There Are Many Ways to Steal a Midterm — and the GOP Is Laying the Groundwork

Mother JonesAri Berman, a reporter, warns that the Republican Party is setting the stage for the 2022 midterm elections and future elections. This combination of gerrymandering and voter suppression, as well as election subversion, all pose a grave threat to voting rights in the United States. Many Republicans, many of them election deniers, are running for positions with great oversight over the election process. “What’s really new here are these efforts to take over how votes are counted,” says Berman. “That is the ultimate voter suppression method, because if you’re not able to rig the election on the front end, you can throw out votes on that back end.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill today for a lunchtime meeting to push for rewriting Senate rules to prevent Republicans from filibustering a pair of major voting rights bills — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer presented a plan Wednesday to bring the voting bills up for debate using a legislative maneuver. However, this would still allow Republicans to block final passage using the filibuster. Two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona), have so far refused change to the filibuster rules.

Biden is scheduled to arrive at Capitol Hill on Tuesday, two days after he made a major speech about voting rights in Atlanta. On Wednesday, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Biden’s remarks.

MINORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL:Twelve months ago, this president stated that disagreement should not lead to disunion. Ah, but yesterday he invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War — the Civil War — to demonize Americans who disagree with him. He compared — listen to this — a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors. How deeply, profoundly unpresidential.

AMY GOODMAN:Democrats are becoming more concerned that Republicans could successfully steal future elections on both the state and national level if major voting rights legislation does not get passed immediately. During his speech at Atlanta, President Biden spoke out about the efforts of Donald Trump’s supporters to reverse the 2020 election.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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 expressed will of the American people — by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Ari Berman, a senior reporter at Mother Jones covering voting rights. He’s the author of Give us the ballot: The modern struggle for voting rights in America. His new piece, out just today, “The Coming Coup: How Republicans Are Laying the Groundwork to Steal Future Elections.”

Ari, I want to start off by talking about what this maneuver is — very complex, I’m sure very hard for people to understand — how the Democrats try to plan to get these bills on the floor and voted on in the Senate.

ARI BERMAN:Good morning Amy.

Well, the plan is that the House is taking a bill, and they are putting the two voting rights bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — in what’s essentially a shell bill. They will pass it today and send it to Senate. The Senate will be able to debate the bill immediately without needing to have 60 votes in order to move it to the floor. They will still need 60 votes to pass the bill if they don’t reform the filibuster, but this will allow at least the Senate to immediately begin debating the bill, probably Friday or Saturday, and then set up a vote on these bills, and also potentially changing the Senate rules, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

AMY GOODMAN:That’s Monday, of all days. This is quite unusual. It’s a bill completely unrelated, something to do with NASAThat the House will pass. Then they will remove the text of that and put the two bills into it, and it’s called a message, that will be sent to the Senate, as they do this. What’s next? What is the significance of Sinema and Manchin at this point in the Senate’s history?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, and it’s important to remember, Amy, these bills have already passed the House. So it’s not like the House hasn’t taken up the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act already. To avoid 60 votes on the debate, they just need to pass this message bill. That’s the only way that Schumer will be able to then have a debate on the bills themselves and on the rules changes.

Manchin and Sinema are key because there’s essentially 48 votes for changing the Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation, but they’re two votes short, and the two votes that are short are Manchin and Sinema. And Democrats have been working feverishly, both publicly and behind the scenes, to get Manchin and Sinema to support the rules changes, but they’re not there yet. It’s important to remember, this voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, this is Joe Manchin’s bill. This is not like Build Back Better, where he doesn’t support the bill. He supports these bills. The question is, will he change the rules to pass these bills? The answer is no.

AMY GOODMAN:During Tuesday’s speech in Atlanta, President Biden mentioned Strom Thurmond, a long-serving segregationist senator who served the Senate for almost half a century.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:The Voting rights Act was passed in 2006 by 390 votes to 33 in Congress and 98 votes to 0 in Senate. It received votes from 16 Republicans who were currently serving in this United States Senate. Sixteen of them voted for its extension. As some of my friends here will tell me, Strom Thurmond voted for the extension of the Voting Rights Act in the last year I was chairman. Strom Thurmond. … Think about that. The man who led the longest — one of the longest filibusters in history in the United States Senate in 1957 against the Voting [sic] Rights Act, the man who led and sided with the old Southern bulls in the United States Senate to perpetuate segregation in this nation — even Strom Thurmond came to support voting rights. But Republicans today can’t and won’t. Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote. None. None.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ari Berman, it looks like President Biden was trying to cut through all the bureaucracy, as they talk about filibusters and everything else, and just say, “Which side are you on?” Right? Strom Thurmond or John Lewis? Are you on the side Jefferson Davis or Abraham Lincoln

ARI BERMAN: Exactly, Amy. He was trying to frame the fight for voting rights in moral terms, much like Lyndon Johnson did when he introduced the Voting Rights Act in 1965, saying, “This is a defining moment in American history, and you have to pick a side.” You can’t just praise Martin Luther King on Martin Luther King Day; you have to live the values that Martin Luther King fought for — namely, the values of the right to vote, which Martin Luther King called “civil right number one.”

It was interesting to hear the president speak about Republicans supporting voting rights in the past. The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized four more times. Each reauthorization was signed and supported by a Republican president. Now, that didn’t mean every Republicans like the Voting Rights Act. There are many. GOP presidents, like Nixon and Reagan, didn’t want to sign a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. These bills were supported by Republicans because there was strong bipartisan support. And that’s really evaporated. And obviously, so much of the attention has been on the Democrats and been on Manchin and Sinema to use their power to pass these bills, but Republicans have sort of gotten a free pass in terms of people really saying, “How come you reauthorized the Voting Rights Act overwhelmingly in 2006 — 390 to 33 in the House, 98 to 0 in the Senate — Mitch McConnell led the effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act — and just two decades later, you are completely opposing a bill that you basically supported not too long ago?”

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go broader, with your piece that was just released as we went to air, “The Coming Coup: How Republicans Are Laying the Groundwork to Steal Future Elections.” You go beyond the issue of actually casting the ballot and how difficult that is — and you can lay that out — around the country, as well, increasingly, 19 states passing, what, more than 30 laws to restrict voting, but then the issue, for example, of gerrymandering and others.

ARI BERMAN: That’s right. I think the big trend over the last year has been the Republican Party’s single-minded focus on instituting an insurrection through other means. They failed to overturn the 2020 election, so they’re doing everything they can to rig and steal future elections through a toxic combination of voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering and election subversion. And they’re really trying to take over every aspect of the voting process. They’ve passed 34 new laws in 19 states making it harder to vote, so they’re making it harder to cast a ballot. They’ve passed all of these extreme gerrymandered maps in places like Texas and Georgia, which entrench the power of anti-democratic politicians. And then they’ve added all of these new election subversion laws that give “Stop the Steal” Republicans unprecedented power in states like Georgia over how elections are run and how votes are counted. And so they’re really trying to take over every aspect of the election process to essentially try to succeed in 2022 and 2024 where they failed in 2020.

AMY GOODMAN:Talk about Lucy McBath. Discuss how you open your piece. She was a congresswoman who we had been talking about for years before her son’s murder by a white guy.

ARI BERMAN:This is really interesting. Lucy McBath, a Black member from Georgia of Congress, is Lucy McBath. After Jordan Davis, her son, was killed by a White man, she ran to the House in Georgia. Her 2018 victory opened the doors to Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s victories two years later. Republicans gerrymandered the district she was in. She represents a part of metro Atlanta that has become more diverse and more Democratic. They drew a district that goes all the way to the Appalachian Mountains. It basically removed the most diverse and Democratic areas of her district and added the most white-leaning and conservative parts to the state.

What happened in Georgia was that all the demographic change was caused by communities of color who are increasingly Democratic. The maps reduced the representation of communities of color, decreased representation for Democrats, and targeted Black members in Congress like Lucy McBath. This is an example of election rigging. If you can choose who your electorate will be, then the elections become meaningless. Gerrymandering is one way that Republicans have tried to consolidate their power ahead of the midterm elections.

AMY GOODMAN:Talk about the Ohio victory against gerrymandering that just occurred.

ARI BERMAN:This was significant because Ohio Republicans made these undemocratic maps at a place where a bipartisan constitutional amendment was passed in 2018. The Republicans then hijacked this redistricting committee to draw these extreme gerrymandered mapping that are completely against what voters wanted. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled against it, with one Republican judge siding with the Democrats. This basically means that the Legislature needs to redraw the maps and that voters may want to take away the power to draw their districts.

So, this was a significant victory, but it’s going to be very hard to uphold these maps in most states. Ohio has a moderately conservative state Supreme Court. North Carolina has an average state Supreme Court. However, the state supreme judges have moved to the left in Texas, Georgia, Florida and other key states. And the federal courts, because of the Supreme Court, have said, “We can’t even review partisan gerrymandering.” So it’s going to be very difficult to fight gerrymandering through the courts writ large.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about something that didn’t get a heck of a lot of attention, the Cyber Ninjas, the company that led that partisan review of the 2020 ballots in Arizona, closing down following a scathing report by election officials and the threat of $50,000 fines a day, the report rebutting almost every claim this company made?

ARI BERMAN: Well, yeah, the entire audit in Arizona was a complete —

AMY GOODMAN:It cost millions.

ARI BERMAN:It cost taxpayers millions of dollars. At the end of the day, they reaffirmed Joe Biden’s victory, so they weren’t actually able to find any of the evidence of fraud. They accomplished their task in that Republicans were more skeptical about the validity of the 2020 election after the review than they were before. By circulating conspiracy theories, they made it more conspiratorial for the Republican Party. And these same kind of, quote-unquote, “audits” are happening in other states, like in Wisconsin, where a very radically conservative state Supreme Court justice is threatening to jail election officials, threatening to subpoena the mayors of the largest cities, threatening to disband the state’s election commission.

So, it’s very scary, what’s happening here. And I think what’s really new here is all of the efforts to subvert fair elections. We’ve seen voter suppression before. We’ve seen gerrymandering before. It’s gotten worse, but we’ve seen it before. What’s really new here are these efforts to take over how votes are counted. And that is the ultimate voter suppression method, because if you’re not able to rig the election on the front end, you can throw out votes on the back end. That is a very frightening prospect for democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: For example, like in Arizona, Republicans stripped the Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of the power to defend state election laws, and transferred that authority to the Republican attorney general — but only through the 2022 election, just in case the partisan composition of the offices change. It is simply amazing. If you could comment on that and another key point of your piece, being that Trump and his allies are aggressively recruiting “Stop the Steal”-inspired candidates to take over other key election positions, like secretary of state, and also fiercely intimidating, going after election workers all over the country?

ARI BERMAN: That’s absolutely right, Amy. What we’ve seen is that both Democrats and Republicans who defended the integrity of the 2020 election have been purged from their positions, whether it’s taking away the power of the Arizona secretary of state to defend election lawsuits or removing the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who stood up to Donald Trump, removing him as chair and voting member of the State Election Board. And The Washington PostRecent article163 Republicans who have amplified this big lie are running to statewide office with authority over election results, positions like secretary of state and attorney general. Jena Griswold, Colorado Secretary of State, told me that this is like giving a robber a bank key. To oversee the running of elections, you have people who claim falsely that the election was stolen.

And so, this is both a legal mechanism, in that they’re changing the laws in many states to make it easier to subvert elections, but it’s also a political dynamic, in that people who are election deniers are running to take over election operations in all of these key states. Who knows what they’ll do with this power once they have it? Because I believe if you are willing to overturn the 2020 election for Trump, you are very likely going to be willing to overturn the 2022 and 2024 election for Republican candidates if it doesn’t go in your favor.

AMY GOODMAN:Ari, if the bills pass, and the voting legislation in Senate passes, could the U.S. Supreme Court uphold them? This is the Roberts Court, and John Roberts has always opposed voting rights legislation.

ARI BERMAN: Absolutely, it’s possible the Supreme Court could strike down these laws. But I think it’s important to remember that Congress has authority, under both the 15th Amendment and also under the core guarantees of the Constitution, to write the rules of federal elections. These bills can be passed by Congress. Could the Supreme Court throw them out? Absolutely. The Supreme Court is free to do what it pleases at any time. It’s gone so far.

But I have to say it’s very ironic that Mitch McConnell wants there to be 60 votes to protect voting rights in the U.S. Senate, but he was able to put three justices on the Supreme Court for Donald Trump to take away voting rights with just 51 votes. So there’s a fundamental asymmetry here that Republicans have been able to take away voting rights at both the state level and the federal level with 51 votes, but they want Democrats to have 60 votes to be able to protect voting rights in the U.S. Senate. And that’s the fundamental asymmetry that has to change here.

AMY GOODMAN:Ari Berman, Senior Reporter, I want you to know how much we appreciate your presence. Mother Jones. We’ll link to your new cover story, “The Coming Coup: How Republicans Are Laying the Groundwork to Steal Future Elections.” Ari is the author of Give us the ballot: The modern struggle for voting rights in AmericaWe are located in New Paltz, New York.

Coming up, “Confessions of a ‘human guinea pig.’” Stay with us.