Voting Rights Act turns 50 – is it on agenda for GOP debate?

Tonight’s first Republican presidential debate for the 2016 election falls on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Will the Grand Old Party’s candidates blow yet another shot to embrace one of the most popular laws of our time? 

Every four years we see a new media cycle about the Republican National Committee’s efforts to court the Latino votethe black vote, and the Asian-American vote. The GOP’s strategic political thinkers opine about the party’s growing reliance on the shrinking pool of white voters, they issue pleas to the party establishment to take the electoral math seriously and they urge Republican leaders to govern in a more inclusive way.

Civil rights advocates like myself would like to be optimistic that this pragmatic strain of the GOP will be on display at tonight’s debate as we celebrate one of our nation’s most successful civil rights statutes.

It’s been two years since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act’s most important provision, which required the states and cities with the most egregious records of discriminating against voters to preclear changes to voting laws and boundaries with the Department of Justice. Without this safeguard, the only alternative that communities have to stop laws that suppress or dilute their voting rights is costly litigation that often gets resolved only long after an election has already occurred. 

What good are voting rights if you can’t enforce them until after your votes have been counted? Since Shelby County v. Holder, nearly half of the 50 states have enacted policies that make it harder to vote, and costly voting-rights litigation is under way in places like Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina. 

The VRA is wildly popular. Recent polling from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that 81 percent of voters support the Voting Rights Act and 69 percent of voters want Congress to restore it. This support is widespread among voters of all races, parties and regions of the country. That’s why Americans nationwide are holding commemorative events this week to honor the VRA and to urge for a congressional restoration.

There are two VRA-restoration bills pending in Congress, but despite bipartisan interest in a VRA fix and openness from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to holding a hearing on the issue, the Republican candidates have yet to acknowledge the VRA in this campaign. 

Tonight marks the best opportunity yet for the GOP to show that, in a field of 17 candidates seeking the highest office in the land, at least a few are willing to acknowledge the pressing need to ensure that all Americans have the right to vote. There have been glimmers of hope that some of the leading candidates are willing to embrace the politics of working together: Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Dr. Ben Carson addressed the National Urban League convention last week, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabeehave made concerted efforts to court black voters, and both Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry rightly condemned Donald Trump’s offensive remark about Latinos.

But so far, not one has declared his support for the rich bipartisan tradition of ensuring that everyone has the right to vote. The VRA was last reauthorized, overwhelmingly, in 2006 by a Republican-controlled House and Senate and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush (who himself won 26 percent of the minority vote in 2004), by President Ronald Reagan before that and by almost every other Republican president in the last 50 years.  

Tonight the candidates have an opportunity to embrace an overwhelmingly popular law with bipartisan appeal that has seeped into the American consciousness. I hope that at least a few of them decide to do so. 

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.