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News Brief: Voting Rights, Supreme Court Sides With Athletes, Delta Variant


Today, the U.S. Senate takes up a plan to set federal standards for elections.


Yeah. Democrats say it's such a top priority that they made it Senate Bill 1, the first measure introduced this year. Senate Republicans have united in opposition. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, says the power to set election rules should stay with the states.


MITCH MCCONNELL: They've made it abundantly clear that the real driving force behind S.1 is a desire to rig the rules of American elections permanently - permanently in Democrats' favor.

KING: Democrats, though, say they are responding to election rigging. Many Republican state legislatures have imposed new voting requirements and restrictions this year. Those are real laws that were driven by fantasies about the 2020 election.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us once again. Sue, good morning.


INSKEEP: So what would this bill do?

DAVIS: What wouldn't it do? I mean, it would enact really sweeping changes basically to every aspect of how we vote. It would also change campaign finance laws and ethics laws that would affect all three branches of government. It would do things like expand voter registration and require states to allow for automatic and same-day registration for federal elections. It would also create new requirements for mail-in voting that was so popular in the 2020 election and early voting. It would also do things like take away a party's ability to redraw those House congressional district lines every 10 years and mandate that power be given to independent commissions across the country. It would also require more disclosure for political donors and political ads and who funds them and establish a new public financing system for certain federal elections, including members of Congress. And it would also do things like enact new ethics requirements for Supreme Court justices and require presidential candidates to disclose up to 10 years of their tax returns.

INSKEEP: Whoa. OK, so a lot there. The tax returns clearly aimed at the former president; some of the other things you can see why Republicans would object. But what are the reasons Republicans give for opposing this?

DAVIS: Well, Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt talked about this last week, and he said essentially Republicans think the bill is built on a bad foundation because the bill would exert more federal control over elections that now states can make a lot of the decisions on how they're run. Some of these provisions are probably constitutionally questionable. They would certainly be challenged in the courts. And Republicans also point to the fact that the 2020 election did see record turnout, record participation, and did not, despite the former president's assertions, have any credible fraud or the ultimate count wasn't in doubt. So they say this argument that there's these insurmountable barriers to vote aren't actually happening and don't need to be remedied by a bill of this kind of scope.

That said, as you noted, Republicans on the state level right now are working to enact partisan voting laws that in many cases would require new requirements for voting and change the rules for how elections are run that Democrats say would benefit Republicans on the state level. And they're doing it based on those claims by former President Trump. So Democrats don't really see a lot of these protests in good faith. The bottom line is this bill is going to fail later today on party lines based on that lack of good faith. And there's really zero expectation for compromise going forward on this bill.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm a little surprised by that, that there hasn't been any real negotiation here between the parties, Sue, because if we've got this bill with 10 big items, say, it's surprising that if you're a Democrat, you wouldn't look at the reality and see if you could pass three of them and give Republicans something and maybe you could get some votes for this thing.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, I think on this, Democrats see this as such a foundational issue that they don't see much room for compromise. You have to go back a little bit and realize that this bill was really born out of the Trump era. The first drafts of it came during the Trump administration, and a lot of it was Democrats putting together what they saw as legislation to right the remedies of the Trump administration. And so for Republicans to get on board and support this would in some ways have to acknowledge that there were abuses of power, that they think the system needed to change. And that's just really unlikely to happen right now in this environment.

INSKEEP: In a sentence, are Democrats any closer to ending the filibuster, which would allow them to pass this bill?

DAVIS: No. And even further away, another senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, doubled down last night and said she, like Joe Manchin, will not support changing the filibuster rules.

INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: The U.S. Supreme Court has given college athletes an opening in their push for better compensation.

KING: The justices ruled unanimously that the NCAA cannot set limits for something called enhanced education-related benefits. Martin Jenkins, who played football for Clemson, is one of the athletes who sued over the old rules.


MARTIN JENKINS: Now, officially and then moving forward, education-related compensation can no longer be restricted. So that's a 1,000% win in my book.

INSKEEP: Let's talk this over with Nicole Auerbach, who covers college sports for The Athletic. Good morning to you.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: OK, education-related compensation - what are examples of the kinds of benefits that players can now get?

AUERBACH: It's kind of minor stuff. It's stuff like computers, science equipment, musical instruments, study abroad, postgrad scholarships and paid internships.

INSKEEP: OK, so these are things that if you're a serious student as well as a football player you might be interested in. But...

AUERBACH: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Well, I'm just trying to be real here. But what about actual compensation for athletes who are playing in a sport that makes millions, if not billions, of dollars?

AUERBACH: Right. That's not what this is. This is not revenue sharing. This does not make athletes employees. It does not allow them to be paid directly for playing sports that bring in money.

INSKEEP: And I'm trying to figure this out. I gather this is essentially - they were essentially sued for an antitrust violation. The NCAA set a rule and said no college can offer athletes a little bit extra. Who now decides if they are going to offer athletes a little extra? Is it to the individual college? Is it to the individual athletic conference? Who makes the decision now?

AUERBACH: Yeah, it is up to them, and it's permissive. And I think that's the key to note. This is not saying everyone has to pay X amount of dollars to their athletes in their athletic department, but it allows them the opportunity. This amount is not capped. And that's really what this case ended up being about, an arbitrary cap on what schools could spend on athletes related to education expenses.

INSKEEP: OK, so you mentioned this is kind of minor, but it's part of this much larger debate. There are, for example, state laws being passed relating to endorsements. What is the wider context here and how much are college sports really changing?

AUERBACH: It's possible that this is going to be a watershed moment because of Justice Kavanaugh's concurring opinion. It really opened the opportunity for more challenges to the other rules in the NCAA model. And the fact that this was a unanimous decision certainly signals something as well about this court's willingness to hear cases about the NCAA and an antiquated model.

And I think you're going to see that in terms of name, image and likeness and the endorsement sponsorship opportunities that are coming out soon because the NCAA still has not passed its own rule change. And some of that stems from antitrust concerns and the fact that they would not have protection from future lawsuits. So they're going to have to figure out a way to do this in a less restrictive and simple way that is athlete friendly so that they do not find themselves back in court on a similar issue.

INSKEEP: Are people looking around and saying this set of sports, as amateur sports, are coming to an end?

AUERBACH: Yes and no. I think it's certainly a transformative year in how we think about amateurism and how we think about college sports. I don't know if anyone is going to say it's going to go away forever or we will lose the traditions or any of that. But I do think, you know, the bedrock that this has been based on is changing and moving underneath our ground.

INSKEEP: Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, thanks as always.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me.


INSKEEP: OK. Super contagious is the phrase that experts are using to describe the delta COVID variant.

KING: The WHO's chief scientist said on Friday that it's, quote, "well on its way to becoming the dominant variant globally." Cases of it are growing here in the U.S., and public health experts are worried that this variant could hit hard in parts of the country where people are not getting vaccinated in large numbers.

INSKEEP: So let's go to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is this new analysis?

STEIN: This comes from a testing company called Helix that's helping the CDC track the variants. The researchers there analyzed more than 243 samples of virus collected across the country over the last six months or so and found that two variants really started to take off around the beginning of May. One is called the gamma variant, and it was first spotted in Brazil. The other is this delta variant. And according to this analysis, the gamma variant now accounts for 16% of infections and delta now accounts for at least 14%. But delta appears to be the most aggressive variant yet and looks like it's quickly outcompeting all the other variants in the country.

INSKEEP: What are the implications of the delta variant speeding up like that?

STEIN: Yeah. So it appears the delta variant is so contagious and on such a fast trajectory that it could become the dominant virus in the U.S. within three or four weeks, basically taking over like it did in the U.K. and so many other countries. I talked about this with William Lee. He's the VP of science at Helix.

WILLIAM LEE: It definitely is of concern. And it's a concern because it's highly transmissible, right? Just the fact that it is so transmissible means that it's dangerous.

STEIN: And that means it could trigger new outbreaks.

INSKEEP: Do the vaccines work against this variant?

STEIN: Yes, the vaccines look like they do work really well against the delta variant. But that's only if people are fully vaccinated. Partially vaccinated people are still vulnerable, and unvaccinated people are totally unprotected. I talked about this with Dr. Jeremy Luban at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

JEREMY LUBAN: There still are big portions of the country where the rates of vaccination are quite low. And in fact, the Helix paper shows that this delta variant is increasing in frequency. The speed at which it's increasing in frequency is greatest in those areas where vaccination rates are lowest.

STEIN: You know, like a bunch of southern and western states.

INSKEEP: OK, could the delta variant then cause another surge?

STEIN: It very well might. A new set of projections are just out from a group called the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, which is helping the CDC figure out where the pandemic might be going. And it projects that a highly contagious variant like delta could trigger yet another wave as soon as sometime in July and continuing at least into November. Justin Lessler is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins who's helping coordinate the modeling hub.

JUSTIN LESSLER: For the most part, it's a moderate resurgence. I think I characterize it as sort of a continuation of the doldrums. We're not having massive epidemics at a national level, but we have this kind of continuation of the virus just sticking around and keeping us on our toes.

STEIN: And again, you know, especially in places where a lot of people aren't vaccinated and the situation could get even worse later in the fall and winter when people start spending more time indoors again.

INSKEEP: Further motivation for some people to get their shots if they haven't. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Absolutely. You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.