Richard Hasen, the Chancellor’s professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, speaks on election bills and laws across the country. Clara Hendrickson, Michigan issues and politics reporter at Detroit Free Press, shares best practices in covering this issue in local communities. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As you know, CFR is an independent, nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on foreign policy. We take no institutional positions on matters of policy.
This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices.
I want to remind everybody that the webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists.
Today we’re delighted to discuss “Reporting on Voting Legislation” with our speakers, Richard Hasen and Clara Hendrickson and host Carla Anne Robbins. We’ve shared their bios with you, so I’ll just give a brief overview.
Richard Hasen is the Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, and is co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center. He is a nationally recognized expert in election law and campaign finance regulation, and has appeared in many publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Politico, and Slate. And prior to being at UC Irvine, he taught at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and in Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Clara Hendrickson covers Michigan issues and politics for the Detroit Free Press as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. She was previously a research analyst at the Brookings Institution and a freelance reporter for national and local outlets in Washington, D.C. And her work has appeared in the Boston Review, Democracy Journal, the Atlantic, and Politico magazine.
And our host, Carla Anne Robbins, is an adjunct fellow at CFR. She is faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
So thank you all for being with us. I’m going to turn it over to Carla to have the conversation, and then we’ll turn to all of you for your questions and comments. So, Carla, over to you.
ROBBINS: Very confusing, the Clara and the Carla thing. I’m going to get confused myself.
Anyway, Irina, thank you so much. And it’s—thank you so much, may I call you—is it Richard? Is it Dick?
HASEN: It’s Rick. Rick Hasen.
ROBBINS: It’s Rick Hasen. Thank you so much.
And Clara Hendrickson—may I call you Clara? So, great.
Thank you both for joining us today. This is an incredibly important topic, and terrifying. And as a national security reporter, of course, I really love terrifying topics, so this is great. What we’re going to do is we’re going to chat up here among the three of us for a brief time and then throw it open to the group for questions. I’m sure everybody out here has a lot of questions. And thank you all to the—to the reporters who are on the—on the webinar here today. We appreciate so much all the work you do, and we know how—what a tough time it is to be a reporter out there.
So, if I can start with Rick—Professor—last year, according to the Brennan Center—as a report that was published in October—nineteen states enacted nearly three dozen laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote, but twenty-five states enacted sixty-two laws with provisions that expand voting access. That said, even though the numbers sound pretty good, they said that on balance this isn’t a win for voting rights. And particularly the states that have enacted restrictive laws are the ones that already were making it very hard to vote. And what they’re saying, in other words, access to the right to vote increasingly depends on the state in which a voter happens to reside.
So how bad is it, you know, out there? And which of the restrictions and which of the states are you most concerned about?
HASEN: Well, thanks for the question. Thanks to the Council for having me.
I think you ask a very good question, which is trying to disentangle aggregate trends from what’s going on on the ground in each state. And I think that’s an important question because there’s a lot of misreporting. There’s a lot of lack of perspective on some of these voting changes, and it’s important to separate out what’s truly important from what is a minor change.
And so, for example, suppose you have a Southern state that offered twenty days of early voting and they pass a voting law that cuts that down to fourteen days. Well, that’s going to be reported on the Brennan Center website as a—as a cutback in voting, and it is a cutback in convenience of voters. But it might be that that Southern state, which is being—that is dominated by Republicans in the legislature, still is offering fourteen days of early voting compared to a state like New York, which is a Democratic state that’s offering no early voting. And so it’s important to put things in perspective and to recognize that some rollbacks—especially now, some rollbacks are simply restoring the way things were before COVID. You know, we had a lot of changes in voting rules because of COVID, expansion of absentee balloting for example. Some of it is a rollback to just the pre-COVID period.
Some of it is more serious, and I think it’s important to separate that out and to have perspective. Not every time a change in voting happens, even one that is restrictive, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to have a meaningful impact on who votes and how they vote. So, again, going from twenty days of early voting to fourteen days of early voting would probably not have a very big impact. And so it’s important to not be alarmist and exaggerate and to focus on the things that are really worrisome.
And I’ll just make one more point because I don’t want to talk too much at the beginning here, but I think it’s important for journalists to separate out the two risks to our election system. And the Brennan Center compilation itself doesn’t do this, but other information on the Brennan Center website specifically does do this, which is the difference between laws that make it harder to vote—sometimes called voter suppression—harder to register to vote on the one hand, and laws that raise the risk of election subversion on the other. This is a topic that I have been focusing most of my attention on, this latter topic. This is about making sure that we have free and fair elections—that elections, particularly the presidential election, is not stolen or manipulated where the loser could be declared the winner. It’s something I never expected to be talking about in the United States. If I had mentioned this five years ago at a CFR event, I would have been laughed away. So it’s important to look at.
So, for example, to me the most significant aspects of Georgia and Texas, two states that passed new voting bills—in Texas, the most important aspect of that whole procedure where they passed this strict voting bill was that they eliminated, after complaints from the business community and others, a provision that would have made it much easier for a state court to overturn election results by changing the burden of proof and lowering the standard. And that’s kind of a hard story to report, but that was most significant. And in Georgia, I think far more significant than saying that voters who are within 150 feet of a polling place can’t be offered water—a provision that got a lot of attention—is the fact that it now is easier for the state to take over local election boards, particularly Democratic election boards like Fulton County, because that raises the risk of potentially manipulating how elections are being run for partisan reasons.
So, as I said, there’s a lot of nuance. And it’s important to not exaggerate and to really get a sense of what’s going on.
ROBBINS: So there’s a lot in there and I think we’re going to want to talk about those. But can I just ask you sort of just quickly for scene setting—then I want to turn to Clara—if we, one—and you’ve given us a good, you know, rubric for separating out. One is, you know, the new rules or the new laws that can change the outcome of the vote, and then the voter suppression ones. And the voter suppression ones, of course, got a lot of attention, and now we’re beginning to cover the second set of them. But can we talk a little bit about voter suppression? And certainly there are, you know, lists of things that are out there. Maybe it’s not the water, but it's things like, you know, in Iowa and Kansas people could face criminal charges for returning ballots on behalf of voters; things like, you know, limits on mail-in voting; and, you know, things like ending drop boxes. There are things that will make it harder to vote, and we are a country that notoriously up until recently had very low voter turnout. And the fact that we vote on a—on a Tuesday rather than on a weekend has also notoriously made it harder for working people to vote, made it harder. You know, and it certainly has made it harder for older people to vote, for a variety of things. And then, of course, ID requirements, which makes it much harder for the disenfranchised to vote and all of that. There have to be some of these things that concern you, or maybe I’m—maybe I’m one of those people who’s hyperventilating about things that I shouldn’t be hyperventilating about.
HASEN: Well, again, I would say the devil’s in the details. The fact that a state is getting rid of drop boxes but you can still put your ballot in a mailbox, it doesn’t strike me as that that’s a particularly onerous problem. Now, you know, if you completely take away mail voting, especially for people who have trouble getting to polling places, that could be really disenfranchising. So, you know, the fight over drop boxes to me is a sideshow. It’s not—I mean, I think drop boxes work well. I live in Los Angeles. They’re really nice. I’m glad we have them. But I think that, you know, as far as disenfranchising people by making them put their ballot into a mailbox rather than put them into a drop box doesn’t strike me as all that worrisome.
Let me give you a contrast with something that worries me a lot. Texas has—already has very restrictive rules for who can vote by mail. People who vote absentee have to be over sixty-five or be disabled or be out of the state, like in the military or something like that. It’s very difficult to get these ballots. And now Texas has changed the rules so that you have to include the last certain number of digits of the identification number that you used when you initially registered yourself, whether that’s your driver’s license or last of your Social, whatever. And if that doesn’t match and the state doesn’t have a way to easily tell you, your ballot’s not going to be accepted. So that strikes me as a kind of gotcha means that’s actually going to disenfranchise a lot of Republicans. I’m not sure what the Texas legislature was thinking. But that strikes me as really problematic, you know, putting hurdles in front of voters for no good reason that could lead to their disenfranchisement.
So, again, you really have to separate these things out, look at what’s actually going on, and ask: Does the state have a good reason for doing this? What is that reason? Is it justified? If the state’s claiming fraud, where is the evidence of fraud? And often, there is no evidence of fraud. If the state’s claiming, you know, that they need these numbers in order to verify, you know, why are they making it a crime for the election administrators of the counties to contact voters proactively and tell them this is how you should be submitting your ballot? So, yes, sure, there are certain things that worry me a lot, but there are also a lot of things that are not nearly as bad as they’re portrayed.
ROBBINS: We’ll dig more into that. That’s great. Thank you.
Clara, so you have a beat. You have the democracy beat, which is the sort of thing that those of us who were foreign correspondents for a good part of our career covered in places like El Salvador, where I started. The idea that you’re covering it in Michigan is a little chilling. So can you just tell us what are the stories that, you know—what’s the big action on the ground right now in Michigan? And is there anything that Professor Hasen is telling you that is making you rethink what you’re covering?
HENDRICKSON: It’s a great question. Well, I think we are also focused on those sort of two buckets of coverage: efforts to change election law in ways that would have an impact on voters, whether it’s strict voter ID requirements, a ban on mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters, so tracking all of those efforts; and in Michigan we’re sort of in a unique situation in that we have a GOP-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor, so a lot of those bills have already been vetoed. But we have this weird process. We’re kind of a national outlier in laying out this ability for voters to introduce legislation that the legislature can pass without the governor’s signature. So there’s an effort underway for, you know, Republicans who are organizing this initiative petition that have proposals mirroring all of these GOP bills to get that passed and make those changes before the 2022 election. So that’s something that we’re following pretty closely.
And then that second bucket of coverage, efforts to make it, you know, harder to certify an election or create impediments to making sure that, you know, after voters cast all their ballots that their votes actually count and get certified. And we haven’t seen a ton of efforts to fundamentally change that process in Michigan, but 2020 definitely revealed both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of our election law in terms of we only have two Dems and two Republicans who are in charge of signing off on the election results, and if there’s a deadlock it goes to the courts, which, you know, can create all kinds of problems for meeting election deadlines. So that will be an issue that we’re focused on in 2022 and 2024, because there’s been a lot of turnover on these canvassing boards that certify elections and we’re seeing Republicans get appointed who have peddled election disinformation and have said explicitly that they would not have signed off on the results of the 2020 contest.
ROBBINS: So do you get a sense that—you know, given these two buckets, do you get a sense that in the shifting efforts there, even though they’re nascent, how much of this is driven by local Republican Parties versus a national effort? You know, that’s there’s somebody out there that’s pushing it from Washington, or from the RNC, or from ALEC, or from some other—how much of this is grassroots versus astroturf?
HENDRICKSON: Well, I think the fact that a lot of the legislation is very similar coming from these states—whether it’s in Georgia or Michigan, I mean, we’re seeing pretty identical language in a lot of the bills. So that would suggest that there is a national push here. And I think it’s been important for me to pay attention to what lawmakers are saying about their bills versus how their constituents view the bills that are getting passed. You know, Republican lawmakers will say: None of this is in response to the 2020 election. These are just measures that we see as common-sense reforms to bolster election security.
But if you actually sit in on some of these legislative hearings, where, quote/unquote, “grassroots” Republican organizations are testifying in support of these bills, they’re saying: Had these measures been in place in 2020, it would have stopped all the, you know, quote/unquote “widespread election fraud,” which we know didn’t happen. But that’s something I’ve been paying a lot of attention to is just that difference and that gap between how Republican lawmakers, who will say that the election was not stolen, view their own bills versus election—Republicans on the ground who do buy into the conspiracies, how they’re viewing a lot of these pushes.
ROBBINS: Why do you think they won’t say the election was stolen? Even the fact that they—I mean, do they pay a price for not saying—for saying, I mean, the election was stolen? Or since they’re pushing in the same direction anyway, they figure that they—is it—do you get any sense? Have you ever asked them, you know, about the gap between what their constituents say versus what they’ll say?
HENDRICKSON: Most Republicans don’t really want to talk about that. And when we did have two of our top Republican lawmakers get called to the White House, they had that meeting with Trump in November 2020, and then they came away with that. Said, you know, we talked about COVID-19. We didn’t talk about the election. And they issued a statement, you know, Biden legitimately won the election. The legislature plays no role in the vote certification process. You know, we’re not—we’re not going to intervene.
But I think that sort of infighting within the Michigan Republican Party when it comes to views about the 2020 election. And it’s not going away anytime soon. And a lot of the Republicans have faced pushback from their local constituents on—you know, whether it’s criticizing Trump’s stolen election claims, or efforts to undermine, you know, confidence in the vote in 2020. They’ve been censured for that. But a lot of them haven’t necessarily taken a huge hit in terms of their fundraising efforts so far. And then, you know, in November we’ll see whether they can hold on to their seats.
ROBBINS: So, Rick, you noted that it’s not clear the impact of some of these things. And it’s not clear that it’s going to have a partisan benefit. That Republican voters could be punished by what, you know, Republican legislators are pushing, other than the fact that—(laughs)—maybe people aren’t thinking smart. Politicians can sometimes do dumb things. Do you see that there is—you know, that there is some hand above that’s driving this? You know, who’s behind this? I mean, we certainly saw this with immigration legislation, with, you know, ALEC and Kris Kobach, and people like that. Is there—you know, is there a more central force that’s coming up with this legislation? And if so, why are they coming up with some dumb legislation?
HASEN: I think there are a lot of forces at work here, and it’s a complicated issue. So, first, if you’re a Republican state legislator, you’re getting pressure from below. Your constituents are telling you the election was stolen. And they want you to do something. And you’re getting pressure from above. Trump is making—continuing to make false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and this is the most important issue. There was polling by CNN a few months ago showing that 59 percent of Republicans thought believing that the 2020 election was stolen was a key part of what it means to be a Republican. So that kind of tells you the depth. So there’s kind of a grassroots push for all of this.
And, you know, I think some of the reason that some of this legislation is infected because these legislators don’t necessarily want to do anything, but they feel they have to do something. So they do a little tightening, and they yell about fraud, and they talk about voter confidence. And there’s that. But I think that on top of that, and I think Clara talked about this in one context and it’s true across the board, there are organized conservative interests who are trying to use this opportunity to make voting harder for Democrats. And, you know, whether it’s ALEC or it’s Heritage Foundation Action. If you’ve seen the reporting by Mother Jones on this that leaked some videos of them going around and trying to get this stuff passed, there certainly is an organized effort behind it.
But, you know, there could be a number of things that are simultaneously true. One, these laws are passed with a bad motive, to suppress Democratic votes. Number two, they may not have that suppressive effect, because lots of things affect turnout. And, number three, they actually may have a negative effect not only because they may impact the ability of voters who were going to vote for Republicans to vote, but also because they provoke a backlash. So one of the things we see is that voting rights and voter suppression has now become an election issue, the same way that immigration or environmental issues or abortion or whatever has become an issue. And so Democrats have an incentive to fundraise and gin up their turnout by exaggerating the amount of voter suppression as a way of getting people excited about this, and getting them to vote. And that could actually have an opposite turnout effect.
And fourth, I think that, you know, the frame of is this going to affect election outcomes is the wrong one. And in fact, the right one should be: Why is the state making it harder for people to register and vote? Focus on the individual voter. You know, I’m very pro-voter. You know, why is the state putting up these impediments? What reason do they offer? Do those reasons stand up to scrutiny? And almost always, they don’t.
ROBBINS: So this is—so to help reporters, and you began gently critical of us and our profession. To help us sort this out, you know, obviously we can deductively say: Does this make sense? And certainly, we can begin to look at the not-so-hidden hands of, you know, what Heritage is doing, what ALEC is doing to see what they say they’re doing and what they’re doing. And we can go to your blog, which we will share with everyone. What are some other sources that—say my legislature is introducing something, is debating something, is pushing something. You know, who—where do I go to get a non-hyped assessment about the actual potential impact on the voter? What would you recommend?
HASEN: Well, I would say—yeah, I’d say two places. Number one, talk to local election administrators. They tend to be much less political. They tend to be much more on the ground. They all tend to be—well, I don’t want to say all—almost all of them tend to be very pro-voter. They want to help their voters. They’re in the customer service business. They’re not in politics business. They want people to be able to vote. So they’re a good source, as well as, you know, I would say, local political scientists. So if you’re covering something in Pennsylvania, talk to someone at one of the Pennsylvania universities—you know, whether the University of Pittsburgh, Penn, whatever, you know? There’s a million great universities in Pennsylvania.
Talk to those people who study state and local politics. They’ll have a much better perspective than, say, coming to someone like me, who has a 30,000-foot view. I can’t tell you if a particular twist and turn in Pennsylvania law is going to have a major effect on Pennsylvania voters. You know, and what I look at, to try to get—me, personally—to try to get a handle on what’s going on, is there are kind of go-to journalists in each state that I follow who are really, you know, focused on these kinds of issues. You know, so if it’s Wisconsin I know who I’m going to go to. If it’s, you know, Georgia, I have my people, you know, that I’m reading, because they’re the ones who follow this all the time. And so you kind of develop a reading list of people.
Now, I’ve had to subscribe to a lot of local newspaper websites in order to be able to get, you know, excellent reporting in Arizona, excellent reporting in Wisconsin. It adds up. I’m glad I have a research account. But, you know, those are people on the ground who are talking to the local election administrators, who are a great resource.
ROBBINS: So and, of course, Clara in Michigan. So, Clara, can you talk about the challenges of covering this story? You talked about the gaps between the way voters see this versus legislators. And in our last webinar we spoke to a local reporter about how politicized the COVID story is. Can you talk a little bit—I suppose two things. One is, where do you go for sources to make sure that you don’t get sucked not the over-politicization of the coverage? And, two, what’s it like to get people to talk about things that are so—that are so incredibly emotive?
HENDRICKSON: Well, I mean, I’ll just second what Rick said. My go-to source for pretty much all of my reporting is local clerks who actually administer the elections—Republican clerks, Democratic clerks, nonpartisan clerks. It’s amazing just the, you know, consistent unanimity that they approach a lot of the, like, legislative proposals that are on the table across party lines. Clerks are almost always on the same page about how they feel about a lot of the stuff that’s being introduced. So they’re very—they’re very helpful. And really helpful when it comes time to—comes time to actually hold an election and there’s, like, weird things about the process that come up that you might need to debunk or inform readers about. So, you know, definitely would encourage folks to get to know their local election officials.
Political science professors at local universities are often a go-to source. And then oftentimes just in the course of my reporting I get a lot of interesting folks just reaching out to me based on what I’ve reported to tell me their story. I had a good call with a Republican election worker last week. And her township clerk was actually one of the Republicans who signed the fake certificate of electors to try and award Michigan’s Electoral College votes to Donald Trump. And she’s, like, I’m not going to work in election anymore in my community. I’m going next door. I don’t want to work this guy’s elections. So finding those sort of, like, interesting, unique community voices I think can provide a perspective that if not rises above the kind of tribal politics of this issue, at least challenges it, or, you know, provides some nuance, or complicates the narrative a little bit.
ROBBINS: So have you been—you started out, you know, running a fact-checking operation on politics before they gave you the democracy beat, which I love. Do you have some way of soliciting people for this? Or do people just do it—they just email you because they see your byline? Or how do you do this? How do you find people who—because some of this, obviously, can get people in trouble, or alienate their neighbors, or, you know, obviously this is such an emotional issue at this point, and such a divisive issue.
HENDRICKSON: Yeah. I honestly have found it—it’s not too hard to get people to open up and talk just because, you know, people believe what they believe, and think that what they believe is right, so they want to share that with you most of the time. So I do make an effort, for better or for worse, to put my phone number and my email address at the bottom of every story. And, you know, sometimes that means I get a lot of calls from folks who maybe don’t like what I’m reporting. But I also get calls from interesting sources who will help me understand what’s happening on the ground, which is very important in Michigan because we have one of the most decentralized election systems in the country. We have eighty-three county clerks, over a thousand local election administrators. And so sometimes it’s just really hard to get a handle on what’s actually happening across the state.
I did a piece recently looking at appointments to canvassing boards. And those folks are nominated by their local party officials. And there’s no, like, consolidated way to see who’s been newly appointed and get their contact information. And, you know, it’s just hard when you’re dealing with over a thousand different websites of local administrators. So getting on-the-ground sources in a community who will tell you when something should be on your radar I think is really important.
ROBBINS: That’s great. So it’s 2:30—2:31, actually—and we already have one comment in the Q&A. I’m going to ask people to either—to raise a hand, put—you know, put something in Q&A for questions, comments, suggestions on stories, on how to cover things, as a conversation of the group, which we would love to have. But I do want to get in one more question here, as people are formulating their thoughts.
Rick, you know, last Friday a federal judge ruled that this new Texas law, I think it’s Senate Bill 1, you know, that makes it a state—a jail felony in Texas for election officials to, quote, “solicit the submission of an application to vote by if the voter did not request.” And the federal judge said it likely violated the First Amendment. You know, are the courts going to save us?
HASEN: Again, I think it depends on what the question is, right? So there was just a tiny piece of SB1 that was enjoined, right? Most of that law is in place. When the Department of Justice came in and sued, they attacked two other parts of that bill. You know, there are private lawsuits. They’re attacking pieces of it. The courts are not going to address—the courts are not going to be the primary mechanism by which efforts to roll back election rules get changed. And that’s because of, in part, the conservative retrenchment on voting rights that we see at the Supreme Court that trickles down. You know, there are lots of district court—we’re talking about federal courts—there are a lot of federal district court judges. They have different views. It would not surprise me if this ruling in Texas is overturned on appeal by the Fifth Circuit. That’s where the case would go next. That’s the most conservative circuit. And, you know, and then the Supreme Court could choose to stay out of it.
So the Supreme Court has shrunk the Voting Rights Act. You mentioned the Texas ruling, but we also had last week the Supreme Court’s ruling on emergency petition in the Alabama case, which signals, as I’ve written on my election law blog, a potential major—I don’t know what the word would be—a shrinkage—a potential major shrinkage of the scope of Section Two of the Voting Rights Act as applied to redistricting. Already last summer in the Brnovich case the Supreme Court shrunk Section Two of the Voting Rights Act as it applies to efforts to make it harder to register to vote. So in some states, some state courts are going to be very protective of the right to vote. In part, that’s going to based on what’s in each state constitution.
So it depends on what’s in the state constitution and how the state constitution’s been interpreted in the past and, frankly, whether there are more Democrats than Republicans on the state Supreme Court. So it’s no surprise that the state Supreme Court in North Carolina, which is four to three Democratic, voted four to three to strike down the Republican General Assembly’s plan on redistricting as a partisan gerrymander. You know, in—we might see a similar kind of thing in Pennsylvania, but we’re not going to see it in Wisconsin, where Wisconsin has a four-to-three Republican-dominated legislature. And a lot of these judges are elected. And so they feel kind of electoral pressure themselves.
So there’s all kinds of reasons to think that it’s going to be state by state, issue by issue. But, you know, a blanket statement that the courts are going to save us? Absolutely not.
ROBBINS: Thanks. So, Texas Public Radio Dave—did your mother name you that? (Laughs.) She knew where you were going. No. Would you like to make your comment about—this is about the politics of Texas. And there’s more thought here than we might suggest. That it’s not that they’re being self-destructively excluding, but they want to intentionally exclude RINOs. Dave, do you want to make that comment or share your thoughts with us?
Q: Sure. I don’t know if you can hear me or not. Can you?
ROBBINS: We can.
Q: Yeah, sure. Well, Rick, it’s great to see you in person after I’ve interviewed you several times.
So, yeah, so the point is that Texas is very much about the primary, which is now underway with early voting. And the Republican Party wants to exclude—they don’t mind excluding moderates and RINOs from voting in the primary. So their attitude is that if you’re hardcore Republican you will find a way to vote, and so they will raise the bar. And so that’s why they’re not that concerned with exclusion of Republicans in that.
ROBBINS: So in other words, the truly committed will crawl over broken glass, which—so it’s not as self-destructive as the outsider might think it is. Interesting thought.
HASAN: Yeah, it does make it seem—you know, to the extent that that’s plausible—and I certainly think Dave is much closer to what’s going on in Texas than I am—it suggests that far from being, you know, kind of irrational, maybe there’s something that’s politically rational about what’s going on there.
ROBBINS: Rickey Bevington, can you tell us with whom—I don’t have my list right in front of me. Can you tell us with whom you work and share your questions with us?
Q: Can you hear me?
Q: Great. It’s great to be here. Thanks for this opportunity to explore this topic. I, for 16 years, was with Georgia Public Broadcasting. I recently left to become president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. So I’m doing both—I have my journalist hat on right now, and also my Council on Foreign Relations international engagement hat on, at this moment.
But my experience covering the 2020 chaos of Georgia was obviously—the local reporting press corps was totally unprepared to cover the nuances, not only just the day-to-day even the horserace of the elections, but then the subsequent Senate Bill 202 that came in the wake of the Democratic victories. So my question is, you know, I think of local journalists as kind of like an army that’s out here, but we don’t have any—too many reporters don’t have literally the armor and the weapons to cover local elections. I don’t mean just election night returns. I mean the step-by-step process by which an election becomes corrupt over months and years.
So my question is, are other groups stepping in—and I mean fair, honest groups—stepping in to be watchdogs? Whether it could be at the tiny south Georgia rural county or nationally? I guess I’m not as worried about national and even statewide elections as this point. It’s the smaller one. There are 159 counties in Georgia. What’s happening at that level? So that’s my question, because reporters aren’t the only ones who are trying to get the word out, so to speak, or at least monitor what’s happening. There’s got to be really hopefully trustworthy nonprofits or even just volunteers doing this as well. So that’s my question. Who might we partner with locally for information?
ROBBINS: It’s a good question for both. Clara, do you have a—have a—other than individual sources, do you have sort of go-to?
HENDRICKSON: Yeah. This is—it’s an interesting question. You know, I focus on statewide issues. And I definitely, as a reporter, feel the impact of the local news crisis within the state of Michigan, and not having enough smaller and community newspapers, or nonprofit newsrooms, who are covering a lot of the hyperlocal election issues. It is a problem. And I don’t know if I have any creative solutions other than, you know, figuring out how to create a sustainable business model for local news, how to put more money into the local news ecosystem. It’s a challenge, for sure. That’s not a particularly helpful answer, but I appreciate the question.
HASAN: I think the local problem is an exceptionally difficult one. I’m just putting in the chat here a link to a book I have coming out in three weeks called Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons our Politics and How to Cure It. And I see much of the problems today with the demise of local journalism. And at the last part of the book—I mean, it’s one of a number of problems that has come with the information revolution that has taken place over the last twenty years. But the demise of local journalism, I think we need to be thinking about kind of the nonprofit model.
So I point to things like the Texas Tribune or the Nevada Independent, right? There are nonprofits throughout the country that are now producing quality journalism. But at the same time that this is happening, there are fake news sites, often backed by Democrats or Republicans. I think about Courier News, which is the Democratic front group that makes itself look like journalists. The Republicans have an even larger operation that I describe in the book. The Russian government tried to get into it with something called Peace Data. So getting reliable information about politics on the local level using news organizations is an extremely difficult problem, but it’s something that’s urgent for our democracy because surveys show that people trust local news more than they trust the national news. And so having something reliable.
But if you’re talking about far-flung areas without a lot of people, those are places where there’s the least economic incentive to be reaching these people, and where disinformation, which is cheaper to spread, is easier to spread. So I think that’s really a topic for another day. But I think that—you know, what I would say is if there are any activists in Georgia, for example, they should be writing to Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who’s one of those local journalists who, you know, really understands how elections work in a particular state. And sometimes these local stories become national stories.
Again, to take Georgia, Richard Fausset, who’s one of the staff reporters for the New York Times, covered this tiny county, Lincoln, Georgia, that was closing six of seven polling places. You know, and the question was, was this an effort of voter suppression or was it consolidation, given that the nature of voting is changing and most people vote by mail? These stories take a lot to report, but they have to make their way up to these reporters. So reach out to the reporters if you have a local story, and that could potentially have state or national implications. But it’s a really hard thing to do.
ROBBINS: So Jordan Wilkie has a question. And I think I—Jordan, I think I would love to have Clara start with answering about how she would go about it if she does cover the courts. But Jordan—and then Rick, obviously, who knows, being a professor of law. But, Jordan, do you want to voice your question?
Q: Yeah. And I’ll start by saying anyone who has questions about sort of innovative local-level reporting on how to cover elections, I’m working on some things in North Carolina and would love to shoot some ideas around with folks if they want to reach out to me. I’m easy to find on Twitter.
Yeah, so my question is, when—functionally, when different parts of a democratic system have really high-stakes partisan debates going around them how can you cover those realistically without then undermining the functionality of that institution itself? The example I use here is state courts. I’m in North Carolina. Our state courts, as Professor Hasan just mentioned, ruled in a four-to-three Democratic-Republican majority that the Republican hyper-partisan gerrymander was unconstitutional. And there is significant debate among the Republican-controlled legislature now about how they can respond, including things like winning the—they’re set up to win the state Supreme Court, and how they’re going to reverse this precedent already. So, you know, how do we cover this without undermining trust in the institution of our democracy and without creating just sort of a partisan, you know, horserace attitude toward the functioning of our democracy?
ROBBINS: I mean, that’s a great question. I can tell you, when I was on the edit page at the Times, you know, we had this constant debate about do we refer to judges as a Democratic-appointed judge, a Republican-appointed judge, that, you know, was sort of playing into this notion that the courts were completely partisan, although they seemed to be increasingly partisan. Clara, how do you handle that?
HENDRICKSON: Yeah. That’s a—that’s definitely a challenge, for sure. One thing that I’m thinking of, and the example that you raised about the North Carolina court’s decision, is that, you know, it’s not always as a reporter you’re dealing with just, like, what do the Democrats say and what do the Republicans say? Like, there is specific, you know, factual information that you can bring into your reporting that can help your readers evaluate the claims. You know, in this instance there are objective measures of whether a map is fair. And you can talk about those measures in your reporting. What do political scientists who are reviewing the maps, what do they say? And so that way you’re not just looking at, OK, what do the politicians or the judges, in this case, what do they say about the issues that are being presented to them? So bringing in that nonpartisan expertise and then data to bear in your reporting I think can be really helpful to kind of counteract that fear that you might be just giving the impression that this is all just a, you know, partisan fight, and may the best person win. (Laughs.)
HASEN: I have a somewhat different view. So in North Carolina, for example, I think it would be journalist malpractice to not report that the four Democratic-aligned judges voted to strike down the Republican legislature, and the three Republican judges didn’t. I mean, that is—you know, how are you to understand that story? It’s the same thing that you hear that the United States Supreme Court split six to three, with all the Republican-appointed justices on one side and all the Democratic voices on the other.
So take the Alabama case, where Chief Justice Roberts dissented from part of the ruling last week. He dissented on whether or not to grant a stay. And he agreed that the case should be heard. And if you kind of thought about that and read into it, as I commented on my election law blog when that order came out, Roberts was saying something very significant. He was saying: The lower court accurately applied existing law, but I agree with the other conservatives on the court—I’m paraphrasing here, obviously—that we need to rethink this. Maybe we need to have a retrenchment on Section Two of the Voting Rights Act.
The fact that the conservative chief justice of the court was outvoted on the first point by these other justices, that’s relative context. And I don’t think it’s journalists’ job to sugarcoat the reality that Democratic-appointed and Democratic-elected judges vote differently than Republican-appointed or Republican-elected judges. That’s why they’re chosen. It doesn’t mean their partisan hacks. They’re chosen because they have a certain ideology or viewpoint, and that’s what makes them appealing to Democrats or Republicans.
It’s—you know, when President Biden now is thinking about who he’s going to appoint to the court, to the U.S. Supreme Court, he's thinking: Who’s going to vote in a way that’s going to be consistent with what I want and my vision of the Constitution? And he’s going to pick someone. That justice won’t necessarily always side with Biden, but I’m guessing that justice is more likely to side with where Biden would be than any of the justices appointed by Bush or Trump.
So that’s the reality. And I think you can’t—certainly, yes, I agree with Clara. Bring in data. Bring in experts. But don’t hide the fact that this is—these cases are dividing on party lines. One more example, in Wisconsin there’s a Republican-backed justice named Brian Hagedorn, who split with the Republicans and voted with Democrats when Trump was trying to bring a post-election challenge to the results in Wisconsin. That was a huge story, the fact that he would do that. Why would that happen? And that itself is the story. And so I wouldn’t hide it.
HENDRICKSON: I would—I would never advocate for hiding information. I totally agree with what Rick said. It’s essential context. Also just bring in additional information too. Thanks.
ROBBINS: Deb Krol from the Arizona Republic. Do you want to share your question with us?
OPERATOR: It looks like we’re having some technical difficulties with her audio. Ms. Krol, if you—
ROBBINS: I can read her question.
ROBBINS: Yeah, are you there, Deb?
Q: Yeah. I’m here.
So, you know, a while back voting rights—preclearance has been eliminated for a while, which has—which was confined with SCOTUS reining back, you know, voting rights recently. I’m kind of wondering what you all think some of this new legislation here in Arizona, which seeks to restrict the mail-in voting, which a lot of native voters depend upon, and not to mention, you know, rural voters. And, you know, we have some issues with redistricting, that some people say are seeking to dilute the voting strength of communities of color, will have on the ability of minority voters. And particularly, you know, the ones I report on, which are indigenous voters, to be able to get out and vote. Now, you have to understand by background that a lot of native voting advocates firmly believe that Biden won Arizona mostly from the tribal vote. So I’m hoping someone can kind of cast some light on that.
HASEN: Well, I can say that I don’t know enough about what’s going on in Arizona. This is what I mean about talking to local election administrators and local political scientists who study this. You know, I can tell you that as matter of—what the courts are likely to do is the courts are more likely than they were, say, five years ago to uphold restrictive voting rules because of the number of changes I mentioned earlier.
And the Brnovich case, the Supreme Court case reining in Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, was a case out of Arizona. It specifically involved the collection of absentee ballots on Native American reservations. And the court conservatives were not persuaded by the case. This was particularly disenfranchising. And so reading the tea leaves, I think, you know, you might get a good result in the Ninth Circuit if you challenged this, which is the most liberal circuit in the country. But to the extent that these cases go to the Supreme Court, and that’s where conservatives go now if they don’t like a result in the lower courts, you know, I’m not optimistic as a general matter.
But, I mean, this is another good example of if someone comes to me for a quote about this, that’s all I can say. Really what’s happening on the ground, you need to talk to people who know. Because I don’t know exactly what’s happening in Arizona.
ROBBINS: Clara, not that we’re—I’m sure there’s nobody else from Michigan here who is competing with you—(laughs)—what are you looking for next to cover? And is it driven mainly by legislation? Are you—what are the next big stories for you?
HENDRICKSON: Yeah. There are some big issues that I’m going to be tracking, along with the rest of the politics team here. The RNC is engaged in a massive election worker recruitment effort across states, including Michigan. They’re hoping to get 5,000 new Republican election inspectors signed up before 2022 and put those folks in a position to maybe be a precinct chair in 2024. So that’s something I’ve been really interested in looking into. And then the sort of post-litigation phase of redistricting. We still have a couple of pending lawsuits here in Michigan against our redistricting commission. But that’s a subject I’ve been covering for a long time.
And now I’m really looking forward to what actually happens when the maps are in place, and we have candidates running in these districts. We had an independent commission draw the lines, so do we see Democrats win a majority in the state legislature for the first time in years? There are concerns about how Black voters are going to be represented in the new lines. So what happens to Black lawmakers who currently represent the city in Lansing? That’s a big issue that we’re going to be looking into. And then ongoing efforts to change election law.
I think that that is something that’ll happen right before the election because, I mentioned, there’s this petition initiative that probably won’t get enough signatures until, you know, late spring, early summer. And so that could happen right before the election. And we want to be prepared if voters need to know that they need to do something differently this time around. We want to make sure that they’re informed, so that they have all the information they need to cast their ballot and make sure it counts. And I would not underestimate the power of local reporting just on laying out those basic processes for voters, because not everyone is going to their secretary of state’s website, but they are, you know, reading local news outlets.
ROBBINS: Well, I’m going to follow up with that in a minute, but Professor Hasen has to go to his next event. He’s booked end-to-end today. So I’m going to throw it over for last thoughts. And then I’m going to come back to you, Clara, because I’ve got some follow-ups on that.
HASEN: Yeah. So I would just say thanks again for the opportunity. Focus on the facts, especially if you have your own internal political views, check them. So I’m a pretty liberal person. You know, so my inclination is to think, you know, this law is horrible if it was passed by this Republican legislature after, you know, Trump had urged it. But actually look at the evidence. It’s not always going to be that way. You’ve got to figure out what’s happening on the ground. You’ve got to talk to people who know. The local experts are really the most important people that you should be looking to. Thanks.
ROBBINS: We really appreciate it. We will share links to your blog, and you’ve already shared links to your book. And I suspect you’re going to have more people calling you. And thank you for taking the time. And apologies for the confusion on your last name. It’s one of the great advantages of being Robbins. (Laughs.) And we hope that—we hope that we talk to you again soon. Thank you so much.
HASEN: Thanks. Take care, everyone.
ROBBINS: OK. Bye.
So, Clara, so much of—I think there—I have two questions in the remaining few minutes, but I’m sure—please jump in here, for people on the call here. You know, I think you—no one would ever think you were going to suppress information here. But I do think there is this question here about the disillusionment people feel, and that we as reporters—the very fact that you have democracy as a beat goes to a core—you know, the notion that your editors, in a time a limited resources, have felt that there’s something really bad going on here, and that we have to take talented reporter and put her in charge of dealing with threats to democracy, because that’s really what you’re looking at here. So how do you write about this without—you’re writing about—all this is incremental. How do you write about this incrementally? And you don’t want to hyperventilate, but at the same time you want to remind people what the stakes are. I mean, how do you balance this without at the same time having people say: I’m really tired of you constantly telling me that the house is on fire?
HENDRICKSON: Yeah. It is a challenge. And I struggle with when to write things sometimes, especially when there might be something outlandish that someone says. You know, the other week we had two Republican candidates who are not, you know, well-known, and don’t particularly have a ton of money in the bank and their campaigns, but they were calling on supporters to unplug voting machines if they see something they don’t like, to show up armed to the places where ballots are being counted. And pretty much every local outlet ran a story on those claims. And then you saw those Republican candidates sort of revel in the increase in attention they were getting. And then we had Democratic candidates fundraising off of those claims.
And so something that I am sort of aware of is just the impact that my reporting can have on maybe providing a platform or giving an issue or group of people more attention, that suggests that they have more influence than they actually do. So that’s sort of a calculus that I’m sort of, you know, reviewing every single day. But you also don’t want to miss an opportunity to draw attention to something that is worrisome, that is troubling. And so I do think it is important to document all of those things. And it resurfaces.
I just—I remember doing some fact-checking on affidavits filed in support of lawsuits to overturn the election. And a lot of those individuals were not household names at the time, but now they’re sort of the key targets in the January 6th committee to investigate the assault on the Capitol. So having already done that work puts you in a position to cover it if and when it actually, you know, blows up and becomes a really big issue. And it allows you to kind of track the key players. And if we do have another really chaotic election cycle, you’ll be prepared.
ROBBINS: So do you discuss that with your editor? Do you go to an editor and say how—I’m struggling with this balance here? And do you have an editor whose standard response is just write it and stop whining, or do you have a little bit of—more empathy than that? (Laughter.)
HENDRICKSON: Yeah, no, I definitely bring these questions to my editor. And then, you know, as a team of reporters we’re talking about this all the time. Like, when do we write? How do we write it? How are we framing? And it can become a little bit tedious, because I feel like I’ve written the same paragraph over and over again, where Democrats and Republicans certified the election. And post-election audits affirmed the results. And courts dismissed the lawsuits. But it is really important to include all of that information in your pieces whenever you’re sort of reporting on ongoing efforts to challenge the 2020 election and to create election law changes based on what happened.
ROBBINS: So that’s the conversation for another day, the challenges of the truth sandwich. So I’m going to turn it back to Irina. Thank you so much, Clara. This is really—this is great. This is a really, really smart conversation. And I really enjoyed reading your stories. So, Irina, back to you. And thank you for taking the time here today.
HENDRICKSON: Thank you so much. I really appreciate being here.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Clara. Thank you, Carla. And of course, Rick, who had to leave us earlier, joined a little bit late. But as Carla said, we will be sending out links to his blog and to other resources that Clara can share with us in a follow up, as well as a link to this webinar. We appreciate your joining us, taking time from your busy schedules. I know you’re under deadline for your stories, so thank you. You can follow our speakers on Twitter. Rick is at @richhasen, Clara at @clarajanehen—is that right, Clara? OK. And Carla at @robbinscarla.
And please go to CFR.org, foreignaffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on international issues and trends, and how they’re affecting us here in the United States. And please email us for topics and speakers for future webinars. We really want to be a resource for you, so we look to you to send us ideas as well. You can email [email protected]. So thank you all again, and we hope you have a really good day.