After Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi rebuffed his Tea Party challenger with the help of black Democratic voters, voting rights activists appealed to him with a question: Will you now help southern black voters by supporting a fix to the Voting Rights Act, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision gutting a key provision?
For now, the answer appears to be No, if a statement sent my way by a Cochran spokesman is any indication.
The Supreme Court decision nixed the requirement that certain states and localities with a history of voting discrimination submit election changes to the federal government. Since then voting rights advocates have pushed lawmakers to patch the hole with new legislation reviving that section, but Republicans haven’t budged, apparently because they think the current VRA does enough against discrimination, which advocates vehemently dispute.
Cochran’s reliance on black voters to survive has led voting rights advocates to ask him to become the first Republican Senator to support the fix. Steve Benen points out that it has zero GOP co-sponsors. As Rick Hasen notes, Cochran has only paid lip service to voting rights, and becoming the first GOP Senator to support it — in Mississippi, of all places — would be an important gesture.
Or, as the head of the Mississippi NAACP put it: “this is an opportunity for him to show some reciprocity for African-Americans providing a strong level of support for him.”
I asked Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos for a response. He said Cochran is “listening” to the argument over the fix, but directed me back to his previous statement praising the SCOTUS decision. He emailed:
It does appear that Tuesday’s election generally went smoothly, even as the state implemented its new voter ID law. Mississippi election officials deserve credit. The Senator would concur with Senator Rand Paul, who recently said, “I’m for more people voting, not less people voting.”
For the time being, anyway, that doesn’t seem like support for the new fix. Rick Hasen responds:
“This suggests that despite his apparent crucial support from African American voters in the recent primary, he doesn’t owe those voters or the people of Mississippi another look at whether Congress needs to try to fix the voting rights problems created by the SCOTUS decision.”
The core point here is that this isn’t an abstract debate. The SCOTUS decision is facilitating the passage of new and onerous voting restrictions, perhaps most notably in North Carolina.
During the Mississippi runoff campaign, supporters of opponent Chris McDaniel announced plans to send in observers to watch the polls, after it emerged that Cochran was encouraging blacks to vote for him. In response, Cochran said: “I think it’s important for everybody to participate. Voting rights has been an issue of great importance in Mississippi. People have really contributed a lot of energy and effort to making sure the political process is open to everyone.”
Such participation paid off for Cochran, obviously. However, the new statement from Cochran’s office suggests that, while he supports maximum participation in principle, he still sides with those who don’t think a new Voting Rights fix is necessary to guard against efforts to stand in its way.