Editor’s Note: Popaganda is on hiatus until 2018. This episode originally aired on August 18, 2016.
Political observers often blame people for not voting. But we don’t often stop to examine what barriers keep people from voting—or make them feel like it’s not worthwhile. On this episode, we examine our democracy as a design problem—and explore what structural issues are built into our election laws that keep people from voting. We talk with Cayden Mak, an organizer Asian American get-out-the-vote group 18 Million Rising, hear from the co-founders of #CriptheVote, and listen to an excerpt of Hari Kondabolu’s new comedy album, Mainstream American Comic. Oh and there’s a Pokémon Go shout-out in there, too.
VOTER ID LAWS AND OTHER BARRIERS TO VOTING
A DESIGN SOLUTION FOR ENGLISH-ONLY BALLOTS
IMPROVING VOTING FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
MAINSTREAM AMERICAN COMIC
This episode of Backtalk is sponsored by The Smitten Kitten, a progressive, feminist sex toy store for everyone. Selling body friendly sex toys since 2003, The Smitten Kitten is your trustworthy source for high quality, non-toxic toys and equipment for the bedroom and beyond. Their staff of friendly sex nerds can answer all your questions! Visit The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, or on the web at smittenkittenonline.com.
• Big thanks to two new voices featured on this show: Our editorial intern Emily McCarty, who researched voter ID laws, and producer Alan Montecillo, who also works on the podcast Racist Sandwich.
• The band featured on today’s episode is Fever High.
• If you live in California or Minnesota and either need a ballot translated or would be down to volunteer as a ballot translator voters, check out 18 Million Rising’s project VoterVox.
• Thanks to Hari for letting us feature an excerpt from his new album! You can listen to more of his album and buy it at Bandcamp.
• The Creative Commons photos featured on Soundcloud along with this show are by Holly Hayes and HJL. The feature show photo was taken by Richard Burger.
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SARAH: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by The Smitten Kitten, a progressive, feminist sex toy store for everyone. Selling body friendly sex toys since 2003, The Smitten Kitten is your trustworthy source for high quality, non-toxic toys and equipment for the bedroom and beyond. Their staff of friendly sex nerds can answer all your questions! Visit The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, or on the web at smittenkittenonline.com.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
So in all the chaos of this election this year, we’ve seen an interesting voter outreach tactic. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Ohio, the crucial swing state, is using Pokémon Go to recruit voters.
HILLARY CLINTON: I don’t know who created Pokémon Go.
[audience erupts with cheers, applause]
HILLARY: But I have tried to figure out how we get them to have Pokémon Go To The Polls.
[cheers, Pokémon theme music]
SARAH: As a non-Pokémon Go player, I was a little confused about how this works or why a campaign would use Pokémon Go, but this story really stood out to me from all the deluge of news about the election and the constant media cycle of the election. This Pokémon Go story really stood out to me. So I brought in our resident, on-staff Pokémon Go expert. It’s Emily Mcarty. Hi, Emily.
EMILY: [chuckling] Hi!
SARAH: Emily, you’re an editorial intern for the summer, and you come to us from journalism school in Vancouver B.C. But thanks for coming down and joining us in Portland for the summer and lending your talents to Bitch. And one of your main talents is champion Pokémon Go player. What’s your favorite Pokémon?
EMILY: I would say Squirtle. It’s like an adorable turtle.
SARAH: That sounds cute. So how does Squirtle relate to American democracy? Tell us about this whole Clinton campaign using Pokémon Go to register voters. What’s the deal?
EMILY: So in Ohio, there were some young campaigners who set up lures, which are things in the game that attract Pokémon. So a lot of people look at lures in the game, and they follow those and go to those locations. The campaigners also set up little registration booths near PokeStops and Chims, which are both places where you can collect supplies or go to battle other Pokémon. So what they did was they set up lures, and they set up little booths and had people there with voter registration packets. And people followed them, went to the lures, went to the PokeStops, and they asked if they would like to register to vote.
SARAH: So basically, they’re sitting at Pokémon hot spots, and all the people playing the game are coming to them. And once they come to them, the canvassers are like, “Ha-ha! Also, register to vote.”
EMILY: Yes. So these people who are playing Pokémon go had no idea what would be at that lure or at that PokeStop. So they went there, and then boom: Hillary campaigners.
SARAH: So amid the Squirtles and the Pikachus, there’s also a form to register to vote.
SARAH: I think that what strikes me about this story is it shows that in our country, one of the main things that political campaigns have to do is actually just register people to vote. That we think about political campaigns having to convince people to vote for a specific candidate, to be like, “Vote for Hillary.” But actually, at least progressive campaigns spend a lot of their time just registering voters, trying to find unregistered voters, and registering people to vote. It seems significant to me. If Pokémon Go is playing a role [chuckling] in keeping our democracy afloat and inclusive, maybe that’s a bad sign about our democracy.
EMILY: Yeah, and on Twitter, they only showed maybe three or four people that they actually registered. When I reached out, I didn’t get back any official numbers. But to me, it was more of it got a lot of attention on media and social media. So to me, it’s maybe more of oh, OK, remember to vote, rather than it actually having direct results.
SARAH: This ties in to an article I was reading in The New York Times that basically blew my mind. It was an article–just an infographic–and it breaks down what percentage of Americans actually voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the primary season or during all the caucuses. OK, so Emily, pop quiz: What percentage of Americans do you think voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton during the primary season?
EMILY: I assumed that it was like 20%+ for each.
SARAH: That’s what I thought too. I thought at least 25% of Americans wanted either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. But The New York Times broke down the numbers on who actually voted in the primaries, and it was 9%. So about 4.5% of Americans wanted Hillary; 4.5% wanted Trump. Now we’re in this situation where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are our frontrunners. They’re going for the election of the whole country.
So reading that only 9% of Americans voted for Trump, that number really sticks with me. Why are so many people not voting or unable to vote? Why is the future of our democracy being really guided by 9% of people?
So you’ve been doing some research this summer, Emily, on who’s registered to vote and who’s not registered to vote and voter registration across the country. What kind of stuff have you seen that really stands out to you?
EMILY: Well, first of all, one quarter of eligible American citizens aren’t even registered to vote. So that’s 51 million people right there. And then, you have to look at people who are non-citizens who can’t vote and felons or ex-felons who also can’t vote. Looking at felons and ex-felons is really important because even when they’re off probation or not even on parole anymore, and they’ve served their time, in a lot of states, they’re still not eligible to vote. So 1 in 13 Black Americans cannot vote because of these laws restricting felons or ex-felons from voting.
SARAH: So in a lot of conversations about elections and about our democracy, people who don’t vote are really shamed for not doing that, and the whole conversation is framed around, “You should vote. You need to vote. It’s your responsibility to vote, and if you don’t vote, it’s because you’re lazy, or your stupid, or your uninformed, or you’re apathetic.” But thinking about these numbers has really made me reflect on how I say that sometimes, and how this whole issue around not voting is framed. And that it’s not just that a quarter of Americans don’t wanna vote or are not informed enough to vote. There are barriers in place that keep people from voting, and it’s worth examining those barriers and thinking, “OK, really, let’s dig into this. Why is that so many Americans aren’t voting and aren’t guiding our democracy? Why is that? What sort of barriers exist there?”
EMILY: Well, I looked at the 2008 census for numbers of why people don’t register and why they don’t vote. The number one reason why people don’t register is they’re not interested. That was 45%, but you can’t just say, “Oh, these people are apathetic.” It might be because they don’t feel included in the democratic process. Or they don’t feel represented, so they don’t feel like it’s gonna make a difference to them directly. The second reason was they didn’t meet registration deadlines, which is huge. So they had busy lives; they couldn’t do it. They wanted to vote, but they didn’t meet those deadlines. Also looking at the first two reasons why people don’t actually vote, the first reason was conflicting schedules, or they were too busy. So that directly goes hand in hand with not meeting deadlines and not being able to register in time. The second reason was illness or a disability, which is huge when you think about that. These are people that wanted to vote, were registered to vote, but they just couldn’t make it.
SARAH: A lot of that stems back to the way that voting works in our country, especially having elections on one day, where in most states, you have to get down to the polls on that day and go to a very specific place to cast your ballot. So I think we should approach this lack of voting as a design problem that, in a lot of ways, our democracy is not designed to be inclusive. And we talk about democracy being representative, but who it represents isn’t equal. And on this episode, we’re gonna really dig into that question. We’re talking about the design of democracy and looking for design solutions to the central problem of what keeps people from voting.
So if you don’t live in the United States–if you’re a Canadian, like your fellow classmates up in Vancouver, BC–you might not know that, in the United States, voter registration works differently in every state. Some states have designed their systems to make it easier to register, and some states have designed their systems to make it harder to register, keeping more people from being able to actually vote.
So Emily, you’ve done some research on voter registration systems in different states, and I just wanna talk to you about what good design ideas have you seen for states that are actually designing their processes to make it easier to vote?
EMILY: So in Oregon–Oregon is really awesome, because they were the first state to pass auto-registration. They did that in January of this year.
SARAH: What’s auto-registration? Like you’re automatically registered?
EMILY: Right. So anyone who had a DMV interaction between 2014 and 2015 was sent a mailer informing them that they are registered to vote automatically.
SARAH: And then what happens? They get this thing in the mail that says, “Hey! You’re registered to vote!”
EMILY: They have the option to return it to opt out, to return it and declare a party, or if they do nothing, they’re automatically registered; they don’t have to do anything, and they can show up to the polls and vote.
SARAH: And did this work? Did it actually lead to an uptick in registration?
EMILY: Yeah. So before this, they had around 2,000 registered voters a month, and after this, they had more than 28,000 per month.
SARAH: Wow! That’s huge! So that’s definitely something that has made it so that more people are automatically registered to vote rather than say, having to track down a canvasser at a PokeStop to register you to vote. You’re opted in whenever you do anything involving the DMV. But of course, there’s some people who aren’t gonna like that because they don’t wanna be registered to vote, or they think it’s an invasion of privacy. Are other states adopting the same model, or are other states saying, “We actually don’t want more people to register to vote,” or “We think this is bad” for some reasons?
EMILY: So 29 states plus DC brought forward either ballots or legislation to make it easier for people to register, i.e. they’re automatically registered. So far, besides Oregon, there have been five states that have passed automatic registration laws. California, Vermont, West Virginia, and then just recently Connecticut and Illinois passed legislation, and they’re on their way to get that approved before the elections.
SARAH: So this is potentially a huge change across the country for registering people to vote, but often, when we look at the way that our democracy is designed to either make it easier to vote or harder to vote, a lot of what we hear about is ways that Republicans in recent years have been pushing bills to make it harder to vote. So what kind of design changes have we seen across the country, Emily, to make it harder to vote? How is the system changing to exclude people?
EMILY: For the first time ever for a Presidential election, 13 states have passed voter restriction laws, which makes it harder for people to vote. That includes things like being able to vote early, be able to register the day of, or really restrictive ID specifications: So coming to the polls and having to have a certain specific ID in order to vote.
SARAH: What are the politics behind that? Why are people pushing to make it harder to register to vote?
EMILY: So the main argument that I found was voter fraud. When I looked into the actual data behind voter fraud, they looked at 14 years–2000-2014–and they found 31 cases of potential voter fraud out of 1 billion votes cast!
SARAH: [laughs] So that’s 31 cases of potential fraud out of a billion votes. So what’s actually going on here? Just spell it out for us.
EMILY: So basically, they’re disenfranchising minority voters is the huge thing that’s happening. In North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, they’ve all struck down restrictive laws. So these are good things happening in those three states. And the courts stated in North Carolina–there was a 2013 law–and they found that it specifically targeted Black American voters. What it did was cut down extended voting periods and put more restrictions on having really specific IDs. What they found was Black Americans are more likely to use those extended voting periods and to not have the correct IDs. So the courts said, “This is complete, direct discrimination of Black Americans.”
SARAH: And I think this is something that a lot of people don’t think about. It’s not just about turning out to vote on election day; it’s about the systems we have in place that either make it easier for people to vote or harder for people to vote, and that those systems are often invisible, and they’re often not talked about when we’re saying, “Hey, you should go vote,” or “Why didn’t people vote?” We don’t look at those barriers to access there. So thanks for doing that research, Emily. Thanks for laying that all out for us.
EMILY: You’re welcome!
SARAH: So these are the issues we’re exploring on today’s episode, Designing for Democracy. We’re looking at barriers to voting as well as creative design solutions that make it easier to vote.
Today’s episode was really guided by our listeners. We ran a survey of podcast listeners over the summer and asked what you wanted to hear more of on the show. Soooo, so many people said they wanted to hear more perspectives from people with disabilities, and a lot of people said they wanted to hear more feminist men on the show. All right! We can do that. On today’s show, we dig into a story about voting for people with disabilities and hear an excerpt from a brand new comedy album by the #1 feminist dude comedian in my heart: Hari Kondabolu. Thanks for telling us what you wanted to hear. Your listener ideas will continue to guide our show all Fall. So stay tuned.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today on the show, we’re talking about designing for democracy. We’re looking at barriers that are designed into our democracy that either make it harder to vote or easier to vote or effect who actually participates.
Our next segment is about voting for people with disabilities, and it comes to us from independent radio producer Alan Montecillo.
ALAN: Hi, there. How’s it going.SARAH: It’s going great. Thanks for putting together the segment for our show.
ALAN: Yeah, it’s great. I learned a lot working on it.
SARAH: I first met you because you’re a producer for another awesome podcast, which everyone should listen to, called Racist Sandwich, that’s about race, class, food, and gender. We started talking about something you could put together for this episode about democracy, and you suggested looking into sort of barriers to voting for people with disabilities. Why was that a story you wanted to take on?
ALAN: Well, one of the things that always comes up whenever there’s a Presidential election are how, I guess, politicians and strategists can court lucrative voting blocs. So there’s always how do Black people vote, how do Latino people vote, how do Asian people vote. Never mind the fact that there’s huge diversities within those voting blocs. But there are nearly 50 million Americans with disabilities, and they’re really not talked about either in terms of political strategy or in terms of what their issues are or in terms of designing systems that can make it easier for people with disabilities to vote. And if we’re talking about designing systems for the public, if your view of the public is really incomplete, and it’s leaving out a lot of people, you’re not gonna design systems that actually work for everybody. I think one of the things that stood out to me is if systems don’t work for you, you just don’t show up and vote.
SARAH: So a lot of these issues around voting for people with disabilities, first of all aren’t on politicians’ radars, even though it’s a huge–potentially a huge–group of people that could be voting in these elections that are excluded. So you’re just getting your start in radio, but does this story remind you of something you’ve reported before? Or how does this tie into the other work you’ve done?
ALAN: So I worked on a story on healthcare for Pacific Islanders who are actually excluded from Medicaid coverage because of part of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. It seems kind of obscure, and hey, if it doesn’t affect you, maybe it is obscure. But if it affects you, then it’s definitely not. It’s not an issue on the periphery; it’s actually front and center. I think what links those two stories is that, again as I was saying earlier, they both stem from a really incomplete view of who actually makes up the public.
SARAH: So how does a story about healthcare for Pacific Islanders tie into issues around voting for people with disabilities? What’s the connection there?
ALAN: What both of those things have in common is that now it’s up to individual states and individual counties to figure it out. In the case of Pacific Islanders, since they’re ineligible for Medicaid, different states have supplied healthcare; some haven’t. In the case of voters with disabilities, different states have different voting systems: You have vote by mail, you have curbside voting, some places are accessible, some aren’t. So it’s really kind of scattered all over the place, and your experience with these systems is really going to depend on where you live. So if you’re not even recognized as a part of the American public, policy decisions aren’t going to be designed for you. You’re going to be left out.
SARAH: Thank you so much for your work in interviewing people on this issue and putting together this story we’re about to hear. Let’s just get into it.
ALAN: Robin Tovey lives in Portland, Oregon, and she’s voted in every election since the ’90s. But one of her first memories about an election is from junior high, when she was growing up in a small town in rural Oregon, and Jesse Jackson came to speak at the high school.
ROBIN: And the junior high kids who were in honor society were bussed over to the high school, which for the record, I of course had to get a ride from my dad who worked nearby. But the bus that they were using that day was not accessible. So I got a ride. His speech that he gave many places, I’m sure, laid out his concept of inclusion related to his grandmother’s patchwork quilt. When he spoke, he mentioned lots of different minority populations and the importance of inclusion. And it made an impact on me that day. So even though it was a number of years before I could vote, that was a pretty cool bit of exposure to have early on and made me think more about what was important.
ALAN: That speech shaped her political views in a big way. She hasn’t missed a Presidential election since she was old enough to vote. And even though Robin was born without arms or legs, she always sends in her ballot. It’s pretty straightforward: She gets her ballot in the mail, puts a pencil in her mouth, and fills in the form. Then she signs, seals, and stamps it herself.
In the US, there are an estimated 50 million people with physical or developmental disabilities. Federal laws say that all polling places must follow a basic accessibility checklist. It includes things like wheelchair ramps, parking spaces, and entrances that are wide enough. But not all places are actually accessible.
To learn more, I spoke with Gregg Beratan. He’s a disability rights advocate in New York City. He also helped start a hashtag this year called #CripTheVote, which facilitates conversations that focus on disability rights and democracy.
Gregg has a learning disability, but like Robin, he’s had no problems voting. But not everyone he knows has had such a smooth experience.
GREGG: The experience in urban areas I’ve seen has been pretty appalling. I mean, there are places that are just inaccessible, where people are told that your only option is to do an absentee ballot. I still have people coming up on Twitter saying, “I really wanna go out and vote and be seen voting. They’re not giving me that option.”
I have a twin sister with a developmental disability as well, and she’s been given grief about getting assistance when she votes. A supervisor had to be called to get approval, and the volunteer didn’t want to let her go in with an assistant even though it’s her right to do so.
ALAN: Gregg points out that a lot of places don’t even get the basics right. And federal laws still leave enough room for states to make voting harder. You might’ve heard about the voter ID laws that have been passed in many different states. People with disabilities get those IDs at much lower rates, partially because many disabled people don’t drive. Four states deny the ballot to people who live under guardianship. And 30 states have laws that can ban people from voting who are “mentally incapacitated.”
GREGG: You hear lots of stories about this: People having to go to extraordinary lengths to get an ID, people who don’t have access to transportation, people who don’t have a lot of time to spare to get out to get to these–whether it’s a DMV or a state ID center that’s only open certain days of the week. So it just puts another barrier in people’s way that makes it more likely that they won’t vote.
ALAN: So there are all of these restrictions and bad ideas scattered all over the country. But Gregg says that the good ideas are scattered everywhere too. And when it comes to making the actual polling place more accessible, it’s a matter of finding the many different ideas that work and spreading them everywhere.
GREGG: Well, I mean I think there are good practices out there. I think we need to borrow from everyone. There’s places that have curbside voting, there are places that make it easy to go in with an assistant, there are places that have accessible voting machines. I don’t think there’s a lot of reinvention that needs to take place as much as actually spreading good practices.
ALAN: This was a running theme as I talked to more people: There should be many options, because there are many different kinds of needs. For instance, there’s curbside voting, where people bring the voting machine out to your car. There’s automatic voter registration. States like Oregon, Missouri, and New Hampshire have worked on special tablets that can be brought to a person’s home.
One activist I talked to suggested secure online voting. Another took it a step further and said that there should be many options that all voters can choose from, whether or not they have a disability at all. That way, nobody has to have an “excuse” to pick any one option.
And then there’s also voting by mail. That’s how Robin Tovey casts her vote in Oregon. And Oregonians are proud of it. Last month, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley proposed a bill to expand vote by mail to the rest of the country.
Gregg says vote by mail is a great system, but it’s not a silver bullet because it’s also important for people to feel seen out there, as a citizen, casting a ballot.
GREGG: It’s actually important that the community is seen as members of the voting public. I’m not advocating taking away mail-in ballots, cuz I think it’s enabled many people to vote who wouldn’t get out. But you need to give them that choice. It shouldn’t be the system’s choice; it needs to be the person’s choice.
There’s no one perfect design solution that disability activists more or less agree on. It’s more like a series of good ideas to address the many different needs that people have. But there’s one thing everyone agreed on: There have to be more options, and they all need to actually work equally well.
In this election, disability rights have occasionally taken center stage. One of the most powerful speeches at the Democratic National Convention this August was given by disability advocate Anastasia Somoza.
ANASTASIA: She has never lost touch with people like me. She has invested in me, she believes in me, and in a country where 56 million Americans with disabilities so often feel invisible, Hillary Clinton sees me!”
ALAN: I asked Robin Tovey whether she had watched the speech, and she definitely had.
ROBIN: I actually got home from work that night and turned it on PBS, my preferred channel. I felt like oh wow, I lucked out. It was perfect timing. I saw her roll onto the stage, and I was drawn into that. I stopped to watch that, and she did a nice job. She spoke well to her experience.
ALAN: Robin was wary of what she called a “heartstrings” approach. She didn’t wanna see people with disabilities paraded out in order for people to just feel things instead of changing real laws. And as you can hear, she sounds cautiously optimistic.
ROBIN: Obviously, people responded in a warm manner. That was nice to see. I wanted to see how the follow-up went, to know if later in the evening there was a mention of disability issues in any of the speech-making. And I was pleased.
ALAN: I also talked to Andrew Pulrang. He’s one of the other cofounders of #CripTheVote. I asked him to explain the difference between lip service and meaningful change. But he pointed out that those two things are totally separate, because one reason the #CripTheVote hashtag exists at all is because disability issues are almost never mentioned during the Presidential debates and the primaries.
ANDREW: You know, there comes a point in the speech when you mention all the different types of Americans who are struggling to achieve the American dream, and you list, right? You use the rule of three, and you list three or four different groups. What we noticed was they were not any more including people with disabilities, when in previous years, they were at least doing that. And that’s lip service right there. But we were not even getting lip service. So lip service by itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s a first step. And when we identify it, we wanna say, “Thank you for remembering that we exist. Now, we would like to hear more about what you think about this. What will you do? What are the policy issues?” So I think we’re in that middle step between we’re getting out of the realm of lip service into something more substantive. I think, to most of the general public, they’re still in the stage of noticing the presence and kind of marveling at that.
ALAN: Andrew feels optimistic about the increasing visibility of disabled people, and he says he’s looking for a specific thing after the election. Remember how Gregg Beratan from earlier on said that it was important to be seen as members of the voting public? For Andrew, that also means being actually included in all that election data that journalists love to analyze so much.
ANDREW: It’ll be a big step, when, the day after an election, when all the journalists are poring over the results and doing stories about, well, what did it all mean? And they are going and talking about how did Black people vote? And how did women vote? And how did people of this income bracket vote? That they are also saying “And how did disabled people vote?” They never really do that.
ALAN: Millions of Americans with disabilities are eligible to vote. Lots of them have no problem voting, and others have lots of obstacles in their way. But there are specific patterns that link all people with disabilities.
ANDREW: My only real impairment is that I can’t walk a long distance, and I’m very, very short, essentially a little person. The biggest barrier for people with disabilities, I think, overall, is that voting happens on a particular day, between a particular set of hours, and at particular places. That’s three different particulars [chuckles]. And no matter what kind of disabilities you have, what we all have in common, I think, is that it’s just harder for us to do any particular thing at a particular time in a particular place. We can do these things, but restricting it to a certain way is what makes it hard for us. If my car wasn’t working, or I didn’t have a car, then I would literally be faced with the possibility that I might just bag the whole idea of voting, even though it’s only a couple of blocks away. And you don’t have to pile on too many things going wrong for it just not to happen.
ALAN: Robin echoed this idea too, and she also related it to barriers that everybody faces. She said it’s one thing to have the actual right to vote, but we need to remove every barrier of every size so that people can actually fit this really important right into their schedules.
ROBIN: We talk about voting rights in the U.S. But I also think it somewhat can be a privilege, because say you’re a single mom with several kids, and it’s just really difficult to get there that evening. Or say you have some mobility limitation, and you’re going to have to take two different buses, or get a ride, or call a cab that may or may not be accessible. Don’t even get me started on Uber. And that’s really going to prevent you from perhaps even following through on the best intentions you might have for voting.
ALAN: For Greg, Robin, Andrew, and others who are working on these issues and care about them, being seen is a huge part of all of this. You can’t change laws without applying pressure, and you can’t apply pressure if people don’t know you’re there. The population of Americans with disabilities is so huge and diverse. And it’s time for more politicians to start paying attention.
SARAH: That was reporter Alan Montecillo. He also produces the great podcast Racist Sandwich. Also, speaking of accessibility, if you’re new to the show, maybe you don’t know that we pay a professional transcriber to transcribe each Popaganda episode to make it accessible for people who are D/deaf and hard of hearing. Those transcripts are posted on our site. Just go to BitchMedia.org and click on the “podcast” tab to see each episode and read the transcript. Tell all your friends!
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Oh and hey! On our next episode, we want to hear from you. Our next episode of Popaganda, which comes out in two weeks, is all about body-positive exercise. Isn’t it screwed up the way that exercise—literally moving our bodies—is tied up with the diet industry and fat shaming and ableism? We should be able to celebrate our bodies and feel strong and get that endorphin rush without being bogged down by ideas about how we’re not good enough in some way. So, tell us: What is some physical activity you do that makes you feel good? How do you work to separate that from all the bullshit of dieting and body shaming? Do you bike? Hike? Jazzercise? Literally whatever it is, however big or small, record a voice memo on your phone telling us about what you like to do, and email it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d especially love to hear from people with disabilities and fat positive folks, since you’re often overlooked in conversations about exercise. So record a voice memo on your phone, and send it in. That’s email@example.com.
Okay, so imagine you’ve gotten it together to register to vote. You’ve jumped through all the hurdles to get to your place on election day. You’re there, you’ve got this, and then, an election worker hands you your ballot, and you can’t read it. It’s not in your language. That’s the situation that a lot of Americans find themselves in when their native language is something other than English. One group is looking to tackle this design problem that’s particularly present in Asian American communities. They’re called 18 Million Rising.
CAYDEN: Hi, I’m Cayden Mak. I’m the Chief Technology Officer at 18MillionRising.org.
SARAH: Cayden and the other people at 18 Million Rising are trying to address a big problem.
CAYDEN: Basically in almost every poll in every jurisdiction, Asian Americans have a lower voter turnout rate than any other racial group. This is consistent across both Presidential and mid-term elections, and that includes white people, Latinos, and also Black communities, that Asian Americans actually have a lower voter turnout rate than any of those groups consistently across the board.
SARAH: There are some complicated reasons behind why Asian Americans are less likely to vote than other groups. Some of them have to do with history; some of them have to do with how our democracy is designed.
CAYDEN: Some of them are sort of socio-historical, and some of them are structural. On the socio-historical side, 74% of Asian Americans are immigrants, which means the majority of Asian Americans are naturalized citizens. And it is also the case that since the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1965, that a lot of folks who’ve come to the United States from Asian countries have come fleeing a lot of political violence. Certainly, this is borne out in my own personal life that there’s a lot of reticence to participate in the American political system because of people’s ingrained family knowledge around the potential risks of participating in politics. I think that weighs heavily on a lot of folks, even if it’s not something that’s really brought to light. I think there’s also this idea that since we’re recent immigrants, our communities are so different than mainstream American communities, that we really need to keep our heads down to fit in.
SARAH: One of the biggest barriers is language. Asian Americans speak a whole bunch of different languages. According to the census, the largest Asian, Pacific Island, and South Asian language groups in the United States are Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Hindi, but a full 1.2 million Asian Americans didn’t even see their native language listed on the census. They had to just mark “other Asian or Pacific Island language.” Only half of voting-age Asian immigrants say they speak English well. But getting ballots translated from English into their native language has proven difficult at best.
The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 guarantees the right to have all election materials translated, buuuuut little giant loophole here: Local governments only have to translate ballots if the people who speak that language make up 5% of the jurisdiction or account for at least 10,000 people. So if you and 900 other people who speak your language live in a city of 20,000 people, the government doesn’t have to translate your ballots and probably won’t.
CAYDEN: In a lot of places, people are kind of SOL. There are a lot of non-profits that do translation work and different kinds of support work to encourage Asian Americans to get out the vote. But in general, up until this point, a lot of the support depends on– Like Los Angeles and the Bay, for instance, have great non-profits that are doing a lot of really hard work on some of that stuff. But if you live in another city–if you live in Redding, say–you’re gonna have a much harder time finding that support.
SARAH: This particularly affects Asian Americans because there are so many different languages within their communities.
CAYDEN: With a lot of Latino immigrants, many folks speak Spanish. Some people speak Portuguese, and there are a handful of Indigenous language that are common in a lot of Latino immigrant communities. But in Asian communities, even people who the US Census categorizes as Chinese or Filipino don’t all speak the same language. There’s no one Filipino language.
SARAH: This is something Cayden sees first-hand. Where he lives in Oakland, you can hear the diversity of languages just by riding the bus.
CAYDEN: My neighborhood in East Oakland speaks Spanish, it speaks Cantonese, Vietnamese, Lao. Sometimes you hear Tagalog, and it’s definitely the kind of place where I sit down on the bus, and because I’m a little racially ambiguous, sometimes somebody will start talking to me in Cantonese. [chuckling] Sometimes somebody will sit down next to me and start talking to me in Spanish. It’s just really– There are all these language communities butted up against each other.
SARAH: Even in places that are required to translate ballots, that don’t fall into that language loophole, there’s not a lot of enforcement or follow-up about this law.
CAYDEN: The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has found that only about 45% of counties that are required to provide translations do. And that’s to say nothing to the fact that even if there may be a ballot in, say, Korean for you, if there are no poll workers who speak Korean, going to the polls could be really intimidating. Virtually every election we hear about Asian Americans, whether they’re East Asian or South Asian, being challenged about their names, about their citizenships, being asked for IDs in non-voter ID states, being asked to spell their names out loud and prove that they speak English. Which, literacy test has been illegal for voting since the ’60s. But these are common things that happen to especially elders in our community who are less likely to speak English and are a little more vulnerable.
SARAH: As someone who’s a native English speaker and has never had a hard time voting because of my language, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around this reality. The idea that you would need a ballot in a certain language in order to vote, and the local government would not have to translate it for you seems… shockingly undemocratic. So I just kept asked Cayden: That’s legal? If you need a ballot in, say, Lao, and your local jurisdiction says no, that’s not illegal?
CAYDEN: Yeah, I mean it definitely seems like one of those things that should be more fundamental to the way we run this country than it is. And I think that actually, there’s a lot of folks who are thinking about voter turnout increasingly as a design problem, that a lot of the principles that people use in information design in a variety of different industries can be applied to, for instance, how you even design a ballot. I think the most famous example of a poorly designed ballot is the hanging chad issue in Florida in 2000, where it was really hard for people to figure out how to successfully vote for their chosen candidate. But in less mechanical situations, also just the way that you lay out a ballot, the way you present information to people can be really confusing. The language that people use to talk about issues on ballots is also, even for English speakers, is a huge issue. Often, here in California, we have a lot of ballot initiatives where voters get to vote directly on legislation. And often, the language of that legislation is not written in a super accessible way. When folks don’t read English at a super high level, even if they’re native English speakers, that can be a major barrier as well.
SARAH: So this is a system designed in a way that makes it pretty hard for millions of Americans to vote. One of the big issues here is that elections are expensive. Translation is expensive. Local governments, strapped for cash, aren’t gonna do it unless they have to.
CAYDEN: A lot of us don’t realize just how expensive it is to administer elections. It’s absolutely not free. When you’re running elections in a county in multiple different cities and towns that may have municipal election one year, and then the next year, you’re running Presidential, and then the year after that, you’re running municipals again, and then the year after that, you’re running mid-terms, and then they are primaries and run-offs and special elections. You really have your hands full.
SARAH: Cayden and 18 Million Rising started thinking about creative ways to solve this problem. They realized that across the United States, there are already lots and lots of people who are working as translators in Asian American communities: English-speaking kids of immigrant families. Parents often look to their English-speaking or bilingual kids to help them out translating legal documents, movies, and school permission slips. It would be cool to tap into that skill to boost Asian American voting. So the people at 18 Million Rising made a digital tool. It’s called VoterVox.
CAYDEN: There are a lot of folks using the internet to match people who can provide a service with people who needed that service, right? I don’t like always to make the direct correlation between what we’re doing and a lot of gig-economy apps, just because I think that those are super transactional. But this is very much about how can you use that kind of model to build community instead of eviscerate it?
SARAH: This fall, 18 Million Rising is debuting VoterVox. This online tool rolls out in September, just in time for the election. Here’s how it works: If you’re a voter looking for a translated ballot, they have a little sign-up form you can fill out with your name, your language, and where you live. They help you get a mail-in ballot, walking you through whatever necessary paperwork your state has, and match you with a volunteer who speaks your language. You and the volunteer meet up with your mail-in-ballot and talk through the language and any complicated jargon that might be confusing.
CAYDEN: Sometimes it’s just the act of sitting down with somebody in your community that makes a difference between, “Oh my god! Voting is really complicated, and I cannot understand it,” and “This is something that’s approachable and can be understood.” So we’re really looking forward to seeing how it works this year.
SARAH: VoterVox is just debuting in California and Minnesota during this election. Sort of a democracy redesign beta test before they try to take on the whole country. They also plan to hook up volunteers with educational resources, like nonpartisan voting guides and background on local issues.
CAYDEN: For me, VoterVox is also about more than elections. It’s about getting more people to vote, but it’s also about building community power and doing inter-generational organizing using technology, which is really kind of new. A lot of times, volunteering in this way is the first time that young people feel really appreciated for having this special skill. It’s like they never realized that being bilingual is actually this special super power that can empower their communities.
SARAH: VoterVox is still looking for volunteer translators in California and Minnesota. So I asked Cayden if he’d be signing up to translate for anyone this fall.
CAYDEN: This is totally funny, but I only speak English [laughs]. I speak English and computer [laughs]. I grew up in a mostly monolingual English-speaking household, and sometimes it makes me sad, you know? I can’t talk to the aunties who sit next to me on the bus and wanna speak in Cantonese, which is my father’s language.
SARAH: While he’s not signing up to volunteer, Cayden has an idea for someone who would be a great ballot translator: His dad, who lives in Texas.
CAYDEN: There are all of these sort of small enclaves of Asian Americans in Texas. And while we’re not rolling out in Texas this year, I’m gonna be encouraging him to reach out to Chinese-speaking Asian American groups in Texas and helping folks in his community. Cuz God knows that immigrant communities in Texas really need all the help they can get [laughs].
SARAH: That was Cayden Mak of 18 Million Rising. You can go sign up as a volunteer, if you live in California or Minnesota, at VoterVox.org.
SARAH: Alright, this episode has been pretty serious. We’ve talking about grim realities of our democracy. But there’s gotta be some funny stuff to say about the horribleness of our political system, right? For that, look no further than comedian Hari Kondabolu. He’s a stand-up comedian who focuses on social justice. He’s also the co-host of new podcast Politically Reactive, and he has a brand-new comedy album. His album is called Mainstream American Comic. The cover art is a [laughs] sexy-serious spoof of an American Apparel ad. He has generously let us feature some of his new album on today’s show because dear Gawd we all need to laugh more. So take it away, Hari.
HARI: It’s another Presidential election. Looks like Hillary Clinton’s gonna be the first female President of this country, right?
[mix of audience boos and cheers]
HARI: I think it’s very exciting! I think it’s great. Finally, the Illuminati picks a female puppet!
[audience laughs, applause]
HARI: Thank you. Thank you for joining me from the forums. Thank you. Thank you [chuckles]. I try to like Hillary Clinton, but she’s such an establishment candidate. I have a tough time with her. I love Bernie Sanders.
HARI: He’s incredible. He has the progressive agenda that I’ve never seen a Presidential candidate have, and I wanna support him. At the same time, we have to be reasonable about it. I think people are making him God-like, and we need to calm down about it. He hasn’t proven anything yet. We keep Barak-ifying him, and it’s not a good idea.
HARI: Cuz remember the last time we Barak-ified somebody, you know? Barak. And it didn’t end up the way we hoped, you know?
HARI: We have to hold him accountable as a public official, right? My friends say stuff like, “Come on, Hari. But he’s a Socialist. Come on! He’s a Socialist!” Is he, though?
HARI: For a socialist, Bernie Sanders sure has a lot of suits.
HARI: What kind of Socialist has the whole Fall collection from the Men’s Warehouse?
HARI: I’m friends with Socialists. They have like one suit, maybe, for weddings and arraignments. That’s all.
HARI: That’s all you really need. But I like Bernie Sanders. I like what he says. I like how he says it. Something about the way Bernie Sanders says things, it’s very comforting and familiar to me. I don’t know what it is, you know? He’ll say things like, [grumbling voice] “We gotta get the money outta Washington! We gotta end the prison-industrial complex! And we gotta go back in time, Marty!!! Great Scott!!!”
HARI: “We gotta protect [inaudible], Marty!”
HARI: Look. I do one impression, all right? That’s Doc Brown from Back to the Future, and I plan to do that on ever album I release, all right [laughs]?
HARI: Man, the Obama presidency hasn’t really worked out the way I hoped it would work out, man. The last three months have been cool, though, cuz he stopped giving a shit, you know? That’s great. It’s like Office Space now.
HARI: It’s like the Republican party’s the fax machine he’s giving the shit out of. Some of you might be thinking Hari Kondabolu, if you’re so critical of this President, then why did you accept an invitation to meet Vice President Joe Biden in his house in Washington DC last year? I’ll tell you why I accepted that invitation. I. Am. A. Hypocrite!
HARI: But I’m self-aware. So that makes everything OK. That’s how liberalism works.
HARI: I got invited to the Vice President’s house as part of an Asian American/Pacific Islander event. People kept saying stuff like, “You just got invited to meet the Vice President cuz you’re Indian. This is just cuz you’re Indian.” No, it’s not cuz I’m Indian. It’s cuz I’m dope.
HARI: If it’s cuz I’m Indian, you’re comparing me to people like my mother and my father and my brother. And I’m better than they are!
HARI: Went to the Vice President’s house with a bunch of other people. The Vice President was there behind a podium, which is weird to have a podium in your living room.
HARI: He had a speech in front of him that his aides had prepared for him. But it’s Joe Biden, so he ignored the speech completely, which is never a good idea when you’re Joe Biden. For some reason, he kept referring to everyone in the room as “Asian Pacific people.”
HARI: What the fuck is that? Do you think we have fins or something? What does that mean?
HARI: “You Asian Pacific people have contributed a great deal to our society. People like Poseidon, Little Mermaid, Sub-Mariner, of course.”
HARI: “The Asian Pacific region has a great deal of strategic value to our country.” Why are you telling us this? You invited us to your home, you tell us we have value to you, you’re gonna use us now? Why would you say that? But of course, we didn’t say anything to him, cuz we just wanted a picture with him. That was the whole point of this trip. We just wanted Facebook and Instagram “likes.” That was all this was about, right? Social capital. So we all line up to take a picture with him. I’m up next, and the Vice President looks at me, and he says, “Wow. If I had hair like yours, I’d be President right now.”
HARI: Pss, no you wouldn’t. Your hair is the least of your problems, Joe Biden. Also, you’d look ridiculous with my hair. I look ridiculous with my hair!
HARI: But I didn’t say anything to him, you know, cuz I didn’t wanna get droned, right?
HARI: So I take a picture with the Vice President. I start walking away, but it’s me, so I have to milk every moment, right? So I turned back to the Vice President, and I’m like, “Mr. Vice President! I’m gonna be on Conan next week telling jokes! I’m a standup comedian!” Like he gives a shit, right? Then all the sudden, Joe Biden’s like, “Really?! Well, I’m a big fan of yours.” Which is a blatant lie, cuz he just met me. But then I started thinking about it. Hold on a second. Maybe he is a big fan of mine. And the whole time he’s been really nervous to meet me, right? But he can’t say anything cuz he’s the Vice President. So he can’t be a fan boy. He can’t be like, “Oh my god! It’s Hari Kondabolu! Secret Service…hold me!”
HARI: No, he has to maintain some dignity. So he slips it in on the side so I know. And I think to myself, finally an honest politician, right? Somebody with taste, right? So Joe Biden’s my favorite politician now. I’ve been reading up on Joey B. as much as I can. There was an article a few months ago in The New Yorker talking about how funny Joey is. And Joey’s hilarious, man. That guy’s a laugh riot, man. And here’s my favorite sentence: “After so many years, he has an arsenal of opening lines that he can deploy in Baghdad, Beijing, or Wilmington. One of his favorites, ‘If I had hair like yours…’.”
HARI: [long pause] I thought you were my friend, though. What kind of maniac repeats the same jokes to different people over and over again and pretends they’re new every time? Who would do that?
HARI: I have no issues with Joe Biden. He’s just our weird uncle we all get to make fun of, right? He’s just an old maniac, right? Of course, I hate Donald Trump. Lex Luthor himself, right?
HARI: A lot of comics who’ve made fun of Donald Trump make fun of his hair. That’s low-hanging fruit, man. I’m not gonna do that. I think I’m more clever than that. I’m not gonna make fun of his hair….
HARI: His hair looks like it was drawn by a child.
HARI: While sneezing. That felt good.
HARI: Donald Trump says things like, “The blacks, the women, and the gays love me.” I never knew the word “the” could sound so racist, sexist, and homophobic.
HARI: The only thing Donald Trump has done to liberate women is divorce them.
[applause, huge cheers]
SARAH: Again, that’s Hari Kondabolu. You can catch him live. He tours all over the place all of the time it seems like, or just get his new album, Mainstream American Comic.
SARAH: In putting together today’s episode, I kept having the tendency to describe our election design as broken. Like, the systems are broken; we need to fix them. Buuuut I don’t think that’s the reality. The way elections are run is very intentional. There are strict rules around who can vote and when and how. Those rules were written by people who thought about them a lot. They sweated over the design. So it’s not that the design is broken. It’s that the design is functioning the way it was intended, and that shuts out a lot of people. The barriers to voting in this country are man-made. I mean literally, like, written by men–man-made by mostly white, mostly straight men–who hold federal office. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are people behind these clumsy and exclusive designs. The Americans who are kept from voting by archaic voter registration laws, very new voter ID laws, inaccessible voting facilities, and English-only ballots are either not on our representatives’ radars because they’re invisible to those in power, or they are on their radars, and elected officials would rather have them not vote. Because those very voters who are under-served might vote them right out of office. Sometimes, like maybe most of the time, looking at American politics I get distraught and overwhelmed. Like everything we do is just a small drop in the bucket in the midst of some bullshit tsunami. But it’s heartening to know that the systems we have were made by people. They can be remade by people. Those people can be us.
SARAH: The band featured on this week’s episode is Fever High, a Brooklyn-based two-women dup that makes retro, super-dancey pop. Fever High, check ‘em out.
Remember that our next episode is all about body-positive exercise and that we want your voice memos! Record a little note about what you do with your body that feels good and how you shake off all those nasty body-shaming ideas, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s me!
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Popaganda is transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders to make our show accessible to people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing. You can find the transcripts of each episode at BitchMedia.org.
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That’s right, we’re not just a podcast, we’re a goddamn time machine! Hahaha thanks for listening, everyone.
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