“Of all the legislation proposed by this or any other Congress, there is none, in my judgment, more unwarrantable and unjustifiable than that proposed by this bill,” declared Representative Charles A. Eldredge of Wisconsin of the second Enforcement Act, which also came to be known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. “It is absolutely atrocious,” he continued. “It is hideous and revolting.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned discrimination in many public accommodations, was similarly partisan — passed against unanimous Democratic opposition — and the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, a last-ditch effort to protect what was left of Black voting rights in the South, fell to a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.
It is true that the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s were bipartisan (although to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supporters had to neutralize a Southern filibuster in the Senate). But the two parties were not yet, at this point in their histories, defined by a single ideology. There were strongly liberal Republicans and arch-conservative Democrats, each a significant faction within their respective parties.
But that era of ideologically diverse parties and bipartisan lawmaking was an aberration; the product of factors unique to the period, among them the near-total exclusion of Black Americans from elections in the South, which kept segregationists in the Democratic Party and forestalled any alignment along ideological lines.
We are living in an age of high partisanship and deep polarization, where one party has an interest in a broad electorate and an open conception of voting rights, and the other does not. If Congress is going to pass a voting rights bill of any kind, it is going to be on a partisan basis, much the way it was from the end of the Civil War until well into the 20th century. Democrats will either accept this and do what needs to be done, or watch their fortunes suffer in the face of voter suppression, disenfranchisement and election subversion.
This isn’t idle speculation. In Georgia, where Republican lawmakers revamped their state election laws under post-defeat pressure from former president Donald Trump, who wanted election officials to throw out Democratic ballots and proclaim him the winner, state lawmakers can now fire and co-opt local election management. Critics said this would permit the Republican-controlled state legislature to potentially challenge ballots in predominantly Democratic areas, and at this moment, it appears that Republicans are hoping to bring elections in Fulton County — a major Democratic stronghold — under state control.
“State House Speaker David Ralston,” reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, proposed an investigation “to look for irregularities and fraud. And Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Fulton’s elections supervisor should be fired.”