Interview with David Pepper about The Fifth Vote

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

The Fifth Vote

7 Questions about The Fifth Vote with David Pepper

David Pepper is a lawyer, writer, political activist, former elected official, and adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law where he teaches election and voting rights. Previously, he served as a councilman for the city of Cincinnati, a member of the Hamilton County, Ohio Board of Commissioners, and the Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party from 2015 to 2021. David is a strong advocate for voter rights and has engaged in numerous fights and extensive litigation involving voter suppression and election laws. He recently released his sixth book and fourth novel, The Fifth Vote. This week, we asked him 7 questions.

Can you share your journey of becoming such a passionate advocate for voting rights and fair elections?

Sure. It's an interesting question because, as you said, it's a journey and I think we all go through journeys, and lived experience changes us. But if you had told me when I ran for City Council of Cincinnati, which I did 24 years ago, that I'd be spending so much time on democracy itself, I wouldn't have believed you. My background was a guy from Cincinnati, very passionate about Cincinnati. So much so that in law school, I was named most likely to be president of the Cincinnati Board of Tourism, because all I would do is brag about Cincinnati. I entered politics sort of as a policy wonk type of person, and I won a county commission seat. Then I was asked to think about running statewide, and I ran statewide in Ohio for auditor, which is the position that, if I had won and Governor Strickland had gotten reelected, I could have used to end gerrymandering.

Ever since I ran for that office, it's become more and more clear. Then, I ran for attorney general and became party chair, recognizing how broken democracy is at the state level. I almost took it all for granted, like I think most Americans do, when I ran for my first office because I assumed all elections were sound. It's 20th and 21st Century America, post Voting Rights Act. All is well when it comes to voting itself and democracy itself. But all of a sudden I'm running statewide and seeing gerrymandering, seeing voter purging, and growing more and more appalled by what is, to me, a very aggressive attack on democracy itself in many states. My response to that has been to try and raise the alarm for a lot of other people who I'm afraid haven't seen what I didn't see when I first ran. I took a lot for granted that I no longer do. So, that's the journey that has evolved what I talk about for the most part from what I talked about originally.

How do we prevent voter suppression and ensure that elections are fair and properly implemented in this country? How do we start there?

The number one way to prevent it is to show up in big numbers and not have it be decided on the margins. In some states you see election deniers as elections officials because Steve Bannon is recruiting them, so you see office holders like Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state, purging voters. You see courts too often letting it happen. Long term, the answer is to win these positions that control election power, get rid of people who will use that for the wrong ends, and instate people who will be there to support democracy, respect election results, and support voters. We have to focus on those positions, and that means a wider lens about what matters. It means Supreme Court races, it means Secretary of State races, it means State House races.

It means, and this happened pretty well in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, knowing the elected positions in states that do have some say over elections, and not allowing election deniers to win those spots. So that's the long game that we have to focus on. In the short game, there are some positions right now where politicians can do unfortunate things when it comes to voter suppression on our political side. We just have to be organized enough to see that. The example I'd give is that in Ohio the numbers that we put up to defeat something called Issue One in August were big enough that it was so decisive, it didn't matter. We won in November.

There is a very unknown group called the Ballot Board in Ohio. They used the Ballot Board to manipulate the language of that reproductive rights amendment and make it seem very different from what it was in a very close race that might have made the difference. Polling told us that, but when you're running up the numbers we had a 57 to 43 result, it didn't matter that they actually did manipulate the ballot language in a way that would've embarrassed George Orwell. So I think in the short term, you have to let instances like that motivate you to fight harder than ever to overcome it. But in the long term, and this is what I talk about all the time, we have to be smarter about realizing that so many of the places where voters are being suppressed are in positions that we have too long overlooked: State House seats, local seats, Secretary of State offices, State Supreme Court. These places are where many of the biggest decisions about democracy are being made, but too often we only focus on a few US Senate races or maybe only the presidency, and we have not been competing for those offices in a way that Steve Bannon and Carl Roe have been. So there are a lot of things we have to do in the short and long term.

Talk about the challenges of fighting voter apathy when organizing for local races.

I wrote a book called Laboratories of Autocracy, and it was a wake up call about what was happening in all of these states. I feel better now than when I wrote that book because I actually think there is a winning streak going in the right direction. In Kansas through an amazing run in November we flipped state houses and we defeated election denying Secretary of State candidates. Then we won a Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April, and then we won in Ohio and Virginia in August and November. There is a real winning streak happening, and I think there's a lot to learn from that winning streak.

One of the most important lessons is that in most of those wins, it wasn't just a high level discussion of “vote this way for democracy”. I think you lose people if you’re talking at this high level. They're just not getting so fired up about that kind of debate. They need to see how it affects their lives. I think after Dobbs, people started to see how this creeping sort of suppression of democracy is affecting their lives in a very real way around a woman's right to choose or other issues. The lesson is connecting the concern about democracy to the real world issues that affect our lives.

That's why a lot of the most successful Secretary of State candidates last November in Arizona, in Nevada, and in other states, were about elections and about Dobbs. Most people agree with the connection that the reason the decline of democracy should scare you is that it could very well lead to policies that impact you. That's what happened in Ohio in Issue One, in August and November. It was not just an attack on democracy, it was also an attack on reproductive rights. So I think the lesson is that making democracy the backdrop is very important, but the frontline of the argument should be about real issues. Those issues can be about Dobbs and reproductive rights. It can also be about struggling local schools and four-day school weeks. Connecting those real world everyday issues, which often aren't political to people, to the democracy argument is a one-two punch. It's powerful, and a lot of people are smartly wrapping this into the framework of freedom in a way that connects that real world freedom of a woman having a right to choose and democratic freedom. So that seems to be working, and I think it accounts for this winning streak. We built up very countercyclical trends by the way that we're supposed to be losing when we have the White House right now. We've been winning because of that connection to those issues.

Can you tell me a little bit about the new book and what the writing process was for the book?

I was at a conference last week on democracy, a very non-partisan conference that was really fun and really inspiring. During the Q&A session, we were talking about my book, Laboratories of Autocracy, and a woman raised her hand and said, “I read your book, The Voter File”, which is one of my novels. To have the novel universe overlap with this very sort of nonfiction conversation was a lot of fun. So it's been fun to put together both the fiction and nonfiction. The latest book is actually a fiction book that is different from the others in a way because it's very much grounded in my own personal experience. It's going to sound very odd right now, but I'll just describe it.

In that first year I was on city council, I actually was kidnapped at gunpoint for an hour. Honestly, it sounds bizarre. After I was freed, I went through the experience that you see happen sometimes with politicians and crime where people said I made it up. So for an hour, I think my life may be coming to an end, and then for days and weeks after I think my career's coming to an end because everyone is saying it couldn't have happened that way. The trauma of having a gun pointed at you for an hour in a car, and then the whiplash of having people think somehow you haven't because you didn't respond the right way has not really ever left me. When I saw the Paul Pelosi incident, I realized that's what I dealt with. Something terrible happens, and you think you're not going to make it. Then, days later, everyone thinks it must not have happened because you didn't respond the way they think people would have responded or should have responded. So I decided to write it all down. I wrote it down at first as an account of what really happened to me. Having written novels before, I thought that it felt more like a novel. So I took that real world experience, tried to capture as best I could what it feels like to think you may not live to see another day, and then throw in the twist that then no one believes you for weeks. And you're left not only you're dealing with the trauma of having been a victim, but then you're dealing with explaining it so people believe you. Possibly losing my career over being a victim of something is the core of a book that then turns into a plot like my other plots, sort of a political thriller with corruption. It's an interesting book and so far people have read it and found it interesting. It was one that was unlike the others. It felt like a natural fit to tell it as a novel.

When you're writing fiction, is it often based on what has happened to you, or are there times where you feel like you're completely making it up? What's your process, and what do you find are the best stories for fiction?

I think for fiction, this is the story with a plot most directly from something that happened to me. But other times, I think clearly when you're writing fiction, you're drawing upon lived experience to some degree. The first book I ever wrote was called The People's House, and the main antagonist is a Russian oligarch. I worked in Russia in the early nineties, so I took that experience and used it to shape my character and the reaction I had to my character at different times. I don't know what else you would draw on but your lived experience in most of a novel. I think the most powerful fiction writing is when you're not replicating the facts of that lived experience, but you're replicating the emotion of it. That's the only thing that I think is truly unique when you're writing, capturing the emotion of that lived experience.

That's always something you're balancing with making things up, but even in making things up, you're drawing from the emotion of lived experience. This recent book, though, is where I literally drew from an incident. Before I wrote the novel part, I literally spent a few days just writing down every single thing I remembered. When something like that happens to you, as you'd imagine, you remember it pretty well. It never really goes away. So I spent a week just capturing everything I could remember emotionally and physically, as well as the conversations. From there, I did my best to make up a plot. When I started writing these books, I never really got training in it. One way I think about it is you come up with a set of characters that you've really thought through, and then the plot in your mind almost evolves in front of your eyes, like how these characters would naturally respond to each other and the set of facts you present them with realistically. I don't want a plot that seems outlandish or unrealistic. Once you have characters on that stage, the interactions in some ways feel almost inevitable. What would they do if I threw this twist at them, how would they respond? In many ways, you're making it up, but you're making it up almost as a natural outgrowth of the characters you've started the story with in mind. I know that sounds maybe ethereal, but it's not like you're just randomly making it up. You're thinking through the natural consequences of the scenes you've placed a bunch of characters in.

Do you feel like both your legal and political training has made you a better storyteller, both as a fiction writer and as a nonfiction writer?

I think the knowledge I had of law, politics, Russia, et cetera, does allow me and did allow me to come up with some compelling storylines and characters. But you can have that experience and have a terribly written fiction book because it's too plot driven or it's too fact driven. What I would say is the longest process of all of my writing process was learning how to write a good story without it being too driven by a plot or by knowledge of politics, which could make for a very slow and boring story.

I actually think to an extent my nonfiction books are quite readable, and I think they've gotten a good response because of it. I think the process of writing novels and telling a page-turning story is what made my nonfiction books a lot more readable. Every chapter of Laboratories of Autocracy starts out as a story about a corrupt official, some scam, or just how crazy people act when they're in a gerrymandered world. In every book, my hope is that these chapters start almost as a novel. If I had started writing nonfiction before fiction, I think nothing would have come of it. I think the process of writing stories through fiction taught me how to write a story. I ultimately decided to write because I was so frustrated by gerrymandering or other issues that made the nonfiction books a lot more readable. I took subjects that are often too dry for anyone to pay attention to and made them like the stories I write.

Too often, the political scientists lose the real story, so what my books try to do is lead with the stories and then show that it's all because of gerrymandering or suppression or corruption. But the story is what gets a reader into it when they would never read a book that talks about how state houses work. That book is not getting read. The fiction side really helped my nonfiction side.

Your work emphasizes the importance of state and local governments. Why is it so important?

The issues you care about most affect you most from the local level. Look at Congress: nothing ever happens there, honestly. We celebrate when one body passes something, even though we know the other body won't. That's progress in Washington. So not to be dismissive of it because it's important, but state houses are passing legislation every single day that affect you. So every issue you care about is determined by state and local governments more than Congress in terms of your life. If that alone doesn't get you fired up about what's happening, know that the front line of the battle for democracy are these state houses or these school boards.

If that doesn't get you interested, know that the far-right knows that and that they have made runs at our state houses in this country for a generation largely with very little opposition. The reason the wheels feel like they're coming off in most of these states with crazy laws and bans and censorship is because one side knows that that's the front line of democracy and they're going for broke on that front line. The other side is still trying to figure out which five US Senate races to get excited about. Now people are catching up, that's the winning streak I'm talking about. I always say with my sons, who are nine and seven, playing soccer, “if one side is going for broke in the very battlefield that shapes democracy, which is through our constitution and our state houses, and the other side is largely not engaging there, who's going to win?” Even if Biden gets reelected and we reelect the US Senate, they're going for broke where democracy is most shaped, so we can even win the goals we've set for ourselves and still lose. That's what's been happening. If you care about the big battle for democracy, you need to care about these local and state house races because that's where that battle ultimately will be won or lost.

Is democracy a partisan issue?

In the end it shouldn't be. If we want to win that battle, we have to do everything we can to have it not be when it comes to elections. If I could add a caveat to my own opening books, it would be thinking about it this way. Issue One in Ohio in August would not have failed the way it did if it would not have been multi-partisan. We had Kasik Taft, Betty Montgomery, and someone like me and the Libertarian party all saying, “That idea is terrible. We're all against it.”As a result of a multi-partisan coalition coming together in Ohio, Issue One failed in very Republican counties, not just sort of moderate suburbia. Republicans in Ohio, to their credit, had a party that told them to vote against democracy in August, and hundreds of thousands of them voted no. So I think it shows you that there is a multi-partisan coalition. Sure, a big group of Republicans right now seems to be not that into democracy, but there are still enough Republicans who are worried about what we're seeing that if communicated with the right way – in a respectful way, in a way that embraces them, as we saw in August and November and Ohio – they will vote across multiple partisan differences for democracy. And I think that's a really important thing when we're trying to defeat gerrymandering. As we campaign, as we message, we don't want to give away that coalition. It's a very special thing. So, are Democrats fighting for democracy? Yes. But a lot of Independents and some Republicans are also seeing the problem. If communicated with and coalesced the right way, a far stronger coalition will be fostered than just by hoping that you run the score enough with Democrats to win. Maybe in some states that will work, but in tougher states you need that multi-partisan coalition to protect democracy.

What do Democrats need to do to win in 2024? What are the things that need to be focused on or aren't being done that need to happen?

I think a couple things. I'm a big believer in running everywhere. I think that's good for democracy even beyond what happens in 2024. Leaving 50% of the Tennessee Republicans in the State House uncontested, 40% of the Texas incumbents uncontested, and all these other races uncontested beyond even the next cycle is a disaster because it's how extremism keeps getting worse. But what happens when you run everywhere? You also have people knocking on doors everywhere. We don't want Joe Biden running for reelection with a quarter of the districts in Arizona left empty. He has to do all the field work. We want to have local Democrats knocking on doors in every district of Arizona or Georgia or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. We have to get to work now. The deadlines are coming up. When they are on the side of extremism, when they're defending corruption, when they're defending Donald Trump, then my God, run in every district. Those are all campaigns in the making. When we don't run in these places, it's a gift. It also keeps turnout down and it forces someone like a senate or a presidential campaign to backfill all the places where we're not otherwise running. Right now the deadlines are coming up in Ohio: December 20th.

I am very worried about one thing in particular and that is an ongoing disengagement of a lot of the base of the Democratic voter. We saw that haunt us in Louisiana just earlier this year in 22. The turnout in urban Ohio was terrible. You're not going to win Ohio as a democratic candidate if the turnout in our cities is a concern. That's another area where I put a lot of time in my books. There's a way to combat that. But we have to think about organizing on the ground differently than at the last minute. Knocks on the door saying, “Oh my gosh, elections are coming. Are you registered? Did you vote?” If someone has been purged or someone has decided that voting doesn't change their life, you don't change that with a last minute knock on the door. In fact, a last minute knock on the door almost confirms that politics isn't about them, it's about you the candidate, you the party. So we need to think differently about how we reach voters who have not been inspired recently but are impossible to win without. That involves a different type of organizing. It involves much earlier organizing. It actually involves a lot of groups: the less partisan community groups that serve these voters because they're at food banks or homeless shelters or health clinics. Those organizations actually value those voters as their constituents. Maybe they're the best messenger at the food bank or at the health clinic to say, “Hey, while we serve you to help you, are you registered to vote? Because you should be. That's a way you could fight for your own interests in addition to us helping you”. We need a lot more community-based organizing and less political organizing. That should also be happening earlier than it normally happens. How do we win if we are not running in all these places and we are not engaging the voters? We just sit around and we watch a bunch of primaries and we watch a bunch of debates as if that's participating.

We have actually done all this work quite well for the last year when we weren't distracted by the presidential stuff. But my worry now is that we all get so panicked that all we do is read about poll numbers and watch meaningless Republican primary debates, which aren't going to matter. Donald Trump's going to be the candidate instead of doing the work. We're so caught up and almost frozen by the presidential scene that we don't do a lot of the other work that could matter. I've written Saving Democracy, but there is so much that everyone could be doing right now to lift democracy that doesn't only help us win federal seats in 2024, which we need to win, but also helps us win the longer battle for democracy. We're running for every State House seat. We're running for school board. There's a ton we can do. What I don't want to see us do is fall into the trap that is a presidential election, where we decide that only a few swing states matter and the rest of us are just going to watch from the sideline. There is no sideline anymore. You're on the front end of democracy wherever you are in America.

Do you have a favorite podcast, TV show, or movie that we should be watching that talks at all about these issues or that totally distracts you from these issues?

Here's my best advice and it worked because we won Issue One twice. Lately when there's political stress, I have a cocktail of two TV shows: West Wing and 30 Rock. It's the best. West Wing will inspire you and 30 Rock is just funny and crazy. I started watching those in late July, early August. After a stressful day, I'd go watch it and by the time I was done with a short 30 Rock and a West Wing session, I was feeling good. I listen to a lot of podcasts and other things but if you're looking for a combination of inspiration and something a little lighthearted in the middle of a stressful thing, don't watch that next debate. We all know what's going to be said there. Go watch West Wing. Some comedy and some West Wing inspiration is getting me through a lot of stressful things. So I'd go with those two.

How can people get a hold of you?

I'm very active on Twitter just @David Pepper, and the new thing I'm really enjoying is my Substack. When you're on Substack, if you look just up “David Pepper”, you'll find it. I originally did it because I thought Twitter was going to disappear, and it may still happen, so I needed a way to keep up with people. I created Substack, but now I really enjoy it as a way to write longer form pieces, and there's a community building on my Substack page. Twitter and Substack are both great places to hear from me and to share feedback with me about what you're seeing wherever you are.

Thanks David! Have questions? Drop us a line.