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Bouie: Manchin and Sinema have their US voting rights history wrong

The Palm Beach Post logo The Palm Beach Post 8/8/2021 Jamelle Bouie
Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema are posing for a picture: Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (left), West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema (right), Arizona, are seen by party progressives as obstacles to protecting American voting and civil rights. © Wall Street Journal Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (left), West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema (right), Arizona, are seen by party progressives as obstacles to protecting American voting and civil rights.

The attack on voting rights in this country is partisan. The response must be partisan as well. But whether out of unspoken political concerns or genuine conviction, key Democrats in Washington do not have the stomach for the partisan combat it would take to stop that attack.

“The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote last month. “Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has taken a similar stance against partisan lawmaking on contentious issues. “The best way to achieve durable, lasting results?” she wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “Bipartisan cooperation.” Ending the legislative filibuster to protect voting rights, she says, would be a mistake. “Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?”

The problem with these arguments is that they can’t survive contact with a single, simple fact about American history: the fight to protect and advance the civil and voting rights of all Americans has always been more partisan than not.

Neither the 14th nor the 15th amendments — which along with the 13th were the constitutional foundations for civil and voting rights in America — were passed on a bipartisan basis. The 14th Amendment passed on an almost total party-line vote in Congress, with Republicans standing against a Democratic Party that opposed federal intervention in the South. When legislatures in the states of the former Confederacy refused to ratify it, that same party-line majority passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 and 1868, which imposed military government on most of the South and made ratification of the amendment a precondition of readmission to the union.

The 15th Amendment was likewise partisan, passed on a party-line vote in both chambers of Congress. And while Republicans controlled most state legislatures at the time, the amendment still faced fierce opposition from Democrats wherever they could mount it. “In California, where the Chinese outnumbered blacks 10 to 1 in 1870, linking the amendment to Chinese suffrage as a Democratic tactic to defeat the amendment was particularly successful,” historian Wang Xi notes in “The Trial of Democracy: Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910.”

“In Maryland,” he went on, “the all-Democratic Legislature unanimously refused to ratify the 15th Amendment in February 1870, and only when the ratification of the amendment by the requisite 28 states appeared certain did the state pass a black registration bill.”

The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 — the first of which was an early voting rights bill (forbidding state officials from discriminating among voters on the basis of race) and the second of which gave the federal government the tools needed to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan — were also passed over unified Democratic opposition.

“Of all the legislation proposed by this or any other Congress, there is none, in my judgment, more unwarrantable and unjustifiable than that proposed by this bill,” declared Rep. Charles A. Eldredge of Wisconsin of the second Enforcement Act, which also came to be known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. “It is absolutely atrocious,” he continued. “It is hideous and revolting.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned discrimination in many public accommodations, was similarly partisan — passed against unanimous Democratic opposition — and the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, a last-ditch effort to protect what was left of Black voting rights in the South, fell to a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

It is true that the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s were bipartisan (although to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supporters had to neutralize a Southern filibuster in the Senate). But the two parties were not yet, at this point in their histories, defined by a single ideology. There were strongly liberal Republicans and arch-conservative Democrats, each a significant faction within their respective parties.

But that era of ideologically diverse parties and bipartisan lawmaking was an aberration; the product of factors unique to the period, among them the near-total exclusion of Black Americans from elections in the South, which kept segregationists in the Democratic Party and forestalled any alignment along ideological lines.

We are living in an age of high partisanship and deep polarization, where one party has an interest in a broad electorate and an open conception of voting rights, and the other does not. If Congress is going to pass a voting rights bill of any kind, it is going to be on a partisan basis, much the way it was from the end of the Civil War until well into the 20th century. Democrats will either accept this and do what needs to be done, or watch their fortunes suffer in the face of voter suppression, disenfranchisement and election subversion.

This isn’t idle speculation. In Georgia, where Republican lawmakers revamped their state election laws under post-defeat pressure from former President Donald Trump, who wanted election officials to throw out Democratic ballots and proclaim him the winner, state lawmakers can now fire and co-opt local election management. Critics said this would permit the Republican-controlled state Legislature to potentially challenge ballots in predominantly Democratic areas, and at this moment, it appears that Republicans are hoping to bring elections in Fulton County — a major Democratic stronghold — under state control.

“State House Speaker David Ralston,” reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, proposed an investigation “to look for irregularities and fraud. And Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Fulton’s elections supervisor should be fired.”

In the absence of a new voting rights bill, President Joe Biden has reportedly urged voting rights groups to “out-organize” voter suppression and neutralize Republican “election integrity” laws through superior tactics.

But there’s no out-organizing the effort to take over the election process itself; there’s no activism that can stop Republican state legislatures from giving themselves the power to contest or overturn an election result. And it is unconscionable to insist that voters jump through hoops and overcome an ever-growing series of obstacles to exercise a fundamental right of citizenship.

At this point in American history, the right to vote is a partisan issue. So, for that matter, are the principles of majority rule and political equality.

The only alternative to a partisan voting bill, in other words, is no bill at all, with too many Americans at the mercy of a political party that treats voting like a privilege, and will do everything in its power to make it so.

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Bouie: Manchin and Sinema have their US voting rights history wrong

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