“The System Works For Those Who Occupy It”: María Teresa Kumar on Voting Rights

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all, it’s Brittany. I am fresh back from a much needed international vacation where I surprisingly only FaceTimed home like five times a day to see the baby instead of my expected eight to 10 . But perhaps unsurprisingly, I came back to an America that feels even more toxic than the one I left. So let me just see if I’m caught up on all I missed. Uh, sitting members of Congress are bragging about being Christian nationalists.

A record breaking heat wave is putting houses, people, and jailed populations at particular risk. And the CDC and a bunch of newspapers are giving monkey pox a scarcely homophobic framing that is basically putting us all in danger. Yeah, did I, did I get it all? 

Look, as tempting as it was to figure out how to just stay on vacation, home was calling. And not just because my mom guilt was creeping way too high, but because the enemies of democracy would love for us to just give up.

You don’t have to fight your opposition when you can just exhaust them. But uh uh, not me, not you, not us. Rest up and then get back in the fight. We are UNDISTRACTED.

Brittany: On the show today, Voto Latinos’ María Teresa Kumar on how we can take back our democracy and create a more just electoral system. 

María Teresa Kumar: Our job is not to tap out because that’s what they want. Right? The system works for the people who occupy it.

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first, it’s the news.

Right now, every state is an abortion battleground with the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But I wanna zoom in on one particularly important state. Today I wanna talk about Kansas. You know, the place Dorothy said was home. On August 2nd, that’s next Tuesday, people in Kansas will vote on a state constitutional amendment that would make it easier to ban abortion.

And that’s noteworthy because of Kansas’ constitution, according to the state Supreme Court, currently actually ensures a right to ban abortion. And Kansas is currently the best option for abortion care for many folks who live in nearby states like Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. So if this amendment were to pass, Kansas could ban abortion creating an even wider abortion desert in the middle of the country.

And the amendment has a tricky name, on purpose of course, it’s being called the, quote, Value Them Both Amendment. But a no vote on this amendment is what’s going to protect our rights. And right now, holding on it is close. 

María: Kansas is the first state in the nation to vote on the issue. and according to the coefficient poll shared with  538, 47 percent of Kansas voters plan to vote yes on the ballot measure, while 43 percent plan to vote no, and 10 percent are undecided.

Brittany: We’re gonna keep our eyes close on Kansas next week, as they decide the fate of their constitution. And if y’all know any people in Kansas, have any family in Kansas, hell, you used to date somebody who lives in Kansas, call them up and make sure they vote no. Because we know for a fact that you can’t value them both when you’re stripping the pregnant person of their bodily autonomy.  

Like music, dance, and pretty much every other facet of American culture, so much of the way we talk has its roots in Black and Black queer language trends. There are words that have taken over Twitter in the last decade, like woke, shade, tea.

There’s the language that startups have glammed onto like side hustle and grind. And then there are older words, like hip and cool, which a lot of folks don’t even realize have Black origins. And no, I’m here to tell you this is not just Gen Z language, it’s Black. It’s either African American vernacular English also called Ionics or it’s the slang our people have created.

And it’s really miraculous to see the power Black expression has in pop culture, but hello, some credit will be nice. Right? Well, now folks are gonna be able to cite their sources, literally. A new dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will document the way Black people have shaped our speech patterns for generations.

It’s a project of Harvard and the Oxford University Press, which of course publishes the granddaddy of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary, the OG. My friend, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will be the project’s editor. And unlike any old dictionary, this one will include both the words and the real people who popularize them. It’s the historical record we deserve.

The first version won’t be available for three years, but the Oxford English Dictionary took three decades to publish. So three years to begin to capture the complexity and richness of Black language seems fair. Dead ass. 

And now onto one of the more shameful aspects of American life. A new investigation from the Arizona Republic and KJ Z Z shows just how dependent many communities in Arizona are on prison labor. Nearly 100 cities, towns, and agencies employ incarcerated people to do jobs that range from maintaining golf courses to rimming the roses. And it amounts, according to at least one prison official and me, to slaver. In testimony to an Arizona budget committee, a corrections officer David Shinn summed it up this way:

David Shinn: If you were to remove these folks from that equation, things would collapse in many of your counties for your constituents.

Brittany: Meaning that some of these public entities can’t afford to operate without slavery. 

When slavery was outlawed at the end of the civil war by the 13th amendment, it had one terrible exception—slavery as a punishment for crime. And since our country has the most prisoners out of anywhere in the world, a huge population of incarcerated people translates into an incredibly cheap labor pool. The pay for these jobs can be less than $1 an hour. And for perspective, the average price of a 15-minute phone call from prison. Is more than $5. Five days of work for a 15 minute phone call.

And while Arizona is in the hot seat right now, it is a national problem. Incarceration and our economy are deeply entwined. Private prisons profit from state funding for so-called correctional services and many products that boast a Made in the USA label are made by incarcerated people.

And don’t get me started on how not being able to make bail can cost you your job, your home, your car, and more all before you’ve even been to trial. Mariame Kaba writes this in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, an absolute must read. She says: It’s time to look hard at how this system came to be, who profits, how it functions, and why. And it’s time to imagine what it would look like to see justice done without relying on punishment and the barity of carceral systems.

Coming up, producer Treasure Brooks talks to María Teresa Kumar about who really loses when we don’t vote right after the short break.

And we are back. Our guest today is María Teresa Kumar. She’s the president and CEO of Voto Latino, an organization that works to get Latinx folks more involved in voting. María Teresa sat down with our producer Treasure Brooks to talk about something, you know, super light and breezy, just the state of our democracy.

We wanted to really get a look at the big picture. Why are we losing access to abortion even though the majority of Americans supported Roe v. Wade? Why can’t we get stronger gun regulation through Congress when it’s incredibly popular? So we started by asking how we got to this point, where our supposedly democratic system is so blatantly failing to represent the will of the majority of people.

María: People like to say that the system is rigged and I often like to say, actually the system works for those people who are elected. And it wasn’t until probably we saw President Obama came into power people really participating. They changed the rules on us because we did participate and we saw a major gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. It was almost surgical. 

So in 2010, we saw the biggest growth came from the Latino community. Over 50 percent of America’s population growth came from American-born Latinos. That growth was not in California or New York or Chicago or Florida. It was in ruby red states. And who controls the state legislators disproportionately because of gerrymandering, the Republican party.

That is where a lot of the laws are happening right now. Restrictions just access to voting and we need to figure out how do we continuously participate. Uh, what gives me hope is that in 2018 young voters came out in record number. And for the very first time in American history, the very first time in our 240-plus years of American history, we had a US Congress that looked closer to America. 

We had the most young people elected, the most LGBTQ, the most Muslim-Americans, the most Native Americans, the most African Americans, the most Latino, even the most veterans. And it was one of the youngest that we’ve seen in 240 years, except we have two people right now stalling our business, and that would be Manchin and Sinema.

Treasure Brooks:  So even with voter registration increasing in some of these demographics, many would argue that we have a political system where majorities don’t actually rule. I mean, two of the last four presidents lost the popular vote. And then in the Senate, as you’ve mentioned, a single person can stop popular legislation from advancing. Is minority rule becoming a greater problem, or have we just become more aware of it in recent years?

María: It’s becoming a greater problem in the sense that they are putting up more obstacles to our vote. The best example I have right now is Texas. In Texas, in 2018 Texas went from a dead-last voting state to ranking 42. And that’s because young people came out in record number, young Latinos, young African Americans came out and the state legislature, not only they certified a fair, free election saying that all the votes were, you know, were fair, that it, there was no fraud, none of it.

And instead of celebrating this idea that there’s a young awakening among young Texans, a multicultural Texas, the state legislators started putting up barriers. One of them, so Voto Latino is actively suing in Texas. We have three lawsuits in the Texas courts and everybody, and this should be a grievance for every single American, regardless of political stripes.

Because instead of celebrating the fact that young people in Texas exercised their right to vote and participated, they decided to create a no man’s land, so to speak, for a young voter. One of the pieces of legislation that we are, that we’re fighting actively in court, Greg Abbott, codified a law saying that you can’t register at a temporary address and you can’t register in your home address.

That means that if you’re a college student living in the dorms, that’s a temporary address. And I don’t know how a lot of your listeners registered to vote, but I registered on my college with my home address. And so if you’re a young person, they recognize that you more than likely believe in climate change. You believe in agency over your body and that of your friends. You believe that you should be able to marry whoever you choose. You believe in police reform and you believe in gun reform. And this scares the hell out of him. And so one of the things that we need to recognize is that there are obstacles being put in place by design. 

There are legislative efforts to change them. And there are also efforts at the courthouse to change them. But fundamentally, what we’re going to need to do is out vote them to the best of our ability in the next two elections. And I say this because since 2020, we’re expecting 6 million more young voters to come of age in the United States and disproportionately they’re in the ruby red states where they’re trying to make sure that our vote does not count.

Treasure: So this legislation coming out of Texas is really interesting because it kind of complicates what we generally think voter suppression could look like, like poll sites being closed because there’s not enough staff or confusing ID requirements. But what are the other ways in which voter suppression can manifest that we may not be thinking of?

María: Basically, the one in Texas is for me the most scariest, right? You all of a sudden can’t vote on your college campus. That’s crazy. So, and it’s done on purpose because again, the values of a generation is so different from the people who are right now commandeering our country. There is almost a two-generation divide between millennials and generation Z and the people who are governing. And to give you an example, I’ve been doing some reporting around Ukraine because I’ve been fascinated by the parliamentarians. The average age of someone in Ukraine that is holding office, in their highest office, is 47 years old. The youngest parliamentarian, the youngest elected to their equivalent of our Congress is 23. 

Treasure: Wow. 

María: Yes, isn’t that exciting? And that’s why they’re so savvy on communications and how, and using social media. For us in the United States, it’s closer to 67 looking at both houses, but if we’re looking at the Senate, it’s closer to 71.

And if you have the majority of Americans right now under the age of 25 and you don’t have a governor and a government at the local level and at a national level that reflects your values you can imagine why policy is so awry. And I think this is, you know, what you’re getting at, it’s not just important to register and to vote, but we really need to figure out how do we upend this by running for office.

And encouraging people to run for office. People talk about the squad. The squad is closer aligned to the values of millennials and a generation Z than they are to their colleagues in Congress right now. And the notion of being able to have legislative bodies that really reflect a young thriving democracy versus a democracy right now that feels a little stayed and old and backwards and going, trying to legislate, you know, ideals that we already fought for in the 1960s of the last century, the only way to shake that up is by increasingly demanding a seat at the table that is diverse and that is young. 

Treasure: I wonder how we can get young people to be more enthusiastic about running for office when so many are already pretty disappointed in just the voting process as it stands now. You know, people who are unable to vote because of restrictions are rightfully frustrated, but we also see that people who have managed to vote are just as frustrated with the outcomes.

Part of the problem, as you’ve mentioned, is gerrymandering and that’s a word that sometimes puts people to sleep. 

María: Yes.

Treasure:  But it’s a huge reason that you can have these extreme anti-abortion laws being passed, for instance, in states where the majority of people are pro-choice. Can you give us a super quick primer on what gerrymandering is and what we’re going to do about it?

María: So gerrymandering basically clusters a group of people together based disproportionately on race and packs the districts into, and the congressional districts and the congressional districts are the ones that go on to Congress. Right? And so they do it on purpose because it is. One, it came out of this idea that if you actually have representative government, even in your districts, then you’re going to have competitive fights when it comes to who’s going to be your elected member. Right? By packing in people of color disproportionately what you do is you diminish the power. I hate to go back to Texas, but I’m gonna go back to Texas.

Texas I would say is the last stand of minority role and that is why they’re doing all of these cockamamie policies. So in the last 10 years in the census, Texas technically gained two congressional seats because of  Latinos and because African Americans population boom, they increased their population by 4 million people.

And 92 percent of it was because of Latinos and the other million was because of the African American population. As a result, by law, by the constitution, African Americans, Latinos have a right to two of those congressional districts. By law. What the Republicans did on the state side is that they redrew the districts in a non-continuous form.

And so normally, you know, you see a map and you’re like, okay, this is where the population is and so you basically draw it out this way. Right? What the Republicans did like, oh, let’s pack in all conservative whites into a district and let’s see what that looks like. And it’s literally like, woo and you can’t see my finger cuz you’re on a podcast, but it’s like, imagine you asking your kid, what does an ameba look like?

And they stretch that ameba out from side to side and that’s what they did. And so what’s bananas is that the two districts that should have gone to communities of color went to white conservative districts. And that is part of gerrymandering; it’s who’s controlling the maps and how do you actually pack people in to lessen their political power?

And when it comes to gerrymandering, not only does it, you know, diminish your political power, it also takes away the resources from the federal government that should come to your communities for schools, for healthcare, for roads. So it’s a huge problem. 

Treasure: So gerrymandering is obviously one of those things that’s undermining the integrity of these systems, but what about when it all does work out at the level of Congress when lawmakers who are pro-choice, who are pro-gun reform and pro-climate action are in these seats, but change still doesn’t happen.

What do you say to someone who’s starting to feel like voting doesn’t really matter?

María: Our challenge now is in the Senate where the margins are too small and you have two senators, Senator Manchin, Senator Sinema, they claim that they don’t wanna reform the filibuster for the integrity of the Congress.

What they are failing to be fully transparent is that the filibuster itself, it is not codified in any way. It is a practice, it’s more the trappings of the Senate than something that is actually codified into law. So they’re making that up, is the best way I can, you know, they’re basically they’re gaslighting.

And so one of the challenges right now is where can we find more senators that are aligned? And I have to say of the senators right now that are in the position to flip the Senate and make it more of a democratic cushion, Fetterman coming out of Pennsylvania is speaking truth. First of all, he has the best online game that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s really brilliant. 

But he is someone that believes in things that shouldn’t be modern, but all of a sudden seem modern, you know, progressive, like he believes in abortion. He believes that climate is on fire. Like, he believes in things that are very much of the 21st century and God bless him. And he has a shot at actually winning.

And then the other person that is, I think really, really strong too. And this is where we need North Carolina to really participate is Beasley. She really has a shot. She’s African American aligned with our values. And again has a shot. She’s a coin toss. She’s not supposed to be a coin toss, but again, she’s speaking to what the majority of Americans, modern day Americans, really believe. Right? And then the other pickup that we have a possibility of is against J.D. Vance in Ohio, Tim Ryan, who’s been a long-time Congressman and who’s more of a modern, but at the same time believes in fair wages and agency of women and stuff like that. So I guess, modern by our current trappings.

But we are right now, I would say, in the eye of the storm in American politics, and we are trying to determine are we gonna be more of a minority rule, like apartheid South Africa or are we going to be a country that continues to lead in the 21st century with everyone abiding by democratic norms and by equal participation.

And that’s going to take work because of the legacy of what we’re inheriting from our past. But there’s also this understanding that there’s literally more of us and more of us are coming of age every single day that we need to figure out in the short term, how do we participate and how do we make change?

And I know that people right now are tired and saying, well, I don’t see the change fast enough. After a pandemic, after four years of Donald Trump who was trying to undermine every single institution at his disposal, it’s rightfully so to feel that way. But I also believe that we have an economy that’s getting back on track.

We have kids in school. We have shots in arms and we may not be enamored with the person right now that is leading the country, but at least we can understand that it is coming at a time where a lot of things have been broken and putting it back together is not easy, but our job is not to tap out because that’s what they want. Right? 

The system works for the people who occupy it. And if we tap out, if we think that our rights right now are restricted, we haven’t tasted restriction yet. And I think that is what is, to me, gets me up in the morning, this idea that my kids will have less rights than I did. 

Treasure: Okay, so while we’re talking elections, we’ve got midterms coming up this fall and it kind of feels like every time you go on social media, there’s the most important election of our lifetime right around the corner. And people are exhausted by this rhetoric.  Help us understand why sh people should believe it this time around.

María: I’ve been doing this for a long time. And whether we like it as a generation or not, we are in the fight of our lifetime for the soul of this country, for a generation to come. And it all has to do with the rise of a multicultural America.

And I say this because we are facing modern Jim Crow laws because of a multicultural America that is rising. I give you an example, my kids are 10 and eight. My daughter is entering fifth grade. She is at the forefront of what we call an alpha generation. So generation Z is already aged out, but alpha generation, that alpha generation is a minority majority country.

And if you were to look at our leadership, whether we’re looking at those people that are elected in office, or academia, Silicon Valley, or Hollywood, none of what my child represents and her class represents of a majority minority, none of that leadership of the establishment and institutions reflect that power and that emerging power.

When we talk about, you know, why is this election, the one of our lifetime? I know that it is, it sounds trite, but we kind of already know what a Republican-led House of Representatives will do. If a Democrat wins the White House in 2024, they already told us, they will steal the election.

They’re okay undermining our democracy. If it’s women and people of color participating at the polls, this growing coalition of Black, brown, Indigenous of modern America and the future that really scares them. They want us to shut down because if we shut down, then they get all the marbles.

Treasure: You’ve mentioned a couple of candidates that you’re really excited about. Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Beasley in North Carolina. What other races do you think are gonna be most critical going into the fall? 

María: If you’re in Texas, vote. Texas has this. When I tell you that Texas is the holy grail of the progressive movement and it’s their last stand. So, Texas is purple and you had in the last election, you had roughly 7 million unregistered Texans. Five million of them are brown and Black. Five million who set it out. And in Texas, we’re expecting close to a half a million new young voters since the last election. If we can get an additional 200,000 to 300,000 of the 5 million to register and to vote, Texas goes blue.

Beto O’Rourke right now is out raising Greg Abbott. And our charge is to increase that electoral base, so that the voters of Texas can speak for themselves. And when people say, well, Texas is red it’s not. We just did a study at Voto Latino, we found that on abortion, across generations, in the Latino community, 68 percent supported abortion care and 81 percent supported background checks and gun reform

So that’s not your parents’ Texas, right? This is a modern Texas that is being suppressed and we’re allowing it to happen in many ways because we’re not participating, but imagine the incredible opportunity if all of a sudden Beto O’Rourke became governor of Texas. He’d be charged with the congressional maps and then the Maga Republicans would have a really hard time holding onto power anywhere else.

Treasure: Well, I’m hopeful now. I wanna talk about another issue that has big ramifications for our democracy, which is misinformation. The fancy name for lies. 

María: Yep. 

Treasure: Talk about how Americans are exposed to misinformation and the degree to which you’re concerned about it in the midterm election. 

María: So at Voto Latino, we do two things, principally all in the service of democracy. One is getting you to know your rights to register to participate. And more recently we opened up the Latino anti-disinformation lab because the whole point of misinformation and disinformation is for you to not trust institutions, not trust authority in a way that is helpful. And what I mean by that in this case is don’t trust science.

My mother, it took me almost two months to convince her to get the COVID vaccine because of the disinformation she was receiving. Right? My mother is 71 years old. She works in the healthcare industry and this idea that she was not gonna get a COVID vaccine because of what her neighbors were pedaling to her through, you know, through WhatsApp and all of it.

And oftentimes the immigrant communities are the canaries in the cold mine. Once the affairs actors realize what works really well in the immigrant families, they translate it into English and it goes incredibly viral. And that’s really spooky. 

Treasure: Where do we put the onus though? What could big tech companies be doing to reduce the amount of misinformation?

María: Care. They could care. I will share with you when people say, well, what are the origins of disinformation? We have been tracking disinformation that comes from the extreme right, but also from foreign actors coming from Russia and China. And it makes me wonder, why do foreign actors want to make us sick? Why do foreign actors want us to be divided around race? Why?

They recognize that as Americans a multicultural America is our superhero strength. And it allows us to compete at home, in abroad and continue to be leaders on the world stage. But if they have recognized that our division in our  Achilles heel, our kryptonite is racism, that’s what they start feeding us.

The Russians were responsible for putting up events under the guise of Black Lives Matter, anti-immigrant rallies, and immigrant rallies all in the same city in 2016. There are receipts for that. And so we should really, you know, when we consume information, we should really think critically of why are they targeting me?

Does this even make sense? And how can I find out more? Right? And social platforms have to be better regulated. But by a Congress who understands what social media is. I mean, I think the challenge is that you have, again, back to generational divide, you have a lot of older senators who have no idea.

I mean, they still refer to the internet as the pipes. Right? But it is, I do think that it is a lack of will and a lack of consequences that they continue to do the same thing over and over. 

Treasure: We keep hearing that democracy is under attack, both internally and because of foreign powers. What issue would you say is top priority right now for protecting democracy? 

María: Two things. One is we have to pass the Voting Rights Act that allows us to codify once again, the voting rights act of 1963, John Lewis’ act and modernize ourselves. The other is that we need to look at the courts and the Supreme Court principally either expanding the court to make it more balanced, looking at time limits.

So you could only be on the court, not as a lifetime appointment, but perhaps 15, 20 years. And making sure that it goes in between administrations so that it is not always stacked with the president, but this is something I learned that I had no idea that no one’s talking about. It turns out that Congress can also limit the court cases and the jurisdictions of courts, of the court itself. And so right now, the court has opportunity to listen to all cases coming from the state levels. But something that I’m learning is that Congress itself can actually limit if it only listens to federal cases. And right now the cases that the court is judging on, that we don’t like around guns, for example, around abortion, all come from state appellate courts.

So it’s interesting to see that there are boundaries, but I would say if we were to make two changes, one is the John Lewis Act, pass it as soon as possible. And then the other one is how do we actually modernize the courts for the 21st century as well? 

Treasure: María Teresa you’ve been so helpful in helping us to understand how we arrived at this current political juncture. And that’s huge considering how confused and helpless so many of us feel right now.

María:  So I know that folks are feeling helpless, but I have to tell you that as we leave, that’s by design. People want us to feel helpless. Like nothing has changed because they’re afraid of what happens when we do participate.

When we participate at our local levels, we see change even faster. And I know it’s work and I know it’s complicated, but if we have individuals at the state level, at the local level that represents us and may perhaps even listeners decide to run, then you change the system and you take away those barriers.

But I do think that as we look into the 21st century, we do have to start asking ourselves what democracy that we wanna live in. And are we ancestoring for the people that are already in kindergarten right now that are disproportionately communities of color? If we tap out, they’re not gonna forgive us. 

Treasure: Oof. Well, it is work, as you said, but thanks to what you do. The work is a lot easier for us. So, I so appreciate all of your work with Voto Latino and for coming onto the show today. 

María: Thank you so much for your time. This was fun.

Brittany: María Teresa Kumar is the president and CEO of Voto Latino. And you can get to work, registering people to vote by visiting voterpal.org.

Listen y’all, we got ’em shook. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself of every time another piece of dystopian fascist news hits my phone. I said it before and I’ll say it again, you only push back this hard when you know how strong the opposition is. The GOP very clearly saw how powerful our coalition was in 2018 in Texas. And in 2020 in Georgia. In so many places we defy the odds and the expectations, but here’s the thing now is not the time to stop shaking shit up. It is not enough to know we did it before if we don’t do it again, and again, and again. It’s not enough to keep joking “We did it Joe!” if we can’t elect an unimpeachably democratic Congress that gets the things done that we really need. It’s not enough to reminisce about the years gone by and how we had them shook if we don’t keep them shook and take their power. 

Our lives are on the, and that’s not a party message. That’s a people message. There is no hope in giving up. And I don’t just mean at the ballot box, I mean, in the streets, the city council meetings, the school board hearings ,and the mutual aid work. I mean in defeating the opposition and holding your favorite party accountable. We must occupy every single place where decisions are made for and about us.

Democracy will never breathe the breath of. Without us.

Hey, that’s it for today, but never for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks most of all for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham.

Let’s go get free.