Contrary to conventional wisdom, many liberals privately mourn the departure of Eric Cantor from the ranks of the House GOP leadership. At a symposium on Wednesday sponsored by the Hill newspaper on “Voting in America,” several of the attendees told me that they and Majority Leader Cantor were within striking distance of a compromise to restore many of the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court last year as unconstitutional. The Court ruled that certain provisions that singled out certain states and jurisdictions for special oversight based on 50-year-old data were obsolete and could no longer be justified. Liberal civil-rights groups were furious and vowed to pass a “restoration” bill restoring all of the Justice Department’s power over federal elections.
“It was a heavy lift for Cantor, but we were closer to getting him to be reasonable than with any other senior Republican in leadership,” one civil-rights attorney told me. “We found we could do business with him.”
Representative Cantor has been strangely silent on the Voting Rights Amendment Act since it was introduced in January with the support of 80 liberal groups along with renegade GOP representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who recently demonstrated in a James O’Keefe “sting” video just how little he understands his own bill.
Many constitutional scholars point out that the sections of the Votjng Rights Act that were untouched by last year’s Supreme Court ruling are completely adequate to deal with voting discrimination. Section 2 is a permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting, and the Justice Department is empowered under it to sue local governments if any laws result, even unintentionally, in discriminatory “results.” Section 3 allows a court to impose a pre-clearance requirement for any election-law change in any jurisdiction where the court finds there is intentional misconduct.
“The bill that Cantor was talking about backing would have fundamentally changed American elections into race-reliant battlefields,” says Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote, a nationwide group promoting vote-integrity measures. Eric Cantor may no longer be around to negotiate a “compromise” on such dangerous additions to the Voting Rights Act, but there are no guarantees that his successor or other Republican leaders won’t succumb to pressure and allow a bad bill to be rushed through in a lame-duck session after the November election. Members of Congress are acutely sensitive to charges of racism, and in the past there has been little they haven’t been stampeded into doing under the right pressure.
But Eric Cantor’s defeat shows that at least Republican voters are looking for leaders made of sterner stuff — leaders who will resist calls to permanently make American elections about the color of our skin, not the content of our political character.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.