In 2006, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had nothing but praise for a bill to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was enacted to combat the racist voting laws of the Jim Crow era.
Democrats argue that, in recent years, the conservative-led Supreme Court did what McConnell advised against: “fixed” what wasn’t broken. In response, they have proposed restoring and strengthening the parts of the law struck down by the court that gave the Justice Department the ability to block or aggressively challenge changes to voting laws in mostly Southern states to prevent voter discrimination.
McConnell has no praise for those efforts.
“Changing the laws so that our partisan attorney general can rewrite voting laws without even having to win in court is not about promoting justice, it’s about short-circuiting justice,” he said Tuesday. “This is about one party wanting the power to unilaterally rewrite the rule book of American elections.”
Republican opposition to updating the Voting Rights Act in response to recent Supreme Court rulings underscores how far the party has moved against providing a significant role for the federal government in elections, even in states with a history of discriminating against Black voters.
The Senate on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on whether to consider legislation — the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — that would make changes to the 1965 law as well as a more sweeping proposal to overhaul the country’s voting laws. The vote is part of Democrats’ latest push to counter what they argue are restrictive new voting laws in GOP-controlled states, such as Georgia and Texas, that would hit minority communities hardest.
While Republicans have heavily criticized both proposals as unnecessary partisan power grabs, it is their opposition to the legislation that would update the landmark civil rights law that most strongly signifies a change from their past positions.
Seventeen Republicans who in 2006 supported the reauthorization of the 1965 law, including McConnell, now oppose the legislation that attempts to address issues the court raised in 2013 and 2021 when striking down provisions that gave the Justice Department more authority over state voting laws.
In his 2013 opinion in the Shelby County Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. argued that the law contained an outdated formula for determining which states need to get approval from the Justice Department before making changes to their election laws and that Congress was derelict in not updating this provision earlier.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” he said.
Republicans have shown little interest since in revising those formulas and re-empowering the Justice Department to target states with a history of discriminating against minority voters.
When the Lewis bill, named after the congressman and civil rights icon who died in 2020, was first considered by the Senate in November, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who voted for the reauthorization in 2006, said it was not needed and noted that the rest of the 1965 law and its prohibitions against discrimination remain intact. He dismissed the argument from Democrats and civil rights groups that new state laws would hurt minority voters.
“The narrative of widespread voter suppression is nothing but a scare tactic designed to support a political outcome,” he argued.
Democrats said they agree that the country has changed since 1965, but they argue that doesn’t mean discrimination against voters of color no longer exists and have criticized Republicans for not getting behind the Lewis bill.
“Voting rights always used to be bipartisan,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during an interview on ABC’s “The View” last week. “Ronald Reagan was for voting rights. George H.W. Bush was for voting rights and George W. Bush, but now that Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party with his Big Lie that the election was stolen, they’re all bowing down in obeisance to him and allowing these despicable things to happen — unless we stop them.”
Voting rights activist have also criticized Republicans’ decision not to back an update to the Voting Rights Act.
LaTosha Brown, who co-founded the voter engagement group Black Votes Matter, said Tuesday that the Senate must pass the Lewis bill because the Supreme Court decision “stripped out the teeth” of the Voting Rights Act, rendering many of its provisions useless.
Brown said the significance of the Lewis bill is threefold: It would reverse an “ongoing, sustained attack” on the voting rights of “the most vulnerable”; it would create additional oversight over state legislatures, which she said have been “the biggest perpetrators” of voter suppression; and it expands voting rights protections for Native Americans.
“I’m hoping that they are able to rise above the divisive message of their party, that they’re able to literally stand in the space of integrity, and stand in the space of courage, and do what they know in their heart is the right thing to do, and that is to protect the rights of all voters of this country to be able to have a process that’s free and fair,” Brown said of Republicans, hours after she and a group of about 30 other voting rights activists were arrested for demonstrating on Capitol grounds in favor of voting rights legislation.
Efforts last year to build Republican support for the Lewis bill were mostly futile, with only Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted for the 2006 reauthorization, supporting moving forward with the legislation.
“Every American deserves equal opportunity to participate in our electoral system and political process, and this bill provides a starting point as we seek broader bipartisan consensus on how best to ensure that,” Murkowski said in November.
Her Republican colleagues, including those who joined her in voting for the 2006 reauthorization, disagree.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who co-sponsored the 2006 legislation, said she does not support either of the Democrats’ voting rights bills. She has criticized the broader proposal as a Democratic power grab and argued that new state voting laws are not restrictive. She has also pointed to the high voter turnout for the 2020 elections as evidence that little is getting in the way of people heading to the polls.
She has been less outspoken about her opposition to the Lewis bill.
Like McConnell and other Republicans, she was a vocal booster of the 2006 reauthorization.
“One of the most fundamental and significant rights afforded to American citizens is the right to vote,” Collins said then. “This right must not be hampered or denied to any citizen through discriminatory tactics. This bill will ensure that the voting rights afforded to all Americans are protected.”
In a statement, Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins, said the senator “strongly supports” the Voting Rights Act and, like Cornyn, said the parts the Supreme Court did not strike down remain in effect and that the Justice Department is using those provisions to sue states it believes are violating the law.
Clark said the Lewis act goes beyond the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, but she did not specify what the senator opposes. She said only that Collins believes bipartisan negotiations on voting legislation are needed and that she is working with a group of senators on the issue.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in 2006 lauded the reauthorization as a necessary step, saying South Carolina had “made great strides forward in terms of African American voting participation and representation in all levels of state and local government. … But just like every other part of the country, we still have a ways to go.”
“I hope 25 years from now, it can be said that there will be no need for a Voting Rights Act because things have continued to change for the better,” Graham said then. “If we continue making progress like we have in the past 25 years, we can make it happen.”
That time may be now for Graham. In response to a request for comment on the Lewis bill, a spokesman for Graham forwarded a speech the senator made earlier this month in which he dismissed concerns over voting access as a “manufactured problem.”
“States, under our Constitution, are supposed to run elections, and in my state, I think we do a pretty good job,” Graham said. “The bottom line here is, this is an effort by the Democratic leader to basically say that Republicans at our heart are a bunch of racists when it comes to voting. That the reason they’re having to do this is: States are changing laws to disenfranchise people. … I find that, like, incredibly offensive.”
Schumer argues the new laws are evidence that attempts to make voting harder for minority communities are alive and well.
“If there’s no effort to suppress the vote, why have 19 states passed 33 new laws making it harder for Americans to participate in our elections in the aftermath of one of the safest elections in American recent history?” Schumer said Wednesday morning as the Senate prepared to debate voting legislation.