The Media Today

Who has voted, and who hasn’t

October 28, 2020

Yesterday, with a week to go until Election Day (whatever those words mean these days), the US Elections Project—a website maintained by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida—reported that the number of votes cast by mail and in-person in the 2020 presidential race already equates to more than half of the total turnout in 2016. In some states, the proportion is higher—Texas, for instance, is nearly at ninety percent of its 2016 turnout—with young and Black voters, in particular, voting early in great numbers. Many election experts (including McDonald) are confident that overall 2020 turnout will smash recent records, though others have been more circumspect—this, after all, is not a normal year for voting behavior. It’s also hard to know to what extent, if any, the voting picture favors Joe Biden over President Trump—in many ways, things look good for Democrats, but registered Republicans appear to be closing the gap in some places, and more Republicans than Democrats are expected to vote in person on Election Day (which, thanks in no small part to Trump’s lies, means something to them). It remains to be seen, too, how coverage of those who’ve voted already will affect the behavior of those who haven’t. While the early voting picture isn’t speculative, exactly, it’s incomplete. We’re watching it get drawn in real time, and doing some of the drawing ourselves.

In recent days and weeks, long lines outside polling places have become a dominant image in the news cycle. In many quarters, a narrative of surging enthusiasm has attached to such images—but that is far from the only factor. Many voters are turning up in person because they haven’t yet received their mail-in ballot or because they don’t trust that it will be processed expeditiously by the Postal Service and/or fairly by state election officials; as multiple outlets have reported, some are so worried that they’ve booked expensive cross-country flights home so they can vote in person. Malfunctioning voting technology—in Georgia and Texas, for example—has made the lines worse, as have garden-variety understaffing and incompetence. On Monday, a story in the New York Times ripped New York City’s election administration as a nepotistic “relic” of Tammany Hall; as long lines formed in her district in the city, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters that “there’d be national coverage” if the same thing happened in a swing state. Voter suppression, she added, doesn’t have to be intentional. “If the line to your polling place is so long that you don’t vote, that is a form of disenfranchisement.”

Related: At Voters’ Service

The lines outside polling places don’t so much reflect democracy in action as democracy in inaction—a reminder of America’s long, shameful history of voter suppression and its ongoing manifestations. “There is a media narrative that I’m seeing—that I would hope that we don’t normalize—saying things like ‘Voters say it’s worth it,’” Errin Haines, of The 19th*, said on a recent episode of The Takeaway. “Of course, it’s worth it… but that doesn’t mean that people should have to wait in line for nine hours to exercise their right as a citizen.” In other democracies, waiting nine hours to vote isn’t considered to be normal. (I am from the UK and have never had to wait to vote; when there have been delays at British polling stations, they’ve mostly been considered abnormal, and scandalous.) When you add in the context of a surging viral pandemic that makes physical exposure to other people highly risky, long lines aren’t just a democratic disgrace, but actively and immediately dangerous.

The lines, at least, are physically visible to the news media. Other, routine voter-suppression tactics targeting Black and other voters of color—restrictive voter ID laws, for instance, or the disproportionate rejection of Black voters’ mail-in ballots—are less so, but no less urgent. In 2013, the Supreme Court enabled such tactics when it gutted the Voting Rights Act. In recent days, the court appears to have been at it again. On Monday, it ruled that mail-in ballots in Wisconsin won’t be counted if they arrive after election day because, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in an alarming concurring opinion, states “want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night” and ballots arriving later than that could “potentially flip the results.” This was specious reasoning (Thank you, honey!), since election-night calls are an invention of the media, not election law, and you can’t “flip” a result that hasn’t been finalized. Many legal experts and commentators excoriated Kavanaugh’s opinion—Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern said it was stuffed with lies and errors so sloppy they’d “make even a traffic court judge blush”; Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce wrote that Kavanaugh had threatened to unleash “a zombie Bush v. Gore”—and noted that it did not bode well for post-election litigation, especially given that, around the time it was published, the Senate was confirming a new conservative justice.

The notion that all American voters are equal has long been a fiction. This election cycle, much conscientious, prominent reporting has emphasized the reality, particularly in light of Trump’s overt threats to the integrity of the vote. In recent days, numerous outlets, including the Times, Business Insider, and FiveThirtyEight, have sought to widen the spotlight still, by telling the stories of those who have decided not to vote at all, a huge group that often falls off the radar of mainstream election coverage or else is tarred with insinuations of laziness—problems exacerbated by inadequate racial and class representation in newsrooms. As the stories above show, reasons for not voting vary, but a big one is the persistent sense that politicians of both parties have not succeeded in meeting the basic needs of struggling people. As one nonvoter told the Times, the economic carnage of the pandemic has left her struggling to make ends meet, making politics “the least of my worries.”

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McDonald’s prediction that this year’s turnout rate could be the highest since 1908 is striking, but it’s also striking that the rate we’re talking about is only sixty-five percent of eligible voters. If voters staying away from the polls because of long lines is a form of voter suppression, as Ocasio-Cortez rightly puts it, then isn’t the same true of those voters who will stay away because they don’t think their vote will mean anything? At the very least, the two trends share causes—institutional racism; a broad culture of bureaucratic incompetence and inertia that doesn’t just make it harder for people to vote, but to access healthcare, affordable housing, and so on. Any full accounting of early voting, turnout, and what it all means must keep in mind all those that the system leaves behind, and not just those affected by overt, high-level outrages like the Kavanaugh opinion.

As NPR’s Sam Sanders put it on Twitter yesterday, there’s a chance that, when the results finally come in, we see “a flurry of think pieces on so-called voter apathy, particularly among marginalized communities and communities of color. But remember, no discussion of voter apathy is complete without a discussion of voter suppression.”

Below, more on voting and the election:

  • Voting and nursing homes: Mariel Padilla, of The 19th*, reports that America’s nursing-home population, which is majority female, is facing extra challenges to voting this year. “Of the 1.3 million nursing home residents in the United States, about half a million have no or mild cognitive impairment and are more likely to vote,” Padilla writes. “But nursing home advocates and experts are concerned that thousands upon thousands of nursing home residents may not be able to vote due to increased restrictions under the pandemic, understaffing and the spread of misinformation.”
  • Voting and prisons: Another group of Americans that doesn’t vote, of course, is prisoners, who are legally disenfranchised and whose opinions are all but invisible to political media. In March, Slate and the Marshall Project sought to correct that, commissioning a first-of-its-kind, eight-thousand-person survey inside prisons and jails nationwide. Yesterday, the same outlets published a second survey covering nearly 2,400 incarcerated people in twelve states. The responses reflected prisoners’ “passionate and nuanced opinions about what interventions might have kept them out of prison and what policies the next president could pursue.”
  • Stop saying ‘Election Day’: In an op-ed for CNN, Vivian Schiller argues that, in light of all the early voting, it’s time for reporters, pundits, and campaigns to retire the phrase “Election Day,” and instead count down to “the last day of voting.” Changing our language is “more than an arcane exercise in etymology,” Schiller writes. “Focusing on the anachronistic notion of a singular election day is a disservice to the public who are already confused by where and how to vote. Worse, it risks reinforcing the notion that in-person day-of votes are more legitimate than votes by mail”—a lie pushed by Trump.
  • Hyper Lincoln: In recent months, the Lincoln Project, a group founded by anti-Trump Republicans, has launched a pre-election messaging blitz trolling the president and generally getting under his thin skin. Now Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that the group has plans to develop into a full-fledged media company after election day: it’s in talks with a talent agency and “is weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks, and book publishers.”
  • On climate change: The Climate Beat, the newsletter of CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, makes the case that last week’s debate featured a rare, substantive conversation on climate change that the political press subsequently fumbled: “Across the media, journalists fell back on horserace framing that ignored science and made faulty assumptions, focusing especially on Biden’s pledge to ‘transition from the oil industry’ to renewable energy.”

Other notable stories:

  • On Monday, police in Philadelphia shot and killed Walter Wallace, Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old Black man. Officers said that Wallace was armed with a knife and had advanced toward them, but, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he appeared to be “multiple feet” from the officers “when they fired numerous shots”; Wallace’s father, Walter Wallace, Sr., told the paper that his son had mental-health issues, and asked why police didn’t use non-lethal force. The killing sparked protests which continued last night. Elsewhere, Gayle King, of CBS This Morning, interviewed two grand jurors in the case of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville in March. They say they weren’t given the option to pursue murder or manslaughter charges against the officers involved.
  • Today, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey—the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, respectively—will testify before the Senate Commerce Committee. They plan to defend Section 230, a provision exempting platforms from liability for users’ posts that has come under bipartisan scrutiny. Ahead of time, Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s top Democrat, published a report arguing that big tech’s “unfair market practices” have injured the news industry, and calling for greater federal protections for local journalism. Cantwell discussed the report with the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
  • Late on Monday night, Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, dismantled a firewall intended to protect the agency’s broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, from political interference. Pack already moved to oust the broadcasters’ leaders and investigate journalists whose work was perceived as critical of Trump. Staffers told NPR’s David Folkenflik that the moves pose an “existential” threat to VOA’s editorial independence.
  • Last month, Justice Department lawyers moved to assume Trump’s defense in a defamation case brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist who says that Trump raped her in the nineties and is suing him over his denial. The lawyers argued that the denial was an official act—but yesterday, a judge rejected that claim, and blocked the government from intervening. Carroll can now go ahead and sue Trump as a private citizen. (ICYMI, Carroll recently appeared on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker.)
  • Two years ago yesterday, a gunman murdered eleven Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh. Jane Eisner writes for CJR that the shooting proved to be an “inflection point, after which journalists paid more attention to anti-Semitism and were more understanding of its place and presence in American society.” She adds, however, that “some journalists still do not grasp the complexity of the problem.”
  • Vanity Fair’s William D. Cohan explores links between the Bradley Foundation, a wealthy conservative group, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Since 2010, the foundation has awarded $250,000 prizes to four journalists linked to the Journal’s editorial page, including its editor, Paul Gigot, and Kimberley Strassel, who wrote a takedown of the Bidens last week. (Gigot said the foundation has never influenced his section’s work.)
  • Staffers at NowThis are unionizing with the Writers Guild of America, East. The new union says that eighty-five percent of eligible employees have signed on, and that the site’s owner, Group Nine Media, has already voluntarily recognized the effort. The union intends to push for greater diversity, equitable pay, fairness, and transparency.
  • And, with 2020 increasingly feeling like a bad movie, Maura Judkis, of the Post, asked five screenwriters how they’d salvage this year, if it were a script. Eli Attie, a writer on The West Wing, says he’d slow 2020 down and “take out some of these plot events.” Angela Kang, The Walking Dead’s showrunner, would end it with an “absurdist turn.”

ICYMI: In defense of the newspaper endorsement

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.