US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

It was the most moving speech of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Standing in front of the Edmund Pettus bridge, named for a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Democratic senator, Obama this weekend commemorated the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day civil rights activists went to Selma, Alabama to protest voter disenfranchisement and were met with brutal police violence. Ten days later the Voting Rights Act was introduced to Congress, where it received overwhelming bipartisan support. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

The anniversary of Selma comes at a time when voting rights are again part of substantial political debate. As a new Voting Rights Act languishes in Congress (key parts of the 1965 act were nullified by the Supreme Court in 2013, requiring new legislation), Republicans have an opportunity to demonstrate the promise of federalism. Rather than competing to see which state can put in place the most draconian voting restrictions, Republican legislators could use this moment to demonstrate their commitment to the most basic form of democratic governance: the right to vote.

Over the past several years Republican lawmakers, citing concerns of voter fraud and of electoral calculations, have introduced voting restrictions in dozens of states, limiting polling hours, requiring difficult-to-acquire forms of identification, closing polling stations in minority neighborhoods, gerrymandering unapologetically. In doing so, they have reinforced an antidemocratic and often racist image. These lawmakers mostly insist that they press these laws to protect against voter fraud, but some will admit to the underlying truth: The pieces of legislation are aimed at groups that vote for the other party. Not only does that message continue to limit the party’s ability to appeal to minority voters, but it reinforces the notion that federalism is simply philosophical window-dressing for a politics of exclusion.

Many Republicans tout federalism as a better form of democracy: give more power to state and local governments, and people will have more of a say in how they are governed, and ultimately more freedom. It’s an appealing argument, but one that has often gotten tangled up in exclusionary politics. (“States rights” became code for state-sanctioned racism in the 20th century, and for good reason: Southern states relied on it to reinforce a system of white supremacy and resisted any federal attempt to dismantle that system.)

But Republicans have the opportunity now to show that federalism can be a tool to expand democracy. The GOP controls 31 statehouses and 31 governorships. They should take this opportunity to show that the states are laboratories of the truest form of democracy: universal suffrage. Instead of seeing which state can disenfranchise the greatest number of voters, Republicans should compete to see which state can securely enfranchise the most people. Who can distribute the most no-fee ID cards? Who can open the most polling places in underserved neighborhoods? Who can engineer the shortest lines on Election Day? Who can boast of the highest voter participation rates?

The counterargument here is obvious: Enfranchising voters increases the odds Republicans will lose elections. But that argument makes the common mistake of assuming the way things are now is how they always must be. True, at the moment lowering the barriers to voting will likely increase the percentage of poor and minority voters, groups who lean Democratic. Yet there is both a moral and a pragmatic reason that Republicans should still work to expand the franchise as widely as possible.

First, as this weekend’s commemoration of the Selma march reminds us, African-Americans and their allies endured decades of terror and slaughter in their fight to secure their right to vote. To now interfere with that right for short-term electoral gains is a callous, cowardly act. Moreover, while some conservatives believe in the antidemocratic principles behind restricted franchise (I wrote about them here), I believe most Republicans are committed to the principle of representative democracy and universal suffrage.

But if the moral calculus leaves some lawmakers unconvinced, then the long-term electoral trends should. The Republican Party has come to rely on an increasingly narrow base of white voters. Now, demography is not destiny. Coalitions are built, not born, and Republicans can continue to assemble majorities even as America shifts to a majority-minority nation. What Republicans should fear is not an increase in minority voting but rather a reliance on exclusionary politics. The more the GOP defines itself by policies calculated to limit some Americans’ fundamental rights (and the right to vote is about as fundamental as it gets) the more the party will drive away voters who, while agreeing with Republicans on policy issues, are repulsed by their association with antidemocratic tactics.

It has been half a century since Selma, half a century since Congress put the full force of the federal government behind protecting the right of all Americans to vote. For conservatives, this has always been a difficult moment to grapple with, because it illustrated federalism’s flaw: states often refused to protect citizens’ most basic rights, thus requiring a more active federal state. What better time to begin to address that flaw than now, by making state voting laws so fair and so secure that the Voting Rights Act becomes unnecessary?

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report