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There were three important takeaways from this week’s Senate vote on whether to begin debate on S1, the For the People Act, the bill that would protect voting rights, end partisan gerrymandering, establish new ethics rules for federal officials, and curb big money in politics.
The first is that Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) voted with the rest of the Democrats to move the measure forward. This means that he is confident that his compromise ideas will be inserted into the final bill and that the Democrats are united. The White House nodded to Manchin when it applauded “efforts in the Senate to incorporate feedback that refines and strengthens the bill, and would make its reformers easier for the states to implement.”
The same White House statement offered strong support for the For the People Act, saying, “Democracy is in peril, here, in America. The right to vote—a sacred right in this country— is under assault with an intensity and an aggressiveness we have not seen in a long time.” It pointed to the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection to remind us that “our democracy is fragile” and that we need legislation to “repair and strengthen American democracy.”
The second takeaway is that all 50 of the Republicans voted against the measure, which would have helped to combat the voter suppression laws being enacted by Republican-dominated legislatures across the country. According to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, 18 states have put in place more than 30 laws restricting access to the ballot. These laws will affect around 36 million people, or about 15% of all eligible voters.
Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Republicans insist that federal protection of voting rights is federal overreach, and that the states should be in charge of their own voting rules. As Susan Collins (R-ME) put it: “S. 1 would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.”
And the third takeaway is that the Republicans are defending the same principle that Senator Stephen A. Douglas advanced when he debated Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln in Illinois in 1858.
Four years earlier, Douglas had led Congress to throw out the 1820 Missouri Compromise, a federal law that kept the system of Black enslavement out of the land above the southern border of the new slave state of Missouri, in land the U.S. had acquired through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Eager to enable a transcontinental railroad to run west of Chicago, Douglas introduced a bill to organize a territory in that land in 1854 but, knowing that southern senators would never permit a new free territory that would eventually become a free state without balancing it with a slave state, he wrote a bill for two new territories, not one.
Both were in territory covered by the Missouri Compromise and thus should have been free under federal law. But Douglas insisted that true democracy meant that the people in the territories should decide whether or not they would welcome slavery to their midst.
Working as a lawyer back in Illinois, Lincoln recognized that this “popular sovereignty” would guarantee the spread of Black enslavement across the West, since under the Constitution, even a single enslaved Black American in a territory would require laws to protect that “property.” Slave states would eventually outnumber free states in Congress, and their representatives would make human enslavement national.
In 1858, when Lincoln, now a member of the new Republican Party, challenged Democrat Douglas for his Senate seat, the key issue was whether Douglas’s “democracy” squared with American principles.
Lincoln said it didn’t. Local voters should not be able to carry enslavement into lands that a majority of Americans wanted free. He did not defend civil rights, but he insisted that the framers had deliberately tried to advance the principles of the Declaration of Independence by using the federal government to limit the expansion of enslavement.
Douglas insisted it did. In his view, democracy meant that voters in the states and territories could arrange their governments however they wished.
But central to that belief was who, exactly, would be doing the arranging. “I hold that this Government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men and none others,” he said. Claiming that he, not Lincoln, was “in favor of preserving this Government as our fathers made it,” he told an audience in Jonesboro, Illinois, “we ought to extend to the negro every right, every privilege, every immunity which he is capable of enjoying, consistent with the good of society. When you ask me what these rights are, what their nature and extent is, I tell you that that is a question which each State of this Union must decide for itself.” His own state of Illinois, he pointed out, rejected Black enslavement, “but we have also decided that… that he shall not vote, hold office, or exercise any political rights. I maintain that Illinois, as a sovereign State, has a right thus to fix her policy….”
I found it chilling to hear Douglas’s argument from 1858 echo in the Senate today, for after seeing exactly how his argument enabled white southern legislators to cut their Black neighbors out of the vote in the 1870s and then pass Jim Crow laws that lasted for more than 70 years, our lawmakers should know better. How is it possible to square states’ rights and equality without also protecting the right of all adult citizens to vote? Unless everyone has equal access to the ballot, what is there to stop Douglas’s view of “the good of society” from coming to pass yet again?
Congress will recess Thursday and won’t resume business until July 12. The big push to pass a voting rights measure will happen then.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.