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As Texas Pushes “Worst Voter Suppression Bill in the Country,” Activists Call on Biden to Do More

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As President Joe Biden met with civil rights groups this week to discuss how to fight voter suppression efforts, Texas lawmakers followed other battleground states controlled by Republicans with a new push to overhaul the state’s election laws. New restrictions would include a ban on drive-thru voting and 24-hour or late-night voting options, and election officials could be penalized for sending out unsolicited absentee applications. The measures would also impose stringent signature-matching requirements and increase the power of partisan poll observers, which can result in intimidation. “This would make it the worst voter suppression bill in the country,” says Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, who urges Democrats across the United States to take part in walkouts and other maneuvers to impede voter suppression bills. “What we need right now, along with civil disobedience on the streets, is legislative disobedience,” Albright says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden met with civil rights groups Thursday to discuss ways to combat voter suppression efforts, as the White House announced a new effort to counter the Republican push to pass voting restrictions in key battleground states. Vice President Kamala Harris also announced that the Democratic National Committee would be spending an additional $25 million on organizing and registration efforts. She spoke at Howard University.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: We are going to assemble the largest voter protection team we have ever had, to ensure — to ensure that all Americans can vote and have your vote counted in a fair and transparent process.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Texas, lawmakers followed other battleground states controlled by Republicans with a new push Thursday to overhaul the state’s election laws. In a special session called by the governor, they introduced bills based on their earlier attempt to pass a sweeping voting bill that failed in the last session after Democrats walked out.

For more, we’re joined by Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, which recently finished a nine-state, 10-day Freedom Ride to mark the 60th anniversary of the first Freedom Rides for voting rights.

Cliff, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about — we’ll start with Texas and then go national. What is happening in Texas right now with this special session?

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Right. So, there’s a special session. We’re calling it the “suppression session,” because in addition to pulling out this voter suppression bill, which in a state that’s already one of the — has one of the lowest turnout rates in the country, where it’s already the hardest to vote, they would make it even more difficult by passing a bunch of draconian pieces of provisions that would include criminalizing not just voters or people that try to provide assistance to voters, even criminalizing election officials that send out absentee ballot applications to voters.

But one of the worst provisions in this bill is the one — and we talked a lot about this a couple months ago when they were first trying to pass it — they still have the provision that would allow election observers, partisan election observers, basically unfettered access to the polling places, including the possibility of video recording voters. We already know that Republicans had been using this as a recruitment tactic. They said that they wanted to recruit an army of thousands that would flood the polling places to observe voters, the kind of army of observers that Trump talked about during his campaign. And so, this is just, you know, again, one of the worst bills — this would make it the worst voter suppression bill in the country.

And I will add this: It’s a suppression session not just because of this bill that they’re considering, the voter suppression bill, but also because this special session, or suppression session, includes 11 other bills that are basically a smörgåsbord of white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia — just everything that you could imagine that is the worst on the Republican agenda, they’ve included in this suppression session, which is a reminder that when they suppress our votes, Black and Brown votes, in particular, but all votes — when they suppress our votes, when they distort this democracy, or what’s left of it, it has implications that affect a range of policies, dealing with our health, our economics. They’ve even got critical race theory in this suppression session.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how this is being repeated around the country. In what other states? And will the Texas Democrats walk out?

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Right. So, first I’ll deal with the second half of that, in terms of the Texas Democrats walking out. I mean, they’ve said in interviews, and they said yesterday at the press conference, at the rally that we helped to organize, that everything is on the table. But I think that they really gave us a blueprint that Democrats in other states really need to look at. You know, I’ve been saying — you know, we talk a lot about civil disobedience. What we need right now, along with civil disobedience on the streets, is legislative disobedience. If Republicans are going to change rules in all of these states where they’re trying to push this suppression through — and there are still bills pending in, I think, at least a dozen other states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania — but if they’re going to play around with the rules and suspend rules and change the rules of the game in order to push the suppression through, Democrats all across this country need to be willing to follow the pattern that the Texas Democrats demonstrated. After weeks and months of grassroots organizing by an incredible coalition, Texas Right to Vote Coalition in Texas, the legislators were then able to finally do the walkout. That needs to be a blueprint all across — all across this country.

I will add this: It was disappointing that with this massive press conference that took place yesterday, that included grassroots organizations, as well as Texas Democrats from the state House, that there was no federal presence. Like, Kamala Harris could have been there, since she’s the czar on this. Joe Biden could have been there. Somebody from the Justice Department could have been there. Somebody from the national — the Democratic National Committee could have been there. Any number of federal folks, to show, to demonstrate that Texas is not alone and that no state is alone in this battle, that would have been a good thing to show. But again, the Texas legislators and the grassroots organizations were there taking a stand on their own. We’ll continue to do that in state after state, but this is a federal battle that’s going to require federal legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you came out quite strongly in a series of tweets yesterday, Cliff. Among them, “don’t come relying on activists to out-organize voter suppression to compensate for your legislative failures. This ain’t The Green Mile or Bagger Vance and we are NOT your magical negroes—covering up your mediocrity, lukewarm support & broken promises.” And then you name “@POTUS,” “@SenSchumer” and “@VP.” Talk about what you feel they’re not only not doing in Texas, but why you feel this must be done at a national level. When the For the People Act was being considered in Congress that week, President Biden did not speak on it. He gave a major address on crime instead.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Exactly. Yeah, I mean, and, you know, to speak to the tweet, there’s a feeling — and it’s come out both in the actions coming from the White House, as well as in some, you know, leaked, unnamed staffers, that basically they feel like organizers will be able to outorganize the voter suppression, that we’ll be able to outorganize Jim Crow, or even to outlitigate this Jim Crow, which, again, cannot happen without federal legislation. Sherrilyn Ifill from the Legal Defense Fund tweeted as much out yesterday, as well, that we cannot outlitigate this if we don’t have the federal protections necessary, in the form of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. If we don’t have those protections necessary, you can’t outlitigate it, you can’t outorganize it. And it’s unfair, and actually insulting, for the White House to assume or for the party to put that burden on the backs of voters, again, primarily Black voters and Brown voters and marginalized voters, to put that burden on our backs because they fail to get passed this necessary piece of legislation.

What could the administration do more of? Just a couple months ago, Joe Biden said in an interview that he was at least open to modifying the filibuster, but we haven’t heard anything else about that. Where is your — just like he presented a plan, he didn’t just leave it up to Congress to say what he wanted on infrastructure, right? They had a White House plan for infrastructure. They had a White House plan on American families and American jobs. Where is your plan on voting rights? Where is your plan? If you’re open, don’t just be open to modifying the filibuster; show Joe Manchin what your plan is, and tell him, “Joe, we’ve known each other for decades. I need you to get this rules change on the filibuster.” Chuck Schumer, have a specific plan to get the filibuster at least modified. I’d really like to see it ended, but at least to get it modified. He has not shown the same level of aggression that he has shown, and urgency that he’s shown on other issues, on this voting rights issue. We need them to — we need him to use the bully pulpit. We need him to use every carrot, every stick, and show Joe Manchin a specific plan and twist those arms, the same way Lyndon B. Johnson did, because he was forced to by organizers. But he needs to have that kind of a moment, instead of a Rutherford B. Hayes moment, who was the president who ended Reconstruction, took the federal troops out of the South and basically allowed white Southerners to have their way with Black folks all across the country. We don’t need Joe Biden to have that moment and to follow that example. We need him to follow a more aggressive example that supports and aggressively fights for voting rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s hear what they did say at the White House yesterday, President Biden and Vice President Harris meeting with civil rights leaders. This is Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, speaking to the Black News Channel after the meeting.

SHERRILYN IFILL: I used the opportunity to talk about the history of civil rights legislation in this country, of the Supreme Court’s role in often eroding civil rights statutes, dating back to the 19th century, dating back to the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the civil rights cases, dating back to Plessy v. Ferguson, dating back to Mobile v. Bolden, the voting rights case in 1980 that Congress had to overturn in 1982 with the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and then, of course, Shelby County v. Holder and last week’s decision in the Brnovich case. We are at, again, such a moment. We are litigating at the Legal Defense Fund in Georgia, challenging their voter suppression law. We’re challenging Florida’s voter suppression law. But I told the president we will not be able to litigate our way out of this threat to Black citizenship, voting and political participation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And Vice President Harris announced a $25 million DNC investment to aid voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Cliff Albright, you are talking to us from Atlanta, and 2022 is very important. Both Senate seats were taken by Democrats, which has clearly been a great motivation not only in Georgia for the Republicans, but around the country, to get rid of voters on voting rolls, certainly in Georgia. If you can talk about what has happened there? Reverend Raphael Warnock is up again in 2022. But what that DNC influx of money means? Is it what you’re calling the fierce urgency of now, that has been lacking from the federal government?

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Unfortunately, no, that’s not the fierce urgency of now. Twenty-five million dollars, it sounds like a lot. Like, certainly in my personal life, that would be a lot. But, you know, in terms of democracy, that’s a drop in the bucket.

Let me say this, since we were just — you played the clip from Sherrilyn Ifill, and we’re talking about what can the White House do. It would be a good time to seriously discuss expanding the court, and I would love to see somebody like Sherrilyn Ifill as being somebody nominated to an expanded Supreme Court. That’s going to be necessary, because even if they pass the legislation, it’s still going to have to pass the constitutionality test from a Supreme Court that has already shown what its predilections are or what its taste is. And so, we need to expand the court.

But again, you asked about Georgia. Yes, Senator Warnock is going to be up again next year. And as we’ve said, we are not going to be able to just outorganize this level of voter suppression. And even if we do, the scary thing about the Georgia bill, which is part of a trend that we’re seeing in other states, is that it’s got that piece in there that would make it easier for the state to overturn elections. They’ve already gone about the process of removing people, of removing officials from some of the election boards in some of the counties. That was made possible by this new law. And with that provision, even if we outorganize the suppression and win the votes, they can always come back and do exactly what Donald Trump was trying to get the secretary of state to do on that phone call, which is to go out and find 11,000 votes, or go out and decide that Fulton County, predominantly Black county in Georgia, that that county’s votes shouldn’t be counted. This bill would give them the ability to do that.

So, we can’t outorganize the level of Jim Crow suppression that we’re seeing. We have got to have federal protections. We’ll do everything that we can, but we need help from the federal government. The $25 million, there are organizations — we came close to spending that much in just our limited footprint across the country to mobilize voters. Twenty-five million dollars is not nearly enough to combat the kind of voter suppression that we’re seeing.

And beyond the amount — last thing I’ll say — beyond the amount is just the timing or the sequencing. Now is not the time to be talking about how we’re going to try to mitigate the impact of voter suppression. If the DNC is going to spend $25 million, I’d rather they spend it supporting groups that are organizing to fight the suppression. Let’s finish this fight before we start talking about how we’re going to mitigate the suppression that we’re basically conceding we’re going to fail on defeating.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Cliff Albright, talk about the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and the Freedom Rides that you engaged in. You’re, again, speaking to us from Atlanta. John Lewis, the late great John Lewis, participated in those first Freedom Rides 60 years ago.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Yeah, it was just an incredible experience for us. The Freedom Ride for Voting Rights, marking the 60th anniversary, we wanted to do a reverse Freedom Ride, where we went — instead of going from D.C. to the South, like in 1961, we took it from the South all the way up to D.C. We passed through nine states, or 10 states, if you include the state of D.C., because part of our objectives of the Freedom Ride was to talk about three pieces of legislation — the H.R. 1, S. 1, of course, the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and H.R. 51, which is an issue a lot of people in the country don’t know enough about, which is D.C. statehood. The denial of the vote to D.C. is one of the oldest forms of voter suppression. And so, our rally that took place on the 26th was largely about D.C. statehood, as well as the other two pieces of voting rights legislation.

But we stopped in nine states along the way, even more cities, because we did some pit stops throughout. And at each location, we were doing rallies, educating voters about the legislation, motivating voters to get involved in how to fight for this legislation, and to talk about the history of the 1961 Freedom Rides, because that’s history that a lot of people don’t know a lot about. We think that, you know, there was slavery, and then all of a sudden Dr. King gave a speech in 1963, and then Barack Obama was president. And in spite of what you hear about critical race theory, there’s a lot of our history that’s not taught. Those Freedom Rides were an important part of that civil rights movement. And part of why we wanted to focus on it is because we believe that by raising that history and amplifying it, and by featuring actual Freedom Riders — at some of the stops, some of the rallies, we had actual Freedom Riders from 1961 who told their stories. By amplifying that history, you can’t help but hear that history and not get involved in today’s movement. To hear how those Freedom Riders saw a bus get bombed, and then they decided not to run away from the movement, but to actually run to the bombing and to finish the Freedom Rides — you can’t hear that history and not ask yourself, “Will I answer the call today?”

So, it was an incredible experience. We had dozens of national organizations that joined us, including many of those organizations that met with President Biden yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Cliff Albright, for joining us, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, speaking to us from Atlanta, Georgia.

Coming up, we’ll speak to a women’s rights activist in the southern African nation of Eswatini, where the king is cracking down on dissent. This is the country formerly known as Swaziland. Stay with us.

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