As the US Senate fights voting rights legislation, some legislators and observers It would be a mistake for Democrats to defend the right to vote in party-line voting. I share this doubt: I lead a non-partisan organization that works to strengthen democracy, and we always seek to enlist the support of legislators on both sides.
However, I have spent years researching the history of voting rights, and I see a clear, if unexpected, pattern: most of the time in US history, voting rights have been extended by one party over the objections of another. When it comes to who can fully participate in American democracy, the parties do not hug, but squabble. In fact, the right to vote has usually proved to be a bad arena for bipartisanship.
For example, in the first major voting rights struggle in the 1820s, the Democrats extended voting rights to poor and working-class white men, removing the property requirement that had existed since colonial times. In New York State, the astute Albany insider Martin Van Buren assembled an ambitious coalition he called “that class of men, made up of mechanics, professionals, and smallholders, who are the backbone, core, and muscles of the state’s population.” “. Democrats rammed expanded suffrage into the Whig opposition in New York and across the country, resulting in a doubling of turnout and the election of Andrew Jackson for president.
In 1842, it was the Whigs who passed the most important congressional redistricting bill, reorganizing the House of Representatives into single-member districts instead of legislators elected at large, as was the case in some states. Again, this was a party line vote.
After the Civil War, it was Republicans who raised the issue of voting rights for black men. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress without a single Democratic vote. Idealism mixed with clearly partisan motives. “We must establish a doctrine of national jurisdiction over all states in franchise public affairs, or we will be completely bankrupt,” explained Thaddeus Stevens, the congressman who led the Radical Republicans. The party briefly built a multi-racial coalition.
Notably, one of the most serious setbacks regarding voting rights occurred when Senate procedure prevailed over a one-party movement to protect the right to vote. In the late 1800s, white terrorism in the South was aimed at preventing formerly enslaved black men from voting. In 1890, Republicans led by Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge pushed for federal legislation to protect the rights of black voters. Relying only on Republican votes, the Federal Election Act was passed by the House of Representatives. But a long filibuster blocked him in the Senate, where Southern Democrats denounced him as the “Lodge Power Act.” That slip inspired Southern Democrats to enact Jim Crow voting laws in seven states, followed by seven decades of discrimination and disenfranchisement. The situation deteriorated very quickly once it became clear that the federal cop had no say.
The main exception to the rule occurred in the middle of the 20th century, but that was a time when party lines were blurred and fights took place within parties rather than between them, and things could get weird as a result. On the first day In a session of Congress in 1957, Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, NAACP favorite, joined with liberal instigator Hubert Humphrey in an attempt to end the Senate’s filibuster blocking civil rights legislation. They were outmaneuvered by Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson. Of course, less than a decade later, the same LBJ passed the Voting Rights Act, thanks in part to wooing Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Illinois known as "slime Wizard," intoned in the Senate hall: “How then will the people govern if part of the people cannot speak?” There, too, liberal Northern Democrats teamed up with Republicans to overcome obstacles from the solid Democratic South.
But the unusual consensus politics of this era will not last long. Spurred in part by these civil rights measures, the parties began a long process of re-sorting. Johnson famously told his aide Bill Moyers after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “I think we just turned the South over to the GOP for a long time.”
The polarized parties once again clashed with different parties on key issues of access to democracy. In 1992, Republican Party President George W. Bush vetoed National voter registration law, known as the “car voters” bill, which requires government agencies to register voters. bush warned this would lead to “an unacceptable risk of fraud and corruption”. Less than a year later, newly elected Democrat Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed the same bill, which, again, was passed by party vote.
Of course, bipartisanship sometimes prevails. The measure, which requires new voting machines after the 2000 Florida fiasco, received widespread support. In 2006, when the Voting Rights Act was being updated, he received 98 votes in the Senate. But since then, the Republican Party has continued to radicalize. By 2013 Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to this unequal sum of votes as proof that the law was nothing more than a “racial right”.
Now, driven by Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, Republican lawmakers in 19 states past 34 new laws making it harder for people to vote is the toughest wave of its kind since Jim Crow. These new laws hit black, Hispanic, Asian, Native, and young voters hard. What we are seeing is an intense partisan drive to restrict rather than expand access. The most severe laws have been passed. almost exclusively in party voting.
All of this leads to the choice that Congress now faces. A bipartisan agreement on voting rights would be great. But Senator Joe Manchin (DW.V.) spent months looking for partners across the aisle, to no avail. Only one Republican agreed to co-sponsor a version of the John Lewis Extended Voting Rights Act to restore that landmark voting rights law after it was weakened by the Supreme Court. Neither of them co-sponsored the Freedom to Vote Act, a bill that Manchin wrote with the express purpose of attracting Republican votes.
Both measures were passed by the House of Representatives. Both now have majority support in the Senate. The President is ready to sign. Only obstacles from the Senate Republican minority and filibusters stand in the way.
If one party rushes through voting restrictions in highly disciplined states, the other should not shy away from opposing them out of loyalty to a largely imagined past in which both parties could work together to protect the vote. This past did not exist. It’s time for Democrats to defend American democracy and its precious voting rights, even if they have to go it alone.