In his Tuesday address on voting rights, President Joe Biden made an “appeal to my Republican colleagues, to those Republicans who believe in the rule of law: Restore the bipartisan tradition of voting rights.”
While there is a “bipartisan tradition” of supporting voting rights measures, the history isn’t as straightforward as Biden suggested.
While there is a “bipartisan history” of supporting voting right measures in modern times, it is not as clear as Biden suggests.
To be sure, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created with strong support from both parties. In the House, Democrats voted for the final bill by a margin of 217-54 and Republicans by a margin of 111-20; in the Senate, Democrats backed it 49-17 and Republicans 30-1. The law was passed, but that was just the beginning. Because some of its special provisions were established as temporary measures, the Voting Rights Act was brought up for reauthorization and expansion over the next half century — in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992 and, most recently, 2006. Biden pointed out that the law could count upon the backing of his Republican predecessors at the White House, including Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush. They all supported the Voting Rights Act.”
It wasn’t simply Republican presidents who supported the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, Biden noted. The measures were also embraced by the Republicans in Congress as well as their Democratic counterparts.
“In 2006,” Biden stressed, “the Voting Rights Act passed 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98 to 0 in the Senate.”
Biden marveled that even Strom Thurmond, the ardent segregationist who ran for president on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948 and left the Democratic Party in 1964 over its support for civil rights, finally came around to vote for the law. “Wow,” said one member of the Atlanta audience HTML1. The president joked that “You can repeat it again.” “Wow .”)
On a surface, it seems that the history of the Voting Rights Act is clear. It was created with bipartisan support and has enjoyed increasing support from both Republicans and Democrats.
But the truth is a little more complicated than that.
For other Republicans, supporting voting rights stems more from the cynical belief it will benefit them politically. For some Republicans, voting rights support has been a firm stance based on principle. Even as their numbers were beginning to thin in the 1960s and 1970s, liberal and moderate Republicans provided crucial support for the original passage of the law and remained vocal supporters of voting rights protections in the years that followed. Representatives such as Senator Everett Dirksen from Illinois and Sen. Hugh Scott from Pennsylvania did a lot to get the legislation passed and renewed. However, prominent Republicans outside Congress (including Governor of Michigan) also played a significant role in getting the legislation passed. George Romney, a leading presidential candidate — received significant public support.
But even conservatives who pushed the Republican Party further to the right were still staunch supporters of voting rights. Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, a social conservative whose fight against abortion made him a hero in pro-life circles, provided crucial backing for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in the Reagan era. Likewise, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, another Republican who combined a conservative record and a strong commitment to voting rights, proved pivotal in securing the 25-year reauthorization of the act in 2006.
Such figures, however, have increasingly been exceptions in Republican circles, rather than the rule. Other Republicans, including those praised by Biden, have supported voting rights less out of a genuine belief in the cause and more because they believe it will benefit them politically.
When the Voting Rights Act came up for its original reauthorization in 1970, for instance, the Nixon administration was torn on how to handle it. Nixon had rolled back his earlier support for civil rights legislation during his 1968 campaign. As president, he insisted no new measures were needed because, as he put it in his inaugural address, “the laws have caught up with our conscience.”
When Congress proceeded to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act anyway — extending the right to vote to 18-year-olds along the way — many of Nixon’s aides urged him to veto the law because they believed a surge in African American voters would only help Democrats and hurt Republicans. “A veto,” Nixon’s assistant for legislative affairs urged, “would help solidify your support in Dixie.”
This internal debate in Republican circles — between cynical supporters and cynical opponents — stretched on for decades. While it is normal for opponents to voting rights to be self-interested, nominal supporters can be just as cynical. Kevin Phillips, the Nixon campaign strategist whose 1969 book “The Emerging Republican Majority” presciently predicted a new conservative era, argued that the GOP should embrace the law, precisely because it meant more African Americans would vote Democratic.
“The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1970. “That’s where the votes are.”
Ultimately, events forced Nixon’s hand. Nixon was concerned that vetoing voting rights legislation would make the “volatile condition” worse. In the end, he grudgingly signed the Voting Rights Act reauthorization, but just to prevent the “goddamn country” from “blowing up.”
This internal debate in Republican circles — between cynical supporters and cynical opponents — stretched on for decades.
For their part, conservative activists outside the government remained blunt in their opinion that voting rights harmed the conservative agenda. Paul Weyrich, a key architect of the New Right and a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, put it bluntly in 1980 when he told a rally of religious conservatives: “I don’t want everybody to vote. A majority of voters cannot win elections. They have not been since the inception of this country and they aren’t now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Despite such advice from conservative strategists, the Voting Rights Act had by the 1980s been enshrined in a patriotic pantheon. As civil rights activist Ralph Neas noted, it had quickly secured a spot alongside “motherhood, apple pie, the Constitution and baseball.” Most politicians — who now faced truly multiracial electorates — treated voting rights as sacrosanct.
Accordingly, the 1982 reauthorization sailed through Congress fairly easily. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms tried to block the bill with a single filibuster. But even staunch opponents of voting rights like Strom Thurmond, Helms was unable to stop it from moving through Congress. In the end, the reauthorization passed by stunning margins: 389-24 in the House and 85-8 in the Senate. Reagan hailed the Senate’s support as a “statesmanlike decision.” He vowed to sign it quickly, and he did.
Sen. Jesse Helms waged an isolated filibuster but long-time opponents of voting rights like Strom Thurmond, refused to follow his lead. As the Republican president approved this law, however, others in his administration tried to undermine it. William Bradford Reynolds, Reagan’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, asserted that the landmark laws of the 1960s amounted to “government-imposed discrimination” that had set up a “kind of racial spoils system” in the ensuing years. The extension of the Voting Rights Act, he stated in his Senate testimony, threatened to establish “quotas in the electoral process.”
Younger Republicans in the Justice Department took their cues here from Reynolds, not Reagan. They included many rising stars of the conservative legal movement, including John Roberts. (A litigator in the Civil Rights Division’s voting unit called Roberts a “zealot” who had “fundamental suspicions when it came to the Voting Rights Act’s utility.”)
This pattern, in which Republican politicians proudly supported renewals and expansions of the Voting Rights Act even as Republican officials worked to end it, came to a head in the 21st century.
The 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act — whose overwhelming Republican support has been in