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© Frank

interviews

From a Public Health Crisis to a Constitutional Crisis

by Dave Daley
May 26, 2020

This interview with David Daley, a Senior fellow for FairVote and the author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy and most recently, Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | Would you start by talking about your background and what you focus on now?

Dave Daley | I focus on democracy issues and voting rights. I was the editor-in-chief of Salon for many years. In 2013, I was running our politics coverage – it seemed the news out of the House of Representatives became more and more extreme by the day. We were covering 50 different repeal votes on Obamacare, a government shutdown, and an astounding conversation coming out of Congress about guns after a massacre at an elementary school.

So, one day I asked a really simple question: why didn't Democrats take back the House in 2012, the same year Obama had been reelected and Democrats held onto the Senate? I was surprised to learn that even though the Democrats had won 1.4 million more votes in 2012, they still failed to take back the House.

As I was looking into how that could be the case, I came across something called Red Map, The Redistricting Majority Project. In which, Republicans took credit for using gerrymandering to give them control of state legislatures and Congress, even in a year that was not good for them at the ballot box. It was surprising to me because I had never heard of Red Map, and I was running politics for a liberal publication under incredibly sharp people. 

I realized there was a story there, a story about how gerrymandering was weaponized in a new way in 2010 and 2011. 

There certainly was a story there. We're all familiar with what gerrymandering is now, and in a sense, it finally energized the left. Who do you think has the momentum in 2020?

I think regular citizens in gerrymandered states figured out what had happened sooner than Democratic politicians did. They started seeing extreme bills coming out of their state legislatures that they couldn’t do anything about. The transgender bathroom bill passed in North Carolina. Anti-labor bills started coming out of Michigan, a one-time labor hotspot. Anti-teacher and anti-university legislation started coming out of Wisconsin, a place that had once been so proud of its public schools. Gerrymandering was a huge reason why these legislatures had become so unaccountable.

Citizens were forced into a war with their own representatives in order to ensure that they had a voice in state politics again. This is how all the current initiatives that I trace in my book begin.

All of the momentum for reform is built on citizens understanding what needed to be fixed if they wanted to actually have accountable politicians.

It's no coincidence that this movement begins in Michigan, a state in which Democratic State House candidates have won more votes in every election this decade, but Republicans maintain control. It's no coincidence that North Carolina has been such a hotbed of this movement, given that the first thing the gerrymandered legislatures did there was go after voting rights, enacting surgically focused voter ID laws, eliminating days of early voting, closing precincts, and purging voter rolls in order to entrench their own power.

You wrote recently that we need to make sure this public health crisis doesn't also turn into a constitutional crisis, especially as we approach the Democratic National Convention, and then the election in November. A lot of people are being pushed to participate because of circumstance – and it’s exhausting. When democracy is working well, citizens shouldn’t be completely and constantly preoccupied by politics.  

I think you're exactly right. When our politics works well, citizens can trust that their representatives are actually doing that, representing them. 

With gerrymandering, you get politics that are pushed so far to the edge that regular people lose all influence. One of my favorite stories of this in this book comes from Idaho. I think the number of registered Democrats in Idaho is around 14%. You can count the number of Democrats in the Idaho state house on two hands, and sometimes one. But, when the state legislature refused to take Obamacare money to cover healthcare for their citizens, 70,000 citizens in Idaho fell into a gap that made healthcare unaffordable. The simple truth of the matter is that in a state as rural as Idaho, without Medicaid, you can't do a good job providing health care to people. Reclaim Idaho built a coalition, in an extremely red state, that supports Medicaid expansion with more than 60% of the vote. That is not the work of Democrats, that is not even the work of Democrats and Independents coming together, it is the work of citizens in Idaho coming together to say this is the right thing to do, and our legislature isn't doing their job.

What do you think we need to focus on politically, between now and November, to give us the best chance at a clean and fair election?

We need to take a really hard look at what happened in Wisconsin and do everything we can to ensure that doesn't happen nationwide in November.

1586316150 08+1010854825+29COVID040820(Photo: Patricia McKnight / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

What happened there ought to shake and terrify every American. Wisconsinites lined up in masks in long voting lines and were forced to vote in person by a legislature that refused to reschedule the election. Voters in Milwaukee were limited to 5 of the usual 180 voting precincts. We are already seeing reports that at least 19 people who either voted that day or were working the polls have caught the virus, and that number is certain to go up. Local election officials, overwhelmed and underfunded, had to mail out something in the ballpark of 1.2 million absentee ballots, five or six times more than they've seen in any election before. They did heroic work in getting most of those out the door, but they were not set up to do that. The US Supreme court weighed in at the last minute on a 5 to 4, party line vote, that refused to grant any additional time for absentee ballots to arrive in the mail. Days after the election, post offices across the state are reporting piles of undelivered absentee ballots.

That seems to be a situation we would want to avoid in the fall: Americans forced to vote in person in the middle of a virus, overwhelmed election officials trying to get an unprecedented number of absentee ballots out the door, an underfunded post office system having to deliver and return all of these ballots, politicians in court the day before an election trying to reschedule it, only a fraction of available precincts actually open, and the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a party line ruling on how people want to get to vote. 

If all that happens on the verge of the Presidential election, we will be in the throws of a constitutional crisis that will cast genuine doubt on the legitimacy of the results.

So what do you do? What do we do? What's possible if we're triaging action between today and November to make sure all of the things you just outlined don't happen?

You're right. I think triage is really the key word here. We have fewer than 200 days. The States that have instituted vote-by-mail have had years to refine it. We are going to have to learn what we can from their experience and do our best in the time that we have left to ensure that Americans can vote safely and securely. 

This has to start with funding the process adequately. The Brennan Center and nonpartisan reform groups have said this is going to cost anywhere between $2 billion and $4 billion. Congress has appropriated $400 million so far. That is not enough, and $2 to $4 billion spent on preserving democracy is a rounding error relative to other packages coming out of Congress right now. 

Spending money to safeguard our elections seems like an important investment that we should all be able to get behind.

Then, there is a lot of work to be done. Ballots have to be printed and translated, optical scanners have to be purchased so that states can actually read the results quickly, poll workers have to be trained, and voters, who are not used to voting-by-mail, have to be educated on the process. 

We also have to be thoughtful and considerate about making this process equitable. It will not be easy to vote-by-mail for everyone. The mail service is not as secure and reliable on Native American lands or in public housing projects, for example. Some in person voting is going to have to be arranged and available, how do we ensure that is safe and secure? Are we making it easy for people to get ballots by sending them to everybody who was a registered voter? Or are we making them jump through additional hoops of applying for a ballot and then getting one back? Are we putting postage on those ballots for everybody so that we are not adding an additional poll tax? What are we doing to ensure that Americans can register to vote between now and the election? Can people register online? We have to be thinking about these factors in the days that we have available to us. It's doable, and it's very important, but we have to move quickly.

You talked about budgets tied up in Congress – but is this something states can pursue independently?

Yes, individual states could step up and fund this themselves, but individual states have got a lot that they're trying to step up and fund themselves right now. This is something that the federal government should be able to do. It is a critical part of one person, one vote. It shouldn't be easier to vote in New York than Georgia. If we are setting up an election system where there are going to be additional barriers in some states that you don't have in others, that is not equitable.

Right now there's no-excuse absentee ballots in two thirds of our states, but in the other third, you need a specific excuse. A pandemic, as many local officials are making clear, doesn't count. It would be extraordinarily useful if Congress would pass a law that said in all 50 States, you can vote absentee without an excuse.

Is that constitutionally plausible?

It is absolutely constitutionally plausible, it just requires a statute. Whether it is politically possible is the question. 

Voting rights, quite unhelpfully, have become so partisan. The President talks about how vote-by-mail will give us levels of voting in this country that will never elect a Republican President again. A Congressman from Kentucky spoke about how vote-by-mail would upend the American way of life. Republican senators, in the middle of the last stimulus debate, claimed that they couldn't understand the connection between the virus and voting. I mean, if you can't understand the connection please take a look at those pictures coming out of Wisconsin. That ought to make it really, really clear.

It makes me wonder what the future of the conservative party in the United States is – if one person, one vote is not only detrimental, but possibly the end of them, what does that suggest?

I think you have your finger on perhaps the most important question of our time. This has been a long term effort by a Republican party that sees itself on the wrong side of demographic trends, and is trying to maintain power with a shrinking base. When you make that decision, you have to rely on things like gerrymandering and voter ID and purging, voter rolls and closing precincts. And here we are. 

Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, unable to have a national conversation about how we safeguard our democracy in this moment. It's enormously dangerous.

I can't understand the long-term benefit of turning your party into this. I guess the answer is just about power, but that seems too simplistic somehow, when you watch the abandonment of the principles of a party. 

You abandon your principles slowly and then all at once. I think that's what happened. Conservatives made a deal with the side of the party that was racist or nationalist and had its roots in either John Birch America or Jim Crow America, factions that they thought were a small piece of a party and were sort of safely stored in a bin under the bed. But decisions were made that unlocked that box under the bed and put it at the forefront of the party.

The first decision was Republicans responding to their 2008 thrashing by looking at the demographics of a changing nation and deciding that their best attempt at a path back to power was through redistricting. 2008 was a historic Democratic sweep, but 2010 was a census year, a redistricting year. The folks who executed REDMAP understood the opportunity that posed for Republicans. But, when you redraw all of these States to give yourself these incredible majorities with sometimes a minority of the vote, you do so by creating districts that push your party to the extreme.

My favorite example of this is Mark Meadows in North Carolina. Mark Meadows’ district in Asheville had been represented throughout the 2000s, first by a Republican and then by a conservative Democrat, Heath Shuler. When Republicans redrew the map in 2011, Shuler took one look at the new map and decided he could not win. Republicans had cracked Asheville in half; they took the one Democratic area and divided it down the middle. They put the Democrats into two districts instead of one, and they ensured that it would be a conservative Republican to win. The guy who goes on to win that seat is Mark Meadows, a sandwich shop owner who runs as a full on birther. It's the district line that puts Mark Meadows in power. It's Mark Meadows comes to Washington and files the parliamentary motion that essentially forces John Boehner to resign. It's Meadows who forced the 2013 government shutdown. It's Meadows who's now Chief of Staff to Donald Trump. He doesn't exist if not for gerrymandering.

Mark Meadows is the Frankenstein that is unleashed by what the Republicans did.

Betting on the extreme right wing, instead of adapting to new and inevitable demographics, is again, a very interesting choice. And again, not one I really understand. What is a Republican in 2030 –

I don’t think they are looking to 2030. The Republican strategists who came up with the Red Map in 2009 believed this would buy them some time while they began to figure out how to appeal to younger voters and minority voters. Instead, the gerrymandered districts produced political figures who were so far right that the Republican party became forever unpalatable to minorities and young voters. Republicans are now forced, even more so, to rely on suppressive tactics to keep those people from the polls.

And everybody else fell in line with the new extreme figures. And if you didn't fall in line, like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, you were out. All who remain, like Lindsey Graham, are unrecognizable from who they were 2015 and 2016.

You spoke in your book about Pelosi putting forth the For the People Act, full of electoral reforms that would end gerrymandering and restore the Voting Rights Act, among other things. While it met its end in the Senate, I am wondering if you think there will be a continued effort from the Democrats to sustain voting progress in this moment? 

The reforms proposed in the For the People Act are tremendous and far reaching. If Democrats take back Washington in 2021, then we'll see if they are sincere in their efforts or if they proposed those reforms performatively because they knew it would die on Mitch McConnell's desk. I'm not at all certain it will remain a continued effort. 

I think that the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate has been extraordinarily weak on winning the kinds of funding that we will need to safeguard elections in the fall. They expanded the PPP earlier and reached another deal with Mitch McConnell, and yet once again, there was nothing for vote-by-mail. That was shocking to me. I don't know when they think they will have more leverage and I don't know why they're not willing to use the leverage that they have on behalf of a fair election.

The leadership of the Democratic Party appears to have a weak understanding of the importance of fair elections. They need to take a good hard look at what happened in Wisconsin and remind themselves of what might happen if they don't get their act in order.

Are you hopeful?

There's a lot to be optimistic about when you look at how many citizens' movements there are around the country and how they have managed to win by uniting nonpartisan coalitions, left, right, center, white, black, young, old. They have built these coalitions by uniting people around the common American ideal of fair elections. I think we can take real heart in that success. But the political class is hanging on.

These fights are as old as the nation itself and they're not going to end with any one election.

The fight for voting rights didn't end with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, it didn't end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. These are fights that all Americans need to be engaged in. I think the lesson of the last couple of years is that these battles have fully begun, and that we are coming.