On August 6, 2020, the Pulitzer Center’s Talks @ Pulitzer Focus on Justice online series welcomed journalist grantee Brittany Gibson, attorney Tori Wenger from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Dr. Brenda C. Williams of Sumter, South Carolina, to share their thoughts and expertise on the impacts of systemic voter suppression and harsh voter ID laws. Throughout their research and experience, they've found these practices negatively affect voter participation throughout the United States and disproportionately harm marginalized communities.
Gibson is a British-American journalist currently serving as a writing fellow at The American Prospect magazine in Washington, D.C. She previously interned with the New York Daily News and CNN International in London. She has explored voter suppression in her Pulitzer Center-supported project, "Battle to the Ballot Box."
Wenger is a Skadden Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund focusing on voting rights. She graduated from New York University School of Law in 2019 where she was a Furman Public Policy Scholar and recipient of the Vanderbilt Medal for outstanding contributions to the law school community.
Williams is a retired primary care physician from Savannah, GA, who soon after retirement established The Family Unit, an organization focused on improving the living conditions of impoverished people in Sumter. Inspired by President Barack Obama in 2008, she and The Family Unit members started registering people to vote in mobile home parks, low-income housing projects, and at the local jail.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation and Question & Answer segment of the webinar. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Brittany Gibson: The timing of today's webinars is really apt, as it's the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Also, with the recent passing of John Lewis, I think many of us are looking back at the stories of Selma and the fight for voting rights to be free, fair and accessible to people across the country. When I first started this reporting on voting rights and voter suppression, it was an underreported story. And now, even the President of the United States is tweeting about absentee ballots, so this topic has become mainstream. When I did start this reporting in early February, I was not an expert by any means. I don't have formal training in voting rights and this is something I found more through curiosity. My curiosity really drove this reporting and drove me to seek out the stories that I found. I really relied on ambassadors to my reporting, my sources for these stories, and that includes Dr. Williams, who gave me the on the ground situation in South Carolina, and Tori, who gives me the big picture of everything happening in the country as well as where that fits in the U.S.’s voting history. I want to start with Dr. Williams: You have a very long history of activism and advocating for people's voting rights back from when you had your practice and you would ask your patients, “Have you registered to vote?” Could you tell me a little bit about what it was like when you were first registering people back in 2008?
Dr. Brenda Williams: Registering people to vote in the state of South Carolina hasn't been easy. However, it is extremely important. My husband and I are physicians in Sumter County, South Carolina, and we have always registered our patients to vote. We started our private practice in June of 1982. We were born and raised in Georgia, and we were well accustomed to prejudice, racism, and disenfranchisement, even as children. So, when we started our practice 32 years ago, we took the opportunity to register people when they came into our office by asking them where they were registered voters and explaining to them why it's very important to vote. As a result, it became a common practice at Excelsior Medical Clinic to enfranchise our patients who were about 85 percent African Americans. In 2008, when Barack Obama ran, we were very impressed and wanted to go outside the walls of our medical practice into the community. We looked for areas that were historically disenfranchised such as low income housing projects, trailer parks, and the jail, and we focused primarily on those individuals who had been left out, whose voices were not heard. It was and still is a journey, instructing people about voting and about primaries and general elections. As a matter of fact, about 98 percent of the individuals incarcerated pre-trial have never voted in their lives. Before 2008, Nolan and Sumter Counties had never registered people in their jails. So it still is a journey.
BG: Tori, how common is it to find communities like Dr. Williams’s around the country where people are either disengaged or excluded from the franchise because of laws or procedures?
Tori Wenger: I'll start by saying that our entire democracy would look a lot different if we had a Dr. Williams in every community across the United States. Unfortunately, it's all too common that there are communities that are not reached by the political system and that are not given equal access to the ballot. That unequal access comes from a few things that we see top down: how voting rights are defined or aren't defined at the national level, and the fact that they're administered at such a local level. While we feel the right to vote is fundamental in the United States, nowhere in the constitution does it say that you have a fundamental right to vote. We have multiple amendments to the constitution, such as you can't be denied the right to vote because of race, age, or gender, but that affirmative phrase is not in there anywhere. That's why the passage of the Voting Rights Act 55 years ago was so fundamental to giving litigators or community organizers more tools to protect disenfranchised communities’ right to vote. Unfortunately, even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the right to vote has been chipped away at in recent years through court decisions. Further, right now, the communities that Dr. Williams has been dedicating her time to are the same ones that are being undercounted on the census. The census determines their access to power and to funds, and all of these things compound and build off a history of racial and class-based discrimination. Access to power is so intrinsic to who has access to the right to vote and in order to get access to power, you have to vote in the first place. Too much of this work is left to folks like Dr. Williams or to litigators, rather than the government. Our leaders are too often focused on maintaining their power over making sure that every voter has equal access to a fundamental, constitutional right to vote.
BG: You mentioned some recent court decisions, newly implemented laws that are restricting the right to vote. Why are they able to be passed and implemented even though we have the Voting Rights Act?
TW: Unfortunately, each chapter of American history has seen new forms of voter intimidation and voter suppression, and often these efforts have been directed at communities of black voters. A tipping point in our history of voting rights was in 2013, when the Supreme Court heard the Shelby County case regarding certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In the Act, there was a formula that was used to decide which states or jurisdictions had such an egregious history of voter suppression that they needed to, essentially, get permission from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or administrative procedures. In the Shelby County decision, the Supreme Court determined that the formula was unconstitutional. However, they didn't get rid of that idea that some states might be so bad that they have to have a voting procedure pre-cleared by the federal government before they can enact it, which is called preclearance. That concept prevails, even post-Shelby, but Congress hasn't acted to create a new formula that would make certain states required to go through that extra step. Thus, preclearance doesn't apply to anyone right now. Without preclearance, we've lost this huge tool where the federal government could take proactive measures to stop bad laws or procedures from going into effect before the harm was done. The Voting Rights Act was such an incredible accomplishment 55 years ago, and really was the strongest piece of civil rights legislation we've seen in this country. It’s not the tool it once was, but it could be again if action was taken.
BG: So preclearance is still there, it just doesn't apply to any states. And Dr. Williams, you've seen these changes happen in real time as you've been working in your community. Tell me a little about what it's been like navigating these changes, such as the closing of polling stations and the voter ID laws, in real time?
BW: Yeah, navigating the voting rights changes in South Carolina has been very difficult. In 2011, South Carolina wanted to have voter ID as a prerequisite for voters. My husband and I immediately recognized that this would be problematic for many of our patients, many of whom were elderly people who were delivered by midwives in rural South Carolina and never had formal birth certificates. Why? Black individuals were considered less than normal citizens. So the birth of many people went unrecorded, or when it went recorded, there were so many errors. Across the nation, people asked, “What's the big deal? Anybody can get a photo ID.” Well, it wasn't so easy: Individuals had to go through the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a birth certificate which was a problem for at least 200 of our patients who never had a birth certificate. My husband and I had to hire attorneys to take patients through family court to get the necessary documentation, then go to the Social Security Office and have them do their paperwork, and then get those persons to the DMV. It was and still is a process. We talked about the absentee vote. Well, those in jail could vote only by absentee. We ended up registering over 7,000 pre-trial inmates at the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center. We were honored to have the director of the jail enthusiastically work with us to educate the voters. We even bought hundreds of little copies of the United State Constitution and Declaration of Independence to distribute to inmates and correctional officers, many of whom were not familiar with the electoral process. So regarding voting in South Carolina, we're still dealing with the absentee vote issue.
BG: I think a lot of people will be shocked at how much effort and money it took you, as a concerned outside activist, to try and help these people vote. Let's zero in on absentee voting, because while you used it to help pre-trial inmates vote, a lot of people are going to be using this system due to the coronavirus. Could you walk us through the steps that it takes to cast an absentee ballot in South Carolina?
BW: Yes, I certainly will. First of all, those who wish to vote by way of absentee have to meet one of eighteen categories, and, as a result, many people are excluded from voting via absentee ballot. Absentee voting also requires the individual to put in an application, which they then have to either call, fax, mail or email in to the voter registration office. Then, when voting time comes 30 days before the election, the voter has to get a ballot and find someone to witness the signing of that ballot. I have witnessed the signing of the absentee ballot for thousands of inmates, but on one absentee ballot I forgot to put my own address as a witness on the voter’s ballot. As a result, that inmate’s ballot was not counted. I felt that was unconstitutional and wrong, and I started on a journey to find out how many absentee ballots were discarded in South Carolina because of that witness signature being absent. I found that thousands of votes were discarded because of the absence of a witness signature, or something equally as trivial. The state of South Carolina's Election Commission agrees that the absentee ballot witness signature has no value but, even as of now, we are battling them in court. With the COVID-19 pandemic happening, the governor of South Carolina enacted a mandate saying that for the June primary only, the witness signature would no longer be mandatory. And also, voters could vote by absentee ballot without having to fit one of those eighteen categories
BG: That really shows how a small procedure or bureaucratic decision can disenfranchise a lot of people. A global pandemic is not one of those pre approved excuses for absentee ballots, and there are many other states with similar systems. So many people were transitioning to this absentee system for their own safety or the safety of vulnerable people in their families. Tori, could you expand a little more about what else we're seeing across the country? Voting rights lawyers say that it's always busy during election years, but this year in particular I feel a different sense of urgency with this voting right’s litigation.
TW: There is absolutely new urgency because people's lives are literally on the line here. We're seeing the right to vote being put in tension with people's right to protect their health and the health of their families and their whole communities. This generation has never seen a virus like this, and we're learning new things about it every day. So, we're also trying to figure out a whole new way of voting for many of us. Many of the tools that would make voting a lot easier, such as voting by mail, are already opportunities in many states—but it’s a privileged opportunity that's exclusive to some. Voting by mail is a lot easier for folks who live with someone who is able to sign as their witness versus someone who lives alone and must self-isolate due to the virus. Having COVID-19 added to the mix meant that we had to consider what voting looks like in a crisis and how we will make sure that folks can exercise that right safely. What's been a frustration and led to litigation in places like South Carolina or Louisiana is that those states are either dragging their heels when it comes to expanding vote by mail, or they are making it confusing and burdensome for folks. For example, they're keeping the witness requirements intact, or they're allowing some people with medical preconditions to vote via mail but not their family members who could transmit the virus to them. And that list of states with voting litigation correlates a lot with the list of states that would have had to go through a preclearance requirement before the Shelby decision. Trying to exercise your right to vote shouldn't be that burdensome on a practical level, and not in what should be a flourishing democracy. It just should be simple, and people should be able to utilize tools that already exist and just need to be expanded.
BG: Yeah, absolutely. Are there any legal cases you'd like to highlight? Maybe cases that have successfully expanded access to voting, or something else you're looking for within the litigation space?
TW: The list of cases is far more expansive than I could even keep track of, but from the legal defense fund’s docket alone we've had almost half a dozen cases just specific to the pandemic in South Carolina, Alabama, or Louisiana. In these states, filing of litigation has sometimes led to legislative action. In South Carolina, we had to go to court because while the legislature did expand some of the voting qualifications for the earlier primary elections, it didn't remove the witness requirement. For so many of these states where we've seen a little bit of adjustment, such as the primaries being delayed, or in-person early voting days being expanded, those changes were made for the early elections only. So even if we had little wins in the courts, in legislatures, or through executive actions, there's still ambiguity in many states about what the protections are going to be in November. In the meantime, we've seen the virus spread and the rates of death skyrocket especially in Black and brown communities, so we shouldn't have further concerns about what our plan to vote is going to be. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a wave of solutions at any level of our political process, but we have seen some gains and we're keeping up momentum to try to make sure that the same level of access, if not better access, is available for voters across all states and local communities.
BW: Coronavirus affected our own family, too. When we go out into the community to register people and to educate them about voting and politics, we have a double whammy with dealing with COVID-19. We have to maintain social distancing. My husband and I were out of commission for at least a month dealing with COVID, which threw behind our work in the jails. Fortunately, there haven't been many inmates in Sumter who have been infected, but there have been some correctional officers and sheriff deputies who have been unfortunately infected with COVID. So we have been thrown into this situation where our jobs, our duties, and our responsibilities to help the public with voting have been put on the back burner so we can deal with educating people about COVID.
BG: That makes a lot of sense. It's impossible to ignore that the demographics most affected by COVID and the demographics most affected by voter suppression are quite overlapping. There have been some primaries and elections across the country during COVID, including in South Carolina. Dr. Williams, what have we learned and what can we learn for November based on what we've seen in elections so far this summer?
BW: Well, we've learned quite a bit. I started sending letters to the directors of the voter registration and elections’ offices throughout the state. I asked questions about how prepared their offices are and how poll workers are being trained. Poll workers will be inundated with things they have to do because of COVID-19. They'll be handling ballots and helping people voting in person. It's very urgent to educate those poll workers and also to pay them more money. They have to get more training, so they have to work longer hours and deserve better pay. A storm of voters who have never voted by absentee ballot before will be using absentee ballots now because of COVID. So I asked the directors, “Do you think that you have enough time to do adequate, sufficient, and efficient counting of votes on one day, November 3rd?” The overwhelming answer they gave is no. When I asked what to do to make voting easier and smoother for the voters, the Election Commission, along with the voter registration offices, said to put it out on social media. We need to get South Carolinian politicians to pass a law that will allow absentee votes to be counted at least a week before Election Day. Some folks recommend counting the votes two weeks before Election Day. It's going to take a hell of a lot of patience and time to count those votes. So the legislators need to take steps right now to pass this legislation.
BG: Tori, is there anything else you'd like to add to that looking forward to November?
TW: Building off of those same themes, as voters you should make sure you know your voting rights and whether they've made voting by mail more accessible to you, and then make a plan early. If you're planning on voting in person, figure out early what time you plan to vote, find out where your polling site is, and that it hasn't changed. Figuring out how to exercise the full extent of your voting rights is work that can be done now rather than waiting until November 2nd. I think, too, we need more Dr. Williams in the world. Maybe you don't have the capacity to register 7,000 voters in the community jail, but you can at least check in with your friends about whether or not they have a plan to vote, or if you are comfortable and have the health you can volunteer to be a poll worker in your community. That's the extra credit work that builds and shifts power in the country, and also allows folks to feel more empowered with their voting rights. That work can spread access to the ballot to others. We're learning new habits about how to vote, but hopefully thinking about voting occurs more year round, which is a good habit that can come out of a crisis moment.
BG: Someone in the audience asked what we can do to support efforts to combat voter suppression and to help get out the vote. In the absence of foreign election monitors, is there space for us to help in person by phone or with research media efforts?
TW: Absolutely. There are a variety of different ways that you can support efforts. The Legal Defense Fund has ways for you to be a channel to our partners who are going to be doing some ground work in their communities. We're trying to see which things we can do remotely, what ways we can support voters, even from our computers. So many of the issues we face are super local, such as polling sites being moved on the eve of an election and that not being articulated to the public. So if you can figure out how to tune into local election officials’ meetings and hold your local officials accountable, that kind of work you can do in your own community. Go online right now and check your registration status and make sure it hasn't changed, that you weren't purged for one reason or another. So this is a moment to be double checking those things, making your plan and then spreading all that knowledge.
BW: If you're not registered, go ahead and register now. There are ways to find out if your vote was counted. There is a special forum called the voter registration and elections management systems. It will let you know the election that you voted in and whether or not your vote was counted. If your vote was not counted, there is a reason behind that. We talked about the importance of the ballot, and whether you're a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, you have the right to vote on your convictions.
BG: I'll end with one final question. When we talk about voting rights and we're talking about absentee and mail-in ballots, one thing that gets talked about a lot is voter fraud. Our President has tweeted numerous times about how there's tremendous voter fraud with absentee and mail-in ballots. We know that voter fraud does not exist at the scale or the degree that he is talking about, and the Brennan Center has found that it is virtually non-existent. One study from 2000 to 2014 looked at a billion ballots cast, and found 31 cases of voter fraud. Another study estimated that it's at about a 0.00003 percent of occurrences. So considering all of that, when President Trump talks about it this way, how does it affect our elections, just having that rhetoric out there?
BW: Lies upon lies. Do a fact check, anytime someone comes out with any kind of statement, fact check it. It reads steadily, and you'll find what the real truth is. I feel very confident that Americans have enough sense to look beyond the deceit, and we'll show it when we go to the polls.
TW: If we could start with a baseline of the truth, we can spend so much more time equipping voters with the tools that they need instead of spending time unwriting falsehoods or reshifting the angle towards real data about how folks are being impacted by this crisis and how that overlaps with their access to the ballot. Having a baseline of truth, rather than getting caught in the weeds of lies and falsehoods, gives us so much more room to do good work and get voters out and to participate ourselves. And we have folks like Dr. Williams, who are doing that good work every day. And everyone who's watching now who is a registered voter can do that work to build power and to get to the ballot box November 3rd and beyond.
BG: Great, thank you both so much.