Voter suppression panel draws U.S. Representative

By JAMES SCHARF | October 3, 2019

Students, faculty and speakers gathered to listen to U.S. Representative John Peter Spyros Sarbanes (MD-3), watch the film Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook and interact with panelists afterwards at Hodson Hall on Oct. 2. The event revolved around allegations of voter suppression in the United States that have accelerated since the 2008 election.

Before the screening, moderator Meredith Ward provided a broad overview of the film’s goal to describe both voter suppression and some of its effects.

“The documentary that you’re going to see tonight will take a hard look at the tactics employed to suppress the right to vote in the United States,” Ward said. “The documentary details what happened during the 2016 elections, as well as backgrounding viewers on the successful efforts since 2008 to deprive certain citizens of the right to vote for legislative, judicial and systemic actions in over 30 states.”

The film alleges that since the election of Barack Obama, Republican strategists and lawmakers have worked to suppress the ability of specific subgroups of Americans to vote. Tactics of voter suppression have included voter intimidation, vote roll purging and restrictive voter identification laws. Sarbanes, who spoke to the audience after the screening, noted that these policies can disproportionately suppress black and Hispanic voters.

The film follows several individuals who were pivotal either in creating or protecting against these tactics of suppression. Several of those individuals, such as Reverend Barber, who sought to protect their voting rights, explained that they are motivated by family legacies of fighting Jim Crow laws and strong beliefs about their right to vote.

The film also follows individuals who say that America faces a systematic campaign to commit voter fraud. Voter fraud includes casting votes illegally, multiple times, under aliases and without proper registration. However, the movie reveals that there have been very few convictions of fraud out of the millions of voters. So, the director suggests that possible motivations of states’ recently passed anti-fraud bills includes an understanding that they target groups, such as African American and Hispanic voters, that typically vote for Democrats. Republicans typically push for anti-fraud bills.

After the showing, Sarbanes spoke about his current initiative on voting law reform, H.R. 1 - For the People Act of 2019. According to Sarbanes, the primary goal of the bill is to allow for independent redistricting commissions, protect the right to vote and improve the ethics of public servants. The bill was recently passed by the House of Representatives.

In explaining his desire for election reform, he noted that Rigged described several of his complaints about the United States.

“This is a very sobering film,“ Sarbanes said. “It leaves you wondering whether we have any shot of getting back to the kind of voting bedrock that really undergirds our democracy as Elijah Cummings was saying.”

Following Sarbanes’ speech, a panel which included Nathan Connolly, Stuart Schrader and Tim Smith convened.

Connolly, a professor of history and the director of the Program in Racism, Immigration and Citizenship, emphasized that there is a long history of voter suppression in the United States.

“It’s worth reminding folks that voting rights is really a gray line,” Connolly said. “The reforms of participation in the electoral process that really expanded with reconstruction, that were targeted and then rolled back… It’s really important that a film like this highlights that interlocking quality of local and national matters because it’s so much of the procedural stuff that happened at the local level.”

Panelist Stuart Schrader, sociology lecturer and associate director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, explained that the United States has a long history of democratic disenfranchisement. However, there are even deeper problems with America’s institutional democratic mechanisms.

“The continuity is that this country has a real problem with democracy,” Schrader said. “There are many institutions in the country that are good restraints on democracy, rather than designed to expand it. The Electoral College is the most obvious one that we can’t get out of our heads because of the 2016 election.”

Lucas Miller, a sophomore studying Film and Media Studies, stated that he appreciated the techniques that Rigged used to convey its message.

“I liked the way it was structured around the playbook format,” Miller said. “It did a good job of picking specific stories to focus on to humanize the issue.”

Miller highlighted a particular scene where a man was falsely accused of voting and placed in jail in Texas as one that resonated with him emotionally. 

“The image of him in a cell with this tiny little window for supposedly fraudulent voting,“ Miller said. “It’s messed up. It gets at the emotional core of the issue.”

Cas Gustafsson, a sophomore, explained a reinvigorated desire to learn more about the subject and work against voter suppression.

“I am really angry, but that’s what I expect with going into something like this,“ Gustafsson said. “I feel motivated to try and find ways to enact change. That’s something that I care a lot about. Modern voter suppression is something that I was aware of, but not to the extent to which it was happening. I am interested in figuring out more that I can do.”

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