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“FRONTLINE: WHOSE VOTE COUNTS”

Historian, journalist, and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb discusses his new Frontline documentary “Whose Vote Counts” as he investigates how the pandemic is being used to sway voter turnout, how communities of color are bearing the brunt of both the virus and voting laws, and how courts around the country are already shaping the outcome of the election.

AIRED: October 20, 2020 | 0:13:58
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

WELCOME TO "METRO FOCUS."

I AM JACK FORD.

AS WE NEAR THE END OF WHAT HAS

SURELY BEEN THE MOST CONTENTIOUS

AND DIVISIVE PRESIDENTIAL

CAMPAIGN IN RECENT MEMORY, WE'RE

LEFT WITH SEVERAL TROUBLING

QUESTIONS.

WHAT IMPACT WILL A RECENT SURGE

IN CORONAVIRUS CASES HAVE ON THE

VOTING PROCESS?

AND HOW ABOUT THE DOZENS OF

LAWSUITS, SOME OF WHICH HAVE

ALREADY BEEN RESOLVED, OTHERS

STILL PENDING IN WHICH ONE SIDE

ARLGS THAT RULES, STATUTES

SERVED TO SUPPRESS VOTER

TURN-OUT, WHILE OTHERS ARGUE

THOSE ARE NECESSARY TO PROTECT

THE INTEGRITY OF THE VOTING

PROCESS.

AND THEN WHAT EFFECT WILL ALL OF

THIS HAVE ON COMMUNITIES OF

COLOR?

FRONT LINE HAS TAKEN A HARD LINE

ON THESE ISSUES IN THEIR NEW

DOCUMENT TITLED "WHO'S COUNT

COU

CO

COUNTS?" WE'RE JOINED ED BY JEI

COBBS.

YOU BEGIN BY TAKING A LOOK BACK

AT THE APRIL 2020 PRIMARY THAT

TOOK PLACE IN THE STATE OF

WISCONSIN.

WHY START THERE AND THEN?

>> WELL, I THINK YOU MAY

REMEMBER THOSE IMAGES FROM APRIL

OF THIS YEAR, WHICH WERE

ASTOUNDING.

WE HAD -- I THINK ONE OF THE

DOMINANT THEMES OF THIS YEAR WAS

SEEING SO MANY PUBLIC PLACES

THAT ARE USUALLY CROWDED BEING

ABSOLUTELY DIVERTED BECAUSE OF

THE CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWNS.

BUT WHAT WE SAW IN WISCONSIN WAS

THE OPPOSITE.

YOU KNOW, PARTICULARLY IN

MILWAUKEE.

ON APRIL 7th AS THEY HAD THAT

PRIMARY WHERE THEY WERE PACKED,

TRYING TO GET INTO POLLING

PLACES AND LINES THAT WENT

BLOCKS AFTER BLOCK AFTER BLOCK

AND THEY JUST REINFORCED THE

ABSOLUTE ABSURDITY OF SEEING

PEOPLE OUT AND ABOUT IN PUBLIC

ATTEMPTING TO VOTE IN PERSON

DURING A PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY

ELECTION AND ALSO A LOT OF

MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS ON THE STATE

AS WELL.

AND THIS WAS DONE AT THE BEHEST

OF THE STATE'S REPUBLICAN PARTY

WHICH HAD FILED SUIT TO PREVENT

THE STATE FROM -- THE GOVERNOR

FROM BEING ABLE TO POSTPONE THE

ELECTION, AS MANY OTHER STATES

HAD DONE AT THE TIME.

AND SO IT BECAME CLEAR THAT THIS

WASN'T SIMPLY A MATTER OF

CONVENIENCE, BUT THIS WAS ALSO

PART OF THE NARRATIVE OF VOTER

ACCESS AND VOTER SUPPRESSION.

>> WHAT ARE YOUR FEARS NOW AS WE

HAVE HIT THIS STAGE OF THIS

DRAMATIC INCREASE IN CORONAVIRUS

CASES, ESPECIALLY IN WISCONSIN

GOING BACK TO WHERE YOU WERE IN

SOME OF THE OTHER STATES THAT

PEOPLE HAVE POINTED TO AS BEING

SO SIGNIFICANT IN THE PAST AND

THE RESULT OF THE PAST ELECTION

AND THE IMPACT IT MIGHT HAVE ON

THE CURRENT ELECTION?

>> YEAH.

I REMAIN WORRIED THAT THERE WILL

BE PEOPLE THAT CONTRACT THE

VIRUS IN THE COURSE OF VOTING.

I THINK THAT IT IS REALLY WISE

TO EXPLORE THE OTHER ALTERNATIVE

OPTIONS FOR CASTING A BALLOT TO

MAKE SURE THAT THEY MINIMIZE THE

POSSIBILITY OF THAT.

I'M ALSO VERY CONCERNED ABOUT,

YOU KNOW, THE PRESIDENT'S CALLS

FOR POLL WATCHERS, WHICH, YOU

KNOW, COULD VERY EASILY SLIP

OVER INTO VOTER INTIMIDATION.

AS YOU LIKELY KNOW, THE GOP WAS

UNDER A FEDERAL CONSENT DECREE

TO PREVENT THEM FROM ENGAGING IN

SUCH ACTIVITIES, POLL WATCHING,

WHICH HAD BEEN A 30 YEAR BAN ON

THEM ENGAGING IN THESE KINDS OF

ACTIVITIES PRECISELY BECAUSE

THEY WERE INTIMIDATING MINORITY

VOTERS, AND THAT CONSENT DEGREE

HAS EXPIRED.

SO WE MAY SEE RETURNS OF THAT.

SO THAT MAY BE ANOTHER OPTION.

THERE ARE QUITE A LOT OF ON

ST

OBSTACLES IN CASTING A BALLOT.

ALL THESE THINGS I THINK ARE

WORTHY OF CONCERN.

>> YOU HAVE SEEN SOME STATES

WHERE THEY HAVE LIMITED THE

POLLING PLACES THEMSELVES.

WE HAVE SEEN STATES THAT -- THE

STATE OF TEXAS WHERE AN APPEALS

COURT RECENTLY SAID IT IS OKAY

TO HAVE ONE ESSENTIALLY DROP-OFF

POINT FOR THE ENTIRE COUNTY,

WHICH IF I'M NOT WRONG, IS ABOUT

THE SIZE OF RHODE ISLAND.

>> YEAH.

IT'S GIGANTIC.

>> TALK ABOUT THOSE HURDLES AND

THE IMPACT IT MAY HAVE.

>> SURE.

AND SO WHAT YOU ARE SEEING IS

THIS IS ALL DONE, I THINK, UNDER

THE RUBRIC OF ELECTION

INTEGRITY.

SO IN THE NAME OF PROTECTING THE

INTEGRITY OF THE ELECTIONS,

THESE MEASURES ARE BEING TAKEN,

BUT THEY ULTIMATELY HAVE AN

OBVIOUSLY COMPLICATING IMPACT ON

PEOPLE'S ABILITY TO CAST THEIR

BALLOTS.

WE HAVE ONE PLACE WHERE YOU CAN

HAVE A DROP BOX FOR AN ENTIRE

COUNTY THAT IS GIGANTIC, A VERY

TEXAS-SIZE COUNTY.

IT IS ESSENTIALLY MAKING SURE

THAT PEOPLE WON'T BE ABLE TO GET

MANY MILES AWAY TO CAST THEIR

BALLOT.

AND SO THAT'S NOT SIMPLY A

PROBLEM THERE.

WE HAVE SEEN THE SAME THING

HAPPEN NATIONWIDE.

AND IN WISCONSIN, AS WE ARE

GOING BACK TO WISCONSIN, WHEN WE

SAW NORMALLY 180 POLLING PLACES

THAT WERE SHRUNK DOWN TO JUST

FIVE FOR THE PANDEMIC ELECTION,

IT WAS THE SAME DYNAMIC.

OPPOSITE KIND OF WAY OF

ACHIEVING IT, BUT NOT ENOUGH

RESOURCES TO TOO MANY PEOPLE AND

YOU WIND UP WITH THE SAME

PROHIBITIVE EFFECT ON VOTING.

>> ONE OF THE OTHER ISSUES YOU

LOOK AT IS THE INCREASE,

UNDERSTANDABLE INCREASE IN THE

USE OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS GIVEN THE

CIRCUMSTANCES THAT WE HAVE BEEN

WRESTLING WITH HERE NOW FOR SO

MANY MONTHS.

IN LOOKING AT THAT, AND WE KNOW

THAT ONE OF THE ARGUMENTS -- I

DON'T WANT TO SAY AGAINST THEM,

BUT MAYBE THAT IS THE RIGHT

TERM, AS LEAST SOME ELEMENT OF

MAIL-IN BALLOTS HAS BEEN THE

SPECTOR OF VOTER FRAUD THAT

COULD ACCOMPANY IT.

AS OPPOSED TO WHAT MAY WELL BE

THE REAL PROBLEM WHICH COULD BE

VOTER CONFUSION.

>> RIGHT.

>> IN UTILIZING IT.

TALK ABOUT THAT FOR A MINUTE.

>> SO WHAT'S HAPPENED IS, YOU

KNOW, FIRST VOTER FRAUD IS

VANISHING.

IT IS NOT A COMMON OCCURRENCE AT

ALL IN THE UNITED STATES.

>> I THINK WE HAVE EVEN HEARD

THAT FROM GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES,

THE FBI AND OTHERS.

>> RIGHT.

SO YOU HAVE SEEN THAT AGAIN AND

AGAIN.

BUT WHAT IS A CONCERN IS THAT

VOTERS MAY NOT FILL OUT THEIR

BALLOT CORRECTLY.

PEOPLE MAY NOT HAVE EXPERIENCE

WITH VOTING IN THIS WAY.

IN SOME STATES THE BALLOT HAS TO

BE PLACED IN AN INNER ENVELOPE

BEFORE THAT IS, IN TURN, PLACED

IN AN OUTER ENVELOPE.

YOU HAVE TO SIGN THE INNER

ENVELOPE.

THERE IS A WHOLE ARRAY.

SOME PLACES REQUIRE THAT YOU

UPLOAD YOUR ID IN SOME INSTANCE

TO VERIFY WHO YOU ARE OR FIND A

WITNESS.

AND BECAUSE THE RULES VARY TO

SUCH AN EXTENT, IT WILL BE

LIKELY THAT SOME PEOPLE WON'T

CONFIRM WITH EVERYTHING THAT'S

REQUIRED OF THEM IN THEIR

PARTICULAR VOTING LOCAL, AND

THOSE END UP BEING REJECTED.

THAT COULD HAVE AN IMPACT ON HOW

THE ELECTION PLAYS OUT.

>> ONCE AGAIN, WE'RE TALKING

WITH JELANI COBB ABOUT THE

DOCUMENT "WHO'S VOTE COUNTS?" I

RECENTLY FILLED OUT MY BALLOT.

UNLESS THERE ARE CERTAIN

CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH CASES YOU

CAN GO TO POLLING PLACES.

OURS IS ONE OF THOSE WHERE YOU

HAVE A SIGNED ONE THAT GOES INTO

AN ENVELOPE.

IT TOOK ME A WHILE.

I WAS SO CONCERNED THAT I WAS

DOING THIS PROPERLY THAT I WILL

TELL YOU IT WAS NOT A SIMPLE

PROCESS.

>> NO, NO.

>> AND YOU WORRY ABOUT THE

IMPACT THAT THE ABSENCE OF

SIMPLICITY.

WE DON'T WANT TO TRADE OFF

SIMPLICITY FOR ACCURACY AND

INTEGRITY.

OBVIOUSLY THEY'RE BOTH

IMPORTANT, BUT HAVING GONE

THROUGH THIS, I CAN SEE WHERE

THERE IS SOME GENUINE CONCERN

ABOUT THE NOTION OF CONFUSING

ATTACHING TO THIS.

WHAT CAN WE DO IN THE SHORT TIME

BETWEEN NOW AND THEN, DO YOU

THINK, TO HOPEFULLY ASSUAGE SOME

OF THAT CONFUSION?

>> SURE.

THERE HAVE BEEN A LOT OF

EFFORTS, A LOT OF SPECIFIC

ORGANIZATIONS THAT HAVE REALLY

GONE ALL OUT TO MAKE SURE PEOPLE

UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY NEED TO DO

TO CAST A BALLOT IN THEIR LOCAL.

EVERY BOARD OF ELECTIONS SHOULD

HAVE DETAILS ON IT OR

INFORMATION.

THERE ARE LOCAL CIVIC

ORGANIZATIONS THAT CAN WALK YOU

THROUGH WHAT'S REQUIRED, YOU

KNOW, YOUR LOCAL BOARD OF

ELECTIONS.

AND SO IT'S JUST REALLY

IMPORTANT THAT PEOPLE NAIL DOWN

THE PARTICULARS OF IT.

ALSO IMPORTANT IS THEY GIVE

THEMSELVES TIME.

I WENT THROUGH MY PROCESS

DOUBLE, TRIPLED AND QUADRUPLE

CHECKED TO MAKE EVERYTHING HAD

BEEN DONE BEFORE I CAST MY

BALLOT IN THE MAIL.

AND YOU WANT TO BE ABLE TO BLOCK

OUT TIME, SO IT IS NOT SOMETHING

YOU ARE DOING WHILE YOU ARE

RUSHING, WHILE YOU ARE DOING

OTHER THINGS TO MAKE SURE YOU

ARE ABLE TO DO THIS.

IF YOU HAVE THE OPTION OF

DROPPING IT, SOME PLACES ALLOW

YOU TO DROP THE BALLOT OFF

PERSONALLY AT YOUR ELECTION

BOARD.

IF YOU HAVE THE OPTION OF DOING

THAT, THEN THAT'S A GREAT IDEA

AS WELL.

>> THAT'S INDEED WHAT WE DID, MY

WIFE AND I.

FILL THEM OUT AND WENT TO THE

LOCAL MUNICIPAL LOCATION TO DROP

THEM OFF.

I MENTIONED IN THE INTRODUCTION

THE EXISTENCE OF SO MANY COURT

CASES.

I SAID DOZENS OF THEM.

I THINK I HAVE SEEN NUMBERS THAT

SAID HUNDREDS OF THEM.

WHAT KIND OF IMPACT DID YOU FIND

IN THE REPORTING YOU DID FOR

THIS DOCUMENTARY THAT THESE

VARIOUS CASES AND THEIR

RESOLUTIONS, SOME OF THEM HAVE

BEEN ALL OVER THE PLACE, AS A

MATTER OF FACT.

WHAT SORT OF IMPACT YOU FEAR

MIGHT COME FROM THOSE?

>> SURE.

THERE IS REALLY GREAT TEAM FROM

COLUMBIA YOUR HONORISM

INVESTIGATION.

AND SO THEY REALLY DELVED INTO A

LOT OF THIS.

LAST TIME I THINK IT WAS 240 OR

241 COURT CASES THAT ARE AT

VARIOUS PLACES IN THE LEGAL

SYSTEM NOW, AND THEY COVER THE

SPECTRUM.

YOU KNOW, HOW LONG PEOPLE WILL

BE ABLE TO VOTE.

HOW LONG POLLING PLACES HAVE TO

STAY OPEN.

HOW LATE A BALLOT CAN BE AND

STILL BE COUNTED.

WHEN DOES A BALLOT HAVE TO BE

POSTMARKED BY?

EVERY TIME THERE IS A MINUTE

DETAIL THAT YOU CAN IMAGINE.

AND WHAT THEY ARE ACTUALLY DOING

IS SETTING THE PARAMETERS,

SETTING THE TERMS THAT THE

ELECTION WILL BE CARRIED OUT

UNDER.

AND OBVIOUSLY THIS HAS SOME

ADVANTAGES AND SOME

DISADVANTAGES, DEPENDING ON, YOU

KNOW, WHAT PEOPLE ARE FIGHTING

ABOUT.

IF YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT LONGER

EARLY VOTING AND LONGER POLL

HOURS, THEN PEOPLE WHO ARE

HOURLY WAGE WORKERS ARE MORE

LIKELY TO BE ABLE TO GET TO THE

POLLS.

IF YOU ARE TAKING ABOUT POLLS

THAT PEOPLE ARE BEING ALLOWED TO

HAVE THEIR VOTE COUNTED UP TO

THREE DAYS OR IN SOME INSTANCES

I THINK THEY'RE GOING FOUR AFTER

THE ELECTION FOR LATE BALLOTS,

THEN THAT WILL -- YOU WILL

IMPACT PEOPLE AS WELL BECAUSE

THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE QUITE

FRANKLY STILL WAITING TO RECEIVE

THEIR BALLOTS AND SEEING THE

THINGS WE HAVE SEEN WITH THE

POST OFFICE AND THE RECALL BRAGS

OF SORTING MACHINERY IS MAKING

IT DIFFICULT TO VOTE BY MAIL.

THE ELECTION WILL BE A PRODUCT

OF HOW MANY PEOPLE COME OUT TO

VOTE AND ALSO WHAT THE LEGAL

CHALLENGES DO TO FACILITATE

THOSE PEOPLE COMING OUT TO VOTE.

>> I KNOW THAT YOU TALKED TO

VARIOUS PEOPLE AS PART OF YOUR

INVESTIGATION HERE, INCLUDING A

NUMBER OF PERHAPS.

WHEN YOU TALK TO THEM ABOUT HOW

THESE LAWS MIGHT

DISPROPORTIONATELY AFFECT PEOPLE

OF COLOR, WHAT SORT OF REACTION

OR RESPONSES DO YOU GET?

>> WELL, 99% OF THE TIME YOU GET

DISMISSAL OF THAT.

FOR REPUBLICANS THAT I HAVE

TALKED TO, THEY DON'T CONCEDE

THAT.

EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE LEGAL

RULINGS THAT HAVE POINTED TO

THAT AND WE HAVE SEEN OTHER

DYNAMICS OF VOTER ID INSTANCE IN

NORTH CAROLINA THEY'RE SAYING

THEY HAVE A POLICY THAT ALLOWS

YOU TO VOTE WITH A HUNTING

LICENSE BUT NOT WITH A

UNIVERSITY ID SO CURE RATING THE

ELECTORATE SO PEOPLE WHO ARE

MORE LIKELY OLDER, WHITE AND

VOTE REPUBLICAN WILL HAVE AN ID

THAT IS ACCEPTABLE.

YOUNGER PEOPLE WHO MAY VIEW THE

WORLD MORE LIBERALLY ARE LESS

LIKELY TO HAVE AN ID THAT WILL

ALLOW THEM TO CAST THE BALLOT.

AND, SO -- I'M SORRY.

I ACTUALLY LOST THE QUESTION

THERE.

>> WELL, THAT'S SORT OF THE

ANSWER AND THAT'S PERFECT

BECAUSE WE'RE RUNNING OUT OF

TIME HERE.

BUT ONCE AGAIN I WANT TO REMIND

FOLKS THAT THEY CAN FIND OUT HOW

AND WHERE TO WATCH FRONTLINE'S

DOCUMENTARY AT METROFOCUS.ORG.

THANK YOU FOR SPENDING SOME TIME

AND SHARING YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT

THIS.

IT IS A COMPELLING FILM, AND

IT'S CERTAINLY WORTH THE

INVESTMENT OF SOME TIME ON THE

PART OF PEOPLE TO WATCH.

THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

YOU BE WELL.

>> THANK YOU.