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Reporters From Across The U.S. Talk About The Political Fight Over Voting Rights

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year, after the 2020 presidential election, the right to vote has become a partisan fight. Republicans set up laws across the country that they say will prevent voter fraud. Democrats say they're really a move to discourage people, especially people of color, from voting. In Arizona, we have got a GOP-led review of the 2020 race. In Texas, the State House of Representatives just passed a new voting bill over the objections of Democrats. And in Washington, D.C., there's Congress and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, not to mention where President Biden is on all of this.

Well, here to talk it through with us, so we are joined by Ben Giles of KJZZ in Phoenix, Jen Rice of Houston Public Media and Juana Summers, NPR political correspondent. Hi there.

Welcome, all three of you.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

JEN RICE, BYLINE: Hey.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: So let's dive in. And, Ben, I'm going to start with you and the latest with Phoenix and this election review, specifically in Maricopa County, which is running late. Is that right?

GILES: That's right. There was supposed to be a report on the findings from that GOP-led review delivered to the State Senate this week, but a few of the contractors working on it apparently have tested positive for the coronavirus, and nothing was finished. It's important to note the whole process is already way behind schedule. This was supposed to take weeks. It's taken months. But once the report is released, it is likely going to include recommendations for more changes to Arizona's election law. It's also worth noting that it's not going to change who's president, though that's exactly what some involved with the review are hoping for.

KELLY: But when you say more changes to election law, what has already changed in Arizona with voting?

GILES: So Republicans approved one law that removes inactive voters from Arizona's early ballot mailing list. That used to be a permanent list. This change could affect tens of thousands of voters by 2024. They also packed the state budget they passed in June with a bunch of election policies, including what they described as voter fraud counter measures and new reviews of the state's voter registration database. And crucially, they stripped the secretary of state, who's a Democrat, of the authority to choose to defend or not defend the state's election laws. They gave that power to the attorney general, who happens to be Republican.

KELLY: Well, let's compare this to what is going on in Texas. Jen, yesterday, the House of Representatives there, which has a strong Republican majority, advanced the voting bill and advanced it over Democrats' objections. What happened?

RICE: The bill finally passed last night around 11:00 p.m. Ironically, it was a late-night vote to ban voters from being able to vote late at night. And the final tally came out along party lines. Notably, 30 Democrats were absent. You may remember the dramatic protest where many of the Democratic state legislators went to Washington to block a quorum from happening and to lobby for national voting rights legislation. Well, enough of them came back for the House to hold a vote. And now the legislature is in the final days of the special session and working through items on Republican Governor Greg Abbott's agenda.

KELLY: And why have Democrats so opposed to this bill?

RICE: Part of the Texas voting bill is aimed at Houston. It's a direct response to the new ways to vote that county officials created in 2020. Those options were pretty popular, like drive-through voting and late-night voting when the polling locations were open for 24 hours. I talked to some folks last year as they were leaving the NRG Stadium polling place at midnight, and they said the extended hours made it easier for them to vote. County officials also tried to send an application to vote by mail to everyone, not just the people who requested it, but this measure was blocked by courts. Now, the Texas voting bill could make it impossible for counties to offer drive-through voting or extended hours or send those unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

KELLY: And meanwhile, the national landscape. Juana Summers, let me ask you about this House vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that came this week. It passed along party lines. So what's next?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So, Mary Louise, this is a bill that Democrats have said is one of two key components to their strategy to combat what they see as these restrictive Republican-led voting laws across the country. This bill, named for the former Congressman John Lewis, would reverse two Supreme Court rulings over the last decade that gutted the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. And it would revive the power of the Justice Department to bar some discriminatory election changes from taking effect. And it would also ease that have to challenge some others in court.

Now, that bill passed the House on a party line vote. It now heads to the Senate. The issue is there is that there is widespread Republican opposition to that legislation. That's also been the case with another Democratic priority bill, the For The People Act, which has been stalled in the Senate amid a Republican filibuster. It would set new national standards making it easier to vote. It would end partisan gerrymandering. And it would increase Is transparency in campaign finance. Because these bills are jammed up and Senate procedure, that has really increased calls in Washington and across the country from progressives, as well as a lot of mainstream Democrats, to change Senate procedure.

KELLY: Where is President Biden on this? Do we know if his administration is prepared to fight for this legislation?

SUMMERS: So when I talk to folks at the White House, including White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and others, they make the point that voting rights is a top priority of this president and his administration. They point out the fact that he has deputized Vice President Kamala Harris to take the lead on this issue. And we heard him as recently as this week call for the passage of these two bills that remain stalled on Capitol Hill. Take a listen to what the president had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The House has acted. The Senate also has to join them to send this important bill to my desk. And the Senate has to move forward on the People's Act, critical legislation to protect our democracy and the right to vote. We need both of those election bills.

SUMMERS: The thing, though, that I do hear from a lot of activists and Democrats is that while the president says openly that this is an urgent threat, he calls it the greatest test of our time, that he has not been willing so far to step out and call for his former colleagues in the Senate to abolish the filibuster. And he has not endorsed some sort of a carve-out. Though we should be clear, that is power that rests with the Senate. It is not something the president can unilaterally do himself.

KELLY: Well, let's look to what may be coming in Arizona and Texas. Ben, you first.

GILES: Well, some Republican lawmakers are now pushing a ballot measure to add new voter ID requirements for early ballots. That's something they failed to get approved in a bill during the legislative session. They've got a lot of signatures together to make that happen, but they've got financial backing from a local conservative group. And if they're successful, voters would get to vote on that voter ID in 2022. Some state senators also want a special session to deal with any recommendations from the election review, but it's more likely that will all be debated when the next session starts in January.

RICE: Yeah. And this is Jen. I think it's important to talk about the voting bills the legislature is blocking, not just the ones they're considering. For instance, Texas Democrats, they regularly file these bills to create online voter registration. And the bills do not get a hearing. So unlike 42 states and Washington, D.C., Texas doesn't have online voter registration, even though the idea is pretty popular among Texans. For example, in a statewide poll last year, 75% of millennials and Gen Z respondents said they want the chance to register to vote online. Meanwhile, in Arizona, they've been doing online voter registration for almost 20 years.

KELLY: And this clearly is an issue that reverberates for Americans all over the country. There are protests this weekend. There are marches all over. Juana, tell us what to expect there.

SUMMERS: That's right. These marches are being held on the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech. Organizers, including his eldest son, tell me they want to harness that same energy toward the cause of voting rights.

KELLY: That is NPR's Juana Summers. We've also been speaking with Jen Rice of Houston Public Media and Ben Giles with KJZZ of Phoenix.

Thanks to you all.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

RICE: Thank you.

GILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.