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Sen. Warnock says voting rights legislation is a moral issue

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As the two of us hosted this show one year ago today, a violent insurrection was playing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANUARY 6 INSURRECTION)

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Angry Trump supporters had fought their way into the U.S. Capitol Building in an effort to stop Joe Biden's presidential victory from being certified by a joint session of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANUARY 6 INSURRECTION)

KELLY: Now, a year later, Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden returned to the scene of the violence - Statuary Hall, just outside the Capitol Rotunda, to remember what happened on January 6, 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America.

CHANG: Over and over throughout their remarks this morning, Biden and Harris argued that the threat to democracy still exists, and that Americans must do more to protect it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: The fragility of democracy is this - that if we are not vigilant, if we do not defend it, democracy simply will not stand. It will falter and fail.

CHANG: Georgia Democratic Senator Rafael Warnock says the way to defend democracy is for Congress to pass voting rights legislation even if that means changing Senate rules to do it. And he joined me earlier this week to talk about that.

Welcome, Senator.

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Thank you so very much. It's great to be here with you.

CHANG: Great to have you with us. So I want to start with the fact that you, of course, are a pastor. You preach from the very same pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. once stayed, at Ebenezer Baptist Church. And you have framed voting rights as a moral issue, not merely a political one. Can you just explain how you see voting rights as an issue of morality?

WARNOCK: There is no question that voting rights is a moral issue. I have often said that democracy in a real sense is the political enactment of a spiritual idea. This notion that each of us is a child of God, and therefore we ought to have a vote and a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. And so when we defend voting rights, this is much larger than a political exercise for me. It's really about the dignity of everybody's humanity and our ability to build a future that embraces all of us.

CHANG: Well, the question, I guess, is, is morality separable from politics? And I want to get to the political reality inside Congress. There are now two bills under consideration, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. And between the two bills, there are a lot of provisions on voting, like when and how voters are allowed to register or cast a ballot. And then there are also provisions on what happens after ballots are cast, like preventing groundless audits, partisan removal of election officials, things like that. Which of those two sets of priorities do you think is more important in this moment?

WARNOCK: Oh, both of them are important. And you can't really talk about one without talking about the other. The first set of priorities as you list them are about addressing the issue of voter suppression. We've got to make sure that everybody gets to vote. On the other side of the process, we've got to deal with these very active unabashed efforts right now in many of these terrible provisions in Georgia and other states to subvert the outcome. And so you can't be either or. It has to be both and. It doesn't matter...

CHANG: That said...

WARNOCK: It doesn't matter if I address voter subversion if people can't get to the ballot box in the first place if you're able to purge me and I don't know you've purged me. Subversion and suppression are inextricably linked, which is why the bill addresses both of these things.

CHANG: Point taken. That said, we need to see where there's bipartisan support, right? And many conservatives are looking at the Electoral Count Act, which former President Trump tried to exploit to stay in office. And there are some Republicans right now who are seeing some room for change there, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. So let me ask you. If there is bipartisan support for in some ways revising, rewriting the Electoral Count Act, why not focus on that right now? Because there does seem to be a path forward.

WARNOCK: They are not serious. And this is a diversion in order to prevent us from ensuring that every eligible American has the right to vote. First of all, the electoral count only deals with the presidential election. We're not just talking about the presidential election. We're talking about the United States Senate and the House and other elections. These 440 voter suppression proposals that we're seeing all across the country, we've got to deal with what's in front of us. And it's the effort by some to make it hard for people to vote and to set up the situation when they can rig the count once those votes are cast.

CHANG: I understand, but what's in front of you now is no sign that Senate Democrats will get enough Republican support on their voting rights legislation. If there is a carve out, an exception to get rid of the filibuster for passing voting rights legislation now, what happens if Democrats lose control of the Senate and Republicans use the chance to get rid of the filibuster to pass their own priorities and undo the work of Democrats?

WARNOCK: I think that we make a terrible mistake when we discuss this issue as if these are ordinary political times. These are not. We're talking about voting rights in a post-January 6 world where there is an all-out assault on our democracy, where we have seen, sadly, a willingness by some to literally burn down the system for short-term political gain. And we will have fallen way short of our responsibility as stewards of the trust given us by the folks who voted for us this time if we don't defend their vote. If Republicans are serious about a bipartisan way of getting this done, they would not have blocked our efforts on three occasions to have a bipartisan debate. So we're not dealing with a responsible governing party on the other side. But the American people can't wait. The Senate rules have been changed before, and they need to be changed again.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you. Well, if you and your colleagues frame passing this voting rights legislation as a matter of saving democracy, what happens if you don't get it done?

WARNOCK: Well, we - look. Right now, I'm focused on getting it done. And I'm going to stay focused on getting it done. I've spent my whole career as a pastor, as an activist standing for the best within us, fighting not only for voting rights but trying to expand Medicaid in the state of Georgia, trying to make sure that every young person has access to a good quality education. And the reason why I'm so passionate about voting rights is because when we lose a democracy, we lose the fight against climate change. We lose the fight to make sure that we have health care. This is the most important thing that we can do this Congress. And no matter what else we do, if we fail to get this done, we will have failed in the trust that the people have given to us. And I intend to do everything I can to make sure we pass this moral test.

CHANG: Senator Rafael Warnock, Democrat from Georgia, thank you very much for joining us today.

WARNOCK: Thank you. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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