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‘Suppressed: The Fight to Vote’: Film Review

Owen Gleiberman

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In 2018, Stacey Abrams, having served in the Georgia House of Representatives for 10 years, ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia. She was the first African-American woman in the United States to be chosen as a gubernatorial nominee by one of the two major parties. Abrams had tremendous support, and after losing the election by just 50,000 votes, she sued the Georgia board of elections, citing multiple documented allegations of voter suppression. To this day, Abrams has refused to concede the election, and she’s right — there’s a powerful likelihood that the 2018 Georgia governor’s race was, in effect, stolen. That’s a moral, political, and legal outrage.

But as Robert Greenwald’s scary and galvanizing documentary “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” demonstrates, the meaning of what happened in Georgia has implications that extend far beyond that race. As the film anatomizes, the Georgia election was a textbook case of what’s now happening to the American electoral system. It’s being undercut — not by Russian bots or too much fake news on Facebook (though none of that helps), but by the Republican Party, which has devised a kind of slow-motion, “invisible” series of methods to stack the deck. The implications are ominous.

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If I had a dime for every time I heard a liberal say of Hillary Clinton in 2016, “She won the election” (because she won the popular vote), I’d be rolling in dimes. But let’s be clear: That kind of thinking may feel righteous, but it holds no water. Hillary Clinton did not win the election. The electoral college, in my opinion, should be handily abolished (it’s a time-machine relic), but until the day that happens we have the system we have.

Yet when forces within the establishment figure out ways to game the system, our democracy becomes a thinly veiled charade. And that’s what happened in the Georgia governor’s race in 2018. It should terrify everyone.

To my liberal friends who now acknowledge the distinct possibility of a Trump victory in the 2020 election, I want to say: Welcome to reality, but you’re still behind the curve. The prospect of extending the Trump disaster into a second term seems unthinkable, but the most cataclysmic question is what happens after that — in 2024. Do we seriously believe that if Trump is re-elected, he’s simply going to walk away from the presidency four years from now? That assumption strikes me as terribly naïve. But how could Trump run for, and win, a third term? How could the Republicans do an end run around the 22nd Amendment, which was put in place after the grand exception of FDR in World War II precisely to stop the possibility of one-party rule?

The answer to that, as typified by the Senate impeachment trial we’re about to have, is that the Republicans, in throwing in their lot with Trump’s authoritarian leadership, ceased caring about the rule of law a while back. What will they stop at? Probably nothing. They’re all in. And the disenfranchisement of voters is one of the key ways that they’re shoring up their power.

If you think that sounds alarmist, you need to learn more about how the process works. Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s brilliant documentary “Slay the Dragon,” which might be described as an exploration of gerrymandering 3.0, will be released in March, and it’s a must-see. But “Suppressed,” in its compact and smaller-scale way, is just as essential. It’s only 38 minutes long, and it’s not coming to a theater near you. But it may be showing at a church, a university, or a community center (700 screenings have been held in 43 states), and it’s on YouTube, where you can link to it right now. In the time it takes for a lunch break, you can get a crash course in how and why America is crashing.

Greenwald, the  muckraking solo flyer who has made such incisive, scrupulous, dark-side-of-the-real-world documentaries as “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” (2004), “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” (2005), and “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA” (2016), talks to voters, politicians, and scholars, laying out the clandestine techniques by which citizens are denied their rights. In Georgia, the suppression of voting was done, in part, under the auspices of Brian Kemp, the Trump-backed Georgia Secretary of State who Stacey Abrams was running against. That’s a typical situation: those in power using their leverage to choke off the process. The voters who get targeted tend to be poor, African-American, and Democratic.

“Suppressed” captures how Kemp, in the year leading up to the election, purged an astonishing 890,000 eligible voters from the Georgia voter rolls (that’s 14 percent of the electorate). By what rationale? Voters were purged for not having voted in the last few elections. They were purged for having moved within the same county. For having not returned a postcard from the Secretary of State. And Democratic counties were purged at a rate that was four times that of Republican counties. Using outrageously restrictive “exact match” laws, Kemp put 53,260 new registrations on hold (80 percent of them were people of color); the election was decided by 54,723 votes.

Yet it’s telling that as corruptions go, these are not sexy ones. On election day in Georgia, the lines in numerous polling places in African-American neighborhoods were so long and slow-moving that it took three to five hours for many people to vote. That’s because the precincts were given so few voting machines. (It’s been statistically established that long lines at the polling station lead to low voter turnout.) Carol Anderson, the chair of African-American Studies at Emory University, says, “We’ve got  to understand, this isn’t a Klan cross burning. This stuff is very bureaucratic, it’s very mundane, it’s very routine. But it is lethal.”

Many of the techniques of voter suppression captured in “Suppressed” are not new; they’ve been going on for decades. But the age of technology, and the absolutist slant of the new Republican Party as it’s been born again under Trump, have heightened and formalized the corruptions of old. In the movie, Marcia Fudge, who heads the elections subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, says, “This is systematic. If you look at what has happened across this country in the last five years, 40 states have passed some kind of law to make it more difficult for people to vote.” Carol Anderson says, “Pull back the veneer, and you see something really rotten happening. It’s almost like termites coming in — they’re in the wood, they’re eating the wood away, and you don’t even realize your house is getting ready to collapse until it’s too late.”

And unless we fight it, it’s not going to stop. With a morally bankrupt party in power, it will only get worse.

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