Voting in America: It’s complicated! How you’re allowed to vote varies from place to place. The methods are different. The tabulation systems are different. Why you fall into one district instead of another isn’t always clear. How someone can get the most votes and still lose an election is confusing. Why, and how, various people are prevented from voting is a subject of legal and political battles that stretch back to the country’s founding.
While it’s impossible to wrap every question about American electoral politics into one feature film, you can start to get an idea of how we got to where we are through documentaries, fiction films, and limited series that explore everything from voter suppression to gerrymandering to image-focused campaigns. Big historical moments — like the passage of the 1965 Voter Rights Act, or the three-ring circus that was Bush v. Gore in 2000 — are worth revisiting, too.
And sometimes a film does what no article or textbook could do: Give you visuals that help explain matters that powerful people are more than happy to leave oblique. So here are five documentaries and two limited series that provide a window into how we vote in America. They provide fodder for asking whether our electoral system working as it should — and if not, for thinking through how it might be fixed.
Twenty years ago, Texas Governor George W. Bush was running for president against Vice President Al Gore, and the election wasn’t decided on election night. It wasn’t decided the next day, or the next one either. Weeks later, votes were still being counted in Florida. Gore had definitely won the popular vote, but whether he’d carry the Electoral College as well came down to a handful of ballots in Miami-Dade County.
HBO’s 537 Votes — named for the number of votes that ultimately stood between Gore and the presidency — retells the events of the 2000 election in a rather jaunty and entertaining fashion. The film is illuminating: It starts by examining the state of local Miami politics in 1999 and the role the Elián González saga played in the presidential race, all before it moves on to how the recount became incredibly politicized and contested. Through interviews with major players — GOP operatives, campaign staffers, historians, and Miami political figures — it builds a story that shows how local politics can seep into national politics and change the course of history. And it’s a fast-paced, compelling look at a moment in history that could very well repeat itself in 2020.
(If you prefer a more traditional star-studded, lightly fictionalized dramatization of the same sequence of events, the 2008 HBO original movie Recount, streaming on HBO and HBO Max, is also a good watch.)
How to watch it: 537 Votes is available to stream on HBO and HBO Max beginning October 21.
All In: The Fight for Democracy
Calls to vote are everywhere, and vital — voting is a right that has a direct effect on the future. But throughout US history and continuing in the present day, the right to vote has frequently been suppressed and voters disenfranchised, and Black Americans are often the ones who are prevented from making their voices heard at the polls. All In: The Fight for Democracy tackles this issue through interviews with historians, politicians, and journalists, building the case that voter suppression and disenfranchisement are crucial issues facing our democracy.
Stacey Abrams, the votings rights activist and former Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, serves as one of the film’s producers, and speaks in the film of her own experiences with disenfranchisement, as well as her family’s struggles to exercise their right to vote. Other interviewees discuss the historical roots of suppression and political decisions that undermine voters’ rights. All In: The Fight for Democracy is a call to vote, but it’s also a call to pay close attention to the decisions that courts and elected officials make that affect voting rights, and to not turn away from this incredibly pressing problem that shows no signs of going away.
How to watch it: All In: The Fight for Democracy is streaming for subscribers on Amazon Prime.
Administered by the American Legion, “Boys State” is an educational camp-style program that gathers more than a thousand 17-year-old boys each summer. Over the course of one week, the boys form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns; the goal is to learn about and experience firsthand how the American system of government works.
Boys State is an uplifting, funny, thrilling, and revealing peek into that program and what the boys learn about what it takes to get elected to US public office. The teens come to Boys State with formed political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they come to understand the challenges of cultivating consensus and winning, as well as the strategies required to do so. Their experiences provide both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely hopeful ways.
How to watch it: Boys State is streaming for subscribers on Apple TV+.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
This July, the same weekend that civil rights pioneer John Lewis died from pancreatic cancer, a movie about his life was hitting theaters, drive-ins, and digital services. John Lewis: Good Trouble traces the broad outlines of the respected congressman’s life and career through archival footage, scenes from his tireless trail of campaigning for colleagues like Stacey Abrams, and interviews with Lewis himself and many of his colleagues.
Lewis spoke at the March on Washington, marched from Selma to Montgomery, and began serving in the House of Representatives in 1987. In addition to introducing viewers to Lewis himself, John Lewis: Good Trouble serves as an excellent primer on the struggle for voting rights in America — which didn’t end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The struggle was still on when Lewis passed away, and it’s still on now, just a few months later. The film encourages viewers to carry on his legacy.
How to watch it: John Lewis: Good Trouble is available to digitally rent or purchase on services including Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu. For a complete listing, see the film’s website.
Slay the Dragon
Gerrymandering is a complex practice to execute, but it’s a simple one to understand. Slay the Dragon lays out the details and history, giving the audience both an understanding of what gerrymandering is and why it threatens our democracy. The film is especially attentive to the resources that the GOP, which controls most gerrymandered states right now, has invested in redistricting, which effectively makes some citizens’ votes count less than others. Redistricting is often coupled with voter suppression efforts like voter ID laws, voter purges, and the rollback of initiatives intended to make voting more accessible to all citizens, particularly Black Americans.
Slay the Dragon doesn’t just provide information, though; it tells a story of a citizen group that successfully fought gerrymandering in their state, and calls for the audience to do the same. That makes Slay the Dragon a rather thrilling and hopeful watch, particularly in an election year while the world is roiling with uncertainty — not to mention a census year, the results of which could change the way voters are divided into districts in many states. And it presents a strong argument against the practice of gerrymanding altogether: In a democracy, voters ought to get to choose their legislators, not the other way around.
How to watch it: Slay the Dragon is available on a variety of cable and on-demand services; check the film’s website for more information.
In 1988, nobody named Jack Tanner was actually vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. But HBO broadcast an 11-episode TV miniseries about the fictional Tanner anyhow, directed by Robert Altman and written by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau. Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) is an idealistic Democratic congressman who’s on the campaign trail, accompanied by his 19-year-old daughter Alexandra (Cynthia Nixon).
The series blurs reality and fiction; “real” people like Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, and many others show up as themselves, and Tanner’s campaign staff is constantly talking about his competitors (including Joe Biden, who was running for president back then, too). It’s a brilliantly satirical series that skewers the process of running for political office more than political positions themselves, suggesting that what really matters in getting elected is theatrics.
Whose Vote Counts, Explained
The folks behind Netflix’s Explained series — who are, yes, my colleagues here at Vox — make a show so good I’d watch it even if I didn’t work here. So I was delighted to discover they were making a miniseries specifically focused on voting in America.
Each of the three episodes — “The Right to Vote,” “Can You Buy an Election?” and “Whose Vote Counts” — explores the state of electoral politics in the US today. In typical Vox fashion, the series achieves this by examining studies, talking to experts, politicians, and ordinary people with much at stake; wading through data; and trying to find the real story beneath the headlines. With narration by Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez, and John Legend, Whose Vote Counts, Explained is definitely one of the most thoughtful and fun ways out there to learn about a system that affects the lives of all Americans.
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.