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.”
Now, all that “cooperation” may be in ruins with Cantor’s stunning departure. Slate’s Dave Weigel reports that with Cantor’s defeat the “effort to restore the Voting Rights Act to its former glory is certainly dead.” I would agree, if the time frame is before the November election. But the plan was always to convince Cantor and other GOP leaders to go along with the Voting Rights Act restoration after the November elections in an omnibus bill in which this provision would be lumped in with “must-pass” provisions and pushed through as a package. No single vote would likely be taken that would identify which Republicans wanted to cave in to liberal pressure groups on the issue. “No fingerprints, no evidence for primary challengers,” is how Susan Carleson of the conservative American Civil Rights Union put it to me.
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.
But for civil-rights groups, the need to maintain their stranglehold over the election laws of all or part of 16 states is paramount. Indeed, their bill goes far beyond restoring the provisions struck down by the Supreme Court. It would give Attorney General Eric Holder and his successors dramatically expanded power to challenge “any act prohibited by the 14th and 15th Amendments” of the Constitution. This would allow the attorney general to become involved in a whole range of cases unrelated to race discrimination, including such highly partisan events as recounts like the Bush v. Gore fiasco of 2000. “The bill’s stated purpose is to prevent racial discrimination, but under the bill low voter turnout by white voters would not count as a violation, even if they are a minority of voters in the district,” wrote Hans von Spakovsky and Michael Carvin, two former attorneys in Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “If adopted, this would mark the first time that the Voting Rights Act actually excluded some Americans from protection based on their race.”
“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.