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New Report Identifies Big Legislative Push To Tighten Voting Restrictions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk about voting now. And, yes, we did just have an election, but according to a New York-based civil rights organization, lawmakers across the country are now pushing proposals to change the way citizens vote next time. In Georgia, for example, lawmakers are proposing to require that voters send two copies of a photo ID to vote absentee. Across the country, state lawmakers have proposed more than 100 bills to make voting more difficult.

But there are also bills to make it easier to vote, that according to a report this week from the Brennan Center for Justice. That is a nonpartisan law and policy organization. Myrna Perez is the director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, and she is with us now to tell us more.

Myrna Perez, thanks so much for being with us.

MYRNA PEREZ: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: First, could you just talk about the bills to make voting harder? Your report identified 106 bills across 28 states that make voting rules more restrictive. Can you just tell us a bit more about what some of these proposed laws would do?

PEREZ: Yeah, they fall into a couple of main buckets. Obviously, there'll be outliers. But generally speaking, we see some that try to limit access to vote by mail, some that try to impose stricter voter ID requirements, some that make it harder to register people to vote, and some that are demanding that their states or localities more aggressively purge voters from the voter rolls.

MARTIN: So historically, is this kind of surge of interest in changing voter rules - is that something you typically see after a big election, or is this something new?

PEREZ: Well, it's fascinating that you mention that because we first saw this just discernible, unmistakable, indisputable pushback on access to the ballot box in 2010, after there was a changeover in many of the state governments and after a very historic election in which we elected our first president of color. And so I think since then, we've had a very heated battle over the right to vote, and we've seen more legislation trying to restrict access come up than what we had seen prior to 2010.

But because there has been such an increase in restrictive legislation, the fact that we have an even bigger increase right now is really alarming because we moved our baseline. Like, everything changed after 2010. And so now that we were at this relatively new high rate, we saw an even higher rate this year.

MARTIN: But you're also seeing bills advanced that would expand voter access, right? And, in fact...

PEREZ: Absolutely.

MARTIN: There are more of those. Isn't that true?

PEREZ: Absolutely. And there has historically been more. And that's great. What I think that speaks to, though, is that we have two Americas, right? We have the folks that understand that life is change and that there are communities that rightfully deserve a place at the table. And we need to look at what our systems have done and left undone to put barriers in front of the ballot box and are seeking to correct some of those either affirmative acts or acts of neglect.

And then we have some places that are insistent on putting as many barriers in front of the ballot box as they can, almost as if they're trying to fight off the forces of demography and change in time. And unfortunately, the entirety of the country is poorer for it because we are undergoing a lot of challenges in this country, and we're not going to get ourselves out of those challenges unless we leverage the experience and expertise of all Americans, including those who are hit hardest by some of our policies.

MARTIN: But what do you say to those who seem to genuinely believe that there is an issue with the integrity of the ballot? I mean, this is not - it is true that Donald Trump made this a voting issue, but it is also true that these anxieties on the part of - it has to be said - mainly Republicans - not exclusively - existed before that. That feeling clearly exists. So what would you say to people who believe that?

PEREZ: I would say you are right that we have threats to the integrity of our electoral system, but we need to focus on what those threats actually are. We need to make sure that foreign cybercriminals cannot infect our election infrastructure. We need to be mindful of the fact that there are some politicians who are stopping voters from participating. And that is an integrity issue, and we need to be sensitive to that. We all want a system full of integrity.

The problem is that there is racialized accusations of fraud and policies to stop people from voting that don't actually make us more secure and instead are just going to put barriers in front of the ballot box. And I think photo ID is probably the easiest way to explain that. A photo identification only stops a person from pretending to be somebody else at the polls. And that kind of fraud is extraordinarily rare. But on the other hand, we have between 8 to 12% of our population that does not have the kind of identification that these strict ID states require.

So are we going to shut out and put barriers in front of 8 to 12% of the population to go after the one or two people every 10 years in a state that may try to vote by pretending to be someone else? That is not good public policy. And what they're giving voters doesn't actually make them more safe and is going to make it harder for some Americans to participate and vote.

MARTIN: So the presidential election got the most attention, of course. But in part, I think what you're saying is it sounds like state and local elections have a real impact...

PEREZ: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...On how Americans vote. So how do you convey the importance of that?

PEREZ: I think the way I try to get people to pay attention to them is reminding them about the things that matter to them that are completely outside of Washington - for example, the quality of their kids' school or what kind of state assistance they receive in time of COVID. Certainly, who is president matters a lot. But politicians make decisions that impact very intimate details of our lives, ranging from the quality of the air we breathe to what kind of food we put in our body to what kind of schools our kids go to.

And those decisions are made certainly at the federal level, but also at the state and local level. And there are not a whole lot of ways in which ordinary Americans can shape the direction of how their lives go. The way that they can influence politicians - by voting.

My hope is that voters start making election access a voting issue, and when they're thinking about who to vote for, one of the things that they consider is whether or not that politician supports policies that make it easier for people to participate and vote or whether or not they want voters to have to jump through a lot of hoops in order to be able to have a say.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you've just told us that, you know, voting is an issue that is generally addressed at the state level, but the federal government does have some insight. Now, we don't have enough time to sort of go into the history of how that oversight has changed because of Supreme Court decisions. So what role do you think the Biden administration could play in either enforcing or challenging these laws?

PEREZ: Well, certainly, we hope that the Department of Justice robustly and vigorously protects voters according to the laws that are available. And we have the National Voter Registration Act. We have the Help America Vote Act. We have the Voting Rights Act. There are certainly a lot of things that a pro-voter administration could do to protect voters.

MARTIN: That was Myrna Perez. She's the director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Myrna Perez, thanks so much for joining us.

PEREZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.