S03 E05: Courts & Voting
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Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, coming to you from Washington, D.C. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and just about everything in between. I’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad joining us today. We have Aklima Khondoker, Georgia State Director for All Voting is Local, Kayla Griffin, Ohio State Director for All Voting is Local, Lena Zwarensteyn, Fair Counts Campaign Director for The Leadership Conference, and Rosemary Avila, Arizona Campaign Manager for All Voting is Local. In this episode, we’re talking all about courts and voting. So let’s get down to this. We have an election coming up. We have a Supreme Court vacancy. What is keeping you all up at night? We’ll start with you, Lena.
Lena: Honestly, it is exactly what you’re talking about, the fact that we have an election coming up and, in the midst of that, we have a Supreme Court vacancy. I think so much right now is on the line – really every single thing that we care about. And it is incredibly frustrating that, especially when we look at what the Senate Republicans and Trump are doing to try to rush through a nominee, that they have already threatened us will take away access to healthcare in the midst of a pandemic when they can’t even pass any sort of relief for people who are suffering, for families who have had lost jobs, lost loved ones. And when we know, like, this is really disproportionately impacting communities of color, it is particularly cruel that they are doing this and that they are doing this in order to continue their movement to really try to stack the courts against all of us and roll back the progress we have made on civil and human rights. So, not much sleep these days. But honestly, though, I will say what is helping me get out of bed in the morning is just the hope. So I will sort of note that, that people really are galvanized in a way to really honor Justice Ginsburg’s legacy and to fight with everything they can because they know that their own lives are on the line, their rights are, and so on.
Allyn: Aklima, what’s keeping you up at night?
Aklima: All of the lawsuits about vote by mail, and fighting for people’s right to actually access the ballot. With COVID right now, with our country, we need to have safe and effective options for people to cast their ballots. And so many states are trying to expand vote by mail. But we see a lot of challenges coming from particularly Republican conservative-leaning states that want to reduce vote by mail in their states. And we hear a lot of rhetoric about ballot fraud and security issues, but we just do not see the evidence. What we do see is that COVID-19 is changing the way that we live our lives. And we need to have expanded vote by mail so that more people can safely and effectively access the ballot. So I’m very concerned about how voting is going to take place in November, but I’m encouraged that voters are still gonna show up and actually cast their ballots. So, concerned about cases hitting the Supreme Court about vote by mail, knowing how important it is to expand it, but hopeful that people will still access the ballot, and we’re still gonna do everything that we can to make sure our democracy is in our hands.
Allyn: Rosemary, what’s keeping you up at night?
Rosemary: There’s a lot of misinformation that’s going around about voting, that voters are receiving these mixed messaging about the safety and security of their votes. And I think the work that Aklima, and Kayla, and I do is to ensure that voters are equipped with all the knowledge that they need in order to combat these narratives that try to prevent them and provoke fear in them, prevent them from voting. And so, just a lot of the messaging around voting and the ability for people to safely and securely cast their ballots by mail is something that here in Arizona, we have been doing for a long time. So I think our voters here are in a position where we understand it’s something that is safe and secure and we have been doing for a long time. But I think just continuing to combat that narrative and ensure that our voters are empowered to go out and vote and make their voices heard.
Allyn: Kayla, what keeps you up at night?
Kayla: We can build off of everyone’s answers, right? It is…we are really in a battle for the fall of this nation. And it seems like this election is much greater than just 2020, 2021. It really will be consequential for a long time. And as we are talking about the Supreme Court and we’re saying that courts are stacked against voter advocates, we will see some significant changes in the upcoming future that it will take decades to really reverse and get us back on track. So that is scary to think about all the progress that we have made can be wiped away within four years.
Allyn: One of the things that a couple of you mentioned, and I want to talk about this, and that is honoring the legacy of Justice Bader Ginsburg. But one of the things that happened was we weren’t allowed to really honor her. We weren’t allowed to really celebrate the legacy of her service, and not just on the court, but throughout her entire career. I wanna start with you, Lena, but I want to open this question up to everybody. What should people know about Justice Bader Ginsburg?
Lena: Justice Ginsburg, on and off the court – I don’t want to say before her time – she was at her time trying to open doors for people like men, women, everybody in this country to make sure that they were really able to live fully in this life, whether that was to be able to take out credit, to get your spouse’s Social Security benefits, all of these different types of things. And I honestly think her legacy really just provided a lot of us a roadmap to even more of what we wanted in order to make sure that there was equal justice for everybody. You know, she did so much throughout her career with her dissents and so on. But I think what it is we are really fighting for in her legacy is what the court could actually be. And that is one that does live up to the words that are inscribed above it, that it provides equal justice under law. So that anybody who ever enters a courthouse feels like they are seen, heard, they have dignity and their rights will be recognized. And so, I think a lot of people talk about her specifically when it comes to a lot that she did in order to really make moves in terms of gender equality. But I really think it really shows the full breadth of how people can in this country really fully participate in it. But it really does take a court that really sees people for all of who they are in order to get there.
Allyn: Aklima, what’s the legacy of Justice Ginsburg, in your mind?
Aklima: It’s funny you should ask that, I just happened to be wearing a shirt -laughter- with the crown on it that says “Notorious RBG” on it because she is notorious. She was notorious, notorious for her dissent, notorious for living and working through the integrity of her values. That’s what she has always brought through all of her decisions and through her perspective on the court. And I think that she very much represented what American democracy ought to be and what we are fighting for every day. She stood up for women’s rights and gender equality, not only for women but also for men. She very much honored the fact that we have a legacy of civil rights in this country. And we want to uphold that for every single citizen. And that is how she lived throughout her work. And that is how she conducted her life.
And so, I think that the best way to honor her is to ensure that everybody has access to the ballot, to make sure that people are not disenfranchised, and to make sure that everybody feels heard in our entire system. I think that a lot of people now, particularly people of color and women, still don’t feel heard and seen in our country. And I think that has a lot to do with the way a lot of our political landscape has shifted. However, I hope that one thing that will always remain from her legacy is that she has been the strength of our consciousness, our collective consciousness. When we think about civil rights in our nation, when we think about the importance of the Constitution, she has always uplifted her work throughout that level of integrity for the citizens in this nation. And I hope we can always carry that throughout everything that we do.
Allyn: Kayla, you said something interesting. You were talking about how the election will be consequential for a long time. What do you think is at stake? The polls are telling us that people are really concerned about healthcare. Talk to us a little bit about what is at stake with this election? What’s at stake with the Supreme Court vacancy?
Kayla: It really spans the gamut. So we have healthcare that’s at risk. We have the continual gutting of election protection as we saw on Shelby v. Holder. We have education. We have reproductive justice. The list goes on and on. And what I fear in watching how politics has played out in the last four years is that we have entered into this Wild, Wild West where we are so beholden to a party that we have left our consciousness at the door. And so, one of the things that I admire with RBG is that even in her dissent, she called on legislators to, like, make the right decision. And we were able to have progress in our country because Congress stepped in and did what they needed to do to ensure that equity was served and that even when the courts may not have made the right decision, we had somebody backing us and Congress to do so. I fear that at this point, we’re not going to see that. We’re not going to see that when we have an appointment that has already proven to be very reluctant to take into account women’s rights and healthcare. And we’re at a point where, in the midst of a pandemic, we don’t have time to wait. We don’t have time to make a foul move with our appointments and our legislation that we are pushing through.
Allyn: Rosemary, you talked a little bit about the problem of misinformation about voting. And I’m curious to know, what are voters supposed to believe? Who are they supposed to believe as it relates to the integrity of the election, the integrity of their vote? Because there’s so much misinformation and disinformation that’s circulating around these days.
Rosemary: I think voters look to their elected officials for the right information when it comes to voting. And I think that’s a good place to start – looking to your elected officials to having confidence in the fact that they are giving you the correct information when it comes to voting. And also, you know, I think the work that Kayla, and Aklima, and I do – looking to voter advocacy groups that are trying to ensure that people are equipped with all the information that they need and all the resources that they need in order to be an informed voter to go to cast a ballot, either during early voting period on Election Day and have all of the information that they need to feel as though they are going and casting a ballot that counts, a ballot that is not going to be impeded by any unnecessary processes. Here in Arizona, you know, we’ve been voting by mail for a long time. Close to 80% of our voters here have already chosen to vote by mail. This was before the pandemic even hit. And so, just leaning into that historical fact and leaning into that knowledge that we have been doing it for a long time, that it’s something that we are going to continue to do. Those practices that have been established, the safeguards that have been in place, and that are continuing to be put in place to safeguard people’s votes is essential for voters to do this election cycle, especially with all that misinformation being thrown at them right now.
Allyn: Lena, how does this change in the Supreme Court impact the upcoming election?
Lena: Well, hopefully, there won’t be a change in terms of having a new justice on the court before the election. I think that there’s a lot we are trying to do every single day, and every day presents new opportunities for us to do that. You know, the fight in order to make sure Justice Ginsburg’s most fervent final wish is our real fervent fight to make sure that the next president installs – and I think one thing that everyone’s already mentioned, you know, people are already voting, are already choosing the Senators and President, they want to make that. And so, it’s really incumbent upon us to continue this fight so, so much. But, you know, when it comes to what Kayla was mentioning, just that this has such a long-lasting impact, you know, when we do elect our House of Representatives and Senators, but also the President, you know, each one of them comes with a two, four, or a six-year term. When it comes to the federal courts, those are lifetime.
So, I think that is probably one of the scariest things that it is really impacting. But it’s also important to note, like, in my entire lifetime, and I’m a very young, early 40s person, so real young – but the court has never really reflected me in terms of its majority. The majority of the court has really held to these more conservative views. And I think that that is why I so want to make sure that the court is more reflective of this because right now when this nominee is confirmed, Judge Barrett, who’s President Trump’s nominee, that really cements, and offsets, and really tips the scales even more so on what that means. I am trying so hard to work for, and I know everybody on this call, we are for this society that really does recognize the dignity of everybody, that recognizes the rights of everybody.
And I’m really worried that then, for decades to come, you know, what would be a 6, 3 ultra-conservative majority on the court, it’s really hard to undo that. You know, Kayla mentioned that legislators can pass really good legislation, but it’s really up to the courts often, too often, sometimes, to decide whether they’re constitutional or not, or they’re legal or they’re not. And unfortunately, you know, with the Affordable Care Act being in the Supreme Court and its constitutionality being decided, you know, this term, there’s an argument just days after the election on November 10th. You know, what that could mean is, come spring, those who have pre-existing conditions may not be able to access healthcare, you know, and have health insurance. You know, I think it’s 135 million people who have pre-existing conditions. We would see, you know, the percentage of people who are uninsured who are black spike by 20%. Five-point four million Latinas would lack access.
That has real, real consequences. When you talk about what this could mean, you know, it really is this enormous shift in balance. What it does is it puts like this cement block to really tip the scales of justice so that it’s not protecting us. It’s more or less protecting a lot of corporations, the wealthy, the powerful, and we really need to be making sure that not even that the scales are balanced, but they actually serve us. And so I think that that’s what’s really sort of important and what we’re all fighting for right now, why it’s really important to be calling our senators right now to tell them, “Stop this train wreck right now.” Obviously, if it comes up to it, vote against this nominee, but also to vote, to make sure you have that plan to vote. If you haven’t already done so, you know, what is your plan to do that, whether it’s by mail, in person, etc.? But also to make it our charge to continue to do that. What we’re doing in this moment is gonna determine what our future looks like.
Allyn: Thank you for that, Lena. Kayla, you mentioned a very landmark Supreme Court case. You mentioned Shelby v. Holder. And for folks who aren’t familiar with what that case is, can you tell me, in your view, the ramifications of that decision from the Supreme Court and what that means for voters, what that means for people who wanna cast their ballot?
Kayla: What it did was it gutted a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, that said that before a board of elections can implement some type of law or rule change, they have to go before the Department of Justice, prior to implementing that change to ensure that it was not restrictive for voters, particularly black and brown folks who have trouble and access to the ballot. And what it says was now, they don’t have to come before the court. They can implement the law, and then afterwards, come before the court to decide and parse out whether or not it’s constitutional or not. What we have seen is that there has been, across the nation, over 200 laws in place to say that, “Well, you guys can go ahead and administer the law, administer elections, how you decide, or how you see fit.”
Particularly in Ohio, where I am, we have had a voter maintenance as the court called it, but we look at it as a voter purge where over 400,000 people were removed from the voter registration role last year. A hundred and fifteen thousand are set to be removed this year if they do not update their registration or vote in this election. And so what we see is now this “use it or lose it” law that’s in place for folks. And I know it’s around the country for people who say, you know, “I’m not satisfied with the candidates. For whatever reason, I don’t wanna vote.” And the government says, “Okay, well, we’re going to remove your access and your right to vote.” It is incumbent on us to say that that is not right, that we’re gonna fight against it, and we’re gonna resist. And I think before I yield the floor, one of the things that really stands out to me when we talk about representation on the courts and representation in the Supreme Court, RBG said when they asked her, you know, who would she like to see nominated, she said, “I wouldn’t be satisfied until it’s nine female justices,” because for far too long in this country, there have been nine white men who served as justices. And she wanted to see that we had equity on the court. Me, as a black woman, I have never seen a black woman hold that position. I talk to people in the community often, and people are disenchanted with this electoral system that we have.
And what I have come to realize – just, you watch and see the trends and you see how things are moving – what is happening is our government is very afraid that black folks, brown folks, are taking up space in this country. And we’re becoming a huge voice. And we have moved to a point where even in our government our Supreme Court has said that corporations are people. And we have given deference to industries who are populated by white, wealthy men as opposed to what this country will say. And so, we as a country, have to get to a place where we are saying, “We’re not gonna take this. I want the courts to look like me. I want our Congress to look like me. I want representation across the gamut.” And I think what we’re saying is this rhetoric of fear that is telling suburban folks or white men that we were taking over. That’s why we have a fight with the census. To cut off the census before the deadline and say, “Well, we’re gonna count these but we’re not gonna count them.” And people are reeling. And we’re trying to just stake our claim to say, “This is our country. This is what America looks like. And our government should be reflective of that, as well.”
Allyn: Rosemary, a term that we hear a lot and sometimes we use in talking about voter suppression, and obviously there’s a Supreme Court connection to all of this, you work with voters and work to try to make sure that voters have fair and equitable access to the ballot. What is voter suppression? And what does it look like in 2020?
Rosemary: Kayla just touched upon what voter suppression is. I think where the Supreme Court stands on voting rights issues has had long-term consequences for our democracy. And we are currently living and dealing with the aftermath of the Shelby County decision that has effectively worked to disenfranchise millions of voters. And that’s essentially what voter suppression is. It’s the disenfranchisement of voters, particularly voters of color, across this nation. And we see that happening all the time in our states where the voters of color have to overcome overly-burdensome restrictions and barriers in order to access their most basic right to vote. And so, the Supreme Court has played a very heavy hand in the way that our elections currently look and they’re currently run, because when they did away with the preclearance Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby case, we began to see a new wave of barriers on voting and attack on the rights of voters of color, particularly to access their ability to cast the vote. Voters of color are disproportionately affected by these barriers. Here in Arizona, there have been attempts by the legislature in the past to pass these bans against so-called ballot harvesting. They did not pass pre-Shelby, and then since the Shelby case happened, we saw this come into effect where, now, it is illegal for somebody to take somebody else’s ballot unless you live in the same household as them and drop it off at a voting location center.
And this negatively impacts all of our communities of color out here – our Latinx communities, our black communities, and specifically our indigenous communities because that is the way in which we galvanize ourselves and are able to vote is when people come together in community, in coalition with each other. And these inter-communal ways of communicating by collecting each other’s ballots and dropping them off, you know, that has worked to effectively disenfranchise a lot of voters because when you’re unable to go in and personally cast your ballot, and you receive a ballot by mail, you can no longer give it to somebody unless they are an immediate member of your household. And so, that has worked to suppress a lot of voters here in Arizona. And there are millions of examples across the nation in different states that have laws that work to effectively disenfranchise voters. And voters who have historically been disenfranchised are continuing to be disenfranchised even today.
Allyn: Aklima, the voters of Georgia, they’re well aware of many of these tactics, having just undergone in the 2018 cycle a pretty high profile statewide election there where it seemed that the then Secretary of State used every play in the playbook to try to tilt things in his own direction. I’m curious to flip this on its head. What are you saying and what are you doing to reassure voters? What are you doing to tell people that, notwithstanding all of these barriers that people are trying to erect in your way, voting is still safe? Voting is still a responsible action to take. What are we doing to reassure voters?
Aklima: I think number one, what we try to do is empower voters. So we start off by assuring voters that they do have the right to cast their ballot. And what that means is they ought not to have these barriers erected to make it more difficult for them to cast their ballot. And there are mechanisms for them to use to successfully vote. We urge people to vote by mail, to vote absentee here in Georgia because that is a safe and available option. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, a lot of polling locations are closed or consolidated. A lot of people are concerned about their health and safety right now. We’ve seen long lines over our primary day. So we just want to ensure voters that you have the right and the power to cast your ballot, and you have options.
Because of COVID, if you choose to vote by mail, that option is available to you. And for the first time in 2020, in Georgia, we now have drop boxes. So we have a safe and effective way for people to go ahead and drop their ballot off at no cost to them. One of the issues that arose about these vote by mail absentee ballots was paying for postage. How would a person access postage or a mailbox or any of that in order for them to actually successfully send their ballots? With the implementation of dropboxes, people now have safe and secure options for them to return their ballots, and they don’t have to worry about waiting on long lines on election day. Now, if somebody does want to vote in person, we’ve never discouraged anybody on their methodology. So people can still safely vote in person. It’s important that people check with their counties to see what their COVID preparedness plans are. We’ve pushed on county commissioners to push on counties to make sure that they produce and publish their COVID contingency planning so that people know what to expect when they go to vote in person on election day.
That’s so very important. Unfortunately, we’ve seen in Georgia that a number of counties did not have this sort of contingency planning in place, resulting in closures. And when we see closures, one thing that I heard ya’ll mention was that “what does voter suppression look like,” right? What does it feel like? What is that now? Well, it’s more subversive now. What suppression actually looks like is making it more difficult for you to access your ballot, for you to vote, so difficult that it then discourages you from voting. And we see that in election administration issues, issues that come from COVID preparedness, contingency planning, where a person ought to go to cast their ballot if their polling place has a problem. These are election administration issues that counties can help resolve for voters. But ultimately, we are also leaning on the Secretary of State here in Georgia to ensure that they are taking charge to make sure that the counties are accountable to voters, that the counties are supported, to make sure that voters have everything that they need to safely and effectively cast their ballots. So I just wanna hone in on this message. For any voter nationwide but, of course, in Georgia as well, you have the power to vote. You have the right to vote. It is still safe to vote. Please make sure that you think through your voting plan now. If you want to vote absentee, that is still available to you.
Please make sure that you request that ballot, that you submit it. If you wanna do it by mail, affix stamps to that, you can do that. But drop boxes are available in Georgia, a free effective option to drop your ballot off. Please do that. Certainly, make sure that you check to make sure where your polling location is on election day, if you so choose to vote in person, and please make sure that you have your own safety protocols in place. So if somebody is going to vote in person, please follow up-to-date scientific guidance so that you can be safe. Make sure that you’re wearing a face covering. Make sure that you maintain physical distance in between yourself and others to reduce the spread of COVID. And, of course, push on your own counties to make sure that they are telling you what their COVID preparedness plans are. We know that our elected officials, our county officials, and administrators – they work in service of us. These are public servants that are here to make the process easier for us. So, voters, reach out to your county. Ask them, “What’s your COVID preparedness plan? Where do I go if something happens with my polling location? How do I get up-to-date information?” We advocate for you, but you can advocate for yourself because you have that power.
Allyn: Well, I appreciate that. That’s a message that every voter would do well to heed and to hear. I just have a final question for all of you. And this is a personal question. Why are you in this fight? What got you into this fight and what’s keeping you into the fight? Lena, we’ll start off with you.
Lena: I think of my grandmothers. I have three, and they were amazing people who survived all sorts of horrible odds. And they really taught me to do a few things. One is to persevere, two is to hold a grudge when it’s necessary. And three, to just make sure you are really fighting for everybody. They really did instill that in me. But I think the wind that’s sort of behind that is really just everybody else hearing the story and knowing that all of these fights, all of our identities are so interconnected, and just really making sure that we’re remembering why we do it and it’s personal, but it’s really about everybody.
Allyn: Kayla, why are you in this fight?
Kayla: Yeah, I’m in this fight because I’ve always been deemed a fighter. Before I even joined this team, as a young girl, I’d been called a bulldog because of my tenacity. And I just realized now that we are in a fight for our country, and our country looks like me. And we have to fight for the folks who are out here and don’t have it in them to fight anymore. As a black woman, we’ve been fighting for far too long. And for once, we wanna get to a place where we can just kinda have a reprieve and breathe. And so I wanna help bring that to pass. If I don’t ever see it, I will have children and grandchildren or I’ll have nephews now that I want them to see a time of rest in this country.
Allyn: I’m detecting a pattern here. I’m hearing “hold a grudge” and “be like a bulldog.” Rosemary, why are you in this fight?
Rosemary: Well, I come from a family of fighters as well and a multicultural household where I was told that I should aspire to be bold, and brave in my commitment to justice. And that’s nothing new to me or to us or the community that we come from. And so I think, you know, for me tapping into that historical and that ancestral strength, and allowing that to be what guides the fierceness of my fight is what is going to propel me and the communities that I come from that I’m trying to work with to empower is going to be what propels us forward. And it’s going to cause us to be disciplined in our fight for our future. And so, I have always believed in us and our power, and I will continue to fight for that power and to fight to serve the communities that have instilled within me so much strength and so much fight. And I will continue to carry that on and honor the people who have made sacrifices on my behalf, my ancestors, the people who have passed away recently, representative John Lewis, RBG, you know, all these people who have paved the way for us to continue to do the work that we do. And so that’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me in this fight.
Allyn: Aklima, final word, why are you in this fight?
Aklima: I’m gonna take a little bit from what everybody provided because I think we are all aligned and joined here. So for me, it’s certainly my mother, my color, and my humanity. One element that I think is clear that all of us have described is this idea of humanizing ourselves. Especially with where we are with COVID. With everything that’s happening nationwide, worldwide, it’s more important now more than ever for us to bind together. My mother inspired me. She’s a very strong woman. She raised me as a single mother, also a woman of color, and she’s had unique obstacles and challenges throughout her entire life. And even through today, she contracted COVID early on this year, and she’s a first responder. And one of the things that was most important to her as a registered nurse, and she’s at home trying to get herself well again, her concern was, “I need to make sure I cast my ballot – because if I don’t do that, nothing will change.”
And that was really important to me to continue to do this because I know how important it is to her and other people like her, the people that she serves, the people that rely on her, the people that look up to her. And I see her in everyone. And I mean that to say that a piece of that love, of that dedication, of that grit is in every single one of us because we are all dedicated to having a democracy that’s as good as its ideals. We are here for it. And so, I’m propelled to keep doing this because I have a strong mother that pushed me to do that, but also because I see a bit of her in every single human that exists here on this planet, in this call. And I think we ought to remember our humanity and what we’re doing so that we don’t lose sight of how important this is and how connected we are.
Allyn: Well, I’m appreciative of the humanity that all of you have brought to this conversation. I’d like to thank, again, for joining us – Lena, Aklima, Rosemary, and Kayla. Thank you for joining us today.
Lena: Thank you, Allyn.
Allyn: Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter at “Pod for the Cause.” Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until then, I’m Allyn Brooks-LaSure. Stay strong and keep hope alive.