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Nationwide restrictions on ballot box access raise alarms for democracy advocates

Democrats in Washington have so far been unsuccessful in their push for federal election reform, and meanwhile, some Republican state lawmakers are passing their own, more restrictive voting laws. Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, and Democratic Texas state Rep. Chris Turner, join Yamiche Alcindor to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to the fight for voting rights.

    Democrats in Washington have so far been unsuccessful in their push for federal election reform. Some Republican state lawmakers, meanwhile, are passing their own more restrictive voting laws.

    Yamiche Alcindor takes a deeper look at where the battle for voting access stands.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Tomorrow is the 56th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And pressure is mounting on President Biden and Democrats in Congress to protect voting rights.

    We look at the fight now with Reverend Dr. William Barber. He is co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, a group that has been protesting for voting rights protection on Capitol Hill and across the country, and state Representative Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. He is one of the many Texas lawmakers who fled to Washington, D.C., in an effort to stall passage of a restrictive GOP voting bill.

    Thank you so much, both of you, for being here.

    Representative Turner, I want to start with you.

    The Texas Republican governor, Greg Abbott, he is now calling a second special session of the Texas legislature. Tell me a little bit about what you plan to do. How long do you plan to be in Washington, D.C.? And what's your response to his moves?

  • State Rep. Chris Turner (D-TX):

    Well, good evening. Thank you for having me on.

    You know, there was no question the governor was going to call another special session. We have known that all along. When we left Texas nearly four weeks ago, we made a commitment, 57 of us in the Texas House Democratic Caucus, that we would do everything within our power to kill the vote suppression bill, the anti-voter bills the Republicans are trying to pass for this 30-day special session.

    Tomorrow, Friday, is the 30th day of that special session, and so we look forward to marking that milestone and that victory tomorrow.

    But more importantly for our whole country, we have been able to use our time in our nation's capital to advocate for the urgent passage of federal voting rights legislation to protect the freedom to vote for all Americans.

    And we believe we have made considerable progress in our conversations on Capitol Hill and with the administration in the intervening weeks.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Reverend Barber, you, of course, have been arrested on Capitol Hill recently. You have been protesting across the country on voting rights.

    What do you think it's going to take, though, to see real action when it comes to voting rights and voting right protections?

  • Rev. Dr. William Barber:

    Well, first of all, we have to look at Texas as the canary in the mine. That's one of the reasons we went to Texas and walked 27 miles with 40 different organizations.

    Beto O'Rourke, even Willie Nelson joined us, but mostly poor and low-wealth people, to say that this battle is not just about Black people. It's not just binary. And we had to nationalize these stakes.

    Secondly, it took mass mobilization to get voting rights. It's going to take mass to keep it and to go further. We have to think about the long term. You know, it took months to get the Voting Rights Act of '65 signed. It wasn't that President Lyndon Johnson just did it.

    And then, thirdly, we must break this understanding this is just a Black issue. It's not binary. This is a moral, constitutional issue. I love what brother Turner said. It's impacting all Americans. I think Democrats nationally made a little mistake there. They should have never framed this as Jim Crow.

    This is James Crow Esquire, an attempt to cut down the progressive voice, undermine the changing demographics, block the voting processes that 56 million Americans used in the last election.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A broad and complete strategy, that's what Reverend Barber is talking about.

    I want to come to you, Representative Turner.

    You're a state lawmaker, but you have been talking to national Democrats on Capitol Hill. Talk a bit about how confident you are that national Democrats will be able to pass a federal voting bill. And what do you say to Republicans all across this country who say, if that sort of bill was passed, that it would be federal overreach?

  • State Rep. Chris Turner:

    Yes.

    Well, I'm very confident. I think that, in our conversations with congressional leaders in the House and the Senate, I come away assured that there is going to be action soon on federal voting rights legislation, both H.R.1, S.1, the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which will be introduced in the House in the coming month perhaps. So, we are very encouraged by that.

    What I say to Republicans is, why are you so afraid of people being able to cast a ballot? If you're afraid of Americans voting and you're afraid of people being able to exercise their franchise, perhaps you need to look in the mirror. And maybe you need to start talking to voters and talking to them about the issues they care about, and you wouldn't have to be so afraid of the voters.

    And, in Texas, to tie it back to what Reverend Barber just said, because I just could not agree more, this is — voting is the tip of the spear. This is intertwined with so many issues that are vital to people's lives.

    And my constituents in Texas, right now, if they live in a — I have a lot of constituents, if they lived in 38 other states, they would have health insurance because they would be eligible for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act passed by President Obama. But because they live in Texas and because Greg Abbott is their governor, they don't have health care.

    And that's what this is about. Whether it's in the minimum wage, where, in Texas, it's still $7.25 an hour, or lack of access to health care, or our failing electric grid, Republicans have failed consistently on these issues that are pocketbook, bread-and-butter issues for all Americans, for all Texans.

    And they continue to fail, and they continue to pass these anti-voter bills to try to hang onto power, so they can benefit their big corporate donors and not the people they're elected to represent.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Reverend Barber, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that he has told colleagues that there will be some sort of vote on voting right legislation in the future before the Senate leaves for recess.

    That being said, talk a bit about whether or not you think Democrats are showing enough urgency on this issue of voting rights. And, also, I wonder what do you make of the scaled-back bills that we have seen Democrats try to pass?

  • Rev. Dr. William Barber:

    I don't think they're showing enough urgency.

    I think the president needs to come to Texas, go to West Virginia, go to Arizona. Then Pelosi and Schumer need to call him to the well of the — of Congress. He needs to make the connection between this crisis and the character of our democracy and say that we will not only have infrastructure, but we're going to protect the infrastructure of people's wages and the infrastructure of our democracy, which is voting.

    And we can do it all. They need to get Manchin and Sinema and say, we're not going to pass anything on infrastructure until you pass the infrastructure of this — the democracy to vote. And until you lift these essential workers that you said you cared about, 32 million of them that make less than $15 an hour, they should not come out of this pandemic and still be in poverty, and still worse.

    These are things we have been promising. We haven't raised the minimum wage for 12 years. The problem is when Democrats allow them to separate the issues. We can't separate the issues. They must be together. Democrats must have a — bring their caucus together to block this nonconstitutional filibuster.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the 10 seconds we have left, I just want to ask you, Representative Turner, where do you see this going? What is the endgame here, with Republicans moving very quickly in passing voting bills, if Democrats can't pass a federal bill?

  • State Rep. Chris Turner:

    Well, Democrats have to pass a federal bill. That's where this has to end.

    We need the For the People Act. We need the John Lewis Voting Rights Act with a strong preclearance provision to stop states like Texas, Georgia, and other place from passing discriminatory voting laws and discriminatory redistricting plans. That's what we need. That's how this has to end.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this is an important conversation.

    And thank you so much, Reverend William Barber and Representative Chris Turner.

  • State Rep. Chris Turner:

    Thank you.

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