Your Vote Matters
Eric Holder is a civil rights leader, former U.S. Attorney General, and the author of “Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote—A History, a Crisis, a Plan.” Chanda sat down with Eric to discuss the actions people can take to protect our democracy, the danger of disinformation, and the connection between optimism and activism.
You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest most vexing problems, hosted by Chanda Smith Baker. Next up is Eric Holder, a civil rights leader, former US Attorney General, and the author of Our Unfinished March.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:21
Really pleased to have you on this conversation, now is such a great time to talk about what’s happening in our country related to democracy. I read your book, Our Unfinished March, which I went into it, because I’m not a policy wonk. And I’m like, Oh, this is going to be hard. This is going to be really, really hard. I’m going to skip through and get nuggets from each chapter and get a little taste. And that’s the exact opposite of what I did. I actually listened to it on Audible. And it actually helped me quite a bit understand sort of the connection historically to now. And more completely, what we’re facing in this country. So, I just want to thank you for that. And thank you for making it accessible for someone like me.
Eric Holder 01:11
No, you know, it’s interesting, you say that, because the first couple of chapters that I wrote, at the beginning of the process, really kind of sounded kind of came out sound like, like a law review article. And the hope that I had with my co-author, Sam Koppelman, was to come up with a book, that would be the word that you used, accessible, because I didn’t want I wanted people to somehow, you know, focus on the history of the vote, as we talked about in section one, kind of where we are now in section two, and then focus also on the proposals that we have in the second and the third section of the book. But to do it in such a way that you didn’t have to be a policy wonk to, you know, find interest in in it or find joy in the reading. And I think, you know, we’ve we’ve accomplished that. But so it’s really good to hear you say that you found the book to be accessible, because that was one of the primary that was one of the primary goals.
Chanda Smith Baker 02:04
Yeah, I think I think it is. And, you know, the, the environment that we’re sitting in is so concerning. I know, even leading into our last election here, in Minnesota, there’s just these nuances that are very difficult to explain. And you talk a lot about the distance from where the electorate is to where, like what’s happening in politics. So it feels like there’s such a disconnection from what people are asking for on the ground to what’s happening in our government, and in policy setting right now. And I was particularly concerned in our state was particularly concerned about our younger black male voters. And it just feels like it’s not voter education. It’s just like, Yo, like, none of it is actually working for me. So I’m just going to, like not participate.
Eric Holder 02:52
Yeah, yeah. And that’s something that, you know, we hear a lot from young people generally, you know, young black man, I think, you know, in particular, and what I’ve tried to always say is that, you know, your vote matters. And if it didn’t matter, people on the other side wouldn’t be doing as much as they are trying to do to make it difficult for you to vote, or to somehow eradicate the impact the effectiveness of your vote once you actually once you cast a ballot. But you know, we also have to dial in, I think, some honesty here that, you know, our political system has not been as responsive to the people as it should be. It should always be. Because of, you know, partisan and racial gerrymandering, voter suppression attacks in our electoral infrastructure. We have governmental structures that don’t necessarily reflect the will of the people. And I think we have seen that, you know, most, most particularly in where we are now with regard to reproductive issues with regard to choice. With the American people, you know, in every state poll that was taken, said they did not want Roe versus Wade overturned. And that’s, you know, true in every state. Now, margins would be different in say, Texas than in maybe in in New York State. But nevertheless, Supreme Court did what it did, I think, in a terrible decision. And now we see state legislatures putting in place these really draconian and not publicly or not popularly supported measures to really restrict a woman’s right to choose, you know, without exceptions, and a whole range of things that are being done. And I understand how that makes people, particularly young people think that, well, you know, the dye is cast, I can’t do anything that’s going to affect the kind of change that I want or have governmental policies that are responsive to the needs that I have. And what we tried to say in the book is that, you know, every generation of Americans has been faced with these democracy challenges. You know, they vary from era to era, but every generation has met the challenge of its time. And I don’t think that this generation will fail in its duty to meet the challenges of our time. But convincing young people, you know, that they’ve got to be involved in the process is something that is a challenge and people young people don’t understand that they are now the largest voting bloc in the country, 18 to 29 year olds, largest voting bloc in the country. And they have more power than any other, any other voting bloc, but they leave a lot of power on the floor, because they don’t engage in our civic life and most particularly don’t vote in the same proportions. As my generation baby boomers, we have more power than we are entitled to, because we vote to a much greater in a much greater proportions than then young people do.
Chanda Smith Baker 05:49
In the book, you give what I think is a wonderful example of some activism at North Carolina, A&T. And when I was reading it, and even when I’m listening to you talk now, I wonder if there’s enough examples of how organizing and power of young people is actually moving policy, maybe not on a scale, but in the areas that they’re in whether or not we could do more there to share those stories, because I thought that was a fantastic story.
Eric Holder 06:21
You see, and I think that point is exactly right. I mean, you know, so to the extent that people generally young people in particular think, well, I can’t affect change. The system is rigged against me. Well, you look at that young woman Love Cesar at, you know, at North Carolina A&T, who with a piece of chalk, you know, drew a line down the middle of the campus at North Carolina A&T is the largest African American largest, you know, historically black college or university in the country, but it was gerrymandered by the Republicans in North Carolina, one half of the campus was in one congressional district, the other half of the campus was in another congressional district. You know, if you changed dorms over the course of the year, you went from one congressional district to another, you weren’t registered to vote, you know, in one or the other. She saw this, recognized that that diluted the power of that substantial African American community drew a line right where the line was drawn that split the campus, kids got up the next day and said, This is chalk line, what’s going on here. And she explained to them, you know, our power is being diluted. But as a result of this partisan gerrymander, she got in touch with us. At the National Democratic redistricting committee, we filed a lawsuit. That lawsuit was ultimately held up by the Supreme Court of North Carolina, and the lines were redrawn, and the campus was all put into one district. And they ended up electing a person who was more consistent with the values that the students had at North Carolina A&T. And so that’s the power of one young woman, Love Cesar, with a piece of chalk, who made a difference in the North Carolina political system, elected a congressman who otherwise would not have been a member of the United States House of Representatives. And so, telling those kinds of stories, I think, is really important, not only to give her the credit that she’s due, but to make people understand that the power of the individual is still a consequence.
Chanda Smith Baker 08:26
I know growing up, I didn’t have as much opportunity as I wish growing up in our educational system, to learn about our history. As you know, as a black person, I did not hear sort of the diversity of history, the extent in which I should have understood that what SNCC was doing the organizing the leadership that was coming from our community at really important moments, in really important ways. I just had a conversation with a guy named Jesse Leone. And he said, the first time I saw eyes on the prize was when I was in a community college. He’s like, why isn’t every kid in this country learning about this stuff earlier? And so in the book, you talk about being I think it was around 12 years old, and watching sort of the Civil Rights Movement unfold. And I imagine that that was pretty informing to your upbringing and where you landed, I used to always feel very jealous about your generation and felt like I missed something. But it feels like we’re in a moment now. So I’m wondering if you could just share sort of, maybe a little bit of history of what you witnessed around voting and participating. That can help us ground our listeners on who you are, what you’re, what you’re motivated by, but also what our opportunity might be.
Eric Holder 09:46
Ya know, it’s interesting, we look back at history again, generally and the civil rights movement, I think more specifically, in kind of a gauzy way. You know, people think about civil rights movement and a great speech to Dr. King gave at the March on Washington in 1963. And we tend to not remember that an animating part of the civil rights movement, probably really the glue of the civil rights movement was the fight for the right to vote. And, you know, 63 civil rights movement also talked about, you know, economic empowerment jobs and things like that. But when you think about the Selma to Montgomery march, that was all about the right to vote. The Freedom Summer in 1964, when those three civil rights workers, Chaney Schwerner and Goodman lost their lives, they were trying to register people to vote. In Mississippi, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All about again, you know, the right, the right to vote, oh, to enfranchise, you know, a segment of our population, that vo free for 100 years back in, in the 60s, never really enjoyed the full benefits of their, of their citizenry. And I had the opportunity just given by when I was born, to see all of this stuff on a small black and white television, you know, didn’t have color TV back in those days, you know, in New York City in my basement to see the March on Washington to see my sister in law, deny the opportunity to integrate the University of Alabama in an attempt to stop her from integrating the University of Alabama in 1963, to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge incident in 1965, to see African countries becoming independent Caribbean countries where my all my relatives are from, you know, become independent. And so I was able, I was just, you know, a young, young guy 12-13, beginning my teenage years, in the midst of all of this. And so I lived it, and we have to make sure that people understand in ways that they do not. The fact that the civil rights movement ended a system of American apartheid, you know, an American apartheid system was destroyed by the, by the Civil Rights Movement. And we need to have the understanding that, you know, Black history is, in fact, American history, and that what happened in the civil rights movement, changed this nation, even beyond the impact that it had on African Americans it engendered in other groups of people, women, the desire for recognition and rights, the LGBTQ community, the desire for recognition, and the acquisition of rights, all of that stuff was unleashed by the Civil Rights Movement. And so we need to study it, we need to understand it, we need to make it a part of our regular curriculum, not have, you know, we need to have, as I said, in a speech, a black history month, because we don’t do enough teaching of black history and civil rights movement in our regular history courses. But we need to get to a place where a Black History Month perhaps is not needed. Because we are studying, studying and understanding black history through the teaching in our regular curriculums.
Chanda Smith Baker 13:05
You mentioned the LGBTQ community. And I just want to acknowledge yet another tragedy that has happened over the weekend. Our producer, co-producer of this podcast Souphak needed to take time today, because she belongs to that community. And she’s just devastated by the level of hate and the violence that was perpetrated, once again, an act of domestic terrorism. Do you think that there will be a time where we won’t see that happening? Is it because we’re so polarized, or?
Eric Holder 13:45
No, it’s not a function of this time, hate is a virus, and it’s in the American body politic. And unless we are aware of its existence, and take measures to suppress that virus, you know, inoculate ourselves periodically against that virus, it will rear up. And as we have just seen, again, with that, that most recent and heinous attack, we will see it again. Now, you know, some periods in our history are more infused with hate than others. And I think it’s because, you know, we let our eye off that virus and, you know, we allowed it to, to fester. And I think, unfortunately, at least one segment of our political population thinks that by dividing us by speaking about groups of people in hateful ways, that it will serve them serve their political interests without taking into account what that means and the risk it puts at people in a variety of groups in and so yeah, I think we’re gonna we’ll get through this, you know, it’s hard way too often, you know, we have to also take into account the proliferation of guns in this country, I was looking at just a list of all of the mass shooting incidents have happened in the last, I guess, four or five years or so. And every one of them, every one of them has a AR 15, a long rifle, you know, that is a part of the, that is a part of the equation. And so that combination of, of hate, and, you know, weaponry in the hands of, you know, really kind of adult people leads to the kind of incident that we are, you know, we have we’re dealing with yet again.
Chanda Smith Baker 15:40
And when we were talking about sort of the distance of where community sits and where our policies are heading, I did reflect a little bit on the NRA, and even its membership would like some common sense gun laws enacted. And so again, we see the separation from what sort of the structure is from what the membership or the community is interested in. And that’s another one that, and I often say, I mean, this is not gun violence is not something that we should all become proximate to before we start acting and making a difference. And it’s something that we can do today to push change.
Eric Holder 16:16
Yeah, I mean, what happened, what just recently happened, was not something that only impacted, you know, people in Colorado Springs, gay people in Colorado Springs, or gay people in Colorado. I mean, that impacted all of us. Those are, those are our neighbors, or our fellow citizens, residents of this country. And we should feel as impacted by what happened there, as what happened in Uvalde. You know, what happened, you know, at The Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, I mean, these are all things these are, these are friends, these are neighbors, these are, these are people who have been the subjects the objects of this violence, and it shouldn’t take something in your neighborhood, something, you know, happens to your as you define your community, your group, to feel a sense of concern, and a desire to be involved in the solutions to the problems that lead to these heinous acts. There’s enough there now for all of us, to be concerned for all of us to ask ourselves, what are you doing to counter that hate, what are you doing to make this nation safe for everybody?
Chanda Smith Baker 17:33
With women’s rights, you talked about the Supreme Court in the book, you also talk about the courts, and these lifetime appointments. And you know, we age differently now than they did when those laws, and that was put in place? Would you mind sharing a little bit on what you might recommend and what you see as maybe an opportunity with the Supreme Court?
Eric Holder 17:53
Sure, you know, when our Republic was founded, we decided, and it makes sense to insulate judges, federal judges, by giving them life tenure. And so most people in the beginning parts of the Republic, left the Supreme Court when they died. You know, we didn’t live nearly as long as we they didn’t live nearly as long as we do now. But over time, we have lived longer. And so now we have people get appointed to the court in the early 50s, late 40s. And they can stay on the court for 30 and 40 years. And I think that’s entirely too long for somebody to be in an unelected position. With that much power. People now leave the court, they decide when they’re going to leave the court. And they try to do these strategic retirements and this is Democrats as well as Republicans. This is not just you know, one side or the other. They leave when they have a president in place who they think will put in their seat, somebody who will share their worldview. And so my proposal is that we have term limits that you serve on the Supreme Court for a period of 18 years. As I note in the book, it’s one of those instances rare instances where the Chief Justice and I are in the same place, he says that we should have term limits of 15 years, I say 18. Because I also say that we should have a system where presidents put in put somebody on the Supreme Court in the first year of his or her term, and also the third year of his or her term. So every president would appoint a justice first year, third year of his or her term. So every president would get at least two if you only serve, you know, one, one term, and four if you serve two terms, and if you make it 18 years, that would mean that over the short term, the court would expand but ultimately at 18 years, and with that one first and third year appointment, the court would shrink back down to to nine members. So I think the expansion of a court would make sense in the short term. And I also think that you know, depressurizing, the selection and confirmation process by making it something that happens in a more regular way. We would mean that you’d end up with a court that was not as disconnected with people serving 25 and 30 years and was almost like a monastery up there now. And we’d have a court that was still be insulated still, you know, not subject to the whims of, you know, of our politics, but at least more connected to the desires of the American people. Because I think as what the court is doing now in a whole range of areas, is, I think, first off, not principled, not consistent with precedent. It’s a function of personnel on the court, but they’re doing things that are inconsistent with the desires and inconsistent with the best interests of the American people.
Chanda Smith Baker 20:41
I have a couple of questions that I got forwarded to me. One is what well, did redistricting efforts play in last week’s election results? Do you have an idea of how that may have impacted?
Eric Holder 20:56
Yeah, the work that we did at the National Democratic redistricting committee, we started back in January of 2017, to try to make the redistricting process more fair in 2021 2022, I think has had a dramatic impact. Redistricting is fundamentally different this decade, then it was in 2011. We saw a state legislatures flip. You’ve certainly witnessed in Minnesota, you know, what happened there with one of the chambers of the state legislature there, flips in Michigan in Pennsylvania, The New York Times looked at the districts that were created as a result of this most recent redistricting process and said that 75% of them are fair, that’s a substantial increase from the rankings from, you know, a decade ago, but it also means that 25% of the districts were considered unfair, considered to be gerrymandered and you see those gerrymandered partisan and racial gerrymandering districting plans, mostly in Republican-controlled states like Texas, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin. And so the process was certainly better, way better than it was a decade ago, we saw results of that, in this, you know, this past the past midterms that we just experienced, where election deniers were defeated, you know, all over the country, where you have a more fair system and where you can’t in any way you have legislative houses that are more consistent with the makeup of the people House of Representatives, that again, is more fair than it was in 2012, when Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in 2012. And ended up with a 33 seat deficit, they were in the minority by 33 seats, although they won 1.4 million votes. This time around, we have a lead House of Representatives, it’s basically split. I mean, there’s gonna be a four or five vote margin, something like that. That is more reflective, I think of the of the United States. And had those districts been more fair in Texas, Georgia, Florida, you would have ended up with Democrats actually controlling the House of Representatives. So a lot of work that was done that I think was very positive. But there’s still more work to do.
Chanda Smith Baker 23:24
How can we best address the massive efforts of disinformation targeted at our electorate?
Eric Holder 23:33
Yeah, that is a really, really good question. And the impact of that disinformation, I think has been under appreciated. You know, if you get into a silo, these echo chambers, where you’re only hearing you know, one kind of voices, and those voices are peddling huge amounts of disinformation, you then make electoral choices on the basis of that information. And that skews, you know, the results of our election. And so I think people have to, you know, tear yourself away from whatever it is that favorite channel, you always watch, and watch a wide range of things when television, people need to read more, you know, and again, from a variety of sources, but I also think that there is going to be the need for some kind of regulation, you know, we have this thing, fairness doctrine, you know, where television stations have to carry certain amounts of programming and have to make sure that they’re trying to do things in a in a fairly balanced way. I think we have to start looking at that, in terms of the internet. You know, so many of us and especially young people get their information from the internet. And, you know, you can either from foreign actors or from you know, domestic actors, they can do things without knowing what the algorithms are like, you know, push you in certain directions, surpress, you know, the the dissemination of other other kinds of information. And so I think that, you know, I would hope that the folks who, you know, who run these, these big Internet Information dispensers will do something voluntarily. My guess is that over time, in the absence of movement by them, the government is actually going to have to do something at regulating. So I think they’re things that we can do, to expose ourselves to, to more and to decrease the impact of disinformation. But I also think there’s a role for regulation, as well,
Chanda Smith Baker 25:37
You know, we have folks that are arguing free speech. And so this is not about freedom of speech, it’s about making sure that what is being said, is accurate, and factual. Is that really the line as we’re as our listeners, are…You know, I don’t want anyone telling me what I can say whatever. But we’re not about that.
Eric Holder 25:56
Oh, no, not at all. I mean, everybody want to be free to say whatever it is that you know, that you want to say. But, you know, we should all agree on kind of what the facts are. And then we can argue about what we want to do with the facts. You know, disinformation, is not about disseminating views. It’s about disseminating untruths. And, you know, even there, I don’t want to be, you know, some First Amendment, you know, destroyer, because yeah, even I defend the ability of people to say things that, you know, in fact, aren’t true. But we have to understand in this digital age in which we live, the dissemination of untruths can really be spread quickly, widely, and have a really negative impact on our society. And so I think we need to have rules that respect the First Amendment, but also rules that recognize the different environment in which we now operate.
Chanda Smith Baker 27:01
So part of the misinformation and I think you touched on a little bit is people meddling in our election. And so how, how is it possible for people to meddle, Russia, to meddle in the election as much as they have? Like, what precautions do we need to prevent that from happening?
Eric Holder 27:21
Yeah, I think there that really is on the providers, you know, to the host of these folks. And on the internet, there are they’ve got the best and the brightest working for them in Silicon Valley and in in other places. And there are ways in which they can figure out, you know, who are bots, you know, who are not real people, and, and also figure out, you know, where is this information coming from, you know, it was interesting, I was in Wisconsin, I guess, during the 2018 election was 2018, maybe, I think was 2018. And there was a police officer involved in a shooting of a young black man, and there was tons of stuff, you know, got into the Wisconsin echo sphere there through the internet. And they were able to trace a lot of that stuff to see that a lot of what was being said about, you know, trying to split the African American community from the police was actually coming from Russia. Now, if you could do that, in that particular case, I understand this is going to be resource intense, but the stakes are so high, that I think that’s the kind of thing that you have to be able to do, and to the extent that you can identify, you know, foreign sources as being the ones who are sharing that disinformation. Now, they don’t have a First Amendment right, you know, countries outside these borders, that people outside these borders, non citizens outside these borders, don’t have first amendment rights. And so cutting the cord, there is something that I think that we certainly want to be doing and there, I think you have to have public private partnerships, you know, folks who run these internet disseminators of information and working with, in particular, the federal government to identify and then to isolate these attempts at disinformation that come from offshore.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:12
Do you think that providers of those resources on the internet understand the stakes?
Eric Holder 29:20
You know, um, that’s a really interesting question. And I’m not totally sure what the answer is. I mean, it’s certainly something that I in my interactions with them have said, which is to say, look, yeah, there’s a couple of realities you have to face. One is that there’s a lot of disinformation out there, and to either you’re going to regulate it, or you’re going to have regulation imposed upon you. And I can’t say it’s going to happen over the next year or the next two years. But at some point, at some point, the system is going to say government is going to say that you have not regulated this sufficiently and therefore, we are going to do it and my pitch to them has always been, it is much better to have self-effective, self-regulation tend to have government-imposed regulation that might not be sensitive to or knowledgeable about, you know, the intricacies of, you know, of your business.
Chanda Smith Baker 30:13
So, in chapter nine, you ask a question, and I’m just going to repeat it too, because I, because it really sat with me. And it was how do we make the Senate better reflective of the will of the people in its current form? And I do think we’ve touched on this a little bit, but I was really fascinated sort of by that. And I think it has to go with where the lines are drawn. And some other suggestions that you made. Could you respond to that?
Eric Holder 30:38
Yeah, I mean, you know, we look at this great experiment of ours that we called America we call America. And it is, you know, we’re an exceptional nation, we’re the most exceptional nation, I think that’s, you know, that’s ever existed. And yet, you know, we are almost 250 years old, and we’re dealing with a constitution that was, you know, produced back in the 18th century, and it has a ton of good stuff in it. But as the nation has grown, as it has expanded, as more people have become part of our democracy, some of the things that were put in place back then I think, need to be examined and need to be updated. If you look, for instance, at our Senate, we say two people, two senators per, per state, part of the great compromise, and that’s fine. But we now have set in place where Wyoming gets, you know, two senators, and they have like 500-600,000 people, and California gets two Senators, 35 million people, something like that. And so that really, that becomes really kind of a disparity there. The Senate is, you know, really a powerful, powerful place. And, you know, we see now that, you know, you could end up with people who represent just about 20% of the nation’s population, can control the majority of the Senate, just because of the way in which, you know, we have that two senators per state rule. And so, to change, it would mean changing the constitution that I don’t think is likely to happen. But you can just by legislation, admit, and this is my proposal on Washington, DC, as a state, Puerto Rico as a state, which would mean that certainly from Washington, DC, you’re likely to get two more Democratic senators, which would, I think, deal with the imbalance that we see now. And potentially a couple of Democratic senators in Puerto Rico, although Puerto Rico has enacted on a an island wide basis, they elected on an island-wide basis, Republicans as well. So that’s one of the things we also need to end the filibuster, which has allowed a minority in the Senate up about 40% can say can tell the other 60% And again, represent a small number of the American people, that something that the American people want to have happen is not going to happen, because this minority in the Senate says that the Senate can’t, you know, can’t vote, we a lot of people think that you know, to get things passed, passed in the Senate, you have to have 60%, that’s just a made up rule, you know, that was not really used an awful lot until the last 10-15 years or so. And the founders, when they were considering whether or not to require super majorities, or just majority rule, having had the experience with the Articles of Confederation, they said no majorities are what we should have, otherwise the minority will have too much power. And that’s what we see in the in the filibuster in the Senate. And also with regard to the way in which we have a lot senators, we give an awful lot of power to minorities that frustrate the will of the majority, you know, minorities always have to be protected. And that is another part of our, you know, constitutional scheme, but you can’t give ultimate power to minorities.
Chanda Smith Baker 34:03
So you talked about gerrymandering, and you use the word cracking and packing, and I think we talked about this with the university story, but I’d never heard packing as a concept before. So cracking is essentially taking an area right and just splitting it in half to reduce the likelihood of representation, right, like to maintain party control. Is that what that is?
Eric Holder 34:28
Yeah, you take a group of people and you put them in a whole variety of different districts, and therefore you dilute their power instead of having like at North Carolina, A&T, you know, one large black community that would have a lot of power, you put them in two different districts, which decreases their power by you know, by 50%. That’s called cracking.
Chanda Smith Baker 34:49
And then the packing part is packing it all together. Is that it?
Eric Holder 34:53
Yeah, you draw lines in such a way so that in Alabama, where African Americans make up about 27% of the population, and should if you just do the math is seven districts, they should have probably two districts that would allow for African Americans to pick who their representative is. You draw the lines in such a way so that you pack all of the African Americans into one district. And therefore, instead of having the ability to elect two Congressman, they only have the ability to elect one, a court in Alabama, three-judge court in Alabama, including two Trump-appointed judges said that that violated the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court now has that case before it and we’ll see what the court does with with that decision.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:41
And then the last piece, I think, around what you define as a crisis and representation would be around the presidential elections, where we are and have elected presidents that have not had the most votes. Is there something that we could do about that? So that that position that that great role that we need in our country is actually more representative of what the electorate wants?
Eric Holder 36:06
Yeah, you know, we have we don’t elect presidents, by the popular vote, we elect presidents through the Electoral College, which was put in place by the founders, because they did not trust the ability of regular Americans to make wise decisions. And so they wanted to have them cast votes, to pick electors who would ultimately decide who the President would be. And we’ve had a few instances, certainly we’ve had to in recent years, where, you know, President George W. Bush, and Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, but won the Electoral College and as a result, became president, even though they didn’t get the majority of the votes. And as I say, in the book, you know, we were the only industrialized country in the world that does this. And you know, when we held elections, whether it’s a class president, you know, PTA president it’s always like, Well, whoever got the most votes is the person you know, who wins. And so I think we need to change that. Now, again, we need a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College. And with a filibuster in place that becomes difficult, and trying to get, you know, three quarters of the states to go along with would also be difficult. But this is what you can do is this thing called a National Popular Compact, which says that, instead of states casting their electoral votes for who won that particular state, every state would cast its electoral votes for who won the national popular vote. And if you do that, then the person who won the popular vote would also win the greatest number of electoral votes. And you would do away with these, you know, these anomalies that we have seen, you know, twice in in recent years. This is something that is being considered by the states. And once you get to 270 electoral states that total 270 electoral votes, this then goes into effect, you don’t need to have all states will agree to that only that states that met come up with 270 electoral votes, because that is actually the number that you need to become president. And I think we’re at about 193 electoral votes now with regard to the states that have agreed to it. And so I think Michigan is the next state that will consider it. And then it’s going to become more difficult because you’re going to have to get into some, some Republican states to go along with it. But we’re going to come up with something so that the will of the people can be expressed. With regard to the one office, the one office that we have in this country that is supposed to be a national leader and not having decided by potentially, as we attend, seen twice a minority of the people, the majority of the people ought to elect, who was the president of the United States is.
Chanda Smith Baker 38:40
That seems common sense to me.
Eric Holder 38:43
Yeah, like I said, class presidents, when you were in the third grade, or the fourth grade, and you wanted to pick the class president, if Mary got the most votes, she was a class president, you didn’t go through, that you didn’t vote and then pick an electoral college to decide, well, you know, Mary, for whatever reason, didn’t have enough whatever is in so John’s gonna be the class president, even though Mary got more votes.
Chanda Smith Baker 39:05
So this is a question that came from Resma. What does the infrastructure look like in order to get an anti blackness hate crime bill passed?
Eric Holder 39:16
Yeah, it’s, um, we again, need to make sure that our structures are consistent with the desires of the people. And, you know, we expanded the hate crimes bill to include. We’ve made it more difficult the way that hate crimes bill was originally passed, to include people of color, or at least a level of intent that you had to show and to include people from the LGBTQ community. It’s something that I fought for when I was Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton years it ultimately didn’t pass the expansion until I was attorney general. And so we have a much more robust here hate crimes bill that allows federal prosecutors to be involved in these crimes in ways that were not possible before the passage of or the expansion of the hate crimes legislation that happened during the Obama years.
Is there anything that the current president could do to advance either on some of the things that we touched on? Or on the hate the anti-hate crime bills? Is there anything that Biden’s administration can do at this point to forward those? Those efforts?
Eric Holder 40:33
Yeah, there may certainly executive orders. I mean, I suspect it with a Republican House, you’re not going to see much legislation passed over the next two years. But the President still has a lot of executive power so that you can sign executive orders. There’s still the justice department that has the ability to decide how it’s going to deploy its resources or what things it’s going to prioritize where it’s going to place federal agents. And so, the Justice Department, I mean, that was one of the things that I made a priority at the anti-hate crimes, you know, action by the Justice Department, President Obama signed a number of executive orders in that regard. And so President Biden will have that ability, Merrick Garland at the Justice Department will have that ability, working with other executive branch agencies as well, I think, as I said, realistically, we’re not likely to see much by way of legislation in this regard, because of the split that we now have in Congress, Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and Democrats controlling the Senate.
Chanda Smith Baker 41:39
What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court’s deliberation regarding affirmative action and education?
Eric Holder 41:45
Yeah, I’m really worried about where the court is going to go. In that case, based on the questions that we heard during oral argument, you know, the notion that colleges and universities cannot take into account race to try to make their campuses more diverse, which I think enhances learning. You know, if you have a homogenous group of students, listening to a professor, or studying, you know, a certain number of books, their learning is enhanced when interacting with students who are different than they are. And you know, we’ve had affirmative action, you know, for a long time, if you are the son or daughter of a person who gives money to, you know, an Ivy League college, you’re more likely to get in, that’s affirmative action, if you’re an athlete, and, you know, you get to go to a great state university. That’s affirmative action. There’s a whole range of ways in which we have had affirmative action, the Supreme Court doesn’t want allow race to be at least a factor, not a sole determinant, but a factor in the admissions determination. Now, we’ve said you can’t do quotas. And I think that makes a great deal of sense. But I think we should, you know, recognize that we’re not yet at the point where we need to be when it comes to all things racial, and that there are still inequities that we have to deal with, and that the learning experience is enhanced by having people from different geographies, different demographic groups, different economic groups, you know, all a part of the experience, we shouldn’t admit to our best institutions, simply people who scored the highest on their SATs, you know, I mean, you got to take you want a whole range of people to be a part of that, of that academic experience. But I’m really concerned that this Court is going to say that you cannot consider race when it comes to making determinations about who you who you admit that I think is, I think that’s a wrong decision.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:01
Is there anything that we can do as we prepare for the decision? Are there actions that can be taken?
Eric Holder 44:07
Well, you know, it’s interesting, I think that you’re going to see a lot of colleges and law schools, professional schools, say, alright, you know, we’re not going to do, we’re not going to rely on standardized tests. You know, we’re going to not listen to the SATs or to the LSAT, the AC T’s we are going to look at, you know, your academic record, we’re going to look at where you come from. And so they will, in essence, come up with ways in which they keep their, their admitted student classes diverse without specifically being hindered by these statistical things that point in, you know, one in only one direction so I you know, that’s my hope. On the other hand, what we have seen where race was taken out as a possible consideration and you know, the University of California system, we saw a precipitous drop in the number of African Americans and Hispanic students who actually enrolled in the University of California system. And I think understand there’s been a slight uptick recently. But the number has really gone down dramatically. And that is the concern that I have that we will see that dramatic drop, at least in the in the short term, but I suspect that the academic community is going to try to come up with ways in which they continue to keep their classes diverse while following the dictates of the this expected Supreme Court ruling.
Chanda Smith Baker 45:37
Yeah, and the dramatic, I think I read, I think I was reading about this, I think it was like a 30% drop.
Eric Holder 45:43
Yeah, it’s it’s, I mean, it’s really tremendous in California, the numbers, the number of people who were of color, okay, who go to the University of Cal system is fundamentally different now than it was before that proposition was passed in California.
Chanda Smith Baker 46:00
You know, I just had these moments where I just can hardly believe like the reversal that is happening in this country, and I don’t consider myself to be pollyannish. But I feel like I’ve been on being disrupted in a way that’s really concerning, as a person of color as a woman, you know, as a mother, like, I just feel like what, you know, the actions, I mean, I think it’s local is probably the best place is where we started from is, you know, exercising our right to vote, and having, more broadly, our system, understanding the political power that we hold, in acting into it collectively, that we can’t be passive players. And what’s happening because it feels very designed to reverse us and to maintain power.
Eric Holder 46:49
Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. I mean, we have to be engaged. The reality is, is that we are passive. That means that we leave a vacuum that will be filled by people who are, you know, less committed to American ideals, less, less idealistic, you know, more politically inclined, the vast majority of the American people agree on a substantial number of issues that you’d never believe that if you listen to, you know, the news, but those people who are in the minority are often the loudest. And then with the spread of disinformation, they have the ability to, you know, engage in political action and get political power that’s not commensurate with their representation in the overall population, or even with regard to, you know, how the American people feel about a particular issue. I mean, you think about this, the American people, like 80-90% agree that you should do background checks before anybody has the ability to buy a gun. I mean, that’s just kind of common sense. And yet, we don’t see, you know, these bills passed in the states in our federal by our federal government, because we have a loud minority, coupled with you know, gerrymandered political power that thwarts the majority thwarts, the will of the of the majority. And then you see that in a whole range of a whole range of issues, whether it’s, you know, reproductive choice, you know, protection of voting rights. As I said, gun safety, gun safety measures, you know, climate, I mean, there’s a whole bunch of places where the American people get it. I mean, American people are not stupid. You know, they see the world around them, they understand what fairness is. And I think our political leadership, as you know, has failed us.
Chanda Smith Baker 48:47
I was just reminded, I did a gun buyback some years ago, and it was more of a way of me sort of bringing full circle, I lost a cousin to gun violence and was working in an organization. And we did this gun buyback. And we wanted to give the pieces of the guns to artists to make a statement on the violence that has been perpetrated against them and their families to just make a broader statement. And so we go, we partner with the fire stations. We’re in there and I pull up to go in, right, we’re giving small amounts of money depending on what kind of weapon you bring in. And someone from a pickup pulls up across the street, offering more money for the guns. No, like we had the police department there. We’re doing everything like I think it’s proper to do. And here it is that you can buy guns out of a pickup right here in the neighborhood, and it was legal. I just could hardly believe it. I think I conceptually knew it. But I think being in the experience, like how is this possible?
Eric Holder 49:51
All right. Well, that’s what I was talking about before about this notion of background checks. You know, we have a background check system in place now, but it doesn’t cover that a private sale of guns from one person to another or doesn’t deal with the sales that happened at gun shows, you know? And so, again, the American people say, well, you know, if you’re going to sell a gun to somebody, or to make sure that the person getting it is doesn’t have some kind of protective order against him, you know, he’s not involved in some kind of domestic violence thing is not a felon, you know, a whole range of things that the American people agree on. And again, so are we get we have a background check system that everybody agrees needs to be expanded, and yet, the minority and it’s not even with America, you know, you look at the NRA, I mean, NRA members, last poll, I saw over a majority of them are of the same mind, you know, that, you know, we want to make sure that, you know, people who acquire guns don’t have these disabilities, that should keep them from getting a gun. Again, like I said, felons, you know, people involved in domestic violence. I mean, there’s a whole range of things, that if we were more careful, you know, banning the use, or the sale of assault weapons, you know, we could make this nation safer and the American people agree upon that.
Chanda Smith Baker 51:17
Yeah. So, I, you know, I work in philanthropy. And so one of my questions almost always is, you know, do you think that there is a role for philanthropy, and moving sort of a healthy democracy forward? And if so, what would you recommend for how people are yielding their influence and their resources towards a healthier, safer nation? Really.
Eric Holder 51:43
You know, I think there’s definitely a role for the philanthropic community to be involved in protecting, enhancing our democracy. You know, and I understand the reticence that some have, because they say, well, that’s gonna get us into politics, we’re 501C3, we’re not supposed to be involved in political activities. But the reality is that our democracy is fragile. Our democracy has to be protected. And so flat, philanthropies can find ways in which you are supporting things that are really nonpartisan, but are pro democracy, you know, supporting, like, as the League of Women Voters does, you know, making sure that our voting system is fair, it doesn’t favor one party or the other. But just make it sure that people have the ability to acquire ballots, cast ballots, cast ballots, that will ultimately be counted. Try to ensure that you know, polling places are open that they are sufficient numbers of polling places, again, that doesn’t favor one party or the other. But yeah, I do think that there is a role for the philanthropic community to play in our democracy protection efforts. And you know, here’s the deal. People say, you know, I’m being an alarmist, I’m being hyperbolic when I say that, you know, our democracy is at risk. Well, you know, history tells us, and you look at Europe, in the 20th century, fascism rose there, that because fascism was strong, but because the defense of democracy was weak, and it doesn’t mean that we’ll have a dictator here in the United States, but you could render elections every two years, every four years, every six years, you could render them meaningless. If our democracy is not, you know, is not protected, you will still go to the ballot boxes, and you will still pull levers and vote for people. But the results can almost be predetermined in our democracy, crippled unless we are willing to protect it. And it means I think that the philanthropic community has to figure out a way in which he can be involved in that effort.
Chanda Smith Baker 53:44
Because I think he’s saying in the book that essentially what’s happening now is that our politicians are speaking to the extreme on both ends, right?
Eric Holder 53:50
Yeah. No, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, as a result of gerrymandering, in particular, you know, you crack and pack districts so that you come up with safe seats for people in one party, which means that people in the Republican Party speak only to the folks on the right people in the Democratic Party tend to speak to people on the left, and you’re worried not about a general election in a gerrymandered seat, you’re worried about a primary challenge. And if you’re worried about a primary challenge, then you want to make sure that if you’re Republican, you’re as far right as you can be, so that you don’t have a challenger. If you are seeing working with your Democratic colleagues, to try to come up with a solution to a particular problem that is seen as a sign of weakness and invites a primary challenge. And so nothing gets done. And the American people see that nothing gets done in our political system, and that breeds cynicism, and a lack of faith or trust or belief in government, which is just not good for us, generally, and not good for our democracy. You know, most specifically.
Chanda Smith Baker 54:54
What is giving you hope, right now, because I think hope is necessary because it just grief feels deep. And there’s a lot happening, what is bringing you hope?
Eric Holder 55:07
You know, it’s like I say in the book or our, Our Unfinished March, what gives me hope, are a couple of things. First our history. You know, I mean, the first part of the book deals with the historical part. And people say, Oh, I don’t want to read history. No, it’s really interesting, because it’s really good, you’re gonna find out some interesting about some interesting people and things that they did in their time. But our history shows us that every generation of Americans, when faced with challenges to our democracy, came up with ways in which they did defend democracy, whether the threats were internal, or whether they came from external places, you know, we fought wars, to protect democracy, we enfranchise greater numbers of people in our country, to protect democracy. And so much of our history tells us that every generations of American, every generation of Americans has risen to the challenge. And I think that this generation of Americans will rise to that challenge as well. The other thing that gives me great hope, is young people, young people, you know, I still think of myself as young at heart, but I can’t say that I’m a young person. But this younger generation is not burdened by the racial baggage that you know, other generations have had. They are more accepting of diversity. They are more inclusive in their view of society. And I think that, as they get more politically involved, more civically engaged, coupled with that history, that, you know, that that gives me hope. I think those two things will ultimately get us to the to that better place. And, you know, I think we have to be optimistic optimism leads to activism. Pessimism leads to inaction. So there’s no reason to be pessimistic. There’s every reason to be optimistic. There’s every reason to be engaged.
Chanda Smith Baker 57:06
All right, Eric Holder, Our Unfinished March, it was a great book, I have to say, it was really good. I hope that our listeners, curiosities were piqued on the topics that we touched on, grab the book, it was very good for someone who’s not a policy wonk like myself, but I also think others that are very much into policy, community, and democracy will enjoy it. So I am highly encouraging readers to the book. Any other resources that you would recommend that people would check could check out if they want to get more involved in these issues?
Eric Holder 57:43
Well, I mean, one other book I would recommend is a book called The Second Founding by a guy named Eric Foner, really examines the this a little more wonky examines the Civil War amendments and the impact that it has had, you know, immediately and then the impact of those amendments have had on our, in our country. But you know, there’s also want to get a better sense of the, of the civil rights movement. You know, PBS did a great series A while ago called Eyes on the prize, which you can still use can still get, I mean, it’s, I don’t know, eight, nine parts or something like that. You spent eight or nine hours watching you watch an hour a day, you will be shocked by the history that you see the optimism that it will generate in you. But the other thing I would also suggest to people is to just get civically engaged and find, you know, organizations that are involved in the work. You know, if all of us get more civically engaged, we can move this nation to that better place doesn’t mean you have to do political things, you know, get involved with, you know, getting attention to the young people in your community, who are starved for the kind of attention that every American, you know, boy or girl is entitled to, it won’t be an easy thing. You have busy personal lives and busy professional lives. But if you find an hour, a couple hours a week to do that, you’re going to feel better about yourself, and you’re going to make this nation better.
And that’s Eric Holder in our host, Chanda Smith Baker. If you enjoy this show and want to learn more about what we do here at the Minneapolis Foundation, please visit us online at Minneapolisfoundation.org. And thanks for listening to Conversations with ChandaClose Transcript -
Eric H. Holder, Jr. made history in 2009 when President Obama appointed him as attorney general, the first African American to hold that position. Eric served in the Obama Administration as attorney general from February 2009 to April 2015, the third longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history. During his tenure, he championed hallmark legislation on voting rights, immigration law, national security, and same-sex marriage. Eric has continued his pursuit of civil rights in his post-White House career, serving as Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and using his unique expertise as a leading voting rights advocate.
Among his many accolades, Eric is the recipient of the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, GLAD’s Spirit of Justice Award, the National Urban League’s “Living Legend” award, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, TIME Magazine named Eric one of the year’s “100 Most Influential People.”
Eric has delivered commencement addresses at Boston University, University of Virginia School of Law, Harvard Law School, the UC Berkeley School of Law, and the UCLA School of Law, and was Columbia College’s Class Day Speaker. He holds a B.A. from Columbia College and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. In addition to his civil rights work, he is currently serving as Senior Counsel at Washington D.C. law firm Covington & Burling LLP.