New Voting Laws: Bending the Arc of History Away From Justice

The current generation of laws could disenfranchise millions.


President Lyndon B. Johnson holds the signed Voting Rights Act of 1965. (AP)

Lyndon Johnson was riled up.

The Texas senator hadn't yet announced his candidacy for the presidency, wouldn't announce it until it was too late as it turned out, but there he was, privately campaigning, secretly moving to assure key journalists that he was not the scourge of civil rights they thought he was. As Senate Majority Leader, he had helped pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act, had he not? Breaking through nearly a century of Southern intransigence on civil rights, he had herded the "old bulls" of the Senate, some of them unabashed racists, into passing a federal law that made it easier for blacks to vote.

So there he was, in April 1960, already playing catch up to the aggressive Kennedy machine, on an airplane with a journalist named Howard B. Woods, the editor of a black newspaper called the St. Louis Argus. And Johnson was in full throat. Here's how Robert Caro, in Passage of Power, his masterful new installment of his colossal biographical series on the life and times of Johnson, recounts what happened next:

The Senator, tie-less and in shirtsleeves, was eating cookies and drinking a tall, and stiff, Scotch, but when Woods ask him about the civil rights bill "which seems to please no one," saying, "Senator, the bill, as it was finally passed, was admittedly watered down," Johnson forgot about the cookies and the Scotch, and leaned forward across the table, looking Woods "straight in the eye" in a way the editor found quite memorable.

"When we say every man has a right to vote, that is not watered down," Lyndon Johnson said." The important thing in this country is whether or not a man can participate in the management of his government. When this is possible, he can decide that I'm no good." George Reedy slipped into the seat next to Woods, but Johnson didn't need Reedy now. "Civil rights are a matter of human dignity," he said.

"It's outrageous that all people do not have the dignity to which they are entitled. But we can't legislate human dignity -- we can legislative to give a man a vote and a voice in in his own government. Then with his vote and his voice he is equipped with a very potent weapon to guarantee his own dignity." [Emphasis added.]

Just four years later, Johnson, successor to a martyred president, astonished the country and the world by using his preternatural political skills to push passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next year, he used the same combination of bluff and bluster, of carrot and stick, to push passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The old Senate bulls were done, finished. Those two pieces of federal legislation brought the vote to millions of Americans who had been effectively disenfranchised because of their race. American politics has never been the same since.

Today, the trumpet calls again on civil rights and voting rights. In the past few weeks, I've written a great deal about the topic, joining the ranks of journalists like Ari Berman and Rachel Maddow and Ryan Reilly in trying to chronicle and make sense of Republican efforts all over the country to suppress the ballots of millions of registered voters. I have done so because I believe that these laws -- photo identification requirements, bans against early voting -- are similar in their discriminatory nature and effect to some of the most odious Jim Crow laws the nation endured during the first half of the last century.

Last week, as one federal judge after another struck down these new measures, as one court after another called out Republican lawmakers for the lack of evidence supporting the push to stop "voter fraud," it dawned on me that this national debate suffers, as so many do these days, from a lack of a common starting point. There is so much fear. There is so much ignorance. There is so much exaggeration. Here are six of the most frequent comments I get when I write about voting rights followed by my attempts at a few answers that perhaps can get us talking about this in a more productive way.


1. We need these new voter ID laws to stop voter fraud. This is a logical starting point because no one is for voting fraud. But no state lawmaker, attorney general, or election law expert has yet come into court this year and established that in-person voting fraud is actually happening. For example, in Washington last week, in the federal trial over South Carolina's voter identification law, the Associated Press reported that State Sen. George "Chip" Campsen III "testified that he could not find cases of voter impersonation in South Carolina, but added that the state lacks the tools to root them out."

In Pennsylvania last month, where the Republican House Majority Leader proudly proclaimed that his state's new voter identification laws would give the state to Mitt Romney, officials also were forced to concede at trial in a stipulation that there is no evidence of in-person fraud. In Texas, the statistics reveal 50  prosecuted incidents of voter fraud in the past ten years -- an average of 5 per year -- in a state with a population of more than 25 million. This is what opponents of these laws mean when they talk about the measures being a solution without a problem.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

Just In