Tamara Keith and Lisa Lerer on the political stakes of voting rights

NPR’s Tamara Keith and The New York Times Lisa Lerer join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including why Democrats are pushing voting rights legislation now, how Republicans have shifted thinking on voting rights and the prospects of bridging political divides.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more on the political stakes of voting rights, it's time for Politics Monday with Tamara Keith of NPR and Lisa Lerer of The New York Times. Amy Walter is away.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Tam, let's pick up where we left off with Lisa's reporting, Lisa Desjardins' reporting. And that is, we are going to see a push this week. We know President Biden, Vice President Harris headed to Atlanta tomorrow to speak about voting rights.

    Tell us what has prompted this push right now by the president.

  • Tamara Keith, National Public Radio:

    The White House has said that the president's two top priorities are passing the Build Back Better Act and getting some sort of voting rights legislation through.

    And, obviously, with the anniversary of January 6, there was a lot more discussion around voting rights and around what happened on that day, including what the former president said and has continued to say, continued — he's fighting with a Republican senator today about whether the election was stolen or not.

    The Republican senator is speaking the truth, Senator Rounds, saying that the election wasn't stolen. And yet President — former President Trump continues to claim that the election was stolen from him. And that big lie is the basis of a lot of local and state legislation around voting that Democrats are really concerned about. They see it as existential.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to Lisa Lerer now.

    Is this something that is seemed to have real prospects of changing minds? I mean, we know the president — they're going to be speaking tomorrow in Atlanta, but what does the landscape look like out there?

  • Lisa Lerer, The New York Times:

    Well, the reality in the Senate is the same reality that it's been for the past year or so, which is that Democrats need basically every single one of their members to get something through on voting rights.

    As Lisa mentioned earlier, there's only one Republican who's showing any inclination to support either one of these bills. So that means what would need to happen here for any of — either of these proposals to actually become law would be an upending or a changing of the filibuster rules. And we really have no indication as of yet that the people that these issues always seem to come down to these days, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have any will to do that.

    So some of what's happening here is a political contrast that the White House is trying to draw. I think the president and the administration spent much of the first year, not exclusively, but trying to hold back some of their harshest criticism of Republicans.

    And now, as the country is starting to move a little bit towards midterms, the White House is certainly starting to think more about the midterms, you see Biden and Harris trying to draw that sharper contrast to start framing up these midterm elections that we will have in less than a year now as a choice between their vision of the country and a Republican vision of the country.

    So I think part of this is, sure, he wants to get something done on voting rights, for sure. But I also think there's something going on here about laying the early sort of political arguments for the election to come.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Tam, when it comes to the Republicans, it's not as if they have never supported voting rights. They were certainly on board back at 1965 with the big voting rights law. Republican presidents have signed extensions of that law time and again.

    What has changed in Republican thinking?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, this, as you say, used to be bipartisan. Passing voting rights legislation, renewing voting rights legislation was bipartisan, as Lisa Desjardins reported.

    Then the Supreme Court took out some of the legs of the Voting Rights Act. And it has now been years and years without Congress being able to come together on this, in part because there is just a dramatically different perception of what the problem is.

    And our polling, the NPR/"PBS NewsHour"/Marist polling, other polls indicate that Republicans and Democrats agree that democracy is threatened, but they completely disagree about what the problem is. Republicans think that voter fraud and Democrats are out to steal the election. And Democrats are concerned about erosions of the ability of people to exercise their right to vote.

    It's just an erosion of what used to be an area of agreement. And for many Republicans, I mean, this has been sort of a slow march with these bills passing. Obviously, the big lie around the last election put gasoline on it, but this was — this is not a new thing, talking about voter integrity and — or so-called integrity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to Lisa.

    I mean, in terms of the purely political thinking on the part of Democrats around this, is this seen as an issue that could help them in the November midterms?

  • Lisa Lerer:

    Well, I think a lot of Democrats see this as an issue that could help them just in terms of having more access to voting for their voters, making sure that polling places have longer hours, that there's more drop boxes, that vote — that the trend towards voting by mail continues.

    So, certainly, that's a piece of it. I do think it's also an issue that many Democrats believe could motivate parts of their base.

    But I have to admit, Judy, it's really hard to see, given the times we are living in, the ongoing pandemic, concerns people have about inflation and their personal financial situation, that a huge groundswell of people, although they are, as Tam correctly points out, concerned about the future of American democracy, but it's hard to see that this huge groundswell of people comes out and cast ballots solely on this issue, or even sees this issue as really like the driving force for their vote, particularly as we drag into this third year of this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we only have a little bit — actually, a little bit of time left.

    But, Tam, I do want to ask you about Paul Solman's reporting about efforts, small efforts, but around the country, to bring people together. I think I know the answer to this ,based on what you have just been talking about, but what does it look like the prospects are that there's going to — that there will be some success in trying to get people to work together to see each other's points of view?

  • Tamara Keith:

    I actually saw a little bit of hope in the level at which people were engaged in local elections in this last cycle of elections. People were paying attention to school boards and city councils in a way that maybe they hadn't in the past.

    And, generally speaking, focusing on national politics is not going to be where we find, as Americans, ways to come together. But it's the small-scale stuff where there's some tiny little piece of hope. But, no, things are grim. Things are grim in terms of faith in institutions up and down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa, do you have any brighter — brighter forecast to share with us?

  • Lisa Lerer:

    I mean, I'm pretty dark. I'm sort of with Tam on this one.

    I wish I had more sunshine to offer here. But I have to tell you, when I talk to historians to kind of get their sense of, is there an analogous period to the moment we're living in, in American history, they talk about things like the run-up to the Civil War, the tumult of the '60s and '70s, so not exactly these sort of kumbaya moments in American history.

    And just from being out there and talking to voters and seeing where people get their information, who they talk to, what their communities look like, we are — it just appears that we are more divided by — than ever. And the politicians in our political system have a real incentive to kind of exploit those divides and just sort of continue these divisions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, be that as it may, we can still applaud these efforts, the kinds of small efforts, but meaningful ones, that Paul Solman was focused on in that report.

    Thank you both, Politics Monday. Tamara Keith and Lisa Lerer, thank you.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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