The Freedom to Vote Act has been put together by a group of Democratic Senators and Joe Manchin, who is now trying to sell it to his Republican colleagues before a vote, which is supposed to take place as early as next week according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
In this edition of the Background Briefing, we discuss what is in the bill as well as what is not. Given that it is highly unlikely that Manchin will win over 10 Republican senators, or even one, we assess what the Plan B might be for the Democrats who will surely lose the 2022 and 2024 elections due to the massive and brazen nationwide Republican voter suppression campaign underway. That is, unless the Democrats get something passed, even if it does not make the electoral playing field completely level.
Joining us for a deep dive into the bill is Greg Palast, a journalist who has been investigating voter suppression for decades and is the author of the New York Times and international bestsellers, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse. The recipient of the George Orwell Courage in Journalism Prize for his BBC television documentary, Bush Family Fortunes, his latest book is How Trump Stole 2020.
Ian Masters: Welcome to Background Briefing, Greg Palast.
Palast: Glad to be with you again, Ian.
Masters: Thanks Greg. A poll by CNN has just come out finding that 93% of Americans feel that democracy in the United States is at least being tested, 56% of Americans believe that our democracy is under attack, and only 6% say that American democracy is in no danger. So what do you think of the new Freedom to Vote Act that Joe Manchin is putting forth and Senator Schumer says will be voted on as early as next week?
Palast: Well, a couple of things, one responding to what Americans believe. It’s not just the question of belief. The dark secret of American elections, which is becoming less secret now — I’ve been investigating for 20 years — is that we don’t let everyone vote, who’s a citizen and should be allowed to vote, and we don’t count all the votes that are cast. And I’m not talking about messing around with voting machines, forget all that stuff. What I’m talking about is, for example, in the 2016 election I was able to calculate that we had about 9 million votes not counted. About 6 million people were illegally purged from the voter rolls, that means that their votes were erased. And then we have something in America called “spoilage”, where we don’t count a lot of votes. We had 2 million people cast what were called “provisional ballots” like back of the bus ballots, that were mostly handed out to Black, Asian-American and Hispanic voters. And those 2 million votes were never counted in 2016. You have a lot of ballots that just never get counted. This has nothing to do with voting machines flipping your vote fromTrump to Biden or Biden to Trump. This has to do with votes that are rejected by machines on cockamamie grounds or absentee ballots rejected on cockamamie grounds.
Like literally, my sister’s a lawyer and my mother was a school teacher, they lost their ballots because they didn’t properly fill in a bubble. They put an X instead of filling in a bubble next to a candidate’s name. This has been a direct attack on our democracy and it’s not random. It’s generally young people and especially voters of color, I’ve documented it to a fare-thee-well.
I’ve been in Georgia nine years watching this horror show. But also Georgia shows you the good side of it, which is that they can’t steal all the votes all the time. Biden, Ossoff, and Warnock won, which is terrific. Not because I believe that they were good candidates. I’m not partisan. What made the difference is that, for the first time in a century in Georgia, the public actually chose their leaders. They chose their senators, not vote trickery, which is basically Jim Crow in cyberspace.
So that’s a long answer to your first comment, but as to the new bill, we should go into it… That was proposed by Joe Manchin and Amy Klobuchar, who are not exactly known as frontline voting rights advocates. But I’ve read through much of the bill. It’s 600 pages long, which makes me different than US senators, who don’t read this stuff. I doubt if even Joe Manchin read his own bill. But I’m looking at some definite, real improvements. It’s not wonderful and I have a lot of objections to some of the things in there that could actually backfire, as I saw… Let’s not forget, we passed the Help America Vote Act in 2003 and we were told by the Congressional Black Caucus and others, this will solve all our problems with voting. Well then, how come we’re here now? Obviously, we’ve had other voting rights laws which were passed, and where are we now?
If you think that this law is going to solve the problem with Jim Crow, it ain’t. And the original Democratic bill didn’t even come close. In fact, I’m going to tell you, honestly, this may be an improvement over the original bill, when you actually look at the details. But there’s no substitute for going out there and fighting the mass purge of voters and fighting the mass basically tossing away of millions of legal votes — and this doesn’t take too much of a chunk out of that process. So Jim Crow is not eliminated, just put on it in a more restrictive [footing]. We’ve taken off his tennis shoes and put on some heavy boots, so he can’t run as quickly.
Masters: Well, let me just add a couple of names to the people who put this bill together, along with Manchin and Klobuchar that you mentioned. There’s also Senator Tim Kaine, Angus king, Jeff Merkley, Alex Padilla, John Tester, and Raphael Warnock. And the bill does include mandating national minimum standards for early voting and vote by mail. It establishes Election Day as a national holiday, which seems like a huge improvement to me. It has also requirements for dark money disclosure, and it also has elements of Raphael Warnock’s Preventing Election Subversion Act, which will counter some of these pernicious activities going on in Texas and Georgia. It puts in place safeguards against local election officials being removed for partisan purposes and makes intimidating election workers a felony, which is a program that Steve Bannon has introduced and is being funded by people like the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. So the battle is on…
Palast: So, the only real voting rights advocate on that whole panel is Raphael Warnock, who is the Senator from Georgia, who I’ve known for years. I was the first person actually put him on national TV. And he’s a former preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — Dr. King’s old church. And he’s a true voting rights advocate, not a radical by any means, but very progressive and very thoughtful. So his inclusion in there… I mean, there’s a lot of tokenism in that, but, you know it’s obviously positive. But I’m concerned that his presence makes it seem like, well, this solves all our problems, and it just scratches it…
And we can always pick on it and I will admit, I don’t want to be one of these people that says that there’s no such thing as an improvement, et cetera, but obviously expanding early voting is quite important. They have felony re-enfranchisement. Now this is interesting because, despite what people think, almost all ex-cons in the US are indeed to allowed to vote…but as a practical matter, they are blocked in many states. Like Florida, where people voted on a proposition to have re-enfranchisement, to let people vote who have a criminal record. That was supposed to put 1.4 million people back on the voter rolls. They put so many impediments in the way, that is the Republican state legislature, that only 200,000 out of the 1.4 million ex-cons are registered right now.
There’s things in there, little things, like that registration forms must allow for accents, accent marks on names. You know, if your name was Garcia Márquez, good luck registering anywhere, including California. And when you try to show an ID, they say, well, that has an accent mark and you didn’t register with an accent mark. It might sound small, but that’s a real issue for the Hispanic community.
There are things I really don’t like. Expanding the use of ID requirements. One of the most important things not that the first bill did, but a shorter bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act did… This bill does not restore what’s called pre-clearance, that was in the original Voting Rights Act. In other words, you’re not going to be able to enforce this law without pre-clearance. So you can have this law and it’s not going to be enforceable. That’s the biggest problem. Because Manchin apparently would not allow the return of pre-clearance.
What is pre-clearance? It’s a fancy term saying that if the state is going to do something like changing ID requirements or coming up with a new system of purging voter rolls, you have to get it cleared by the Justice Department to make sure it’s not discriminatory. This was the key thing. It was thrown out by the U S Supreme Court in 2013. It should have been brought back in this law and it isn’t, so enforcement of this law is going to be…well, let’s put it this way; The problem we run into right now is you can enforce these laws, but they’re after the elections, and in America, if an election is stolen, we don’t run it again. So, in other words, the thieves get away with the crime and you say, well, next time you’ll have to come up with something else to steal your election. But I’m very concerned about lack of enforcement in this bill.Also they have a whole section called Saving Eligible Voters from Voter Purging, which has been one of my big issues. I was the reporter back in 2000 that uncovered that Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush had removed 52,000 Black men from the voter rolls saying that they were felons, which at the time couldn’t vote in Florida. None of them were, not a single one, but they were black. I know that because it said “B.L.A.” next to their names. That’s how George Bush became president. Now, this law would not prohibit that. This law would not prohibit this mass purging. That is the biggest single impediment to voting rights in America. Not that you can’t give someone a slice of pizza while they’re waiting in line. Not that you deny them a ballot because of their voter ID, or lack thereof. None of those things come close to the damage caused by blocking voters by simply erasing them from the voter rolls. This thing doesn’t do it. It says it does and it doesn’t.
Because, for example, one of the new vote purge techniques I’m trying to fight, which is now being established in Georgia, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and several other states, is called ERIC. It is a private agency, but it uses so-called official documents. That is, such things as Post Office change of address forms, which are nonsense for determining whether someone is a resident eligible voter — and they are not blocking this purging system. They are not blocking, Kris Kobach of Kansas, Trump’s Vote Thief-in-Chief, who had a system called Interstate Crosscheck. The last big Democratic bill literally authorized it by name, this huge racist program that challenged 7 million voters, removed a million voters. As far as I could tell, none of them were illegal voters. I did quite an investigation for Rolling Stone. None of these things are being prohibited in this law, despite this whole section called Saving Eligible Voters from Voter Purging. It doesn’t do it.
And, in fact, it could be read by an evil judge — and we have plenty of those evil right-wing judges — saying, well, it says that you can use official records to see if someone is “permanently moved out of state and is no longer eligible to vote.” Well, that’s what the Kris Kobach Interstate Crosscheck program did. That’s what this ERIC program did. I did an analysis of the ERIC program in Wisconsin for Black Voters Matter and found out that a third of the names on there of people who had moved, had not moved. I spoke to them. I filmed them in their homes. They didn’t move anywhere. But almost every single person that was removed by this program was either a black voter Milwaukee or a student voter in Madison. Again, this does not prohibit that. In fact, it looks like it authorizes that type of vote trickery. So, it has improvements, it has detriments, and there’s an awful lot that is missing. An awful lot.
Masters: Stacey Abrams initially said that she approved of Manchin’s bill. I’m not sure whether she would approve of this current iteration, but, as I mentioned earlier, Senator Schumer thinks that they could even vote on this as early as next week. But Manchin’s trying to get 10 Republicans to join him. That’s never going to happen. Even Susan Collins is backing away from it. So there has to be a Plan B surely, Greg, because otherwise, why are they doing this? Manchin can’t be completely delusional thinking that 10 Republicans will vote for it. He won’t get any Republicans to vote for it. So he must have a Plan B.
Palast: Yeah, I think that he won’t get any Republicans. It’s not clear. I mean, Murkowski, well, who’s not a Republican but who sits with that caucus has made noises about, for example, actually supporting the John Lewis Act, which would actually be better than this whole 600 page halfway bill, but…
Look, I used to work in state legislatures and congress, and it’s an old trick. You pretend you’re doing something, but you know it won’t actually even come up for a vote. Or you know it won’t be implemented into law. It’s an old trick by politicians. In fact, one of the reasons why the Family Leave Act passed, that allows you to take off time for a new kid or family medical emergency… The only reason that passed — it’s an interesting story about how legislation works — is that under Bush Senior as president it passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and House. Cause everyone was for allowing people to take time off. But Republicans really, really didn’t want that bill. A lot of conservative corporate Democrats didn’t want that bill, cause it was going to cost industry money. But they thought, well, Bush was going to veto it, so who cares? Clinton came in and brilliantly, people told him to improve the law… He said, no. They voted for this already. Don’t change a comma so they can’t change their vote. And literally, about 10 days into office, Bill Clinton passed the only positive progressive act of his entire eight years, was within 10 days of his office, because he didn’t change it.
In other words, people were voting for that bill as virtue signaling, but they didn’t actually have to do it and piss off their corporate donors. So this is a good way for Manchin and the right wing Democrats to say, we’re doing the right thing, we want to do the right thing, but golly, those Republicans just won’t join us. And Manchin has said something this important, like voting, has to be bipartisan.
Masters: But Greg, just in the last minute though, what would the next step be? I mean, obviously reconciliation is the way to go, but you got to work around the filibuster. So Manchin must be prepared to do something surely. Otherwise why go through this exercise and why have Schumer say they’re going to a vote?
Palast: Well, Schumer wants to say we’ll vote on it so the Democrats can go back to their constituents and say, well, I tried, I voted for it, but we couldn’t get any Republicans. Manchin will say I tried, but I couldn’t get any Republicans, I’m sorry, shame on them, and everyone will go home happy.
Masters: No, they won’t because the Democrats will lose the 2022 election and 2024 elections under the current circumstances. So it’s existential for them. They have to do something.
Palast: You know, remember, until Stacey Abrams came along, I was constantly being told by the Democratic party to shut up about vote suppression. They say, you’re discouraging people from voting. Don’t bring a vote suppression, you can’t bring this up. I couldn’t get editors [to publish stories about it]. They said, you’re attacking basically American democracy by saying it’s difficult to vote. So to even get Democrats to talk about the issue, that’s already a giant improvement. To get them to do something about it, well, that’s going to take another decade I think.
Masters: Well, we’ll have one party rule in two years.
Palast: Yes. Look. I wrote that book, How Trump Stole 2020, and people say, oh, you had it wrong. I was 44,000 votes off. And that’s because millions of votes were not counted, were rejected. As I say, absentee ballots, 2 million provisional ballots, almost all minority ballots. We had at least 4 million people illegally purged from the voter rolls. And I actually won a federal lawsuit in Georgia on this. And if it weren’t for our win in that federal suit, Ossoff, Warnock and Biden would not be there. They wouldn’t have won Georgia.
So I don’t count on the Democratic party to do this. It’s going to be the activists, the voting rights activists in the streets, voting rights activists in the courtrooms, and in the churches. That’s how it’s done. I don’t count on the Democratic party to save our votes. They are incumbents, and there’s one party ultimately, and it’s the party of incumbency, and they ain’t going to change the rules, which will also make it harder for them to win their primaries.
Masters: Well, Greg Palast, I thank you very much for joining us here today.
Palast: You’re very welcome, Ian.