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State laws that add restrictions on voting are a serious problem, Waldman says

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

2022 is a big year for Democrats as they look to maintain their control over Congress. Last week, Georgia passed a new law that would add restrictions and requirements on voting. Now, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states passed 34 new voting laws in 2021. So President Biden is making voting rights legislation his top priority.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills. Debate them. Vote. Let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.

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MARTINEZ: But Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said she will not support filibuster reform. Here to talk about the fight for voting rights is Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center. Michael, political science studies from Harvard Business School have shown that some tactics, such as requiring voter ID or limitations on early voting and mail voting, will not actually affect voter turnout. So how serious is this threat on voting access in America?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, these new laws are being passed by legislators in thrall to Donald Trump's Big Lie that the election was stolen. They are targeted in very direct ways at Black voters and Latino and Asian voters. And I do think that some are worse than others, but they do aim to make it harder for people to vote, and that is not something we ought to do. There are a lot of studies that show that these laws do have that impact, and the courts have blocked some of the worst ones. Now, the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act for a second time, so voters are basically unprotected by the courts, one of the reasons that federal legislation, I would suggest, is needed.

MARTINEZ: So cumulatively when it comes to states, all of these laws bunched together make access to voting a problem for a lot of different people.

WALDMAN: Well, and these laws make it more difficult to vote for some and not so much for others. The most significant thing is we ought to have national standards to make it so that partisans can't manipulate election laws in a way that either benefits their party or makes it harder for some people to vote. One of the other things that has happened in recent months is on top of these voter suppression laws, you have new laws that change who counts the votes, that changes the way elections are certified, kind of, in effect, election subversion on top of voter suppression. Systematically, the obstacles to stealing the next election are being removed - one more reason why we're very concerned.

MARTINEZ: Michael, historically, what tools have been used to subvert voting rights?

WALDMAN: You had everything from poll taxes requiring people to pay, literacy tests that were applied against Black voters in the south and out and out intimidation and violence. What we see today is more subtle. It's not somebody standing with dogs and billy clubs. It's a mistake to think that progress in our country only goes in one direction. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to vote for Black men who had previously been enslaved. What happened was there was terrorism and an effort by the Ku Klux Klan and others to stop those Black men from voting in the late 1800s. And the federal government had to make a decision. A federal election bill passed the House of Representatives and, just like today, was facing a filibuster in the Senate. The filibuster killed that bill, and that emboldened the Southern states to pass the Jim Crow laws. And what followed was seven decades of disenfranchisement and discrimination.

MARTINEZ: Is there any merit to focusing on what the filibuster can be used for today, as opposed to what it was used for in the past?

WALDMAN: Well, we want to have deliberation and debate in the Senate. That is not what is the situation right now. A lot of people don't realize the filibuster is not in the Constitution. The framers wanted the Senate to be a body that could run by majority vote. The Articles of Confederation had had a supermajority requirement, and that was one of the very big problems they were trying to address. But the filibuster was used over and over to block civil rights laws by racist Southern senators. What has happened more recently is a new problem. There's an understanding that you need 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. As a result, many, many exceptions to the filibuster have been created. There's about 160 of them.

MARTINEZ: So is it one of those situations, Michael, where if not for voting rights, then what is the issue to actually draw a line in the sand on?

WALDMAN: The way this is being framed right now on Capitol Hill is rather stark. It comes down to this. Are you for voting rights, or are you going to allow voting rights to be undermined out of loyalty to Senate tradition, when we've actually had exceptions over and over again? The filibuster the way it is right now leads to polarization and division, and it leads to things not happening that need to happen.

MARTINEZ: Michael Waldman is the president of the Brennan Center for Justice. A new edition of his book "The Fight To Vote" comes out next week. It talks about the long struggle for voting rights in America that is still going on to this day. Michael, thanks.

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