A few months ago, lawmakers hoping to repair the damage done by the U.S. Supreme Court, introduced the “Voting Rights Advancement Act.” The measure, championed by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in the House and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate, is an ambitious and progressive proposal that goes even further than last year’s “Voting Rights Amendment Act,” which GOP leaders ignored.
What the Voting Rights Advancement Act has lacked, however, is a Republican ally. As The Nation’s Ari Berman reported yesterday, that changed unexpectedly this week.
[Wednesday] night, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska became the first Republican to cosponsor the bill, known as the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015. The bill compels states with a well-documented history of recent voting discrimination to clear future voting changes with the federal government, requires federal approval for voter ID laws, and outlaws new efforts to suppress the growing minority vote.
In a statement, the Alaska Republican explained, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought an end to the ugly Jim Crow period in American history. It is fundamentally important in our system of government that every American be given the opportunity to vote, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what their race or national origin may be.”
To describe this as unusual is an understatement. Murkowski, whose courage is laudable, is quite literally the only GOP lawmaker in either chamber of Congress to endorse the voting-rights legislation.
Indeed, Murkowski’s party has been shamelessly hostile to the very idea of repairing the VRA in any way. Asked in the spring if Congress should work on the Voting Rights Act formula struck down by the Supreme Court, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) replied, “No,” blaming the Obama administration for having “trumped up and created an issue where there really isn’t one.”
To her credit, Murkowski knows better.
In theory, this shouldn’t be too tough a lift. In March, when President 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, it was former President George W. Bush who stood and applauded Obama’s call.
As recently as 2006, when Congress voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, the vote in the House was 390 to 33. The vote in the Senate was literally unanimous.
But Supreme Court conservatives created convenient circumstances for GOP lawmakers hostile to voting rights: Republicans wouldn’t have to pay a political price by gutting the Voting Rights Act, because their allies on the high court had done it for them.
The current question is what Congress intends to do about it. Neither President Obama nor congressional Democrats can do this work on their own; they’ll need Republicans who believe in protecting Americans’ franchise rights.
As things stand, one GOP lawmaker is willing to stand up, alone in her party, and do the right thing. Which Republicans are ready to follow Murkowski’s lead?