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Right To Vote: Historians On What Voting Restrictions Mean For Democracy's Future

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All this week, we have been exploring efforts to pass more restrictive voting laws across the country. It's our Right To Vote series. And we began by examining the origin of this latest effort to make it harder for Americans to vote - President Trump's big lie about the 2020 election.

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DONALD TRUMP: If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.

KELLY: The presidency was not stolen from Donald Trump. He lost. But those claims of a rigged election spurred some states, many Republican-led, to pass laws restricting access to the ballot box. And those restrictions were possible because of a 2013 Supreme Court decision - Shelby v. Holder. It gutted a key part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, the part that prevented states from changing voting laws without permission from the Justice Department. We talked to lawyer Debo Adegbile, who argued those protections should be preserved.

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DEBO ADEGBILE: And it took away an important tool, but it did something else that was really troubling. It sent a signaling effect that the federal government was in retreat from the minority protection principle that the Voting Rights Act represents.

KELLY: This week, we also heard from a Republican state senator from Minnesota, where Republicans were pushing a new voter ID law. Mary Kiffmeyer told us requiring an ID is fair since the bill allows voters to get one for free.

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MARY KIFFMEYER: In my conversations with them, people of color, as long as you have equal treatment of the voters, they're fine with the voter ID. What's the problem?

KELLY: Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice. That's an organization that works to expand voting access. He told us these new laws could undermine the integrity of American elections.

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MICHAEL WALDMAN: What we're seeing right now is so many people believe the big lie. And candidates are going to the voters and saying we're going to make sure that only the Republican can win. If that really happens and that happens all across the country, that would be a very dangerous moment for our democracy.

KELLY: Well, today we conclude our series on the right to vote by talking about this moment in our democracy and what's at stake, as more of these restrictive voting measures are passed. To do that, I am joined by two historians - Alex Keyssar of Harvard's Kennedy School and Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University. Welcome to you both.

MARTHA JONES: Thanks for having us.

ALEX KEYSSAR: It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: So you have both studied the evolution of the right to vote in America, a long and contested history. So let's start. I'm going to ask each of you to put this moment in context. How consequential does this moment feel? Martha Jones, kick us off.

JONES: I'm going to start us in 1920, the year that the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, a year in which we often say women won the right to vote. But part of what we learn when we look back at that moment are the ways in which state laws continue to keep African American women and other women of color away from the polls. And it took 45 years for Black Americans to organize a social movement that finally overturned those state laws through passage of the Voting Rights Act. These are moments of extraordinary consequence.

KELLY: So if I'm hearing you right, this is as consequential as it has felt in the last century...

JONES: I think that's right.

KELLY: ...In terms of this struggle. Professor Keyssar, what about you?

KEYSSAR: I agree that we are at an immensely consequential and dangerous moment. We have had similar passages in our history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when in the absence of effective federal legislation, state laws were utilized to disenfranchise people across the country. I mean, the disenfranchisement was wholesale in the South and is well-known with regard to disenfranchising African Americans.

But there is a whole northern dimension to this. I mean, if we pick the date around 1920, which Professor Jones just mentioned, in 1921, New York State passed an English language literacy test to vote, which was enforced in New York, which is a heavily immigrant state and city, and that disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people until the late 1960s.

KELLY: What about Jim Crow? President Biden has called these laws 21st century Jim Crow, comparing it to the legal regime that enforced segregation and suppressed Black people after reconstruction. Is that an apt comparison?

JONES: I would say it is in the sense that part of what we know about Jim Crow laws is that frequently in the form of, say, poll taxes or literacy tests or grandfather clauses, these were state laws that, on their face, did not say Black Americans can't vote, but were structured in a way that they would disproportionately keep Black Americans from the polls. And today, similarly, we are looking at the implementation of state laws that, again, do not baldly deny Black American voters the right to vote, but in their practice, keep Black Americans from the polls disproportionately.

KELLY: I want to hear from each of you your reaction to the point of view that this is not a hugely radical moment. Professor Keyssar, what about the argument, this is actually just a return to baseline after what should be a temporary expansion of voting access because of the pandemic?

KEYSSAR: You know, I would like to think that was true, but certainly some of the laws that are being passed with respect to pollwatchers or - I find even more serious are the laws that are being passed that take the ability to provide the final certified count away from independent officials and giving it to partisan state legislatures. I don't think that this is just a return to baseline. I mean, I think - certainly, I think that there are probably...

KELLY: That latter one certainly has nothing to do with public health.

KEYSSAR: (Laughter) Exactly.

KELLY: Martha Jones, take this on. And let me steer us maybe to another argument. Some conservatives argue these fears are overblown. They will point, for example, to the Georgia Law and argue, actually, it expands early voting in most counties. Actually, it still allows no-excuse mail-in voting. And they cite research showing voter ID laws have a very small effect, if any effect on turnout. Are they wrong?

JONES: I think they're wrong on two counts. First is that the spirit of these laws clearly sends a message to voters on Election Day that they are not welcome, that their votes may not count. And that sort of analysis just doesn't account for what I would term the chilling effect of this spate of legislation that is clearly aimed at changing the rules midstream.

And I think that's the second point, that what that analysis doesn't account for are the ways in which voters are confused and they miss their opportunity at the polls. I'm someone who teaches young people, who are, I think, generally eager for their first opportunity to cast a ballot but come back to campus after November to tell me they weren't able to figure out where was the polling place. They didn't understand there were two signatures required on the outside of that envelope. Every time you change the rules, you raise the bar for individual voters.

KELLY: So let's end with a gut check. The two of you are steeped in the history, the centuries of history of tussling over the right to vote in this country. When you look at this moment and set it against that history, are you hopeful? Are you worried? I mean, when you look at the stakes for our democracy, where do you land? Martha Jones.

JONES: That's such a good question. I'm someone who sees the work of democracy as always in front of us. I come to this question from the perspective of Black Americans, and there is really no moment in the long history of this country when Black Americans haven't been acutely aware of the stakes of voting rights and the necessity of struggle in order to secure them, to retain them, to exercise them. That is the only thing that moves us through and beyond this moment. But that requires understanding politics as a very long game, and that is always been true in this country for those who are outsiders to the political process - that commitment not only in a particular election cycle, but a commitment for next generations. And I think that's the kind of moment we're in today.

KELLY: Alex Keyssar, where are you on the hope to worry spectrum, when you look at the stakes for our democracy?

KEYSSAR: I think that I'm closer to the wary end of the spectrum. I can sometimes look at the history and say, well, late 19th, early 20th century, we had a period where there was African American enfranchisement in the South, a large wave of immigration, and then we got a reaction against that. We got disenfranchisement in the South and disenfranchisement of immigrants in many northern states. I can look at that and say, but we recovered. But it took many decades for those laws to be reversed. And we now have an entire national party which seems to be dedicated to remaining in office, regardless of the democratic principles that are violated in order for them to remain in office, and that worries me a great deal. And the fact that our institutions are being sapped of their legitimacy in incremental phases worries me.

KELLY: Alex Keyssar - he's a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School and author most recently of "Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?" And we've also been speaking with Martha Jones, historian at Johns Hopkins University and author of "Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won The Vote, And Insisted On Equality For All." Thank you to you both.

KEYSSAR: Thank you.

JONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERBALL'S "THE MOON, THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.