Special: How will the coronavirus pandemic affect voting access?

Jun. 12, 2020 AT 10:07 p.m. EDT

This week has raised sharp new questions about voting access during a pandemic, after Georgia’s primaries were plagued by long lines and confusion. On this week’s Extra, the panel discussed how an election may unfold amid a pandemic.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

Our conversation on the broadcast was focused on race and justice issues, but just months before the presidential election this week has also raised sharp new questions about voting access during a pandemic. Georgia’s primary elections on Tuesday were plagued by long lines and confusion, with reports of malfunctioning voting machines. Several black neighborhoods had major challenges, and The New York Times called it a, quote, “full-scale meltdown.” In Washington, many Democrats were appalled, especially because it came just two years after widespread claims of voter suppression in Georgia during the 2018 elections. Here’s what Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to say.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Suppression takes many forms, including not being ready for an election. What happened in Georgia, where in certain neighborhoods that are more affluent and more white it took you 20 minutes to vote, but it took hours in other neighborhoods, that – one would be suspicious that that could be by design.

MR. COSTA: The scene in Georgia has sparked alarm inside the Biden campaign, with concerns that voting chaos could be a problem in November during the general election.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) It’s my greatest concern, my single greatest concern, this president’s going to try to steal this election.

TREVOR NOAH: (From video.) Have you ever considered what would happen if the election result came out as you being the winner and Trump refused to leave?

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Yes, I have. I promise you I am absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House in a – in a – with great dispatch.

MR. COSTA: The question looming over Washington is this: Does anyone have an answer for how to protect the integrity of the upcoming election as the pandemic continues to affect this nation?

Joining me to discuss these issues: Wesley Lowery, correspondent for 60 in 6, a new venture by the 60 Minutes team on the mobile app Quibi; Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News; and Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post.

Andrea, you’ve been tracking Vice President Biden’s campaign. For him to say he wonders if the president is going to even concede should he be defeated in the Electoral College raises major questions about how November will play out. What are you hearing from the Biden side?

ANDREA MITCHELL: The Biden people, as the vice president said, are fairly confident that he’ll have to concede. What they’re arguing is that they just have to win big enough so that it is not a closely fought election that goes into recount. But they do believe that mail-in balloting is critical, especially not knowing the trajectory of the pandemic, which is another issue that really needs to be of concern, especially in the fall. And there they have hit a real roadblock because the Senate is refusing to pass the House legislation, the House proposals to spend a lot of money on mail-in balloting and on election security, and that is a major issue. Nancy Pelosi’s been fighting for it, but they’ve gotten nowhere so far.

MR. COSTA: Wes, when you’re reporting on the Black Lives Matter movement in Minnesota, are you hearing about voting rights issues and – as people look ahead to November?

WESLEY LOWERY: Certainly, this is the type of thing that comes up very often both here in Minnesota and elsewhere as I’ve done reporting, and in fact it’s one of the responses I hear very often when I ask people what they think of it when elected officials say, you know, make sure to show up in November – if you want this change, make sure to show up. What a lot of people say is, OK, but are we going to actually have access, right? There were a lot of people who showed up to vote in Georgia perhaps because they wanted change, perhaps related to the George Floyd video, and some of those people legitimately didn’t get to vote. It’s a really – it’s really messy, it’s really complicated. The coronavirus is only going to make this much messier moving forward. And as you noted kind of in the tease into this, right, we’re coming out of a presidential election where there were at least questions raised about the security of the election, right? We know that there were foreign actors who played a role here. We’re now entering a new election where the current president has frequently questioned whether or not that previous interference ever happened and we have a pandemic where people might not be willing to come out or be worried about coming out. And so there are a lot of – it seems to me like there are a lot of questions about what the elections are going to look like by the time we get to November, and there’s a real concern that if – you have to ensure people of the legitimacy, right, that everyone did have a fair shot, or else – or else it’s going to lead to more unrest, I think, or frustration at least among the electorate.

MR. COSTA: Ashley, when you talk to White House officials and friends of the president, are you hearing a hard line when it comes to the president’s resistance to mail-in ballots? Is he still going to hold that position in the coming months and weeks as the pandemic continues?

ASHLEY PARKER: That’s certainly what he’s been saying. The interesting thing is that it’s unclear if mail-in voting would really help Democrats the way the president seems to believe. It looks like the evidence is it’s actually more split across the board, and some of those demographics that reliably vote Republican would be the sorts of people – older voters, for instance – who would use mail-in balloting especially during a pandemic. So it’s not entirely clear why he is holding such a hard line, especially as he himself has registered to vote using a mail-in ballot, but it is his public stance. And I think one other point, to go back to something Wes said, was a key thing here comes down to, whoever wins, the legitimacy. And so I think when you see problem at polling places, problem in – problems in voting booths, it especially worries the Democrats because they believe this is a president who has stood up at rallies and joked about – “joked” – about a third term, joked about not conceding, who has claimed in the 2016 election massive voter fraud, who appointed a voter fraud commission led by Vice President Pence that ultimately got disbanded and didn’t do much real work, and was plagued by problems itself. But any sort of problems will give the president, especially if he loses, more opportunity to sow doubts about the legitimacy of a Biden victory, if he does win. And so that is a tremendous concern.

MR. COSTA: Andrea, when you look at Georgia this week, it’s a major state on the 2020 map. Democrats would love to make gains in the Deep South. Is that part of the vice president’s calculation for a running mate? You look at the mayor of Atlanta, Mayor Lance Bottoms, the former minority leader in the state legislature, Stacey Abrams, are they rising as contenders because of Georgia’s importance?

MS. MITCHELL: Well, I think there’s a lot of attention being focused on Mayor Bottoms. She has just been such an impressive figure. I think that there is less so on Stacey Abrams, as bright as she is, less feeling that she’s ready to be president. And there’s real focus on Val Demings in Orlando, Florida, the former police chief, who was, of course, a member of the impeachment committee, very important member of the Judiciary Committee, and has law and order background, and is also an African American woman. Of course, you would not rule out Kamala Harris, although she has other questions in her background as a prosecutor that might be of issue, but apparently is getting along very well and raised a lot of money at a recent virtual fundraiser with the former vice president.

I think when you look at Georgia, though, you really have to look at the fact that in Atlanta and in the surrounding area it was the two predominantly minority – majority minority counties, Dekalb and Fulton, where most of the problems were with those – with those new voting machines. And that the new voting machines were purchased by somebody who was very close to the former secretary of state, who is now the governor, who defeated Stacey Abrams, Brian Kemp. So a lot of questions about what happened there.

MR. COSTA: Wes, could you jump in here about what Andrea just said. When you talk to activists and they hear about Senator Harris, who has a law enforcement background, a prosecutorial background, and Congresswoman Demings, are they concerned about those backgrounds and that experience being part of the Democratic ticket, or not?

MR. LOWERY: Certainly. I don’t know that most of the activists or even younger black voters as a broad subset, not even just those who are most involved and activists, would be particularly excited for any of those folks. Now, that said, what we know about the black electorate who votes is that its skews much older, right? The example I always use is that if were the president – or were Vice President Biden trying to pick a running mate, he’s picking a running mate not to attract me, but rather to attract my father, right? It’s a generational difference, because statistically I’m not going to vote and my father is.

And so it is going to be very interesting to see how he tries to, you know, sort that out. Some of the reporting I’ve done – I, in fact, was just down in Georgia working on a COVID piece. But I was in southwest Georgia, in some of these very areas that Stacey Abrams has focused on a lot and talking to some of her folks and other folks. We remember that that area of the state there were some voting access issues in the governor’s race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, right? And so in some ways this is a “Back to the Future” moment, with the same characters having the same fight.

It's going to be really interesting to see what the Biden campaign does. Initially there was a sense of – you know, I believe – you know, my reporting suggested the sense in the Biden world was: Do we want to appease the left, the Bernie folks, or do we want to try to double down on our black base? And now it seems as if they’ve decided on the second thing. And now there’s a big question of, how do you best do that? Is it someone like Senator Harris? Is it someone like Keisha Lance Bottoms?

The one thing I do think is going for Senator Harris, unlike any of the other people who’ve been named, is that she has, for better or worse, been vetted publicly nationally over and over and over again. We can name already the things people are not going to like about her and what the questions are going to be. That is not necessarily true at a national level of Val Demings, of Stacey Abrams, or of Mayor Lance Bottoms.

MR. COSTA: And finally, Ashley, I don’t want to leave tonight before talking about the Republican side, President Trump. The formal decision has been made to give his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s created a scramble already for us reporters to get hotel rooms in Florida. But what explains that decision? Was it just because the North Carolina governor, a Democrat, was causing problems for the White House? Or is it also about the importance of Florida on the electoral map as well?

MS. PARKER: Well, it was a decision that was really made in the face of coronavirus. If they had wanted to choose Florida and save themselves a lot of headache and trouble, they should have chosen a different state earlier on. But it comes down to the president’s desire, largely, to deliver a speech in front of large adoring crowds. And the North Carolina governor could not guarantee that there would not be COVID restrictions in place. And what the president wants – he doesn’t want an arena beset by social distancing, with people six feet apart. He doesn’t necessarily want to look out and in his mind he’s told he’s going to see a sea of masks. And he felt like in Florida it was a state where he had the best chance to give this speech to the crowd that he wanted.

And, you know, the president is someone who always talks about crowds and crowd size. And that is the key metric for him, the key thing that matters, and the thing that he surfs off of and gains energy from. And of course, Florida is an important state. But I do not think Florida’s electoral politics were key in this decision in this moment.

MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there for tonight. That’s it for this edition of the Extra. Thank you very much to Wes Lowery, Andrea Mitchell, and Ashley Parker for their reporting and time. And you can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, sign up for our Washington Week newsletter. We’re putting a new emphasis on this. You’ll get an advanced look at our show every week, a note from me, and the latest reporting from our guests. I’d urge you to check it out and sign up. But for now, thanks for joining us and I’ll see you next time.


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