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The Politics Driving The U.S. Voting Rights Fight

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We begin today's program looking at the politics driving the debate on voting rights. Democrats have proposed a sweeping voting rights bill that's expected to be brought to the floor next week, despite lacking the 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster from Republicans. Just this week, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, a key vote in the evenly divided Senate, proposed compromises to get more Republicans on board with the bill. That's after expressing his own dissatisfaction with it.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky, says his party will not support the bill, doubling down on the argument that the federal government shouldn't dictate how states run their elections. That comes as Republican lawmakers in several states have passed new voting restrictions.

For more on how we got here, we turn now to Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University and election law expert and president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. Thanks so much for joining us.

SPENCER OVERTON: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: So there was a lot of back and forth in Congress this week, most of it centering on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and the compromises he proposed to try to get more Republicans on board. That is seeming unlikely. And so first, I'd just like your reaction to this week's events.

OVERTON: Well, I think that the only way we get bipartisan compromise on these election bills, these voting bills is if there a realignment within the Republican Party establishment. Right now, there's a battle within the party itself. We see this with President Trump and the Lincoln Project. Bipartisan election reform really depends on whether the future of the Republican Party is controlled by those who use government to restrict the freedom to vote and prevent competitive elections or those who want to use the concepts of limited government and free competition to reach out and to appeal to an increasingly diverse America.

In the 1960s, we saw the Democratic Party undergo such a realignment by squarely rejecting the Southern Dixiecrats and joining with many Republicans to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And that's the kind of realignment we need to see today in the Republican Party to have a real prospect of election reform.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned the Voting Rights Act from 1965. As you know, in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act. These were the ones that required certain states to get approval from the federal government before they made changes to local election laws and procedures. How do you think that ruling has affected the way we're talking about this issue now?

OVERTON: Well, immediately after that ruling, several states enacted restrictive laws that prevented certain communities from participating to the extent that they did in the past and previously. And I think even right now, we've got a scenario where we had, you know, historical turnout in the last election. And the response to that has been a variety of restrictions that really are anti-voter restrictions, you know?

This isn't a partisan issue because a majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support prohibiting partisan and racial gerrymandering. A majority of Americans support reducing long lines at polling places. They support strengthening the Voting Rights Act. But politicians are opposed to them because of the impact on election outcomes.

And again, we want politicians to focus on the issues and making arguments and policies that, you know, help all Americans as opposed to simply jiggering with the rules to get an electoral advantage.

MCCAMMON: One of the issues that's been very controversial is the question of voter identification. In his compromise, Senator Manchin proposes changes to voter ID laws. His idea is some form of ID should be required, but he would allow something like utility bill as a form of ID. Many Republicans, though, are still not on board with that idea. They argue the government shouldn't tell states how to run their elections. Do they have a point?

OVERTON: No one objects to voters having to prove who they say they are in order to vote. The problem is the manipulation of the laws by extremist politicians, like those rules in Texas that said that you can use a gun license to vote but not a student ID card to vote. The problem is when extremist politicians try to win elections by intentionally designing ID requirements that disproportionately prevent some Americans from targeted communities from freely voting.

Right now, we do need a level playing field in federal elections. Your freedom to vote unfortunately depends on your zip code. These federal standards like the For The People Act as well as the Manchin compromise - they provide federal standards for federal elections - not for state or local elections but for federal elections - that create a more level playing field in federal elections regardless of your color, regardless of the zip code that you live in. These federal reforms would override state laws that seek to restrict the freedom to vote. And they essentially level the playing field.

MCCAMMON: Short of the kind of massive realignment of the Republican Party that you've called for, is there any middle ground on this issue that could maybe bring some lawmakers together in the short term or compromises that might be helpful?

OVERTON: Well, I think that Joe Manchin is best situated to do this in terms of where he sits, and he put forward a compromise. So it seems as though conservative Democrats or, you know, moderate Republicans are best situated to start this conversation in terms of compromise. Joe Manchin tried, and he was rebuffed. And, you know, he has talked about the possibility of actually putting filibuster reform on the table if Republicans don't compromise in good faith on important issues that could result in the exclusion of many Americans from democracy.

MCCAMMON: That's Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University, election law expert and president of the Joint Center think tank. Professor Overton, thank you for your time.

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


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