The Republican Party has throughout most of its history been far more concerned than the Democratic Party with the vital work of expanding the franchise.
Founded by militant abolitionists, many of them radicals who had fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848, the Grand Old Party was in the forefront of the fight to allow freed slaves in the South and landless immigrants in the North to cast ballots. Radical Republicans secured the enactment in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, with its declaration that “the right of U.S. citizens 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.”
Republicans controlled the US House and Senate when the Nineteenth Amendment, expanding the franchise to include women, was finally submitted to the states. Indeed, Republican senators had to overcome a Democratic filibuster to advance the cause of women’s suffrage.
It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who wrote to Congress in 1970 expressing his strong support for a constitutional amendment extending the right to vote to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.
The history of the Republican Party when it comes to voting rights has been a proud one. But it has been diminished in recent years, as the party’s governors and legislators have moved in states across the country to enact anti-democratic Voter ID laws that are, as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other groups suggest, nothing more than crude voter-suppression schemes.
So it was worthy of note when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed election law bills pushed by Republican legislators seeking to require a ballot box affirmation of citizenship, restrict voter registration drives and require photo ID for obtaining an absentee ballot.
Warning that the measures would create “confusion,” Snyder declared: “Voting rights are precious and we need to work especially hard to make it possible for people to vote.”
Snyder’s taken some harsh criticism from the right for his move.
But the Michigan governor did not suddenly go “liberal.” Nor are his vetoes evidence, as some media outlets have suggested, that Snyder had adopted a “middle-of-the-road” stance when it comes to the nationwide push by groups such as the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council to restrict voting rights.
Snyder’s vetoes were very much in keeping with the best values of the Republican Party, at least as they were expressed across the vast majority of the party’s history.
It is the other Republican governors, the ones who have signed these noxious measures, who have broken faith with their party’s better angels.
They are the ones who have dishonored the once-proud name “Republican”—and a once-great party’s finest tradition of working across the decades to extend the franchise to all Americans.