Will A New Georgia Law Restrict Voter Access Or Restore Faith In Elections? : The NPR Politics Podcast A new Georgia law has become the center of the debate over voting rights with President Biden calling it "Jim Crow in the 21st century." Republicans argue the law helps restore faith in the electoral process, but civil rights advocates say it disenfranchises voters of color. Plus, Texas Republicans introduce new bills to restrict voter access.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, WABE's political reporter Emma Hurt, and KUT's political reporter Ashely Lopez.

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Will A New Georgia Law Restrict Voter Access Or Restore Faith In Elections?

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Will A New Georgia Law Restrict Voter Access Or Restore Faith In Elections?

Will A New Georgia Law Restrict Voter Access Or Restore Faith In Elections?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/982439178/982442727" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHAWNA: Hi. This is Shawna (ph) from Madison, Wis. And I am getting ready to teach a virtual tap dance class. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:08 p.m. on Monday, March 29.

SHAWNA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. All right, enjoy the show.

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

DAVIS: I like hearing that tap sound.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I've been curious about taking, like, fitness classes and group things over Zoom. And I have not been able to get myself there, but it sounds like it might be kind of fun.

DAVIS: Might sign you up for a tap class - you might be really good at it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.

DAVIS: And we have with us today the great Emma Hurt, political reporter with WABE in Atlanta.

Hey, Emma. Welcome back to the pod.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hey, guys. Thanks for having me again.

DAVIS: Well, last week in Georgia, Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed a new Republican-sponsored law that will affect virtually every aspect of your state's elections. Republicans say these are needed reforms, but Democrats and voting rights groups say it will disproportionately affect voters of color, making it harder for them to cast their ballots. In one really dramatic clash over the law, Democratic state Representative Park Cannon, who's a Black woman, was arrested by Capitol Police after knocking on the governor's office door as he was making remarks after signing the law.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you serious?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, you are not...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: She's not under arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For what? Under arrest for what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why is she under arrest?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For trying to see something that our governor is doing?

DAVIS: Emma, this image of a Black woman being arrested by white officers over a voting rights law seemed to me to really capture the intensity around this bill. President Biden has gone so far as to call it Jim Crow in the 21st century. So let's take a breath and start from the top. There's a lot in this legislation, but could you maybe start with outlining some of the ways it's going to change voting in your state going forward?

HURT: Yeah, you're right. It's a lot. So this is a law that's nearly a hundred pages long, and it really touches the election code top to bottom. And so that's why it's really confusing when it's being painted, you know, by Republicans as great and by Democrats as terrible because there's a lot of nuance, so I'll try to take us through it. So, you know, one headline that Republicans have touted is that unlike previous versions of the bill, this expands early voting weekend requirements, so it expands early voting access in some counties. It shortens the window for absentee ballot applications. On the flip side, they are shortening the window on the other end, so you could request an absentee ballot from 180 days before an election. Now it's 78 days. That's something that people take issue with. There's absentee ballot drop boxes. So those don't exist in Georgia code. They were created in emergency.

DAVIS: Because of the pandemic.

HURT: Because of the pandemic, exactly. And so this new law puts them into code, but it adds new restrictions as to where they can be. So now they have to be inside an early voting location and only accessible during early voting hours. So that's some of the headlines, tons of stuff, but it really does focus on early voting and absentee voting.

DAVIS: Why did Republicans say that this law was necessary right now? And obviously, Democrats won both of your Senate races. Joe Biden won the state of Georgia. There has to be some awareness of the politics of this, that it may look like Republicans are trying to game a system that they just lost.

HURT: Right. And that's really - kind of gets at the heart of this difference between the two parties on this. So Republicans, you know, they have argued that this law is because of the need to shore up voter confidence after the 2020 election, particularly their Republican voters who are - were questioning the system after false claims of voter fraud, like you said. But they're also saying, you know, remember back in 2018 when Stacey Abrams, you know, accused us of voter suppression, and she questioned the election integrity then. You know, we're trying to address those concerns as well. And then Republicans are also pointing to, you know, back in the June primary, when Georgia saw - some parts of Georgia saw really horrible lines because, you know, the system really wasn't ready for a pandemic primary with all the absentee ballots. And so it's all of that the Republicans are pulling in to their argument about it. But Democrats are saying this is sour grapes. You lost, and you are playing into false claims of voter fraud, and you're trying to change the system and shave off points going forward.

SNELL: One of the things that we're hearing from voting rights advocates is that this is a major attack on specifically the rights of voters of color. Can you talk a little bit about that?

HURT: Yeah, so I mean, anything that's adding a restriction to voting, a barrier of any sort, advocates are saying, will disproportionately affect voters of color, voters who are poor, new Georgians, immigrants, and, you know, people who are disabled, combined with Georgia and the South's terrible history with voting access and actual voter suppression of the civil rights era. So Democrats argue it's a terrible look. They argue that it will have real consequences. But Republicans, for their part, really rankle at this characterization. They point to expanding weekend early voting access, like I said. They point to a new rule in the law that says if a precinct has voting lines of up to an hour, the next election they have to do something about it. They have to split up the precinct, so they're arguing that is a complete mischaracterization.

DAVIS: Well, I think it speaks to the broader political problem you have when one party is driving election law changes. And, Kelsey, I mean, Georgia is not happening in a vacuum. Republican-led legislatures and Republican legislators all over the country right now are introducing legislation to tighten voting access.

SNELL: And that's becoming part of the conversation around the voting rights law that was named for former Congressman John Lewis that has passed the House and that is just waiting in the Senate. Republicans in the Senate say that they are going to block this bill written by Democrats over concerns that it goes too far, that it overreaches, that it could actually cause huge problems in the voting systems by forcing people to make changes too quickly. And that tension that is being sparked in Georgia is also creating a greater push from activists and from Democrats to get rid of the filibuster so that the voting rights protections can be passed in the Senate and become law. So these things are all kind of molding together. What is, to some degree, a state-level fight about voting access in Georgia is becoming an argument about the filibuster and the future of progressive policies in Congress.

HURT: And, Kelsey, I mean, I asked Senator Jon Ossoff this question earlier today. Does Georgia's new law add more pressure at the federal level for this kind of legislation? And, you know, sort of also the question is about the filibuster, right? And he said he thinks it definitely boosts that. I wonder whether you think it'll really translate into meaningful umph in Washington.

SNELL: You know, this is something that I've been talking to people about a lot. And one of the ways that I had it explained to me by one activist was that they said that it has more connectivity. It moves the filibuster from being, like, this squishy thing about institutions and protecting a gauzy idea of bipartisanship and makes it visceral and personal and makes it an issue that people are really animated by. But there's a difference between animating people who were already animated and animating, you know, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who wants to defend the filibuster.

DAVIS: Emma, I can't imagine that this is the last we're going to hear about this law. Do you anticipate that there's going to be legal challenges? Are there already legal challenges in the works?

HURT: Yeah, we've already got two major lawsuits, one from the NAACP, one from a coalition of groups, including the local Georgia voting rights group. And then also for 2022, I'm thinking a lot about the political implications here because those are very real. And the truth about this law is that it gives both Republicans and Democrats something they can really use on the campaign trail. For Republicans, it's something that they're going to try to use to shore up confidence of their voters in the system. And then for Democrats, this is a huge - this is something they can really use against Republicans. They can continue to make their argument that Republicans are, quote, "vote suppressors." And they are already fundraising on this. Republicans are also fundraising on it, I might add. And so it's really going to be front and center in Georgia for a while.

DAVIS: All right, Emma, thank you so much for joining us. I'm sure we'll have you on again soon.

HURT: Thanks for having me.

DAVIS: That was Emma Hurt, political reporter with WABE in Atlanta. All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll head to Texas, where Republicans are also advancing voting laws.

And we're back, and we have Ashley Lopez here with us. Ashley is a political reporter with KUT in Austin.

Hey, Ashley. Welcome back.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

DAVIS: So we just talked about Georgia's new election law, and Republicans in Texas are right now working on legislation that would also change how your state runs elections. When I think of Texas, I think of a state that already has pretty strict voting rules. So what are they trying to do with this legislative effort?

LOPEZ: Yeah, so mostly what - and this is a slew of bills, by the way. But overall, you know, the bigger bills that are more likely to make it to the governor's desk mostly take aim at local election officials and mostly in the larger metropolitan counties here in Texas. What they do is kind of make illegal things that local election officials tried to do in 2020, like send out vote-by-mail applications to people who are eligible to vote by mail, which, by the way, isn't a lot of people. In Texas, only people who are over 65, disabled or in jail but not convicted - pretty much just those populations can vote by mail.

SNELL: That's pretty narrow.

LOPEZ: Yeah, it's very narrow. They also want to stop local election officials from expanding voting hours and kind of getting into the nitty gritty of what local election officials do, like requiring them to have the same number of voting machines in every single one of their polling locations. So it's - you know, a lot of what is getting the most attention, especially from people who run elections here, which are at the local level, are what they see as micromanaging kind of laws. But other than that, you know, these measures would also increase criminal penalties on election officials and poll workers who obstruct poll watchers. And overall, these bills also expand what poll watchers can do.

DAVIS: What is the rationale that Republicans say is why these changes are necessary now?

LOPEZ: Republicans say that, you know, local officials kind of overextended. They kind of went beyond what's written in law, so they thought, like, it would be helpful to just sort of clarify what local election officials can do. But Texas has long had this sort of larger existential fear of what changing demographics would lead to politically. I mean, racial minorities have been the majority here for a little while, and so the fight over what is voter fraud, who could vote has been around for a long time. And, you know, this - I think this last election, you know, lawmakers, even though there wasn't evidence of widespread voter fraud here, if you make a big stink about it, it only makes sense that you'd kind of would have to follow up and at least fight it legislatively too. So I think that's where this is coming from because there really wasn't any evidence of wrongdoing or any evidence that, like, Texas is going through, like, a huge shift politically, at least not so far.

SNELL: Well, that kind of speaks to national pressure - right? - on Republicans. With former President Trump still in the background, a lot of Republicans are still attempting to kind of reconcile the misinformation that he spread during the 2020 election about, you know, local officials being at the center of, what he said, was widespread fraud, of misinformation about widespread fraud and that this is not - this is happening in Texas, but this is not a unique concern to Texas Republicans.

LOPEZ: Right. And I think that's where - especially local election officials are telling me they're very frustrated, which is that they kind of feel like this has nothing to do with them, right? - because this is a fight that was waged on a sort of national scale, largely for political reasons. It doesn't have any evidence in our own situation. So, you know, it is really difficult to see an intellectual debate about, like, whether this would help, you know, Texas run elections when it doesn't seem to be based on solving any actual problem here.

DAVIS: Do you anticipate the same kind of intense opposition to these laws from Democrats and voting rights groups that we saw coming out of Georgia?

LOPEZ: Yeah. At this point, it's almost like part of the process is we get lawsuits at the end of all this. And as courts get more conservative, it'll be hard to see that, like, lawsuits will present any sort of huge obstacle. But we'll see.

DAVIS: So interesting. All right. Well, I think that's a wrap for today. Ashley, thanks so much for joining us.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you, guys.

DAVIS: That's Ashley Lopez from KUT in Austin, Texas.

I'm Susan Davis, I cover Congress.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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

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