Editor’s Note: Beto O’Rourke is an El Paso native, the former US Congressman for the community and a former Democratic candidate for President of the United States. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
There have been three critical moments where Texas has proved decisive for democracy and voting rights in this country. The first two, in 1890 and 1965, afford us key insights into how we can make the most of the third one – taking place right now.
After Reconstruction, states throughout the South were rife with White supremacist terrorism, racial injustice and attacks on Black voting rights — and by the late 19th century, Texas was among the most brutal. Whites-only Democratic clubs and their armed militias had “purified” the ballot box in one Texas county after another. Political violence, assassinations and lynchings enforced White rule throughout much of the state at the expense of Black lives and Black voting rights.
In the Washington County election of 1886, for example, ballot boxes in Black precincts were stolen at gunpoint by agents of a Whites-only political ring known as the “People’s Party.” When Black poll workers dared to fight back at one of the precincts, they were arrested, and three of them — Shad Felder, Alfred Jones and Stewart Jones — were lynched by a mob. No one was ever brought to justice.
The national outrage this produced compelled Congress to hold hearings on the troubled voting practices that plagued Texas and much of the South. The resulting Federal Elections Bill of 1890 promised greater federal intervention to protect the right to vote in any state where it was threatened.
Like the Democratic Party today, the Republican Party of 1890 had recently won majorities in the US House and Senate, and, with the election of Benjamin Harrison in 1888, controlled the presidency, too. And like today’s Democratic Party, those Republicans publicly resolved to use that power to secure voting rights, especially for the Black targets of voter suppression efforts in the South. The Federal Elections Bill duly passed the House of Representatives that year and debate on its passage soon began in the Senate.
But unfortunately for that bill and for millions of Black Americans, the Senate Republicans were unable — or perhaps unwilling — to overcome a filibuster threat led by the Democrats. It didn’t help that Harrison, who had campaigned on a platform of restoring voting rights, remained on the sidelines for much of the action.
So, after all the righteous indignation over the election outrage in Texas had been spent, the majority party meekly gave up the fight for voting rights. They blinked in the face of the filibuster and denied America the chance to establish a true multiracial democracy.
In the aftermath, state legislatures throughout the former Confederacy imposed Whites-only primary laws and additional forms of Jim Crow voter suppression, including poll taxes, literacy tests and extraordinary residency requirements (all of which Whites could bypass thanks to the “grandfather clause” that exempted those whose grandfathers had been registered voters).
It took 75 years, a relentless voting rights movement and the first president from Texas to provide another opportunity to reestablish the right to vote in the South. Soon after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pressed President Lyndon B. Johnson to work on an accompanying voting rights bill. After Johnson told activists that he just didn’t have the power to move Congress, King resolved to “get the President some power.”
Over the following months, civil and voting rights leaders brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. Through protests and marches, direct action and extraordinary courage, they successfully engaged the conscience of the country. And when John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life leading a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, Johnson finally had the power he needed.
Just eight days after Bloody Sunday, the President convened a joint session of Congress and told the assembled members that no other issue was as important as securing the country’s democracy. “Should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue,” he said, “then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”
As far as Johnson was concerned, no short-term political interest would compromise the intensity of this fight for the most important of American rights. By using the full power of the presidency, he helped move Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965 and signed it into law the next day.
As long as the law stood, states would be forced to tear down barriers to the ballot box and guarantee equal voting access to every eligible American.
But it turned out that the law could not stand forever.
When the US Supreme Court stripped critical protections from the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, Southern legislatures responded in much the same way that they did following the end of Reconstruction and the defeat of the Elections Bill of 1890: they moved to dramatically restrict the ability to vote. This time, voter suppression would come in the form of new voter ID laws, polling place closures and racially gerrymandered districts designed to reduce the voting power of Black and minority voters, the poor, the very young and the very old.
This anti-democratic movement aggressively metastasized following former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie about widespread election fraud in the 2020 election. In just the first six months of this year, more than a dozen states enacted new laws to make it easier to restrict access to the ballot box.
In Texas, the Republican-led legislature’s voter suppression bill was bad enough for Democratic lawmakers to leave the state for Washington, D.C. in an effort to block its passage and plead for federal action in the form of the For the People Act.
Much like the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, the For the People Act’s provisions are commensurate with the scope of the current threat to American democracy. The bill would ensure equal access to early voting and mail-in voting, establish automatic voter registration, make election day a national holiday and end gerrymandering (redistricting used to “draw” people of color out of voting power in states like Texas). In March, the House passed the For the People Act on a party-line vote, just like with the 1890 elections bill.
But the For the People Act has been stopped by the threat of a filibuster in the Senate, in a manner quite similar to the 1890 elections bill. Though Democrats have the power to overcome this procedural vestige of segregation, they have been paralyzed by intra-party disagreements and an unwillingness to take seriously the challenges faced by Black and brown voters. Their inaction risks dooming the bill to failure.
That defeat doesn’t have to be America’s fate.
Just as civil rights leaders and everyday Americans successfully pushed Johnson to use the power of his office to pass voting rights, we can do the same to push President Joe Biden to make voting rights his number one priority – and to place all of his political capital into urging the Senate to carve out an exception to the filibuster. (Exceptions already exist for federal judges, Supreme Court justices, budget deals and fast-track trade agreements.)
Those Texas Democratic legislators who took the fight to the nation’s capital are pushing the President to do just that. Their quorum break, which will end on August 6, exactly 56 years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has bought us some time to save free and fair elections before it’s too late.
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The question is, what will the President do with it?
Biden is certainly no Harrison, who campaigned for office on a platform of voting rights but then allowed the matter to languish once in office. In fact, Biden gave an extraordinarily powerful speech in Philadelphia earlier this month, describing in the starkest of terms the existential threat our democracy faces. If he follows that up by using the tremendous power of his office to help change the rules of the filibuster to save our democracy, he will stand alongside Johnson as a champion and savior of American democracy.
But he must take to heart the lessons of Texas: when we fight for the right to vote, we can expand democracy to include everyone. But when we give up without a fight, we can lose democracy itself.