Southern discomfort

Why Republicans continue to oppose the Voting Rights Act

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 06/29/2006

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In 1980, Ronald Reagan told biographer Laurence Barrett that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South.” The carefully handpicked, emotionally charged words from then GOP Republican presidential candidate aimed to tap into the fury of white Southerners over civil rights and, of course, win their votes.

Two years later, then-Assistant Attorney General John Roberts (now Supreme Court justice) sent a tidal wave of memos imploring President Reagan to reject a 25-year extension of the act. A hesitant Reagan approved the extension anyway.

But that didn’t mean Reagan thought the act was any less humiliating to the South. Reagan did not want to buck Democrats and civil rights leaders who still had clout in Congress and favorable public sentiment. The last thing Reagan wanted was to be tagged a bigot and an enemy of voting rights. But candidate Reagan’s soothing words to the South, and Robert’s stern opposition, were huge warning signs that many Republicans were at best ambivalent and at worst openly hostile to the act.

That hasn’t changed. President Bush has twice said that he would sign legislation that extends the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it expires in 2007 and nearly every Republican Senator and House member publicly swore he or she would back the extension. Yet, all it took to derail House approval was a loud complaint from a handful of Republican representatives that bilingual ballots should be dumped and that the act unfairly punishes Southern states for voter discrimination. That may also be enough to derail a vote in the Senate on the Act. Before the Republicans objected, the Senate Judiciary Committee had scheduled a vote on extension of the act for the last week of June. Voting rights supporters considered the vote a slam-dunk, but not now.

The delay was probably inevitable, not because Bush and Republicans want to kill voting rights, as many civil rights leaders and black Democrats claim, but because it’s smart, partisan politics to stall. The clumsy effort to tie renewal to English-only sentiment was a cover. The real aim of Republicans is to appease conservative white voters in the South, just as candidate Reagan did more than a quarter-century ago.

Republicans took their cue from the old Southern Dixiecrats. For decades, they screamed that the act was an unlawful federal intrusion and violated states rights. But racist Democrats weren’t the biggest obstacle to the act’s initial passage; House Republicans were.

Then House Republican Minority Leader Gerald Ford proposed four outrageous provisions to gut the bill. The provisions did not outlaw the poll tax and literacy tests. Furthermore, it authorized the attorney general to bring suit only after receiving a set number of complaints of voting violations. An even more preposterous Republican gambit would have eliminated a provision requiring the federal courts to approve all voting rights laws passed by Southern states.

With President Lyndon Johnson pounding away and the stench of tear gas still in the nation’s nostrils from the 1965 attack by Alabama state police on civil rights marchers at Selma, Republican House leaders relented and scrapped the watered-down provisions. But that didn’t end the fight to protect voting rights.

Republican Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Reagan and Bush the elder carefully crafted and fine-tuned the Republican’s Southern strategy. The goal was to win elections by doing and saying as little as possible about civil rights while openly and subtly pandering to Southern white fears of black political domination.

It meant, then and now, electing more Democrats to state and local offices, governorships and the Senate. That can’t happen without the black vote. The loss of one or more states to the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term election and 2008 presidential election would spell political disaster for the GOP. The key, as Reagan and every Republican president since Nixon has known, is to maintain near solid backing from Southern white males.

They have been the staunchest Republican loyalists. Bush grabbed more than 60 percent of the white male vote nationally in 2004. In the South, he received more than 70 percent of their vote. Without the South’s unyielding backing in 2000, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow.

In 2004, Bush swept Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in every one of the states of the Old Confederacy and three out of four former Border States. That insured another Bush White House.

Bush, top Republicans and even the GOP obstructionists who temporarily derail the act’s extension don’t want to roll back the clock to the Jim Crow days when the South concocted a vast array of literacy tests, poll taxes, informal voting codes and whites-only primaries to boot blacks en masse out of the voting booths.

But more than a few Republicans want to send the message that they’ll fight any threat to Republican rule in the South, even if that means ripping up the Voting Rights Act.

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