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I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
In this episode, I’m passing the mic over to a friend and colleague. Esosa Osa was my campaign manager when I ran for Congress in 2018 and she’s now the Research and Policy Director for Fair Fight Action, Stacey Abrams’ voting rights advocacy firm.
Esosa is taking the helm today, interviewing Sylvia Albert, Director of Voting and Elections at Common Cause. This conversation between two knowledgeable and passionate voting rights advocates is informative and inspiring - and, with the election rapidly approaching, it could not be coming at a better time.
Esosa Osa: My guest today is Sylvia Albert, the Director of Voting and Elections at Common Cause. Common Cause is a nonpartisan organization focused on strengthening democracy through litigation, lobbying, and grassroots organizing. One of their primary areas of work is voting rights, and in the lead-up to the election, we wanted to have a conversation about it. Sylvia has been working to expand voting access for over a decade. I can't think of anyone better to join me today as we approach the 2020 election. So Sylvia, thank you so much for joining me for this special episode of Burn the Boats. How's it going? How are you today?
Sylvia Albert: Thanks for having me. I'm doing okay.
EO: As well as can be expected. As we were discussing beforehand, we've got to find a better question to start off with. So I gave a bit of a very cursory overview of your background, but I'd love to hear from you in your own words. What is your origin story? How did you come to work at Common Cause, and in voting rights specifically?
SA: So I actually was one of those kids who was on sort of that path they have set for you when you are 12 by telling you, "You're an argumentative child," which means, "Oh, you should be a lawyer." So I went high school, college, law school. And when in law school, the law school said, "Here, take all these corporate classes and then you're going to be a corporate lawyer helping big business."
Then the 2008 campaign came around, and I was just excited and wanting to figure out a way to get engaged. And I had this law degree that, "Hey, it should help somebody." So I ended up working as a voter protection coordinator for the 2008 Obama campaign. That just really sparked my desire to use my voice and whatever small amount of power I have to ensure people have access to the ballot.
EO: So given your background, given how widespread Common Causes' impact on democracy voting writ large is, what does it mean for you to be head of voting and elections for Common Cause?
SA: For me, I try to be a person with a 30,000 foot view of what's happening in the states, of being a resource for our states' staff and working with them to identify ways for each state to move forward in advancing voting rights. Our state staff is amazing and they're the ones, to be clear, that have the on-the-ground relationships with local election officials, and local congresspeople, and local churches and community centers. My goal is to be a brainstormer, an ideas person, somebody that they can talk about what's happening in their jurisdiction and I can say, "Hey, you know what? One of your colleagues has dealt with this. Let's get them on the phone and let's pool our knowledge and really think about all the different ways that we can advance voting rights in your area."
EO: What do you think right now, even bigger than the moment of any type of cycle that we're in, what's the biggest risk to voting rights that you see? And the biggest obstacle to expansion of voting rights that you see?
SA: Well, I think the biggest risk that currently exists is the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court in the Shelby County decision basically took a very important part of the Voting Rights Act and tossed it. This was a part of the act that basically said if you have a history of voter suppression in your area, you have to check with the Department of Justice before you can make changes to voting that might have a negative effect on Black and Brown voters. Justice Ginsburg, amazing woman that she was, in her dissent wrote that the Court's decision was basically ridiculous. It was the idea of holding an umbrella, saying you were dry, and then saying, "Let's toss the umbrella away because I'm dry." That's absolutely ridiculous, right? When you take away the protections of the Voting Rights Act, we immediately saw rollbacks in voting access all across the country. There were states that took actions literally the week of the decision, immediately started taking actions the Department of Justice had previously told them they could not take. So I think that is really a huge barrier to maintaining access to the ballot. And unfortunately I have to say that in concert with that is the way that, I'll just be honest, the Republican party has seemed to decide that the Voting Rights Act isn't a great thing. The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized multiple times by Republican presidents, the last time under George W. Bush. It generally has been an easy sail through Congress. After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the next step would be for Congress to get in there and reaffirm the Voting Rights Act and its protections. It seems that the Republican party has decided that that is not conducive to them maintaining power.
EO: You can go even further than that and say that there unfortunately seems to be a general acknowledgment that getting rid of more of the Voting Rights Act would be to their benefit. I'm thinking mostly here of the vote-by-mail litigation that was filed in Arizona and appealed by Republicans. And seeing how that piece of litigation was essentially hijacked by seven US senators, seven US Republican senators, a bunch of Attorneys General, a bunch of Secretaries of State, what have you, all making the argument that now Section Two of the Voting Rights Act should be weakened, should be dismantled. In 2020, after John Lewis' legacy to see all of these folks in tandem agree and put their name down on documents saying that they are in favor of dismantling Section Two for me was such a sight.
SA: Yeah. We are a nonpartisan organization, and let me be clear that this really is about party control. It just happens to be that one party has found that this is the way to maintain its control. Gerrymandering is also a huge problem, and I think that's also a risk. Recently the Supreme Court basically said it's a non-judicable issue, which is kind of ridiculous to me. But it basically said, "Oh, this is politics. It's not a legal thing. We're not going to get involved." It just so happens, right, that Republicans have done a better job of gerrymandering across the country. But it's not uniform, Oregon has been gerrymandered by the Democratic party. We have been pushing redistricting reform in Oregon. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we were unable to get the amount of signatures we needed to get on the ballot this year, because obviously door-knocking stopped. But we will continue to do that because we represent the people and we don't represent either party.
EO: You spoke about the pandemic and I know you've written and spoke about how Covid-19 has exposed the cracks that were already inherent in our election system from the administration issues, the policy issues, and the discrimination issues. Could you talk through that and walk us through how a lot of what we're seeing today in our elections are issues that were there underlying and in the fodder that's now being exposed and how the pandemic is doing that?
SA: Sure. Our elections are not voter-centric. That's the reality. Our elections are bureaucratic. They are government run, obviously, and they are very, very local. To me what a voter-centric election would be is one that provides multiple opportunities for voters to interact with the system in different ways. So that means, how many different ways can you register? How many different ways can you request a ballot? How many different ways can you get an absentee ballot and return it? How many different ways can you vote in person? Early vote? Is there curbside voting? All of these things make an election voter-centric and responsive to the needs of the voters. Unfortunately what we have had in our country is very suppressive laws in a number of places. These are laws that say you cannot get an absentee ballot unless you have basically a doctor's note explaining why you can't leave the house. Or if you can get an absentee ballot, in order to return it you have to have a notary's signature. Things like nowhere on the Secretary of State's website is there a place to see how to request an absentee ballot because it's clear they don't want you to do it. A complete lack of early voting, or narrowing early voting to such as they've done in the South where they eliminate Sunday voting because, hey, Souls to the Polls was a thing. Right, so all of these things that make voting accessible don't exist in a large swath of our country. And the reality is that people didn't really notice, because and I'm going to use the term in quotes, "average" voter was able to take the three hours off of work because they have a nice white collar job and go down to the local precinct and vote and leave and that was fine. But for everybody else the systems as they have been in place have not made voting accessible. So low-income individuals who can't leave their job for an hour or two, or have multiple jobs so there is no gap. People with disabilities who need different machinery or accessible locations. People who speak other languages. They don't send an absentee ballot in multiple languages in lots of places. Or you get there, and the poll worker tells you, "Oh no, you can't bring your granddaughter in to translate for you," even though the law is that she can. Again, the lack of ability to get an absentee ballot or any of those things. So these things have been barriers to Black and brown voters. They always have. Low-income voters, Black and brown voters. What we're seeing now is, "Oh, Covid-19 means a lot more people are being affected by them. Do you know what? Those people are probably white. We should do something about that." That's really... I don’t know about you, but that gets me so mad. The idea that everybody knew that these things were barriers to the ballot, but they justified them by saying that's what makes our election secure. The election is secure. We know that. There're so many security measures in place. But now that large swaths of white voters are being affected all of a sudden, "Hey, let's make it easier to vote."
EO: I'm reminded of - I had the privilege of working a voter protection hotline in 2018 in Georgia to try to help voters figure out if their vote had been counted. There's something about an 80-year-old African-American woman calling and saying that she had filled out her voter registration, got her registration card, took a photo of her registration card, got her mortgage documents, got some UPS mail with her address on them, got her birth certificate and a copy of her birth certificate, and had a whole packet of information as she walked into her polling location with the expectation that she would be asked to prove that she was able to vote. Had issues voting after having done all of that, and now trying to call and figure out whether or not her vote was counted. It's sad how many different elections someone has to go through before that is their base case. You see a lot of folks championing things like “look at all these lines, people are very excited to vote”. At the same time, when I see young Black moms coming to a polling location with folding chairs and you're just very much like, "How many times has this gone wrong for you to get to a place where you're bringing folding chairs, and you're bring snacks for your kids and you're bringing all of these things for you to have that option?" So I think you're absolutely right saying how Covid has moved some of these issues out of specific communities into the broader ecosphere and “now we need fixes”. It's quite frustrating.
SA: Very frustrating.
EO: But we will get there. And on that point, you all have been sounding the alarm on the funding, on the policy barriers these states had to implementing the changes they need to implement quick, as fast as possible. In your opinion, are we meeting the moment in terms of, given where we are, doing what we can to make sure that every vote is counted, are we meeting the moment in your opinion?
SA: I think local election officials and local poll workers in their communities are meeting the moment. They are doing everything that they can. They're thinking outside the box. I was talking to somebody, and I can't remember what state now, where they've created some drive-thru polling locations, like as if you were going to an ATM. So local election officials are doing just an amazing job of dealing with the many changes that need to happen. Congress has not done its job. Congress has not appropriated money. What that means is these elections officials are going to do their damnedest and they're going to try so freaking hard, but there are going to be issues that pop up because they won't have enough staff members to count as fast as they need to count. So we'll be waiting longer to have the results. So I'm disappointed in Congress. But another silver lining is that the nonprofit community has stepped up. And it should not be the job of nonprofits to be giving grants to local governments so that they can hire more poll workers and purchase machines. But that's what's happening. Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants are going from foundations to local election officials to help them deal with this. And again, that's a real failure of Congress.
EO: Watching a polling location that is well-run work is just - you're smiling ear to ear watching this little microcosm of democracy just go so well. A lot of these folks are doing it year after year, and cycle after cycle. The process is so complicated, but you're right, they do literally everything that they can with the resources that they have to make sure these elections can run well. I was reading the story about an election official who figured out that it would cost $250,000 to try to get disposable pens for every single person who needed one. So instead he found out that Q-tips could work and went and bought up every single Q-tip in the entire county and cut them in half and made them available for the voting machines. So they're ready and working to the very last second. As it relates to this, the poll worker shortage that we've heard so much about - it seems like that is one of the areas that people are mobilizing, are putting a lot of effort towards mobilizing their resources in their communities and their volunteers. Where are we on the poll worker shortage and what it can mean and how we could help?
SA: Yeah. It's so important that a new generation of poll workers and civic-minded people really step up. The average poll worker is over 60, and in the midst of Covid, they can't come out to work the polls. They don't feel safe. The good news is it has been working. We are partners with Power the Polls, which was created for this, whose only goal is to work with nonprofits and communities around the country and recruit as many poll workers as possible. They have passed the 500,000 people mark which is amazing. I've been dealing with poll worker things for a number of years. I know my recruiting of like 300 poll workers would be the most amazing number that I could ever reach. But the reality is that, and to be fair I have not seen their exact jurisdictional breakdowns, but I would imagine that a lot of those recruits are in the large cities. So I think that we need to still be pushing people especially in smaller cities, in rural areas, to sign up. If you feel safe and confident and if your location is doing everything the CDC says to make voting safe for poll workers and voters, then I definitely would still encourage people to sign up.
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EO: So we've got nonprofits trying to shore up some of these funding issues, we've got poll workers being recruited by organizations like Common Cause and Power the Polls and whatnot to try to shore that up. I know that there's also a large litigation battle that's being played out or has been played out over the last couple of months. Can you speak to how there's been a need to try to expand more voting opportunities going into this election and how you're thinking about the litigation landscape in terms of how it's helping or not helping voters?
SA: Well, in response to Covid, states either took actions to make voting more accessible or they didn't. For those that didn't, lawsuits were filed to try to make them make voting accessible for voters. Those lawsuits were mostly by the Democratic party and a number of nonprofits. We have taken part. Obviously we are separate. We're not the same party. Obviously they have their own lawyers and they have their own goals. But we have intervened in a number of those cases. On the other side, states that did take actions to make voting more accessible were sued by the Republican party to stop that expansion of the ballot. What we have seen sort of play out in court, lower courts have been more willing to order changes to expand access. But the Appeals Courts have really kind of shut that down and basically said that they defer to local election officials. So that's unfortunate in the way that the judiciary has not answered what we think is the unconstitutional nature of voting in the midst of a pandemic without all of these provisions. But I think the good thing to see is that so many states took those actions without litigation or once litigation was filed, settled. So right now there are only five states in the Union that are not allowing everybody to vote absentee due to Covid. They're not particularly surprising: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Indiana. Lawsuits have been filed in all of those states to try to force them to do so. They have not been successful. But I think all in all it's been positive because it's opened people's eyes to these ridiculous and draconian restrictions on voting.
EO: I think that there are so many different ways that folks are trying to make sure that we have a successful election here, and there are so many people working towards that same goal and from an organizing standpoint, litigation, legislation, elected officials, election officials. It's really an awe-inspiring level, I think, of effort. Even if the organization may or may not be there, but I think the effort, and the will, and the goals are there. So I know a lot of folk are talking about doomsday election, fan-fiction type scenarios of what we may see. But maybe more of a measured question may be, what do you most concerned with in terms of how the voting process will work during early vote and leading up to election day? Where do y'all see those cracks maybe being the largest that we talked about earlier?
SA: Sure. Absentee or mail-in voting, or whatever you want to call it, is a great option and key to our platform is always that voters should have multiple options and they should choose how to go about voting. But when it's your first time using an absentee ballot there is much more chance of there being an error. There are lots of forms to fill out and lots of places on the form that you could have accidentally forgotten to write in your driver's license or something like that. Or sealed it in the inner envelope, and then put the inner envelope in the outer envelope. So I am concerned that people are going to put their absentee ballots in the mail and not know that it wasn't counted. Luckily the majority of states have tracking systems now. So what I want voters to know is that you need to verify your ballot. So don't think that once you've put it in the mail or put it in the drop-box, your job is done. Nope, your job is to go online and track that ballot all the way in and see that it's counted. And if it's not, then you have, in most places, the right to fix whatever the error was and vote that ballot again. And honestly, my other concern is not actually with the underlying structure of the elections, right? These election officials are doing their best. They've been doing this for years. Obviously they've had to make some changes this year. But we actually do have a very robust system. It's very local-centric. It's very decentralized. That actually makes it way more secure. But with more ballots, more absentee ballots, and more social distancing and all of the things that are coming with this year's election, it's just going to take a little bit more time probably to count all of the ballots. And that's fine. That just means the system is working. My concern is the continued attempts to undermine that. Yelling that the sky is falling. It's not. We're just counting all the ballots as we should because that's the way it works in a democracy. We will count every eligible ballot. So I just want voters to know that regardless of what craziness they're hearing, it is completely normal to continue to count ballots until you finish counting them. We actually generally don't say, "Oh, it's midnight. Sorry, we didn't have enough people here to count the ballots so yours doesn't count."
EO: Absolutely and in terms of what voters are hearing and then what they're facing, we've probably never seen an election that has been just so fueled and undergirded by a sea of disinformation and misinformation coming from the president, coming from the top. So we've found that voter education has never been so important. Making sure that we're guiding voters in the best way that we can has never been so important, and that we're not unnecessarily adding fuel to a fire of confusion and chaos, if you will. I think Common Cause has just done such an excellent job of that through this unique time as well.
SA: That is our goal. We want to be a trusted source of information. Voter education is so important right now, at the very least to let voters know where they can look for the right information. There's lots of craziness coming at you and so you just have to go, "Well, what is the intent of the people who are saying these things to me? Are they unbiased? No, okay. So where can I go to get unbiased information about the election?" You can go to a number of nonpartisan groups. The National Association of Secretaries of State has established a trusted sources network, it has a number of nonprofits on it, a number of good government groups, the Department of Homeland Security Cyber Division. These are all places that you can go to find out the real information. Social media is not one of them.
EO: Right. One of the questions that we like to ask on the Burn the Boats podcast and I think it’s super relevant to the discussion today of elections and voting and the deep amount of service I think it takes to work in the arena of voting rights: What is the bravest decision that you've been a part of, something done to serve others?
SA: [laughter] End on the easy question, right? I left my job that was within the administration in 2017 because I was basically stopped from helping people. I was working in a Civil Rights office in the federal government and my program was shut down. I was told, "Well, we'll find something else for you to do. Don't worry, you're not going to lose your job." But I felt, and I still feel, that as somebody who is privileged, I was not suffering. That it was my job to use whatever power, small amount that I have, to help people. So even though my father's still not happy with me leaving a stable government job, I left it to enter the nonprofit world where I felt like I could use my voice.
EO: I love that answer. We can all relate to needing to find a way to have our voice be heard, and I think where we are at today as a community is in a place where so many of us are trying to have our voices heard for what seems like the first time ever. And in order to do that, one step -not the step but one step - is to make sure that folks are voting in any way that they can, so I end by asking you to kind of walk voters through what they should be doing, how they should be preparing, how they should be voting so that we can make sure that end the podcast here with some voter education.
SA: So first of all, every single voter should be registering or making sure that they are still registered. There are tech glitches. There are sometimes issues where even though you voted three months ago in the primaries, for some reason you've been removed from the rolls. So number one, make sure that you are registered. Number two, make a plan to vote, whatever you're going to do. Are you going to request an absentee ballot? Are you going to go early vote? Whatever that is. Do you have the location of the early voting location that you're going to go to? Do you have the times? Have you picked the date that you're going to go? Have you made arrangements so that, as you said, you bring a chair and some snacks if need be, right? So everybody should be making a plan to vote. Bring people with you. If you are engaged right now and aware of the current world and feel like you want to do something, triple your power by calling two people in your cell phone who you think are maybe not that involved and get them involved. Help them figure out how to register or check their registration. You can do all of that at commoncause.org/vote. We have all of the tools for you to check your registration, request an absentee ballot, register, all of those things. If you want to get involved even further, if you want to volunteer you can go to protectthevote.net. That's a nonpartisan coalition of nonprofits who are doing voter education and voter information. So you can volunteer in your area. There are tons of remote opportunities. So you could be texting voters to say, "Hey, do you need help checking your registration? Do you know everything that you need to know?" And in that small amount, you can text 1000 voters and look at the amazing amount of information that you have shared. And I guess finally I would say, "Don't give up." This year has been a difficult one for a lot of us. And it was really - I live in Washington DC, so I did pay my respects to John Lewis. And standing there and thinking about what he had gone through and how he never gave up was just incredibly powerful for me, right? I have so many privileges that he did not have 50 years ago. But he didn't stop. So neither am I. And neither should you.
EO: Sylvia Albert of Common Cause, thank you so much for joining us here today. I really appreciate it. This has been incredible.
SA: Thank you so much.
KH: Thank you so much to both Sylvia and Esosa for this enlightening conversation about voter access, the risks and obstacles to full voting rights for all - especially during COVID-19 - and what we can all be doing to prepare for the upcoming election.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.