What Should States Do Next? with Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Andy calls Governor Gretchen Whitmer to talk about what she’s learned from the pandemic in Michigan and what governors across the nation need to do next. They also talk about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. Then, Andy has the first of many conversations to come on how to vote during the pandemic by talking with Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Find out everything you need to know about voting, including how to vote by mail in your state at www.vote.org or www.rockthevote.org
- Read Stacey Abrams’ new book, Our Time is Now: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250257703.
- Looking for the stats on voter fraud and voting by mail? Check out the Brennan Center for Justice and their project debunking voter fraud myths: www.brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/vote-suppression/myth-voter-fraud
- And read about the results from Trump’s commission on voter fraud here: https://apnews.com/f5f6a73b2af546ee97816bb35e82c18d/Report:-Trump-commission-did-not-find-widespread-voter-fraud
- Dig into some analysis of the data around voting by mail and if it benefits one political party (Spoiler: it doesn’t seem to). https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/there-is-no-evidence-that-voting-by-mail-gives-one-party-an-advantage/
- Read US of Care’s “COVID-19 and Beyond: Recover, Reopen and Rebuild by Investing in Community Health” to learn about ways to improve community health grounded in anti-racist principles. https://unitedstatesofcare.org/covid-19/recover-reopen-and-rebuild-by-investing-in-community-health/
[00:38] Arizona Governor Doug Ducey: And we are prepared in Arizona. We are not in a crisis situation. If that were to happen, we have available field hospital capacity, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard. So if something were to go in a dramatically elevated position, we would be prepared in Arizona.
[01:07] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble. This is Andy Slavitt. Let’s take a step back from this podcast episode. I thought it would just be useful to talk about what we are trying to accomplish on this podcast, and what you most want to get out of this podcast. More than anything else, I want this podcast to be what you want to hear, and things that are interesting and important to you. We started this at the beginning of April with our first episode, and our goal then and our goal now is to really provide honest dialog, helpful information in a measured tone that gives us a real good feel for what’s going on.
[01:52] Andy Slavitt: And Zach and I really want to know, are we succeeding, and how can we do that better? You know, we’ve had an array of guests, but we’d love to get a sense for how we can do even more, and what things we can do to make this even better. One of the things we’re going to do is we’re going to bring on more scientific expertise from time to time to talk about where we are breaking through in things like vaccines and therapies and then places like that. But in the meantime, let’s talk a little bit about what we’re seeing around us. The virus is spreading. And the reason the virus is spreading is because that’s what viruses do. It’s spreading to new states. And we appear to be having case growth and hospitalization growth in some states that are quite challenging. The voice you heard at the beginning of the episode was Governor Ducey. Governor Ducey is the governor of Arizona, and he was undergoing increasing criticism and increasing pressure, including from yours truly, to take more aggressive, bolder action in Arizona, where it’s become the leading source of new cases in the country, where hospitals are screaming that they’re running out of beds, and where enough action hasn’t been taken. They really haven’t brought in the contact tracing and the testing workforce they’ve needed. He’s been reluctant at that time to get people to wear masks. And as you can tell from that press conference, was trying to present a brave front, little bit defensive, but he was really dragged there. And since that time, things have only gotten worse. In fact, things have gotten much, much worse in Arizona. Twenty percent of the people who they test now in Arizona test positive. And we’re going to talk about the crisis as it moves around the country. And I know people are growing weary of the crisis because it’s hard to sustain for a long period of time. And we want to talk about how these new states should be reacting to this crisis. And we’re gonna do that with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is the governor of Michigan, who was one of the first states to face a crisis. And indeed, right now, they’ve done a good job getting through it and coming to the other side. And they had some pretty tough moments. And I know that because I’ve been involved in trying to help them react. But really, I want to most know from her what these other states should be doing. And of course, there’s a lot of other interesting things to talk to Governor Whitmer about. So we’ll do that, and then I’m going to talk for a second about a very, very useful and interesting segment three, which is our last segment. But, Zach, before we do that, people apparently really are interested in the things you have to tell them and the facts that you’ve discovered. So let’s go to Zach.
[04:40] Zach Slavitt: Thank you. For today’s fact, this comes from Dr. Rhea Boyd and she said in a Harvard study on Twitter, she says that among Americans between 35 and 44, black people have a mortality rate nine times higher than whites. This isn’t just ability to catch it. This isn’t nine times more likely to catch it. This is nine times higher death rate. And so this can’t just be simply explained by people having to go into work and other things like that. It’s probably more likely explained by access to high quality food, preexisting conditions, heart disease and other things that are more prevalent in those communities.
[05:34] Andy Slavitt: And probably more essential workers as well. Would you say? I mean, we don’t know.
[05:37] Zach Slavitt: Yeah, but that wouldn’t impact the mortality rate.
[05:44] Andy Slavitt: Don’t get into an argument with Zach, by the way, because he always has the facts on his side. That’s alarming. I mean, nine times — you know, that statistic that I’m used to seeing, and I think most people have seen it this point, are that they’re twice as high propensity for black Americans to die from COVID than white Americans. You think for this specific age group, it’s not twice as high, it’s nine times as high.
[06:10] Zach Slavitt: Yeah. And I think a lot of people know that people in the black community are more likely to catch the virus and are more likely to die from it. But I think the nine times really shocked me as well. Just because it’s such a high number, it almost doesn’t make sense.
[06:27] Andy Slavitt: So the question is, what do we do about this? There is some work that United States of Care put out in concert with one of our board members, who put out a five-point plan for addressing the spread of Covid in the black community. And I wonder if that addresses it. Well, we’ll put a link to that in our show notes. So that’s deeply, deeply disturbing and what disturbs me even more is these disparities often have the effect, in an unintended way, of having certain populations who feel safer, to stop caring as much because they feel like this is happening to other people. And so this is dangerous in a number of ways. So thanks for that. So before we get to Governor Whitman, I want to tell you a little bit about what to stick around for in the third part of the show. It is a conversation about coronavirus and voting. And it is with Ben Wikler, who is one of the party chairs in Wisconsin, which has been the center of the storm for how we will vote during the pandemic. Before we get to Ben, let’s introduce you to Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
[07:45] Gretchen Whitmer: Hi, Andy.
[07:46] Andy Slavitt: Hi there. How are you doing, Governor?
[07:50] Gretchen Whitmer: Doing all right. How are you?
[07:51] Andy Slavitt: Good, thank you. Thank you for doing this.
[07:53] Gretchen Whitmer: I’ve heard your podcast before, so I’m honored to be here.
[07:58] Andy Slavitt: That’s about the most flattering thing that could have ever heard. So Zach is going to actually have a question for you. You should be prepared for a question from an 18 year old.
Maybe just start by telling us about your routine during the pandemic as a governor and give us a little sense of what that routine looks like.
[08:33] Gretchen Whitmer: So I think that’s one of the things that has come out of this, is we do have a pretty reliable routine. I’m on the phone with my team first thing in the morning and last thing at night. There’s so much that’s happening every single day that it’s been really important to bring the head of my legal team in, the head of my community affairs team, the head of the constituent services, the head of the legislative team, to have everyone updating one another in one fell swoop at the end of the day. And then what we’re working on at the beginning of the next. So that’s how every day starts and ends. In the middle, looks different every day. So, you know, it’s always Zoom calls, always Microsoft Teams calls. Trying to touch base with people on the front line, trying to make sure that I’m chatting regularly with Dr. Khaldun, our chief medical executive here in Michigan. Regularly on the phone with my fellow governors, because we are all in the same position. There are many people who understand all the different pressures that we’re trying to navigate, and yet we have one another, and I found a lot of comfort in those conversations. But just trying to keep on top of what’s happening in our emergency operations center as well every day. So days tend to look a little bit the same on the calendar, although the substance is very different every day.
[09:50] Andy Slavitt: So you’re on the back side of the peak as we sit here in June. You had some very tough times and you are thankfully recovering. Your cases are dropping. You managed a very, very difficult crisis. And so are things getting more predictable? Are you able to do more forward planning? And how are you thinking about the things to watch closely now as you open up to make sure that things are going well?
[10:25] Gretchen Whitmer: Well, I think, you know, at this stage in where we are in Michigan, we can breathe and think a little further down the field. I think in the early days where our cases were growing exponentially, we had health systems that were at capacity early on, we were building out field hospitals, trying to get our hands on every N95 mask we could. We built up a global procurement office in our state emergency operations center. To where we are now, where we’ve got PPE, and we are seeing our numbers go down and no hospitals are at capacity. You know, it’s very different. However, the one thing that remains is our need to continue building up our public health side. And so as we re-engage sectors of our economy, and Michigan’s been little more mindful and doing so incrementally than other states have, it’s really important that we do as much testing as we can, and that we have the tracing capabilities. So when COVID-19 does start to grow, we can isolate folks. That’s really important. We are continuing to try to put resources into that effort. But I think one frustration has been constant, and that is supplies. We simply don’t have the supply chain that can meet our needs as states. And we could do about 25,000 tests a day here in Michigan if we had all the supplies we needed. And yet something as simple as swabs or reagents is keeping us from getting there. So we’re tapped out at about 14,000 COVID tests a day, and that’s not enough. And so that continues to be a challenge for us, where we’re spending a lot of time and hopeful that the federal government can step up on that production side in the supply chain.
[12:09] Andy Slavitt: We will work on helping you get some swabs and also look at these other tests. I’m glad you identified that. I’m glad your team is on top of things.
[12:17] Gretchen Whitmer: Yeah, it’s hard for people to understand that something as simple as a swab could be holding us back. We are simply capable of manufacturing, you know, incredibly complicated machinery, and yet swabs are produced largely in just a couple places. And it’s really important that we have the various types of swabs that different tests require so that we can hit this number of one or two percent of our population weekly.
[12:45] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, swabs are the gold bullion out of 2020.
[12:49] Zach Slavitt: Governor, this is Zach. I was just wondering, what’s your advice to governors who are just now facing their peaks in the near future?
[12:58] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for the question, Zach. I appreciate it. I’d love to know what your plans are for the fall. Maybe your dad can tell me at some point. But I think the most important thing that we did here in Michigan was to get aggressive. We saw exponential growth here. We were heating up the same time New York and New Jersey were. We were desperately trying to get swabs, masks, everything in the supply chain. And I think the best thing I did was ask a lot of questions of the medical minds here in Michigan and across the country. I have Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, who’s our chief medical executive, and listening to our epidemiologists and public health experts was really important so that I could understand what we were confronting. All of the unknowns so that I could be better at communicating to the people of Michigan why we had to be aggressive, what the real threat was, how we go about protecting ourselves. So as I see different parts of the country heat up, I just hope that the leaders in those states are really listening to epidemiologists and the great medical minds across this country are communicating with their population about what it’s going to take to bring the numbers down and save lives. And that they’re not afraid to be aggressive, to take bold actions to bring that number down. And wear a damn mask. You know, it sounds so simple. And for some reason, it’s become this hyper-polarized political statement if you wear a mask or not. But we know that the lessons of COVID-19, we’re learning every single day, we know a tremendous more than we did just 10 weeks ago. And 10 weeks from now, we could be in a very different position as well. But something as simple as wearing a mask can save lives, and it shouldn’t be political. And anyone with a platform I hope will model the behavior we’re asking everyone else to emulate.
[14:49] Andy Slavitt: Maybe they could wear a mask that says, “I don’t believe in masks.” And then that’s the compromise.
[14:53] Gretchen Whitmer: Whatever it takes takes.
[17:55] Andy Slavitt: So when I when I talk with you, or I talk with Governor Murphy in New Jersey, or Governor Lamont in Connecticut, it’s a very different experience than talking to a governor out west. You’ve had what I would describe — not to make light of it — as a religious experience of sorts. You’ve dealt with the very reality of residents of your state suffering and dying, and that is something that people don’t really want to taste multiple times. But when I talk to somebody who may not have seen that kind of death, but instead has seen perhaps businesses closing and people who’ve lost their jobs, and maybe if they flick on the TV, they’ve seen what’s happened in your state, but that’s not the same thing. And furthermore, they probably feel like they have more limited options because people have already been on a lockdown before once. And so now they feel more reluctant to ask them again. So, you know, navigating tough situations is really what leadership’s all about. Very tactically, as you think about governors in these states — and I’m not asking you to criticize anybody, but, you know, you can empathize with them — how should they be navigating? What should they be watching? How should they be communicating in a way that is admittedly a tough task?
[19:18] Gretchen Whitmer: I think it’s really hard. And I think we can see that dichotomy just even within the borders of my own state. On the western side of Michigan or northern Michigan, COVID-19 didn’t hit us hard. And so not as many people lost a loved one or knows someone who’s on the front line battling that they’re listening to every day. I think one of the important things is to continue to tell those stories so that we try to make it a little more personal, a little more real for people. If you haven’t been impacted and you don’t think it’s ever going to impact you, all of these stay-home orders are annoying and inconvenient and scary when it comes to your ability to take care of your family and put food on the table. And yet, if you are someone who’s lost loved ones, I’ve lost three loved ones to COVID-19. I have talked with frontline workers who, you know, I asked them, what should I tell people? How do I explain how serious this is? And they said, well tell them if your loved one gets COVID-19, they’re going to die alone in a hospital. You won’t see them again. Tell them that what we’re seeing in terms of when you have people who’ve lost their battle with COVID-19, we have to have special storage units brought in to put the bodies in, because they can’t just go to the funeral home like a normal death. And so just trying to communicate and make it as real for people as possible. I mean, they’re fortunate that they haven’t been personally touched by it. And yet we have to make sure they somehow can viscerally understand how devastating this disease is and how horrible it is. I talked to some parents of a five year old named Skyler Herbert. She lost her battle with COVID-19, five years old, here in Michigan. And it presented in her like meningitis. And her doctors were on the phone with doctors around the world trying to figure out how to treat this child. Had anyone ever seen COVID-19, you know, present this way in a child? And what did they do? They couldn’t get answers. And they tried everything they could to save her little life. And her parents shared her story with me and have been on the news quite frequently because they want people to understand none of us knows how this is going to present. None of us knows how our bodies are going to react to it. And so I think you can’t underestimate the importance of that part of the communication, because if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t know anyone who’s dealt with it, if you’re not paying as close attention as Andy Slavitt and Gretchen Whitmer are, you might not understand how severe and how serious this really is.
[21:58] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, well, that’s a sad, sad story. And I’m also deeply sorry for your loss as governor. People forget when you get out there, sitting by the table with a microphone, that you’re a real person. You sometimes have to put that aside to communicate what’s best for people. And, of course, sometimes your personal story really matters. I think you’ve earned a reputation as someone who is very strong in battling for what’s right for the people of your state, willing to defend that, willing to talk to people honestly. And, you know, you’re one of the states that had protests, and the president asked that Michigan be liberated. But, you know, you became a little bit of the center of that. And, of course, I know you support the right for people to assemble and to protest and to protest safely. In this particular case, people were bringing guns to the capital and so forth, which, by my evaluation goes far beyond a protest. But be that as it may, what did you learn from that experience? How would that help you advise others about that experience? I mean, do you have a summary about that process?
[23:09] Gretchen Whitmer: So one of the things that, you know, we’ve seen, I think, in this national conversation around COVID-19 is how we’ve politicized public health. It’s become a political conversation as opposed to simply focused on public health. And it’s really unfortunate. I think more lives will be lost because of the politicization of COVID-19. When the tweets came in my direction from the White House, the whole environment shifted. My legislature, that is Republican controlled, would not extend my state of emergency order. They actually initiated a number of lawsuits, we saw political rallies in form of demonstration come to our state capital, people showing up with automatic rifles, which I know the whole world was wondering how on earth is that allowed? But in Michigan it is. And it’s the legislature that can change whether or not that’s allowed, and they’re not inclined to. They’ve been egging on some of this protest. The divisiveness around something that really is just about science and public health has really undermined our ability to do everything we need to do. And yet we’ve got to continue to stay focused on what the goal is, and the goal is to flatten the curve. The goal is to get support for those on the front line who are putting their own health at risk every day to take care of others. The goal is to shorten the amount of time that we have to take aggressive measures. It’s better for our economy if we can stay focused on that goal. And so even where people say that they’ve got a different political mindset, every one of us should be able to agree that the shorter period of time we have to stay in these aggressive measures, the better. And that’s why it’s absolutely essential everyone does their part. Now, as for protests, you know, I respect people’s right to demonstrate. In fact, I participated in a demonstration with a number of diverse ecumenical leaders around police brutality. But you can do it safely. Wearing a mask, trying to keep six feet apart is not always doable. But if you’re wearing a mask and you’re not shaking hands or hugging or high-fighting and you’re using hand sanitizer along the way, you can do these things safely. But that’s got to be the goal.
[25:29] Andy Slavitt: That tension point you just described may be the single central issue over the next five months as we get closer to the election, this sort of politicization of public health. I hope it’s not. And you hope it’s not, of course. But with five months to go or so — and, you know, you look around the world and it’s puzzling because there’s plenty of division in other countries around the world. Yet national leaders there have found a way to make sure people of various beliefs, by and large, feel included. And it’s hard to tell exactly how many people and how deep the division is, yet it feels like it’s fostered at a federal level. If I were here saying to you, you support President Trump. Fantastic. Terrific. You’re a supporter of Joe Biden. Terrific. You call yourself a Democrat, Republican, independent. Doesn’t matter. But I want to be able to communicate to you, despite our different political identities, perhaps, why this is important. While the president is out either neglecting to communicate at all or, sending those sort of subversive messages to his supporters by having rallies in Tulsa, etc., how do you win that battle? And I’m not talking to about the political battle, I’m very much talking about the battle of how we open the country safely? I’m not even talking about just purely public health because I completely agree with you. We don’t have a good economy, people won’t fly, buy cars, sign leases, do any of those things unless they feel safe.
[27:08] Gretchen Whitmer: Well, I think, you know, one of the points I’ve tried to consistently make throughout this is, you know, COVID-19 doesn’t stop a state line, and it doesn’t observe party line. This is a virus that is aggressive and none of us knows precisely how we’re going to react to it. Someone in your household might be asymptomatic. The other might be fatal. And there could be a wide range there. And that’s why it’s important that we remember we’re not one another’s enemy. The enemy is a virus. And we need to act as though we’re in a war with a virus and recognize we all got to be on the same team. One of the things I think that we’re seeing in this convergence of conversations around policing and public health is that, you know, we know that there is a disparate racial impact. And in Michigan, we were one of the first three states to report racial data associated with COVID testing and COVID death rates. About 13.6 six percent of our population is African-American here in Michigan, and about 40 percent of our deaths are African-American. Dr. Khaldun, our chief medical executive, African-American woman, really pushed to make sure that we’re releasing that information because there’s a unique threat in communities of color. The lieutenant governor, Michigan’s first African-American lieutenant governor, is the head of a task force that I named to delve into the disparate racial impacts of COVID-19. And it’s really important that we recognize the convergence of this moment as holding up a mirror to the United States and telling us where we’ve got a lot of work to do. They’re unrelated, and yet it’s very related. And that’s precisely why I think we gotta get this right. It’s not about politics, we’re not one another’s enemy, the enemy is a virus and a system that has created disparate impacts. And we’ve all got to get it right. It’s better for our individual health and it’s better for the health of our economy when we do.
[29:06] Andy Slavitt: That’s right. You brought up a topic that can’t be and shouldn’t be avoided, which is just how race in America, along with the virus at the same time, sort of these two pandemics, if you will. I guess one would be technically an epidemic if someone wanted to be technical and correct me, because I’m frequently wrong. That would be one I’d be wrong about. But with these two twin events going on, it feels to some degree like maybe both of them are a buildup of long-simmering things we’ve ignored. Ignoring the ability to get healthcare for people and keeping people healthy, although obviously that didn’t cause the pandemic. And really ignoring the injustice that has been in this country for a long, long time. If you were to think about the next few years or even decade, and said, you know, we’re going to do some repair work and we’re going to take this as a symbol to build this as a better country. You’re not just a governor of Michigan, you’re a national leader. In that frame, how might you be thinking about how we take these signals and repair our country?
[30:17] Gretchen Whitmer: Well, I think we have a lot of work to do. And I remember meeting with a doctor in Flint shortly after my predecessor made decisions that impacted Flint water, and made it so that lead was leaching into the water and thousands of kids were hurt by it. And I remember talking to a doctor in Flint and we were talking obviously about what had happened there. But this doctor was saying, you know, being a person of color in America is an underlying condition that even the wealthiest people in the African-American community have such an ongoing level of stress by virtue of being African-Americans, that they have higher rates of maternal morbidity. And I devoted a lot of time during my state of the state earlier this year, before COVID-19 became our reality we were all confronting, to focusing on implicit bias and how we go about making Michigan a safer place for black moms and babies. In the state of Michigan, if you are an African-American woman who is giving birth, you have a three times higher possibility of dying in that process. And so we really have been focusing our energies on some of the systemic things that contribute to that statistic that is horrifying. But we as a nation have a lot of work to do. And I think that’s maybe something that is going to get underway in earnest across the country as a result of our experience with COVID-19, and the conversations that are long overdue and happening around policing in America.
[32:01] Andy Slavitt: What do you do to relieve stress? How do you cope with all these stressful situations and make sure they don’t build up and stay healthy?
[32:10] Gretchen Whitmer: Well, it’s hard. I walk my dog, Kevin, get him outside and get some fresh air in that process. And I will say I’ve spent more time with my teenagers, and most people might not find that relieve stress. But we have a lot of good laughs together. And I think being around my family and my dog are things that help me.
[32:30] Andy Slavitt: Good. Well, you get to do a lot of that. And thank you so much for being on. We will stay in touch and be well and good luck. And don’t be afraid to reach out again anytime you think we can be helpful.
[32:40] Gretchen Whitmer: Thanks, Andy. Say goodbye to Zach.
[36:02] Andy Slavitt: Thanks to Governor Whitmer for coming on today and giving us the overview of what’s going on in Michigan and what to expect ahead. Now, today, the third segment, we’re covering something very, very practical that I think hopefully you will be able to use, which is how to vote during a pandemic. And really to explore the question of how is our democracy going to work in the middle of a healthcare crisis when and if people are being asked to choose between their own health and their rights to express their vote. We are going to have a link on the notes page which will help you get access to figuring out how you can vote by mail, and how you can vote early and all of those things. I think that’s probably the most important thing. To do this, we’re going to talk to someone who was at the center of the storm. The only state that has yet had an election that has been during this pandemic where these issues were in question. And that’s Ben Winkler, who is the chair of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. This is not a conversation about Democratic Party, Democratic politics, although Ben may touch on it. This is really just a question about voting, no matter which way you personally come out. So let’s give Ben a call.
[37:47] Andy Slavitt: So tell me now, Ben, what’s more important, voting or your health?
[37:49] Ben Wikler: The important thing is to create a system where nobody has to choose. It is an outrageous, kind of obscene idea that people should have to risk their lives in order to cast a ballot. And I think one of the big takeaways from this year so far is that the Republican Party is willing to force that choice if they think it creates an electoral advantage. In Wisconsin, there was a lot of public polling and a lot of private polling that showed that Republicans were less afraid of coronavirus. rightly or wrongly, and I think all scientists would say wrongly. And Republicans tried to do everything they could to shut off avenues for people to cast absentee ballots in our April 7th election. It’s hard to conclude anything other than the idea that Republicans thought that that would give them more votes because Democrats would stay home rather than risk infection. And the only reason we wound up winning our April 7th election is that so many people voted from home with absentee ballots. But that illustrates that coronavirus voter suppression could work. If they could shut off every vote by mail, I think Republicans would actually gain from it. And that’s a scary prospect because we know they’re willing to grab that kind of advantage.
[39:03] Andy Slavitt: Yeah. So I’m here with Ben Wikler, who is the Democratic Party chair in the state of Wisconsin. We’re actually not here to promote the Democratic Party, but we are here to talk about something that is important, which is our ability to vote this coming November in an election that has lots and lots of consequences. So regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, you may look at this differently. But if you are a believer that our right to vote is one of the most important things that’s a part of what makes our democracy strong, paying attention to what happened and understanding would happen in places like Wisconsin and Georgia are really fundamental to understanding how we’re going to all manage to get out and go do our duty, which many of us really want to do this year, and vote. What’s your sense of the whole landscape of the country to get a vision beyond just what you’ve seen in Wisconsin that are lessons for the rest of the country?
[39:58] Ben Wikler: Absolutely. So the six most critical battleground states, which are Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, famously, and then Florida, Arizona and North Carolina, they all have no-excuse absentee voting. And what that means is that anyone can request an absentee ballot. They can vote from home. All those states have different processes to get those absentee ballots. And in Wisconsin, for example, you have to upload a photo of your voter I.D., or put a photocopy in the mail to your county clerk. Once your absentee ballot is processed and sent to you and you fill it out, then you need a witness signature on the envelope before you can mail it in, which for people that live alone, especially is a pretty high burden. But nonetheless, if you can traverse those hurdles, anyone can vote from home. Across the country, it’s sort of a patchwork. I think more than half of the states representing, you know, a significant majority of the population of the country all have access to the ability to request ballots that they can cast from home. But there’s a lot of places where you have to have an excuse. You have to have some kind of reason, like disability or a barrier to your physical mobility to be able to request an absentee ballot. And even in Wisconsin, only people who are “indefinitely confined” can request an absentee ballot without having a state-issued I.D. card that would require going to a location to get.
[41:15] Andy Slavitt: So when you said “no-excuse” voting, I had assume that that meant you didn’t need a reason?
[41:19] Ben Wikler: That’s right. You don’t have to say I want an absentee ballot because I’ll be on vacation. You can just say I want to vote absentee this year.
[41:27] Andy Slavitt: So is there a good resource for people who want to vote from home that gives them the step-by-step instructions? Or are there just in multiple different places?
[41:37] Ben Wikler: You can go to VoteAmerica.com, Vote.org or I think Rock the Vote has this information. There’s a bunch of places that have collected — if you Google vote absentee and then where you are. The thing I like about Vote America is that if you fill out the information on their website, it will send you reminders to get your absentee voting application in and, you know, go through the whole process. That’s also something if you are a member of a party, my guess is most parties on both sides in most states will have people who will help you go through that process. So I can certainly say for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, if you contact us, we will do everything within our power to help you cast a vote successfully.
[42:18] Andy Slavitt: Got it. What about the rampant vote-by-mail fraud?
[42:24] Ben Wikler: Yeah. Rampant, just like the Martian invasion. It’s a constant and ever present threat in some people’s minds.
[42:31] Andy Slavitt: So, seriously, why would you say it’s not a threat? And what are people who say it is a threat arguing? Because I know, I mean, I was being a little bit silly, but I know that there are people who are told that this is a problem and might believe it’s a problem.
[42:44] Ben Wikler: So the reason why I think a lot of people think it’s a problem is that there are a lot of folks in politics and media who have talked about it a lot over and over and over. And the reason why some people might want to advance the thesis that it’s a problem is that the solutions to supposed voter fraud that people put forward are “solutions” that restrict some people from voting. And those restrictions land disproportionately on one side of the political spectrum. So there’s a strong political incentive to creating the perception of a crisis that then affords solutions that could lead to fewer votes being counted for one party. If you look at the data, and a whole bunch of people have looked exhaustively at the data, it is less likely that someone will commit voter fraud than it is they’ll be struck by lightning. I have been reading — Stacey Abrams has a new book out which is great about access to the ballot. She points out that either people pretending to be someone else and voting, or trying to double vote is out of a like a billion votes cast, there’ve been 30 verified cases. So it’s three in 100 million.
[43:56] Andy Slavitt: Let’s say my uncle who didn’t believe me, said, can you just send me a link to some evidence and then I’ll believe you? Where would you point them?
[44:08] Ben Wikler: There are peer-reviewed academic studies about this. The Brennan Center for Justice is a group that has a lot of rigorous information about it. The challenge is that people tend to trust new sources that they don’t think are ideologically biased against them. And a lot of the reporting on this stuff tends to flow. But one thing I would look at is that Trump appointed a commission to look at voter fraud and it was staffed by people who were convinced that voter fraud was a huge deal. And that commission, appointed by Trump, could not find any evidence of widespread voter fraud. All kinds of voter fraud. And so one of the things to know is that there are already a bunch of different laws against voter fraud in general, and specifically voter fraud with regard to mail ballots. In Wisconsin, it is a Class A felony to, for example, tamper with a vote that’s being cast by mail. I actually wrote a letter to the Wisconsin Elections Commission last night because an organization in Wisconsin, a conservative organization, is trying to convince our elections commission to make it illegal to help people return their absentee ballots. So, for example, if you can’t leave your house, but you give the ballot to your teenager and your teenager puts it in the mailbox, this would make that — according to this group’s interpretation of the law — that should be illegal. So I wrote a letter last night going through all of the laws that make it illegal to mess with someone’s ballot if you’re delivering it for them. That is a very sacred protected activity is supporting people in voting. And there’s an effort to raise fears that create a world where you could make it harder for people to vote by mail because that could create a partisan advantage.
[45:46] Andy Slavitt: Let’s just finish up by asking you to help us walk us through — since we have you, you’re one of the people who actually has a valid potential opinion on this question, although no one knows –what it’s gonna feel like in the fall. Just give us a tick-tock of what you suspect Election Day will look like, what it will take to count the votes, and any other tips into how we think this is all going to look and feel.
[46:15] Ben Wikler: Wisconsin is the only state that’s had a general election, Democrats versus Republicans, on a statewide basis since coronavirus hit. So we have lived through something that might be like what we all see in the fall. The first thing is that get out the vote, normally people think of like the final weekend and then really Election Day. It’s now a six week process. In Wisconsin, the absentee ballots requested in advance will be mailed on September 17th. And then you’ve got half of September, all of October, part of November, where people are filling those ballots out.
[46:46] Ben Wikler: We had hundreds of thousands of ballots returned in Wisconsin before the final week. So it really changes how kind of political mobilization works. Election Day is suddenly, you know, election-month-plus. The second thing that happens is that given what’s happening with conditions with a pandemic, poll workers are deciding whether they’re going to show up. And in Wisconsin, there was a huge number of poll workers, especially in Milwaukee, which had the highest rates of infection at that time, no longer actually, at that time, the vast majority of poll workers wound up canceling because they were concerned about the risk of infection at the polls. And that’s why so many polling locations in Milwaukee closed. That is probably going to be something that is not geographically distributed in a uniform way. And so when we get to November, there’s a risk of poll closures that happened very quickly because the pandemic flares up in particular spots. One thing that cities can do is create lots of protections for their poll workers, have backups. In Wisconsin, they actually mobilized the National Guard to work in plainclothes and support polling location administration. There’s a lot of prep work you can do. Also making it easy to vote early. Make it easy to drop off ballots through things like library book deposit slots. That’s how I voted. Those things can mitigate.
[48:00] Ben Wikler: But at the end, we’ll see what happens so often, which is that on Election Day, this sort of confluence of all these underlying factors in our society, around which localities have resources, what the urban density is, which governmental bodies have what kinds of resources to implement stuff. And then also what the level of interest is in voting. All will kind of compound with each other to determine where there’s long lines and where there’s not. And in some cases, there’ll be deliberate efforts probably to restrict polling locations, other places there’ll be enormous undertakings to expand them. And we’ll kind of get our report card in the size of the lines that you see from news helicopters on November 3rd. I hope for the country that we will have done our homework and gotten it together and overcome those who will restrict the ballot so that it’s as orderly as possible. In the after-action review in Wisconsin, 72 people were contact-traced to have had coronavirus after being exposed at polling places on Election Day that they know of through, I think, the Milwaukee contact tracers. And there’s one study that looked county by county at the rate of in-person voting and the level of infection afterwards, they found that there was a significant predictive quality. That’s a pre-print, I can’t speak to the methodology, but it does look like some people did catch the virus in Wisconsin from voting. And I’d like that number nationwide in the fall to be zero.
[49:22] Andy Slavitt: Let’s hope for that. And also not a contested election, where people have reasons to question, legitimate reasons to question the vote. Well, Ben, thank you for pushing for democracy, pushing for people to vote. I know you are pushing for obviously one party, which I happen to be a member of as well. But I would argue that in the context of what you experienced in Wisconsin, what we need to experience in the country, you’re also working hard to make sure that the democracy works, that people get their rights, and that they can do it in good health. So thank you so much for doing it and good luck, man.
[50:00] Andy Slavitt: So Monday’s episode, we recorded the introduction from Chicago. Zach and I went to see my mom and that was great fun and long overdue. We haven’t seen her in a long time. And a few people have asked, Andy, how did you make the decision to go see your mom? Because I think everyone is missing their family. And of course, it wasn’t a decision that we made lightly. Zach and I have been completely socially isolating here and felt very good about the fact that we were in good enough stead to begin with. Number two, we drove, because we live here in Minnesota. She’s in Chicago. So we were able to do that without making contact with people. I will say that when we went to get gas, we were the only people wearing masks, nonetheless, socially distanced and all that. We went to visit my mom, who is living in Chicago. We waited until Chicago was way on the downside of the virus and it’s been doing well. We were able to socially distance with her, which was not our first choice, but was something that we had the discipline to do. And thanks, Mom, for understanding that. And, you know, our activities there were quite safe. We went walking. And when we went walking, we wore masks. We had a couple of restaurants we ate at outdoors, but we did so in a very safe way, wearing masks and so forth. And we were able to pull that visit off. So were there risks that we created to our health or to my mom’s health? I certainly hope not. But we tried to take every precaution that we can. So, you know, my advice to people continues to be live your life with the virus. Don’t put things off, assuming that we’re going to have a vaccine at some point which is going to change everything. It’s not entirely clear if we have a vaccine, whether or not it will be something that we can even take, or whether it will even work, or whether my mom can take it. So, you know, I think you have to find ways to go about your life and you have to do it in a as smart a way as possible. So I hope that helps. Obviously, these decisions are quite individual in nature.
[52:24] Andy Slavitt: That’s it for this week. I want to thank all of our guests and my co-host, Zach. We have a fantastic lineup next week. We will be dropping two more episodes, a mini-episode with Kara Swisher, who is fascinating, and we’re going to be talking about technology and how technology plays into getting our way to the other side of this pandemic. And then Wednesday, I think probably many people’s all-time favorite is Chef José Andres, and we have a very good, deep, honest conversation with him planned that I think going to really enjoy listening to. So I hope everybody stays safe and healthy and has a great week.
[53:08] Andy Slavitt: In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavitt is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.