Democrats did not like the Fifteenth Amendment.
In the late 1860s, as Congress debated the proposal to bar disenfranchisement on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” Democratic senators and representatives charged Republicans with imposing a vile despotism on the southern states by enfranchising Black men.
“I now come to this point to say that to deprive any citizen of the right of suffrage is a violation of the principles of our Government as it was ordained, and is a blow direct at the Government itself,” the Republican Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas said. “Who gave any class the right to monopolize the elective franchise?”
“You are now indulging a dream of power as did Belshazzar before the inscription appeared upon the wall of his palace,” the Democrat Garrett Davis of Kentucky warned. “Tyranny in any form is never long submitted to by the mass of the people.” The tyranny Davis had in mind was the federal government forcing states to recognize Black men’s right to vote.
Republican senators carefully considered Davis’s argument and decided that if Democrats did not want to support Black men’s right to the franchise, then Black men would just have to do without it. After all, voting reforms have to be bipartisan.
Actually, that’s not what happened. Instead, although every Democrat in Congress (along with a few Republicans) voted against the Fifteenth Amendment, it passed anyway, because Republicans coalesced around the belief, expressed by Pomeroy, that depriving citizens of the right to vote on the basis of race was an affront to democracy. This was a self-interested and partisan decision—Black men were a key Republican constituency at the time—but it was also the morally correct one. Republicans decided that people’s fundamental right to choose their own leadership was more important than bipartisan comity. But had Reconstruction-era Republicans agreed with the principles articulated this past weekend by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Fifteenth Amendment would never have come to be.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics,” Manchin wrote in a recent op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in which he announced his opposition to the For The People Act, a voting bill he had previously co-sponsored. “Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner.”
The two statements are contradictory. If the right to vote is fundamental, then it cannot be subject to veto by partisans who benefit from disenfranchisement.
The Democrats who opposed the Fifteenth Amendment argued—when they were not asserting that Black suffrage itself corrupted American democracy—that states had a sovereign right to determine who was eligible for the franchise, one with which the federal government should not interfere. But because white majorities in many southern states opposed Black suffrage as a matter of principle, Black men were unable to elect representatives who would protect their franchise. Without the vote, they could not elect representatives who would ensure their right to vote.
Manchin, of course, supports universal suffrage—placing him far to the left of most of the Republicans who ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, some of whom opposed suffrage for women, and who were concerned the amendment might protect Chinese and Irish immigrants.
But the senator from West Virginia is nevertheless putting Democratic voters in the position of having to overcome measures designed to prevent them from electing officials who respect their right to vote. Manchin’s conditions require Democratic constituencies to choose representatives that—because of urban-rural polarization, Republican-imposed gerrymandering, and voting restrictions—they have no power to elect. If they did, this debate would not be happening.
The Voting Rights Act, as Manchin pointed out, was routinely reauthorized in a bipartisan fashion—with lingering opposition from familiar corners—before Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative colleagues decided that racism was over and that several of the act’s key provisions were no longer needed. Roberts’s opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, arguing that the Voting Rights Act violated the “equal sovereignty” of the states, echoed Davis’s insistence in 1869 that “every state in the Union is entitled under our Constitution to all the rights and privileges that any or every other state is entitled to.” But what happens when states use their sovereignty to strip their own people of the right to choose their government?
The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision is precisely what made the current Republican push to disenfranchise and disempower rival constituencies possible. The Voting Rights Act was the greatest bulwark against the efforts to rig elections that have marred American history, and that was exactly what Republicans loathed about it. The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat dismissed the state-level bills designed to restrict the right to vote as “partially sops to conservative paranoia,” as though Republican officials hadn’t cultivated that paranoia themselves to begin with.
The deranged fabrications about Democratic cheating, spoon-fed to Republican voters by conservative media and political leadership, and the elaborate fantasies about foreign hacking and forged ballots are simply expressions of the underlying conservative ideological belief that Democratic political victories are themselves a form of fraud that must be prevented. No level of election security could alleviate the belief that the opposition is illegitimate by definition, and no conspiracy theory about fraud is so demented that it would not seem to those who hew to such a belief to be true in some figurative, if not literal, sense. The problem here is not fraud, or the risk of fraud. It is that Republicans have any competitive political opposition at all.
In his op-ed, Manchin cited the old chestnut that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” to defend his decision not to reform or abolish the filibuster, but the saying better describes the Republican effort to restrict the franchise, which he is unwilling to lift a finger to stop. Majority rule in the Senate, a chamber that already favors sparsely populated Republican states, is hardly absolute power.
Manchin is the Democratic caucus’s most unlikely and valuable member, in the sense that he hails from a deep-red state that voted for Donald Trump by double digits. His vote is essential to any Democratic agenda in the 50–50 Senate, and because he would likely be replaced by a Republican, he is all but immune to pressure from the left, which only burnishes his crossover appeal. But that political reality does not erase the moral obligations he has set out for himself by declaring voting a right “fundamental to our American democracy.”
The For the People Act is a flawed piece of legislation, and whether it would do much to curtail Republicans’ most recent efforts to insulate their power from the electorate is unclear. A narrower bill focused on protecting voting rights and preventing election subversion, along the lines proposed by the election-law expert Rick Hasen, should be considered.
Yet according to Manchin, even the fairest and most effective voting-rights bill, presented to him by a resurrected Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, sent down from heaven by Frederick Douglass himself, would nevertheless meet Manchin’s opposition, unless Republicans were willing to support it. There’s also no evidence that the legislation Manchin says he supports, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would garner enough bipartisan support to beat a Republican filibuster. If Manchin and other Democratic senators who might quietly agree with him are committed to the principle that their own constituents’ right to vote will be protected only if those seeking to disenfranchise them agree to protect it, then they are declaring that right forfeit.
In 1867, Pomeroy asked, “Who gave any class the right to monopolize the elective franchise?” Manchin and his quieter supporters in the Senate should consider whether they want to be the answer to that question.