This post first appeared at The Nation.
During a speech on Friday at the National Action Network, President Obama made his strongest and most extensive comments yet on the topic of voting rights. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Obama said. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”
The election of the first black president and the resurrection of voter suppression efforts was hardly a coincidence. New voting restrictions took effect in nineteen states from 2011-12. Nine states under GOP control have adopted measures to make it more difficult to vote since 2013. Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, half of the states (eight in total) previously covered under Section 5 have passed or implemented new voting restrictions.
These laws, from voter ID to cutting early voting to restricting voter registration, have been passed under the guise of stopping voter fraud, although there’s scant evidence that such fraud exists. Obama cited a comprehensive study by News21 that found only ten cases of in-person voter impersonation since 2000. “The real voter fraud,” the president said, “is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud.”
Obama’s speech highlighted how Democratic leaders are embracing the cause of voting rights. (Attorney General Eric Holder has made it a signature issue, with the DOJ filing lawsuits against new voting restrictions in Texas and North Carolina last year.)
A day before arriving in New York, Obama spoke about civil rights at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act — where the subject of contemporary attacks on voting rights came up often. “Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for?” asked Bill Clinton. “Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for? Is this what America has become a great thriving democracy for? To restrict the franchise?”
Democratic presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have recently championed voting rights. The Democratic National Committee has launched a new Voter Expansion Project and veterans of the Obama campaign started iVote to elect Democratic secretaries of state in Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Nevada. Democrats hope that an appeal to voting rights will help mobilize key constituencies, like in 2012, when a backlash against GOP voter suppression efforts increased African-American turnout. “The single most important thing we can do to protect our right to vote is to vote,” Obama said on Friday.
It’s great that Democratic leaders are finally recognizing the severity of the attack on voting rights. But it’s sad that Republicans are almost unanimously supporting the restriction of voting rights rather than the expansion of the franchise.
Things weren’t always this way. In his new book about the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Todd Purdum tells the story of Bill McCulloch, a conservative Republican from Ohio who championed civil rights as the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. The Politico excerpt from the book was titled “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights.”
There would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965 without the support of Republicans like McCulloch and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. For decades after the 1960s, voting rights legislation had strong bipartisan support in Congress. Every reauthorization of the VRA — in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006 — was signed by a Republican president and supported by an overwhelming number of Republicans in Congress.
Republicans like Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, an heir to McCulloch who as the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee oversaw the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA and is co-sponsoring a new fix for the VRA, used to be the norm within the GOP. Now he’s the rare Republican who still believes the GOP should remain the party of Lincoln. Where is the Republican Voter Expansion Project?
It’s also unfortunate that many in the media continue to report on voting rights like it’s a left-versus-right issue, as if supporting a fundamental democratic right suddenly makes one a flaming liberal. Jamie Fuller of The Washington Post called voting rights “the Democrats’ most important project in 2014.” Michael Shear of The New York Times dubbed Obama’s speech an effort “to rally his political base.”
The right to vote used to be regarded as a moral issue, not a partisan one. As President Johnson said when he introduced the VRA before Congress: “It is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.”
As long as Democrats are the party of voting rights and Republicans are the party of voter suppression, the right to vote will continue to be under siege.