Slate Fare

Introducing Who Counts

The central question of the 2020 election.

Outlines of voters standing in line are filled in with blue color.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The last time I voted in an election that counted quite a bit was in the 2018 midterms, though there was less suspense in my precinct, and city, and state, than in others. Most years, completing this civic duty is almost jarringly smooth. The polling place, a school gym in Brooklyn, New York, is a two-minute walk from our apartment. There are doughnuts for sale and no need to show ID; just sign the line by your name in the roll book. Outside of presidential elections, there are often precious few voters (and starting this year, New York will finally allow some early voting, so there should be even less of a wait).

Last year, however, there was growing chaos. Scanning machines were on the fritz in multiple spots around the city. Only one poor machine could be fed ballots at our location, and the pileup of voters was already underway. This was not the same thing that went wrong in the 2016 presidential primaries, when 200,000 New Yorkers found themselves mysteriously stripped from the rolls after years and years of voting regularly. I was able to vote in 2018—though after a wait of almost two hours. “I don’t even want to vote for Cuomo this badly,” one neighbor said. A number of people gave up and left.

How democratic can a democracy be when its foundational right—the vote—is accessed so inconsistently? What was happening in Brooklyn was a one-morning inconvenience, a ripple, but it reflected larger and more systemic problems plaguing voters across the country. Just look at what was happening that same day in a gubernatorial race in Georgia whose outcome, unlike New York’s, was not a foregone conclusion. Just look at who had to wait close to five hours to cast their ballots and who had seen their registrations tossed out altogether. Just look at where polling places have been shut for good.

As Dahlia Lithwick has noted in Slate, we often think about voting problems too late in an election cycle—sometimes not until the day of the vote itself.

With this project, we are out to remedy that.

But our mission goes far beyond voting.

Over the next 13 months, as we approach the presidential election from every conceivable angle—including keeping an eye on the latest eventful developments in Washington—we will also be turning our attention to a question that is more important than any one election: Who counts?

Because to think closely about voting is to interrogate, more broadly, what it means to belong in a democracy. And so who counts? is a question about representation, citizenship, and even asylum. A question about who gets to become an American and who gets to decide—and how we think about who deserves or earns the right to the designation. A question about how the country’s past injustices should be addressed as we contemplate its future.

Who counts is the question of 2020, but it will also be the question for years to come, no matter which candidate prevails next November. In one of this project’s inaugural stories, David Daley took us behind the closed doors of a Texas training session in which legislators from across the U.S. plotted how to more effectively redraw districts in their favor. The plans laid in such rooms are meant to skew elections for decades.

And it’s a question that has been with us for a very long time. Josh Keating walks us through the racist calculations that have long determined how we grant statehood while on What Next, Christina Cauterucci interviews a civil rights advocate seeking full voting rights for D.C. Mark Joseph Stern reports on how we should not expect the Supreme Court to preserve voting rights but should instead gird ourselves for its striking a fatal blow to what’s left of the Voting Rights Act—which would be in keeping with the long tradition (since Reconstruction) of the court blocking such rights.

Yet there is reason for optimism, too. Molly Olmstead begins a series of conversations with Americans who will be voting for the very first time. And Mike Pesca of The Gist interviews the formerly incarcerated leader of a movement that set out to restore the franchise to more than 1 million Floridians with felony convictions.

We’re asking for your help to publish articles and produce podcast episodes like these, because we want to do more in this crucial time than we would normally (and more, frankly, than we normally have the budget for). Your support will allow us to track down far more complex stories than we could otherwise and to go to more places all over the country to report on how people are (and aren’t) being counted.

And, critically, we’re seeking your help in another way. We’re asking you to tell us what you’re seeing and hearing—and where you’d like us to look.

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