The remarkable partisan polarization over HR1 — House Democrats’ ambitious but hardly novel package of “pro-democracy” reforms, centered on voting rights — shows that this issue, once a matter of bipartisan do-gooder sentiment, has now become a deadly serious point of contention in our politics. This has happened rather quickly as the two parties each came to recognize their future might depend on expanding or restricting ballot access.
All 234 House Democrats present voted for HR1 while all 193 Republicans present voted against it. That’s remarkable given the bipartisan support voting rights (and even other features of the bill like campaign finance reform) had until very recently. To be sure, politicians in both parties still think ballot access is critically important. But Republicans, having placed their bets on an electoral base that is overwhelmingly white and significantly upscale, are becoming deeply invested in suppression of voting opportunities for those who are unlikely to join their coalition.
A recent study showed that of 20 states identified as making it most difficult to vote, Trump carried 17. Hillary Clinton carried 12 of the 20 states where it is easiest to vote.
The homeland of Republican voter suppression is in the South, where keeping African-Americans from the ballot box is an ancient tradition practiced mostly by Democrats in the long period from the emancipation of slaves until the end of Jim Crow. Now across the region the Republicans who control every state legislature in the former Confederacy are pursuing an ensemble of measures to restrict the franchise, from cutbacks in early voting, to aggressive voter purges, to voter-ID requirements, to reductions in polling places. This trend rapidly proliferated after the 2013 Supreme Court decision (supported by all five Republican-appointed Justices, with all four Democratic-appointed Justices dissenting) that killed the chief enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Without the requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination submit election system changes to the U.S. Justice Department for “preclearance,” it’s been open season on ballot access, particularly as racial polarization in partisan preferences has intensified.
This is a sudden and dramatic development. As recently as 2006, President George W. Bush, without much controversy, signed an extension of the VRA, preclearance provisions and all. While one notable veteran Republican, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, has supported efforts to bring back preclearance, he is increasingly isolated, and even he hasn’t signed onto the latest legislative vehicle for restoring the VRA, a bill sponsored by African-American Democratic representative Terri Sewell (who represents Selma, Alabama, where violence against voting rights demonstrators in 1965 galvanized action to enact the VRA).
As veteran political journalist Ron Brownstein has observed, the current split in Congress over HR 1 is just the beginning of an era in which one party supports and the other opposes voting rights: it’s a struggle that may determine political dominance in many states and nationally for years to come:
Particularly in states across the Sun Belt — from North Carolina, Florida and Georgia to Texas and Arizona — the electoral competition is shaped by a stark demographic divide. In all of those states, Democrats are increasingly reliant on growing populations of younger and nonwhite voters. But in each of those states and others demographically similar to them, a Republican coalition almost entirely dependent on white voters — especially older, blue-collar and non-urban whites — still has the advantage, particularly in state elections.
In each state the Republican majorities have used that power to approve either restrictions on voting — such as tougher voter identification laws — partisan gerrymanders or both, making it more difficult for that emerging nonwhite electorate to overturn their dominance.
And so, as in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, one party is committed to the use of federal power to vindicate voting rights, and the other is opposed. Today’s Republicans don’t openly tout white racial supremacy rationales the way many Democrats of the 19th century did, but they do similarly claim they are simply defending states’ rights to control elections, and warn of electoral fraud and corruption, and less vocally, of a partisan conspiracy whereby minority voters will use their political power to redistribute the wealth of virtuous tax-paying white folks. Southern opponents of the first Reconstruction resorted to terrorism along with less violent forms of intimidation aimed at black would-be voters and officeholders. But formal disenfranchisement was accomplished throughout the region by 1900, aided by Supreme Court rulings sharply limiting federal jurisdiction over elections. Now strategies for disenfranchisement are covert and partial. But like yesterday’s Democrats, today’s Republicans are acutely aware that their local and national power depends on holding back a tide of minority voting power than might submerge their party.
These partisan dynamics are what separate today’s climate from that of what many have called the Second Reconstruction, the civil-rights era that culminated with the successful implementation of school desegregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The battle lines then were mostly regional rather than partisan, though the prominence of Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson in the key landmark legislation initiated a partisan realignment of the South that led formerly Democratic white conservatives overwhelmingly into the GOP. That party was slowly but surely transformed into a militantly conservative bastion of support for states rights and property rights, and opposition to the kind of public spending that might disproportionately help minorities.
The white conservative backlash to the First Reconstruction succeeded almost totally in the disenfranchisement of African-Americans and the imposition of a virtual apartheid regime at the end of the 19th century. The Second Reconstruction’s accomplishments have been undermined more subtly, via voter suppression measures in the states and recent illustrations of residual racism from redlining to efforts to drain public schools of resources to police misconduct aimed at minority citizens and undocumented immigrants.
And so, arguably, we are seeing the first stages of a Third Reconstruction, again focused on (but not limited to) the South, with the goal of finally realizing the promise of equality extended in the so-called Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, mandated equal protection for all citizens, and banned discrimination in voting) enacted after the Civil War. Because the bipartisanship of the Second Reconstruction has been lost, the Third Reconstruction may be as bitterly divisive as the First, and could quickly grow to overshadow other political issues. And while this Third Reconstruction may extend to multiple issues touching on equality, it will almost certainly be rooted in the fight for voting rights, which will determine the balance of power in many states and nationally.
Reverend William Barber II, the North Carolina pastor who founded that state’s Moral Mondays movement in opposition to a conservative takeover that made voter suppression prominent and explicit, titled his 2016 memoir/manifesto The Third Reconstruction. In it he accentuated the importance of voting rights as a threshold issue:
Because political power is a democracy’s chief safeguard against injustice, we must continue to engage the voting rights issue after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which removed protections against voter suppression in southern states that had been in place for half a century. This fight is, in many ways, bigger than Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That expansion of voting rights fifty years ago was a concession to the civil rights movement. We didn’t get all we were asking for. Now, fifty years later, we’re fighting to hold on to the compromise. What we really need is a constitutional amendment to guarantee the same voting rights in every state. This must be the cornerstone of the Third Reconstruction.
Constitutional amendments in our system are very difficult to secure. But HR1 and Sewell’s legislation restoring the VRA together represent an effort to nationalize voting rights as much as the Constitution allows, as both its supporters and opponents acknowledge. HR1 takes a chainsaw to the thicket of voter-suppression techniques Republican-controlled states have contrived, which in intent echo the formal disenfranchisement the first Reconstruction fought and the poll taxes and literacy tests targeted by the second. And the restored voting rights enforcement mechanism in the Justice Department that Sewell’s bill would provide is aimed at rebuilding the federal government’s oversight of state and local electoral procedures, giving the victims of voters suppression an ally as powerful as the Freedmen’s Bureau of the first Reconstruction.
As in the first two Reconstructions, action in Washington will depend on the success of local grassroots pressure in the states where the battle against voter suppression rages. And that means today’s voting rights push must become not merely an issue among issues, but a social movement with a sense of moral urgency. It’s hard to identify a progressive priority, up to and including action on climate change, whose success may not ultimately require the emergence of a new popular majority and the curtailment of the ancient rebel yell of states’ rights. The Third Reconstruction may take shape very quickly.