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The state of voting rights 100 days into Biden's term

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A nonprofit with ties to President Biden's 2020 campaign is launching a voting rights initiative as GOP leaders in several states seek to tighten voting access. Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, and Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns, join Elaine Quijano on CBSN's "Red & Blue" to discuss the state of voting rights 100 days into Mr. Biden's term.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: A nonprofit with ties to President Biden's 2020 campaign is launching a voting rights initiative. Building Back Together says its new program will be led by Bob Bauer. He advised then candidate Biden. He also served as White House counsel during the Obama administration.

In an announcement, the group said it will focus on countering proposed changes to any laws that, quote, "impede access, particularly for voters of color and historically disadvantaged and densely populated communities."

Initial efforts are expected to focus on some battleground states, including Georgia, Florida, and Michigan. Those also happen to be some places where Republican-controlled legislatures are advancing bills that would put more restrictions on voting.

Just this week, one measure moved ahead in Florida's state Senate. It was significantly revised from previous versions. Earlier ones had similar features to a new controversial Georgia law. For more, let's bring in Andra Gillespie and Chuck Rocha.

Andra is an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. And Chuck is a former advisor to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns and author of the book, "Tio Bernie-- The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos Into the Political Revolution."

Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us. So Andra, where have you seen the most progress on voting rights? And where do you see the greatest need for progress?

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Well, I think the biggest advance that we've seen is that voting rights has become a top issue. So people are talking about it. It's important. And it's an issue that the Biden administration and Congress can't ignore.

The problem is, is that there is still a lot left to do. So at the federal level, there has been a need to rewrite the Voting Rights Act so that sections four and five are actually relevant. Those are the parts that were affected by Shelby County versus Holder in 2013.

And so no southern states with histories of voter discrimination have had to preclear any changes that they've made to their election systems. That's problematic. That could potentially hurt people of color. So those are just issues that are being addressed in HB4.

But then, we also need to think about sort of what the broader issues are and especially in this year after we have seen the election results contested and the perception that there was widespread voter fraud when there isn't, we've seen this reactionary legislation in state legislatures across the country. And the concern is, is that these laws if passed and implemented could have a chilling effect on voter turnout in communities of color where we're finally seeing growth.

ELAINE QUIJANO: You know, Chuck, some of these efforts have targeted, in particular, mail-in voting. What is the basis of some of these arguments? And how are Democrats countering?

CHUCK ROCHA: Well, the basis is just, as they say, baseless. We had more people vote by mail in the last election than we ever have in the history of America. And we've done an analysis of many of those ballots through audits that have been done by Republican legislatures in places like Arizona and Pennsylvania and found that there was no fraud. The signatures all matched up. And we were living in a time of a pandemic.

So we wanted folks to vote by mail because it's just safer. It's easier. It's dropboxes. It's filling it out. Like, I vote by mail. I vote by mail, and I just live down the street from a school because I never know with my travel schedule where I'm going to be.

Voting by mail is super, duper safe, and it's super duper secure. That's why we had almost none-- none reported fraud in any places. What you've seen, though, in the early days of vote by mail, Republicans took advantage of it way more than Democrats.

Now, Democrats are taking advantage of it way more. Republicans control these state legislatures. So what they're seeing now and wanting to do now is limit Democrats who are now taking advantage of this vote by mail because now it's starting to hurt Republicans' chances of actually getting elected.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Andra, the new voting initiative we mentioned promotes federal legislation to secure voting rights. Is that an effective check on state legislation?

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Well, the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act does give the federal government oversight authority over state voting systems. What we know from the passage of the 15th Amendment and after reconstruction was that states took liberties of rewriting state constitutions and instituting laws to make it harder to abridge the right to vote for Black men who were afforded the right to vote in the 15th Amendment.

So because this has happened before, it's not surprising that people would be leery of state changes to election law. And in particular, the historic remedy for that has been to go to the federal government. And so we saw people appealing to the courts, for instance, to get rid of white primaries. We saw constitutional changes with the elimination of the poll tax.

And now, what people are trying to do with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and for the People Act is to try to create rules, one, to make it easier to vote, and then also to make it harder for states to play partisan politics with election rules, because those partisan rules also heavily overlap with race because race and party identification are very correlated.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Chuck, we have discussed this on the program before. President Trump was able to grow support among Latino voters in 2020. What messaging worked for Republicans last election cycle? And where are Democrats struggling to make inroads with Latinos?

CHUCK ROCHA: Well, the biggest plus for Democrats right now is President Joe Biden. He's delivering on promises made on a campaign trail and literally promises delivered. I've been screaming from the rooftops for a long time about Democrats need to own their victories.

Well, guess what. President Obama-- I mean, President Biden literally just knocked it out of the park. He promised to get shots in arms. And that's what he's done. He promised all these Latinos and folks around the country checks and COVID relief. And that's what he's done.

And the next thing right out of the bat is he's proposed a job bill to get everybody back to work. That's exactly what a Democratic operative like me wants red meat to take back to voters and say, this president is doing exactly what he said.

President Trump promised a lot of things. He didn't deliver on any of it. Joe Biden right now is delivering on one promise after another. And that's exactly what I'm going to be doing is going back into the Latino community and saying he ain't just talking. You got a check in the mail that he made sure you got.

You're now vaccinated. And your small business is getting opened up because he got 300 million people vaccinated. This is exactly what we should be doing. And Joe Biden is setting an exemplary example for all Democrats right now.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Finally, Chuck. You were an advisor, as we said, to both the Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns. As we mark 100 days of President Biden in office, how is the president doing at balancing the moderate and progressive goals within the party?

CHUCK ROCHA: I think he's doing a great job because he's bringing something to the table for everybody. Progressives talk about big ideas and big plans. Well, that's exactly what Joe Biden's been doing. Trillions of dollars of money going into infrastructure, jobs, health care.

When's the last time we talked about helping parents with child care for God's sakes? These are exactly what progressives have talked about for a long time. And on top of that, he's bringing things that moderates like as well. Rebuilding roads and bridges are things that even Republicans should be able to get behind.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, Andra Gillespie and Chuck Rocha. Thank you both very much.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you.