AMY WALTER: Voting rights and election law under fire.
TEXAS LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR DAN PATRICK (R): (From video.) The bill is needed because Americans no longer trust the system.
MS. WALTER: In statehouses across America Republicans are passing legislation to tighten election laws, but they face opposition from Democrats and corporate America.
COCA-COLA CEO JAMES QUINCEY: (From video.) This legislation is unacceptable.
MS. WALTER: On Capitol Hill, legislation to reform voting rights faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) This is the biggest power grab since I’ve been in Congress.
MS. WALTER: Where do these efforts go from here and what effect will these battles over access to the ballot box have on the democratic process?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) These new Jim Crow laws are just antithetical to who we are.
MS. WALTER: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. WALTER: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Amy Walter.
The battle over voting rights is boiling over. Republicans in Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and Florida have passed or are considering new, tougher voting laws, and hundreds of new restrictions have been proposed nationwide, but Georgia’s new voting law has faced a backlash. Atlanta-based companies including Coca-Cola and Delta criticized the law and Major League Baseball moved its all-star game out of Georgia. Senator Mitch McConnell lashed out at some of these corporate leaders.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I think this is quite stupid to jump in the middle of a highly controversial issue.
MS. WALTER: While the House passed a bill expanding voter access in March, it faces stiff opposition in the Senate. Meanwhile, a new tape has surfaced shedding light on dark money; more on this later.
But first we begin with the battle over voting rights, and joining us tonight are three top Washington reporters: Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th; Eamon Javers, senior Washington correspondent for CNBC; and Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.
Errin, I’m going to start with you. You’re a Georgia native. You’ve covered the battle over voting rights extensively. Is this, what we’re seeing now – these new voter laws that are being passed or proposed by Republicans in so many state legislatures – is this just a response to the 2020 election or is there something more going on?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, good evening, Amy. Good to be with you and good to see you in the chair.
Listen, as somebody who is from Georgia and who has long covered the Georgia legislature, I can tell you that Georgia was certainly telling the big lie before it was the big lie. Some 15 years ago, when I was covering the legislature down in Georgia, they were pioneering voter ID laws that were mimicked by several other states after Georgia was successful in passing those, and they were arguing then that it was about, you know, ballot integrity and really, you know, the threat of voter fraud that has yet to be proven, including in this last election which was declared by our own government as the most secure in U.S. history, and so this has long been a solution in search of a problem and really has come to define – the issue of election integrity has come to define what we know is 21st century voter suppression and intimidation. Georgia is again in 2020 leading the way, kind of bolstered by, obviously, the big lie perpetuated by former President Trump and espoused now by other Republicans, but it is certainly not new and it is certainly something that I think we are continuing to see now that Georgia has passed its law in states from Texas to Arizona and beyond, 43 states across the country attempting to pass similar laws.
MS. WALTER: Right, well, when you hear the pushback from Republicans, including the governor of Georgia is, you know what, look, it’s easier to vote in Georgia than New York – we have better absentee vote and early vote laws, more access to voters through those laws than some of these blue states.
MS. HAINES: Well, I think what that goes to show is that, you know, this is not just about states that maybe had a history of discrimination, that history that was attempted – they attempted to address with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which was dismantled in 2013 in the Shelby (County) versus Holder decision. You’re seeing voter suppression efforts happening in states outside of the South, in states that were not necessarily taking these kind of tactics during Jim Crow, and so it’s not that, you know, voter suppression is not on the march just in Georgia or just in Pennsylvania, where I now live, which also attempted voter ID and has attempted to curtail voting, but you know, you have – you have other states outside of that part of the country that have also moved to curb voting rights.
MS. WALTER: Eamon, I want to move to you and the – and the corporate response to this. I mean, we’ve been seeing now for some time that corporations or their corporate leaders getting engaged on social issues, but what has also been fascinating is watching the pushback from many Republicans who criticize what the corporations are saying, so what’s going on here?
EAMON JAVERS: I mean, it’s fascinating, we just haven’t seen companies get this involved in politics in sort of American society like we’ve seen in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter protests and now in 2021 with this voting issue, and you get the sense that what companies here are doing – look, companies are not ideological. Companies care about making money and that’s just about it, right, so they look at the demographics of the Trump coalition and they say that’s a coalition that is older, Whiter, and more rural than the rest of the country that we want to serve, and in a polarized nation if we have to make a choice of which demographic to stand with we’re going to go for a younger and more diverse demographic because that’s the future of our business in terms of customers, also the future of the business in terms of the employee base. So a lot of these companies are coming down hard against this voting measure in Georgia because they want to signal demographically to their future employees and their future customers of where they are, and they think that’s where the country is going. This is all about making money, though. Remember, these companies have not become liberal, and you can see that just in the opposition we saw just this week from a lot of companies to Joe Biden’s tax plan, right? They’re saying, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait a second, we don’t want to pay for this infrastructure; we want you to spend money, but let’s not put the bill solely on American corporations.
MS. WALTER: Right, I mean, that’s really interesting, too, the point you make about employees because the sense that I get as well is this pressure on the corporations isn’t just coming from the outside – Republicans say activists pressuring them – but they’re hearing a lot from their own employees, including many who moved to these once-red states from blue areas.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, and we saw this in Silicon Valley a couple of years ago and we’re really seeing it now throughout the rest of the economy, companies like Delta, Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball all looking at their employees and saying we need to attract those younger hires, how are we going to do that, we need to be seen by that group as on the right side of history, ultimately. And again, you know, a generation ago companies might have said we’re just not going to take stands on big social issues because, you know, it’s divisive and it’s a 50/50 country and we don’t want to lose half of our customer base. Now, with things so intensely polarized, I think companies are looking at that and saying if – we’re going to have to take a stand and we might as well take a stand that puts us on the side of the future, and that’s why you’re seeing companies do this. But again, it’s a business decision; they want to make money. This is not really about the values at stake here; this is about positioning themselves as a business for the future.
MS. WALTER: Jane, I want to talk to you about that, this new – it seems this new sort of rift here, or maybe it’s an old rift, that’s getting brought up with the voting rights legislation between the business community and Republicans. You had Mitch McConnell earlier this week saying my warning to corporate America, stay out of politics. Now, he walked that back a couple of days later, but other Republicans, including the governor of Georgia, say, you know, we got to fight against this so-called woke corporate culture. They take this sort of as a badge of honor to see corporations coming out against legislation that they’re promoting. So you have covered this nexus between politics and money for a long time now; is business breaking up with the Republicans?
JANE MAYER: Well, you began to see a little bit of a break really towards the – right after the election, and you could see – and after January 6th, remember, and this – the riot on the Hill, you could see that there were some corporate leaders who were saying they were no longer going to give to any members of Congress who didn’t certify Biden’s election, who were challenging that certification, so you began to see it there. I mean, basically I think anybody who’s followed politics for a while, and particularly followed Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate, you can’t help but be struck by the irony of this, it’s pretty thick, in that there is pretty much nobody who’s done more to cement the role and the power of corporate America in American politics than Mitch McConnell. And he’s made his reputation saying that it’s a principle with him that corporations have the right to speak, and that they have First Amendment rights.
But it turns out it seems that what he’s really saying is their wallets have the right to speak, so long as they’re giving donations – particularly to the Republican Party. But they really – he really does not want to hear from specifically the chief executives if they’re going to stand up and complain about Republican policies. There’s been a kind of a tacit agreement between corporate America and the Republican Party, and in which the Republican Party delivered tax cuts and deregulation and corporate America delivered campaign donations. And that is obviously under a lot of strain right now.
MS. WALTER: Jane, thank you. I want to turn now to the legislation we started talking about a little bit earlier in Congress. It’s called H.R. 1. It passed the House. It’s a bill that would require states to, among other things, automatically register voters, have a minimum number of voting days, and it also proposes solutions to fight gerrymandering. Republicans are opposed to the legislation. Democrats hope to pass it by getting rid of the filibuster. But Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia all but killed that idea this week.
QUESTIONER: (From video.) Would you be willing to pass the For The Peoples (sic; People) Act by killing the filibuster? Would you be willing to carve out an exception on that bill?
SENATOR JOSEPH MANCHIN (D-WV): (From video.) I’m not killing the filibuster. I’m not killing the filibuster.
QUESTIONER: (From video.) Never ever?
SENATOR JOSEPH MANCHIN (D-WV): (From video.) I’ve been very, very clear. I think if you read my op-ed it was very clear. I think we can find a pathway forward. I really do. You just cannot work in the fringe. We want fair, open, secured elections. And what – Georgia has done some things which I thought were just atrocious.
MS. WALTER: So, Eamon, what now? Is Joe Manchin right that he can find Republicans where it doesn’t seem like there are 10 that I can count for it? Does this mean this bill that passed the House – it’s dead, is that right?
MR. JAVERS: No, yeah, look, I mean, I think ultimately the filibuster reform effort is dead – at least dead-ish, dead for now, as dead as anything gets in American politics, where life can be very long. Manchin said in his op-ed this week under no circumstance will he vote to remove or weaken the filibuster. They need his vote to do that, so that seems pretty Shermanesqe, right, that he’s not going to do that. Now, politicians have been known to change their mind in the past, but assume for a moment that that’s dead. That means, you know, your voting effort in the House if you’re a Democrat, it doesn’t look really great in terms of getting to the president’s desk for a signature.
But Democrats did get this sort of new lifeline in terms of this ruling that they can now use the reconciliation process, which allows you to get that lower vote threshold – which is why it’s important. It’s to do with the budget process. But it gets you a 50-vote threshold instead of a 60-vote threshold. Democrats can get over that 50-vote threshold if they hang together. If they can use that process more than once a year – the old assumption had been you only get one crack at that a year. Now the new ruling is, you know, you might be able to do this more than once a year. That changes the ball game. That’s like you’re playing Uno and you just got a stack of wild cards.
So now Democrats can look at that and say, well, OK, we can’t go the filibuster route, but what can we stuff in a budget bill that has all of our priorities in it, and can use the reconciliation process, and can get that 50-vote threshold? That’s going to be a fascinating question as it unravels throughout the course of the year. How many bites at the apple do they – do they get now? We used to think they only got one. Now maybe it’s a bit of a new world.
MS. WALTER: Right. But, Jane, to that point, usually budget reconciliation – we don’t need to go in the weeds here – but you need to put things in there that are related to the budget. And the voting rights seems unlikely – (laughs) – to pass the parliamentarian’s muster on that one. So this is an interesting choice for President Biden now. Where does he use his political capital, right? Does he go and keep pushing on this, even though it’s pretty clear that, well, he might not have the votes? But does he try to use his political capital there? Or, as we seem to be seeing, he’s going around the country talking much more about his infrastructure plan. So what does this tell you about the priority then for this White House on these issues?
MS. MAYER: Well, I mean, it certainly seems that right now the priority is probably the infrastructure bill. But I think there’s the slightest wiggle room still. I wouldn’t pronounce H.R. 1 or Senate Bill 1 dead yet. Because there’s one possibility still there – or, one or two – which are that it’s possible – Biden has talked about how he wants as little change in the Senate rules as is necessary to pass the legislation. And among the things he’s talked about maybe supporting is changing the filibuster so that it goes back to the original way that it was done, with talking filibusters. Which means sort of like the old movies, they have to stand up night after night, and day after day, hour after hour keep arguing for something.
It’s possible Manchin might support something like that. That is not killing the filibuster. It’s just kind of restoring it to its original meaning. That could be one way that this goes. It’s – I wouldn’t – as I said, I wouldn’t pronounce it necessarily dead yet, but it’s not – you know, the White House’s priority is this infrastructure bill right now.
MS. WALTER: And Errin, if it doesn’t pass and instead then these state laws that you talked about at the beginning of the show, they go into effect, what does this mean as we’re looking forward to the 2022 elections, maybe even 2024, in some of these battleground states like Georgia, like Arizona, like Texas, like Florida?
MS. HAINES: Yeah. I think that what you’re going to continue to see Democratic organizers, especially Black and brown organizers, who – (audio break) – try to make – (audio break) – battle of voter suppression versus voter registration and turnout, right? I mean, that was what we saw in 2020. You saw organizers knowing even before a pandemic that they were up against voter suppression. The pandemic just exacerbated that. And yet, they were still able to turn out record numbers of Black and brown folks who, you know, were responding to voter suppression.
Because, as we know, a potential opposite effect of these voter suppression laws is that it galvanizes the very people that it is intended to exclude from the franchise. And so I think that that may be what we end up seeing, a Democratic base in particular that is especially fired up because they know that these laws are intended to take their voting rights away from them.
MS. WALTER: I want to get to another part of this sweeping legislation. And that is one that would require so-called dark money groups to publicly say who their donors are. Jane wrote about a bombshell recording of a phone call between conservative groups and a policy advisor to Mitch McConnell in last week’s New Yorker. On the tape, you can hear them strategizing about how to oppose this legislation. Let’s take a listen.
KYLE MCKENZIE: (From video.) Don’t get into a fight in H.R. 1 where you – where you engage with the other side where they have the talking points: H.R. 1 stops billionaires from buying elections. Unfortunately, we found that that is a winning message for both, you know, the general public and also conservatives.
MS. WALTER: That was the voice of Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run group Stand Together. Jane, help put this into context for us. How is this conversation part of the larger strategy for Republicans following the loss of the White House in 2020?
MS. MAYER: I mean, what you’re listening to is the – behind the scenes, some very powerful dark money groups – big, big money groups – plotting with the Republican leadership in the – in the Senate about how to kill H.R. 1. They see this as – this bill that shows – that would require the disclosure of big, secret donors, they see it as a huge threat to their power and to the fundraising that they do. And they’re trying to figure out: How do we kill it?
And what’s so interesting is what they’re saying is that the American public wants this reform. The American public does not want billionaires buying elections. And that’s not just Democrats. The Republicans have tried to make it sound like this is just a Democratic trick of a bill. What they found out, and what they admit to behind closed doors, is this kind of reform is really popular across the political spectrum, even with very, very conservative voters.
There’s a sense that elections have become corrupted by big money, and the American public overwhelmingly, in a bipartisan way, favors reform, and so what these groups are saying in this meeting, this private meeting, is the only way we can kill this thing – we want to kill these reforms – is in the backrooms of Congress, and they call it “under the dome,” and what they’re really saying is we’re going to have to filibuster this thing. And that, again, brings you right back to Senator Joe Manchin.
MS. WALTER: Well, let’s talk about that for a minute because in 2020 Democrats actually raised more of this dark money than Republicans. Biden did a lot better than Trump did on it. So can’t this legislation end up coming back – if it does pass, actually hurting Democrats too?
MS. MAYER: Well, it could, I mean, and it is amazing that the Democrats have not only caught up with the Republicans on dark money but they’ve now outstripped them in raising this, but the thing is that that’s an anomaly. It’s the first time that the Democrats have raised more than the Republicans in a presidential election. And meanwhile, I mean, it’s – you know, neither – it’s proliferating. Dark money, undisclosed money from anonymous donors is exploding ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. There was a billion dollars of it in the 2020 election, and the part that’s growing fastest in terms of campaign money is this anonymous money. So it’s a problem – it’s a bipartisan problem and, you know, neither side – neither party has a lock on the virtue here, but the Republicans generally have had the advantage with it.
MS. WALTER: Errin, I want to go back to you sort of linking this all together here about the role that corporations can play or outside groups can play in sort of swaying this legislation. Major League Baseball, of course, said we’re not coming to Atlanta anymore, they moved to Denver to play the game, but it’s not just Republicans that are criticizing Major League Baseball; a lot of Democrats in the state are, too, including Stacey Abrams who said she was disappointed with this boycott. So what does this tell us, number one, about the politics of all of this, but also just the kind of leverage that companies can really play in changing these laws, right? If both sides are saying please don’t boycott but we also want you to make a strong stand, what can they actually do to move the needle?
MS. HAINES: Yeah, well, you know, I think that you also saw these organizers putting pressure on these companies to do what you’re seeing them – to get them to do in Texas right now, which is to really be kind of publicly – proactive publicly before these bills pass, Delta and Coca-Cola being particularly vocal kind of on the other side of this bill after the governor had already passed the bill, saying why weren’t you more public before. There are questions about that. And you know, you have people like Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta saying, you know, she understands the decision, but she thinks it is unfortunate, and she is – (audio break) – about other, you know, companies or events that may choose to boycott the city because that would cost – you know, there would be an economic cost to that. Stacey Abrams certainly is somebody who has been concerned about the potential economic cost of boycotts. I can recall when Georgia was, you know, weighing legislation around abortion, that she was, you know, asking Hollywood not to boycott the state – I’m sorry, not abortion; it was when – after the 2018 election asking Hollywood not to boycott the state over, you know, the way that that gubernatorial election played out. But listen, Atlanta is nicknamed the city too busy to hate, and that nickname is because, you know, there was a White business community in the Jim Crow – you know, in the Jim Crow era that decided that Atlanta was going to go in a certain direction, right, that racial harmony and equity was going to be the thing that they prioritized at that time, and so you have a long tradition and a long legacy, actually, of the business community – the White business community, you know, really – (audio break) – and saying kind of, you know, this is not who we are. And really, you know, companies like Delta and Coca-Cola have pretty diverse workforces. I mean, Delta’s staff is something like 46 percent people of color. And so, you know, to your point earlier about pressure coming internally – (audio break) – some of these businesses, you know, especially when you think about their employees of color who are – who are, you know, asking, you know, is this – you know, what does my workplace really stand for, what is it about, would they – would they want to, you know, not say something about laws that could potentially be harmful to me as an employee, I think – I think that that is also a very powerful message and very powerful pressure.
MS. WALTER: Eamon, just with the 30 seconds or so we have left, you know, we’ve heard some of these state legislators threaten to retaliate against some companies, saying we’re going to get rid of your tax breaks, or one leader said don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Do you think that they can follow through on that?
(Pause.) Oh, Eamon, did you hear my question?
MR. JAVERS: Oh, is that for me? I’m sorry.
MS. WALTER: Yeah, sorry.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, look, I mean, the companies are clearly deciding this is worth doing, right? And you talk about the unpopularity of the billionaires, but the companies themselves, these big iconic American brands, are pretty well popular with the American public and well trusted by the American public.
MS. WALTER: All right, thanks, Eamon.
MR. JAVERS: And so what the companies have realized here is they have the power to sort of set the boundaries in American politics and say this is out of bounds, and –
MS. WALTER: I’m sorry, we’ve got to leave it there with all of our friends. Thank you. Sorry about that at the very end, but I want to thank Errin, Eamon, and Jane for their insights. Thank you for joining us. We’ll cover the latest on the controversy over COVID, gun control, and infrastructure on the Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, on Facebook, or on YouTube.
I’m Amy Walter. Good night from Washington.