Race, coronavirus and the political implications of two pandemics

Plus: Voter suppression in the age of COVID-19

Protesters outside the White House in October 2018. (Levi Sumagaysay)

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In this week’s podcast, we discuss the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on politics with Aimee Allison, founder of She the People.


The political implications of dual pandemics

By Pati Navalta

As Americans across the country marked a subdued Fourth of July weekend in the face of surging COVID-19 cases and a national call for racial justice, President Donald Trump declared that 99% of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless” and referred to protesters as “angry mobs” and “Marxists, anarchists, agitators and looters” who “tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children [and] trample on our freedoms.”

It was a highly strategic move for the president, who chose to double down on the two issues that now threaten his presidency the most: race and coronavirus. Despite his efforts to gaslight Americans, however, the dual and intersecting crises of COVID-19 and racism have already changed the trajectory of this election year — and perhaps have sparked changes in U.S. politics that will be felt long after November.

The battle over who votes and how have been major issues impacted by the coronavirus crisis. Citing concerns that COVID-19 will influence voting in the November elections, 3 out of 4 Americans favor universal access to absentee balloting, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center — including a majority of Democrats and, in contrast to national party leaders, half of Republicans. Trump has repeatedly warned, however, that mail-in voting can lead to a rigged election, setting the stage to dispute the results in case he loses to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

For Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a progressive organization designed to promote women of color in politics, Trump’s motive and her mission are clear.

“The messaging behind it, which suggests that voting by mail is some kind of illegal act, is so damaging to our democracy and specifically targets women and men of color whose votes are likely to fuel campaigns that support progressive reforms,” Allison said in a Race and Coronavirus podcast. Through She the People, Allison is focused on combating the “misinformation” and making sure that “as many people are registered and actually get their votes counted.”

Gretchen Sisson, a UC San Francisco research sociologist and political donor, says donors are more focused now than ever on spending money toward security for mail-in ballots. “That spending will impact how the election plays out,” she said. “Colorado has a fabulous secretary of state. In their recent primary, they had the highest participation rate they had ever seen, more than 90% were mail-in. There are a lot of models to do this right and I’m seeing a lot of donors spending money and time on how to secure that.”

In addition, Sisson says she has been focused on finding new ways to fundraise at a time when gatherings are restricted: something she says has actually created a more inclusive process. “Most of my work has been for fundraising across the country for candidates for whom it has always been hard to fundraise for — namely women of color,” she said. “A traditional fundraising event is usually a cocktail hour with donors paying a certain amount to spend time with the candidate in a room. Now all events are online. We usually try to keep the events small so there can be more of a conversation, but now there’s no limit to how many can attend. Someone can join the conversation and meet the candidate for $100 now instead of $1,000, and the candidates no longer have to travel.”

A big part of her fundraising involves Senate races as Democrats fight to regain control of the U.S. Senate. According to The Guardian, swing states are now leaning toward Biden as coronavirus outbreaks ravage traditionally red states. In fact, according to the Associated Press, states that Trump won in 2016 account for about 75% of the new coronavirus cases. Texas, Georgia and Arizona are all holding Senate races this fall, and Trump’s controversial comments about the coronavirus pandemic “have put Republican senators in difficult positions as they prepare for their November elections,” according to The Guardian report.

“The Senate is absolutely essential right now,” said Sisson. “It is as essential if not more so than winning back (the) White House. There are a lot of races where men are running, people are spending a lot of money: Colorado, Arizona, Montana, North Carolina. Those races are going to be competitive. I think we will win handedly in Arizona and Colorado, so I’m not spending my money there.” Sisson said she is instead focused on the Senate races in Maine, where Maine state House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat, is in a close race with Susan Collins, R-Maine, as well as Senate races in Iowa and Kansas.

Sisson also points to freshmen members of the 116th Congress, who brought a historically diverse class of women and people of color to the House of Representatives, including Reps. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill.; Lucy McBath, D-Ga.; and Jahana Hayes, D-Conn. “They are going to be in really tight races and I think people are looking for ways to invest in women of color right now. These are races that are exciting for me and respond both to the pandemic and to the challenges to racial injustice that we’re finally reckoning with as a country.”

Another example of national support for women of color is the call for Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate. Stacey Abrams, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., have been said to be among his list of top candidates, with Harris seeing more momentum in recent weeks. “Democrats believe there should be a woman of color on that top ticket,” said Allison. “It’s not a racial identity, it’s a political identity of solidarity. Women of color are the most progressive voting bloc in the country.”

At the local level, the impacts of the pandemic have been more focused on the day-to-day rather than on shaping trends — in large part because state governments have had to act swiftly in the absence of a federal response to the pandemic.

California Assembly member David Chiu, D-San Francisco, says challenges brought on by COVID-19 dramatically shifted priorities in both his district and at the state Capitol, particularly in health care, food insecurity, homelessness, housing, budget, social services, and “everything in between.”

“We’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time answering calls from constituents, who our EDD unemployment system has utterly failed,” he said. “We went from a $21 billion budget surplus to a $54 billion budget deficit overnight, which required us to make dramatically different choices when it came to very scarce budget resources. Rather than thinking about how we can invest in our communities, we’re making triage decisions on what we can cut.”

On the legislative front, Chiu says the emergency recess due to the pandemic shortened the legislative calendar, prohibiting the state Assembly from considering the several thousand bills introduced at the beginning of session. “The Legislature all decided we should only focus on bills that would have a real direct impact on addressing the pandemic, the ensuing recession, or other issues related to our current crises.”

As chair of the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, Chiu expected the homelessness and housing crises to take top priority on the agenda at the beginning of the year. Both issues were prominent in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s State of the State address, as well as a focus for many of the state legislators. While the coronavirus has taken priority over everything else, Chiu says both issues have only been exacerbated by the health crisis. “The pandemic on top of homelessness has been gasoline on fire,” he said.

And then there is the issue of race, which has been impossible to untangle from a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

With the tragic killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police and the subsequent calls for racial equality across the nation, Sisson believes the Black Lives Matter movement will be just as impactful, if not more so, than COVID-19. The president, however, has remained undeterred from pushing for policies that only deepen inequities. These acts will likely influence the votes of  millennial and Gen Z voters, who have been at the forefront of calls for social justice and addressing systemic racism.

A recent article published by the Brookings Institution points out that since taking office, the Trump administration has cut into health care access, benefits to immigrant children, public education, housing assistance, and other social programs that benefit younger families, particularly families of color. “The president has shown little interest in issues that millennials and Gen Z support,” it states, citing greater racial justice and inclusion, better treatment of immigrants, stronger environmental protections, and effective gun control as examples of such issues.

In addition, Trump’s racist comments regarding the coronavirus continue to fuel anti-Asian sentiment across the country. “When Donald Trump refers to Chinese virus and ‘Kung Flu’ he is further inflaming racism and xenophobia in a way that has created an environment for hate crimes and it is yet another example of his failure in leadership,” said Chiu, who chairs the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.

In the short term, while voters grapple with the overlapping pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, Allison insists this is a time of opportunity. “Racial justice is a call that unites people across race,” she said. “We not only have people protesting, but we can translate that into policy.”

Whether it translates to reversing deep-rooted issues that have plagued marginalized communities for generations — from voter suppression to police brutality — remains to be seen. 

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(Kari Sullivan/Unsplash)

News roundup

Voter suppression: How it’s playing out in states, courts and Trump’s America

By Levi Sumagaysay

With four months left till the November U.S. presidential election, here’s a look at what’s going on in voter suppression — which can take many forms — amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some of it is affecting primary voting now.

“The Trump administration’s definitely weaponizing the pandemic” to further voter suppression, She the People founder Aimee Allison said on the podcast.

  • One way to keep people from voting is to put a bunch of obstacles in their way. The U.S. Supreme Court last week blocked a lower court ruling that would’ve made it easier for Alabama citizens to vote. The emergency ruling (because there’s a primary election there next week) put on hold an Alabama federal district court judge’s decision that lifted restrictions for those who “cannot safely obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public” and “for absentee voters who are over the age of 65 or disabled and who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID” because of the pandemic. Last week’s ruling means the regulations will be in place for the July 14 runoff election, which had been postponed because of the coronavirus. The high court was split 5-4 along party lines, with the Democrat-appointed justices opposed.

  • Another way to disenfranchise voters is to make them wait for hours to cast their ballots. It happened in Georgia last month, where one state senator called the long lines and malfunctioning voting machines “a hot mess.” In Kentucky, election officials closed thousands of polling places ahead of that state’s (delayed) primary last week, raising concerns about suppressing Black votes — although there are indications things ran smoothly. According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute, reducing the number of polling places affects the wait times of Latino and Black voters more than white voters.

  • U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in an interview with Fox News recently that voting by mail “absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud,” which is in line with what his boss, President Donald Trump, has been claiming repeatedly without any evidence and despite the fact that it is routinely practiced in many states. Trump has tweeted that foreign governments will print mail-in ballots and rig the election, which experts say would be hard to pull off and some Republicans discount. Trump and Barr are pushing this narrative because, as the president has said out loud, they expect that a higher voter turnout would be bad news for Republicans

  • However, research shows that neither political party tends to benefit much from vote-by-mail programs. A working paper from the Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford found that voting by mail boosts overall voter turnout by about 2 percentage points, but not the turnout or vote share of either party over the other. The paper, published in April, analyzed new voting data from California and Utah and combined it with previously collected data from Washington state. The researchers pointed out, though, that their analysis was based on data collected during “normal times,” and that obviously COVID-19 could change things. 

  • The Republican-backed campaign trying to undermine trust in mail-in voting, called the Honest Elections Project, is facing opposition from Fair Fight, an organization led by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and other groups. Abrams, a Democrat, says she wants to raise millions of dollars for the effort, which is called Voter Suppression Watch.


Coming up

Next week we will focus on Latino health, including in a podcast interview with Maria Lemus. Lemus founded Vision y Compromiso, a Los Angeles-based organization that enables and trains promotores who act as liaisons to the Latino community.


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