POLITICS
12/19/2018 05:00 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2018

If We're Talking About The 2018 Midterms, We Have To Talk About Voter Suppression

The 2018 midterms were filled with accusations of voter suppression. How did we get there?

“Shut Out” is a three-part podcast series produced by HuffPost. We don’t make it easy to vote in America. A citizen can be disenfranchised for a typo, a scrawled signature or for a felony. Then there are the politicians who tout “voter fraud” when it’s a proven myth. Host Catherine Saint Louis and reporter Sam Levine examine why we should be worried about the weakening of our democracy with 2020 on the horizon. 

Subscribe to the podcast here, or listen wherever you get your podcasts. (Previously: Episode 1, Episode 2.)

Marsha Appling-Nunez has voted in many election cycles in Georgia, but in November, for the first time in her life, she was unsure if state officials were going to let her vote.

It wasn’t because of anything Appling-Nunez did wrong. Way before the election, Appling-Nunez moved from Fulton County to DeKalb County and filled out a new voter registration form. But election officials made a typo when they entered her new voter registration, and Marsha Appling-Nunez suddenly became Marsha Ppling-Nunez.

A Georgia law requires a person’s voter registration information to exactly match what’s on file with the state’s motor vehicle agency or the federal Social Security Administration. Because Appling-Nunez’s information didn’t match, the state told her she had to prove her eligibility.

Georgia’s policy came under heavy scrutiny before this year’s midterm election after an Associated Press investigation found that there were 53,000 people like Appling-Nunez whose voter registration was in limbo.

Almost 70 percent of the people on that list were black.

In Episode 3 of “Shut Out,” we traveled to Georgia, which one civil rights lawyer called “the belly of the beast when it comes to voter suppression.” We talked with Appling-Nunez and other voters about the challenges they faced getting registered and the emotional toll of voter suppression.

We also examined how politicians justified “exact match” in Georgia and other voting restrictions. Voter fraud may be a myth, but it’s as persistent as a zombie.  

EPISODE 3: THE DAY I STARTED TO FIGHT

Catherine Saint Louis: Back before the midterms, before winter settled in, alarming news out of Georgia made national headlines. The Associated Press reported that 53,000 voter registrations were on hold at the office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

All it took for a registration to be considered incomplete was a typo or a misplaced hyphen.

For Marsha Appling-Nunez, the problem was one missing letter.

Marsha Appling-Nunez: The first letter of my name, Appling. The A.

Saint Louis: The registration system had her as Ppling-Nunez, rather than Appling-Nunez.

Appling-Nunez: Something like that. (Laughs). I was a Ppling instead of an Appling.

Saint Louis: Marsha is a teacher at a technical college in greater Atlanta. And she’s a longtime voter. But because of that typo, her voter registration was nowhere to be found when she checked online.

Appling-Nunez: They couldn’t find me.

Saint Louis: What did you think at that point?

Appling-Nunez: I had to, you know, tell the conspiracy theorist deep inside me to be quiet. (Laugh.) I really kind of felt like, “What’s going on here?”

Saint Louis: As you’ll recall, in October, Brian Kemp wasn’t just overseeing elections in Georgia. He was also a Republican candidate for governor up against Stacey Abrams. She was running to become the first black woman in that role.

For months before the midterms, Brian Kemp had been accused of rigging the election by suppressing certain voters.

Especially black voters. They made up roughly 70 percent of the 53,000 stalled registrations.

This November, when I went to Georgia, plenty of voters gave me an earful about those pending registrations.

Voter 1: If you’re gonna cheat or doing things like that to make sure that certain people don’t have a voice, it’s just not right.

Voter 2: How can that possibly happen in America?

Voter 3: That’s not cool at all. No ma’am. When you’re scared, yeah, you’ll resort to, um, doing little tactics.

Saint Louis: But Marsha Appling-Nunez? She preferred to give Brian Kemp the benefit of the doubt.

Appling-Nunez: When you’re reading these things in the newspaper or listening to them on podcasts or you catch the evening news, you think, “Huh, well maybe they just didn’t change their address or maybe they’re not registered to vote and they thought they had.” You try to give the benefit of the doubt.   

Saint Louis: For Marsha, at least at first, it felt better to think this was a mix-up.

Appling-Nunez: I didn’t want to believe that I would be a victim of voter suppression. I mean, I’ve been voting since I was 18. So I was kind of shocked when I had suddenly been no longer a registered voter.

Saint Louis: African-Americans made up a third of Georgians. Yet, as Marsha later found out, an overwhelming majority of the voters whose registrations were targeted were black. Black like her. Black like me.

“There’s another commonality that you have with 70 percent of 53,000 voters whose registrations are on hold in Georgia.”  

Appling-Nunez: There is. I so didn’t want to believe that.  

Saint Louis: What?

Appling-Nunez: Did they put me in pending on purpose? Is it because of how I voted in the past? You know? Is it really because I’m African-American?

Saint Louis: Marsha knows how to spell her last name, of course. What she doesn’t know is how her name got decapitated.                                                        

It used to be that black people could be sure they couldn’t vote because of the color of their skin. From the 1890s straight through to the ’60s.

But these days, a more complicated kind of disenfranchisement wears on people. And more often than not, minority voters are impacted.

LaTosha Brown: I’m glad voting is easy for some folks. Voting should be easy. You know, I actually applaud those that are feeling that voting is easy. Rah-rah. Good for you, right? (Laugh.) But I can tell you that there are millions of people in this country that voting is not easy for, right? That it is hard work. And it shouldn’t be.

Saint Louis: That’s LaTosha Brown. She co-founded Black Voters Matter, an organization that helps get out the vote across the South. We’ll hear more from her later in the episode.

Saint Louis: You said something earlier that I’d love to go back to, Marsha. You said that you didn’t want to believe that you were a victim of voter suppression. It feels like you wanted to not believe that because believing that would hurt. Am I right?

Appling-Nunez: Yeah, I mean people have sacrificed and died for the right for blacks to vote, for women to vote. And it kind of was a slap in the face. I’m hurt that I’m lumped into people that they feel aren’t worthy of having a voice.

Saint Louis: From HuffPost, this is “Shut Out,” a podcast about the fight to vote in America. I’m your host, Catherine Saint Louis. This is Episode 3, “The Day I Started to Fight.”

Maybe where you live, voting is uncomplicated. Registering is straightforward. You show up at your polling place and you vote. But plenty of Americans face obstacles. And some are ridiculous barriers to democracy.

In some states, a sloppy signature on a mail-in ballot can disqualify a voter. In others, if a voter sits out an election or two, their name can be taken off the rolls, so they get shut out on Election Day.

And in Georgia, as Marsha found out, a tiny typo can jeopardize the ballot of an American citizen.

These tactics aren’t what we think of when we think of voter suppression. Today’s barriers aren’t literacy tests that are impossible to pass. But these seemingly innocuous hurdles matter. And they shut people out of the ballot box.

Lawyers like Kristen Clarke will tell you such tactics are deliberate.

Kristen Clarke: These are officials who have resurrected Jim Crow tactics in a different form. These are officials who really want to take us back in time, back to a bygone era, and are bent on using any tactic or scheme that they can to lock voters of color out of the ballot box.

Saint Louis: Clarke is the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group that has challenged many of these laws.  

Clarke: Georgia is kind of the belly of the beast when it comes to voter suppression in our country right now.

Saint Louis: Here’s what happened with Marsha. About two years ago, she moved from Fulton County to DeKalb. She made sure to fill out a change of address form for her voter registration. And that’s when the trouble started.

DeKalb County, where Marsha moved, told us her name got entered wrong in the state database because of a “clerical error.”

Her misspelled last name tripped up Georgia’s “exact match” system. It requires voter information to precisely match a database. They sent Marsha a letter telling her she needed to confirm her identity ― but Marsha says she never got it.      

Marsha has a valid Georgia ID. But she’d been flagged because the exact match system found a discrepancy. It didn’t matter that she had entered the correct information when she registered.

A state’s database can be...

Clarke:  Riddled with errors.

Saint Louis: Or sometimes officials…

Clarke: Don’t do the very best job ensuring they’re capturing information accurately.

Saint Louis: That’s how an eligible voter like Marsha gets flagged as suspicious. Once she is, it’s up to her to fix an error she didn’t make. Georgia gave her 26 months to fix the issue or be kicked off the rolls.

Clarke: Exact match is a restrictive, burdensome, unnecessary obstacle that is designed to keep people off the registration rolls.

Saint Louis: Why unnecessary?

Clarke: Because it’s using minutiae as a basis to lock people out of the ballot box.

Saint Louis: What’s amazing is that none of this is new. Georgia has had a version of “exact match” since Kemp took office in 2010.

Clarke: And when we dug in and looked who was being impacted we found that it was impacting Latinos and impacting African-Americans and immigrant communities.  

Saint Louis: So it’s no secret that “exact match” disproportionately targets minority voters. The Lawyers’ Committee sued Kemp over this very fact.

Clarke: Despite the fact that we sued him and we won, and despite the evidence we put forward showing this was discriminatory, here he is two years later moving forward with the same scheme.

Saint Louis: Part of what opened the floodgates for voting restrictions that target minority voters is a Supreme Court decision in 2013.

Chief Justice John Roberts: ... have the opinion of the court this morning in case 12-96, Shelby County vs. Holder.

Saint Louis: We got into Shelby County vs. Holder in Episode 1. That’s when the Voting Rights Act was gutted.

Before, if any county in Georgia wanted to make a voting change, they had to first get it cleared by the Justice Department or a federal court. That helped stop discrimination in its tracks. But after 2013, the gloves were off.

So by now you’re probably thinking, how do they justify it? How do politicians get away with discrimination against black and brown voters they worry will vote Democratic? What’s their palatable, tweetable rationale?  

It’s voter fraud. Some Republicans have made careers out of scaring people into thinking that they need to be afraid. Very afraid of hordes of people determined to cast illegal votes and steal elections.

But the thing is... widespread voter fraud? It’s a myth. It’s a lie.

And yet, no politician has made a bigger deal of voter fraud than Kris Kobach of Kansas. In 2010, when Kobach was campaigning to become secretary of state, he drummed up fears that the great citizens of Kansas were stealing dead people’s identities ― all to cast fraudulent ballots. He said it was just too easy.

Kris Kobach: “Why would it be so easy? Because in Kansas we don’t have a photo ID rule, and secondly, in Kansas, we are not consistently, and in a timely manner, removing from our voter rolls the names of dead individuals.”

Saint Louis: Kobach named one such perp. He’s practically gleeful that he found him out.  

Kobach: Well, it turns out Alfred K. Brewer, according to the Social Security Administration, was born on July 25, 1904. Turned out he died May 6, 1996, and Alfred K. Brewer voted in the 2010 primary election.

Saint Louis: But, as it turns out, Albert K. Brewer was no ghost voter. He wasn’t a fraud. He was a Wichita man in his 70s. And he was breathing when he voted in that primary. It was his father, Albert Brewer Sr., who had passed away in 1996.

Kobach’s example fell apart. Evidence of voter fraud is actually really hard to find. Here’s Sam Levine, HuffPost’s reporter on voting rights.

Sam Levine: You’re saying that it is really cut-and-dried here that if you take a hard look at the evidence, there is no substantial evidence that voter fraud is a widespread problem. There are incidences of it. People do knowingly cast fraudulent votes where they do intentionally deceive. But if you look at it on the whole, it’s not widespread.

Lorraine Minnite: That’s correct.

Saint Louis: That’s the professor who wrote the book on voter fraud. Her name is Lorraine Minnite. She spent years searching for cases nationwide and found, well, very few. Like dozens of cases out of millions of votes cast.

Voter fraud is not an epidemic. It’s a tall, tall tale.

Yet, voter fraud doesn’t die. It’s kind of like a zombie.

And there’s a reason for that. Here’s Sam again.

Levine: Why has that fear, that concern, this talk of voter fraud persisted when the evidence is so clear?

Minnite: Well, I think you hit on it when you said the word “fear.” We don’t think rationally when we’re afraid. And politicians know that. So stoking fears of voter fraud has become a strategy for the Republican Party these days. It’s meant to mobilize people around the idea that, in fact, we need stricter laws or that “illegals” are going to pollute an election and undermine the outcome and steal your vote.

Saint Louis: Once people are worried about voter fraud ― which isn’t a widespread problem ― then officials can enact all sorts of voting changes that cause actual problems.

And that’s how politicians justify kicking an eligible voter off the voter rolls because they didn’t participate in an election or two. They tell constituents… Maintaining voter rolls is our duty in a world of rampant voter fraud!

Rampant voter fraud has also been used to justify Georgia’s exact match system. Here’s Kristen Clarke, again.

Clarke: Folks like Brian Kemp and others have been pushing this vote fraud narrative that has created a lot of noise and distraction. There is really no basis for the voter suppression tactics that we’re seeing in this era. If people press pause and peel the layers back, I think they’d find that it is pretty cruel what we do to people, penalizing them for mere typos…

Saint Louis: Marsha was caught in bureaucratic purgatory for weeks, unsure if she had fixed the error online.

“How many hours would you estimate it took you to get your registration active again?”

Appling-Nunez: A good five or six hours total. That’s checking in the afternoon or when I’m shutting the house down for the evening, and logging on real quick to check my voter registration status.

Saint Louis: Marsha checked her browser’s history and estimated she had gone on Georgia’s voter registration site or Vote.org to fix the error…

Appling-Nunez: 12 to 15 times.

Saint Louis: Who has time for this?

Appling-Nunez: Quite frankly, if I were working a full 40-hour workweek, I would not have been able to be on top of this.  

Saint Louis: The county says they became aware of the error on Oct. 8 and fixed it. But it wasn’t until weeks later that Marsha knew she was in the clear. Her voter registration card was postmarked on Oct. 25. Weeks after the registration deadline had passed.

We talked to election officials about Marsha’s case. It’s unclear why it took Marsha so many attempts to fix the error.

Plenty of eligible voters don’t have Marsha’s persistence. And if they don’t, in roughly two years, they won’t be on the rolls anymore.

Appling-Nunez: It wasn’t a one-and-done deal, and it’s supposed to be.

Saint Louis: Brian Kemp has flatly rejected any accusation that he’s suppressing the vote.

Brian Kemp: And this farce about voter suppression and people being held from being on the rolls and being able to vote is absolutely not true.

Saint Louis: That’s Kemp at a gubernatorial debate in October. What he doesn’t say is how many Georgians he’s purged from the voter rolls during his tenure.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with states updating their rolls so only eligible voters are listed. But Brian Kemp was particularly aggressive about removing voters. It wasn’t always clear that purged voters had moved or died or become ineligible. He just removed them.  

Kemp took office in 2010. From 2012 to 2016, Georgia removed 1.5 million voters from the rolls.

That’s twice as many as were removed from an earlier period from 2008 to 2012. That’s from a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

In October, Eboni Williams grilled him about it on Fox News. He wouldn’t say whether there needs to be a good-faith belief that a voter moved before purging them. He just repeated that he was following the law.   

Brian Kemp likes to say…

Kemp: No one is being denied the right to vote. It’s never been easier to register in our state.

Saint Louis: Tell that to Nicole Tinson. She had a hell of a time getting registered. In July, Nicole moved to Atlanta from L.A. She runs a company that helps graduates from historically black colleges get jobs. She’s one of those organized people who get a new license and register to vote before other newcomers have even unpacked their boxes.

Nicole Tinson: The first time I attempted to register in the state of Georgia was utilizing the “Rock the Vote” website.

Saint Louis: She would go on to register five more times before the October deadline. She was worried. When she went online to check if she was all set, it would just say…

Tinson: No results found.

Saint Louis: Nicole registered both online and with paper applications. That’s important because Kemp has said that online applicants who have a state-issued ID don’t have the problems registering that paper applicants do.

But Nicole did it by the book, and she still waited three months.

Tinson: Oh, absolutely. I’ve never had this kind of trouble registering anywhere I’ve lived.

Saint Louis: Not in L.A. Not in Texas. In the last debate before midterms, Stacey Abrams herself pinpointed the problem.

Stacey Abrams: In the state of Georgia, you are not required to timely process applications.

Saint Louis: We reached out to Fulton County for comment. Their director of registration and elections said a “precinct card can take six weeks to send.”

Nicole’s application took double the typical time. No one was intentionally trying to suppress Nicole’s vote. Slow bureaucracy might be to blame. But Nicole didn’t know that. She was convinced that Kemp was intentionally trying to keep her from voting in a historic election.

Voter suppression has consequences. Ballots don’t get cast. American citizens get shut out of voting. But for Marsha Appling-Nunez…

Appling-Nunez: This kind of lit that fire.

Saint Louis: Now she realizes she’s a target. As she puts it, she ticks every box Republicans worry about.

Appling-Nunez: I’m African-American. I have a Hispanic hyphenated last name. It was like, every possible flare that could go off for them, to make sure I couldn’t vote, was flipping ticked.

Saint Louis: And now Marsha realizes there’s a fight to vote in America, and she’d better suit up: 2020 is coming, and the next election, she says, she’s not just going to vote herself. She’s going to get others registered too.

Voter suppression is firing up the resistance. Here’s Minnite again.

Minnite: When people are told or they believe that there’s an effort to take their vote away, it can cause mobilization of people to then say, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re not going to take my vote away.” It can backfire.

Saint Louis: There are groups on the ground who help people get IDs to be able to vote or get a ride to the polls.

In Georgia, several groups like Black Voters Matter work to increase participation.

The day before the election, I went to the home of LaTosha Brown, who we heard from earlier in the show. Sitting by a fire in her living room, she was taking nonstop calls in between bites of her first meal of the day. A bowl of cereal.

Before her phone rang again, I asked her about today’s barriers to the ballot box. 

Brown: I think that there is a problem that now you’re having people in place, like the Republicans, that are putting all these voter suppression tactics in place that are impacting our community, and then we’re just supposed to work harder? Hell no. We shouldn’t have to work harder to vote. At this point, we’ve got to do something different to make sure we are ensuring democracy. That there’s a permanence.

Saint Louis: She told me that Black Voters Matter has two strategies. One short-term and one for the long haul. And in the eleventh hour before an election, voter mobilization is crucial.

The day before Election Day, I rode the Black Voters Matter bus down to Americus, Georgia, to meet volunteers. They were coordinating rides to the polls. Here’s Wanda Mosley of Black Voters Matter…

Wanda Mosley: Election Day is tomorrow, as we all know. They are getting it done down in southwest Georgia. This effort that you all have coordinated is absolutely amazing. This is what it looks like when a community comes together.

Saint Louis: The volunteers were about to start knocking on neighbors’ doors to make sure everyone had a way to get to the polls.

Mosley: But before we go, got to get in a couple quick little chants. Are y’all ready? Everybody warm up their vocal cords. Are we all ready? Here we go. When I say “black voters,” you say “matter.” Black voters!

Crowd: Matter.

Mosley: Black voters!

Crowd: Matter.

Saint Louis: Before they set out, I spoke to a gentleman named Bobby Fuse. In the parking lot, he had heard me ask a neighbor about voter suppression, and he was having none of it.

Bobby Fuse: Suppression is such a nice word and very politically correct.

Saint Louis: But, Bobby Fuse says, it’s actually…

Fuse: The same old story of keeping the Negro from voting. Point blank, whatever you have to do.

Saint Louis: To his mind, nobody ever stopped trying to get between him and the ballot box. He sees a clear line between today’s struggle to vote and the struggle a half a century ago.

“Can I ask how old you are, sir?”

Fuse: “I’m 66 years old, and I’ve been on this battle since 1968.”

Saint Louis: And the battle isn’t over.

In the long term, LaTosha Brown told me the best way to fight voter suppression is ...

Brown: To get people in office that are aligned with our values, and they believe in black folks’ right to vote.

Saint Louis: Let that sink in.  

Only certain politicians believe in black folks’ right to vote. Only certain politicians believe every American citizen deserves to cast a ballot.

It sounds incredible to say it in 2018. But this is where we are at.

In November, as ballot-counting stretched past Election Day, President Trump tweeted that Florida shouldn’t consider any votes tallied after Nov. 6. That’s right. On Veterans Day, our president suggested that we not count the ballots of soldiers. Never mind that legally they could be accepted for five more days.  

It shouldn’t be a partisan issue to say, Let every vote be counted.

Brown: We’ve got to shift the power dynamic. This is our country. Those politicians don’t tell us what to do. We tell them what to do. If they cannot carry out the tenets of democracy as they were elected to do, they’ve got to go. They are not the ones who choose. We choose.

Saint Louis: Long before LaTosha Brown founded Black Voters Matter in 2016 with Cliff Albright, she was a singer. Her grandmother taught her songs that now she sings to voters she meets.

Brown: For me, when I’m angry, I sing. When I’m feeling really, really depressed, I sing. When I feel like I need to be charged up, I sing, because music has a particular kind of way that it moves my spirit.

“Well, the first thing I did right was the day I started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on. Hold on.”

That’s a civil rights song that I learned from my grandmother but that people used just as a message. Just hold on. We just got to hold on. We just got to hold on, and we’ve got to believe. And we also can’t get so disenchanted with this process that we pull out. That’s the purpose of it. The purpose of this voter suppression is for people just to throw their hands up and say, “Forget it.”

 

Saint Louis: You’ve been listening to “Shut Out,” a podcast about the fight to vote in America. I’m your host, Catherine Saint Louis.

This episode was written and reported by Sam Levine, HuffPost’s voting rights reporter, and me.    

We are edited by Samantha Storey.

I produced this episode with studio assistance from Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.

Special thanks to Paul Josephson, Jo Confino, Taryn Finley, Emily Peck, Otis Gray, Morgan Givens and the Kansas Democrats.

And a huge thumbs up to HuffPost’s Marc Janks, who managed this production with grace.

“Shut Out” is a production of HuffPost

Show Notes 

Excerpts from the Supreme Court’s public sessions were provided by Oyez, an archive devoted to making these sessions accessible to everyone. 

Several books and articles informed this episode. Here are a few:

The Myth of Voter Fraud by Lorraine Minnite

CONVERSATIONS