“A Fire That Has Spread Across the Country”: Jelani Cobb on Voter Suppression in the 2020 Election

Historians in the News
tags: voting rights, Vote Suppression, 2020 Election

As tens of millions of people across the U.S. cast their ballots in early voting ahead of the November 3 election, we look at voter suppression efforts with journalist and academic Jelani Cobb. His new “Frontline” documentary “Whose Vote Counts” examines the long lines, record number of mail-in ballots and the legal fights that have marked voting during the pandemic, with a focus on Wisconsin. “This is a state where the presidency was essentially decided in the last election,” says Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a contributor to The New Yorker. He describes voter suppression as “a fire that has spread across the country.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form. 

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Today marks two weeks from November 3rd, official Election Day. Amidst the pandemic, more than 30 million people nationwide have already voted through mail-in ballots or early voting — about a fifth of the total number of votes cast in 2016. It’s shattering all records for voting. Early voting begins today in Wisconsin and Utah.

As voters in the United States choose their next president, we spend the rest of the hour with journalist and professor Jelani Cobb. In the new Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts, Cobb collaborates with Columbia Journalism School, Columbia Journalism Investigations and reporters from USA Today Network to examine one of the first elections held during the pandemic: Wisconsin’s April 2020 primary. 


Jelani, it’s great to have you back with us. You talk about Wisconsin, which begins early voting today, as a kind of microcosm of America. Why? Why did you focus there? And what are you most concerned about?

JELANI COBB: Well, I mean, there were so many things in Wisconsin. You know, we were looking at all of the potential obstacles. So, we started this project before the coronavirus hit, and we were looking at all the potential dynamics that could impede people’s ability to cast a ballot. And when we were looking around, we saw Wisconsin — just so many of them were happening in Wisconsin. And it was also important for us to look at Wisconsin not only because of what’s happened there in the last decade under Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature and the extreme gerrymandering that’s there, the really strict voter ID law, one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country — you know, all of those things that we thought were significant, but also they were — this is a state where the presidency was essentially decided in the last election. You know, just that sliver of 22,000 votes, and things would turn out a different way. And so, that was all looking around and saying that this was important.

And then, one other additional factor is that it’s a state in the North, where we wanted people to be aware that this is not just the familiar John Lewis story of Selma and Mississippi and Georgia and South Carolina, the places that we know to be the kind of usual suspects as it relates to voter suppression. We’re now looking at a fire that has spread across the country. And we’re dealing with voter suppression concerns in safe states that were in the Union, and Wisconsin, which is where the Republican Party was founded by people who were outraged by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Compromise that might have allowed the spread of — the further spread of slavery. And so you have this bastion of progressivism, this place that is a cornerstone of American progressive politics, and now we’re mired in a situation wondering about whether or not people will have access to the vote.



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