Jan 12, 2022 - Podcasts

Biden's urgent push for voting rights

President Biden yesterday made a forceful call for voting rights protections to pass Congress, and for a change to Senate rules to make it possible.

  • Plus, tracking COVID through wastewater.
  • And, China says it's loosening its grip on the internet at the Winter Olympics.

Guests: Axios' Margaret Talev, Jason Clayworth and Ina Fried.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Sabeena Singhani and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Wednesday, January 12th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what we’re watching today: tracking COVID through wastewater. Plus, China says it’s loosening its grip on the internet at the winter Olympics. But first, today’s One Big Thing: President Biden’s urgent push for voting rights.

JOE BIDEN: I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote. Our democracy against all enemies foreign, and yes, domestic. [applause] The question is: where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?

NIALA: That’s President Biden yesterday, making a forceful call for voting rights protections to pass Congress. And for a change to Senate rules to make it possible. Axios’ managing editor for politics, Margaret Talev, is here with what you need to know. Hey Margaret, first of all, we probably need to start with the context. What is Biden actually pushing for? And where does this legislation stand?

MARGARET TALEV: You know, after the 2020 election, what we saw in state after state that was a Republican majority state, were actually efforts to restrict voting rights, after we saw an election with historic turnout levels. And so what the Democrats have been talking about, ever since then, is saying there has to be some kind of a national baseline, you know, the answer to more people than ever voting shouldn't be to make it harder to vote. So there's two key bills. One comes out of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, of course named for the famous civil rights leader and Congressman. That one really focuses on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court in recent years has struck down some key provisions of that, including preclearance by the Justice Department when states want to change voting laws. The other is a broadly, like omnibus, compromise bill actually called the Freedom to Vote Act. That basically is the national standard. It would make all 50 states have to offer early voting, it would have made Election Day a holiday, enhance vote by mail protections, same day voter registration, allowing some online voting, protecting against voter purges. It's a big bill and it does a lot.

NIALA: You mentioned John Lewis and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of the most striking moments to me was that President Biden drew parallels with January 6th and the violence that was inflicted upon civil rights marchers in 1965.

MARGARET: I think what Biden was trying to do is to say there are these iconic moments in American civil rights history. Selma was certainly one of them. And that when you look at what happened on January 6th, society is debating and divided about what did it really mean, how big a threat was it really? The idea that you don't always understand the moment when you're in it. Sometimes it takes the distance of history to understand it. What Biden is trying to say is January 6th was one of those moments too, and requires action.

NIALA: And so he's talking about changing Senate filibuster rules to get this legislation done?

MARGARET: That is what he's talking about. And it's notable because it's Joe Biden. He is, by all accounts, including his own, an institutionalist. And basically it's him saying: I know it would be a big deal to blow up the filibuster rules when it comes to legislation. But if you wouldn't do it for this, when would you do it? What are you trying to protect when you can't get something basic like this done?

NIALA: So, what are you watching for the next couple of days then?

MARGARET: Chuck Schumer has committed to taking action in the Senate before MLK Day. We expect to see a process where he calls up this legislation, attempts to bring it up for debate and a vote. The filibuster is invoked to block, even the consideration of those bills. And after all the big stuff fails, it is at that point that we expect Schumer to say: Okay well, let's see if we can change the rules governing filibusters. Let's see if in the case of voting rights, Democrats are willing to make an exception. At this point, nobody thinks that that's poised to happen. There's no reason to believe that Joe Biden or Chuck Schumer have the votes inside their own caucus to do what they're talking about.

NIALA: Margaret Talev is Axios’ managing editor for politics. Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with how Des Moines is looking into its wastewater to better track COVID.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. There's more to tracking COVID than just tests. It can also be found in what you're flushing down the toilet. Some cities have been using wastewater to track COVID levels and even to detect what variants are most prevalent. Axios Des Moines reporter Jason Clayworth has been writing about how that city has been testing its sewage. Hi Jason, what have they found in the Des Moines wastewater?

JASON CLAYWORTH: So Des Moines has been testing its wastewater for COVID since July and the results have fluctuated through those months, but recently it has spiked and a sample taken just after the first of the year, was more than twice the previous week.

NIALA: There's also obviously PCR and antigen testing happening. How does that factor into how Des Moines is tracking this latest surge along with like, these wastewater results?

JASON: There was much testing going on with at-home tests but those aren't included oftentimes in our official counts of COVID. Des Moines has continued to monitor its water, and they believe that it is a better reflection of the pandemic within the community.

NIALA: Jason, is this happening in other cities?

JASON: So Des Moines initially started its program through an effort through the CDC. And that was in July with 17 other metro communities in the Des Moines area. The CDCs program is far more expansive. It included 50 states and covered more than a hundred million people across the country. That particular program, the funding for that, at least for Des Moines had ended a few months ago. Des Moines continued that. Other communities across the nation are continuing this and they are seeing some varying results as well.

NIALA: Axios local reporter Jason Clayworth speaking to us from Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks Jason.

JASON: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: China is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics next month. And it’s promised uncensored access during the Games to websites that are usually blocked. But many countries - including the U.S. - are warning their athletes to expect heavy surveillance. Axios’ chief technology correspondent, Ina Fried, who also helps us out with Olympic coverage, has been reporting on this. Hey, Ina.

INA FRIED: Hey, Niala.

NIALA: Ina, China's maybe infamous for its “great firewall” that restricts internet access. Is this being taken down for the Olympics?

INA: It’s not being taken down entirely. It will probably still affect all of China, maybe even moreso. What they are saying is the athletes and the people that come over in the Olympic Village in places like that should expect to be able to access the types of websites they're used to.

NIALA: So that's what the Chinese government is saying. What are individual countries telling their athletes?

INA: Well, we have some documents from the U.S. Olympic Committee, warning athletes that anything they do on the internet could well be surveilled, as well as any electronics that they bring over. So as is often the recommendation for China, they’re saying get a different cell phone, a prepaid cell phone, uh, that you don't normally use. Don't log into your accounts if you can avoid it. Get a prepaid SIM and that sort of thing.

NIALA: Olympic figure skater Timothy LeDuc has called human rights abuses in China towards Uyghurs “horrifying.” That happened at a news conference this week. Do we think that we're going to hear athletes be pretty forward about what they think or their opinions on China's human rights issues?

INA: I think it's going to be one of the fascinating stories of this Olympics, is what some athletes choose to say during the games and what China does or doesn't do. In general, China not-not famous for, uh, tolerating a lot of criticism. At the same time, China tends to play the long game. So there might be a benefit to allowing a little bit more criticism than they normally would so that they can hold it up internally and externally as an example of them allowing for free speech, even though most of the time they don't.

NIALA: Axios’ chief technology correspondent and also our resident Olympics reporter, Ina Fried. Thanks, Ina.

INA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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