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National

Right To Vote: How Republican Lawmakers Used Trump's 'Big Lie' To Restrict Voting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the first half of this year, 17 states have passed more than two dozen new laws that restrict access to the vote. Each day this week, we'll be exploring those efforts. Our Right To Vote series begins by looking at how a persistent lie from Donald Trump led Republicans all over the country to push this new wave of legislation.

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CHRIS WALLACE: There is a tradition in this country - the peaceful transition of power.

SHAPIRO: The story begins before Trump was president. When he was a candidate in 2016, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked a question in a debate that no other candidate in recent memory has struggled to answer. But Trump was different.

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WALLACE: But that the loser concedes to the winner. Are you saying you're not prepared now to...

DONALD TRUMP: What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense.

SHAPIRO: That hypothetical scenario didn't come to pass then, since Trump won. Four years later, Chris Wallace asked again.

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WALLACE: Can you give a direct answer? You will accept the election.

TRUMP: I have to see. Look, you - I have to see. No, I'm not going to just say yes. I'm not going to say no. And I didn't last time either.

SHAPIRO: And then it was time to vote. In the middle of a pandemic, more people cast ballots than ever before. And after four anxious days of waiting...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We can now project the winner...

SHAPIRO: The final results came in.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: ...Of the presidential race.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Former Vice President Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Joe Biden is president-elect.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The people of this nation have spoken.

SHAPIRO: In the days following the election, that question from Chris Wallace seemed prescient. Trump refused to concede for weeks. He falsely claimed the election was stolen.

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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.

SHAPIRO: None of that was true. His team, led by Rudy Giuliani, filed lawsuits, all of which were rejected.

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RUDY GIULIANI: There was a plan from a centralized place to execute these various acts of voter fraud, specifically focused on big cities.

SHAPIRO: There was no such plan.

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TRUMP: Look, all I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes.

SHAPIRO: Trump made personal appeals to election officials in states like Georgia, where Brad Raffensperger was secretary of state.

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BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.

SHAPIRO: When I interviewed Raffensperger's colleague Gabriel Sterling in December, he told me Trump's lies were already having real-world consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GABRIEL STERLING: And we saw kind of a rising level of, you know, language of violence around things and even death threats against my boss, Secretary Brad Raffensperger, sexualized threats to his wife on her cell - a personal cellphone, and threats against me.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, states certified their totals, and then it fell to Congress. January 6 was the day to certify the vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously argued for letting the challenges play out, acknowledged that Biden was going to be the next president.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: My colleagues, nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale that would have tipped the entire election.

SHAPIRO: But Trump was not going quietly. He rallied thousands of supporters near the White House.

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TRUMP: We're going to walk down to the Capitol.

SHAPIRO: And he gave them marching orders.

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TRUMP: You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.

SHAPIRO: Within hours, those Trump supporters had mobbed the Capitol. They overwhelmed officers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The crowd is using ammunitions against us. They have bear spray in the crowd, bear spray in the crowd.

SHAPIRO: A hundred and forty people in uniform were injured, according to a bipartisan Senate report. And in the months since that deadly attack, the seeds of Trump's lie spread across the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This bill addresses two fundamental issues.

SHAPIRO: Republicans in state legislatures planted and fed them.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The confusion that's created when a voter receives duplicate applications...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Adopting safeguards that make sure people can have confidence in the outcome. That's always been something I've been committed to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It requires that all voting systems have a verifiable paper trail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Drive-through voting didn't work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Have all senators voted? Have all senators voted?

SHAPIRO: More than 20 of those bills have become laws, restricting how people vote and how votes are counted. One person who's been keeping a tally of these new laws is Michael Waldman. He's president of the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for expanded voter access, and I asked him which of these laws stood out as the most restrictive in practice.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Georgia is the most notorious. What they did in Georgia and what we're seeing in other states as well that's particularly dangerous is at the last minute they put in a provision basically changing who would do the counting, taking the secretary of state out of it, taking County Board of Elections out of it and putting the right to decide who wins an election in the hands of a very partisan board appointed by the Republican legislature. That turns out to be one of the most dangerous things in 2021 - not only restrictions on who can vote but efforts, really, to rig who can do the counting.

SHAPIRO: When you look specifically at limitations on voting by mail, there is some question about whether that actually affects the results. Andrew Hall is with the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and he co-authored a recent study about this. Here's what he told us.

ANDREW HALL: We're pretty confident that changing the precise manner by which someone can vote by mail versus vote in person - things of that nature do not have extremely large effects on overall turnout.

SHAPIRO: So Michael Waldman, how meaningful are these restrictions to mail-in voting if, as Hall's study suggests, vote-by-mail doesn't really mobilize significantly more people?

WALDMAN: Well, it's hard to know what the impact going forward of any one bill would be. But in 2020, there was a significant expansion of vote-by-mail, and the people who were using it for the first time tended to be younger, tended to be more diverse. The restrictions on vote-by-mail or on early voting that are being pushed don't really affect everybody equally. They're very carefully targeted to affect new voters, younger voters, voters of color.

I think it's a mistake and really wrong for us to be thinking, well, you know, people put these obstacles in the way of some voters - in the way of Black voters, in the way of Latino voters - but they can work their way around it. They can organize more and try a little harder, and it all comes out in the end. That's not a really good way to run a democracy.

SHAPIRO: Could you give us another example or two of how these laws are expected to disproportionately affect non-white voters, Democratic-leaning voters?

WALDMAN: Sure. In Georgia, the legislation banned mobile voting sites. Well, that was only used in one place - Atlanta. Legislation in Texas makes sure that younger voters basically can't vote by mail and actually puts penalties on elected officials who try to make it easier for people to vote by mail. Those are examples where these laws look neutral on their face, but they actually have a much bigger impact on some groups than on others, on voters of color more than others. And that's the way it was, unfortunately, throughout much of the country's history. The Jim Crow laws did not say, by and large, oh, Black people can't vote. But they were written in a way and enforced in a way that had that very impact.

SHAPIRO: So as we've been discussing, some provisions in these state laws limit access to voting. Others actually put the decision of who won in the hands of a partisan appointee or panel. How is that different from steps like narrowing the hours or locations where people can cast a ballot?

WALDMAN: A lot of these laws go after who can vote, how they can vote. What's new and especially worrying is the way these new laws go after who does the counting. A lot of Republicans looked at what happened in Georgia where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, eventually stood up and said no, you know, Joe Biden won the state. And we remember President Trump called him and tried to bully him into changing the results.

Well, the result of that is that the secretary of state has been cut out of the counting in Georgia. And it is a time-honored, anti-democratic, authoritarian move all over the world, and now in the United States, to change who can decide who won. It's a very worrisome thing.

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.

SHAPIRO: And is there also a counter wave of states pushing to expand voter access?

WALDMAN: There has been in recent years a very encouraging trend of expanding voter access. And this has been something that people in both political parties have participated in. Automatic voter registration, which would add tens of millions of people to the rolls and improve the accuracy of voter lists - that's something that's now in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and it's been signed into law by Republican and Democratic governors.

SHAPIRO: Democrats in Congress right now are pushing federal legislation that would expand voting rights. But given that the Supreme Court has already gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act twice, is there any reason to believe the justices would be more deferential to a new voting law if Congress were able to pass it now?

WALDMAN: I think so. You have an extraordinary clash going on right now in the country. All these states are rushing forward with these voter suppression laws. And at the same time, Congress has the power and has the constitutional authority legally and constitutionally to act. And the question is whether Congress has the political will.

The legislation called the For the People Act, S.1 - it relies on the part of the Constitution that says that states set the times, places and manner of elections but that Congress and the federal government can override that to protect voters. John Roberts and the Supreme Court have actually pointed to the For the People Act as an example of Congress using its constitutionally legitimate authority. I think both the For the People Act and legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act both stand on very strong constitutional ground. Look, the Supreme Court can be very political, but here, I think that the law and the Constitution is pretty unambiguous.

SHAPIRO: Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice. Thank you very much.

WALDMAN: Thanks so much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this report, we mistakenly attributed Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick’s death to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The D.C. medical examiner ruled that Sicknick died of natural causes.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "143 I LOVE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 13, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this report, we mistakenly attributed Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick's death to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The D.C. medical examiner ruled that Sicknick died of natural causes.