You know how the extrajudicial killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Philando Castile moved so many of us to action—whether it was creating art, taking to the streets, or being more involved civically? Right. Well, there was another turning point in American history that spurned some to action as well, even though to most, that “incident” was a good thing, a beautiful thing, even.
The 2008 presidential election of Barack Hussein Obama struck fear into the hearts of small men, and, according to a new film, Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook, supercharged efforts to make it that much harder for those who elected Obama to vote, ostensibly ensuring that something like that never happened again.
“Basically, Obama won with 25 percent of his plurality coming from younger and nonwhite voters,” Tim Smith, co-executive producer of Rigged, told The Root. “With the growing demographic of nonwhite voters in America, I think in five years, more whites will be dying than are being born, and traditionally whites have voted for Republicans. And so [the GOP] basically had two choices in 2008: the first was to appeal to a larger demographic on social issues and legislation, and the other was to keep them from voting in large numbers. They obviously chose the latter, which is what our film is all about.”
Narrated by outspoken actor Jeffrey Wright, Rigged follows the recent trajectory of voter suppression in the United States, and outlines a voter suppression playbook, which outlines at least 10 ways certain players are putting forth a concerted, well-funded effort to disenfranchise voters and maintain power— from purging voter rolls, to Voter ID laws, to “cracking and packing” congressional districts to consolidate power for one group or break up power for another.
At this point, we’ve seen voter suppression in real time, most recently with the gubernatorial election of Brian Kemp over Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Rigged takes a macro and on-the-ground view of these exploits, and frankly, it is scary from all angles.
“The good guys are down by two or three touchdowns; these laws exist in 20 to 25 states,” says Mac Heller, co-executive producer. “The first thing we need to do is stop the trend of making these laws worse and worse. And, as we note at the end of the film—that very dark end of the film—there are new laws in front of legislatures in multiple states to make this worse. And it’s without facts, it’s without any evidence of voter fraud, it’s without any evidence that these laws will do any good—and ignoring evidence that they do substantial harm. So the first thing we need to do is stop it, and the next thing we need to do is unwind it.”
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is how producers show a vast landscape of voter suppression efforts comprised of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation, and the Federalist Society, funded by big donors like the Koch Brothers. That, coupled with conservative media, has produced a multi-pronged approach to voter suppression—and the rub is—it’s working.
“As we made this film, we have become aware of the what we call the eco-system of voter suppression, which is an integrated chain of funders, quasi-academics, drafters of legislation, recruiters of candidates, messaging shops, etc., and the best example we have in the film is Project Redmap, which was to use money and messaging to take over the state legislatures in 2010,” says Heller.
He continues: “It’s a very carefully integrated chain all the way through the judiciary—the Federalist Society, which you know is funded by many of the same funders who funded Project Redmap, who funded the drafting of “‘voter integrity’ legislation, which is the egregious limitations of the right to vote of our fellow citizens. It’s just a cradle to grave effort all the way to the judiciary at this point.”
Speaking of the judiciary, the Trump administration is packing the courts with young, conservative ideologues (the new administration has appointed more federal judges in the first two years than any other) to affect outcomes around voting for years to come. Most of Trump’s cockamamie ideas (the “Muslim ban,” separating children from their parents at the border, rolling back Obamacare and Medicaid) have been checked by the courts, but what happens in 10 years when that unbridled power is unchecked?
“When you change judges, you change the courts,” explains Heller. “And if you’re doing it deliberately with an eye toward limiting rights over a period of years, it’s going to have an effect.”
Fortunately, Rigged shows that federal courts have been swatting these egregious laws down, but the filmmakers caution that we must remain vigilant, especially at the state court level, which they warn is becoming much more partisan.
“So for instance, in North Carolina, in 2018, the federal court struck down their voter ID law in 2016, and now [lawmakers] have got another amendment on the ballot to restore it, which they did,” said Smith.
“Another example is Florida where they said let’s re-enfranchise 1.4 million ex-felons; and now the state legislature is saying, well, you didn’t really mean all ex-felons; we’re going to put this limit on it—explicitly against the recently expressed super-majority of voice of the voters,” says Heller. “And so what do Florida voters have to do, they have to get to their state legislators and say, ‘No buddy that’s not what we’re doing and if you’re not on board with what we just decided, you’re out of here.’”
Besides that, there’s something called the Democracy Playbook (pdf), which actually details all the suppression ploys, and ways to respond. Democrats have responded with their own response to gerrymandering with Eric Holder heading up the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, to tackle redistricting, especially in light of the upcoming Census in 2020 (though the producers are keen to note that they “don’t believe that the response to Republican gerrymandering should be Democrat gerrymandering.”)
Rigged pulls you in not only by showing voter suppression writ large, but also what happens on the ground with individuals. The doc profiles activist, minister and recent MacArthur “genius” fellow Rev. William Barber II, who organized against voter suppression in North Carolina, as well as regular dyed in the wool “patriots” like Mike Hyers of the Voter Integrity Project, in Cumberland County, N.C., a so-called “voter integrity” defender, who say that the voting rolls need to be “cleansed.”
Which shows that when the people step up, it does make a difference—either way.
“I think what happened in Florida with the felon enfranchisement vote was amazing … an amazing citizen-led initiative,” notes Smith. “And also in Michigan where they had the gerrymandering amendment to set up a nonpartisan commission to do redistricting in Michigan, also a citizen-led initiative. So people can take back the power if they’re willing to and actually have success at the ballot box.”