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Sweeping Voting Rights Reform Looks Unlikely To Pass At The Federal Level

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How does a Democrat who campaigns for better access to the ballot plan to approach upcoming elections? Stacey Abrams is our next guest. She pushed for different voting rules after losing a governor's race in Georgia a few years ago. Her efforts received some credit when Democrats won Georgia in 2020. And now her state is one of many where Republicans who lost in 2020 have changed the rules again. Ms. Abrams, welcome back to MORNING EDITION.

STACEY ABRAMS: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Of course, this is an issue across the country, but let's talk specifically about Georgia first. You've got these new rules in place, many of them limits on early voting, voter ID requirements have changed, many other things. But, of course, people can still vote. So what is a realistic strategy for Democrats in this changed environment?

ABRAMS: We must pursue federal legislation to negate the Georgia law and the federal laws that are against - that are essentially anti-voter. They serve to create intimidation for election workers and they subvert democracy by giving a partisan body, like the state legislature, the ability to take over any county's elections office. And we've already heard the current secretary of state musing aloud about how he can use these rules to take over the largest county in the state. Those are warning bells. And my hope is that we will not abandon pursuit of federal legislation, but we will also do our best to ensure that every Georgian understands that these are laws designed to restrict their access to the right to vote and they should not stand.

INSKEEP: There's several things you've raised, one is access to the ballot, but the other is who decides whose votes are counted? Who decides who won? The Georgia law, we should tell people if they don't know, strengthens the legislature's power, the Republican-led state legislature's power, to certify or not certify elections. They have a majority now on this election board, they can replace officials, disqualify ballots, overturn elections. Would you argue that we're now in an environment where the vote of people in Georgia is just a suggestion and you think the legislature is going to decide who wins?

ABRAMS: I think that is entirely possible. It's not, I think, inevitable, but it is not an untenable suggestion. And the problem is that we have to read these laws in connection to other actions. We're also heading into redistricting and gerrymandering, which means that these changes become concretized if the same body that gives itself this unfettered power also solidifies for the next decade its control over the elections because they will hold all the power. Those are deeply concerning challenges, and we cannot divorce them from one another.

INSKEEP: Assuming that you do get a fair count of the election from whoever counts it, can you use this voter law as motivation for your side? I'm thinking of North Carolina as a state where Republicans have passed a lot of legislation that was favoring them, but Democrats have occasionally won big elections and shown up in big numbers at the polls.

ABRAMS: Well, I want to reframe that because this is not about Democrats or Republicans winning. This is about whether citizens of Georgia, citizens across this country, are going to be fettered in their access to democracy. And the extent to which we relegate this to a partisan battle versus a citizenship conversation, we are undermining the fundamentals of our democracy. And what's happening right now is that they are undermining democracy itself. My issue is not whether we win or lose. It's who gets to participate in our democracy. And that should be concerning to every American.

INSKEEP: Understand exactly where you're going with that. And yet you would argue, and it seems fairly explicit, this is partisan legislation by one side that you argue advantages the other side, the Republican Party. Can Democrats find ways to push back by better organizing people to show up when they are allowed to show up?

ABRAMS: I think Americans can push back by repulsing these laws. And certainly, my party and independents - and as we've seen in polling, we know that there's a bipartisan distaste for these laws. And so my hope is that we will all push back against them. And I...

INSKEEP: You...

ABRAMS: ...Understand the intention, but the responsibility is for us to not let ourselves be cordoned off from one another by partisanship and instead to focus on the responsibility we have to push back. This is our job as Americans.

INSKEEP: You mentioned federal legislation at the beginning. We'll remind people there's something called For the People Act, the For the People Act, which Democrats have sponsored, most Democrats have sponsored; a few, if any, Republicans are interested in this legislation. It's very sweeping legislation. Joe Manchin, Democratic senator from West Virginia, now says he favors compromise legislation that would do things like make Election Day a public holiday, mandate a minimum number of early voting, including weekends, and he also has some provisions that seem to appeal to Republicans, like some voter ID requirements, and drop some provisions that are that are less popular among Republicans. Would you favor that sort of compromise in order to pass something?

ABRAMS: In totality, the proposals from Joe Manchin absolutely make sense. No one opposes voter ID, for example. The issue is how restrictive the IDs are, and one of the provisions he includes is making certain that restrictive voter IDs do not become impediments to voters being able to access the ballot. By expanding the number of documents that you can use to prove your identity, which has been the law of the land since our inception, Joe Manchin is returning us to the standard that says that if you're a citizen and can prove who you are, you deserve to vote.

INSKEEP: I think you just said in totality, these make sense. You would support that kind of measure if it could get through the Senate.

ABRAMS: I support any federal legislation that protects our right to vote. As I talk about in my book, "Our Time Is Now," we have to remember that voter suppression has been a part of our nation since its inception. And now is our chance to finally make federal legislation standardize our democracy, regardless of our geography.

INSKEEP: Ms. Abrams, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Take care.

ABRAMS: Stacey Abrams is the former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.