Gina Rodriguez of the pro-immigration group Mitú sat down the Obama and asked him several questions regarding voter rights and immigration policy. Two particular answers have aroused shock and condemnation from many people that have seen coverage of the interview.
First, Rodriguez asked the President if the elections was rigged.
Obama responded in the negative before explaining that America has a long history of prohibiting or frightening people away from the voting booth. He stated that some of these scare tactics are still in use today.
However, when taken in context with later statements in the interview (read below), it was the concluding sentence of this response that deserves closer scrutiny. Obama said, “If you want to vote, and you show up at your polling place, they can’t stop you from voting.”
Some have taken this statement to mean that anyone, registered or not, may vote without fearing that their ballot will be discarded or there will be some legal consequence. In California, for instance, unregistered votes are considered “an error not subject to prosecution or fine.”
Rodriguez continued: “Many of the millennials, dreamers, undocumented citizens-and I call them citizens because they contribute to this country-are fearful of voting, so if I vote will immigration know where I live? Will they come for my family and deport us?”
Obama answered, “Not true. And the reason is, first of all, when you vote you are a citizen yourself, and there is not a situation where the voting rolls are transferred over and people start investigating, etc. The sanctity of the vote is strictly confidential in terms of who you voted for. If you have a family member who maybe is undocumented, then you have an even greater reason to vote.”
The President is promising that if a Latino voter shows up to the poll, that this will not serve as a fingerprint that immigration officials will later use to track down undocumented family members of the person that voted. He is not stating that “undocumented citizens” may vote without worrying about a follow-on investigation regarding their legal status.
The confusion exists because of the absurdity of the claim made in the first place by Rodriguez. To most Americans, the assertion that immigration officials would investigate voting results purely by their racial origins in order to discover the location of voter’s illegal family members is so nonsensical that they did not understand the President’s meaning. They, instead, interpreted his statement to mean that undocumented immigrants could vote without reprisals.
Furthermore, Rodriguez prefaced her question by claiming that undocumented immigrants are fearful of voting-without making it clear that they are fearful of their family members voting.
The idea that thugs and republican henchmen are waiting for minorities at the polls is a popular liberal sentiment, and one that may be used to compel minority communities to show up at the polls in defiance.
Rodriguez believes that many Americans are fearful that their votes will be used to track down undocumented relatives. “This has been a huge fear, especially during this election.”
Obama did not correct her, instead choosing to fan the partisan flames. “The reason fear is promoted is because they don’t want people voting.”
“They” clearly refers to republicans, and democrats used similar narratives in 2008 and 2012 to provoke fear from their constituents. But the voter intimidation many democrats cite is far less nefarious and dangerous than many would expect. Democratic voter suppression includes asking for an ID, long lines at the polls, or lack of computer polling in inner cities. These types of “suppression” are far cry from the violence that occurred when southern Democrats kept black people away from the polls in the 1960s and earlier.
Post-election, it is often found that even these inconveniences for voters in inner cities could be explained by differences in population congestion, or in many cases did not occur at all.
The night before the election, the nationally syndicated CBS Evening News reinforced the notion that it would be somehow dangerous to vote on Election Day. One expert interviewed on the program stated that voter ID laws were responsible for a nine percent drop in the black vote. Another story highlighted voting laws in California, where anyone who wants to vote will be issued a ballot, and voters were reassured that police would intervene if anyone attempted to demand ID from voters waiting in line. Finally, another reporter warned that some millennials were fearful of the future, and that this fear could translate into a fear of showing up to the polls.
The full interview with Rodriguez and Obama can be found here.