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As President Biden and Vice President Harris step up their push for Democrats to pass federal voting rights legislation, Geoff Bennet gets two different views on the significance of their trip to Georgia Tuesday and what lies ahead. Latosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer of the Georgia Secretary of State's office, join him to discuss.
As we reported earlier, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are stepping up their push for Democrats to pass federal voting rights legislation.
Geoff Bennett is back now with different views on the significance of their trip to Georgia today and what lies ahead.
Well, while President Biden was joined by several civil rights leaders today during his events in Atlanta, some local voting rights advocates chose not to participate.
One of those organizers joins me now, LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
It's good to have you with us.
And President Biden did today the thing that you and so many other advocates have been calling on him to do, which is to inject new urgency into the push for voting rights. Why did you choose not to attend his speech today?
Latosha Brown, Co-Founder, Black Voters Matter:
We didn't attend his speech today not — we weren't trying to be combative or antagonistic. We want his — we want his agenda to pass. We want him to actually be successful.
We actually helped put him in office. But we also wanted to send a message loud and clear that — the seriousness of this issue for us, that we wanted to show and send a message that it was no longer time. We were way past just a speech, that it was going to require action, that we wanted to make sure that there was a firm commitment to end or carve out the filibuster, and that there was a firm commitment from the White House to do everything within its power to pass voting rights legislation.
So, what's your reaction to what you heard from the president today?
Well, I think it was a promising speech.
I think we are cautiously optimistic. Many of the things that he said today, I think — I must commend him in some ways. One of the things that he said, I think it takes — it's a measure of a man to be able to acknowledge and admit when you are wrong.
I think for him to say that he's been silent long enough is essentially — I'm so glad and I commend him for being able to speak to that, to give voice to that, because that's been part of our criticism for the last few months. He has also has been a staunch defender of the filibuster.
He had said adamantly that he would not support moving the filibuster, that he felt the filibuster — and so to see him move his position and recognize the seriousness of this moment and also to acknowledge the work that's happening on the ground in Georgia, I thought it was — I thought it was promising.
When it comes to preserving access at the ballot box, so much of that work falls to people like you and groups like the one that you represent.
Given the ways in which the laws have changed in Georgia, can you out-organize what you see as voter suppression?
Absolutely not. No one can.
I think that many of the organizers I work with are the best organizers in the country, possibly best organizers in the world, but there's only so much we can do.
That is part of the reason why we have been diligent. We have been nonstop working. We have done everything that we could to really put pressure on the White House, on the Senate, on the House. We have gone back and forth to D.C. We have organized on the ground. We have protested. We have been arrested.
My point is that there is no way out of this, other than we have to really make some structural changes. And there has to be some federal protection, that we cannot allow people to be punished because the way they voted or who they voted for.
That is a serious, serious attack on democracy in this nation.
There is a palpable frustration I pick up when I speak to grassroots organizers like yourself.
The political realities in Washington have not really changed an iota, despite the speech that the president gave today and all of the attention he's trying to focus on voting rights right now. If nothing changes between now and Election Day, can Democrats, can the Biden administration, can they count on support from organizations like yours?
Let me say, the work that we're doing is not work that we're supporting because of — for a political party. It's not the work that we're doing because of political candidates.
We are literally fighting for our lives. When we're supporting of legislation around health care, that's because we need health care. When we're supporting legislation around job access, that's because we need jobs, and we need quality jobs.
The truth of the matter is, we are being attacked right now, that there are barriers that have been set up. And I often talk about these three strategies that the Republicans and the right have — they have used historically to actually impact the right to vote.
That's, one, creating a culture of fear. We're seeing that every single day with even the — with the lies, the information, the actually attacks on us. The second thing is to really be able to weaponize the administrative process. Georgia is a prime example.
What we're seeing right now, in my county, which is Fulton County, which is the largest, most populous county in the state of Georgia, the state is currently, the Republican Party have an effort right now to take over the election board here in the county.
And the third thing is to restrict access. And we have seen that in the closing of polling sites, like we're dealing with in Lincoln County. We have seen that when we're talking about access around absentee ballot voting. There's a bill being proposed right now in the Georgia legislature that would eliminate drop off boxes.
So we have seen this strategy. It's like a playbook, that we have seen it over and over again. What it is going to take to move forward is, we have to recognize that we're in a different kind of political landscape. We cannot allow to just think of this and voting rights as, oh, this is just another bill, just like as a part of another agenda.
We have to see this as a fundamental need to preserve democracy and this nation. No matter where you are or who you vote for, you should not be punished, there should not be punitive measures because of the way that you voted. That is a dangerous, slippery row for us to go down.
LaTosha Brown, thanks so much for sharing your perspectives with us.
Thank you for having me.
And now to one of the Republican officials tasked with implementing Georgia's new voting law.
Gabriel Sterling is the chief operating officer of the Georgia secretary of state's office.
And you are one of the few Republican officials who has pushed back against the lies that former President Donald Trump has been telling about the election that he lost. President Biden has suggested that those lies have transformed into a potent threat facing our democracy.
Do you agree with that assessment?
Gabriel Sterling, Georgia Voting System Implementation Manager:
I think lies, when it's done by a Republican losing candidate or a Democrat losing candidate, undermine overall faith in elections.
And the reasons we have ballots is so we can avoid bullets. And if both sides keep on weaponizing election administration the way that they are, then we're going to have a very serious situation in years to come.
President Biden in his remarks today was speaking about Republican election officials like yourself. And he said that too many people voting in a democracy is a problem for folks like you, and so they're putting up obstacles.
How do you react to that?
I have said it before. This kind of hyperbole, whether it's by President Trump or President Biden, is simply dangerous, and it's wrong.
S.B.202, the Voter Integrity Act, actually extends the number of days people can early-vote. It makes it easier to request an absentee ballot and for those people to be identified as being the right person. The main thing that we want to make sure of is that every legal vote is counted and every legal voter is the one casting the vote and no illegal votes are being cast.
In every single election, there's going to be illegal votes. Your job is to minimize them and make election administration as easy as you possibly can. Many of the things he talked about today simply weren't true.
We didn't have absentee ballot drop boxes authorized by law until this past — we had emergency ones for — from COVID rules we were able to have in the last election. So, for the first time ever, Georgia law authorized the drop boxes. The idea it's harder to request absentee ballot is simply not true.
In fact, we now have a way to use voter I.D. to make sure it's a binary system, so we're no longer having to match signatures, which the Democrats literally sued us last year to get rid of signature matching. Now they're trying to sue us for some other ways to identify voters. We're trying to make it more secure and very — very easy to vote.
It's extremely easy to vote in my state. But it's very, very hard to cheat. And that's the goal of these kinds of laws.
But there are elements of the Georgia voting law that turn what had been an apolitical process into potentially a partisan on, for instance, giving the state oversight of the state election board.
Why is that appropriate?
People have so misunderstood and lied about this law, that it's just becoming — I was so frustrated at the beginning of this year .I'm frustrated again now, people lying about this law.
All it does is lets a state election board go into where there is a failing county, where people are being abused by their election officials locally.
Take Fulton County, for example, which has always been a problem. We have thousands of people did not get their absentee ballots during the primary. And that's wrong. We can't allow for that. So there has to be a mechanism of accountability.
In this one, there's a lot of due process. There has to be an investigation that goes a minimum of 30 days. One of the claims is that Republicans can put in people to overturn election results. That's just impossible with the way this law is written. It's not reality.
There's — to certify an election, it goes 10 days. The investigation to be called for us to go at least 30. This hyperbole and these lies about this, I know it's great politics. It really is. For Trump, he thought it was great politics to claim the stolen election. For Biden and the Democrats, saying voter suppression is great politics, but it undermines people's faith of both parties in the election administration.
And it's just wrong.
But to lots of people, the Georgia voting law is really a solution in search of a problem. There was no fraud in the 2020 vote in Georgia to the degree that it would have changed the outcome.
What there was increased turnout. And as a result come these stricter voting laws. Why is that? Why was the — sort of the sequence?
Well, the claim that these are stricter voting laws is somehow very bizarre to me, because our office wrote a good 90 percent of this law.
It's really about election administration. We had a brand-new voting system that was used for the first time in 2020, where we had a paper-based ballot done off touch screen. So we knew there was going to be things we were going to learn and things they needed to change. We also needed to get a tighter control on the absentee ballot process, because that is one of the areas that was, for lack of a better word, not as well-regulated as it needed to be, given the large volume of that.
And it really put lots of stress on our counties. And one of the things that was very important that we did — they're claiming we're limiting the times that you can vote by mail. The issue was, where people requested a ballot within 10 days of the election, only 52 percent of those people actually voted, whereas if they requested it nine — 10 days before that, 92 percent of them voted.
So what we did is, we put an absentee ballot deadline in there. And that way, the counties can process them. And then, if you have time, you then can know you're not going to get a ballot and you can go early-vote or vote on Election Day.
So this is about enfranchising people, not disenfranchising people.
Gabriel Sterling, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."
Thank you all.
Watch the Full Episode
Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He is also a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC.
Matt Loffman is the PBS NewsHour's Deputy Senior Politics Producer
Tess Conciatori is a politics production assistant at PBS NewsHour.
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