On June 2015—the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—congressional Democrats introduced ambitious new legislation to restore the VRA. Last night, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska became the first Republican to cosponsor the bill, known as the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015. The bill compels states with a well-documented history of recent voting discrimination to clear future voting changes with the federal government, requires federal approval for voter ID laws, and outlaws new efforts to suppress the growing minority vote.
Murkowski explained her support for the legislation in a statement to The Nation:
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought an end to the ugly Jim Crow period in American history. It is fundamentally important in our system of government that every American be given the opportunity to vote, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what their race or national origin may be.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the lead Senate sponsor, praised her decision:
Senator Murkowski is a champion for civil rights, and I congratulate her for becoming the first Republican Senator to cosponsor the Voting Rights Advancement Act. I have long enjoyed my bipartisan working relationship with Senator Murkowski because of her independence and leadership on so many issues. I am honored that she has now joined me to ensure that no American faces racial discrimination at the polls. As we celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the March on Selma and the Voting Rights Act, I hope that other Senate Republicans will join us to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act for a new generation.
It’s significant that she’s the first Republican to back the legislation, but it remains to be seen whether other Republicans in Congress will follow her lead. The VRA has always had strong bipartisan support, as I reported in my book Give Us the Ballot, from its passage in 1965 to reauthorizations in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. Only recently has that changed.
The 2006 reauthorization passed 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House, but the current Congress has been unwilling to hold a hearing on legislation to restore the VRA or bring the new bill to the floor for a vote. (An earlier, weaker bill to restore the VRA, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, had 12 Republican sponsors in the House but none in the Senate, and did not move legislatively.)
Murkowski’s decision to support restoring the VRA stands in stark contrast to the hateful and inflammatory rhetoric espoused by Republican presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and reactionary efforts by the likes of Kim Davis to limit civil rights.
Her cosponsorship of the bill was influenced by her home state of Alaska, which since 1965 had to approve its voting changes with the federal government because of discrimination against Alaska Natives. Said Murkowski: “The question of whether Alaska Natives have fair access to the voting booth has been litigated multiple times over the past several years. Impediments to voting in many of our rural communities because of distance and language need to be addressed, and my hope is that this legislation will resolve these issues. Every Alaskan deserves a meaningful chance to vote.”
The Alaska Natives who have been assisted by the VRA’s preclearence and language minority provisions lobbied Murkowski to support the bill.
“Senator Lisa Murkowski’s decision to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Advancement Act sends a clear signal to Congress that, as history shows, both parties can work together to restore the VRA,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “Alaska is one of the most diverse states in the nation and Alaskans know just how tenuous voting rights are without federal protection.”
Murkowski’s announcement is a welcome sign for voting-rights advocates, who were dismayed that during the first GOP presidential debate on August 6, 2015—on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—the topic of voting rights never came up from the moderators on Fox News or GOP presidential candidates. The 2016 election will be the first presidential election in 50 years where voters will not have the full protections of the VRA, which adds urgency for Congress to take action.