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What it takes for a democracy to thrive, according to a new MacArthur genius

The MacArthur Foundation chose Bassin as a genius grant recipient. He hopes the attention boosts his mission.

A man wearing black glasses, a light blue shirt, and grey sportscoat stands in front of a flight of stone steps, with his arms crossed in front of him. 
Ian Bassin of Protect Democracy recently won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.  (Courtesy of MacArthur Foundation)

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Big news: The elections world has produced a certified genius! You know him as Ian Bassin, the co-founder and executive director of nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy. 

Elections officials probably know Protect Democracy best for its VoteShield program, which works with states to track voter roll additions and subtractions and detect abnormal movement in either direction.

This genius designation is a big deal, folks. The MacArthur Fellows Program (most commonly referred to as the “MacArthur genius grant”) is $800,000 in no-strings-attached cash, meant to support the work of those surprise-selected by the committee in recognition of their contributions to their field. 

It’s supposed to free them up to do more genius-level work, and so we checked in with Ian to ask how he felt about all of this.

The below is edited for length and clarity, with added links to additional information. This interview was conducted by email between Oct. 11 and Oct. 18. 

Q: Tell us about the call. What was it like to get this kind of surprise? How did you feel? 

A: The call was a total bolt from the blue. Not only had I not applied for this or done anything to seek it out, I’ve always associated it with being for scientists or choreographers, and so the thought of ever even being a candidate was the furthest thing from my mind. 

When I got on the phone, the person on the other end asked if I was alone, which was a strange question to begin with. When she told me I’d received the fellowship, I think I was just kind of stunned. And then she went on to say more but at that point I don’t recall hearing it — my mind had drifted to my late grandparents. When I was little, they used to say over and over: “Just try to make something worthwhile of yourself.” As a kid you don’t really know what that means, but in this moment on the phone, I just had a deep feeling of wishing I could share this news with them. So much of the incredible opportunity I’ve been afforded in this life to try to do something worthwhile, I owe to them, and so I wanted them to share in this news. 

But the other feeling I had was actually some discomfort, on two fronts. First, I don’t do this work alone. I work with an incredible team of more than 100 amazing democracy defenders, and second, our work is far from complete. I’ve wrestled with these feelings a lot since finding out and have come to understand this incredible honor as a signal from MacArthur of how important the work of protecting democracy is at this moment. And I see my responsibility in receiving this as to lift up that work, all of my colleagues and our partners doing it, and really try to leverage the attention this award provides to increase our ability to succeed in the mission of protecting and ultimately perfecting democracy. 

Q: How would you describe the work of Protect Democracy, and what about that work do you think the committee that chooses the recipients found most exciting?

A: Protect Democracy is a cross-ideological anti-authoritarianism group. Two things are at the heart of our approach: First, that to defeat authoritarian movements you need to build a broad pro-democracy coalition. We just saw how the center-right partnered with the left in Poland to unseat their illiberal nationalist government. The same thing happened when the Czechs united across political differences to thwart an aspiring strongman there. That’s how you defeat these autocratic movements. 

And second, that protecting democracy requires using all the tools our founders gave us. That includes activating courts through litigation, legislatures through policy proposals and advocacy, helping support the Fourth Estate to perform its essential functions, organizing the private sector, the grassroots, all of it. Our institutions don’t protect themselves; the job of citizens is to help animate our institutions to do what they’re supposed to do.

Bringing people together across differences to strengthen our institutions — that’s what I think it takes for democracy to thrive, and my best guess is MacArthur agrees and wants to endorse that approach. 

Q: What’s one striking thing that you have learned in the last year through your work at Protect Democracy that our readers would be surprised to know?

A: This may not be surprising but I think it is an essential truth that is important for us to remember in this moment: Most people, by and large, are good people and aspire to similar things. We may have different ideas for how to get there, but there’s more we have in common in our values and aspirations than our discourse would have us believe.  

Social media in particular flattens and simplifies people in ways that are misleading — if you met the people who most trigger you online, more often than not I think you’ll find them to not be the caricature you turned them into, and you’ll find more place for common ground than you likely assumed. That’s not to say there isn’t real evil in the world — there is. But our media and our politics can trick us into seeing evil where we should see disagreement or just diversity of views or approach. I fall prey to this myself all too often. The more we all can do to resist that, and try to see each other’s complexity and what we have in common, the more chance we have of seeing our democracy not just survive, but thrive.  

Because in the end, our politics are a reflection of who we are as people. If at the citizen-to-citizen level we’re assuming the worst and quick to turn on each other, our government is going to mirror that. But the flip side is true as well: if at a community level we can overcome the gaps of trust that power-hungry politicians or greedy businesses have injected in between us, our elected officials will follow our lead in doing that as well.  

Q: Early days, I know! But do you have any initial thoughts for what you’ll do with the grant money?

A: I’m still in the phase of not quite believing this is real! 

Q: You’ve become part of a really fabulous group of fellow grantees — whose work are you most excited about, past or present grantees included? 

A: Honestly one of the most exciting things about this is getting to meet all of the other fellows. It’s such an inspiring group of people. One thing that was special for me about this is that a longtime friend of mine, the incredible poet Ada Limon, is also part of this year’s class, as are two classmates of mine from graduate school: Tendayi Achiume and Andrea Armstrong. Sharing this with all of them was very nice. And one fellow from a prior year stands out to me: Cecilia Muñoz. When I served in the White House, I looked up to Cecilia as a model of what a public servant should be. We’ve been fortunate to have Cecilia serve on our board at Protect Democracy, and knowing that I’ve received a fellowship that Cecilia received before me is personally among the most meaningful parts of this experience. 

Back Then

When we have a pleasant newsletter, it is incumbent upon me to hit you with a history with some heft. Please consider this article, written by Belle Kearney, about the history of women’s suffrage in Mississippi. She writes, “Women’s suffrage is a cause filled with such vitality and far-reaching results that it is well to understand its beginning and subsequent development, especially in one’s own state.” And so, she goes on to write a history (up to 1936, when the article was published) of the women’s suffrage movement in her state. 

Kearney was among the biggest advocates for women’s suffrage in Mississippi. In 1922, shortly after women received the right to vote, she ran unsuccessfully for state Senate. She ran successfully in 1924, becoming the first woman to hold the office. But her history is not clean: She used her platform to advocate for white supremacy, as many early white suffragettes also did. In 1903, she made her most famous speech at the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention. It was the keynote, and in it, she said women’s suffrage would result in “immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.” This is unmentioned in her 1936 column, but you can read more about it here

New From Votebeat

From Votebeat Arizona: Arizona’s presidential election timeline doesn’t work. Election officials want a quick fix. 

From Votebeat Texas: Heider Garcia set to become new Dallas County elections chief

In Other Voting News

  • Sidney Powell, the lawyer who famously and baselessly promised to “release the Kraken” and prove the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit intentional interference with performance of election duties in Georgia, shortly before her trial was set to begin, the New York Times reported. She was sentenced to six months of probation, fines, and agreed to testify against other defendants. She also had to write a letter of apology to Georgia voters. 
  • Galveston County, Texas officials violated the Voting Rights Act and drew a commissioners court precinct map that “denies Black and Latino voters the equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” a federal judge found after a trial, the Texas Tribune reported,
  • Wisconsin Senate Republicans acknowledged in legal filings that they do not have the authority to fire Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe, describing their efforts to remove her as “symbolic.” Their filing came in response to a lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the state attorney general, asking a judge to stop lawmakers from taking further action to remove Wolfe, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Senate Republicans also rejected a Democratic appointee to the Wisconsin Elections Commission from Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.   
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer profiles Bill Bachenberg, a Pennsylvania millionaire whose role in attempts to overturn the 2020 election are getting new legal scrutiny. 
  • A group said it has stopped circulating fliers warning Virginia residents that failing to vote could result in a loss of Social Security income, Medicare eligibility, child custody rights, and other benefits after the state attorney general warned them to cease and desist, the News & Advance reported
  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, sued state lawmakers over new legislation removing his power to appoint members of various boards, including the state Board of Elections, arguing it violates the constitutional separation of powers, Courthouse News reported.
  • Cochise County, Arizona has appointed its fourth elections director this year, a former deputy clerk to the county’s Board of Supervisors with previous election administration experience, the Arizona Republic reported. The county’s leaders have attempted to enact policies rooted in conspiracy theories. 

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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