S04 E04: #AVLExplains Local Elections
Vanessa: 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 your day. I’m your host, Vanessa Gonzalez, coming to you from amazingly sunny Washington, D.C. Later in the episode, I’m going to be joined by an amazing Pod Squad, but, first, please welcome our first voting rights expert, Peter Burress, the Wisconsin campaign manager for All Voting is Local. Hey, Peter.
Peter: Hey, Vanessa. Thanks so much for having me.
Vanessa: Yeah. Glad to see you. Before we jump in, let’s kind of lay out what’s happening in this country. First off, attacks on democracy are continuing to happen everywhere. Over the past few weeks, you may have heard about the multiple attacks in all of the newspapers, online, tweets, texts from your friends. From Arizona to Georgia, lawmakers are actively aiming to take away your right to vote.
And, remember, the election day has passed, but just because that day passed doesn’t mean that this effort stops. There’s always an ongoing battle to continue to keep our right to vote. For instance, in both Arizona and Georgia, lawmakers are pushing over 30 bills designed to steal control from voters and restrict who can vote and how they can vote. Didn’t we already have these conversations, Peter? What’s happening? We already fought these battles.
Peter: Yes, we did.
Vanessa: The harm that these bills will cause, especially to those in historically disenfranchised communities, is clear, and alarming, and intentional. Even more jarring is the fact that powerful forces try to undermine our democracy with more than 140, let me repeat, 140 unsuccessful litigation and legislative efforts to disenfranchise voters throughout the country.
And on Tuesday, April 6th, Wisconsin is hosting a general election where Wisconsinites will vote for judges. These are the same types of judges that oversaw the failed litigations that attempted to overturn the 2020 general election this past November. So this is really exciting. I wanna bring you in, Peter, because I don’t think that most people, when they think about elections, think judges. Or if they do, you kinda just go down your ballot and click whose ever name you like the most, right? So can you tell us a little bit about what does it mean for an election to include judges?
Peter: First of all, Vanessa, judges and a lot more. So we’ve got local races on our ballot as well and the state superintendent for public instruction. So, if I could talk about each of those, I would really love to. I think All Voting is Local, we are seeing that in the April 6th election. And when it comes to judges, judges impact many aspects of our lives. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been impacted by a parking ticket, an eviction decision, and/or a child custody case, for a couple examples. So when we’re making decisions about judges, we’re making decisions about who will make decisions, right, and can you imagine anything more important than that?
You know, also, local elections, if I could speak a little bit, a couple local races that we’re keeping on a radar in Wisconsin. In many cases, we’re voting for a school board. And, particularly, during COVID, I think about I have a young niece that’s just started in school, my brother teaches in that same public school in Northeastern Wisconsin, my dad drives a bus for that same public school. And never have I heard as much as I have in the past year the sentence, “The school board is voting on…” I think about decisions related to my niece’s future, my brother’s ability to provide for his family, my dad’s health. The school board is voting on, it’s come up again and again, and voting on really difficult decisions, and we want the best people in the room for those decisions. And so, oftentimes, school board members are neighbors, the people we know. We need to support them and show up for them.
And I think of city council races as well. If we care about just about anything, how vaccines are being distributed, where and how policing is happening and with what consequences, how we make it through bad weather, how our elections are managed. Just in Wisconsin, our elections are managed at the municipal level. We’ve got 1,850 different methods for running an election. If we care about those things, then we need to care about who’s running to make decisions about these things.
Vanessa: Thank you so much for bringing it up. Every single person living in this country has most likely been impacted by a judge, like you said, whether it’s from a parking ticket, which you know we all try to fight, whether it’s from a parking ticket, child custody issues, you name it. And so I really wanna make sure and underscore the importance of this election, as well as the importance of those local issues. We continue on this podcast and through The Leadership Conference and through AVL to remind folks that election day is not just every four years in November, right? So, Peter, can you tell me a little bit about what was going on last year in the April primary election?
Peter: Yeah. This is so, very important. Thank you for asking. Many folks are familiar with what we have now, unfortunately, come to refer to as Wisconsin’s pandemic primary, which was our April election in 2020. COVID was just setting in, we were scrambling to figure out how to make sure we could protect both folks’ health and their right to vote, right? We were making decisions about the best way to run an election during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin did not have a lot of time to prepare for the election. And so in our April 2020 election for the state’s supreme court, there was, to be frank, just a lot a bit of chaos. We saw folks waiting in hours-long lines, at times in hail, very difficult and absent social-distancing measures at our polling places. But that, of course, did not stop Wisconsin voters. We showed up in record numbers for an April primary and put a new supreme court justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The incredible thing there is fast-forward six months and Justice Jill Karofsky, the new justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, she is casting deciding votes that protect voters’ choices in the November election.
Vanessa: Wow. Full circle.
Peter: Full circle, we saw 43 vote after 43 vote, and that would not have happened without Justice Jill Karofsky and folks turning up in the April 2020 election. Of course, we’re now fast-forwarding to what could be the consequences of an April 2021 election. You know, one of the pieces here, this is outside of courts, I hope that’s okay that I divert for a second, we’re electing state superintendent of public instruction. The last individual elected to this position is now our governor. So we see that, you know, a lot of folks elected into these very important positions are also later often elected into the higher-profile positions.
Vanessa: Absolutely. No, thank you for that. It’s really important for folks to remember. And to your point, I don’t think anybody has ever learned as much about their state superintendents of education as we have during 2020 and the back and forth of whether or not children should be going be back to school, should go part-time, you name it, right? These are people making really important decisions that impact everyone’s day-to-day life.
The April primary, I know it feels like it was a long time ago, but I know that folks were just in awe of seeing all of the images of folks standing out in line waiting to vote. And so it’s really good to hear the update, and it’s really good to hear how that’s coming back full circle and the importance of that election. I wanna talk a little bit about the bills as well. So, what is going on? How come we can’t stop these bad bills happening at Wisconsin? I mean, they’re really aiming to restrict access to the ballot. What’s going on?
Peter: It’s pretty ugly. We’ve got six new elections-related bills introduced by Wisconsin Republicans, and a few that are particularly insidious. We’re still unpacking what exactly they’ll do, but we know that they would eliminate important protections for voters with disabilities, they would complicate the process through which Wisconsinites can request an absentee ballot, and they would restrict the means through which Wisconsinites can return an absentee ballot. And, Vanessa, as you know in 2020, we at All Voting is Local, and The Leadership Conference, and the broader voting rights community, we worked so hard to protect and expand access to the ballot. We fought for more opportunities to get an absentee ballot. We fought for more ways to return ballots. We fought for improved election administration procedures. And these bills aim to undo so much of the progress that we all made on expanding access to the ballot in 2020, as you mentioned, not only in Wisconsin but across the nation.
But, of course, we’re not going back, right? We have alternatives as well. Our governor’s proposed budget, he includes automatic voter registration. And so we are faced in Wisconsin with a very clear decision. Do what we know will secure our elections and expand access to the ballot, or do we do what will take us back to 2011 and even further back into the 20th century? We’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna move forward and expand access.
Vanessa: I mean, now let’s be clear, right? This is a tale as old as time when people are tired of feeling like they’re being oppressed, suppressed, particularly when it comes to our established right to vote, people push back, and we win, and it’s people power, right? And in most cases across the country, it was communities of color that showed up, which people really thought we would not. And we showed up, we pushed, we pushed, and we got these wins. So, of course, it is the stereotypical pushback against these gains, right? And it’s when people in power who don’t wanna serve the people and don’t wanna serve the constituencies start to see that the way that they have gotten there is starting to crumble, well, they’re gonna panic, and it feels like that’s exactly what some of these bills are.
Peter: This immediate package of bills is really kind of a 10-year story. 2011 was when Wisconsin introduced its needlessly stringent and complex photo ID law. It’s so concerning and frustrating that these bills are all based on that 10-year-old lie. We’ve seen across the country and, you know, in particular in Wisconsin here, many have spent years showing unjustified distrust in our elections. And now they have the audacity to say, “Voters don’t trust its process, so we need to do something.”
But, of course, we see the message for what it is, right? These decision-makers are using the distrust that they built to limit access to the ballot, and it’s ridiculous and it needs to stop. We know what officials need to do to protect our elections while also making sure everyone has equitable access to the ballot. It is not these bills. These bills would not make our elections more secure nor would they expand access. We know what would. We’re fighting for those things.
Vanessa: And thank you for doing that, Peter. Thank you for waking up every day to fight for that. We very much appreciate it. I’m gonna give you a little bit more time. If you were speaking to the voters of Wisconsin, as an organizer, your call to action, what is that? What can Wisconsinites do right now?
Peter: As I mentioned, Wisconsin elections are managed at the municipal level. So we’ve got 1,850 methods of running an election in Wisconsin. When we talk about All Voting is Local, nowhere is that more true than in Wisconsin. And that is such a great opportunity to advocate for changes at the local level. We can talk to our clerks who are often our neighbors about expanding access to absentee ballot information, expanded early voting, expanded drop boxes. Those are all decisions that are made at the municipal level.
Folks can make it loud and clear that they support voting rights measures included in the governor’s proposed budget, as I mentioned, like automatic voter registration. There are also other pieces. Of course, follow All Voting is Local. We’re keeping folks up to date on ways to take action. It’s pretty clear that folks are not slowing down in their attacks on our democracy, but neither are we slowing down on our work to ensure that every voter has an equitable opportunity to register the vote, pass the ballot, and have that ballot counted.
Vanessa: Thank you so much, Peter. Thank you for your time and for all of your tireless work. And thank you for talking to us through the importance of this election taking place in Wisconsin on April 6th. Wisconsin, April 6th election. Stay tuned for the Pod Squad here to explain all of your burning questions about voting, and we’ll play a little game. Thanks, Peter.
Peter: Thanks, Vanessa.
Vanessa: Welcome back to “Pod for the Cause,” and like we do every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad. Let me hear it.
Vanessa: Love it. We’re gonna discuss pop culture, social justice, and everything in between. So, all of these amazing voting experts on the Pod Squad today are from our All Voting is Local campaign, and, let me tell you, they are the experts. They know how to organize, they know those systems in their state, and we’re so excited to have them. First, we have Rosemary Avila, the Arizona campaign manager for All Voting is Local. Hey, Rosemary.
Rosemary: Hey, Vanessa.
Vanessa: Next up, we have Ifeolu Claytor, the Ohio campaign manager for All Voting is Local. Hey there.
Ifeolu: Hey, Vanessa.
Vanessa: Last but certainly not least, we have Ben Gardner, the Michigan campaign manager for All Voting is Local. Hi.
Ben: Hi, Vanessa. Happy to be here.
Vanessa: Yeah. We’re so excited to have you all here. So, one of the things that we know is that we all need to become more familiar with our local election procedures, and as Peter just laid out, the very real consequences of these local elections, right, and how they are impacting people on the day-to-day. But we all need to know so that we can all be better advocates and we can really move forward to changes to improve the system and increase transparency. And to back you up, because All Voting is Local in those states, you all are working to change the structures that have led to this voter suppression, am I right? Like, you’re getting in there, you’re changing stuff.
Rosemary: Yes. We’re putting in work.
Ifeolu: Every day.
Ben: Takes a village.
Vanessa: So, as our teams on the ground are fighting for the right to vote, we’re also helping to empower voters by explaining the ins and outs of the voting process. It is no longer just signing up and showing up. We really want folks to be active participants and advocates to protect your right to vote. So, hopefully, this knowledge will help our listeners feel empowered, know when people are trying to take those rights away, and now you have heard the voices and you can go to the website for All Voting is Local to really see their faces and figure out how you can get plugged in.
So we’re gonna play a little game that we’re calling #AVLExplains. How exciting. How creative. And what we’re gonna do through that is we’re gonna go ahead and run through some questions. I have my little bell here, and we’re gonna just go for it. So I’m gonna throw some questions at you all. The first one to answer, yell your state out. Whoever yells the loudest or the fastest, I guess, I can call on, and we’ll get the answer. Sound good?
Rosemary: Sounds good.
Vanessa: All right. No cheating y’all. So, for the first questions, how are mail ballots verified?
Vanessa: Ooh, Ohio for the win.
Ifeolu: So, in Ohio, the mailing ballots can be dropped off by a family member or mailed in, but they are verified by a signature. So the board of elections will check to verify that your signature on your ballot matches the signature that they have on file.
Vanessa: Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo, you can hear my little bell. All right. I think it’s for my daughter, Spike. Next question, what is a provisional ballot…
Vanessa: …and how are they used in your state?
Vanessa: Ben, I heard you sneak in. I’m gonna give it to you. All right. Michigan.
Ben: I apologize. I’m just so excited to talk about provisional ballots. But I would like to make another point about provisional ballots because I think it intersects with some other challenges that we see in Michigan. One of those challenges is making sure that poll workers are sufficiently trained so they know when and why they should be providing provisional ballots.
So, provisional ballots are cast by individuals who show up to a precinct polling location intending to vote and wanting to vote but not actually appearing on the registration list for that precinct. Individuals who show up to cast a vote in those circumstances may be in more densely populated areas, or they may have seen their precinct change recently, or they may not have received notification. And there are a lot of different reasons why someone might show up to a precinct where they’re not actually registered. That person has every right to cast a provisional ballot. And what happens when you cast a provisional ballot is the voter will sign an affidavit.
Within six days, they are required to show ID proving their residency and their registration status. And so there are a number of different forms of identification that they can provide within those six days, a government ID, even a college-issued or university-issued ID in the State of Michigan. As long as they provide that documentation that shows their residency and their voter registration, that ballot should count and they should be able to cast that provisional ballot with no issues.
Having said that, you know, I think organizations like ours want to put in as much work as we can to reduce the number of provisional ballots because these are the ballots that tend to be identified by challengers who may want to throw out votes and discount votes. Oftentimes, those are the first ballots that challengers will look at to try and disenfranchise voters, unfortunately. I think it’s in everybody’s interest that we work to educate the public to reduce the number of provisional ballots but at the same time make sure that everyone knows their rights and knows how to make sure that their vote counts just as much as anyone else’s.
Vanessa: Thank you so much for that, Ben. I appreciate it. Now, I’m gonna take hostess privilege right now because this is a really important question and provisional ballots could be different for each state. So, Rosemary, you’re in Arizona. Can you tell us a little bit about how that works in your neck of the woods?
Rosemary: I would love to, Vanessa. Here in Arizona, provisional ballots are generally given to folks who show up to vote in person. They either do not appear on the voting locations roster or e-public or they do not have adequate identification when they show up. And so, provisional ballots are issued in those circumstances in which somebody shows up and, for a number of reasons, there could be a substantive change to their registration. They had a name changed, they moved and they didn’t update their voter registration information, and so they don’t appear on that voting location’s roster.
And so, in those instances, going back to Ben’s point of sufficiently trained poll workers need to understand instead of turning voters away, they need to, at the very least, be given a provisional ballot. In the instances in which voters don’t have adequate or valid ID at the polls with them, here in Arizona, they can return to that same polling location by 7 p.m. when the polls close to provide adequate identification, or, here, we have up to five business days for people to show up to the county recorder’s office and prove that it is them who voted and showed their identification. So there’s a cure period that voters have, like, kind of a cushion period that they have to return to ensure that their provisional ballots are counted.
Vanessa: Thank you so much, Rosemary. All right. I’m gonna go to the final question, and this is a big one. And then, look, we’ll play the game, but I also want answers from all of you because this is a really big one. So you’re going for first place on this one. Ready? Why are some people wrongly removed from voter registration rolls in your state?
Vanessa: Oh, the lady for the win. Thank you, Rosemary.
Rosemary: I wanted it.
Vanessa: All right. Let’s hear it. What’s going on in Arizona?
Rosemary: One of the main reasons why folks here in Arizona are removed from their rolls is because of mobility, right? When you move, updating your voter registration is not the top of your mind, especially in off years when there aren’t any major elections that are happening. And so, when you move and the county sends you pieces of election mail that you don’t respond to, which, by the way, here in Arizona, election mail cannot be forwarded. So even if you go to the post office and you update your address information there, election mail cannot be forwarded to your new address.
So when you move and you’re sent election mail and it’s returned to the county as undeliverable, if you don’t respond to a certain number of election pieces of mail, then the county begins a process of taking you off of the voter registration rolls. And I think it’s important to note that indigenous black and brown communities are highly affected by this because, for a number of reasons, they are at a higher percentage of moving. For a number of reasons, they, you know, are affected by job insecurity or whatever the reason may be that they are forced to move more often than other populations of folks, so this affects our black and brown indigenous communities a lot here.
Another thing that we need to reconcile here in Arizona is the fact that undeliverable mail is also a major issue for our Native American community here. About 96% of non-Native American voters here in Arizona live on a mail delivery route from the U.S. Postal Service compared to about only 26% of Native American voters who live on a mail delivery route, and that’s in Maricopa and Pima, which are our largest counties in the state. When you go outside of that, that number drops to 18%. So it’s a huge issue for our Native American community here, not even adding to the fact that we have residential and home addresses, the confusing issues around that.
And then the last thing I’ll say about voter purges here in Arizona is that this legislative session here in Arizona, as in many other states, we’ve seen a full-scale attack on voting, on democracy with a number of bills being introduced that make it harder for folks to vote. Here in Arizona, there was one that was introduced to remove folks from the permanent early voting list if you do not vote for a certain number of elections. And so our lawmakers are trying to do whatever they can to create barriers where barriers do not need to be created. We need to be expanding options for voters, not making it more difficult.
Vanessa: Voting is not a use-it-or-lose-it coupon. Like, let’s be clear. That’s not how this works. Speaking of, I wanna hear from you, Mr. Ifeolu, about what’s going on. Why are people removed from the polls?
Ifeolu: Similar to Arizona, the biggest thing that people are removed or the reason that’s being listed is the inactivity. So if a voter has not voted in six years, they’ll end up being removed. So what we saw is a lot of people, we had a huge, like, massive turnout in the 2008 presidential election, but then people didn’t really show up and they found themselves purged in the later years, especially coming towards, like, 2018 or coming towards 2016 even some folks were purged. People were showing up to the polls and were seeing that they weren’t registered anymore.
Similarly, there are some very specific demographics that are affected by this really. Lower-income folks, folks who are younger, who are more transient. Folks who are older actually because older folks are not necessarily as mobile. Even though they tend to be more reliable voters, they may not necessarily be as mobile. And so if they’re missing out on a couple of elections and they might not even realize or remember that it’s something that happened. A lot of people don’t realize that a purge is something that happens until they go to the polls on election day and see that they’re not registered and then they’re forced to vote provisionally. That’s a really big issue.
Communities that are more transient, like our black and brown communities, those are communities that are affected. And also when you just think about the fact that the Secretary of State sends you this little postcard and you’re supposed to send it back to say that you still live at that address. So if I’m a kid at college, then my mom may not forward me that piece of mail. And so I could get purged just for being at college or at grad school. They may want to remain an Ohio voter because they consider Ohio to be home, but they’re not getting that mail forwarded or they’re not realizing they might be getting removed from the rolls.
Vanessa: It is not supposed to be a punitive system either, you know, especially people are trying their best. I can imagine trying their best. Really, you gotta take a day off work, you gotta figure out your new bus route, you gotta do all of these things, and then to get there and be told, “No, you’re not on the list?” It’s also not a VIP club. You get to vote. There are provisional ballots, to be clear, but, still, to get down there and have to face that, it’s really problematic. And so, Ben, tell us, from your perspective, why are people being removed from the rolls?
Ben: It’s similar here in Michigan. Inactivity is the top reason that folks are siding for wanting to clean up the lists. And here in Michigan, we have the QVF, it’s a qualified voter file. You know, one thing I wanted to note is it’s worked very well in terms of the system for verifying ballots, which I know we addressed earlier. It’s a system that I think folks can trust. But one thing that we are sort of watching right now in Michigan is there have been some lawsuits filed, now, one was fortunately just dismissed in court, but targeting communities to remove folks from the voter list, and that’s something that we’re always concerned about.
And, in particular, actually, the Secretary of State, who I consider a really strong ally in the struggle for voting rights, mentioned that as many as 500,000 people could be removed from the lists during the next, I guess, you could say clean-up session if you will. She mentioned that in September, and, fortunately, she, I think, made the right call to really address those 500,000 or so folks after the election. Now we’re in that period where we’re actually seeing a legislation introduced to try and clean up the voter file. And so what happens, as Ifeolu mentioned, voters receive a postcard and it’s sort of been coming on them to return that postcard.
We wanna take a look at that list to see, you know, how does this affect our friends in different communities, how does it affect black and brown voters, how does it affect older voters? Where do most of the people live on this list of voters that might be affected? Because I think there is potential for a lot of problems, so I think we wanna be vigilant about that. And so we’re gonna be watching that legislation as it moves forward. I know it just passed out of committees, so it’s gonna be something to watch. I think that we all want to see the QVF up-to-date and clean, but, at the same time, we wanna make sure that folks are not disenfranchised in the process.
Ifeolu: Now, one thing I think that’s important to realize there, like, in Ohio this year, after the 2020 election, we actually purged almost 98,000 voters from the rolls. But when you look at that, there are 10,000 voters that ended up casting ballots that were on the list to be purged and cast ballots in November. I think that’s one thing that’s so important to realize when we’re talking about voter purging and inactive voters, is that sometimes we hear this rhetoric of, like, abandoned addresses or abandoned voting addresses. And that’s not really accurate when you have 10,000 Ohio voters who showed up to vote in November in 2020, who were set to be purged for inactivity. It’s just a rhetoric that I think it’s really problematic. We can’t call them abandoned voter addresses when these people are perfectly able to show up to vote.
Vanessa: Wow. Ten thousand is nothing to joke about. That’s a lot. So this has been our edition of #AVLExplains. I have one more question for you all just so I can ring my bell again. Which state, and I’ve traveled to all of your states, which state has the best food?
Ben: Michigan, you have the Coney dogs, you have Mediterranean food. We have Detroit-style pizza. It’s definitely Michigan.
Vanessa: Look at Ben making the sale.
Ifeolu: I’m not a huge pierogi person, but plenty of people are pierogi people and, like, Cleveland, all about the pierogis. Sauerkraut, all of that, Cleveland Kraut.
Vanessa: It’s legit. Nice. Look at Rosemary. Come on, Rosemary. You have Arizona.
Rosemary: I mean, we have some of the best Mexican food you’ll be able to find. We have food from 22 different federally recognized tribes here, so we have indigenous food that you’re not gonna get elsewhere. Arizona, if you want some good tasty food, Vanessa, whenever you’re out here, I will happily take you out.
Vanessa: I will fly out there for that. That’s amazing. All right. Well, thank you all for playing our first edition of #AVLExplains. We are so thankful, honestly, on behalf of The Leadership Conference, on behalf of Americans and democracy. Thank you for doing the hard work that you’re doing to really change these structures that have historically led to voter suppression and been used for voter suppression. This has been an amazing conversation. Again, thank you to the incredible Rosemary.
Rosemary: Thank you, Vanessa.
Vanessa: To the incredible Ifeolu, thank you so much for joining us. And to the amazing Ben Gardner, thanks for joining on “Pod for the Cause.”
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 @PodForTheCause. And also, you can now text us. Text Civil Rights, that’s two words, Civil Rights to 40649 to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until next time, I’m Vanessa Gonzalez. Thanks for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”