In 1890, responding to a wave of violent suppression of Black voters in the South, Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge, a Northeastern Republican, pushed through a bill to ban poll taxes and give the federal government the power to enforce the 15th Amendment, which allowed all men regardless of race the right to vote. That amendment had been run through Congress on a party-line vote.
The Lodge bill passed the House by six votes, again along party lines, and it headed to the Senate, where it was filibustered for months by Democrats. Despite having majority backing, supporters couldn’t bring it to a final vote, and it was finally taken off the floor in January 1891. With the threat of federal intervention removed, the terror campaign of lynchings and mob violence accelerated. The multiracial populist movement collapsed, as white populists turned on their erstwhile Black populist allies. Deprived of political power and beset on all sides by violence, as many as 6 million Black residents of the South eventually decamped for the North.
There would be no further federal intervention in voting rights for 67 years, until passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, culminating in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Since 1965, the idea that the federal government has a role to play in protecting the right to vote has been a universally held opinion among elected officials. In 2006, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized by Congress and passed the Senate by a vote of 98-0. It included a provision that required states with a history of discrimination in voting laws to preclear any new election laws with the Justice Department. In 2013, in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice John Roberts struck the preclearance provision down, arguing that the South had changed and that it was no longer necessary.
Southern states began immediately to amend their voting laws, with court documents showing the explicit purpose being to minimize the power of the Black vote in an effort to boost Republican candidates.
On Tuesday, the Senate moved to take up debate on S. 1, the “For the People Act.” The parties having switched sides on the question of voting rights, S. 1 represents the Democratic response to recent voter suppression laws.
This time, 130 years after the Lodge bill, it would be Republicans who filibustered. In explaining the party’s position, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act as recently as 2006, declared that the federal government ought to have no role in elections, a view that would have been at home between 1890 and 1965, but is strikingly radical in a post-civil rights era.
“This is not a federal issue. It oughta be left to the states. There’s nothing broken around the country,” McConnell said at his weekly press conference when asked why Republicans were blocking a voting rights bill from being debated on the Senate floor. “The system upheld very well during intense stress in the latter part of the previous Congress. There’s no rational basis for federalizing this election. Therefore, there’s no point in having an election — a debate in the U.S. Senate about something we ought not to do.”
McConnell was asked what he made of states such as Arizona, which is engaged in a lengthy “audit” of the presidential vote, with state Republicans hoping to overturn the results.
“I’m OK with the states sorting this sort of stuff out,” McConnell said. “The most important election in the country is the presidential election. It’s not decided in Congress, it’s decided in the Electoral College; those are state-by-state decisions, and so regardless of what may be happening in some state, there’s no rationale for federal intervention. They’ll figure it all out, they’ll go to court, they’ll determine whether or not there’s any rational basis for this. That’s not unusual in this country.”
If McConnell considers 1965 through 2013 to be an exception when it comes to federal protection of voting rights rather than the rule, then he’s correct: It’s not unusual. That’s not something to be proud of.