Lizzie O'Leary: Around the country, Conservative lawmakers have introduced bills that are widely seen as restricting voting rights. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, over 360 of these bills have been introduced this year. Some states like Arizona and Georgia have been in the spotlight. The most recent law was signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis this week. Here he is on Fox and Friends.
Governor Ron DeSantis: Right now I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country. I'm actually going to sign it right here, it's going to take effect. [cheering]
Lizzie: While all of this is happening at the state level, many progressives have their hopes pinned to an overhaul of voting rights at the federal level. You might remember that back in March, the House passed H.R. 1 the “For The People Act,” on a party-line vote, but given the slim majority that Democrats have in the Senate, the bill’s fate in that chamber is far less clear.
This week, Senate Democrats made changes to their version of the bill in advance of a Senate Rules Committee vote scheduled for next week, according to The Washington Post. The Senate bill, passed by the House in March, seeks to automatically register eligible voters, overhaul congressional gerrymandering, restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, and require a minimum of 14 days of early voting, and more.
I'm Lizzie O'Leary, host of What Next: TBD from Slate, in for Tanzina Vega, and a look at the future of the For The People Act is where we start today on The Takeaway. Here to help us understand the changes and what the bill contains is Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Senator Merkley, thank you so much for joining us.
Senator Jeff Merkley: Very good to be with you.
Lizzie: This bill has a lot of stuff in it, but as you know there is strong opposition from the GOP and even from some Democrats. If you had to narrow this down, what planks in this piece of legislation are most important to you?
Senator Merkley: Well, there are three basic propositions in the bill. One is to end gerrymandering so that the people pick their elected representatives rather than the politicians choosing their voters. That's a corruption, gerrymandering is, of equal representation. The second is to stop billionaires from buying elections by putting full transparency on how money moves through the system. The third is protect the ballot box as a fundamental right and freedom of every American.
Lizzie: Why don't take these things piece by piece? Why do it in a great big piece of legislation?
Senator Merkley: Well, in the Senate, it's very difficult to get through a bill, because you have to go through an entire process that can take potentially weeks on the floor. They're all very closely related, very closely tied together in terms of election integrity. It makes sense to have a single debate and address each piece of it, invite amendments from the floor and go through the full legislative process, but keep these elements tied together. We want to get all three accomplished.
Lizzie: I asked that because Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia who's the only Democrat in the Senate who is not co-sponsoring this bill, has expressed some reservations about how big it is, how comprehensive it is. I wonder if there are things that you could do to bring him on board?
Senator Merkley: Well, certainly we're working with colleagues to bring them on board. Joe has expressed concern about the ability to have the secretaries of state respond to all the elements in the bill in a timely manner. We're certainly going to be taking that on. We want to make sure that the changes that are most important get done for the election cycle next year, but there's other improvements that perhaps, such as some of the more complicated improvements to automatic voter registration, that could be done further out. We're going to work with our colleagues. Joe is certainly not the only one who has points about things we'd like to see adjusted, and we're going to make it possible for everybody to be on board.
Lizzie: Why not talk with your state-level colleagues about these issues? In 35 states, gerrymandering happens at the state level. It seems to me there is some tension here between state Democrats and federally elected Democrats about how to best address this issue.
Senator Merkley: One of the great complexities in America is that if you improve and get rid of gerrymandering in a single state, for example, say here in Oregon. If we have a process that is a little more fair here, that improves Republican seats in our state, it actually increases the bias at the federal level. In fact, folks at the federal level, we're hearing Republicans talking about that gerrymandering now gives them 15 extra seats in the House of Representatives, but they want 25 extra seats in the House of Representatives, and so it makes sense to do it at the national level. Get rid of it at the national level so that you don't create any bias between the state and the federal.
Lizzie: What do you think is at stake for your party if you can't pass this bill? After all, this is something that your voters very much support, but the path forward in the Senate seems quite complicated, if not impossible.
Senator Merkley: Well, it's certainly not impossible, but it is extremely important because our parties are divided right now into one party, its priorities, improvement in policies for housing and health care and education, living wage jobs, freedom of opportunity for LGBTQ community, and environmental issues. Those policies all take a super majority in the Senate.
We have in the priorities for the Republicans, which have been to put corporate justices onto the Supreme Court and the lower courts and tax cuts for the rich, those only take a simple majority. We already have the filibuster eliminated for the Republican party but not for the Democratic party, so you have this enormous bias in Senate. What this means is that if we don't pass this bill, we see another discrepancy in America, in which laws will be done at the state level that will make it very hard for communities of color to vote, for low-income communities to vote, and those tend to be constituencies that favor Democrats, so we're creating a bias for the priorities of the party for the rich and powerful, that is Republicans, and against the party that's trying to give an opportunity for every family to thrive.
These fundamental American values in our Constitution, this vision of a government of, by, and for the people, that's at stake here, because these changes produce government of, by, and for the powerful, and that's why the Republicans are completely lined up to pass them at the state level and prevent passage of voter integrity at the national level.
Lizzie: Speaking of the Republicans, I want to talk about Republican opposition here. They are united against the bill, as you mentioned. Let's play a clip from GOP leader, Mitch McConnell.
Mitch McConnell: 100% of our focus is on stopping this new administration.
Lizzie: He's talking about the administration, but this is obviously one of the administration's priorities for the people, was Kamala Harris, is the Vice President's slogan when she was running. What do you do with that? Because as you mentioned, this bill is not filibuster-proof, so it feels to me like you're stuck.
Senator Merkley: Well, two years ago, when we had this bill and Tom Udall was lead, senator from New Mexico who's now retired, and I was the co-pilot, Mitch McConnell called his members into a caucus and basically read them the riot act, that they not dare work with Democrats to take on gerrymandering or voter suppression or dark money. Now, dark money really came into its own after Citizens United was passed, well, the Supreme Court decision. Then in the 2014 election, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed from the fossil fuel community.
The result was that it really helped Mitch McConnell win six Senate seats. The world that McConnell lives in, this world of power, he wants to make sure that Republicans have the advantage of these hundreds of millions of dollars of dark money, and the fossil fuel committee, the Koch Brothers kind of expanded cartel of fossil fuel companies, they are determined to keep this sort of bias in place.
Lizzie: I hear you, but it's also a question of math and votes here.
Senator Merkley: Absolutely. The Senate is divided 50/50. It's very clear we will not get a single Republican vote, but 50 votes and a vice president can pass a bill. Now, Mitch McConnell, when he wanted to pack the Supreme Court, he changed the rules by simple majority. When he wanted to get four judges done for the lower courts in a single day, he proceeded to make it three hours of debate rather than 30, and he did that by simple majority. In other words, he changed the rules by simple majority.
When he wanted to do tax cuts for the rich, he changed the rules of a special process called reconciliation, to do that by simple majority. In other words, he has knocked down the filibuster for the Republicans three times to enhance the ability of Republicans to pass bills they favor. Democrats need to stare that straight in the face and say we should have at least the same determination to get bills passed for the people, as McConnell had to get bills passed for the powerful.
Lizzie: Are you saying that you would attempt to pass this through reconciliation, because if I look at this, this does not seem to me to be a budget-related piece of legislation, which is what it would need to be in order to do that.
Senator Merkley: Well, in each of those cases, when I said the rules were changed, those changes meant use existing process, but you proceed to change the rules for that existing process, you modify them. There's various ways that we could modify the requirement on policy bills that require 60 votes to close debate, in order to say, "If a majority wants to close debate, we will close debate with the majority." That of course, was the way the Senate was intended to operate.
Our founders had a super majority requirement in the Congress of the Confederation and therefore they were paralyzed. They said, basically, they were writing the US Constitution, "Don't do this." They set aside a super majority only for special things like treaties and a veto override. They said, "Don't do it for legislation because it paralyzes the body." That's what the Senate has become, has become a deep freeze. If we want to honor either the architectural vision of our Constitution or the premise of government of, by, and for the people, we need to stop Mitch McConnell from being able to paralyze the Senate and causing the minority to control it on the issues that would improve the lives of people, families across this country.
Lizzie: I know that reporters get criticized for focusing on process and not policy, and sometimes that happens for members of Congress and senators as well, but it's so important because process determines what policy can take place. I guess I'm wondering, is this a question for you of trying to have some dialogue with some of your GOP colleagues and maybe peel off a vote or two, or as you seem to be saying, nope, let's tweak the rules and go straight ahead on a Democrat only bill here.
Senator Merkley: We would love to have Republican colleagues but Mitch McConnell has locked down his caucus. He's made it just a test and an issue that no member dare confront him on, so we would need 10 members. If we needed one or two, we might be able to get that, but we're not going--
Lizzie: But you have to get that filibuster-proof majority?
Senator Merkley: Yes, that's the point. To get 60 votes, we would need 10 Republicans to join us. That is just not going to happen given the pressure. From your clip, you can hear how confident McConnell is about having locked down his members and that this is his major theme, is to block this. If we needed 51 or 52 votes, which is the way the founders envisioned our Constitution, we would have a chance of getting those, but 60, no. So we would have to tweak how the filibuster works.
Lizzie: Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon is a sponsor of the For The People Act. Senator, thank you so much.
Senator Merkley: Thank you.
Lizzie: Now we're going to discuss what's happening behind the scenes in terms of the Democratic strategy on voting rights legislation and the realities of getting it passed. We're joined today by Andrew Prokop, Senior Politics Correspondent at Vox. Andrew, welcome back to the show.
Andrew Prokop: Thanks so much for having me.
Lizzie: Andrew, were you listening to my conversation with Senator Merkley? I wonder what stood out to you from what he had to say?
Andrew: Well, he was very clear that he sees no hope of getting any Republican senate votes on the For The People Act in anything like its current form, which means really, the only possible way that they can pass this bill is by changing Senate rules to let it get past the filibuster. The problem with that is that they need every Democratic senator, all 50 to do that.
As you discussed, one of the big roadblocks here is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. I interviewed Senator Manchin for a big profile a couple weeks ago, and I asked him about this specifically. He recoils at the very idea of a party-line bill to overhaul the American voting system. He says that it would just make the tensions that we saw on January 6th, with the storming of the Capitol. Even worse, it would eliminate Republican's trust in the system. He told me, "I just believe with all my heart and soul, that's what would happen, and I'm not going to be part of it." So, there's a bit of a problem with the strategy as it looks right now.
Lizzie: Yes, what do they do with this? What do the Democrats do with this? Because if they push forward, they risk alienating Joe Manchin who is a Conservative Democrat, who might even, I don't know, go independent, change parties. Yet if they don't go forward, they risk disappointing their voters.
Andrew: Yes. I think right now they're just plunging ahead, and they don't really have a clear idea of how they're going to pass this because of this roadblock from Manchin, but also from other senators who don't want to change the rules. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is one and there are others who have been more quiet about it. I think they think that they have to press onward and just pile on the pressure on these moderates and hope that they change their minds or cave. That's really the only strategy right now, the problem is that Manchin, at least, seems to be very dug in that getting rid of the filibuster is a bad idea, and that even passing this bill, specifically without any Republican support, is a bad idea.
Lizzie: You wrote a long story about this bill. One of the things that I was really interested in is, separate and apart from the procedural hurdles that the Democrats have, there are some concerns from advocates, from people who look at voter registration, that maybe this bill might set up some issues down the road if it does become law. Can you walk me through that a little bit?
Andrew: Yes. Publicly, almost every Democrat is supporting this bill, and there is public unity behind it. But I spoke to a bunch of people involved in these issues, and there are more private misgivings about exactly how the policy has been crafted and what it can do within the Democratic caucus and Democratic operatives and so on.
One of the big issues that was a problem in passing it through the house is the changes to gerrymandering, as Senator Merkley explained. What the bill would do is set standards for what counts as overly partisan gerrymandering. The issue is that the way gerrymandering works, it involves packing a bunch of voters from one party into just a small number of districts and spreading out the voters of the other party throughout the state so that they can win more districts.
Right now, there are many districts in the US that are super majority Black and that have elected Black members of Congress, we're talking 80% or so. The members who currently represent these districts, they are inclined towards keeping them. They think that it would be a potential problem with electing Black representatives if Black voters are spread out throughout the state, rather than having these huge majorities in a few districts. They also might themselves, they've spent their entire political careers appealing to these sort of districts, and they might not think that they can make the transition to a district with more races or ethnicities representative in the populace. So that's one issue.
Then there are other concerns about whether certain changes will go far enough, the campaign finance changes. It really can't take on big money directly because of Supreme Court ruling so what it would do is mandate disclosure of dark money spending, and it would supercharge small-donor spending by matching small donations of $200 or less, six to one. There are some fears that this could supercharge the power of Trump's voting base in Republican primaries.
Lizzie: He got a lot of small donations.
Andrew: Exactly. The people who often appeal, the candidates who appeal to small donors, they have to get attention somehow. One true testing model for doing so is to be quite extreme and ideologically or rhetorically provocative, and then the small donations come roaring in. For people who fear the continued rise of the power of Trump's base in the Republican party, they are a bit worried that supercharging small donations will only help Trumpists win primaries further and weaken the corporate wing of the Republican party, that is at least not so far hardcore in support of Donald Trump.
Lizzie: Andrew Prokop, a Senior Politics Correspondent at Vox. Thank you so much for coming on the show and talking with me.
Andrew: Thanks for having me.
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