With Control Of Congress, Democrats Aim To Address Voting Rights
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Protecting voting rights has been near the top of the Democratic Party's priority list for a while now. And with control of Congress and the presidency, they can finally do something about it. But as NPR's Miles Parks reports, they have to tread very carefully. Whatever they decide to do could determine the future of American politics for years to come.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: In late November, after it was clear Joe Biden had won the presidency, I asked Senator Amy Klobuchar what that would mean for overhauling voting laws in the United States. Klobuchar is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections. She said Democrats needed to win the Senate, too.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: If we win the Georgia Senate races, it will allow us to stop some of this voter suppression.
PARKS: Well, Democrats swept those runoffs. They control Congress and the White House. Now they have to decide what to do with that control and just how far they're willing to go to fix an election system that they've argued was unfair for years. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last week that the new majority's symbolic first bill would be aimed at voting reforms.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHUCK SCHUMER: Today, we announce the first bill, Senate S1, will be a package of long-overdue reforms to protect our democracy after it has been so attacked in four years and guarantee every American's right to vote.
PARKS: It parallels a similar bill that House Democrats first passed in 2019. The bills call for automatic and online voter registration, a minimum number of days of in-person early voting and also major overhauls of how political districts are drawn in the U.S. and campaign finance laws. The changes are aimed at increasing voter turnout and decreasing the role the rules of the game play in the outcome. That's according to Wendy Weiser, who runs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
WENDY WEISER: Our elections shouldn't be about, what are the rules for voting, and who can vote? They should be about who's running for office, and what do they stand for, and what are they going to do for our communities?
PARKS: Some Democrats, like Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, see an opening for bipartisanship due to the 2020 election and the questions raised by Republicans about election security. Wyden has long pushed for hand-marked paper ballots and also required auditing to prove election results.
RON WYDEN: In the Senate, you take an ally wherever you can find one. So the fact that Donald Trump has gone to such great lengths to say that elections are rigged allows me to say, hey, folks, you're concerned about that? I've been trying to push hand-marked paper ballots for years and years.
PARKS: That bipartisanship is key because even though Democrats have majorities in both chambers, they still either need Republican buy-in or to change a long-standing procedural hurdle - the Senate filibuster, which essentially requires most legislation to get 60 votes in the Senate to pass. The challenge for Democrats is that Senate Republicans have shown absolutely no interest in voting-related legislation over the past decade. It's one reason why some Democrats are already calling for the filibuster to be abolished, at least for voting-related legislation. Last summer, at the funeral for voting rights legend John Lewis, former President Barack Obama called for a number of the same ideas that Democrats have in their bills to rousing applause.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do.
PARKS: But changing any rule like that always comes with consequences. For one, it could lead to more extreme changes in voting laws whenever a new party takes control of Congress and the presidency. Those kind of partisan swings worry election experts like Ohio State University's Edward Foley. Foley says before this election, he envisioned Democrats winning control of Congress and enacting their vision of democracy.
EDWARD FOLEY: I now think that would be a terrible mistake.
PARKS: Due to persistent disinformation, a lot of Republican voters feel like the system is rigged. Foley says if Democrats change the rules now, it could exacerbate the same tensions that led to the violence at the Capitol on January 6. He argues any new voting laws have to have bipartisan support.
FOLEY: The left is going to have to give up some of its wish lists, but if we lose the fight for democracy itself, then the wish list goes away.
PARKS: When it comes to who gets to vote and how, the past couple weeks have clarified the stakes. Now it's up to Democrats to decide exactly what to do about that. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.