In 1842, it was the Whigs who passed the most significant legislation on congressional redistricting, reorganizing the House of Representatives into single-member districts instead of lawmakers elected at large, as was the practice in some states. Again, it was a party-line vote.
After the Civil War it was Republicans who drove the issue of voting rights for Black men. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed Congress without a single Democratic vote. Idealism mixed with explicitly partisan motives. “We must establish the doctrine of National jurisdiction over all the States in State matters of the Franchise, or we shall finally be ruined,” explained Thaddeus Stevens, the congressman who led the Radical Republicans. The party briefly built a multiracial coalition.
Notably, one of the worst setbacks to voting rights came when Senate procedure prevailed over a one-party drive to protect voting rights. In the late 1800s, white terrorism in the South aimed to stop formerly enslaved Black men from voting. In 1890, Republicans led by Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge pushed for federal legislation to protect the rights of Black voters. Relying only on Republican votes, the Federal Elections Act passed the House of Representatives. But a long filibuster blocked it in the Senate, where Southern Democrats branded it the “Lodge Force Bill.” That near miss emboldened Southern Democrats to implement Jim Crow voting laws in seven states, and seven decades of discrimination and disenfranchisement followed. Things got much worse very quickly once it was clear the federal cop was off the voting rights beat.
The main exception to the rule came in the mid-20th century, but it was a time when party lines had become blurred and fights were taking place within parties rather than between them — and things could get weird as a result. On the first day of the congressional session in 1957, GOP Vice President Richard M. Nixon, an NAACP favorite, joined with liberal firebrand Hubert Humphrey in a move to end the Senate filibuster, which was blocking civil rights legislation. They were outsmarted by Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson. Less than a decade later, of course, the very same LBJ passed the Voting Rights Act, in part by wooing Republican leader Everett Dirksen. The Illinoisan, known as the “wizard of ooze,” intoned on the Senate floor, “How then shall there be government by the people if some of the people cannot speak?” There, too, liberal northern Democrats joined with Republicans to overcome obstruction by the solid Democratic South.
But the unusual consensus politics of this era would not last. Partly spurred by these civil rights measures, the parties began a long process of re-sorting. Johnson famously told his aide Bill Moyers after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Polarized parties once again staked out different sides on key issues of democratic access. In 1992, GOP President George H.W. Bush vetoed the National Voter Registration Act, known as the “motor voter” bill, which required government agencies to register voters. Bush warned it would lead to “an unacceptable risk of fraud and corruption.” Less than a year later, newly elected Democrat Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed the same bill, which, again, passed on a party-line vote.
To be sure, bipartisanship occasionally prevails. A measure to require new voting machines after the Florida 2000 debacle won wide support. In 2006, when the Voting Rights Act was up for renewal, it won 98 votes in the Senate. But since then, the Republican Party has continued to radicalize. By 2013, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to that lopsided vote total as proof that the law was nothing more than a “racial entitlement.”
Now, driven by Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, Republican legislators in 19 states have passed 34 new laws to make it harder for people to vote — the most severe such a wave since the Jim Crow era. These new laws hit hardest Black, Latino, Asian, Native, and young voters. What we’re watching is an intense partisan drive to restrict, not expand, access. The harshest laws were passed almost exclusively on party-line votes.
All of which leads to the choice now facing Congress. Bipartisan agreement on voting rights would be wonderful. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) spent months searching for partners across the aisle, without success. Only one Republican agreed to co-sponsor a version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to restore the strength of that landmark voting rights law after it was weakened by the Supreme Court. None have co-sponsored the Freedom to Vote Act, the bill that Manchin wrote with the specific goal of attracting Republican votes.
Both measures have passed the House of Representatives. Both now have the backing of a Senate majority. The president stands ready to sign. Only the obstruction of the Senate Republican minority — and the filibuster — stands in the way.
If one party rushes through voting restrictions in the states with lockstep discipline, the other should not flinch from opposing them through devotion to a largely imaginary past in which both parties could act together to protect the vote. That past didn’t exist. It’s time for Democrats to protect American democracy and its precious right to vote, even if they have to act alone.
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