RACHEL: Hi, this is Rachel (ph) calling from Naperville, Ill. I’m on my way to the hospital to have my second baby. This podcast was recorded at…
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
12:44 p.m. on Wednesday, June 2.
RACHEL: Some things may have changed by the time you hear this. But hopefully, we have a baby. And hopefully, we’ve agreed on a name. Enjoy the show.
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KHALID: I am floored by people who are actually in a capacity to record a time stamp on the way to having a baby. Kudos to you.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Yeah, I also love a good Gemini baby as a Gemini myself.
PARKS: Love to see it.
KHALID: Well, hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
PARKS: I’m Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.
KHALID: And we’ve also got a special guest on the show today, Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin, Texas.
Hey there, Ashley.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey, y’all.
KHALID: And you are joining us, Ashley, because over the last week there has been a lot of drama – I think that’s maybe fair to say – over voting in Texas. Republicans attempted to pass a bill that would have changed election rules. They say that those changes are sorely needed to prevent voter fraud, though I want to point out here there is actually no evidence of rampant voter fraud in Texas. The measures are dead for the moment after Democrats walked out of the Texas Capitol to prevent a final vote on the bill, but Republicans seem to want to resuscitate it. So, Ashley, let’s just start with a basic question, which is, what was actually in this bill?
LOPEZ: Well, when Republican leaders in Texas first announced they wanted to introduce voting legislation, their main focus was actually on some things local election officials in Texas did to make voting safer and easier during the pandemic. Houston, in particular, really tried to innovate the way people vote, so they created things like 24-hour voting centers, drive-through voting. And they tried sending out vote-by-mail applications to, like, the few people who were eligible to vote that way. And those kinds of innovations were primarily the things that these bills were – like, sought to outlaw. And along with that, they created a slew of new criminal penalties for voters and local officials, actually, and they beefed up criminal penalties for existing voting crimes. There are also a lot of last-minute additions to the bill that include lowering the threshold, actually, for when election judges can overturn election results and limiting voting on Sunday mornings. But those provisions never really got public hearings, and some Republicans have lately been distancing themselves from those provisions a little.
KHALID: OK, so essentially, what made this so controversial to folks? I mean, I know we’ve heard a lot of back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in other states also about voting rights issues. Was this similar to what we’ve heard in other states? I mean, what made what was going on here in Texas so controversial?
LOPEZ: Well, it’s controversial because Texas is already one of the hardest places to vote. Like so – for example, a good example is, like, the voting application, the vote-by-mail application. It’s already very few people who qualify to get to vote that way. And then two, you know, the law was limiting local officials from sending out applications – just applications, not the actual ballots – if someone didn’t ask for them. So it’s like – it’s kind of like cutting into the sort of margins of, like, where people – where, like, voting is a little accessible.
But mostly what people are upset about, though, is that there’s really no evidence. You mentioned this. I mean, in the beginning of the legislative session, lawmakers were told by state election officials that the 2020 election was safe and secure. And it was a successful election, so there really was nothing to solve here. And I think that’s where voting rights groups are a little frustrated because, like, the basis for a lot of these bills is just kind of, like, not really based in any sort of reality.
PARKS: Yeah, I do think that a lot of this anger also that’s specifically being aimed at Texas right now also comes from the fact that this is something that is happening all over the country in different ways. The Brennan Center for Justice does track the number of bills that have been introduced that are aimed in some way at restricting voter access, and there have been hundreds of those bills introduced. I think, you know, we’re seeing the anger directed specifically at this instance in Texas, but it kind of reflects this broader voting rights fear that’s happening all over the country.
KHALID: You know, some of this feels like it’s being generated from the results of the 2020 election and the aftermath of that for Republicans. Though I should point out earlier this week, NPR’s Morning Edition had Texas House member Travis Clardy on the show, and he insisted that this bill was not about the 2020 election and Donald Trump. He said it was about more.
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TRAVIS CLARDY: I have zero doubt about the legitimacy of elections in Texas. That’s really not the point for us. This is a preventative measure for us. We do have and heard testimony throughout our session of problems of voter irregularities or voter fraud, of cases currently being investigated. It is an issue. It is a real thing. But I think it’s our job to make sure that doesn’t blossom into a problem that disturbs the underlying – you know, one of the underpinnings of our democracy, and that is confidence in our elections.
LOPEZ: So what’s interesting about this argument is he’s citing prosecutions that have taken place in Texas, which, by the way, we haven’t really seen a lot of those come down. They’re – they all seem to stem from, like, isolated incidents. A lot of cases, it’s like mistakes voters make while at the polls. Our attorney general, Ken Paxton, has made prosecuting what he sees as voting crimes, like, a big part of his office’s work. And, you know, so the ACLU of Texas actually put together a report and found that overwhelmingly, these were people of color who were in the crosshairs of these prosecutions and, you know, particularly women of color, which, I think, is really interesting. And so this is why voting rights groups say that they get nervous when they hear stuff like this because, you know, all of these – like, there’s a history in Texas of all of these changes to voting laws somehow ending up to disproportionately affect people of color in the state. And this is, you know, a state where people of color make up a majority of the population. And so, you know, when things like this come down, it always feels like it’s aimed at a certain group. And it’s the reason why Democrats eventually just got fed up and walked out of the Texas House that night.
KHALID: You know, it is worth noting that this is not just a fight that’s happening in various states. It’s happening even at the federal level. President Biden recently tasked Kamala Harris, his vice president, with the job of handling the administration’s efforts on voting rights and specifically to help push through two big bills in Congress. And, Miles, I know you’ve, you know, certainly looked at some of this. You’ve covered voting for a number of years, and I’m curious what you make of that. I mean, my first inclination was to think, like, oh, man, another sign that vice presidents really get those, like, horribly tough, nearly impossible assignments.
PARKS: That was exactly my reaction. It was like, what a hard job. I mean, I don’t want to say an impossible job, but voting in this country has become so unbelievably polarizing. You know, Republicans are at this point where a recent Fox News poll found that 82% of Trump voters feel like illegal voting is a major threat to the stability of the country. And then on the other side, you’ve got Democrats who are looking at the 2020 election results, and they see states like Georgia and Arizona and Wisconsin, states they only won by a few tens of thousands of votes, you know? And any voting changes that either expand access or limit access feel like an existential threat to both parties.
And so Kamala Harris now has to come in here and basically try to thread this needle of either getting Republicans in the Senate who traditionally have been completely unwilling to hear any sort of election reform bills in the Senate because they’re so opposed to any sort of federal takeover of elections, but then also, even on the Democratic side, there are senators, more moderate senators, who are not willing to give up the filibuster to expand voting rights at this point. And so it’s really unclear that any of the voting bills have a future right now in Congress. And it’s going to be, I guess, up to Vice President Harris to fix that.
KHALID: You know, it is a priority for the Biden administration, but he’s also got a lot of other priorities on his plate right now. All right. Well, Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin, thank you so much for joining us.
LOPEZ: Thank you.
KHALID: And we’re going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we’ll talk about that 2020 election audits in Arizona.
And we’re back with another special guest on the podcast today. Ben Giles of KJZZ in Arizona is back on the show.
Hey there, Ben.
BEN GILES, BYLINE: Hello.
KHALID: So Ben, for the past month, a private company with no experience in elections has been scrutinizing ballots in Maricopa County. That’s Arizona’s largest county, home to Phoenix. The Republican legislature in Arizona ordered this audit ostensibly to quell doubts from Republican voters about Joe Biden’s victory. But I will say, Ben, you know, it feels like there’s more going on there. What exactly has been going on?
GILES: Well, the most visible portion of what’s actually happening right now is this hand recount of only two races on the ballot, two races on nearly 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. Those were the votes for president and U.S. Senate, statewide races that, coincidentally, were won by Democrats. But they’re also inspecting voting machines and election data. There hasn’t been a lot of transparency about how that’s happening. They’re taking pictures of every ballot that was cast, and they’re negotiating with yet another private company to do another recount of the votes, this time using those images.
And as you said, this is happening all because Republican senators say they’re just responding to their voters. Senate President Karen Fann is the Republican who ordered the election review, who hired the controversial firms that are conducting it. And she said, what’s the harm in taking another look?
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KAREN FANN: I don’t know what’s legit, what isn’t legit, but why wouldn’t we want to answer those questions? Do we just…
GILES: Well, critics say there’s a lot of harm. Observers have seen the scope and methodology of this election view change nearly every day. They say that makes for a bad audit. And it’s not just Democrats saying that. The county board in Maricopa County is dominated by Republicans who furiously defended the integrity of the county’s elections. And they’re even gearing up to sue the state Senate and maybe those firms, depending on whatever the final report of this election review looks like.
PARKS: Yeah. And I don’t think that point can be drilled in enough, Ben, right? Like, this audit is not an audit at all. I was talking to a former Department of Homeland Security official who worked on election security issues last year, Matt Masterson. And in the span of a half-an-hour conversation about this, quote, unquote, “audit,” he called it a clown show. He called it a circus. He called it a waste of taxpayer money. He called it performance art. So people who have an understanding of elections do not give this the time of day.
That being said, I think it’s important to know what the real point of this is. Everyone I’ve talked to who focuses on elections and specifically focuses on the information ecosystem around elections sees this as potentially being successful no matter what they find. Whether they accurately count the ballots or don’t accurately count the ballots, at the end of the day, they’re going to produce a report.
And they’ve managed – if you think about it, the fact that there are portions of the population who still believe that the 2020 election results were not accurate, that Joe Biden is not the rightful president, then it’s hard for me to see that this game plan isn’t working. And I’m wondering – from your perspective, Ben, I know you’ve done a little bit of reporting on other states where these sorts of audits are sprouting up, right?
GILES: Yeah. And in fact, as soon as we’re done recording, I’m going to jet over to the Coliseum where this recount is taking place because there’s actually three state lawmakers from Pennsylvania who are in town. This morning…
GILES: They were meeting with Republicans at the state Capitol. They’re going to take a tour of the Coliseum where the recount is happening. And, you know, for Democrats like Katie Hobbs, who’s the top election official in Arizona, and election leaders in a bunch of other states, this visit is a sign that their biggest warning is coming true, that what’s happening in Maricopa County in Arizona could be coming to a city, a county or a state near you next.
Cyber Ninjas is the Florida-based firm leading this operation, and they haven’t been shy about wanting that to happen. And they said Cyber Ninjas expects to gain other clients for similar work in the future. And Republicans here, like State Senate President Karen Fann, are proud of that. She told CNN this is going to be the, quote, “gold standard” going forward. Of course, it’s not just Pennsylvania that’s interested. We’ve seen calls for Arizona-style election reviews in Georgia, Michigan, and we’ll probably see that in more states going forward.
KHALID: Ben, your reporting makes me feel like this is certainly not the last that we’ll be talking to you about this or frankly, the last we’ll be hearing about these so-called election audits in future elections. But for today, we are going to leave it there. Ben Giles of KJZZ, thank you so much.
GILES: Thank you.
KHALID: I’m Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
PARKS: I’m Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.
KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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