Whose Vote Counts
As America chooses its next president in the midst of a historic pandemic, FRONTLINE investigates whose vote counts — and whose might not. With Columbia Journalism Investigations and USA Today, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb reports on allegations of voter disenfranchisement, rhetoric and realities around mail-in ballots, and how the pandemic could impact turnout.
>> Long lines as folks wait for their polling place.
>> They've made it so difficult for people to vote here.
Just asking too much of people to come out with this virus
going on. ♪ ♪
>> JELANI COBB: It was a major election in the middle of a
pandemic. >> There's been confusion around
what actually is allowed. >> It was difficult to request
an absentee ballot. >> I didn't even know how
to do it. >> I didn't know about that
option, to vote through the absentee voting.
>> Mail ballots, they cheat, okay, people cheat.
Mail ballots are fraudulent in many cases.
>> COBB: Absentee ballots delayed in the mail.
>> I request an absentee ballot...
>> But it didn't come in time. >> It never came.
>> So I was forced to go and vote.
>> At one of the five polling stations.
>> COBB: Voters forced to choose between their health and
their civic duty. >> Those lines are long in
Wisconsin despite the state's "Safer at Home" order.
>> It is unethical. >> It was such a putrid
decision. >> People are going to die
because of this. >> COBB: Claims of voter
suppression... >> Any ballots received after
April 13 will be rejected. >> 750 ballots so far have been
rejected. >> I'm really frustrated because
my vote won't count. >> It was the most blatant form
of voter suppression. >> COBB: Was this all a view
of things to come? >> I just can't imagine that
somebody would do that in this country.
>> COBB: In the impending presidential election?
♪ ♪ I'm a journalist and historian.
I've been studying American elections for years.
But I've never seen anything like this moment.
The threat of a constitutional crisis over an election,
where the votes of many Americans, especially people of
color, may not count. First off, were you able to
vote? >> You know, I was not.
But I had a absentee ballot. >> COBB: These people wanted
to vote this past April in the battleground state of Wisconsin.
A primary that would turn out to be a telling dress rehearsal
for the election chaos the rest of the country is now engulfed
in. >> We're seeing elected
officials, specifically on the Republican side, that are
playing politics with people's lives.
>> COBB: I started focusing on the state because of its
pivotal and deeply partisan nature.
It's split down the middle between Republicans and
Democrats, and it gave Donald Trump the presidency in 2016
by the exceedingly thin margin of 22,000 votes.
It's a microcosm of America these days.
♪ ♪ >> I do believe that there is an
attack on our democracy right now...
>> COBB: Along with colleagues at Columbia
Journalism Investigations, we began doing remote
interviews there when the pandemic was just taking hold.
>> We don't need to be trying to have an election in the middle
of a pandemic. >> COBB: With reporters from
the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" and "USA Today," we examined
the voting, especially absentee ballots.
How they were used and counted, and the political and legal
fights around them. We sent a crew to Wisconsin to
understand what had been happening on the ground.
>> Is someone on your end recording the Zoom call?
>> I don't think so. >> COBB: Our starting point--
March 17, the day Wisconsin said the coronavirus pandemic
would not affect its upcoming primary election, scheduled for
just three weeks away. You getting me okay?
>> Your audio's fine, Jelani, on this side.
>> COBB: The job of making that happen fell to numerous
appointed officials, like Neil Albrecht.
On March 17, when the governor announced that the election
would proceed as scheduled, what was your immediate
reaction? >> I would say profound
disappointment. We were hearing advisements from
health officials, that any sort of community gathering was risky
to the public. ♪ ♪
Most government closed, most businesses closed.
But we in the election commission continued to come
into work each day. ♪ ♪
We continued to invest 14-, 16-, 18-hour workdays, all with the
hope that that election ultimately would be postponed.
♪ ♪ (cows mooing)
(cars whizzing by) >> COBB: As we traveled the
state, we met other local officials who had similar
concerns about going through with voting.
>> We had real conversations in my house, "What does this look
like?" So there we go, one COVID-free
safety zone. And then what if somebody did
get COVID, what does that look like?
We were fully prepared for me to potentially have to sleep down
here if I had to, so that-- because I can't afford to get
sick. ♪ ♪
(horse trotting) ♪ ♪
>> COBB: 90 minutes away in suburban Oconomowoc,
municipal clerk Diane Coenen explained what she
tried to do to prepare her town's polling station.
>> I thought, "I'm gonna have some problems, how am I gonna
solve them early on?" So I started calling different
companies and asking them if they could supply me with 1,000
masks or 1,000 sets of gloves, everything I could think of, and
I started ordering it. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: Every state runs its own election process.
And as Wisconsin was moving forward, others were pulling
back. >> States across the country
have postponed their primary elections because of the
coronavirus pandemic, but not Wisconsin.
>> COBB: Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who'd been elected on a
razor-thin margin, had wanted to delay.
But he ran into a roadblock, with the Republican-controlled
legislature. >> I tried for a couple weeks to
convince the legislature to change it around, make it an
all-mail ballot or at least push it out to a different date.
>> COBB: What did they say? What specifically did they say
in response to those proposals? >> Well, basically, they felt
that it was important to have the election.
There was basically no interest. And they certainly weren't
interested in a mail ballot. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: I asked the Republican party chair in Wisconsin to
explain his thinking at the time, why they were so intent
on in-person voting. >> We believed that with the
right amount of preparation, we could hold a safe election.
It was really my job as chairman of the party to make sure that
all the rules were followed, that we preserved the integrity
of our vote, um, because, you know, changing things at the
last minute, changing the laws on the fly can lead to so many
problems. >> Wisconsin is the only state
stupid enough to have an election April 7.
>> COBB: Over the coming days, Wisconsin would be
skewered in the national media. A Democratic governor and a
Republican legislature were forcing people out in a
pandemic, endangering public health.
>> I don't know that I've ever seen anything as reckless and
irresponsible to public health. >> Bernie Sanders saying
holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is
dangerous. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: We went to places in the state that were being
hardest hit by the virus-- densely populated urban areas,
Madison, Green Bay, and especially Milwaukee.
All lean Democratic, with large communities of color.
♪ ♪ >> Milwaukee is incredibly
segregated. And so when people say "the
north side," that's really code for black folks, when people say
"the south side" that's code for Latinx folks.
>> COBB: I looked up Angela Lang, a source of mine who was a
voting rights activist in Milwaukee.
>> People were going to get sick and those people were probably
going to be Black and brown people who are
disproportionately impacted by the virus and also that's the
same group of people that can make and break an election.
And we're seeing those things collide.
♪ ♪ >> Hi, this is Ben Wikler, with
the Democratic Party of Wisconsin calling for David, is
this David? >> COBB: With their constituents
at risk from in-person voting, Democrats began pushing for
something that would ignite a political firestorm: an
absentee ballot drive. >> Can we count on you to remind
three friends to return their absentee ballots before Election
Day? We decided to go 100% virtual
and to focus 100% on helping people cast absentee ballots.
Our volunteers reached out millions of times with text
messages, with phone calls, with posts on social media, reaching
out to people that they knew in their own lives.
And those contacts help people to navigate a system that was
designed to shut them out, and help people to cast absentee
votes. It was a giant risk, because so
few people had ever voted absentee in our state.
♪ ♪ >> COBB: Claire Woodall Vogg was
second-in-command at the Milwaukee Election Commission
when the absentee ballot requests started coming in.
>> Started to notice our inbox was really filling up.
And I texted our election services coordinator, Mike, and
said, "Hey dude, where are you?" Like, it's... not slowing down,
there's no end in sight." ♪ ♪
I just couldn't sleep thinking about how fast the requests were
coming in, and ever since then nothing has been normal.
♪ ♪ >> Started off as several
hundred a day, quickly transitioned to several
thousand, and then got up to as many as 10,000 in a single day,
in a system that had really previously been designed to
accommodate maybe several hundred requests in a day.
>> COBB: The crush of absentee ballot applications added chaos
to an election that included not just a presidential primary, but
thousands of local races as well.
>> I'm Jill Karofsky, I'm running for the Supreme Court...
>> COBB: One of them was a closely watched contest for a
seat on the state Supreme Court.
>> My dad Dan Kelly is a great judge.
>> There was a tremendous amount of advertising, a record amount
of campaign spending happening in that race to try to control
the ideological balance of the court.
>> COBB: With the election underway, I interviewed both
candidates. >> Wisconsin has been considered
one of the key pivotal states for the election in November.
So I think that there's been a whole lot of attention paid to
the state because of that. >> Meet Jill Karofsky, trial
court judge. >> Wisconsin is very, very
likely to be the tipping point of the presidential election in
November. And if there is litigation about
the election in November, that litigation is going to end up at
the steps of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.
♪ ♪ >> COBB: With so much at stake
in Wisconsin, the national parties joined the fight.
What they would do here would be a harbinger for the coming
presidential election. The Democratic National
Committee filed one of several lawsuits to make absentee voting
easier. Seeking to loosen
requirements like voter I.D., and witness signatures.
Things that historically have been obstacles, especially for
people of color. >> The DNC filed the initial
lawsuit when it became clear that there were going to be
serious problems with availability for voting.
>> COBB: Marc Elias is the DNC's top lawyer.
What exactly is at stake? And I mean this on the granular
level, there are multiple, dozens of lawsuits, what's being
fought over? >> Most of what's being fought
over is the ability for voters to have access to the polls, and
for the votes to count. A lot of the litigation we're
seeing in 2020 is, "Are mail-in ballots going to be rejected for
technical reasons, or are we gonna enfranchise voters?"
>> We'll guide you through requesting an absentee ballot
online... >> COBB: For Republicans though,
this all spelled trouble. It tapped into a fear that the
push for absentee ballots would favor democratic turn out, and
Wisconsin became their early battleground to resist it.
Justin Clark, the Trump campaign's senior counsel, led
the Republican strategy in Wisconsin.
>> When you radically change the way people vote, what ends up
happening is you create confusion, you create chaos, and
you disenfranchise voters, because you're not allowing them
to vote in the way they traditionally would.
>> COBB: So when we talked with people in Milwaukee and
thereabouts, what we got was a lot of the opposite, that people
felt that their vote was being suppressed by having to go out
and potentially contract the illness by going to a polling
place. >> I think people's concerns
about contracting illnesses are... are definitely valid.
But here's the problem, when you try to fundamentally alter a
system by which people vote, right before an election, like
Governor Evers did, you run into a real problem, because what
you're doing is gonna-- you're necessarily gonna lessen the
number of people of vote, because of that chaos, because
of that confusion. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: As the legal battles worked their way through the
courts, judges ruled against the Democrats' position one
decision after another. And on the ground, local
election officials struggled to keep up.
>> You know, every day, we're getting alerts, this changed, or
this changed, the judge said we can't do this, now the judge
says we can do that. And so the challenge, really,
is making sure that all the clerks are aware.
So you have polling locations across the state, and they're
all local. So in these smaller communities,
we know who the locals are. At the end of the day, when you
look at the problems, they're in the large urban areas.
♪ ♪ >> COBB: Areas like Milwaukee,
where we'd been talking to anxious voters.
>> I kind of debated back and forth between going to the
polls, not going to the polls. >> I was too afraid that, what
if I got sick, what would that look like for me?
>> That decision, to me, felt like voter suppression, that
they wanted to scare people, they didn't want people to go
out and vote, but I know I needed to.
>> I'm not gonna feed into what they want us to do, which is not
vote. ♪ ♪
I just felt like, you know, we're in 2020 but it felt like
1867. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: "1867." When I heard Melody McCurtis say
that, the drama in Wisconsin came into sharp focus.
I heard the expression of a present day reality, and a
historical sentiment. She was drawing a line straight
back to the post-Civil War era, when African Americans
risked their lives for the right to vote...
♪ ♪ ...in places like Montgomery,
Alabama, home of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
>> The first lesson that Black people had to navigate in this
country was that voting is dangerous.
Voting is going to be met with violent resistance, particularly
in regions where there are enough Black people to actually
have impacts on outcomes. >> COBB: Bryan Stevenson is the
founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the
National Memorial. >> Throughout that hundred-year
history between the end of Reconstruction and the civil
rights movement, the inability to vote is what shaped Black
life. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: The memorial is informally known as the
"national lynching museum," and it's filled with thousands of
names of Black Americans, many of them killed amid the push for
voting rights. ♪ ♪
>> The violence that takes place, the trauma that takes
place, the lynching that takes place, the mass migration of
Black people from the Deep South to the North and the West that
takes place, which will also have political implications,
it's all a result of this violent opposition to allowing
Black people to vote. >> COBB: The violence was
combined with other things-- poll taxes, literacy tests,
grandfather clauses-- to prevent Black people from voting in the
Jim Crow South. The long struggle came to a head
in 1965 with the march from Selma to Montgomery, which the
future congressman John Lewis helped organize.
>> We are marching today to dramatize to the nation and
dramatize to the world that hundreds of thousands of Negro
citizens are denied the right to vote.
(whistle blowing) >> You are ordered to disperse.
This march will not continue. >> COBB: It became known as
Bloody Sunday. (crowd shouting, screaming)
The violence was broadcast into living rooms across the
country... ...arousing the national
conscience in the same way images of George Floyd's death
would 55 years later. (shouting continues)
Within months, it led to the signing of the Voting Rights
Act. The law barred voting
discrimination and originally targeted seven southern states
that had a pattern of disenfranchisement.
It required them to get federal approval
for any voting law changes. That provision was called
Section 5. >> It says that any time the
laws were changed that... dealing with voting, they had to
first be submitted to the attorney general of the United
States, or submitted to a three-judge district court in
Washington, D.C. So Section 5 was a very powerful
tool to keep those in power from suppressing the right to vote.
>> COBB: Hank Sanders was elected a state senator in
Alabama thanks to the Voting Rights Act.
>> All of a sudden the possibility of inclusion began
to just grow. And it took many years though
before you had a substantial amount of African Americans
elected to office. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: Within a year of its passage, a quarter of a million
African Americans had registered to vote.
By 1968, 385 Black people had been elected to office across
the South. By 1985, that number would
grow to nearly 4,000. But by then, there was also a
growing backlash that would give rise to new challenges and place
new obstacles in front of Black voters.
(birds twittering) >> When you don't want somebody
to vote, you create various kinds of things.
Now we'd come with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they couldn't
deny it outright, so you find ways to try to suppress it.
>> COBB: One of these ways would be through challenging Black
voters' absentee ballots, through accusations of fraud.
>> It's one thing to be attacked by the local power structure.
>> COBB: Hank Sanders represented the defendants in
one such case, brought by the U.S. Attorney in Alabama at the
time, Jeff Sessions. >> The U.S. attorney and others
refer to these as the voter fraud cases.
We decided that they were voter persecution cases.
>> COBB: Sanders' clients were voting rights activists-- Albert
Turner, who had marched with John Lewis in Selma...
>> This is Bloody Sunday. Albert, you can see, that's him
right there. >> COBB: And his wife, Evelyn.
They had been helping Black residents fill out their
ballots, and mailing them. >> Both of us was indicted,
myself and my wife, and another friend, Spencer Hogue, were
indicted on 29 counts of what is called vote fraud.
>> COBB: The Turners were facing decades in prison.
>> It was my impression that Jeff Sessions thought that those
legal cases would stop Black folks from not only using
absentee voting, but would stop Black folks from voting in the
numbers that Black people were voting.
At every chance he got, he was talking about voter fraud, voter
fraud. >> COBB: Sessions denied that
the case was racially motivated and insisted what the Turners
did was illegal. In the end, the jury found
nothing they did had broken the law.
But the idea that absentee ballots were susceptible to
widespread fraud would live on. I talked about it with author
Ari Berman, who's written extensively on voting rights.
>> So this is a very old argument, voter fraud.
I mean, there are cases of voter fraud here and there.
But it doesn't happen in the numbers necessary to show that
there's some sort of great conspiracy out there to steal
elections through voter fraud. >> COBB: He pointed to a
critical time in the early 2000s, when the idea began to
take off inside the George W. Bush administration.
>> Up to that point, the Department of Justice,
particularly the voting section of the Department of Justice,
was focused on enforcing the Voting Rights Act.
And when people in the Bush administration got in there,
very ideological, very right-wing people, they began to
change the mandate of the Department of Justice from
instead of protecting voters who are facing disenfranchisement,
they started talking about voter fraud.
And they started bringing all these cases to try to find these
cases of voter fraud. The seeds of all of that were
laid by Hans von Spakovsky and other conservative activists
dating all the way back to the 2000s and the George W. Bush
Justice Department. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: Hans Von Spakovsky, he's a former Justice Department
lawyer and an architect of the Republican position on voter
fraud, and a frequent speaker at events like CPAC, the
Conservative Political Action Conference, where I met him
last winter. >> Well, I can't do an interview
right now, 'cause I've got another... I've got another one
I've got to go to. >> COBB: All right.
Thank you. ♪ ♪
We sat down in September for an at-times tense interview.
Can you talk a little bit about your ideas around voter fraud
and election integrity? >> Well, I got interested in
this topic in the 1990s, when I was first a poll watcher.
But when I was at the Justice Department, I worked in the
civil rights division and my job there was enforcing federal
voting rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act.
>> COBB: So we have this concern about voter fraud.
People on the other side of this equation have frequently said,
we have an issue with voter suppression in the United
States, not an issue with voter fraud.
>> Well, voter suppression is a made-up term that's used by
those who oppose very common sense measures to make sure
that, one, yeah, everybody who's eligible is able to vote.
But second, that their vote isn't diluted or stolen through
administrative error or fraud. >> COBB: So to make sure I
understand this clearly, you're saying that voter
suppression does not happen in the United States?
>> What I'm saying is that's a made-up term.
Okay, we do have... we do have discriminatory conduct that
sometimes happens still in the voting context and that's what
the Voting Rights Act... >> COBB: But isn't that the same
thing? >> ...that's what the Voting
Rights Act was intended to stop, and it does.
>> COBB: Under the banner of combatting voter fraud, Von
Spakovsky has spent years advocating for restrictions on
voting, such as laws requiring official I.D. in order to
register or cast a ballot-- outraging many Democrats.
>> There has been, for some number of years, a virus in the
Republican party, about wild claims of voter fraud and the
need for suppressive laws. People like Mr. Spakovsky, he
played a role in advocating within the conservative movement
or the Republican Party. That virus has now mutated and
has become much, much more concerning because it is now
orthodoxy within the Republican Party.
>> COBB: How did that happen? >> So I think, you know, you can
look at various moments in history, but to me, the critical
moment was the election of President Obama and the ensuing
internal civil war within the Republican Party about what to
do about it. >> I, Barack Hussein Obama, do
solemnly swear... >> COBB: On one hand, Obama's
election was the fulfillment of the dreams of those who marched
in Selma; but like the Voting Rights Act itself, a backlash
followed. >> Congratulations, Mr.
President. (cheers and applause)
>> COBB: In 2010, Republicans swept the midterm elections.
>> We're talking about uncharted territory tonight.
Gone from the Democrats to the Republicans.
>> COBB: In Wisconsin, for decades considered a bastion of
progressive politics, Republicans won both houses of
the legislature. And a conservative Republican
governor was elected. >> You've given us a mandate for
true reform and I appreciate that.
I will not let you down. (cheers and applause)
>> COBB: Scott Walker led an onslaught of voting changes in
the state. >> You can use your certified
birth certificate, a paystub... >> COBB: One of the first was a
law requiring identification to vote.
Kathy Bernier was elected to the state assembly the year Governor
Walker took office. She was a leading proponent of
the voter I.D. legislation. >> I signed on as a co-sponsor
of photo I.D. to help with the election administration and to
make sure people are who they say they are.
We didn't really have very good checks and balances in place.
We didn't really have a verification of, is this the
person? My dad, who was a Democrat, he
said, "Well, what's wrong with that?
You should be able to prove who you are when you go to vote."
Actually, in my district, it is not a partisan issue.
A lot of Democrats believe you too should provide
identification that you are who you say you are.
>> That law required a voter to have one of about six or seven
forms of approved photo I.D. Legislators knew at the time the
law was passed, that some Wisconsinites didn't have those
forms of I.D., they knew it was on the order of several
hundred thousand people, and they knew that people of color
were even less likely to have those kinds of I.D.
Most estimates were that Black and Hispanic voters in Wisconsin
were twice as likely as white voters not to have one of the
approved forms of identification.
>> COBB: Civil rights groups went to court to challenge the
law, which was one of the most restrictive in the nation, and
was endorsed by Hans von Spakovsky.
>> ...like Indiana, which have had photo I.D. laws in place now
for more than six years. >> COBB: How did it come to be
that so many people who have the historic experience of being
denied access to the ballot, believe that they're being
discriminated against contrary to your opinion?
>> Well, actually, that's not true of the majority of African
Americans, if you look at the polling, they agree with other
Americans that voter I.D. is a common sense reform.
Yeah, it's true that the leaders of some civil rights
organizations and others disagree with that, but the
evidence, the facts, the turnout in elections in states that have
put in I.D. laws show that it does not keep people out of the
polls. >> COBB: In all these studies
that we looked at... We clashed over the competing
studies and arguments around all of this.
>> Almost every... With a few... no, with a few
exceptions, almost every lawsuit that's been filed have been
unable to show that, in fact, it keeps people out of the polls.
>> COBB: And I pushed him on the implications of what he was
saying. Do you think that Congressman
John Lewis, who was bludgeoned in the attempt to secure the
right to vote, was wrong? >> On this particular issue with
voter I.D.? Yes, he was wrong.
>> Each and every voter I.D. law is a real threat to voting
rights in America. Make no mistake, these voter
I.D. laws are a poll tax. I know...
>> COBB: John Lewis spoke with such passion about voter I.D.
laws, not just because he thought they were wrong, but
because his life's work was under attack.
>> The right to vote is precious.
Almost sacred. >> COBB: Other states would
follow Wisconsin with their own voter I.D. laws.
And then came efforts to dismantle the fundamental
provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
It came to a head right where it started, in Alabama.
Where commissioners in Shelby County had sued the Justice
Department, saying that discrimination was no longer the
problem it had been in the 1960s, and the law had outlived
its purpose. Butch Ellis was the county
attorney. >> I think the Voting Rights Act
made a tremendous change. I think you've got to give the
Voting Rights Act credit for some of the changes that's
occurred through the South. There's also been a social
evolution, that independently of voting issues has led to...
better dialog between the races, and more compatibility between
the races. It's just, the conditions that
we were faced with in 1965 no longer exist.
They absolutely do not exist. >> COBB: On top of that, Ellis
said, even making small changes like the location of a polling
place, required time-consuming paperwork and costly legal
fees-- a hardship for the county.
>> It was. It was not just a bureaucratic
burden. It was a financial burden.
It was a practical burden, and it was an unnecessary burden.
And it was just not justified by the facts.
>> It's considered one of the most important pieces of civil
rights legislation ever passed. But by five to four, the U.S.
Supreme Court today took the teeth out of a law enacted
nearly 50 years ago. >> COBB: In 2013, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shelby County.
>> Today's ruling means those covered states are now free from
federal oversight. They can immediately change
their voting laws and their procedures without having to
come here to Washington to get approval first.
>> I always thought that since the voting rights struggle came
to a head in Alabama, in Selma, Alabama, that they wanted a case
from Alabama for symbolic purposes, for symbolism to... to
gut the Voting Rights Act. >> Today's decision apparently
clears the way for several high profile laws to take effect,
including stricter voter I.D. requirements in Alabama...
>> COBB: The Shelby decision did send a powerful signal, and soon
changes to voting laws began taking place all over the
country-- in Southern states and beyond.
In Wisconsin, Scott Walker and the Republicans began passing a
flurry of new voting laws. >> Most of the bills that I've
worked on have been making sure that dates and times, and
process and procedures, are in place.
I've also worked with the election commission on a number
of issues that we bring forward with election fraud.
The important part is that we have the safeguards in place to
make sure that people have confidence in the electoral
process, and that our electoral process has integrity.
>> COBB: What Republicans began in 2011 with voter I.D. grew
and grew. >> We have seen a lot of changes
to election law over the past ten years, always having to
provide proof of residence when you register to vote.
If you want to register by mail, a required copy of your I.D., or
a copy of your energy bill or a copy of your bank statement.
>> COBB: Half a dozen changes after the Shelby decision...
>> Not allowing someone to vouch for another voter.
>> COBB: ...that critics say have made voting harder...
>> Or requiring a witness address for an absentee ballot.
>> COBB: ...especially for communities of color.
>> The elimination of late-arriving absentee ballots,
or a change in the deadline to request an absentee ballot, a
change in the number of hours we could have for early voting.
You almost have to be an attorney in order to understand
how to register and vote successfully in Wisconsin.
>> COBB: That was the landscape in the days leading
up to the April 7th election, as more
than 1.3 million voters in Wisconsin were requesting
absentee ballots. In Milwaukee, home to the
state's heaviest concentration of Black voters, the pandemic
was steadily shutting down the election system itself.
♪ ♪ >> The really significant shifts
that we began to see were a closure of many of the sites
that we used for voting and a mass exodus of our election
workers due to concern about the pandemic.
At one time, we talked about reducing sites to maybe from 180
to 120. Then we talked about reducing
those to 45, and then it finally came down to five voting centers
for in-person voting on Election Day.
♪ ♪ >> Good morning, folks, and
thanks for joining us on this Monday, April 6.
>> COVID-19 cases across the state continues to climb.
>> COBB: On the morning of April 6, less than 24 hours before the
polls opened, Governor Evers made a last-ditch attempt to
postpone the election. >> Earlier today I signed
executive order 74, to suspend in-person voting for the spring
election until June 9. There has been some that said,
"Well, why'd you wait until the last minute?"
Well, the response was, "If I would've done it three weeks
before, it would've been the same result."
I felt it important to work with the legislature, I thought
that was our best chance and it just didn't happen politically.
>> There's election confusion... >> Been a rollercoaster in the
last few hours... >> That day before the election
was the most momentous pre-election day that I've ever
covered. >> COBB: Patrick Marley is one
of the state's preeminent political reporters, and we
talked to him a lot as things were playing out.
>> Here you have the governor in the morning trying to issue an
order to delay the election. Republican lawmakers almost
immediately sue, and then at the end of the day, the state
Supreme Court says, "This election will continue."
>> The presidential primary here is a go tomorrow.
>> The polls will be open at 7:00 a.m.
>> COBB: Just hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another
blow to the Democrats. They would not intercede to
extend the deadline for absentee ballots.
>> The U.S. Supreme Court comes in and says, "Well, you have to
have a postmark requirement. The ballots must be postmarked
by Election Day, otherwise somebody could cast their ballot
on the day after the election. >> The U.S. Supreme Court
weighing in late in a 5-4 ruling...
>> I was making dinner for my two kids when I learned about
the United States Supreme Court case and it was just a little
while after learning about the Wisconsin state Supreme Court
case, and I said to them, "I don't know that we have a path
to win this election, I'm not seeing it right now."
>> COBB: That closely watched contest between Jill
Karofsky and Daniel Kelly was hanging in the
balance. >> And we woke up the next day
and I saw a sight I didn't ever imagine seeing.
>> Wisconsin is moving forward with its election this morning.
>> These brave, brave people who went to the polls in Milwaukee
despite the pandemic. >> Take a look at how long the
lines already are in Milwaukee of voters waiting to cast their
ballot. >> COBB: It would take a week
for election officials to tally the ballots.
>> I don't think there is a clerk in the state of Wisconsin
that didn't see an entire shift in how we conduct elections on
April 7. For us, 80% of our voters voted
by mail, 20% voted in person. Normally it would be the exact
opposite. >> The big state race that
everyone was keeping an eye on. >> COBB: Then, on April 13,
surprising news... >> Judge Jill Karofsky has won a
seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
>> COBB: The Democrats' favorite, Jill Karofsky, had
won, the unexpected result of a wave of absentee ballots.
>> My campaign manager called and he said, "If you're in
fleece and jeans," which is what I was in, "You need to put
something nicer on because you're about to go on TV, and
you're going to be the... You're going to be the next
justice on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court."
I'm celebrating social distance wise...
(cheers and applause) ...with my friends and my
colleagues. The final margin was over ten
points. And if someone had told me
before the election that we were going to win by more than ten
points, I would have told them they were absolutely crazy.
♪ ♪ >> COBB: But the victory belied
an unsettling fact. With our colleagues at Columbia
Journalism Investigations, and the "Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel" and "USA Today," we examined the results.
We found that over 23,000 Wisconsin voters had their
ballots rejected. ♪ ♪
Can you talk about the role the safeguards may play in the
confusion about how to vote by mail?
>> Sure. Every safeguard that's put in
place, you know, well- intentioned it may be, is
another thing that a voter has to deal with or another thing
that an election official has to deal with.
Those are real hurdles for people, particularly in a
pandemic. >> COBB: Just over 10% of those
rejected ballots were from Milwaukee.
Neil Albrecht took us to the room where they're kept.
>> We would normally see only a small handful of these for any
election because of how bolded the requirement is.
They have to sign, date it. And then the witness signs,
provides their address as well. And then that's what's required
for the ballot to be counted on election day.
In this box, these are all ballots that were received by
the election commission on April 10, but were postmarked after
the April 7 election day. Because it wasn't postmarked by
April 7, it wasn't counted in the election.
>> COBB: Some of the rejected ballots were from one
neighborhood-- Metcalfe Park. ♪ ♪
>> Metcalfe Park is the neighborhood in the center of
Milwaukee, right in the heart. It's an African American
community. ♪ ♪
In Metcalfe Park, our median income is $24,000.
We are a severely poor community.
>> COBB: Melody McCurtis and her mother, Danell Cross, founded a
community organization called Metcalfe Park Bridges.
(indistinct chatter) We found the names of residents
who had their ballots rejected and showed them to Melody and
Danell. >> So why don't you guys look at
that and see what you make of it?
♪ ♪ >> Hold on, hold on, hold on.
(Melody gasps) >> Look who got rejected.
(Danell gasps) Right there.
>> Okay... I hate the thought of telling
them that they didn't get counted.
>> It's a lot of names on here that, that are pretty active in
the community, that we're in a relationship with.
Like a lady on here that's a senior.
She's so vibrant. She's one of the fanciest ladies
in the neighborhood and all of this.
>> Wait a minute. Wait a minute.
I know she's not on here. >> Yeah, she is.
>> Oh my goodness... >> There's another young man
that won a basketball tournament last year, he said that he
felt like his vote didn't matter, right?
And for him not to be counted, it just... it's-it's doing
something to me. >> The April election brought it
all out. It snatched the covers off of
it. Now we actually understand how
much work it goes into disenfranchising people.
♪ ♪ >> Many people spent their
entire evening at a voting location.
>> COBB: Many of the same kinds of problems showed up in other
states that held elections in the months that followed.
>> Just 170 of Kentucky's 3,700 locations will be up and
running today. >> Voters who started lining up
to vote before 7:00 a.m. were still lining up at midnight.
>> COBB: People waited in line for hours.
>> With some people waiting five to six hours to cast their
votes. >> COBB: Machines that
wouldn't accept ballots... >> As many as 75% of the ballots
did not go through the first time.
>> Voters who were locked out of the polls pounded on doors.
>> Open that door! Open that door!
Open that door! Open that door!
>> Our votes matter! >> COBB: In our months of
reporting, election officials told us they were underfunded
and overworked, and increasingly fearful of what would happen in
November. And their fears are
well-founded: based on our review of years of voting
records, more than a million votes might go uncounted in the
upcoming election. >> As we look at this, the
projected numbers of absentee ballots that are rejected are
higher than the margin of victory for the president in
Michigan in 2016. Maybe 50,000 votes in a state
doesn't mean much to the presidential election.
Maybe it's an all blue, an all red state.
But somebody that's running for mayor in that state, you know,
losing... you know, losing ten, 15 votes can make the
difference for them. So the potential for this to,
you know, alter races around the country is absolutely on the
table. >> It's a very bad system,
it's going to lead to a tremendouse fraud and we're
trying to stop it. >> COBB: Against this backdrop,
Republicans, led by President Trump, have been relentlessly
attacking absentee ballots. >> Voting by mail is wrought
with fraud and abuse and people don't get their ballots.
People steal them out of mailboxes.
People print them, and then they sign them, and they give them
in. >> COBB: Hearing the constant
refrain of fraud led me back to Hans von Spakovsky.
He keeps a database of alleged voter fraud cases that fuel the
Republican's claims. But when our reporting team
examined it, we found it included misleading and
overstated information-- charges that von
Spakovsky said are false, and he insisted that the database shows
a wide variety of election fraud cases.
>> Well, most important thing for you to understand is just a
sampling of cases, okay? It is not a comprehensive list.
I don't have the time, the resources to do any kind of
comprehensive list. And, in fact...
>> COBB: Sure, but... but how do you find these cases?
>> We find them through newspaper accounts of people
getting convicted. We find them through press
releases from law enforcement officials, state attorney
generals and others. Sometimes people send us court
judgments, convictions, and other information like that.
You know, folks on one side of this are constantly saying, "Oh,
there's no massive voter fraud in the United States."
And I don't claim that there is massive voter fraud in United
States. In fact, I think the correct
assessment of this is going back to the Jimmy Carter, James Baker
Commission. You know, what they said was
that voter fraud does occur in the U.S. and it could make a
difference in a close election. >> COBB: A few days before we
interviewed von Spakovsky, one of the most prominent Republican
lawyers, Ben Ginsburg, who oversaw the 2000 Bush-Gore
recount, publicly criticized the database and rejected the notion
that fraud was a big problem. >> He has no idea what he's
talking about. I mean he even made the most
basic error of referring to our database, which is just a
sampling of cases. >> COBB: We talked to Hans von
Spakovsky about this, and he said, "He has no idea what he's
talking about. He's never had any actions,
never done anything in the area of trying to investigate or go
after election fraud." And what's your response to
that? >> I... I think that's not a
fair statement. I've been involved in recounts
and contests, which all involve kicking open the hood of the
American engine to look at what happens in polling places.
I can tell you from that experience and being the
co-chairman of a presidential commission on election
administration in 2013 and 2014, where we looked for this, that
the widespread fraud that would allow a conclusion of elections
are rigged is not there. The evidence does not show that.
>> COBB: Mm-hmm. How did this come to be so
prominent a part of the conversation if, as you say,
there's been scant evidence? >> As the country has become
more divided, fraud and voter suppression have become part of
each party's get out the vote mechanism, and inspiration and
motivation to get its voters out.
♪ ♪ >> COBB: With COVID-19 cases
rising throughout Wisconsin, that's exactly what Melody
McCurtis and her mother have been doing.
>> For April 7, a lot of people was not able to vote, so
that's why we trying to avoid this.
And we not trying to have April 7 happen again.
>> I was born on Bloody Sunday. My auntie marched with Martin
Luther King. Our family was always about
activism. >> Our goal for today is gonna
be getting people registered to vote, and then also having
people request their absentee ballots.
>> Voting is really... it's really on the bottom, right,
when you're dealing with life, and, and trying to provide for
you and your children. Hey, how you doin'?
We're with Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, we're here to
see if you need help with registering to vote.
We're going door to door. We're providing printed
literature in there with phone numbers for folks to call us if
they need help registering to vote so that they feel empowered
to vote. Voting is the direct reflection
of our neighborhood's ability to thrive, right?
When you vote folks in office, you have a say so on what you
want your community to be. ♪ ♪
>> COBB: Melody was expressing a fundamental principle about
democracy: one person, one vote. ♪ ♪
I thought a lot about this idea when I paid a visit to Black
Lives Matter Plaza earlier this fall.
Seeing the White House behind a chain link fence,...
the fence itself a memorial to African Americans killed by
police... ...made me think about the
connections between Wisconsin, the country's history of
disenfranchisement, and the coronavirus.
♪ ♪ It's tempting to see them as
three distinct concerns, but they're inextricably linked to
a legacy of inequality and an ongoing struggle.
>> Go to pbs.org/frontline for more on the impact of the
landmark Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act.
>> You know, we're in 2020 but it felt like 1867.
>> And more reporting from our partners Columbia Journalism
Investigations and the USA Today Network on how the pandemic
could impact voter turnout. Connect with FRONTLINE
on Facebook and Twitter, and watch anytime on the
PBS Video App or pbs.org/frontline.
Media Access Group at WGBH access.wgbh.org
>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs, visit our
website at pbs.org/frontline.