Democracy & Government

Make the Candidates Talk About Voting Rights in Tonight’s Debate

Where do the Republican presidential contenders stand on the issue of voter suppression?

Make the Candidates Talk About Voting Rights

A plaque describes the 1965 Voting Rights Act at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Wolf Blitzer,

On February 17 and 18, your CNN colleague Anderson Cooper moderated town halls in South Carolina at which the Republican candidates for president were questioned by the audience and the moderator.

Cooper chose to stick to the standard issues — national security, the economy, immigration, terrorism and the like. The audience followed suit. This allowed the candidates to regurgitate talking points they have used repeatedly since the debate season began last August 6.

He also spent time on what he apparently thought was crucial personal information about the candidates. “What’s your favorite cocktail?” Mr. Cooper asked Senator Ted Cruz. Answer: scotch. Donald Trump is “a big fast food guy” and Marco Rubio’s wardrobe was a mess until his “godly and wonderful wife” began selecting his clothes.

But tonight, Wolf Blitzer, you will moderate the last Republican debate before the all-important Super Tuesday primary elections. You have the chance to be the FIRST journalist to seek the candidates’ views on one subject that has never been discussed in a televised Republican debate or town hall: voter suppression, the passage in at least 16 states by Republican legislatures of new laws that make it more difficult for African Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, students, the poor and disabled to cast a ballot. You can break new ground, forcing the candidates to reveal their views on one issue that may well affect the outcome of the presidential election.

First, a bit of history. For decades, Republicans were proud to be known as “the party of Lincoln” and many of its leaders played a key role creating and then defending the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. The original act was written in the office of Senate Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen. He joined with President Lyndon Johnson’s lawyers to craft a bill that would win bipartisan support. They were successful: 92 percent of Senate Republicans supported the passage of the act, a number greater than Senate Democrats (73 percent, the disparity explained by Southern segregationists who were still Democrats.)

When the act’s temporary provisions were reviewed in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006, Republican Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush signed renewals into law. In 2006, every member of the US Senate voted in favor.

The Voting Rights Act helped elect our first African-American president in 2008, and the coalition President Obama built persuaded Republicans that the only way they could take back the presidency was through voter suppression. Following the Republican congressional victory in 2010 (when the GOP controlled both legislative bodies in 26 states, and 26 governorships), legislatures passed and governors enacted a series of laws designed to make voting more difficult for Obama’s constituency — minorities, especially the growing Hispanic community; the poor; students; and the elderly or handicapped. These restrictions included the creation of voter photo ID laws, measures affecting registration and early voting, and, in Iowa and Florida, laws to prevent ex-felons from exercising their franchise.

Democrats were stunned. “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens in voting the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today,” former President Bill Clinton said in July 2011. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act, weakening it severely. Once again, the voting rights of American minorities were in peril.

A bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives has drafted a new Voting Rights Act but Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, believes the bill is unnecessary, and Speaker Paul Ryan, although a supporter of the legislation, refuses to force Goodlatte to hold hearings.

So much for history. Where do today’s current Republican presidential contenders stand on the issue of voter suppression?

Donald Trump has said nothing about it during the nine previous debates, although in fairness, not a single moderator has sought his views. His website describes his position on guns, US-China trade reform, Veterans Administration reform, tax and immigration reform, but is silent on voting rights. Wolf, please ask him what he thinks.

Despite John Kasich’s pleasant demeanor, he is no friend of voting rights. As governor of Ohio, he enacted a law that significantly limits opportunities for early voting (known in Ohio as “Golden Week”) and abolished same day voter registration. In 2012, it’s estimated that 90,000 voters, mostly minorities, voted during Golden Week. They will not have that opportunity in 2016. Do such policies contradict Kasich’s oft-repeated pledge “to renew the American spirit”?

“I’m going to be a president for all Americans,” Senator Marco Rubio told Anderson Cooper, “because an American president has to love the American people, even those that don’t love you back.” Yet Rubio believes that his Florida constituents should not be allowed to vote in federal elections without first showing a government-issued voter ID, although evidence of voter fraud has been shown to be almost non-existent. Rubio has also opposed early voting and is against allowing nonviolent ex-felons to again have the right to vote.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s website offers a litany of his achievements — protecting the 10 Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Second Amendment. It also offers “Get Cruz Gear” — cups, glasses, cell phone covers, caps and sweatshirts bearing the campaign logo. But it is silent on voting rights. Nevertheless, his public statements make it clear that he is rabidly opposed to making it easier for Texans to vote. The ACLU’s Voting Rights Project found that approximately 600,000 Texans, predominately minorities and the poor, lack the documents needed, documents which are too expensive or time consuming to acquire. For many Texans, going to the polls is no longer a practical option and they have chosen not to vote at all.

Finally, there is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. A visit to his website reveals his views on cyber security, education, energy, healthcare and more, but nothing on voting rights. That’s a bit strange because he has publicly mentioned the Voting Rights Act — and it was to you, Wolf, in an interview last October: “Of course I want the Voting Rights Act to be protected. Whether we still need it or not, or whether we’ve outgrown the need for it is questionable. Maybe we have, maybe we haven’t. But I wouldn’t jeopardize it.” Ask him to be more precise.

So three of the candidates — Kasich, Rubio and Cruz — clearly favor policies that make it harder for African-Americans, Hispanics, students and the poor to vote. Trump is uncharacteristically silent while Carson is equivocal. Are Republicans still the party of Lincoln, or even Everett McKinley Dirksen? Forcing them to discuss their views on voting rights will be a first, Wolf. Call them out.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Gary May

Gary May is a professor of history at the University of Delaware who specializes in American political and diplomatic history from 1945 onward. His recent work on the Voting Rights Act is a history of how the act originated, its impact on American democracy and a case for its preservation as an instrument to fight modern voter suppression movements. Follow him on Twitter: @GaryGaryMay.