by William R. Yeomans, Fellow in Law and Government at American University Washington College of Law and a former acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights
*This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Access to the ballot should not be a partisan issue. Republicans, however, have teed up ballot access as a defining partisan issue. Just as this emphasis placed renewed pressure on our laws against racial discrimination, five justices fulfilled a longstanding conservative goal by disabling the requirement that states and localities with extensive histories of racial discrimination seek approval of voting changes from the federal government. Shelby County v. Holder lifted the preclearance requirement, unleashing jurisdictions to adopt photo ID laws, restrictive registration measures, shortened voting periods, and other measures that disproportionately restrict the opportunities for minority voters to cast ballots. Jurisdictions have concocted thoroughly debunked allegations of in-person voter fraud and unconvincing administrative cost justifications in support of these restrictions. As a last defense, they have sometimes conceded the partial truth – that these restrictions are designed to discourage Democrats from voting, as if that partisan purpose excuses their racial impact.
How did we reach this point where electoral partisanship is so closely entangled with race? After all, the history of our nation is one of struggle to expand the franchise to incorporate once excluded segments of the electorate. We gradually and often painfully shed voting restrictions on non-property owners, the illiterate, women, and 18-to-20-year-olds. Twice we sought to guarantee the right to vote without regard to race – first through the Fifteenth Amendment and nearly a century later through the Voting Rights Act. The undeniable message of this progression is that the country gradually embraced the notion that every citizen of sufficient age, sound mind and (in too many states) non-felonious criminal record should be permitted to vote.
Yet, partisan consequences already burdened the mind of President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, noting that he feared his signature would hand over the South to the Republican Party. Indeed, as Democrats nationally became the party of civil rights, the once Democratic leaders of segregated southern states turned to the Republican Party, whose presidential nominee in 1964, Barry Goldwater, had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Republican Party, led by Richard Nixon in 1968, saw political advantage in catering through its southern strategy to the backlash against the civil rights movement, Brown v. Bd. of Education and its progeny, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s.