CNN covers voting rights as Democratic infighting, instead of focusing on Trump’s Big Lie as the threat to democracy

The public fight for voting rights is not “wasting time”

Mainstream media coverage of voting rights bills in Congress risks turning the debate into a narrative of Democratic division, instead of focusing on the real problem: The waves of Republican-backed legislation to damage voting rights in the states, as part of former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” propaganda campaign.

FiveThirtyEight ran a comprehensive piece last week on how Trump’s Big Lie has resulted in a network of activists and media figures spreading new restrictions on voting, including 579 voting restriction bills that have been introduced in state legislatures — 50 of which have been signed into law. Harvard history professor Alexander Keyssar called it “probably the most widespread and sustained wave of voter restriction legislation since the Voting Rights Act.” And even more than just the raw numbers, Keyssar pointed to the especially concerning new laws that strip authority away from nonpartisan election officials in favor of partisan legislative bodies.

CNN was seemingly off to a good start in acknowledging the problem, during a segment Tuesday morning on New Day. However, this focus was not to last, soon being overtaken by partisan horse-race coverage.

“Imagine for a second that it is 2024, and the presidential election results have all come down to one state,” said guest co-anchor Kasie Hunt. “Let's set up a hypothetical. What if the top election official in said state is a self-proclaimed Oath Keeper and QAnon conspiracist? It could become a distinct possibility if these Trump-endorsed candidates win their elections in Arizona.”

The show then displayed clips from Trump’s rally in Arizona over the weekend, featuring remarks from state Rep. Mark Finchem and former local news anchor Kari Lake, who are respectively running this year for secretary of state and governor. During their speeches, the two GOP candidates discussed having the 2020 election “decertified” and sending people to prison over the result.

Hunt and co-anchor John Berman then spoke with CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan about Trump’s efforts to elect candidates in 2022 who are themselves election conspiracy theorists, in order to have them in charge of running the 2024 election.

Berman pointed out how this threat from Trump-backed political forces is directly relevant to the current voting rights debate, and explained that most Democrats in Washington are now “trying to pass new voting rights legislation that would address some of the movements that you're seeing from the right here to take over election apparatus — not all, but some.”

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Citation From the January 18, 2022, edition of CNN’s New Day with John Berman and Brianna Keilar

But less than an hour later, at the end of a lengthy interview with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Hunt asked whether Democrats were “wasting time on voting rights” with the debate this week, instead of dealing with other issues.

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Citation From the January 18, 2022, edition of CNN’s New Day with John Berman and Brianna Keilar

KASIE HUNT (CO-ANCHOR): Congressman, very briefly. Do you think that Democrats are wasting time on voting rights? I mean, they were going to start this big debate in the Senate, but from what we can tell, it's going nowhere. I mean, should they be spending their time doing something else instead? 

REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): Well, I think we need to have the vote. I think we need to call the question and have the vote. You can't move the needle for working class people if they don't have access to the ballot box. White, Black, brown people. Whatever. We need to get to the ballot box and right now there is not that intentional movement in states to disenfranchise people. One drop box in a whole county. The ability to be able to purge voter lists at random. The ability to move precinct locations or voting locations willy-nilly in Black communities, for example. That's nonsense. And that should be stopped.

And we need to call the question and have a vote on it and I think get back to the economic agenda that working people are dying for us to pass. Because those tax cuts, they apply to white people, Black people, brown people, working class. Let's go. We have to call the question and make sure we know where everybody stands on that issue and then continue to fight. And then maybe we take smaller chunks of the voting rights piece. Maybe we make Election Day a holiday. Let's get that done and then we start moving forward. But let's maybe take smaller chunks but in the right direction. I think the American people would like to see that. 

During a segment later in the morning on At This Hour With Kate Bolduan, the anchor spoke with chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju and CNN political analyst Toluse Olorunnipa on how the vote would proceed. When Bolduan brought up Ryan’s idea to break the voting rights proposals into smaller pieces, Olorunnipa bluntly explained that Republican objections to “federalizing state and local elections” are really based on them not supporting voting rights — but the point did not get the focus it deserved from there.

“That’s the talking point you hear from Republicans,” Olorunnipa explained. “And there are very few pieces of this large voting bill that could pass that muster with Republicans — who essentially are in favor of allowing states, which many Republican-led states have been rolling back voting rights — they're happy with that, and they don't want Washington to sort of try to reverse that.”

Instead of following up on this important point, Bolduan turned back to Raju for more horse-race political commentary: “President Biden's holding a big press conference tomorrow afternoon. Do you get a sense from folks on the Hill that he can reset and restart from here?”

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Citation From the January 18, 2022, edition of CNN’s At This Hour with Kate Bolduan

The opening discussion on Inside Politics with John King likewise began with the anchor talking about “the looming moment of truth for voting rights,” but only in terms of how “the current math adds up to a stinging defeat for the president and his party.”

Raju appeared again, explaining that “after tomorrow, [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer has some big decisions to be made and whether they essentially drop this effort and try to move on to other footing — not high-profile failures that lead to divisive Democratic debates, but potentially issues that could unify them ahead of a difficult mid-term election season.”

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Citation From the January 18, 2022, edition of CNN’s Inside Politics with John King

The entire panel discussion that followed also focused entirely on divisions among Democratic senators and between politicians and activists — but had no discussion at all about Republican rollbacks on voting rights and Trump’s continued effort to undermine democracy, which the voting rights bill is meant to combat.