The Democrats Haven't Learned the Lessons of the Nation's First Voting Rights ActRoundup
tags: Reconstruction, African American history, voting rights, Lodge Act
Ed Burmila is the author of Chaotic Neutral: How the Democrats Lost Their Soul in the Center (Bold Type Books).
Momentum is inarguably gathering behind Democratic candidates in several key midterm races. Nothing is certain until the final votes are counted, and Republican election officials around the country are seeing to it that the process of counting is as heavily politicized as any other aspect of campaigning. Yet what looked like an impending disaster for Democrats in Congress—and by extension, the beleaguered cause of democracy in America—as recently as June now looks much less foreboding.
What changed? As many commentators have suggested, the Dobbs decision from the Supreme Court has centered conservatives’ deeply unpopular anti-abortion politics in an election Republicans had hoped to define with ugly, silly moral panics (such as the ongoing assault on critical race theory, and the alleged transgender brainwashing of children) and inflation. Senate Democrats overcame Joe Manchin’s obstructionism to find a version of the president’s floundering climate policy proposals that they could pass through reconciliation. The White House followed that up quickly with executive action on student debt, fulfilling a key Biden campaign promise.
If it’s an exaggeration to say that suddenly everything is going right for the Democratic party, it’s easy to understand why some liberals are moved to voice something not unlike optimism. Still, none of these policy accomplishments, nor any amount of self-sabotage by a Republican party hellbent on nominating lunatics and reminding voters of their repellent views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other key issues, can overcome the long-term risks courted by the failure to pass meaningful voting rights reforms since Biden swept Trump from the White House.
The president has promised that these reforms are one of the many goals on which the Democrats will be poised to deliver if they can expand their Senate majority to something beyond the bare 50-50 split they currently hold. Perhaps. The long history of using voting rights—and particularly the rights of Black voters who almost inevitably become the focus of efforts to disenfranchise—as a bargaining chit in Washington suggests that meaningful action on this front is anything but certain.
Until the political process demonstrates that it is willing to treat voting rights as a non-negotiable precondition rather than a political consideration on par with soybean subsidies, progress is unlikely. To understand why, we need to travel back to 1890, when the Senate considered but ultimately rejected the Federal Elections Bill, also known as the Lodge bill, or the Voting Rights Act of 1890.
In the wake of the Civil War, northern Republicans’ commitment to protecting Black voting rights in the South via Reconstruction faltered and ultimately collapsed with the political compromise that resolved the tainted presidential election of 1876. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution seemingly guaranteed suffrage irrespective of race (women’s voting rights were but an afterthought in national politics in that era). Yet southern governors, state legislatures, law enforcement, and domestic terrorist organizations effectively combined to ensure the continued disenfranchisement of Black citizens.
When Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected to the White House in 1884, Radical Republicans—the most vociferous advocates of Reconstruction and the necessity of Federal enforcement of the post-Civil War amendments against recalcitrant Southern state governments—were determined to use the powers of the federal government to face down this vicious assault on the Black franchise. Cleveland, a New Yorker, was considered less polemical than Southern Democrats—but leaders of the national Democratic party still believed that they could count on him goals to disenfranchise Black voters to aid Republican electoral prospects. Under the direction of Senator William E. Chandler (R-NH), Radical Republicans began to workshop legislation to guarantee federal enforcement of the 15th Amendment. It mandates that “(the) right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—and, as many amendments do, it noted that Congress “shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Chandler, in tandem with neo-abolitionist Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Ma.), took the latter statement at its word and got to work. When Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, an advocate of federal enforcement of the post-Civil War Amendments, won the presidential election of 1888, the Republican-majority Congress pushed forward with a nascent “Voting Rights Act” that attempted to do in the Gilded Age what the federal government could not deliver until 75 years later. The Federal Elections Bill of 1890 was introduced by Northern Republicans confident that their Senate majority was about to make successful passage of that and many other bills a foregone conclusion.
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