Did you know Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole helped save the Voting Rights Act? It was the 1982 renewal, two years before Dole became Senate majority Leader, and 14 years before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. Dole had voted for the original 1965 act, which Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen helped shepherd through. But Dirksen was long gone by 1982, and key Reagan administration officials, including future Justices John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, opposed the bill’s renewal. Just two years earlier, Reagan had criticized the 1965 act as “humiliating to the South.”
Dole, a strong conservative who’d defended Nixon during the Watergate scandal, became involved through his African American businessman friend Leroy Tombs, a longtime Republican. As Tombs described, Dole was embarrassed that a voting rights bill was even needed, and expanded the term of key sections to 25 years.
Dole’s bill included a key practical compromise, clarifying that members of a protected class didn’t have to be elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population. Dole also clarified that those discriminated against didn’t have to prove that discrimination was intentional, just that access to the vote was clearly being denied or abridged. Once he’d drafted the compromise, Dole then systematically engaged key Republicans, particularly Judiciary Committee members, to support his revised bill. He answered opponents’ arguments, persisted despite initial setbacks and insisted that supporting African Americans’ right to vote was essential to “save the Republican party,” to “erase the lingering image of our party as the cadre of the elite, the wealthy, the insensitive.” The Senate renewed the act by 65-8, and Reagan ended up signing it.
What if Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, or any other Republican who claims to care about democracy acknowledged how gravely new state laws threaten our democratic process? And acknowledged, as many did in 1965 and 1982, that if states are undermining democracy then the federal government must respond? It’s nice for Murkowski to join Joe Manchin in arguing that the Voting Rights Act must be reauthorized, that federal oversight over places with a history of discrimination must be restored, and that “inaction is not an option.” But without passing a law, inaction will be the result and the destructive state laws will prevail.
Like Dole’s 1982 legislation, a voting rights bill doesn’t have to address everything. Sen. Joe Manchin’s recent compromise would go a long way toward addressing the worst abuses, even if it excluded elements of HR1/SR1 that would strengthen democracy further. But for the compromise to pass, Republicans would have to provide 10 votes, which won’t happen. Or one or more could make it a reality by bypassing the filibuster for voting rights bills.
Citizens are appropriately pressing Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and a few other wavering Democrats to exempt voting rights bills from filibuster rules. But their urgent responsibility to act doesn’t let supposedly moderate Republicans off the hook. If they want fair and accessible elections, they need to do more than utter benign platitudes.
Otherwise, we will see no check on the wave of state laws suppressing voting, enshrining the most radical partisan gerrymandering, and wresting the power to count votes away from officials who’ve upheld the law honorably. That’s not even counting anti-good Samaritan bills that make it illegal to even give water to the thirsty, if they happen to be in a voting line.
Imagine if Murkowski backed ending the filibuster in this critical situation. That might be enough to actually pass a bill. Or at least pressure Manchin and Sinema. If two Republicans did, it would put still further pressure. If three, it would pretty much guarantee passage.
Dole secured those key votes in a time when many Republicans were actually willing to support enfranchising all Americans, instead of fighting to prevent their voting. Alas, most now seem to regard democracy as expendable if it might hamper their gaining power. Dole, who’s fighting stage 4 cancer, supported Trump’s election and reelection, though now says he’s “sort of Trumped out.”
But any Republican could still play the role that Dole once did, standing up to defend the franchise. I believe that most Republican senators know that the 2020 results were legitimate, and that the state bills introduced since do nothing but confer partisan advantage. The question is whether they can see past short-term political gain, to truly stand up for a government elected by all eligible Americans. The Bob Dole of 1982 shows that this can be possible.
• Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While.