In 1842, it was the Whigs who passed the most important redistricting legislation in Congress, reorganizing the House of Representatives into single-member districts rather than generally elected legislators, as was the practice in some states. Once again, it was a vote on the party line.
After the Civil War, it was the Republicans who raised the issue of voting rights for black men. Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution without a single Democratic vote. Idealism mixed with explicit partisan motives. Thaddeus Stevens, the congressman who led the Radical Republicans, explained, “We must establish the principle of national jurisdiction over all states in the affairs of state for the privilege, or else we will eventually collapse.” The party briefly established a multi-ethnic coalition.
Notably, one of the worst setbacks to voting rights came when Senate actions prevailed over the one-party campaign to protect voting rights. In the late 1800s, White Terror in the South aimed to prevent formerly enslaved black men from voting. In 1890, Republicans led by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge pushed for federal legislation to protect the rights of black voters. Relying only on Republican votes, the Federal Elections Act passed the House of Representatives. But a long deadlock prevented it in the Senate, where Southern Democrats called it the “Power Lodge Act.” This impending error encouraged Southern Democrats to implement Jim Crow voting laws in seven states, and seven decades of discrimination and disenfranchisement ensued. Things worsened very quickly once it became clear that the FBI was out of voting rights.
The main exception to the rule came in the mid-20th century, but it was a time when party lines became blurred and battles were fought within the parties rather than between them—and things could get weird as a result. On the first day of a Congressional session in 1957, Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a favorite of the NAACP, joined with liberal troublemaker Hubert Humphrey in a move to end the obstruction in the Senate, which had been blocking civil rights legislation. They have been outpaced by Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson. Less than a decade later, of course, the LBJ itself passed the Voting Rights Act, in part by wooing Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Illinois, known as “The Wizard of the Spleen,” echoed on the Senate floor, “How then will there be government by the people if some people cannot speak?” There, too, liberal Democrats in the North joined forces with Republicans to overcome obstacles faced by the well-established Democratic South.
But the extraordinary consensus politics of this age will not last. Motivated in part by these civil rights measures, the parties began a lengthy recount process. Johnson best known to his aide Bill Moyers after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “I think we handed the South over to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Once again, the polarized parties are betting on different sides on the key issues of getting to democracy. In 1992, Republican Party Chairman George H.W. Bush vetoed the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the “Voter Car” bill, which requires government agencies to register voters. This would lead to “unacceptable risks of fraud and corruption,” Bush warned. Less than a year later, newly elected Democrat Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed the same bill, which, once again, passed by a partisan vote.
To be sure, bipartisanship sometimes prevails. A measure requiring new ballot machines after the Florida 2000 disaster gained wide support. In 2006, when the Voting Rights Act was under renewal, it received 98 votes in the Senate. But since then, the Republican Party has continued to radicalize. By 2013, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia noted that the lopsided vote totals was evidence that the law was nothing more than a “racial entitlement.”
Now, spurred on by Donald Trump’s false claims of stolen elections, Republican lawmakers in 19 states have passed 34 new laws to make it difficult for people to vote — the most severe such wave since Jim Crow. These new laws severely affected black, Latino, Asian, Native and young voters. What we are seeing is an intense partisan drive to restrict access, not expand it. The harshest laws were passed on the basis of partisan votes.
All of this leads to the choice now facing Congress. Bipartisan agreement on voting rights would be fantastic. But Senator Joe Manchin (DWV) spent months searching for partners across the aisle, without success. Only one Republican agreed to sponsor a version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Development Act, to restore the power of the landmark Voting Rights Act after it was weakened by the Supreme Court. None of them co-sponsored the Freedom of Voting Act, the law that Manchin wrote with the specific goal of attracting Republican votes.
The House of Representatives approved both measures. Both now have majority support in the Senate. The president is ready to sign. Only the Republican minority’s obstruction in the Senate – and the stalling – gets in the way.
If one party pushes through the constraints of voting in the states with extreme discipline, the other should not flinch from opposing it through fidelity to a largely imaginary past where the two parties could work together to protect the vote. This past did not exist. It’s time for Democrats to protect American democracy and its precious right to vote, even if they have to act alone.
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