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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Alison Lundergan Grimes is the Secretary of State of Kentucky, recently re-elected to her second term. Grimes is the youngest female Secretary of State in the nation and the only remaining statewide elected female Democrat in the south. One of the most vocal opponents of the Republican efforts to restrict voting rights, including the Pence-Kobach so-called commission, Grimes is a champion of enfranchisement and its restoration. “The compilation of every American voter’s information would build a national voter registration database, which is unnecessary to improving our elections, opposite our Constitution and states’ rights, and puts voters’ privacy and personal data at risk.” These are Grimes’ words in response to what she deemed “constitutionally invasive” request. Welcome, secretary.
GRIMES: Thank you Alexander, it’s a pleasure to join you.
HEFFNER: It’s a pleasure to have you here. Off-camera just a second ago, you were reflecting on the most recent meeting in New Hampshire of this commission. What can you tell our viewers?
GRIMES: Well I, I think it continues to be at best the biggest waste of taxpayer resources that we’ve ever seen and at worst one of the largest national voter suppression efforts that’s currently underway and being sponsored by the White House. It’s something that every American should be concerned about, especially as such outrageous ideas came forward as trying to institute not only a national voter registration database, something that could risk the privacy and security of millions of Americans’ information, especially if housed in the White House, but also take away one of the best assets of our election system being desegregated, but we also saw ideas that usually Republicans run away from, especially when it comes to guns and background checks, the proposition that somehow every American should go forward to be able to vote only if they’ve had a background check conducted. We need to be breaking down barriers, Alexander, to our ballot box, not building them up and the main focus of what this commission should be talking about, how do we get forty percent of our American population that are eligible to vote actually participating again in our elections, they haven’t even talked about the focus of what happened in 2016, that every intelligence agency in the United States has confirmed that Russia did intend to meddle and interfere in our elections, hasn’t even been discussed. So what we’ve seen, it’s continued to be a lot of the same discourse that tries to perpetuate the notion that there’s massive widespread voter fraud throughout the United States in our elections, something that every election official whether Republican or Democrat have repeatedly condemned.
HEFFNER: You and your counterparts, your contemporaries in southern states, it was encouraging to see made a non-partisan, Republican and Democrat commitment to attempting to eject this commission, from the confines of your respective states and counties. One of your counterparts said they can go jump into the Gulf of Mexico or Mississippi River. There seems to be some uniform consensus among both Democrats and Republicans that this commission is wrong.
GRIMES: Well you have to look back to why this commission actually got started in the first place. It began with a candidate that said the entire election process was rigged. It then continued, once elected, that candidate, now President saying that three to five million folks voted illegally in the last election, something that Republicans and Democrats at all levels, local, state, and national have condemned and said there is no basis, there’s no factual evidence to support such claims. And then you have to look to see what’s going on geographically across the United States, nearly a hundred bills in nearly thirty states that are seeking to make it harder for people to vote, not make it easier. This commission, one that I refer to as a sham commission was set up in order to try to ease an insecure President who just can’t seem to square with the notion that he is President, he won the electoral college, but he did lose the popular vote, and they are searching for evidence of massive voter fraud that simply doesn’t exist, and they have at the head of this commission someone who has been a leading voice on trying to suppress votes, not only in his home state of Kansas, but across the nation. And myself and election officials across the nation, we conduct elections in a non-partisan manner. We want every eligible voter to be able to have their voice heard. Our ballot box, it is the greatest equalizer, so when you see us rise up and sometimes with very passionate statements, my counterpart, Secretary Hosemann from down in Mississippi, telling folks that they want information of every eligible voter in his state as well as mine. Their name, address, date of birth, their party registration, whether they’ve actually voted, their entire voting history, and importantly, the last four digits of their Social Security Number. He told ‘em to go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and I told him there wasn’t enough bourbon in Kentucky to make that request palatable.
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Rightfully so, and I think objectively a sham commission and frankly, if former Governor Pence was not affiliated with this administration, maybe even he would see the light like his brethren in some of these southern states that you mentioned. You were saying the adverse consequence of this commission in, is potentially more restrictive laws, you and Jason Kander are doing phenomenal work to ensure the integrity of the ballot box and the enfranchisement of all Americans. What is the consequence of the commission in New Hampshire for instance where you were mentioning the effect on younger and student voters?
GRIMES: Well we’ve already seen nationwide, just as the commission got started and they requested all of this very personal, private information of voters, that is held in the hands of chief election officials, that they wanted to collect that information, aggregate it, upload it to an unsecure database maintained in the White House, basically creating a national voter file that had already had a horrible impact, a negative chilling effect, where people, for instance out in Colorado were making sure that they were taking their names off of the voter registration rolls because they didn’t want to become a target, for instance, of any foreign actor seeking to do harm to our nation, to them personally. They didn’t want to become a target of some sort of a, a political retribution as the president, again, tries to grapple with the fact that he lost the popular vote but is still President of the United States by way of the electoral college, something they weren’t comfortable with. We’ve also seen nationally, in, in terms of general assemblies across the nation, up in New Hampshire restrictive voting measures that now give the authorities, local authorities the ability to come into people’s homes after elections if they register for instance in New Hampshire on the same day, to prove that they’re still there after the election a very intrusive manner, something that as you can imagine all of these policies that are in the name of trying to protect our elections actually make it harder for people to want to access the ballot box. When you require somebody to purchase a government-issued ID, who does that negatively impact? Well it’s effectively the same thing that we saw the civil rights movement fight against what Martin Luther King marched against. We need to be making sure we remove those barriers. Poll taxes, and instead of a commission that realizes we have come a long ways in our nation and we don’t need to be going back to the days of poll taxes or owning property for people to be able to access the ballot box. That’s exactly the direction that they’re going in. Instead of, Alexander, talking about how we make it easier for people to vote. How we make sure that forty percent of Americans who aren’t participating at all in our elections, which is a travesty. When you have nearly a majority of your nation not speaking up and getting involved, we’re not addressing the most fundamental issues of our time in our elections. We’re not talking about restoration of felony voting rights. We’re not talking about automatic voter registration. We’re not talking about early voting. We’re not talking about the gerrymandering impacts that now our judicial process is pointing out are just precise surgical technique being done to negatively impact communities such as minorities, our Latinas, our African-Americans, importantly our students, our elderly population. This is what we’re finding are the philosophies and policies of what the GOP thinks our election system should be all about. It’s not what I’m gonna sit by and, and allow to happen and I’m proud of my colleagues across the nation that have stood up with me both Democrat and Republican. We actually recently at the National Association of Secretaries of State passed a, a bipartisan unanimous resolution that said elections are left to the states, federal government. Get it through your head. This is something that is specifically prescribed in our Constitution with the Tenth Amendment. We do a pretty good job of running them and it’s the reason why, Alexander, the headlines in 2016, they were merely interference and not outright disruption. Because our system is left to the states to run and we need the federal government focusing on how we make the process better, more streamlined. We’ve had previous commissions that have done that, but this commission has just gotten off on the wrong foot and quite frankly for the wrong reasons.
HEFFNER: You say travesty and I’ll give you another example of that that you can flag and maybe share with some of your fellow secretaries of state. Indiana, there was a student there I met who, in, in a group of students who said that in order to become eligible to vote as a student at Notre Dame, or Purdue, or any of the universities, it was actually required to have a court hearing in effect for these students to have access or permission for those who did not want to register at home, for whatever reason. Many students primarily live in the states where they attend school. And what, what I was told is that the judge, the one judge in this county in which Notre Dame resides, is never available to see these students.
GRIMES: How convenient. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: Is, is this commonplace or is this a one-off anecdote?
GRIMES: Well I, I’d say the Fighting Irish spirit is now fighting to get to the ballot box, and it, listen, the example that you just provided, it’s happening across the nation. When you literally have to take to the court of law districts that Republican general assemblies have carved and put into law and are trying to pass muster constitutionally and you have to have judges say listen, you with surgical precision are trying to carve out a district that literally shaves out minorities, it shaves out students, you’re, you’re impacting the elderly. In other words, you are not just shaving points off the board but you are refereeing in a game you don’t really, you’re, you’re, there, there’s no, there’s no two teams that are playing here. You’ve already created the election in and of itself. You’re already dictating who’s gonna be able to show up and importantly who’s gonna be elected. That’s not how our elections are supposed to be run. They’re supposed to be a balance. There’s supposed to be an equal opportunity for especially the public to have their say in who their representative is gonna be, and that’s just not the way that right now our elections, the, the, the court is being drawn up. You have policies that are being put in place that are shaving points off the board. If we can keep people away from the ballot box, according to the GOP, then they’ll have a better chance of getting their person elected. If we can create districts that wholly eliminate anyone that might vote against them or their ideas or their philosophies, well we probably have even better chances of getting our candidate elected. And then, we haven’t even talked about the philosophies that the GOP propagated and put forth many years ago. We’re now seeing a huge impact. I myself personally have run elections, the largest and most, most expensive Senate race in the United States’ history. Felt it personally, campaign finances, having unaccountable dollars in our politics, this, these, these aren’t individuals coming forth. This, these are corporations that are now electing who’s going to Washington.
HEFFNER: Secretary, you have me daydreaming about a counter-factual scenario in which the 2014 outcome was different. Now I don’t want to relitigate the past. I omitted in the biography that you ran for Senate against majority leader McConnell and it was a valiant fight. I admire you in this political-industrial complex. Rooted in bluegrass as much as, you know, the Empire State, from Cuomo to down south, name a, name a governor or Senate race, these, these are industrial complexes, you, you referred to it. You have to think a little bit reflectively on that race because if you had won in 2014, that might have changed the entire trajectory of recent contemporary American political history.
GRIMES: The landscape would look completely different. We would have had a President, in Barack Obama that would have actually gotten to fulfill his Supreme Court nomination. We would have a trajectory that, perhaps the United States shouldn’t, wouldn’t be in Republican-controlled hands, but we can’t look backwards. In Kentucky we have a big saying that says you can’t plow straight if you’re actually looking backwards, so …
HEFFNER: And you won and were defeated and won again.
GRIMES: Yeah so you know,
HEFFNER: Re-elected as Secretary of State.
GRIMES: You know, what I look at is the fact that I’ve done what, no one else has ever done. When they’ve taken the, the chance and it was a huge risk in running against what was the nation’s biggest bully at that time. I call it BDT, that was Before Donald Trump, and it was the largest, most expensive United States Senate race in the history of our country, nearly 100 million dollars. I learned a lot. Importantly I got to make some of the most amazing relationships across the nation but importantly, in my state of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I know why I’m fighting, I know why I’m standing up, I know why I continue to fight not only for voting rights but for women’s rights and worker’s rights, human rights. These are folks, not just in Kentucky but across the nation that need someone to be advocating on their behalf, not the bought and paid for Koch Brothers’ interests. Their interests are needed now more than ever to have a voice not just in the Commonwealth of Kentucky but across this nation. It continues to motivate me. It’s the reason why I got back up, and unlike many folks who have run against Mitch McConnell before, it’s taken them decades before they’ve ever been able to perhaps be re-elected. We literally turned around from a November 2014 election, to announce to run for re-election as Secretary of State and proudly re-elected in that amount of time to be able to be winning a race in 2015 when I saw many of my counterparts in the Commonwealth of Kentucky not only not get re-elected, but now as you pointed out, one of the last state-wide women standing in the south that’s a Democrat.
HEFFNER: What was most instructive in the 2014 experience that informs your lens now and your lens being re-elected to the post you’re in presently?
GRIMES: There are so many lessons that I learned from 2014, but importantly the, the power of an individual to make a difference. We may not have won that race on election night, but in many other respects I do think we came out winning the court of public opinion. Something we’re still working on to this day, knowing that you can, one individual can make a difference and collectively, that movement, we may not have won that battle but the war is not yet over and my hope is that there’s a long future. A future ahead of us, the folks in my state and all across this nation to continue to stand up, and to say that we’re not gonna be bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers, that rural voters do matter, importantly, that when we say y’all, we mean we welcome everyone. That we fight to make sure that people who are the least, the last, and the lost among us have someone that sits in local government, in state government, and importantly in Washington D.C. that’s fighting for their interests because those are the interests that government was created to actually protect. It wasn’t the interest of Wall Street or the Koch Brothers.
HEFFNER: Is it too early to tell, secretary, or can you already tell if the voters’ reaction to this administration to date? Is there some kind of cumulative reaction that they feel empowered, they feel betrayed? A combination of the two?
GRIMES: Well we have seen not just in my home state of Kentucky but across this nation non-violent civil disobedience. It’s what’s led to amazing progressive change throughout the course of our nation’s history. Martin Luther King, he marched not only for jobs but for justice and we have folks that sadly we’re still marching not only for jobs but for justice, and I do think elections have consequences. And folks are seeing that if they sat on the sidelines, or perhaps went and, and voted because they, they had a grudge against one candidate, didn’t know enough about the other, that they had an impact on this election. An election that literally came down in the electoral college to under 100 thousand votes. That’s what determined who’s sitting in the White House right now, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I think folks are more engaged than ever, but that engagement to me, Alexander, is not enough. We actually have to translate registrations into participation, and it’s why what’s being discussed right now with a, a Presidential Commission that’s supposed to be talking about making it, elections better, not worse, is so, it, it’s, it just strikes me at my core as, as something that every American should be concerned about. Literally wanting to use data analysis that expert after expert has said is flawed to knock people off of voter registration lists. Simply because they want to claim there’s massive voter fraud. We say there’s not evidence of it, especially election officials like myself across the country, Republican and Democrat, but yet if we, they say it enough then we’ve got to have a commission to investigate it so that we can make the public perceive that there is, all of this has an impact of not just as we talked about in Colorado, people jumping off the rolls, but of public perception of people believing that this is a system that they can have trust and faith in, and that is not something that as the Chief Election Official from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as a leader for election rights and administration across this nation that I’m gonna sit idly by and allow that discourse to go unchallenged, that reckless rhetoric to go unanswered, and importantly I want to make sure that folks realize there are many more folks like myself and my counterparts on the Republican side that believe our elections and especially the elections we conduct and that we stand by the results of are something that they should be a part of and that this democracy is depending on them to be a part of.
HEFFNER: And what is the sentiment of the folks right now in Kentucky, in the Commonwealth?
GRIMES: Well I, I think they’re engaged. We are coming up on National Voter Registration Day at the end of September, importantly you know, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky we’ve come a long way under my tenure of Secretary of State in terms of making the process easier, breaking down the barriers to the ballot box while also protecting the integrity with online voter registration, military and overseas voting, helping victims of domestic violence, but there’s a ways we still need to go. In Kentucky we’re just one of a handful of states that still don’t restore felony voting rights, they’re still out there, ready to advocate for good measures that make sure that our ballot box is inclusive. The energy that I’ve seen across Kentucky, you asked what’s the sentiment in the state right now. This is a red state obviously that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, but when you have the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell’s approval rating at 18 percent, the only place Alexander he could show up recently was a, a breakfast that honored a dead pig. So I’ll tell you, there’s, there, there’s a lot yet that has to be done, a lot that will be done, but the momentum is there on the side of folks who, we, we, we marched for jobs and justice, with Martin Luther King many, many decades ago. We’re still marching today, and that impact I think will be felt in our future elections.
HEFFNER: And your other Senator, Paul, he preaches libertarianism and in fact, is he a supporter of enfranchisement? Would he support your effort to give former, formerly incarcerated folks their rights back, or is he MIA?
GRIMES: Well there, there’s a lot of lip service and a lot of rhetoric on the GOP side. I’ve yet to see it actually come to fruition in our state. We have a governor who said the same thing to date, the number of folks that he has pardoned and especially restored their right to vote pales in comparison to prior governors. So there, I hope folks are, are looking at records, because records do matter, it’s not the rhetoric that people put out there. It’s what they are actually doing once they are elected and in power and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky we’ve had people that have been in Washington a very long time. Things haven’t gotten any better for the people in my state, they’ve only gotten worse. We have people in, in Frankfort in, in Kentucky who talk a big game about wanting to help make sure that voting is easier. We sure haven’t seen that process especially in terms of early voting actually come to fruition or restoration of felony voting rights actually get to the governor’s desk, and Kentucky is just a microcosm, I think Alexander, of what we’re seeing nationally across the United States.
HEFFNER: Here are the facts, and here, presumably, unless the commission as you suggest, you know, comes back to reality, here are the facts, here are the falsehoods.
HEFFNER: Beyond Jason’s non-profit and your work at the state level, how can you collectively pull that data and say here’s integrity, here’s a lack of integrity. There, doesn’t there have to be a competing commissioner entity to show the American people what’s true?
GRIMES: Well I do think the Democratic National Committee has already put forth an election commission of their own, but I think we’re already doing it right now. When you see not just Democrats but Republicans saying that this commission is a sham and how it started out requesting literally to create a national voter file, you can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, that has to, that has to give you confidence to know folks aren’t just settling, sitting idly by and allowing this reckless discourse to occur.
HEFFNER: Do you have confidence in your fellow Secretaries of State of both parties that they, if necessary, will evolve from writing letters to forming organizations to protect those rights, because it’s been now requested one or two, possibly more times the data…
HEFFNER: And the majority of Secretaries of State across the country have not given in to Kris Kobach.
GRIMES: You’re, you’re exactly right, the, if you look at the original request of the, the president’s sham voting commission, it’s been outright rejected by over 40 if not 45 states. There’s no Secretary of State that I know that’s fully complying with that request to provide a lot of personal, private information about not just voters but individual citizens across this nation, and Kentucky, 3 point 3 million Kentuckians. I have confidence in my fellow Secretaries of State, when we convened over the summer and had our, our national meeting, it was imperative that before we walked away and this was in Indianapolis, we were literally in the Vice President’s backyard, that we send the message, and we did so unanimously by saying that our elections are left to the states to run and we do a pretty darn good job of it, and we stand by the results of the elections that we have conducted, and we want the public to know that and to do so as well. That’s a pretty powerful statement, especially in light of the discourse that was going on publicly at the time about this voting commission. So I, I do believe that each of my secretaries, at counterparts across this nation, come to this job just as I do. They want to make sure everybody has the ability to vote for me. It’s Margaret Harris that I think about, the, she cast her first vote back in 1928, the election of Herbert Hoover, and when I came into being a Secretary of State she hadn’t registered to vote. You know why, Alexander? She said the process was too hard. One of my proudest moments was making sure in 2012 she was able to cast her vote, and today, in the name of Margaret Harris, I continue to stand up and be vocal to make sure that especially those who fought so hard and are still fighting to this day, not only to get the right to vote but to keep the right to vote, that they have an advocate not only in the Commonwealth of Kentucky but in this nation.
HEFFNER: I’m so glad, Secretary, that you invoked history. We had recently Mayor Whaley of Dayton, and she was the same champion of our history, of our heritage, she’s inspired by Former Governor Cox and the seeds of the New Deal. I think you’ve got a lot of fight left in you from Lexington to who knows where. Thank you for joining me today.
GRIMES: Thank you, Alexander, very much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.