On this 50th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Democrats are remembering that epic development and the protests and sacrifices that produced it, even as they intensify efforts to defend and restore voting rights under attack today. But we sometimes forget battlefronts in this fight that occurred between then and now.
In honor of Jimmy Carter’s current condition at death’s door, journalist and historian Rick Perlstein wrote a powerful column at the Washington Spectator reminding us that the 39th president launched a major push for expanded voting rights back in 1977. Carter aimed at goals we have yet to achieve, thanks to a conservative counter-revolution–still underway today–against what had been a bipartisan effort to vindicate everyone’s right to vote.
Everyone loved to talk about voter apathy, but the real problem, Carter said, was that “millions of Americans are prevented or discouraged from voting in every election by antiquated and overly restricted voter registration laws”–a fact proven, he pointed out, by record rates of participation in 1976 in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, where voters were allowed to register on election day. So he proposed that election-day registration be adopted universally, tempering concerns that such measures might increase opportunities for fraud by also proposing five years in prison and a $10,000 fine as penalties for electoral fraud.
He asked Congress to allot up to $25 million in aid to states to help them comply, and for the current system of federal matching funds for presidential candidates to be expanded to congressional elections. He suggested reforming a loophole in the matching-fund law that disadvantaged candidates competing with rich opponents who funded their campaigns themselves, and revising the Hatch Act to allow federal employees “not in sensitive positions,” and when not on the job, the same rights of political participation as everyone else.
Finally, and most radically, he recommended that Congress adopt a constitutional amendment to do away with the Electoral College–under which, three times in our history (four times if you count George W. Bush 23 years later), a candidate who received fewer votes than his opponent went on to become president–in favor of popular election of presidents. It was one of the broadest political reform packages ever proposed.
It was immediately embraced. Legislators from both parties stood together at a news briefing to endorse all or part of it. Two Republican senators and two Republican representatives stepped forward to cosponsor the universal registration bill; William Brock, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called it “a Republican concept.” Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker announced his support, and suggested going even further: making election day a national holiday and keeping polls open 24 hours. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, a conservative disciple of Barry Goldwater, predicted it would pass “in substantially the same form with a lot of Republican support, including my own.”
But then the conservative movement, led by Carter’s eventual successor, Ronald Reagan, struck back with every weapon at its disposal, including the Senate filibuster, and stopped the initiative, after polarizing Republicans against it. And under the lash of the conservative movement, Republicans have been at the very best fair-weather friends of voting rights ever since, before becoming outright enemies during the Obama administration.
As Perstein notes, Carter is more concerned about voting rights than ever:
This spring, when only those closest to him knew of his illness, Jimmy Carter made news on Thom Hartmann’s radio program when he returned to the question of democracy reform. In 1977, he had pledged “to work toward an electoral process which is open to the participation of all our citizens, which meets high ethical standards, and operates in an efficient and responsive manner.” In 2015, he was still at it.
He declared our electoral system a violation of “the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president.”
It’s no time to give up the fight.