchamps (42:12):

Can you tell me about a couple of the projects that you've gotten started? You've got this whole make elections, make voting, fun again campaign at a pretty local level.

Eric Liu (42:22):

This is a project called the Joy of Voting. In Miami, one of the projects is about young people organizing these all-night dance parties with really great DJs and performers where the only way you get in is to show that you're registered to vote. In Philadelphia, there's a great scavenger hunt that is elections themed all through colonial old town, and in Wichita local residents and artists are creating mixtapes and graffiti art that's about both getting out the vote and reminding people why voting matters and, again in the best sense, the bigger picture that voting is part of.

Anne Strainchamps (42:56):

Why does that bodies in the street thing matter to you? Why does it matter to you that is in person in a place?

Eric Liu (43:04):

That's such a great question. I think it matters particularly in our age where so much of our lives are mediated and we deal with one another through our screens. We literally are not seeing each other with our heads and necks craned looked down at our smart phones. I think in a country as diverse and far-flung as ours there is so little naturally holding us together and the only way to build these deep bonds of trust is to see one another.

Anne Strainchamps (43:33):

That's such an interesting comment because I'm thinking about how many people today... and sometimes I'm one of them... feel pretty cynical about the entire democratic process in America and don't really think their individual votes are going to matter all that much. The deck is already stacked. The campaigns are run by a cadre of professional operatives. They're supported by armies of big data miners and funded by special interests and big money. On the face of that, wearing an "I voted" sticker just seems kind of futile.

Eric Liu (44:07):

I don't deny that it seems kind of futile. It may feel that way in a national election where votes are counted in the tens of million, but where this really matters, think about your town. In a country where in most local elections turnout hovers at about 20%, if you decided that you wanted to get you and your friends and your friends' friends to actually vote and show up in a local election, just you and your social network literally could turn the tide in a local election. That's enough to get a different kind of council member, to get a different kind of interest represented, to get a different array of power at your local level.

Anne Strainchamps (44:43):

This is the real underlying issue, isn't it? It's about power. You've said in a bunch of different places that one of the big problems you think facing American democracy right now is that a lot of Americas have become illiterate in power. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Eric Liu (45:01):

Power: just that word, I bet some of our listeners, as we're talking about this now, their hackles have gone up. Power's a dirty word in American life and all of our associations with power are kind of negative. People are power hungry or power mad and on power trips. I think one of the most basic responsibilities that we have as citizens is to be able, with unflinching eyes, to name, to understand, to be able to read and write power. Power is a gift. We begin with a certain measure of power, all of us, even the ones who seem to have the least in material ways, and consciously or not we are continuously either giving that power away or we are directing it or circulating it intentionally.

Eric Liu (45:46):

For instance, back to voting: when you decide that "the system is so rigged and the choices are terrible and this whole thing is corrupt. I'm not going to bother voting," that's a fantasy. There is no such thing as not voting.

Anne Strainchamps (45:57):

What do you mean?

Eric Liu (45:58):

Not voting is voting. It is voting to hand over your power and your voice to other people whose interests are most likely going to be inimical to your own.

Anne Strainchamps (46:07):

Is that what you mean when you talk about becoming power literate as opposed to power illiterate? Simply knowing to begin with, say, mapping the power in your local community. How much do you know about it?

Eric Liu (46:20):

Exactly. We use a phrase oftentimes in everyday life. We talk about the power structure, but what is the power structure? I break down the power structure into this combination of sources of power plus the conduits of power. There are various sources of power, whether that's money power, people power, the power of force and violence, the power of state action, the power of social norms. There are all these different sources but what are the conduits through which they flow? In some communities the main conduits are going to be formal channels like the chamber of commerce or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. In other communities it's not going to be that so much. The conduits of power are going to be this lunch table at the steakhouse where the third Tuesday of every month a few bankers and big shots get together and map out what's going to happen. Mapping those sources and conduits is what I mean by being literate in power: being literally able to see these flows all around you.

Eric Liu (47:17):

It's like, you remember the movie The Matrix at the end when the Matrix becomes visible to Neo and you see that continuous stream of data and bits and the flow all around you? Just envision that, man. That's happening all around us and if we start seeing that flow, that suffusing flow of power and our ability actually to redirect it that changes both mindset and action.

Anne Strainchamps (47:42):

To circle back to a couple of things we began with, fun and adding a sense of play back to the whole electoral democratic process, and the notion of imagination, you created an exercise a while ago, kind of thought experiment, that you challenged people to try. I wanted to invite our listeners to do this. Maybe you could explain.

Eric Liu (48:04):

Sure. One of the most simple but challenging exercises I think we as citizens can do is just to write a narrative of what your city could look like in the future. How... If power were truly circulated equitably and people had more wherewithal, more opportunity, to participate more fully in the civic life of your community, what would that look like? When you begin to depict what that city looks like, and it can be in three years, it can be 30 years, but when you begin to make that depiction in your mind and then start telling that story to other people, I mean this in the most profound sense, it becomes self-fulfilling. Any political movement of the last half century, whether it was the conservative movement or the civil rights movement, all of these movements began with people basically telling and writing down this kind of narrative: envisioning what that polity of the future would look like and then working backwards from that and thinking, "Okay, who and what do we need to mobilize in order to get from here to there?"

Anne Strainchamps (49:13):

Eric Liu is the founder and CEO of Citizen University. He was a White House speech writer and policy advisor for Bill Clinton.

Anne Strainchamps (49:39):

And so, having heard all that, how would change voting in America?

Speaker 41 (49:46):

It should be as easy as possible.

Speaker 42 (49:48):

I think that the more opportunity that you give people to vote the better.

Speaker 41 (49:52):

If you could vote by going outside and just dropping it off and a drone comes and gets it, as long as it's fair and there's no fraud, then the more the better is what I think. Probably get out of a two party system wouldn't hurt, too.

Speaker 43 (50:05):

Voter suppression is real and alive in America.

Speaker 44 (50:07):

At no point is fighting for more accessibility to vote a bad thing.

Speaker 46 (50:12):

[foreign language 00:50:12]. It's my first time I can vote. In the 20 years I've been here... I can't believe it.

Anne Strainchamps (50:19):

Where it's your first or your 50th election, I have one word for you: vote! We'll be right there with you this year voting, watching, and waiting. To The Best of Our Knowledge is produced by a democratic collective whose members are Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps. Be well and join us again next time.

Speaker 47 (50:56):


Last modified: 
November 16, 2020