“The Voting Rights Act has been an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy,” declared a rising congressional leader in 2006, “and renewing this landmark law will ensure that each and every citizen can continue to exercise their right to vote without the threat of intimidation or harassment.”
Incredibly, that statement of unequivocal support for voting rights came not from a Democrat, but from then-House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Of course, while it’s easy to forget now, Boehner was hardly taking a courageous stand; despite a long history of right-wing opposition to the Voting Rights Act, Boehner was merely endorsing a bipartisan reauthorization bill that passed 390 to 33 in the House and unanimously in the Senate. Upon signing it, President George W. Bush said, “My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.” Nearly a decade later, the political landscape for voting rights has changed dramatically. We are now witnessing a clash between two radically opposing visions of American democracy.
One vision is on display in Alabama, where, half a century after civil rights activists marched on Selma, state officials are systematically undermining the right to vote. Following the implementation of a strict voter ID law, Alabama recently announced the shuttering of 31 driver’s-license offices across the state. The closures will make it more difficult to obtain the identification required to vote and will disproportionately affect the state’s black population. Indeed, as the Birmingham News’s John Archibald wrote , “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed.”
The other vision is on display in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently signed automatic voter registration into law, making California the second state to approve such a measure, after Oregon did so earlier this year. Under the new law, eligible Californians will be automatically registered when they apply for a new driver’s license or renew an existing one unless they opt out. The hope is that automatic registration will raise low voter turnout, which fell to 42 percent in the 2014 election. The law could affect an estimated 6.6 million voting-age Californians who are not registered. “We do not have to opt-in to other rights, such as free speech or due process,” said California Secretary State Alex Padilla. “The right to vote should be no different.”
In short, while the Alabama vision seeks to restrict participation in our democracy, the California vision aims to maximize it. As my Nation colleague Ari Berman, author of “ Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” put it, “Unlike Alabama, California is using the power of the government to bring millions of new voters into the political process — treating the vote as a fundamental right, rather than a special privilege.”
The unfortunate reality, however, is that Alabama is not alone. Today, the Republican Party appears to view legitimate voting rights as a threat to its survival. In fact, limiting the number of people who decide our elections has become a central part of the Republican Party’s mission.
Just consider the record. Over the past five years, Republican state legislators have aggressively pushed voter ID bills and other policies that make it harder to vote, especially for Democratic-leaning minority groups, successfully passing laws in 21 states. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which Republican leaders vocally praised a decade ago, in a controversial 5-to-4 ruling split along party lines. And in Congress, a Democratic bill designed to restore the law has just one Republican supporter in either chamber.
The competing visions are also apparent in the 2016 presidential race. This month, Republican contender Jeb Bush explained that he does not support restoring the Voting Rights Act because “There’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting,” making it unnecessary to impose protections “as though we’re living in 1960.” In contrast, Hillary Clinton issued a bold call for automatic voter registration in June, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced an automatic voter registration bill in August. “Today Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting,” Clinton declared. “What part of democracy are they afraid of?”
It’s no secret why Republicans would rather prevent some people from voting. While they run up big margins in midterm elections with low turnout, Republicans have won the national popular vote just once in the past six presidential elections. Moreover, instead of answering to the American public, Republican candidates are increasingly beholden to the privileged few who fund their campaigns. In the 2016 election cycle, nearly half of the contributions to presidential candidates so far have come from just 158 families. As the New York Times reports, “They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male.” They are also overwhelmingly backing Republicans, of course, thereby “serving as a kind of financial check on demographic forces that have been nudging the electorate toward support for the Democratic Party and its economic policies.” It’s a strategy of delay, of buying time, of staving off the inevitable.
But change is coming whether Republican politicians and their billionaire backers like it or not. They have disgraced our democracy with their voter suppression strategy, but they are not powerful enough to stop it. They will eventually have to reckon with a country that is more diverse, more compassionate and more progressive. The Alabama vision will not prevail.