There are now 253 bills in 43 states that aim to restrict voting access, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s a lot of bills, in just the past two months. Even Ari Berman, a reporter at Mother Jones who’s been covering voting rights for a decade, says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Republicans are behind this new wave of voting restrictions, and they control most statehouses across the country. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Berman about how they’re justifying voter suppression and how Democrats can fight back at the state and federal levels. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ari Berman: Georgia is fascinating because Republicans wrote every aspect of the state’s voting laws, so they were totally fine with it until it didn’t work for them anymore. And the second it didn’t work for them, now they’re trying to change the entire thing. They can’t say this voting law or that voting law is a Democratic plot because they did all of it.
Every press release from the Georgia secretary of state brags that Georgia is a national leader in elections because it has the trifecta of automatic voter registration, early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting. And Republicans have now introduced and passed bills through committee to repeal or restrict all three of those things. They have passed bills through committee to repeal automatic voter registration, which 5 million of 7.6 million registered voters in Georgia use to register. They have passed bills through committee to repeal no-excuse absentee voting, which 1.3 million Georgians used in November. They have tried to cut days of weekend voting, including Sunday voting, when Black churches used “souls to the polls” voter mobilization drives. So they really are trying to repeal or severely restrict everything in the state of Georgia that makes it easy to vote. These are not small changes around the margins. These are sweeping changes that would dramatically reshape and restrict voting access in the state.
Mary Harris: It’s notable that not all Georgia Republicans agree these restrictions are necessary, or even a good idea politically.
There’s different dividing lines. The speaker of the House said he doesn’t want to get rid of no-excuse absentee voting. That is not in any of the House bills so far that have been passed to restrict voting rights. The lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, is not for that either. Gov. Brian Kemp has been vague about what he wants to do, but I think he is very aware of the fact that most likely Stacey Abrams is going to run against him in 2022. And a lot of Democrats, and in particular a lot of Black voters, are still angry about the voter suppression that happened in 2018 when Brian Kemp was both secretary of state and a candidate for governor and appeared to use the state’s voting laws as a weapon against Stacey Abrams and a weapon against Black voters. And so I think he realizes if he signs bills making it harder to vote, that Abrams and other people in Georgia are going to use that against him for the next two years. They’re going to rally voters against him and they’re going to say the governor, the Republican leadership of the state, they don’t want Black voters to participate, they don’t want voters of color to participate. And that may mobilize people to turn out again and to be motivated to not have their votes taken away from them. So it’s unclear how this is going to work politically, but it’s also clear that the legislature, in some form or another, is going to pass laws making it more difficult to vote based on zero evidence that it actually needs to happen.
What do the efforts look like to stop these Republican laws from passing? When it comes to the Democrats, how can they insert themselves here, given that they’re not part of the majority?
First off, just publicity. I mean, there was a truck that was circling the Georgia legislature on Friday that had a banner that said “Georgia Republicans don’t want Black people to vote.” And this is a state where voters of color are 40 percent of the electorate. Georgia was the only state in which Black people made up a majority of Joe Biden’s voters. So Black voters and voters of color are a very influential segment of the electorate in Georgia.
A lot of times voter suppression succeeds because people don’t know it’s going on. They’re able to pass it under the rug and just think that there won’t be any outrage because people won’t really be following it. That’s not going to happen in Georgia. That’s not going to happen in other states. This is getting a lot of attention at the state level. This is starting to get more attention nationally. And Democrats are able to both make a stink about it, but also they’re able to exploit these Republican divides and say, “It was your Republican secretary of state that said over and over and over this election was secure, there was no fraud, Donald Trump and other people who were allied with him were lying.” That makes for a pretty effective argument.
Looking nationally, there are also 704 bills with provisions to improve access to voting. It seems like that would be good news.
It would be good news if all of those bills to improve voting rights actually had the same chance of passing as all the bills to restrict voting rights do. Because if you look at who controls the states right now, Republicans control many more states than Democrats do. So bills to make voting easier, by and large, are only going to pass in Democratic-controlled states.
But if you look at all the places that Republicans control—Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Texas—they are very, very quickly moving to restrict voting rights. It is the No. 1 thing or very close to the No. 1 thing they’re trying to do in all of these states that are competitive—or even not really that competitive. The amazing thing to me is that you have Idaho and Wyoming and Montana, all of these states that Donald Trump carried easily, they’re also making it harder to vote. So it just seems like this voter suppression virus has infected the entire Republican Party. They are doing this all across the country, and it’s really remarkable to see how orchestrated it is.
It’s almost like their ability to do voter suppression has become a litmus test for how loyal of Republicans they are—like pushing voter suppression is now the same thing as being pro-life or pro-gun. If you don’t do it, you’re not a loyal Republican, you’re a RINO. And that’s so disturbing. The idea that restricting access to the ballot is now something that you have to do to prove your loyalty to the Republican Party and prove your loyalty to Trump is just an incredibly alarming and I think new development in American politics. They’re just so insecure in terms of the power they have that even if they won the election, they clearly don’t believe that they’re going to win it forever, or else they wouldn’t be changing the voting systems in Iowa or Florida and other states.
Let’s talk about what might happen if these bills are passed. In the past, the courts have stepped in to intervene, especially with something like restricting Sunday voting—North Carolina tried to pass a similar law in 2013. Courts got in there and said no. Can we expect that to happen now?
I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the courts, when Donald Trump appointed 234 judges, including three new members of the Supreme Court. I think that the courts are going to be very lenient towards these Republican efforts. There may be a few really extreme provisions that they strike down. But on the whole, I think the courts are going to say that we think states should be able to run their elections how they see fit.
So if the courts aren’t going to fix this, what will?
I think federal legislation. Democrats control Washington. They’re in a position to pass a new Voting Rights Act. They’re in a position to pass the For the People Act, the most important democracy reform bill in a generation. They have the power to do these things. If there’s any way to try to stop this, it’s to create federal rules to make it easier to vote.
What’s in the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act?
The For the People Act has all of these provisions that would make it easier to vote, because Congress can regulate the rules for federal elections. So it would mandate that every state for federal elections would have automatic registration, would have Election Day registration, would have early voting, would have nonpartisan redistricting, would give voting rights back to people with past felony convictions. So, many of the things that we’re talking about Republicans trying to do, they wouldn’t be able to do for federal elections because the For the People Act would have these broad protections for voting rights enshrined for races for the House or the Senate or for the president. And that would go a long way to blocking the kind of voter suppression efforts we’re talking about in the states.
How does the John Lewis Voting Rights Act push even beyond that?
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act responds to the Shelby County v. Holder decision, where the Supreme Court in 2013 said that states with a long history of discrimination no longer have to approve their voting changes with the federal government. In that decision, the Supreme Court basically said to Congress: You can write a new version of the Voting Rights Act. One of our biggest issues with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is it’s based on old data. So the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would require states with a more recent history of voting discrimination to have to approve their voting changes with the federal government once again. That would include states like Georgia that both discriminated against voters of color in the past but have also discriminated against them more recently, as found by the courts. And so if Georgia wanted to get rid of automatic registration or get rid of early voting or do something like that, they would have to get that approved with the federal government, either with the courts or the Justice Department.
It would also require voting changes in every state that have a disproportionate impact on minority voters to have to be approved federally as well. So if you’re in Utah and you want to close a polling place in an area with a high percentage of voters of color, you would have to get that approved as well. So it’s both sweeping and targeted at the same time. And I think these bills work really well hand in hand, because the For the People Act would basically do all these good things, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would basically stop all of these bad things. I think you need that combination of carrots and sticks to really protect voting rights in this day and age.
My understanding is these two bills are alive in the House, but not so alive in the Senate.
They’re alive in the Senate if you can pass them with 50 votes. They are alive if you get rid of the filibuster to pass them. Right now, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, they’re saying we’re not going to get rid of the filibuster. So they’re dead as of now. What Democrats are betting is that if Republicans block enough legislation and if Republicans do enough extreme things at the state level, these senators might change their tune.
In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema’s home state, they have introduced more restrictions on voting than any other state, even more than in Georgia. They’re trying to roll back mail voting in all sorts of ways. They’re trying to cut in-person voting. They’re trying to get rid of automatic registration. There’s even a bill in Arizona that would allow the Legislature there to appoint its own electors no matter what the voters do, so basically that would render the presidential election completely void if the Legislature can just step in at any moment to overturn it. So I think at some level, Kyrsten Sinema and other Democrats in Arizona have to view these as an attack on democracy, but also as an attack on them, an attack on their ability to get reelected. They also know that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act would stop a lot of these efforts. And so these federal bills, yes, they’re not going to pass the Senate now. Democrats are betting that in six months, the political situation, the political calculus of these senators, might be different.