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The biggest push by Democrats for action on voting rights fails in the Senate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Senate bill on voting rights predictably failed yesterday. Democrats failed to gain a single Republican vote, which they needed to overcome a filibuster. In fact, they needed 10. The Democratic effort was intended to set federal standards for elections, which are run by states. It responds to Republican state legislatures, which have scaled back voting access in many places this year. State rules, new ones, have also made it easier to challenge an election after last year's efforts to overturn Donald Trump's election defeat failed at every level. Vice President Harris presided over the Senate vote.

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KAMALA HARRIS: We're not going to give up. We're not deterred. But there's still a lot of work to do. And I think it's really a sad day.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Juana Summers has been covering this all year. Hey there, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why did Democrats even think this bill might pass?

SUMMERS: Well, so Steve, many of them that I spoke to actually didn't think the bill would pass, at least with the way things stand in the Senate right now. But they wanted to bring it to the floor for a vote to open debate anyway, to make a big point. The first point they wanted to make is to show that Senate Democrats were united behind this bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. And that is something that had not been the case on some other voting rights bills that had come before the chamber this year.

Now, this bill, I should point out, is a bit scaled back. It was compromise legislation intended to create space for one Democratic lawmaker, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, to go out and try to seek support from some Republicans. He's always said he wants voting rights legislation to be bipartisan. This bill does a ton of stuff. But among the things that it does is setting national standards for early voting and voting by mail, making Election Day a national holiday and creating new disclosure requirements for some so-called dark money groups. It's an attempt to address what has been a big, existential issue for Washington Democrats. President Biden talked about this fight over restrictive voting laws in a speech in Philadelphia over the summer.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You know, the world is wondering, what is America going to do? We also have to be clear-eyed about the obstruction we face. Legislation is one tool but not the only tool. And it's not the only measure of our obligation to defend democracy today.

SUMMERS: To that point, the White House has said the president has taken every step he can to protect voting rights. Administration officials point to the vice president's leadership on this issue, as well as work with the Justice Department to double its voting rights enforcement staff.

INSKEEP: OK. Given those efforts, are people who've been advocating changes to the voting laws satisfied?

SUMMERS: They're not. There's been a lot of anger and frustration. And many of them say they don't feel like elected officials in Washington have their backs. There's this group of activists that have rallied outside the White House for weeks now, hoping to put this issue front and center for President Biden. I spoke with Virginia Kase Solomon at a protest this week. She is the CEO of the League of Women Voters.

VIRGINIA KASE SOLOMON: He put an emphasis on the infrastructure bill. He has prioritized that. He has called people into the White House. He has made sure that he has everybody that he needs on board. And so we're saying you need to do the same thing for voting rights.

INSKEEP: OK. But they don't have the votes in the Senate. So what do they do?

SUMMERS: That's right. It brings us back to this forever debate over the filibuster. Democrats are hitting up against the realities of the Senate because they need those 60 votes. But for his part, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said repeatedly, failure is not an option. He even says he may bring up a different voting rights bill focused on restoring the Voting Rights Act up for a vote as soon as next week. But like the Freedom to Vote Act before it, absent a change to Senate rules, Democrats will need to find those 10 Republican votes. And at least now it looks like they may again come up short.

INSKEEP: Juana, thanks for the update.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Juana Summers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.