TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Nick Corasaniti, has been reporting on what he describes as how the Republican Party is attempting to lock in political control for years to come by pushing through new laws to restrict voting access, limit ballot initiatives that could undermine Republican goals and stiffen penalties for poll workers and election officials who make even minor mistakes. At the same time, Republican lawmakers in at least eight states controlled by Republican legislatures are trying to remove the powers that secretaries of state, governors and nonpartisan election boards have over how elections are run. He says these efforts could further undermine the country's democratic norms. New restrictive voting bills have already been signed into law in Georgia and Florida. Nick Corasaniti covers national politics for The New York Times. He's been writing about voting and voting rights. He was one of the lead reporters covering Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Nick Corasaniti, welcome to FRESH AIR. I know you just got back from Texas, where you've been covering the proposed new voting restrictions there. Let's start by talking about what many of the new and proposed laws have in common when it comes to restricting voting rights.
NICK CORASANITI: Right. Well, thanks so much for having me, Terry. A few things that we're seeing across the country right now when it comes to all of these bills in different states that are seeking overhauls of state election rules has kind of been a response to what happened in the 2020 election, where we saw record turnout kind of across the board. And so as these Republican legislatures have started to take aim at different methods of voting, they've often been in response to turnout that they might have seen, you know, kind of going in a direction that might harm them at the polls in future elections. So one specific thing that they've targeted has been absentee ballots and mail-in voting.
Because of the pandemic, you know, voting by mail soared in the 2020 election. It was an exponentially bigger. And it basically was favored more by Democrats because the Democratic Party, in their get-out-the-vote efforts, really pushed their voters to vote by mail as a safe way to do it during the pandemic. So there's a lot of efforts in different states to limit dropboxes, which are basically bins where a voter can come - in an ideal world, at 24/7 - and just put their ballot in a box as if you're kind of returning a book to the library. Those are normally monitored by videos.
There's been new efforts to add ID requirements kind of running the gamut. There's been, you know, an effort to ban election officials, secretaries of state, county election officials from proactively mailing out absentee ballot request forms. So now that someone who is eligible to vote by mail downloads or obtains their own application and then sends it in themselves, you know, certain secretaries of state, to encourage turnout, will just proactively mail out a ballot application. So, you know, those things are kind of a major theme in the bills that we're seeing across the country is efforts to add new restrictions and limits to voting by mail.
GROSS: What are some of the more unique or extreme or extremely baffling restrictions that you're aware of?
CORASANITI: Well, the one that has really, I think, annoyed a lot of election officials that they've almost testified against - and these are bipartisan election officials - has been some of the limits on dropboxes that, you know, basically render them almost pointless. You know, the utility of a dropbox is that it's a 24/7 voting center. It's monitored by video, so it is secure. And it allows a voter who might not trust the Postal Service, might be up against a tight deadline to bring in their ballot and know that it's going to be counted if they met the deadline.
And so, you know, certain bills have said you need to bring the dropbox inside into an early voting location or into an election office, and that's the only place it can be. And then they can only be operable during early voting hours, in which case you'd probably just come and vote early. So it kind of, you know, makes that dropbox - basically just - it doesn't - the utility that dropboxes provided is basically eliminated.
In Florida, in particular, they not only have to be brought inside an elections office, but they have to be monitored and manned by an election official, so either a poll worker or a county election official or something like that. Video surveillance isn't considered sufficient. And so in Florida, if an election official or a poll worker, you know, isn't monitoring for even a minute and gets caught, it's a $25,000 fine. So they've really targeted these drop boxes in a way that almost makes them irrelevant. And, you know, Republicans and Democratic election officials have said, you know, this is wrong, and this is kind of going in the wrong direction for what we're trying to do with this method of voting.
GROSS: In one of your articles, you described Georgia's new voting law as having a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections. What makes it breathtaking?
CORASANITI: Well, what the Georgia law did was really kind of seek to take more authority over the administration of elections and put it in the hands of the legislature. There were two different kind of facets in how they did this. One, which appeared to be partial revenge against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who was a Republican who kind of stood up to President Trump's efforts to overturn the results there. And because of that, or possibly not because of that, the state legislature nonetheless stripped him of some of his powers.
They removed him as chair of the state elections board, which is where a lot of the rules and appropriations are made for election administration. And they took him off the board entirely as a voting member. So he no longer has a vote there. And in his place are members who are appointed by the partisan legislature. Now, those members are meant to be nonpartisan, and they have guardrails up to say, you know, they haven't run for office as a candidate or donated to a political party or candidate, but they're still appointed by the partisan legislature. The other aspect of this is the ability to suspend county election officials for, you know, evidence of incompetence or mistakes or things like that.
And in Georgia, a lot of Democratic voters are confined to a few counties, you know, Fulton County, where Atlanta is, Gwinnett County. And so what this bill does is it allows the state elections board to suspend an elections official in one of those counties and insert their own person, which both Democrats and voting rights groups have said is a cause for great concern because then they could kind of take over the day-to-day operations and administrations of elections from a partisan-legislatures-appointed person.
GROSS: So this risks turning the election process in Georgia into a very partisanly controlled process with the desired outcome of favoring the Republican Party.
CORASANITI: Yeah, it certainly inserts more politics. And in this case, in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature, more Republican control over the administration of elections. Now, legislatures are always in charge of, you know, kind of writing the laws and setting the initial rules that elections must follow. But the administration of elections, the day-to-day running of elections, that always falls to secretaries of state, state election boards, county election officials and, you know, the poll workers. So by giving the state legislature more authority over that administrative aspect, it risks inserting a whole lot more political and partisan influence in that administration.
GROSS: Do you think that what the Republican Party has backed in terms of who has the power in determining election law varies or how - or in determining how elections are run varies on where Republicans have the most control? In other words, if it's a Republican legislature, let them have the most control. If there's a Republican secretary of state who's very loyal to the party, let them have a lot of control. If not, let's take away some of the control.
CORASANITI: I think what we've seen in a lot of these bills is efforts by legislatures to take power of election administration away from election officials. So most of these efforts in bills introduced this year to take over power of election administration has been by the state legislatures. And I think it's important to remember what former President Trump was asking a lot of these Republican state legislatures to do after the 2012 election.
In states that he lost, like Georgia, like Arizona, that have Republican controlled legislatures, he was asking them to overturn the results, appoint their own slate of electors that would be loyal to him, even though he lost the state. So when viewed through that lens and remembering that effort, the power grab that a lot of the legislatures are attempting to pull off with these bills is kind of all the more alarming, I think, for voting rights advocates and for Democrats.
GROSS: State legislatures are behind the voting restrictions and the move toward voting restrictions that we're seeing. A majority of state legislatures in the U.S. have Republican majorities. Is that a trend that's likely or unlikely to change in the near future?
CORASANITI: I'd say it's pretty unlikely to change in the near future, and that's because of redistricting and gerrymandered districts that are unlikely to change. You can look at states, especially in the Midwest, like Michigan and Wisconsin and even Pennsylvania, they've gone - while they're battleground states, and it's always been close, at the governor's level, you know, they've gone Democratic recently, yet the state legislatures, both chambers in those three states are still Republican controlled and pretty comfortably so. So the way that a lot of these state legislative districts have been drawn, often by Republican-controlled legislatures, it's locked in a method of power so that they're unlikely to change much over the course of the next few years.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Corasaniti, a New York Times political reporter who has been covering voting-related issues. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nick Corasaniti, a New York Times political reporter who has been covering voting and voting rights, including Republican efforts to restrict voting and enact other voting related changes that would favor their party.
You've spent the past three weeks in Texas, which is an important battleground state and now has an election bill before it, a voting restriction bill. Why were you spending so much time in Texas? What makes that state so important now in this pending legislation? And I should say this story in Texas is changing perhaps as we speak. And we're recording this interview, so I'll preface your answer with that.
CORASANITI: Right. Well, one of the reasons that Texas is going to be so important is it has the potential to be the most restrictive voting bill that we see this year pass in a Republican-controlled state. And it's coming in a state that is already considered one of the hardest states to cast a ballot in. A study by Northern Illinois University in 2019 found that in a cost-of-voting index, which factors in registration challenges, requirements to request a ballot, early voting access, basically everything compiled together, Texas was 50 out of 50 in terms of their cost of voting. And that was before they introduced these two omnibus voting bills a few months ago that looked at a kind of host of different restrictions, some we had seen in other states, but others that were really new.
In order to kind of make voting safer amid the pandemic and increased turnout, elections officials in Harris County, home to Houston, which is one of the biggest counties in the country - it has a greater population than 25 states - introduced two new methods of voting. One was drive-through voting, which allowed voters to drive up in their cars and vote safely from their cars. And another was 24-hour voting, which allowed for a night, people who had jobs or life commitments that made it hard to vote during early voting hours to vote in the middle of the night. And those two methods of voting led to about 140,000 ballots being cast in the 2020 election.
The Texas bill that was introduced seeks to ban both of those. And the rationale is that it was hard to get pollwatchers - partisan pollwatchers - proper access. And that really stood out as just an effort to limit these two methods of voting that were safe and secure, that had no issues in terms of fraud and just take that away. And that really stood out as something to pay attention to and one reason that Texas is going to be a kind of major battleground for voting rights.
GROSS: This is a little sidebar, but what's kind of fascinating, the Republican chair of the state house election committee, Briscoe Cain, who wrote a lot of the language in the bill, originally had a line in about, you know, preserving the purity of the ballot box. It was pointed out to him by a Democratic representative that that's Jim Crow language, that - language that was traditionally used to prevent Black people from voting, to which Briscoe Cain said, oh, yeah, I didn't know that.
CORASANITI: Yeah, that was a major moment in the debate about, you know, when this bill was first brought to the floor. And it was happening, I think, at like 11 p.m., but it all kind of runs together. But it was a very late-night debate. There was some backroom discussions. But that was a really kind of poignant moment, I think, in this debate. And it got to some underlying tension that's, you know, kind of present in all of these voting bills. And that's that almost all of them are going to have greater impacts on poor communities and communities of color. And, you know, it's true in the absentee ballot laws when you're introducing new identification requirements. And it was true in eliminating something like 24-hour voting. So that moment about the purity of the ballot box kind of really, I think, underscored how a lot of Democrats and civil rights groups are feeling about these voting laws.
GROSS: Now, you write that Republicans are targeting every level of elections, not just, like, voting rights, but also ballot initiatives. They're trying to limit ballot initiatives. And so far, Republicans have introduced 144 bills to restrict the ballot initiative processes in 32 states. Nineteen of those initiatives have been signed into law by nine Republican governors. Why are ballot initiatives being targeted?
CORASANITI: Well, it's a really recent trend that we've seen Democrats and liberal groups really leverage ballot initiatives to kind of bypass Republican-controlled legislatures and enact laws in red states that, you know, were popular statewide but would have never passed within the state legislature. So that's things like raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, expanding Medicaid, introducing nonpartisan panels to handle the redistricting every 10 years. And so all of those are, you know, Democratic initiatives or more liberal initiatives that, you know, pass in these ballot initiatives at the state level because they're popular with the majority. So while ballot initiatives are open to both parties, anyone can, you know, try and get signatures and try and get their initiative on the ballot and hope the voters pass it. Recently, we've seen, especially in these kind of gerrymandered, Republican-controlled states, at the state legislative level, ballot initiatives have really become kind of a weapon for Democrats. And so they've come into the crosshairs of some of these Republican legislatures.
GROSS: So it's a way for Democrats in Democratic areas to get around Republican-controlled legislatures?
CORASANITI: Yes. Exactly. It's - you know, if there's an issue that's popular - and, you know, some of these, you can look at raising the minimum wage, you know, they often poll above 50%. They're never, you know, a 75% supermajority. But they poll well with more voters than not. And if the state is controlled by Republicans - Republicans have been pretty opposed to raising the minimum wage, at least to the $15 level that politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders or, really, almost every Democrat, at this point, does. So while that's a popular position, it's never going to make it through a Republican-held legislature. So they try and get it on the ballot as either a constitutional amendment or a ballot initiative and get it into law that way.
GROSS: You give one particularly strange example of one of these restrictions. And this is in South Dakota. Do you want to talk, like, about the one page, 14-point font (laughter)?
CORASANITI: Yeah. So one of the most creative, I guess you could say, and also strange methods of trying to, you know, limit and put new barriers towards a ballot initiative making it on the bills in South Dakota, which, ironically, is kind of where ballot initiatives were pioneered - it was in 1898. A socialist, Catholic priest named Robert Hare (ph) first brought a ballot initiative. And South Dakota became the first state to introduce this form of democracy. But this year, as an effort to try and restrict the process of the ballot initiative from progressing in South Dakota, they've added a requirement that all ballot initiatives be printed on a piece of paper at 14-point font. And when you combine that with the requirement that all initiatives, along with their signatures, fit on a single sheet of paper, it now forces people gathering signatures for petitions to bring around pieces of paper that are, you know, the size of small area rugs or beach towels.
So it's kind of a ludicrous thing, you know, if you see the canvassers on street corners who, you know, are asking you to sign something, and then all of a sudden they unfurrow, you know, a piece of paper that could cover your couch at home. And you have to find a place to sign it. That's going to make it pretty hard to, A, be taken seriously and, B, find enough signatures and enough people to get this ballot over the threshold and put it on the ballot for voters. It's also, you know, probably pretty expensive to print on pieces of paper that are that large.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Corasaniti, a political reporter for The New York Times. We'll talk more about Republican efforts to change how Americans vote and who gets to vote after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nick Corasaniti, a political reporter for The New York Times. He's been covering the Republican Party's efforts to lock in political control for years to come by pushing through new laws to restrict voting access, limited ballot initiatives that could undermine Republican goals and stiffen penalties for poll workers and election officials who make even minor mistakes.
It seems that Republican legislatures are targeting every level of the voting process - who gets to vote, who writes the voting rules and who oversees the election process. One of the things you've been writing about are the bills targeting election officials and poll workers and more than two dozen bills in nine states are either making their way through legislatures or have been signed into law. So who is being targeted?
CORASANITI: So the targeting here is almost universal in terms of people who run elections. It's everyone from your local poll workers or local election judges, as they're called in Texas, who are basically low-paid employees or, you know, volunteers with a little bit of cash who show up and help administer the election during early voting or on Election Day. And then there's also, you know, new penalties and targets for secretaries of state or county election officials or county auditors. And we've kind of seen different bills laying new penalties or fines or threats on the heads of everyone.
GROSS: So what are some of the penalties, legal and financial, that poll workers and election officials, election judges might face now in states that have passed restrictive voting legislation?
CORASANITI: So the financial penalties can be as great as $25,000 in Florida if an election official fails to keep a poll worker or staffer physically monitoring the dropboxes in the state. It carries a $25,000 fine. The legal penalties can be as great as a state jail felony. In the current version of the Texas bill that's still being negotiated at the moment, proactively sending out absentee ballot applications - so not even the ballots, just the application for a ballot - by an election official would carry a state jail penalty. In Iowa, county auditors who are looking to send out applications for ballots will also face similar felony charges. And they also have financial fines up to $10,000.
GROSS: What are some of the punishments that are being enacted or proposed?
CORASANITI: So in Texas, they are kind of really targeting the people who run elections on the day to day, those kind of election judges who, you know, show up and administer the elections during early voting and Election Day. And what they've done is made it very difficult, almost nearly impossible to remove a partisan poll watcher for bad behavior. Partisan poll watchers are a part of the democratic process. They can be volunteers of either party or a candidate. And they're just supposed to show up and observe and make sure that everything's running as it should, kind of another set of eyes.
But recently, there's been a little bit more harassment and badgering. And they've been kind of amped up and torqued up on these false claims of voter fraud. And so they've been harassing election judges a little bit more. One election judge I spoke to in Texas named Anita Phillips, she needed to start to get law enforcement to walk her to her car at night because she was fearful of more harassment.
And so in Texas now, these election judges won't be allowed to remove partisan poll watchers for bad behavior. They also could get in trouble for simply blocking the observation of a partisan poll watcher. Now, that could be, you know, intentional standing in front of them, or it could just be, you know, maybe the way it's set up. It could be accidental. It could be a mistake. Yet it would still carry pretty draconian penalties for these election judges who, again, aren't state employees, aren't even necessarily county employees. They're just showing up to run and administer the in-person elections.
GROSS: These used to be pretty low-profile positions. But now, as you say, people are being threatened because the whole election process has become so politicized. I would imagine this could have a very chilling effect on people who oversee elections, on the election judges, on poll workers. So what is the point of discouraging people from doing that work?
CORASANITI: Well, it kind of gets at what we saw during the 2020 election as a big obsession among a lot of Trump supporters and kind of even the president himself, which is in their kind of quest to find this rampant voter fraud that didn't exist, half the time, they turned on the election workers themselves. They claim they were, you know, bringing in suitcases of ballots in Georgia. That was, you know, a false thing. They were bussing in out-of-state voters in New Hampshire.
And so a lot of the anger started to turn away from the voter and onto these election workers. You know, in Detroit, where they were counting absentee ballots, you know, there were Trump supporters who showed up outside of that arena banging on the windows, you know, really scaring people inside. They were fanning out and just challenging everything. So it kind of comes from a place of this newfound anger that has been stoked by former President Trump about, you know, these false claims of election fraud. It's not just voters anymore. It's like blame the refs and go after these election officials.
GROSS: So opponents of new restrictive voting bills say they're designed to limit voting in largely African Americans communities. They're designed to target Black voters. What are some of the things that are being singled out by critics as being designed to target Black voters?
CORASANITI: Well, there's a few, and it varies from state. But there's long been studies that prove that certain additional voter ID laws often impact communities of color at a disproportionate level than, say, white voters. I think it was a study in 2018 - I know it was in The Atlantic - found that Black and Hispanic voters were three times as likely than white voters to say at polling stations that they lacked the proper identification, so being turned away for not having proper ID. So there's a long history of voter ID being used as a way to block access to voting in communities of color.
There's also a provision in the Texas bill in particular that deals with election machine allocation, which in turn would lead to the reduction of polling locations in a lot of densely populated urban areas in major cities. The Texas Tribune did a study that found that it would greatly reduce the polling locations in Democratic areas like Houston and Dallas and Tarrant County. So that would directly impact communities of color by giving them less access and less opportunity to go vote in person.
One last thing that it's kind of an overarching theme in a lot of these bills is that by making the absentee process harder, by limiting, say, access to drop boxes or adding new fears that maybe my absentee ballot won't count because I'm not following the new rules, they'll go vote in person. And by then reducing early voting hours, those lines will now be longer. And lines are one of the original deterrents from voting. And they're often the longest and the most severe in poorer communities, in communities of color and in densely populated areas.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Corasaniti, a New York Times political reporter covering voting and voting rights. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nick Corasaniti, a New York Times political reporter who has been covering Republican efforts to restrict voting and enact other voting-related changes that would favor their party.
You've written about how Republicans and conservative groups are coordinating efforts to write bills for different states that would restrict voting. So let's talk about that coordination and what you found. Let's start with the role of Heritage Action for America, which is the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. What have they been doing to coordinate efforts?
CORASANITI: So Heritage has been one of the biggest behind-the-scenes players in the effort to add new restrictions and overhaul voting laws across the country. And they've been pretty public about it. So it starts in Georgia - or at least we can start in Georgia. And back in late January, a group of dedicated volunteers from Heritage, they call them Sentinels, met with Republican legislators and delivered this letter containing different proposals that they wanted to see regarding voting. And then a few days later, the Heritage put up a report that basically laid out all of the proposals and voting changes that they were seeking in the country. A few days later, about 68 bills kind of unfurl in the Georgia legislature, sponsored by a bunch of different Republican legislators individually. And our review found that 23 of those had similar language or were firmly rooted in the principles laid out in both that letter that was delivered in late January and the extensive report that was later published by Heritage. So behind the scenes, they're helping sometimes to influence what is in the bills, sometimes to provide kind of language that then legislators eventually use and other times just simply write the bill.
GROSS: You give another example of how the election process has become more partisan. The election integrity committees of the Republican National Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee are filled with members who challenged the election results in 2020.
CORASANITI: Yes. Both of those committees, which were formed after the election and are kind of charged with helping to both sell the public on these changes to voting laws and also craft new voting laws and restrictions, were very vocally supportive of President Trump's effort to overturn the elections. Now, that varies from kind of tacit support about overall election security to outright statements about, quote-unquote, "stop the steal" or appearing at some of these rallies after the election to support the president's effort to overturn the results.
GROSS: The committees that are supposed to be overseeing the integrity of elections are filled with people who have challenged the results of the 2020 presidential election with no evidence supporting that. What does that say?
CORASANITI: Well, it kind of shows just how deeply I think the big lie has embedded itself in a broad part of the Republican Party. It's almost becoming like a litmus test in these Republican primaries that we're seeing, not just when it comes to who's running for a secretary of state, but members of Congress, governors, you know, people who are announcing right now are putting "election integrity," quote-unquote, in their campaign ads, in their announcement videos, in their stump speeches. And it's just an indication of how much this, you know, repetitive pushing by the former president of this false idea of voter fraud. And the big lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent is just something that Republicans seem to be unable to escape right now.
And I was actually - I was speaking to Secretary Raffensperger in Georgia yesterday about how he, someone who stood up to the big lie, runs in a Republican primary against a challenger who voted to overturn the elections and is kind of criticizing Raffensperger for not going along with the president. And he really was just like, I'm going to have to run on integrity and the truth. And to me, that kind of laid out exactly where it is. There is a current adherence to this falsehood promoted by the president that is supported by so much of the party that a lot of Republican politicians, especially in a primary season, are going to have to continue to at least pay attention to.
GROSS: So I know that there are Democrats and there are voting rights groups that are trying to fight back against the new strict voting laws. What are some of the things that are being done to challenge the new restrictions?
CORASANITI: Well, the main avenue currently available to Democrats and voting rights groups pushing back against these laws is lawsuits. So we've seen it in Georgia and Florida. I anticipate we will see it in Texas as well, is that almost within hours of a governor signing these bills into law, there's a flurry of lawsuits challenging them on 14th Amendment grounds, on Voting Rights Act Section 2 grounds, that are saying they will have disproportionate impacts on communities of color or they're unconstitutional. Those lawsuits tend to take a long time. They can really drag out. They can be tough to prove, and it's unlikely many of them, you know, would be resolved before the next election. So that has really kind of shifted and amped up pressure on Democrats in Washington to pass one of the voting bills that is currently in Congress, whether it's H.R.1, which is the vast omnibus bill that's seeking, you know, a host of reforms to voting or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would kind of restore and strengthen the current Voting Rights Act that was weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that basically kind of hollowed out this provision that required states to get preclearance from the Department of Justice before they change their election laws.
GROSS: So, you know, in reading your reporting in The New York Times, you've come out and said that these efforts to restrict voting and to limit ballot initiatives and cut the powers of secretaries of state and punish poll workers, that these efforts can undermine our democracy and undermine the country's democratic norms and threaten the fairness that is the bedrock of American democracy. And I'm wondering if you got any pushback about writing that from editors at the paper because I think The New York Times has really been struggling with what to call a lie and what to call, you know, a factual misstatement and what is just, like, a fact and what sounds too partisan.
CORASANITI: I think we've been pretty consistent even before the 2020 election, you know, in our coverage of efforts to restrict the voting. I think of the amazing series that my colleague Jim Rutenberg did in 2015 on the unraveling of the Voting Rights Act, that when there are these attacks on voting, regardless of where they're coming from, it's really an attack on American democracy and small D democratic norms. And so, no, I didn't get any pushback from my editors. And I think we've been, you know, pretty clear in all of our reporting where we see some of these laws and different provisions kind of going beyond and threatening these democratic norms. And another part - and I'll give another hat tip to my amazing colleagues who cover disinformation, as I mentioned with the Georgia law that talks about restoring confidence in America's elections, it's rooted in the big lie and the kind of falsehoods that are continuing to persist about our election.
So what we're trying to do is to make sure that we're showing both the impact of that disinformation and of those falsehoods and lies about the election. You know, we've printed the term big lies - I've written it many times - and what that might do to our voting, which in turn is what it's doing to our democracy. Access to voting is a continual battle in this country, even though voting is the bedrock of democracy and what this was founded on. So I think when there are efforts to make voting harder, it's efforts to make democracy harder.
GROSS: Nick Corasaniti, thank you so much for talking with us.
CORASANITI: Thank you, Terry. I really enjoyed the conversation.
GROSS: Nick Corasaniti is a political reporter for The New York Times covering voting and voting rights. After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review three new documentaries about the Tulsa massacre of 1921 in which white mobs attacked the community known as Black Wall Street. They killed hundreds of residents and destroyed many Black-owned homes and businesses. Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Monday, May 31, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Tulsa massacre in which white mobs attacked the prosperous community in Tulsa that was known as Black Wall Street. This Sunday, the History Channel presents its documentary called "Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre." PBS will air its Tulsa documentary Monday, and the National Geographic Channel will present its documentary on Tulsa and the Red Summer June 18. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review of all three.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When the fantasy TV series "Watchmen" premiered two years ago on HBO, it opened with a prologue set in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla. It dramatized a brutal attack on the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood with thousands of angry white people targeting the town and its citizens in a concentrated wave of violence that included murder, shootings, the looting of homes and businesses, fires set by torches, even incendiary explosive devices dropped by a small fleet of airplanes.
Some viewers who saw that opening "Watchmen" sequence were unaware of it at the time, but its depiction of the racist destruction of what was called the Black Wall Street of Tulsa was based on fact. For much of a century, even in Tulsa itself, that history seldom was shared. Yet this weekend, as we approach the May 31 and June 1 centennial of that attack, the word and the story is spreading.
I've previewed three new documentaries about the Tulsa tragedy key to the centennial. The first to arrive, Sunday's "Tulsa Burning - The 1921 Race Massacre" on the History Channel, is the best of the three, but all are worthwhile and take slightly different approaches. Monday's "Tulsa: The Fire And The Forgotten" on PBS stresses the reporters and historians who serve as guides to walk us through the evidence, including picture postcards of the burned-out neighborhood that were sold by and to bigots to spread proof of what had happened. Narrator Michel Martin explains.
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MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: A number of the more graphic photographs were printed after the massacre as postcards. Members of white supremacist organizations displayed them as trophies and mailed them to sympathizers around the country. White supremacy flourished after the massacre. In 1922, some 1,700 Ku Klux Klan members paraded through downtown Tulsa, cheered on by 15,000 spectators. In 1923, a Tulsa Klan holding company erected a meeting hall, a fortress of racism. It was painted white and towered over the ruins of Greenwood. It was nicknamed Beno Hall for its restrictive admissions policy - be no Negro, be no Jew, be no Catholic, be no immigrant.
BIANCULLI: A third documentary, National Geographic's "Rise Again: Tulsa And The Red Summer," doesn't premiere until mid-June. It covers similar territory to the other two, including the recent excavation of a local cemetery in search of an unmarked mass grave. Washington Post reporter DeNeen Brown, who's written about the Tulsa story for years, figures prominently in both the PBS and National Geographic programs. And the Reverend Dr. Robert Turner of Tulsa is very present in all three. For the National Geographic show, he talks about racism and revisionist history in ways that span and link the two centuries.
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ROBERT TURNER: And that's one of the curses of the ideology of white supremacy, which is you make an idol out of whiteness, and whiteness has to always be superior to everybody else. And so what does a lie do when it confronts the truth, right? It either awakens to the truth or it destroys the truth and continues to believe the lie.
BIANCULLI: What Sunday's "Tulsa Burning" program on the History Channel does, though, is tell the story most clearly and dramatically. Producer-director Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams lay out the narrative with so much intensity, their documentary comes with a viewer-discretion-is-advised label.
One particular story I'll never forget. It's the account of a prominent Black newspaper publisher who fled to Boston after the massacre. Local KKK members were so incensed by this, they captured his brother, a deputy police officer, and cut off his ear, then made him eat it. And no one in Tulsa, for that or anything else, was ever punished by the law or the courts. History Channel's "Tulsa Burning" includes original music by Branford Marsalis that strikes just the right moods. It also uses fast-paced editing to cram together the accounts of historians as events happen more quickly.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right after dawn, there is this weird siren that is heard downtown.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And when that siren went off, there was just a full onslaught of gunfire, of airplanes flying and dropping incendiary devices, which we now know are turpentine balls, onto the tops of buildings. And it was just an all-out massacre of Greenwood.
BIANCULLI: And that account was followed quickly by this one.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Planes began to fly over. Machine gun fire begins. And then white men rush into the community, firing into homes...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Firing into front parlors and kitchens and children's bedrooms.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This was an intentional military-style attack.
BIANCULLI: All three programs include recent footage about Black Lives Matter protests and succeed not only in bringing a century-old story to life, but in making it disturbingly relevant.
GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed about Juneteenth, or with Yusef Salaam, who was one of the five teenagers falsely accused of brutally raping a woman in Central Park in 1989 and later exonerated in 2002, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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