GOP and the Voting Rights Act: Can these Republicans do the right thing?

Once upon a time, brave Republicans helped make the Voting Rights Act law. Its future depends on similar courage

Topics: Voting Rights Act, Republicans, Tea Party, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, ,

GOP and the Voting Rights Act: Can these Republicans do the right thing?Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann (Credit: Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

Now that the Supreme Court has severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, the president and Senate Democrats must revise it to restore its power to protect minority voters. The critical question is: What will the Republicans do?

As the Republican House leaders consider the way forward, they would do well to consider the decisions of the past two generations of top Republican legislators, without whom the Voting Rights Act would never have existed.

Most students of history know that President Lyndon Johnson’s mastery of the legislative process – and his huge Democratic majorities – were key to the bill’s original passage. But few know that the final bill was written in the office of the Republican minority leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois.

President Lyndon Johnson feared a Southern filibuster might defeat the bill. To prevent a filibuster, two-thirds of the Senate would have to move to the bill to a final vote, and achieving this would require Republican votes. So Johnson turned to Dirksen. “…[ Y]ou come with me on this bill,” Johnson told him, “and two hundred years from now school children will know only two names: Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen.”

At first, Dirksen was reluctant, but when peaceful demonstrators were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers and vigilantes on what became known as Bloody Sunday, he was enraged.

Now, he told associates, he was willing to accept “revolutionary” legislation. He began to work privately with administration officials to fine tune the bill. In meetings to draft the bill, Dirksen always sat next to acting Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, leaving no doubt who was in charge. Later some would call the legislation the “Dirksenbach bill.” Dirksen cosponsored the bill, defended it in floor fights with Southern opponents, and delivered the Republican votes to end debate.

Similarly, when the Voting Rights Act faced procedural death in the Senate Judiciary Committee during its 1982 reauthorization, Republican Senator Bob Dole broke the logjam. “The works around here get gummed up pretty easily,” he later said. Wishing to broaden the Republican Party to include blacks and Hispanics, Dole met privately with Democratic supporters of the bill and civil rights lawyers in order to fashion a compromise, which included extending Section 5, the bill’s preclearance provision, for twenty-five years. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.



It is hard to see John Boehner, the current Republican Speaker of the House, or Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Leader, playing similar roles. Both voted for extending the act in 2006 when it was enthusiastically signed into law by President George W. Bush, but now their party has changed.

In 2010, the Tea Party movement rose to power, sweeping away moderates and even old-school conservatives in primaries, on the way to helping Republicans win control of the House of Representatives and both legislative bodies and governorships in 26 states. Many in the Tea Party believed that President Barack Obama owed his election to massive voter fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary. Quickly, Republicans began passing a series of laws they felt would increase the integrity of elections, but that served mainly to make voting more difficult for many of President Obama’s core supporters: African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans; the poor; students; and the elderly or handicapped. These included the creation of voter photo-ID laws, measures restricting registration and early voting, and laws to prevent ex-felons from exercising their franchise.

It is hard to tell what impact these state laws have had so far, in part because many of the worst of them were overturned, thanks to litigation brought by the Justice Department, the NAACP and others under the Voting Rights Act. But now the act’s power has been substantially curtailed by the Supreme Court, and many Tea Party Republicans and fellow travelers are less likely to want to restore the act than to put in place more restrictions to secure the vote even if (perhaps especially if) they mean some eligible citizens will be disenfranchised.

Republican reactions to the Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act are not encouraging. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who attended the commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma last March, did call for bipartisan action to reform the act, but it appears that demography means destiny. The Republican Party now represents the white minority voter, many of whom sat out the 2012 presidential election. Reaching out to African Americans, and especially to Hispanics, is counterproductive, insists long time conservative activist, Phyllis Schafly. “There’s not the slightest bit of evidence that [Hispanics] will vote Republican,” she noted in May.”The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white voters…who did didn’t vote in the last election and there are millions of them.”

If present trends continue, a number of Republicans will obstruct any new efforts to strengthen and restore the Voting Rights Act in Congress. In doing so, they will be acting less like Dole, Dirksen, Reagan and Bush, and more, in an epic role reversal, like the Southern Democratic white hard core who opposed civil rights and voting rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, the congressional battles fought then look likely to be repeated in years to come. William Faulkner was right: “The past isn’t dead,” he once wrote. “It isn’t even past.”

Gary May is a professor of History at the University of Delaware, and author of "Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy" (Basic Books; April 2013).

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