For many Americans, the contested 2000 election still looks, in the rear-view mirror, like a confusing mess of hanging chads, "spoiled" ballots and shady backroom deals that somehow conspired to catapult a candidate who lost the popular vote clear into the White House.
For investigative journalist Greg Palast, 2000 was only the beginning, not exactly serving as a safeguard to ensure that similar trouble (and more) won't happen again. Far from it. Instead, it's been seen by some enterprising agitators, Palast claims, as a starting point to build upon in developing newer, craftier methods to swindle the voting public this time around.
It seems that when Donald Trump said the fix was in on the 2016 election, he wasn't alone in harboring those concerns, although the motives and evidence behind the Republican presidential nominee's statement contrast sharply with Palast's own. (For starters, as The New York Times' editorial board spelled out in an extended commentary on Monday, some high-level GOP operatives admit that fear-mongering about voter fraud is itself a kind of fraudulent activity -- but that's apparently beside the point.)
For his part, Palast has culled plenty of evidence to back up his allegations, as well as a lengthy track record on the topic. After all, it was due to the seasoned reporter's prior efforts that concerns were raised about our democracy being mugged in the muggy state of Florida in 2000, and the roles of key figures like former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris were closely examined after the fact. In short, Palast is well-versed in the intricacies of recount-era American politics.
But it's not in the interest of flexing his expertise that he keeps pursuing those same themes and leads 16 years later. Instead, he won't leave them in the past because, he says, they still represent active threats. The methods may have altered in keeping with technological and legislative shifts that have occurred since George W. Bush took office, but like some marauding, disenfranchising hydra, it'll take more than one hit to take this monster out, and meanwhile, it's busy producing new heads.
So, what does it look like now? Palast has taken the trouble to carefully describe the menace as he sees it with the help of visual storytelling methods in a new documentary, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits." Since explaining crucial topics like voter suppression can often prove logistically thorny, if essential to understanding the stakes and factors involved in the current political landscape, Palast and his collaborators punched things up with the help of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" cartoonist Keith Tucker and cameos from Willie Nelson, Rosario Dawson, Will Durst, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Ice-T, Shailene Woodley, Ed Asner and Richard Belzer.
That assortment of characters, along with accomplice Ms. Badpenny, are all in league with Palast, who doubles as the film's creator and protagonist as he tracks down electoral malpractice across the U.S. in his gonzo-noir thriller. One of the film's villains, and the subject of one of its biggest reveals, is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whom Palast pegs as the mastermind behind the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. That scheme was ostensibly created to beat back the scourge of rogue balloters trying to game elections by registering to vote in more than one state. But as Palast and other journalists have charged, the actual result has been to purge citizens from different states who share the same name (give or take a middle name or initial, in some cases) from the voter rolls.
Here's more bad news: According to Palast's investigation, the vast numbers of names being flagged by the computerized system operating in 29 states tend to belong to minorities. As it happens, those minorities also tend to favor Democrats at the polls. But worst of all, when combined with the Supreme Court's staggering 2013 decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which functioned to block discriminatory voting practices, plus SCOTUS' 2010 Citizens United ruling that brought money into elections on an unprecedented scale, critics consider the Crosscheck program to be part of a bigger picture that looks a lot like Jim Crow 2.0.
If this already seems confounding, that could be by design. Palast explains how the pieces fit together this video primer:
From that clip, it's clear that Palast thinks Kobach is working closely with other like-minded members of the GOP elite to secure a win for their candidates on Nov. 8. But before that can happen, Palast is releasing his film -- slated to open in New York on Sept. 23 and in Los Angeles on Sept. 30 -- as both an exposé and an intervention.
Palast recently sat down with Truthdig's Kasia Anderson to talk about his project and the looming democratic emergency that compelled him to make it. Below is a series of video excerpts from the interview, followed by a trailer for "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits." (Editor's note: Transcripts are posted after each clip.)
Background: Greg Palast describes how he became an investigative reporter, and why he couldn't take on certain stories for U.S. outlets.
Greg Palast: Actually, one of my great heroes, when I grew up here in L.A.—this is where I’m from—was Bob Scheer, who [is] the editor of, editor of Truthdig, but was the editor of Ramparts magazine. Which was like, if you took Rolling Stone and Ma Jones and Nation and rolled them together, and then rolled up a joint, you’d have Ramparts. And it was brilliant, and I read it cover to cover. And I thought, now, that’s journalism, that’s—I would love to do something like that one day. But I was thinking—but instead, I kind of went sideways; instead of becoming an investigative reporter, I became a columnist and an investigator.
Kasia Anderson: Right, you wanted to learn the tricks of the trade [of] the upper class, or something?
GP: Well, I wanted to be—I didn’t think about—I actually dropped the whole idea of journalism till I just couldn’t stand the fact that newspapers in America, and television, were not covering real stories. I was doing investigations like the Exxon Valdez, and things, and you weren’t getting the real story, so I said, “I’ll write them myself.” And I went to England—well, what happened was that I started writing and no one would accept these investigative stories in America. The minute—I literally faxed something—
KA: Give us a timeline. When was that?
GP: OK. As I was doing the Koch story, in 1995, I faxed a story to The Guardian in London. And the next day, called me up, woke me up at 4 a.m. and said, “Get to England real quick; we want to hire you right now and put your shit on the front page.” And so that was a very quick change of career, OK? And then BBC television, when they saw my first report, said, you have to do television. I said I don’t do television, it’s stupid, it’s mind-numbing, it’s brainless. They said, watch BBC; watch our news.
And that’s when I was won over and became a BBC reporter, investigative reporter for their nightly news program. And started hunting down guys like The Vulture. You know, they’ll let me do something; like, I find out, for example, that The Guardian and BBC did a joint investigation with me. I’m trying to hunt down this guy who’s the No. 1 donor to the Republican Party, The Vulture. And I said, “To do this story, I’m going to have to fly to Bosnia, to Sarajevo, and the Congo, London and New York.” And they said, “OK. Just get the visas.” And I had to—you know, the Congo is in the middle of a civil war, of course. And they were just nervous because I had to get combat certification to do these things. But other than that they said, go—“Well,” they said, “Don’t go kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself, but come back and bring us the story.” I couldn’t do that in a U.S. station, especially over a big-name honcho.
Part 1: Palast explains how the documentary project came about by combining his two main beats.
GP:I took two of my bestsellers; I’ve been lucky enough to have New York Times bestsellers, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” and "Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.” And I mushed them together, but made the core part of the film something brand new, an investigation I’m doing for Rolling Stone on the new way that the Trumpistas and the GOP intend to steal the 2016 election, or try to.
And so if you know me, Greg Palast, if you know my stuff, I’m probably best known in America for my story about how in 2000 Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush eliminated tens of thousands of black people from the voter rolls. And that’s how George Bush became our president, because they wiped out black voters. Well, they’ve continued to do that; the story’s been buried, but they continued to do that. And I’ve investigated that for BBC and for Al-Jazeera and for my—I used to be a columnist for The Guardian, investigative reporter there. And I’ve been uncovering these stories, and now Rolling Stone, the new one.
And so every year, it’s some different scam. And I said, “What’s it going to be in 2016?” And then you hear Donald Trump say, “This election is rigged! And people are voting many, many times—people are voting many, many times!” Said, wait a minute. No one’s stopping—people say, oh, he’s a nut case, blah blah—forget that. I’m listening closely. He says, “People are voting many, many times.” Now, if you vote more than once in America, you go to jail for five years. So people are voting many times? Now, his adviser, Dick Morris, who is his childhood friend, has said that—was on Fox News saying that there’s a million people who voted twice.
So I start looking into this, and in fact the GOP has this blacklist called Crosscheck. Highly secretive, with millions of names on it, mostly black people, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, who are the new target of vote suppression. Because they used to be Republicans; now they’re voting like they’re black, OK, they’re voting—three out of four Asian-Americans vote Democratic. So look, I don’t even, can’t stomach the Democratic Party; this is not about Democrats versus Republicans. This is about voting rights, civil rights. And so this film—
KA: And lots of money.
GP: And the money—that’s the other thing, I do something that no one has done. You’ve either had people do films about billionaires like the Kochs, or you’ve had people talk about vote suppression and do these serious things. I’m putting the two things together, because that’s my two beats. I do—two of my major beats—vote suppression and hunting down bad-boy billionaires. Part 2: On the particular dangers posed by "ballot bandits" in the 2016 election -- and who's behind them.
KA: So situate us right now in the 2016 framework, because that’s where you, surprisingly, take off for this documentary. And you make the promise, or the hint, that you’re going to tell the audience why the 2016 election is also going to be highly problematic. So how are you able to say that months before it’s even happened?
GP: Because that’s what I do. In fact, I was tired—when I did the 2000 race, and that’s in—people have to understand, you thought—you’re not going to get a boring history. You literally get—I had a Saturday morning cartoon drawn, so we have that real, true cartoon animation drawn by Keith Tucker, who did—
KA: “Who Framed”—
GP: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” exactly, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”!
KA: It’s a very nice aesthetic; I recognized it from that movie.
GP: And so he does all kinds of styles, but he’s our cartoonist. And so we tell that story. But that story I had covered after the election, before the vote count was finished, but after the election. I’m tired of uncovering these things after elections. So I literally said, “Well, how are they going to steal it this time?” And—
KA: Which election was the one you were just talking about, to make sure we’re—
GP: OK, the first election I did after the vote was the 2000 election.
GP: Then Bobby Kennedy [Jr.] and I went on an investigation in 2004 and uncovered something called caging. And that I did for Rolling Stone.
KA: And that’s all very clearly discussed in the documentary, yeah.
GP: That’s in the story, too. I did all this, I’m an old-fashioned investigative reporter, where I get the inside documents, I show them to you. We’re going to have a website where you can actually see more of these documents, too, so you don’t have to just take my word for it. And then we get to ’12, and I’m hearing, even before Trump made his big statement about the rigging of the election, “many, many voters”—people don’t know this, have not realized, but I’ve followed his words—he said this one year ago. OK? This is a year-old statement. So I picked it up, and listening to his buddy Dick Morris. And they’re saying the Republicans are finding people voting, one person voting in two states. So I start an investigation, and I say, “Get me those lists.” And then I find out—so literally, I find out North Carolina, the big swing state, they said just 35,000 people, they have proof that 35,000 people voted in North Carolina and another state.
KA: It’s a conspiracy!
GP: I go down, and I find out their list is nearly 200,000 people. Thirty-five thousand people voting twice—they made it clear it’s all Democrats, meaning dark people—and so I said, “Who are they?” They won’t give me the list. They say, “Oh, it’s a criminal case, it’s confidential.” I said, “Thirty-five thousand criminal suspects? How many have you arrested?” “Oh, we can’t find them.” “What do you mean, you can’t find them? They registered to vote, you got their addresses, what do you mean? If these people are committing this crime, arrest them.” They’re not arresting them, they’re removing them from the voter rolls. So now I’m suspicious. If you rob a bank, they don’t close your bank account—they arrest you. If you vote twice, they arrest you, they don’t remove your right to vote. So they’re using this as an excuse to remove people from voting.
KA: Disenfranchise people.
GP: Yes, the fancy thing is “disenfranchise,” but it’s lifting—it’s lifting your right to vote away. And so what happened—so then, of course, our team, which is more than Leni Badpenny but also the—but we have several people. And the whole team spread out, and we went to every state and we used every trick we could, until we finally got first one list and then several. I have almost 2 million names—2 million names! —in 29 states. Created by a Republican operative named Chris Kobach, who’s the secretary of state of Kansas. I just got off the phone with him 45 minutes ago, by the way.
KA: Oh, was it a good conversation? [Laughs]
GP: Ah, he said, ah, “You are an ignorant and incompetent journalist.” And I said, “Are you disappointed Trump didn’t pick you as vice president?”Part 3: Talking numbers: How many voters could be affected?
KA: What are we looking at here in terms of the 2016 election? How many voters could be thwarted at the polls? What are the losses?
GP: Under Crosscheck, what we figured—this is the question—Virginia knocked off 12 percent of the people on their list. So if you just spread it to the other states, we’re looking at close to 1 million voters will have their registrations limited.
KA: And they are presumably—or it’s verified—that they’re all Democrats?
GP: No, they are not all. They play the racial probabilities game. So if you have, like I say—like Hispanics are two-thirds Democrats—well, this year they’ll be three-quarters; ah, three-quarters Democratic vote among Asian-Americans, and 92 percent or so among African-Americans. You knock off the minorities, you know that you’re knocking off Democrats. They’re the most vulnerable people. Now, that’s—now, of course in the film we also go through—like I say, there’s 10 ways that they steal your ballot. And I go through those in the film, like, very quickly. There’s kind of a cartoon—there’s kind of an Uncle Wiggily board that you go through. And what I call the obstacle course.
And so Bobby Kennedy [Jr.] and I actually sat down with some statisticians and went through each of the means of losing your vote. And it comes out about 5.9 million votes are—well, I say the vote’s lost; sometimes it’s cast ballots, things like provisional ballots which are not counted, absentee ballots; people mail in their ballot, they don’t realize that maybe about one in seven are thrown in the garbage. And things like that. You’re purged because you are something called an inactive voter. Which is what—that’s all 126,000 people in Brooklyn were, what were called inactive voters. They don’t even know what that means, and they don’t know how it happened to them. But that’s what happened.
KA: Yeah. Funny, they were feeling pretty active about voting, and then, what do you know.
GP: [Laughs] Here they are. So, and then we go through the hysteria factory with—you know, all this is being sold by the Heritage Foundation and all the nut cases. And people have Donald Trump saying, “They’re stealing the election.” As soon as the Republicans say they’re stealing the election, it means that they’re about to use that as a way to steal the election. And again, I’m not here to promote Hillary Clinton; God forbid. In fact, there’s a book with the film that’s coming out called “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits,” with a chapter by Bobby Kennedy, an intro by Bobby Kennedy, and a comic book inside by Ted Rall. Now, we didn’t have time in the film, but in that book, I have chapters on Hillary’s billionaires. And that’s, you know—so you get your choice of billionaires.
But to me, the issue is whether people can vote. Vote how you want, that’s your business; my business is to expose when they’re trying to steal it from you. And it’s always the same thing, they’re always going after the poor, the vulnerable, minorities, and there’s a new trick every time. But unfortunately, they’re cumulative; they don’t stop using the other tricks.
Part 4: How a (hypothetical) President Hillary Clinton could legitimately challenge Citizens United without changing the Constitution.
GP: There is one way that you don’t have to change the Constitution that’s completely legit and was suggested by Ruth Ginsburg—you got to love that lady, right?
KA: Yeah, won’t give up.
GP: Ruth Ginsburg said, what about—we have the—Americans do not allow foreigners to donate in our elections. So if a corporation is going to donate money into our elections, then it has to reveal all its owners and where they are citizens.
KA: Oh, good one!
GP: So that you can’t—like in the film, I say what’s permitted by Citizens United, for example—Charles Manson and Sons can donate as much as they want. [Islamic State] Inc., can donate. So all of these corporations, [Islamic State], the Medellin cartel [Laughter], you know, the People’s Liberation Army of China. Which does have a corporation based in Delaware, where they sell a clothing line at Wal-Mart. So they have a right. But now—so she could actually do something if she wanted to by saying, “OK, open up the books. We want to see who are behind these corporations if they’re going to give money to our elections. If you’re not, then you can maintain your secrets, but if you’re going to donate into American elections, it’s got to be only Americans. It can’t be someone from Saudi Arabia paying $10 and getting a corporate name in Delaware.”
Release information: "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits" will be distributed by Cinema Libre Studio and will open in theaters starting September 23 in New York at Cinepolis Chelsea, followed by Los Angeles on September 30th at Laemmle’s Noho 7, with select cities to follow, as well as Gathr theatrical-on-demand screenings plus a DVD and Video on Demand release slated for October 18, 2016.
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