The Big Lie's long tail
Elections and democracy itself are being questioned, with a majority of Republicans believing the myths about voter fraud, an issue that remains the civil rights issue of our time.
Hey y’all, it’s been too long. I am revamping this blog newsletter thing with a new sense of purpose: to explore the gaps between movement politics, journalism and policy-making.
It is a broad mission but I hope to focus locally in North Carolina when appropriate by exploring where and what progressive movements are pushing for and bringing light and understanding to them from a policy and political perspective. The struggle here is to make it as intensely local as possible and not get lost in the national noise. That means exploring storylines rooted in and around where I live in North Carolina as well as teasing out how national storylines in other places around movements are covered and how the politics around them get warped and distorted from reality.
A couple examples: exploring ‘defund the police’ from a practical rather than political lens, looking at living wage policy in other countries and looking at how money in politics warps outcomes in an unseen way. This isn’t wholly novel, but I think there is an ever-growing space between “news” — what’s happening today I should know about — and what I really need to know to be able to interpret said news.
The goal is to push for a better world and a saner, fact-based discussion of the issues we should be focused on. And I want to do it more often. As inspiration, I want to take the great Rusty Foster’s IT IS ONLY NEWSLETTER mantra to heart. Experiments need to be done, blown up and tried again. Easier said than done.
I plan to go slow, one Q-A at a time and peel back deeper trends as I go along in essays/pieces that tie together other reporting. Teed up in the coming weeks: writer Barry Yeoman on all things Alamance County and progressive activist Blair Reeves on his volunteer, one-man operation fundraising for a progressive North Carolina future.
Some personal news that might affect all this: my wife and I just bought a house in Durham, N.C., making my move back to N.C. two years ago more permanent. Durham is fascinating and vibrant, a progressive community that is struggling to define the term and living out all of what it means to push for equity in a visceral way (explored more below). This Tar Heel is proud to call the place home despite the fact that the wrong shade of blue abounds and there are far too many Land Rovers with New York plates. I want to face head on that I am now a gentrifier, with everything that word and phenomenon entails. And so I’ll also be reporting out what I’ve been calling in my head the Obligations of a Gentrifier, understanding the capitalistic forces that led me to where I am and, more broadly, to so many like me and the obligations we should bring to our new communities and new neighbors.
Durham is as good a place as any to explore this. I’ve already been recommended Barry Yeoman’s piece on Durham and gentrification from a few years back. What else is required reading in NC and more broadly on gentrification across the country? Hit me up in the comments or at email@example.com.
But today, I scratch a gnawing itch on voting and voting rights — an argument that should have no two sides about it for those of us who believe in democracy and recognize the need to embrace a basic civil right and preserve it.
The Big Lie gets its day in court
There was a moment in 2018 when Republicans had to put aside the rhetoric and saber rattling on all the “voter fraud” they have long alleged in American elections and bring cold, hard facts to defend their position.
Unlike on Fox News where propaganda with a loose or non-existent relationship to reality is given free rein, in a courtroom there are rules. Evidence needs to be introduced correctly, supported and laid out in a way that leads a judge or jury to a verdict. Courts don’t always get it right, even on appeal, but they are our society’s best shot at differentiating fact from fiction — especially because the participants are under oath and attorneys can be cited for contempt if they make arguments rooted in a lie, especially a Big One.
A seven-day trial in 2018 put then Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — later President Trump’s chief voter fraud consigliere — in such a position. As recounted in Jessica Huseman’s masterful ProPublica piece, Kobach, after years of broad allegations that elections were being stolen across the country by undocumented immigrants, had a chance to defend a new Kansas voter fraud law in court that could serve as the factual basis for the GOP’s persistent campaign against what they have repeatedly called America’s “rigged” system, ground former President Trump was more than happy to take advantage of for years to sow doubt in any election result he didn’t like.
At the time, Kansas’ new law that voters had to present proof of citizenship in order to vote had come under legal challenge, and so Kobach, arguing on behalf of the state, had to show that the law was justified.
Huseman sets the stakes:
For Kobach, the trial should’ve been a moment of glory. He’s been arguing for a decade that voter fraud is a national calamity. Much of his career has been built on this issue, along with his fervent opposition to illegal immigration. (His claim is that unlawful immigrants are precisely the ones voting illegally.) Kobach, who also co-chaired the Trump administration’s short-lived commission on voter fraud, is perhaps the individual most identified with the cause of sniffing out and eradicating phony voter registration. He’s got a gilded resume, with degrees from Harvard University, Yale Law School and the University of Oxford, and is seen as both the intellect behind the cause and its prime advocate. Kobach has written voter laws in other jurisdictions and defended them in court. If anybody ever had time to marshal facts and arguments before a trial, it was Kobach.
Kobach and his team relied on two star witnesses: Bond villain-named Hans von Spakovsky, who continues to push the issue at the Heritage Foundation and through mainstream media, and Jesse Richman, an Old Dominion University professor.
Judge Julie Robinson found Kobach’s arguments in bad faith and cited him for contempt for failing to adhere to her past rulings amid other antics and smaller lies to cover for the bigger one as the trial progressed.
And as for the underlying facts his side presented:
Kobach’s strongest evidence of non-citizen registration was anemic at best: Over a 20-year period, fewer than 40 non-citizens had attempted to register in one Kansas county that had 130,000 voters. Most of those 40 improper registrations were the result of mistakes or confusion rather than intentional attempts to mislead, and only five of the 40 managed to cast a vote.
Five illegal votes in a 20-year period is more than zero — but not by much. In striking down the law, Robinson said that the state of Kansas had not cracked down on illegal voting but, instead, prevented its own citizens from casting a vote. “This evidence leads the Court to the conclusion that tens of thousands of eligible citizens were blocked from registration before this Court’s preliminary injunction, and that the process of completing the registration process was burdensome for them,” Robinson wrote in denouncing the new Kansas law that required proof of citizenship to vote.
Now, the dozens of state bills aimed at discouraging legal voting under another name have been shown to affect, most of all, voters of color, meaning that the idea of democracy itself is on trial in state legislatures.
It is true that large swaths of the country believe the last election was rigged. It is also undeniably true that it was not rigged, according to non-partisan observers and those who ran the elections themselves. They are not just Democrats. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is a Republican whose career is likely over amid his steadfast refusal to sow doubt or overturn the last election at Trump’s request. Maricopa County’s GOP board in Arizona denounced a Trump-backed audit from a mysterious group called the Cyber Ninjas that seems to have predetermined the outcome of an insane and laughable — were it not so serious — “audit” of votes there.
In the rare cases when real voter fraud does occur, it’s not the voters who are doing the cheating.
I looked up the cases that formed the backbone of the state Republican attorneys general who sought to overturn elections in other states. While their argument was never heard for lack of merit by the conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court, the attorneys general cited five primary instances of voter fraud that they claimed show elections are being stolen. In each of those cases — including a wild one in New Jersey and the infamous 2018 GOP congressional primary in North Carolina — it was candidates or their operatives committing the fraud, not the voters.
That is not to say that there shouldn’t be reasonable safeguards in place to ensure people can easily and securely vote. For instance, long early voting periods and a federal holiday for voting would help ensure more people vote in person, in addition to automatic voter registration and enough voting machines so long lines don’t happen, according to the Brennan Center. In essence, making it easier to vote — not harder — would ensure more people participate and that candidates’ illegal and fraudulent schemes to change voters’ mail-in ballots or stuff ballot boxes, as rare as those are, would be far more difficult.
But, for some reason, I don’t see many politicians introducing a “Stop Lying, Cheating Politicians By Encouraging Easy Voting Act of 2021” being introduced anytime soon.
Why do you think that is?
North Carolina’s place in all this
Given that context, that’s why even seemingly less egregious voting bills deserve extra scrutiny.
North Carolina’s (Usually) Most Reasonable Conservative, Rick Henderson, endorsed a partisan power play in the form of a voting bill that would allow the legislature to overturn the outcome of lawsuits it doesn’t like from the state Board of Elections, which is now controlled by appointees of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. The bill, SB 360, which passed the Senate on a party line vote and will now be heard in the House, is hardly analogous to the most egregious attacks on voting rights we’re seeing elsewhere.
But the reasoning to support it is dangerous. Henderson wrote this in The Assembly:
If Democrats want to signal they’re serious about election integrity, shouldn’t they support some form of checks and balances on a board that can unilaterally change election rules?...
Weaponizing election management for partisan gain leads to distrust in government. It can fuel conspiracy theories. A recent Locke-Civitas poll of likely 2022 general election voters asked if they believed next year’s elections in North Carolina would be “free and fair.” Only 49 percent said yes; 40 percent said no.
A mere 27 percent of Republican respondents expect free and fair elections next year. A slight plurality of unaffiliated voters were confident in the outcome—45 percent yes, 43 percent no. And a hefty 73 percent of Democrats thought the elections would be well-run.
We can’t maintain a healthy civic culture if large chunks of voters generally fear that the game is rigged for whomever pulls the levers of power.
So how did Democrats in North Carolina supposedly weaponize election management in 2020? In response to litigation brought against the board, election officials agreed to rules so that more people could vote by mail and more easily correct accidental mistakes in the face of an unprecedented pandemic and a postmaster general playing partisan politics with the mail system. In short, they made sure — originally with the support of their Republican colleagues — that more votes could be counted, even if the mail was slow. The results? A Board of Elections analysis showed the vote by mail rules yielded roughly equal votes from registered Republicans and Democrats. Thousands were able to “cure” or ensure their votes were counted instead of being tossed out like they usually are if some minor technicality arises.
In short, more people were able to vote. In the end, Trump won North Carolina and the GOP dominated statehouse races in part because people had relatively easy access to the polls, mail-in ballots or provisional ballots if they showed up at the wrong precinct. More people being able to vote does not solely help Democrats, and it certainly didn’t do so in North Carolina’s last election.
Henderson is certainly right that election results weaponized for partisan gain sows doubt in those elections. But it’s not the Democrats sowing those seeds. Former President Trump apparently will continue to do so through the 2022 midterms, saying he was cheated and perpetuating the Big Lie in hopes that his loss in 2016 will help the GOP retake the House and Senate. Off Twitter, he send out nearly daily emails to supporters (and masochists like me who still receive them) about the issue.
In the meantime, failing to acknowledge the link between the Big Lie and GOP legislatures’ attempts to discourage legal voting only emboldens the fabulists who are using that lie to pad their pockets and cynically deceive voters.
I hope that more in the GOP who have been adamant that Trump’s lies around the elections should not be allowed to go unchallenged will feel the same for new voting laws that pretend to cure a problem that doesn’t exist. Even if you’re no fan of the GOP or conservatives, having half the country or more out on a Q-uest to prove a conspiracy theory is destructive for all of us.
It took too many engaging in a fantasy for too long that led to the death and destruction we saw at the Capitol on January 6. We should make sure that faced with something more innocuous — like North Carolina’s relatively benign legislative proposal to give the legislature control over lawsuits brought against the executive branch — we don’t forget the real reason doubt in elections has become a political issue in the first place.
I take no joy in the GOP’s descent into madness. There are those within the party fighting the fight, most notably Liz Cheney. But there are others, too. Barbara Comstock, a former GOP congresswoman, certainly knows the issue first-hand.
Enraging and/or inspiring
A quick addendum to all the voting stuff: making democracy easier to access unfortunately seems to break down along racial lines:
Eric Boehlert at Press Run has sought to become something of a polygraph on mainstream media’s inability to grapple with big issues and its love of Both Sides journalism. Boehlert recently excoriated the NYT’s Nate Cohn for advancing such a narrative.
After detailing the many threats Republicans pose to democracy, Cohn announces Both Sides are to blame for the political suspicion in this country, or the rising sectarianism. Cohn notes that the term is often associated with violent, religious-based conflicts, such as Sunnis vs. Shiites in Iraq, or Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland. He stresses that with sectarianism, there becomes clearly defined generational hatred between identity groups: "It’s the antagonistic feelings between the groups, more than differences over ideas, that drive sectarian conflict."
Cohn frames American politics today as the battle between two unbending factions. But it's not. Instead, it features a struggle between a mainstream center-left party trying to pass an infrastructure bill, and a party that has divorced itself from reality, embraced a cult-like devotion to a pathological liar in Trump, opposes free and fair elections (and welcomes foreign interference), sponsored a deadly insurrection, surrendered itself to lunatic ravings of a conspiratorial Q cabal, and spent the last year spreading deadly misinformation about a public health crisis.
A new body cam law
In North Carolina, we haven’t yet had enough good debate about our astoundingly bad body camera law, in which state statute dictates that footage from body cams can only be released by court order. An absence of information sows community distrust. Officers are entrusted with a gun and a badge and can take away life and liberty faster than anyone else employed by a government agency. Questions surrounding police conduct should be met with full transparency — meaning the full release of body cam footage when police shoot anyone for any reason.
Yesterday, prosecutors said police were justified in shooting Andrew Brown Jr. while they sought to serve a warrant on him in his driveway in Elizabeth City.
As Carolina Press previously reported on the remarks of civil rights leader Reverend William Barber:
In Barber’s remarks, he also called for passage of a state law proposed in early April, prior to Brown’s shooting. S.B. 510 would replace the current requirement for a superior court judge to approve the release of police body camera and dashboard camera footage. It would instead create a 48-hour waiting period prior to the automatic release of such footage upon request, unless expressly blocked by a judge.
“There’s no reason that the General Assembly in this state can’t pass that bill and open up these body cameras to public record,” Barber said. “There’s no reason. The only reason would be they too don’t want to know the truth.
The decisive account of Durham’s polarization
All good yarns, especially Southern ones, should start at the beginning. Jeffrey Billman starts his decisive yarn for The Assembly about the firing of the county’s Black county manager and festering racial tension here by explaining the history:
For Durham today, the landscape is one of deep inequity, fueled by a history of white paternalism and broken promises. McKoy, the professor and former state assistant secretary of commerce, says the divide is driven by choices, even well-intentioned ones.
In wealthy areas, local governments create more wealth by investing in public-private partnerships to renovate commercial buildings and tax incentives to lure corporations. But investments in lower-income communities of color “tend to further tether you to the social services,” McKoy said. Government leaders look at struggling neighborhoods and see the need for things like low-income housing and basketball courts and community centers.
“There’s nothing wrong with a community center, but you can’t build an economy from a community center,” he told me. “There’s a very paternalistic way by which capital flows to the community.”
All politics is local. Or should be.
The Democratic Party, on the whole, isn’t progressive. As mismanagement and missed opportunities in Democratic states and cities from New York to California abound, true progressives are needed at the local level, a piece I had missed in Jacobin argues.
The Left needs to start dreaming of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes and Jamaal Bowmans in governors’ mansions, lording over legislatures and doing the work to make their own states hubs of ambitious leftist policies. Governors control tens of billions of dollars; a different governor in New York could have enacted a single-payer health care plan for the state by now. Leftists in power can grow the influence of unions, pursue innovative public transportation projects, erect far more permanently and deeply affordable housing, and tax the rich aggressively to pay for it.
Or, what stopped me on Twitter recently….