Mitch McConnell's complicated history on the Voting Rights Act

Advocates want the Senate to address an amendment to the Voting Right Act to honor the late Rep. John Lewis. Mitch McConnell, who has a nuanced relationship with the policy, stands in the way.
Sen. Mitch McConnell
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at a Rules Committee hearing in 1993.Laura Patterson / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

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By Janell Ross

In August 1965, law school student Mitch McConnell was in his 20s and a veteran of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver the "I Have a Dream" speech.

McConnell dropped by the office of a popular and respected Republican senator from his home state, Kentucky, John Sherman Cooper, to say hello. McConnell had interned there. McConnell followed Cooper toward the Capitol's Rotunda as Cooper explained that President Lyndon Johnson was about to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

It was, for the young McConnell, a moment so important that he would describe it in the first 40 pages of his 2016 memoir, "Long Game." But to McConnell's critics — a group roused to more overt disapproval following the death of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., last week — the story also highlights the ideological distance McConnell has traveled on voting rights. To his critics, McConnell is the most critical and powerful opponent of protecting American voting rights. As the Senate majority leader, McConnell, 78, has refused to hold hearings or move a Voting Rights Act amendment the House passed in December toward a Senate vote.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge between television interviews in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 14, 2015, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday civil rights march.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

"There are few people in our nation's history like John Lewis," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights organization. "Voting rights were his life's project. He put his body on the line. Mitch McConnell has issued this statement where he seems to express remorse on the passing of John Lewis but continues, personally, to put his hand in the way of restoring our nation's most important civil rights law."

McConnell and his staff did not respond to requests for comment on the record but provided background information. The Lawyer's Committee joined six other legacy civil rights organizations Thursday in sending a letter to McConnell and three other senior senators demanding action on the House amendment.

The amendment includes a new formula that states should be subject to for federal pre-clearance before they make any voting changes, and it would renew the authority for federal voting rights enforcement and oversight. It is a response to the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder.

The decision invalidated sections of the Voting Rights Act, which allowed the federal government to block policies around voting and procedures that undermine voters of color. And, voting rights advocates say, it set off an almost immediate tidal wave of voter suppression efforts.

"Within hours of that decision," the organizations wrote, "jurisdictions formerly covered by the law such as Texas and North Carolina took steps to pass and implement laws later found to be discriminatory — only after expensive and time-consuming litigation."

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In many ways, McConnell's position on voting rights has always mirrored that of his party, said Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

In the mid-1960s men like Johnson and King lobbied hard for the Voting Rights Act. But it might never have never passed if it weren't for what happened to activists like Lewis, then 25, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Bullock said.

In March 1965, Alabama law enforcement and others beat, arrested and tormented a group of voting rights activists trying to march over the bridge. Lewis, who was in the group, suffered a skull fracture. Footage of the bloody interaction was broadcast by the major networks, interrupting Sunday night prime-time programming.

"Come Monday morning, in the North, people flooded the Capitol switchboard," Bullock said. "They had just seen the most disturbing thing. All these people want is to vote, and they were brutally beaten. ... That really did kick Congress into high gear to get this thing passed."

A majority of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress approved the Voting Rights Act.

After law school, McConnell, the great-great-grandson of slaveholders, joined the staff of a moderate Republican in Congress, practiced law in Kentucky and then returned to Washington to work in the Ford administration's Justice Department. Among his co-workers: future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

In the late 1970s, McConnell won a bid for Jefferson County executive. Jefferson County includes Louisville, long one of the state's biggest population centers, with many Democrats. This was still a moment in the nation when large numbers of white Southerners split their tickets — voting for Republican presidential candidates and Democrats elsewhere — Bullock said. So it's not surprising that McConnell at one point favored labor rights and expanded access to health care and civil rights protections, Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker said. In his 2016 memoir, McConnell denounced those issues.

Booker, who was born two weeks before McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984, is the state's youngest Black lawmaker. He can't remember a time when McConnell did not have a heavy hand in Kentucky and national politics.

"You know, the reason I decided to even get in politics to begin with is that it's really out of survival," said Booker, who narrowly lost a Democratic primary bid to replace McConnell in June. Booker will, instead, lead a nonprofit civic engagement organization called Hood to the Holler, a reference to his work trying to politically unite underserved urban and rural areas.

McConnell joined the Senate during the Reagan era, when Republicans like President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina publicly opposed renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a law that had always included sunset provisions, Bullock said. But in 1986, Lewis, the activist-turned-politician, had become a member of Congress. In the House, Lewis championed and won Voting Rights Act renewals in 1986 and 2006. McConnell voted for the bill both times.

Although the last renewal passed, most Republicans by then, including McConnell, were arguing that the provisions that allowed the federal government to pre-clear voting changes in certain places were unfair and unnecessary, Bullock said. In 1987, Abigail Thernstrom described the law's enforcement provisions as "an instrument for affirmative action in the electoral sphere." President George W. Bush, a Republican, later named Thernstrom vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The party's logic: So much had changed in the South since 1965. Black voter participation had steadily grown. The Congressional Black Caucus included dozens of members, and hundreds of Black and other racial and ethnic minority group members held state and local public offices.

What had long been regarded as "sacred legislation," a central element of American civil rights law — a Voting Rights Act with federal enforcement provisions — had become a matter mired in "hyperpartisanship" and rancorous, open debate, Clarke said. Booker sees McConnell as central to that.

"For McConnell, I believe, there is no plan, no idea of actually honoring the legacy of someone like Congressman John Lewis, who fought for everything Mitch McConnell is trying actively right now to block," Booker said. "So for him to say he is mourning the loss of Congressman Lewis is really a slap in the face. It's the height of hypocrisy."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks in Washington on March 21.Mary Calvert / Reuters file

In 2016, McConnell's decision to block a vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court after Scalia's unexpected death ensured that Republican-favored small government, anti-entitlement program policies and efforts to hinder voting access — like gerrymandering and voter ID laws — would withstand a legal challenge, said Christopher Browning, a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During the Trump years, McConnell has pushed the Senate to approve a record number of young, conservative federal judges, people with lifetime appointments. McConnell has said he has achieved everything he wants.

"In addition to what he's done to the judiciary, his role in voting rights has been absolutely appalling," Browning said. "But this is his party's way of dealing with the nightmare of the demography moving in the wrong direction for the GOP. ... How do you block that? You create systems and elections that do not include everyone. Hence I've described Mitch McConnell as the gravedigger of American democracy."

CORRECTION (July 27, 2020, 9:40 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified the Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia. He is Charles Bullock, not Richard B. Russell.