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The Freedom To Vote Act is the latest fight in a bitter battle over voting rights

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Across the country, the laws governing how Americans elect their public officials have become the focus of bitter partisan battles.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Georgia lawmakers have continued to receive backlash for the new law that overhauls elections in the state.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The justices upheld help voting restrictions in Arizona.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Florida's Republican majority has passed legislation to make significant changes to mail-in voting procedures.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The bill to overhaul state elections is now law, despite protests that it will suppress minority turnout.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And it's no different here in Washington, where Democrats, from the president on down, have made this issue a priority and have been ringing the alarm bell for months.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Twenty-first century Jim Crow assault is real. It's unrelenting, and we're going to challenge it vigorously.

MCCAMMON: Now, for the third time in about 10 months, a voting rights bill has failed in Congress - this, despite the fact that this most recent voting rights bill has been the Democrat's most strategic push yet and could be the last attempt at major voting rights legislation this year.

SHAPIRO: The Freedom to Vote Act, as it's called, was the work of West Virginia moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, a crucial swing vote on any Democratic piece of legislation in the Senate. Earlier this year, Manchin would not support the other voting rights bills.

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JOE MANCHIN: The fundamental purpose of our democracy is the freedom of our elections. If we can't come to agreement on that, God help us. We must come together on a voting rights bill in a bipartisan way.

SHAPIRO: But today, Manchin's compromise legislation did not get one Republican vote.

MCCAMMON: NPR political correspondent Juana Summers has been following all of this all year, and she joins us now from the Capitol. Hi there, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

MCCAMMON: So tell us about this bill. What happened today?

SUMMERS: So, Sarah, it was a pretty notable moment. Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been spearheading the White House's efforts on voting rights, was actually presiding over the Senate as Republicans blocked debate on the For the People Act. This bill was the product of negotiations among the Senate Democrats. It would do a number of things, like establishing Election Day as a national holiday, setting national minimum standards for early voting and voting by mail, and established rules around voter ID in states that require it.

Now, Democrats have been pushing for federal voting rights legislation to counteract a wave of new restrictions from Republican-led state legislatures. They say these laws are making it harder to vote, especially for people of color. Vice President Harris spoke to reporters as she was leaving the Capitol.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: We're not going to give up. We're not deterred. But there's still a lot of work to do. And I think it's really a sad day.

SUMMERS: Harris spoke briefly, and she repeated that the administration would continue to do the work. But she didn't say more about what those next steps could look like.

MCCAMMON: This was the third time this year that Republicans blocked debate on voting rights legislation. Juana, were Democrats hoping they would come on board this time?

SUMMERS: They were. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who is one of the key centrists in the party, spent weeks seeking Republican support for this bill that he worked on. But ultimately, he was unable to find any. And many Democrats and folks outside the Hill that I spoke with say they didn't expect the outcome to be much different.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was very clear that every Senate Republican would oppose this bill, and he portrayed these efforts as an attempted political power grab by Democrats.

MCCAMMON: OK. So just to be clear, it was widely assumed that Republicans would vote to block this bill. Why would Democrats call this vote anyway?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So part of the plan was to show that the party is unified. This bill had the support of all 50 Senate Democrats, and that hadn't been the case on past voting rights legislation. Senator Manchin, in particular, had not supported previous efforts for a larger bill that passed the House earlier this year. But part of this was also about making a point that making the kind of changes to voting rights that Senate Democrats might want may not be possible without changing Senate rules. Right now, in the 50-50 Senate, there effectively has to be 10 Republicans to join Democrats to allow major bills to advance. And on this bill and others, that is a number of Republican votes that Democrats have just been unable to reach.

MCCAMMON: Democrats have been under a lot of pressure to protect democracy and to pass voting rights legislation. What are you hearing from activists now?

SUMMERS: Well, there's been a lot of frustration. Some of it is directed at lawmakers here on the Hill, but it's also been at the White House. Many activists that I speak to say that it's clear to them that President Biden's top priorities right now are the infrastructure bill and the sweeping social spending package, not voting rights. And some of these activists have been marching outside the White House almost every week. And hanging over this whole debate is a really big political question - one about redistricting and election.

Joseph Geevarghese, who's the executive director of Our Revolution, said the consequences could be stark for Democrats.

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JOSEPH GEEVARGHESE: If we don't pass the Freedom to Vote legislation, Democrats are going to get slaughtered in 2022 and 2024.

SUMMERS: And Senate Democrats say they are not finished with this issue. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said today that he could bring up another voting rights bill. That one is named for the late Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. He says he could bring it up as soon as next week, though I have to say it is not clear that that bill will fare any better than this one did.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Juana Summers, thanks for catching us up.

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