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Democrats' Measure Maintains State Voting Systems, Sen. Tester Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senator Jon Tester joins us next. He is a Democrat from Montana and supports the voting bill. Senator, good morning.

JON TESTER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to take...

TESTER: How are you, Steve?

INSKEEP: I'm doing fine, sir. Thank you very much. I want to take the Republican objection at face value here. Voting is generally a state matter. Why is it a good idea to set so many federal standards?

TESTER: Well, I think what we've seen over the last year is many, many state legislators, including the one in Montana, taking away things like same-day registration, which we've had for 15 years. I think we've seen elections since Citizens United being impacted by dark money in a very negative way where we don't know who's trying to influence election. And by the way, transparency in government's a good thing, and elections are part of government. And then gerrymandering - I mean, we've heard about this forever. Why not make it so it's so it's a workable situation where candidates can choose their - where people can choose their candidate, rather the other way around?

INSKEEP: A lot to follow up on there - let me ask about this, though. Some people have pointed out that in 2020, it was fortunate that elections were decentralized, that states followed their own systems because you had a president at the federal level who wanted to overthrow democracy, and he utterly failed. It was a state system; he had no power at all. Why isn't that a good way to go?

TESTER: It is a good way to go. And this maintains that state system, doesn't change it one iota. It does things, as Susan pointed out, that are just basic, that allows people to be able to vote and doesn't restrict their ability to vote. And this is really important because if we're going to have a democracy that works, we need to have the voices at the polls from everybody, not just a select few.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned that many legislatures are making many changes to early voting, to mail-in balloting, to voter ID; we could go on and on. But it's not clear that in every case that this For the People Act would make very much of a difference. For example, the bill says there's a minimum of 15 days of early voting required in every state. Georgia, which is one of the most controversial states, Republicans did try to game the system and get rid of Sunday voting. But in the end, they ended up with 17 days of early voting, not 15. Is that really a hill to die on?

TESTER: Well, I think the 15 days is a minimum. States can certainly go with a larger early voting period of time. It doesn't - this bill does not prevent them from doing that. That's why I say the states still have the control over the elections. And so, you know, it isn't a hill to die because there's no hill there to die on.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, let's talk through the practicalities here because it does look like your side is going to lose the vote tonight. Do you have any doubt about that, by the way? Are you definitely going to lose?

TESTER: It's not going to receive the 60 votes needed to proceed to the bill to debate it. That's correct.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what you do next, then. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as you know very well, has a proposal that narrows down this bill somewhat and throws in some voter ID provisions that Republicans might hypothetically like. No Republicans have jumped to support that bill, but it does raise a question about compromise or narrowing the objections. You have described an awful lot of goals. Could you not break up this bill, pick one provision that's really important to you, like redistricting, say, and get some Republicans on board for a much narrower proposal?

TESTER: Well, there might be a possibility to do that. The problem is time. Each one of those things, by the time people get done filibustering it, it takes several days. And it would be much easier to deal a bill like this, which is - quite frankly, if it comes out as what I've seen, it's a very commonsense bill - that does nothing more than allow people to vote, whether you're young, whether you're old, whether you're people of color, whether you aren't fortunate enough and have - and you're poor. So the problem is, is that if we're going to restrict people from voting, that's not what this country is about. And I will say this. Mitch McConnell is a fine man, but he always has been opposed to anything we do with elections. Getting dark money out, he's been opposed to it. Allowing people easier access to the polls, he's been opposed to it. And he's informed his caucus of the same.

INSKEEP: So passing the bill as-is, not going to happen. Breaking up the bill and going for something narrower, it sounds like you'd be a little skeptical that that would work practically or in terms of the substance.

TESTER: That's correct.

INSKEEP: I guess that leaves another option, which would be in some way eliminating the filibuster so that you could pass this with 50 votes plus the vice president. Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said a failure today would prompt a new conversation about going forward. Is that a way you'd want to go forward?

TESTER: Well, I think this is a very, very important bill for our democracy. And I think our democracy has been under attack both domestically and from foreign folks. And we've got to pay attention to that. And one of the things that makes our democracy strong is the right for everybody to vote and make sure their voices are heard. It empowers people. It empowers our government, empowers me. And so, you know, I think the filibuster's important, but I think this is pretty fundamental to our country and who we are. And so I would take another look at the filibuster, if that's what we need to do to move forward on this.

But I will say the filibuster does put legislation out that stands the test of time. There's no doubt about that. On the other side, I didn't come here to do nothing. And I think this is pretty fundamental to what our country is all about.

INSKEEP: Don't you - I mean, you need 51 votes, 50 plus one, to even change the filibuster. You don't have 51 Democratic votes for that, do you?

TESTER: Well, it depends. If the vice president was to get involved, then we would.

INSKEEP: Oh. But I mean - what I mean is Joe Manchin is opposed to changing the filibuster.

TESTER: Yeah...

INSKEEP: Sinema's opposed, others.

TESTER: You know, I mean, I haven't had an extended conversation with Joe about this, but that's what's been reported in the papers. That's correct. But who knows? Everybody's able to change their minds.

INSKEEP: But you're there. You're there for changing the filibuster if it's necessary.

TESTER: Well, let's hope that this moves forward today, and let's hope we pull a rabbit out of the hat and get this bill forward so we can get on it. Like I said, I - I will tell you, I've been through many campaigns, and I've always heard the other side of the aisle say, well, we're for election reform. We want to get dark money out of elections. Well, here's their chance to do that. Let's see them step up.

INSKEEP: Senator, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

TESTER: It's good talking to you, too, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.