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You Can Protest at the Ballot Box: Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes on All In: The Fight for Democracy

The documentary "All In: The Fight for Democracy" shows us that recent voter suppression initiatives are part of an American tradition that goes back to the very beginning of our country. Our founding documents spoke of equality but it took almost 100 years to give Black men the right to vote and more than 140 years to give women of all races the right to vote. And as more people became eligible to vote, there were more efforts to stop them. Like another documentary this year, "Slay the Dragon," it is a terrifying but ultimately optimistic reminder that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. 

In an interview, directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus talked about how the importance of voting was literally brought home to them and the shifting rhetoric in the repeated attempts to justify voter suppression.

What was your own first experience of voting?

LISA CORTES: I just vividly remember going with my mother when I was very young. And it was almost processional. We got dressed up, she put on the red lipsticks, the heels. And she told me what we were going to do. When we got there, we talked about who she was going to vote for. But what I always remember is she took her hand in mine and we pulled the lever together. And in that moment, something happened where it was sacred. And I don't think I knew at that point the broader history and the sacrifices and the deaths and everything that people who look like me and people specifically in my family had encountered for us to have this right. But there was this charge that went through me in that moment.

LIZ GARBUS: I really can't remember. But what I will share is my first memory of conversations around voter suppression. My father was a lawyer at the ACLU in the '60s. And one of his cases that I remember him telling me about around our dinner table was the case of Henrietta Wright. She was a Black woman in Mississippi who registered to vote 20 days after the Voting Rights Act was signed. 

She went to the courthouse, wearing a Black Power button and she registered. She got in her car afterward, drove the 10-minute drive back to the diner and her husband owned. They lived behind it. And before she could get into the diner, the sheriff pulls up and tells her she's under arrest. "Why am I under arrest?" she asked. "Well, you went through a stop sign." But there wasn't a stop sign on that route. "I drive that route every day." "Well, yes, there was and you're under arrest." When she tried to get her husband, they forcibly grabbed her, took her to jail, and she spent the night in jail being beaten and the next day was sent to a mental institution. So, while as white privilege means that, oftentimes you go vote, you don't have lines, you don't have anyone telling you, "You don't belong here." I did know at an early age that this was not something everybody was afforded.

I'm sure that there would be some relevant news story any day we might speak, but today there are two headlines on this issue. Not only do we have the Attorney General of the United States saying that he thinks that there's potential for fraud in mail-in votes, but we have the President of the United States telling people to vote twice. 

LG: The more things change, the more things stay the same, right? That sheriff who pulled over Henrietta Wright in 1965, that was a voter suppression tactic. That was a warning to other Black voters who might decide that they want to register to vote. What this president is doing is trying to create a situation where there is chaos and where there is fraud by telling people in North Carolina to vote twice.   

We know that voter fraud is statistically irrelevant. We know that because the president himself after he was elected with the electoral college when he had lost the popular vote by three million votes. And he said three million people voted fraudulently. Well, his panel while he was in the most powerful seat in government in America could not find more than 1,500 documented cases of voter fraud, and that was even a longer period of time than just the 2016 election. So, voter fraud doesn't exist in any meaningful statistical manner, but here he is trying to create a situation where it will exist. 

The problem with that is that people will lose faith in the system. I think what our job is as storytellers, as truth-tellers, is to not panic and to just tell everybody, it's okay. We can vote. You know, make a plan, vote early, mail that ballot in. If you're going in person, be prepared to wait on a long line. Take someone with you. A plan is the best antidote to chaos. And the best antidote to voter suppression is voter turnout. 

We want to inspire people to not let this most fundamental right of democracy be taken from them. We want everyone to show up and vote and get everyone they know to do so as well.

LC: We like to say, you know, you can protest at the ballot box.

I was surprised to see images in the film of people wearing masks for COVID-19. What was the most recent footage in the film?

LC: We were in Wisconsin for the primary in April, so we talked about what happened there. And actually, one of the final cards in the film looks at Florida and what happened with Amendment Four in June. We had a deadline to finish the film, but we did push to make it conversant as much as possible in this moment, and particularly what it means to vote during a pandemic. We also looked at the Georgia elections in early May. They are a part of the film because once again, we saw poll closures, we saw long lines, we saw situations where power cords weren't there. So, some of the tactics that we had explored not only in 2018 but through time, once again, raise their ugly head.

One of the most compelling parts of the film is the way the same efforts have been supported by different justifications over time. It's no longer acceptable to say (truthfully) that it is about preventing people of color from voting.

LG: Now it's voter fraud, right? Voter fraud is the fig leaf on the rationale for all these voter ID laws, which are really targeted at people like those in indigenous communities where they don't have street addresses so they can't get the right ID, or in Texas where your gun license lets you vote but not your public housing ID. So, voter fraud is the rationale for these policies that behave like the literacy tax and uphold tax, but they seem neutral on their face.

LC: What's so interesting in our film, is we show that there's this great moment with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but at the same time, there is an agenda that begins to undo its impact. So that by the time we get to 2013, and Shelby County v. Holder [which overturned the Voting Rights Act], all of those gains are undone. And immediately after the Supreme Court issues Shelby, the strict voter ID laws start to roll out. It didn't take a month—it was hours afterward.

Was there something you wished you could have included in the film but had to cut?

LG: Well, there were definitely heroes we would have liked to sing their songs a bit more than we had time for. Folks like Amelia Boynton, who was a Black woman who was extremely active during the Voting Rights Act period, registering voters, walking across that bridge, and taking blows. She ran for office, which was a dangerous, life-threatening act to do at that time. So, there were heroes like her that I think we wish we could have spent more time with. But hopefully, this will inspire people to dig deeper and to learn more. And it's a really dramatic history. There are superheroes. There are villains. So hopefully it'll inspire people to dig in deeper.

After people see the movie, what should they do? 

LG: It's important for us to answer two big questions: How did we get here? So that's what the history tells us. And then, what can we do? So there is a social impact campaign that was conceived with the onset of making the film. We have a very robust web portal for voter engagement, And so, on this portal you can find out if you can register or if you want to host the viewing party or become a poll worker or engage with some of our amazing anchor partners that range from the Southern Poverty Law Center to the Vote to Latino, Rock the Vote, When We All Vote. The film is a part of a 360 to answer these questions to provide truthful analysis and tools of how you can participate.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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