This week, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will become Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. Taking the mantle in the middle of an election year, McCarthy does not want for front-burner issues to navigate on behalf of his caucus.
There is one issue on which McCarthy undoubtedly must lead, and that is restoring voting rights protections in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, the “coverage formula” which determines which states and jurisdictions with records of voting discrimination must preclear voting changes before they can be implemented. While acknowledging that voting discrimination still exists, the Court found that the formula did not address “current conditions” in voting.
When Shelby County was issued, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor drew upon his recent pilgrimage with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to Selma, Alabama, the birthplace of voting rights, for perspective: “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”
McCarthy took his own sojourn to Alabama with Lewis; we hope the trip made a similar impression. In 2012, McCarthy co-chaired the Congressional civil rights pilgrimage to mark the 47th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. There are moving photographs of McCarthy placing a wreath at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, steps from the Capitol where the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march ended in 1965.
Now, McCarthy has a chance to show that his visit to Selma was more than just a photo op.
In January, a bipartisan group led by Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Lewis introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act, a modest compromise to address present-day voting discrimination anywhere in the country. At a Senate hearing last month, witnesses representing African-American and Latino communities presented evidence of the rampant, ongoing voting discrimination at the state and local level and urged Congress to pass the new bill.
Born in 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, McCarthy missed the civil rights movement. But he surely understands the foundational role which political participation plays in our democracy, and the role of the Voting Rights Act in protecting the ability of racial minorities to participate equally in the political process. After all, McCarthy was a legislative leader in the most diverse state in the country. Based in Bakersfield, California, his congressional district is over one-third Latino and another ten percent of his constituents are African- and Asian-American. The preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act covered part of his state.
McCarthy was not in Congress in 2006 when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law. There is no reason to think he would have not joined the 192 House Republicans who voted in favor of reauthorization.
Even today’s hyper-partisan political climate should not diminish our expectation that McCarthy will demonstrate leadership on voting rights. There was an intensely partisan environment in Washington in 1982, when another California Republican, President Ronald Reagan, signed the Voting Rights Act’s reauthorization and declared: “[T]he right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” In fact, every reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by a Republican president. Leadership is leadership, whatever the prevailing political winds of the moment.
As McCarthy begins his tenure, we look to him for the same leadership on voting rights exhibited by Republicans in the decades before him. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake. As another Bakersfield resident, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren, wrote in Reynolds v. Sims, “[t]o the extent that a citizen’s right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen.” We are counting on the new Majority Leader to be on the right side of history.
Proll is the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Washington, D.C. office. LDF is a separate entity from the NAACP.