Senate Republican Leadership Used to Support Voting Rights. Not Anymore.

Eight months ago at the beginning of the 114th Congress, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R. Iowa, announced the chairs, ranking members, and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittees. Two and a half months earlier, Republicans had taken control of the U.S. Senate, and now Grassley – the new chair of the committee – was reporting that Sen. John Cornyn, R. Texas, would be the chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

But Grassley’s announcement lacked five critical words: civil rights and human rights.

At the time, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the deletion “a discouraging sign given the growing diversity of our nation and the complex civil and human rights challenges we face.”

She wasn’t wrong.

The 2014 midterm elections were the first in nearly 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) and, since taking control, Senate Republican leadership has taken no action to investigate modern-day voting discrimination – despite ample evidence that it persists.

Last month, a day before the VRA’s 50th anniversary, a federal court in Texas ruled that the state’s strict voter ID law discriminated against Black and Hispanic voters in violation of the VRA. That hasn’t moved Cornyn, the state’s senior senator and Senate Majority Whip, to call for a hearing on a bill to restore the law.

This is bizarre, especially since Cornyn voted in 2006 to reauthorize the VRA for 25 more years, including the portion struck down in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law in Shelby County v. Holder. Speaking on the Senate floor on July 20, 2006, Cornyn said that he represents a state “that is covered by section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the sections that is being reauthorized today, hopefully.”

He even said that “the Voting Rights Act is simply the most important and most effective civil rights legislation ever passed,” though he did question whether the covered states in Section 5 were still the appropriate ones to cover. In any case, he recognized that – while the United States has advanced as a nation – modern-day voting discrimination was still a problem, and preclearance in some form was still necessary.

It was appropriate for Cornyn to believe in the Voting Rights Act. He now occupies the seat in the U.S. Senate once held by Lyndon B. Johnson, who first signed it into law.

When President Johnson signed the VRA, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R. Ky., then a law student at the University of Kentucky, was watching in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Forty-one years later as a U.S. senator, McConnell spoke in favor of reauthorizing the VRA. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This a great piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years,” he said.

“The Voting Rights Act brought about greater justice for all,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “And while we celebrate that achievement, we must continue to strive for more.”

Grassley, at the time, agreed.

As he had done in 1982 when Ronald Reagan was president, Grassley also voted to reauthorize the VRA in 2006 under President George W. Bush. “I will repeat what I said on this floor 15 years ago: It’s is our duty to guarantee that all citizens have the same opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice,” he said in 2006. “All of us here today recognize that it is our duty, as elected representatives of the people, as guardians of democracy, to protect the right to vote.”

Unfortunately, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Grassley has done nothing to protect that right.

“Changing the name of this subcommittee is a poor start,” Zirkin said back in January when Republicans dropped “civil rights and human rights” from the name of Cornyn’s subcommittee, “but the proof of the panel’s seriousness about addressing these issues will become apparent in its actual work.”

So far, what Zirkin and others feared when those five words were dropped may be coming true. There’s been no work at the committee level to examine voting discrimination and move voting rights forward. Far from a symbolic name change, the deletion may have removed any sign for Republican leadership that there’s still work to be done in the United States on civil and human rights. And that’s a shame.