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Transcript: Vice President Harris On Voting Rights, The Filibuster And The Courts

Vice President Harris spoke to NPR on Tuesday about the administration's efforts to protect voting rights.
Anna Moneymaker
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Vice President Harris spoke to NPR on Tuesday about the administration's efforts to protect voting rights.

Vice President Harris is leading the Biden administration's efforts on voting rights. She spoke to NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid on Tuesday ahead of President Biden's address on the issue and just before she met with Texas Democratic lawmakers who fled the state in an attempt to block a GOP voting bill.

She discussed efforts on voter education, mobilization and protection, as well as obstacles the administration faces in Congress and the courts as it attempts to combat changes to election laws being enacted by Republicans, many related to former President Donald Trump's false claims about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Interview transcript

I want to start with what you believe the administration can do to protect voting rights. Legislation, as you know, has been stalled in Congress for months. And so in lieu of congressional action, what can you all do?

Well, there's a lot we can do. And clearly, this is an issue that we need to approach from many different angles. So, for example, there's the work that we are committed to do, which is about putting resources into the people on the ground and the work on the ground, empowering the people, right? Because this is truly about the voice of the people.

So, what does that look like? It includes resources and attention being given to registering people to vote, to educating people about what's at stake and what is actually happening in terms of these threats to their rights. It's about turning out voters. You know, we actually — people think, 'Well, it's 2022' — but we actually have some elections actually this year. And so we are talking about, even though this doesn't maybe feel for some like an election year, it is. And so making sure we turn out voters and we protect voters. The voter protection piece is essential.

The other work that we are doing is, it's about convening folks. I've been to South Carolina and Georgia and Pennsylvania and Michigan to meet with people on the ground, leaders in their communities and their states, to get the feedback and to get an accurate sense of how people are experiencing this issue and what we can do to lift up their voices and make sure that the realities of this issue are being heard and well understood.

There's the coalition-building piece of this, which includes bringing in people who seemingly have not much in common, but have everything in common. And knowing that their voice is expressed through their vote, and it really is, again, a matter of their power to determine who will be their elected leaders and what their government will be and the issues that it will prioritize. I'm meeting, for example, tomorrow I'm convening a group of leaders among folks with disabilities. That community is going to — and has been — a leader on understanding how these various laws will impede, will prevent Americans with disabilities from being able to vote.

So, these are all of the pieces, and lifting up folks like the Texas legislature and the voices of those courageous leaders.

Congressman Jim Clyburn — who we should point out is a good friend of the White House — is calling for a tweak to the filibuster. He's said not to end it entirely, but to carve out an exception that could allow Democrats to pass voting rights legislation with a simple majority. He told Politico that he actually explicitly shared his thinking on this with you. So I want to ask, do you support that idea? Do you think it's something that could work?

Well, here's what I'll say. I believe that of all of the issues that the United States Congress can take up, the right to vote is the right that unlocks all the other rights. And for that reason, it should be one of its highest priorities. Now, the members of the Senate are going to have to address this and we're going to continue to work to find a path forward, no matter how difficult. And obviously, it's going to require all the Democrats in the Senate to agree with that approach.

Is it an approach that you've been advocating for at all, just amongst your former colleagues in the Senate, that maybe it is worth carving out an exception for voting rights?

I mean, I'm not going to kind of negotiate with — sorry, but I don't mean this in any offense, but I'm not going to negotiate this way. But I'm certainly having conversations with folks.

Is the answer to stopping Republican voting restrictions in some way simply for Democrats to win more elections and then get the power to overturn them? I mean, is that essentially the main way to do this at this point?

I would prefer to really talk about it and certainly think about it as something much more fundamental. This is literally about one of the most important tenets of our democracy, which is the right to vote, having a representative government. And like I said, our ability, the people's ability to vote, it unlocks every other right. And we can go through a long list of the rights we are talking about that are often at stake in elections. And so, fundamentally, this fight to preserve people's right to vote unencumbered, this is a fight that is old as American pie and as American as apple pie.

Madam Vice President, are you at all worried that voting rights itself is increasingly becoming a partisan issue? And if so, I mean, what does that mean for having the buy-in of the American public writ large, just about the legitimacy of elections, if not all people in the country say believe the election results?

I do not believe that this — I feel very strongly that this is not about Republicans or Democrats. This is literally about Americans. When we allow laws to be passed that eliminate same-day voting, vote by mail, early voting, these are things that are going to affect working people, people who work two and three jobs. It will affect people who have disabilities that prevent them from perhaps showing up on Election Day and being in line for hours, in spite of the fact that they have a strong opinion about who should be their elected representatives.

It is that foundational, and it is that fundamental, and regardless of who they vote for. We're not telling people — I'm not going to tell people who they should vote for on this issue. It is simply about what they should care about in terms of their own rights. And it is that fundamental and foundational.

As you see so many GOP-led state legislatures, though, crafting some of these laws that have restricted voting rights, and as you see that not a single Republican member of the Senate was on board with some of this legislation, how do you convince the American public that this is truly a bipartisan issue?

Well, you know, I think about it in the context of my own experience voting, right? So, one of the things that concerns me about the laws coming out of these states is how they will have the effect, if not the intention, of intimidating poll workers, penalizing poll workers. Well, most Americans who have voted have voted like I have, at the local elementary school or the local church or the local senior center. And just imagine for a moment all of those poll workers when you walk in, and how loyal they are to civics and to patriotism, and that they should be encumbered by intimidation and tactics that are intended to make them afraid of, you know, assisting someone through the door and making sure that their experience voting is one where they feel entitled to their rights. You know, I think about it in the context of laws that are going to make it difficult for working people to vote. It's just wrong. It's just wrong. And it's not about partisanship. It really is about the rights that all people should be entitled to, regardless of their party affiliation.

I wanted to ask about the courts. Are you concerned that the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act means that the [Department of Justice] suit against Georgia's voting restrictions could be in some way doomed? I mean, I know that Democrats had seen the courts and the Department of Justice's actions as an avenue. And I'm just curious what your thoughts are about that being a potential avenue to deal with voting rights, given the Supreme Court decision.

I mean, look, since 2013 with Shelby v. Holder and now this most recent case, we know that we are up against some very serious obstacles. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to address the disparities that we have known have existed and still exist in our country. And so yeah, what the Supreme Court has done, it does present a real challenge for us.

But I applaud, for example, the DOJ under Merrick Garland for taking the initiative that they've taken. There is active litigation happening around the country. And I applaud all of those folks, in particular those who are lending their pro bono expertise to this issue.

As I said at the beginning of our conversation, we have to address this issue on many levels and it will be litigation, legislation, it will be activating the people. It will be about informing the people about their rights, organizing, registering folks to vote, and everyone telling their stories about what their voting experience is like under the best of circumstances, and then educating them about what may be attempts to suppress their vote, so that they can understand how these laws will impact their lives and the issues they care about.

I do believe that in many of these states, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so that they won't vote. And this is then about attempts to take the power from the people. And we all need to stand. And say, 'We will not allow this to happen on our watch.'

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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