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A look back at attacks on voting rights in 2021 — and what could be next

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

2021 was not an election year, which is not to say it's been a quiet one on the voting front. Nineteen states have passed new laws restricting access to voting. Partisan election audits are trying to cast doubt on last year's results, and polls show a significant number of Republicans still believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. For the record, it was not. So let's look back at how voting rights and processes changed this year, and then let's take a look ahead at what that might mean for elections in 2022 and 2024.

Our guide to these shifting sands is Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice. That's a nonpartisan think tank that works to defend systems of democracy and justice. Wendy Weiser, welcome.

WENDY WEISER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So as I said, let's take this in two parts. First we'll look back, then we'll look ahead. As you look back on this year that was, if I were to ask you for the most consequential, I don't know, two or three developments on the voting-rights front, what would they be?

WEISER: Wow. That's a hard question because this was a remarkably challenging year for democracy. We have seen a multiprong attack on the foundations of our electoral system and democracy. As you mentioned, we saw a very aggressive push to restrict access to voting in many states. So the 19 states that passed laws restricting access to voting, making it harder for eligible citizens to vote, is a major development and much more aggressive than anything we've seen in literally decades and decades.

But it's not just that. It's part of a broader constellation of new attacks on our democracy. We are seeing now also legislation that would enable partisans literally to sabotage election results; in some states, new bills that give partisans power over election administration, allow them to interfere in it, criminalizing aspects of it, meddling in ways that are really jarring and new.

KELLY: Just give me one example that leaps out of that.

WEISER: Two examples that I'll give - one in Georgia. Famously, the legislature has empowered a new partisan board to fire local election administrators for very little cause, even mid-election cycle, and replace them with even partisan operatives of their choosing. So that's one. In Texas, it is now a crime for an election administrator to truthfully tell people - encourage them to apply for an absentee ballot and to truthfully tell them what their rights are under Texas law to submit an application for an absentee ballot.

KELLY: You see this past year as a year of, it sounds like, overwhelmingly negative developments on the voting rights front?

WEISER: That's right. This has been a year of retrenchment on voting rights and on democracy more generally.

KELLY: Well, let's look ahead at what 2022 might bring. We've been talking a lot about what's happening in states. Does any of this change without federal legislation? As you know, voting rights bills that would have protected or expanded voting access stalled this year in Congress.

WEISER: Sadly, I believe that only federal legislation can get us out of this mess. People might not realize this, but our legal protections for voting rights, for election integrity have been substantially weakened over the last decade. The Supreme Court has gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act and substantially weakened its nationwide protections against discrimination in the voting process. It has banned federal courts from policing partisan gerrymandering, locking out competition and locking out voters from being able to hold their representatives accountable.

KELLY: Last question - and this is not a voting question, but it may be on people's minds as they listen to you as someone who - whose work is on protecting our democracy. To what extent do you worry that January 6 was a dress rehearsal, that a failed coup could be practice for a successful one?

WEISER: So (laughter) that's a really good question. January 6 really does worry me. I am worried that we have not put it behind us. To the contrary, across the country, we're seeing efforts to rile up Americans against our electoral system. So I am worried that if we don't pass federal legislation, if we don't put in place strong protections against election sabotage, that we are going to see a repeat of January 6 and that this movement's not going to go away.

KELLY: Wendy Weiser directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Thank you.

WEISER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.