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‘The Stakes’: Let America Vote Founder Jason Kander On Fighting Voter Suppression

Senior National Correspondent Jamil Smith spoke with the former Missouri secretary of state about his new organization

Welcome back to “The Stakes,” where this week Senior National Correspondent Jamil Smith sat down with Let America Vote founder Jason Kander, the Army veteran and former Missouri secretary of state who narrowly lost his U.S. Senate race last fall to Republican incumbent Roy Blunt. They talked about his new organization's mission to stop voter suppression and gerrymandering; the president’s new “election integrity” commission; and that ad in which he assembled a rifle while blindfolded.

A lot of folks who aren't from your part of the country know you from that ad. You're blindfolded, you're putting a rifle together, all while burning Senator Roy Blunt to a crisp. You're telling a story basically that's about gun control, but it's really kind of contradicting a lot of accepted, common, conventional wisdom about what Democrats are supposed to talk about. Can you tell us first a little bit about how that ad came to you, and how many takes you did?

Jason Kander: To me, the theme of the ad is this is what I believe, and I know what I'm talking about. To me, that's the point of the ad. The way it came about is I have an F rating from the NRA. The NRA was making that very well-known, my opponent in the race making that very well-known, so I sort of in passing said to my team, "I'm pretty sure I can put a rifle together a lot faster than the other guy," and it sort of went from there.

I got it on the first take. The hard part, by the way, is not what I did with my hands. That's muscle memory. I had put a rifle together in the dark, because you're cleaning your weapon in the woods, that kind of thing, plenty. It was, obviously, with the blindfold, there's no teleprompter. I had to memorize the script and I had to make sure to do it when you're not saying a word when the weapon's making a lot of noise, that kind of thing. I got it on the first take. I don't know which take they used. You do a bunch, because of, I don't know, stuff I don't know about, like lighting and stuff like that.

There wasn't a take where the blindfold didn't come off your head, or you dropped the rifle or flubbed a line?

Kander: No, I never dropped it. If I had dropped it I'd have done a bunch of push-ups probably, just out of habit.

I want to get to what happened in November. Obviously you were trying to become the first millennial elected to the U.S. Senate, and you came within percentage points of doing it. How are you dealing with that defeat, and what have you learned from it?

Kander: I don't think about it a lot, to be honest. It's sort of like the election happened ... I'm really proud of the campaign we ran. The top of the ticket lost in my state by 19, we lost by less than three. There's nothing I would do differently. I'm very proud of what we did. After the election, I don't think I had time to think about me. To me, it was like, OK, Donald Trump's going to be president, the Republicans control Congress. My objective was, like a lot of people: Boy, there's a lot of work to be done. I guess if you ask it that way, the way I'm dealing with it is it's like, grab an oar. Start paddling. That's what I'm doing.

That's Let America Vote.

Kander: Mmm-hmm.

You're the former secretary of state in Missouri, so it made sense that elections matter to you. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went from that role and how that's growing into this role?

Kander: Sure. After the election, when President Trump told what I argue is possibly the biggest lie that a sitting president has ever told, when he said that 3 to 5 million illegal voters voted in the election —

Have you checked Twitter this morning?

Kander: It's like an evergreen question.

It pretty much is.

Kander: When that happened, I think a lot of people heard a deeply insecure man covering for the fact that he lost the popular vote by about that amount. I think that that's also true. As somebody who was elected secretary of state, was in charge of elections in Missouri and has seen up close and personal the voter suppression playbook from a supermajority Republican legislature, I saw something different. I saw somebody who recognized that their path to reelection, and to having people in their party win elections, is to have fewer people vote. If he can get that belief out there in the ether, that there's widespread voter fraud when there's not, it gets a lot easier to pass these laws that make it a lot harder to vote.

Then you combine that with the fact that when we have pushed back on this in the past successfully, it's usually been in court. Now you have Jeff Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice literally switching sides on these court cases, and you have President Trump appointing the judges. It became very apparent to me really quickly that we needed to expand beyond. The legal strategy is still very important, but we needed to expand beyond it and we needed to create political consequences for making it harder to vote, which had never been done. That's what Let America Vote is doing.

What do you see as the role going forward into the midterms? Are you organizing people on the ground, people who are out in the streets angry, marching, what have you? How is that translating into efforts to get voter turnout up?

Kander: Let me give you a couple of examples of what we're doing. It starts with the premise of, right now ... not even right now, but, like, three months ago before we got going, a Republican ... we should just talk about it as what it is, right? It's Republicans who are doing this, not Democrats.

Yeah, let's not pretend like Democrats all of a sudden have a bunch of voter suppression.

Kander: Right. Rather than be polite about it, I'm just going to be real. What Republicans have been doing the last 15 years or so is increasingly supporting these bills or these other efforts to make it harder to vote, because there's no political consequence for doing so. If you're a moderate Republican and you take a position that's anti-labor, you take a position that's anti-choice, you know that there's going to be a force that will stand against you in your next election. There's no big voter constituency that's going to go out there and create political pain for doing that. That's what we're doing, so I'll give you a couple of examples.

For instance, in Virginia, they have this bill that makes it so that if you want to vote absentee, you have to send in a photocopy of your driver's license with your ballot. You know, because we all have access to a Xerox machine at our house.

That's in the Constitution, too, right?

Kander: Of course, yeah. Thomas Jefferson was like, "Make sure you put it down face-first." It's ridiculous. What we're doing is we're messaging there, we're targeting folks who are potential votes when it comes to sustaining or overriding the governor's veto of that bill, and we're making it very plain to people that this is about making it harder for you to vote. Not just certain folks — like, everybody to vote.

Then in Georgia right now, there's an actual debate. You've got this race going on in the 6th District there, Jon Ossoff. The secretary of state there has tried to make it where if you register to vote, they're not going to let you vote. At this point, it's not usual where they're just targeting African-Americans. They're just figuring [that] if you're registering to vote right now, it's probably because you're unhappy with what's going on, and we don't want you to vote. I just can't imagine being in the political process and wanting to be there alone, and like, "No, you can't come in."

That's what they're doing, so we are actively messaging on issues like those and making it more politically painful for people who make those decisions, which makes them less likely to make those decisions.

When we talk about the issue of voter fraud, we have to get to this Election Integrity Commission that was established by President Trump yesterday, May 11, with an executive order to "study the registration and voting processes used in federal elections." Vice-President Pence is the chair, and the cochair is a guy named Kris Kobach, who is the Kansas secretary of state. What do you see happening there?

Kander: I refer to this as the voter suppression committee to reelect the president. That's what it is. For about 15 years, the Republican Party has been pushing this fiction that there's widespread voter fraud, when in fact you are more likely to be struck by lightning as an American than you are to commit voter impersonation fraud. They've been pushing this, and they've been pushing it for the purpose they claim of solving the nonexistent problem of voter fraud.

The truth is, the problem they're trying to solve is there are certain groups of Americans who are really unlikely to vote Republican. Black folks, they don't vote Republican very often.

No, no.

Kander: Hispanic folks don't vote Republican anywhere near as often as the Republicans would like them to.

Even Asian-Americans.

Kander: Right. There's just certain groups of folks who ... lower-income folks, women. This legislation that they're trying to create fertile ground for by changing public opinion is targeted at solving a very different problem, which is that there are certain folks who really don't usually vote Republican. If they can't vote, problem solved. That's what this is about, too. Kris Kobach is the secretary of state in Kansas. I'm not sure if that's his part-time job, because he runs around the country causing all sorts of trouble. It's supposed to be his full-time job, that's what taxpayers are paying him to do, and he's sort of the expert at telling this lie and spending taxpayer dollars on doing it.

Now, I know you've run into this cat.

Kander: Yeah, we're old buddies.

Can you tell us a little bit about, first of all, what his deal is, and also what your interaction was like?

Kander: His deal is that ... I don't know, I can't explain his deal, but I'll tell you about the interaction.

That might be too tough.

Kander: Yeah. Anyway, when I was first elected secretary of state — I was elected in 2012, very beginning of 2013 — I went to the National Association of Secretaries of State, the conference in D.C. It's really traditionally been a very nonpartisan professional organization, and now you have a guy like Kobach there at this time and he's got this little band of newly elected Tea Party secretaries, and they're trying to take a nonpartisan brand like the National Association of Secretaries of State and use it to push a really partisan, really pretty gross agenda, which is a voter suppression agenda. Frankly, there were Republican secretaries who really didn't like that at all, because the partisan nature of it, that's not what they came to the association for.

He's trying to push this, and at that time it was after the 2012 election. President Obama was wanting to push forward some legislation to decrease wait times for voting, things like that, and they didn't like that because they didn't like more people voting. He came out with this argument that we need to protect states' rights on elections, and we should just have this resolution that's signed off on in a bipartisan way by the organization to say that we don't want any of this federal legislation. I just stood up and said, "That's a blatantly partisan thing you're trying to do." We get into this back-and-forth, and we ended up in this thing where he was saying that I was making something partisan that wasn't, and I just said, "Let's talk about what we're really talking about. One party wants to keep the federal government out of elections and the other party wants to let black people vote." He did not take too well to that comment.

It's so plain to me. Republican voter suppression, or even gerrymandering, to me stems from this desire for them not to just hold on to power but it's also kind of a certain laziness. It seems like they're more comfortable not having to bother to sell their ideas to African-American audiences, to Latino audiences, to Hispanic audiences, to Asian-American audiences. Instead, they draft legislation to impede access to the polls and draw up new districts that somehow exclude us. It just seems kind of the antithesis of public service. You want, ostensibly, to get people involved in their own government, and this is the opposite of that.

Kander: It's very cynical. When you think about it plainly, imagine it's like a court case. Instead of trying to persuade the jury, they're just trying to figure out who doesn't agree with them and just make sure they're not on the jury. That doesn't speak well to the power of their argument. They've made the determination that their argument only appeals to a certain group of people, so they want to make sure those are the people who get to do the decision-making.

I know with President Trump, this whole argument, this whole circus around voter fraud, started with him trying to essentially prove that he won the election in the way that he wants to have won the election, saying, "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," even though he can't prove that.

Kander: It's a lie. I just want to make sure we always call it that.

Yeah, yeah. I was getting there, Jason.

Kander: I'm sure you were. I apologize. I just couldn't wait.

No, that's fine, that's fine. You got to call the president a liar first, and I'm a little upset about that. I think that with the Republican Party, they bought into what Trump is selling. I just want to get an idea from you, what are you doing? What are your strategies for getting through the Trump era just from a mental health standpoint?

Kander: I think that's actually the right way to ask it, too, from a mental health standpoint. My friends who work jobs that aren't engaged with politics or anything, that are pretty normal jobs, I think those are my friends who, in a lot of ways, from a mental health perspective, have the hardest time. By 5 o'clock, you've seen all the news that's happened during the day. You haven't been able to do anything to be engaged toward it, and by 5 you're ready to run through a wall. I have a lot of conversations about this.

For me, it's the ability to be engaged every single day. I talk a lot about [how] everybody has a platform. Whether you have a hundred friends on Facebook or whether you're on TV or whatever, at every level, everybody has a platform. We all have a responsibility, given what's going on, to speak using that platform as much as we can, and to engage. Whether that's calling members of Congress, marching, getting involved locally, getting involved with Let America Vote, or if all you can get done during the day is you see the news and you want to make sure your hundred friends on Facebook know what you think about it, that is a really important part of this. If you don't do that ...

A lot of people will say to me, they'll say, "When is he going to be gone?" People who are thinking that way and are waiting, for those folks I worry that every day when they wake up and Trump is still president, every day is November 9. That's not a good headspace to be in. It just happens to be the case that the best thing you can do to feel better is to be actively engaged in pushing back, and that also happens to be the best thing that you can do for the country right now.

I'm really worried about apathy, because I feel like to get people to care about voter suppression you have to get them to care about voting, period. A lot of people, especially, I remember reading an article shortly after the election about black voters in Milwaukee who just felt like ... not obviously that the people were the same, Clinton and Trump weren't the same, but they just didn't feel like either of them would do anything to serve their communities. You're in Kansas City. I'm sure a lot of people feel like that there. What do you do to reach those folks to get them to care about your topic — voter suppression, gerrymandering — when they don't feel like voting works at all?

Kander: Two things here. I think the first is that I'm a big believer in you make your argument to everybody, and you do it in a way that is real and very candid. Even if people don't agree with you, they appreciate that you're telling them what you believe and they know that you care about them. That's I think a very important part of it that sometimes gets missed, is that people will be OK with you saying something they're not totally on-board with as long as they know that you believe it because you want to help them. That means you've got to care about everybody. That's the first part. You've got to go there.

For instance, Ferguson is in my state. I was secretary of state when all of this started, and it was shocking to me how many people in politics in the state felt like they couldn't go there because they didn't have answers. I'm a former intelligence officer. My attitude is, how are you going to figure out any answers if you don't go there and ask some questions? That was my response. I went there, and I spent more time there than any other community in my state, for my official duties as secretary of state. Just from a perspective of doing my job, I think that mattered and I think people recognized that it did.

The second part to this is, I actually am very hopeful about where people are right now. I'm getting invited to give speeches to groups all around the country and I go, and I am amazed and just really heartened by how many people will say to me, "Prior to January 20, I voted most of the time, not all the time, but that's all I'd ever done." They'll say, "Since then, there hasn't a day gone by that I haven't been engaged in some kind of activism." Folks recognize the stakes.

There's also this element out there of people who ... I'm not saying this is what you were saying, because it's not, but people who are sort of like ... there's some level of anger at folks who maybe weren't engaged or didn't vote or whatever.

No, that's very real.

Kander: What I say to that is that that is a huge waste of time. If you're angry at somebody for not being engaged before, I feel like that's the wrong reaction. The right reaction is, "Thank you for being here. We have a role for you to play," because this is about our country.

What more do Democrats as a party need to do, and what didn't they do right or enough of in 2016, do you think?

Kander: It goes back to what I was saying about making our argument and doing it unapologetically, and just being authentic and real with it. For me, Democrats ... this is across the board. Candidates, I think, have had this problem for a long time. One of the reasons I think we were successful is we didn't fall into this trap. We have a tendency sometimes to feel like, because we know our policies are intended to help everybody, we have a tendency to forget to make that clear.

I like to use college loans as an example here. Super important policy area, but when we have talked about it, a lot of the time it's talked about as an issue that affects millennials or an issue that affects current or recent or future students. It is so much more than that. We need to talk about it and what it is we're trying to do.

As I've been around the country, and particularly around my own state, I've been to a lot of small towns, for instance, where the college debt crisis has everything to do with why those towns are hurting. Somebody goes off to school, let's say in my state. Let's say they live in Warrensburg and they go off to school in Kansas City or in St. Louis, and they've racked up $100,000 in student debt. They more often than not would really like to go home and get a job and work in the community where they grew up, and work to better that community, raise their kids there. Because it's a smaller town and there's not a job there with wages that are going to help them pay down that debt, they stay in the bigger city or go to an even bigger one. That has a lot do with what's happening.

My point that I'm getting to is, when we talk about something like student loans, what we should be talking about is the fact that every American wants their kids to do better than we have done. If we can get that, the other thing we'd really like is for our kids to be able to come home and raise their kids in the community where we raised them. What unites all of us, no matter where you live in the country, is we want our family to be safe, we want the next generation in our family to be more successful than us, and we would like our family to be close together. Talk about what we're really trying to do, not the way we're doing it. That makes a big difference.

Indeed.

Kander: By the way, that is not a triangulation. That's not a changing in any way of our progressive values, it's not a moderation. That is exactly the same policy. It's just [being] real clear about why it is we want to do this.

Going forward, though, there's a lot of protesters, as we've been talking about. There's a lot of anger out there, a lot of frustration, a lot of confusion. How do you see that getting translated into turnout, into action in 2018 specifically? Midterms, as we know, are not times when people usually show up at the polls. Unfortunately, the turnout rates are pretty low. How do we make sure that [action] keeps going? Are we just going to depend upon outrage at Trump to make sure that this does turn into something?

Kander: I'm really heartened by how many groups are really productive and really have picked out a lane — everything from Indivisible, there's Let America Vote. Why that is really exciting to me is that that didn't start in Washington. If you look at the history of this country, the most effective movements are generally not the ones that come from the top down, and generally don't start in Washington.

Usually when this question comes up, it's sort of [like], “What should the party be doing?” To me, that's a little bit of the wrong way into it. The right way into it is where things are going, this level of energy at the county level, at the city level. When there's not a group that they can plug into, they're having their friends over to their house once a month to talk about what they can do, and the phone calls to make. To me, it is not about, “How do we harness this?” It's about, “How do we make sure that the folks who have started all this stay in the lead, and that we allow them to be leaders in it?” I'm really optimistic, actually.

I share that optimism in one regard, in that there's a lot of people now running for office. Especially a lot of women who are signing up with the Women's March, saying, "I'm going to run for office," thousands of people saying that they're going to actually start taking a more active role in public service in that way.

I want to ask you about how you got into it. You enlisted in the National Guard after 9/11, you were 20 years old. Then you were in ROTC in law school, in Georgetown, and you ended up being the youngest elected state official in the country. Why, after your tour of duty in Afghanistan, did you find yourself pulled toward public service?

Kander: I had been thinking about it for a while, but I think what really cemented my view of politics was being overseas and being in the Army. It was recognizing the stakes, and being for the first time in my life on the receiving end of decisions that were made by people in public office that had a direct impact on my life, and often a negative impact. Not having the equipment that we needed. I spent a lot of time in vehicles without armor.

Man.

Kander: For me, as somebody who grew up comfortably, there was nobody in public office who was, when I was growing up, making a decision that was taking food off my family's table. That was the first time for me that I'd really been on the receiving end of that. Then when I came home and there was an open state house seat — and I had been thinking about that a little before I left — it really solidified it for me. I knew exactly why I was doing it.

Then when I was in the statehouse, for instance, it was always amazing to me when a vote would come up and somebody would say, "I wish I could vote the way you are, but I just can't because of ..." whatever political thing. I never understand that. I thought about kids who were 19, 20 years old who I saw make really, really hard and scary decisions by breakfast. That's really guided me through all this.

It's astonishing to me that there are no senators who were born after 1977. Why is it important that there are younger people in the Senate? Why is it important there be millennials in the Senate?

Kander: Well, Senate or anything else. To me, there's a lot of ways to lead. It doesn't have to be elected office, necessarily. There's a lot of ways to lead, and I really feel strongly that this is just a time when there's a deep need for a next generation of leadership. Our generation is looking at a generation that has gotten themselves crossed up in the same arguments for so long. I'm not saying that therefore those arguments aren't valuable. They are, but I think our generation is a lot more focused on progress than anything else. We tend to look at it as, “OK, can we just stop pretending that ...” So many of these arguments are so artificial. I think that that's just a really valuable perspective.

Part of it, honestly, is just time. A lot of the decisions that are being made are going to affect us and our kids, and we need to be in there in the room making those decisions.

One of the things I observed in this election is that it really moved past the hope and change. Not to say that hope and change were a bad thing in 2008, certainly the country seemed like they needed to have a reinstallation of belief in the political system and that it could actually work. I feel like [the 2016 election] was much more focused on results, and people wanting to make sure that they're electing people who can do something for them and who will do something for them. Now, obviously the people voting for Trump may be looking for something different, we can get into that, but as far as younger people getting involved, they want to see stuff done. How is that possible when you see so much gridlock in Washington and so many people who frankly don't even seem to know how to legislate?

Kander: I think that really gets to the frustration that exists for this generation. Between social media and everything else, all the ways that we're connected, we're really used to the idea that when something needs to get done, we get it done. Also, we are a generation that I think has gotten a bad rap. This whole "me" generation, this idea that it's a selfish ... I reject. That stuff is just ... anyway. I don't agree with that stuff.

I think about the fact that so many of the people that I saw sign up to serve knowing that they were probably going to have to go overseas to a dangerous place, so many of them are millennials. I see so many folks, whether they served or not, it's somehow cast as a negative thing when they want the company that signs their paycheck to reflect positively on their personal idea of who they are. That's not a bad thing. That's about making the country and their community better. That's a good thing. That's not selfish. That's patriotism, is what it is.

Part of it I think is we have a very different view of ourselves than maybe some others do, and so when we look at all that gridlock, it's not just gridlock in Congress, it's not just gridlock in Washington generally. We've come to a place that is gridlocked in our national conversation, this thing where people go on and they just say the same stuff over and over again. That, I think, is what we're tired of.

We have so much access to one another through technology and everything else, that we're very much used to people being real. When folks go on TV and they're basically acting — if they were good actors they'd be acting and paid for it for a living, but they're not good actors. When we see bad acting, it doesn't look like bad acting, it looks weird, and we are turned off by it. I'm not talking about anybody in particular, that's just politics right now.

This generation, I feel like, has incredible bullshit detectors.

Kander: I'm with you.

Now, I'm not trying to imply anything, but you are officially old enough to run for president now. I'm just saying. What kind of aspirations do you have?

Kander: Right now, my focus is honestly on ... we talked about Let America Vote. It's on making sure that we still hold elections in this country. If I'm successful in that, maybe I'll be in one one day. We're just in a time where everybody needs to jump in and do everything they can.

Jason Kander. Thank you, man.

Kander: Thank you.

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