DOJ Adds Its Name To List Of Organizations Suing Georgia Over Restrictive Voting Law : The NPR Politics Podcast The Department of Justice announced it is suing the state of Georgia over a restrictive voting law. The move comes as the Biden administration seeks ways to combat Republican efforts to limit ballot access. Plus, Vice President Kamala Harris visits the U.S.-Mexico border after mounting criticism for not going there sooner.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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DOJ Adds Its Name To List Of Organizations Suing Georgia Over Restrictive Voting Law

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ALYSSA: This is Alyssa (ph) calling in from what is finally, finally the last day of the longest school year. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:45 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, June 25.

ALYSSA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I will be celebrating my summer vacation by not teaching anyone on Zoom. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: It feels like anybody who has spent ample time on Zoom school totally deserves a break this summer.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Absolutely, absolutely. Dear lord.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KHALID: And today on the show, we've got a special guest, Stephen Fowler from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Hey, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Hey, Asma.

KHALID: And I was just saying, I have so enjoyed so much of your reporting that you did during the 2020 election for us on so many different platforms at NPR that I feel like you had been on the podcast before. But you're telling me you haven't been.

FOWLER: No, this is the long-time listener, first-time caller episode. And it helps to be born in a state that is the center of the political universe.

KHALID: Well, welcome, welcome. This morning, the Biden administration announced it is suing your state, suing the state of Georgia, over its restrictive new voting law. And, Stephen, we have talked a lot on this podcast about that law, but remind us what it does and why, frankly, it rankles so many Democrats.

FOWLER: Well, the shorter answer would be what it doesn't do. It's a 98-page voting law that touches on nearly every aspect of how elections are run in Georgia from the absentee-by-mail voting process - where we have restrictions on drop box and tighter voter ID laws and a shorter window for when you can request those ballots - to how things are counted after Election Day with local officials being required to give more often updates about the count and to finish the count quicker. It touches on things like who can give food and water, where, to people waiting in long lines at the polls. It moves the Secretary of State from being on the State Election Board and gives additional authority for that election board to potentially take over, quote, "failing" elections offices around the state.

So, in short, it does a lot to change the way we vote in Georgia. And there are a lot of things that Democrats and voting rights advocates don't like about it. They say that many of the provisions, both individually and taken as a whole, make it harder for certain people to vote - people of color, people with disabilities, people that live in areas where there are a lot of people voting on Election Day - and that it's retaliation for record turnout in 2020 that saw Democrats narrowly flip the state.

KHALID: So, Ryan, what's the explanation from the Justice Department as to why it's suing Georgia?

LUCAS: Well, from what department officials say, the lawsuit that they have filed alleges that several aspects of this Georgia law violate section two of the Voting Rights Act. And that bars, prohibits anything that discriminates based on race, based on color or membership in a language minority group. And in this instance, what the Justice Department is saying is that aspects of this law are discriminatory, and purposely so, against Black voters in the state.

There are several specific provisions that this lawsuit challenges, the - several provisions related to absentee ballots, some of which Stephen mentioned, including banning distribution of unsolicited absentee ballot applications, shortening the deadline to request an absentee ballot, also challenging limitations on drop boxes, the prohibition against passing out food or water to people waiting in line to vote. So there are several aspects of this law that this lawsuit from the Justice Department challenges.

And Kristen Clarke, who's the head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, noted that this law was passed not in a vacuum but after there was essentially record turnout from Black voters in Georgia. And as Stephen said, that ended up flipping the state. And what these provisions do, the provisions that the Justice Department is challenging, the provisions that were implemented, push more voters away from absentee voting, makes it harder for them to do that, and then imposes additional obstacles for them to cast a ballot in-person.

FOWLER: And, Ryan, there's been a lot of reporting that we've done in Georgia about long lines and who is affected by those lines at the polls. So I did a story with ProPublica last year that found that in metro Atlanta counties, as the population grew, the number of polling places didn't. And that led to nonwhite communities, particularly in and around Atlanta, having to wait in longer lines.

But, you know, Republicans are already speaking out against this lawsuit being filed by the Department of Justice, particularly Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The two of them are facing primary challenges from pro-Trump forces that aren't happy that they didn't overturn the election for Trump in the 2020 election. And they're attacking this as a coordinated effort from Democrats to try to do a wholesale overhaul and federalization of elections.

You know, Governor Brian Kemp said the Biden administration continues to do the bidding of Stacey Abrams. She's the former Democratic gubernatorial nominee and voting rights advocate and spreads more lies about Georgia's election law. He says, I look forward to meeting them and beating them in court.

KHALID: You know, I was struck by the timing of this lawsuit because it comes in the same week that a fairly large voting package that Democrats had been trying to get through Congress failed. This would have overhauled U.S. elections. And, you know, the Biden administration has received a lot of pressure specifically from voting rights activists, you know, folks on the progressive left about not just being a louder voice in trying to get some of these voting rights changes through.

And Biden himself, you know, he has said that he will fight like heck for voting rights. But candidly, there is very limited action he can get through Congress just given the numbers of Democrats that he has. And so I am wondering, you know, Ryan, does the administration from your perch see the DOJ and see action like this as kind of the only effective avenue they have at this point?

LUCAS: I'm curious whether the White House would come out and officially say that. But certainly, this is something that this Justice Department, led by Merrick Garland, has made clear from the beginning that protecting voting rights is a key priority for them. That was notable today in the fact that the deputy attorney general, the number three person at the Justice Department as well as the head of the civil rights division, were all flanking Garland when he made this announcement today. That's a reflection of just how important this topic is to the Justice Department.

And, you know, the attorney general came out a couple of weeks ago and made a speech about voting rights and how the Justice Department was going to aggressively enforce the Voting Rights Act and every other law that has implications for protecting the right to vote for American citizens. Now, one thing that we heard from Garland today and we heard two weeks ago, it's kind of become a familiar refrain from him, is him pushing Congress, pushing Congress for action on those voting rights bills. And in particular, he mentioned one important tool that the Justice Department used to have to ensure voting rights protections. It was called section five of the Voting Rights Act. And it was a preclearance tool that basically meant that in certain places in the country, if a new voting law was passed, it had to be cleared by the Justice Department first to make sure that it didn't negatively impact voting rights.

A Supreme Court decision took that tool away. Garland said it was actually - that decision was eight years ago today. So there is another interesting bit of timing on this. But Garland wants that tool back for the Justice Department because he said it's vitally important for the department in order to enforce voting rights. And he actually said that, in the case of Georgia, this new Georgia law might not have passed, likely would not have passed if the Justice Department had that preclearance tool that it used to.

KHALID: So what is the timeline from this point on, you know, Stephen or Ryan? I mean, do either one of you have a sense of where things go from here, and what are the next steps for having any resolution?

FOWLER: Well, you know, the Department of Justice is going to have to take a number and get in line because this is now the eighth different federal lawsuit challenging Georgia's election law and the different results. There are currently seven that are already in front of a judge appointed by President Trump, J.P. Boulee, in the Northern District of Georgia. They challenged similar things to the Justice Department's lawsuit, like the absentee ID requirements and the drop boxes and the ban on food and water. But they do go a little bit more broadly depending on some of the different suits that are filed.

There's one that claims that parts of it specifically target Georgia's Asian American population. There's a lawsuit that says that there are some First Amendment violations with some of the restrictions on watching the votes being counted and reporting any discrepancies. So there are a lot of different lawsuits challenging just about every part of this 98-page law. So I expect it's probably going to be a while before we get overall resolution on what's going to stand.

LUCAS: I'll just add to that, kind of widening the aperture that - the attorney general said today that the Justice Department is going to closely scrutinize other state laws, laws in states across the country that apply to voting rights. And if it determines that they violate federal law in some way, shape or form, the department is going to aggressively take action against those laws as well. So this may not remain just a USA v. the state of Georgia. We may see other lawsuits of this nature in the days and weeks to come.

KHALID: All right, Stephen, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.

FOWLER: Thank you for having me.

KHALID: That was Stephen Fowler from Georgia Public Broadcasting. And, Ryan, we are also going to say goodbye to you for now. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about Vice President Kamala Harris' trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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KHALID: And we're back. And it is a tad later in the day now. It is 2:21 p.m. And we are back at a later point in the day to deal with the news and also because we have a new cast on the show, Tam and Domenico. Hey, guys.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey.

KHALID: And hey, guys, we are here to talk about immigration. Vice President Kamala Harris just finished speaking during her trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. The border has been flooded with migrants, many fleeing violence and harsh economic conditions.

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KHALID: The president and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that our immigration system is orderly and humane. And I do believe that we are making progress in that regard.

KHALID: So, Tam, talk to us a bit about that. I mean, why has the border, why has this surge of migrants become such a political flashpoint for the administration - and specifically, let's say, for Vice President Harris at this point?

KEITH: Well, let's just say that whenever there is a surge of migrants at the border - and it happens every few years, though, this is a historically large surge - whenever it happens, it's a political flashpoint. So back in March, President Biden put Vice President Harris in charge of addressing the root causes of this surge of migrants, people coming from Central America largely. And immediately, the administration's opponents said the border czar needs to go to the border. And Harris was like, I'm not the border czar. Nobody gave me that title. I'm trying to focus on these diplomatic efforts in Central America, far, far, far, far, far away from the most charged political components of this really big problem for the administration.

But she was under a ton of pressure to actually go to the border. And she went to El Paso. She went to a Customs and Border Protection processing facility. She also went to a border crossing. But this was not a, you know, standing next to the wall touting enforcement trip. This was a trip where she was very focused on the humanitarian side of it.

MONTANARO: Well, and that's because she's saying that this is more complicated than just reactions, you know, to a problem that they see. You know, she's saying her job is to find the root cause of what happened, which is why she - her first trip was to Guatemala and Mexico. She's saying, look, there's a lot of food insecurity. There's climate change issues. There's corruption in those countries. And that's the reason why that's happening. And as a good neighbor and the wealthiest country in this hemisphere, that the U.S. has some responsibility to try to help fix those issues.

KEITH: Well, also, not just a good neighbor, some serious self-interest, because having this many people coming to the border - record numbers - is a very serious problem, not just a political problem, but a humanitarian problem. And one criticism she got for the choices she made on this trip is that she went to El Paso, but she didn't visit a facility where literally thousands of unaccompanied minor children are being held by the Health and Human Services Department while they're looking for places for them to stay longer term. But these children are being held in a facility she didn't visit.

This is a huge challenge that the administration is trying to sort through at a time that it is also trying to change its posture on immigration. Like, it - the Trump administration was enforcement first, enforcement only, you know, build the wall, remain in Mexico, all kinds of policies - keep people out. The Biden administration wants to have a more humane approach to immigration. But critics argue and even some allies of the administration argue that this more humane approach also did send a signal to people who are desperate to leave their countries that maybe now would be an OK time to come.

KHALID: And this trip also comes during this context of which, you know, Republicans have been eager to attack the Bush administration over its positions on immigration. And in fact, we even got news that former President Trump is intending to take his own trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. I mean, so there is this context in which Republicans feel that they have an advantage ahead of the midterms. I mean, they see this as being a weak spot for Democrats.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, there's clearly raw politics involved here. I mean, not only does Harris' trip itself feel somewhat reactive politically because, you know, her - she's saying the whole point is not to solve the immediate border crisis, but to look long term at the root causes and wasn't even planning to go to the border in the first place initially and now is there. So that feels somewhat reactive politically. But, you know, former President Trump really built his entire candidacy around these culture issues, especially on immigration and quote-unquote, "build the wall," which is absolutely a reactive issue - or reactive solution to say we need to build a wall. Vice President Harris is saying you need a comprehensive immigration plan, which is something that has really eluded Congress for a long time.

KHALID: And frankly, there's really no indication that it's going to be resolved with the current Congress either.

KEITH: Oh, no.

MONTANARO: No, not at all. And, you know, this is an issue where Republicans really feel like they can burrow in on Democrats because as the coronavirus pandemic starts to seem to normalize or recede a bit, you know, that they see this as a real liability for the Biden administration. And if you believe polling, it is right now more of a liability, certainly, than the large numbers of people who approve of how President Biden has handled the coronavirus.

KHALID: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

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KHALID: And we're back. And it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go. That's the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. And I will start for today. Mine is otherwise. And I will say this is a heavy topic, but it has been on my mind a lot. Britney Spears.

MONTANARO: Oh, yeah.

KHALID: You know, I am of the generation where everybody knew a Britney song in high school. Right? Like, this - I mean, she was legend. And if you all have been totally out of the loop, let me just catch you up real quick. So Britney Spears has been under conservatorship. I never know to say that word correctly. Is that right? Conservatorship...

KEITH: Conservatorship.

MONTANARO: Conservatorship.

KHALID: ...Of her father. Yeah, basically meaning her father controls everything about her life, controls her finances. And it's been this way for, I think, 13 years. It'll be things like, you know, redesigning the kitchen cabinets. It's just been an extreme amount of power.

KEITH: But it's not just her finances. It's her body. That's the wild thing - every decision.

KHALID: You know, it's not like during this time she's been unable to perform. Like, she had that Las Vegas residency where she was up, you know, singing and dancing on the regular. And she was able to do all that. And so what I was struck by, you know, to be honest, you know, our producer Barton and I were talking about this earlier, which is like, Britney's voice and her music is so - it is so well-known. I feel like we all know her voice. But in some ways, we don't really know her voice. And we didn't actually hear her voice or her thoughts until just this week, when she actually testified in court herself about this conservatorship and just the extreme stress she has felt under being not able to make her own decisions about a whole host of things.

I mean, like you all said about, you know, frankly, even her body. She's had, you know, a forced IUD in her for a number of years. And it just made me think that there are celebrities, you know, like her. And I do wonder if she's maybe not the only one like this where we know them and their voice is so ubiquitous, but then we don't actually really know what's going on inside. And, you know, I just - I feel for her. I mean, I feel like when we saw this week, it was just, you know, kind of earth-shattering. I don't think any of us really knew the extent of what she had been under.

MONTANARO: I totally agree that this, you know, kind of all started with that documentary "Free Britney," which I watched, was really fascinating stuff.

KEITH: I watched it, too.

MONTANARO: I mean, I didn't have a whole heck of a lot of understanding of what conservatorships did, and now I certainly do. And to go as far as what they were talking about in this with what she was talking about, with wanting to have a child and not even allowed to do that, to take out the IUD without her father's permission, boy, that is going to another level, you know. And it's going to be really interesting to see what the court says about it.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, it's a highly unusual arrangement even, you know, even...

MONTANARO: You think? (Laughter) Yeah.

KEITH: ...For people who are truly incapacitated - and she's not. you know what? If she doesn't want to do a concert in Las Vegas, like, she shouldn't have to.

MONTANARO: Well, you know, I mean, there is a reason why I guess these conservatorships are in place in the first place. You know, and I'm certainly not privy to all of the reasons why a court or a judge would say why someone needs it. But it's certainly getting a whole new evaluation on whether these are appropriate and at what level.

KHALID: All right. Domenico, why don't you take things from here?

KEITH: After that downer? (Laughter).

MONTANARO: Well, I really can't let go of something that doesn't let you let go.

KEITH: Velcro?

MONTANARO: Spider tack (ph). Have you heard of Spider Tack or do you know what the controversy is in baseball around this?

KEITH: Oh.

MONTANARO: So there's this substance that you can buy online. Go to Amazon. You know, it's pretty cheap stuff. And it's really, really sticky stuff that you can use. And it's usually used by strongmen, like, in those strongmen competitions to be able to better grip, like, a boulder that you can push up a hill or something like that - right? - when you see them do these crazy competitions. But what pitchers have been doing is they've been putting this stuff on their hands to have the ball stick to their fingers up until the last second that they throw, and they get so much torque out of it and be able to grip so well that it increases the spin rate to just crazy rates. And the ball has been really sailing on batters and doing things that they haven't seen before. And the rates of offense in baseball have really declined tremendously this season. The - Major League Baseball had banned this in the off-season.

KHALID: Yeah. So I was going to say, so this is legal? You don't...

MONTANARO: This is not a legal substance.

KEITH: This sounds like cheating.

MONTANARO: Well, you know, it is.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: You know, there's a degree to which - right? - you're allowed to sort of you know, when you try to turn a page in a book, you might wet your finger - right? - to turn the page. In baseball, a little bit of that is allowed too. It's cold outside. You blow it in your hands, you lick your fingers, whatever. There have always been people through the years, whether it was sandpaper in the 1980s to try to sand down the ball or what has been more commonly used is sunscreen mixed with resin to be able to control the ball a little bit more. And the batters, ironically, are saying that they prefer the pitchers to do that rather than nothing because the velocity has gone up so much that a heavy number of batters have been hit by balls this year and really suffered bad injuries.

One player for the New York Mets, for example, Kevin Pillar, was hit with a 95-plus-mile-an-hour fastball right in the face and had multiple fractures to his nose. And this has really started a huge conversation about safety in baseball. And, you know, starting at a young age, kids are expected even to throw these balls harder and harder, to play every season, and to make the ball move more and more. And they're looking for any advantage. And now baseball has changed. It's midseason, and pitchers are complaining that they're starting to get hurt with it. So it's a huge cultural shift that's happening.

KHALID: Tam, what about you? What can you not let go of?

KEITH: So what I can't let go of something that our colleague Claudia Grisales was talking about in the Washington Desk Slack. And I was like, I cannot let go of this. So she got a message from somebody on Twitter after appearing on our sister podcast Up First earlier this month. And the message said, hi, Claudia, just an FYI that your mic had a really high-pitched whine that younger listeners might pick up. It's irritating. I would assume that older listeners and editors might not have picked it up before publishing. And...

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: And I (unintelligible)...

MONTANARO: I think we know where this is going.

KHALID: (Unintelligible) thought is, like, this is a troll.

MONTANARO: No. We know where this is going.

KEITH: Yeah. Claudia did not think this was real, but she was like, oh, OK, I'll check with an engineer. I have a clip of her appearance on Up First that day. I have listened to it. I think we should all listen to it.

KHALID: Do you hear it? OK, yeah. I want to see if I'm old or young.

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CLAUDIA GRISALES: And this comes after the House passed a $1.9 billion version of that plan. So this could trigger talks with the Senate and also comes with...

KEITH: So do you guys hear anything? I just hear Claudia.

KHALID: I don't think I hear anything.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I don't hear anything either. But that's 'cause we're old.

KEITH: So apparently, this is like, you know, like dog whistles where...

MONTANARO: For young people.

KEITH: ...Dogs are, like, annoyed by it, but humans are not.

KHALID: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KEITH: So it turns out this is a test. And we're old.

MONTANARO: Yeah, we're old. I mean, that's what's happened.

KHALID: OK, so what age - so how old was this guy who messaged her?

KEITH: I'm not sure.

KHALID: Clearly younger than us (laughter).

KEITH: But @khkellis, economics Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, is obviously younger than all of us because...

KHALID: And clearly has a future as an audio engineer.

MONTANARO: Well, maybe, maybe not.

KEITH: Yes.

MONTANARO: Maybe not too far in the future because eventually, he won't be able to hear it either.

KHALID: 'Cause he'll lose that ability.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Yeah, no, it's true. You know, NPR did a whole story on this, I think, last year at some point where it was, you know, there were sounds that young people could hear...

KHALID: So wild.

MONTANARO: ...Young'uns (ph) at a park. You know, and what they're doing is they put this sound out in a park at certain times of nights - at night when they don't want kids or teenagers going into the park. So they play this really high-pitched, annoying sound.

KHALID: It's like the Pied Piper story. You guys remember hearing that as kids, (unintelligible) sound?

KEITH: It's like the reverse to the Pied Piper.

KHALID: Yeah, the reverse to the Pied Piper, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KHALID: To shoo away the kids.

KEITH: We're repelling youth everywhere. Yeah, so they fixed Claudia's machinery. The high-pitched squeal is gone.

MONTANARO: Wow.

KEITH: But it is - this is a true test. And our producer...

KHALID: So wild.

KEITH: ...Lexie Schapitl says that she can only hear it in one ear.

KHALID: Oh, my gosh. So she's like on the verge of becoming old. This is (laughter)...

KEITH: Yes.

MONTANARO: I thought this was a - I thought this was going to be a story about cicadas again.

KEITH: No, I'm done. I am not...

MONTANARO: Because I thought it was going to be, like - I thought it was going to be, like - I thought it was going to be, like, when are the cicadas coming through the window? We can hear your cicadas. The nice thing to update everyone on the dang cicadas is we don't see them as much anymore in D.C., thank goodness.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. But before we all say goodbye to each other, we've got to say goodbye to one of our star producers, Chloee Weiner. She is heading off to a fellowship, and we all are going to miss her dearly. Chloee, you have been essential to helping us become a daily podcast and helping us carry through during this crazy pandemic year. So thank you. Good luck. And kudos.

KEITH: I'm just sad that we can't toast in-person, but we are going to miss Chloee so much. She also really helped...

KHALID: Yes.

KEITH: ...With our Zoom shows, our live shows on the interwebs (ph). And ugh (ph), come back. Come back soon.

MONTANARO: I'll tell you what, for intense reporters on deadline, she's a saving grace because she's always competent and calm. And that is not necessarily the things you always find in colleagues.

KEITH: Truth.

KHALID: Yes.

MONTANARO: So that is - it's really - it's going to be a huge loss for us because of that but very happy for her.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Miacel Spotted Elk.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEETER BOARD FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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