Baratunde digs into the feeling of disconnect and neglect felt by the black community in Milwaukee during the 2016 election and learns from Angela Lang, Executive Director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC MKE). They are changing what it means to get people politically engaged in their community, and it doesn’t start with knocking on doors, begging for votes two months before an election! Quentin Palfrey also weighs in on how data scientists and lawyers are uniting on the ground to stop voter suppression, especially targeting communities of color.
We are grateful to Angela Lang and Quentin Palfrey for joining us.
Follow @angela_lang and @blocbyblocMKE on Twitter. You can learn more about the BLOC MKE at https://www.blocbybloc.org/ and in this press piece here.
Follow @qpalfrey and @protectthevote on Twitter. You can learn more about Voter Protection Corp at https://www.voter-protection.org/.
We will post this episode, a transcript, show notes and more at howtocitizen.com.
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INTERNAL ACTIONS (Actions that help you reflect and explore your emotions and experiences related to these topics or personal actions that don’t involve others)
What does it mean for your community to thrive?
This is the question BLOC asks the people of Milwaukee, and we want you to answer it for yourself. Yes, it could be speedbumps. It is probably more. Think about it. Write it down.
Real change starts by doing the hard internal work. Let’s keep it up!
In June, many of us participated in Black Lives Matter protests, posted BLM messages on our instagrams and bought all the books on how to be anti-racist. Have you read the books, continued to share content from organizations, activists, artists, and business owners within the Black community since then? Time to revisit and re-engage.
EXTERNAL ACTIONS (Public actions that require relationships and interaction with others)
Support BLOC MKE
As a grassroots organization, they need our support to be able to go deep in engaging their community in and out of election cycles. You can give to their non-partisan or partisan arm at https://www.blocbybloc.org/donations.
Volunteer to be a Voter Guardian in Milwaukee.
BLOC MKE is training people to monitor the polls for intimidation and are trained to de-escalate situations in lieu of calling the police. You can message them if you’d like to be trained and help ensure people feel free and safe to cast their ballots. Contact them at https://www.blocbybloc.org/contact/ and mention Voter Guardian and How to Citizen in the subject line.
Volunteer to be a poll worker.
Sign up to be a poll worker through Voter Protection Corp at https://www.voter-protection.org/be-a-pollworker. The more poll workers the better to help reduce long lines.
If you take any of these actions, share that with us - email@example.com. Mention Making Our Presence Felt in the subject line. And brag online about your citizening on social media using #howtocitizen.
We love feedback from our listeners - firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Baratunde's website to sign up for his newsletter to learn about upcoming guests, live tapings, and more. Follow him on Instagram or join his Patreon. You can even text him, like right now at 202-894-8844.
How To Citizen with Baratunde is a production of I iHeart Radio Podcasts. executive produced by Miles Gray, Nick Stumpf, Elizabeth Stewart, and Baratunde Thurston. Produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith. Powered by you.
Baratunde Thurston 0:06
Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde a show where we reimagine the word citizen as a verb and remind ourselves how to wield our collective power. I'm Baratunde.
This year 2020. The name Ibrim X. Kendi has become very popular. You might remember that period this summer when the top selling books in the US went from how to bake sourdough bread to how to be an anti racist. Dr. Kennedy wrote how to be an anti racist. But before the Coronavirus landed in the US way back on January 7 of this year, I was focused on another piece by Dr. Kennedy, an article in The Atlantic called the other swing voter. Here's an excerpt. The common conception of the swing voter is one who shifts between voting republican and voting Democrat. The center right or center left voters are typically white and older. Meanwhile, people of color and young people and especially young people of color are more likely than white people and older people to swing between voting democrat and not voting, or voting third party. These are America's other swing voters. Others because they are typically young and not white. Others because they are hardly recognized at the table of political agency. Other because they are primarily recognized at the table of political shame when they don't vote. Others because Americans refused to recognize how voter suppression and depression affect their agency. I wanted to talk about these other swing voters and since 2016, new infrastructure has allowed grassroots organizations to engage these voters or non voters in new ways that include building long term relationships, and investing in the political education of people we all too often ignore. This election could see the largest percentage of voter turnout ever. And that's due in large part to the work of organizations like voto Latino run by Maria Teresa Kumar, who we had on this show in Episode 10. It's also due to the work of smaller groups, local groups on the ground groups, like Black leaders organizing communities, aka BLOC in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I got a chance to speak with Angela Lange, BLOC's executive director, who's been laying the foundation in Milwaukee. Since 2017. I wanted to understand what has changed between 2016. And today, why BLOC has had such success in engaging with non voters in their community, and how they're preparing for November 3, and beyond.
Angela Lang 3:01
My name is Angela Lang. And I'm the founder and executive director of BLOC, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, based in Milwaukee. And we are a year round civic engagement organization, making sure that people understand the political process and how they get involved and understand the agency that they have to make a change in their own community.
Baratunde Thurston 3:21
Can you tell me the story of why you created BLOC and why whatever existed didn't feel like enough to you?
Angela Lang 3:26
Yeah, so in 2016, it was a heartbreak for us one the outcome of the election. But then also in the weeks afterwards, everyone was pointing the finger at us, specifically Black folks. And if you know, if those Blacks would have just shown up, we wouldn't be in a situation. Those were exact quotes of what we were hearing the microaggressions, the problematic language. And it was very frustrating to hear when you say that you're talking about those Blacks in Milwaukee specifically, or Wisconsin or Milwaukee, specifically, but I think people generally were targeting the Black community and the Black vote in the state of Wisconsin. But a lot of times people know that they're they're using code for specifically Milwaukee, which is the largest concentration of Black folks in the state of Wisconsin. And so it was incredibly frustrating and hurtful to know that we are some of the most disenfranchised and least engaged. But yet we were to blame for the outcome of this election. And it was important for us to not wait for a candidate a party or an elected official to engage us. We were going to do that work ourselves, and that we were going to train folks from the community to have conversations about political process, how to get involved, what's the difference between a state senator and a US senator and the difference between city government and county government? And how can we actually make a change based off of the issues that we care about? And so we wanted to really kind of build something that I think was missing a little bit in 2016. And so we've been working, you know, the last almost three years for this moment, but we're so much more than elections. We want to make sure that we're engaging people In between election cycles, caring about issues bringing community members together last summer, we were able to do a lot of cookouts a lot of barbecues, and just to bring neighbors together to talk about their issues, just to do something positive in the community.
Baratunde Thurston 5:13
How did you get into this work? Angela, what's your event?
Angela Lang 5:18
I didn't intend to, I will say that my family knew long before I did. I always thought I was gonna be a doctor. I said, I wanted to do Doctors Without Borders. That's what I entered college as in my undergrad, I was like, I'm going to be a pre med major. And I've always been fond of politics always been like, more active. I was the nerd I was class president in middle school, right? I was that like, nerdy person. But what is
Baratunde Thurston 5:44
Angela Lang 5:46
Oh, you organize the dance, you organize the canned food drive, you do that type of stuff. And I was always really interested in it. But I didn't think I would make a career out of it. And I didn't know what organizing was. And then I was doing a lot of nonpartisan work on campus, a lot of you know, know your rights, making sure that students have the correct ID to vote, a lot of just nonpartisan voter registration. And then in 2010, when Scott Walker was elected governor, that really kind of shifted things, folks, remember, there were lots of protests in the capital. We slept over in the Capitol, I was still remember that coal linoleum floor. But in Madison, I remember protesting not just for student rights, but for rights of workers and collective bargaining. And seeing the student movement kind of really converged with the labor movement. And that's really where I got a crash course in organizing. My first job out of college was for the Service Employees International Union. When I was at SEIU, the whole goal was to get in the door, have a conversation, and to learn how people view themselves politically to, and I learned a lot that people were like, Oh, I'm not political. But yet, we just had a 45 minute conversation about how childcare should be free, how Yes, we should raise the minimum wage. I want to talk about Black folks and assumptions with elections, because my observation experience has been, you know, politician rolls through every four years, maybe every two, and this sort of church plate passing mode. And, you know, deposit your votes here, please.
Baratunde Thurston 7:16
And you have been using this phrase of year round engagement. How is BLOC's model different from the type of voter mobilization we're used to seeing, experiencing or reading about in terms of the Black community?
Angela Lang 7:30
Yeah, I think in a lot of senses, our level of engagement is incredibly different. We're trying to slip this model on its head, I think a lot of times, candidates, as you mentioned, come in a couple weeks or a couple of months before an election and say, Hey, vote for me. And we haven't seen you since the last time you said, Hey, vote for me, we don't know what you did. We don't know why you actually deserve our votes. And so we're trying to flip that model and say, You want our vote, come get our vote, we want to make sure that you're talking to us, you have an understanding of our issues, and you're engaging and having a deep meaningful conversation, and building that trust in our community. And that's not something you can do a month or so before an election. And so what we try to do is that we want to kind of center that community power. It's something that we also try to note as well is that there are people who haven't had their voting rights restored yet, unfortunately, but they deserve a conversation. They deserve you listening to their issues, just like anyone else should. And so I'm proud to say that in 2019, we had three presidential candidates visit us and knock doors with us. We had folks engaged with us in 2019, because they understood that you cannot just come in, in October of 2020, making your first round of introductions to us and thinking that's going to be enough.
Baratunde Thurston 8:43
What is it like for the Black Milwaukee resident to have a full year before an election or even more, someone knock on their door, and ask them what their concerns are, what their dreams are, what their fears are,
Angela Lang 8:56
I think it's a huge difference. There are times that people don't even get that door knock, let alone if they do one that ask them what they care about what their hopes are, what their dreams are, what it looks like for our communities to thrive. There are folks shortly after we've started knocking in 2018. That said, I've lived in this house 510 years, and you're the first person to knock on my door. we exclude people so much because they're not seen as the regular voter, and they just don't get that touch at all. And we want to make sure that we're spending our time talking to the folks that are being left behind being able to have those conversations on a year on basis. I tell folks that we have to have three separate conversations. On one hand, we want to turn a non voter into a voter after you know we have that really big conversation. That's not an easy conversation, then we want to make sure that people understand the political process and where they fit in. They understand why they're voting for someone for the state supreme court because they understand what the state supreme court does. We want them to understand the broader process. And then lastly, we want them to vote for the candidates that we face. are advocating the most for our communities. So these are three separate conversations that we can't start to have around this time, you know, three weeks before an election, it takes a lot to move people from being a non voter to a voter. There are people that say that they are skeptical, they don't think that their voice or their vote even matters. Those are big conversations. And we don't believe that you should shame people for not voting. There is a reason if we want to get to the core of that reason, let's have the conversation. Why are you a non voter? Why do you think it's important for you to have your voice heard? Are there other ways that we can get you to be civically engaged, so you see how the process works? And hopefully, at some point, that process for you does include voting, and so we want to meet people where they're at and have those honest conversations. And I think that's something that a lot of times organizations don't have time to do, or just don't prioritize how they're having those conversations.
Baratunde Thurston 10:51
What have you learned as the main reasons people remain in that non voter category? And what have been some of the more effective ways of helping move them into the voter category?
Angela Lang 11:04
Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I've learned over the last several years, even before I joined BLOC is that people aren't apathetic. And I think there's this idea that if you don't vote, then you must not care, you must be apathetic. And there hasn't been a person that I talked to you that said, I'm apathetic, I just don't care. They have issues that they care about, they may not see how those issues relate in a broader political sense of voting. But everybody cares about something. And it's on us to make sure that we're getting to the heart of what that is. And I think, you know, that's something that's very beautiful and special. And I tell people all the time, this is my favorite part of the job is that I get a chance to be able to bear witness and play a small role. And that light bulb going off on people understanding the agency that they have an a political system, that often tells us that we don't have any to have people understand how to make their voice heard in the city budget hearing, for example, or to, you know, sit in front of a presidential candidate and said, What are you going to do for my community, you need to listen to me, and they may not even have their voting rights restored yet, but they still have that power, and are able to claim and take up that space. And I think that's really what's super important for us. And I think that's something also to that I'm very proud of as well.
Baratunde Thurston 12:18
What's on the minds of the people in the Black Milwaukee community, what are the issues? What are you learning, when you knock doors and engage with folks?
Angela Lang 12:26
Yeah, I think what's the most fascinating about this particular cycle is that people are experiencing the effects of the federal government, and know that the federal government is to blame for some of the issues that they're experiencing right now, if people are having a hard time dealing with the effects of COVID, whether that's financially or that's due to mental health, they know who to blame. And I think a lot of times, the federal government feels very far removed from our issues, we don't always feel the impact right away, unless you're paying attention very closely and watching c span all day, every day. But people know now, when those benefits ran out, they knew it was Congress that was stalled, and not able to pass another package to extend those unemployment benefits. If there's another, you know, stimulus, and people are able to get another 12 $100 check. People know, it is their Congress person that is doing these negotiations, in addition to this current administration. So we're actually watching things play out in real time and in ways that we haven't really seen before. So a lot of the issues, whether it's financially or anything that's related to COVID, I think is immediately on folks minds. And also, you know, people care about things like health care. You know, I think a lot of times, people don't think of healthcare as a Black issue. And I tell folks all the time, like yes, you know, mass incarceration is something that is intimately connected to our community in ways that are different from other communities. But we also care about education and things like health care, and those, quote, mainstream issues. We also care about them as well.
Baratunde Thurston 13:56
You use this phrase earlier? And I think maybe it's a question you ask people, what would it mean for your community to thrive? Mm hmm. Could you tell me about the origin of that question? Now, I've done door to door just for some context. I've been sent out by campaigns, and I've got a checklist. And it's like, what do you think about this? How would you rate your feelings? I'm not going door to door pollster. And I've never been asked to ask someone, what would it take for their community to thrive? So what's the origin of that question? And what are you learning in terms of answer?
Angela Lang 14:29
Yeah, we knew immediately based off of 2016, that we wanted to do things differently. And one of those things was really digging deep and building trust. And that also means getting to know what people care about. I think there's a lot of times we run polls, you know, we think that we know we're making these assumptions. Oh, we know the Black community. They only care about criminal justice because half of them are locked up, right? Like we make these assumptions all the time without actually asking people what do they care about. We try to sell them on things. We knock on their door and say, Hey, you know, vote for this person signed this petition, come join me doing x. But how many times do we knock a door and say, Hey, what do you care about? And so we knew that we needed to build trust as a new organization. And we wanted to establish those relationships. So we started when we knock doors in November of 2017. And we just opened up with that question, what does it look like for the Black community to thrive? And people were looking at us crazy. They were skeptical. They were like, what are you really? Why? Why are you really here? And we said, No, we want to hear about what are the issues that matter to you the most. And people struggle because they weren't used to even thinking about thriving, let alone asked that question. From a stranger. A lot of times in our community, we're trying to survive day to day hoping that interactions from the police don't end up in us being murdered, that we can, you know, like last that extra $100 to provide for our family until we get paid on Friday, you know, those are those things. And so it provides us an opportunity to think about our dreams and think about the world that we want to live in. And there are times people say, Well, I think we need a speed bump. And we're like, okay, let's get you that speed bump. I don't know if that's thriving. But let's get you that FICO. And let's have a conversation that you feel that your community isn't being invested in the same way that other suburbs are. Maybe that's a bigger issue, let's have that conversation as well, in addition to getting you that speed bump. So we've heard everything from really micro level issues, to really macro level issues, and how people really want to get involved in advocate for their their neighborhoods to
Baratunde Thurston 16:31
and once you unlock that, once you've got people sharing their dreams and their hopes and their thrive, manifestos what happens with all that energy?
Angela Lang 16:40
Yeah, so one of the big things that translated out of that was our now BLOC agenda. So we have been having these conversations in the field for so long. Last year, we said we wanted to make sure that we're consolidating what we're hearing. So we started to kind of hear some different themes around healthcare around transportation, education. And last fall, almost about a year ago, we had a series of people's assemblies, and there are 10 different issue areas and themes that we've heard. And we had butcher paper everywhere. We had our team facilitate small group discussions on the Saturday, and we said, okay, as it relates to education, what do we want to keep? What do we want to amend? What do we want to make better? What do we need to protect? And we just captured as much of the conversation as we could, our political director went back, I compiled it into a draft agenda. And then we came back with the same group a couple weeks later, and said, hey, it's now on paper. What does this look like? What does this feel like? Does this feel good? Do we need to make any edits, and we ratify it as a community, and it's meant to be a living document to grow and change as the needs of the community change. But that was one step. And that's really kind of is how we're centering our policy work.
Baratunde Thurston 17:48
BLOC started knocking on doors in November 2017. Which is well ahead of the typical timing for a 2020 election cycle. What position are you when now how does Milwaukee and Black Milwaukee look from a voter engagement perspective versus four years ago?
Angela Lang 18:09
I think that we are in a better position. There's infrastructure that exists. Now that didn't exist in 2016. Whether that is, you know, groups like ours, leaders igniting transformation, a lot of other groups are doing that work. And we also used the last four years as different benchmarks and tests we played in every single election, whether it was the state Supreme Court, that no one really, you know, paid attention to in 2018, or whether it was the sheriff's race that was getting overlooked in the midst of a really crowded gubernatorial primary, we wanted to make sure that we were talking about the down ballot races that seemed to be forgotten. And we've had fellowship programs, we're able to train hundreds of people between then and now about the the deeper political process, and how many folks turn out in ways that they haven't turned out before, to see you know, so many people will turn out and testify at the city budget hearing, that typically are overlooked. You know, it was a testament that more people are paying attention, and more people are pushing back and asking questions and, and making sure that their voices are heard. So I think a lot has happened in the last four years just in our world, in our city. And then I also think that there's just a lot of infrastructure that has been working very, very hard to connect with our community to make sure that people are active. We were really excited shameless plug. Last week, MSNBC actually did a profile on two of our lead ambassadors who did not vote in 2016. And not only our voting this year, their whole job now is to organize other people to vote.
Baratunde Thurston 19:39
You use the word ambassadors to refer to people who work with the organization, what is your training model? How do you get done, what you get done and and how different is it from the other groups you've been a part of or seen?
Angela Lang 19:51
Yeah, we really, really value leadership development. We want to make sure that we're digging deeper or having quality type of conversations and I've worked for organizations where someone will come in, apply for a job, fill out an application, get interviewed, do a brief training, and we send them out on doors. Within an hour from applying to being out on doors, we're pushing people out because we need to hit as many doors as possible. I know some folks that would even pay for our chairs and their offices because they wanted people to be in and out so quickly, we are very different. We wanted to make sure our team is fully educated. We wanted them to have more meaningful conversations on doors. So instead of saying, hey, vote for the sheriff, we're saying, hey, do you know what the sheriff does? Do you know their jurisdiction, we're able to do some of that political education on training, which means we're constantly role playing. We're constantly workshopping any issues that we're having over hearing in the field. We're constantly educating ourselves, if there's an ad that came out, we talk about it, we analyze it, if there's a poll that comes up, we analyze it, because we want to raise everyone's consciousness as well. And so we put our team through at least 30 hours of training before they even knock a door. Sorry, did
Baratunde Thurston 21:04
you say 30 hours three, zero
Angela Lang 21:06
30 hours, 300. And like I said, I've been a part of Canvas programs where you're in and out within an hour, you know, you're trying to get people to vote for your candidate. But we're not talking about the issues. We're not talking about the jurisdiction, the roles and responsibility of that office. Why should I just tell people to vote for a US Senator if they don't have any concept of what the us senate does, and how it directly impacts their lives. And so we want them to be able to have those types of conversations, because we want to be able to build the awareness and the analysis in this culture of civic engagement in our community. And that in election is a tool to do so. But really, it is just one pathway, we want to make sure that people understand their civic engagement, rights and how to be a part of it on a year round basis, whether it's the city budget hearings, or its voting or anything in between. And so we take that extra time, I think that's something that we are really proud of, by digging deep and having fellowship programs. We've been doing civics Jeopardy via Facebook Live. That's one of the ways we train our folks. And there's different categories, you know, legislative, judicial Black history. And that's how we kind of keep our stuff fresh and keep it fun. So it's not just dry trainings. But we're constantly able to keep each other on our toes.
Baratunde Thurston 22:19
I want to know more about civics jeopardy. How often do you do that?
Angela Lang 22:23
So every Friday in October, we've had facebook live again, last week was our first week, and we're gonna be having some special guests as well. So local elected officials to kind of help out and to be, you know, a guest host and to read some of the issues and some of the questions. So it's something that we do on a regular basis. And it allows us to be able to have fun as well as kind of, you know, stay fresh on some of the dates and everything that keeps changing civics is not easy to keep up with when they constantly keep trying to change the rules. So this is a good way to stay on top of it.
Baratunde Thurston 22:53
Is that open to the public? Anybody can tune into your Facebook page and watch them.
Angela Lang 22:57
Yes, every Friday, I say around noon, but really give us to like 1215 we're running a little bit behind a little bit on some days. But yeah, check out our Facebook Live, we had the first one just air and you can still check out our live video.
Baratunde Thurston 23:10
Oh, thank you for that. I was reading Milwaukee magazine The other day, as I do sometimes. And I saw a quote from you in there, where you said, I tell people all the time, Milwaukee breaks my heart and inspires me every day. Can you expand on that?
Angela Lang 23:27
I've never lived anywhere else. I'm born and raised in Milwaukee. I was one of those teenagers that wanted to move far away. Full disclosure, as much as I brought Milwaukee, there was a point in time where I wanted to leave, I wanted to be that 18 year old that went to the big city that went to and moved to New York and you know, became a doctor and went to Columbia. And that did not work out. I had a rude awakening, I was humbled greatly, that Columbia being my dream school I didn't get into. And I didn't know what to do. I was really devastated. So I was really banking on going to New York. And I stayed in Milwaukee. And it was the best decision that I made. And it is now a conscious decision of why stay here. And I think it's because there's so many resilient people. And I tell folks all the time, like I could leave, but I don't know if I would feel as comfortable organizing somewhere else. It's very intimate. It's very personal, all the challenges that we're experiencing, it hits different when you're born and raised in the same place that you're doing your organizing, and to see all the challenges, you know, home to one of the most incarcerated zip codes, Wisconsin being the worst place to raise a Black child, all of those things. I'm like, why do I still live here, but at the same time, there's so much work to be done. I'm not arrogant enough to think that I'm solely the sole person to fix those issues. But I want to do what I can because I feel like Milwaukee helped raise me and I feel like there's just a lot of resilience and a lot of beautiful people and there's a lot of potential that I think is untapped in Milwaukee of hands. I want to make sure that It is the best place that it could possibly be for everyone, including the Black community.
Baratunde Thurston 25:18
So Meanwhile, groups like BLOC based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and others in cities across the country, have been doing the very hard work to turn non voters into voters. They're helping people see how the political process connects to things they care about. And I loved that they started on this election, three years ago, going door to door asking people what it looks like to thrive, creating a community vision and Manifesto. While groups like bloc invite more people into the political process, others are working to make sure they can actually cast those votes, and have them counted. We had the fortune of speaking with Quentin Palfrey about efforts to protect our right to vote. He's the chair of Voter Protection core, a grassroots organization that was founded after 2016 by data scientists and lawyers to help protect and defend people's rights to vote, especially communities of color.
Quentin Palfrey 26:13
So the Voter Protection core was launched last year. And this is my fifth presidential cycle working on Voter Protection issues. And over the last few cycles, we've learned some things about some of the problems that can come up in elections. And so last year, a bunch of us who were involved in the Obama campaign and the Kerry campaign in the Clinton campaign, got together and said, you know, maybe we ought to get out ahead of some of these problems, maybe we ought to try and solve the things that can be solved in advance. And maybe we ought to combine some of the legal expertise that we have in the Voter Protection community with some data expertise. So we've formed a partnership with the Carnegie Mellon University, and tried to look at the places where voters have faced the most obstacles, and started to target some of our activities towards the places that were most likely to be a problem in the 2020 election. So essentially, what the Voter Protection core is, is a network of lawyers and data scientists who are trying to identify the obstacles that voters face to registering voting and having their votes count, and then try to head off those kinds of problems.
Baratunde Thurston 27:25
You mentioned protecting people's registration, their sort of voting activity and the count, can you dive into what exactly you're trying to protect?
Quentin Palfrey 27:35
In our country, we have a shameful legacy of racial bias in our elections, communities of color, younger people, people who tend to move around a lot, tend to run into problems in our system that aren't faced by other people in the system. So think about this spring voters waiting for four or five hours in a number of African American communities during the primaries, that's been endemic to our system for a long period of time, voters of color have faced voter purges for many years faced voter suppression, have faced legislation that aims to make it harder for them to register and vote. And so we've got these really shameful inequalities in our system. Some of them are caused by intentional voter suppression. So unfortunately, we now have a president and some allies who have weaponized the lies about voter fraud in order to make it harder for people to vote, and particularly communities that the President and his allies think will will not vote for them in the election. So they're using voter suppression as a campaign tactic.
Baratunde Thurston 28:39
So your organization is a network of lawyers of data scientist. It's a nerd network. It's an staggeringly powerful network of thoughtful people, and you're on the ground in a bunch of places. What are you seeing on the ground? Where are you seeing it that concerns you the most,
Quentin Palfrey 28:58
but I think that you have to understand that people are voting in a bunch of different ways. And so the challenges come up in different contexts. So I'm very interested in making sure that in person voting works well, because we've seen that African American students, the homeless and Native Americans have a tendency to use in person voting options at a higher rate and to be disproportionately impacted when there are long lines or when their polling place closures. So one of the things that we've spent a lot of time doing is making sure that there are enough poll workers, because we know that when they're poll worker shortages, there are long lines, we know that when they're long lines, the vote is suppressed. So making sure that there are enough poll workers to avoid the kind of debacle we had, for example, in the African American communities in Milwaukee during the primaries or that we've seen repeatedly in Georgia, that we saw in Nevada that we saw in Philadelphia, we need to make sure that there are enough election officials so that people can wait in shorter lines. We need to make sure that they're not shutting down polling places. I mentioned Milwaukee in their primary, they went from 180 polling places in the 2016 primary to five in this election. And you saw people waited in really long lines. Some people may have contracted Coronavirus as a result of voting. Those are very bad outcomes, we need to make sure that we keep the polls open. On the vote by mail side vote by mail is an extremely effective way for people to vote. Every serious scholar who's looked at this from the Brennan Center of the Bipartisan Policy Center, from the Voter Protection Corps has concluded that this is a safe and effective way to vote. But not all of the states that are ramping up there vote by mail system know how to do it well yet. So the states that have done it, well, historically, are really good at it. But some of the states that are starting for the first time, are rejecting a lot of ballots for really stupid reasons. And a lot of voters who are casting valid ballots are running into rejection rates that are much higher than they ought to be, what's a high
Baratunde Thurston 31:00
Quentin Palfrey 31:01
Well, so in the states that do a good job of administering elections, vote by mail, the rates of rejection can be less than 1%. And, you know, we have this tradition in the voting law community of honoring the intent of the voter and not rejecting a validly cast ballot because of some minor procedural requirement. In the New York primary, almost one in five ballots were rejected. So almost 20% of ballots were rejected, right, we're seeing in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, rejection of ballots, because they're called naked ballots, people didn't use the proper envelopes. And, you know, we were worried that more than 100,000 people could be disenfranchised, because of a really foolish question around like, which envelope did you use? So I think those are the kinds of things we need to teach election officials how to do better over time. But your initial point, you know, some of those things are no longer fixable. And so what you have to focus on now is teaching voters how to do it, and making sure that we bring down those rejection rates, just by making sure through voter education.
Baratunde Thurston 32:07
What has you the most excited or hopeful in terms of our ability to preserve the legitimacy of our electoral system?
Quentin Palfrey 32:17
I'll say two things. The first is the one that I started with, which is this notion that we actually are starting to have new candidates, new voters, new people involved in our elections, it's been really exciting to see an emergence of much more diverse voices, younger voices, more gender balanced candidates, new voters, there's a real energy. And if you sort of think about where our country is going, you know, the views of younger people, even in the reddest states, if you look at the demographics of some of the states that have been traditionally I think the future is progressive, and the future is more diverse and more gender balanced. And I think that that's really exciting.
Baratunde Thurston 32:58
We are in a election period where people are already voting. So the idea of Election Day is more like election season. And I think of November 3, as a voting deadline, not a voting day. What is your advice for how we can prepare ourselves what we should expect, at the end of November 3?
Quentin Palfrey 33:21
I think you're entirely right that because of the pandemic, and because of this, some of the changes that we've made to our election system, we should be thinking about this as an election period, not election day. And one of the things that I think we ought to do is change our view of what election night is going to look like. So we have this picture that somebody is going to stand up in front of these maps on cable TV, and we're going to watch it and then we're either going to be very happy or very sad by the end of the night. But we're basically going to know how the election is going to turn out. And that's not the way it's going to be this year, because there are a lot of states for good reasons that are going to accept ballots that are postmarked on election day, but received a couple days afterwards. And I think it's going to be really important for us to shift our view and say, actually, we should wait, we should be patient, we should not declare victory or defeat until all of those ballots are counted. I also think that there's good reason to suggest that a lot of the Trump voters are going to vote in person, and those votes are going to be counted earlier, and that the Biden vote is going to be a little bit more spread out. And so some of the votes that are going to be counted in the days after election day, may well before Biden and Harris and so the narrative across the week may shift a little bit. I think that we should be very vigilant against Donald Trump and Attorney General Barr and some of their allies saying actually election results are final immediately if they look a little bit more pro Trump than the polls have looked because that's actually to be expected and there's been some some talk of this notion of a red Mirage but I think that the way to think about that you Is that we ought to be patient and count all of the votes that's important in a democracy, and wait until all of the votes are counted before we form an assessment as to who won?
Baratunde Thurston 35:10
What can someone do? Who hears this isn't a lawyer or an election lawyer or a data scientist? To leave it all on the field? In this area? What does that mean?
Quentin Palfrey 35:22
So first of all, there are lots of ways for you to get involved with our organization, it's voter dash protection.org, we'd love to have your help. But more broadly, I think that you should think about using your time and your money to make sure that this election reflects your values and using your time I think means helping to get out the vote, it means helping to recruit poll workers or to monitor at the polls, there are opportunities within both the nonpartisan sector, there's the election protection coalition, and within the campaign within the Biden Harris campaign to work as a poll monitor. If you have resources, I do think that this is a time to dig deep and contribute those resources to organizations or campaigns that reflect your values.
Baratunde Thurston 36:06
Oh, that is a simple and hard ask, but very important one, quit. And I want to thank you for your time,
Quentin Palfrey 36:14
it's been a terrific conversation, I really appreciate you having me on.
Baratunde Thurston 36:28
Many of the voter suppression tactics and scenarios that coincident Voter Protection, core or fighting existed just one level in the system. But this is 2020. And as we know, there are many levels, which means Angela and BLOC have found themselves preparing the Black community for things she never thought she would have to consider. A lot of us are seeing headlines and images of what the situation on the ground is in Wisconsin in Milwaukee long lines, you read about various efforts to make it harder to vote this time in particular, what are you seeing in terms of the challenge of voting in the pandemic, especially? and How are y'all trying to overcome any of those new obstacles?
Angela Lang 37:14
We're anticipating you know, any potentially long line, so we want to make sure that folks are early voting or voting absentee. We also just don't know what's going to happen on election day. We've seen in presidential elections, if there's long lines, people have to wait a while, but we're also preparing for any voter intimidation that's going to happen at the polls. Realistically speaking, we heard the President talking about having his supporters poll, watch and pull observe. We also know that his supporters can be incredibly violent and incredibly dangerous. So we're preparing for those things. But ultimately, people were asking, Hey, you know, we have five polling places open in April, are we sure that's not gonna happen on November, people have been making plans since our disasters election in April, and people are like, okay, basically come hell or high water. I couldn't vote in April. But I'm kind of out in November. And we saw people starting to make plans since then. And I think people are really fired up. And people will feel very, very strongly about making sure that they make a plan. They make a backup plan, and they're making sure that their voices are heard,
Baratunde Thurston 38:13
since like disaster prep kind of motion. Yeah, that's, that's really, it shouldn't be that way. But to deny it is to not be prepared. Yeah. I want to touch on this political violence point with you, because you've got Kenosha, which the country is very familiar with, in terms of Rittenhouse, you got wauwatosa, in recent incidents with the police, killing someone, and folks, you know, going out to protest and being hit with more violence from the police. And then you mentioned the president and his supporters being willing to use violence. How do you prepare your communities to protect themselves in a political environment that often goes beyond tough talk to actual violent action?
Angela Lang 39:03
Yeah, that's a really good question. One I didn't anticipate to have to do when I was making my new year's resolutions and preparing for the year. You know, the amount of meetings and conversations I've had about white militia folks, it's been astounding, it's 2020. And I didn't expect to be having these types of conversations. We're working with our folks from our national affiliate, the Center for popular democracy, to do what we're calling voter Guardian trainings, making sure people understand the basic ins and outs casting a provisional ballot in case there's any, you know, logistical issues that come up with people casting their ballot, but also being prepared to de escalate if any conflict arises, making sure that if there is a conflict, the first line of defense isn't to call the police. Is there a way that we can de escalate, you know, internally so people can stand in line and to make their voice heard safely. We're talking about all those things. We have those trainings, our team I know myself personally, I've gone through easily 10 hours of digital security training, which can be kind of frightening and kind of triggering to think about how do you keep yourself safe understanding that white militias, and the proud boys are on standby. And to do this work, you know, you don't want to freak people out. But you want to be honest, that this work goes in, disrupts the status quo. And anytime you go against the status quo, we've seen what that looks like in history. So trying to prepare our folks and saying, you know, we're on the right side of history. But that also means it comes with some challenges. And sometimes it feels like there's a target on our back. And it's been really tough. You know, honestly, the last couple of months and thinking about those things have been incredibly difficult. And it's strange to know that there's a, you know, a threat on your organization, or there's a threat to you personally, just given the fact that you just want to empower people and just make sure that their voices are heard. So it's been a challenge and one that we're trying to navigate I think, in real time, and, you know, everyone's priority is making sure that we're keeping everyone safe. And we're still, you know, doing the best that we can to speak truth to power to just like our ancestors have done and our civil rights icons as well.
Baratunde Thurston 41:13
We have a view on this show that the word citizen is less useful as a legal status than it is as a verb, and a set of actions that we citizen is to citizen is our purpose here. How would you define the word citizen? If you were to interpret it as a verb?
Angela Lang 41:33
Yeah, I would define citizen as a person without boundaries, right? I think a lot of times people hear citizen and they always think of geographical boundaries. But what does it mean to be a citizen of this society and as a citizen of this world, and want to contribute in a way that you are able to be liberated and free and live your true and full self, while also being able to participate in a representative participatory democracy without any challenges? Or barriers? Do you want your voice heard your voice matters just as much as you know, a billionaire who builds their wealth off of the backs of the working class, at the same time, you are able to make your voice heard and live freely in a way where your rights your body, who you love, how you express yourself isn't regulated through the government that doesn't look like you, that doesn't represent you, but decides to tell you what you should do with your body and your expression. To me, that's what it means to be a citizen of this world and of this society. People want to
Baratunde Thurston 42:37
help Angela, I get asked a lot. I live in New York or I live in California, what can I do? How can I make sure that every vote is counted? How do I support? Wisconsin? What do you say to people who want to help? Do you have specific things you need people to do whether they live in Wisconsin or not?
Angela Lang 42:55
Yeah, so there's a couple different ways we tell folks that they could be helpful one, I would be a bad executive director. If I didn't make a fundraising page. There's ways that people can support us on our website, we have both nonpartisan and partisan capabilities, and we divide up our donations appropriately in that way. To You know, are there folks that you think that we should get to know? Do you have a rich uncle? Does your brother make a podcast and you think I'd be a great guest? Or are there other organizations, you know, either locally or nationally that you think that we should be collaborating with, we'd love to be able to get connected to other folks. And then lastly, is that in this time, where everyone is having difficult conversations, or I hope everyone is having difficult conversations, being able to center and amplify the work and lived experiences of our community. And so being able to amplify and share our content one, so more people can hear about us. But two, I think we're all being collectively gaslit about some of these situations that we're in people think that racism is still not a problem in our country, and people respond, but when you say Black Lives Matter. And so by being able to really center and amplify the lived experiences of our community through our social media is also helpful. If people want to to help out specifically on election day. You know, we want to make sure that we have enough voter guardians, our polling places to de escalate where possible. So feel free to send us a message. We're putting all those plans together so people can dm us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Or you can send us a note through our website at blocbybloc.org.
Baratunde Thurston 44:34
Is there anything else you want to make sure to mention or to address with this moment?
Angela Lang 44:40
I think the only thing that I would mention is that we're living in these really dark, troubled unprecedented times in we just need to show up as real people and allow ourselves the grace to feel what we're feeling to know that 2020 is not normal to have conversations about white militia. are not normal to have people openly killing and shooting protesters at 17 years old is not normal. And we should never get used to this, we have a choice to really decide who we want to be as a country and how we show up in this work. You know, I think shortly after the murders of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, people were buying the book, white fragility, people were buying all these books. And I hope that people are reading them. They're doing the work. And they're not just collecting dust, after they posted them on Instagram claiming to be woke, but are actually doing that tough work. Because this moment that we're in is what happens when privilege goes unchecked for years and decades. And this is our moment to really create a vision of a world that we want to live in and we get to start over we get to reimagine, you know what safety is maybe without the police, and we get to really kind of dream without any limitations, but that means that we have to do that work as well internally.
Baratunde Thurston 45:58
Alright, in terms of that content, I know I'm checking out civics jeopardy. Thank you, Angela, for the time, thank you for the insight. And thank you for the work that you're doing that you're a part of.
Angela Lang 46:09
Thank you. I appreciate it. And thanks for having me on to tell our story to
Baratunde Thurston 46:18
thank you to Angela Lang and Quentin Palfrey for joining us. You can follow Angela and Bloc by Bloc on the social she is. @Angela_Lang, the organization is @BlocByBlocMKE, that's on Twitter. You can also find them on the regular free and open Internet at blocbybloc.org. Follow Quentin and the Voter Protection core on Twitter @QPalfrey and @protectthevote are the respective handles. And again, you can visit that website. Don't forget about websites, your voter dash protection, that org. As always, we post this episode, extra notes, transcripts developed by robots, and how to citizen.com. And as always, we ask you to leave a rating or review, wherever you are listening to this podcast because it helps introduce people to us. Here are the actions the moment you've been waiting for. What is Baratunde gonna ask us to do? Alright? First up internal actions. And by internal as a refresher, we mean that these are actions that help you reflect on yourself, explore your emotions and your experiences, or their actions that are personal and don't necessarily involve other people. Got to show up for you this time. First answered this question. It's the BLOC question. What does it mean for your community to thrive? Could be speed bumps, probably more. Think about it, write it down. Think about it some more. The second internal action, we want to return to June. Remember, when we were all Black lives matter and hashtag and turn my IG square black. We bought a lot of books on anti racism. Have we read them? Now is a good time to check back in doing some of that internal work to make this land more free and more fair. read those books support the organization's You said you would support the Black community in the way you said you would this is a good time to revisit and re engage on the external actions these are public facing for the most part, they involve other human beings interactive three for you here one just support BLOC in Milwaukee blocbybloc.org/donation. This is the sort of group that actually makes change happen. And I for 1 am, very frustrated and annoyed at certain elements of the nonprofit political, philanthropic world that just pile money and resources on the people who are not in the community who do not know what they're talking about. But because they worked on some campaign 810 12 years ago, they still get all the goods. Let's support Angela and her team at BLOC, again, blocbybloc.org/donations.
in Milwaukee, if you are there are no people there. Encourage them or yourself become a voter guardian. Again, this is that BLOC's website. These are people who are going to monitor the polls for intimidation. And they're trained to de escalate situations instead of calling the police. So it's like a twofer. We know that the President is out here encouraging a level of nonsense and tomfoolery at the polls. And we don't want to encourage conflict around that we want to de escalate. Again, I trust BLOC To do this the right way, so support them in their efforts in Milwaukee to do the same. Finally, volunteer to be a poll worker we've asked before we will ask again, you literally can't have too many. In a pandemic more poll workers means shorter lines, and also shorter shifts. For poll workers reducing everyone's exposure. Voter Protection core is running a program to encourage people to do this. So check out voter dash protection.org slash be a poll worker. If you do any of these things, let a brother know shoot me an email email@example.com, mentioned in the subject line voting or making our presence felt, which is the title of this episode. And whether you tell me personally or not tell somebody tell a friend tell a family member, do that old school chain email Have you voted yet? Send it on to 10 people and tell them what you did in this particular episode. We encourage you to the hashtag how to citizen if you take it to the socials. And you can email us broadly, comments at howtocitizen.com. If there's an organization a person and effort you think fits in this show. We want you to let us know. You can visit my website, sign up for my newsletter find out about upcoming events. It's all the howtocitizen.com and I'm on Instagram at Baratunde I'm on Patreon/Baratunde. And you can even text me right now. 202-894-8844 drop the word citizen and I text out there the first people to learn about the upcoming taipings of the show they get the zoom link a little earlier because honestly it's just easier for me to text it out and spin up the whole email list thing which comes you know a day A few hours later. Alright, that's it. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of IHeartRadio Podcast executive produced by Myles Gray, Nick Stump, Elizabeth Stewart, and Baratunde Thurston. Produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith powered by you
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