Democrats make push for voting rights legislation in Congress

U.S. senators returned to work in Washington, D.C. Monday as Democrats launched their most concerted push yet on voting legislation. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss voting rights, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Freedom to Vote Act and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senators returned to work in Washington today, as Democrats' launch their most concerted push on voting rights yet.

    Lisa Desjardins is here with the latest on where legislation stands and what comes next.

    So, hello, Lisa.

    We know the Democrats are pushing two pieces of legislation, as President Biden and Vice President Harris get ready to go to Atlanta to talk about it.

    But walk us through what is in those two pieces of legislation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, many of our viewers know the Constitution states clearly that states run elections, but Congress has the power to pass rules governing the elections of members of Congress.

    So these are two bills dealing with that. The first is the broader one. This is called the Freedom to Vote Act. In the Freedom to Vote Act, this would essentially set national rules for how our elections should work, the federal elections. They would ban gerrymandering for congressional seats. States would have to offer a vote by mail or two weeks of early voting.

    States would be able to require photo I.D.s to vote, but they would have to accept many forms, including potentially utility bills. This would also include an expansion of registration, automatic registration in every state, at DMVs, for example. There's a lot more in this bill, but essentially think of this as something that has national standards for these kind of big-ticket items for how and when you can go to the polls.

    The other bill, which is called the John Lewis Voting Rights Accountability Act, is more narrow. It is focused instead on preventing discrimination at the poll. One of the main cruxes of this bill is to restore what's called preclearance of state laws if — preclearance of states, if they have shown a past history and a record of discrimination.

    Many of our viewers will remember this is something that was part of our voting rights law. But the Supreme Court in 2013 overturned the idea of preclearance and said Congress has to decide to put that in place. That's what this bill would do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's what the Democrats want, Lisa.

    But we know the Republicans have blocked a vote so far on either one of these. And explain to us what their arguments are. And then what are the Democrats trying to do next?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I should mention this isn't clearly — this isn't entirely partisan. Lisa Murkowski, the senator of Alaska, does support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but only that one.

    So let's talk then about what other Republicans who oppose both of these bills say. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, today took to the floor, and he read this. He said these remarks.

    He said: "Historically, the Senate has taken up elections legislation on careful partisan basis. We have made sure not to trample on the rights of voters and the proper roles of local officials."

    He's saying that this goes too far, that this is a federal takeover of elections. Of course, Democrats push back and say, listen, gerrymandering has benefited Republicans, The Washington Post did a survey and, since 2011, by far, gerrymandered districts across this country have benefited Republicans politically.

    Now, there is, of course, also some historic elements here, including the Civil War itself, and laws against discrimination that went in place with the Civil Rights Act in the 1950s that Democrats want to return to, and some Republicans don't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, Lisa, the Republicans, some Republicans have come forward with another issue they want to look at and are talking about legislation, and that has to do with the Electoral College.

    Tell us about that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is connected, but it's important to know this is called the Electoral Count Act.

    And it is important to know it is very specific. It is specific to even January 6, and the confusion over that day, the confusion over the certification of our presidential election. And, for example, Vice President Mike Pence, his role under current law, under the current Electoral Count Act, is not clear.

    It is open to interpretation. Some say that he may have some power in the Senate and over — over this. Others say, of course, no, he doesn't have any power over deciding the electoral process here.

    What's going on here is that Republicans say, we're willing to talk about clearing up this messy law that is from 1876, another messy time. Democrats say, wait a minute .We also want to clarify how the electoral count goes. We think there is a problem too. But we don't think that that should take the place of voting rights legislation, which we think addresses a much larger problem of suppression, Democrats say.

    They would like to do both. For now, they're not going to take the electoral count changes until they get more in the Voting Rights Act. We're going to be talking more about this week, Judy?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, we are. We're going to spend a good bit of time this week looking at the effort to do something about voter access and voting rights.

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

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