Voting rights: bipartisan no more

Jim Chrisinger: Today, as in 1965 and in every Voting Rights Act reauthorization vote, Republican senators have to choose.

For more than five decades, voting rights in America enjoyed strong, bipartisan support. Now Republicans have turned their backs.  

The Voting Rights Act originally passed in 1965, led by President Lyndon Johnson, who had built his political career as a get-along go-along ally of Southern segregationists.  

The final vote in the House was 328–74 (Democrats 217–54, Republicans 111–20). The Senate passed it 79–18 (Democrats 49–17, Republicans 30–1). Much of the opposition came from Southern Democrats.  

Bipartisan majorities in Congress reauthorized the act five times, most recently in 2006. The votes were not close. Even Senator Strom Thurmond, famous segregationist and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, came to support the Voting Rights Act.  

The 2006 reauthorization passed the House 390-33 (Democrats 197-0, Republicans 192-33). A 98-0 vote in the Senate came on the same day that President George W. Bush attended the NAACP convention and promised to sign the bill. Sixteen Republican senators who were part of that 98-0 vote still serve in Congress, including Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell. They all now oppose voting rights protections.  

Four Republican presidents who came after Johnson — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes — supported the Voting Rights Act. Donald Trump did not, of course.

Since 2006, U.S. Supreme Court decisions led by Republican appointees have gutted the act.  

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which together would restore the promise of the Voting Rights Act and strengthen election protections in other ways, have passed the House and languish in the Senate. This coming week will likely prove decisive.  

In the arc of American history, we have steadily expanded the franchise: first adding non-property-holding white men, then Black men after the Civil War, women 100 years ago, and most recently 18-21 year olds.  

Two glaring setbacks break this arc. First, the backlash against reconstruction and the Civil War Amendments led to the KKK, Jim Crow, and the loss of voting rights for Black men. 

We are now in the midst of a second backlash, against gains made through the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and raised awareness from a movement that includes Black Lives Matter and the 1619 Project.  

Today, as in 1965 and in every reauthorization vote since, Republican senators have to choose. Will they continue to perfect our union, or hide behind the Big Lie for nakedly partisan advantage?  

P.S. Yes, yes, I know that the current drama centers on Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But the larger, more important story is Republican abandonment of voting rights and democracy.  

Jim Chrisinger is a retired public servant living in Ankeny. He served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in Iowa and elsewhere.

Top illustration by Carol La Rosa available via Shutterstock.

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