On Voting Rights, There Are No Moderates in the GOP

A shattered black-and-white picture frame of President Lydon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965

There is no place in the Republican Party for supporters of voting rights. The gun lobby may be powerful, but there are seven members of the Republican House Conference that have a failing rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). There are none who support voting rights.

When the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act came before the U.S. House this August for a vote, not a single Republican supported the bill. Not one. The same was true when Congress voted on the For the People Act earlier this summer. In both the House and Senate, it was unanimously opposed by Republicans.

This is not a failure of engagement or willingness to compromise. Voting rights legislation has always been complicated and often required political leadership and compromise. That was true in 1965 when the first law was passed over strong opposition by white southern senators.

It was also true in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan — a skeptic on voting rights — signed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. In his signing statement, he noted that there were “differences over how to attain the equality we seek for all our people,” but noted that those differences were “settled in a spirit of good will and good faith.” Yet, even Reagan assured the country that “as long as I’m in a position to uphold the Constitution, no barrier will come between our citizens and the voting booth. And this bill is a vital part of fulfilling that pledge.”

In 2006, many Republicans, including President George W. Bush, were initially cold to the idea of a broad reauthorization. But after Walmart and the big business community put their muscle behind reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, it passed 98-0 in the Senate. Bush proclaimed that “Congress has reaffirmed its belief that all men are created equal; its belief that the new founding started by the signing of the bill by President Johnson is worthy of our great nation to continue.”

By 2013, the national consensus behind the Voting Rights Act was so strong that Justice Antonin Scalia lamented during oral argument that he was “fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity.” He asked, “who is going to vote against that in the future?” Scalia’s concern led the conservative U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder to do what Congress was unwilling to do — gut the Voting Rights Act.

What is different now is the unwillingness of the Republican Party to even engage in discussions about voting rights legislation. While members of the Republican Party are willing to discuss infrastructure, criminal justice reform and even the events of Jan. 6, they refuse to even acknowledge any need to restore the Voting Rights Act or otherwise expand access to voting. 

On issues of voting rights, there are no moderates in the Republican Party.

There are a number of reasons for this — starting with an erosion of democratic norms within the Republican Party. A party that largely stood by Donald Trump for four years and supported his Big Lie is not one that we should expect will adhere to democratic traditions.

In addition, as the percentage of older white voters in the electorate shrinks, Republicans find themselves increasingly having to deploy anti-majoritarian measures to win elections. Put simply, preventing young, Black and brown citizens from voting is easier than turning out more old, white voters.

While Republicans once faced a penalty from the business class and “respectable society” for opposing voting rights for minority voters, that penalty has largely faded. Big business has mastered the art of the deeply-concerned press release but otherwise stays on the sidelines — viewing it as a messy “partisan dispute.” The media, which once reported on civil rights in moral terms, now treats the right to vote in the same way it describes horse race polling — as a question of who is up and who is down.

Unfortunately, this leaves Democrats on their own in Congress to enact the needed reforms. No one doubts that a bipartisan bill would be better than one passed on a party-line vote or that one that passed the Senate with 60 votes would be preferable to one passed with 50. But that is not the choice Democrats face. The reality is that there will either be a law passed only with Democratic votes or we will not have any voting rights legislation. We cannot afford to sacrifice our free and fair elections because of Republican intransigence, and we cannot allow Senate rules to be turned into a suicide weapon for our democracy.

In 2010 Democrats faced a similar choice over the expansion of health care through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For months, congressional Democrats searched in vain for Republicans, or even a Republican in the Senate, to support the bill that would expand health care coverage for millions of Americans. During that time, Democrats promoted the need for the ACA and were rebuffed and attacked by Republicans at every turn. When it passed with only Democratic votes, people predicted it would not last. Today, 11 years later, 31 million Americans now have health coverage under the ACA. The fact that it passed with only Democratic support is now a point of pride within the party.

Republicans were never going to support President Barack Obama’s health care plan in 2010 and they are not going to support the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act today. It is time for Democrats to make peace with the fact that they will need to take decisive action alone. History will remember their bravery when they do.