How TV is Tackling Voter Suppression and Other 2020 Election Year Issues

The ACLU-sponsored panel on Saturday, featuring 'One Day at a Time' co-creator Mike Royce and 'House of Cards' creator Beau Willimon, was part of ATX Television Festival's at-home virtual programming.
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'One Day at a Time'

While the ATX Television Festival has always made sure its programming focused on political and social issues, its ACLU-sponsored panel about voter suppression and election year issues was especially relevant during a weekend where millions of people around the globe have been protesting against racial injustice. Although the annual Austin event cancelled its in-person programming due to the coronavirus pandemic, it presented a deep slate of virtual programming instead.

In a conversation moderated by Dale Ho, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, the panelists — Full Frontal with Samantha Bee senior field producer and director Razan Ghalayini; One Day at a Time co-creator Mike Royce; And She Could Be Next director/producer Marjan Safinia; and House of Cards creator/WGA East President Beau Willimon — discussed how television can be used as a tool to ensure Americans are aware of their rights as voters this election year.

"We're all just hoping there is a November," joked Ghalayini. "And, assuming we get there, there is an election. And assuming we get there, the election isn't contested after it happens."

The production of Full Frontal, like so many other series, has fundamentally changed due to COVID-19 — the series leaned heavily on field segments that are currently unable to be produced. But the writers have continued to cover topical issues facing Americans by interviewing politicians and experts who have more expertise "than a bunch of idiot comedians on 57th Street." The team hopes they'll be able to get out into the field before the election in November, but before then, they'll continue to facilitate topical political conversations by interviewing people like the organizers who are making sure Americans are registered to vote by mail.

Filmmaker Safinia and her team (co-director Grace Lee, producer Jyoti Sarda and executive producer Ava DuVernay) did not initially intend to tackle the issue of voter suppression in their docuseries And She Could Be Next, which airs June 29 and 30 on PBS' POV. They stumbled across it while following five women of color running for office in 2018 and the organizers working to inspire the non-white voters who will soon comprise America's majority.

They spent plenty of time in Georgia following gun control advocate Lucy McBath, who won her congressional race, and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who lost her race to the Republican Secretary of State after he oversaw the purge of more than 600,000 voters from the rolls ahead of the election.

"Our story is really about the changing face of America and the lack of a reflective democracy," Safinia explained, meaning that as America heads toward a majority non-white population, political representation has not followed that same shift. "We weren't looking for a voter suppression story, we found ourselves in the middle of one."

Voter suppression is typically a series of small actions, she explained. "Each one of them in and of themselves might not be that egregious, but when they're tied together by design" it becomes an insidious force.

Royce and One Day at a Time co-creator Gloria Calderón Kellett have never shied away from topical political issues in their series, about a Cuban-American family, and the series' upcoming animated special discusses the 2020 presidential election directly. (As Royce told Lesley Goldberg and Dan Fienberg on THR's TV's Top 5 podcast, the animated episode came about as a way to produce the topical episode following the series' production shutdown in March.) The season premiere touched on the importance of the U.S. Census, an issue tied directly to voting because Census counts correlate to Congressional representation and allocation of resources.

But even if shows aren't directly addressing political issues, telling a wide variety of stories about as many different types of people as possible is a way to tell truth to power, said Willimon: "What you're saying is this person's story matters."