In 1981, there were loud grumbles and idle threats from some top Reagan administration officials. They wanted Reagan to put pause on signing the renewal legislation. He didn’t. A quarter century later, the protests from GOP legislators were louder, and demands were made for then President Bush not to sign the renewal. There was even the threat to delay or even block passage in Congress. Though Bush signed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, a core of House Republicans did follow through on their threat to stall renewal. For more than a week, they dragged their feet on the legislation and demanded that hearings be held. They used the same old argument that it punishes the South for past voting-discrimination sins. They also didn’t like the idea of bilingual ballots.
Bush ignored the saber rattle against the Act and signed the renewal legislation. The renewal of the Voting Rights Act by two conservative GOP presidents seemed to assure that the effort to scrub the Voting Rights Act from the federal books was a pipe dream.
That was a fawn hope. In 2013, the SCOTUS agreed to hear a federal lawsuit by Shelby County, Alabama that had quietly worked its way up through the appeals courts. The county wanted much of the Act dumped and recycled the same old arguments that it is outdated, discriminatory, and a blatant federal intrusion into state’s rights. In times past, this claim would have gone nowhere. But 2013 was different. The SCOTUS now had a conservative majority. Meanwhile, State Attorney Generals in several states endorsed the Alabama county’s challenge. And when then Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he’d vigorously enforce all provisions of the Voting Rights Act to prevent voter suppression, that ignited more fury from the GOP. The predictable happened. The SCOTUS struck down the provision that especially riled the GOP. The provision that mandates prior federal approval of changes to voting procedures in parts of the country with a history of racial and other discrimination. The parts were the South and the Southwest. The heavy-handed discrimination targets were Black and Hispanic voters whose numbers were growing. The result of those growing numbers was that states in the South and Southwest that had long been locked in the GOP vote column were now from the GOP’s standpoint in danger of flipping Democrat.
Georgia was the tipping point for the GOP. The shock of losing the state to Biden and then followed by the even greater shock of losing two GOP held Senate seats in the run -off race to Democrats was too much for the party to stomach. The SCOTUS this time will rule on the other provision of the Act which has also been a major sore point for the GOP. That’s section 2. It permits legal challenges to racial discrimination in voting procedures. It plainly states that minorities “have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
The GOP has already pecked away at eroding the Act with the rash of photo identifications laws that the GOP governors and GOP controlled state legislatures have enacted. They have one aim, and that’s to discourage and damp down the number of minority and poor voters that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Despite the solid bipartisan support that the Act got in prior congresses and from GOP presidents, the Act has always been more controversial than many have believed. The popular myth is that congressional leaders were so appalled and enraged at the shocking TV clips of Alabama state troopers battering civil rights marchers in Selma in April 1965 that they promptly passed the landmark law that restored voting rights to Southern blacks. What’s forgotten is that the marchers were there in the first place because the bill was badly stalled in the Senate and the House. It took nearly five months to get the bill passed.
Then Senate minority leader, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, heaped amendments on the bill that included scrapping the poll tax ban, adding exemptions and escape clauses for Southern counties, and excluding all states outside the South. House Republicans tacked more amendments on the bill to weaken it. The fight over these amendments dragged on for weeks in Congress.
Now with the real danger that the SCOTUS will further gut the Act, and the couple of hundred voter suppression laws proposed in dozens of states, the GOP may get its long-standing goal. That’s nothing less than a final burial of the Voting Rights Act. Their win would be democracy’s loss.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College (Amazon Kindle)
He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. His weekly political commentaries can be found at thehutchinsonreport.net