THE HUTCHINSON REPORT
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
All eyes have been on Georgia’s blatant effort to shove the state permanently back into the red state column with its naked, unabashed Jim Crow-style voter suppression ploy. But this is just the warmup for the Republican Party’s main act.
That is to once and for all erase from the books the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Republicans have never liked it and, since its enactment, have carped, railed and conspired against it. The GOP’s first point of attack was a loophole in the act. It must be renewed every 25 years.
In 1981, there were loud grumbles and idle threats from some top Reagan administration officials. They wanted Reagan to 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 George W. 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 rattling against the act and signed the renewal legislation. The renewal of the Voting Rights Act by two Republican presidents seemed to assure that the effort to scrub the Voting Rights Act from the federal books was a pipe dream.
That was a faint hope. In 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a federal lawsuit by Shelby County, Alabama, that had quietly worked its way up through the appeals process. The county wanted much of the act dumped and recycled the same old arguments that it is outdated, discriminatory and a blatant federal intrusion into state’s rights.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, that claim would have gone nowhere.
But 2013 was different. The Supreme Court now had a conservative majority. Meanwhile, attorneys general in several states endorsed the Alabama county’s challenge.
And when then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would vigorously enforce all provisions of the Voting Rights Act to prevent voter suppression, that ignited more fury from Republicans. The predictable happened.
The Supreme Court 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 Republican column were now in danger of flipping Democrat.
Georgia was the tipping point. The shock of losing the state to Joe Biden in November followed by the even greater shock of losing two Republican Senate seats in January was too much for the party to stomach. The Supreme Court this time will rule on the other provision of the act, which has also been a major sore point for the GOP. That is section 2, which 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.”
Republicans have already pecked away at eroding the act with photo identifications laws that Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted. They have one aim, and that’s to discourage and reduce the number of minority and poor voters that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Despite the solid bipartisan support that the act received in prior sessions of Congress and from Republican 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 th0se amendments dragged on for weeks in Congress.
Now with the real danger that the Supreme Court will further gut the act, and the couple of hundred voter suppression laws proposed in dozens of states, Republicans may get their 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 also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.