“You know the thing about voter suppression… It continues to evolve,” says Timothy Smith, executive producer of Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook.
Rigged is a 2019 documentary that analyzes and exposes voter suppression in the United States. The doc, narrated by Jeffrey Wright, is a deeply honest exploration of the last decade of this country.
It is an explanation of how democracy and hope have been thwarted by nefarious means, spearheaded by the conservative 1% in America. Rigged features soundbites and interviews with Republican strategists, writers, and scholars, and voting rights advocates like Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP LDF.
I had the chance to speak further with Smith about Rigged, his larger advocacy work with American Issues Initiative, and voter suppression as a whole. With the recent court ruling in Wisconsin that blocked extending the absentee voting deadline (during a global pandemic ravaging the US), one can argue voting rights are in more danger than they have been since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
With the 2020 election rapidly approaching, it is not hyperbole to say our entire democracy is at stake.
That mild November night in Chicago
The story of recent voter suppression begins in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected. As Jeffrey Wright narrates over old footage, “This scary story starts in Chicago on a mild November night.”
The election of Obama stood as hope for many people, across several generations. It wasn’t just possible for a black man to be in the running for the highest office in the land. It was possible for him to win it.
Minorities turned out to vote in record numbers in ’08, and they realized a promising and beautiful thing: their voices mattered, and they had the power to enact change.
“If there is anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” Obama roars in his victory speech in Chicago.
But democracy was in fact in grave danger. Influential conservatives felt power slipping from their grasp, and they raised their chins to the sky in search of a way to stop the blue flood that everyone was expecting.
The two most powerful of these conservatives? Charles and David Koch.
“There are about 400 very wealthy individuals now who are allied with Charles and David Koch in a kind of a rich people’s political movement,” says Jane Mayer, Staff Writer for The New Yorker.
“They looked at the 2008 election as a catastrophe.”
The Voter Suppression Playbook
Wealthy conservatives and their controlling operations saw a tide shifting. The fastest-growing minority demographic in America are Latin Americans, and they do not commonly gravitate to the Republican side.
So the Koch brothers and their friends did what they could, they used their lobbying power to win state elections, to turn the map of the US red, in one of the moves that Rigged calls “the Voter Suppression Playbook.”
“If we continue to underperform in this multiracial world that was going to be America, the white voters are going to be a clear minority, [and] the Republican party will cease to exist,” says Chris Jankowski, Republican Strategist.
There are a great deal many more plays in this sinister “book.” Smith, his producing partner Mac Heller, and the other people working on this project wanted to investigate certain practices headed by shady politicians or citizens that hid their racism under the guise of patriotism.
So Smith and company went into Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, where gerrymandering and other suspicious practices like voting purging were going on. Voting purging is challenging the registration status and legality of voters, often by mailing notices to homes for people to confirm they live there. In North Carolina, Smith and co. found a group working to further disenfranchise voters.
The Voter Integrity Project is a group featured in Rigged, where the two men at the helm claim to want to cut down on voter fraud and other illicit voting schemes. The only problem? There are hardly any cases present.
The VIP purged voters in NC, one of which was a woman, Karen Wilson-McKoy, who had been dispossessed by Hurricane Matthew. Thus, she never got the letter from the VIP questioning her ability to vote.
The court eventually overturned what the VIP had done, but it was only a few days before the election. When she tried to vote at the earliest date, she was unable to, and then on election day, she couldn’t take off of work.
Why again, is election day not a national holiday?
“They succeeded in doing what they wanted to do,” Smith says of the VIP.
Under the guise of integrity and patriotism, the VIP was stripping away rights from US citizens. Still, the documentary does not paint the VIP as inherently sinister people; it gives them their space to speak and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. In 2016, the VIP searched for any sign of voter fraud. They found zero cases.
“If you’re going to understand who the bad guys are, you need to spend some time with the bad guys,” Smith tells me.
Another case Smith and his group found on their journey across America was in Texas, where a sheriff was up for re-election in a county half-white, half-Hispanic.
A Latino man, Manuel Rodriguez, was locked up for 18 months for alleged voter fraud before he was given a plea bargain.
“[It was] sort of the message being: voting is a dangerous thing, you can end up in jail,” says Smith. It is these little efforts by conservatives to discourage, intimidate, or slyly disable people from voting that strip rights away from citizens and puts our democracy in complete danger.
Rodriguez was never given a trial and was released on time served. Low and behold, the sheriff was re-elected.
American Issues Initiative
“My co-executive producer Mac Heller has been very committed to good causes; his background was as a lawyer. He’s always just been a big believer in voting rights,” says Smith.
Heller was deeply upset about the finding in Shelby vs. Holder, a landmark Supreme Court case regarding the constitutionality of two provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The finding has made it easier for state officials to discourage minority voters to vote.
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54 years ago today, the landmark #VotingRightsAct was passed, prohibiting racial discrimination against voters here in the U.S. Celebrate with us by honoring these orgs leading the charge to protect #votingrights today: @aclu_nationwide #CampaignLegalCenter @naacp_ldf @fairfightaction #TheAdvancementProject #Riggedthefilm 🗳🇺🇸
Heller wanted to write a book on voting rights but realized there were already ones out there. What was missing was a succinct yet detailed documentary on the issue, so he reached out to Smith, who had political documentary experience in his work at PBS NewsHour and MSNBC.
“We wanted to sort of wrap this film into a bigger entity than just the film itself. Basically, for the last three years we’ve been devoted to the issue of voting rights, and we continue to be devoted to that issue,” says Smith.
American Issues Initiative is that bigger entity. It serves as an outlet to tackle some of society’s biggest problems, such as justice reform, education reform, or any attack on our democracy.
Besides over 200 screenings for Rigged, the American Issues Initiative has had over 30 voting rights panels.
“We’re really arm-in-arm with a number of these voting rights groups,” declares Smith.
Rigged is dedicated to two tireless voting rights advocates, who sadly have passed, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and Rosanell Eaton.
Eaton was a civil rights worker who helped force the Voting Rights Act in 1965. She is featured in the doc along with Reverend Barber, former president of the NC NAACP. To still have to work on securing citizens’ rights in the second decade of the 2000s was disheartening, but Eaton, in her 90s, was still pushing for justice.
“She was just an amazing person, and as you can see in the film, just believed so much in voting rights,” Smith tells me.
Cummings, a tireless advocate for justice, pointed to a certain demographic for enacting change and preserving democracy.
“When we sat down with Elijah Cummings, one of the things he said was, ‘this is an issue really white people need to take charge of and care about… You have to convince the majority of Americans what’s going on and that it’s not right,'” Smith explains.
“I think for most white Americans, they’re not aware of it, which is why we’re working so hard to tell this story.”
The fight ahead
Not all states are intimidating, discouraging, or otherwise premeditatedly seeking to disenfranchise voters. Smith cited California, Oregon, Washington, New York, and Colorado as states that are great with voting rights.
“It’s not like the whole country is underwater, but there [is] still more of America underwater on this issue than there should be,” explains Smith.
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Yesterday’s primary in Wisconsin, which imperiled voters’ lives, sadly is nothing new for the Badger State. Stream ‘Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook’ now on Prime Video. Link in bio. @naacp_ldf @naacp @collectivepac . . . . #wisconsin #wisconsinsupremecourt #wisconsinprimary #votersuppression #wisconsin2020 #votersuppression #votingrights #dontrigmyvote #dobetterwisconsin #democracy
The Wisconsin primary was a shock to many people, a realization that voting rights are truly in severe danger. And right now the focus is on the courts.
“In the film, we obviously make the point that the bulk work of protecting democracy and protecting the right to vote was the federal courts, but now Trump is sort of undercutting that last refuge,” notes Smith.
He recalled how Trump even recently said if the US allows for absentee votes, the Republicans will never win again (though the data shows that absentee voting does not favor either party).
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Despite recent efforts from republican officials to frame universal vote-by-mail as a partisan issue, a new study reveals that neither party benefits when a state makes this shift. Link in bio. . . . . #RIGGEDthefilm #Rigged #VoterSuppression #DontRigMyVote #votersuppression #election2020 #votingrights #democracy #humanrights #voterregistration #votebymail #everyvotecounts
We are gearing up for an election that feels like a defining moment. Yet it is clear the system is still rigged.
“It’s a ceaseless battle. You roll the rock up the hill and then it goes back down… It’s enough to make you wonder what’s the point of the struggle, but you can’t give in. And I feel like the wheel will turn in a positive direction this election cycle,” passionately expresses Smith.
Discrimination, silencing, intimidation are all nefarious actions taken by people who want to rig the system and make this country continue to benefit them above everyone else.
But through the tireless efforts of Smith, Heller, Cummings, Eaton, Barber, Stacey Abrams, Ifill, and many more, awareness is being spread, and actions towards justice are being taken.
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55 years ago, in Selma, Alabama, John Lewis and Amelia Boynton Robinson were two of the many civil rights organizers who were beaten for the simple act of attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 2015, Michelle and I, along with Michelle’s mother and our girls – three generations, hand-in-hand – joined these heroes to walk the path that they had paved. The story of Selma is quintessentially American – it’s the story of ordinary people coming together to shape our nation’s course because they believed in the simple idea that people who love their country can change it. Today, the march goes on. But the way forward is a little easier, thanks to all those who came before us, who sacrificed everything for the foundation stone of democracy – the right to vote. Now it’s up to us to honor their legacy by protecting and exercising that precious right, knowing that the work of perfecting our union is never done.
“We have to dream about the democracy we want to have,” says Judith Brown Dianis of the Advancement Project in the film.
“And until we can say, without doubt, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Until that means exactly what it says, we are still working toward becoming a more perfect union” – Rev. Barber.
Rigged is available on Amazon Prime, and citizens can check their voter registration status and register to vote on Riggedthefilm.com.
Rest In Peace Elijah Cummings and Rosanell Eaton; may their bravery and courage never be forgotten.