RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So we are just over four months away from the 2020 general election, and who does and doesn't vote rests on a lot of issues, from voter registration and voters knowing their basic rights to a pandemic forcing states to consider safer ways of voting if lining up at a polling station isn't for you. It's something law professor Kim Wehle is talking about with her students at the University of Baltimore. And Kim is offering a guide for the rest of us. Her latest book is aptly titled "What You Need To Know About Voting And Why."
KIM WEHLE: Well, I find every year that people come into the classroom with fewer and fewer basics that I think we assume students, even adult students, have. And the complexities around our voting system, that's something that I don't think any person, frankly, in the United States even with deep expertise can understand in one snip. Having written last year a book about the Constitution and understanding the fragility of our system of government and how so much of it actually hinges on having a functioning electoral system, I felt it was imperative to give people a one-stop shopping place to go.
MARTIN: So what are the most common misconceptions or misunderstandings that Americans have about voting?
WEHLE: Well, a question I get a lot is about illegal voting, voter fraud. You know, I think there is a misconception that that is the serious problem in our electoral process. And, unfortunately, that becomes really politicized, that if you're not concerned about voter fraud, somehow you're, you know, a liberal left-wing person and not taking this seriously. There just isn't empirically a lot of evidence of that. Of course, it's really important to have safe and secure elections. But on the other end of the spectrum, the biggest problem really is participation. Not only are there barriers to entry, it can be difficult to not just get yourself registered but to stay registered for people who don't have a driver's license, for example. But also there's just a lot of belief - widespread belief that votes don't matter. But if we don't go to the polls to protect democracy itself, it could fail. And I believe that's what's on the ballot in November regardless of where you are in the political spectrum. If you like a functioning democracy, get out and actually cast a ballot, even if you've never done it before, and save that system for our children and grandchildren.
MARTIN: So you're talking there about voter suppression, and you allude to this in the book that there have been some very specific actions taken by certain states that have made it more difficult for a certain segment of the population to vote. Can you explain what those are?
WEHLE: Yeah. So originally the only people who could vote under the Constitution were wealthy white males. And so we're in an opt-in system. You have to show that you're eligible to vote. Other democracies, it's opt out. You're automatically in and you have to decide to get out. So the history of the United States has been opening the voting tent to more and more people, people that were formerly enslaved males and then eventually women and other people. But we still have this undercurrent of even if there's a right to vote, only the right people should vote. And, of course, it culminated in the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s where African Americans, even though they had the legal right to vote, were being disenfranchised by poll taxes, literacy tests, basically making it hard to vote based on subjective, silly criteria. And what we're seeing now of voter suppression efforts are closing polling stations, you know, having insufficient resources at the polls on Election Day.
Now, some of that is legitimate, just not enough money, not enough people on the ground that can actually execute these complex electoral systems. But it's also a function, I think, of politics. You know, it's pretty easy to tweak things around the edges to benefit one party over the other. So this kind of changing the rules of the system state by state in ways that do have a disparate impact on certain people is what's known as voter suppression. And my belief is everyone who's eligible - it shouldn't be hard. It should be really, really easy and the fight should be around serious policy issues, not whether the right people should be able to exercise their right to vote.
MARTIN: If I can go back to the issue - the allegation of widespread voter fraud, which President Trump talks a lot about without evidence, I mean, there are some states that vote entirely by mail - right? - which is what the president keeps critiquing, that there could be all this fraud in mail-in ballots. But Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, Washington and I think Colorado all do this.
WEHLE: Right. This is not something that has been a concern by these states that vote almost exclusively by mail. And actually these - the residents of those states really like it. It's very convenient even in the age without a massive pandemic. It also includes increases voter participation on both sides of the political spectrum. It benefits Democrats, and it also benefits Republicans. And I think in light of the absence of evidence backing up the president's claim, what you have to ask - is this president trying to win the election by keeping people home, not by actually giving people a reason to vote for him? And that keeping people home is a tactic that even we know the Russians used in 2016 and continue to use to this day, as does Iran and China, other countries. The idea of telling people your vote doesn't matter, planting false information to make people cynical about voting, that is a way to corrode our democracy. And it's something that affects and hurts people across the political spectrum.
No one I think wants a system whereby the politicians tell us what to do. I mean, it's government by we the people, and the way we maintain our position of authority over our elected leaders is at the ballot box. So the president is just wrong about that. And we need to move on. That's not the battleground right now around voting. The battleground is to make it safe for people to exercise their legal and constitutional right to decide for themselves what kind of leadership we have in this country.
MARTIN: Kim Wehle - her new book is called "What You Need To Know About Voting And Why." And for more information on how to vote, NPR's Life Kit has an episode with practical tips. Kim, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
WEHLE: Thank you, Rachel, great to be on with you.
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