Q&A: How Democrats Can Win the Voter Suppression Argument

AP/Orlin Wagner

Democrat Jason Kander gives his concession speech at an election watch party in Kansas City after losing to Senator Roy Blunt. 

 

On the national stage, nobody really knew who Democrat Jason Kander was until last fall, when his upstart campaign against Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt ran an ad of the U.S. Army veteran assembling an AR-15 rifle blindfolded, while explaining why he supports background checks for gun purchases. It quickly went viral and became one of the most successful campaign ads of the 2016 cycle.

Although he lost his race, Kander came within just a few points of Blunt in a state that Trump carried by nearly 20 points. He was quickly tabbed as a rising Democratic star. After the election, Kander, who had served as the Missouri secretary of state for the past four years, admonished state Republican legislators for passing photo ID legislation in 2016. “I know some folks here and across the state try to pretend other elections issues would be solved by a new photo ID requirement, but that’s just not true,” Kander said.

Now, Kander has a new day job. He’s leading Let America Vote, a group launched Wednesday that aims not only to fight voter suppression in the court of law, but also “in the court of public opinion.” The organization’s board includes Martin Luther King III, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, and former Obama press secretary Josh Earnest.

The American Prospect spoke with Kander on Thursday about the new effort and how to turn the tables on the Republican’s crusade to suppress the vote.

What follows is an edited and condensed version of that interview.

Justin Miller: I’ll start off with a somewhat blunt question: The left already has several organizations focused on combating voter suppression. Why do we need yet another organization—and what role will it play?

Jason Kander: There are a lot of good organizations that are doing a lot of important work, and what is different about Let America Vote is we are really filling a need in the space of trying to win the political argument against voter suppression. Traditionally, in the instances where voter-suppression laws have been stopped or a voter-suppression campaign slowed down, it has happened in courts of law. A lot of important effort has gone into that.

That legal fight is going to continue to be very important overall. But we’re also facing a reality where now the Department of Justice—under Sessions—is essentially going to switch sides and suddenly no longer going to be fighting against voter suppression but more likely to be a collaborator with it. On top of that, you have President Trump in a position to appoint judges.

So for all those reasons, while the legal fight will continue to be important, it has also become essential that we start waging and winning the public debate against voter suppression—and that’s not really something that has been done in a broad national way up until now. That’s really where Let America Vote comes in. Right now, in most places in the country, if a state legislator decides to file a piece of legislation that is nakedly obvious in its intent to suppress the vote, there’s a very limited political consequence for doing that. That needs to change. And Let America Vote is going to be anywhere across the country where we need to be to make sure there is a political consequence.

Right now, Republicans have control of the narrative in terms of framing voter-ID laws as a bulwark against supposed voter fraud—despite there being no evidence of voter fraud. They’ve been able to use that rhetoric to push through lots of voter suppression laws in recent years. And four in five Americans, according to a Gallup poll, support the idea of voter-ID laws. Republicans are winning the political argument right now. So how do you change that?

I wouldn’t even say it’s fair to say one side is winning the political argument on this and the other side is losing, so much as one side has been waging the political argument and the other side just really hasn’t been engaged much at all in the political arguments. It’s really been pretty exclusively a legal challenge. So that’s why it’s important: The beginning to winning any argument is to start engaging in that argument.

If you look at what’s happened in other places—in Minnesota, where photo ID was on the ballot [in 2012], folks in Minnesota made their argument and they actually beat it. If you look at what I’ve done in Missouri the last few years, the legislature last year passed a photo-ID bill but because of public pressure they had to put in some provisions that the Democrats in the state legislature wanted and make some concessions. I would have preferred that they hadn’t passed anything at all, but that came after years of them trying to get this done. My predecessor for secretary of state and I both very forcefully made the argument as to why this was a bad idea, and that kept them from being able to anything for a long time despite having a Republican supermajority in the legislature.

So whether it’s simply making the argument that suppressing the vote is un-American or talking about the enormous cost of it, whether it’s talking about that you’re more likely to get struck by lightning in this country than you are to commit voter-impersonation fraud—we just need to make our argument.

What are you thoughts on Donald Trump pledging a federal investigation into allegations of voter fraud?

The president of the United States is telling one of the biggest lies a president has ever told. It’s just made up, the idea that there was widespread voter fraud in the election—he just completely made it up. And he’s doing it not to pacify his own insecurities; he’s doing it because he wants to ease the process of passing voter-suppression laws across the country so that he has a better chance of getting re-elected and that Republicans have a better chance of winning elections in 2018. But when that’s the case, when the president of the United States is running a voter-suppression campaign out of the White House, and actively working to undermine faith and confidence in our democracy, then what choice do we have but to fight back against that with everything we can?

Over and over again, proponents of voter-suppression laws have dishonestly couched them in having something to do with voter fraud. Well, we know that a photo-ID law’s claim to prevent voter-impersonation fraud is a solution in search of a problem because voter-impersonation fraud in my state of Missouri is something that there’s never been a reported case of. The problem that they’re really trying to solve is the folks who are less likely to have that ID don’t tend to vote for Republicans, and that’s a problem for Republicans. So if they can keep them from being able to vote, problem solved.

When you engage in the issue that way, it becomes much more clear to people that this is not about voter fraud at all. It’s about partisan politics. And the vast majority of voters—whether they are Democrats or Republicans—they don’t have any interest in seeing election authorities or politicians change the rules solely to get one party or the other an advantage, and that’s what voter-suppression laws are about.

You were a secretary of state in Missouri. What is your biggest takeaway from that vantage point about the impact of voter suppression laws and also where the voting system needs to be improved?

There are a lot of improvements that need to be made to the system—and I attempted a lot of them in Missouri and some were stopped by the legislature. In some cases I was able to make those changes in spite of a hostile legislature. Missouri became the 16th state in the country to put the voter registration form online. We also had a bipartisan commission on early voting and even got a Republican who was a vice chair of the House elections committee to file a bill on early voting. Now the Republican legislature has shut that down, so Missouri continues to be one of the 15 states that doesn’t have some form of no-excuse advance voting.

There’s no question that what we should be doing is making it easier and more convenient for eligible voters to vote. But before we can do that—and there are a lot of good organizations working on that—it’s incredibly important that we simultaneously work to make sure that the vote is not taken away.

What’s the strategy for Let America Vote?

It’s a nationwide fight but the battles are fought locally. So if you look at a map right now, voter-suppression proposals are popping up all over the place. There’s bill in the Arkansas house that’s already been passed. There’s legislation moving in Virginia, Iowa, and North Dakota, and Michigan. So you’ll see us go into those places and make sure we focus on making our argument against the legislation. Everywhere across the country where voter-suppression efforts pop up, Let America Vote will be there with paid and earned media, as well as grassroots organizing to fight against it.

Explain to me what grassroots organizing means to you?

Well, [Wednesday] we launched. As of now, we have yet to send out an email to our list (which is a pretty big list), and all we’ve done so far is issue a press release, done some interviews, and done some social media. And thousands of people have already signed up to volunteer all over the country. Thousands of people, without even being asked, have donated already just in the last 24 hours. Across the country, people who care about this know that it is one of the most important issues to holding this democracy together over the next four years. We are getting emails from folks saying, “Wherever you go, I will get on a plane and go there.” That’s what grassroots organizing is to me—they care about this and they want to talk to their friends and neighbors about this. 

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