Biden: Fighting or Failing on Voting Rights?

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S1: This is a war and a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. President Biden was in Georgia this week making another speech in support of voting rights

S2: for the right to vote and have that vote counted. Is democracy threshold liberty? Without it, nothing is possible.

S1: But many voting rights activists are calling it too little, too late.

S3: I won’t go to a photo op when there’s a real fight happening.

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S1: What’s the path ahead for protecting access to the ballot box? And is the president a leader, a bystander or an obstruction? Coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host Jason Johnson. Since the violent Jan. six terrorist attack failed to overturn the presidential election result. Many Republican leaders have turned to state legislation to make it harder for black and brown voters to make their voices heard at the ballot box. 19 states 19 states have passed voting restriction laws since then, with more under consideration. That’s a threat to much of the Democratic Party base and American democracy in general. It also affects President Biden’s reelection hopes and as the president pointed out in his speech in Georgia this week. This affects democracy itself.

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S2: That’s why we’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle forces that attempted a coup, a coup against the legally express Will of the American people by sowing doubt and venting charges of fraud and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people. They want chaos to reign. We want the people to rule,

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S1: but many of the activist who helped lift Biden to victory are unimpressed with the administration’s efforts to support their work. So what’s next for efforts for protecting voting rights and who’s leading them? Joining us to talk about it is Nsé Ufot. She’s the CEO of the New Georgia Project, an organization that helped bring hundreds of thousands of new voters to the rolls in Georgia and turn the state blue in 2020. Nsé Ufot. Thanks for joining us on a word today.

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S3: Thanks for having me, Dr. J. How are you?

S1: I am alive and black. You are President Biden’s remarks this week. And I just want to get straight to this. What was good? What was bad and why didn’t you attend?

S3: What was good is a final acknowledgement and recognition about the urgency of this moment of recognition, a clarity that there is nothing more important to passing his domestic and foreign policy agenda. Nothing more important than getting voting rights passed and expanding federal protections for voting rights. Because ain’t nothing moving. If we can’t secure and guarantee that the will of the people is reflected in the results of our elections, and I heard my president clearly articulate that what was bad, I think, was Ebenezer Baptist Church.

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S1: That was pretty terrible. I was like, I think it was such a solemn moment. People were not going to focus on that, but like he just cussed it. Yes, yes.

S2: We visited the sacred Ebenezer Baptist Church and pause to pray at the crypt of Dr. and Mrs. King and spend time with their family.

S3: And so we were listening. I was hanging on everywhere. I definitely heard Ebenezer Baptist Church. I also heard President Harris, but I’m not going to hold you and you

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S1: did not attend Biden’s speech this week at Morehouse. Was that because you were busy? Did you have a schedule conflict or were you actively not attending in order to make a point?

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S3: I have competing professional obligations that made it impossible for me to attend. Those competing professional obligations is the fact that Georgia Republicans have lost their damn eyes and are actively working to dismantle our elections infrastructure that we are in the middle of a live and active threat. All of us make decisions. All of us make choices every day, and I had to weigh the decision between the value of a photo op and basically putting the pieces in play that are necessary in order to protect our elections and to protect our people and protect our work right. I think that people don’t understand the kind of venom that continues to be fomented on the right that there are not only elected officials but in the federal government, but in state governments all over the country that don’t believe that Joe Biden, as a legitimate president, believe that elections were stolen, that believe that we are in a crisis moment for American democracy, and they may have to take up arms to like, take the country back right like that is happening right now. And it’s an academic discussion for a lot of people in intellectual debate for a lot of people. This is our real life, our real experience, our real lived experience. A hundred and fifty nine counties in Georgia, which means there are a hundred and fifty nine election kings and queens right board of elections officials all over the state, Black County election officials chiefs are being unceremoniously unilaterally dismissed all over the state of Georgia, right? Lincoln County in Georgia, one of the Black Belt counties, eight polling locations. Currently, they’re preparing to close seven of them, and the one that they’re leaving open obviously is on the white side of town, where almost 40 percent of the voters in this county are black, and they’re going to consolidate down to one polling location for the entire county on the white side of town because segregation is still alive. So they are organizers on the ground collecting signatures right now, so black that from happening legislative session started on Monday in Georgia. They came out the gate had not only did we pass Senate bill two or two to make it more difficult for you to vote, but oh, by the way, we’re going to get rid of drop boxes in 2022. Twenty people do not understand that if we do not have urgent action that not only could we see that impact play out in the midterms, we could not have a Congress seated by the end of the year because there are 19 states that have passed these anti voting bills that they’ve been introduced in 48 but 19 states have passed them right. And so if half of those 19 states are thrown into chaos with the counting and the certification of their elections, we might not have a Congress by the end of the year. These threats are real and active, and if the president didn’t come with a plan and when I again make choices about how I use my time as an organizer, there are 10 things that I could have been doing other than standing in the hall at Morehouse for six hours to hear our president say, Ebenezer Baptist Church,

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S1: what were you guys asking the administration for before they came down? And have you heard anything from the Biden administration? I mean, you know. It was several organizations who put together these ads.

S3: Yes. So one what we’re asking for us to get rid of the filibuster. I think that people don’t remember that this is sort of a new position. So he forcefully and vocally articulated that we need to get rid of the filibuster in his speech. So, yeah, congratulations. That is that actually represents movement that he was not there and had not been there for several months, despite the fact that we were talking about the tool, the filibuster as a racist tool that doesn’t had any real value. He was absolutely not there. And so that felt like progress. Number one, there, it’s some Will pass before the people act and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. People act like they don’t know what we’ve been asking for. People act like we have not been consistent this entire time. Right? That passed the Voting Rights Act and set a floor for federal elections. Right. That this current version of the Republican Party, this current sort of Republican criminal caucus that it has decided to be the party of now that, you know, won nearly 200 of them refused to certify the Electoral College vote. Many of them are apologists for the Jan. six insurrectionists, where there was a failed murder plot to kill the vice president of the United States. Right. And those folks are actively in office right now. Right. So not now, but right now we absolutely need to do something. Our governor just signed into law these trash maps that are going to bind our hands for the next decade or more if we don’t pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of. We don’t figure out a way to prevent state legislators and bad actors from shoving these gerrymandered maps down our throats. So give it another filibuster and communicate a plan for passage the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on activist efforts to secure voting rights. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else, I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about the campaign to protect voting rights with Nsé Ufot of the new Georgia project. So Nsé, I want to get into this because this is this is both an online conversation and some media pundits conversation. You are an activist on the ground. You’re the person knocking on doors. You’re the person who helped get people out in 2018 and 2020 as part of many, many organizations throughout the Sun Belt, throughout Georgia, Alabama, throughout Florida who have done this. And yet you get pushback from some Democratic loyalists who say, Well, what’s your plan? Can’t you do math? Joe Biden can’t do anything about Kirsten cinema. Joe Biden can’t do anything about Joe Manchin. We just need to elect more senators. That’s the problem. You guys aren’t helping. What is your response to that? What are some things that you know that Joe Biden could do, even if the filibuster can’t be changed? That could at least give you guys a fighting chance this fall?

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S3: One. Well, my initial sort of reaction is always kiss my ass, because I mean, the work that we do is facing the people. We don’t exist to elect Democrats, right? I don’t do this work so that I can get invited to the group chat so that I can then get invited to the White House Christmas party. I’m accountable to a base of people that have clear demands about what it is that they want. And again, these are the same folks that reach out to us that we’re thinking black women and thanking Georgia organizers and high fiving us when we were talking about, you know, building power. We’re talking about doing innovative voter education things. When we were talking about an agenda for working families that didn’t assume that working families was code for a white working class. Folks that we talk about working families that included people of color when we have a clarity about who we are and what it is that we want, what it is that we’re organizing for it. It is super convenient on the campaign trail, right? Because you can come to Georgia and know that there are people there that can move thousands of folks with short notice, right? And that have registered hundreds of thousands of folks to vote, and that can mobilize millions. Given the time and resources right, that is convenient. You love that shit. It was sexy, right on the campaign trail. You wanted to see it, but we kept that same energy. We were consistent. We are consistent now that it is time to govern. What did you think this was? I think that you know what we learned from Obama, quite frankly and previous presidents before is that you don’t take your foot off the gas after Election Day, that in fact, that is actually when the real work begins. But see, that was a rhetorical. In previous administrations, that was just some slick shit that people like to say. Right? But this is what we are actually doing. In fact, we felt like our work began after our friends, President Biden and Vice President Harris, were inaugurated. And so we are keeping our word to ourselves and to each other and to the communities that we organize with. That’s what you see right now, and I don’t think that people are used to young people and black people having the courage of their convictions and standing for.

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S1: Do you think that Vice President Harris has a different and unique role that she can play when it comes to moving this legislation? Because Joe Biden is supposed to be the old season guy, he’s supposed to be the one who can whip people into shape. What powers can she flex that are different than his when it comes to trying to move this legislation forward?

S3: I think that she could be his, you know, pop culture translator, right? Keeping this issue alive. Because again, part of it is there’s an education piece, right, that folks need to understand why this matters. I think that it’s really easy for everyone’s eyes to gloss over when we’re talking about voting, voting, civil rights, civil rights, civil rights, civil rights, voter suppression, voter suppression, voter suppression, like it’s really easy for people to check out to tune it out. And so I think that she could absolutely be on a tour around the country communicating with the base, helping to maintain the ties that bind the base to the administration. Right. That while Joe Biden is out with his message to the moderates and he’s doing the needling, the carrot and the stick thing that needs to happen with white moderates in the Senate that you could be deploying your vice president some watts and not an anger translator.

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S1: But again, she could be his pit bull. She can be, you know, his splits, or she can be his Rahm Emanuel when it comes to these kinds of issues.

S3: 100 percent. And I think that that’s important. But there are so many things that the administration can do in service of this key priority.

S1: We’re going to take a short break, we come back more on activist efforts to secure voting rights. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about voting rights legislation with Nsé Ufot of the new Georgia project. So what can Joe Biden do right now and what could Joe Biden do as a Plan B if filibuster reform dies in the Senate?

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S3: I think if filibuster reform dies in the Senate, hey, there’s nothing that stops him from continuing to bring it back, right? Like, there’s nothing to stop him from shutting down the government until we figure out what needs to happen with voting and voting rights. Because let me tell you, these corporations like they want, they welfare now, you know, say and like, they absolutely want their welfare. And so I think that he has control over the legislative calendar, the legislative agenda as the leader of the party, I mean, if they have control over it, but he’s super influential and can organize the House leaders and the Senate leaders to say, You know what I mean, what I say, I’m walking it like, I talk. It ain’t nothing moving until we secure voting rights for all Americans, right? So I think that is something that can actually be done. I don’t I’m not a legal scholar. I know you are in community with a lot of people and I know you have a lot of those kind of folks on. But I imagine that with executive orders, there’s a lot that can be done. Like, it’s tricky because you’re thinking about states or elections as mostly a state function, but they’re funded elections infrastructure is funded by the federal government, right? And so thinking about tying up the funding as while we wait to figure out again how we are going to expand federal voting rights protections, I think that there are some things federal holidays, right? Making election a holiday. I think that, you know, it would be annoying and it would be piecemeal and it doesn’t go far enough. Right? But there are tons of things that could get done if you were forced to be creative. But again, I don’t think that we’re at Plan B yet. Right? Because I don’t think that we have called the question. I think that there’s been a lot of jockeying. I think that there’s been a lot of maneuvering. I think the Manchin has been, you know, really a jerk about it being it’s like as bad as any is that is Bull Connor as bad as any obstructionist white supremacist elected official that we’ve met in the past. But I think that we need to call the question and that hasn’t happened yet. And so while yes, we definitely as an organizer, as a person that leads and trains organizers, we’re always thinking about, you know, scenarios plans B, C, D and E, Scenario Z, et cetera. But I think that we have several more moves to make before a plan. A is exhaustive.

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S1: So I want to do these last few real quick on Georgia specifically, Stacey Abrams has announced, which is, you know, people expected that it was the field was just like it was just like the Senate race. A couple, I guess, almost a year or two years ago where it’s like, you know, people were waiting for her kind of clears the field. It’s not clear yet if Stacey Abrams will be facing Brian Kemp again, a around two. Are there credible challenges to Brian Kemp in the Republican primary? Or do you think it’ll be Abrams versus Kemp again in a Georgia that again has changed significantly demographically, certainly in the Atlanta metro area since the last race in 2018?

S3: I honestly don’t know. I think that it’s still really early to tell. David Perdue is suing the camp for governor their campaign because of some machinations around campaign finance laws that allow them to raise money earlier than anyone else, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I think that David Perdue is very much a known entity from a known political family in Georgia. I think that he doesn’t have a job as well. And I think that, you know, he looks I mean, we joke about him coming out of central casting and and that shouldn’t matter. But it seems like it matters to Republican voters and that, you know, Brian Kemp, who’s been caught repeatedly lying about what he knows about COVID, which is particularly insulting to Georgia and Georgia voters, given that he’s the only governor in the United States who lives and works within five miles of the CDC. So David Perdue is coming for him, and it is not a foregone conclusion that we will see a rematch of the 2018 gubernatorial race.

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S1: I have to ask this. I consider this to be a bit of sort of a nihilist question or this is the kind of acceleration of rhetoric that you would hear from certain aspects of the Bernie Progressive left in 2016. But there’s a strain of thought out there that the only way Democrats, especially nationally, are going to learn their lesson about dragging their feet on voting rights, dragging their feet on some of these critical issues will be for them to lose and lose big. And one, what do you think of that theory? Do you think that if Democrats lose big, that they will learn the lesson they need to learn? Or do you think that given what we’re facing from the. Republican Party right now that that’s a risk that we can’t take,

S3: it is absolutely a risk that we can’t take. I think that’s why we have primaries. And again, I’m not really I’m not a defeatist and I’m not a nihilists and mainly I think it’s because I am in community with the folks and the communities that we organize with. So like all of you people, you armchair activist these folks on Twitter, these folks online by throwing their hands up. This has real consequences for us, like the the reason that goes so hard about Senate Bill two or two in Georgia. This anti voting bill is because it added five new crimes five new voting crimes. And guess what? We don’t have a criminal defense bar that has experience with our voting laws because while we haven’t needed it since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, now they have 1000 Georgians that are under investigation for voter fraud. And it carries with it a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $100000 in fines. And most of those people are people of color. And you know what? They’re being investigated for it because in the middle of a pandemic, they applied to vote by mail. They got their ballots, they filled them out. They sent them, but they never got confirmation that their ballots were received and that their votes were counted. So they showed up on Election Day and tried to vote in person. And now they’re facing up to 10 years in prison and a hundred thousand dollars in fines. Right? Like I said, like, this is real people. And so free. All of you were like, just let them loose and like, we’ll come back and live to fight another day. Like, again, that is a privileged position. That is a luxury because you know that you’re going to be fine, that you are insulated because of choices that you made or the conditions that you find yourself in. But that is not the case for us and the communities that we organize with. And so we’re going to keep fighting, which is also why we are willing to push the president even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when people were like, your president comes to your town, you show up to the speech. No, this is the president that we have. We don’t have another one, right? And we won’t have another one for at least another couple of years. And so we’re going to stand and fight and organize with the with the cars that we’ve been dealt.

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S1: Thank you so very much. Nsé Ufot is the chief of the voting rights group The New Georgia Project. Thanks for joining us on a word today.

S3: Thanks for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Saluja is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcast. Since late June, Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.