The Voting Rights Act Should Still Have Bipartisan Support

By Evan Hartung

On March 7, 1965, brave Americans of diverse backgrounds marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, in support of Black voting rights. Their fellow Americans watched nationwide from their living rooms as state troopers beat and tear-gassed the peaceful protestors. The horrific assault and resulting public outcry pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA) a few months later. Congressman John Lewis was one of those brave leaders, and today we continue our work to honor him by fighting to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — legislation named in his honor that would restore and strengthen the VRA. 

The Voting Rights Act permanently barred barriers to political participation that racial and ethnic minorities faced, prohibited elections practices that denied anyone the right to vote based on race, and required any jurisdiction with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court prior to making changes to election laws. With the passage of the VRA, the gap between Black and White voter registration rates dropped by 28 percent from 1960 to 1970, and the gap between Black voter turnout and White voter turnout was effectively eliminated.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (then called the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights) was intimately involved in the advocacy efforts that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. On March 5, 1965, Marvin Caplan, executive director of The Leadership Conference at the time, wrote to Ernest A. Reuter: “…We are hard at work on the voting bill, we hope to get a good one and we will need all your help…I hope we can get this one through without marches on Washington. But, you can never tell.” Later that month, Arnold Aronson, one of our founders, wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson: “Our warmest congratulations on your splendid address to Congress last night. I am sure I speak for all the organizations in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights when I say we intend to put the same effort into our support of voting legislations that we put into our campaign on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  

In May of 1965, Aronson wrote to express his disappointment with the Dirksen-Mansfield substitute voting rights bill, stating that the legislation was inadequate since it was deficient in protections against intimidation, made it harder to deauthorize poll watchers, and permitted a state to seek exemption through courts without having to show a history lacking racial discrimination. He stated there was enough support for the Voting Rights Act to pass and encouraged senators to repudiate the weak substitute and support the stronger committee bill. On May 21, Aronson wired through the Western Union:  

“Senate will attempt to invoke cloture and stop debate on the Voting Rights Bill Tuesday, May 25, 1PM. [It is] essential that we win by biggest possible margin. Please have your organization wire Senators at once urging them to vote for cloture. Although the senate bill is now improved and limiting debate will bring us closer to enactment of an effective law, the house bill is stronger. We must make every effort to protect it against weakening amendments and have it adopted by the senate later on. We will be in touch with you on future strategy. But the immediate goal is a big vote for cloture Tuesday.” 

The Leadership Conference continued its advocacy to reauthorize the legislation long after it was initially passed into law. Ralph G. Neas, our former executive director, wrote to the attorney general in 1981, saying that “The Leadership Conference coordinated the campaigns that resulted in passage of all the civil rights laws of this century including… the Voting Rights Act of 1965… it is imperative that the administration fully understand the views of The Leadership Conference on all provisions of the bill [to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act] before it asserts a public position of the legislation.” 

The VRA has a strong bipartisan history. In 1965, members of both parties added amendments to strengthen the bill, which ultimately passed with broad bipartisan support. In 1970, Congress extended Section 5 of the VRA for five years and Republican President Richard Nixon signed it into law. Nixon explained his support saying, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has opened participation in the political process.

In 1975, Republican President Gerald Ford also signed a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which passed overwhelmingly and added new protections for non-English speakers. Republican President Ronald Reagan became the first to sign a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, saying that “The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” In 2006, the Voting Rights Act reauthorization passed overwhelmingly in the House and by a unanimous vote in the Senate, and President George W. Bush signed the extension — becoming the fourth Republican president to sign legislation reauthorizing the law.

“This is a grand day of celebration and triumph for all Americans,” said our then-executive director Wade Henderson. “…The bipartisan support for the legislation underscores the recognition of and importance of equality for all citizens’ right to use the voting booth to elect officials who reflect their concerns. For, if liberty and equality are found chiefly in a democracy, as Aristotle said, then it is best attained when everyone shares in the government to the utmost.”

Today, some lawmakers are abandoning the historically bipartisan cooperation in support of the legislation at a particularly dangerous time. There has been a tremendous surge in anti-voter restrictions in states across the country. As of July 2021, more than 400 bills in 49 states have been introduced by lawmakers to shamefully create barriers to the ballot, particularly for Black, Brown, Native, and new Americans. But voting rights are too important to be lost in partisan politics. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would strengthen all Americans’ freedom to vote and make sure all attempts to restrict voting rights need federal review, so that every American can have a say in our future.

For our democracy to work, we must all be included. All Americans, no matter their race, ethnicity, or zip code, deserve the right to elect their leaders. To honor those before us, like the late Congressman John Lewis, we must restore the full strength of the Voting Rights Act — the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed — so that every American can cast their vote and be confident it is counted.

Evan Hartung is a communications assistant at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.