Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the main muse of the Civil Rights Summit taking place at the LBJ Presidential Library this week, legislation passed the following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has brought forth many words from the Obama administration this week, many of which can be linked neatly to the 2014 midterms and where the Democratic Party sees itself in the future.
The Democratic National Committee released a video on Monday announcing their new Voter Expansion Project, starring Vice President Joe Biden.
His discussion of voting rights is framed by the civil rights movement and the once overwhelming and bipartisan support for expanding voter franchise. He mentions that Strom Thurmond voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in the '80s, and that the Senate vote to reauthorize the law in 2006 was 98-0. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said before that vote, "As we reflect on the true wrongs that existed in the 1950s and 1960s and where those wrongs may have taken place, we owe it to history . . . to pay tribute to those who took the law and made it a reality."
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which means states with a history of discrimination that once needed preclearance for redistricting no longer require special attention from the Justice Department, unless Congress passes an amended Section 4, an unlikely prospect given the current congressional class. Many state legislatures reacted by passing legislation that often makes it harder to vote. There are new voter-ID laws, and early voting and same-day registration have been sanded away in many states. The conservative argument for these laws is that they help prevent voter fraud. Democrats respond that it also prevents their base from voting.
The Justice Department has responded by expanding enforcement of the sections of the Voting Rights Act that still exist. They have filed lawsuits in North Carolina and Texas, challenging new voter legislation and new district maps.
Attorney General Eric Holder began his speech to the National Action Network yesterday by discussing voting rights. "Let me be very clear," he said. "Protecting the right to vote – the action that truly makes our nation an exceptional one – will continue to be a priority for this administration, for this Department of Justice, for this president, and for this attorney general." Holder has also pushed for expanding felon voting rights this year.
President Obama is planning to speak to National Action Network, an organization started by Rev. Al Sharpton, on Friday on voting rights, too. His anticipated keynote address at the Civil Rights Summit this morning is also sure to mention enfranchisement and how he and his party assess the state of this right in the year 2014.
He spoke about voting rights at a fundraiser last night in Houston as well. “The idea that you’d purposely try to prevent people from voting? Un-American," he told the potential donors. "How is it that we’re putting up with that? We don’t have to.”
Although Obama administration officials have had the spotlight on voting rights this week, the Democratic Party has been working on building an infrastructure to encourage turnout and fight voter-restriction legislation for a few years. Now we're at the point when groups are starting to coalesce and organizers try to get the drill down to a science. President Bill Clinton shot a video for the Voter Expansion Project in February. The Project is already staffing up in Texas and Ohio. Clinton also spoke about new laws on voting at his speech at the Civil Rights Summit yesterday. "We all know what this is about," he said. "This is a way of restricting the franchise after 50 years of expanding it."
Former Obama campaigners have started iVote, an organization that plans to get involved in secretary of state races in states where the office has become notably partisan. Secretaries of state often control the voting rules and regulations in their states. The Forward Moral Movement in North Carolina is trying to register voters for November, as well as encourage Congress to amend the Voting Rights Act to bring federal oversight back to their state.
Out of all the Democratic Party's objectives for 2014, voting rights is the most important for their future success. Equal pay never had a chance in Congress. Neither did many of the Democratic Party's policy proposals concerning income inequality or immigration. Despite strong support from Republican donors, the fate of Employee Nondiscrimination Act remains unclear. The list goes on and on.
Neither party will have any success with their legislative imperatives unless the balance in Congress changes, and Democrats seem to be thinking that organizing one of the most extensive voter awareness campaigns ever is their way to do it.
With voting rights, they can always be assured a bit of Republican support too, regardless of the partisan stakes. Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner has been at the forefront of trying to amend and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. George W. Bush spoke at the Civil Rights Summit this week, and his father was an honorary co-chair. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan made a statement about extending the Voting Rights Act, saying "for this Nation to remain true to its principles, we cannot allow any American's vote to be denied, diluted, or defiled. The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished."
However, it's clear that the Democrats won't be able to achieve many of their policy goals even if they are successful in 2014 — and given the built-in disadvantages they already face, that's a big if. This is a long-term project, which is why the Democrats have been so busy organizing these efforts and asking party leaders to talk about voting rights at the exact moment when the country is reminiscing about the last time we had a concerted push for expanding the vote. If Democrats can get more voters to register and manage to prevent more restrictive voting legislation, they figure they'll be one step ahead in the next presidential election. And in 2018. And in 2020.
Not that the Democrats aren't also interested in getting people to vote for them this year. Despite all the gloom and doom data and charts, they're not ready to concede this far out out. The Democratic Senatorial Committee has their own Voter Expansion Project, called the Bannock Street Project. The idea had a trial run in North Dakota and Montana in 2012, where it proved wildly successful. Turnout in these two states usually ignored by presidential campaigners rivaled turnout in battleground states. The DSCC plans to implement the project in the 10 states with close Senate races this year — races they need to win if they're going to keep the Senate, a crucial step to completing the policy goals they've left hibernating for a few years.
Illuminating the architecture of the election has also become more prevalent generally among Democrats, especially in 2014. The DSCC has built fundraising blasts and advertising pushes around campaign finance, trying to make the Koch brothers, high-profile Republican donors, household names. With voting, they have seized what they deem to be a partisan restriction of the vote from the Republicans into a rallying cry. Who knows whether it will work, but Democrats are definitely set on trying.