AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The For the People Act, a Democratic effort to overhaul voting laws, stalled in the Senate today after failing to attract a single Republican vote. All 50 Senate Democrats backed opening debate, but the bill needed at least 10 Republican votes to proceed. In the lead up to the vote, nearly 500 state legislators had rallied together, signing a letter urging Congress to pass the act. The letter's organizer is Texas state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat. And when I spoke to him before today's vote, I asked him why he felt the need to bring together all these legislators to send Congress this letter.
TREY MARTINEZ FISCHER: Well, you know, in my mind, national voting rights reform with the For the People Act is - this is a now-or-never moment in our country. A bunch of us Texas Democrats broke a quorum in defiance of the Republican majority to deny them a vote on voter suppression. And it ended up igniting a national conversation on voting rights. And we recognized the momentum and the attention that we drew on this subject. And it was an opportunity to bring the country together and talk to other lawmakers in other states to see if they felt the same way. And lo and behold, nearly 500 lawmakers from all 50 states and Guam have signed onto a letter urging the United States Congress to pass the For the People Act S 1, which is right before us today in Washington.
CHANG: Why do you think state legislators in particular are well-positioned to give Congress advice?
MARTINEZ FISCHER: Well, you know, we have our ear closest to the ground. The district I represent in Texas is about 180,000 people. Senator Cornyn and Senator Cruz - their district is 30 million people. So I think I kind of have a sense at a much smaller scale, what are people saying in my grocery store? What are people saying, you know, when I go to church, when I'm out in the community? And I think when you replicate that across America, you have a cross section of this country.
I spoke to a state senator from Mississippi yesterday - Greenville, Miss. - who told me, here we are once again. It's 2021. And again, we're in the South facing the same obstacles when it comes to voting. You know, I think we have our ear to the ground, and I think we can provide perspective that sometimes gets lost in Washington, D.C.
CHANG: Well, what about for a state like Texas? Can you give us a sense of the stakes for a bill like this, for a state like Texas? What do you want to see change in your state?
MARTINEZ FISCHER: You know, one of the conversations that we had with Senator Manchin's staff is, in West Virginia, you could be in the county jail. You'd get to vote by mail. In West Virginia, if you are a shift worker and you cannot vote during the day because of your shift, you can vote by mail. And when we voted last November without a vaccine, in West Virginia, you could vote by mail. You cannot do any of that in Texas. When the senator's staff realized just how high the hurdles are or just how much tripwire is on the ground in the state of Texas suppressing the vote, it just sort of states the case very clearly as to why we need a national standard, why we need a national holiday to vote, why we need to have an almost no-excuse absentee ballot program in the country and why we should have standardized voting for everybody in America.
CHANG: Even if all Democrats are on board with this bill, Republicans can still block this legislation. So why is it so important for Democrats to be united on this? The bill's fate sounds sealed.
MARTINEZ FISCHER: Well, I think it's important to sort of define who is for voting rights in America and who isn't. And once that issue is resolved for the nation, I think that that would, you know, once again put the ball in our court as sort of outsiders to rally Washington, to let them know that voting rights is much bigger than any political party. On a going-forward basis, I think it's important for us as the Democratic Party. If we believe in the fundamental right to vote for equal and fair access to the ballot box, then we come together as a caucus, and then we have that discussion as to whether we will let a relic of the past, of reconstruction and the Jim Crow era - shall we allow that to continue to stymie the progress of voting rights in America? And I think that that is a discussion we need to have not just internally in the United States Senate but externally as a country.
CHANG: I guess ultimately, I just want to ask you, how hopeful are you that you're going to be changing any Republican minds on Capitol Hill at this point?
MARTINEZ FISCHER: I can tell you, if we do nothing, there is a 100% chance we're going to fail, which means we have to do everything. And I believe in fair fights. I believe in democracy. I believe in this country. But like I said, nothing good comes easy. So we're in this fight, and we're in this fight for the long haul.
CHANG: That is Democratic Texas state Representative Trey Martinez Fischer.
Thank you very much for joining our show today.
MARTINEZ FISCHER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.