The dismantling of our postal service. Only allowing one ballot box per county. Five-plus-hour lines in the rain. Armed officers modeling Trump masks. Installing de facto poll taxes in Florida. We’ve all seen the headlines, and these are just some of the ways that voter suppression and disenfranchisement has bled into the 2020 election cycle.
But this is nothing new; in fact, the only thing different about this election is that we have just gotten better at calling it out. Unfortunately, voter suppression is about as American as apple pie, going all the way back to the founding of our country. Through their new documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, directors Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus detail the history of suppression and disenfranchisement in America and explore the direct effect it is having on our elections today.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Cortés and Garbus explore some of the most talked about moments from their new documentary including working with Stacey Abrams and the monumental fight in Florida to return voting rights to more than a million formerly incarcerated citizens. Leading up to next week’s election, they also detail what we’ve been seeing so far in a race where more than 50 million Americans have already gone to the polls.
Awards Daily: I’m curious how the two of you joined as creative partners for the film? Was there an exact moment when you both realized you wanted to create a film documenting voter suppression in America?
Liz Garbus: Like many other people, after the 2016 election we were trying to understand our electoral college and democratic system and low voter turnout. But it really started with Stacey Abrams. She wanted to make a film that dealt with the history of voter suppression. She came to New York to meet with different filmmakers. I was incredibly interested in this topic but I had never quite figured out what the beating heart would be to voter audiences to connect to without it feeling like a history lesson. I reached out to Lisa right away and then the three of us joined forces.
Lisa Cortés: It was two words and two fabulous women. It was Stacey Abrams and the opportunity to work with her and Liz. It made this a project that was undeniable for my involvement.
AD: Before you began this journey, how well-versed were you on the history of voter suppression in America and what was the research process like?
LC: I think what’s great is that both Liz and I came to the project with a deep understanding of the history, but there were certainly moments of revelation. One that stands out is that in 2013 with the Shelby County v. Holder ruling, where nine states that had been protected under the Voting Rights Act with preclearance. That ruling gutted that preclearance.
What is so interesting is that hours afterwards the states were ready to roll back and institute incredibly strict voter ID laws. We saw it in Texas and we saw it in North Carolina. That was definitely a moment of our history that we both found to be indicative of the aggressive, egregious nature of voter suppression.
LG: Both Lisa and I have family histories in the fight to end voter suppression. My father was an ACLU lawyer in the 1960s working on voters’ rights access cases. Lisa’s grandfather has a history of activism and liberation. For both of us this history was something we were very much aware of but still the boldness and unadorned power-grabs is still something that took us aback.
AD: The film lays out how complicated the fight to end voter suppression has become with fifty different states all enacting their own unique laws. Was there anything in particular that shocked you the most?
LG: Lisa touched on how in 2013 within twelve hours Texas was ready to pass all these laws. What is remarkable about this moment is that there are rationales for laws like voter fraud that are not supported by any evidence but they have been repeated over and over for so long that the lie becomes the truth and it is used as justification for oppression.
Something like exact match where your signature has to look exactly like it did from one place to the next. Poll workers don’t have any experience in evaluating signature matches. It’s just an excuse to invalidate ballots without any expertise. These laws are covering another agenda and what we’ve learned throughout the process is that it’s important to call it out.
To circle back to something that Stacey stressed is that often times when voters show up at the polls if they’re told there is a problem with their registration, these things are not accidents; overwhelmingly these things are not your fault. These are the results of a system that has set up these hurdles to exercise this basic right. Once you understand this isn’t your fault, then you can see what is happening very clearly.
AD: One of my favorite moments of the film was when you followed a young man in Arizona who was reaching out to people in his community. He was constantly met with people who felt like the political process wasn’t for them. For those watching the film, how would you suggest they convince people in their own community that their voice is essential?
LC: That scene took place in Phoenix, Ariz., with a young man named Alexis and the organization Lucha. Many of the members of Lucha come from mixed documented households, and these young people have taken it upon themselves to be active participants with civic engagement. They go from parking lot to parking lot trying to register new voters. Their success rate varies but it never daunts their spirit; they keep going and I think they are illustrative of the hope for our country and the fact that progress takes time. You can’t give up. There is a consistency that has to happen as citizens with our engagement with the process. We need to remember that it is an election season and that it’s not just about voting for the President. It’s about the down-ballot candidates and issues that relate to our communities.
LG: One of the things that Stacey says is that if your vote didn’t matter they wouldn’t be trying so hard to take it away from you. I was reminded of that yesterday when I was listening to President Obama’s speech in Pennsylvania. He was talking about how we only have about 50% voter suppression. What would it look like if we had 60% or 70% or 90%? What kind of world can we create with all of those young people that don’t vote and all of the folks that have been disenfranchised if they were able to vote? It’s something to think about in terms of how much power we actually have with all of the uncast, non-participating citizens.
AD: Going back to 2018, I remember being so proud and hopeful when Amendment Four, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, passed overwhelmingly in Florida with bipartisan support. Since then, even though so many people worked tirelessly for its success, we’ve seen the local government do everything in its power to stop it. What do you say to those who feel so despondent about the process now and where do they go from here?
LG: The voters passed this amendment and then the state legislature intervened and said that they would have to pay off their fines in order to vote which is essentially a poll tax and then that went to the courts. When we interviewed people about voting, one of the things that they said was that in the Democratic party, there hasn’t been enough attention to state-level elections. Now people are waking up to the fact that they actually matter a lot. Voting rights are controlled by your secretary of state and the state legislature who can overrule these things.
What I think Amendment Four did was lay the groundwork for a future Florida where there is a receptive state legislature that can help execute the will of the voters outside of Republican stacked courts. I know that’s a vague answer but there’s a fundamental right that’s being acknowledged; having served your time for a felony should not disenfranchise you. Because of the poll tax that has been stopped, but the fundamental acknowledgement of the right is important and hopefully in a different climate it can be fully realized.
LC: For the 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida, the fight continues. Desmond Meade [The Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition] has spearheaded that movement and he is still going to be able to vote for the first time in this election. They have been able to register over 70,000 returning citizens and pay their fines. This is still continuing and even though they have been daunted but the initiative and the movement is not going away.
AD: Even though the election is two weeks away we are already witnessing historic turnout with over 30 million people already having cast their ballot. What have you noticed about the process thus far?
LG: A lot of states have passed new laws in order to make it easier for folks to vote during a pandemic. What happened then was an onslaught of litigation to push back against those laws. In Texas, we saw a limitation on how many ballot boxes per county. Why can’t we have more ballot boxes during a pandemic so people can cast their ballots more safely? We’ve seen what has happened with the Postal Service and the Trump administration undermining confidence in mail-in balloting during the pandemic.
On the other hand, what we find heartening is that because voting is different this election, people are becoming so much more knowledgeable on how to vote, what their options are, and what precautions to take. I don’t think most people, including myself, knew what a provisional ballot was before this moment. Because there is so much disinformation, there is also an onslaught of good information and people are able to parse the difference between the two in this information warfare environment.
AD: One of the perks of the film being released on a platform like Amazon is that it’s able to immediately reach millions of people right before the election as opposed a more traditional release. What kind of reactions have you seen from audiences since the film’s release?
LC: One of the things that we’ve been able to do with the film is meet people where they are. On National Voter Registration Day, the film was available to stream outside of the paywall. There was also a multi-state bus tour with pop-up screenings where we were able to register people around the country. What we’re continuing to hear from folks is people not being aware how interconnected the past is to our present moment. What we are seeing now is a repeat with a different face but with the same intention. In the past, we saw tactics of intimidation like dogs and the poll tax and now in Florida we are seeing a de facto poll tax.
The concept of this horror film is that through time you are cutting the head off of this monster, but the monster keeps showing up. I think it is that continuum of history that most people have enjoyed, how the film has put that picture together in a digestible way.
‘All In: The Fight for Democracy’ is available to stream on Amazon Prime