America’s electoral system is broken. From partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression to an Electoral College that sidelines the popular vote, it should surprise no one that a majority of Americans don’t believe they live in a democracy. As the January 6 hearings play out in Congress, some argue that the attempted coup on that fateful day was only made possible by the fact that the American political system subverts meaningful democratic participation. How can progressives organize in the face of such widespread voter apathy and systemic barriers preventing so many from exercising their most fundamental democratic right? TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez chats with former TRNN senior reporter Jaisal Noor, who’s spent the past few months reporting on grassroots get-out-the-vote campaigns from rural Georgia to Nevada.
This story is part of a series that was made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Pre-Production/Studio: Jaisal Noor, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The House committee investigating the Capitol Insurrection held its first public hearings on Thursday, June 9, 18 months after hundreds of armed Trump supporters stormed Congress. The hearing focused on the events leading up to the deadly January 6 attacks. But some argue that the attempted coup that occurred that day was only possible because America’s political system systematically subverts meaningful democratic participation. The insurrectionists were only able to attempt to shut the certification of Joe Biden’s victory down because the Electoral College, not the popular vote, decides who becomes president in this country. And that’s just one component of a larger system designed to keep the will of the population at bay. Other noted examples of this include the US Senate. Republicans, representing tens of millions fewer people than Democrats, control 50 seats.
And as such, they’re able to block legislation addressing issues, like gun reform, that a wide majority of the public supports. And of course there’s the Supreme Court, whose reactionary far right majority frequently and almost gleefully defies the will of the people, as the recent leaked draft opinion outlining the majority’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade revealed. So what does all this mean for the tens of millions of working Americans whose rights and livelihoods hang in the balance? Our senior reporter Jaisal Noor has been digging into this as part of a project supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, looking at how organizers and activists in key swing states, which have an outsized influence in the electoral system, are building power on a grassroots level to ensure their communities do have meaningful participation in our democracy. Jaisal, thanks so much for joining me, man.
Jaisal Noor: Thanks for having me.
Maximillian Alvarez: So this is such an important series, and I’m so honored that I got a chance to work with you on it. But I wanted to ask if you could give viewers a sense of what you got out of this series. What you think is really important about it, and why you wanted to embark on it in the first place.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. I feel like a lot of the media is missing the big story here, like the big picture. Because a lot of people are focusing on the January 6 insurrection, or they’re focusing just on the issue of voter suppression. Or on the other side, denying the existence of voter suppression, denying that the Capitol Insurrection happened. But how do all these things connect together? And what does it mean for ordinary people whose rights are being taken away from them? And how do they see it, and how are they responding? So that’s why I was so interested in this, because you don’t often hear from ordinary people that are living in this country that, as you’ve laid out, is extremely Democratic. But says it’s a democracy and that’s… Those are the ideals it’s aiming to live up to.
Which we know is not the case, has not always been the case, but the rights we do have are the result of decades of struggle. So in a lot of ways, the story starts and ends in Georgia. And we spoke to some organizers there. Because we wanted to ask them, because Georgia is ground zero for voter suppression. Joe Biden went to Georgia to tell organizers they need to out-organize voter suppression. But Democrats have refused to actually lift a finger to actually do anything about it. So what does that look like for communities of color in Georgia that are flexing their political power for the first time, but facing increasingly harsh repression?
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Speaker 1: It is very difficult for us to out-organize voter suppression in the state. Some voters will not be able to cast their votes because of voter suppression.
Jaisal Noor: Earlier in the year, despite the onslaught of attacks on the right to vote in states around the country, which critics say curtail the growing power of African American, Latinx and immigrant communities, Senate Democrats failed to pass measures that would have provided critical federal protections for voting rights.
Speaker 2: On this vote, the yaes are 49. The nays are 51. Three fifths of the senators, duly chosen and sworn, not having voted in the affirmative. The motion is not agreed to.
Jaisal Noor: In response to the flurry of new Republican voting laws, inspired in large part by former President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, President Joe Biden’s team has reportedly told voting rights activists to “out-organize voter suppression.”
Speaker 1: These new changes to state law that have been put in place are hurting our communities.
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Maximillian Alvarez: Man. I mean, I think, again, it’s just such an important report. Because I think we were all rubbing our chins when Joe Biden said, okay, we’re not going to actually pass any meaningful legislation over in DC to protect the right to vote. So we’re just going to out-organize voter suppression. And of course the actual organizers on the ground around the country who hear that are like, well, do you understand what that takes? Do you understand the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into that? And I think that you’ve done a really incredible thing by lifting up the voices of those folks like the ones in Georgia, who are actually hitting the pavement and doing the out-organizing, as it were.
Jaisal Noor: As you touched upon in the intro, it is the Jim Crow era filibuster which is being used to block civil rights legislation. It is this far right majority civil court that gutted the Civil Rights Act, which is why states like Georgia can pass these voter suppression laws. And the reality is, as we just heard, there are going to be votes that aren’t counted. There are going to be people that aren’t going to be able to vote. And the mission, the reality on the ground is that means that the organizers have to work twice as hard and get even more people out there, while fighting disinformation, and while dealing with the reality that the Democrats have not delivered on a lot of their campaign promises. So it’s going to be a huge uphill battle for them. And another state I wanted to talk about is Nevada. Because we’re going to… When we were talking a lot about how states are passing voter restrictions, but that isn’t the case everywhere.
There are states that have expanded voting rights, and Nevada is one of them. I know formerly incarcerated people have the right to vote. People with disabilities have greater access to voting. And it’s one of the states where Native Americans can actually request ballots be delivered to their reservations and they are actually able to vote on their reservations. Which was the most mind blowing thing I learned about in this story. That after centuries of genocide, after a century of being able to legally vote, Native Americans are just in the last decade getting polling sites on their own reservations, which is just incredible. But the two tribes we spoke to in Nevada led the fight on that, and the Nevada legislature codified that into law. So we went to Nevada and we asked them how they made this happen.
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Speaker 3: They try to put up any barrier that they can to make sure that our people don’t get to the voting polls.
Jaisal Noor: Despite a century of voter suppression, Native Americans turned out in record numbers for the 2020 elections.
Speaker 4: We’ve had young students from our high school, from their government class, our local BIE school. They came and registered to vote, and they voted as a class.
Jaisal Noor: The historic turnout played a pivotal role in a number of Senate races and in securing Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump. In Arizona, for example, which has voted Republican every presidential election since 1996, voters living on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in the Northeast cast around 60,000 ballots, increasing turnout by nearly 20,000 compared to the 2016 election. Exit polls showed these precincts voting heavily for Biden, who flipped the state by a thin margin of 10,000 votes.
Speaker 4: One of our eldest, and she was a hundred years old, and it was her first time voting.
Jaisal Noor: A culmination of tireless efforts of Native voting rights activists and landmark court cases, Native Americans won their right to US citizenship a century ago in 1924, but had to fight for the next 40 years to secure the right to vote in every single state.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Maximillian Alvarez: There are so many parts of that story in particular that struck me. One, like you said when you were introducing it, it was just how nuts it is that this is still the fight that Native voters have to wage to get polling places on their reservations. In a very expansive state. It’s not like, as you detail in the report, it’s not like it’s a hop, skip, and a jump away to get to your nearest polling station. Sometimes you’re going tens, dozens, even over a hundred miles. And so it was just so eye opening to watch that report and to… It was inspiring, frankly, to see the efforts of folks working on the ground to make sure that their community is engaged and has access to our most basic fundamental democratic right. And like you said, it’s a varied picture depending on where in the country you look.
And we go from Nevada to a state like Wisconsin that has gone through many changes of late. And some of those I reported on myself over the past year, when our brilliant camera man and studio technician Cameron Granadino and I joined Hannah Ferris at In These Times to investigate what the state looked like 10 years after Republican governor Scott Walker declared war on the labor movement in Wisconsin and ran through Act 10, which has been devastating for working people in the state.
But Scott Walker, really, as you report on in your Solutions Journalism-supported report on Wisconsin and the battle for voting rights there, Scott Walker really came out of this tea party wave, which was itself a backlash against Obama becoming president. And with that wave, he declared war on the labor movement, on working people, he instituted or accelerated extreme partisan gerrymandering. He did a lot of damage. And it’s not like voting rights in Wisconsin were perfect before that. And so you actually went and spoke to folks on the ground in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the United States, who are doing that on the ground work to basically counteract with people power, this sort of restriction on voting rights. So tee this clip up from your report.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. And another big shout out to Cameron Granadino, because he was on the ground with me. And we wanted to go to Wisconsin because it’s a battleground state. It is a purple state. It’s a state that has a Democratic Senator, a Republican Senator who’s up for reelection, one of the most vociferous election deniers. And it’s also where you have the most segregated and incarcerated city in the country, Milwaukee. And because of gerrymandering, has virtually no political power in the state despite being one of the biggest cities in the state. And the result of that is that people are living in extreme conditions, extreme poverty. And trying to tell them they live in a democracy is a joke, because they know that their vote really doesn’t matter on a state level.
So what does it look like to organize in those communities and to build political power in neighborhoods where promises have been broken? Where voter ID laws have meant that they had the lowest turnout in the last couple elections in generations. We know that MLK became famous for his fight against segregation and for voting rights in the South. But it was in the North where he faced some of the strongest racism. We forget that. So the legacy of racism lives on in places like Wisconsin. So we went to Wisconsin and we talked to an organization called BLOC, Black Leaders Organizing for Change, that are on the front lines, going door to door in some of the poorest, most segregated communities in Milwaukee, and trying to figure out what people need to survive.
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Speaker 5: When you come door-to-door and talk to people like they’re humans, I think that’s a better fit for this neighborhood. Because people are already afraid, and you don’t want to believe everything you see on TV. And when a person comes and confronts you face-to-face, it’s more personal. That’s what I think. I think that’s more caring.
Jaisal Noor: And they’re helping residents overcome the numerous obstacles of voting. A crucial task, says Angela Lang, the group’s founder and executive director.
Angela Lang: And the challenges around voting are being able to constantly limit early voting hours, taking away polling places, taking away weekend voting, which so many people utilize. But then also we have photo ID in our state, and not everybody has an ID. Not everyone has the most up-to-date ID.
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Maximillian Alvarez: Man. It really hits in a different way, watching this as we are simultaneously watching the House investigation on the January 6 Capitol Insurrection. I think, understandably, a lot of us have tried to forget or suppress that memory, and now it’s all coming flooding back. But when I see that footage of the Capitol Insurrection and I put it alongside the reporting that you’re doing, I’m just reminded of how divided this country actually is. I know that gets said a lot. But what that actually looks like is having silos of people who learn to see each other as less than people, as almost different species living in our different respective echo chambers and cocooning ourselves within these certain versions of reality that we come to believe so strongly that people will be willing to storm the Capitol over it.
And I think that a lot of people are asking themselves right now, how can we possibly bridge these divides? How can we possibly reestablish any semblance of dialogue between the increasingly divided segments of our country? And I think that’s where the reporting that you did in Pennsylvania and North Carolina is really important and really instructive. Because there’s no one solution to this. I think that’s a really important message that comes through in your reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network on this project. But I think what you showed by, again, going to the grassroots in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and talking to organizers about how even in deep red, rural segments of these states that Democrats have largely written off, they are trying some interesting tactics to reconnect with their neighbors and their fellow citizens, and are actually having some pretty promising results. So could you say a little bit about what you found in those two states?
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. And I was also struck by the images of these armed men, men and women storming the Capitol. And it just makes you think about the fact that Fox News didn’t even carry the hearing. The only major network that did not carry it, on one hand. But on the other hand, people are living in extreme poverty. People are faced with hopelessness. People are faced with stagnant wages and inequality. So what is the reality going to be for people that see no hope and are being radicalized? They’re being radicalized because the Republicans have a message and they’re going out there and saying, look, this system is rigged against you. And you need to join our side, the election’s being stolen. We’re fighting for you. So come join us. And the Democrats haven’t really countered that as a party. They haven’t gone to these rural areas that have been economically devastated, socially devastated. Hurt by the opioid epidemic and all these other challenges. And like you said, largely written them off.
Not being able to go and tell them what they’ve done for them, because in a large part, they haven’t. They haven’t done it. And so where economic policies have failed, the culture war is going to win time and time again, because that’s all people have. This idea of this America,this great America that used to exist, when in fact it was labor, it was labor and industry and these other things that are being taken away from us. So the reality is very different on the ground there. So the question that these organizers are dealing with is, they live in those communities. They have to find a way to reach out and to win people over. And traditional political campaigns, when you’re going around knocking on a door, are not going to reach those people.
Dropping flyers, not going to reach those people. You need to talk to them like they’re human beings, and you need to listen to what they want. And this doesn’t even just apply for people with a different point of view. Because if you are a minority, if you are a person with a different political persuasion in those same areas, those deep red areas, you’re also not going to want to participate in the political system because you know that that area’s gerrymandered and your voice isn’t going to matter. So what they’re doing is literally going around and asking people what they need, what services do they need. Do they need housing assistance, or rental assistance?
And that is how they’re connecting to people. And it’s proven to be a hundred times more effective than traditional canvassing. It’s something the Democratic Party does not embrace. But People’s Action, a progressive grassroots advocacy group, has embraced it. Dozens of smaller groups, their infinity groups in swing states have embraced it. And a study found, a hundred times more effective than traditional canvassing. And it’s making a deep impact. The organizers acknowledge it’s a generational fight, but these areas have generations of the legacy of slavery and all these other oppressions to overcome. So it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be quick. But they are going out there, and they’re changing hearts and minds, and they are doing historic things. People are running for office, formerly incarcerated people like Dreama Caldwell. Running for office. The first Black woman to run for Alamance County commissioner in North Carolina won something like 34,000 votes.
Had historic Black turnout, higher than the turnout statewide in areas. First Latino elected official in the state office in North Carolina. Changing the conversation around who gets resources in Pennsylvania. Fundamental things, and they’re starting on the local level. But that, I mean, that is inspiring. They’re going to the scariest places. They’re putting their lives on the line. They’re going up to houses with people that are flying Trump flags as mostly women of color and they’re trying to engage with people. Doesn’t always work. It’s dangerous, but they’re on the front lines. And they’re putting in that hard work, and they’re winning.
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Alicia Walker-Patterson: They want to make it about polarizing viewpoints or battling cultures when really it’s about corporate interests. And I don’t know, manipulating us to fight against each other.
Jaisal Noor: In rural North Carolina, dog whistle politics, scapegoating minorities for social and economic problems, have long fueled racial resentment, But have done little to alleviate high poverty rates and skyrocketing inequality, says Alicia Walker-Patterson.
Alicia Walker-Patterson: Certain communities are barred from the political process via their economic [status]. If you have to work all day and your boss isn’t giving you time off to vote, then you can’t go in and vote.
Jaisal Noor: Walker-Patterson is deputy field director of the grassroots group Down Home North Carolina. They engage residents with the political process by showing them their voice matters.
Alicia Walker-Patterson: A lot of the doors that we knock, they’re like, wow, like no one’s ever knocked on my door before. No one’s ever tried to hold a political conversation with me.
Jaisal Noor: Since 2016, these progressive activists have organized areas like Alamance County. Parts of deep red, rural North Carolina, long ignored by the Democratic Party. Down Home has found just going door-to-door and asking voters to support a cause isn’t going to make a big difference here, a sentiment backed by a growing body of research.
Alicia Walker-Patterson: Other canvasses I’ve been a part of and other campaigns I’ve been a part of are definitely focused on trying to get people to agree with us. Or trying to sell a certain person that someone might or might not know. Or might not ever meet.
Jaisal Noor: Instead, Down Home relies on deep canvassing.
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Maximillian Alvarez: Man. Well again, just shout out to those organizers. Shout out to everyone all around the country who is doing something. People who are realizing that it is within our power to do something about this. And people are not waiting anymore for some party official to save them. Or someone, some deus ex machina to save us. Whatever your political persuasion is, I think that if we believe in democracy as such, seeing people take that power, use that power, and try to build that power together is something that we can all get behind. And it’s something that we need to have a functioning democracy in this country or any –
Jaisal Noor: Get offline and do something.
Maximillian Alvarez: Get offline. And please go do some –
Jaisal Noor: Talk to your neighbors.
Maximillian Alvarez: Talk to your neighbors, touch some grass. The benefits are immeasurable. I promise you. And I’m so proud of this series, I’m so proud of you and everyone that you collaborated with on this. Because I think it’s a really, really invaluable contribution to our political discourse, especially as we head towards the 2022 midterms. Which, I already got a massive headache thinking about it. But we have to always remember who and what is at stake here, and who the people on the ground doing that organizing actually look like and what they’re actually doing. And I yeah, wanted to thank you for doing that. Wanted to thank Solutions Journal –
Jaisal Noor: Could not have done it without your support and the support of everyone else here at The Real News.
Maximillian Alvarez: Teamwork makes the dream work. And I want to thank Solutions Journalism Network for all of their incredible support in making this happen as well. And yeah, it’s something that we’re going to continue covering here at The Real News. We’re going to build on the great reporting that you did through the midterms and beyond. We want to see these struggles through, we want to keep viewers, listeners, and readers informed on the battle for democracy. But it’s with a heavy heart that I say that you will not be joining us like in a professional capacity on that journey, because this is your final production here at The Real News after almost 10 years here. And, I think I’m not going to embarrass you too much.
I’m not going to tear up myself, but I think I speak for the whole Real News crew and our incredible audience when I say that The Real News would not be what it is without you. And I went through looking at all the reporting that you’ve done, all the folks, the team members that you’ve worked with. All the stories in Baltimore and beyond that you’ve reported on. It’s really incredible, man. And so I just wanted to thank you for all of your work on this series and in general, and to say that we’re going to miss you and we love you. And we couldn’t be more grateful for the work that you do.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. And it’s really been a dream working here, working with you, working with Cam. We’ve traveled all over the world together. And yeah, to get to talk to people that are making change, that are fighting for justice in their communities who don’t get on the local news, who don’t get interviewed in their local papers, and giving them a voice. And it’s been some of the best years of my life. And I’m not going away. Hopefully we’ll still continue to collaborate and work on stuff together, and the struggle will keep going on. So thank you for this opportunity, and we’ll be seeing you guys soon.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, I feel like I have to let you do the final sign off. But as you said, the struggle continues. And yeah, don’t worry. Everyone watching and listening, you guys, you are going to see more of Jaisal, but he is going on to new horizons, and we are nothing but supportive of that. And we couldn’t be more excited for him. So Jaisal, with your last Real News sign off, take us out.
Jaisal Noor: With Max Alvarez and Cameron Granadino, this is Jaisal Noor for The Real News. Thanks for watching.