STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Republicans in key states across this country are focused on changing access to voting, and the party in Georgia is leading the way.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia yesterday signed the bill into law. It makes numerous changes to absentee and early voting. Republican lawmakers responded to a false narrative about election fraud by passing very real legislation. In 2020, Governor Kemp resisted then-President Trump's effort to overturn the election. But now, with his own reelection coming up, Kemp has leaned in.
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BRIAN KEMP: Putting hard work and Georgians first starts with ensuring that your voice is heard in restoring each and every citizen's confidence in their vote.
INSKEEP: Emma Hurt of our member station WABE in Atlanta has been following this story. Good morning.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK. So it's one state, but a vitally important state nationally, so we've been covering the legislation there as it's evolved over the past several weeks. What is in the final version?
HURT: So nearly 100 pages worth of changes - it's really a bunch of mostly Republican-proposed ideas combined together into what constitutes an overhaul of Georgia's absentee and early voting rules. So some of the headlines are that it adds an ID requirement for mail-in voting, replacing the signature match process. It bans anyone from giving food or drink to a voter who's waiting in line at a polling place. It limits where absentee ballot drop boxes can go. And it adds new powers for the state election board to intervene in county election management and replaces the secretary of state on that state election board with someone elected by the General Assembly.
INSKEEP: Now, that last one is interesting because it would reduce, it seems, the power of the secretary of state, who stood up for the actual election results in 2020, and puts the power in some other people's hands. How have people responded to this legislation?
HURT: It's been intense. I mean, one Democratic state representative, Park Cannon, was actually arrested last night. She opposes the bill and was knocking on the governor's door because he signed it in private. She says she was trying to witness it. She was almost dragged out of the building and was released from jail last night, but not before being charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement and disrupting General Assembly meetings. You know, a Republican state representative earlier in the day said this was the most divisive political issue he'd seen in three decades in Georgia. So there's a lot of emotion everywhere.
INSKEEP: Republicans insisted on passing this bill, but it did change over time.
HURT: It did. Some of the most controversial proposals were stripped out after a lot of criticism. You know, Republicans responded to that. There had been a proposal to get rid of automatic voter registration. There was a proposal to eliminate no-excuse absentee ballots. There was an effort to curtail Sunday early voting, which the Black community in particular protested given the tradition of voters going to church and then going to vote. And none of those became law. Actually, the bill that was signed expands access to weekend early voting. So Republicans have really rejected the characterizations of Democrats of this bill as Jim Crow 2.0. They say it strikes a balance.
INSKEEP: I'm reminded, though, of the old saying that in a democracy - in politics, nothing is ever over. I can't imagine this debate is over just because the bill passed.
HURT: You hit the nail on the head there. It's hard to see this getting better going into 2022. And there's an argument that the voting law gives both Democrats and Republicans what they need for the next election so Republicans can go back to their voters who are questioning the system and say, look, it's safe to come and vote. And for Democrats, this law, even though it's not as devastating as some of the other proposals were, this is still proof that Republicans are, quote, "votes suppressors," and they're already fundraising with that argument in mind.
INSKEEP: Emma, thanks so much.
HURT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Emma Hurt of our member station WABE.
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INSKEEP: When President Biden held a news conference yesterday, flags at the White House were at half-staff. They have been for days, honoring victims of two mass shootings.
MARTIN: President Biden has denounced the shootings. But yesterday, he acknowledged limitations to what he can do. As a senator, Biden was an advocate for gun regulation. But in answer to reporters' questions yesterday, he said his next big priority is an infrastructure bill; gun control legislation may have to wait.
INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. Tam, good morning.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So how did the president discuss gun control yesterday?
KEITH: You know, this is an issue that he has been working on for decades.
KEITH: And there were these two mass shootings in less than a week. But it took about 45 minutes into the press conference for a reporter to ask Biden a question that would tee him up to talk about it. The reporter asked about specific gun-related measures that Biden could pursue. So this was his chance to lay out what he planned to do. But this is how he answered.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: All the above - it's a matter of timing.
KEITH: And then he very quickly pivoted, saying that a president's success depends on sequencing and that his next major initiative is going to be infrastructure - broadband, roads, bridges - something he'll talk about next week.
INSKEEP: Although a few days ago, he was saying that action on gun violence can't wait. Let's listen to that.
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BIDEN: We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.
INSKEEP: Once again, he says.
KEITH: Yeah. So what he was referring to there was part of his own long track record on this issue. He was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the early 1990s, the last time Congress passed significant gun control legislation. And that - included in his 1994 crime bill, there was - it was a big piece of legislation, but there was a provision that banned a variety of semiautomatic rifles. But that ban had a 10-year sunset clause. And ever since then, Democrats, including Biden, have been trying to get that ban back on these powerful weapons and make it even stronger, you know.
And then when he was vice president, he was put in charge of trying to find a way to update gun laws after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. Of course, that effort fell apart even though it looked for a minute like there would be a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks.
INSKEEP: Well, let's think through what this means. So the president obviously hasn't changed his view. He's still in favor of things like an assault weapons ban. He's looking probably at the politics because getting something through the Senate would not be very easy at this point. It's a fraught issue, and he has other things he needs to focus on. That's what he seems to be saying. But how did gun control advocates respond yesterday?
KEITH: Right. As you say, President Biden probably knows better than anyone how difficult getting gun legislation through Congress would be. But his statement about having to sequence things really upset Kris Brown, who's president of the group Brady: United Against Gun Violence. She spoke with our colleague Eric Westervelt.
KRIS BROWN: What we are looking for from him, to be very clear, is very bold and decisive action. I'm disappointed, I will say, at what I heard from him.
KEITH: She said she expected more and better and that Biden's going to be under a lot of pressure to do more than just infrastructure.
INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks as always for your reporting.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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INSKEEP: Coronavirus cases are climbing again in some parts of the United States, despite the Biden administration's faster-than-expected vaccination campaign.
MARTIN: Yeah. And hospitalizations have started going up again in some places, too. All this has some public health experts worried that yet another surge could be starting to hit the U.S.
INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, good morning.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I got to remind people - you brought us the story that things seemed to be getting dramatically better just a couple weeks ago. Now things are changing again.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, people were thinking that the worst could be over and the end could finally be in sight. And that's still the case. But, you know, there still are some - definitely some very ominous signs out there right now. Hundreds are still dying every day, so it's a very precarious situation. And we're seeing what looked like a growing number of what could be hot spots around the country. Michigan is by far the worst. Infections are just soaring there. But they're also going up in other places now, too, you know, especially across the Midwest and up the East Coast from Washington, D.C., through New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts.
INSKEEP: And we just heard from Rachel that hospitalizations are going up, which has got to be maybe the greatest concern - right? - because those are the sickest people and the risk of overwhelming the health system.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, and this would be the first time, really, that hospitalizations look like they could be rising in some parts of the country since the big winter peak. Some numbers indicate hospitalizations are up in more than a dozen states, again, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast. Now, it looks like those who are being hospitalized are mostly younger people relatively, and they're less likely to die. So the hope is that it won't necessarily lead to an increase in deaths, but that's still a worry. Here's Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington.
ALI MOKDAD: The fact that we are seeing a rise of cases in many states, that's a big concern. I mean, it shouldn't happen at this time.
STEIN: It shouldn't be happening, you know, because the weather is getting warmer and making it harder for the virus to spread. Many people have some protection from the virus because they already were exposed, and so many people are getting vaccinated every day now.
INSKEEP: Well, given all of that, why is this happening?
STEIN: Yeah. You know, the big reason is it's kind of a spring fever. People are just kind of fed up and just aren't being as careful. Lots of states have relaxed their restrictions. They're letting more people eat inside restaurants and get together in bars, dropping their mask mandates. And that's sending a very powerful signal that everything's kind of getting back to normal. You know, we've seen all those people partying on spring break. And the reality is, yes, things are starting to get back to normal a bit, but it's definitely really premature to act as if the pandemic's over. And the second big reason is probably those variants. They're a lot easier to catch. And the one that's spreading the most right now looks like it makes people sicker, too.
INSKEEP: At this point, you said it still looks like we are past the worst. Things are getting a little worse. Is there fear of a genuine nationwide surge?
STEIN: Well, you know, that's the fear. You know, one projection says New York City could be heading towards another surge nearly as bad as the winter within the next few weeks.
STEIN: And the worry is, you know, other places could follow. Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins says we need to work hard to prevent that sort of thing from happening.
JENNIFER NUZZO: We've suffered so much. We've lost so many people. And it would be a shame if people, you know, got infected now when protection is so close at hand.
STEIN: You know - so people just need to stay patient just a little longer. Keep wearing those masks, avoiding those crowds so more people can get vaccinated. We're almost there. But with those spring breakers traveling home and Easter dinners coming up, the fear is things could spiral out of control before enough people can get their shots.
INSKEEP: Rob, we'll keep following your reporting on the ups and downs. Thanks so much.
STEIN: You bet, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.
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