Maine Senator Susan Collins, the supposed moderate who always has an excuse for failing to moderate her own Republican Party, is now making states’ rights excuses for assaults on democracy by her fellow partisans.
When she joined her Senate Republicans this week in opposing the For the People Act—federal legislation that as part of a broad assertion of democratic principles seeks to protect the right to vote in states where they are under assault by Republican legislators—Collins presented a recycled argument against Senate Bill 1.
“S.1,” she announced to the Senate Wednesday, “would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.”
Instead of promoting the sort of bipartisan cooperation in support of voting rights that moderate Republicans once championed, Collins peddled a states rights line that echoed the arguments made by diehard foes of those alliances. In so doing, she offered a measure not just of her own hypocrisy but also of the absurdity of imagining that Senate Democrats can work with Republican colleagues who have abandoned any affiliation with the principles that once animated the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower.
Republican arguments against the For the People Act have in recent days formed an echo chamber of distortions, deceptions, and outright lies. But, amid the cacophony of cynicism, some messages really were worse than others. And Collins, whom some delusional Democrats still look to as a possible voice of reason, delivered the most intellectually dishonest diatribe.
Complaining about “the burdensome list of federal mandates that advocates of this bill would impose on each and every state,” Collins claimed that “absent a compelling need, the federal government should not be pre-empting the election laws of all 50 states.”
But, of course, there is a compelling argument. Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock has explained it in stark terms. Noting that multiracial coalitions are now electing Democrats at the statewide level in Georgia, which for decades had been a Republican stronghold, the senator described aggressive moves by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to make it harder for people of color, students, and others who might be inclined toward Democrats to cast ballots in the next round of elections. “Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by the majority of voters in a hard-fought election in which each side got the chance to make its case to the voters,” Warnock told his fellow senators earlier this year. “And, rather than adjusting their agenda and changing their message, they are busy trying to change the rules. We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights and voter access unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era.”
During the Jim Crow era, it will be remembered, Southern segregationists and their conservative Northern allies argued bitterly against any federal intervention that might protect the rights of Black voters. They regularly utilized the filibuster to block what they decried as “burdensome” federal mandates that preempted their election laws—claiming that civil rights and voting rights measures undermined states’ rights.
The most ardent champion of states rights was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, an arch-segregationist who referenced the concept frequently as he campaigned against—and filibustered against—civil rights proposals.
When Thurmond broke from his own Democratic Party to bid for the presidency in 1948, he and his fellow foes of federal action to challenge Jim Crow racism dubbed their new project the “States’ Rights Democratic Party.” The States’ Rights Democrats opposed “a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement” and promised to block “any invasion or destruction of the constitutional rights of the states.”
Thurmond was eventually welcomed back into his old party as a filibuster-prone member of the Senate Democratic Caucus in the 1950s and early 1960s, and eventually into the “Southern strategy” Republican Party of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. Through all of his partisan permutations, Thurmond kept peddling the politics of states’ rights, echoing his 1948 party’s platform criticism of “the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation” that would dare to afford equal protection under the law.
One of the steadiest critics of the states’ rights arguments of segregationist Democratic senators was a Republican from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith. The senator joined a bipartisan coalition in favor of federal civil rights and voting rights measures that sought to break the grip of the segregationists. Smith backed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. She supported the 24th Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned the poll taxes Southern states imposed to prevent Blacks from voting. And, of course, she backed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Smith’s courageous service—and her groundbreaking 1964 bid for the Republican presidential nomination—made her a hero to many, including a high school student from Caribou, Me., who on her first visit to Washington, D.C., in 1971, as a US Senate Youth Program participant, spent two hours in conversation with the senior senator. Collins would go on to become a congressional aide, and in 1996 she won the US Senate seat once held by the woman she describes as an “important mentor of mine.” Collins says of Smith, “I can’t tell you how proud I am to hold her seat in the United States Senate.”
Unfortunately, that pride does not extend to clear-eyed support for the sort of federal intervention to defend voting rights that Smith championed in her day, and that civil rights groups say is needed now to “address the more than 400 voter suppression measures that are being introduced across the country.”
Instead, Susan Collins is reading from the states’ rights playbook that has always been utilized to thwart progress with claims that states—even those that are clearly bent on voter suppression—should be allowed to determine “which election rules work best for their citizens.”