US President Barack Obama walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Ala. on March 7, 2015.
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

50 years later, who’ll carry the Voting Rights Act’s torch?

The timing of tonight’s debate for Republican presidential candidates could certainly be better. It was exactly 50 years ago today that the Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil-rights bill and one of the 20th century’s most important pieces of federal legislation, was signed into law. There are better ways to honor the occasion than having a GOP debate.
 
After all, exactly zero of the 17 Republican candidates have endorsed restoration of the Voting Rights Act, while several of the candidates – most notably Govs. Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and John Kasich – personally approved new and unnecessary restrictions on voting. Chris Christie recently said Democratic efforts to expand voting access are little more than “an opportunity to commit greater acts of voter fraud around the country.”
 
As Rachel noted on the show earlier this week, the fact that tonight’s debate and the VRA anniversary coincide is hardly ideal.
 
And while we’ll have to wait to see what, if anything, the Republican candidates have to say about voting rights and the GOP’s voter-suppression efforts, others are honoring the law’s 50th anniversary in more progressive ways. USA Today reported:
President Obama will mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act Thursday by calling on Congress to restore the law and urging people to register to vote.
 
Obama will discuss the landmark voting law at a national teleconference in the afternoon with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and voting rights advocates.
Obama also published an essay on the VRA to Medium.com today.
 
This is an area of ongoing interest for the president. Remember, it was in March when Obama delivered a powerful speech in Selma, Alabama, where he, among other things, called for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act with a bipartisan bill. Former President George W. Bush, who signed a VRA reauthorization during his own tenure, stood and applauded Obama’s call.
 
Congressional Republican leaders said soon after that they intend to ignore the issue entirely, but the White House clearly hopes to use the anniversary to at least try to apply some renewed pressure.
 
And as the Huffington Post added yesterday, the president isn’t the only one.
When the Supreme Court threw out a key portion of the Voting Rights Act two years ago, it told Congress to fix it. Congress hasn’t, failing to take up even bipartisan proposals.
 
So one Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), is planning to try a new tack Wednesday, rolling out three pieces of legislation a day before the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary that would make it easier for any American to vote.
Putting aside the bill’s prospects for a moment – it’s a Republican Congress, so supporters of voting must lower their expectations accordingly – Schumer’s proposals are quite sensible. One would encourage online voter registration; another would guarantee a minimum of seven days of early voting in every state; and a third would “allow same-day voting for anyone who was moving within the state where they are already registered.”
 
These measures, of course, are intended to compliment the Voting Rights Advancement Act, recently introduced by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in the House and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate, which would help restore the VRA by responding to the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling.
 
As we’ve discussed, before that ruling, support for the landmark civil-rights law was broad and bipartisan. George W. Bush celebrated its reauthorization as recently as 2006, after it sailed through Congress with little resistance. The Senate vote on the VRA was literally unanimous. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan also reauthorized the law without incident or controversy.
 
But as Republican politics becomes increasingly radicalized, the bipartisan support has evaporated and blown quickly in the exact opposite direction. On the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary, it’s a development worth understanding and hopefully reversing.
 

Barack Obama, Voting Rights and Voting Rights Act

50 years later, who'll carry the Voting Rights Act's torch?