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Democrats Have Dialed Back The Bill They Hope Will Counteract Voting Restrictions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Democrats are trying once again to take action on voting rights in Congress. The latest effort is a new bill negotiated among Democratic senators. It's a scaled-down version of previous efforts to counteract a wave of laws in Republican-led states that could make it harder to vote. But big questions remain about how a voting rights bill could pass in this closely divided Senate. NPR's Juana Summers has been following all this and joins us now.

Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So Democratic negotiators, I know, have spent weeks putting this bill together. Tell us what it does.

SUMMERS: So the new bill is called the Freedom to Vote Act, and it builds off of a framework that was proposed by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. He's one of the party's centrists. It includes things like making Election Day a national holiday, establishing national standards for early voting and vote by mail and new automatic voter registration programs. It would also require states to follow some specific criteria when drawing congressional district lines. And it would force disclosure of donors to what are known as dark money groups.

But in order to get all 50 Democratic senators on board, and in the hopes of possibly getting some Republicans to go along, negotiators made some big changes to that sweeping voting bill that they pushed earlier this year, mostly removing some campaign finance and ethics related provisions. The Freedom to Vote Act also does include a national voter identification standard in states that choose to require voter ID. So voters in those states would be allowed to meet that requirement with a variety of documents, either in hard copy or in digital form.

CHANG: OK. And as we mentioned earlier, Democrats, you know, they've been under a lot of pressure from people who worked to get them elected to somehow counteract the wave of laws that Republican-controlled states have been passing. So I'm curious, how is this bill being received outside of Congress so far?

SUMMERS: I talked to a lot of voting rights activists, and there's been quite a bit of positive feedback, even though they can see that this proposal does not include everything that they'd wanted initially. Cliff Albright is a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and he told me that he sees this bill as a big starting point. And he called it one of the most significant voting rights advances seen since 1965.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: If this was in place, this compromise version, it would actually undo some of the things that we saw in both the Georgia bill, the Arizona bill, the Texas bill that was recently passed. This bill would stop and replace a lot of that.

SUMMERS: Now, Albright and others also acknowledge that this bill is unlikely to attract enough Republican support to break a filibuster. That means it'd be impossible to pass it without changing Senate procedures. And that is something that not even all Democrats agree on, including Senator Manchin. Eli Zupnick is a spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, a group that advocates for eliminating the filibuster.

ELI ZUPNICK: I think Senator Manchin gets it, and I think he would like to live in a Senate where 10 Republicans could be pulled into an effort like this. But the reality is that's not the Senate he's in right now. And I think we are hopeful that he will be open to the kind of reform that can get this done because tackling the filibuster is the only way to get this done.

CHANG: Well, I know that Senator Manchin, who's a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, I know that he's been really frustrating to a lot of other Democrats. What does he say now about this bill?

SUMMERS: Well, Ailsa, at least right now, he is focused on finding those 10 Senate Republicans to support this legislation. And when it comes to the filibuster, it doesn't seem like his mind's changed much. This week, he told CNN that the filibuster is permanent and that he's focused on talking to reasonable Republicans who understand the need for guardrails. Activists say that they hope, because this came from Manchin's blueprint, that he may reconsider his position if he can't find Republican votes. Right now, no signs those votes will be there. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says the Senate could vote on this legislation as soon as next week.

CHANG: That is NPR's Juana Summers.

Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.