Let America Vote: An Interview with Jason Kander

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Jason Kander first surged onto the national scene in 2016 when he narrowly lost a Senate race in his home state of Missouri to Republican incumbent Roy Blunt. Having previously served as Missouri’s Secretary of State, Kander lost to Blunt by less than three percent on the same day then-candidate Donald Trump carried the state by over 19 points. For many, the endeavor cemented Kander’s status as a rising star in the Democratic Party, so much so that some outlets have speculated the former attorney and serviceman may seek the party's nomination in 2020. Following the 2016 contest, Kander established Let America Vote, a grassroots organization dedicated to combating gerrymandering and voter suppression. He spoke with the Carolina Political Review last month about his fight for voting rights, his two Missouri campaigns, and what he and his fellow Democrats should focus on for the future. The following is a transcript of his interview with Kirk Kovach, former Editor-in-Chief, condensed for clarity.

Kirk Kovach: The first thing I wanted to ask you about, because I think that’s why you’re here specifically, is your Let America Vote program. Can you tell us more about that?

Jason Kander: Let America Vote’s mission is to create political consequences for voter suppression. And what that’s really all about is the fact that Republicans have decided that if they can make it harder for folks to vote who are less likely to vote for them, then they’re gonna win more elections. I think that’s un-American, and I want pro-democracy folks to get elected. And the way we do that is we knock on doors, make phone calls, and recruit interns and volunteers from across the country. We have about 70,000 volunteers signed up nationwide and hundreds of intern positions and applications available right now. It’s been very successful and we’re very excited about it. Oh - and anybody interested can text ‘intern’ to 44939!

Kirk: I know we’ve had our own problems in North Carolina with voter suppression. And the way they frame it is as a voter ID issue, and everyone says that makes perfect sense, why wouldn’t you want to have a voter ID? But when you dig into it, you find they do other things - they close polling stations, and they target African-American communities with surgical precision. How can you communicate to people that what they’re doing is wrong when the, sort of, “banner item” is something that seems common sense for people, like voter ID?

Jason: There’s two different ways that we have to think about this. The first is getting Republican elected officials to understand what they’re doing is wrong - I think a lot of them know what they’re doing is wrong on this. And that’s a very different approach from the way you talk to the average Republican voter, the average Independent voter, or any voter about this. And it aims to point out a few things. One, you’re statistically more likely as an American to be struck by lightning than you are to commit voter fraud. It’s exceedingly rare. Second, in order to put policies like photo ID in place, it actually costs a ton of taxpayer money. That’s an important element of this as well - there are all sorts of unintended consequences. What it really comes down to is this: nobody should win elections by messing with the system. Folks should win elections because they have the better argument. And that’s something that voters across the board agree with. And the average Republican elected official who’s for this is for it because they have a vested interest - it helps them win elections because it makes it harder for people who don’t vote Republican to vote. It goes back to the old Upton Sinclair quote, “It’s very hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” And so for those folks, the Republican elected officials, that’s why we created Let America Vote. They do it in order to win elections, so we make it so they can lose elections.

Kirk: I was in Raleigh yesterday and met a Massachusetts Republican - which to me sounds like a North Carolina Democrat - and I asked her what it would take for her to vote Democrat, because if you sit down and talk about the politics, she’s way closer to the Democrats in North Carolina than Republicans. So I wonder, being someone who ran in a Southern state, which Missouri is...right?

Jason: There’s an argument. There was at one point a very big argument over that - it was during the Civil War (laughs). I think we’re a Midwestern state. Most Missourians, I believe, view us as more Midwestern.

Kirk: As someone who ran in a state that tends red, how do you convince people to vote for the Democrat if it’s viewed through a national lens?

Kander campaigning in St. Louis in 2016 ( source )

Kander campaigning in St. Louis in 2016 (source)

Jason: One of the biggest reasons I’m a Democrat is because I want everybody’s hometown to be a place where you can find success without having to leave. And you name the policy, whether it’s about wages, making sure that people make enough money in town so that folks can actually afford to buy stuff; whether it’s college affordability, making sure that your kids can actually afford to come home or go to college where you live; whether it’s criminal justice reform, which is about making your community a place that’s safer because people don’t come out of an incarcerated situation with absolutely no chance to do anything outside of criminality to actually make a living. You name the issue, I think all of that is really about making every place a place where your family can be happy, healthy, safe, and close. That’s what I think the party is about.

Kirk - You gained national attention with the AR-15 ad. Could you walk us through the mindset of how you came to that idea, and do you think that was a big turning point for you?

Jason: Let me take the question in reverse order. It was a turning point in the sense that it was when people around the country learned about the race, but it was just a continuation of what I had been doing in that race and the previous race in which I had won, which is telling people what I believe and why I believe it. To this day, I’m the only candidate for Secretary of State in a competitive general election to run an ad about my opposition to photo ID. 80% of the people in the state had a different position than me on that issue, but I won that race on the same day President Obama lost by almost 10 in my state. So what was going on with that ad, I thought, look, I have an F rating from the NRA, proudly, and back then, they wanted to make sure everybody knew that. So I said to my team, "I bet I can put a rifle together a lot faster than the other guy, because I’ve been in the Army." They said, "Can you do it blindfolded?" And I said, "I’ve done it in the dark, in the woods, I probably can." So we made the ad. But the thing is, that ad is me saying, "I’m right about gun control, and the NRA is wrong. And I know what the heck I’m talking about." A lot of the time, when they attack a candidate on a lot of these issues, like guns, it’s not even that they’re necessarily trying to say something about guns...I think what they’re trying to say is, "This guy wouldn’t fit in in your town." And that was me saying, "Look, this is what I believe, and this is why I believe it, and you and I may not agree, but we’d get along fine."

Kirk: One thing you touched on is - given the disparity between the margin that you had and then Clinton in your state, what do you think it says about the country more writ large that they did elect Donald Trump? Is it sort of like a reaction to something, you think, or what’s the mindset of America?

Jason: First of all, it’s important to know that 54% of the country voted for somebody not named Donald Trump. So we should not make the mistake of drawing the conclusion that he’s won the argument about who America is or where America’s going. And look, a whole lot of people voted for him and voted for me, even though we have pretty much nothing in common. I talked to a lot of those folks, and they’d say, "Look, I don’t like him, and I don’t like the way he treats people, but it’s made him very successful." And they’d say, "If he’s going to take that approach for me, for the country, I’m willing to give that a try." Well now, those same people are saying he didn’t do what he promised. And he’s still somebody they don’t like, and they don’t like the way he treats people, but he never made the transition from doing that for himself to doing that for the country. When people say, "I don’t like the tweeting", this is what they mean. They mean none of it’s about them. It’s all about him. His broken promises are really the largest betrayal of the Trump presidency.

Kirk: A lot of Democrats seem more focused on finding reasons why he won that were illegitimate instead of trying to understand the legitimate reasons people voted for him. What do Democrats need to do in 2018 and 2020 to convince the public, "Vote for us, but not just because we’re not him?"

Jason: Look, the American people overwhelmingly don’t like President Trump. They didn’t like him before. We don’t really need to sell people on the idea that he’s not a particularly good guy. He’s not a good guy, and most of the country doesn’t think he’s a good guy. I mean, nobody wants him to dog-sit for them, right? (Laughs). But that means we have to tell people what we’re about. We have to make it really clear that it’s not just about an alternative. People don’t necessarily get excited just to vote against him, they get excited because they believe in something. And I believe in something. That’s why I’m a Democrat, that’s why I’m in public service. I’m not in public service because I want to follow public opinion polls, I’m in public service because I want to change public opinion polls. That’s what leadership is. And so that’s what we have to do. There’s nothing wrong with saying why you have a problem with President Trump - I do it all the time. But it’s also important that at the same time you’re saying, "And by the way, here’s what I think we ought to do."

Kander visiting Fort Leonard Wood in 2013 ( source )

Kander visiting Fort Leonard Wood in 2013 (source)

Kirk: And I understand your point that 54% of people voted for someone else, but obviously, under our current system, that’s not how it works. Given the way people live more compactly in urban areas now than they did when this country was founded, is that enough to merit changing the electoral college system?

Jason: Before you even get to having a conversation about the electoral college, you’ve got to address the other reasons that people feel disaffected that come way before that. And it’s the way districts are drawn, it’s the way primaries work, where people feel like if you’re a Republican living in an 80% Democratic district and you don’t vote in that primary, then your vote doesn’t count much. And the same is true if you reverse Democrat and Republican in that scenario. So if you look at states like California that have changed their primary system to where the general election really matters, if you limit gerrymandering to make more districts competitive, if you address the way campaign finance works in this country - those are all things that really need to be done and that are much more urgent than an issue like the electoral college.

Kirk: Do you think that with jungle primaries, you run the risk of a very liberal district featuring two liberals competing with each other, and then a Republican beating both?

Jason: In California, you largely have not had that happen. And for anybody listening who doesn’t know, the kind of primary you’re talking about is one where every candidate from every party is on your primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters go to the general election. Here’s why I think that’s great. because in that general election - let’s say it’s that made-up district that I was just talking about, 80% Republican and 20% Democrat - what you’re gonna have almost every time is two Republicans going to the general election ballot. Then, it’s just math. 20% of the people who are gonna vote are not Republicans. Now does this mean that those two Republicans are necessarily going to move to the middle? Probably not. But they’re gonna have to listen to the other 20%, they’re gonna have to actually talk to them, they’re gonna have to answer questions at town halls. And here’s why that really matters. It’s not even that part. It’s when whoever wins that runs for reelection. Because when they run for reelection, they’ve got to go home and they’ve got to demonstrate that they got some stuff done, that they were willing to work with the other side. And that’s not about compromising your values, that’s about that people used to in every district in the country run on bipartisan results - forget bipartisan, they used to run on results! And that’s what we gotta get back to. That’s why I think it’s really valuable, because at the end of the day, it forces everybody from every district, no matter their political beliefs, to actually represent the people that live in their district. And when you do that, people feel - rightfully - a lot more part of the process and a lot less disenfranchised.

Kirk: One last question: what do you have on the horizon moving forward, politically or otherwise?

Jason: Well, if you give me the option, I’m gonna pick otherwise (laughs).

Kirk: Politically, then.

Jason: I’m really focused on 2018. People have been asking me about 2020, and that’s made me think about it. But I’m going to stay focused on Let America Vote and fighting voter suppression, because that’s the most important thing I can be doing right now. And after 2018, I’ll consider my options. Can I answer the otherwise question?

Kirk: Of course.

Jason: I’ll be home in a few days to play with my kid.

Kirk: That’s equally important.