Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the main muse of the Civil Rights Summit taking place at the LBJ Presidential Library this week, legislation passed the following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has brought forth many words from the Obama administration this week, many of which can be linked neatly to the 2014 midterms and where the Democratic Party sees itself in the future. His discussion of voting rights is framed by the civil rights movement and the once overwhelming and bipartisan support for expanding voter franchise. He mentions that Strom Thurmond voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in the ’80s, and that the Senate vote to reauthorize the law in 2006 was 98-0. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said before that vote, “As we reflect on the true wrongs that existed in the 1950s and 1960s and where those wrongs may have taken place, we owe it to history . . . to pay tribute to those who took the law and made it a reality.” Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which means states with a history of discrimination that once needed preclearance for redistricting no longer require special attention from the Justice Department, unless Congress passes an amended Section 4, an unlikely prospect given the current congressional class. Many state legislatures reacted by passing legislation that often makes it harder to vote. There are new voter-ID laws, and early voting and same-day registration have been sanded away in many states. The conservative argument for these laws is that they help prevent voter fraud. Democrats respond that it also prevents their base from voting.
The Justice Department has responded by expanding enforcement of the sections of the Voting Rights Act that still exist. They have filed lawsuits in North Carolina and Texas, challenging new voter legislation and new district maps.
Attorney General Eric Holder began his speech to the National Action Network yesterday by discussing voting rights. “Let me be very clear,” he said. “Protecting the right to vote – the action that truly makes our nation an exceptional one – will continue to be a priority for this administration, for this Department of Justice, for this president, and for this attorney general.” Holder has also pushed for expanding felon voting rights this year.
… With voting rights, they can always be assured a bit of Republican support too, regardless of the partisan stakes. Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner has been at the forefront of trying to amend and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. George W. Bush spoke at the Civil Rights Summit this week, and his father was an honorary co-chair. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan made a statement about extending the Voting Rights Act, saying “for this Nation to remain true to its principles, we cannot allow any American’s vote to be denied, diluted, or defiled. The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”