Moyers on Democracy

Fighting for Voting Rights, Again

Bill Moyers talk with John Bonifaz and Ben Clements of Free Speech for People

Fighting for Voting Rights, Again

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy.

This election season is being waged in the middle of a pandemic of Covid-19 and an epidemic of voter suppression. The first kills people. The second kills democracy. We have seen the courage of front-line workers confronting the virus. But we have heard too little of the front-line fighters for voting rights. You’ll hear two in this episode as Bill Moyers talks with John Bonifaz and Ben Clements. They lead the non-profit organization Free Speech for People whose mission includes defending the integrity of our elections. John Bonifaz has been on the frontlines of key voting rights battles for more than 20 years. He co-founded Free Speech for People and serves as its President. Ben Clements chairs the Board of Directors as well as its legal committee. A former prosecutor, he served as Chief Legal Counsel to the governor of Massachusetts and is a founding partner of the law firm, Clements Law in Boston. Here to talk with John Bonifaz and Ben Clements is Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: Hi Ben. Hi John. It’s good to be with both of you. Thank you so much for coming. Where is our right to vote most seriously threatened right now? Ben?

BEN CLEMENTS: Well, at this point, a perfect storm of threats. We have a Republican Party that has been engaged in a decades-long campaign of voter suppression. And attempting to essentially disenfranchise certain groups in society that they view as their political opponents. We’ve had a consent decree that was holding back the Republican Party from some of those tactics for a couple of decades that expired just in time for the 2020 election. And we have an out-of-control president and presidential candidate who has no limit to what he is willing to do to interfere with the vote from threatening public violence, from federal armed forces, to encouraging vigilante violence. The pandemic has added a whole new layer of threats that Donald Trump has taken advantage of by interfering with vote by mail. So I think it’s that storm of pressures and interferences that undermines and threatens the right to vote and threatens our democracy all across the country.

BILL MOYERS: John, how do you fight on so many fronts at once?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, we do it with a dedicated team, as well as those who we reach out to in the law-firm community who are ready to help us on these litigation battles. We see people all over the country who are vigilant in standing up for the right to vote and for our democracy. It’s not solely a fight for lawyers, it’s a fight for all of us as people who care about the promise of democracy and the promise of free and fair elections for all. The right to vote is a fight that the engaged citizenry is focused on. Democracy is on the line with this election. The right to vote is on the ballot. And they’re ready to ensure that democracy is protected in all the ways that we need to do that, including public protests that may take place if this president is declared the loser but refuses to accept the results.

BILL MOYERS: Just this week, on Monday night the Supreme Court ruled five to three for Wisconsin Republicans who want to block the counting of votes postmarked before Election Day but received up to six days after it. Democrats and civil rights groups wanted the extension because of the pandemic. They wanted to vote under safer conditions. Wisconsin’s a hot spot. Earlier this year, during the primary in Wisconsin, 80,000 votes postmarked in time, after the election, these votes were counted. For next weeks’ election, now such late ballots will be rejected. What does this portend for voting rights that the court took the side of the Republican legislature in Wisconsin?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, it certainly says we have a broken election system, where we have such a decentralized way in which we run our elections. Where it’s really up to where you live and whether your vote is going to be protected. It makes no sense, Bill, to have this state by state or even locality-by-locality-jurisdiction decision making over how votes are counted, whether they’re going to be counted in a way that ensures that everyone’s franchise is protected. And really what this show is that unfortunately, until we have a uniform, standard, all across the country in how we count our votes, until we have a constitutional amendment affirming the right to vote, these battles are going to be state by state and locality by locality. And the courts are going to be engaged. And this Supreme Court is in the way in many of these cases. They’re interfering with ensuring that everyone’s votes are going to be properly counted.

BILL MOYERS: And all five conservatives on the court say they’re obliged to defer to state officials on election decisions. Justice Kavanaugh, for example, said, federal judges don’t know better than state legislators about how to run elections during a pandemic. That didn’t stop them in 2000, of course, when they stopped the counting in Florida and put George Bush in the White House. He also argued that “States need to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day and potentially flip the results of the election.” An election can’t be flipped until the last vote is counted.

BEN CLEMENTS: And you’re exactly right to tie it back to Bush v. Gore. Because I mentioned earlier the decades’ long history of voter suppression by the Republican Party. Unfortunately, we have a long history going back at least to Bush v. Gore and earlier of a Supreme Court controlled by Republican appointees who appear equally loyal to the Republican Party’s agenda with voting as are elected Republicans. And that’s exactly what Kavanaugh is voicing there. He’s not talking about flipping elections, that’s how he says it. But what he’s talking about is discounting certain votes. And those votes, we all know, are the votes that are mailed in and not received by the deadline. And Donald Trump has made a calculation that Brett Kavanaugh fully gets, that those are more likely to be Democratic votes than Republican votes. In fact, it’s more than just a calculation. Trump has assured that to be the case by essentially discouraging his own supporters to use vote by mail and discrediting vote by mail. This is a really dangerous situation where you have a Supreme Court pretending to be deferring to state legislatures, and actually engaging in aggressive activism to influence the election by giving less weight to certain types of votes. And that’s exactly what they’re doing in that Wisconsin case and in a lot of these cases where they’ve struck down efforts of lower courts to preserve the franchise in spite of the obstacles faced by voters in the pandemic and in this situation of Donald Trump undermining the United States Mail.

JOHN BONIFAZ: There’s also a problem, Bill, underlying that ruling and some other rulings that court has issued on this matter with respect to vote by mail, which is this idea that we need to have the results on election night after the votes are cast on Election Day in person.

BILL MOYERS: Let me interrupt you to read from the decision. Those states, says Kavanaugh, also want to be able to definitely announce the results of the election on election night or as soon as possible thereafter, as if that’s a constitutional mandate.

JOHN BONIFAZ: There’s nothing in the constitution that requires that. In fact, the constitution would say very clearly that the right to vote needs to be protected, and all votes need to be properly counted. So really, what we’re dealing here with is a complete misunderstanding with respect to how we should be conducting our elections today. It’s not about Election Day, it’s about election season. And the votes that are going to come in in this process are going to have to be counted regardless of whether that counting process goes beyond election night.

BILL MOYERS: I like that term, “election season,” because the very idea of calling an election on the night it’s held is absurd if all the votes aren’t counted. An election is a process of casting and then counting votes. And it’s not over until the last vote is counted, even if that’s days after voting day. Isn’t it absurd to say this has to be announced on election night?

BEN CLEMENTS: It underscores, yet again, the hypocrisy and the disingenuousness of Brett Kavanaugh’s claim that he’s deferring to the states. The states aren’t the ones that say, “we need to have a count completed by Election Day.” In fact, many states don’t allow the absentee ballots and the mailed-in ballots to be counted until Election Day. So it’s the states that actually need the time to complete those counts. It’s not the states calling for a clear answer on Election Day. It’s Donald Trump calling for that. And Brett Kavanaugh echoing that call in his judicial decisions.

BILL MOYERS: Justice Kagan, in her dissent pointed out that COVID is not over in Wisconsin. Yet, the state legislature, according to Kagan, has not, for a moment, direct quote, “considered how to ensure voters can cast ballots safely.” She also said that the majority on the court did not dispute the lower court’s finding, that as many as 100,000 ballots might arrive too late to be counted. Trump only won Wisconsin by something, like, 27,000 votes. So those 100,000 uncounted ballots this time could decide the election.

JOHN BONIFAZ: This is exactly why I think that the public needs to be vigilant in protecting the right to vote. It cannot only be about the court fights. It also needs to be about public pressure and activism on the part of ordinary citizens all over the country. I don’t think the people are going to accept the idea that hundreds of thousands if not millions of votes are not going to be counted before we declare who won this election.

BILL MOYERS: The historian Heather Cox Richardson, who follows these things very closely, says this decision of Monday night is an example of originalist ideology. It says states get to run elections however its legislators wish. And that that notion trumps the right to vote. So here we got Amy Coney Barrett, going on the courts proudly saying I’m going to find the original meaning of every word in the constitution, including, now that she’s on the court, this decision. What do you think about that?

BEN CLEMENTS: You know, Bill, particularly with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, the issue of originalism is going to be with us for some time. Originalism throughout its history has been a tool for conservative justices to reach conservative results under the veneer of a very intellectual, restrained approach. It’s not a restrained approach. Those conservatives justices have no problem aggressively using the constitution to strike down laws that they don’t like. That don’t accord with their political beliefs. She has indicated that she may strike down the Affordable Care Act. But when it comes to protecting constitutional rights of regular people, of voters, suddenly they see something in the original intent of the constitution that certainly the framers of the constitution didn’t give a lot of thought to what role would the courts have in protecting the right to vote during a pandemic. This is a question that comes up that judges have to deal with applying broad, broad concepts in the constitution to very detailed situations that certainly weren’t considered by the framers when they wrote that detailed document. So really what you’re seeing here is a conservative court using that as an excuse to disenfranchise people. And the idea that the courts have no role in protecting the right to vote, where the legislature has failed to do so, is a dangerous, dangerous idea that leads to essentially us having no ability to enforce our constitutional rights against an aggressive legislature that may in fact be seeking to undermine and suppress votes.

BILL MOYERS: What happens if Trump actually refuses to accept the election results? He’s already said back in September that he thinks the election will end up in the Supreme Court, and that’s why he rushed to get Barrett on the court before the election.

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, I think we’re going to see enormous amount of protests all over the country with people rising up to demand that our democracy be protected. There’s a whole coalition of groups, Bill, ProtectTheResults.com, that are organizing around this. And ensuring that we are not going to be silent if our right to vote is not protected and if this president refuses to accept the results, if he’s declared the loser. He’s already said that he’s not going to give a definitive answer on whether he accepts a peaceful transition of power. We’re in a very, very dangerous moment here. And it requires people of all walks of life standing together in the streets, if necessary, but in the courts as well to demand that our vote be protected.

BILL MOYERS: Do either of you think the Supreme Court would hand Trump a second term?

BEN CLEMENTS: I personally think it’s a very real and dangerous concern that that might happen. Trump clearly believes that he might need the Supreme Court to intervene to help him get a second term and is doing everything he can to get the exact make up of the justices that he thinks he needs for that to happen. So if there’s an opportunity for the court to do it, I think there’s a very real risk that we do have another Bush v. Gore situation. And frankly, the current makeup of the court and the way they’ve handled the voting rights cases that have come before it in this election season suggests this is an even more dangerously ideological court than the Bush v. Gore court was in 2000.

BILL MOYERS: And wouldn’t Justice Barrett tarnish her reputation on the court if she joined a party-line vote for a president who had just appointed her to the court a few weeks earlier? There would be, it seems to me, a cloud over her head and over every decision she writes for the rest of her many years on the court.

BEN CLEMENTS: I believe there’s already a cloud over this justice because of the manner in which the Republican senators committed to confirming Trump’s appointment quickly before they even knew who the appointment was. I think there is clearly a cloud over her no matter what. And if she were concerned about how it would appear for her to vote on an election issue in favor of this president who just put her on the court, we would’ve hoped to have seen that in her answers in the confirmation hearings. And we did not. We saw the opposite, a complete unwillingness to accept what would seem obvious to most attorneys and most laypeople think that she should recuse herself from any case involving the election in whether or not Donald Trump gets a second term. She was not willing to commit to that. I hope she will. I hope she will see that there’s a real concern for her legacy and she’ll recuse herself, but I’m not optimistic.

BILL MOYERS: John, did I detect a moment ago that you do fear of violence backlash if he loses?

JOHN BONIFAZ: I certainly fear what some of his supporters might do with him inciting violence as he’s already done during this presidency. I don’t fear that those who want to stand up and protect the vote and our democracy are going to engage in that. I think there’s been many, many peaceful protests all over the country already. I do think that we’re in this moment in which the president will go to any length to try to protect his own power and effectively defy the constitution, the rule of law. And that includes the potential for inciting violence, which is why we have to remain vigilant in standing up against that.

BILL MOYERS: He’s already called for his followers to monitor polling stations, even hinting that they could come with arms, some of them. They have besieged state houses across the country, they’ve beat up peaceful protesters. Can you imagine them showing up in election sites where votes are being counted in close states?

JOHN BONIFAZ: We already are in a case in federal court in Minnesota dealing with a conspiracy really on a part of a security company out of Tennessee to send armed guards to polling sites in Minnesota. They’ve been recruiting ex-special-ops soldiers. They’ve advertised for this.

BILL MOYERS: This is a private company?

JOHN BONIFAZ: A private, mercenary contractor in Tennessee. Now, they have reached an agreement with the attorney general of Minnesota and they’re claiming now they will not do this. But the chairman of that company has refused to sign that agreement. And he is also a defendant in this case we’ve brought. And we have brought it under the Voting Rights Act because the Voting Rights Act makes clear that voter intimidation is prohibited. So the specter of sending armed agents to polling sites is unfortunately already here. And I think we can see this potentially cropping up in other places as well.

BILL MOYERS: Ben, something you said a moment ago assured me that you haven’t forgotten the Brooks Brothers Riot that took place 20 years ago, November 2000. George Bush appears to be losing Florida, Miami-Dade authorities are still counting votes, and suddenly a mob shows up. Hundreds of mostly white, middle-aged men– well-dressed agitators, who start punching and kicking their way into the counting rooms prompting the county canvasing board to shut down its hand recount of the presidential ballots. And many of the rioters had been flown to Florida from Washington. One of them went on to be Bush’s White House political director after participating in that riot. Others were rewarded with top jobs. What’s to keep something like the Brooks Brothers Riot from happening this year?

BEN CLEMENTS: It’s going to take vigilance on the part of public officials locally and vigilance on the part of the people. But we’re at real risk of Brooks Brothers Riots and and worse. That was George Bush who was bad enough for our democracy. Donald Trump is many degrees worse and the private rioters that he sends in are more likely to come in camo and assault rifles. We’re obviously all very familiar with his encouragement of the Proud Boys, a violent white supremacist group, to stand by and be ready to do whatever they do with respect to the polls. So it’s a real, real risk and a real danger. And something that we all need to be vigilant about. And I do hope that as we get into the possibility of a contested election of Donald Trump engaging in continued illegal activity to try to manipulate that election, I do hope that the media will step up better than they did in 2000 and avoid this sort of “both-siderism” reporting. And call out illegal activity for what it is. Because we’re going to need every effort to try to stop it.

BILL MOYERS: What do the Biden people do if Trump doesn’t go?

JOHN BONIFAZ: If the Biden team is declared the winner in this election and Trump refuses to go, they cannot accept any result that claims that they cannot assume power. I just don’t think that we can accept a situation in which democracy and the right to vote is not protected.

BILL MOYERS: Then we’ve got a constitutional crisis in the making?

JOHN BONIFAZ: We absolutely would. Absolutely. At that moment, we would. And that’s going to require and this is, again, back to the point about the power of the people here. We cannot leave it up to the courts to solely decide this question. It has to be also pressure in the streets. People standing up and demanding that our democracy be protected. If you look around the world, when these kinds of fights happen, they involve people standing up and being in the streets on this. And that may have to happen if this president is declared the loser and refuses to accept the results. Democracy is on the line in this election. And we have to stand up for it.

BEN CLEMENTS: Bill, I feel I need to bring up specifically the electoral college. We have a completely decentralized voting system where whether you can actually exercise your right to vote depends a lot on where you live and what rules are in your state. But that’s also part of a much bigger problem and one of the biggest problems I believe in our democracy, which is the electoral college. The electoral college is about the most anti-democratic mechanism that you could imagine in a democracy. And it’s in recent times made an enormous difference as to whether the people get to select by a majority the president. And it turns out, they don’t. And that needs to change. We need to abolish the electoral college and we need to have a national, popular vote. Where everyone’s vote is counted equally.

BILL MOYERS: Are either of you familiar with the work of Lawrence Douglas? He teaches at Amherst College. He recently published a dandy little book entitled WILL HE GO?: TRUMP AND THE LOOMING ELECTION MELTDOWN IN 2020. He says that if Trump loses decisively, not only in the electoral college vote but in the popular vote of the swing states, if he loses by a big margin, he will have no choice but to submit to defeat. But if his loss turns on the results of mail-in ballots submitted in swing states, mail-in ballots that Trump has tried to tell us would be fraudulent, then, says Professor Douglas, I believe Trump will aggressively work to dispute the result. You’ve both said that. Do  you think the rule of law would hold through all that?

JOHN BONIFAZ: I think it’s going to be up to the people. I think the courts will see what’s happening with respect to our democracy and they’ll have to address challenges that may come forward on the refusal to count mail-in ballots. And yes, it’s possible that with Amy Coney Barrett there, you know, there is a six-justice majority to say, “We’re not going to keep counting these ballots and we’re going to declare the winner of the election without all the votes being counted.” But it’s also quite possible that with millions in the streets they will see they have no legitimacy as an institution to do that. And that they will forever be tarnished in history if they did that. And I think that kind of pressure is critical to ensuring that the vote be protected.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you two have been busy. Two lawsuits filed just last week, the one in Minneapolis against the mercenary company and one in Washington against the president, the attorney general, and the acting secretary of Homeland Security. What’s your complaint there?

JOHN BONIFAZ: The complaint basically lays out how Donald Trump and these officials have engaged in a pattern of conduct for many months that amounts to voter intimidation, unlawfully, under the Voting Rights Act and in violation of the First, Fifth, and 14th Amendments to the constitution, protecting– the right to vote and the right to speak during the voting process. This president has, as we know, sabotaged the U.S. Postal Service as a way to try to undermine the mail-in voting process. He has repeatedly tweeted and spoken publicly about the false idea that mail-in voting is fraudulent and that there will be a rigged election. He’s essentially intimidated voters who need to or want to vote by mail, to protect themselves in the midst of this pandemic to not knowing whether those votes are going to be properly counted. Beyond that, he has already violently suppressed peaceful public protest in Portland, Oregon, and Washington D.C., clearing the square outside the White House so he could march through and hold a bible outside a church. A photo op for him, but engaging in unconstitutional conduct in the process by removing peaceful protesters, tear gassing them and the like. This is a president who has already engaged in those kinds of violent suppression of public protests. And it leads to the real fear that voters may have that there will be armed guards at the polling sites. The governor of Texas has just announced he’s going to deploy a thousand National Guard soldiers to Texas cities all across the state. Now, it’s unclear whether they’re going to be put at polling sites, but it’s pretty clear what he’s signaling. Which is they’re going to be at the ready. And that already can be a form of intimidation. And what’s happening in Minnesota is a copycat effort of what the president is trying to engage in. So for all of those reasons we have filed this lawsuit on behalf of a national civil rights organization, Mi Familia Vota and individual voters in federal district court in Washington D.C. to hold the president, the attorney general, and the acting secretary of Homeland Security accountable for this voter intimidation. And for a court order that bars going forward this kind of unlawful conduct.

BILL MOYERS: Can you get a resolution of that petition before the election next week?

JOHN BONIFAZ: We have a hearing scheduled before Judge Leon in Washington D.C. on Thursday afternoon, October 29th. And we anticipate that this judge is going to move swiftly, because the matters before this judge are so serious. Never before have we seen a president so engaged in trying to intimidate voters during the election process.

BEN CLEMENTS: So Bill, I just want to add– there’s this myth that goes around and is amplified by the media a lot that Trump doesn’t break the law, that he breaks norms. He’s unorthodox and he’s challenging democratic norms. And you don’t often hear that he is conducting himself illegally and against the law. The media is reluctant to use those phrases. And the public is left with this misimpression that he just skirts the law and that he is breaking with tradition, norms. The phrase “norms” is what we hear all the time. He’s not breaking with tradition and breaking norms. He’s breaking the law. Not just by violating people’s constitutional rights, which is one of our claims, First and Fifth and 14th Amendment rights. But by violating very specific statutes: one, the Voting Rights Act that specifically prohibits anybody, not just public officials, anybody from engaging in voter intimidation, and all of that conduct amounts to voter intimidation, also the Ku Klux Klan Act that specifically prohibits people from conspiring to undermine and interfere with and intimidate people in the exercise of their votes.

BILL MOYERS: That was 1871, wasn’t it? That goes way back—

BEN CLEMENTS: And so this conduct is illegal. And that’s very important to remember. And when we hear Donald Trump talking about sending in law enforcement and sending in attorney generals and U.S. attorneys, and everybody, we’re going to send to the polls to scare people, he’s talking about doing something illegal. We also have a law that’s very, very strict that it is a crime for Donald Trump or for Bill Barr or for Chad Wolf to send in armed federal agents to polling places. That is a crime with a subject of very narrow limitations. That violates the law. And so those threats to do it violate the law. And we need to be very clear about that. The is illegal behavior.

BILL MOYERS: How much has the Voting Rights Act been hurt by that decision of the Supreme Court, enabled, inspired by John Roberts? Who, as a young member of the Department of Justice, wrote a memorandum to his bosses laying out a strategy for undoing the Voting Rights Act that he then, once on the Supreme Court, began to implement?

JOHN BONIFAZ: He started very early during the Reagan Justice Department.  He did not want President Reagan at the time to extend the Voting Rights Act.  He lost that battle as a young attorney in the Reagan Justice Department. But then, of course, he ascended to the Supreme Court. And in the Shelby County case in 2013, he invalidated Section 5. And what we’ve seen as a result is a sweeping set of voter suppression laws and restrictions throughout the South, throughout the areas that were subject to Section 5 preclearance, including states like Texas.

BEN CLEMENTS: That decision in Shelby that gutted Section 5 and other decisions in other areas such as Affirmative Action, Justice Roberts has been animated by this idea that racism in this country is not a problem anymore. That we don’t need Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because those states that used to engage in suppression of non-white people’s votes don’t do that sort of thing anymore. And the very painful irony is in his insistence on gutting these efforts, he has helped usher in a resurgence of systemic racism and and in particular, voter suppression often on racially-based lines as a result of some of his rulings.

BILL MOYERS: I see that you’re involved in a case in Texas involving the Voting Rights Act concerning a safe and secure election during the pandemic. What’s that about?

BEN CLEMENTS: So the case challenges a number of laws and policies in Texas that particularly as they’ve been implemented during the pandemic have made it very, very difficult for people to vote safely. And the key part of the law that we are currently seeking to have the district court in San Antonio strike down is the governor’s mask mandate order. The governor of Texas issued a mandate in an order last July requiring masks to be worn in almost all public places in Texas with just a handful of exceptions. But one of the exceptions, oddly enough, was for polling places. So it specifically says that voters are not required to wear masks when voting or when standing in line to vote. Poll workers are not required to wear masks. And so if you want to go vote safely in person you have no choice but to risk being exposed to other voters and to poll workers. And the secretary of state has issued further guidance saying that the poll workers can require the voter to take their mask off when showing their identification. So essentially, requiring voters to go face to face with a poll worker that does not have a mask on, and you take your own mask off. Now, this is all compounded by the fact that Texas is among the very worst states for providing alternatives to voting in person. They do not allow you to vote by mail unless you have a medical or other health necessity. And fear of contracting COVID-19, Texas authorities have said, does not qualify. They make it very difficult to vote curbside if you can get yourself into the polls physically, then you’re not permitted to vote curbside. So for the vast majority of Texans, they have no choice, if they want to vote, but to go do so in person. And as a result of this exemption in the governor’s order, to do so by exposing themselves, potentially for a long period of time because Texas also has very, very long lines in many of their counties and this claim is also under the Voting Rights Act. And particularly, as a discriminatory exemption. Because as we know COVID-19 affects Blacks and Latinos much worse than it does white people in terms of the likelihood of being infected and in terms of the severity and the risk of death if they are infected. And it’s been pretty well documented that that is all of the result of underlying, systemic racism in this country. And particularly in Texas. So we’re awaiting an order from the judge. We’re hopeful that he will order the exemption removed so that people are required to wear masks at the polls.

BEN CLEMENTS: I don’t think there’s any question that on one level, it’s extremely political. I mean, the only justification that the state can come up with for this exemption is their claim that some people just don’t want to wear a mask. It’s not just the poll workers who are exempt. Voters are exempt. And so if you want to go vote without a mask, because you don’t care about possibly infecting other people, you’re entitled to do that in Texas. And the Texas authorities claim that they need to do that because people should have the right to go vote without a mask if they want to. Now, that decision that they are more concerned about protecting the interest of someone who feels that it’s a personal affront to have to put on a mask than they are in protecting those people who feel that it’s not just a personal affront, but a risk to my safety and my health and possibly my life to be exposed to these people who won’t put a mask on, that they have made that choice.

BILL MOYERS: I have to ask how you fellas keep doing this. Because democracy is supposed to be celebrated. Its great ritual is the vote. It’s where people get a voice in representation. They get a voice in democracy when they vote. No vote, no voice. And yet, here we have elections in which increasing numbers of people are trying to keep other people from voting. Why is this happening?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, they’re in the distinct minority. I think we have to remember that. You’re right that there are people who are trying to suppress the vote and undermine democracy. But they really are in—

BILL MOYERS: They do have power— they do—

JOHN BONIFAZ: They do have power—

BILL MOYERS: They may be in the minority, but they have power—

JOHN BONIFAZ: They do have power. But when we remember that the majority do not believe in suppressing the vote across party lines, I should say. I don’t think it’s solely about one side versus the other on the political end. I think the majority of people in this country believe that the right to vote should be protected. That democracy should be protected. And many are quite angry at the idea that those in power would seek to suppress the right to vote. So I think what engages us to continue to do this is the fact that we know that we’re with the majority of the people. We’re on the right side of history and we’re on the right side of the constitution. And that it is incumbent upon all of us at this decisive moment in you to stand up and protect our democracy.

BEN CLEMENTS: It is frustrating to have to be pushing back against that minority– it is a minority, but unfortunately, it’s a minority that is in power currently, that wishes to suppress people’s votes. And that is challenging and frustrating. But, at the same time, when we see people standing in these lines for hours, lines that go around city blocks, that go across fields and fields in rural areas, on the one hand, that shouldn’t be. People should be allowed and able to go and vote it should be a 15-minute process at most. On the other hand, to see the American people all around the country, maybe in this election more than ever in our history, willing to sacrifice, willing to sacrifice a day of their life, willing to risk the possibility of threatening confrontations, the possibility of contracting a dangerous virus, I mean, that’s inspiring. And I think all of us in our work and in how we commit ourselves to this democracy should take inspiration.

BILL MOYERS: As I said in my introduction, your organization Free Speech for People is mainly concern with eliminating or diminishing the power of money in politics. You’ve been fighting for voting rights, you’ve been fighting to get money out of politics, and you’ve been fighting for a constitutional amendment reverse Citizens United. How is money playing out in this election? We know Biden’s raised millions upon millions, Trump not so much as he did, but he still has a lotta money. And these senators across the country, running– many of them for the first time–are raising extraordinary sums of money for senatorial races. So none of us can be happy with the fact that the money in politics continues to rise and accelerate, correct?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Correct. It continues to be a huge threat to the basic principles of our democracy. We should not have a system which is dependent on how much you can raise in order to run and win an elected office. And it is the very top 1% of the population that’s really providing the bulk of this money. It is true that there’s grassroots fundraising that’s happening and small-dollar donor giving that’s happening. But still, we see by and large that the bulk of the money is coming from the wealthy few. And that is anti-democratic to the basic principles of our republic and really, of the right to vote. It’s not solely a question as those have tried to define it, who defend this system as a free speech issue. There are free speech rights and there are equal protection rights of the non wealthy, who don’t have the ability to give all these large sums of money. And this is another right-to-vote question. Your right to vote should not be dependent on whether or not you have huge sums of money to participate in the politics process. And the right to vote is not just a right to participate in casting that ballot. It’s the right to equal and meaningful participation in the entire election process. Not just on Election Day. And, ultimately, what we have now is a wealth primary. A process through all of the elections around the country where by and large, candidates who are winning that process, winning the wealth primary, outraising, out spending their opponents, are going on to win election. That’s antithetical to our democracy and it has to change.

BEN CLEMENTS: Your question, Bill, focused on how much money has Biden raised and how much has Trump raised. But the super PAC outside spending and the hidden spending that goes on is dwarfing what the campaigns are doing. And that has put us in a position where it’s not just the 1% that has an outsized voice, we’re now down to much more like the .001%. We have billionaires spending hundreds of millions of dollars, a single person spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to influence an election. We are getting to the point where we have a number that is perhaps less than a hundred people that are having a louder say in terms of the so-called “marketplace of ideas” in our elections than everybody else. And that’s not sustainable. That is a root for the end of democracy.

BILL MOYERS: You can’t give up on democracy, but it requires a lot of work. Thanks to you, Ben Clements and to you, John Bonifaz, and to FreeSpeechForPeople.org, for your combined efforts on behalf of all of us. And thank you for being with me today.

JOHN BONIFAZ: Thank you, Bill.

BEN CLEMENTS: Thank you so much for having us, Bill. Great to see you.

ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. You can find more information about protecting the right to vote at FreeSpeechForPeople.org. Until next time, you’ll find all this and more at Billmoyers.com.

 

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